On this Pluralism Sunday, I am mindful of the dangers of misunderstanding progressive christianity’s celebration of pluralism. Christianity’s sad history of being co-opted by imperial colonialism has left far too many christians living under the delusion that all religions will one day merge into one great world religion. But pluralism is not about giving up the wonders of individual religions nor is it about creating uniformity among religions so as to create one world. Pluralism is the belief that people of different beliefs can coexist, learning from one another, caring for one another, respecting one another, celebrating one another, and hopefully learning to love one another.
Perhaps, the wise prophet Mahatma Gandhi captured the essence of pluralism best, when he said, “I came to the conclusion long ago that all religions were true and that also that all had some error in them, and while I hold by my own religion, I should hold other religions as dear as Hinduism. So, we can only pray, if we were Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu; but our innermost prayer should be that a Hindu should become a better Hindu, and a Christian a better Christian.”
Years ago, when I still languished under the mistaken belief that, God had a master plan to make all the world Christian, my primary responses to people of other faiths were characterized by fear, suspicion, and not very subtle arrogance which came from my belief that I had found the one true faith.
With gratitude and humility, I can now look back upon a relationship with a Hindu woman who embodied Gandhi’s desire that we hold all religions as dear as our own. I was just twenty years old when I met Jiera and although we didn’t know one another for a long time, Jiera managed to challenge me to become a better christian. We were working together at a large, international, department store on Regent Street, in the heart of London. We both worked in the Food Courts were there wasn’t much time for pleasantries. But Jiera never let that stop her from being not only pleasant to unpleasant customers, she went out of her way to be kind. Jiera insist that, “There’s always time for kindness.”
Jiera was my immediate manager; while I supervised a group of eight young women, women much like myself, temporary workers, intending to stay just long enough to earn enough money before resuming our travels. Jiera was in it for the long haul, already a young mother of three beautiful children of her own, she soon became the surrogate Mom to those of us who worked for her. Jiera’s kindness made her easy to love and a joy to obey, as each of us did our best to please her. It didn’t take long for us to become a family, with Jiera chiding us to care for one another. Continue reading
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, I am delighted to be joined by the members of Holy Cross’ Worship Team as we reflect together upon our experiences with the 23rd Psalm. We begin with a familiar translation of the Psalm. Our own reflections are punctuated by Rabbi Jamie Arnold’s translation from the original Hebrew.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
For most of my life, the words of the 23rd Psalm, as they were translated and interpreted by the authors of the King James Version of the Bible, have been with me, here and here. When I was just ten years old, we moved to Newmarket and lived here less than a year. It was a lonely year.
My brother and I were what we called back then, latch-key kids, which meant that we pretty much took care of ourselves while Mum and Dad had to work. I vaguely remember a brief friendship with a girl who lived down the street, who had the audacity to invite me to join her for a week of Vacation Bible School. Never having attended church, I had no idea what to Vacation Bible School was. Nevertheless, my parents’ discouragement about church, was all the encouragement I needed to want to attend. There was something exciting about the independence of striking out on my own, without parental encouragement, to explore the goings on at this place my parents avoided; indeed disparaged. I remember very little about that week except for the ongoing lessons of a gifted teacher who taught us the 23rd Psalm. I say taught us, but it would be more accurate to say, that he imprinted the 23rd psalm on our memory-banks, where it remains to this very day. I remember a sense of confusion about the meaning of these strange words. I remember feeling their weight, their importance, as if they were to be treasured and remembered because of their power. Power which my ten-year-old mind equated to the only other thing I had ever memorized, my twelve-times-table. If I could only capture those words, the way I’d captured the twelve-times-table, the power of numbers stored in my memory, would pale in comparison to the power of these magic words. I remember the teacher carefully explaining that these words together are poetry and that it is important to memorize poetry because poems are alive; they are sacred living words. At the time I had no idea what the word “sacred” means, but like the strange and mysterious words of the poetry of the psalm, the word “sacred” sounded mysterious and so filled with wonder. So, I stored the word “sacred” away as a precious gift. Over the years the sacred gift of Psalm 23, graciously given by wise teacher, has over and over again, filled me with wonder and opened me to the power of MYSTERY.
The King James Version of the 23rd Psalm, lends itself well to the mysterious power of poetry. Recently, I discovered another version of the 23rd Psalm translated from its ancient Hebrew origins by Rabbi Jamie Arnold. Rabbi Arnold’s translation adheres to the original Hebrew and like the King James Version captures the mysterious power of poetry to reveal the SACRED. Earlier, I invited the members of our Worship Team to briefly reflect upon their most vivid SACRED encounters with the poetry of the 23rd Psalm. What follows is a reading of Rabbi Arnold’s translation wrapped around some of our Worship Team’s reflections. Rabbi Arnold’s translation of the 23rd Psalm, which he calls:
Six Verses of Refuge (Equanimity) begins, “A song for LOVE’s sake: When our LOVE’s the Guide by-my-side, I want for nothing… Continue reading
I don’t know about you, but as we here in Ontario face the third wave of this devastating pandemic, the moments when I’m able to safely get out into CREATION become more and more precious. So, this morning, I went out in the brisk spring air hoping to forget about all the bad news which keeps flashing across our screens. So, let me try to give you a brief glimpse of my morning walk. Indulge me as I take you just down the road from my living-room to the shores of Lake Simcoe, where the wind is blowing, and the spring rain is gently falling.
. . . see the video . . .
As I walked along the lakeshore this morning, I was reminded of another lakeshore far, far, away, where the wind was just as fierce, and the rain was even more intense as I walked by this other lakeshore. Listening to the gentle waves of Lake Simcoe, I was transported back in time, through the decades and on that distant shore I could still see my twenty-year-old self, my Australian traveling companion, two Swiss women, an American, a German, a Bahamian, and a Japanese guy.
We were a strange lot, gathered together by chance, as each of us backpacked our way through Europe in search of adventure. “By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes, Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond.” We’d met on the train to Fort William and together, we headed out on foot to the youth hostel on the shores of Loch Lomond. Now, I’m sure it has changed a great deal since we trudged along on a cold, ever so cold August day in 1976. Back then there was only a single cart lane leading to the youth hostel. We didn’t see any people along the way, and we weren’t sure we were going in the right direction. Most of us were caught up in our own thoughts, or too tired from our travels, to make conversation. But not Japanese Guy, who simply wouldn’t shut up.
He was positively annoying. There we were on “yon bonnie banks” leaning into the beauty which surrounded us, longing to be swept away by the majesty of it all, and this guy couldn’t keep his mouth shut long enough for us to escape into the wonder of our surroundings. I kept hoping that he’d “tak’ the high road” so I could tak’ the low road” and we’d “never meet again on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.” But alas, we were stuck with each other.
I tried lagging behind the others, humming softly to myself. But Japanese Guy, he saw this as some sort of invitation to hang back for a one-on-one conversation. His questions didn’t let up. He wanted to know: Where was I from? How long I’d been backpacking? Why did I choose Scotland? Was Scotland what I thought it would be? Did I imagine it would be so cold in August? On and on went his questions. My abrupt answers didn’t manage to clue him into the fact that I didn’t feel like talking.
When even my rude, unfriendly behaviour could not silence Japanese Guy, I ran to catch up with our companions, so that they too could share in the burden of unwelcome conversation. When we finally arrived at the hostel, we all spent the evening avoiding Japanese Guy.
The next morning, we were reunited over breakfast and it turned out that we all had the same plan to climb Ben Lomond. For those of you who dinnie kin, a Ben is what the Scots call a mountain. Ben Lomond is just under a 1,000 meters high with about a dozen kilometers of trails to the summit. We were young and the Hostel Manager assured us that we could get to the top in about five hours, have enough time for a quick lunch, and then hike back down to the hostel in time for dinner. Continue reading
Traditionally, the Second Sunday of Easter is the day when the church commemorates the story of Jesus’ disciple Thomas’ reaction to resurrection. Now, the New Testament is full of parables like the parable of Doubting Thomas. Allow me, if you will, to draw your attention to a different parable, one outside of the Bible: “The Parable of the Mad Man” was first told in 1882. More recently, it appeared in 1969 edition of Time Magazine, which bore the title, “Is God Dead?”
The Parable of the Mad Man goes like this: “Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!” As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus, they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. “Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers.
But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last, he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling – it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”
It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered various churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: “what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”
Some of you will already know that this Parable of the Mad Man, was written by Friderich Nietzsche. One of the characteristics of a parable is that it surprises us with a truth which we already know. God is dead and we have killed “him!” I think perhaps that Nietzche’s Mad Man was right, “God” the big guy, up in the sky, judgemental, santafied, wish-granting, personified, old, bearded, super-man Father, god is dead, and it is we who have killed him. This image of god has been sacrificed on the altars of reality. All that we have learned about the cosmos; all the scientific breakthroughs, our technologies, our philosophies, biblical scholarship and our evolving theologies have killed the personification of god which we once worshipped and adored.
For most of my life the personification of what we call “God” was the only way I had of knowing anything of the MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of reality. I can truly empathize with the followers of Jesus who huddled together in the upper room. In my imagination, this parable takes place in a ghostly terrifying darkness. While it is so very tempting to lock the door against the unknowns lurking in the darkness, there is a line in the Parable of Doubting Thomas which makes me wonder. Not “wonder” in the sense of “I wonder what this means?” But “wonder” in the sense of “Oh my God!” as in “How wonderful!” or “How inspiring.” The line in the parable which causes me to wonder, wonder, wonder, is on the lips of Jesus, when asks and then insists: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Like Thomas, I suspect many of us continue to long for a vision of the DIVINE MYSTERY which we can see and touch. Say what you will about the big guy, up in the sky, judgemental, santafied wish-granting, personified, old, bearded, super-man Father, god, this was an image we could certainly wrap our minds around. Peering into the darkness and the sheer vastness of the Cosmos, it is impossible to wrap our minds around the ONE in whom the Cosmos has being. Faced with the enormity of the ONE who is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also, I can certainly understand why our ancestors insisted that no one can look upon the face of God and live. Shut the front door and let me languish here in the darkness of this upper room, with my too small image of a puny god; a god I can mold and shape and worship without fear.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Faced with the vast, awe inspiring darkness of the Cosmos, it can be difficult to catch glimpses of tangible markers to guide us. Squinting into the abyss of unknowing, I can’t help thinking about the women who stared into the darkness of the empty tomb. The darkness of the Cosmos, like the darkness of the empty tomb, can send us racing back to the safety of a familiar room, a hide-out where we can shut the door and nurse our fears. Or the darkness can be for us, a place where resurrection begins, as the birth pangs of a new way of being give way to new life. Peering beyond the wounds inflicted by our personifications of the ONE who is more that we can begin to imagine, can we begin to touch and be touched by the LOVE which is the SOURCE of everything? Can we begin to feel the power of DIVINTY which is so much more than our personifications? Do we have the courage to put ourselves in the embrace of the SPIRIT which pulses, evolves, moves, shakes, and brings into being all that IS? Inspired by this SPIRIT, dare we begin to see DIVINITY finding expression in the likes of Jesus? Might we see in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus a way of being which is capable of transcending fear, so that we too might become LOVE. For being LOVE is what resurrection is?
