Shady Ladies, Forgotten Stories, and Images of God: Casualties of Our Advent Lectionary

women Matthew1

In the preface to her beautiful children’s book, “But God Remembered: Stores of Women from Creation to the Promised Land” Jewish writer Sandy Eisenberg Saso tells this revealing story:

“Before God created man and woman, God wanted to create Memory and Forgetfulness. But the angels protested.
The angel of Song said, ‘Do not create Forgetfulness. People will forget the songs of their ancestors.’
The Angel of Stories said, ‘If you create Forgetfulness, man and woman will forget many good stories.’ The Angel of Names said, ‘Forget songs? Forget stories? They will not even remember each other’s names.’
God listened to the complaints of the angels. And God asked the angels what kinds of things they remembered.
At first, the angels remembered what it was like before the world was formed. Then as the angels talked about the time before time existed, they recalled moments when they did not always agree.
One angel yelled at another, ‘I remember when your fiery sword burned the hem of my robe!’
‘And I remember when you knocked me down and tore a hole in my wing,’ screamed another.
As the angels remembered everything that ever happened, their voices grew louder and louder and louder until the heavens thundered.
God said, ‘FORGET IT!’
And there was Forgetfulness.
All at once the angels forgot why they were angry at each other and their voices became angelic again. And God saw that it was good.
God said, “There are some things people will need to forget.’
The angels objected. ‘People will forget what they should remember.’
God said, ‘I will remember all the important things. I will plant the seeds of remembrance in the soul of My people.’
And so it was that over time people forgot many of the songs, stories and names of their ancestors.
But God remembered.”

As we approach the Third Sunday 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. The followers of the RCL will not hear the names of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, or Bathsheba; no, even Mary is only suggested as an optional replacement for the reading of the Psalm! Unless worship planners are prepared to tinker with the lectionary Elizabeth and Mary will have to cede the stage to John the Baptist. So, all you worship planners and preachers out there, I say to you, “TINKER AWAY! TELL THE STORIES!” Continue reading

St. Nicholas Is Too Old and Too Tired to Defeat the Selling Power of Santa Claus!

santa_as_satanToday, the Feast of St. Nicholas, the ancient precursor to the modern Santa Claus, will pass without much ado. Some will try to encourage us to resurrect St. Nicholas to save us all from Santa’s powers for we have gone astray.  To those well meaning souls who would rid Christmas of its flagrant consumerism, I can only offer up a feeble, “Baa Humbug!”

The very best traditions about St. Nicholas suggest that he was a protector of children while the worst tradition has him providing dowries so that young girls could be married off by their father rather than be sold into slavery. Meanwhile, the modern character Santa Claus grooms children to take up their role as consumers in the cult materialism. Some parents may bemoan the little gimmie-monsters that their children become, but most adults are rendered helpless by our own remembered indoctrinations and so we join in what we choose to deem as harmless fun.

‘Tis the season for contradictions.  ‘Tis the season when we prepare to celebrate  the incarnation of God in human form while also waiting for Santa Claus to come down our chimneys. Face it; most of the folks dashing about in the malls are more worried about the imminent arrival of Santa Claus than they are about God. I’d even go so far as to say that a good number of people have unconsciously substituted Santa Claus for God.  Santa Claus and the baby Jesus get into some pretty fierce competition at this time of year; and in the culture the larger loyalty belongs to Santa. Continue reading

Too Busy Preparing the Way??? – a sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent

snowglobPreaching is a delicate art. Sometimes, in the midst of turmoil, preachers are called to let theology take a backseat as we flex our storytelling muscles. John the Baptist has been known to bring out the worst in preachers. It is difficult for many preachers to resist the temptation to mimic John the Baptist’s shrill rhetoric. Far too many Advent sermons fail to empathize with the travails of the season. This story/sermon is an attempt to bring comfort to those who are busy hustling and bustling during Advent; a gentle reminder that peace begins in us.

It was just a shabby little basement apartment. It was far too damp for a newborn baby, but it was all they could afford. It was a damp rainy west coast November afternoon when Carol’s Aunt and Uncle brought little Liam home from the hospital. They must have fought in the car on the way home from the hospital because the argument that they were having when they got out of the car seemed like it had been underway for quite sometime. Carol was waiting in the driveway with her four-year-old cousin Michael and her parents. They had spent the morning getting the shabby little apartment ready for the new baby’s arrival and trying to convince Michael that a new baby brother was a wonderful thing. Carol had no idea what her aunt and uncle were arguing about. She heard her mother mutter something about saving their battle for another time; after all they were about introduce Michael to his new baby brother Liam.

Carol was just thirteen when Liam made his appearance in the world. In those days, thirteen was considered a prime age for babysitting. So, Carol would head over to Aunt Val’s and Uncle Dave’s every day after school to help out. It was Carol’s job to take Liam for a walk each afternoon so that her Aunt Val could get supper on the table in time for Uncle Dave’s arrival from work. Carol would pack Liam up in his pram regardless of the weather and head for the park. Michael would tag along behind them. In the weeks that followed Liam’s arrival, Michael changed quite a bit. He became unusually whiney. He didn’t seem to enjoy much in life. He whined about everything. He whined about going to the park and he whined about having to leave the park. He whined whenever he was told to be quiet because the baby was sleeping and he whined when he was asked to help with anything that had anything to do with his little brother. Carol’s Mom said that it was all very normal; children don’t much like it when a new baby takes their position as the only child.

Carol disagreed with her mother, but she kept her thoughts to herself. Carol was convinced that Michael’s whining had more to do with his parents’ whining. Ever since they had brought Liam home from the hospital, Val and Dave had taken up whining themselves. They whined about dirty diapers, about being tired all the time, about the messy apartment, about the crying baby, about how small the apartment was and about how much whining Michael was doing. When they weren’t whining, Val and Dave were fighting. They fought about everything. They fought about whether or not the baby should sleep in their bedroom. They fought about whether or not Michael should be sent to his room as punishment for waking up the baby. They fought about dinner being late; about whether or not Uncle Dave should have to change dirty diapers because he was too tired from working all day. They were always arguing about money. One time they even managed to have an argument about paying Carol the .25 cents an hour that she was paid for helping out after school. As Christmas approached they argued about how they were going to pay for Christmas. The more they argued, the whiner Michael got. Continue reading

Don’t you dare slam the door on my face, just because I went to get gas, because you kept me waiting! – a sermon Matthew 25:1-13

audio version here

“Wisdom, Sophia is bright, and does not grow dim, by those who love her she is readily seen, and found by those who look for her. Quick to anticipate those who desire her, she makes herself known to them. Watch for her early and you will have no trouble; you will find her sitting at your gates. Even to think about her is understanding fully grown; be on the alert for her and anxiety will quickly leave you. She herself walks about looking for those who are worthy of her and graciously shows herself to them as they go, in every thought of theirs come to meet them.” (Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-18)

“Sophia, if you are there, show yourself.” This has been my mantra as I have tried to sort out the meaning of this strange tale about ten bridesmaids. I must confess that the impish Sophia, whose playful nature inspired our forbearers to sing, dance, laugh, and play, might just be behind the creators of the lectionary’s decision to put today’s readings together. That these readings should appear, on this Sunday when I am supposed to be inspiring you to set out on the third installment of our Visioning Process, has caused me no end of consternation and grief.

