I got my very first job when I was just ten years old. Our neighbours were going away on holiday and they needed someone to take care of their cat. Now I have never been a cat person. In fact, if the truth be known, I’ve always been sort of afraid of cats. When I was little I was terrified of them. But as I grew I learned to control my fears and these days I just tend to avoid cats. I don’t really know why, they just give me the creeps. Back when I was ten, cats still had the power to make me very nervous. But our neighbours tempted me with the promise of a dollar a day for ten days. All I had to do was go into their house each day and feed their cat. There was no litter tray to deal with because back then people still had those little trap doors and the cat could go outside whenever it needed to. So, I signed on and each and every day for ten days I mustered up all my courage and I went into the neighbours’ house and I opened a tin of cat food and I filled a dish with water. I did it as quickly and as quietly as I could and in ten days not once did I ever run into that cat. When the neighbours came home they were so delighted with the good job that I had done that they actually gave me a whole dollar as a bonus. Eleven whole dollars, I was wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. I knew exactly just what I was going to do with that money. You see, Christmas was just a few days away and for the first time in my life I had money to buy Christmas presents! My parents insisted that there was no need for me to buy Christmas presents and they suggested that I should save my money. But I just had to buy presents. To this day I can still remember the joy of hoisting my hard earned cash onto the drugstore counter to purchase my carefully selected merchandise. I can still remember those two amazing gift sets. The first one was for my Dad. It was manufactured by the Old Spice Company and inside it had a soap on a rope, and a two bottles. One of the bottles contained after-shave and the other something called men’s cologne. I didn’t know what cologne was so I had to ask the saleswoman who explained that it’s what they call perfume for men, and I knew that my Dad just had to have some of that. Now the second gift set was a real bargain it was made by Yardly. I wasn’t fooled by all those tiny bottles of perfume that were so much more expensive. No, I picked the gift set that had the biggest bottle of perfume. It also had a big container of something that looked like talcum powder but the container said it was actually dusting powder and it came with a little puffy yellow thing for dusting the powder all over your body. I knew that my Mom would just love this. Together the two gift sets cost a just few pennies less than eleven dollars. I don’t think that I have never enjoyed Christmas quite the way I enjoyed that one.
There is something about giving the most extravagant gift that you can afford that brings a special kind of joy to a celebration. Why that Christmas the people that I loved the most in the whole world may have stunk to high heaven, but I dare say my extravagant gift brought them great joy. Maybe that’s why I love this particular gospel story. There’s just something about the outrageous extravagance of Mary’s gift to Jesus that just makes me want to cast caution to the wind and be as extravagant as I can be. A version of this story is told in all four of the gospels. The story is told differently in each of the gospels, sometimes the anointer is Mary of Magdala, sometimes Mary of Bethany and sometimes the women is unnamed, one gospel writer has the woman anoint Jesus head while another account has her anoint his feet. But however the story is told, the act is outrageously extravagant.
The story is so remarkable that each of the Gospel writers include it in their proclamation. So what was it about this event that caused it to be told over and over again and why did they tell it the way in which they told it? The only way to get close to an answer is to fully engage ourselves in the story itself. The anonymous writer of the Gospel we call John wrote his account at the end of the first century, some 60 to seventy years after the event. By this point the story would have been told over and over again, and you know what happens when people tell a story over and over again…It takes on a life of its own. So, for a short time, I want you to set aside your historical hats and simply walk with me into the story to see what we can learn about how people in the year 99 might have heard this story.Continue reading →
Faith and Begorra! St. Patrick’s Day fall on a Sunday this year!. Yes, it is also the second Sunday in Lent and and the perfect time to explore Jesus’ use of the image of God as a mother hen, but St. Patrick’s Day provides so many rich opportunities to explore some thirst-quenching images. So I’m reposting this sermon I preached six years ago because the memory of preaching with a Guinness glass in my hand still makes me chuckle. The best way to fully appreciate this sermon is to pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple, sit back, listen and enjoy a laugh. For those colleagues who are busy searching for sermon ideas for this coming Sunday you can read my attempt to write with a Belfast accent below…you’ll probably need a tipple of some-at to get tru it! Cheers!
Readings: Numbers 27: 1-11; Acts 13:44-51; John 12:1-8
On this particular St. Paddy’s Day, I decided to be somewhat playful and irreverent with a sermon designed encourage folk to think beyond words on a page. The first reading brought the wonderful story of the Daughters of Zelophehad to church and as this reading does not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary it was fun to play with these feisty women. The reading from the book of Acts is actually the prescribed reading for the commemoration of St. Patrick and the Gospel text is prescribed for Lent 5C. The Guinness was just for fun! Enjoy.
Listen to the sermon
It’s not every year that St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday. “An so,” and so, that’s a very Irish expression. At least it is in some parts of Ireland. You’ll hear someone use that wee phrase, usually at the end of a sentence. An so…Sometimes they follow it with iy….and so, iy. But not from the part of Ireland that my people are from, sure the never said that. An so… What was I sayin? Sure it’s not every year that St. Paddie’s Day falls on a Sunday. And I don’t think it will every happen again that you’ll get all three lined up together like this, St. Paddie’s Day, Sunday and Holy Cross’ Annual Meeting. And so…. So, let me be tellin ye…Such a grand and glorious day as this, calls for a sermon like no other, an so…
I brought props. Sure St. Paddie had his shamrocks and faith and begorra…an so…I have a book….A book called, “How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe.” By none other than Thomas Cahill, himself. Faith and begorra…did ya ever in all your life hear such a ting as dat??? But that’s not all, I’ve sumtin else…
Take a look at that there??? Sure there’s nothing better on a St. Paddie’s morning than a glass of Guinness….an so… Well you’ll notice that this here particular glass of Guinness, well she’s as empty as Paddie’s pig on market day… An so…for the rest of this wee sermon you just think of me as the preacher who had we tipple before she set about tellin ya what’s what. My glass might be empty, but my heart is full… Full a the devil some may say…or full a the love a Jesus if the truth be told…an so… Where was I? Yeah, sure it’s St. Patrick’s Day and all the world is Irish if only until ya fill there glass. And then faith and begorra…that’s when the truth comes out. That’s when you find out who really saved the world. Now like any good Irish story, we’re gonna wander a bit…so falla me, for like my dear old Nannie used to say, you’d better falla me cause I’m right behind ya. That’s right falla me I’m right behind ya. But that should be no trouble for you lot, cause ya haven’t touched a drop. Yet. And a drop is all you’ll be gettin for have ya seen the size of those Jeesus jiggers; Why you wouldn’t quench the thirst of the devil’s flees with the wee titch of wine they give ya in dose wee glasses. An so…the Irish and those that want to be Irish well this is a big day indeed. An so… I want to tell us all, exactly how the Irish saved civilization, an, an, I’m gonna tell the truth about St. Patrick himself…an, an, while I’m at it, I wanna take to use about those Daughters of Zolophehad, now there were a bunch of girls if you know what I mean…and speaking about a bunch a girls, while I’m at it I wanna tell ya all about those Marys…Faith and begorra, who’d be havin it?