The LOVE which is the MYSTERY we call God is beyond our ability to imagine or express, but that L LOVE lives in, with, through, and beyond us. Death cannot limit LOVE. For no matter how many times this cruel world tries to destroy LOVE, LOVE will live again, in, with, through, and beyond all of those who embody LOVE. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Our too small personification of God is dead; sacrificed on the altars of reality. But, do not be afraid. Death will not have the final word.
Out of the darkness, LOVE springs to life. LOVE lives even in us, even in our woundedness. LOVE, which is the SOURCE of all, lives and has being in, with, through, and beyond us. Blessed are you who have not seen and yet have come to believe, believe the ONE who is our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself. Resurrection happens when we are that LOVE in the world! LOVE is risen! LOVE is risen in us! Alleluia!
View the full Worship Video for the Second Sunday of Easter below
Anticipating 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
Exposing Our Wounds click here
Believing in Resurrection is NOT the point! click here
Easter: 50 Days to Practice Resurrection! click here
Humpty Dumpty, Doubting Thomas, and Resurrection click here
Leap of Doubt – How Do We Believe Resurrection? click here
Can the ways in which we tell the stories of resurrection transform us into followers of Jesus who embody a way of being in the world that can nourish, ground, and sustain the kind of peace that the world years for? click here
Practicing Resurrection: Forgiveness click here
Resurrection is a central tenant of the Christian faith and Easter is the primary celebration of resurrection and yet, too many of us fail to open ourselves to current scholarship surrounding the doctrine of resurrection. Questions about the nature of the resurrection ought to send us back to the words of the Apostle Paul. Bernard Brandon Scott is a charter member of the Jesus Seminar. His book “The Trouble with Resurrection” is a must read for those who preach during the Easter Season.
This video provides essential background information about the words of the Apostle Paul on the nature of the resurrection which may surprise you. Scott’s treatment of 1 Cor. 15 provides a new understanding of resurrection which is compelling as well as liberating. For this reason, our Easter worship services forgo the prescribed readings, including the anti-semitic ones, to make room to include a reading from 1 Corinthians 15.
The word resurrection is not a word which gives up its meaning easily. Far too many preachers and theologians have tried to use words to express the meaning of resurrection. But mere words, are incapable of rendering meaning from the word resurrection. The best way I know of wrestling meaning from a word like resurrection is through a story. I know I have told this story before. But as my Irish Nannie would say, “Sure if a story is worth tellin once, then it’s worth telling again.” This story of resurrection dates all the way back to my first year as a pastor, when I naively believed that the right words could save me.
It wasn’t my first visit to Anna’s home, but it was my first visit to the home of someone who had just died. In the driveway, I crossed paths with the doctor who had signed Anna’s death certificate. We recognized one another from the few times which our visits to the house had overlapped. I stared with envy at the doctor’s medical bag, “at least she has some real pain medication in there.” All I had in my bag was a bible and my tiny, little travel communion kit. Just some cheap wine and a few stale wafers. I envied the doctor with her knowledge, her pills, her medicine and her skills. The doctor sighed, “Oh thank-God you’re here! They’re a real mess in there.”
As I stood there, wondering how to respond, I remember wishing the doctor had something in her bag of tricks which could give me the courage to enter the house. I felt like a fool. What was I supposed to do? I felt as useless as I did upon my first visit with Anna. A parishioner had called me just a few months earlier, “Could I go and visit a friend of hers who was dying? Cancer.” she said, “It won’t be long now. She’s being cared for at home; she wants to die at home. She used to go to church and now as the end draws near, she wants to reconnect. Would I please go to see her?” I knew I was out of my depth from the moment I hung up the phone. I thought this is it. This is the real stuff of being a pastor. This is where they discover that I don’t have what it takes to do this job. Leading worship, preaching, and teaching is one thing, this, this is something entirely different. But my parishioner was insistent, as she described her friend Anna. “Pastor, you’ll never guess, Anna was once a Lutheran.
Yes, she went to Sunday School, Confirmation, and had her kids baptized, and even taught Sunday School. But since they moved to Newmarket, they had fallen out of the habit of going to church. Anyway Pastor, she really needs to get close to God right now, so I told her you would come. You will go and see her won’t you, I know she’s not a member, but she really needs to get things in order before she goes.”
Standing there in the driveway feeling like a fool, I said good-bye to the doctor and tried to get myself to go inside the house. The black van in the driveway signaled the presence of the funeral home; there to collect the body. Her husband welcomed me at the door, fell into my arms and said only, “It is almost finished; they’ll be gone soon.” He motioned to the stairs and I got the impression that he wanted me to go up. I expected him to follow me. I was wrong. I entered the familiar room. Anna was still lying there. She looked much the same as she had when I’d seen her the day before. I’d like to say she looked at peace, but she didn’t. Her face was frozen in the same tortured expression, I’d seen the day before. The gentlemen from the funeral home stopped what they were doing and quietly stepped out of the room. I guess they thought I needed some privacy, and I was grateful for the moment to think. You see, I love words and I was convinced that words would save me. I’m a preacher and a teacher and words are my friends. Words help me to figure things out. Words help me to make meaning out of events. Words give me the stories which give shape to the meaning which I try to make out of the stuff that happens. But standing there in that room, words failed me. There was only silence.
After the silence became unbearable, I shot up a prayer to the faraway god, up there in the sky, “You got me into this! Tell me what to do. Tell me how to help. Where are you when I need you?” I went out into the hall were wordlessly the gentlemen from the funeral home were about their business and in just a few moments the body was gone. I was sitting in the living room listening to her husband recount the details of Anna’s final moments, when their daughter burst through the front door. After many, many tears were shed it was decided that I should accompany Anna’s daughter to the funeral home the next morning so that she could see her mother. Anna’s husband insisted that the body they had taken away was not Anna; Anna had left sometime during the night. Anna’s daughter wanted to kiss her mother good-bye. She was angry that they had not waited for her arrival before taking her mother from her. Before I left, I reached into the bag of tricks which lurk somewhere in the back of my mind and I remembered the words of a wise seminary professor, who taught us that storytelling helped us to make sense out of life, and while there is nothing that can make sense out of death, a few good stories can make the pain bearable. Stories, my professor would say, are a good a way, as she had ever found of beginning the healing process. So, before I left, I made arrangements to accompany Anna’s daughter to the funeral home, and I encouraged Anna’s husband to invite members of the family to come by for tea, or a meal, or even a few drinks, just a small get together where they could tell me stories about Anna, and we could begin to plan her funeral.
The next afternoon, I accompanied Anna’s daughter to the funeral home. They had done a splendid job of preparing her body. She looked tortured, somehow. Anna’s daughter reached for my hand, squeezed tightly and leaned into me. Her whole body began to tremble as she wailed and sobbed. Over and over again I heard, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” And I am ashamed to say that I was grateful that it was Anna’s daughter and not me that was echoing these words, over and over again. I had no words, no idea what to do, what to say, how to help. It took some time, but her sobbing began to subside and was replaced by something more daunting as even more questions began to leap out of her. “What will I do without you?” “Where are you Mom?” “How can I go on without you?” “Why, why did you have to leave me?” For once I was glad, I had no words. No words only silence with which to reply. Question after question met only with silence until suddenly, Anna’s daughter announced, “That’s not my mother. My mother is not here.” We left together in silence.
When we arrived back at Anna’s home, we heard laughter coming from the living room. Eight, nine, maybe ten people, some of them I’d met on previous visits, all laughing and telling stories, stories about Anna. It wasn’t long before her daughter joined them. A glass of wine was thrust into my hands; there was bread and cheese on the coffee table, and casseroles in the oven. Apparently, the neighbours didn’t need words, just practical care filled loving actions. As we shared a meal, we remembered Anna. When the meal was over, Anna’s husband said, “I wish Anna was here, she would have loved this!” One of the guests disagreed, she insisted that Anna would have been mortified to be the center of attention, which sent the whole group of us into gales of laughter, at the thought of Anna being mortified on the day of her death. Gallows humour. Before I left, I had collected enough words and stories to do Anna proud at her funeral.
As I said my good-byes Anna’s husband asked me if I had a favorite flower. It had been a long, hard winter, and I told him that at this time of the year, I was longing for spring to finally arrive. So right about now, tulips are my favourite flowers. “Perfect” he said, “Tulips it is.” Then came more stories about how much Anna hated the flowers that professional florists concoct for funerals. Everyone it seems had a story about Anna going on and on, at some funeral or other, about how horrible these contrived funeral bouquets looked. Natural, hand-picked flowers lovingly arranged by friends and family, that’s what was called for. Anna’s husband insisted that, “as the pastor is longing to see some sign of spring, tulips it is!” So, everyone was instructed to bring tulips.
At Anna’s funeral, there were tulips everywhere; more tulips that you can imagine. It was beautiful. Tulips lovingly arranged by those who loved her. The tulips and the stories got us all through the funeral of a woman who died much too young. The tulips and the stories helped us to begin the task of making meaning out of the death of a loved one. The tulips and the stories did not take the pain away, nor did they explain the pain away, and they certainly didn’t change the fact that Anna was dead, or that her family would have to go on without her. The tulips and the stories did help us to begin to make meaning out of her death. Together we wept among the tulips and we wept in the midst of the stories and together we began to find words and to make meaning out of death.
“Woman. Why are you weeping?” “Because they have taken away my Rabbi, and I do not know where they have put the body.” “What am I going to do? What will I do without you? Where are you Mom? How can I go on without you? Why, why did you have to leave me?” “Woman. Why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” She supposed it was the gardener, so she said, “Please, if you’re the one who carried Jesus away, tell me where you’ve laid the body and I will take it away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
If only, all those we have lost and will lose could appear to us and comfort us in our grief. The followers of Jesus were bereft. Their beloved Jesus had been taken from them, tortured, and executed by their enemies. They had placed all their hopes and dreams in Jesus. Jesus had taught them a whole new way of being in the world. Jesus had lived in such a way, taught so challengingly, loved so fully, that in Jesus they had seen an image of God which turned their whole lives upside down. Jesus’ way of seeking peace, not through violence but through justice, opened them to new possibilities. They had dared to dream. They had hope in the face of oppression. They had been willing to follow Jesus into battle. But when Jesus had insisted on living what he preached, most of them had fled in fear, and the horrible truth of their abandoning him, the reality of their failure was more than they could bear. It is almost impossible for us to imagine because we’ve read it in the bible, which reads much like those professional bouquets of flowers at funerals, designed to provide answers to the unanswerable, all tied up with neat little bows. Generations of arrangers have taken the stories which have been told, as followers and lovers of Jesus struggled to make some sense out of his death. Generations of interpretations upon interpretations of those stories make it seem as though everything happened just thus and so, neat and tidy. Resurrection happened just like that, in the twinkling of an eye. Jesus died. He was not there. They didn’t know what they were going to do. They wept. They trembled. They were consumed by grief. Huddled together in an upper room, terrified that they too would soon be killed. Suddenly, after only three days Jesus is risen. Jesus is risen indeed. Alleluia! Resurrection all tied up in a neat little bow. The perfect bouquet. Smell the flowers and all will be well. I wonder.
