Watch the video below which was shown in worship after the reading of the Gospel: The Woman at the Well (below) and then listen to the sermon.
I did not know her. She had been calling the church for years and I had been responding to her calls for help for, I’d say about three years. But I did not know her. She was just another woman down on her luck who needed help to buy food for her family. She would call, almost every other week and because she did not have transportation, I would drive over to whatever hovel she and her two boys were living in. But I did not know her. She was just another woman who couldn’t seem to get her act together and so she relied on hand-outs from the church to supplement her social assistance. Whenever I went over to wherever it was that she was living, she would always invite me in and I would always agree, but just for a moment, I’d tell her I was very busy and I had other places to go and other people to see. But the truth is, the places where she managed to find shelter always smelled so band and I usually just wanted to be on my way so that I could escape the odors that permeated the filthy apartments in musty basements. Her various homes were so depressing that I could not bear to sit down. She would always offer me tea and I would always politely refuse, claiming that I’d just had a cup, thank-you very much. I did not know her.
I suppose I did not want to know her. Maybe I’ve met too many women just like her. Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe the thought of becoming immersed in the sinkhole of sadness that is her life was just too much to bear. So, I’d just smile and give her a handout. I’d learned a long time ago not to ask too many questions; her problems were more than our meager resources could handle. I’ve been down that road before, so I’d hand over the grocery vouchers and indulge in some small-talk. I did not know her. I did not want to know her.Continue reading →
There was a commercial that a while back on the TV and each time it came on, I couldn’t help myself, it made me smile and if I let myself, it made me laugh. It was a collection of scenes in which lovely little babies laugh. They laugh and they laugh and they laugh and before you know it you’re hooked and you just can’t help yourself you are laughing too. Laughter is a great tonic! Laughter is good for the soul! And yet, for some unknown reason we tend to exclude laughter from our religious life. Religion is serious business and so we don’t laugh much in worship. There’s a quote from St. Teresa of Avila that served as a warning sign for me as I was preparing this sermon. “NOT YET TICKLED” writes St. Teresa, “How did those priests ever get so serious and preach all that gloom? I don’t think God tickled them yet. Beloved—hurry.” The thought of being tickled by the DIVINE is delightfully refreshing.
I must confess that I don’t spend much time laughing with God. Listen to this quote from the writings of St. Teresa: “Just these two words God spoke changed my life, “Enjoy Me.” “What a burden I thought I was to carry—a crucifix, as did Christ. “Love” which is Teresa’s name for God. “Love once said to me, ‘I know a song would you like to hear it?’ And laughter came from every brick in the street and from every pore in the sky. After a night of prayer, God changed my life when God sang, “Enjoy Me.” Enjoy Me. What a different place the world would be if we could only hear God beseeching us, “Enjoy Me.”
We are a serious lot we Christians. Duty, responsibility, guilt, and consternation have left us precious little time to “Enjoy!” We’ve got things to do, stuff to learn, values to instill and standards to uphold, so we’ve put enjoyment on the back-burner. After all, God is far too high and mighty to be trifling with, we daren’t laugh in the presence of our God. And yet, God continues to tickle us. Over and over again, with the most absurd wonders, and we can’t help ourselves, but smile. Creation is so full of laughs. Life is so funny! And church, I mean, whenever I think of the ridiculous things we get up to in church, well its enough to make you laugh until you cry. So to those of you who insist upon personifying our Creator, don’t you try to tell me that the Creator of all that is or ever shall be, the one who is responsible for creating humour itself, doesn’t just roar with laughter at the stuff that we get up to. So, isn’t it just possible that when it comes to laughing babies, God has plenty of scope for delighting in us? Surely, laughter is one of the most sublime forms of prayer? We ought to lighten up and enjoy our time with God. Cause lord knows, serious people are all well and good but who wants to spend time with a bunch of folks who can’t enjoy a joke.
So with that said, let’s turn to this mornings Gospel reading. This story is a real tickler! But in order to get the jokes, you’ve got to know some of the stuff the insiders knew. It’s a bit like trying to understand British humour, sometimes you don’t quite get the joke, if you don’t know something about life in Britain. The Gospel of John is full of stories that play on the local humour of Palestine in the first century. This story, about the Woman at the Well is full of double en-ton-dras. Indeed, this story is so outrageous that when the powers that be were sitting around deciding which books would make it into the New Testament, The Gospel of John almost didn’t make the cut. This story was far too racy and I mean racy in both senses of the word, this story was about race and it was far too risqué for the likeings of the religious authorities who were functioning as the thought police for the early church. So, sit back and allow yourselves to be tickled as I let you in on the jokes. Continue reading →
Way back when I first began the formal process of becoming a pastor, the church committee responsible for helping people become pastors, recommended that I get a “spiritual director.” Among the many pieces of paper that the candidacy committee gave me, included both a definition of what a “spiritual director” is and who I might approach to be my “spiritual director”.
I remember three things about the church’s recommendation:
A spiritual director walks with, guides, encourages and challenges people to deepen their relationship with the divine.
A spiritual director is someone whose wisdom is derived from their own deep relationship with the divine together coupled with formal theological education.
The spiritual director is someone in whom the candidate for the ministry of Word and Sacrament can place their trust.
Although, I was blessed to know several people that that I trusted who might be able to walk with me, guide, me encourage me, there was only one person who I could trust to challenge me; I mean really challenge me. The problem was, I wasn’t actually sure if Henry’s theological education was quite what the church had in mind. Nevertheless, I decided to ignore that particular detail as I proceeded to invite Henry to serve as my “spiritual director”.