Sure there’s Mary de Mother of Jesus, and then there’s Mary Jesus’ best friend, you know the girl from over Bethany way…and then there’s that lovely Mary, you know the lovely girl from over there in Magdela who everyone is after confusing with dat other woman, the one the call, Mary who really wasn’t Mary at’al, at’al, at’al… Sure wasn’t she after being healed, her being a sinner from the city and all…Sure there’s more Mary’s in this story, than I have time to be tellin ya about. So, we’ll just leave Mary the mother of Jesus out of it, cause she’s got nothing to do with this really. Unless of course, I loose me, way…and then begorra, I be Jesus, Mary and Joseph, this and Jesus Mary and Joseph that…an so… Were was I ??? I was needin a wee drink that’s where I was….Continue reading →
Written 3 years ago, before the fox became the most power person on the planet.
Sadly, it still resonates.
Drawing the connection between the French word “lent” as meaning slow and the historical Lenten practice of fasting, we began our Lenten journey with the suggestion that we adopt a spiritual practice of slowing down for lent by fasting from fast. So, following a delightfully slow start on Monday morning, I read the assigned gospel text for this Sunday and spent some time luxuriating in the study of fables about foxes in henhouses. The gospel’s description of Jesus describing himself as a mother hen longing to gather up her chicks in the safety of her breast so to protect them from encounters with Herod the fox created images that suggested that we lean into the Mystery that we call God. If as our friend Dom Crossan is fond of saying, Jesus really “is what God looks like in sandals,” then surely the gospel-storyteller’s casting Jesus as someone who compares himself to a mother hen, must tell us something about how Jesus want’s his hearers to understand the nature of God. So, I began thinking about preparing a liturgy devoted to gently leaning into the MYSYERY of God.
Part of my lenten practice of fasting from fasting from fast caused me to shun my regular Monday morning consumption of news media, as most of you know, I’m a bit of a news-aholic and so on my day off, I usually spend way too much time catching up on the news of the world. These days the news tends to send my blood pressure racing so, I avoided my usual media haunts in favour of enjoying a few movies and some exercise. As the week wore on, I developed a cold and so Wednesday and Thursday were spent drifting in and out of consciousness as I tried to sleep off the effects of fever and congestion. So, imagine my horror when I finally tuned back into the news of the world on Friday. The fox was actually in the hen house. There he was a fox whose sly cunning makes Herod Antapis look tame, attacking a beautiful tender sweet hen, who over and over again wants for nothing more than to gather children as a mother hen collects her babies beneath her wings. Donald John Trump was attacking the Pope! At first, I thought the decongestants that I was taking were causing hallucinations! Talk about foxes in the hen houses!
Herod Antipas wanted nothing more than to be King of the Jews and Trump wants nothing more than to be King of the World! Herod Antipas scandalized the first century and Trump is well on his way to scandalizing the 21st century. Jesus Christ shocked the first century by comparing himself to a hen.
Donald Trump continues to shock this century with the size of his ego. For over a billion Roman Catholics, Pope Francis is Christ’s representative on earth, billions more see him as a religious leader of impeccable credentials, others see him as a kindly old gentleman who is struggling to bring a stodgy religious institution into the 21st century by opening the doors to welcome in the poor and marginalized. Donald Trump is a narcissist of epic proportions; a real-estate mogul, who despite his three financial bankruptcies has managed to translate his business savvy into reality show ratings that paved the way to a media career which he is currently trying to translate into a political career in his quest for the White House. Responding to a question about the astonishing popularity of Donald Trump, the Pope said something to the effect that “any person who focusses on building walls and not trying to build bridges is not a Christian.” And that audacious fox stopped dead in his tracks just long enough to insist that the Pope is and I quote, “disgraceful”.
Can you blame me for suspecting that I’d taken one too many decongestants? I turned the TV off lest I discover that aliens were about to land on earth and lock us all up for our own safety. Back in the relative safety of my office I returned to biblical commentaries to read about metaphors for God. What exactly is the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Luke getting at with this particular metaphor? I mean why a chicken? Why not something more elegant or graceful or majestic; an eagle perhaps, or a lion, or a bear? This are metaphors for God that were good enough for other biblical storytellers, but not for this one. Now I have only ever really had a relationship with one chicken in my life. I’ve got to say a chicken is the last thing I would want to be compared to let along something I’d compare myself too. If Jesus is comparing himself to a mother hen collecting her babies under her wings, and the gospel-storyteller wants us to think of Jesus as God then is the gospel-storyteller actually asking us to think of God as a mother hen?
Let me tell you about the one chicken I have actually known personally. Her name was Betty, Betty the Broiler. We called her Betty the Broiler because she wasn’t anything much to look at. You see back in the day, when I was helping to run a retreat centre, among the various animals we kept on Seabright Farm were chickens. Seabright chickens to be exact. Seabright chickens were breed to as ornamental chickens and a flock of seabrights are about as beautiful a flock of chickens as ever adorned a farmyard. For some unknown reason, our flock of seabright chicks came complete with a rather plain looking banti hen that was anything but a seabright, she was a plain white hen which we nicknamed Betty the Broiler on account of how she looked like a generic hen fit for broiling.
