The Ascension Never Actually Happened – Ascension is Always Happening

Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read about the real Lawn-chair Larry here

“In God We Live and Move and Have Our Being – Acts 17:22-31, Easter 6A

PanentheismThis coming Sunday’s first reading from the book of Acts provides an excellent opportunity to explore a vision of God that has all too often been ignored by institutional Christianity. While doctrines of the Trinity abound, the rich tradition of panentheism that permeates the writings of the mystics is neglected. For those of us who are attempting to reconcile all that we are learning about the realities of the cosmos with our visions of the ONE who lies at the very heart of reality, panentheism provides a way of speaking about God that moves us beyond theistic notions of personifications of the deity toward a deeper awareness of the presence of God in all things together with the assurance that everything is in God.

Let me begin by saying, that panentheism is, in and of itself, an evolving term. The term can be found in the works of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, process theologian Alfred North Whithead, and more recently in the work of Juergen Moltmann, Matthew Fox, Philip Clayton and Marcus Borg (for Borg’s ideas about panentheism follow this link). The word itself is made up for three Greek words: pan = all, en = within, theism = god. Panentheism is used to describe God as ONE who is in everything.  Panentheism (unlike pantheism) does not stop with the notion that God is in everything, but goes on to posit that everything is God. God is in the universe and God transcends the universe. God is greater than the sum total of the universe. But the universe cannot be separated from God. We are in God and God is in us.  God breathes in, with, through, and beyond us.  

The term panentheism is proving helpful to Christians in the 21st century who are working to articulate our faith in light of all that we are learning about the universe. It is also invaluable to those of us who have a deep reverence for creation and are seeking ways to live in harmony with creation by treading lightly upon the earth. Panentheism is also a concept present in many faiths and provides us with a common way of speaking together about our Creator. But like all language the term fails to fully capture the nature of the Divine. It is merely a tool to help us think beyond the idols we have created to function as objects of our worship.

The Apostle Paul insisted that God is “the One in whom we live and breath and move and have our being.”  (Acts 17:28) As we look towards the heavens, we see an ever expanding new story of who we are. Just as Paul struggled to find ways to articulate the nature of the Divine to his contemporaries, Christians continue in every age to find ways to articulate the nature of the Divine to each new generation. We do not abandon the wisdom that has been offered by those who have gone before us. But we cannot ignore the wisdom that is being revealed to us here and now in our time and place within the communion of saints. 

Whenever we try to articulate what God IS, language fails us. For the most part, the institutional church has defined God with words and expected that members of the institution will confess loyalty to those words. Many of the words, with which the institution has traditionally described God, craft an image of God as a supernatural being up there or out there who is responsible for creation and from time to time interferes in the workings of creation. As we continue to learn more and more about the magnitude of creation, both in time and space, our traditional words about God seem ever more puny. While some respond to our ever-expanding knowledge about creation by attempting to make our notions of God fit into the tight little containers that were crafted by our ancestors, some are seeking new ways to speak of the CREATOR OF ALL THAT IS, WAS OR EVER SHALL BE. Often our attempts are as clumsy and as limited as the attempts of our ancestors. But sometimes, sometimes the likes of Tillich breathes new life into the notions of our ancestors and Paul’s description of our God as “the one in whom we live and move and have our being” becomes for us, as Tillich imagines, “the Ground of our Being”.

Below is a video that I have shown to Confirmation students (ages 12-15) as we begin to explore the great religious questions that have inspired wisdom seekers from the beginning of human consciousness: Who am I? What am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? etc. The responses of young people inspire me! I cannot wait to see what they will reveal to us about the nature of our reality! As you watch this video, I offer you a benediction. It is a blessing that I have adapted with permission from the work of John Shelby Spong.

God is the source of life, so worship God by living,

God is the source of love, so worship God by loving.

God is the ground of being, so worship God by having the courage

to be more fully human; the embodiment of the Divine.

SPONG Living pastordawn

Resurrection: “Believe Whatever You Want About What Happened. Now Can We Talk About What This Story Means”

borg & Holt

Recorded February 7, 2013: Marcus Borg and Charles Holt discuss Jesus’ resurrection.