Have you heard the one about the ten bridesmaids and the very late bridegroom? Well if you have heard it, can you please remind me of the punch-line, because I don’t see the point of this so-called parable. Ten bridesmaids were waiting for a bridegroom! Five of the bridesmaids were wise and five of the bridesmaids were foolish; all of them, the wise and the foolish fall asleep. Suddenly, they are awakened by a shout, “the bridegroom is almost here, come out and meet him.” The wise bridesmaids had brought along some extra oil for their lamps, the foolish bridesmaids had not.  The wise bridesmaids aren’t very nice and refuse to lend any of their oil to the foolish bridesmaids, so the fools have to go off to the store to get some more oil. Long before the bridegroom arrived all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep.  Turns out the bridegroom doesn’t know five of the bridesmaids so he shuts the door and says: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.  Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” 

Ha, ha, ha, very funny…. I simply don’t get it. For years and years, generation upon generation, people have been telling this one, and leaving people hanging with this confusing story with a warning about the need to be prepared. Ha, ha, too bad, so sad, you’re not prepared. You don’t get to come into the party! Many of us have been hanging around the church for so long, that we’ve heard this story explained by preachers who are determined to convince us that the bridegroom is actually Jesus and that we, the people of the church are the bridesmaids who must keep awake, because we don’t know when Christ is coming back. The end is near!!! So, be prepared. Continue reading

Weeds Upon the Altar – a sermon in celebration of St. Francis of Assisi

On this the last Sunday of the Season of Creation we celebrate the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. Our Gospel text was Matthew 6:25-28

Listen to the sermon here

Sisters and Brothers, hear again the words of St. Francis of Assisi:

I think God might be a little prejudiced.

For once God asked me to join God on a walk

through this world,

and we gazed into every heart on this earth,

and I noticed God lingered a bit longer

before any face that was

weeping,

and before any eyes that were

laughing.

And sometimes when we passed

a soul in worship

God too would kneel

down.

I have Come to learn:  God

adores God’s

creation.

In the spirit of St. Francis, I bid you peace. Please take a long deep breath…..Peace. Now if you would focus your attention upon these two beautiful bouquets upon the altar. Yes, I am well aware that these bouquets are little more than a collection of weeds. Yes, I know that many of us were taught by the Church, I’m talking here about the capital “C” Church; we were taught by the Church that flowers don’t belong upon the altar. Flowers upon the altar distract people from the presence of God and the acts of worshipping God, so if we must have flowers in the sanctuary, we were all trained to place them anywhere other than upon the altar; the holy of holies, the place where God works in, with, through, and under the bread and wine to touch us, love us, strengthen us, and empower us. We can’t, reasoned the Church, we can’t have people distracted from the actions of God that center upon the altar. So, the Church banished flowers from the altar. But on this the feast day of St. Francis, I asked Carol to gather up some bouquets of weeds and place upon the altar. I did so, because these bouquets are beautiful!

Take a good look…..In this beautiful season of autumn these particular weeds are everywhere. You cannot go for a walk or a drive in and around town without being confronted by the existence of these spectacular weeds. Take a good look….aren’t they beautiful.In the words of St. Francis,

I have Come to learn: 

God adores God’s

creation.

Now look around you, take a very good look at this spectacular gathering, this splendid bouquet of what some might call weeds but, if you look very closely you will see in one another a breathtakingly beautiful bouquet of awe-inspiring flowers.  Aren’t you lovely? Made from LOVE. Gathered around this makeshift altar of ours God will indeed work in, with, through, and under each one of us to touch us, to love us, to strengthen us and to love us. In, with, through, and under this is the way that Lutheran theology describes the way in which God comes to us in the bread and wine of holy communion. I have gotten into the habit of always reminding you that we live and move and have our being in God and that God lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us. I repeat this over and over again, not only to remind all of you but to remind myself that God is not some far off distant being, who lives up there or out there somewhere. God is here, right here, all around us, in us and beyond us just as surely as we are in God. So, on this the final Sunday in the Season of Creation it is so very appropriate for us to turn our attention to St. Francis who reminds us that all of creation is in God.

Francis was born into a wealthy merchant family and spent his young life striving to become a knight by actively participating in the completion between Italian cities to dominate the emerging capitalist system. Francis learned like each one of us must learn that acquiring things, amassing wealth, competing for power, these things cannot ever bring us peace. And so, Francis renounced things, gave up his wealth and powerful position in Italian society, and walked away from the competitive capitalist system.

Francis even went so far as to challenge the Church’s teachings about how to be a Christian. For centuries, the Church taught that the best way, the truest way to be a Christian in the world was to follow the example of the early followers of the Way that we find in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Continue reading

Called to Pay More and Get Less – reflecting on the Workers in the Vineyard Parable – Matthew 20:1-16

Listen to the sermon here

On this the fourth Sunday of the Season of Creation, we are encouraged to celebrate rivers. Today, when hundreds of thousands of Porto Ricans living along the Guajataca River are being evacuated because the force of the river may cause a dam to burst, it is difficult to contemplate gentle pastoral images of rivers gently flowing past. It is difficult to imagine the peaceful waters and let’s face it most of us come to church on a Sunday morning hoping for some sanctuary from the realities that bombard us in the media. I don’t know about you, but between the rantings of the cyber-bully who currently occupies the most powerful office in the world, and the news of the suffering caused by hurricanes and earthquakes, I would really like to be able to luxuriate for a while in the gentle images of a peaceful river. I would love to take you all on a walk down by the river-side so that we could contemplate together the image of God as a river, gently caressing us, supporting us through life.  If only Jesus would refrain from teaching in parables designed to disturb us.

Jesus parable about the workers in the vineyard bursts the dam of our complacency and sends us scrambling towards the shore in the vain hope that we can escape the knowledge, that while we bask aboard our luxurious pleasure-crafts, while all around us our neighbours are drowning. Sure, we could just allegorize Jesus parable and interpret it as a nice little story in which the Landowner becomes God, the workers at dawn are good Christians like you and I, while the workers who show up much later are those who convert on their deathbeds, and even though it may seem unfair, God the Landowner treats everyone the same and everyone is rewarded in some far and distant here-after because God is full of Grace. I’ve heard countless sermons that interpret Jesus’ parable as a nice little story. But the words of my preaching professor ring loudly in this preacher’s mind: “Beware of parables that become nice little stories. Parables are verbal hand-grenades and should be handled with care.”  So, I hope you will forgive me if the raging waters of a river flowing violently were rivers are not supposed to be, rushes over my interpretation of Jesus parable about the kind of justice that demands so much from landowners like you and me because today as so many of our neighbours and friends are drowning, I cannot and will not allegorize this parable.

You see, when Jesus’ audience heard him tell this parable, they would have immediately understood who the landowners and who the workers were. Jesus audience lived under the occupation of the Romans. Jewish Landowners in occupied Palestine would have had very few choices. Landowners could oppose the Romans and lose their land and then have to resort to becoming day labourers themselves, or they could collaborate with their Roman oppressors and participate in the abuse of their neighbours. As an occupied people, the Jews were waiting for someone to come along and save them from Caesar’s oppressive rule. They longed for a Messiah who would change their world and end their oppression. The crowds that flocked to listen to Jesus’ are looking for some sort of revelation about when and how the oppressive Roman occupations that set neighbour against neighbour was going to end. Rather than point to some far off distant salvation at the hands of an intervening God, Jesus points directly at the very crowds longing for salvation and insists that only when land-owners stop oppressing their neighbours will the long dreamed of kindom of God become a reality.

Imagine for a moment that you are in the crowd. You have worked hard all your life. You have saved and invested wisely. You have a home on land you either rent or own. You and I, we are the land-owners. And each one of us, we want to pay the labourers, in whatever vineyard we are involved in, we want to pay less. Sure, an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work is all well and good when it applies to us. But who among us is willing to pay more for our meals so that day labourers can receive salary that will feed and house their families?

