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

women Matthew1

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 Third Sunday of Advent, I can’t help wondering why the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL: the list of prescribed readings for Sunday worship) have failed to remember the stories and names of our foremothers? John the Baptist will strut across the stage again in this Sunday in churches all over the planet. The followers of the RCL will not hear the names of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, or Bathsheba; no, even Mary is only suggested as an optional replacement for the reading of the Psalm! 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

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

BCsunsetI 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

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

Some Virgins and a Rabbi meet Sophia: a sermon on the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and Sophia

SophiaDoveChaliceHranaJantoWisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 and Matthew 25:1-13 – Here’s a sermon that I preached several years ago when this coming Sunday’s readings prompted me to use/borrow/steal from the book “Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration”, by Susan Cady, Marian Ronan, Hal Taussig (Harper and Row, 1986). 

The parable of the ten, what??? Bridesmaids??? Really, ten bridesmaids, it sounds like the set up for some elaborate joke. Ten bridesmaids were waiting for a bridegroom, they waited so long that they fell asleep! I don’t know, you fill in the rest! I’ve never been much good at telling jokes, I’m more of a storyteller. Part of the fun of a story is the journey itself, but when you tell a joke you have to worry about punch lines. I tend to forget punch lines, or if I do remember them, I usually manage to mess them up and loose the laugh. So, there were these ten bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom. Five of the bridesmaids were wise and five of the bridesmaids were foolish. The wise bridesmaids brought along some extra oil for their lamps, the foolish bridesmaids did not. Long before the bridegroom arrived all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep. Yada yada yada!

A little detail here, a little detail there and lo and behold we’re at the punch line. Turns out the bridegroom doesn’t know five of the bridesmaids so he shuts the door and says: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you. Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Ha, ha, ha, very funny…. I simply don’t get it. For years and years, generation upon generation, people have been telling this one, and leaving people hanging with that punch line. Ha, ha, too bad, so sad, you just don’t get it. You don’t get to come into the party!

Okay, I know this is a parable and that means that like all parables there’s a trick of some sort that we have to work out. So, for generations preachers have been unraveling this one and the usual explanation goes something like this….“Keep awake! Don’t fall asleep! And for heaven’s sake be prepared! Cause if your not, Christ will bar the door and you won’t get into heaven! So, Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Christ could come back at any moment and if your not ready! That’s it! Boom! Christ will deny you, the door will be shut and you’re not getting in. Oh and by the way, your going to burn in hell for all eternity. So, remember keep awake, be afraid be very afraid. Cause your gonna die! And if you haven’t brought along some extra oil for your lamp, well it ain’t gonna be pretty!” Continue reading

What if we won’t ever really understand Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection until we understand that God is dead? – a Reformation Sermon

Listen to the sermon here

All over the world, Lutheran churches celebrate the earth-shattering events that were set in motion on October 31st 1517, when a Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Luther challenged the most powerful institution that his world had ever known. Luther shook the very foundations upon which the reality of his fellow humans was based. The power of the Holy Roman Catholic Church rested upon an interpretation of reality that envisioned a God who sits in judgement upon a throne in the heavens, a God who commanded a quid pro quo relationship with HIS subjects; a God whose determination to tip the scales of justice was so precise that he sent HIS only Son to die as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity, a God who used the sacrifice of that Son to somehow atone for the sins of every man, woman, and child who ever lived; saving them from the wrath of this God who had no other choice but to condemn sinners to eternal torment in the fires of hell, a God who established the church on earth to oversee the administration of the atoning power of Jesus death upon the cross, a church so powerful that they could sell you a piece of paper called an indulgence that would whisk you or your loved one out of the pits of Hell and up, up, up into the willowing, billowing, soft, gentle fluffy whiteness of Heaven, so that you could spend all of eternity basking in the Glory of your Father in heaven’s presence. These indulgences were more valuable than gold and it’s no wonder that the Church was able to sell them like hot-cakes, pardon the pun, and yes, I’m been sarcastic in my telling of this tale. Yes, history is more complicated than I’m telling it right here and right now, because I’m trying to make a point. The selling of indulgences was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the abuses the church on earth and in heaven. Continue reading