Every Bush Is Burning: Earth Sunday Sermon

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

Listen to the Earth Day sermon here

Worship Bulletin here

The readings are here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Yada, Yada, Yada, we’ve heard it all before…a sermon from Palm Sunday 2016

on a donkeyLast year our Palm Sunday worship began outside in the bright sunshine of the first morning of springtime, where we spoke of the reenactment of one of the two parades that took place in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago. Embracing Jesus’ political act of performance art we processed into the sanctuary waving our palm branches and shouting our hosannas. Rather than the familiar Palm Sunday readings our worship included the story from Genesis chapter 32 which tells of Jacob wrestling with God, Psalm 118, and John 12:12-15. you can read them here and listen to the sermon here

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Save us! Save us! Save us! Once again, we travel back to Jerusalem to welcome Jesus into the city where we all know that the powers of empire will execute him. Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna: save us from this story that has the power to turn us into cheerleaders for an abysmal, obscene, cruel, madness that portrays the creator of everything that is, was, and ever shall be as a maniacal child killer who cannot bring himself to forgive the very ones he has created unless the most beloved of his children sacrifices himself upon a cross on a hill far away.

It happens every Palm Sunday. Over and over again, we hear atrocious interpretations of the meaning of Jesus execution that continue to distract us from the power that embodied love might have to resurrect the world in ways that will see the violence end as justice climbs out of the empty tombs into which we have tossed our dying dreams of peace. In our darkness, we have wrestled with the One who gave us light. Like Jacob of old, we too have fought, demanding a blessing from the divinity of our creation. We have wrestled in the night to find the God who will save us from ourselves. Praying for peace, longing for justice, shouting to the heavens for a blessing that will save us, save us from our hunger and greed, restore justice, and lead us forth to peace. Like Jacob, we long to know the name of our Creator, so that we will recognize our saviour when the saviour comes. Like Jacob we too have been wounded by the very sight of the face of God. For in the darkness of the night, we have wrestled our God to the ground only to discover that the blessing this God delivers, leaves us limping into the future wounded, stumbling forth with as many more questions than simply to know the name of the One whose blessing we seek. As the first light of sunrise shines on a new day, we too can but limp along injured, still seeking the One whose reluctant blessing we carry forth into an uncertain future. Hosanna, save us! Save us from our woundedness. Save us from the desires that haunt us, over power us and fracture our humanity. Continue reading

Giving Up God for Lent?

Eckhart rid me of GodAn article by Brandon Ambrosino in the Religion section of the Hufington Post sent the wheels in motions. I am indebted to Pete Rollins  book the Idolatry of God as well as his video Atheism for Lent for providing me with the courage to preach this sermon. Lent 1 – February 17, 2013 – Listen to the sermon here.

I swear to you it happens to me every year! It usually happens when the first person asks me what I’m giving up for Lent. When you’re in the line of work that I’m in, I suppose you should just get used to it. But somehow that particular question makes me wish I did something else for a living. People don’t usually mean much by asking the question. At this time of the year, “What are you giving up for Lent?” is sort of like when people ask you, “How are you doing?” They’re not really interested unless you have a pithy answer. I I must confess that over the years, I’ve come up with more than a few pithy answers. Like the time, shortly after I first came to Newmarket to be a pastor and my Mother, who does not observe Lent asked me what I was giving up for Lent and in a feeble attempt to make my Mother laugh, I told her I was giving up drugs and sex for Lent. Things went very quiet on Mom’s end of the phone line.  The truth is that the answer I most feel like giving when people ask me what I’m giving up for Lent requires so much time to explain that I rarely answer the question truthfully. But t’is the season for confession, so please forgive me but I’d really, really, really, like to give up Lent for Lent! I mean who among you, woke up this morning and said to yourself, “Oh goodie it’s the first Sunday in Lent! Yippie!!!”

I remember when I first started going to church, I was a teenager, and I don’t mind telling you that my first experience of Lent almost sent me packing. All I heard was that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. All that talk about sin made me feel so guilty and worthless. I was just 15 years old and I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to commit much in the way of sin, and all I kept hearing was repent, repent! The message I received loud and clear during those first few Lents in the church was that I was nothing but a wicked sinner, a worthless worm! Poor, poor, pitiful me! But have no fear, cause Jeeezus can make you better. And all you have to do is give something up for Lent!!! Jeeezus, he’s on his way to be executed on a cross, because of you, so you owe it to Jesus to feel lousy because he’s going to sacrifice everything for you. They’re going to nail him to a cross because of you. You wicked sinner. The least you can do is give something up for Lent. Continue reading