Let’s face it we are more than willing to shop at Walmart without caring too much about how Walmart treats its employees provided Walmart offers us a bargain. We want to pay less and we know that if we pay less, Walmart will pay less. We are all too willing to shop in dollar stores even though we know that the bargains we scoop up were in all likelihood manufactured by people working as slaves. We want to pay less for our groceries and are smart enough to know that those Mexicans working on the Marsh will be the ones to pay the price for our cheap vegetables. You know that I love my devices, my iPad is precious to me, even though I know the price paid by the labourers in China so that I could we could have our fun. We want to pay less and we also want to get more. We want our investments, and our retirement savings funds, to earn us bigger and bigger dividends. We want our property values to increase, even tough we know that those increases will make it impossible for the vast majority of our young neighbours to ever be able to become landowners. We want our governments to do more with less because we want to pay less taxes. Continue reading

“Who Do You Say I AM?” – Jesus IS? – part 3of3

This interactive sermon is the third in a series of sermons responding to the question “Who Do You Say I AM?” Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 here

The sermon is divided into two sections and the audio includes the readings as well as the songs. you can listen to the sermon here

“Jesus IS?” Section ONE: Questioning

We cannot un-know what we have learned. In the past one-hundred years biblical scholarship has exploded.  In the halls of academia, in the seminaries of mainline denominations the quest for knowledge about Jesus has born so very much fruit. Now thanks to the explosions of the information age, information that was once reserved to the carefully initiated, is available to everyone. Wander into your local bookstore, or turn on your computer and you will discover more information than any one person could ever digest on the subject of Jesus. And yet, despite more than 2000 years of scholarship, theologizing, speculating, preaching, and teaching, the question, put on the lips of Jesus by the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Matthew, remains a daunting question to answer. 

“Who do you say that I AM?”  This is a question designed by the storyteller to evoke a response from the listener. “Who do you say that I AM?” Our individual responses to this question are tinged by all that we have been taught, by our families, by the church, by the culture in which we live, by the communities to which we belong, by the books we have read, the movies we have seen, the documentaries we have watched, the lectures we have listened to. Those of us who have stayed behind in the church, long after the vast majority of the population have left, we have been trying to answer questions about Jesus have learned so much about Jesus.  But rather than help us answer the question, what we think we know about Jesus, has left us tong tied.

“Who do you say that I AM?”  The way in which we answer questions about the identity of Jesus matters in a world where so many of the answers that have already been offered continue to misrepresent the man who lies at the heart of Christianity. These days, what passes for Christianity often stands in direct opposition to the teachings of the man Christians profess to follow. The idol worshipped by millions depicts Jesus as a super-hero God, sent to die as a blood sacrifice for sin.  This idol has co-opted the story of Jesus the man who steadfastly refused to take up violence against his enemies. Worshippers of this idol seek the companionship of a personal saviour, sacrificed violently for their personal sin, while they turn their backs upon Jesus’ the man’s personal quest for peace through justice for all.  Worshippers of this idol follow a saviour who encourages them in their personal quest for happiness in this world and the next.  All too often, this personal quest for happiness, results in the oppression and suffering of others, requiring the followers of this idol to embrace violence.

“Who do you say that I AM?” The way in which we answer this question has implications for the way in which we live in the world. “Who do you say that I AM?”  – a human, a seeker of justice committed to non-violent resistance to oppressive systems, willing to give everything to achieve peace, peace for all.   A teacher offering insights into a way of being in the world that embodies LOVE. Or a super-human, blood-sacrifice, who demands obedience and conviction to a carefully crafted story designed to ensure that your tribe wins the battle to create a new world order, where your tribe wins not only in this life but in the next. “Who do you say that I AM?”

Section Two: Imagining

“Who do you say that I AM?” Before we can say who Jesus is, we must imagine who Jesus was.  David Steindl-Rast reminds us that, “religions start from mysticism. There is no other way to start a religion.” Steindl-Rast  compares this mystical experience “to a volcano that gushes forth…and then…the magma flows down the sides of the mountain and cools off. And when it reaches the bottom, it’s just rocks. You’d never guess that there was fire in it. So after a couple of hundred years, or two thousand years or more, what was once alive is dead rock. Doctrine becomes doctrinaire. Morals become moralistic. Ritual becomes ritualistic. What do we do with it? We have to push through the crust and go to the fire that’s within it.”

The fire that sparked Christianity is Jesus. The red-hot experience of the living breathing Jesus, bubbled up out of out of the mountain that  Judaism had become. Like red hot lava Jesus flowed through the towns and villages of first century Palestine sparking a revolution that has long since cooled. We are the inheritors of the dead rock formations that lie scattered about us.  If we are ever to push through the crust to experience the fire that lies within, we will need to have the courage to shatter the idol of Jesus that Christianity has fashioned out of the rock. That means imagining who Jesus was when the fire ignited so that we can determine who Jesus is, here and now, in this place and in this time.

 “Who do you say that I AM?”  Let’s begin where it always begins in ancient literature, let’s begin with the name. The name given to the experience of whatever it is that lies at the very source of reality. YAHWEH – I AM WHO I AM. The ancient name given by the Hebrew people to their experience of the Divine. I AM – from the verb to be… God – IS

The question put on the lips of Jesus by the anonymous gospel storyteller we call Matthew “Who do you say that I AM?” echo’s the very I AM that this same Jesus depicts in a whole new way.  It is all in the name.  Sadly, we’ve missed the fullness meaning of Jesus’ name. Jesus was known by two names in the ancient world. Can anybody tell me what those names were? ……Yeshua ben Yosef  …. Yeshua bar abba … Joshua  =  God is Gracious or God Saves

      Yeshua ben Yosef = Joshua son of Joseph

      Yeshua bar abba   = Joshua son of abba the name Jesus used for God

      Joshua – salvation a man or a god

      There in lies the question – Jesus divine or human?

      “Who do you say that I AM?”

      Last Sunday I talked about how the Creeds have shaped us. The Apostle’s and the Nicene Creeds were created in the 4th century after the life of Yeshua ben Yosef, or Yeshua bar Abba by the powers of the Roman Empire to ensure that there would be a consistent view of Yeshua throughout the emerging church. That consistent view served the Empire well and went a long way to solidify the idol of Jesus Christ that continues to pervade our culture.  So, let’s set aside the creeds for a moment and respond to the questions of Jesus’ identity in ways that give us a glimmer of the fire that gave birth to a way of being in the world.

“Who do you say that I AM?” conversation

Where two or three are gathered in my name

I AM there in their midst.”

 

I AM IS in our midst.

 

I AM WHO AM

IS

in our midst.

The experience of the I AM

burned so brightly in

Yeshua

May that flame burn brightly

in, with, through, beyond us.

 

Who Do You Say that I AM? part 1 – Matthew 16:13-20 and Romans 12: 1-8 – a sermon

Listen to the sermon here

“Who do you say that I Am?” For most of my life I have been trying to figure out who I think Jesus was and is. Your very presence here on a beautiful summer morning, suggests to me that many of you have also tried to figure out who Jesus was and is. From time to time, I suspect that most of us have believed that we have worked it out; that we know just who Jesus is. But Jesus, just like every person we have ever known and or ever loved, Jesus keeps changing on us.

The Jesus I knew when I was a child was little more than an imaginary friend. “Jesus loves me this I know!” “Yes! Jesus loves me! Yes! Jesus loves me!” not because the bible tells me so, but rather as my friend and biblical scholar Harold Remus always insists, “because my Mommy told me so!” When I was a kid the knowledge that Jesus loved me, earned Jesus the role of my imaginary friend. Later, when I was a teen-ager looking for more love than my family could give me, I found my way into the Church and discovered, “What a Friend I have in Jesus! All my sins and griefs to bear!” The idealism of my youth turned my imaginary friend Jesus into my radical friend Jesus who understood my passion for justice, and lead me into deep friendships with folks who were determined to practice what Jesus preached, as we proudly sought to be the kind of people that “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Sadly though, after 25 years in the church, I found myself as a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, with the keys of the kingdom jangling in my pockets, firmly believing that Jesus was and is, the: “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  It has taken years for me to get to know Jesus as something other than the sacrificial lamb of God. I stand in a long line of priests and pastors known as the Apostolic Succession. According to the story that comes to us from the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Matthew: Jesus handed the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter, the rock upon which the church was founded, and in doing so Jesus handed over the authority to bind and loose in heaven. For generations, this passage has been interpreted by the Church as the establishment of the priesthood. The Apostle Peter is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and becomes the first gate-keeper precisely because possession of these keys give him the power to decide just who will and won’t be forgiven. Generations of priests have been called and ordained, and thereby entrusted with the keys to the kingdom, holders of the power to forgive in Jesus name. When a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ presides over the rite of public or private confession, we grant forgiveness of sin, in the name of Christ. We have the keys to the kingdom of heaven. WOW… Continue reading

