In our third BRUNCHtalks, we continue to explore what it means to be “Progressive in Approach: Christ-like in action!” Focusing upon a progressive approach to Christianity, we look to the Way of Jesus to reveal ways of being Christian in the 21st century.
We have all heard the axiom: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” An axiom is a premise or a starting point of reasoning so evident as to be accepted as true without controversy. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” or this old chestnut: “You should not mix religion and politics” Failure to adhere to the logic of accepted axioms is unsettling.
A long time ago, when I was but a teenager – back in the by gone days of yore—I remember believing beyond a doubt that all I needed to do in order to be successful in life was to learn. I figured any problem in life could be solved merely by studying the problem, figuring out the possible solutions, eliminating incorrect ideas, reviewing past solutions, anticipating possible outcomes and factoring in the various laws which apply to the subject, and arriving at the correct answer. Studying, the facts in a reasonable way, analyzing the various emotions that might arise, and determining what was best possible outcome for the largest number of people; this rational approach was the key to success in life. I resolved to learn all that I could about how people had done things in the past in order that I might succeed in the future.
It helped that I was a history buff. History and English were my favorite subjects in high school and I excelled in both. Math and science, I struggled with; biology and geography I could manage, but algebra, physics and chemistry just about did me in. But I wanted to go on learning and it was made clear to me that if I could not master high school math and science, I wouldn’t be able to go on to university to study anything. So, I worked hard not to learn math and science but rather to pass all the math and science tests.
It wasn’t easy! Physics was just about the end of me. Not only was I incompetent when it came to learning the lessons of physics, the teacher couldn’t teach his way out of a wet paper bag; and besides he was just about the meanest marker in all the world, so I figured I was doomed. So, you can forgive me if I took a little pride in the fact that I actually got around to going to university as what they call a mature student. I didn’t actually go to university until I was 32 years old. I wasn’t entirely sure that I was going to make it through my first year, because in addition to all the subjects that I was wildly interested in, I was required to take a science class…but that’s another story. I was enrolled in a general arts program, majoring in religions of the world, with a minor in psychology. The subject matter in most of my classes was absolutely fascinating and I even remember being grateful to my high school physics teacher for drumming Newtonian physics into my non-scientific brain. You see little Isaac Newton went a long way in the study of theology. It turns out that when you are studying theodicy which is a fancy word for the reason behind the fact that God appears to let bad things happen and evil prosper; well when it comes to theologians trying to explain why God acts the way God does, there’s a whole branch of theology that figures God out using the rules of Newtonian physics. Although I didn’t learn much science in high school, I certainly did learn Newton’s laws of motion. So, I could understand how Newton’s explanation of how the physical world worked, was applied by theologians to explain why God let bad things happen in the world; even to good people. God wasn’t causing bad things to happen we were, because as everyone knows Newton’s third law of motion is an axiom, which is absolutely true; a fact beyond challenge, and I knew because not only did I memorize it to pass the test, but I actually thought I understood it. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Zippiddy do da! there you have it. When two objects interact, the size of the force on the first object equals the size of the force on the second object.
A little knowledge of Newton and you can solve the problem of evil in theology. The bad stuff isn’t God’s fault. The bad stuff happens to good people, not because God is testing them, or because God is capricious, or because God is powerless to act. Bad stuff happens because people who are not good do bad stuff and their action creates more bad stuff. The theology proof asked us to imagine Newton’s mechanized view of reality, by thinking of a pool table. One ball is bad, very bad, that one ball’s badness hits a good ball with force, and that good ball is compelled to move, hitting another good or bad ball it doesn’t matter, one ball hitting another ball with force, has a ripple effect, the ripple effect isn’t chaos, it’s the nature of reality, the way things were originally created, and what is necessary is for enough good balls to use good force as apposed to bad force in order for justice to prevail.
Now it’s been a while, so I’m making a bit of a hash of this, but I hope you get the idea that I thought I was figuring it all out, wrapping my brain around theology; beginning to understand how a good God can let bad things happen to good people. It was the nature of creation itself that was getting in the way. God could still be considered good even though bad stuff happened, because God was not responsible for the bad stuff, we were with all our bashing about on that pool table. It sounds ridiculous now. But at the time it was like being hit with a blinding light; an epiphany of sorts. God didn’t cause bad things to happen, but because of God’s commitment to our free will God would not intervene, but God’s goodness compelled God to be there with us as the bad forces were hitting us. I even figured out that Jesus was thrown into the mix because all those crashing balls were causing so much pain that God was compelled not to intervene directly but to set an example of goodness in the midst of evil; an example that we could look to and follow, so that with enough good people exerting enough good force we could create an equal and opposite reaction of goodness. It was all slotting into place. Here was a theory about God which used reason and logic to arrive at the goodness of God, while demonstrating the need for Christ, and a way forward out of the pain of bad forces and onto a table where the force of goodness was matched with more goodness. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. Stop all the bad forces with goodness. Everybody get together try to love one another right now. Love, love, love, all we need is love. Love is all you need.
