Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus
The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is a church festival that I have always chosen to ignore. The ancient tradition that has Jesus floating up into the clouds stretches the credibility of the church to such an extent that I’ve always assumed that the less said about the Ascension the better. But I was challenged by a parishioner to try to make some sense out of the Ascension story so that 21st century Christians would not have to check their brains at the door should they happen upon a congregation that still celebrated the day. What follows is a transcript of my attempt to leave behind the miraculous Jesus in order to be better able to welcome the human Jesus down from the clouds. I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong together with Clay Nelson of St Matthew-in-the-city for their liberating insights.
Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have not celebrated Ascension Sunday. But as this particular Ascension Sunday follows so closely after Jack Spong’s visit with us, I thought that it was about time that rather than avoid the Ascension, I’d like to try to confront it.
Jack has been telling his anti-Ascension story for quite a few years now. Just in case you’ve never heard it or have forgotten it, let me remind you. It seems that Jack was speaking with Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. Jack says that Carl Sagan once told him “if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”
With that said, let me just say, that the Ascension never actually happened. It is not an historical event. If a tourist with a video camera had been there in Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing.
I know what the Nicene Creed says, “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures. And so, as I do not understand the Bible literally, neither do I understand the Nicene Creed to be a literal interpretation of the faith. Like all creeds the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds are snapshots of theology as it was at a particular time in history.
We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. I know that the universe is infinite. I also know about gravity. I also know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus had helium flowing through his veins. I’ve flown around the world, and I can tell you that there is no heaven above the clouds. So, I can say with confidence that: The very present Jesus of resurrection faith did not literally elevate into heaven while his disciples looked on.Continue reading →
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 →
Little Crystal was only two and a half years old when she got hopelessly stuck.And when she got stuck she did what all small children do, when they have gotten themselves into a situation that the can’t get out of, little Crystal cried for help. She went into her mother’s study, holding in one hand a family treasure and her other hand couldn’t be seen. Crystal cried out, “Mommy I’m stuck”. Her unseen hand was stuck inside her great-grandmother’s vase. The precious vase had been handed down from her great-grandmother to her grandmother, to her mother. Crystal had always been told that one day the magnificent vase would be hers.
Crystal’s mother tried to move quickly without panicking. She scooped the vase and her little girl up into her arms and carried them to the kitchen sink. She used warm soapy water to try to loosen the toddler’s hand, which was stuck all right. When soap didn’t work she reached for the butter. While greasing her child’s wrist like a cake pan, she asked the obvious “mother question.” “How in the world did you do this, child?” Crystal carefully explained that she had dropped candy down into the vase to see if she could still see it when it was at the very bottom. But she couldn’t see it, so she reached in for her candy and that’s when she got stuck and she couldn’t get her hand back out.
Well, as time passed, the situation became more and more serious. Crystal’s mother called for re-enforcements. She phoned her own mother and told her to get there as fast as she could. A neighbour suggested Vaseline. The apartment manager got out some WD40. Still no luck. It began to seem like the only way to get Crystal’s hand out was to break the family heirloom.
When Grandma finally arrived, both Crystal and her mother were almost hysterical. They were both more than a little relieved to have Grandma’s calming presence. Grandma sat little Crystal on her knee.
Crystal was very upset and still very stuck. Grandma took a good look at the vase that used to sit on her mother’s kitchen table all those years ago. She looked at the miserable look on her grand-daughter’s face, and she said, “Crystal, sweetheart. Your mommy told me that you reached into the vase for candy. Is that right?”
Crystal was a little breathless from all the crying she had been doing and all she could manage was a whimpered, “Mmm hummm.” “Honey, tell grandma the truth now. Do you still have a hold of that candy?” “Mmm humm”. Crystal sobbed. Then Grandma rubbed little Crystal’s back, held her close and gently, but firmly said: “Let it go, child. Let it go.” Sure enough, the vase slipped off as smooth as silk. (I have searched for the source of this story, without success. I first heard it at a retreat on the West Coast a lifetime ago)
In this fast paced world of ours, I often find myself in little Crystal’s predicament. Surrounded by a treasured family heirloom, desperately clinging to a treasure. My predicament often makes it difficult for me to appreciate the beauty of the heirloom. Letting go isn’t as simple as it sounds. But sometimes letting go is the only way to preserve the integrity of the heirloom. When I think about the church’s practice of public confession, I can see how desperately I have been holding on to candies that no longer satisfy my need for forgiveness. Continue reading →
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 →
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 →
“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 →
The beatitudes, from the Gospel According to Matthew have become so very familiar to us that they have almost lost their ability to touch us. “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Blessed, blessed, blessed, yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, we know, we’ve heard all before. So, tell us something we don’t know.