But Betty was anything but generic. Betty thought she was human. Right from the start rather than scratch about with the other hens, Betty liked nothing better than to follow the children wherever they went. The kids on the farm loved Betty and because they loved her, they fed her stuff that the average hen never eats; sandwiches, crackers, bananas, berries, ice-cream, Betty’s favourite food was hot dogs. The kids used to squeal with laughter as Betty chased them around the yard demanding that they share their food with her. Well one day, depending on whose telling the story, either one of the dogs on the farm, wanted to share in the food that the kids were eating or a strange dog wandered onto the property to only to attack one of the kids, anyway long story short the kids ran into the farmhouse screaming for help because “a dog tried to kill Betty.” By the time we got to her Betty was gasping on the lawn surrounded by feathers. Her throat had clearly been cut. Betty looked ready for the broiler.
But the children insisted, and so none of the adults had the heart to do what seemed like the kind thing and simply finish her off. Instead against better judgement of the adults, Betty the broiler was rushed to the vet, who even though he thought the so-called adults had taken leave of their senses, agreed to stitch Betty up. The vet had never before tried to rescue a chicken, so when he handed her back to the adults, he suggested that she might be in considerable pain, but rather than prescribe costly drugs, he suggested that we might try alcohol to ease her pain.Continue reading →
Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 –Musing About Genesis Bloody Carcasses
From time to time, the prescribed readings from the Common Lectionary fill me with dread and despair.Something about those bloodied, split, rotting carcasses that sealed the deal between God and Abraham makes me wonder about the nature of the god we have projected into the heavens and ask: Have we evolved or has God? The story of God’s promises to the “Chosen People” portrays God as a churlish player in humanity’s game of tribal rivalry. While I’d rather not preach on the text from Genesis this Sunday, I know full well that simply reading this text during worship without elaboration, will if folk are paying attention, leave a distasteful oder in the sanctuary that will surely spoil our appetite for our common meal of body and blood disguised as bread and wine.
The readings for this coming Sunday have me thinking about tribalism. There’s always more than one way to look at things. Tribalism has served us well. New people to meet can be exciting or it can be frightening. Taking comfort with your own people is wonderful, but taking too much pride in your own kind is dangerous. One minute you’re cheering for your team the next minute you’re hurling insults at the other guy and one too many insults and the next thing you know you’re at war. A little tribalism is a good thing, but how much tribalism is too much? Tribalism is a basic human survival instinct. Tribalism is lodged deep within our psyches and has been from the very beginning of time. Tribal is part of our primordial selves. Tapping into this basic human instinct can mean the difference between survival and death.
Tribal thinking exists on almost every level of human life, from the international to the local. Attack a human on any level and that human will resort to instinctive behaviour. When threatened humans have two basic instincts, fight or flight and the choice between the two often comes down to tribalism. If you have enough people to back you, you’ll probably choose to fight. Not enough people and you’ll probably choose flight.
Human kind has evolved a great deal over the centuries but we haven’t evolved very far from our basic instincts. You don’t have to scratch a fan too deeply to find the primitive tribal mentality. Tribalism is seen in the way we portray our rivals. I once heard a Kiwi say, “I root for two teams, New Zealand and whoever is playing Australia.” Sporting competition is all well and good, but when tribalism is carried to its worst possible conclusion, wars beak out. Tribal feeling is then exacerbated in times of war, and tribal propaganda is used to dehumanize our enemies to make it easier to hate or kill without any qualms of conscience. We don’t kill human beings in war; our victims are not someone’s child, spouse, or parent. NO, one kills either, the Huns, the Krauts, the Japs, the Nips, the VC, the insurgents, the fanatics or the terrorists.
There is within us all a basic, dominant, intrinsic fear of those tribes different from our own, a predisposition to be on guard against them, to reject them, to attack and even to kill them. This tribal tradition arises out of our deep-seated survival mentality and it feeds something at the heart of our insecure humanity. We are tribal people to our core. Far more than we will consciously admit, the religions of the world including Christianity rise out of and undergird our tribal thinking.Continue reading →
The Epistle Reading (Second Reading) for this coming Sunday is 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Most of us have heard this reading over and over again at weddings as if it were some sort of recipe for happiness between lovers. So often we hear it as an impossible recipe and cast it aside as something nice but unattainable. What would happen if we could hear this passage not as a prescriptive recipe but as a descriptive revelation of the LOVE that is God. Couple this revelation with the knowledge that God dwells in, with, through, and beyond us and it becomes a description of the possibilities for each of us being LOVE in the world. The knowledge that LOVE dwells in us might just open us to being the love that the world so desperately needs.
91 year-old, Johnny Barnes is a Bermuda native who embodies the LOVE that dwells in him. How might we embody the LOVE that dwells in us? What does, would, could, will the embodiment of LOVE look like in you?
The last time Luke 4:15-21 came up in the lectionary, we engaged in a reflection on what we know of Jesus’ first sermon…a bible study of sorts. I offer it here for those of you who are preparing to preach on this text.
This sermon explores the need to set the captives free. It was inspired by a Globe and Mail article written by David Clayton Thomas, former lead singer of Blood, Sweat & Tears and dedicated to the memory of an old friend who did not “go naturally” and will never be forgotten! You can listen to the sermon here to get you in the mood, watch the video of Blood, Sweat & Tears below
The year was 1969. I was just twelve years old and my family had only recently moved to Ladner, a small village south of Vancouver. I was the new kid in a tightly knit grade seven class. I remember being angry, a lot. Being twelve is tough, but being twelve and new in town; well that’s a kind of hell I wouldn’t wish on anyone. There were only two places I felt safe: One was my bedroom where I could escape into my books or listen to music. The other place was music class. We had a really cool, young teacher, she must have been fresh out of teachers’ college, because she had all these new ideas about something she called music appreciation. The songs we sang in Miss Conroy’s class were songs off the radio. Some days she’d let us put our heads down on our desks and she’d just play music and all we had to do was appreciate it. Not all of the music was stuff we’d heard on the radio, sometimes Miss Conroy would sneak in some jazz; not any kind of jazz I’d ever heard before, improvisational jazz; it was so cool to my twelve year-old ears that I gave Miss Conroy a pass when she would slip into teacher mode and put some classical music on the record player.