I was delighted with my new understanding and they way in which the God I was learning about fit so nicely into the Newtonian world view as I understood it. But remember the axiom I began with: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. One day, during a second-year course in which we were studying the patristic explanations of the cross, we were arguing about the relative merit of a God who would demand human sacrifice when my carefully constructed vision of God was blown sky high. My defense of the goodness of God was challenged by a kid who had more than a little knowledge and whose broader knowledge of science just about robbed me of my sanity as I watched my carefully constructed vision of the goodness of God fall into the abyss. “Sadly,” this kid said, “Sadly your argument for the nature of divinity is constructed on a false premise.”
From desert cliff and mountaintop we trace the wide design, Strike-slip fault and overthrust and syn and anticline… We gaze upon creation where erosion makes it known, And count the countless aeons in the banding of the stone. Odd, long-vanished creatures and their tracks & shells are found; Where truth has left its sketches on the slate below the ground. The patient stone can speak, if we but listen when it talks. Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the rocks.
There are those who name the stars, who watch the sky by night, Seeking out the darkest place, to better see the light. Long ago, when torture broke the remnant of his will, Galileo recanted, but the Earth is moving still High above the mountaintops, where only distance bars, The truth has left its footprints in the dust between the stars. We may watch and study or may shudder and deny, Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the sky.
By stem and root and branch we trace, by feather, fang and fur, How the living things that are descend from things that were. The moss, the kelp, the zebrafish, the very mice and flies, These tiny, humble, wordless things — how shall they tell us lies? We are kin to beasts; no other answer can we bring. The truth has left its fingerprints on every living thing. Remember, should you have to choose between them in the strife, Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote life.
And we who listen to the stars, or walk the dusty grade Or break the very atoms down to see how they are made, Or study cells, or living things, seek truth with open hand. The profoundest act of worship is to try to understand. Deep in flower and in flesh, in star and soil and seed, The truth has left its living word for anyone to read. So turn and look where best you think the story is unfurled. Humans wrote the Bible; God wrote the world.
I am indebted to Jim Kast-Keat, a pioneering preacher who inspired me to open this sermon with the video below. I am also indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong for teaching me more that I can articulate with words. His excellent book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic opened the Gospel According to John in ways that have helped me to see aspects of the Divine to which I was once blind. Much of the sermon consists of extensive quotes from chapter 9 of Jack’s book.
Readings: John Chapter 2 and John 3:1-17
Watch the video below carefully before reading or listening to the sermon the sermon below.
Listen to the sermon:
So, before tackling the story of Nicodemus, I want to toss two balls into the congregation. The first ball I want to toss over here to this side of the congregation represents something all too familiar, biblical literalism. We know all too well that this particular ball has been distracting the church and most of the western world for the past few centuries. The second ball I want to toss over here to this side of the congregation represents historical biblical criticism. This particular ball is newer. It’s only been seriously tossed about for the past couple of centuries, but it is a really serious contender for our attention. But these balls have acquired a rather rhythmic bounce that tends to mesmerize us. Add to that these other balls the balls of church doctrine and theological dogma and before you know it we are so distracted that we forget what game we were trying to play in the first place as we try to keep up with the various passes made by players that have taken on a professional edge that leaves us watching from the sidelines unable to focus one of them.
None of these balls commanded the attention of the early Christians. They simply weren’t interested in taking the scriptures literally, nor were they particularly interested in the historicity of the scriptures. As for doctrine and dogma, well they were left to the professionals who only came to town on those unpleasant occasions when the league needed to ensure that it’s franchises continued to rake in enough money to keep the game on a sure footing. The scriptures, like all sacred writings, were about so much more than words scribbled on a scroll. The scriptures, like all scared writings, are about the mysteries of life. But these balls have been served up for us to play with and literalism and concerns about historical accuracy have done a magnificent job of distracting us from what really matters in these texts. Our fascination with the details of the fight-patterns of the balls that are tossed around whenever the stories in these texts play through our lives, have caused us to miss so many moon-dancing bears over the years.
Please don’t get me wrong, I love tossing these balls around and over the years I’ve learned to play ball with the best of them. But when a moon-walking bear dances onto the court, at the very least, we ought to notice the bear’s moves because the only way we’re going to learn to dance with these bears is by paying attention.Continue reading →
Well here we are in church on celebrating Pentecost! For generations Pentecost was one of the great high feast days of the church; right up there with Easter and Epiphany. That’s right, for generations, the three great high feast days of the church year were Easter, Epiphany and Pentecost; not Christmas. Pentecost the day when the church celebrates the birth of the church. But in our life-times the festival of Pentecost has pretty much slipped off the radar of our culture. This year, well here in Canada at least, Pentecost is eclipsed by the first long-weekend of the summer season and most of our sisters and brothers are out there enjoying this rainy Victoria Day weekend. As for the rest of the world, this weekend’s Royal Wedding has garnered far more attention than the church’s birthday.