Glimpses of the MYSTERY we call GOD – Exodus 33

Listen to the sermon here

About ten days ago, I traveled up to Owen Sound for the funeral of a young colleague who died in a tragic motorcycle accident. During the two-and-a-half hour drive I couldn’t help wondering what life is all about. The stunning reality of the death of someone so young reminds us how very fragile life is. As I drove north the weather began to turn. So, by the time I reached Blue Mountain the wind was really howling. Driving along the shores of Lake Huron I could see waves rising. I’d been driving for over an hour, so I decided to pull over and take a walk before the rain began. Staring out over Nottawasaga Bay toward the vast grey horizon, I felt very small and insignificant. My mind wandered as my face was pelted by the sand that was kicked up by the wind. The sensation of the sand hitting my face awaked me to the reality that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

As my mind wandered, I caught sight of a small tuft of tall grass bent over by the force of the wind and sand. The long, tall grass shared my feeling of fragility as it was laid almost parallel to the beach by the strength of the wind. I thought about the Ruach, the wind, breath or Spirit of God, the power and majesty of the Ruach as it blows where it wills. Pelted by the wind, the sand, and the reality of death, the fragility of my own being struck me to my core as a deep, loud, “No!” rose up from my inner being. It was as much a plea to the Ruach as it was a staunch denial of the reality of fragility of life. “NO!” I shouted into the horizon. But the Ruach, the wind and the sand threw my “NO” back in my face as my tears mixed with the rain that began to fall.

The wind must have changed direction because when I looked back at the tuft of fragile grass it was standing tall even as the rain’s intensity increased. I took a long, deep, intake of breath. It was as if the very Ruach of God entered my being. I wiped the tears and the rain from my face, straightened my spine and walked back to the car ready to face the reality of our mortality, strengthened by the knowledge that I had encountered MYSTERY; the MYSTERY that is the source of All.

The Bible is full of stories that touch the deepest MYSTERY of life. The ancients knew that eternal truths are best communicated through stories, and so we plumb the depths of the scriptures’ parables, myths, and similes to discover our reality. Memories, stories, imaginings, myths, wonderings, and glimpses are the stuff of truth.  We human creatures just can’t help wondering. How did we get here?  Who made us? Why were we made? Why are we here? Where are we going? We humans can’t seem to help wondering, what’s it all about? From days of old, we’ve been sitting around campfires weaving tales about how we came to be, and what it’s all about; speculating on the nature of our creator.  Story after story has been told; stories that weave in and out between our experiences and our wonderings, what’s real, what’s not, what’s true and what are imaginings. The best stories, the ones that captured our imagination and stimulated our wonderings, those stories were told over and over again. Handed down from one generation to the next. Some stories so profound that they just had to be written down. Elevated to the realm of the sacred these wonderings, took on the quality of myth. Sacred truth, so precious that over the years some have sought to defend these stories with their very lives. Others have built their world around these sacred truths, found their identities between the lines of their imaginings. Still others have feared the very wonderings that birthed these sacred truths. So afraid have they become that they’ve tried to insist that these sacred truths aren’t even ours, but rather the divine ramblings of our God. Whispered into the ears of scribes who jotted them down word for word, in the Kings English no less, holding between their lines not only sacred truths, but perfectly preserved history. So treasured are these sacred truths that some even claim that between their lines lie the for-telling of our future. So treasured are these sacred truths that the questioning of even the slightest detail has the power to set one tribe or nation against another. Continue reading

Glimpses of God’s Backside – Exodus 33:12-23

glimpseYAHWEH said to Moses: “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Memories, stories, imaginings, myths, wonderings, and glimpses are the stuff of truth. Even though I was only a child, I have very vivid memories of my very first trip on an airplane. We lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland and we were moving to Canada. I was terrified and fascinated all at the same time. I don’t know where I heard them first, but words like “frozen,” “north,” “wolves,” “igloos”, and “Eskimos” filled my imagination. I have a vague memory of being told that there wouldn’t be any Eskimos where we were going.

I remember the excitement and the fear about flying up in the sky, higher than the clouds. We’d be so high that we’d be able to look down at the clouds. I just couldn’t wait. I was going up, up into heaven. Visions of angels sitting on clouds, maybe, just maybe I’d catch a glimpse of Jesus playing with all the little children. I never dreamed that I’d see God. God would be clothed in a cloud and if God peaked out I’d hide. I didn’t want to see God. God was way too scary. I wanted to stay well clear of God. God was a scary guy, so scary that you’d probably drop down dead if you saw God. Maybe I shouldn’t look down on the clouds, just incase I caught a glimpse of God, because then I’d never make it back down from heaven. And then, I’d never get to see the Eskimos that I just knew were waiting for me down in Canada!

