The Story of Jesus’ Birth is a Subversive Parable

This sermon, is a distillation of the work of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their excellent book “The First Christmas”

I am indebted to Peter Rollins for his approach to the Christmas story.

Our Readings included the Parables of the Annunciation from the gospels of Matthew and Luke and the Qur’an – you can read them here

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

St. Nicholas Is Too Old and Too Tired to Defeat the Selling Power of Santa Claus!

santa_as_satanToday: 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

PREPARE THE WAY FOR OUR GOD! Become the Prophet Crying FOR the Wilderness! – a sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent when John the Baptist Cries

BCsunsetReading 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.

jokulsarlon-glacier-lakeTake 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

Advent and the Quest for the Perfect Christmas – Luke 1

Let me begin, good friends, by addressing you in the same way that the anonymous gospel storyteller that we know as Luke addressed his congregation, for I trust that each one of you are indeed “Theophilus”. LOVER of GOD from the Greek words: “theo” which means “God” and “philus” which means “lover”.

Dearest lovers of God, welcome to the Gospel according to Luke. ‘Tis the season for the first two chapters of Luke which read much like a Broadway musical. While others may have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events exactly as they were passed on to us by the original eyewitnesses, the anonymous, gospel-storyteller that, for the want of knowing his or her actual name, we call Luke, has put together an opening to his portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth in the grand style of Jewish midrash, with a cast of characters aptly named to put his audiences in mind of some of the Jewish people’s greatest heroes; a real blast from the past with a view toward a new kind of future. Over the years, those who have heard Luke’s account have added the musical score which includes Zachariah’s “Bennedictus,” Elizabeth’s “Hail Mary” as well as Mary’s “Magnificat”. And that’s just in the first chapter!

The Gospel we call Luke came into the life of the Christian community in the late 9thor early 10thdecade of the Common Era, or some sixty years after Jesus’ earthly life had ended. It opens with a magical birth story never intended to be viewed as history. Let me say that again. It opens with a magical birth story that was never intended to be viewed as history. The story is filled with supernatural signs: angels that sing, fetuses that communicate, a virgin that conceives and even a post-menopausal pregnancy. It is the author of Luke’s attempt to capture in parabolic language the essence of who he thinks Jesus is – namely the one through whom God can be experienced.

Like I said before, the author is unknown to us. The name Luke was given decades, perhaps centuries after the book was actually written. All we really know about the author is that heby his own admission, was not an eye-witness to the events of Jesus’ life. We know from his own writing that he wrote excellent Greek; a feat only accomplished by the most highly educated people of his day. Based on the way he wrote, and the phrases he used, experts have concluded that he was in all likelihood a gentile convert to Judaism who then became a Christian. By his own account, he is writing not an accurate detailed account, but rather, an account that will make theophilus, the lovers of God, believe. His account takes the form of a series of short stories; short stories that are easily dramatized. Some, New Testament scholars believe that these stories were told over and over again in dramatic ways; ways designed to hold the interest of their audiences. Continue reading

Shady Ladies, Forgotten Stories, and Images of God: Casualties of Our Advent Lectionary

In the preface to her beautiful children’s book, “But God Remembered: Stores of Women from Creation to the Promised Land” Jewish writer Sandy Eisenberg Saso tells this revealing story:

“Before God created man and woman, God wanted to create Memory and Forgetfulness. But the angels protested.
The angel of Song said, ‘Do not create Forgetfulness. People will forget the songs of their ancestors.’
The Angel of Stories said, ‘If you create Forgetfulness, man and woman will forget many good stories.’ The Angel of Names said, ‘Forget songs? Forget stories? They will not even remember each other’s names.’
God listened to the complaints of the angels. And God asked the angels what kinds of things they remembered.
At first, the angels remembered what it was like before the world was formed. Then as the angels talked about the time before time existed, they recalled moments when they did not always agree.
One angel yelled at another, ‘I remember when your fiery sword burned the hem of my robe!’
‘And I remember when you knocked me down and tore a hole in my wing,’ screamed another.
As the angels remembered everything that ever happened, their voices grew louder and louder and louder until the heavens thundered.
God said, ‘FORGET IT!’
And there was Forgetfulness.
All at once the angels forgot why they were angry at each other and their voices became angelic again. And God saw that it was good.
God said, “There are some things people will need to forget.’
The angels objected. ‘People will forget what they should remember.’
God said, ‘I will remember all the important things. I will plant the seeds of remembrance in the soul of My people.’
And so it was that over time people forgot many of the songs, stories and names of their ancestors.
But God remembered.”

As we approach the First Sunday of Advent, I can’t help wondering why the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary (the list of prescribed readings for Sunday worship) have failed to remember the stories and names of our foremothers? End times and John the Baptist strutting across the stage are featured prominently in the Advent lectionary. We have begun a new cycle in the RCL in what is know as Year C the lectionary Gospel readings will focus upon readings from the Gospel according to Luke. neither of the women of the Luke’s first chapter make an appearance without a great deal of effort. Unless worship planners are prepared to tinker with the lectionary Elizabeth and Mary will have to cede the stage to John the Baptist. So, all you worship planners and preachers out there, I say to you, “TINKER AWAY! TELL THE STORIES!” Unless worship planners are prepared to tinker with the lectionary Elizabeth and Mary will have to cede the stage to John the Baptist. So, all you worship planners and preachers out there, I say to you, “TINKER AWAY! TELL THE STORIES!” Continue reading

The World Comes to an End Every Day! – Mark 13:1-8 – Pentecost 26B

It was one of those marvellous sunny days on the West Coast, when you can see the mountains rising in the distance, their snow-caps reaching up to the sky. Joan was delighted that the weather had chosen to co-operate.  It had been a long hard week and a day on the beach was just what the doctor ordered. Her boys were even co-operating. Chatting away in the back seat, arguing over which one of them was going to build the biggest sandcastle. Jimmy, her eldest, considered himself quite the little builder. He approached the construction of a sand-castle with the kind of vigour that made his engineering father proud. Just six-years old and already Jimmy knew the importance of careful preparation. He was explaining to his little brother David that you have to pick just the right spot for your sandcastle. You have to make sure that you build your castle close enough to the water so that you can make the sand all mushy, but not too close, or else once the tide begins to come in, your castle will be flooded too quickly.