I remember, back in the olden days, when I first joined the church as a mere teenager, even then, Pentecost’s attraction was waning. I remember being taught all about the meaning of Pentecost. I can still hear our pastor, doing his best to get us excited about those tongues of fire resting upon the first followers of the Way. I remember the worship and music committee encouraging us to wear red to church. I remember the Sunday school coordinator releasing 7 red balloons into the congregation.
I was a bit of a dork back then. Unlike my fellow teenagers, who were mostly leaving the church, I joined the church when I was fifteen. I became enthralled with my guy Jesus. I immersed myself in the church. On Pentecost Sunday, 1972, just a few weeks before my 15thbirthday, I affirmed my baptism and joined Benediction Lutheran Church. So, even though the flames of Pentecost are continue to wain in our culture, Pentecost will always hold a special place in my heart. Back in 1972, I began a long journey of discovery; a journey that would see me study not only the birth of the church but the long history of the church; a journey that took be into the story of Jesus in ways that I could never have understood back then.
I can still remember how earnest I was back then; how diligently I studied, how deeply I believed! I took it all in. I breathed deeply of the Spirit. I was a true believer. Yes, I always had my doubts.But my doubts only drove me deeper into the MYSTERY.
I can still remember devouring every one of those red-letter words in the bible. You know the way those old bibles used to have the words of Jesus printed in red. I can still remember the trauma of discovering that Jesus didn’t actually say all those red-letter words! I was so very certain in the beginning that if I just studied harder, I would discover the answers. Over the years, I have studied harder, but my studies have not given me the answers; my studies have driven me to deeper and deeper questions. So many certainties, have evolved into deeper questions. So, today on this, the festival of Pentecost, when most of the world is out there, and there are but a few of us in here, I wonder, “Can these bones live?”
As handfuls of us, all over the world, celebrate the birthday of the Church, it is tempting to ask: Are our bones too dry? Is our hope gone? Is the Church doomed? Or, can these bones live? I’d love to be able to answer each of these questions with more than a hint of my youthful certainty. Maybe, just maybe we are in the valley of dry bones. Over the years, I’ve often grieved the loss of my youthful certainty. Over the years, I’ve shed many a tear as tightly held beliefs have been challenged. Over the years, I’ve often missed that young woman that I once was, who was so sure of herself, so confident, so steadfast in her faith, so secure in the knowledge that God was in his heaven and all would be right with the world if we would only learn to do things properly. Over the years, I have often been laid low by the pain of discovery and locked myself away to mourn the loss of that which I held so dear.
I suspect that the followers of Jesus tasted the pain of loss. They had loved Jesus and placed all their hopes and dreams for the future in him, only to have those hopes and dreams die a horrible death. Their grief is incalculable. Still pungent some 50 or 60 years later when the anonymous gospel writer that we call Luke wrote the in the Book of Acts and created the story of Pentecost.
“Upon entering the city of Jerusalem for during the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost, Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, and Mathew: James ben-Alpheaus: Simon, a member of the Zealot sect: and Judah ben-Jacob. Also, with them were some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. With one mind they devoted themselves to constant prayer.”
I can see them in my mind’s eye all huddled together in an upper room united in their grief. All their hopes and dreams shattered, their lives in disarray as what they had believed so strongly so passionately was gone. What were they to do? How could they go on? What was the point of it all? If Jesus was gone, why bother? Maybe he wasn’t all that they had hoped for?
I can hear them, up there in that room arguing, weeping, searching for answers, longing for the security of the way it had been when Jesus was there with them; when they were certain about what needed to be done. I can hear them talking about Jesus, remembering the stories listening to the tales of his courage, marveling at his audacious courage, second guessing his teaching, longing for his touch, feeling the hope stir in their bellies, hope for justice, anger at the oppression they were left to deal with, confused about what to do next, not knowing what to think or believe now.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.
Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. Birthday celebrations lend themselves to the telling of stories. So, we begin with a parable by the radical theologian Peter Rollins. So, sit back and try to imagine that you live not at the beginning of the 21st century but at the middle of the 21st century; say about 2050. The world has changed quite a bit. “It seems that in the future laws will be passed declaring that all those who follow the teachings of Jesus are subversive. Churches have been banned and to be a follower of Jesus is illegal. You have just been accused of being a believer. You’ve been arrested, and dragged before a court. You have been under clandestine surveillance for some time now, and so the prosecution has been able to build up quite a case against you. They begin the trial by offering the judge dozens of photographs that show you attending underground church meetings, speaking at religious events, and participating in various prayer and worship services. After this, they present a selection of items that have been confiscated from your home: religious books that you own, worship CDs, and other Christian artifacts. Then they step up the pace by displaying many of the poems, pieces of prose, and journal entries that you had lovingly written concerning your faith. Finally, in closing, the prosecution offers your Bible to the judge. This is a well-worn book with scribbles, notes, drawings, and underlinings throughout, evidence, if it were needed, that you had read and reread this sacred text many times. Throughout the case you have been sitting silently in fear and trembling. You know deep in your heart that with the large body of evidence that has been amassed by the prosecution you face the possibility of a long imprisonment or even execution. At various times throughout the proceedings you have lost all the confidence and have been on the verge of standing up and denying Christ. But while this thought has plagued your mind throughout the trial, you resist the temptation and remain focused.
Once the prosecution has finished presenting their case the judge proceeds to ask if you have anything to add, but you remain silent and resolute, terrified that if you open your mouth, even for a moment, you might deny the charges made against you. Like Christ you remain silent before your accusers. In response you are led outside to wait as the judge ponders your case. The hours pass slowly as you sit under guard in the foyer waiting to be summoned back. Eventually a young man in uniform appears and leads you into the courtroom so that you may hear the verdict and receive word of your punishment. Once you have been seated in the dock the judge, a harsh and unyielding man, enters the room, stands before you, looks deep into your eyes and begins to speak. “On the charges that have been brought forward I find the accused not guilty.”
“Not guilty?” your heart freezes. Then, in a split second, the fear and terror that had moments before threatened to strip your resolve are swallowed up by confusion and rage. Despite the surroundings, you stand defiantly before the judge and demand that he give an account concerning why you are innocent of the charges in light of the evidence. “What evidence?” asks the judge in shock.
“What about the poems and prose that I wrote?” you ask. “They simply show that you think of yourself as a poet, nothing more.” “But what about the services I spoke at, the times I wept in church and the long, sleepless nights of prayer?” “Evidence that you are a good speaker and an actor, nothing more,” replied the judge. “It is obvious that you deluded those around you, and perhaps at times you even deluded yourself, but this foolishness is not enough to convict you in a court of law.” “But this is madness!” you shout. “It would seem that no evidence would convince you!” “Not so,” replies the judge as if informing you of a great long-forgotten secret. “The court is indifferent toward your Bible reading and church attendance; it has no concern for worship with words and a pen. Continue to develop your theology, and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world. We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christlike endeavor to create a better world. So, until you live as Christ and Christ’s followers did, until you challenge this system and become a thorn in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then, my friend, you are no enemy of ours.” “
Rollins insists that this parable is true right here and right now. We don’t have to imagine a world were Christianity is illegal for this parable to be true. Rollins insists that: “If you or I were really to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, would we not sooner or later, find ourselves being dragged before the authorities? If we were really to live a life that reflected the subversive and radical message of love that gives a voice to the voiceless and a place to those who are displaced, if we were really to stand up against systemic oppression perpetrated by those in power, then would we not find ourselves on the wrong side of the lawmakers?”Continue reading →
Her name was Julia Ward Howe. She was born in 1819, in New York City. Her parents died when she was very young. She barely even knew her own mother. She was raised by her aunt and uncle. Her uncle was known as a bit of a radical. He saw to it that his niece received a good liberal arts education; something very rare for a young woman of Julia’s day.When she was 21 years old, Julia married Samuel Gridley Howe.Howe had made a name for himself as a reformer who took quite a strong stand against slavery.Samuel often told people that he admired Julia’s ideas, her quick mind, her wit and above all her commitment to causes he supported.But Samuel, like many men of his day, believed that women should not take an active part in the causes of the day, nor should they speak in public.For her part, Julia did her best to respect her husband’s wishes. Julia had six children.Two of her children died when they were very young. In her diaries, Julia describes her life during the early part of her marriage as one of isolation.
In deference to her husband she had no life outside of her home except for Sundays when she attended church.Julia wrote of her husband’s violent outbursts as he attempted to control his wife’s activities. Julia’s only out-let was her writing. She began to gain quite a name for poetry. It is not clear just how she managed to get her poems published, but the success of her poetry led to invitations for Julia to speak at various gatherings. Apparently, Julia had quite a mouth on her. A friend of hers wrote that, “Bright things always came readily to Julia’s lips, and second thoughts often came too late to prevent her words from stinging.”