Canada: Not the Promised Land – But a Land Full of Promise – a sermon in celebration of Canada

Readings for Canada Day weekend: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 72:1-8a; Matthew 5:43-48

Listen to the sermon here

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number and there became a great nation, mighty and populous.”  So, mighty and so populous that some of our ancestors wandered all the way to Northern Ireland. As a child in Belfast a long time ago, longer than I care to remember, so long  ago that life was very different than it is now. Life in Belfast during the sixties was simple. We didn’t have much. Life was simple and basic and so many of the things that we take for granted, simply didn’t exist back then.  Looking back on it now, I suppose you could say that we were poor. The truth is, we may indeed have been poor but I never knew it. Back then “the troubles” were reigniting in Northern Ireland as protestants and Roman Catholics began to slip back into their old violent ways. Looking back, I realize that the poverty and violence of Belfast in the 1960’s made it a tough place to raise a family. So, it makes sense that my family would leave Belfast as what today we would call refugees, fleeing both economic hardships as well as the threat of violence. But as a child in neither knew nor understood the realities of our migration. Nevertheless, arriving in Canada was just like arriving in the “Promised Land.”

On this Canada Day weekend, I can still vividly remember my first full day in Canada, even though it happened so very long ago. My Mother, my brother, and I arrived at the old Malton Airport. I don’t have any actual memories of walking across the tarmac, but legend has it that it was snowing on what should have been a spring day.  I do have memories of my very first car-ride. I can still see the massive 1957 Plymoth.  It was the first car my family ever owned and it had these huge fins at the back that were taller than I was at the time. The back seat was positively enormous and riding back there, I was thoroughly convince that my Dad had struck it rich in Canada. 

We pulled into the parking lot of the tallest building I had ever seen and Dad announced that we were home.  He pointed out a balcony way up on the fourth floor and said that this was our flat.Then we climbed aboard an elevator. I had never been in an elevator before and I was amazed at the skill with which my father took charge of the controls. When the door magically slide open, we walked down a long hallway to arrive at our front door.  I can still see the gold numbers on the door, “407”. We must be rich indeed, if we had good on our front door. I could hardly believe my eyes when Dad opened the door.  I remember the shiny wood floors, the brand new furniture, and the big TV set.

 As we toured the rest of the apartment, I simply couldn’t speak. This new home looked nothing like the homes I was used to.  What’s more inside the kitchen stood a sparkling white refrigerator. I had never seen such a thing. All I remember is that this refrigerator had magic powers that allowed us to keep food cold. Visions of ice-cream must have danced through my head.  Just imagine the marvelous ability to be able to keep ice-cream in your very own kitchen. No more walking to the corner shop or waiting for the ice-cream man to pass by.Ice-cream right there as cold as you like in your very own home. It blew my tiny little mind!

You can’t imagine how rich I though we had become. Especially when off we went on my very first trip to a grocery store.  A grocery store, not a shop or a market, but a grocery store in Canada, is a very magical place.  I can still remember playing with my brother on the magic entrance to the grocery store.  We had never before seen automatic doors and we were delighted to step over and over again on the magic mat that caused the doors to open. Then there was the big cart that people in Canada used to pile all their groceries in.   People in Canada bought so much food that they needed a cart to carry it all out to their cars so that they could fill their marvelous refrigerators up to the brim. It must have blown my Mom’s mind to think that she would no longer have to shop every day, but could actually shop once a week because we had a fridge to store everything in.

I have this vague memory of standing in front of boxes and boxes of cereal. I had never seen so many boxes of cereal.  So much choice.  I remember choosing a box with a bear on the package…it was a cartoon bear… but it was a bear, I couldn’t wait to see a real bear.  Canada, I thought must be full of bears. Perhaps the sugar pops, would make me strong enough to stand in front of a bear? I remember watching a square box of ice-cream travel down a magic counter and later watching as it was loaded into the massive boot of our massive car, and finally as it was placed in our very own freezer. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice-cream came out of that box. It was delicious.  I remember several times, sneaking into the kitchen and opening up the fridge and then peering into the freezer to see if any of the ice-cream was leaking out of the box. Wonder of wonders, in Canada people are so rich that they can keep ice-cream for days and days and days in their very own homes.  Canada is just like I imagined heaven to be. Canada was, to that little girl that I was way back then, Heaven here on earth.

Canada is an amazing land. I am not the first refugee, and I certainly won’t be the last refugee to discover that Canada is more lovely than the Promised Land of any wandering migrants dreams. The wealth of our land surpasses the wildest dreams of most of the people on this planet. We have been richly blessed. Listen to the words of Deuteronomy, they might just as well have been written for us:  “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.  You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that God has given you.”

Welcome to the promised land!  Look around you.   Rejoice and be glad for God has been gracious to you. Praise God for the bounty, which God has laid before us. Don’t let it be said of you, “that none of them was found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner”.  Let it be said that, “we shall eat our fill and bless our God for the good land that God has given us. Take care that you do not forget God.  When we have eaten our fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when our wealth has multiplied, our silver and our gold is multiplied, and all that we have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting God, who brought us out of the great and terrible wilderness.” Do not let us say to ourselves, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember God, for it is God who gives you power to get wealth, so that God may confirm God’s covenant that God swore to our ancestors, as God is doing today.”

Alas, like our ancestors, we too are like wandering Arameans,  for just like every other immigrant who ever came upon the beauty of a land not their own, we did not wander into an empty land. We are migrants, settlers, colonizers. Looking around this room, I think it is safe to say that, regardless of whether it was us our or our ancestors, our people, our tribe, took this land from the indigenous in habitants of this land. Our ancestors may have believed that they had a god-given right to this land. But the texts we revere as sacred cannot disguise the reality of the crimes that were committed when our forbearers took this land from the peoples and nations that had inhabited this land for centuries before any Europeans every dreamed that Turtle Island existed.  We are setters in this land, descendants of colonizers, our wealth came and continues to come at great cost to the indigenous peoples of this land that we love.

We come from a long tradition that looks back upon our ancestors as wandering Arameans who when they arrived at what they believed to be their Promised Land, they believed that their god was providing them with all the blessings they needed to thrive as a nation. The reality is that those wandering Arameans were settlers and colonizers in the land of Canaan. The Canaanites lost their land to the Israelites and the tragedy of colonization still reverberates down to this very day as Israelis and Palestinians fight over the blessings of the Promised Land.

As the celebrations of “Canada 150” fade, perhaps we can turn our attention to the many blessings of this land. Perhaps we can finally begin to move beyond the sins of our fathers and mothers, and set aside our own sins of omission. Perhaps we can begin to hear the words of the One we profess to follow and learn to love one another in ways that do not put one another into categories of native and non-native, indigenous and settler, colonizer and colonized, neighbour and enemy, but rather sisters and brothers in a land rich with promise.  We have relied for too long on the ravages of our past which trained us well to be colonizers. Surely, it is time for us to set aside our childish ways, and look not to the tribalism of our past but rather to the sense of blessedness that called upon our ancestors to remember that we have been blessed to be a blessing.  Surely, we can begin the next 150 years by finding ways to be a blessing to our sisters and brothers who have suffered the perils of colonization. If Canada is to grow out of our childish churlish ways, we will need to learn from our indigenous sisters and brothers so that together we can cherish this land where the abundance of the earth provides so much promise that all who live here can find peace together.

Canada is not the Promised Land given to us by God so that we can gather up all the milk and honey. Canada is a land filled with promise; a land of nations of indigenous peoples and settlers have many blessings to share with the world. Before the promise of Canada can be realized, it is time for us to clean-up the mess of “Canada 150” by atoning for the sins of our mothers and fathers as well as our sins of omission. We can do that by ensuring that our all our sisters and brothers have access to the milk and honey.  We can do that by learning from our indigenous sisters and brothers how to live in harmony with the land, how to respect the blessings of Turtle Island, how to share the blessings in ways that ensure that this great land continues to thrive.  We can do that by repairing the damage that has been done while ensuring that every child feels as richly blessed as we do. Only when everyone of us is free to embrace with dignity the promise of this great land will we truly begin to embrace the blessedness that abounds all around us in ways that will be a blessing to the world.