I had met Henry years earlier when we both were working for a package tour operator. Henry was responsible for graphic design and we worked together to produce some pretty snazzy travel brochures. At the time, I thought Henry was a little odd. He was older than everyone in the office. Henry came from Brooklyn and looked very much like the stereo-typical Jewish rabbi. I’m talking full black beard, black clothes, and a yarmulke. Turned out, Henry looked like a typical Jewish rabbi because he was a Jewish rabbi. Henry was working as a graphic designer to put food on the table for his family while he took a long-deserved break from serving as the director of a Jewish Yeshiva. Henry and I became fast friends.
Ours was a strange sort of friendship. Most of our conversations comprised of a series of questions without answers. I’d ask Henry a question, to which Henry would respond with an even deeper question, which would inspire and even deeper question with which I would be compelled to respond; it was kinda like dancing with ideas. Years later Henry would teach me that our dancing was actually an ancient form of the Jewish art of pilpul used by Talmudic scholars to get to the very heart of the sacred mysteries. It took me years to realize that Henry had become my spiritual director long before I ever asked him to formerly take on the role.
It turned out that Henry had studied at one of the best rabbinical schools in New York and was an accredited to be a “spiritual director”. Somehow, despite the urging of the church to select from their list of suggestions, I managed to get my candidacy committee to approve Henry as my spiritual director. To this day, I think the committee members over-looked the fact that Henry is Jewish, only because Henry offered to serve as my spiritual director without me having to pay him the going rate, which back then would have cost me way more than I could afford. As it turned out, Henry’s direction was priceless. So, many of the treasures that Henry shared with me continue to shape and direct me to this very day.Continue reading →
I am indebted to Jim Kast-Keat, a pioneering preacher who inspired me to open this sermon with the video below. I am also indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong for teaching me more that I can articulate with words. His excellent book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic opened the Gospel According to John in ways that have helped me to see aspects of the Divine to which I was once blind. Much of the sermon consists of extensive quotes from chapter 9 of Jack’s book.
Readings: John Chapter 2 and John 3:1-17
Watch the video below carefully before reading or listening to the sermon the sermon below.
So, before tackling the story of Nicodemus, I want to toss two balls into the congregation. The first ball I want to toss over here to this side of the congregation represents something all too familiar, biblical literalism. We know all too well that this particular ball has been distracting the church and most of the western world for the past few centuries. The second ball I want to toss over here to this side of the congregation represents historical biblical criticism. This particular ball is newer. It’s only been seriously tossed about for the past couple of centuries, but it is a really serious contender for our attention. But these balls have acquired a rather rhythmic bounce that tends to mesmerize us. Add to that these other balls the balls of church doctrine and theological dogma and before you know it we are so distracted that we forget what game we were trying to play in the first place as we try to keep up with the various passes made by players that have taken on a professional edge that leaves us watching from the sidelines unable to focus one of them.
None of these balls commanded the attention of the early Christians. They simply weren’t interested in taking the scriptures literally, nor were they particularly interested in the historicity of the scriptures. As for doctrine and dogma, well they were left to the professionals who only came to town on those unpleasant occasions when the league needed to ensure that it’s franchises continued to rake in enough money to keep the game on a sure footing. The scriptures, like all sacred writings, were about so much more than words scribbled on a scroll. The scriptures, like all scared writings, are about the mysteries of life. But these balls have been served up for us to play with and literalism and concerns about historical accuracy have done a magnificent job of distracting us from what really matters in these texts. Our fascination with the details of the fight-patterns of the balls that are tossed around whenever the stories in these texts play through our lives, have caused us to miss so many moon-dancing bears over the years.
Please don’t get me wrong, I love tossing these balls around and over the years I’ve learned to play ball with the best of them. But when a moon-walking bear dances onto the court, at the very least, we ought to notice the bear’s moves because the only way we’re going to learn to dance with these bears is by paying attention.Continue reading →
When I was just a kid, I had what can best be described as an adolescent crush on a teacher. Looking back on it now, I’d have to say that I fell head over heels in love with my teacher. It was the kind of love that only a 13 year-old girl could have; so intense and all consuming. I came to believe that this teacher was the wisest, kindest, most interesting person in all the world. This teacher knew more than anyone else, especially my parents. This teacher was cooler, funnier, more daring and definitely more in tune with my life than anyone I had ever met. I was convinced that if I could only be just like this teacher would mean that I too would be cooler, funnier, more daring and definitely more in tune with life. So, like most adolescent girls who are suffering from a crush I became obsessed with this teacher. I was young and I was in love, and like most thirteen year-old’s the I was convinced that the world revolved around me, so I set about pursuing my passion. This teacher taught English, so naturally, I decided that when I grew up I too would teach English. This teacher loved poetry, so I too became passionate about poetry.
One day this teacher announced that we could gain extra-credit if we wanted to enter a local poetry writing contest; and even though I was pretty sure that year I’d be getting a mark that would be somewhat better than an A, I began to write poetry. I was very serious about my poetry writing. I carried a pad of paper with me everywhere I went, and I began to ruminate about my life. I don’t remember any of those early attempts to wax poetical, but I do remember that each and every one of those poems was about me; me and my life, me and my unrequited love, me and my passion, me and the horrible way that no one paid much attention to me. Me, Me, Me, Me, it was all about me.