Samuel resented his wife’s success and after he managed to lose most of Julia’s inheritance from her father, he became more and more violent. Julia raised the issue of divorce, but Samuel threatened to take the children from her, so instead Julia decided to try to fill her days of confinement to her home by educating herself. Julia began to study philosophy. In time she even managed to teach herself several languges.Her diaries speak of her husband’s concern that Julia’s attempts at self-education were outrageous for a woman in her position in society.It was not until Julia discovered that Samuel had been unfaithful to her that she was able to negotiate a more active public life for herself.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”.
I am currently enjoying a continuing education leave in Belfast, Northern Ireland and so, it seems only right that I should begin by telling an Irish story. This particular story comes from the Irish author Frank McCourt. Some of you will be familiar with his most famous book, Angela’s Ashes. But this story comes from his autobiographical book entitled “Tis” McCourt was a school teacher and he tells this story about a particular class in which he was challenging the assumptions of his young students.
The story begins with a familiar nursery rhyme: “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; All the king’s horses And all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
McCourt asks his young students to tell him what’s going on in this nursery rhymed. The hands are up like a shot. “Well, like, this egg falls off the wall and if you study biology or physics you know you can never put an egg back together again. I mean, like, it’s common sense.
McCourt asks: “Who says it’s an egg?”
“Of course, it’s an egg. Everyone knows that.
Where does it say it’s an egg?
They’re thinking. They’re searching the text for egg, any mention, any hint of egg. They won’t give in. There are more hands and indignant assertions of egg. All their lives they knew this rhyme and there was never a 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.
“I’m not destroying,” insists McCourt, “I just want to know where you got the idea that Humpty Dumpty is an egg?”
“Because,” Mr. McCourt, “it’s in all the pictures and whoever drew the first picture musta known the guy who wrote the poem or he’d never have made it an egg.”
“All right.” Says McCourt: “If you’re content with the idea of egg we’ll let it be, but I know the future lawyers in this class with never accept egg where there is no evidence of egg.”
The story of Humpty Dumpty and the missing egg has a great deal in common with the story of Jesus and the missing sacrifice for sin. When it comes to the written word, we tend to see what we’ve been conditioned to see. Today’s gospel text is a good example of our seeing and reading into the text things that are not there. The gospel of John was written at the end of the first century; at least one possibly two generations after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We know that the gospel of John is not what we 21stcentury dwellers would call history. We know the story-teller that we call John wrote his interpretations of the Jesus experience to address the needs of his community who were struggling under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. We know that the gospel storyteller that we call John relied heavily upon the stories, myths and history of the Hebrews to convey the magnitude of the impact Jesus life, death, and resurrection had on the small band of followers of Jesus, who were struggling to survive in very troubled times.Continue reading →
My most memorable journey on the road to Emmaus was taken behind the wheel of a 1981 Oldsmobile, Cutlass, Brougham. I loved that car. It was a thing of beauty. It was a gift from my home congregation so that I could travel back and forth across the country to and from seminary. Despite its propensity to guzzle gas it was the perfect combination of power and elegance. It had the most amazingly plush interior with every imaginable power amenity of its day. It handled like a dream and even though I loved driving that car, neither it nor I faired well on our journey on the road to Emmaus. Five weeks into my Clinical training at the Grand River Hospital and I’d just completed one of the toughest weeks of my life when I set off for Emmaus. Clinical Pastoral Education is what the Church calls it but seminary students have other names for it, like boot camp, torture or hell. Twelve weeks of on the job training in a busy hospital combined with daily psychotherapy, group sessions, and sleep deprivation. It’s all designed to help seminarians put two years of academic study into practice before sending them off on a yearlong internship. Ask most pastors about their Clinical Pastoral Education and they’re likely to sit you down and tell you story after story about how intense an experience it was. Many of my colleagues will tell you that it almost broke them into little pieces, or that it almost destroyed their faith, or that they didn’t think they’d survive, or how they never thought that it was possible to be that scared or insecure for that many hours every day. Boot camp, torture, or hell, it all depended on whether or not you were able to get any sleep or if the demons you faced on the wards managed to destroy whatever self-confidence you might be able to muster.
The week before I set off on the road to Emmaus, wasn’t as bad as all that. I felt like I was just beginning to get the hang of things. I thought that the worst might be over. I’d managed to conquer my fear of being called Chaplain and being expected to help people who were sick, in pain, in distress, or dying. Why that week I’d even managed to help one or two of my patients. Those nagging doubts that haunted me during the first month of Clinical training were beginning to fade. It was becoming easier to believe that God was there in the midst of all the turmoil. I thought that maybe just maybe I could do the job and the terror wasn’t quite so intense when my pager went off. I remember saying to a colleague that maybe we’d be able to get through our Clinical training without coming up against the inevitable crisis of the faith that so many of our fellow students had warned us about. I wasn’t even nervous about having pulled the short straw for the long-weekend shift. 72 hours as the on-call emergency chaplain for the entire hospital. I felt like I was ready; that with God’s help, I could face anything that came my way.