I wonder. People do wonder you know. That’s how people are. They wonder. Questions. Questions. Questions. What’s going on? What are we going to do? Words. Words. Words. Anna’s grieving loved ones wove their stories of Anna in and out of the words, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live.” Words familiar words, designed to help us to make meaning. For the followers of Jesus, there were also words, familiar words designed to help them make meaning. In Jesus, his grievers, had experienced God as LOVE. Surely, God would not stand idly by and allow their enemies to take Jesus from them. Surely, LOVE itself could not be destroyed by the powers of evil. Surely, their God, the ONE in whom they live and move and have being,
surely God who Jesus had taught them is LOVE, surely LOVE would not abandon them. Surely LOVE would live on. Questions, questions that have no answers. Questions for which words always fail us. Questions we just can’t help answering with words. Words which are designed to comfort and to satisfy. Words that when all is said and done, fail and leave us with more questions. So, if God is LOVE and we experienced that LOVE in Jesus then, where is Jesus? Will we ever see Jesus again? Will we ever see LOVE again? Will the LOVE that lives in us die? “Woman: Why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” “Please, if you’re the one who carried Jesus away, tell me where you’ve laid the body and I will take it away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
We can’t help ourselves when love dies, we keep hearing and seeing that love all around us. It is as if our beloved is right here, in the midst of us. We hear them call our name. They mean so much to us. In the presence of our beloved, we were transformed into the best of ourselves. To hear them call our name…ah…the sheer beauty of their presence. Perhaps they can tell us. Perhaps they know the answers.
“Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned to him and said, “Rabboni! –which means “Teacher.” Jesus then said, “Don’t hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to Abba God.”
Are they here? Are they real? Am I imagining Jesus? What is happening? I don’t understand. The followers of Jesus could still feel the impact of his being on their lives. When he spoke, Jesus’ words challenged everything they knew or believed they knew. When Jesus acted, his actions turned their world upside down. When Jesus loved them, they knew the power of LOVE. When they saw Jesus’ love others, even their enemies, they saw a power in Jesus which was so much more than they could put into words. It was as if Jesus embodied the very LOVE which lies at the heart of everything. When Jesus spoke, scales fell from their eyes and they saw things which they’d never seen before. And now, now that he was gone, they could still hear him, they could still feel him. And in seeing him and feeling him, all their hopes and all their dreams of a better way of being in the world still seemed possible.
What was happening? Could this be real? It certainly wasn’t neat and tidy. Not with the Romans threatening to annihilate them and the religious authorities demanding that they just shut up and stop causing trouble. But they keep hearing his voice and feeling his presence, and the words, Jesus’ words, continued to challenge everything. Jesus’ presence continued to turn their world upside down. What was happening? Could this be real?
Even Jesus’ enemies were touched by his presence. Even Jesus’ enemies were being challenged by his words. Words designed to help us make meaning. Words which when all is said and done fail us. So, we turn to more words, other words and craft our stories so as to comfort us. And still the words of Jesus challenge us. And still the presence of Jesus continues to turn our world upside down. What is happening? Can this be real? This absence in which we feel the presence of Jesus, can this be real? Our questions echo the questions of the first followers and lovers of Jesus. Our stories build upon their stories, which were built upon the stories of the ones who had gone before them. None of these stories are neat and tidy. None of these stories can tie everything up in a pretty bow so that we can present the perfect bouquet which will heal all our pain and answer all our questions. They are just handpicked, slightly askew, bouquets which contain such beauty that we cannot take our eyes of them. They do not answer all our questions, but the really beautiful ones, the ones like tulips after a long, cold, winter, they can capture our imagination and give us the courage to ask our questions and struggle to make meaning of those things which are beyond words. Things like life and death, and resurrection.
About five years after Anna died, I ran into her daughter in the grocery store. I mean it, I actually ran into her. Our shopping carts collided. We laughed when we realized that each of us had a couple of bunches of tulips in our carts. “Somewhere Mom is smiling,” Anna’s daughter insisted. I agreed and added that it had been a long, cold, difficult winter and the tulips looked so beautiful I just had to take some home. Anna’s daughter nodded and agreed that winter is brutal. She was really looking forward to spring and the tulips would certainly give her hope. Suddenly, the toddler in Anna’s daughter’s cart shouted, “Who’s that?” Her mother said, “This is Pastor Dawn, she is a friend of your Grandma Anna.” “And who are you,” I asked the beautiful little girl. “I’m Anna! I’m free.” Whether it was free or three it was all the same. This beautiful little girl shared her grandmother’s eyes as well as her name. In her eyes I saw the reflection of Anna’s story, her stories, and her love. After we said our goodbyes, I went back to get more tulips. In Anna’s absence, I felt her presence. Anna lives. Anna lives in little Anna, and her daughter and in me, and now she lives in you.
Friends, this has been a long and difficult year. Isolated and fearful, we have felt one another’s absence. What is happening? Can this be real? This absence in which we feel the presence of LOVE. Can this be real? Are these tulips real? You bet they are. As real as the challenges we experience in the stories we tell. As real as the LOVE we feel in even in the absence of one another. As real as the LOVE which lives and breathes, in, with, through, and beyond us. In Jesus absence, his grievers felt LOVE’s presence. LOVE lives. LOVE lives in you and in me. LOVE is risen! LOVE is risen in us! Alleluia! Alleluia!
View the Full Easter Worship Video below
I don’t know about you, but I can’t begin to contemplate the events of this dreadful day without hearing the echoes of Jesus’ plaintive cry, in his mother tongue: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” The rawness, the bitterness, the desperation of this horrendous moment, together with all the horrendous moments which have transpired before or since are captured in Jesus’ plea, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” I have always imagined a dying Jesus gathering up what little strength he has to raise his head to the heavens and cry: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” Now, maybe that’s because most of the Hollywood films depicting the crucifixion that I have ever seen show Jesus looking up toward the heavens to utter this painful cry to God, who’s somewhere up there in these movies.
Jesus’ question has haunted the followers of Jesus for centuries, as Christians have struggled to understand how and why Jesus died. Questions about Jesus’ death have left the followers of Jesus tied up in knots for nearly 21 centuries. Why did Jesus have to die? Now, I’m sure that in pulpits all over the internet, preachers are struggling to help our listeners and our viewers cope with the realities of the violence which murdered the ONE we seek to follow. I can tell you that I have spent most of my life, struggling to understand exactly why Jesus died and what Jesus’ death means for all the generations who have trusted and followed Jesus. I have studied the answers which have been offered by successive generations of Jesus’ followers. I can almost recite chapter and verse of the various theories which have been offered by the church to explain Jesus’ death as all part of God’s grand plan to reconcile humanity to God. I could tell you about the Apostle Paul, who looked back to the Book of Genesis to try to fathom a reason for it all and settled upon the story of Adam’s disobedience as the source of our sinfulness. I could talk for hours about the theologies that hang on that apple. I know far too much about the doctrines of the fall and original sin and our need for reconciliation. I could recount various theories of how God went about settling the score; of making us one with God. The theologians called this process of reconciliation with God, atonement and then they proceeded to develop all sorts of theories of atonement. Lutheran pastors are required to study them all; all the way from the moral authority and ransom theories to the favorite of the last few centuries aptly named the satisfaction theory.
The atonement theory which we are all probably too familiar with, is western Christianity’s favourite: the penal substitutionary sacrificial atonement theory. How’s that for a moniker? Popularly expressed as: “Jesus died as a sacrifice for my sin.” Or “Jesus died for me. ” Or “Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for my sinfulness.” The theory of the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus lies at the very heart of so much of what you and I have been taught about Jesus. It also lies at the heart of so many of the reasons which people give for rejecting Christianity. And why wouldn’t they? I mean really, who wants to worship a God who sets his, and I do mean his, sets up his creatures up in a beautiful garden and warns them, “you can eat anything you like; only don’t eat this fruit over here, no this is the fruit of knowledge and you mustn’t eat this.” We all know if you put a child in a room full of toys exactly where that child is going to go. So, Adam eats the forbidden fruit because everyone knows it is the sweetest of all fruit and for the crime of being human, Adam and his lovely wife Eve are cast out from the garden because God is ticked. According to the Apostle Paul, because Adam sinned, we are all tarred with the same brush. We are sinners and the only way we can get back to the garden is
if somebody pays the price for our sin with blood. So, Paul sets Jesus up as the new Adam, and casts the story of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice. Paul’s Jewish listeners understood sacrifice. Jewish audiences understood the death in terms of the Passover sacrifice of a lamb, while gentle Romans, schooled in Greek thought, understood the sacrifice of scapegoats who were offered up on behalf of the people to placate the gods. It worked for Paul and later, Augustine would add his ideas and the notion of original sin. The fall, and our need of a sacrifice would lead Anslem to weigh in with his scales of justice and have Jesus tip the scales in our favour by offering himself as a sacrifice for our sin. It was the kind of logic which worked for centuries to keep the followers of Jesus in line, convicted by their sinfulness and looking to Jesus to save them from the wrath of God by climbing up there on the cross to die in order to placate an angry God. Sure, Luther came along and challenged the angry God stuff, which the church was using to keep the people in line. Luther’s theology of grace is indeed a thing of beauty. It softens God. For we are indeed wicked sinners in need of forgiveness and so God who is gracious and merciful becomes one of us; takes on flesh in the form of Jesus and dies to set us free from our sin.
We could spend the rest of the day exploring the answers which have been developed over centuries to explain why Jesus died on the cross. But I dare say, no matter how many hours we spend tracing the details of these answers, some questions will remain. We all know what happens when the answers don’t quite answer our questions; that’s where faith comes in. If it doesn’t make sense, if you don’t quite get it, don’t worry just have faith and believe.