Joan smiled to herself. She was delighted that now that David had finally made it through the terrible twos, he and Jimmy seemed to be getting along much better. She had absolutely no idea that every word of their childish conversation would be etched into her memory for the rest of her life. She didn’t see the car that hit them. To this day, Joan has no memory of how it happened. All she can remember is Jimmy’s last agonizing cry. Little Jimmy, who in his six short years, grabbed onto life with such intensity, was killed instantly. On a beautiful sunny day on the West Coast, Joan’s world ended. Life as she had known it was over. Joan’s world ended when Jimmy died.

Karen and Bill had been working for hours on the new nursery. There wasn’t much time left.  The baby was due in just eight weeks and so very much still needed to be done. But at least they had finally finished the painting and papering. They were admiring their handiwork when Karen’s water broke. In the car on the way to the hospital, Karen tried to reassure Bill. Over and over again she told Bill that lots of first babies arrive early. After 20 long hours, Michael was born. The doctors carefully explained that Michael’s spine had not developed properly. They assured Karen and Bill that he would be alright, but unfortunately, he would never be able to walk. On the morning their son was born the life that Karen and Bill had looked forward to was over. Karen and Bill’s world ended when Michael was born.

Mary loved her job. She was a high-powered executive with a company that was expanding at a phenomenal rate. She worked hard to get where she was. She poured all her energy into her work. She barely had time for a personal life, but that didn’t bother Mary. She knew there would be plenty of time for that after she had gotten where she wanted to go. Ten years and she was already playing with the big boys. She was a mover and a shaker.  She loved her work and as good as she was at her job, she just didn’t see it coming.  She was stunned when the announcement came.  Apparently, the company had expanded a little too quickly. Bankruptcy put an end to the life that Mary loved. Mary’s world ended the day she lost her job.

I used to think that the end of the world would come in a blaze of glory. I used to think that when the world ended there would be plenty of warning. I used to think that if you paid enough attention to what was going on around you, you would be able to tell when the world was going to end. But that was before a doctor came into a room and told me that they had found a tumour that needed to be removed immediately. The end of the world came quietly without any fanfare at all. It hit me like a ton of bricks, without any warning what so ever. The world came to an end. It hardly seems fair that the world can come to an end so suddenly. I for one would have liked a little notice. 

Today, the media is full of news that heralds the end of the world. There are wars and rumours of wars as explosions end the world for hundreds and thousands of people in faraway places. The world comes to an end every single day.  It hardly seems fair that the world can come to an end so suddenly. When I was younger, I always wanted to know how a story ended. As a kid, I would often flip to the last chapter of a wonderful book to see just how things ended. I can still remember watching movies on TV that my father had already seen before and begging him to tell me how it all ends. Sometimes, my Dad would oblige, but more often than not he would tauntingly tell me to just watch and enjoy the movie, because it would all become clear soon enough. Continue reading

“The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!” – a Reformation Sermon – John 8:31-36

“You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Let me take a moment to face the truth about who we are as Lutherans. The truth is that from the beginning Lutherans have participated in hate-filled tribalism that gives rise to anti-Semitism. The irony of attempting to commemorate the Reformation on the day after the slaughter of Jewish sisters and brothers cannot be ignored. Sadly, our church’s tragic participation in anti-Semitism goes all the way back to Martin Luther himself. Luther’s anti-Semitic rants provided the theological grounding that empowered Nazi’s to fan the flames of the Holocaust. It took until 1983 for the Lutheran World Federation to confess and repent Luther’s words.

Let me read from our sister church, the ELCA’s Declaration to the Jewish Community:

“In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded the Jewish people on the part of Christian believers. Very few Christian communities of faith were able to escape the contagion of anti-Judaism and its modern successor, anti-Semitism. Lutherans belonging to the Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America feel a special burden in this regard because of certain elements in the legacy of the reformer Martin Luther and the catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century, suffered by Jews in places where the Lutheran churches were strongly represented.

The Lutheran communion of faith is linked by name and heritage to the memory of Martin Luther, teacher and reformer. Honoring his name in our own, we recall his bold stand for truth, his earthy and sublime words of wisdom, and above all his witness to God’s saving Word. Luther proclaimed a gospel for people as we really are, bidding us to trust a grace sufficient to reach our deepest shames and address the most tragic truths.

In the spirit of that truth-telling, we who bear his name and heritage must with pain acknowledge also Luther’s anti-Judaic diatribes and the violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews. As did many of Luther’s own companions in the sixteenth century, we reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations. In concert with the Lutheran World Federation, we particularly deplore the appropriation of Luther’s words by modern anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people in our day.

Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred, moreover, we express our urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people. We recognize in anti-Semitism a contradiction and an affront to the Gospel, a violation of our hope and calling, and we pledge this church to oppose the deadly working of such bigotry, both within our own circles and in the society around us. Finally, we pray for the continued blessing of the Blessed One upon the increasing cooperation and understanding between Lutheran Christians and the Jewish community.”

Semper Reformanda, means always reforming, or keep on reforming, or always reform. I don’t know about you, but after some of the horrendous events this week, I’m almost too tired for any more reforming. Between the Make America Great Again bomber, the white supremist, anti-Semite shooter, the defunding of Ontario colleges, and the abandonment of protections designed to ensure workers at the low end of the pay scale, see not only a dollar an hour raise but more than just a few paid sick days, I’m tried. I don’t even have it in me to pay attention to the worst humanitarian crisis in human history, so please don’t show me any of those horrendous pictures of starving children in Yemen, and whatever you do, please don’t remind me of the genocide of Rohingyan people Between the orange yahoo south of the boarder and our own moronic blowhard at Queen’s Park, I’m so very tired of bad news.  Don’t get me wrong, I want to save the world, I just can’t seem to face the world right now. I am in bondage to compassion fatigue and I cannot free myself. I can’t even begin to live up to the standards I set for myself. The onslaught of news that comes flooding in at a fevered pace, has left me longing to just hide away, curl up into a ball and forget that I ever believed that I had a role to play in making the world a better place.