One day, Miss Conroy announced that we’d been listening to her music long enough; it was time we began to listen to our music. Miss Conroy explained that she was going to divide us into pairs and each pair would have to work together to select a piece of music to bring to class and share it. We would have to explain to the class, why the piece that we choose was worth paying attention to. Now even though there were all sorts of pieces of music that I thought would be great for this assignment, I began to panic. Who on earth would want to work with me on such a project? The thought of being teamed up with anyone of my classmates struck fear into my heart. I didn’t have any real friends in this class and as the new kid I knew that nobody would want to be stuck with me. Vision’s of being left out, all alone without a partner began to overwhelm me, as Mrs. Conroy announced that we would be drawing names out of a hat in order to determine who our partners would be. When my turn came to pull a partner’s name out of the hat, I didn’t even know what to hope for. I didn’t know people well enough to want anyone in particular to be my partner, there was only one person in the whole class that I knew that I knew well enough to know that I didn’t want to be my partner. I, like all my classmates was positively terrified of, for the sake of this sermon I’m going to call him Kenny. Kenney sure wasn’t twelve; he was a few years older than the rest of us. He was a big guy; dark hair, good looking, and unlike the other adolescent boys in the class, Kenny had already started shaving. Once during the lunch hour I witnessed Kenny bullying a younger boy into eating an apple core that had been discarded a few days earlier. The kid ate the rotting core rather than face whatever it was Kenny was threatening him with. Kenny was big, tough and loud. Most of us were frightened of Kenny and because kids are cruel, behind his back we diagnosed him as crazy. But there was something about Kenny, maybe it was his good looks, maybe it was the buckskin fringe jacket that he sported, or maybe it was just his wildness that made him the talk of the jittering boy-crazed girls in the class. So, I was more than a bit upset when of all people, I pulled Kenny’s name out of the hat. What piece of music could the two of us possibly have in common and how was I even going to talk to him? Miss Conroy slipped perilously into my bad books on the day she forced me into the company of the dreaded Kenny.
Ours was an uneasy partnership. There was precious little conversation involved. Kenny picked the piece of music. Kenny told me what I was going to tell the class about our piece of music. Fortunately, I actually knew and liked the piece that Kenny had chosen. It had been a big hit the previous summer and I owned a copy of the record. The only problem was that my copy was a 45. Kenny insisted that we just had to use the version that was on the album; not the version that they played on the radio off the 45. The version on the album included the trumpet solo that never made it onto the 45. It would have made the song too long for the hit parade! And that’s how I ended up in front of my classmates, standing beside a boy, who though handsome and tough had suddenly become monosyllabic as I struggle to explain why our choice of Blood, Sweat and Tears, Spinning Wheel, was music well worth appreciating.
What goes up must come down
spinning wheel got to go round
Talking about your troubles it’s a crying sin
Ride a painted pony
Let the spinning wheel spin
You got no money, and you, you got no home
Spinning wheel, spinning all alone
Talking about your troubles and you,
you never learn
Ride a painted pony
let the spinning wheel turn.
Did you find a directing sign
on the straight and narrow highway?
Would you mind a reflecting sign
Just let it shine within your mind
And show you the colours that are real
Someone is waiting just for you
spinning wheel is spinning true
Drop all your troubles, by the river side
Catch a painted pony
On the spinning wheel ride
Someone is waiting just for you
spinning wheel is spinning true
Drop all your troubles, by the river side
Ride a painted pony
Let the spinning wheel fly.
They just don’t write songs like that anymore. Kenny was right, the trumpet solo, is a must. Blood, Sweat and Tears had the best horn section. They could take a mediocre song and turn it into something special: “Spinning Wheel,” “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “God Bless the Child,” “Hidey Ho, Hidey Hi,” “And When I Die.” Thanks to Kenny, I bought every LP that Blood, Sweat and Tears ever recorded.
So, what has any of this got to do with this morning’s Gospel reading? Well the words that the writer of the Gospel of Luke puts into the mouth of Jesus of Nazareth have been spinning round in my head all week long. I keep hearing Jesus quote the words of the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison—to proclaim the year of God’s favour.” The year of God’s favour is the prophet Isaiah’s way of describing the year of Jubilee. Written into the Jewish law was a provision meant to address the systemic injustices that creep into the law as time goes by. It is said that every 50 years a Jubilee would be declared.Continue reading →
Looking back at old sermons can reveal the various ways in which our theology has developed. This sermon was first preached in 2013. Since then, I have moved to a posture that has opened me to more humble statements about the nature of the MYSTERY that is the source and ground of our being, which causes me to refrain from using the word “God” to describe that MYSTERY. Re-reading this sermon, I was tempted to edit it in ways that better reflect my current posture. However I think, perhaps such edits are best left to those of you who may be tempted or inspired by this sermon to tell your own stories alongside the anonymous gospel-storyteller’s tale of the wedding at Cana and thus reveal your own intoxication with life!.
The gospel according to John is my favourite of all the gospels. Maybe it’s my Irish heritage but I just love a good story and the more outrageous the better. The Irish have never been known to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and neither did the anonymous writer of the Gospel we can John. This gospel was the last of the four gospels to be written and it nearly didn’t make it into the biblical cannon because the religious powers that be cited all sorts of problems with this particular portrait of Jesus. Not the least of which are all the signs and wonders that Jesus commands in this gospel. So, just for the record, let me say that I don’t believe that this particular story happened exactly the way it was written. I don’t believe that the man Jesus of Nazareth had the ability to instantaneously change water into wine. I do believe that getting hung up on whether or not Jesus could actually work miracles is to miss the point of this story all together.
This morning rather than go into a long and drawn out explanation of the historical critical method of studying the scriptures in order to explain why the anonymous writer of the gospel of John wrote this particular story and speculate upon the particular theological points the author was trying to make to his second century audience, I would like to set the history aside for a moment and look at what the author might have been trying to inspire in the people who would hear and read his or her story about the Wedding at Cana. To do that, I want to get to the heart of this story to explore what it might be like for the people who actually encountered the Man Jesus of Nazareth. I mean, on the surface of it this story is about a kind of intoxication that happened to people who come into the presence of this strange man from Nazareth. The best way I know of interpreting a story is to lay down another story right beside it and let one story interpret another.
Once upon a time, I remember it was a damp and dreary day in Vancouver that stood out from all the other damp and dreary days. It was in the middle of February; it had been overcast or raining for weeks and weeks and weeks. I was riding on the bus to work. It was the same bus that I had been riding on for two years. Every weekday morning I would commute by bus from the suburbs to the heart of the city. Every morning at six-fifteen, I would stand with the same people at the same bus stop and get on the same bus, which carried all the same people to their same jobs. On a good day the trip would usually take 45 minutes. Nobody ever spoke on that bus. Occasionally people would nod or smile at the all too familiar faces of their travelling companions, but conversation would be reserved for sunny days, when people could only manage a word or two. It was like there was this unwritten rule that nobody had the energy or the inclination to break. We saw one another almost every day, and yet we knew absolutely nothing about one another and that was the way we were determined to keep it.