Maybe that’s why Jesus’ question from the cross continues to echo so loudly in me, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” Maybe if I just had enough faith, I wouldn’t hear Jesus’ question quite as loudly as it rings in my ears, in my heart and in my mind. My God, My God why have you forsake Jesus? I mean really what kind of god, gets ticked off at children for doing precisely what children do? What kind of god allows their wrath to so overwhelm them that the only way they can be satisfied is if somebody pays the price!!! What kind of god sends their own child to pay that price?
I know, I know, there are those who will try to remind me that maybe just maybe Jesus was God and that Jesus dying on the cross was actually God dying on the cross. They will try to convince me to see that God is so gracious that God, God’s-self is willing to die for us. But why? Why does anyone have to die, let alone God? What is this god trying to convince us of? Does God think that some divine suicide is going to convince the world to join hands and sing kumbya? Well, it’s 21 centuries and counting and I don’t think it’s working.
So, the question remains, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” I don’t have an answer to this question. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to pat you on your sweet little heads and tell you, “There, there dear ones. Just have faith and God will take care of you. All shall be well.” I can only respond to Jesus’ cry, by making it my own question. My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why can’t we end these endless cycles of violence? Why do we keep crucifying you? Over and over again? When I have the courage to allow the echoes of Jesus’ cry permeate my very being it hurts and there is pain, and loneliness, confusion and a distinct feeling of fear. What if we really are abandoned? What if we are all just left here to squirm on our various crosses; wounded by our encounters with the world? My God, My God, Why?
When echoes of Jesus’ plea become our own; when we take up our cross and make that horrible journey to Golgotha and feel the pain as we are wounded by the world and hoisted up upon the cross from which we can see the violence, the poverty, the disease and the madness which surrounds us; when we too cry out, “My God, My God, why?” then and only then can we begin to look beyond the religious platitudes which have protected us from the realities of our humanity. It’s taken some 14 billion years for us to arrive at this moment and it is an amazing moment. Yes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but humanity was not created in an instant. Humanity has been evolving for millions and millions of years. There are no perfect creatures back in there in the past who fell from some perfect garden. We are evolving and part of the reality of our evolution is that it is a messy undertaking. We have evolved into creatures who are capable of such great goodness and creatures who have the capacity to do great evil. Our evolution has involved some of the most horrific evils. All around us we can see the evidence of the destructive power of our human nature. All around us we can see the evidence of the magnificent power of our nature to do good. We have gazed into the farthest reaches of the universe and we have plumbed the depths of depravity. We know that God is not up there in the sky like some grand puppeteer controlling our strings. We have learned so very much about the man Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and died in such a way that humanity has been, and continues to be changed by his teaching, his life, his death and his ability to live on. In this the great information age we are no longer held captive by the powers that be. We can dig and dig, learn and study, question and theorize for ourselves. We are free to explore the wonders of Creation,
free to examine the life and teachings of Jesus, of Moses, Mohamed, Buddha, and Confucius and so many other great humans. The sacred scriptures are open to us and we can read for ourselves the Gitas, the Upanishads, the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, the Quran, the Dead Sea Scrolls, together with the wisdom of the ages. We are not confined by the logic of the Apostle Paul, who wrote to articulate his own struggles with Jesus’ question. Nor are we bound by the legalisms of Anslem, who balanced Jesus’ questions with the sensibilities of his generation. Even though some of us bear his name, we are not Luther, oppressed by the powers of the church struggling to comfort the afflicted by convincing them of God’s grace by offering God up as a sacrifice. And we are certainly not like so many people today willing to check our brains at the door in order to protect our fragile faith. We have been up and the sky and know that God is not sitting up there on a throne.
So, let us feel the echoes of Jesus’ question resonate in the core of who we are. “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” Let Jesus’ question move us to a deeper questioning of our own. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It wasn/t until I set myself free from the idols which have been made of God that I began to let Jesus’ question resonate in me. When we allow ourselves to question, then we can begin to know Jesus. Not the theological construct of Jesus, but Jesus the Jewish man who preached the urgent need to establish the kin-dom of God on Earth; the need for Justice for all people; Jesus, the inspiring and courageous man, in whom those he met could see the depth of the DIVINE PRESENCE in human form. Jesus did not believe that he had to die in order to win God’s forgiveness. We only have to read his parables about God’s mercy to know that he did not believe in a vengeful God, or a God who dispensed justice measured against our sin. Jesus would not have told people to walk in relationship of utter trust with God, if Jesus believed that God was withholding forgiveness from people because of Adam’s sin.
Jesus died a shameful death on a cross because that was where his life, his teaching and his preaching took him. It’s where his passion for justice took him. He accepted the consequences of what he stood for. He did not see himself as a grandiose, other-worldly god-figure striding the heavens and the Earth setting everything right between God and a sinful humanity. Jesus was a courageous Jewish man who gave the best possible human expression he could to the gracious, life-giving, compassionate, DIVINE PRESENCE alive within him.
We are told in the gospels that Jesus taught with authority. We can presume that this was not the sort of authority the temple priests and the legal experts from Jerusalem exercised, but the authority of someone who lived what he preached. Jesus was a man who knew the pains and the struggles of the human condition. Jesus demonstrated in his own pain and struggle that it was possible to hold onto belief in the utter goodness and graciousness of God, and to trust the presence of God, whatever the darkness. Jesus lived in integrity to the fullest extent possible. Jesus did what many others have done and continue to do: he stood up for what he believed and accepted the consequences. Jesus final journey to Jerusalem was precisely that. Jesus knew that in the face of such a corrupt, violent regime, he was about to take a stand for justice which would set him at odds with evil and he was willing to take that stand. Jesus was willing to die for what he had lived his life to exemplify. The human condition and human systems of control and governance led Jesus to his death, not a God ruling from the heavens.
Life took Jesus and tested him. Jesus’ struggle to be fully human in the face of all that life dished out can be heard in Jesus’ plea from the cross, when we remember the very nature of the God whom Jesus proclaimed. The Abba to whom Jesus’ teachings point is not some far off distant God up there, or out there; but in here, in you and in me. Jesus declared, “I and Abba are one.” “If you have seen me, you have seen Abba.” Jesus embodied God and pointed to God who dwells, in, with and through us. Jesus believed and taught that the DIVINE PRESENCE is in all people. Jesus’ insight about the here and now reality of God’s PRESENCE in people is missed when we contemplate Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin.
When we look at Jesus’ human integrity, his courage, and his faithfulness, we can begin to see the SPIRIT of DIVINITY in this human being. When we honour the reality that Jesus was human like us, we can begin to understand that the very same SPIRIT of DIVINITY is active in our lives when we struggle for justice, when we struggle to be good, to be courageous, to take a stand, to bear suffering and disappointments, to be faithful to what we know to be true, to be just, to be loving. Jesus’ way of dying reveals the extraordinary capacity of the human to rise above evil and pain and struggle and fear.
As I said before, when I hear Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” I have always imagined Jesus looking up to the heavens to ask God why? But seeing the face of God in my sisters and brothers of all faiths and of none, I realize that I need to let go of this image of the crucifixion which I have turned into an idol. What happens if we imagine that Jesus, knowing full well that the DIVINE PRESENCE lives and breathes and has its being in all of Creation, in each and every one of us, can we then begin to see that Jesus didn’t look up and cry, but looked out to the people around him and cried? What can we see in the image of Jesus looking out at his executioners, appealing to the SPIRIT in them? Looking out at the jeering crowds and beseeching the SPIRIT in them? Looking to the women who were gathered below, and crying to the DIVINE PRESENCE in them? Shouting to those who abandoned him and fled he knew not where, pleading to the DIVINITY in them: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?”
When we begin to understand that our God is the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being, we can perhaps see Jesus’ plea from the Cross as a cry to the SPIRIT that Jesus knew in himself and his sisters and brothers and yes even in his enemies. When we begin to understand that the SPIRIT lives and breathes in with, through and beyond us, can we begin to hear Jesus’ plea from the cross as a plea to the DIVINE PRESENCE in us. Can we hear the echoes of Jesus’ cry from the cross as the embodiment of all those who have cried out from far too many crosses, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” hoping against hope to stir the SPIRIT in their fellow human beings?
Can we begin to hear in the echoes of Jesus’ cry from the cross the utter sadness, desperation and misery at humanity’s failure to give expression to the MYSTERY which is the LOVE we call God? Can we look beyond the idols we have worshipped for so long; see past the theories and conjectures, and actually begin to feel not for ourselves and our own failures, but for Jesus and every other sister and brother in whom DIVINITY lived and breathed and see the suffering and death which has been wrought because of humanity’s failure to give full expression to the LOVE which dwells in, with, through, and beyond us? For the sake of the Jesus, who gave such beautiful expression of DIVINITY, and for all those who in giving expression to LOVE have picked up their crosses, can we listen to their cries and work together to give expression to the God who is LOVE? If we cannot hear Jesus’ cry; if we cannot hear the cries of the countless millions of those who have been forsaken, abandoned, tortured, abused, left to die, then all the sadness of this Good Friday and every day, is for naught.
As we weep for Jesus, let us hear the cries of everyone who looks to us and cries: “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” Let the awesome responsibility of responding to their cries for justice, peace, mercy and love, stir in us so that the LOVE who dwells among us, can find expression in us. “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” My God. My God. Why have you forsaken me?
View the full Good Friday Worship Video below
At this time of year, I am often asked, “So, if you don’t believe that Jesus died for your sins, then why do you even bother celebrating the events of Holy Week?” Behind this question lies the assumption that the only way to understand Jesus’ death is to frame it within the context of the theology of “sacrificial atonement”, which is the technical name for the understanding of Jesus’ death which insists that: we are judged to be sinful creatures, punishment is required, and so God, who is imagined as a supernatural being, sends Jesus to pay the price for our sin. This theory of atonement was not formulated until the 11th century by the Benedictine monk known as St. Anslem. Anslem’s theory continues to hold sway in the minds of far too many followers of Christ.
The success of the theory of sacrificial atonement is a testament to the power of our liturgies and hymns to form our theology; for our liturgies and hymns are filled of sacrificial atonement images. However, Anslem’s theory is not they only faithful way to understand Jesus’ death. When one seriously engages the question, “What kind of god would demand a blood sacrifice?” the answers often render God impotent at best and at worst a cruel, and vindictive, a child abuser. The too small god of sacrificial atonement is a far cry from the ONE who is MYSTERY, beyond the beyond, and beyond that also; the ONE some 21st century Christians relate to using the phrase first coined by the 4th century saint Augustine of Hippo, who described the DIVINE MYSTERY as our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself.