When I was too young to know any better, I fell in love with an image of myself that I’ve been failing to live up to year after year, decade after decade. The truth about who and what I am is far from the ideal image of the person I long to be. The gap between our ideal self and our real self is a truth most of us would prefer to deny. The truth that we are far from the perfect ideal person that on our good days we aspire too, is tough to swallow. As relatively healthy human beings most of us recognize that we are missing the mark. Missing the mark is how the word sin is defined in the Hebrew Scriptures. We can try to put our faith in ideals, or rules or as the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther would say we try to put our faith “in the Law.” But ideals, or rules, or Law cannot save us from the reality that we are incomplete beings, ever-evolving beings, beings still hoping to become all that we can be. Continue reading

The View from Job’s Dung-heap: Peering Beyond the Heavens Toward a Theory of Everything?

string theoryRuminating over this Sunday’s prescribed reading from Job 38, my mind harkens back to 2012, when I had the privilege of attending a series of lectures given by the great Phyllis Tickle who described the current reformation that the church is experiencing as part of a cultural phenomenon that happens about every 500 years, which she calls “The Great Emergence”. When asked what skills religious leaders will need to navigate the information age, Tickle insisted that the best advice we could give to anyone considering a religious vocation was that they should study physics. Inwardly I groaned, remembering my feeble attempts to come to grips with the most rudimentary theories of quantum physics. But I also nodded in agreement, knowing that so many of our religious narratives strive to make meaning of the cosmos as it was perceived by ancient minds. When our ancestors looked into the heavens they had no way of knowing the wonders of the cosmos that we are beginning to discover. While physicists can ignore theology, theologians who ignore physics will find themselves stuck atop Job’s dung-heap impotently shaking their fists at the Divine.  Perhaps Tickle is correct and the clerics of the future will out of necessity need to be physicists.  Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku speculates that the universe is “a symphony of strings” and the “mind of God would be cosmic music resonating through eleven dimensional hyper-space”.  If you have the courage to climb down from the dung-heap, take a look at Michio Kaku’s “The Universe in a Nutshell”. If the Divine bollocking that Job endured makes you wonder if ignorance might just be bliss, then take a peek at “Is God a Mathematician?” or “The Mind of God”. Who knows, maybe if a few more of us dare to dwell in the questions we might just come up with imaginative narratives to help us fathom what it means to be human. 

Enough for Everyone – Mother’s Day sermon – Easter 7B – John 17:6-11

 

Her name was Julia Ward Howe. She was born in 1819, in New York City. Her parents died when she was very young. She barely even knew her own mother.           She was raised by her aunt and uncle.  Her uncle was known as a bit of a radical.  He saw to it that his niece received a good liberal arts education; something very rare for a young woman of Julia’s day.When she was 21 years old, Julia married Samuel Gridley Howe.Howe had made a name for himself as a reformer who took quite a strong stand against slavery.Samuel often told people that he admired Julia’s ideas, her quick mind, her wit and above all her commitment to causes he supported.But Samuel, like many men of his day, believed that women should not take an active part in the causes of the day, nor should they speak in public.For her part, Julia did her best to respect her husband’s wishes. Julia had six children.Two of her children died when they were very young. In her diaries, Julia describes her life during the early part of her marriage as one of isolation.

In deference to her husband she had no life outside of her home except for Sundays when she attended church.Julia wrote of her husband’s violent outbursts as he attempted to control his wife’s activities. Julia’s only out-let was her writing. She began to gain quite a name for poetry. It is not clear just how she managed to get her poems published, but the success of her poetry led to invitations for Julia to speak at various gatherings. Apparently, Julia had quite a mouth on her. A friend of hers wrote that, “Bright things always came readily to Julia’s lips, and second thoughts often came too late to prevent her words from stinging.”

Samuel resented his wife’s success and after he managed to lose most of Julia’s inheritance from her father, he became more and more violent. Julia raised the issue of divorce, but Samuel threatened  to take the children from her, so instead Julia decided to try to fill her days of confinement to her home by educating herself.  Julia began to study philosophy. In time she even managed to teach herself several languges.Her diaries speak of her husband’s concern that Julia’s attempts at self-education were outrageous for a woman in her position in society.It was not until Julia discovered that Samuel had been unfaithful to her that she was able to negotiate a more active public life for herself. Continue reading

The Ascension Never Actually Happened – Ascension is Always Happening

Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stretching Metaphors Beyond their Ability to Carry Us – a sermon for Easter 5B – John 15:1-8 and 1 John 4:7-21

to listen to the audio only click here

There’s a preacher whose work I admire. His name is Salvatore Sapienza. Sal comes from New York city; Sal would say it differently – “New York.” Speaking with his New York drawl, Sal expresses the vine metaphor in a unique way. Sal says, “Jesus said, youz are the branches and I am da-vine.” Sal goes on to say that, the word divine is ‘of the vine”. Divine is another word for the MYSTERY we call God.  Of the vine, vine from the Latin for wine – wine the fruit of the vine.

Wine is something that is intimately intertwined with the stories of Jesus life. According to the anonymous-gospel-storyteller that we call John, Jesus’ very first miracle was turning water into wine. In the story Jesus takes something ordinary and transforms it into something extraordinary. Most of us are very familiar with wine’s ability to transform us. The ancient Romans had a saying, “in vinio vertais” in wine there is truth. From the other anonymous-gospel-story-tellers we also have the story of Jesus last meal, during which Jesus takes wine, gives thanks and shares the wine with his friends saying, “drink this all of you, this wine is my blood…to remember me” When we remember that meal it is as if the wine we drink together is the promise that Jesus’ life force, the life that flowed through Jesus, flows through us in the sharing of the wine. In Jesus’ we see the energy, the flow of the life force that emanates from the MYSTERY, from the LOVE, that we call God. In the sharing of the wine, we too are in the flow, we too are connected to the flow that is the Divine.