These twelve verses are from the introduction to what’s known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. A sermon that strikes fear and trembling into the hearts of any preacher worth her salt. I remember hearing that it’s insane to try to preach on Jesus’ sermon, after all it is the greatest sermon ever written. It has been said that preachers shouldn’t even try to preach on this, because it is in and of itself a sermon. We should simply read it and then sit down. Jesus is the preacher; he has said it all. He has said it like no has ever said it before or since. This sermon is the heart of the Christian message. It is what Jesus is all about. Blessed be the name of Jesus. Hallelujah! Pass the bread and wine and we’re ready to face the world as followers of Jesus.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 →
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 →
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
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 →
In 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 →
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 →
Today: the Feast of St. Nicholas, the ancient precursor to the modern Santa Claus, will pass without much ado. Some will try to encourage us to resurrect St. Nicholas to save us all from Santa’s powers for we have gone astray. To those well meaning souls who would rid Christmas of its flagrant consumerism, I can only offer up a feeble, “Baa Humbug!”
The very best traditions about St. Nicholas suggest that he was a protector of children while the worst tradition has him providing dowries so that young girls could be married off by their father rather than be sold into slavery. Meanwhile, the modern character Santa Claus grooms children to take up their role as consumers in the cult materialism. Some parents may bemoan the little gimmie-monsters that their children become, but most adults are rendered helpless by our own remembered indoctrinations and so we join in what we choose to deem as harmless fun.
‘Tis the season for contradictions. ‘Tis the season when we prepare to celebrate the incarnation of God in human form while also waiting for Santa Claus to come down our chimneys. Face it; most of the folks dashing about in the malls are more worried about the imminent arrival of Santa Claus than they are about God. I’d even go so far as to say that a good number of people have unconsciously substituted Santa Claus for God. Santa Claus and the baby Jesus get into some pretty fierce competition at this time of year; and in the culture the larger loyalty belongs to Santa.Continue reading →
Reading over sermons I have preached about John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, I came across this “cry for the wilderness” that I preached six years ago. Sadly, the wilderness has an even greater need today for prophets who are willing to cry out on its behalf! I offer my plaintiff cry here to inspire my colleagues as they prepare to prepare the way on this coming Sunday.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I actually met John the Baptist when I was fifteen years old. She didn’t look much like you’d imagine John the Baptist would look, but she had that same crazy intensity, that same focus on the fact that we’d better change our ways, we’d better repent, and start doing things differently or we’d be in real serious trouble. Lola was my friend Valerie’s mother and she simply couldn’t stop going on and on about the environment and how we were destroy the earth. At the time, I remember thinking she was a bit of a nut-case and on more than one occasion I wished she’d just shut up about it. I was just a kid, and the earth was just something I took for granted. The earth was just there to provide for our needs. I couldn’t believe how much Lola went on and on about all the stuff we humans were doing to destroy the earth. I just wished she’d leave us along to get on with things, I couldn’t abide her incessant nonsense about how we were going to destroy the planet. All her feeble little attempts to be kind to the earth, made me seriously question her sanity.
I tolerated Lola not just because she was my friend’s mother, but I didn’t really understand her until one day when the three of us were travelling together. We were coming home from church. I had only been going to church for a few months. I was trying hard to understand this whole God thing. So, I went to church a lot. My friend Valerie had persuaded me to start going to church with her and family had become like my second family as they supported me during my first attempts to explore the mysterious world into which I had begun to feel pulled. As we drove home from church, I was feeling a little glum. Try as I might, I couldn’t really understand this church thing; all that singing and praying didn’t really help me to feel closer to God. Mostly I just liked how people at church treated each other. I liked how they went out of their way to help me feel at home. Whether or not God was there, well I really wasn’t sure.
Anyway, we were driving along the road. It was a partly over-cast day on the west coast of British Columbia, just a few clouds. You could see the mountains off in the distance. We were chatting back and forth when all of a sudden Lola pulled the car over to the far side of the road, switched off the engine and got out. Valerie followed her mother out of the car, so I figured I had better do the same. Val and her mother scampered down from the road and onto the beach. When they reached the water’s edge, they stopped and just looked off into the distance. Apart from a tanker-ship making its way across the horizon, I couldn’t see much of anything. Lola had the most amazing expression on her face. She positively glowed with happiness. Valerie wore a similar expression. I must have looked somewhat puzzled because Val smiled at me and said, “Isn’t it the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?” This only confused me more. What were they looking at that had made them stop the car, scamper down the bank and stand there at the water’s edge on a cold autumn evening?
Maybe my parents were right, these religious types are a little bit weird. Happy, glowing, smiling people make me nervous. There they stood grinning from ear to ear. What were they on? And then, I saw it. For the first time in my life, I saw it. It had been there before. But I had never really seen it before. The sky was amazing. The colours were overwhelming. It almost didn’t look real. It looked like someone must have painted it that way. It was magnificent, a work of art, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen!
If you’ve never seen a late October, Pacific Coast Sunset before, you’ve missed one of the great wonders of the world. Neither Emily Carr’s paintings nor picture perfect post cards do a western sunset justice. Believe it or not, even though I had been living on the west coast for about four years, at that point I had never before really noticed just how beautiful a sunset could be. No one in my experience had ever taken the time to stop and look at one. No one had ever pointed one out to me before. I would never have dreamed of stopping a car and getting out to watch as the sun put on a show while setting. So I stood there. Overwhelmed by it all. Amazed at just how beautiful it was. Wondering just who or what could be responsible for such a spectacular thing as this. Before long my thoughts drifted to the Creator. Suddenly this God, that I had been trying so hard to fathom, was there. Right there. Not just in the magnificence of the sunset, but right there on the beach. At that moment, I was just as sure of God’s presence as I was of my own. I remember an overpowering feeling of gratitude, gratitude for God’s presence, gratitude, because for the first time in all my life I was at home. I knew that I was home. Home, not because of the place; home not because of the beauty of the sunset, but home because of God’s presence. That longing that I had always felt; that longing that I have always labelled as homesickness, that over-powering longing was gone. In that glorious moment, the presence of God, filled my longing and I was at home.