While atonement theories all too often cast their god as little more than a cosmic perpetrator of filicide, who can only be placated by a blood sacrifice, of a beloved child, we only have to look as far as the Book of Genesis, to discover a vastly different view of DIVINITY, which offered to us by our Hebrew ancestors. The story of Abraham’s flirtation with child sacrifice, ought to have serve as an eternal reminder to the descendants of Sarah and Abraham that YAHWEH, the GREAT I AM, is not ONE to demand child sacrifice. Fortunately, theologians continue to open up different ways of understanding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that empower the followers of the Way to see new ways of understanding the life and the death of Jesus of Nazareth, ways which empower us to practice resurrection here and now.
On Maundy Thursday Jesus’ followers commemorate not just the events leading up to Jesus’ death. We celebrate Jesus’ gift of a “mandatum” from which we get the word “maundy” – a mandatum is a commandment and so today we celebrate Jesus’ gift of LOVE. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. And you are to love one another the way I have loved you. This is how all will know that you’re my disciples: that you truly love one another.”
That we should “love one another” is not a new commandment. There were many before Jesus, and many who came after Jesus who commanded, advised, encouraged, implored, and even begged us to, “love one another.” What is new about Jesus’ commandment is that we are to love one another the way that Jesus loved us. Which begs the question: How exactly did Jesus love?
I believe that Jesus loved in ways that I am only beginning to understand. I believe that Jesus was so open to the power of the LOVE which is God; that Jesus was able to live his life fully without fear. I believe that Jesus wanted more than anything else for his followers to be so open to the power of LOVE which is the DIVINE MYSTERY we call “God,” so open, that they too would live their lives fully without fear. I believe that this is what Jesus meant when he said, “I have come that you might have life and live it abundantly.” I believe that Jesus lived life abundantly and that living life abundantly means that Jesus loved abundantly and without fear. Jesus was so open to the power of the LOVE, which is God, that Jesus would not let the powers of darkness stop him from loving and living fully.
The kind of LOVE which Jesus embodied and taught is limitless. No darkness, no power, no fear, not even death can limit the power of LOVE which IS God. For if LOVE is limited by death, then LOVE will always be qualified and quantified. That Jesus was willing to LOVE without limits, came at great cost to himself.
But Jesus was willing to pay that price in order to show others the way; the way to LOVE without limit, without fear, without boundaries. Limitless LOVE is abundant life. That Jesus’ LOVE endured the worst that the world could send his way, that Jesus’ LOVE was for all the world, dead and buried, and yet bursts free from the grave, in ways we are still learning to understand, bears witness to the power of LOVE. That Jesus’ LOVE could not be destroyed, not even by the thing we fear the most, death itself, saves us from our need to fear death. Jesus has shown us the way. We can live abundantly, lives which are free from the fear of death and because Jesus has shown us the way, we are free to live fully, to love extravagantly and be all that we are created to be. LOVE shines in the darkness and darkness shall not overcome LOVE. If Jesus, life, death, and resurrection teach us anything, surely, they teach us not to be afraid. Not to be afraid of the darkness. Not to be afraid of living fully. Not to be afraid of loving extravagantly. Not to be afraid of the powers of evil. Not to be afraid of the power of death, because LOVE will endure. LOVE lives on, and on, and on. Jesus cannot save us from life. There is still evil to contend with. There will be darkness and there will be death. Jesus couldn’t save himself and he cannot save us from life. Darkness and death are both part of life.
Each of us must walk into the darkness which lies before us. We can beg God to take the cup from us! But the darkness will still come. And there will be days when the darkness will triumph. There are Good Fridays too many to mention out there. We can shout all we want for Jesus to save us, but in the end we too will have to take up our cross and find a way to follow Jesus into the darkness and beyond, trusting that even though it feels for all the world that God has forsaken us, we will make it beyond the darkness. The cross will not look the same for each of us. But there will be crosses to bear. But, Jesus has showed us the way. If we are to follow Jesus, then we must love one another the way that Jesus loved. LOVE is the only way beyond the darkness.
Do not be afraid of evil. Do not be afraid of death. Do not be afraid of the darkness. Follow Jesus who by LOVE frees us from the power of darkness to hold us captive to our fears, so that we can live life and live it abundantly. How exactly did Jesus love? Without limit. What did Jesus save us from? Our fears. Jesus saves us to love one another, just as Jesus loved. This is the way of abundant life, to LOVE one another, for LOVE is of God, the ONE who is BEYOND the BEYOND, and BEYOND that Also, our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself. Amen.
VIEW the full Maundy Thursday Worship below
I remember arriving in high school, at the tender age of thirteen and longing to learn all of the answers. So many of us were trained that way as children, to believe that growing up meant learning more and more answers. Looking back at that eager, young girl, it amazes me how sponge-like I was, soaking up more and more facts in my quest for answers. The essence of that child still lives in me now. But so does the joy of knowing that each answer brings with it dozens and dozens more questions, as I live into the reality of my unknowing. But back then the questions had only one purpose and that was to arrive at an answer. And it wasn’t until I encountered MS Wadell, my grade-seven science teacher, that I began to acquire a taste for the questions themselves. MS Wadell, it was 1970 and I had never met a “MS” before, MS Wadell brought with her a not-so-subtle feminist critique of the answers which were offered by the curriculum and it wasn’t long before we began setting aside our desire to learn the answers to the prescribed questions.
MS Wadell challenged us to ask different questions; questions the established school curriculum, never encouraged us to ask; questions which often went unanswered, questions which took on lives of their own within our very being. I confess that a good many of those unanswered questions I took with me right into my first year of seminary some twenty-three years later; still convinced that if I could only learn the answers, I would finally grow up. Fortunately, a wise seminary professor challenged the quality of my questions, insisting that the set of questions which I was working with, were incapable of helping me to move from my current position.
Alas, as we embark upon our annual Holy Week journey, I hear many of the questions which waylaid me in the wilderness echoed in the pleas which are sent to me from people searching for answers. In the wilderness of this pandemic Lent, perhaps it is to be expected that there’d be so many more people seeking answers. If my inboxes are anything to go by, many of you are hoping that I might use my Palm Sunday sermon to set you up with more than a few answers to your questions. Some folks have even reached out with answers of their own. And it is tempting to use this opportunity to give you whatever answers I have been able to distil from my own place of unknowing. However, I’ve noticed something about all of the questions which have been sent in to me and all of the answers if I’m honest, they have something in common. They appear to project a theme not well served by the answers I might offer. A theme which challenges the answers of the various institutional teachings of the “Church,” answers which we all learned in various ways, answers which have left so many of us stuck, precisely where we are, feeling neither in nor out of the faith to which we once clung to. Stuck here, clinging to “that old, rugged cross,” unable “to cherish it,” no longer hoping “to exchange it some day for a crown,” because the answer on offer, that we “love that old cross where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain” doesn’t have the power to move us any closer to the ONE we long for, the ONE who IS BEYOND our once cherished answers. So, our “Hosannas” have a hollow ring to them, a once more for old time’s sake kind of plea, “hosanna, hosanna, hosanna,” save us, save us, save us, from simply through the motions to placate our sense of nostalgia. I suspect that my beloved teachers were on to something when they encouraged me to abandon the same old questions because the same old questions aren’t up to the task of moving us beyond the wilderness into which we have been banished by our persistent questions; questions, which not even the wisest of answers can move us beyond.
So, as it is Palm Sunday, and Holy Week stretches out before us, let me suggest that we put down all our cherished questions and step aside from the answers which may or may not satisfy us and stick with our Hosannas for just a few moments. Hosanna from the Hebrew which means to save or to rescue. Here in this moment in time, I invite you to take a deep breath and consider for yourself what you long to be saved from. What do you desire to be rescued from? No judgement. This is not a trick question. And there is no “correct” answer. Just an honest inquiry. Is there something you need to be rescued from, right here and right now? Is there a reason for you to shout, “Hosanna!” If nothing comes to mind, how about the people you care about? Is there someone who you would dearly love to see rescued? If no one comes to mind, how about the planet? Is there some part of Creation which you hear crying out to be saved?
Our ancestors gifted us with a story about a reluctant messiah, a saviour who heard the collective cries of his people for salvation from the burdens of violence, greed, poverty, oppression and grief which separated them from their dreams of liberation, freedom, justice and the sheer joy of living. The apparent wisdom of this powerful story lies not in any answers to the peoples’ shouts of “Hosanna,” but in the reluctant messiah’s refusal to provide the particular answers the people thought that they wanted to hear. In our story, the people cry out for a Messiah, a Saviour who will parade into the center of their abuse like the super-heroes of their daydreams, or the conquerors of their nightmares. The people believed that the answer to their longings was a super-hero who would ride to the rescue, conquer their enemies, through violence and carry the day in ways which would put them on top. But our reluctant Messiah refuses to give the cheerers in our story the answers that they are pleading for. Our Saviour offers instead a splendid piece of street theatre which mocks the very answers which were on offer, leaving in their wake not just trampled palm-leaves but a broken pathway to perceived victory. Our reluctant Messiah responds to the cries of “Hosanna” with answers, which inspire a whole new set of questions. The gift of this story is given to us by our ancestors, not to put an end to all our questions, but to set us free from offering up the same old answers to the same old questions, so that liberated from nostalgia, we might shout new questions which have the power to move us beyond our lethargic malaise to find the courage to venture into our unknowing. Remember if you will your own “Hosannas” those you uttered for yourself, those you cried out on behalf of others, and those you shouted out for our planet.
Now, imagine if you will, just for a moment that a messiah has set you free from all your cherished questions and answers. Liberated to a place of your own unknowing, what can you see? What can you do? How can you help? Are there questions to be asked? New answers to be revealed?
Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! No need to wait for a messiah. For just as Jesus refused to be his people’s messiah and freed them to be all that they needed to be to be LOVE in their world, Jesus is NOT the answer to all of our questions. For LOVE which is the DIVINE MYSTERY lives and moves and has BEING, in, with, through and beyond us and we are free to move beyond our tightly held questions and answers, free to move into our roles as messiahs of one another. Listen for the Hosanna’s being shouted out to you and use your freedom to respond with LOVE. For we are created by LOVE and of LOVE, which is God, to be LOVE, here and now, to one another, indeed to all of Creation. Let us hear today’s “Hosannas” as our call to liberation from all which separates us from ONE another, so that all may know justice, freedom, joy and peace. Let us hear today’s “Hosannas” as our call to resurrection! Let it be so. Let it be so. Amen.