I wasn’t particularly nervous when my pager went off and I calmly dialed the operator who announced that there’d been an MVA and six patients were on route; two of them were vital signs absent. MVA – Multiple vehicle accident. Vital signs absent = that usually means dead, but only a doctor can actually pronounce death so patients without vital signs are transported to the hospital before being pronounced dead.Continue reading →
Readings included 1 Corinthians 15 & John 20:19-31 – between the readings we watched Mya Angelou preform her poem: Still I Rise – you canview the video here
Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen in us! Alleluia! So, Christ is Risen! So, What??? What can it possibly mean to you and to me, that a rag-tag bunch of Jesus’ followers gathered together in an upper-room and talked about their experiences of Jesus and decided that not even death could extinguish the life that they experienced in Jesus? What difference does it make to you or to I that Christ is risen? The truth is that it can make absolutely no difference what so ever. Now there are a whole lot of people who will tell you that the important thing about resurrection is that you believe it. Those same folks absolutely love the story of doubting Thomas. So, every year on the second Sunday of Easter we read the story of doubting Thomas as a kind of inoculation against Thomas’ disease. I sometimes think that the designers of the lectionary were trying to build up our resistance to doubt. Having problems believing in resurrection? — Well don’t do what Thomas did, don’t doubt, because you’ll be proven wrong. Jesus is alive, the wounds in his hands proved that to Doubting Thomas, so have no doubt about it the resurrection happened! Believe in the resurrection!
The trouble with believing in stuff is that belief can make absolutely no difference what so ever. I can believe in justice for all, but unless I’m prepared to seek justice, to be fair, or to resist injustice, it makes absolutely no difference what so ever that I believe in justice. We can shout, “Christ is risen!” all we want but unless we are willing to live it, the resurrection means very little at all. In order to live the resurrection, we need to begin practicing resurrection. In order to practice something, we need to know what it looks like, what it sounds like, or what it feels like. Most of us have seen resurrection with our own eyes. Many of us have experienced resurrection in our own lives. The trouble is most of us would hesitate to label what we have seen with our own eyes as “resurrection.” We hesitate to call something we have seen or experienced in our own body as resurrection. It’s long past time for us to move beyond “believing in resurrection” so that we can actually rise up.
Nearly 70 years or so after the execution of Jesus of Nazareth, the anonymous gospel-story-teller that we know as John told a story of resurrection. According to this story, a bunch of rag-tag Jesus followers were huddled together in fear. Their beloved leader had been brutally executed by the powers that be and they were terrified that they would be next. Paralyzed by their fear, hiding behind a locked door, something happened that gave them the strength to burst forth from their own tomb and change the world.Continue reading →
Looking ahead to Doubting Thomas’ annual appearance, I am reminded that resurrection is not about belief. Resurrection is a way of being in the world. Over the years I have tried serval different approaches to encourage the practice of resurrection. click on the titles below to see
Our first reading was the traditional gospel story for the Second Sunday of Easter in which we heard the story of Doubting Thomas for John 20:19-31. This was followed by a video in which Richard Holloway retells the story of Peter’s denial and the encounter between the resurrected Jesus and Peter. You can view the video here . This was followed by the gospel reading from John 21:15-20
It has been said that, “The shortest between a human being and truth is a story.” It has also been said that the greatest story ever told is the story of resurrection. Like all really good stories, the story of resurrection has been told over and over again as storytellers attempt to convey the truth. We have heard Easter’s story of resurrection so many times that you would think the truth of resurrection would be obvious to us all. Yet, we struggle to find truth in Easter’s familiar story. Some of us have been shaped by this particular story. Some of us have built our lives around the truth that others have reported to us about this story. Some of us have rejected this story and filed it with all the other idle tales in which we can find no truth. Some of us have moved on from this story convinced that there is no longer any truth to be found. Some of us love to hear this story because it takes us back to familiar truths that inspire a nostalgic sense of well-being. Some of us, are determined to wrestle with this story until it releases all the truth that it harbours in, with, and between the lines which calls us toward a new way of being that we long to embrace. I myself, I am a wrestler. Like Jacob of old, I wrestle with this familiar story determined to get from this ancient tale not just truth but an inkling of the Divine who dwells in, with, through, and beyond all of our stories.
The gospel storyteller who we know as John tells Easter’s resurrection story in a particular way, determined to reveal the truth that dwells in him and among the people with whom he dwelled. One of the things that we 21stcentury truth-seekers are particularly fond of is deconstructing stories. We love to take stories apart, dissecting every line, examining each and every detail, each and every word so as not to miss a single nuance of the author’s intent. We are also skilled in the imperfect art of attempting to place stories back into their historical context so that we can establish exactly what was going on in the first century lives of the story-teller and his listeners. We look to the historical context in the hope that we can determine the original meaning of the story. Convinced that history can tell us what the story-teller cannot, we wrestle with the facts, as best as we can determine them, so that we can be sure that the truth we thought we knew is more than just the summation of our mistaken interpretations.