On this particular February morning in addition to being tired, I was also wet. The wind was really blowing and I had to rely on my hooded jacket to keep me dry. The bus was running late and the water was just beginning to seep threw my jacket. I sat in my usual seat on the bus and I was determined to ignore the damp and get in a short nap before we reached the city. I was just dozing off when the bus screeched to a halt. Several passengers climbed aboard. All but one of them, were recognizable. I’d seen them a hundred times before. But the young man, who loudly greeted the bus driver with a “Hello,” him I’d never seen before. He struggled to fold his broken umbrella as he stumbled to the rear of the bus. He sat opposite me, and proceeded to greet everyone around him. People weren’t sure how to take this. Some just nodded and then looked away. Others mumbled a greeting before fixing their gaze out the window. I smiled, nodded and then closed my eyes, determined to escape into sleep.
The young man, continued to fuss with his umbrella. He explained in a loud voice that the umbrella was a gift from his sister and he hoped that it wasn’t ruined. He asked the gentleman seated beside him if he could help him to fold it. The somewhat flustered gentleman proceeded to fold the umbrella without a word. When the task was completed the young man, thanked the gentleman and asked him what his name was. He said he wanted to be able to tell his sister, who the nice man was, that had helped him with his umbrella. Without revealing his name the gentleman assured the young man that it wasn’t necessary to thank him. The young man on the other hand, proceeded to break all the rules, and said that his name was Michael and he told us all that he had never ridden on this bus before. He usually had to get a bus that went to the city in the afternoon and then he would get a ride home after dinner with his sister. But on this day, he would begin to work full days at his job. So he had to catch the bus in the dark. He went on to tell us that the bus we were riding in was much nicer than the one he usually caught. He decided that this bus must be a new bus, and weren’t we lucky to get to ride on a new bus. Then Michael took off his hat, held it out in front of him so we could all see it, and declared that he was the luckiest person in the world because his mother had bought him this wonderful hat that kept his head dry.
Michael went on to tell us all sorts of details about his life. At first people managed to listen, without responding. But as Michael went on describing his wonderful life, people found that in spite of themselves they were drawn into the conversation. As we approached the tunnel, that normally causes traffic to back up in rush hour, it was clear that there must have been some sort of accident in the tunnel. It would be a long wait. There would be no escaping Michael’s enthusiasm. Before long we all knew that Michael worked in the mailroom of a securities company. He assured us that this security company was a safe place to work, because they didn’t take care of the safety of people, but just took care of pieces of paper that were called stocks and bonds. Michael told us just how much he loved his job. Having a job was the best thing. Before he had the job he didn’t have any money to help his parents. But now he had enough money to help his parents and lots left over. Michael told us that he was really lucky because he worked with really nice people who took good care of him and let him do all kinds of fun jobs.Continue reading →
Originally preached: Sunday January 13, 2013 Listen to the sermon here
There’s a definition of what it means to be a priest that has always daunted me. A priest it has been said is “a keeper of the mysteries; a keeper of the sacred mysteries of our faith. People often confuse the idea of mystery with the idea of secret. But I can assure you that as a keeper of the mysteries of the faith it is neither my job nor any other priest’s job to keep the mysteries of our faith a secret. Yes, as an ordained pastor, one of my responsibilities is to be a keeper of the mysteries of our faith by ensuring that the communities that I serve hold those mysteries sacred. It is my job to hold the mysteries in such reverence that we all remember that the reality that we call God works in with and through those mysteries. Baptism is considered to be one of the mysteries of our faith. Baptism is a sacrament of the church and by definition a sacrament takes ordinary stuff – water – mixes that ordinary stuff with the Word and in the combination of water and the Word you have a tangible means of God’s grace. God’s grace is revealed in the sacrament of Baptism by the act of our gathering together and mixing the stuff of the earth with the Word. We have only two sacraments in the Lutheran church Baptism and Eucharist, and both of those things are sacraments because we gather together take ordinary stuff – bread and wine, or water and mix it with the Word of Jesus the Christ, and in the water, the bread, and the wine the means of God’s grace is made visible to us.
So, there you have it the technical definition of the sacraments, the mysteries of Baptism and Communion, in which the reality that we call God works in, with, through and under. But like all technical definitions of mysteries, these definitions fail to capture the essence of the MYSTERY that likes at their very heart, the MYSTERY of the reality that we call God. As a keeper of the mysteries, one would think that a priest, a pastor ought to be able to reveal, by way of definition something of the nature of the reality of the DIVINE.
The truth is I have no real definition to offer you of this reality that we call God. I read once, I wish I could remember where, the wisdom of a priest far more skilled than I who declared that he’d given up trying to explain God to anyone because in the end, he said, “I cannot lead you to God, anymore than anyone can lead a fish to water.” The most important thing I learned in seminary is that “I don’t know is an answer.” The truth is the more we learn the more we know that we don’t know. But this unknowing can be so unsatisfying, precisely because we believe that God is the one in whom we live and breath and have our being, we want to know the very nature of the One who is the ultimate Reality. Now, if these words haven’t already become so vague that the veil of unknowing has begun to make any tangible means of God’s grace seem invisible, and so beyond our grasp, let me leave the theology behind and tell you a story. Because one thing I do know for sure is that the shortest distance between the questions of what it means to be human and understanding our humanity is a story.
It happened on Thursday night. All week long I’ve been thinking about what I would say about the Baptism of Jesus and I wasn’t getting very far. It’s been a busy week, with lots of things to do as programs around here gear up again after the lull of the holidays. After teaching Confirmation on Thursday, I got home at about 9:30. The house was empty because Carol was off visiting the grandchildren for a few days. It had been a long day, and I quickly got into my pajamas, switched on the fireplace, and settled into my recliner in front of the television. The PVR was full of shows for me to watch and the opening scenes of Gray’s Anatomy dragged me into the complications of lives I would never have to minister to and I began to relax. The drama of medical emergencies mixed with the complications of various love affairs pulled me into a world where there was absolutely nothing expected of me and I was loving it right up until the moment that the telephone rang. Modern technology means that the name of the person calling usually appears on right there on the TV screen so that I can decide whether or not I’m going to answer the call. When the phone rang I expected it to be Carol calling to say goodnight, so I’d already pushed the pause button, expecting that after a quick goodnight I could get back to my shows. Buy the time I realized that there was no name on the TV screen but only a phone number, it was too late and I was already saying hello.