The anonymous-gospel-story-teller that we call John creates for us a metaphor drawn from the life experience of his people.We are the branches, intimately intertwined with one another, we are all connected to one another, and what flows through the Divine, flows through us. In his teachings and with his life, Jesus said, God is in me, and I am in you, we are all in each other, we are all ONE. Youz are the branches, I am Da-vine. Such a beautiful metaphor; metaphor something that carries us beyond the words to a reality that is beyond words. The storyteller uses the metaphor of the vine to carry us beyond the image of the vine to the reality that is beyond words, the reality that we call Divine and the fruit of the vine flows through us to be the DIVINE in the world or as we say here “to be LOVE in the world”.

“Those who live in me and I in them will bear abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Wait, what?   “Those who don’t live in me are like withered, rejected branches, to be picked up and thrown on the fire and burned.”

That’s the thing with metaphors. Metaphors can carry us beyond the words and images to a reality that is beyond words and images. Metaphors can also entrap us because we are prone to stretching metaphors beyond their ability to carry us. Metaphors often fail when they are delivered to folks who do not share the experiences of the creators of those metaphors. Vino veritas works, because we share the experience of seeing truth revealed when the wine is flowing. But when the anonymous-gospel-storyteller stretches his metaphor to say, “If you live on in me, and my words live on in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you.” the metaphor begins to fail, because not all of us share the experiences of asking and receiving whatever we want. And thus, the storyteller’s conclusion, “My Abba will be glorified if you bear much fruit and thus prove to be my disciples” fails  to convince us.

Today’s first reading from the first letter of John often fails to convince us for a different reason. Scholars believe that the First Letter of John and the Gospel of John were written by the same anonymous-storyteller, we don’t know his name, but the church has traditionally called this anonymous-storyteller John. Scholars tell us that both the gospel of John and the First Letter of John were written sometime between 90-110, some 60 to 80 years after Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth. Scholars do not believe that this story-teller was an eyewitness to the life and teachings of Jesus, but rather that he experienced the life and teachings of Jesus through the stories that were handed down through the community in which he lived; a community that was suffering under the persecution of the Roman Empire as well as the persecution of their neighbours because they had chosen to follow the teachings of Jesus. In the midst of a very violent, dangerous existence our story-teller writes a letter to his community in which he insists: “Beloved, let us love one another because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten of God and has knowledge of God. Those who do not love have known nothing of God, for God is Love.”

If only he had stopped there. But he continues, “God’s love was revealed in our midst in this way: “by sending the Only Begotten into the world, that we might have faith through the Anointed One. Love, then, consists in this: not that we have loved God, but that God has loved us and has sent the Only Begotten to be an offering for our sins.”

The life and teachings of Jesus and the death of Jesus are all about love; the love that Jesus had for his neighbours and the love that Jesus had for his enemies. Jesus lived a life that embodied neighbour love and extended the definition of neighbour to include those on the margins. Jesus critiqued his own culture and the culture of his people’s oppressors based on the love of neighbour. When the religious authorities and the forces of Empire teamed up to persecute Jesus and his neighbours, Jesus refused to take up arms against his enemies choosing instead to insist that only by loving our enemies can we hope to find peace.  Jesus proclaimed that peace could only be achieved through justice; justice based on love of neighbours and love of enemies.

Violence is a violation of love and will never lead to peace. Jesus chose to embody love precisely because he understood God as love. Jesus’ embodiment of LOVE was so powerful, that in Jesus, people were able to see and experience God. The Jesus experience was so powerful, so life-changing that not even the death of Jesus could kill the experience of LOVE that his followers encountered in the life of Jesus.

Writing some 60 to 80 years after the brutal Roman execution of Jesus, the Jesus experience continued to speak powerfully to the followers of Jesus who continued to share that experience with others.  That they chose to tell the story of Jesus life and death in ways that would have resonated with the people of their time should come as no surprise to us. Sacrifice, booth animal and human were part and parcel of the religious traditions of the Hellenistic world in which the followers of Jesus lived.  That the followers of Jesus tried to make sense out of Jesus execution as a common criminal, in terms of cultic sacrifice is not surprising. That all these centuries later we continue to try to make sense out of Jesus execution as a common criminal, in terms of cultic sacrifice is astounding.  That we all too often focus on cultic sacrifice at the expense of love, is in and of itself criminal.

Every day we are learning so much about what it means to be human, about the expansive cosmos in which we live, and about the very nature of reality. We are uniquely placed to explore what lies beyond the comprehension of those who have gone before us in faith. The dimensions and the power of love deserve more than the speculations of our past or the sentimental, self-serving notions of our present age.

LOVE, the LOVE that is God, deserves our attention in the here and now. Beloved, let us love one another because love is of God. If we have any hope of learning to love our neighbours and our enemies we will need to understand more fully the magnitude of the LOVE that is God so that we might begin to truly embody that LOVE. This will require that we step up and pay attention to how we arrived at a place where love can be wrapped up in guilt and confused with human sacrifice, so that we can shake off our childish notions and grow into all that we are created to be.

LOVE Beyond measure. Beyond words, beyond race, beyond religion, beyond tribe, beyond fear, beyond time, beyond sentimentality, beyond borders, beyond reason, beyond emotion, beyond imagining. Love, beyond the beyond and beyond that also. So, let the metaphor carry us beyond the words and images, let it carry us to the reality that is the LOVE that we call the Divine.

Jesus said, youz are the branches and I am da-vine.” Let us be of the vine, for we are intertwined one with another, all wound up in da-vine, for we are ONE with the DIVINE. Let the fruit of the vine flow through us so that we can be the DIVINE in the world or as we say here and now, “to be LOVE in the world”.

LOVE Beyond measure.

Beyond words, beyond race, beyond religion,

beyond tribe, beyond fear, beyond time,

beyond sentimentality, beyond borders, beyond reason,

beyond emotion, beyond imagining.

Love, beyond the beyond and beyond that also. LOVE.

God the DIVINE who is,

LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE itself.

May that LOVE flow through us. Amen.