VIEW the FULL Palm Sunday Worship Video below
From within this pandemic wilderness of Lent, we must prepare ourselves to enter our second Holy Week in lockdown. At a time, when so much of our focus revolves around the hope generated by the arrival of vaccines, it occurs to me that we would do well to remember to vaccinate ourselves against more than just COVID. Now is the time to vaccinate ourselves against the virus of atonement theology, which threatens to afflict our vision and restrict our ability to see Jesus. I’m afraid that the various strains of atonement theology are about to infect our journey through Holy Week. So, before we are blinded by proclamations of blood-sacrifice, let us vaccinate ourselves, lest the infection of atonement theology forces us to look away from the realities of Jesus’ life and death, in favour of the blood-soaked wet dream of a god which is unworthy of our worship! Even though you may have already been vaccinated against the various strains of atonement theory, I suspect that the residue of such thoughts about Jesus still lingers and for the sake of our health, we could all use a booster shot to protect us from the very real possibility of rejecting Jesus altogether. Like many vaccines, the inoculation against atonement theory begins with a touch of the disease itself. So, to build up our immunity against atonement theory, let’s begin with a familiar dose of the dis-ease, to prime our own antibodies to resist atonement theory.
Do you hear it? That familiar tune? “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 taught me about the death of Jesus. I, like many “Christians”, 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! was there when they laid him in the tomb?” The sheer horror of my culpability in 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. So much so, that 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 which spoke to their particular communities, I still tremble. I have learned much about the motives of the various anonymous gospel-storytellers and I know that the weavers of the passion narratives, where not eyewitnesses to the crucifixion. I know that the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we call John, wrote his interpretation of Jesus’ execution more than 70 years after the event. I know that this anonymous gospel-storyteller which we call John, lived in a community which had experienced the wrath of the Roman Empire and lived with the reality that the Romans had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and driven the Jewish people into exile.
Scholars have taught us that the fledgling community of followers of the Way had been driven out of Jewish synagogues and were at odds with the Jewish community. Scholars have taught us that the anonymous gospel-storyteller had all sorts of reasons for telling the story of Jesus’ death in a particular way, casting the Jews and not the Romans as Jesus’ executioners. We now know that crucifixions were carried out in the thousands by the Roman Empire as a means of striking fear into the hearts of occupied peoples. We know only too well, that the idea that the Jews would have shouted “Crucify him” is, in all likelihood, the storyteller’s attempt to shift the blame from the forces of Empire onto the Jewish people, the occupied people of Rome. We certainly know that the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we call Matthew has done an untold amount of damage by putting into the mouths of the Jewish crowd, the words, “Crucify him. His blood is upon us and upon our children.”
The deaths of millions of Jews, indeed even the Holocaust, can be directly attributed to Christian contempt for Jews malignly accused of being Christ-killers. And so, for years I sang, “I was there. It was I who crucified him. I who denied him.” in a vain attempt to point to a kinder, gentler, historically correct version of Jesus’ execution. And still, I “trembled, trembled, trembled.” Because it was my sin, our sin, from which we needed to be rescued. I could see myself there, watching from the sidelines, knowing full well that Jesus died to save me, and to save you. What my trembling self didn’t know, but now knows is that for centuries the atonement theory which cast Jesus as God’s sacrifice for sin, for centuries, this theory did not exist in the Christian Church. Indeed, the idea that Jesus was some sort of substitutionary sacrifice for sin was not fully developed until the 11th century.
I cannot and will not worship a God who demands a blood sacrifice for sin. Reading the accounts of the anonymous gospel-storytellers with eyes opened wide by biblical scholars, historians, and theologians, we’ve learned to read between the lines and beyond the page and the portrait of Jesus is being remembered in ways which reflect, not the traditions of centuries, but rather the possibilities of Jesus’ time and place. We are beginning to understand Jesus the man and this causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble, because Jesus the human being was a justice-seeker the likes of which the world rarely sees. Jesus steadfastly refused to take up arms against his oppressors. Jesus practiced a non-violent resistance in ways that impacted his people and worried his oppressors. Jesus knew God as LOVE and proclaimed that LOVE, even going so far as to teach people to LOVE their enemies. Jesus challenged the religious authorities of his day to see beyond the scriptures and embody the God which he defined as LOVE. Jesus claimed ONEness with God and called upon his followers to understand their own ONEness with one another. Jesus was anything but a pacifist. Jesus was an activist, an agitator who practiced civil disobedience in ways which got him noticed by the oppressive powers of empire. Jesus refused to avoid confrontation with those very powers. Jesus was political, always speaking out on behalf of the poor and the marginalized. Jesus threatened the status quo. Jesus threatened the economic system because it oppressed the poor and enslaved the wealthy. Jesus threatened the military might of the Roman Empire because of the needless suffering and death which was all around him. Jesus taught a Way of being in the world which encouraged his followers to live life abundantly, and to love extravagantly, pointing to a God who is LOVE.
I tremble just thinking about the kind of trouble Jesus stirred up. I tremble knowing that Jesus loved so fully that he was willing to take the ultimate risk because he believed that death could not conquer LOVE. I believe that Jesus embodied that LOVE, the LOVE which we call “God.” I also believe that death could not conquer the LOVE which Jesus embodied and that in remembering Jesus, we experience the LOVE that IS the MYSTERY which we call “God.” When I remember Jesus’ embodiment of the LOVE which IS DIVINE MYSTERY, I see a full human being who had dreams of what might be; a person who dared to imagine that people could be set free from the ideas and images about God which enslaved them.
I see in Jesus, a person who understood that every act of human kindness connects us with the LOVE which IS DIVINE MYSTERY. In Jesus, I see a person who loved so greatly and taught so clearly and courageously that people were able to see in Jesus the embodiment of the very God which Jesus and his rag-tag bunch of followers defined as LOVE, and that this LOVE lived on in the LOVE that Jesus’ followers were able to embody beyond Jesus’ death. And so, I tremble, tremble, tremble. I tremble because I know that the crucifixion of the embodiment of LOVE is not over. We are surrounded by crucifixions. Just as surely as Jesus died upon the cross, those who follow the Way of Jesus, the Way of justice and peace, those who embody LOVE, continue to be tortured, battered, abused and hauled up upon crosses and executed by the forces of violence and death, the forces of the empires which continue to enslave us. The crucifixion didn’t happen once and for all, way back when. LOVE is crucified over and over again as the ways of empire, the ways of greed, violence, war, and death exact their punishment on the innocent victims of our world. LOVE is crucified all over again when calls for peace through justice go unanswered.
LOVE is crucified all over again in the countless lives which are destroyed, by our lust for power and our quest for stuff. LOVE is crucified all over again when Creation is scarred, wounded and poisoned by our arrogance and greed. LOVE is crucified again and again, when we fail to see the face of God who is LOVE in our sisters and brothers of every clan and race and tribe. And so, I tremble, tremble, tremble, because I know that I am there when they crucify my LOVE. I am there, all too often, lurking in the background as they nail LOVE to a tree. I am there, all too often, when I fail to embody the LOVE which IS DIVINE MYSTERY, when I do not speak out, or act up, but cling not to the cross, but to the comforts of the status quo. I am there each and every time and it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
How about you? Where you there when they crucified our LOVE? If you tremble at the truth of the death of LOVE in so many places, in so many ways, over and over again, please try to remember Jesus; a person who steadfastly refused to confront violence with violence, a person who embodied the LOVE which is God and gave his life to setting people free, a person who pointed beyond himself to the ONE who is LOVE itself, a person who trusted that LOVE is eternal, that LOVE lives beyond death. Remember Jesus and look beyond the crucifixions to the power of LOVE to live beyond the grave. Remember Jesus and see the power of LOVE to transform fear into hope and hope into new life. Let us remember that we were there when they crucified our LOVE, and we will be there when LOVE rises from the tomb. Oh, yes this causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. We’ll be there when LOVE rises from the tomb!
View the full Worship service for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
On this St. Patrick’s Day it is fitting to receive a blessing from a grand Irishman whose writing reaches into my soul. Followers of this blog know that John O’Donohue is one of my favourite sages. I am indebted to a follower of the blog for sending me this podcast of Krista Tripett’s interview of John O’Donohue recorded shortly before his death in 2008. O’Donohue’s words continue to open my soul.
Treat yourself to a listen:
For far too many centuries, the clarion cry to “REPENT!” has echoed through our Lenten liturgies, urging worshippers to remember “that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Our Lenten practices encourage us to pick up our metaphorical crosses and follow Jesus all the way to his death upon “the cross” and prayer after prayer is uttered to evoke the age old trop of a quid pro quo relationship with the DIVINE MYSTERY known as “the FATHER.” Metaphorical words are placed on the lips of the FATHER, who offers us a deal, “Repent! You wicked sinners! Repent!” And the gravity of your sinfulness is born upon the cross on which the “only begotten Son of the FATHER” is offered as a blood sacrifice for sin. To which my weary soul cries out with the HOLY LOVE which lives and breathes in, with, through and beyond me, “REPENT! REPENT!”
The appointed Gospel reading for this the fourth Sunday in Lent includes the infamous passage known simply as, John 3:16. This verse has been dubbed by many evangelicals as “the gospel in a nut-shell.” So popular is this verse that in certain parts of rural North America you will still find billboards out there in the field, which read simply John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” So many traditional interpretations of this verse have painted a particular picture of who Jesus was and why Jesus died. It is long past time for us to repent of so many of our tightly held beliefs about why Jesus died.
“Repent,” it comes from the Greek word “metanoia” which means “to think new thoughts”. Let us metanoia – Let us think new thoughts about who Jesus was and why Jesus died. Repent, Metanoia – let us think new thoughts so that we might ask: What can Jesus teach us? What does Jesus have to say to us?
The way in which the Jesus story has been told has crafted, molded and shaped the idol which masquerades as the MYSTERY which we call God. The stories about Jesus have been told in ways which paint a particular picture of what it means to be human. According to so many traditional interpretations, humans were originally created in a state of perfection to live in a perfect Creation. These perfect humans enjoyed a perfect relationship with their CREATOR. Then one day that perfect relationship was severed when for one reason or another the humans disobeyed the rules established by their CREATOR.
You all know this story. This story provides the raw material for the idol which we have created to serve as our god. According to the story humans are in bondage to sin and we cannot free ourselves. Humans were cast out of the perfection of the garden and alienated from their CREATOR. Humans have tried in vain to get ourselves back into the garden, to restore our ONEness with our CREATOR. But try as we might we are in bondage to sin and we cannot free ourselves. We need a saviour to rescue us from our sinfulness and our CREATOR needs us to pay for our sinfulness. We must be punished. So many interpretations of the life of Jesus insist that Jesus sacrificed himself, or was sacrificed by the Father, and took all our respective punishment onto his shoulders, died for us, upon a cross, so that our relationship to our CREATOR could be restored.