As the time drew near for us to submit our poetry to the competition, my teacher announced that there would be a special class after school, so that those of us who were planning to enter the competition could get some feedback on our efforts. So, by the end of the week, I would have to choose one of my great works for feedback. I spent hours pouring over one poem in particular. Tinkering with the words, trying to get things just right. I was so very proud of the final draft. I’d carefully copied it out on to a crisp piece of foolscap. Arranged the letters in the middle of the page so that they looked just so. I could hardly wait for school to be over so that I could rush to see what comments my beloved teacher had placed in the margin. There were barely a handful of us who stayed after school.
Looking back on that scene, we were a nerdy little crew. I was positively breathless as my teacher handed my offering back to me. To this day, I can’t remember a single line of my great work, but I can tell you word for ward what was scribbled in red in the margin of the ever so white foolscap. “A little self-involved, try looking outward.” I was devastated. How could anyone be so cruel? I’d poured my heart out only to have it stomped on by the indifference of truth. Continue reading →
This week, we find ourselves studying the transfiguration of Jesus. So much has been written and said about this strange little story given to us by the early followers of Jesus. I was planning to do what I’ve done on many Transfiguration Sundays and preach about the power of myth to open us to new ways of understanding who and what Jesus embodies. But then, I remembered to look beyond my theological perspective and low and behold what I discovered transfigured my own images of the transfiguration of Jesus.
My own images have been shaped by the mythological language used by the crafters of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, peering beyond myth, has transfigured Jesus in ways that reveal the glory of DIVINE MYSTERY beyond the pages of scripture and into the realms of the cosmos and beyond. What our species has learned about the Cosmos impacts our images of the DIVINE in ways we have scarcely begun to articulate.
A while back, NASA, announced, and I quote: “the discovery of seven worlds orbiting a small, cool star some 40 light-years away, all of them in the ballpark of our home planet in terms of their heft (mass) and size (diameter). Three of the planets reside in the “habitable zone” around their star, TRAPPIST-1, where calculations suggest that conditions might be right for liquid water to exist on their surfaces—though follow-up observations are needed to be sure. All seven are early ambassadors of a new generation of planet-hunting targets.”
NASA’s announcement was accompanied by an artist’s rendition of what has taken place. Watch for yourselves…
Struggling to comprehend the reality of what has been discovered, I remembered o leaning over my little two-year-old granddaughter Evelyn’s travel cot as she began to sing. It took a moment or two before I recognized her tentative little voice attempt to capture the tune. It didn’t take too long for me to join her: “Twinkle, Twinkle, little star how I wonder what you are. Up above the sky so high, Like a diamond in the sky. Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are. In a darkened room, I stroked my granddaughter’s cheek and I was transported to a long-ago darkness that still overwhelms me. The memory of a long-ago night, far, far, far, away, in an alpine meadow at the foot of the Black Tusk mountain, near Whistler. After a long day’s hike up the Black Tusk trail, we’d camped out in Taylor Meadows, a spectacular spot located more than 7,000 feet above sea-level. Twinkle, twinkle, little star, evoked an intense memory of staring into the night sky, mesmerized by the sight of more than my mind could comprehend.
Darkness, darkness, like you never experience near the city. Darkness so deep and so vast. Darkness full of twinkling lights. Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are. Vast, immensities, stretching, beyond, the beyond, and beyond that also. 40 light years from here. 40 light years. That’s how long it would take you to travel to the newly discovered Trappist 1 system. According to Google, travelling at a speed of 15 miles per second, it would take us just about 12,770 years to travel one light year. 12,770 years, that’s close to the entire history of humans since the dawn of civilization to travel one light year and to travel 40 light years, well it would take us about half a million years. That’s about twice as long as humans have existed on earth. Talk about beyond. Vastness beyond my mind’s ability to comprehend. And yet, staring into the night sky, or peering through the darkness to the outline of my beloved granddaughter’s little face, I can almost touch the face of God. Like all the generations who have gone before us, the energy that permeates all that is, this LOVE that Creates over and over again, this LOVE that brings forth life in all its glorious dimensions, this radiance which pervades all that is, this ISNESS that bursts forth in, with, through, and beyond the cosmos, this IS, that we call God, reveals ITSELF in the splendor that IS all around us. When I think back to our ancient forbearers wandering around in the wilderness, desperate for a sign that they were not alone and forsaken, I can almost hear the confusion of those who demanded to know the presence of the one who lies at the very heart of reality.Continue reading →
On this the 211th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, progressive Christian communities are preparing to celebrate Evolution Sunday
Readings from Thomas Berry and John 10:10 can be found here
I am indebted to the work of Richard Rohr for several insights found in his audio recordings of lectures entitled “The Sermon on the Mount”
How many of you remember your very first day at school? When I think back to my very first day at school my memories are disjointed, filled not with words but with images and emotions. The over-riding emotion that floods my memories of my first day at school is excitement. I started school in Belfast, Northern, Ireland when I was only four-and-a-half years old and to this day I can still feel the excitement. So, many things happened that day and I can see flashes and images in my mind’s – eye, but in her in my gut I can feel the excitement. I remember the contours of the schoolroom and I can feel the excitement of wondering which desk would be mine. I don’t know about you, but my memories of the desks are quite vivid. I’d never in my short little life seen anything quite like a desk and to be told that one of them would be mine. Well I just couldn’t wait to find out which one.
Back then, in Belfast, in the olden days, there was no kindergarten; at the tender age of 4 ½ I was enrolled in P1 – primary one and in primary one we had desks that had chairs attached to them, and a lid that went up and down. When I sat down at my very own desk, I opened and closed that lid over and over again, wondering what on earth I would be given to put inside the desk. It was so exciting. I began imagining books, maybe they’d give us books. I can still feel the excitement I felt at the very idea of placing a book inside my very own desk; I couldn’t wait.
