Receive the Gospel with the joy that is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

—1 Thessalonians 1:6

pastor-peter-sermonsMy name is Peter Mikelic, and I have felt called to be a pastor since my early teen years. Many aspects of parish ministry are important and have drawn me. Yet the art and science of hermeneutics and homiletics are the gift that I’m most inspired to share. In real language, that means I really like to interpret scripture, write sermons and preach!

My wife Sherry delivers very brief and pointed sermons, mostly to me!  But I find more time is involved. Exploring the depth and breadth of that intersection between the meaning of God’s Word and its relevancy in today’s complex world takes time, prayer, and soul searching. My purpose is to shed light on life in the here and now.

I hope these brief excerpts from recent sermons are meaningful to you. If you would like me to email a copy of any of the full sermons, please contact the office or let me know. Better yet, come on Sunday to hear one!

Inspiration for the Mind: Brief Sermon Excerpts

2021

Jesus then found a donkey and rode on it. Jn.12:14a

Dear Friends. It was middle of the afternoon. The sun’s rays were streaming hot and heavy. The donkey’s hooves raised little puffs of dust and dirt, as it jogged along the sun-baked road leading to Jerusalem. The donkey-back rider seemed comfortable enough with his sandy feet tucked under the soft-round belly of the donkey. In a sudden gesture of extravagance, a man rushed forward and spread his cloak onto the hardened roadway, as if the Roman Emperor himself were coming. The shy animal unexpectedly broke into a trot and the rider was jolted backwards, for just a moment. It almost looked like he would lose his balance, but then with a fistful of shaggy mane, the rider pulled himself straight again.

The crowd, now some 3 or 4 people deep, wait in anxious anticipa-tion. Fathers hoisted their sons onto their shoulders to see the donkey-back rider make his way past them. Clippity-clop. Clippity-clop. Hee-haw. Numerous onlookers merrily waved branches of myrtle and willows and sprays of palm leaves and shouted happily: “Hosanna in the highest! Praise God! The Kingdom of David is coming again!” It was a joyous event, even though many folks didn’t equate the humility of a donkey-back rider with a Davidic Kingdom.

The donkey-back rider himself didn’t seem all that taken in by this parade atmosphere. Although his face was shiny with sweat, he had a determined look to himself, as if there was some serious business at hand. Yes, of course, there will be eating and drinking, working and sleeping over the next few days, but the rider must make preparation four days hence for the Passover, for himself and his inner circle of friends, who stayed close by.

After all, their Master was a marked man among a chosen race which did not bow down before the Roman Emperor. He was a marked man—marked by his own people, or at least by their leaders, as a heretic, a disturber of the peace, a revolutionary, a breaker of the Torah. Now, his followers believed him to be the Messiah, but in that time and that place, messiahs come and go.

This one seemed much too meek and mild to pick up a sword and lead his own people in revolt against the brutal Romans. When push came to shove, this donkey-back rider was well… much too meditative and passive to be a serious threat to the Empire. And if all that wasn’t enough, this Nazarene was anti-Jewish. I mean, love your enemies? Get real!! Can you imagine what loving your enemies would lead to?—the destruction of Israel and the end of Judaism!!

Now, Semites usually think in terms of concrete action. They still do. Just take a look at the powder keg known as the Middle East. Semites may be very long on words and quite intense on emotions, but most are quick to act. As a Semite, Jesus’ role wasn’t a matter of social status or personality cult, but one of action—at least that’s what his followers thought, as did the masses who eagerly listened to him and ready to follow. Just give the signal and his followers would morph into battle gear against the hated Romans.

Trouble is, this wanna-be Saviour, didn’t follow the script. First, he told the folks whom he healed, not to say a word to anyone about what he did for them. He demanded silence from those who wanted to spread his fame abroad–those who wanted to create a celebrity status for this miracle worker from Nazareth.

In fact, even when the Master’s miracles and teaching inspired Peter to announce that Jesus was indeed the long awaited Jewish Messiah, “You are the Christ,” said Peter—even then, he and the other disciples were at once forbidden to tell anyone. The Master always commanded silence when they wanted to finally declare him to be the longed-for Messiah desired by a nation long in waiting.

Secondly, trouble was also that Jesus never understood himself as the masses did—not to mention his disciples—much less accept the nature and role of the Messiah which his country men wanted to thrust upon him…a Jewish Messiah in the mold of King David, who would lead tiny Israel into battle against the mighty armies of Rome and finally throw off their hated yoke and re-establish the Kingdom of David. After all, that’s what God had in mind, wasn’t it?

Well, that’s what they all believed and because they were God’s Chosen People, it had to be right, didn’t it?!

Far from presenting himself as a geo-political Savior of Israel, Jesus suppressed this messianic-title with which others wanted to crown him. Jesus understood the history of the prophets of Israel, from Isaiah to John the Baptist. He knew that God’s prophets invariably suffered misunderstanding, ostracism and possibly death. I mean, Jesus had more than an inkling of what lay ahead: rejection, suffer-ing and death—much to the dismay of his followers.