The Sheepskin Baggage We Bring to the Text: sermon for Easter 4B – John 10

Traditionally the fourth Sunday in Easter is celebrated as Good Shepherd Sunday so it should not surprise us that a pesky lamb shows up. Readings:  Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

Listen to the sermon here

I am currently enjoying a continuing education leave in Belfast, Northern Ireland and so, it seems only right that I should begin by telling an Irish story. This particular story comes from the Irish author Frank McCourt. Some of you will be familiar with his most famous book, Angela’s Ashes. But this story comes from his autobiographical book entitled “Tis” McCourt was a school teacher and he tells this story about a particular class in which he was challenging the assumptions of his young students.

The story begins with a familiar nursery rhyme: “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; All the king’s horses And all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

McCourt asks his young students to tell him what’s going on in this nursery rhymed. The hands are up like a shot. “Well, like, this egg falls off the wall and if you study biology or physics you know you can never put an egg back together again. I mean, like, it’s common sense.

McCourt asks: “Who says it’s an egg?”

“Of course, it’s an egg. Everyone knows that.

Where does it say it’s an egg?

They’re thinking. They’re searching the text for egg, any mention, any hint of egg. They won’t give in. There are more hands and indignant assertions of egg. All their lives they knew this rhyme and there was never a doubt that Humpty Dumpty was an egg. They’re comfortable with the idea of egg and why do teachers have to come along and destroy everything with all this analysis.

“I’m not destroying,” insists McCourt, “I just want to know where you got the idea that Humpty Dumpty is an egg?”

“Because,” Mr. McCourt, “it’s in all the pictures and whoever drew the first picture musta known the guy who wrote the poem or he’d never have made it an egg.”

“All right.” Says McCourt: “If you’re content with the idea of egg we’ll let it be, but I know the future lawyers in this class with never accept egg where there is no evidence of egg.”

The story of Humpty Dumpty and the missing egg has a great deal in common with the story of Jesus and the missing sacrifice for sin. When it comes to the written word, we tend to see what we’ve been conditioned to see. Today’s gospel text is a good example of our seeing and reading into the text things that are not there. The gospel of John was written at the end of the first century; at least one possibly two generations after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We know that the gospel of John is not what we 21stcentury dwellers would call history. We know the story-teller that we call John wrote his interpretations of the Jesus experience to address the needs of his community who were struggling under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. We know that the gospel storyteller that we call John relied heavily upon the stories, myths and history of the Hebrews to convey the magnitude of the impact Jesus life, death, and resurrection had on the small band of followers of Jesus, who were struggling to survive in very troubled times. Continue reading

Apostle to the Apostles: Mary’s Story

a to aOn Sunday, in churches all over Christendom, worshippers will hear the gospel story of Doubting Thomas. The story of Doubting Thomas is prescribed gospel reading every year for the Sunday after Easter. I’ve never understood why Thomas should hold such a prominent place in our lectionary: I mean, as the stories have been handed down to us, when the chips were down, and Jesus could have used their support, Thomas and the guys deserted Jesus; they left him alone and spread out across the city to hide from the Romans and the religious authorities. According to the anonymous-gospel-story-tellers, it was the two Marys, together with the other women who had financially supported Jesus’ ministry, and who stuck by him to the bitter end. Also according to the anonymous-gospel-story-teller, we know as John, it was Mary, the one they call Magdala who brought back the news that Jesus was not dead, but had risen. Despite the fact that Mary Magdalene was the one chosen to be the Apostle to the Apostles, (the word apostle comes from the Greek for “the one sent”) our lectionary quickly moves on from the empty tomb to the upper room so that we can all once again explore the story of good old, doubting Thomas.

So here, let me honour Mary the Apostle to the Apostles with this my imaginary account of Mary’s story. Remember the power of our imaginations to breathe life into what appears to all the world to be dead. 

Shalom.  I greet you in the name of our risen Christ. My name is Mary.  You may know me as Mary Magdalene. I am not from around here.  I come from a good family in Magdala.  Magdala is a wealthy city on the Sea of Galilee, just south of Capernaum. My family made a lot of money in the fishing industry in Magdala.  While I was growing up I lacked nothing.  But I was not happy.  I was sick.  I would sit around the house moping and complaining and make everyone miserable.  I was so distraught.  Often I was so upset that I pulled out my own hair.

Sometimes I would be so excited that people couldn’t stop me from talking.  I ran up all sorts of bills in the market place which my parents had to pay.  I was always cooking up some mad scheme or other.  I would rant and rave at the slightest provocation.  From time to time I would become ill and stay in bed for weeks on end.  I knew something was terribly wrong and nothing seemed to ease my anxieties. I was a prisoner inside my own mind. Then I met Jesus.  He was teaching outside of the synagogue.  At first, I just stood back in the crowd and listened as he spoke about a new world which God intended to create. It would be a world where the sick are healed and prisoners are set free. I wanted to taste this freedom which Jesus spoke about. I wanted to ask him so many questions.  But the crowd pressed in upon him demanding that he tell them more and I was pushed farther away from him. In despair, I turned to leave. Continue reading

Marching to Our Jerusalems – Palm Sunday and Our Passions

Sermon inspired by the March for Our Lives!

The notes used for this sermon can be found here

PROCESSION OF PALMS

Teach Us to Pray! To Whom Shall We Go? Pray Without Ceasing! – Giving Up God for Lent 5 – Luke 11, John 6, 1 Thessalonians 5

This sermon is set up as a dialogue between the preacher and the congregation who respond with song and observations.  Some technical difficulties – so the video does not begin until Part III – a rough transcript is provided of the missing video sections. I am indebted to the work of Bishop John Shelby Spong, especially his new book “Unbelievable” 

Part 1                                We worship as we live

                         in the midst of the MYSTERY we call God,

                                       a MYSTERY that IS LOVE.

                                         May the Spirit of LOVE

                                    breathe wisdom and passion

                                             into this gathering.