Preparing to Preach on Jesus’ Teaching on Non-Violence: Matthew 5:38-48

In the Gospel According to Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount provides a distillation of the teachings of Jesus; teachings Jesus lived for, teachings that eventually made Jesus so dangerous to the oppressive Roman Empire that they executed him as an enemy of the state. The very heart of the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ teaching on non-violence.  I can think of no better way to begin my own preparations to preach on this crucial text than to look to the work of the great Walter Wink.  I will always be indebted to this amazing teacher for all that I have learned and continue to learn from him. The videos below comprise the various parts of a lecture that Wink offered on the subject of Jesus’ teaching on Non-Violence. For anyone who aspires to follow Jesus this lecture is a must see. Wink’s books are well worn friends that I have often thumbed through to find more than a nugget or two to enable me to teach anew something that I have long since come to know as a result of Wink’s excellent work! His enlightening trilogy: Naming the Powers, Engaging the Powers, and The Powers that Be along with Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way should be at every preacher’s fingertips as we proclaim Jesus’ radical way of being in the world.  Follow this link to a sermon based on these resources.

Preaching Christmas Eve in the Wake of New Testament Scholarship

the first christmasIn 2008, our little congregation played host to John Dominic Crossan who has been acclaimed as world’s most famous New Testament scholar. Crossan’s visit to our congregation began with a public lecture based on his best-selling book The First Christmas in which he and Marcus Borg provide a splendid historical outline of the development of the birth narratives. I had the dubious honour of standing before his enlightened audience on Christmas Eve to preach in the great man’s wake. What follows is the Christmas Eve sermon I preached just three weeks after Dom’s illuminating visit.

Just a few weeks ago, this congregation was privileged to play host to a man who has the reputation of being the greatest New Testament scholar in the whole world. Dom, (we get to call him “Dom” now) wrote The First Christmas with Marcus Borg who is the guy who is heralded as the world’s leading expert on Jesus and Christianity in the 21st century. During his lecture, Dom provided us with all sorts of marvellous ways to understand the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus.  Ever since that visit, there have been folks who listened very carefully to what Dom had to say and who have been positively gleeful when they’ve asked me what I’m going to do about preaching on Christmas Eve.

I mean what could I possibly say to you after so many of you have just finished hearing from the best in the business! And then there are those of you who bought the book and you’ve read what the experts have to say about the first Christmas. Some of you weren’t able to hide the smirks when you wondered out loud just exactly how I’d go about following the eminent Dr. John Dominic Crossan. Continue reading

The Curtain Has Been Torn and The Temple Lies in Ruins: Luke 21:5-19 a sermon

Isaiah 65Our readings today were from Isaiah 65:17-25, Dietrich Bonheoffer’s “Letters from Prison, and Luke 21:5-19

A pdf of the worship bulletin which includes the Bonhoeffer reading can be found here  Pentecost 26C Nov 17 2013

Listen to the sermon here

You better watch out. You better not pout. You better not cry. You know who is coming to town. Yes, this is the weekend. In cities, towns, and villages all over the place you know who is coming to town. He knows if you’ve been sleeping. He knows if you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake! I’m not too old to remember a time when I believed in the person you know in Canada as Santa Claus, but when I was a kid in Belfast we called him “Father Christmas”. I remember the excitement I felt about his pending arrival and I remember trying ever so hard to be good. I don’t remember being disappointed when I realized that Father Christmas was a conspiracy of sorts. Somewhere, somehow in my little child’s brain, I sort of transferred all the love, affection, anticipation, and fear that I harbored for Father Christmas over to THE FATHER. FATHER GOD, who I imagined as a grey-bearded old man who lived up there in heaven. We never went to church, but somehow the adults in my life managed to communicate to me that, I’d better watch out, I’d better not cry, cause HE knows if I’ve been bad our good and I’d better be good for goodness sake. I learned to say my prayers, to thank the Father for all the good stuff in my life, and to ask the Father to take care of Mummy & Daddy,  Nannie and Granda, Gran, my aunts and uncles and oh yes don’t forget my brother Alan, even if little brothers are annoying, please Father take care of him and maybe make sure that Mummy and Daddy have all the money they need to buy us Christmas presents and if there’s time help us all to live in peace.