The caller was someone I’d heard from only once before. They were already halfway through a very nasty tale of woe when I realized that they were asking me to come out. It was a call for help. It was a call that I had every right not to respond to. I mean the caller wasn’t even a member of this congregation. It was late. I was already in my pajamas. It was dark outside.
I was annoyed. I mean really. Couldn’t this person have called me before I left Newmarket? What gave them the right to think that I would come out so late, in the dark, for someone I’d only met once before? The audacity. The sheer audacity of such a request was enough to make you scream. Give me a break. I listened to the caller’s plight with precious little sympathy. I asked her to hold on for a moment so that I could try to think of a way to help. What I really meant was: is there anyone in Newmarket that I can disturb at this time of night and ask them to go over and help. Some of you have offered to help in this way in the past. You know who you are and you can be sure that your names went through my mind as I tried to avoid leaving the comfort of my warm snug. It was only the thought of how annoyed I was to be disturbed at such a late hour that kept me from disturbing one of you. So I told the caller to hold on and I would be there in about half an hour.
I was cursing to bet the band as I went upstairs to get dressed. The air was positively blue. I was angry. I was going out, on what in my mind was the middle of the night, it was ridiculous. Hell, it was dangerous. It was dark. Yeah we were going to meet in a public place. But why the expletive, curse, fill in the blank your self, why the ………blanket blank, should I? I certainly wasn’t going out of love for my neighbour. I was ticked. I was going because it’s my job to go. Sure I knew that I had every right to refuse to go. But if I didn’t go, my shows would be ruined. How could I possible sit there and enjoy my shows when I knew that someone needed my help? Forget the shows, if I didn’t go, I knew darn well I wouldn’t get any sleep.Continue reading →
For days now, I’ve had an ear-worm. I suppose that it is more than fitting for a pastor to suffer from this particular ear-worm at this particular time of the year. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and it must be the struggle to get everything ready for the Holy Night that has put this particular ear-worm on an endless loop. Consider this an early Christmas gift, I won’t sing it. I’ll let you sing it in your own minds. Maybe then I can give you my ear-worm for Christmas. My ear-worm is the Christmas carol, O Holy Night. It’s not the whole Carol, just the one line of the Carol that repeats itself: “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices”
“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.” Over and over again, I hear: “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.” T’is the season for being weary! Hands up all you who are weary! Apart from the fact that there is so much to be done, the news is full not of glad-tidings but of tales of woe. Everywhere we turn, the media is doing its level best to instill fear into our hearts, rather than tidies of comfort and joy. The world is weary of worrying about the strange fellow who occupies the Whitehouse, weary of populist, authoritarian, politicians like the fellow we have up here, prancing around Queens Park; weary of begging the powers that be to do something about climate change; weary of economic inequality; weary of corporate greed, weary of catastrophic fires, tsunamis, earthquakes, stock-market crashes, weary of war and rumors of war.
Sure, we can turn off our devices in the hope that we can avoid the bad tidings. But then, we have our own bad news to deal with, quarrelsome families, troublesome friends, sick or dying loved ones, the day to day grind of making a living, and our own personal angst and insecurities. To top it all off, if regular life isn’t wearisome enough, tomorrow is Christmas Eve. “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.”
“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.” Fall on your knees? If I fall on my knees, I’ll never be able to get up!!! In times like these, that it is as if our lives are in a constant state of chaos. I’ll let you in on a little secret, one of my favorite parts of Christmas is Silent Night. I positively long for Silent Night, because when we’re singing Silent Night, here at Holy Cross, my work is done. We don’t have a Christmas Day service, unless Christmas falls on a Sunday. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, our Christmas Eve service always ends with the singing of Silent Night. We turn out all the lights, light candles and hold them high as we sing. Silent Night, holy night, all is calm…
….all is calm….all is calm…all is bright. Now there’s an ear-worm I’m happy to live with. But there’s a lot of chaos to be endured between here and Silent Night. As much as we try the sound of Christmas is not Silent Night. The sound of Christmas is far more discordant than that. Do me a favour, make some noise. I mean it. I’m going to count to three. When I get to three, I want you to create a cacophony of chaos. I want us to raise a little hell. Ready, One, two, three…………….
In order to get the true sound of Christmas, you would need to add to our cacophony, the sounds of traffic, car crashes, waves crashing, hungry children crying, poor parents weeping, homeless sisters and brothers shivering in the cold, bombs dropping, babies crying, the Earth suffering…and you will have but a taste of the sounds of chaos. Christmas, no matter how you understand Christmas, Christmas doesn’t much sound like silent night. The sound of Christmas is a cacophony of chaos. Christmas is the sound of messiness, the sound of unpredictability and confusion. So, is it any wonder that in the midst of all the chaos of living we should long for a Silent Night? The trouble is, the story of new birth is never a Silent Night. Life itself is chaotic, and if we’re waiting for the birth of Jesus to arrive in Heavenly peace, I doubt that we’ll ever understand the Christmas story.Continue reading →
Christmas, every Christmas is a Thin Place. According to the Irish, a Thin Place is a place where the boundaries between heaven and earth fall away. Every Christmas is a Thin Place where the boundaries between our everyday existence and the reality that we are all part of something so much bigger than ourselves, well these boundaries fade away at Christmas. Thin Places are those precious moments in time when the sacred can be seen in the everyday stuff of life. Christmas with its powerful parables, myths, metaphors, and symbols acts as a giant welcoming Thin Place were the boundaries and veils fall away and we are able to recognize the sacred in ourselves, in one another, and in the world around us. I could go on and on about the power of Thin Places to open us to the reality of the LOVE that we call God. But rather than try to explain how the Christmas stories, parables, myths, metaphors, and symbols create thin places, let me tell you a story designed to create a thin place where together we can see the veil between the scared and the everyday fade away.