On this the fifth Sunday in Lent, let us continue to repent:  repent from the Greek metanoia – think new thoughts. Let us think new thoughts about prayer. Let our repentance begin with a story from the anonymous gospel-story-teller we know as Luke:

“One day Jesus was praying, and when he had finished, one of the disciples asked, “Rabbi, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say, ‘Abba God, hallowed be your Name! May your reign come. Give us today tomorrow’s bread. Forgive us our sins, for we too forgive everyone who sins against us; and don’t let us be subjected to the test.’”

Not much of a prayer. No flowery words. Not much passion. Very plain. Very simple. There’s a part of me that wants to say to Jesus, “Is that all there is?”  “Is that the best you can come up with?” What kind of teacher are you? What kind of prayer is this? Come on Jesus put a little ump in your work! Show us some razzle-dazzle!

Of all the questions I am asked as a pastor, questions about prayer are the most common. People what to know how it is done. As unsatisfactory as I have always found Jesus’ teaching about prayer, I’m pretty sure that the answers I have offered have been even more unsatisfactory.  I remember once, a wise teacher asked a room full of eager prospective pastors to try to imagine this story about Jesus in a new way. Imagine Jesus, John the Baptist’s younger and cousin, always competing with his older cousin for followers. John was pretty good as fire and brimstone preachers go. People would flock out to the desert to hear John call people to “Repent!” to think new thoughts! Imagine how miffed you would be if some potential parishioners showed up on a Sunday morning touting the preaching of your colleague down the street. Pastor so and so, she sure can preach up a storm and her prayers, wow, if only you could teach us to pray like she prays. Come on, Pastor, teach us to pray.

Our wise professor asked us to consider the possibility that Jesus reluctantly taught his disciples how to pray. Like any good teacher, Jesus would have known that if you teach your students something you run the risk of them believing that they always have to do that something just the way you taught them. There is always the risk that people will mistake an example for a template. Our wise teacher cautioned us not to read just the words that were on the page but to imagine the story behind and between the words on the page. “Rabbi, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”  “All right!” Jesus said, “All right if you insist.” Try this, Abba God, hallowed be your name! May your reign come. Give us today Tomorrow’s bread. Forgive us our sins, for we too forgive everyone who sins against us; and don’t let us be subjected to the Test.”
It was just an example. Sadly, the example became a template. Then one follower, told another follower, who told another, who wrote it down. Trouble was it wasn’t much, so the church types, they added some fancy words to the end, “for thine is the kingdom, The power, and the glory, For ever and ever. Amen.” and suddenly, it is a template for all time.  Repent!  Metanoia – think new thoughts! Teach us to pray!

Part II

Repent – Metanoia – “to think new thoughts.” Let us repent, metanoia – Let us think new thoughts.  Let our repentance, our new thoughts flow from a story told decades after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; a story written down sometime around the turn of the first century by an anonymous gospel-story-teller that we know as John. This John is quite the storyteller and paints quite the picture of Jesus as the kind of teacher who can draw a crowd and annoy the authorities. This John, wrote it this way:

“Jesus spoke these words while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Many of his disciples remarked, “We can’t put up with this kind of talk! How can anyone take it seriously?”  Jesus was fully aware that the disciples were murmuring in protest at what he had said.  “Is this a stumbling block for you?” Jesus asked them. “What, the, if you were to see the Chosen One ascend to where the Chosen One came from? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh in itself is useless. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. Yet among you there are some who don’t believe.” Jesus knew from the start, of course, those who would refuse to believe and the one who would betray him. Jesus went on to say:  “this is why I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by Abba God.”

From this time on, many of the disciples broke away and wouldn’t remain in the company of Jesus. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Are you going to leave me, too?” Simon Peter answered, “Rabbi, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe; we’re convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

“To whom shall we go?” During this season of Lent we have been engaged in the practice of “Giving up God for Lent.” We have tried to give up all the images of God that we once treasured so much that we can to worship those images as idols.  We have embraced the truth about the ways in which our evolving knowledge of the cosmos together with our evolving understanding of what it means to be human…all this evolving knowledge and understanding have shown the idols that we had become so comfortable worshipping as but pale imitations of the ultimate MYSTERY that lies at the very core of reality.

We have tried to unpack some of the ways in which the god we created is too small, too limited, and far too capricious to ever fully encompass the MYSTERY that we call God.  We have tried attempted to peer beyond our personifications of the Divine so that we can begin to give up our desire to mold and shape the MYSTERY into our own image. To those of us who have peered beyond the beyond, for hints of the MYSTERY there comes more than a little grief.  Like the disciples in the gospel-story-teller’s story, “We can’t put up with this kind of talk!” Bereft of the personified, far away, sky-god we’d come to know, to love, and to worship, is it any wonder that we now cry out, “To whom shall we go?”

The reality that once you give up the notion that God is some far-away sky-god, willing to respond to our prayers, to do our bidding, or not to do our bidding as this sky-god wills, then, “to whom shall we go?” You can talk and teach all you want about progressive Christianity, but, “to who shall we go?” “Now, how are we supposed to pray?” “Now, to whom shall we pray?” “What is prayer anyway?”  “To whom shall we go?” “Now, teach us to pray!”  Repent. Metanoia. Think new thoughts!  

Part III

Repent:Metanoia: “to think new thoughts” Let us repent, metanoia – Let us think new thoughts. Giving Up God for Lent, we began our Lenten repentance way back on the First Sunday of Lent, by turning our attention to the first religious response. The response of awe and wonder at the nature of reality. That awe humbles us, opens us to the truth that we are part of something so much bigger than we can even begin to imagine. So, to bring us back to the first religious response, I offer you all of these lovelies. I can’t tell you the names of all these lovelies, so let me just begin by drawing your attention to the astonishing array of yellow. There is an old Hebrew expression:  deanu which translates as “enough”. It would have been enough just to have a daffodil. Daffodils in and of themselves are quite simply, awesome!

            Sacred Conversation on the beauty of Nature

Now, we could offer up…and I do mean up…we could resort to the old ways…and offer up a prayer of thanksgiving for the awesome beauty before us…or we could take a deep breath and repent…metanoia…think new thoughts and realize that this conversation in and of itself is prayer. It is in this conversation that the meaning of God was shared between us; it was in this conversation that the boundaries we humans erect to keep ourselves safe from the threat of another were transgressed and we shared our common humanity. It is in the sacred conversations where we are able to cross the boundaries and be vulnerable to one another that prayer emerges in our midst.