My desk was absolutely perfect in every way except for one. In the top right-hand corner of my beautiful desk there was a hole. I looked around at the other desks and sure enough each one of them had the same kind of hole. I couldn’t begin to imagine what the holes were for. I wanted to ask the teacher, but I remembered feeling like I should keep quiet, so I waited, and I waited for the teacher to tell us what the holes in our desks were for, but she never said a word. So, the first thing I did when my father picked me up from school was to ask him why all the desks at school had holes in them. My Dad knew absolutely everything there was to know about everything and sure enough he knew exactly what those holes were for. Ink. Inkwells. Every desk in my class had an inkwell built right into them. So, what’s ink? And, what’s an inkwell? That very afternoon I learned about quills made of feathers, dipped into ink so that you could write letters. Dad was a fountain of knowledge about writing with ink.
That night I went to bed dreaming about quills, and feathers, and ink; lots and lots of lovely ink, and writing, writing lots and lots of words. School was going to be great! I couldn’t wait to get my quill. I dreamed a pretty pink feather. So, you can imagine my disappointment when the next day at school, after being told that we were going to learn how to print, because printing comes before writing, and I simply couldn’t wait, as the teacher announced she was going to give us slates and chalk which we could keep in our desks. Slates and chalk. I had a slate at home. We even had some chalk. When would we get feathers? At that point I would have settled for a plain old black feather, but slates and chalk, what a disappointment. I never did get a quill. We never even got the fabled fountain pens that my Dad spoke of with fondness. Eventually, we did get a pencil and some paper. But pens had to wait until P3. My slate was wonderful, and I did learn to print using the little broken pieces of chalk that we shared.
Right now, the image of my two-year-old grand-daughter begging me to lend her my iPad and imagine what wonders her fist day at school might bring. My old slate was about the same size as this iPad, but the wonders that my little granddaughter can access on this device make that old slate seem so very primitive indeed. It has been said that you and I have experienced in our lifetime more changes that any other generations before us and I expect that our grandchildren will experience even more changes that we can begin to imagine.Continue reading →
Like most people my age, I remember the days when families had only one television set and when I was just a kid, it was a black and white television. When I was eleven or twelve, we got one of those new-fangled colour TV sets. Back then kids functioned as remote controls; Mom and Dad decided what we watched. How else would I have seen all those grainy black and white documentaries? My parents were hooked on history and as a result my brother and I were introduced to some pretty incredible characters by way of those old grainy black and white films Many of the documentaries were about the majesty of the British Empire that dominated much of the world in those old grainy days. I can still remember being impressed by a little man, wearing what looked like a diaper and causing quite a commotion wandering around Britain and talking about home rule. I remember how excited my father was when the film showed this little fellow Gandhi talking to some striking Welsh miners, encouraging them in their fight against the mine-owners. It was the beginning of a long love affair with a giant of a man.
Back then, I loved reading biographies so the next time I was in the library I picked up three biographies about Gandhi and I’ve continued to read and watch whatever I can get my hands on about the life and teachings of Mohandis K. Gandhi. It was reading about Gandhi that caused me to take my first serious look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Up until then, I didn’t know much about the teachings of Jesus. We didn’t go to church, so what I knew about Jesus I’d picked up by osmosis; growing up in a Christian culture meant, I knew who Jesus was, but very little of what he taught. But reading about Gandhi, I discovered just how much of an influence Jesus had been on Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. I knew that Gandhi’s methods had brought the British Empire to its knees, so I began to wonder about Jesus’ methods. You’ve got to remember when I was a kid, the Vietnam war was raging and the world was under constant threat of mutual annihilation as the American and Soviet empires threatened to blow us all into oblivion. Non-violence was more than just an intriguing idea; back then non-violence sounded like a life-line.
And so it was, that my interest in the life and teachings of a non-violent revolutionary from India, sent me scurrying to find the little Bible that I’d received as a gift from the Gideons when I was in grade five so that I could read Jesus’ sermon on the mount. I’d read that Gandhi had said that, if all he knew of Christianity was the Sermon on the Mount he himself would be a Christian. I had been told that we were Christians, but other than Christmas and Easter, I had no real evidence of my Christianity.
It has been said that Gandhi read both the Sermon on the Mount and Chapter Two of the Bhagavad Gita every day. He is reported to have said that “Much of what passes for Christianity today is a negation of the sermon on the Mount.” Gandhi asked, “Isn’t it is more important to do what Jesus wants us to do than to call him “Lord, Lord?”
As a faithful Hindu, Gandhi was unwilling to accept Christian dogma, but in Jesus, Gandhi recognized a great prophet; a prophet who pointed beyond himself to a world in which non-violence was more than just a dream, non-violence was necessary in order that men and women could live together in peace in order that they might live in union with God. In the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi discovered something that those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus so often miss or deny. The church, the very institution that Jesus’ teachings gave rise to, has for centuries left the salt out of Jesus’ teachings and offered up a flavorless dogmatic dish aimed at pleasing the palates of the powers of Empire to which it has been tied for centuries. As a result, the followers of Jesus all too often forget Jesus call to be the salt of the earth. Sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of the treasures we possess.Continue reading →
“In the Far East, the emperor was growing old and knew it was time to choose his successor. Instead of choosing one of his assistants or his children, he decided to do something different.
He called young people in the kingdom together one day. He said, “It is time for me to step down and choose the next emperor. I have decided to choose one of you.” The children were shocked, but the emperor continued. “I am going to give each one of you a seed today – one very special seed. I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from this one seed. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next emperor.”