My childish notions about HIM, up there, eventually gave way to adolescent wonderings about why HE let bad stuff happen to all the good people, and why people died in accidents, or people got hurt, or sick and died. I remember being particularly preoccupied with thoughts about why bad, evil, nasty people got away with stuff; I mean why didn’t HE just use some of HIS all powerfulness to stop bad things from happening? Eventually, when I found my way into the church, I began to add qualities to the character of the FATHER. Gradually, the FATHER became gentler, kinder, wiser, and more gracious. Continue reading

Here We Stand, For We Can Do No Other – a sermon for Reformation Sunday

Simcoe Landing

Run-off pond at Simcoe Landing

Listen to the sermon here

Watch the video that was shown in place of the traditional readings for Reformation: Thomas Berry and the Earth Community here

Gospel Text: John 8:31-36

Despite the fact that my parents named me Dawn, I have never been much of a morning person. Those who know me well would probably agree that I should have been called Dusk instead of Dawn. But Dawn I am and so from time to time, I actually venture out to explore this phenomenon for which I am named. Earlier this week, after a long sleepless night, of tossing and turning, wondering and worrying, I decided that as sleep was eluding me, I might as well give up and get up. The sun was about to rise and so out I went into the quiet world of our little subdivision. We moved into our subdivision nine years ago. The subdivision was built about six years before we moved in, so our little community is only about fifteen years old. Before the subdivision was built, the land was used by a farmer to grow corn. On the fringes of our subdivision, they are expanding further into the cornfields. The neighbourhood is expanding, growing, and changing. The demands of modern life are encroaching on a lifestyle that is disappearing from countrysides all over the planet. Modern subdivisions are built to a pretty standard plan. Before the streets and infrastructure can be developed, some pretty basic problems need to be addressed, not the least of which is water run-off. As near as I can tell, modern developers deal with the problem of drainage by establishing ponds which function as catchment basins for rainwater runoff. At the foot of our subdivision there are four such ponds around which the developers created footpaths so that we suburbanites can at our leisure have someplace to take a walk.

When we first moved in, the ponds weren’t exactly picturesque. Just open pits into which runoff had poured, surrounded by paths and building sites. In the beginning these ponds were more like scares on the landscape and failed to inspire us to wander past very often. Indeed, if we wanted to take a walk, Carol and I would often get in the car and drive to a nicer spot to walk. But over the past nine years something miraculous has happen and in our neck of the woods Mother Nature has healed the Earth’s wounds and those ponds have become a favorite place to walk. Where once there was just muck and the open wounds of the Earth, now there are well healed pathways, beautiful bushes, fruit filled trees, and a whole host of wildfowl. Nature has repaired what we humans came close to destroying.

So, as the sun was rising in the east, I couldn’t help thinking about the natural rhythms and blessings of this life. And because I had been kept awake by worrying about the content of this Reformation sermon, my mind began to think about the similarities between the relationship of nature to the pond which humans created where once there was no pond and the relationship between God and the church humans created where once there was no church. Continue reading

Wrestling With the Almighty: Locating Our Very Selves in the Sacred Story – a sermon on Genesis 32:3-31

Godbotherers

For those of you preaching on the text from Genesis 32:3-31:

You may not be able to tell from looking at me. But let me assure you that you are looking at someone who used to be a champion wrestler. Believe it or not, my wrestling skills actually helped me rise to the level of a world champion wrestler. Well, perhaps I should qualify that statement. When I was an amateur wrestler, I was a world-class champion wrestler. But like so many athletes, when my status changed from amateur to professional, I lost my championship status and although I still qualify as a professional wrestler, and I like to see myself as a champion, I’m no longer what you would call world-class.

Like many professional wrestlers my career began when I was but a child. Growing up I had a very clear advantage as I developed my wrestling skills. You see having a brother who was just 18 months younger than me meant that I had ample opportunities to hone my wrestling skills. My brother and I were always at it. I’ve got to say that even though we shared the same weight class for most of our childhood, when it came to world class wrestling holds, I had him beat. I had this wicked arm-hold sleeper, and that together with my full Nelson followed by a knee-arm press, was guaranteed to have my brother screaming uncle and agreeing to be my obedient servant until in no time at all. For years I reigned as the champion of our little world! I was unbeatable. My brother didn’t stand a chance. My reign as world champion would have continued if it weren’t for the abrupt ending of my amateur status.