It wasn’t easy being up there in the sky for the very first time. I couldn’t take my eyes off that little porthole. Even though I knew somewhere deep down inside that I wasn’t really looking out at heaven, I just couldn’t help wondering what was really out there. I remember thinking that maybe just maybe there were angels dancing on those clouds, invisible angels, cause I knew that you became invisible when you died. God was pretty much invisible most of the time.      Continue reading

Weeds Upon the Altar – a sermon in celebration of St. Francis of Assisi

On this the last Sunday of the Season of Creation we celebrate the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. Our Gospel text was Matthew 6:25-28

Listen to the sermon here

Sisters and Brothers, hear again the words of St. Francis of Assisi:

I think God might be a little prejudiced.

For once God asked me to join God on a walk

through this world,

and we gazed into every heart on this earth,

and I noticed God lingered a bit longer

before any face that was

weeping,

and before any eyes that were

laughing.

And sometimes when we passed

a soul in worship

God too would kneel

down.

I have Come to learn:  God

adores God’s

creation.

In the spirit of St. Francis, I bid you peace. Please take a long deep breath…..Peace. Now if you would focus your attention upon these two beautiful bouquets upon the altar. Yes, I am well aware that these bouquets are little more than a collection of weeds. Yes, I know that many of us were taught by the Church, I’m talking here about the capital “C” Church; we were taught by the Church that flowers don’t belong upon the altar. Flowers upon the altar distract people from the presence of God and the acts of worshipping God, so if we must have flowers in the sanctuary, we were all trained to place them anywhere other than upon the altar; the holy of holies, the place where God works in, with, through, and under the bread and wine to touch us, love us, strengthen us, and empower us. We can’t, reasoned the Church, we can’t have people distracted from the actions of God that center upon the altar. So, the Church banished flowers from the altar. But on this the feast day of St. Francis, I asked Carol to gather up some bouquets of weeds and place upon the altar. I did so, because these bouquets are beautiful!

Take a good look…..In this beautiful season of autumn these particular weeds are everywhere. You cannot go for a walk or a drive in and around town without being confronted by the existence of these spectacular weeds. Take a good look….aren’t they beautiful.In the words of St. Francis,

I have Come to learn: 

God adores God’s

creation.

Now look around you, take a very good look at this spectacular gathering, this splendid bouquet of what some might call weeds but, if you look very closely you will see in one another a breathtakingly beautiful bouquet of awe-inspiring flowers.  Aren’t you lovely? Made from LOVE. Gathered around this makeshift altar of ours God will indeed work in, with, through, and under each one of us to touch us, to love us, to strengthen us and to love us. In, with, through, and under this is the way that Lutheran theology describes the way in which God comes to us in the bread and wine of holy communion. I have gotten into the habit of always reminding you that we live and move and have our being in God and that God lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us. I repeat this over and over again, not only to remind all of you but to remind myself that God is not some far off distant being, who lives up there or out there somewhere. God is here, right here, all around us, in us and beyond us just as surely as we are in God. So, on this the final Sunday in the Season of Creation it is so very appropriate for us to turn our attention to St. Francis who reminds us that all of creation is in God.

Francis was born into a wealthy merchant family and spent his young life striving to become a knight by actively participating in the completion between Italian cities to dominate the emerging capitalist system. Francis learned like each one of us must learn that acquiring things, amassing wealth, competing for power, these things cannot ever bring us peace. And so, Francis renounced things, gave up his wealth and powerful position in Italian society, and walked away from the competitive capitalist system.