One boy, named Ling, was there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly, told his mother the story. She helped him get a pot and planting soil, and he planted the seed and watered it, carefully. Every day, he would water it and watch to see if it had grown. After about three weeks, some of the other youths began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow. Ling kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. Three weeks, four weeks, five weeks went by, still nothing. By now, others were talking about their plants, but Ling didn’t have a plant and he felt like a failure. Six months went by — still nothing in Ling’s pot. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Ling didn’t say anything to his friends, however. He just kept waiting for his seed to grow. Continue reading →
Most us us have heard the words from Matthew 5, known as the Beatitudes, so many times that we can recite them from memory. Indeed, the Beatitudes are at the very core of our Christian tradition. But there is a danger in our familiarity with these words because it allows us to distance ourselves from them as we relegate them to some idealized notion of some unattainable goal.
I have studied these words many times and I do not believe that Jesus intended these words to become a prescription for how to be a better Christian. So, I won’t be encouraging anyone to be poor in spirit, to mourn, or to be meek in the hope that they might gain the kindom of heaven, or be comforted, or inherit the earth. While hungering and thirsting for righteousness is in and of itself a good thing, along with being merciful, pure of heart, and peace-making, all of which I heartily encourage. However, these attributes or beatitudes are not a prescription for holiness or wholeness.
So, if Jesus wasn’t prescribing the beatitudes from atop the mountain, what was he doing? Well, there’s an old storytellers’ ploy that I’d suggest in order to better understand Jesus words. The ploy doesn’t have a name, but most of us are very familiar with the trick. It’s the one where you tell an unfamiliar story alongside of a very familiar story in the hope that the unfamiliar story will help to shed some new light on the words of the familiar story. The unfamiliar story is taken from Bryce Courtenay’s autobiographical novel “The Power of One.” * The Power of One was are into a movie about twenty years ago, so the story may be somewhat familiar. Continue reading →
When I was in my early twenties, I grew weary of sharing space and I decided that I wanted an apartment all to myself, despite the fact that I couldn’t really afford an apartment all to myself. But I was determined and that’s how I ended up living in a very rough neighborhood in the east end of Vancouver. My parents weren’t’ very happy about the neighbourhood and worried about the unsavory characters that lived in the run-down building where I found a spacious one bedroom apartment that I could just about afford. The apartment was just a couple of blocks away from the office where I worked, so I was able to walk to work. I ignored all the warnings of my family and friends and I convinced myself that I could handle anything that came my way.
In my heart of hearts I was rather pleased to be living in such a poor rough and tumble neighbourhood. I was young and foolish and the neighbourhood was exciting. Every Sunday I would make the trip back to my home church in the suburbs. Sometimes I would make a second trip out during the week to attend a Bible study. Like so many young people, I was harsh in my criticisms of the elaborate life-styles of my elders. At bible studies, I was always bringing up the plight of the poor and the oppressed and challenging people to do something. Various members of my own family often accused me of being a bleeding heart liberal. I wore their criticism with a certain amount of pride, convinced that I was living out my beliefs.
Although I walked to work each day, I didn’t know any of my neighbours, until one morning I was surprised by a knock on my apartment door. I wondered how anyone would get past the lock on the front door. So, I peered through the peephole and was relieved when I saw a young woman at my door. I unbolted the door and in swept Brenda. Brenda was all smiles and laughter as she explained that she and her roommates were out of coffee and she wondered if I might be able to lend them some coffee. When I explained that I had just used up the last of my coffee making my own morning brew, Brenda told me not to worry, she and her roommates would be happy to join me. When Brenda returned, she introduced her roommates, Janice and Sue and we all sat down together for our morning coffee. Continue reading →
When I turn the gospel according to John and read about John the Baptist pointing to Jesus, saying: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” I want to scream, “NO!” I have come to believe that our images of God are far too narrow. As far as I’m concerned most of our ideas about God fall far short of ever even beginning to describe who God might be. One thing I’m absolutely certain of is if we can imagine ourselves being more loving, more gracious, or more merciful that our theology suggests that God is, then we had better go back to the drawing-board and think again. The ways in which we have traditionally interpreted the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, paint a picture of a God who is far less loving, gracious or merciful than you or I. Nobody in this room, would demand a blood sacrifice of a lamb, let alone the blood sacrifice of their own child. So, the image of God that is based on this kind of theology must be judged as inadequate to the task of evening beginning to provide us with a glimpse of who our God is.
As we go back to the drawing-board, we ought to take a long hard look at how we arrived at this image in the first place. Thank goodness for the work of our friend Jack Spong who has enabled us to see beyond the literal to the more-than-literal meanings of the various ways in which the followers of Jesus have understood the life and teachings of Jesus. During the years that followed the crucifixion, Jesus’ followers were left wondering what it was all about. How could someone in whom they had seen the fullness of God, be taken from them in such a horrendous way? How could their God allow it? What were they to do? Over the years that followed, Jesus’ followers looked back at the life, death, and resurrection of Christ through the lens of their own religious experiences. Jesus’ followers were primarily Jewish and so it didn’t take long for the familiar Jewish symbol of the Lamb of God to be applied to Jesus as a way of making some sense out of his death. Today most Christians associate the symbol of the Lamb of God with the Jewish celebration of Passover. While the Gospel narratives do indeed locate the time of Jesus death during the celebration of the Passover, and there is indeed a sacrificial lamb involved in the Passover, the actual phrase “the Lamb of God” comes not from the religious rites of Passover, but rather the religious rites of Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement. Phrases like “the Lamb of God”, “died for our sins” and “washed in the blood of the lamb” can all be found in the religious rites of Yom Kippur. Continue reading →
Wading into the waters of baptism is no simple matter for a progressive Christian. Once you leave the myth of perfection in some distant garden back there in the mists of time, reject the notion of humanity’s fall from grace as a result of original sin, and give up worshipping the sadistic image of a god who demands a blood sacrifice, it’s difficult to navigate the waters of baptism without spouting notions that the institutional church condemns as heresy. But today is the day when the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the stories about the baptism of Jesus that have been handed down to us by our ancestors suggest that on this day of all days, we should have the courage to follow Jesus into the river of life even if it does challenge some of our long held assumptions about what it means to be a child of God.