We’ve heard these interpretations of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection so many times that they have almost become indistinguishable from the idol which we have created to stand in for the MYSTERY which we call God. The trouble is, we all live in the 21st century, not the first century, and we know that the definition of what it means to be human which these stories rely upon, no longer rings true to anyone. We know that humans have been evolving over millennia. We know that humans were not created as perfectly formed creatures who fell into sin. We know that humans are continuing to evolve. Humans are incomplete beings. We are not fallen creatures. This knowledge has to change the way in which we see our relationship with the MYSTERY which is the very SOURCE of our being; our CREATOR if you will. This knowledge impacts how we interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
If we look at the stories which have been told about Jesus, the stories which have contributed so much to the creation of the idol that masquerades as the MYSTERY we call God, we discover a narrative which is preoccupied with Jesus’ death. It occurred to me the other day, that it is quite peculiar that most of what has been written about Jesus in the New Testament and indeed our liturgies, and even in the hymns we sing about Jesus, this stuff shifts our focus away from Jesus’ life, and celebrates Jesus’ death as the lynchpin of our relationship to the DIVINE. Imagine if you will, trying to understand the life of Martin Luther King, or Mahatma Gandhi simply by focusing upon their death. Imagine trying to understand who Dr. King was and focusing your attention upon his assassination. Imagine knowing everything there is to know about that final day in Memphis, about the motel, about the people who were on that balcony when Dr. King was shot, about the shooter, the gun which was used, about the funeral procession, the grieving, and about the people who tried to go on walking in the ways of Dr. King. Imagine all the information you would miss if you simply focused upon Dr. King’s death. You wouldn’t know very much about the civil rights movement, about Dr. King’s dream, his vision of equality, his struggle for inclusion, his cries for justice for the poor, his vision of economic equality, his passion for peace, or his commitment to non-violent resistance. So, let us repent. Let us metanoia. Let us think new thoughts by taking our focus off of Jesus’ death and all we may have heard or learned about why Jesus died, so that we can see what it was about Jesus’ life which endeared him to his followers. What can Jesus teach us? What can we learn from Jesus’ life about who, or what the MYSTERY we call God is? What can Jesus teach us about the God Jesus embodied?
The Gospel this morning comes to us from the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we know as John. This gospel was written some 70 years after the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The storyteller writes: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Today, which is the first day of Daylight Savings Time, when each of us is coping with the loss of an hour’s sleep, perhaps it is easier for us to understand that the way in which we describe reality does indeed change over time. Yesterday, when the sun was in the same position in the sky as it is now, we insisted that it was an hour later. Today, thanks to daylight savings time, the earth hasn’t quickened its course around the sun. The sun is in the same place at the same time as it was yesterday, but today all our clocks insist that it is actually 11 o’clock and not 10 o’clock.
When we focus upon the life of Jesus of Nazareth rather than the death of Jesus, we can begin to hear some of the things which Jesus was passionate about. Jesus’ passions reveal to us the image of the YAHWEH which Jesus worshipped. When we set aside the institutional narrative called “atonement,” which the church has relied upon to interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the idol which masquerades as god, the idol whose contours are reinforced in our worship services, by our hymns, our prayers, creeds, choice of scripture readings, and rituals, this idol begins to crumble. When we forgo our obsession with Jesus’ death and open ourselves to the passions of Jesus’ life, we begin to see new ways to understand the new images of the HOLY ONE which Jesus encouraged his followers to see. Jesus’ life reveals images of God which point far beyond the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, to the Ultimate MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of all reality.
The apostle Paul who was the first to write about Jesus, portrays Jesus as a doorway into the ULTIMATE. For Paul, Jesus was not God, but a human in which God is revealed. For us, Jesus can be the medium through which the MYSTERY which we call God can be imagined.
For centuries our imaginations have been limited by images created in the 4thcentury when the institution carefully crafted creeds about the nature of God and interpreted the death of Jesus which reflected their limited knowledge of reality. Our ever-expanding knowledge of reality is inconsistent with these 4th century interpretations of the experience of Jesus. Setting aside the doctrines of previous centuries, frees us to explore Jesus’ life from a whole new perspective; a perspective which embraces all that we have learned about what it means to be human; a perspective which is mindful of the vast expanse of the cosmos, a perspective which sheds light on the evolution of our species, a perspective which provides a window into the process of healing the wounds we created NOT by our bondage to sin, but rather by our incompleteness as ever-evolving creatures, a perspective which points beyond itself to a ONEness with the MYSTERY which is the LOVE that we call God.
Take for example Jesus’ passion for non-violent resistance to oppression. In a world where tribalism was the only remedy offered as a solution to our quest for survival, the life of Jesus represents a significant evolution in human consciousness. Jesus was able to move beyond tribalism, Jesus was able to evolve beyond the human instinct for survival and give himself to and for others. When we tell the story of Jesus’ life from this perspective, we, like the early followers of Jesus, we are able to see the LOVE which is God lived out in the life of a human being. In Jesus, God did not invade the world, coming down from heaven on high to pay a price for human sinfulness.
In Jesus we see a life in which the DIVINE ONE is revealed. Jesus broke down the boundaries and the barriers by which humans separated themselves from one another. The LOVE, which is God, that is seen in the life of Jesus, is the Way. Jesus insisted that LOVE is the only way of overcoming fear and division. In the presence and through the experience of Jesus’ life, the tribal barriers between Jew and Gentile, Jew and Samaritan, male and female, Jew and Roman, bound and free, rich and poor, life and death, all these divisions, they faded away. In the life of Jesus there was a humanity which included everyone and that dismissed no one. In the life of Jesus, a human community without boundaries could be imagined. In the life of Jesus God is imagined as the power of life, the passion of love, the ground of being which draws all lives into a new way of being human. In Jesus, we see the LOVE which IS God lived out in the life of a human being. In Jesus’ life we are able to see a way of being which moves us beyond our tribal instincts and points us toward a way of being which is open to the power of the REALITY which is the LOVE that is God. In the life of Jesus, the passions of Jesus, we are directed beyond the idol we worship as god, beyond the doctrines created by 4th century understandings of reality, beyond the primitive madness of blood sacrifice for sin, beyond the fear of a judgmental god, toward an integration of all that we are learning about what it means to be human in a cosmos far more incredible that our ancestors could ever begin to imagine.
The passions of Jesus are embodied in a life which reveals the LOVE that IS God. As followers of Jesus’ Way of being in the world, we are called to embody that LOVE here and now, in ways which will continue to move us beyond our tribal quest for survival, beyond our fear of death, beyond the divisions which threaten not only human life, but all life. As followers of Jesus’ Way of being in the world, we are called to evolve in ways which will expand human consciousness so that all may know the LOVE which is God.
Our clocks have moved forward. Surely, it is time for us to move forward. Like the sun, up in the sky, Jesus hasn’t changed, what is changing is the way in which we are seeing Jesus, the way we are telling Jesus’ story. The experience of Jesus remains the same, the explanations of that experience are changing. As we evolve, as our consciousness expands, so too do our understandings of what it means to be human. The life of Jesus continues to point beyond craven idols we create to worship, beyond our deepest fears, beyond our tribal urges, beyond our limited vision, BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also, to the ONE who is LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF.
Repent, Metanoia, think new thoughts! Discover ways of being human in which we become more fully the medium through which the LOVE which is God can be seen and experienced here and now, in, with, through, and beyond us. Repent. Metanoia. Think new thoughts! For you are gloriously and wonderfully made to be LOVE in the world!
View the Full Lent 4B Worship Video below
Beyond the Serpent. Beyond the Idol Jesus.
BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also
An ardent reader of this blog discovered this old sermon which I wrote under the influence. She asked me to post it again. It seems that crafty serpent has found its way into our Lenten lectionary and once again we must journey beyond our carefully crafted idols.
A sermon that attempts to peer beyond the mess we have made of John 3:16. Listen to the sermon here
I don’t like snakes. No. Let me make it perfectly clear, I hate snakes. I hate snakes because I am afraid of snakes. Snakes terrify me. I know that my fear of snakes is unreasonable. But when it comes to snakes, I could be described as a biblical literalist, because thanks my mythical fore-mother Eve, there shall be enmity between this particular woman and the serpents who are confined to slithering about the dark corners of my imagination. So, perhaps it is my fear of snakes, my hatred of snakes, that has prevented me from seeing beyond the literal words on the page when it comes to this morning’s gospel text. That a snake could lead me to a new understanding of the words put into the mouth of Jesus, by the anonymous gospel story-teller that we call John, comes as a complete surprise to me.
You might be able to tell that I am struggling to fight off a cold; the full effects of which hit me during the course of our congregational retreat on Friday night. So, when I arrived home late yesterday afternoon, I took a decongestant and went straight to bed. Decongestants have a strange effect on me. Sometimes they zone me out and sometimes they send me to this strange place where my brain races around at a million miles an hour. Yesterday, I was hoping for the latter, because all week long I have been struggling to figure out what to do with this gospel text and try as I might, I’d been stymied by a wall of doctrine that I simply couldn’t see my way past and despite all my hard work I had no idea what to do with this text.
I was kind of hoping for a bit of a medication buzz to get me past the wall of doctrine so that we could move beyond the line of text that strikes fear into the heart of this particular progressive Christian preacher. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16, or as it’s popularly known: THE GOSPEL in a nutshell.
These days, ardent fundamentalists don’t even bother writing out the words of the text, they just wave about their signs emblazoned with the mere mention of John 3:16 as a kind of declaration of what it takes to judge the content of one’s character. Either you believe John 3:16 or you don’t; one way or another you will be judged. Bow down before the Gospel accept that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Bow down and worship, believe or else.
Believe? Believe that God sent his only son to die, to die for you, to die for your sin, to die a horrible death on a cross, so that God your heavenly Father, could be satisfied, and muster up the grace it takes to forgive you, you wicked sinner that you are. Bow down and believe or face the wrath of the Father. Bow down and believe John 3:16 lest ye be judged. Bow down and believe John 3:16 or face the fire torment that awaits you in Hell; damnation! Bow down and believe. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only song so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Untangle that one, you progressive Christians, wangle your way out of that particular piece of Good News.
In my drug induced haze, I considered the possibility that the wall of doctrine is just too high to climb and far to wide to go around. Maybe I should just give up, surrender and stretch out in the shade provided by sheer size of a wall that seems impregnable. Lying there in my bed convinced that the walls of my room were actually closing in on me; I began to wonder if I’d made a crucial mistake. Could I be that stupid? Oh, my dear God. I’m an idiot. I found the strength to get out of bed and there on the bathroom counter was the proof of my stupidity. I hadn’t actually taken the daytime cold medication. No buzz for me because I’d taken the nighttime dose. Just burry me beneath the wall of doctrine, cause I am done for. Help me Jesus, Help, Help, me Jesus! Help me Jesus, yeah get me out this mess! Where oh where is the great sky-god when you need him? There was nothing left but to sleep. Sleep, sleep perchance to dream. Lord let there be a way through that wall of doctrine. Wall made of bricks, bricks forged in fiery furnaces of hell, fire and damnation. Bricks and mortar, plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is. Continue reading
I would like you to follow me as I attempt to follow Jesus into the Temple. Our way into the Temple is via the story of Jesus’ arrival at the Temple in Jerusalem. Which comes to us from the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we call John, who attempted to follow Jesus into the Temple some sixty to seventy years after this story was first told; long after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed.