Francis even went so far as to challenge the Church’s teachings about how to be a Christian. For centuries, the Church taught that the best way, the truest way to be a Christian in the world was to follow the example of the early followers of the Way that we find in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Continue reading

“The Great Turd Falling” – a sermon for Creation 1A – Forest Sunday

I am indebted to John Philip Newell’s  book “The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings” for inspiring this sermon. The Season of Creation is a relatively new addition to the Church calender and the first and Gospel readings are those prescribed for Forest Sunday: Genesis 2:4b-23 and John 3:1-16. The contemporary reading is from John Philip Newell.  The Scripture readings were taken from ‘the inclusive bible: The First Egalitarian Translation” which opens a new way of understanding both the Genesis story and the Gospel According to John simply by using more inclusive literal translations of the Hebrew and Greek. You can find all three readings here

Listen to the sermon here or click on this link

The Season of Creation is a very recent addition to the Church Calendar. We first observed it, here at Holy Cross, just two years ago. So, this is the first opportunity we have had to observe Forest Sunday. It seems odd to me that in a country like Canada where the forests are so vast and have such a huge impact on the history of this nation, that up until just a few short years ago, did not set aside a day dedicated to the celebration of our forests. Indeed, that churches around the world, should have failed until recently to set aside a season dedicated to the celebration of Creation is not just astounding, but dare I say it, sinful.

So, I’d like to begin this sermon by summoning up visions of my favorite forest. Now, I’m well aware that there are hundreds of brilliant forests in these parts, but it won’t come as a surprise to many of you that my favorite forest is located on the West Coast.

This particular forest is special not only to me, but it also stands tall in the annals of Canadian forests; indeed, it stands out among the forests of the world. It is located just north of West Vancouver and I’ve been walking in this forest since I was a teenager. This deep, dark, rich, rain-forest is one of the few old-growth forests in Canada and many of the trees are over 600 years old. This particular forest has managed to survive uncut thanks to the erection of a lighthouse in 1875 on Point Atkinson. The authorities wanted to ensure a dark back-drop for the lighthouse so they banned logging in the area and the city of West-Vancouver has set the forest aside with the creation of Lighthouse Park.

My first trip to Lighthouse Park, I was but a child, taken there by my father for a family outing. I remember a dark, wet, gentle hike down to the water’s edge, followed by a half-hour’s uphill climb back to the parking lot, where my mother waited with our picnic lunch, of sandwiches and hot tea. Later, when I was old enough to drive myself, there were so many dark, wet, gentle hikes in this forest cathedral where I often retreated to for solace from the trials and tribulations of finding my way in the world.

Over the years, I have often returned to this living cathedral where the Douglas Firs and Red Cedars are hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds of years old and looking up to see just how far they stretch toward the sky, makes you dizzy. I still remember the first time I took Carol into the depths of this sacred place. The sheer pleasure of seeing someone you love overwhelmed by the splendor of some of the biggest and oldest trees on the planet, was match only by the deep silences that are possible in such a place. It is without a doubt a thin place a place where the boundary between what is known and what lies beyond the know is so thin that you can feel the presence of the One who is both the source of all that is and who is Beyond all that is.

In this thin place, I have laid down burdens, wept, laughed, shouted, cried, rejoiced, slept, breathed deeply of the earth and lost my breath trudging up the dark, damp, fecund trails. In this thin place, this forest cathedral I have worshiped the source of all that is, been mesmerized by that which is beyond all that is, and been emptied of concerns, trials, tribulations and filled with joy, hope, peace and love. In this thin place, this forest cathedral, over and over again, I have been born anew. In this forest cathedral, and in so many forest cathedrals, I have come to understand what Julian of Norwich meant when she said that, “we are not just made by God, we are made of God.” for in these sacred thin places, in these forest cathedrals, in the sheer beauty and the magnitude of life that abounds from deep within the forest floors, up through the steadfast trunks to the skyward canopies, the One who is the Source of All this is also the One who is the Source of My Being.

But these thin places are not for the faint of heart. Over the years, I have made various pilgrimages to Lighthouse Park, only to find a sign erected warning those who dare to enter that a bear has been sighted in the area. Sometimes the authorities have posted a sign that because of the threat of a dangerous bear in the area that park is closed to all hikers. When I was younger, and much more foolish, I ignored those signs and ventured into the deep, dark forest despite the warnings. The sense of danger was palpable and added to the intensity of the experience of this dangerous wilderness. But the wisdom gained over the decades has of late caused me to heed the warning signs and so from time to time Carol and I have travelled to Lighthouse Park filled with anticipation only to be thwarted by a warning sign.