I venture into these troubled waters as someone who treasures the sacrament of baptism. Long before I ever entertained the idea that I might one day respond to the call to become a baptizer, I became a lover of this particular sacrament of the church. I am now, and I have always been one of those people who find it almost impossible not to shed a tear or two at baptisms. The beauty of all that hope and expectation all wrapped up in the guise of a tiny little human has a way of generating in me a watery contribution as my tears join the sprinkling to wet the babies head. When the baptized is an adult my tears flow even more bountifully. Let’s face it folks these days the reality is that infant baptisms are rare enough. Adult baptisms, especially in mainline churches are so rare that the nostalgia alone is enough to send us into spasms of uncontrollable weeping for seer joy at the thought that it is even remotely possible that someone has been able to see beyond the church’s doctrine long enough to embrace the amazing possibilities of the sacrament to provide any benefit in this the twenty-first century.
When we look back to the stories told in the synoptic gospels about the baptism of Jesus we are sometimes so distracted by the opening of the heavens, the descent of the dove and the voice of God declaring Jesus to be the beloved, that we miss an important detail of the way in which the early followers of the Way chose to tell the story of Jesus public coming out party. New Testament scholars remind us that the stories told by the writers of the gospels were written at the end of the first century; a time when it would have been clear to all those who had ears to hear, that by going down to the river Jordan to be baptized by John would have stirred up the political and religious waters. John the Baptist was a revolutionary who made no bones about the fact that the religious authorities and the political rulers were leading the people down the wrong path. John’s shouting in the wilderness was his way of warning the people to repent; to literally turn around and follow a different path. John was doing far more than ranting when he condemned the religious authorities as a brood of vipers; he was calling on the people to reject the teachings of the authorities. John’s insistence on repentance was a call to revolution, a revolution designed to overthrow the status quo. John was out there in the wilderness because it wasn’t safe for him to spout his own particular brand of incendiary fire and brimstone rhetoric within earshot of the authorities. By going down to the River Jordon and submitting to John’s baptism of repentance Jesus was choosing to identify himself with a political revolutionary.
That the writers of the gospels chose to tell there story in ways that see the God of Israel give Jesus a shout out, and the very spirit of God descending like a dove onto the shoulders of Jesus, turns John’s baptism of repentance into a kind of passing of the torch from one revolutionary to the next. Yet, despite the gospel-writers having cast Jesus into the role of revolutionary torchbearer none of the gospel writers shows Jesus following the ways of his predecessor John. There is no record of Jesus calling people to repent nor is there any record of Jesus ever having baptized anyone. All we have is Jesus “Great Commission” which if New Testament scholars are to be believed, Jesus probably never even said, “go therefore and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, it’s true, most preachers, dare I say modern-day baptizers, learned in seminary that rather than being an instruction given by Jesus the Great Commission was actually added to the story by the early followers of Jesus. But I digress, the point I’d like to emphasize about Jesus’ trip down to the waters of the Jordan, is that by choosing to publicly submit to John’s baptism, Jesus was making an important statement about his own public ministry. For just like John, Jesus intended to challenge the religious and political authorities.
That the gospel writers have Jesus head off into the wilderness to find his own way prepares us to follow Jesus down a completely different path than the one his predecessor John pointed toward.
So on a day, when the church looks back upon the baptism of Jesus, surely we can take courage from Jesus’ example of wandering off into the wilderness to find our own way of challenging the religious authorities of our day.Continue reading →
How many of you know what this is? Where I come from it is often referred to as a dog-collar and the folks who wear them are called God-Bothers. Back when I first started seminary, I resolved that I wouldn’t wear a clerical shirt and collar. I didn’t like the idea of being set apart from others. I really didn’t want to be seen as one of those holier-than-thou types, who took themselves so seriously. Learning the history of clerical garb didn’t help me to warm up to the idea of wearing them. Apparently, back in the middle ages fashion dictated that educated professionals wear black. Also, during the middle ages, long before shirts had collars it was all the rage to let your white undergarments show around your neck. This was the precursor to shirt-collars. Apparently during the reformation, this trend fell out of fashion but clergy, who couldn’t afford to keep up with fashion continued to wear black shirts with their white under-garment showing.
Over time, the church does what the church often does and applied a liturgical meaning to explain what is already happening. So, the church began to explain clerical attire theologically. If you google it, you will discover that, pastors are just like everyone else, they are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves. So, they wear a black shirt to signify their sinfulness, but they wear a white collar to signify that the words they speak are not their own, but God’s words, because you see the collar covers the pastors voice-box to signify that we speak the Word of God. Now the presumption that I or anyone else speaks on behalf of God is rather daunting to say the least and did nothing to encourage me to wear a clerical collar, nor did the obscure explanation of the tab collar, which insists that this little white notch is placed strategically over the Adam’s apple to cover over the reminder of Adam’s sin. Not having an Adam’s apple, myself, I wasn’t much taken with the idea of wearing special clothing to set me apart. But when I first became a pastor, I was insecure and believe it or not I didn’t want to rock the boat. So, I ever so hesitatingly began wearing a clerical collar. I was uncomfortable wearing the collar, so I decided that I would only wear it on Sundays, or to protest marches, and sometimes when I was visiting people in the hospital, because in hospitals, wearing a collar makes it easier to gain access to patients.