I chose these lovelies as an example, because nature provides us with a non-threatening example of our common humanity; for who among us is not awestruck by such loveliness. But I could have chosen any aspect of our common humanity – a pain we all share, a fear that haunts us, a joy that inspires us, a passion that delights us, or a longing that drives us. It is in the sacred conversation in which we share our experiences of our common humanity that prayer emerges; the conversation is holy, for in our common humanity our shared divinity is revealed.

Our friend Jack Spong insists that, “To be able to live the meaning of prayer, rather than just to “pray”’ ought to be our goal. Jack writes that, “Prayer is the sharing of being, the sharing of life and the sharing of love.” For, prayer is, “far more about “being” than it is about “doing.”   Repent….metanoia…think new thoughts.

Part IV

Repent – Metanoia – “to think new thoughts” Let us repent, metanoia – Let us think new thoughts. In the decades that followed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, somewhere around the year 52, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the community of people known as followers of the Way that gathered in Thessaloniki.  Our gospel today is found in the first letter of Thessalonians, St. Paul writes:   “ We ask you, sisters and brothers, to respect hose who labour among you, who have charge over you in Christ as your teachers. Esteem them highly, with a special love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. We urge you, sisters and brothers, to warn the idlers, cheer up the fainthearted, support the weak, and be patient with everyone. Make sure that no one repays one evil with another.  Always, seek what is good for each other—and for all people. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks for everything—for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not stifle the Spirit; do not despise the prophetic gift.

But test everything and accept only what is good. Avoid any semblance of evil. May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness. May you be preserved whole and complete—spirit, soul, and body—irreproachable at the coming of our Saviour Jesus the Christ. The One who calls us is trustworthy: God will make sure it comes to pass. Sisters and brothers, pray for us.

Greet all the sisters and brothers with a holy kiss. My orders, in the name of Christ, are that this letter is to be read to all the sisters and brothers. The grace of our Saviour Jesus Christ be with you.”  The Gospel of Christ…

Repent – Metanoia – “to think new thoughts” Let us repent, metanoia – Let us think new thoughts.  We have heard the words of the Apostle Paul. Now, let us hear the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong.  Our friend Jack writes: “Before prayer can be made real, our understanding of God, coupled with our understanding of how the world works, must be newly defined. Before prayer can have meaning, it must be built on an honest sharing of life. Before prayer can be discussed in the age in which we live, it must be drained of its presumed manipulative magic. It must find expression in the reality of who we are, not in the details of what we do…  Prayer is not and cannot be a petition from the weak to the all-powerful One to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Prayer does not bend God’s will to a new conclusion. Prayer does not bring a cure where there is no possibility of a cure. Prayer does not create miracles to which we can testify publicly.”

I hear you Jack, but I cannot help but respond, “To whom shall we go?” I miss the far-away-sky-god! I want my comforter. Like every other human who has come before me, I long to reach out and connect in some way with the MYSTERY, that something that is so much bigger than I can begin to imagine, that something bigger that we are part of. How do I experience that? How do I share in the MYSTERY?

Our friend Jack writes: “Is prayer, as we have traditionally defined it, a holy activity, or is prayer the preparation for a time of engaging in a holy activity? “Increasingly,” writes Jack, “I am moving to the latter conclusion.”  Prayer is the preparation for a time of engaging in holy activity. “It is life that is holy. It is love that is life-giving. Having the courage to be all that I can be is the place where God and life come together for me. If that is so, are not living, loving, and being the essence of prayer and the meaning of worship? When Paul enjoined us to “pray without ceasing”, did he mean to engage in the activity of praying unceasingly?  Or did he mean that we are to see all of life as a prayer, calling the world to enter that place where life, love and being reveal the meaning of God? Is Christianity not coming to the place where my “I” meets another’s “Thou,” and in that moment God is present?”

Jack’s questions, our questions, move us beyond our child-like notions of prayer to a deeper, more mature awareness of the reality that the MYSTERY is revealed in the prayers that emerge when we move beyond the boundaries of decorum, to traverse the landscape of our common humanity. When we share the wonders of life and love with another, we are engaged in prayer so sacred that the MYSTERY is revealed. For it is in our shared humanity that our own Divinity is revealed and the LOVE that is God emerges and takes on flesh and dwells among us. I no longer pray expecting miracles to occur, or lives to be changed, or for reality to bend to my will.  I do pray expecting that I will be changed, made a little more whole perhaps, set free to share my life more deeply with others, empowered to love beyond the boundaries erected by my fears. I pray trusting that in the sharing of our humanity our divinity is revealed as the MYSTERY that we call God emerges and takes on flesh and dwells among us.

As our friend Jack puts it, “Prayer to me is the practice of the presence of God, the act of embracing transcendence and the discipline of sharing with another the gifts of living, loving, and being.”

Let us pray without ceasing!

Let us see all of life as a prayer!

Let us repent…metanoia…think new thoughts …Let us live trusting that the Mystery is revealed in living, loving, and being. Let all the people say: AMEN!

 

2nd Sunday of Giving Up God for Lent – Pickup Your Cross

Lent: Letting Go of our Tightly Held Piety to See Our Need of Confession

JOHN OF THE CROSS as
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

LOVE Transforms: a sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

transformation

Readings include 2 Kings 2:1-14; Mark 9:2-10

Listen to the sermon here

When I was a kid the scepter of nuclear annihilation hung over the world’s psyche. Children were not immune to the images of mushroom clouds rising in the distance that held the power to destroy entire populations. I can still remember classroom drills in which we were instructed in the fine art of what to do if a nuclear missile was on its way. We practiced hiding under our desks. Our desks were supposed to protect us from a nuclear blast. It sounds funny now. But I remember the day that I put two and two together. We were watching a film of a nuclear test out in the desert of Nevada which showed dummies being blown away by the nuclear blast; dummies that were miles away from ground zero. It was then that I realized that our teachers were lying to us and that if the big one came our way we would all be blown to smithereens.  If we got lucky and ground zero was just far enough away, we would all suffer the effects of radiation sickness. Images of rotting flesh on the bodies of victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunted me and my fear spawned cries of outrage which developed into anger; anger that was embodied in my politics.