It seems appropriate somehow that a Thin Place should be so subject to warning signs. I’ve told you before about Rudolf Otto’s definition of God, whom he calls the Numinous. Otto defines the numinous in Latin with the words, “Mysterium, Tremendum, et Facinam” the One whose is the Source of all being is mysterious, tremendous and fascinating. Mysterious yes. Tremendous, literally makes you tremble, yes. But even though you tremble in fear in the presence of such great mysterious, you just can’t help but be fascinated by the One who is the source and ground of your being. Continue reading

Augustine of Hippo – August 28

The feast day of Augustine of Hippo is a good time to recall what St. Augustine had to say on the literal meaning of Genesis:
“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.” (from Augustine’s commentary on Genesis: “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” (translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J.; two volumes; Newman Press, New York, 1982; pages 42-43 of Volume 1)

Beneath the Surface: What difference does it make how we interpret this little story? – a sermon for Pentecost 10A – Matthew 14:22-33 and 1 Kings19:9-18

After a splendid month-long vacation, I have returned to work as two mad men toss rhetoric into the ether that is designed to to strike fear of a nuclear holocaust into the hearts of people everywhere. Looking at  Sunday’s readings:  1 Kings 19:9-18 in which Elijah hears the still small voice of God and Matthew 14:22-33 in which Jesus walks on water. Somehow, this sermon that I preached three years ago seems appropriate to repost so as to encourage us all to look beneath the surface of what we see, hear, and read! Shalom… 

Listen to the sermon here:

There’s a Zen Buddhist story about three monks, who decided to practice meditation together. So, they went to a quiet place at the side of a lake and closed their eyes and began to concentrate. Then suddenly, the first monk stood up and said, “I forgot my prayer mat.” Miraculously the monk stepped onto the water in front of him and walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. He returned his fellow monks just the way he had gone; striding upon the water. When he sat back down, the second monk stood up and said, “I forgot to bring my prayer mat.” Miraculously the second monk stepped onto the water in front of him and he tow walked across the lake to their hut on the other side. When the second monk returned to his fellow monks he too returned striding upon the water.  The third monk had watched the first two monks very carefully and he decided that this must be some sort of test. So, he stood up and loudly declared: “Is your learning so superior to mine? I think not!  I too can match any feat you two can perform!” With that the young monk rushed to the water’s edge so that he too could walk upon the water. The young monk promptly fell into the deep water. Surprised and annoyed, the young monk climbed out and promptly tried again, and again he sank into the deep water. Over and over again, he dragged himself to up on the bank, shook himself off, and confidently set out to walk upon the water and over and over again he promptly sank into the deep water as the other two monks watched from the shore. After a while the second monk turned to the first monk and said, “Do you think we should tell him where the stones are?” 

Looking upon the sea of interpretations of the Gospel according to Matthew’s story of walking upon the waters of the Sea of Galilee, makes me feel like that young monk who continues to sink each time he tries to find his way across the lake. Centuries of interpretations of this text seem to come to the same conclusion; a conclusion which insists that we set forth in faith and that if we keep our eyes firmly fixed upon Jesus we will defy all the odds; a conclusion that leaves the vast majority of us lingering on the shore because we know that like Peter we too have precious little faith that we or even Jesus for that matter can defy the laws of nature. Traditional interpretations of this text continue to rely upon us leaving our understanding of the way the planet actually works, suspending rational thought, and setting off knowing that neither we nor Jesus are or were super-natural beings. Traditional interpretations set us up for failure and threaten to sink our faith. Fortunately, there are other monks, many more monks than simply two to guide us. So, let me draw your attention to two of those monks because I believe that these two monks tell us were the stones are so that we can navigate the waters, even in the midst of whatever storms may come. One of those many monks is the ancient theologian known simply as Origen of Alexandria who lived from about 185 to 254 and who left behind a body of work which provided the Church with a way of approaching the texts of Scripture which nourished the lives of believers for generations. Indeed, Origen’s approach to scripture only fell out of fashion among protestants in the last 200 years or so. To put a long story short, Origen believed and taught, as have generations of theologians since Origen that the stories in Scripture have various layers of meaning. The first layer is the literal meaning, or surface meaning which is designed by the writers to reach those who are uninitiated or uneducated about the ways in which the sacred texts function. Beyond the literal meaning lay a deeper meaning, indeed Origen taught that beyond the simple literal meaning of the biblical the seeker of wisdom would find layers of deeper meaning. For centuries, the Church followed Origen’s views of scripture teaching the simple literal meaning to the masses while reserving the deeper layers of meaning for the initiated often referring to these deeper layers of meaning as the mysteries. While the masses were busy getting on with life, the religious professionals dug deeper and deeper into the mysteries eventually creating a church hierarchy that firmly divided the uninitiated from the enlightened. Obviously, I’m giving you the abbreviated version of this long and complicated story that goes much deeper; I am if you will simply pointing you toward a stone that lies below the surface of the water upon which we seek to walk. Hidden beneath is a method of exploring scripture that relies on symbols, myth, illusion and most important of all, allegory.