One morning when I was about 13 and my brother was 9 and a half, we were going at it,  and to his credit my bother had me in an ingenious hold. Somehow, he’d managed to secure me with what we professional wrestlers call an arm bar. That’s where you’re opponent wrenches your arm behind your back and applies just enough pressure to cause pain, but not enough to break anything. But just when Alan was approaching the point of no return, I managed with a feat of superhuman strength to rise up, twist around and swing for all I was worth and connect with what I though must be my brothers chest. I expected that such a thrust would have released my arm from Alan’s iron grip. But he still had me. I was about to hit him again, when for no apparent reason Alan released me from his grip. In an instant I wiggled free, spun around and connected with what I figured would be a fatal blow. Just before my blow connected with it’s victim, I realized that I was doomed.

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Jesus Was and Is an Absolute Fool – a sermon on Luke 15 for Pentecost 17C

lost-and-foundI am indebted to two beloved seminary professors for the formation of this sermon: Dr. Donna L. Seamone and Dr. Ed Riegert. All preachers stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us!!!

Jesus was and is an absolute fool! An absolute fool, I tell you! Among the teachings of Jesus, the parables of the lost and found are so well known, so familiar that we are in peril of failing to hear the foolishness they advocate.

Although only a few of us have had the opportunity to tend a flock of sheep, most of us at one time or another have been responsible for the welfare of a flock. Whether that flock be sheep or co-workers, clients, customers, students, friends, or children none but the foolish among us would leave 99 to the perils and dangers of the wilderness in order to go looking for one idiot who’d been stupid enough to get themselves lost.

We may not keep our coins at home, but I daresay that most of us have felt the sting of loosing a drachma or two or three in this recession. Only a fool would waste a moment searching for our losses when our portfolio’s are so full. I dare say that if we managed to find or recoup our loss, we’re hardly likely to invite the neighbourhood to a party that would in all likelihood eat up more than we had found. Continue reading

Jesus You’ve Got to be Kidding!!! a sermon Luke 14:25-33 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20 for Pentecost 16C

choose lifeI am indebted to Pastor Michael Rodgers for preaching a sermon long ago that stuck with me for decades. This sermon is inspired by his work! 

Jesus you’ve got to be kidding! “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple?…None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions?”

Hate your father; hate your mother; hate your wife; hate your children; hate you brothers; hate your sisters; hate even life itself and oh yes while you are at it give up all you possessions and then, and only then will you be ready to take up your cross and follow Jesus. What is Jesus talking about? Has Jesus forgotten about the fourth commandment? Are we to forget about honouring our parents? Wasn’t it Jesus who said that we are to love our neighbours as we love ourselves? Didn’t Jesus try to talk people into loving their enemies?  Has Jesus forgotten that God is love? Why does Jesus rant and rave about hating our father’s, mothers, children, sisters, brothers and even life itself?

It is difficult to recognize the Jesus in this text. This is not the gentle Jesus of my childhood. This is not the happy Jesus who smiled out from the pictures in my illustrated Bible.This is not the Jesus that the rightwing conservative Christians point to when they harp on about family values. This is not the gentle Jesus we have come to expect. This Jesus sounds to harsh. This Jesus wants to turn us into religious fanatics who hate everybody and give up everything, even life itself.

For a few years now, there has stood on the shelf above my desk a quotation from Deuteronomy 30. I put it there so that these word’s of God might guide me in my decision making. According to the writers of Deuteronomy, God says:  “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”. God says “Choose life!” How do I reconcile this to the Gospel lesson in which Jesus  says whoever does not hate even life itself, cannot be a disciple of Jesus? Why was Jesus so harsh?  What is going on here? Continue reading

Starry, Starry, Darkness: sermon for Pentecost 12C

van-gogh-vincent-starry-night-79005662Readings:  Genesis 15:1-6, Hebrews 11:1-16, Luke 12:32-40