 May we all learn to look beyond “Canada 150”, so that together we can see our blessedness not as our own, but as god-given so that we might be a blessing to others. We have been richly blessed.  And, to those to whom much has been given, much is expected. We have been blessed to be a blessing. The party is over, let the clean-up begin. Set your minds upon the ways in which you might embrace your blessings so as to be a blessing to others. Let it be so. Amen.

Make some noise and let the walls come tumblin down! – a sermon for York Pride: Joshua 6:1-5

Listen to the sermon here

Earlier this week, I drove down Main Street. Main Street is all dressed up for Pride. On the lampposts, you can see beautiful rainbow banners announcing the York Pride Festival. I must tell you that I was so overcome by the sight of these Pride banners that I had to pull over and have a little cry. The sight of these banners flapping in the wind for all to see may seem totally unremarkable to some people. But to some of us, the sight of those banners moves us beyond words to tears that spring from a very deep place within our soul; tears that reflect so many emotions born of pain, defiance, struggle, isolation, relief, hope, and joy! As I wept, I couldn’t help but marvel at how very much has changed since I first began to become aware of who I am.

I was only ten years old in 1967, when Pierre Trudeau declared that, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” I was too young to understand the news in 1968, when Canada decriminalized homosexual acts. I don’t remember being aware of the Stonewall riots that erupted in 1969. As a teen-ager in the 1970’s, what went on between consenting adults was something seldom talked about. It wasn’t until the early 80’s when the reality of the AID’s epidemic drove conversations about homosexuality into the public square, that I began to pay attention to the cause of gay rights. Living in Vancouver and working in the travel industry, I lost friends, good friends, to a disease that devastated the gay community. Later as I began to allow myself to understand who I am, I remember trying and failing to find the courage to march in Vancouver’s Gay Pride parade. I don’t know what frightened me more, being seen at the parade or seeing myself for who I am. Fear is a long, long way, from pride. So, it took me longer than I care to admit to summon up the courage to participate in the pride parade in 1986. Later as I was preparing myself to become a pastor, I had the very good fortune to fall in love. Falling in LOVE is a very empowering experience. But falling in LOVE in 1997, when your church says things like “love the sinner, hate the sin”, well let’s just say, that when I was called here to Holy Cross in 1999, it wasn’t just fear that kept Carol and I quiet on the subject of our relationship, it was the reality that if I said anything at all, I wouldn’t survive as a pastor for very long. “Don’t ask don’t tell,” was the unofficial policy of the ELCIC. So, you didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell. Newmarket, I was told was a conservative town. Well a lot has changed over the years. Many of us worked for a very long time at considerable cost to change the policies of our government and our church. The benefits of equal marriage in Canada, and full inclusion in the Evangelic Lutheran Church in Canada are life-changing and I confess that there are days when I still feel like pinching myself. “Can it actually be true? Can I actually be married to the woman I love and still be a pastor?”

The relief and the joy of being who I am without fear of persecution, makes me proud not only of who I am, but of who you are, who we are as a community and as a country. My pride runs deep and so it is a joy to see how very far we have come. Sitting in my car weeping, I couldn’t help but marvel at the courage of so many people who paved the way for us. Those banners on Main Street and all the happy pride-goers yesterday, and all of us gathered here today to celebrate, we have so much to be thankful for. But I can’t help remembering a conversation with someone who will remain nameless. This person insisted that she, “loves the gays”, but she just wishes that they wouldn’t make such a big deal out of everything. She just couldn’t approve of gay pride. “I mean really, why do they need to flaunt their sexuality in public the way that they do. Can’t they just keep it to themselves.”  This person went on to declare, “I don’t flaunt my heterosexuality in public.”

Well her inability to flaunt her heterosexuality in public was all too clear. Her sexuality was very clearly suffering from her inability to see beyond all the stuff she’d ever been taught about her body;

sadly, I suspect that most of the stuff that had her so tightly wound up she must have learned from the church. For centuries our public institutions, all too often encouraged or justified by the institutional church, confined generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, and straight people in closets so dark that we could none of us see who we are.

One of the blessings that we religious types have is a plethora of metaphors and stories that were created to liberate people from prisons of our own making. One of the stories that I have always loved is this morning’s first reading from the book of Joshua. I can hear that old spiritual, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls come tumbling down,” each and every time some uptight, repressed individual begins to complain about those gay’s and their parades. The very idea of the children of Israel, those ancient Hebrew migrants, persecuted and excluded marching and hollering all around the mighty city of Jericho, with its walls erected to keep the riff raft out, well the metaphor is too perfect.  I can see it all now day after day, people making an ungodly racket. The sound of the shofar’s loudly blasting a radical tune. I’ll bet there was dancing and singing and hootin and hollerin. No wonder those walls come a tumblin down.

The scriptures are full of stories created to provide hope to the downtrodden, the oppressed, the persecuted, the suffering, the outcast, even the sinners. Yes, the walls may be tall, the structures that keep you out may be entrenched, but make enough racket and you’ll see those walls crumble. So, today I give thanks to all those rowdy folks who marched in spite of the fact that the walls erected by our society to keep them in the closet seemed insurmountable.  Today, I celebrate all the brave pride-goers who brought the walls of injustice down so that we can be all that we are created to be without fear. It has been a long and difficult struggle, and our pride celebrations inspire such joy. So, we sing, we dance, we make noise and yeah, we flaunt our sexuality in public! And I’m guessing that the gay rights movement has liberated more than just the LGBTQ communities. I’m guessing that our straight sisters and brothers have learned a great deal about who they are. I’m pretty sure that liberation and freedom from sexual repression are indeed a blessing that more than just a few of us are grateful for. The reality that we a wonderfully and beautifully made, creatures of mysterious and sublime wonder is a blessing of unfathomable joy.

So today, we celebrate who we are! But with each and every utterance of, the words “Happy Pride!” we cannot forget that our joy is tinged with sadness for all our sisters and brothers around the world who continue to live and die in fear. The Pride movement is still in its infancy.

We have come a long way. But we have miles to go and so many more wall to break down; walls that will require a whole lot of noise before they come tumblin down! We are blessed to live in a place where we can be who we are and love one another without fear of the state. Sadly, there are still places here where some of us are afraid to hold hands. There are places where some of us fear to go. We will need to do a whole lot more marching. We will also need to make a great deal of noise so that our government opens gaps in our walls so that we can provide sanctuary to LGBTQ refugees. We will need to make a great deal more noise so that hate-filled states like Chechnya will stop the killings and Malaysia will stop the public floggings. Those of us who remain in the Church must continue to make a whole lot of noise so that our institutions repent the abuses of our past and stop the abuses that continue to be perpetrated in the name of Jesus. We must do our best to join our voices to the voices of those outside our walls so as to hasten their crumbling. We must open up dialogues and we must tell our stories so that the LOVE that lives in us can inspire hope as it breaks down walls. We must remember that the one whom we profess to follow this Jesus fellow, is the one who said over and over again, “Do not be afraid. Have no fear!”  The very one who reached out beyond the confines of the walls established by the structures and institutions of his day, to love his neighbours. The same one who insisted that God is LOVE.

So, as we celebrate today, we do so mindful that there is more noise for us to make and hopeful that as we make that noise together the walls will come tumblin down. Happy Pride everyone! May the LOVE that is God empower all of us to be all that we are created to be.

 

 

While Preachers Dutifully Ponder the Doctrine of the Trinity, Our Congregations Shrink???

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday.  In anticipation, preachers all over the world are dutifully pondering the Doctrine of the Trinity desperately searching for something to say to encourage their congregations.