Origen and generations of theologian who came after him understood that the stories of scripture had many, many layers and relied on symbolic and allegoric methods to touch our imagination and inspire in us a way of being in the world. Sadly, perhaps in the beginning out for expediency’s sake, but eventually to preserve its own power over the masses the Church began to rely more and more on the simple literal meaning of the text. Indeed, the church reserved the mysteries to such an extent that it can be said that the hierarchy by and large hid the deeper layers of the text so well that even some members of the hierarchy forgot about the symbolic and allegorical methods of interpreting the scriptures. The hidden mysteries might well have remained hidden if it had not been for the fact that so many other mysteries have been uncovered by humanity regarding the natural world. Human knowledge has expanded by leaps and bounds and you and I live in a world where information is at our finger tips; most of us carry devices in our pockets which can unlock more mysteries that we can keep track of in the recesses of our memories. The reality is that these little devices can now unlock the deeper mysteries that the church once kept hidden for the initiated. The insights gleamed from historians, theologians, and clergy which once remained tucked away in the halls of academic institutions or in seminary libraries, are now available to one and all. Every line of scripture every jot and tittle have been carefully examined and re-examined and we know have so many interpretations that no-one of us can claim to be an expert in the field. We are all once again simply seekers of meaning. But there are a few of us who have dedicated their lives to the study of the deeper meanings and we here at Holy Cross have had the privilege of one who has come to be know the as one of the leading New Testament Scholars in the world and it is Dom Crossan who I’d like to point to as our second monk on the bank who has the power to point us toward a stone beneath the surface that might just enable us to find our way upon the sea so that we too might walk on water toward this character Jesus. 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read about the real Lawn-chair Larry here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPONG Living pastordawn

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

borg & Holt

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

Every Bush Is Burning: Earth Sunday Sermon

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

Listen to the Earth Day sermon here

Worship Bulletin here

The readings are here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter: 50 Days to Practice Resurrection!

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

resurrection

A few years ago on the Second Sunday of Easter, I tried something new for me at the time: introducing a video clip into the sermon! You can view the video within the written text of the sermon below or listen to the audio version provided. I am indebted to the work of James Rowe Adams for much of the New Testament Scholarship in this sermon.

The Scripture texts were John chapter 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35

Audio Version of the Sermon click here

Practicing Resurrection

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!

So, Christ is Risen!  So What???

What can it possibly mean to you and to me, that a rag-tag bunch of Jesus’ followers gathered together in an upper-room and talked about their experiences of Jesus and decided that not even death could extinguish the life that they experienced in Jesus? What difference does it make to you or to I that Christ is risen?

The truth is that it can make absolutely no difference what so ever. Now there are a whole lot of people who will tell you that the important thing about resurrection is that you believe it. Those same folks absolutely love the story of doubting Thomas. And so every year on the second Sunday of Easter we read the story of doubting Thomas as a kind of inoculation against Thomas’ disease.

I sometimes think that the designers of the lectionary were trying to build up our resistance to doubt. Having problems believing in resurrection, well don’t do what Thomas did, don’t doubt, because you’ll be proven wrong. Jesus is alive, the wounds in his hands proved that to Doubting Thomas, so have no doubt about it the resurrection happened!  Believe in the resurrection!

The trouble with believing in stuff is that it belief can make absolutely no difference what so ever. I can believe in justice for all, but unless I’m prepared to seek justice, to be fair, or to resist injustice, it makes absolutely no difference what so ever. You can shout, “Christ is risen!” all you want but unless you are willing to live it, the resurrection means very little at all.

In order to live the resurrection you have to begin practicing resurrection. In order to practice something, you have to know what it looks like, what it sounds like, or what it feels like.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to show you what resurrection looks like in the flesh. Then I remembered a video that’s been doing the rounds on the internet, so I want you to watch this modern miracle of resurrection.