Before its destruction in the year 70, by the forces of the Roman Empire, the Temple in Jerusalem was the considered by the people of Jesus’ homeland to be the most sacred site on Earth, the Holy of Holies, where YAHWEH, the God of their ancestors could be experienced and worshipped. So, it is not surprising that the Temple in Jerusalem should play a significant role in all of the anonymous gospel-storytellers’ attempts to portray the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Temple in Jerusalem was after all a place of pilgrimage where the people of Jesus’ homeland travelled in the hope of encountering YAHWEH.
YAHWEH the name used by Jesus’ contemporaries to express the sacred name of the MYSTERY which we call, “God.” YAHWEH the Hebrew expression which can be translated, I AM, WHO AM or I SHALL BE WHO I SHALL BE. Such a beautiful way to express the MYSTERY which is BEYOND our ability to name. So, beautiful in fact that the children of YAWEH did not speak this name. Indeed, long before the birth of Jesus, it was the custom of the Jewish people to not to speak but to breathe the name of the HOLY ONE, ….YAA…WEH…YAA…WEH…YAA…WEH…
I invite you to follow me as I attempt to follow Jesus into the Temple, the Holy of Holies, a sacred place upon the Earth. Only, I recognize that the difference between us, between you and I, and between all of us and Jesus, this distance of time and space presents a challenge which not even our splendid 21st century technology can traverse. However, we have at our disposal our mind’s eye; the place where our most sacred memories reside. Some of you may actually have memories of the ruins of the Temple of Jerusalem. But I dare say that my own memories of the Temple ruins fail to illicit the sense of sacred space which I long for in a temple. So, please follow me in your own minds eye to your sacred space, the place on this planet where you have found YAH…WEH…the MYSTERY who IS the LOVE which we call, “God.”
If you are as blessed as I have been, there isn’t just one sacred place to behold with your mind’s eye. But for me, the vast majority of the sacred spaces in which I have encountered the ONE who IS, those sacred spaces tend to be out there upon the Earth; specifically, for me, on the rugged coastline of my beloved British Columbia. I’m sure that each of you have many spots upon the Earth which you experience as sacred, but I’m going to ask you to close your eyes for a moment and allow your mind’s eye to select your Holy of Holies, the sacred space upon the Earth where you encounter the ONE who IS, LOVE. Long before humans began to erect temples to make sacred spaces, the Earth herself was our first Temple. How very appropriate for earthlings to encounter our CREATOR in the sacredness of the Earth.
As I lead you into the Temple which is the Earth, let me share with you the sacred space which I have been returning to again and again since I was sixteen. I discovered this holy place shortly after I got my driver’s license and over the decades, I have made so very many pilgrimages to this glorious temple to walk upon its holy ground and gaze upon its breath-taking, majestic, splendor and offer prayers of paise and thanksgiving to the CREATOR of all that I survey, prayers which speak not with words but with silence. My sanctuary, my sacred space, my temple is located on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish People, the Skwxwú7mesh, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam First Nations. It was not until settlers stole the land that my Temple was given the name Whytecliff Park. When I tread upon the sacred ground of this part of the Skwxwú7mesh Nation my whole being is opened to the miracles which abound upon this Holy Earth.
The images do not do this Temple of the Earth justice, but long after my worship there ends these vistas provide my mind’s eye with icons to point me beyond myself to the ONE who is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also. From within this sacred Temple I can see the imposing wonder of the Coastal Mountains as they dip their toes in the mouth of the Skwxwú7mesh Inlet. From my favorite spot within this Temple I can gaze across the deep, deep waters to the island the Skwxwú7mesh people know as Nex̱wlélex̱m, and known by settlers as Bowen Island, or look down upon the shores of Whyte Cove or wonder at the little rock known as Bird Islet, where on occasion I’ve been blessed by the sight of seals sunning themselves upon the rocks. This Temple of the Earth is beyond beauty, beyond words, beyond the power of these images to convey the sacred, the holiness, or the way in which the ONE who IS speaks, touches, delights, challenges, LOVES each and every worshipper who reverently walks upon this sacred part of the Earth.
I hope that my feeble attempt to describe one of the most blessed sanctuaries upon the Earth, gives way to the power of your own mind’s eye to summon up for you sacred memories of the Earth’s Temples where you have been blessed to worship. While these images begin to open you to the sacredness of our Mother the Earth, follow me as I attempt to follow Jesus into the Temple in Jerusalem. Imagine if you will Jesus’ sense of excitement and anticipation at returning to the Temple during the holy pilgrimage of Passover. A multitude of emotions must have been swirling around inside of Jesus as he approached Jerusalem.
Writing much later that the other anonymous gospel-storytellers which we call Mark, Matthew and Luke, who place Jesus’ encounter in the Temple at the beginning of that horrifying week we call Holy Week, our storyteller John chooses to place his story at the beginning of his account of Jesus ministry. Regardless of when it happened or even if it happened more than once, historians tell us that anyone entering Jerusalem during the latter part of Jesus’ lifetime would have walked by hundreds, possibly thousands of crosses upon which hung the rotting flesh of those who dared to challenge their Roman oppressors. Political dissent in Palestine during the Roman occupation was simply not tolerated. Those who protested Roman authority were publicly executed and the proof of their execution was displayed for all to see the folly of political opposition to the powers of Rome. In the midst of a political reality which made anything short of acquiescence to the status quo life-threatening, Jesus set a course right into the centre of the Roman authority of his homeland. Imagine if you will, Jesus’ memories of traveling to the Temple in Jerusalem as a boy. All those hours spent studying the Hebrew Scriptures with the scribes, and all the Passover meals shared with family. Approaching the walls of the city, moving closer and closer to the action.
Our gospel-storyteller does not appear to have much knowledge of the vast Temple of Jerusalem. Our storyteller John simply tells us that, “In the temple” Jesus “found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.” Historians have drawn up plans of the Temple which show this area of the Temple as the “Court of the Women or Commerce” – I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions from the linking of women and commerce happening outside, separate and apart from the area which housed the Holy of Holies – the dwelling place of priests, the place where YAHWEH is encountered.
Our storyteller named John, simply tells us that upon encountering the sights, sounds, and no doubt smells of commerce, Jesus set about making “a whip of cords” and proceed to “drive all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. Jesus told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here!”
We can almost hear Jesus’ shout “Stop making my Abba’s house a marketplace!” Later Jesus dares the Temple-dwellers to “Destroy the temple itself, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Temple-dwellers smugly retort: “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” Somehow the vision of Jesus’ anger at the desecration of the sacred Temple by commerce doesn’t sit well with his followers. You see, generations of storytellers and interpreters of stories have reflected upon this story, they have chosen to strip Jesus of his anger.
The idea that Jesus could have become so angry with religious authorities for cooperating with the violent and oppressive, Roman Imperial system, that he would create such a scene in the Temple is so far from the image of Jesus as the meek and mild long-haired peace-nick which we’ve all come to take for granted and to love. We don’t like to imagine Jesus’ humanity, especially when we know that anger is a perfectly human emotion. All too often our desire to stifle Jesus’ anger has crept into our perception of anger itself and left some of us who seek to follow Jesus supressing our own anger, pushing it down, denying it. But there’s just one problem with the popular image of Jesus as meek and mild, as acquiescent to authority and that is the reality of the crucified Jesus. Jesus was executed by the state not because of his patience with those in power but because of his impatience with those in power. Jesus’ impatience was born out of his anger at injustice.
Anger is a powerful human emotion. Anger is a useful human emotion. Anger lies at the heart of human evolution. Our anger at the way things are can be just the impetus we need to compel us to change the way things are. When anger moves us to reject the status quo, our protests can become the means by which we effect change. Anger is not the opposite of love. Anger is a vivid form of caring. Anger is not to be feared nearly as much as we ought to fear indifference. Our anger means we care—we care about what is happening to our fellow human beings and we care about what is happing to Creation.
As we attempt to follow Jesus into the Temple, I ask you to follow me back to my temple. Imagine my anticipation as I drive those winding roads up to the sanctuary where my sacred memories reside. I can almost smell the sea air which gently blows deep into the rain forest. I don’t much mind if the rain falls or the sun shines, because the ever-changing vistas, they are exquisite not matter the weather. As I scramble over the rocks to my favorite spot, my heart begins to race as I anticipate the sacred peace which awaits me. Breathing deeply of the SPIRIT, I catch a whiff of what smells like rotting flesh. I can barely catch my breath as my eyes struggle to focus upon the once grand and glorious whale beached upon the shore. As the tears begin to fall the image of tankers sailing down the coast stirs in me an anger which I cannot contain. There are no whips to be fashioned from the swaying grasses. But just as surely as the visions of my worst nightmares conjure up devastation in this sacred Temple of the Earth, my anger swirls around within me. But as I try to scream, no sound emerges, just an aching plea to the ONE in whom I live and move and have my being, who holds me close as I weep.….YAA…WEH…YAA…WEH…YAA…WEH… YAA…WEH…
It may not be images of oil tankers offshore which threaten your sacred sanctuary. But I’m sure that wherever your sacred Temple of the Earth is located, it is the forces of empire and commerce which threaten to desecrate the holiness of the Earth which you treasure. When the weeping is done, let the anger work in you to move you to reject the status quo which insists we worship commerce above all else, above even the Earth Herself.
Remember: our anger at the way things are can be just the impetus we need to compel us to change the way things are. When anger moves us to reject the status quo, our protests can become the means by which we effect change. Anger is not the opposite of LOVE. Anger is a vivid, sometimes sacred form of caring. Our anger is not to be feared nearly as much as we ought to fear our own indifference. Our anger means we care—we care about what is happening to our fellow human beings and we care about what is happening to the sacred Temple of Creation which is the Earth herself.
It is not too late to use our anger to effect change. For the Earth has been here for a long time, four and a half billion years. The Earth will change, adapt, and survive with or without our help. But with all Her beauty, with all Her grace, with all Her miracles our Mother the Earth is inviting us to breathe deeply of Her magnificence, so that we might join the Earth and sing together our hymns of praise with deep resonant harmonies. So that we can share Her bounty with grace. May you return again and again to the Earth to find sanctuary where you too can offer praise and thanksgiving to the ONE who IS….YAA…WEH…YAA…WEH…YAA…WEH…the ONE who IS BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also, our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Herself, now and always yours in each and every breath. Amen.
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