Preachers will trot out tired old clichés conjuring up images of triangles, shamrocks around, or point to H20’s ability to appear as water, ice, or steam while still maintaining it’s unified essence. Or have you heard the one about the 3 blind men and the elephant in the room. That old chestnut is trotted out by many a desperate preacher struggling to put flesh on the doctrine of the trinity. But for the life of me I can’t see how 1 blind man touching the elephant’s trunk and presuming that there is a tree in the room, while a second blind man catching wind of the elephant’s ear is convinced that there is some sort of giant fan in the room, while a third man grabs hold of the tail and is sure that he has hold of a rope, helps you to conclude that just because they’re all sharing a room with an elephant you can now confess that God is indeed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever amen. But all sorts of mental gymnastics will be exercised in the vain attempt to make some sort of sense of the doctrine of the Trinity!

On Trinity Sundays, mindful of the fact that trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity usually leads to heresy: dusty theological books that have not seen the light of day since last Trinity Sunday have been poured over to ensure that the formula’s learned in seminary are repeated correctly and heresy scrupulously avoided. The imaginative among us have attempted to baffle our congregations with our theological intellect, the pragmatic among us have attempted to baffle our congregations with something akin to BS, while the desperate among us have simply tried to survive the Trinity Sunday hoping against hope that no one will notice that we haven’t a clue what we’re talking about.

Perhaps only dear old Dr. Martin Luther possessed the theological integrity sufficient to save a preacher from the perils of preaching on Trinity Sunday. So, before I launch, forth, let me remind you what the instigator of the Reformation had to say on the subject of the Trinity. Martin Luther warned that: “To deny the Trinity is to risk our salvation; to try and explain the Trinity is to risk our sanity.”

I will confess that Martin Luther had much more at stake, literally at stake, than I do, because the truth is that for centuries the punishment for heresy would have found many an ancient preacher burned at the stake. But while the death penalty for heresy has been lifted, the risk to one’s sanity remains. Continue reading

Dream Dreams – a Pentecost sermon – Acts 1 and 2

Listen to the sermon here

I cannot begin to explain to you what happened on that day in Jerusalem, without explaining to you who I am.  My name is Mary and I come from the village of Magdala. You may know me as Mary Magdalene. But you have no idea who I am. There are many stories that have been told about me. Some of the things that have been said about me make my head spin.  Over the years, thanks to the twisted interpretations of the men in the church that I helped to give birth to, I have gained quite a reputation for being a prostitute, a whore, an adulterer. Now I will lay claim to being a sinner and God knows I have had my share of demons, but prostitution, adultery, whore, where do people get these ideas? It seems that all you need to do is use the words sinner and woman in the same sentence and all some people can think about is sex. 

Read your bibles and you will discover that, people have made me out to be something that I am not. It does not say anywhere in the New Testament that I, Mary of Magdala was ever a prostitute, the New Testament doesn’t say that, the men of the Church did that. The New Testament simply says I was a sinner who just happened to come from the city. If you insist on calling me a prostitute based on this evidence, that says more about you than it does about me.

You see, I come from a good family in Magdala. Magdala is a wealthy city on the Sea of Galilee, just south of Capernaum. My family made a lot of money in the fishing industry in Magdala. While I was growing up I lacked nothing.  But I was not happy.  I was sick. I would sit around the house moping and complaining and make everyone miserable. I was so distraught. Often, I was so upset that I pulled out my own hair. Sometimes I would be so excited that people couldn’t stop me from talking. I ran up all sorts of bills in the market place which my parents had to pay. I was always cooking up some mad scheme or other. I would rant and rave at the slightest provocation.  From time to time I would become ill and stay in bed for weeks on end. I knew something was terribly wrong and nothing seemed to ease my anxieties. I was a prisoner inside my own mind. Then I met Jesus.  Continue reading

God In Between – Pentecost Sunday sermon

God In Between

Pentecost Sunday is a day for stories about the nearness of God. So we begin with the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11:1-9, then make our way to the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Luke’s story of the early followers of Jesus’ encounter with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21, and then the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call John’s story of Jesus’ insistence that he and God are one, before rounding off with Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s excellent children’s book God In Between. 

Listen to the sermon here

           There’s a children’s Book that I love. I won’t tell you the name of the book because the book’s title is also the book’s ultimate meaning. I will tell you that the book is written by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who just happens to be the second woman to be ordained as a rabbi back in 1974. She is also the first rabbi to become a mother.  Sandy Eisenberg Sasso brings the wisdom she has learned as a rabbi to her children’s books.  As the Christian celebration of Pentecost is intimately tied to the Jewish festival of Shavout, when the Jewish people read the Book of Ruth, it seems fitting to read to you from the book of a Jewish Rabbi. Shandy Eisenberg Sasso’s story begins:

“Once there was a town at the foot of a hill with no roads and almost no windows.  
Without roads the people of the town had nowhere to go, and they wondered what was on the other side of the hill.
Whenever they tried to leave their homes, they would sneeze through tall tangled weeds, tumble into deep holes and trip over rocks as large as watermelons.
Without windows they would sleep late into the day, and they often wondered when the sun turned night into morning.
Their houses were closed up like boxes sealed with tape.
They could never look out and their neighbours could never look in.

Continue reading

The Ascension Never Actually Happened – Ascension is Always Happening

Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus

The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is a church festival that I have always chosen to ignore. The ancient tradition that has Jesus floating up into the clouds stretches the credibility of the church to such an extent that I’ve always assumed that the less said about the Ascension the better. But I was challenged by a parishioner to try to make some sense out of the Ascension story so that 21st century Christians would not have to check their brains at the door should they happen upon a congregation that still celebrated the day. What follows is a transcript of my attempt to leave behind the miraculous Jesus in order to be better able to welcome the human Jesus down from the clouds. I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong together with Clay Nelson of St Matthew-in-the-city for their liberating insights.  

Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have not celebrated Ascension Sunday. But as this particular Ascension Sunday follows so closely after Jack Spong’s visit with us, I thought that it was about time that rather than avoid the Ascension, I’d like to try to confront it.

Jack has been telling his anti-Ascension story for quite a few years now. Just in case you’ve never heard it or have forgotten it, let me remind you. It seems that Jack was speaking with Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. Jack says that Carl Sagan once told him  “if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”

With that said, let me just say, that the Ascension never actually happened. It is not an historical event. If a tourist with a video camera had been there in Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing. 

I know what the Nicene Creed says, “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures. And so, as I do not understand the Bible literally, neither do I understand the Nicene Creed to be a literal interpretation of the faith. Like all creeds the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds are snapshots of theology as it was at a particular time in history.

We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. I know that the universe is infinite.  I also know about gravity. I also know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus had helium flowing through his veins.  I’ve flown around the world, and I can tell you that there is no heaven above the clouds. So, I can say with confidence that:  The very present Jesus of resurrection faith did not literally elevate into heaven while his disciples looked on.

The writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts are one and the same person. The same writer wrote the Gospel according to Luke to tell the story of the life of Jesus and the Book of Acts to tell the story of the Holy Spirit at work in the followers of Jesus.  Although we don’t know who the author was, we do know that he was not an historian. Neither Luke nor Acts are historical accounts. They are both addressed to a character named Theopholus. Theopholus is  Greek for lover of God. The books are addressed to the lovers of God, that’s you and me and the author makes it clear that he has written these books so that we, the lovers of God, can believe and have faith.  The books were written somewhere near the end of the first century. Somewhere between 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus.  Perhaps between 80 and 95 of this Common Era.

The important question for most biblical scholars is not whether the Ascension actually happened but rather, what did the Ascension mean to the author in his context. And to that question we might add a more pressing question: Given what the Ascension meant in the first century, does it continue to have any relevance for those of us who live in the 21st century?

I believe that the followers of Jesus experiences of Jesus the man were so overwhelming that they saw in him the human face of God. I also believe that in very powerful ways the followers of Jesus continued to experience Jesus presence.

Those powerful experiences of Jesus after his death were so intense that they defied description. Given that Jesus was now dead and gone, yet his presence still seemed to be with them, the followers of Jesus used the Hebrew story of Elijah and Elisha to construct a belief about the Spirit of Jesus continuing to be powerfully among them.