WATCH THE VIDEO CLIP FROM:  Alive Inside

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!

2000 years ago a bunch of rag-tag Jesus followers were huddled together in fear. Their beloved leader had been brutally executed by the powers that be and they were terrified that they would be next. Paralyzed by their fear, hiding behind a locked door, something happened that gave them the strength to burst forth from their own tomb and change the world.

Ever since they began to practice resurrection, people have been trying to figure out exactly what happened; what could have changed these bumbling, terrified, betrayers, abandoners, who seemed to be always getting things wrong, into a bunch of leaders who began a movement that spread through out the Empire within their own life-times and then based on the power of their witness, spread throughout the world and continues to nourish and sustain millions of people from generation to generation?

Now there are those that insist that it was the power of Jesus having been physically resuscitated from the dead that motivated his followers to change their lives and the lives of millions who have come after them.  But we live in the 21st century and we have access to all sorts of information that the generations who have gone before us did not. Most of us, myself included, are not swayed by arguments about a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body. But I can tell you without a doubt that I do believe in resurrection and I know that Christ is risen and I also know that the same power that the early followers of Jesus used to change the world is available to you and to me.  And now more than ever the world needs us to start using that power. It’s long past time for us to start practicing resurrection.

So, if they weren’t talking about a physical resuscitation when they spoke of Jesus’ resurrection, what did the early followers of Jesus actually mean when they spoke of Jesus having been raised from the dead? During the first century many Jews had adopted a vision of the future that dealt with the prevailing question of the day:  “How could a just God allow his people to suffer endlessly at the hands of their enemies?” Or as Dom Crossan puts it:   When was God going to clean up the world so that justice could prevail? Continue reading

To Be LOVE in the World: a sermon for Lent 3A – John 4:1-42

woman

Readings:  Thomas Aquinas “EMBRACE THAT”  found here

St. Teresa of Avila “DESIRE YOU” found here

Gospel of John 4:1-42 found here

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.

You can listen to the sermon audio here: 

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

Tickled By the Racy Svetlana; Otherwise Known as the Woman Evangelist Who Rocked Jesus’ World! – a sermon on John 4:1-42 – Lent 3A

TickledThere’s a commercial currently running on the TV and each time it comes on, I can’t help myself, it makes me smile and if I let myself, it makes me laugh. It’s 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 God 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

Awe and Wonder: A Lenten Practice

awe-copySo many of our Lenten practices revolve around theories of atonement that cast the HOLY ONE as a participant in a grand bargain that saw Jesus of Nazareth die as a sacrifice for sin. For those of us who have left behind theories of atonement that set Jesus up as  payment for our sin, Lent can seem a very lonely place. While many churches busy themselves with rituals that encourage repentance from the perspective of confessing our unworthiness to a grand-inquistor deity,  it is tempting to give up the season of Lent all together. But with the explosion of information about the nature, beauty, and complexity of the cosmos, perhaps we can achieve the humility that the ritual of confession offers in ways that do not require us to adopt the attitude that human’s are unworthy creatures in need of a god who would demand satisfaction at the expense of a blood sacrifice. 

Each time I look up into a starlit sky I am overcome with a sense of awe and wonder that is in and of itself a prayer that inspires humility in me. A sense of awe and wonder at that which is beyond ourselves is the beginning of a prayer that always leads me to a sense of ONENESS with all that IS. 

This morning, my Lenten devotion came to me in the form of this splendid video The Overview, which describes the awe and wonder of those who have had the privilege of looking at the earth from the perspective of space. They describe their awe and wonder, their prayer if you will, as the “overview effect”. The overview effect serves to connect these space travellers to the earth itself and moves them to the kind of humility that helps me to realize that awe and wonder can serve as nourishment for my own Lenten journey.

As we gaze in awe at our marvellous planet perhaps we can be moved to tread more lightly upon her. Perhaps awestruck by the beauty and wonder of creation, we can look to all the inhabitants of the earth and see that they too are fearfully and wonderfully made. I trust that a humility based not on a belief that we are wicked, unworthy creatures, but rather on a experience of awe and wonder, will lead us on a Lenten journey to a place where we will have the courage to gaze upon the cross and see beyond the violence to the hope of resurrection.