I was a very angry teenager. At the time, I believed that my anger was the result of the state of the world and I resolved to change the world. Ah the innocence of youth. It has taken decades and a whole lot of therapy for me to understand that my anger came from a deeper and darker place that rivaled the world’s warring madness. I was in fact a very lonely teenager. We moved around a lot. Every year of my life there had been a new school to contend with. Friendships were fleeting at best. The pain of moving from place to place left me longing for something I didn’t even know how to describe, and that pain came out as anger; anger which I directed at every adult who crossed my path, especially if that adult was in a position of authority. It didn’t take me very long to learn that anger isn’t exactly socially acceptable. So, I tried my best to bottle it all up. Until the day, I discovered what a lot of young people discover:  the love affair between anger and politics. So, I took up the cause of my day and became an angry protester who actively fought the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

I was 13 in 1970 when Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver and I was there in the Pacific Coliseum at their very first fundraiser. My parents knew nothing about it. My friends and I hitchhiked into the big city to join all those who were protesting the nuclear tests that the Americans were carrying out on the Island of Amchitka. Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs headlined the concert that launched Greenpeace onto the world stage. So, inspired were we that we spent most of the following year organizing a student strike.

In 1971 at the tender age of 14, I was on the organizing committee of the very first High School strike in Canadian history. We managed to convince over 9,000 high school kids from all over the Greater Vancouver Area to walk out of their classrooms and march down to the American Consulate and demand that they put an end to the nuclear testing on Amchitka.

Those were the days my friends. We were going to change the world. Stop the bomb and put an end to the war in Vietnam. Feed the hungry, end racism. What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!

Peace now! Was our rallying cry. Looking back, I realize that I wouldn’t have recognized peace if it broke out in front of me. There was so little peace in my life at home. As for the life inside of me, well that was so full of turmoil that peace would probably have driven me to madness. The only thing stopping me from going insane was my focused anger at the injustices in the world. As long as I could rage against the world, I didn’t have to listen to the demons that were raging inside of me.

Then one day, I started hanging out with a gang. I haven’t got time to go into the details of my involvement with this gang; suffice it to say, if I knew what this gang was all about I would never have gotten involved with them. The kids in this particular gang all had one thing in common; the Lutheran church. These kids were part of a Lutheran Youth Group. This gang managed to convince me to run away with them. They were going on something I’ve never heard of before; a retreat. A weekend at a place called Camp Luther. Somehow, I found myself with a gang of young, socially aware, politically astute kids who wanted to change the world. Continue reading

Let Freedom Ring Through You! Celebrate the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King2

Monday is Martin Luther King Day, today “a very stable genius” occupies the most powerful office on the planet. In many ways, this emperor, who has no clothes,  represents so much of what Dr. King struggled to overcome. So this year, it seems more important than ever to lift every voice and sing the praise of all those who bear witness to the kind of justice that Jesus of Nazareth embodied. What follows is the transcript of a sermon preached in 2014 to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. I offer it here in the hopes that it will encourage fellow preachers to turn to the writings of Dr. King as they prepare their sermons for this coming Sunday.  Let freedom ring!

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” During the struggle to open the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada to the full participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, there were some very dark days. As many of you know, during my first years in ministry, it was a struggle that I did not want any part of.  I was for all intents and purposes living in the closet, even if it was the most transparent of closets, the walls of that closet made it very clear to me that my job would be at risk if I spoke publicly about who I am. So, in the early years, I was determined to keep my mouth shut about my own sexuality and fight the good fight from the relative safety of the background. Then, by virtue of my office, I was asked to speak publicly at a forum being held by York region, mental health professionals who were gathering resources to support GLBT youth. The organizers of the forum knew that many young people suffered because of their family’s involvement in churches that propagated hatred toward gays and lesbians and they wanted me to speak directly to these issues so that mental health professionals might be equipped to begin to counter some of the religious propaganda that was damaging so many young people. A few days after I spoke at this public forum a note was hand delivered to the mailbox at the parsonage. The note contained two quotes from the book of Leviticus: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind it is abomination” and “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”

I was shaken by the quotes and even more shaken by the fact that they were hand delivered to my home. I tried to shake off my fear by telling myself that the note represented the ravings of a fool. But when I shared the note with members of the church council, I was reminded that in my world these words represented Bible quotes but in the real world they constituted a death threat.

I confess that at the moment, I realized that violence might actually be a consequence of my speech, I beat a hasty retreat back into my closet. I was determined to stay within the relative safety of the cozy, obscure little world in which Lutheran pastors usually live out our ministries. But calls kept coming in for help. So, I ventured out of the closet and mail continued to come in spouting hatred and suggesting violence as a very real possibility. There were some very dark days and even darker nights and from time to time I was sorely tempted to return in kind some of the hatred that was coming my way. One of you, I don’t know who, although I do have my suspicions placed a note in my church mailbox, right over there. The note contained these words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Let me just tell you, that those words stopped me on more than one occasion from lashing out in anger and on several occasions those words helped me to remember that I am called to love; love not only when it is easy or convenient, but to love in the face of hatred.

Now our struggle was not nearly as difficult as the struggles of others. I would not for a moment even begin to suggest that we have tasted the kind of hatred or been subjected to the kind of violence that was faced by the freedom fighters who achieved so much under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King. I do however know very clearly that we drew our inspiration from their struggles. The life and witness of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired and continues to inspire millions of people to seek justice, to stand up for freedom and to love in the face of hate.  Dr. King is more than just an inspiration to justice seekers and peacemakers, he is an example of what it means to impact the evolution of our species.  Humans are better beings as a result of the many ways in which Dr. King changed the way we interact with one another. Creation is not the same as a result of the life and witness of Dr. King. Continue reading