By the time the writer of Luke and Acts got around to writing these stories down, there were different versions of the story being passed around in the early church. The writer of Luke/Acts paints a picture of a re-formed bodily Jesus going up into the heavens in the Ascension and a windy, fiery Spirit coming down at Pentecost. The writer uses powerful familiar Hebrew images to portray the experiences of Jesus’ followers after his death.

In order for us to move beyond the literal and beyond the historical and even beyond the metaphorical meaning to arrive at the meaning that the story of the Ascension can have for us today in this time and in this place, I’d like to tell you two stories that I heard about from a preacher who serves an Anglican parish in Auckland, New Zealand. Clay Nelson is a friend of Jack Spong who tells great stories.  The first story is an actual, literal, historically accurate Ascension story followed by a metaphorical Ascension story.

The literal historical Ascension story took place in 1982. But it the story that actually began some twenty years earlier when Larry Walters was just 13 years old and he saw weather balloons hanging from the ceiling of an Army & Navy surplus store. It was then that Larry knew that some day he would be carried up to the heavens by balloons. Sure enough when he was 33 years old, on July 2nd 1982, Larry Walters tied 42 helium-filled balloons to a lawn chair in the backyard of his girlfriend’s house in San Pedro, California. With the help of his friends, Larry secured himself into the lawn chair that was anchored to the bumper of a friend’s car, by two nylon tethers. Larry packed several sandwiches and a six-pack of Miller Lite and loaded his pellet gun so that he could pop a few balloons when he was ready to come down. His goal was to sail across the desert and hopefully make it to the Rocky Mountains in a few days.

But things didn’t quite work out for Larry. When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair the second one snapped, launching Larry into the skies above Los Angeles. Instead of leveling off at about 30 feet as he’d planned, Larry rose to 16,000 feet and at that height Larry couldn’t risk shooting any of the balloons.    So he stayed up there drifting cold and frightened for more than 14 hours when he found himself in the primary flight approach corridor for LAX.

Legend has it that a Pan Am pilot was the first to spot Larry and quickly radioed the tower telling them that he’d just passed a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. The Federal Aviation Administration was not amused. Larry started shooting out the balloons to start his descent but accidentally dropped the gun. After drifting for a couple of hours he eventually landed in a Long Beach neighbourhood entangled in some power lines. Larry survived without any serious injuries.

Now that is an historically accurate ascension story. It’s a funny story and a true story, but it is not a life changing story. But Larry did inspire a wonderful Australian movie, called Danny Deckchair, which is untrue, is in fact full of truth. Now when a New Zealander recommends an Australian movie, I take notice, so yesterday I watched Danny Deckchair and I do believe that it is a modern metaphorical interpretation of the Ascension.

The movie’s hero, Danny, is a bored labourer who drives a cement mixer. Danny is an unlikely Christ figure whose story is similar to Larry’s. Danny ascends from his backyard in Sydney during a barbecue and lands less than gracefully in a small town in the Australian outback. By this act of departure and arrival everything changes not only for Danny, but also for those he left behind and those he meets in the outback. Danny’s unique departure inspires those at home to take risks of their own: to live life more boldly, to act on their dreams, to become all they can be.

In acting out his dream, Danny finds new confidence and becomes the source of inspiration and affirmation for the townsfolk in the outback who used to see themselves as backwater hicks, but now see the importance of their actions in the life of their town. Everyone is transformed by Danny’s ascension. New Life and love accompany his resurrection.

The writer of Luke/Acts two versions of Jesus’ Ascension are not true like Larry’s lift off but are true like Danny Deckchair.  While the event certainly did not happen in a literal way, the story does attempt to capture the quality of a real man whose coming and going in their lives changed them forever.  The writer of Luke/Acts Ascension story is not so miraculous after all. The Ascension story is about the joy the disciples felt about the ongoing ever so real presence of Jesus after his death. The God they saw in Jesus they found in themselves. In Jesus’ departure they discovered that they could love as wastefully as he did.  They could live abundantly as Jesus did. They could heal and reconcile just as Jesus did.  With Jesus pointing the way they had found God and while Jesus was gone, the God that Jesus pointed to was everywhere, even in them.

If we are to move beyond the literal, beyond the historical, beyond the metaphorical to the life-changing meaning of the stories that have been handed down to us, we may just have to give up our tenacious hold upon the notion of Jesus as some sort of miracle worker who defies the laws of gravity, and time and space.

If we are to engage the stories about Jesus in a way that allows those stories to intersect with our lives we will have to embrace Jesus’ humanity. My Kiwi colleague Clay Nelson puts it like this:  “If your faith is sustained by a miraculous understanding of Jesus that has to ignore what you know about the real world, then let me ask you: Is it a faith that can sustain you in the real world?             Eventually this world of advancing scientific knowledge, that no longer requires a personal God to create, heal and sustain life will make the God we have had irrelevant, if it hasn’t already. I think God would rather be dead than irrelevant.             And if God is irrelevant, Jesus, who has been portrayed by the author of Luke/Acts and the church as the incarnation of this God, will suffer the same fate. If he hasn’t already.”

Nelson reminds us that Jesus was human and the human Jesus does not suffer the fate of an irrelevant god.. “The human Jesus, instead of only showing us God in all God’s glory, also shows us in all of ours. This Jesus becomes a window through which we can glimpse the mystery of love and life and being we are all called into. This Jesus through his radical love of even his enemies invites us into that mystery that surrounds us and is part of our very being.  This Jesus becomes the doorway through which I’m willing to walk into that mystery. For this mystery, I am willing to die to have new life. Mystery makes sense to me, the miraculous doesn’t. The mysterious Jesus inspires me and calls me to new levels of being. The miraculous Jesus helps me as much as telling a child that Santa comes down chimneys. The mysterious Jesus sustains my faith.  The miraculous Jesus impedes my faith.”

Like my Kiwi colleague Clay, I no longer need to believe in a miraculous Jesus in order to experience the mysterious Christ who lives and breathes in with and through Christ’s body here and now.

The writer of Luke/Acts is preparing his audience of God lovers for the arrival on the scene of the very Spirit of God that lived and breathed in with and through Jesus.

So, as we approach the celebration of Pentecost, may you find in these stories handed down to us by our ancestors in the faith an inkling of the powerful presence that Jesus’ first followers experienced after Jesus had left them.

May the joy they felt at the realization that the God they saw in Jesus they now found in themselves. May the realizations that those first followers experienced in Jesus’ departure, when they discovered they could love as extravagantly as Jesus did, that they could live as abundantly as Jesus did. That they could bring about healing and reconciliation just as Jesus did. 

May these realizations live and breath and have their being in you. May you know the joy of seeing Jesus point the way, the joy of finding God, may you know the God Christ points to who is everywhere, even in you. May you love as extravagantly as Jesus loved. May you live as abundantly as Jesus lived.             May you be Christ’s Body here and now, in this place in this time!

Read about the real Lawn-chair Larry here

Emmaus is Nowhere because Emmaus is Everywhere: a sermon on Luke 24 – Easter 3A

Road to EmmausThis 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

Every Bush Is Burning: Earth Sunday Sermon

earth-day-2013Four years ago, on the heels of Peter Rollins visit to our congregation, I preached this Earth Sunday sermon which flows out of Peter’s work. You can listen to Peter’s sermon which is the jumping off point for this Earth Day sermon here

Listen to the Earth Day sermon here

Worship Bulletin here

The readings are here

The video of the excerpt from Chief Seattle’s Response is below

Today, this planet celebrates Earth Day; a time to pause and celebrate the wonders of this planet and to consider the fate of this planet. The church has no day on its calendar to either celebrate the Earth or to pray for the survival of the Earth. Indeed, there are churches in Christendom that actively pray for the demise of the planet, so as to hasten the arrival of Christ.  We here at Holy Cross have been celebrating Earth Sunday since 2007. This week I went back over my sermons for the past six Earth Sundays and discovered that I usually point out some ecological disaster and encourage us all to take better care of the planet.  While there are plenty of ecological disasters that I could point to that’s not what I want to talk to you about today because let’s face it, I’d only be preaching to the choir. All of you know that the planet is in grave danger and that we all have a role to play in saving the planet. Today, I want to talk to you about something that lies at the very heart of our abuse not only of the planet but of one another. You see all week; I’ve been haunted by a line from Pete Rollins sermon last week.