Well one day, I needed some candles and so I dashed into the Zellers over the road to quickly grab a couple. I was having difficulty finding just the right candles when a store clerk came up to me and asked me if I would come with her. I figured that I’d been lingering over the candles for so long that she must have mistaken me for a shoplifter, but as we hurried along, she explained to me that there was a man in housewares who was abusing his wife and child. I’d forgotten that I was wearing a collar, but the reality of what this clerk was asking me to do choked me into realizing that the collar had led her to believe that I could actually do something. Not knowing what she expected me to do, I told her to call 911. She assured me that they had already called, but that in the meantime perhaps I could help. We stopped just before the aisle where the abuse was taking place. The store clerk whispered that, “they are just over there.” As she pointed, I realized that she wanted me to go on alone. So, not knowing what to expect, I took a deep breath and walked in on a scene that was way beyond my abilities. A big burly guy was twisting the arm of a woman while a little girl of about 4 or 5 stood crying. The man was yelling obscenities when I interrupted him. When he looked at me, I saw the fear in his eyes as he immediately let go of the woman who fell to the floor. The little girl ran to her mother. I expected the man to turn on me, but instead he just stared at me, as he began to cry, “I’m sorry pastor, forgive me.” It wasn’t I who stood before him, but the church, his church, the church that had taught him right from wrong. The collar I wore made the church visible to him and made it impossible for him to forget who he was. As a child of God, he couldn’t continue what he was doing. As a child of God, he knew in his bones that he was wrong. He wept until the police arrived. From that day on, I’ve known the power of the collar to make the church visible in the world and so I wear it a lot more often than I’d ever expected I would.Continue reading →
Each year, I begin my preparations for preaching on the Baptism of Jesus with this video in which Heather Murray Elkins tells her story, “The Secret of Our Baptism.” Elkins opens us to a new way of hearing the Bat Col, the Daughter of a Sound, the Voice of the Divine, the Word, who speaks in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. Matthew 3:13-17
The art of blessing is often neglected. The birth of a New Year calls forth the desire in us to bestow a blessing upon those we love. Several years ago, John O”Donohue, one of my favorite Irish poet’s created a New Year’s blessing for his mother entitled Beannacht-for Josie. It is a blessing of superior quality. And so, on this New Year’s Eve, may you all receive this beannacht with my added blessing for a peace-filled New Year in which the God in whom all of creation is held, might find full expression in your miraculous life!
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we try to reach beyond the lectionary to the folks who won’t make it to church on Christmas Eve or on Christmas morning by forgoing the prescribed readings in favour of reading the entire Birth Narrative.
Click on these links to find sermons I have preached on Advent 4. They may also inspire some Christmas reflections.
For days now, I’ve had an ear-worm. I suppose that it is more than fitting for a pastor to suffer from this particular ear-worm at this particular time of the year. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and it must be the struggle to get everything ready for the Holy Night that has put this particular ear-worm on an endless loop. Consider this an early Christmas gift, I won’t sing it. I’ll let you sing it in your own minds. Maybe then I can give you my ear-worm for Christmas. My ear-worm is the Christmas carol, O Holy Night. It’s not the whole Carol, just the one line of the Carol that repeats itself: “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices”
“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.” Over and over again, I hear: “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.” T’is the season for being weary! Hands up all you who are weary! Apart from the fact that there is so much to be done, the news is full not of glad-tidings but of tales of woe. Everywhere we turn, the media is doing its level best to instill fear into our hearts, rather than tidies of comfort and joy. The world is weary of worrying about the strange fellow who occupies the Whitehouse, weary of populist, authoritarian, politicians like the fellow we have up here, prancing around Queens Park; weary of begging the powers that be to do something about climate change; weary of economic inequality; weary of corporate greed, weary of catastrophic fires, tsunamis, earthquakes, stock-market crashes, weary of war and rumors of war.
Sure, we can turn off our devices in the hope that we can avoid the bad tidings. But then, we have our own bad news to deal with, quarrelsome families, troublesome friends, sick or dying loved ones, the day to day grind of making a living, and our own personal angst and insecurities. To top it all off, if regular life isn’t wearisome enough, tomorrow is Christmas Eve. “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.”
“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices.” Fall on your knees? If I fall on my knees, I’ll never be able to get up!!! In times like these, that it is as if our lives are in a constant state of chaos. I’ll let you in on a little secret, one of my favorite parts of Christmas is Silent Night. I positively long for Silent Night, because when we’re singing Silent Night, here at Holy Cross, my work is done. We don’t have a Christmas Day service, unless Christmas falls on a Sunday. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, our Christmas Eve service always ends with the singing of Silent Night. We turn out all the lights, light candles and hold them high as we sing. Silent Night, holy night, all is calm…
….all is calm….all is calm…all is bright. Now there’s an ear-worm I’m happy to live with. But there’s a lot of chaos to be endured between here and Silent Night. As much as we try the sound of Christmas is not Silent Night. The sound of Christmas is far more discordant than that. Do me a favour, make some noise. I mean it. I’m going to count to three. When I get to three, I want you to create a cacophony of chaos. I want us to raise a little hell. Ready, One, two, three…………….