I’m sure that each of you could tell of a similar experience. So many of us have been blessed by the presence of God in creation. So many of us have had our longing for God filled by the wonder and majesty of creation. I suspect that our love of creation comes as a direct result of our relatedness to creation. For like creation and everything in creation we share a common Creator. My own love affair with creation kicked into high gear on the beach gazing at the magnificence of the setting sun and it has grown in intensity over the years. This past summer, Carol and I drove out to Vancouver and I have to say, if you want to renew your love for creation, drive across this magnificent country of ours.
You’ll find yourself absolutely besotted with creation as you fall in love all over again. By the time we reached my beloved Rocky Mountains, it was like some star-crossed lover, who simply couldn’t help herself from bubbling over with excitement. Not even the first rainy day of our trip could dampen my excitement as we drove south from Jasper toward the Columbia Ice fields. I couldn’t wait to gaze upon the grandeur of the glacier that I remembered from so many visits over the years. The rain was falling quite heavily as we pulled into the massive parking lot perfectly situated across from the ice-field. As we climbed the steps toward the viewing station, I couldn’t see much because I’d pulled my hood up over my head to protect me from the rain. When I reached the top and looked across the highway, it took my breath away, the mass of ice that was frozen in my memory, was gone.
I’m not sure if the drops of water falling down my cheeks were raindrops or teardrops, as I stood there frozen by a strange mixture of fear and sadness. In the decades that have passed since I first began to visit the ice-fields back in the 1970’s the ice has been receding at a rate of between 10 and 15 centimeters per decade. 120 centimeters may not seem like a great distance, but couple that with a decrease in the thickness of the ice and it is positively shocking to see the amount of ice that has vanished from view.
Take a look at the iceberg that I asked Andrew to hang. This photograph was taken in a place I visited long ago. It’s a place were icebergs are born. I ended up there back in the days when I was in the travel business and ended up on a cheap Air Iceland flight that was delayed for a week in Reykjavík for a week. Back then Iceland’s airline must have had only two airplanes and when one of them suffered mechanical difficulties you literally had to wait around for them to fix it. It’s one of the reasons that flights were so cheap on Air Iceland. You simply never knew how long your stopover in Iceland might be. I was trapped there for a week and during that time we decided to explore some of the most amazing geological sites that the earth has to offer. We travelled about 400 kilometers outside of Reykavik to the Jokulsarlon Lagoon; the birthplace of glaciers. It was in this strange lagoon, under an eerie twilight that lasted for the entire duration of my stay in Iceland, that I stud on the hull of a small tourist vessel, staring up at a magnificent glacier. I have no words to describe my terror. Continue reading →
This sermon was preached at Holy Cross Lutheran November 28, 2010, sadly racism continues to live on in ways that threaten so many lives and the question of this sermon seems even more urgent today. The readings included Isaiah 2:1-5, “Amazing Peace” by Maya Angelou, and Matthew 24:36-44, during the sermon I read from the Qur’an Sura 19:1-30 which you can find by following the link in the body of the sermon.
While I was studying for an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia, I worked as a volunteer women’s center. Because I was studying the religions of the world, women who were being persecuted as a result of religious belief were often referred to me.
I’d been working with a young woman who was being abused by her father and brothers because they felt that she was adopting Canadian ways and thereby abandoning Islam. I remember visiting her in the hospital emergency room after her brothers had beaten her nearly to death. She told me that the last thing her brother said to her before tossing her out of the back of a van, was that she should consider herself lucky that they had talked their father into letting them beat her, instead of doing what he had ordered in the first place which was to kill her. I sat at her bedside wondering how a brother could do such a thing to his sister. I decided that they must be religious fanatics and I wondered how any religion could drive a father to seek the death of his own daughter.
The next morning I didn’t feel much like going to my Religious Studies Methodology Seminar. The Seminar was comprised of 7 students from various faith traditions along with 4 atheists and 3 agnostics. Together we studied the various methods of studying religion. We were about to embark on the phenomenological approach to the study of religion. “The Phenomenology of Religion” is a fancy academic way of describing the study of actual religious experiences of the divine. As we stumbled to our seats the professor announced that he would be dividing us into groups of two and he wanted us to learn all that we could about our partner’s religious experience. We would have two weeks to come up with a 1,000 words describing on the phenomenology of our partner’s religious life. I was paired with an Imam who was studying Western approaches to religion prior to taking up a position in a local mosque. Ibrahim was a recent immigrant from Pakistan. But he might as well have been from Mars as far as I was concerned. On that day of all days, Muslim men were not exactly my favorite characters. Continue reading →