Together, we have wrestled with Easter’s story of resurrection and together, I must say that we are pretty good wrestlers. We have deconstructed this story, we have applied the historical-critical method, we have approached it from all sorts of angles and employed the best 21stcentury scholars to aid us in our struggle to wrestle the truth from the piles and piles of dogma, which have been heaped upon it. But this morning, I’d like to approach Easter’s story of resurrection from the perspective, not of wrestlers determined to find the truth, but rather as people touched by the story itself. But even though we are not going to wrestle, like Jacob of old, we run the risk of being touched and even wounded by the truth as the Divine One is revealed and we are compelled by our wounds to walk in a different way.Continue reading →
A couple of kids were taken to church on Easter Sunday by their grandmother. These kids hadn’t been to church since their grandmother took them to the Christmas pageant. Angie was six years old, and her brother Joel was four. Joel giggled, sang and talked out loud. Finally, his big sister had had enough. “You’re not supposed to talk out loud in church.” “Why? Who’s going to stop me?” Joel asked. Angie pointed to the back of the church and said, “See those two men standing by the door? They’re hushers.”
Little bobby and his family travelled a long way to have Easter Sunday lunch at his grandmother’s house. Everyone was seated around the table as the food was being served. When Bobby received his plate, he started eating right away. His Father tried to stop him: ‘Bobby, wait until we say grace,’ ‘I don’t have to,’ the five-year-old replied. “OH yes you do Bobby!” his Father shouted, ‘We always say a prayer before eating at our house.’ ‘That’s at our house,’ Bobby explained, ‘but this is Grandma’s house, and she knows how to cook.’
A new pastor was visiting in the homes of her parishioners. At one house it seemed obvious that someone was at home, but no answer came to his repeated knocks at the door. Therefore, he took out a business card and wrote ‘Revelation 3:20’ on the back of it and stuck it in the door. When the offering was processed the following Sunday, he found that his card had been returned. Added to it was this cryptic message, ‘Genesis 3:10…’ Reaching for his Bible to check out the citation, he broke up in gales of laughter…Revelation 3:20 begins: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ Genesis 3:10 reads, ‘I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid for I was naked.’
A Baptist pastor was in the middle of the children’s sermon. The pastor, asked the children if they knew what the resurrection was. Now, I know that you have to ask questions during children’s sermons, but I also know from bitter experience that asking children questions in front of a congregation is not only tricky, it can be downright dangerous. When this pastor asked the children if they knew what the resurrection was, a little boy raised his hand……..The pastor called on him and the little boy said, “I know that if you have a resurrection that lasts more than four hours you are supposed to call the doctor.”
I have a confession to make: I seriously considered just standing up here on this glorious Easter morning and simply telling you joke after joke and trying my best to make you laugh. There’s this ancient tradition of telling jokes at Easter. Legend has it that joke telling at Easter became a popular way of imitating God’s ability to get the last laugh on the power that tried to destroy Jesus. I mean, it’s April Fools’ Day, after all, and even if my joke-telling makes a fool out of me, at least my playing the fool is in keeping with the day!
But, even though it is tempting to play the fool and just keep telling you jokes, I suspect that there might be one or two of you who expect me to talk more seriously about resurrection. By now, I hope that most of you already know that I don’t believe that resurrection is about the physical resuscitation of a corpse. I’ve preached on and on about how I take the Apostle Paul seriously when he says that talk of a physical resurrection is stupid. That’s 1stCorinthians chapter 15 – which you are all capable of reading for yourselves if you don’t believe me. Resurrection is about something so much more miraculous than the resuscitation of a corpse. So, let’s leave theology and doctrine for another day. Don’t worry, Easter lasts for 50 days. So, there will be plenty of opportunities for us to explore the theological implications of resurrection. Today, on this glorious Easter morning, let’s do what our ancestors were so good at doing when it comes to Easter, let’s not try to explain resurrection, instead let me tell you a story about resurrection.Continue reading →
When tragedy strikes, we have this innate need to know the facts. What happened? It is as if the facts about what happened can save us from the horrendous impact of the tragedy. Tell us the facts. Tell us what happened: where it happened? when it happened? how it happened? Give us the facts and we will be able to figure out why it happened. If we figure out why it happened we can make sense of the tragedy, we can put the colossal impact of the tragedy into context. Once we put the tragedy into context we can get some perspective on it and begin to manage it, so that we can move on from the tragedy.