Peter was talking about the gift that Christianity has to offer the world a gift that has the potential to move us beyond religion toward a more connected holistic way of being in the world. The line that has been haunting me all week came near the end of Peter’s sermon. It was almost a throwaway line and with Belfast Peter’s accent and the speed with which he speaks, I almost missed it. Peter said that all too often what we see in religion is our desire to have some sort of holy experience; a burning bush experience like Moses. We want to find this place where the Holy is and there always seems to be things getting in the way of our having this holy experience.

There are people getting in the way and structures getting in the way of this burning bush experience. Pete insisted that in the what he described as the Apostle Paul’s conversion of bedazzlement, in this incomprehensible blinding revelation that seems so incomprehensible, so transformative has the power to transform us so that we can see inside of ourselves and we can begin to see that every bush is burning. We can begin to see that the sacred are everywhere; that the persecuted ones are the place of our transformation and our conversion. Continue reading

Humpty Dumpty, Doubting Thomas, and Resurrection – John 20:19-31 – Easter 2A

humpty dumptyChrist is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Here we are still in the early days of the fifty daylong celebration of Easter and I’m already wondering how long we should keep chanting that Christ is risen! Sometimes, it seems that after the first flush of Easter Sunday’s excitement, our shouting that Christ is Risen sounds a little like we doth protest too much. The crowds of Easter are pretty much gone and churches all over Christendom are trying to keep up the excitement with the remnant of believers who turn up at church more often than Christmas and Easters. Our shouts of Christ is risen seem a little feeble; almost as if we are trying to convince ourselves that the celebrations of last Sunday actually mean something. After all it’s pretty safe to shout that Christ is risen in church. Nobody is going to challenge us in here about what we mean by that. But what if we were shouting that Christ is risen on the street corners or at work? Would we be comfortable telling people what we mean?

Christ is risen! Are we really willing to shout when it comes to declaring our belief in the resurrection? And if we are willing to shout about the resurrection, what is it that we would be shouting about? After all people have been arguing about the resurrection ever since the rumors about the empty tomb first began and after 21 centuries we still can’t agree what happened to Jesus after he died. Over the centuries the word resurrection has taken on so much baggage that it is difficult for many of us to talk about resurrection because we all bring so much to the conversation whenever we try to discuss it. Most of us grew up believing that we needed to believe in physical resurrection in order to belong. So we have learned to accept that resurrection means the physical resuscitation of a corpse. Yet even the stories that we tell in church don’t necessarily insist that Jesus physically rose from the dead.

The Irish novelist who wrote the famous book about his childhood in Ireland called Angela’s Ashes, also wrote a less famous book about his early years as a teacher in the United States. The book was called T’is and even though it didn’t sell quite as well as his first novel, McCourt’s I love it because it lends some keen insights into a teaching and teaching is one of the things I love about being a pastor. McCourt tells a story about Humpty Dumpty that illustrates some of the difficulties we face when we begin a discussion of the resurrection. McCourt tells his class the story of Humpty Dumpty to his class and for a whole class period there’s a heated discussion of “Humpty Dumpty” itself. (I’m using the term “itself” because no where in this English nursery Rhyme does it indicate what gender Humpty Dumpty is) In McCourt’s class Humpty Dumpty’s gender was automatically assumed to be male. But it was the sixties and so nobody argued about Humpty’s gender when McCourt recited the well known rhyme: “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; All the kings horses And all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Then Frank asked his class what is going on in the nursery rhyme and all the hands shot up to say things like: This egg falls off the wall and if you study biology or physics you know that you can never put an egg back together again. I mean it’s common sense really. That’s when Frank asked the question that set the class at odds with him. “Who says it’s an egg? Of course it’s an egg! Everyone knows that! Where does it say that it’s an egg? The class is thinking. They’re searching the text for egg, any mention, any hint of egg. They just won’t give in. There are more hands and indignant assertions of egg. All their lives they knew this rhyme and there was never any doubt that Humpty Dumpty was an egg. They’re comfortable with the idea of egg and why do teachers have to come along and destroy everything with all this analysis. McCourt insists that he’s not destroying. He just wants to know where they got the idea that Humpty Dumpty is an egg. Because the class insists, it’s in all the pictures and whoever drew the first picture must have known the guy who wrote the poem or he’d never have made it an egg. So Frank says, All right. If you’re content with the idea of egg we’ll let it be but I know the future lawyers in this class will never accept egg where there is no evidence of egg. And so by tacit agreement Humpty Dumpty becomes now and always an egg. (I am indebted to Bernard Brandon Scott’s reminder of the story about Humpty Dumpty in  Frank McCourt’s novel “T’is”)

For me the subject of the resurrection of Jesus has a great deal in common with Humpty Dumpty because by some sort of tacit agreement it was decided long ago that the resurrection of Jesus just has to be a physical resuscitation of a corpse; this despite the fact that the earliest writer on the subject of the resurrection, the Apostle Paul denies that the resurrection of Jesus was a physical resuscitation of a corpse. Continue reading

Giving Up Theories of Atonement for Lent in Favour of Listening for God’s Laughter

Laughter St Teresa

Traditionally the season of Lent is a mournful time filled with calls to repentance and self-examination as we follow Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted and then on that long march to Jerusalem where the powers that be will have their wicked way with him. Our liturgies take a mournful tone as we lament our woeful human existence, confess our sinfulness, and hear exultations to take up our crosses so that we too can follow Jesus to the bitter end. Over and over again we are asked to remember that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, as we gaze upon the cross remembering that Jesus our savior bled and died as a result of our wicked sinfulness.

Lent is a strange season that harkens back to a forgotten era. Unlike so many of the seasons of the church year it’s not exactly a season that attracts people to church. Not many of you got out of bed this morning and said, “Yippy it’s the first day of Lent. Oh goodie!  We get to be reminded that we are sinful, that life is miserable and unless I’m willing to take up my cross and follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha, there’s precious little hope cause we’re all going to die and when the time comes we want Jesus to remember us.”

Now I know that there are some people who just love Lent and I must confess that I like the quieter, more somber tone that our liturgies take. I actually enjoy the opportunity to slow things done and be more reflective in our worship together. I savor the silences and the opportunities to be more contemplative. I love the colour purple with all its vibrant hues and the best part of all is that the beginning of Lent means that spring is just around the corner. What I don’t like about Lent are the signs, symbols, hymns and stories that make it so easy for us to fall back into the 11th century. Continue reading

Do Justice, Love Kindness, and Walk Humbly with Our God – But Not Too Humbly! a sermon for Epiphany 4a

your-welcome

Readings: Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12. Listen to the sermon here

“In the Far East, the emperor was growing old and knew it was time to choose his successor. Instead of choosing one of his assistants or his children, he decided to do something different.

He called young people in the kingdom together one day. He said, “It is time for me to step down and choose the next emperor. I have decided to choose one of you.” The children were shocked, but the emperor continued. “I am going to give each one of you a seed today – one very special seed. I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from this one seed. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next emperor.”

One boy, named Ling, was there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly, told his mother the story.  She helped him get a pot and planting soil, and he planted the seed and watered it, carefully.  Every day, he would water it and watch to see if it had grown.  After about three weeks, some of the other youths began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow. Ling kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. Three weeks, four weeks, five weeks went by, still nothing.  By now, others were talking about their plants, but Ling didn’t have a plant and he felt like a failure.  Six months went by — still nothing in Ling’s pot. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Ling didn’t say anything to his friends, however.  He just kept waiting for his seed to grow. Continue reading

Following Prostitutes and Christ – a sermon for Epiphany 3A – Matthew 4:12-23

Vancouver's east endWhen 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