In order to get the true sound of Christmas, you would need to add to our cacophony, the sounds of traffic, car crashes, waves crashing, hungry children crying, poor parents weeping, homeless sisters and brothers shivering in the cold, bombs dropping, babies crying, the Earth suffering…and you will have but a taste of the sounds of chaos. Christmas, no matter how you understand Christmas, Christmas doesn’t much sound like silent night. The sound of Christmas is a cacophony of chaos. Christmas is the sound of messiness, the sound of unpredictability and confusion. So, is it any wonder that in the midst of all the chaos of living we should long for a Silent Night? The trouble is, the story of new birth is never a Silent Night. Life itself is chaotic, and if we’re waiting for the birth of Jesus to arrive in Heavenly peace, I doubt that we’ll ever understand the Christmas story.Continue reading →
Some have said that the birth of Jesus is the most amazing birth story ever told. Jesus birth narrative heralded the arrival of a child who was praised as the Son of God, the Saviour of the World who was said to be the personification of peace on earth; God incarnate; fully divine and fully human. Not everyone agrees that this is the most amazing birth story ever told. Indeed, the story of Jesus birth can’t even claim to be unique. Some claim that Jesus’ birth story is just one of a long line of birth stories. Jesus’ birth story, some claim, is only considered to be unique because it’s our story; our story that we tell over and over at the expense of other birth stories from other communities that are just as great.
Well it’s really not all that difficult to Google, “greatest birth story ever told”, select one or two of the greats and put them together to expose Jesus’ birth story as simply one birth story in a long line of ancient birth stories. Allow me to demonstrate.
Among the ancients, some insisted that the story of Alexander the Great’s birth was the greatest story ever told. Alexander the Great’s birth story is truly one of the greats. He was, after all the, son of a Queen and a god and a king. His mother, Olympias was a Queen, betrothed to King Philip of Macedonia. The night before they were married, Queen Olympias dreamed that a thunderbolt fell upon her body, which kindled a great fire, whose divided flames dispersed themselves all around her, and then as if by magic they were extinguished.
King Philip dreamed that he sealed up his Queen’s lady parts with a seal, which bore the impression of a lion. The high priests who interpreted the dream warned Philip not to even entertain the idea of consummating the marriage because one wouldn’t go to the trouble of sealing up something that was empty. So, Queen Olympias must already be with child, who would undoubtedly be a boy with the courage of a lion. If that wasn’t enough to put Philip off, he found a serpent lying beside Queen Olympias as she slept, which was said to have abated his passion. Later the oracle of Apollo at Delphi went on to explain that this was no ordinary serpent; NO, this was the incarnation of the God Zeus. The day that Alexander the Great was born, one of the Seven Wonders of the World burnt to the ground. The temple of the goddess Artemis in Ephesus was the home of the Goddess Artemis who was said to have been attending to the birth of Alexander at the time. Continue reading →
A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent: all around us the world is hustling and bustling toward Christmas. With less and less time devoted to the telling of the Christmas story, perhaps we in the Church might consider changing the lectionary so as to provide more opportunities to engage the birth narrative in Matthew. Advent 3 is a perfect opportunity to substitute two readings into the lectionary. Here’s what happened when we tried this:
Readings Matthew 1:1-17 and Matthew 1:18-24
Listen to the sermon here
It has been said that the shortest distance between humanity and the truth is a story. I would add that, the truth we find in a story teaches about our humanity. So, as we seek to embrace our humanity we would do well to pay close attention to the stories we tell. The unknown writer of the Gospel according to Matthew had a great story to tell and in order to get to the truth of who and what the man Jesus was, he chose a particular way to tell the story so that all those who heard the story would know the truth of who Jesus is in the grand scheme of humanity’s story. Sadly over the centuries that have elapsed since this story was first told have seen the tellers and listeners of this story haggle over the truth. Some have forgotten the power of story to bridge the gap between humanity and truth, and they have insisted that the truth will be found in the absolute accuracy of each and every detail. Fortunately, many more have remembered that stories are just that, they are stories and while we know that events did not actually happen in they way they are told, they happen just that way all the time.
So, as we begin in the beginning of the Gospel, the Good News according to Matthew, let me remind you that we know that the story of Jesus birth did not happen the way it is told in the story, and we know that birth is always happening this way. For the writer of the Gospel according to Matthew was a skilled storyteller and he wrapped the story of Jesus of Nazareth in the stories of his ancestors. Written in the style of his own ancestors the gospel-writer begins his story, with the same words that every one of his listeners would have remembered from the sacred book of Genesis which begins, “In the beginning”. A sort of once upon a time, if you will, the gospel-writer begins with, the genesis of Jesus the Messiah and then proceeds to connect Jesus to the ancestors of the Jewish faith, will making sure that the truth of Jesus’ connection to those outside the faith will also be made clear.
The gospel-writer’s inclusion of the women who Bishop John Shelby has dubbed the “shady ladies” would have alerted Jewish listeners that Jesus is a different kind of Messiah; a Messiah who will transcend race, creed, or clan. Rahab, who was a Canaanite; a foreigner, was known as the mother of Israel for saving Joshua in Canaan, just happened to run a brothel there. Tamar, also a foreigner, was married to Judah’s son who according to Genesis is killed by God, and as was the custom his younger brother married her to ensure that his older brother’s name would be carried on. When that son dies, Tamar is left a childless widow, a fate worse than death in a patriarchal culture. Tamar is known for impersonating a prostitute to trick Judah into knowing her, in the biblical sense of the verb to know, so that her father-in-law could impregnate her.Continue reading →