Listen to the sermon

‘Have no fear little flock. Have no fear little flock. It is you Abba’s good pleasure to give you the kin-dom.” Have no fear. Do not be afraid. But what is it that we are all afraid of? What is fear is Jesus trying to sooth? What fear drives us? In the deepest darkest hours of the night what are we afraid of? Does it all come down to the darkness in the end? Darkness in the end?
Darkness in the end? Have no fear. Do not be afraid. But how can I not be afraid? What if in the end it all comes down to darkness?
Have faith! Have faith. ”Faith is the reality of all that is hoped for; faith is the proof of all that is unseen.” Have no fear little flock. Do not be afraid. Have faith. But what is faith? The reality of all that is hoped for; faith is the proof of all that is unseen. I’d love to get me some of that. I’d love to have faith; faith that in the end all is not darkness. If I only had faith, I could believe that in the end I will not be left in the darkness of the abyss. If I only I had faith.
After this morning’s worship, I will begin five weeks of vacation. Five glorious weeks to do whatever I want, whenever I want to.I am richly blessed!!! Not only do I have five weeks stretching before me. My vacation begins at the peak of the Perseids. In fact the absolute best time to view the most spectacular meteor shower of the year will be tonight and tomorrow night. From about 10:30 to 4:30 am the universe will be putting on a show. It will start off slowly and then peek just before dawn and if you lie out under there’ll be more falling stars to wish upon than you’ll be able to count. I’ve spoken to you many times about my experiences out under the stars. I’ve been a fan of the Perseids ever since I was a teenager and felt the nearness of something so much bigger than myself under a starlight night. Stars have always given me the courage to peer into the darkness and trust that we are not alone. Stars in the night-sky and not doctrines, or theologies or creeds or a list of things I ought to believe, but stars in the darkness of the night sky. Stars in the night sky take me back to all hope filled nights I’ve spent peering into the darkness for a trace of the One for whom my heart yearns. Stars in the night sky help me to see beyond the darkness. Stars in the night sky are best viewed far away from the lights of the city. In the city there is too much man-made light interfering with our view. In the city there is just too much of everything and there is good reason to be afraid.
I still remember my first trip to New York City. I was a young woman, and the hustle, and bustle, and reputation of New York City gave me so much to be afraid of. New York City is dirty and gritty. In an effort to escape the stickiness of the busy streets, I ducked into the Museum of Modern Art. Back then I didn’t have much of an appreciation for great art, but even I was left breathless when I turned a corner and was confronted by Van Gogh’s masterpiece, Starry Night. Vincent Van Gogh’s image of the night sky swirls across the canvas full of vitality and power that speaks of God’s presence. The stars don’t just sparkle; they explode in radiance. Looking closer, I could see that the earth itself seems to respond to the movement in the heavens, forming its own living waves in the mountains and the rolling trees beneath them. In the sleepy village, the windows of the houses glow with the same light that illuminates the universe. The church steeple in the center seems to struggle to point to God, who is so alive in this scene. But the little church is dwarfed by the cypress trees at the left, which seem to capture the joy of the inhabited creation around them by erupting in a living flame of praise.
I spent a couple of hours standing and sitting in front of that masterpiece and that afternoon was just the beginning of my love affair with Vincent Van Gogh’s work. Over the years I have travelled to Amsterdam many times and spent hours in the Van Gogh museum gazing in wonder at the work of this master. If you have only ever seen a print of a Van Gogh then you have missed the wonder of the thousands and thousands of brush strokes that make up one of his masterpieces and you have missed the opportunity to be mesmerized by the wonders of the details imbedded in each painting. I have traipsed around Europe exploring the various museums that contain Van Goghs and I have often gone out of my way to catch a glimpse of a Van Gogh tour. I’ve seen hundreds of his masterpieces, but none can compare to the splendour of Starry Night.

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I’m a Doubter Not a Believer – Preaching on FAITH – Pentecost 12C

Preaching on Luke 12:32-40 and Hebrews 11:1-16

doubters welcome“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Abba’s good pleasure to give you the kin-dom” So begins the gospel reading for this coming Sunday. But I am afraid and my fear is not about the the thief who this text insists may break into my house or that the Human One is coming at some unexpected hour. No my fear is wrapped up in my desire to pay little or no attention to the second reading prescribed for this Sunday from the letter to the Hebrews:

“Faith is the reality of all that is hoped for; faith is the proof of all that is unseen. Because of faith, our ancestors were approved b God. By faith, we understand the world was created by the word from God, and that what is visible came into being through the invisible…..”

Do I have faith? Do any of us have faith? For that matter: What is faith? According to Hebrews faith “is the reality of all that is hoped for; faith is the proof of all that is unseen.” Faith is the stuff that makes it possible for us to hear Jesus words: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Abba’s good pleasure to give you the kin-dom.”  Faith is the stuff that makes it possible for us to believe. So I wonder: Do I have faith? Do I have the faith that makes it possible for me to believe? Do you? Do any of us?