It was the day before the day before Christmas and Angela had just about finished decorating her band new swanky apartment on the West-side. Everything was just perfect; each of the decorations had been chosen with such care. Just like all the furniture in her apartment each and every one of the Christmas decorations was brand spanking new. In a couple of hours Angela expected that her apartment would be full of guests. Her guests had been as carefully chosen as each of the items that adorned her apartment. It was all designed to show everyone how very well Angela was doing.
This Christmas, unlike so many other Christmases that Angela had endured, this Christmas everything was going to be perfect. Angela planned to lavishly entertain her guests. The evening’s entertainment was guaranteed to get Angela’s Christmas off to the best of starts. At least here in her lovely new home, Angela would be in control. Unlike the chaos of her family’s Christmas gatherings. All her life, Angela had endured the trials and tribulations of her family’s dysfunctional yuletide gatherings; gatherings that always ended up with various family members arguing over some perceived slight. Tonight, things would be different. Tonight, Angela hadn’t invited a single member of her outrageous family to come and dine. Tonight, Angela’s guests were made up of the great and the good, new friends and work colleagues; people Angela could count on to behave admirably. Tonight, everything would be perfect. All she needed to do to finish off the room, was to assemble the new nativity set that she had just purchased upon her beautiful fireplace mantle. She hadn’t planned to purchase a nativity set, but when she saw the hand-carved, olive- wood nativity set in the window of the swanky gift shop, she just knew that it was perfect. Continue reading →
Today: 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 →
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 First Sunday of Advent, I can’t help wondering why the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary (the list of prescribed readings for Sunday worship) have failed to remember the stories and names of our foremothers? End times and John the Baptist strutting across the stage are featured prominently in the Advent lectionary. We have begun a new cycle in the RCL in what is know as Year C the lectionary Gospel readings will focus upon readings from the Gospel according to Luke. neither of the women of the Luke’s first chapter make an appearance without a great deal of effort. Unless worship planners are prepared to tinker with the lectionary Elizabeth and Mary will have to cede the stage to John the Baptist. So, all you worship planners and preachers out there, I say to you, “TINKER AWAY! TELL THE STORIES!” 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 →
“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!Continue reading →
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 →
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.
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.
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.Continue reading →
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 →
There’s a preacher whose work I admire. His name is Salvatore Sapienza. Sal comes from New York city; Sal would say it differently – “New York.” Speaking with his New York drawl, Sal expresses the vine metaphor in a unique way. Sal says, “Jesus said, youz are the branches and I am da-vine.” Sal goes on to say that, the word divine is ‘of the vine”. Divine is another word for the MYSTERY we call God. Of the vine, vine from the Latin for wine – wine the fruit of the vine.
Wine is something that is intimately intertwined with the stories of Jesus life. According to the anonymous-gospel-storyteller that we call John, Jesus’ very first miracle was turning water into wine. In the story Jesus takes something ordinary and transforms it into something extraordinary. Most of us are very familiar with wine’s ability to transform us. The ancient Romans had a saying, “in vinio vertais” in wine there is truth. From the other anonymous-gospel-story-tellers we also have the story of Jesus last meal, during which Jesus takes wine, gives thanks and shares the wine with his friends saying, “drink this all of you, this wine is my blood…to remember me” When we remember that meal it is as if the wine we drink together is the promise that Jesus’ life force, the life that flowed through Jesus, flows through us in the sharing of the wine. In Jesus’ we see the energy, the flow of the life force that emanates from the MYSTERY, from the LOVE, that we call God. In the sharing of the wine, we too are in the flow, we too are connected to the flow that is the Divine.
The anonymous-gospel-story-teller that we call John creates for us a metaphor drawn from the life experience of his people.We are the branches, intimately intertwined with one another, we are all connected to one another, and what flows through the Divine, flows through us. In his teachings and with his life, Jesus said, God is in me, and I am in you, we are all in each other, we are all ONE. Youz are the branches, I am Da-vine. Such a beautiful metaphor; metaphor something that carries us beyond the words to a reality that is beyond words. The storyteller uses the metaphor of the vine to carry us beyond the image of the vine to the reality that is beyond words, the reality that we call Divine and the fruit of the vine flows through us to be the DIVINE in the world or as we say here “to be LOVE in the world”.
“Those who live in me and I in them will bear abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Wait, what? “Those who don’t live in me are like withered, rejected branches, to be picked up and thrown on the fire and burned.”
That’s the thing with metaphors. Metaphors can carry us beyond the words and images to a reality that is beyond words and images. Metaphors can also entrap us because we are prone to stretching metaphors beyond their ability to carry us. Metaphors often fail when they are delivered to folks who do not share the experiences of the creators of those metaphors. Vino veritas works, because we share the experience of seeing truth revealed when the wine is flowing. But when the anonymous-gospel-storyteller stretches his metaphor to say, “If you live on in me, and my words live on in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you.” the metaphor begins to fail, because not all of us share the experiences of asking and receiving whatever we want. And thus, the storyteller’s conclusion, “My Abba will be glorified if you bear much fruit and thus prove to be my disciples” fails to convince us.
Today’s first reading from the first letter of John often fails to convince us for a different reason. Scholars believe that the First Letter of John and the Gospel of John were written by the same anonymous-storyteller, we don’t know his name, but the church has traditionally called this anonymous-storyteller John. Scholars tell us that both the gospel of John and the First Letter of John were written sometime between 90-110, some 60 to 80 years after Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth. Scholars do not believe that this story-teller was an eyewitness to the life and teachings of Jesus, but rather that he experienced the life and teachings of Jesus through the stories that were handed down through the community in which he lived; a community that was suffering under the persecution of the Roman Empire as well as the persecution of their neighbours because they had chosen to follow the teachings of Jesus. In the midst of a very violent, dangerous existence our story-teller writes a letter to his community in which he insists: “Beloved, let us love one another because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten of God and has knowledge of God. Those who do not love have known nothing of God, for God is Love.”
If only he had stopped there. But he continues, “God’s love was revealed in our midst in this way: “by sending the Only Begotten into the world, that we might have faith through the Anointed One. Love, then, consists in this: not that we have loved God, but that God has loved us and has sent the Only Begotten to be an offering for our sins.”