So, what are the facts? Well, what happened is, they executed Jesus. When? close to 2000 years ago. How? They nailed him to a tree, trusting that the weight of his body would in time cause his body to shut down in the most horrendous way. These are the barest of facts. In the nearly 2000 years that have passed since the tragedy of one man’s execution at the hands of a cruel Empire, we have been given many more facts about this particular tragedy. Indeed, we have been given facts, stories, legends, myths, conjectures, creeds, rituals, testimonies, and sermons about this particular tragedy. Whole libraries exist full of books written over 20 centuries trying to make sense of this tragedy, trying to put the horrendous details into context, giving us all sorts of perspectives and still we cannot make sense of this tragedy, let alone move on from it. So, we gather together, and we ask ourselves, Why?Continue reading →
Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Christ is risen indeed – SO WHAT! Today, we gather to proclaim that the LOVE that we call God is more powerful than death. On Good Friday, we gathered here in this sanctuary surround by images of death. I had posted all sorts of photographic images of the kind of human failures that proclaim the power of death; images collected from the news of the day. On these walls, hung examples of human failure – graphic representations of the reality that the embodiment of LOVE, which is what we call Christ, continues to be crucified. The crucifixion did not happen once and for all when Jesus, the embodiment of the LOVE that we call God, was executed by the powers that be.
Today, over and over again, the embodiment of LOVE dies at the hands of the powers that be. The embodiment of LOVE, which is what we can the Christ, continues to be crucified each time LOVE is impoverish, starved, bombed, executed, imperiled, tortured, neglected, murdered, or forsaken, by the powers of death; powers that put selfishness, greed, indifference, and lust for power above LOVE. And so, on this Good Friday you would have seen examples of modern crucifixions in which the Earth was being ravaged and abused by our greed and indifference, animals driven out and killed by pollution and climate change, children starving in parts of the world we would prefer not to think about, First Nations people suffering without adequate housing or drinking water, homeless people neglected on our streets, war-torn ravaged villages, and a collection of modern martyrs who like Jesus, have been crucified as a result of their passion for justice. These disturbing images formed our Stations of the Cross as we lamented so many crucifixions.
After our Maundy Thursday service when we’d finished remembering Jesus’ new commandment that we love one another, I hung the evidence of the death of embodied LOVE upon these walls. One of the images, reduced me to tears. I suspect that the image that undid me, lies in each of your minds because this image was beamed all over the world.Continue reading →
“Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” Absolutely, I was there when they crucified my Lord. For so very many years, my affirmative answer to this quintessential Good Friday hymn was based on what the church had taught me about the death of Jesus. I, like many of you, was taught that Jesus died upon the cross to save humanity from sin. I was also taught that I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself. I was taught that I was born in sin, that sinfulness is part of what it means to be human and that God so loved the world that “He” and I do mean “He” sent his only son to die, because someone had to pay the price for sin. This quid pro quo portrayal of God the Father, led me to the undeniable conclusion that I was responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. My guilt, my shame, my sinfulness, compelled me to declare, “Yes! I was there when they crucified my Lord! I was there when they nailed him to the tree! I was there when they pierced him in his side! I was there when the sun refused to shine! I was there when they laid him in the tomb?” The sheer horror of my culpability in the Jesus’ sacrifice for my sin, caused me to “tremble, tremble, tremble. I was there when they crucified my Lord.”
The doctrine of atonement permeated my being and even though, I have long since stopped believing that Jesus died to save me from sin, the residue of atonement theories continues to cause me to tremble. Even though I have learned to look beyond the stories found in the scriptures in which various followers of the Way portray the crucifixion in ways that spoke to their particular communities, I still tremble.Continue reading →
Holy Week marks a sharp uptick in visitors to this blog. From comments, messages, and emails I hear from fellow preachers who, like me, are daunted by the task of preparing the Good Friday sermon. That task is even more daunting for those of us who serve progressive communities. My fellow progressive-christian-preachers tell me of the dearth of progressive-christian Good Friday sermons to be found on the internet and encourage me to re-post my own attempts to rise to the occasion. So, here are the links to some of the Good Friday sermons I have preached over the years of my journey with the progressive community which I serve. The people Holy Cross Lutheran Church has over the years provided an invigorating space for me to pursue my questions. They have also provided the resources which make this blog possible. So, if you find the work posted here of value to you and your community, please consider supporting this ministry of Holy Cross. I rarely solicit donations. But Holy Cross is a small community that continues to give to others in so many ways and your encouragement is greatly appreciated!!! (Holy Cross Lutheran Church, 1035 Wayne Dr., Newmarket, On. L3Y 1N3)
Follow the links to Good Friday sermons and feel free to use/adapt/repost
2016 I’m still working on getting my body out of the tomb in which it was laid all those years ago – reflecting on everyday crucifixions click here
2015 Not Salvation! Solidarity and Transformation click here