I write this as one who finds it difficult and sometimes even impossible to believe much of anything. I am a doubter by nature. Doubting is part of who I am. I know that there are those who are more inclined to believe and I am envious of believers. I envy those who are sure and are able to find comfort in the Scriptures. For a very long time I was ashamed of my inability to believe. I often sat in church and wondered if I might just be a hypocrite. I wondered if someone who had as many doubts as I have belongs in the church. And so, I tried to conquer my doubts by studying the Scriptures. Continue reading

Doubt: Preaching on Hebrews 11:1-16

The Place Where We Are RightLooking over the readings for this coming Sunday and the subject of faith jumps out from the Hebrews reading (Hebrews 11:1-16) which begs questions about doubt.  I have read and blogged about Richard Holloway’s “Faith and Doubt” and Lesley Hazleton’s insistence that “Doubt is Essential to Faith” and both posts provide an interesting jumping off point. This little video of Richard Holloway on “Why doubt is a good thing” provides insights for preaching on doubt as the foundation of faith!!!

Hosea: the Coronation Street of Ancient Israel

A Sermon on the Book of the Prophet Hosea

Coronation StI am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong for his insights into the Book of the Prophet Hosea. Without Jack’s thoughtful portrayal of Gomer, I would not have recognized her as the Leanne Battersby of her time. Also, thanks to Marcus Borg for his definition of the verb “believe”!

Listen to the sermon:

I must confess that I am one of the millions and millions of people across the globe who enjoys a guilty pleasure about five days a week. It’s a habit that began back when I was but a wee child. From time to time, circumstances have forced me to give up this guilty pleasure, but over the years, as technology has improved I’ve been able to indulge myself on a more regular basis than I would have thought possible back when I was just a little girl and only able to enjoy this pleasure during the summer holidays. Now a days, I can delay my indulgence to a convenient time. So about 5 times a week, I find myself relaxing in my favourite chair with a mug of tea, ready to enjoy a episode of my favourite soap opera.  

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Prayer: 21st Century Questions – There’s an App for that! Luke 11-1-13

prayer appJesus’ teaching on prayer in the gospel reading Luke 11:1-13 leaves me wondering what an enlightened 21st humanoid is supposed to do with Jesus 1st century ideas???

Cast you minds back to another time and place and tell what the numbers 33, 45, and 78 have in common??? Vinyl Records anyone? When I was a kid music came from a portable RCA record player. The sound quality wasn’t all that great, but somehow we didn’t seem to care. Later when I was a teenager, my parents got a fancy state of the art Phillips stereo cabinet and suddenly sound seemed to be coming from booth ends of the room. I never did understand how those old record players managed to pick up sound from the grooves in the vinyl to45 produce music. I still remember my father’s first reel-to-reel tape recorder, and then there were the eight-tracks, followed by cassettes, followed by CD’s.  I can remember these things, but I have no idea how they made music. It doesn’t matter how many times people try to explain it to me, I still think it’s a miracle that such beautiful sounds can come out of machines.

These days I don’t use records, tapes or CDs to listen to music. My music is stored in “the cloud” and when I want to hear I song I make sweeping motions on my iphone screen and presto, I can make music fill the room. I don’t know what the cloud is. I asked the personal assistant on my iPhone, her name is Siri and she told me she was sorry but she couldn’t tell me because Steve told her not to tell anyone. Some people think the cloud is located in a 225-acre facility that Apple built in North Carolina. Continue reading

Prayer: To Whom Shall We Go? Luke 11:1-13

PanentheismJesus’ teaching on prayer in the gospel text Luke 11:1-13 begs the question: “To Whom Shall We Go?” Liberated from perceptions that reduce images of God to those of a cosmic superhero who abides up or out there ready to manipulate events here in the world at the request of those who pray, the activity of prayer takes on a whole new meaning and shape. Our images of who, where and what God is will direct our prayers in ways that impact our expectations of prayer. Who do we pray to and what we expect of the One who hears our prayers will shape how and why we pray.

Before we can even begin to understand what so much of the Christian tradition means when it talks about praying to God, we need to take a step back and look at what we mean when we say the word “god.” Throughout the Jewish and Christian traditions you can trace two very distinct ways of understanding and talking about God. Continue reading