The life and teachings of Jesus and the death of Jesus are all about love; the love that Jesus had for his neighbours and the love that Jesus had for his enemies. Jesus lived a life that embodied neighbour love and extended the definition of neighbour to include those on the margins. Jesus critiqued his own culture and the culture of his people’s oppressors based on the love of neighbour. When the religious authorities and the forces of Empire teamed up to persecute Jesus and his neighbours, Jesus refused to take up arms against his enemies choosing instead to insist that only by loving our enemies can we hope to find peace. Jesus proclaimed that peace could only be achieved through justice; justice based on love of neighbours and love of enemies.
Violence is a violation of love and will never lead to peace. Jesus chose to embody love precisely because he understood God as love. Jesus’ embodiment of LOVE was so powerful, that in Jesus, people were able to see and experience God. The Jesus experience was so powerful, so life-changing that not even the death of Jesus could kill the experience of LOVE that his followers encountered in the life of Jesus.
Writing some 60 to 80 years after the brutal Roman execution of Jesus, the Jesus experience continued to speak powerfully to the followers of Jesus who continued to share that experience with others. That they chose to tell the story of Jesus life and death in ways that would have resonated with the people of their time should come as no surprise to us. Sacrifice, booth animal and human were part and parcel of the religious traditions of the Hellenistic world in which the followers of Jesus lived. That the followers of Jesus tried to make sense out of Jesus execution as a common criminal, in terms of cultic sacrifice is not surprising. That all these centuries later we continue to try to make sense out of Jesus execution as a common criminal, in terms of cultic sacrifice is astounding. That we all too often focus on cultic sacrifice at the expense of love, is in and of itself criminal.
Every day we are learning so much about what it means to be human, about the expansive cosmos in which we live, and about the very nature of reality. We are uniquely placed to explore what lies beyond the comprehension of those who have gone before us in faith. The dimensions and the power of love deserve more than the speculations of our past or the sentimental, self-serving notions of our present age.
LOVE, the LOVE that is God, deserves our attention in the here and now. Beloved, let us love one another because love is of God. If we have any hope of learning to love our neighbours and our enemies we will need to understand more fully the magnitude of the LOVE that is God so that we might begin to truly embody that LOVE. This will require that we step up and pay attention to how we arrived at a place where love can be wrapped up in guilt and confused with human sacrifice, so that we can shake off our childish notions and grow into all that we are created to be.
LOVE Beyond measure. Beyond words, beyond race, beyond religion, beyond tribe, beyond fear, beyond time, beyond sentimentality, beyond borders, beyond reason, beyond emotion, beyond imagining. Love, beyond the beyond and beyond that also. So, let the metaphor carry us beyond the words and images, let it carry us to the reality that is the LOVE that we call the Divine.
Jesus said, youz are the branches and I am da-vine.” Let us be of the vine, for we are intertwined one with another, all wound up in da-vine, for we are ONE with the DIVINE. Let the fruit of the vine flow through us so that we can be the DIVINE in the world or as we say here and now, “to be LOVE in the world”.
What follows is a sermon I preached on the 5th Sunday of Easter 2003. In the 18 years since I preached this sermon, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada has come a long way. The debate about the full inclusion of LGBTQ folk in the full life of the church has been resolved and we can truly say: “All are welcome!” But rule changes don’t always change practices. Sadly, there are still places in our church were not everyone is welcome. So, I offer this sermon to cybersapce as both a reminder of where we have been and how far we need to travel. Shalom.
Sunday May 18th 2003 Holy Cross Lutheran
Even Eunuchs and Foreigners are Welcome! Acts 8:26-40
Earlier this week, I was talking with a few of my colleagues and as Lutheran Pastors are wont to do, our conversation drifted toward the lessons prescribed for this Sunday. As we kicked around ideas, most of us agreed that it is difficult to preach on familiar passages.
Most of you have heard a great many sermons on today’s gospel lesson, and so the challenge for preachers to bring some new insights is made all the more difficult. So, we joked about just how many ways a preacher can twist and turn those vines until they finally snap off, dry up and rot.
Today’s epistle lesson isn’t much easier. Preachers are always preaching about love; often we’re preaching to the choir, because most of you already know that God is LOVE and that in loving we encounter God. Coming up with a new and interesting angle on the second lesson isn’t easy. So, I suggested to my colleagues that this Sunday rather than preaching one more time about love, why not preach on the first lesson. Why not preach on the story of the Apostle Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian on the road to Gaza? Well it might surprise you to know that no matter how challenging they thought it would be to come up with one more sermon about love, not one of my colleagues thought that it would be a good idea to preach about the goings on in the desert between Philip and that Ethiopian. One of my colleagues even went so far as to say that you would have to be either very brave or very foolish to even try it.
Now I have a confession to make, at the time I had no idea what it was in this particular passage that would make my colleagues so averse to preaching on it. I have to admit that I don’t really remember ever paying all that much attention to this particular story. I have certainly never before studied it in any great detail, but my colleagues’ aversion to this text, made me curious enough to hit the books just as soon as I got home. Despite the fact that this text shows up every three years in our lectionary, try as I might, I wasn’t able to find a reference to a single published sermon on this particular text. It seems that many of the great preachers left this one alone.
It didn’t take me long to figure out just why this text is so daunting and why my colleagues are not alone in giving it such a wide berth. Now I don’t claim to be particularly brave, but I’ve already preached on today’s other readings. Besides it’s a long weekend and I figured that a lot of people would be away and I could sneak this one in. So this fool is about to rush in, where many have feared to tread.
Our story begins when an angel directs the apostle Philip to go south on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. On this road in the desert Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch. Now I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a really odd way to introduce someone; no name, just an Ethiopian eunuch. The author must have thought it was important because he tells us not once but five times that the Ethiopian was a eunuch. I know what an Ethiopian is. Philip has encountered a black African man in the desert. Now that in and of it’s self is pretty remarkable. You will see later that this black man was the first missionary to Africa. But surely this can’t be the reason why so many preachers shy away from this text. So what exactly is a eunuch? According to the most current scholarship, in the first century a eunuch is one of two things. A eunuch could have been a man who had been castrated. Now for those of you who didn’t grow up on a farm to castrate means to remove a male’s testicles. So, this particular Ethiopian could have been a castrated male, or he could have been a male who wasn’t like most males. According to the scholars, men who showed a preference for other men or displayed little or no interest in women, or who were in anyway effeminate, in the first century these men were called eunuchs.Continue reading →