And so, here he was, this donkey-back rider, this dazzling miracle-worker from Nazareth, who had quite a different take about who he was in relation to his own people and what he would do for them. Likewise, he had quite a different take about who he was in relationship to God, and what God wanted for his Chosen People.

The fact is, Jesus called God, Abba, meaning Daddy and from this personal relationship, he knew God could never be put in a box, never be used for religious, political or financial ends. In fact, as far as Jesus was concerned, God chose each and every race under the sun as his chosen people; all human beings were his children; all were his daughters and sons, whom he loved and whom he forgave, and that, as the Jewish Messiah, Jesus would be the ultimate sign and symbol of that love and forgiveness, first to his own people and then to the world.

By preaching love and forgiveness for everyone, Jesus knew that he was going beyond religion, even Judaism. It was a dangerous and perilous message among the Jewish religious elite who held power and control over the people. But this message, that God is too holy to contain in a box, that h  is love is beyond rules, well—you can get yourself killed for saying stuff like that, which is precisely what this young rabbi from Nazareth faced.

But the donkey-back rider knew better than anyone, that if God is anything, she is love, first and foremost. And because God is love, to love is to leave behind all of the security boundaries that we humans have erected against our fears, and that includes religion.  To love is to recognize that because the world is so large, differences need be embraced and honoured, not feared and exploited. After all, God who made the world is the God of vast variety and diversity.

Yes, Jesus was a Jew and an adherent of Judaism, but he went far beyond the tenants of his religion and preached a love and loving, a giving and forgiving meant for all people, insiders and outsiders, Jews and non-Jews, and even to the sick and terminally ill, who everyone thought were being punished by God for their sins.

Yes, Jesus knew his was perilous preaching, but he was prepared to put his life on the line for what he believed, even if it went against centuries of Mosaic Law, at least their understanding of it, which of course is exactly what he did and so they killed him for it.

But the wisdom of the world then and today is dedicated to survival and driving all things into power relationships. Humanity is always impaired, when it builds its sense of worth by denigrating others, their worth and value—minorities like women and children, blacks and slaves, poor and dispossessed, sick and terminally ill, sexual deviants and outcasts—an entire cast of untouchables.

What this donkey-back rider preached and taught, breathed and lived, was to project a vision of a new humanity in which no one is diminished. Why? Because love demands the respect, care and compassion for all people, no matter who they are or what they believe or even don’t believe. God is love and that love is beyond every law. True love is beyond every and any religion. Religion makes distinctions, but love does not; neither did Jesus.

In short, MF, Jesus entered humanity so deeply, possessed his own being sosignificantly, gave his life and his love away so freely, expanded the boundaries of his existence so totally, that he literally became the human channel through which the reality of God was able to flow into human history. After all, Jesus did not promise to bring his fellow Jews a new and improved Judaism or even his disciples a new and improved Christianity. He didn’t promise to bring the world more religion, more laws and more rules, however improved. But he did promise his followers life and bring it more abundantly, and that he did do. He brought a higher sense of human compassion and awareness of who God is.

With all this swirling around in his head, the donkey-back rider got into Jerusalem later than expected, and by that time, the entire city was in uproar. “Just who does he think he is?” they asked and the parade watchers answered, Don’t ya know? He’s the prophet Jesus from that hick town, Nazareth, in the district of Galilee, the town from where nothing good ever comes!

Yeah, I’ve heard the name. So, that’s him, eh? Yup. That’s the prophet from Nazareth. They say he’s the Messiah. But you know, these Messiah’s come and go. They come and go. And as far as this one’s concerned, I’ll believe it when I see those dreaded Romans outa here. I won’t hold my breath, mind you. What can one man and a few followers do against the steel of Rome?

MF, there is a way to change the course of human history, as well as the course of each and every human life—a lesson still not learned, which is to make friends of our enemies. That’s another reason Jesus asked his follower to pray for his enemies. Because when you pray for enemies, they’ll eventually become your friends.

O Donkey-Back Rider, who comes lowly on an ass, riding into Jeru-salem many years ago, ride also into our hearts, that we might have hope—hope that beyond the worst the world can do, there is love and loving, there is giving, forgiving and thanksgiving, from God to one another, and then from one another to others, and from others to others still and from still others to everyone in the world. AMEN

Impossible, you say? Not if you believe in the Donkey-Back Rider!

Some Greeks were among those who had gone to Jerusalem to worship during the festival. They went to Philip and said, “Sir, we want to see Jesus. Jn 12:20-21

Dear Friends. Well, MF, here’s an exciting little episode which we find only in John’s Gospel. At least it begins well, but oddly enough, there’s no conclusion. Some non-Jews, Greeks to be exact, have come up to Jerusalem for the Passover. They’ve heard about this controversial miracle-worker from Nazareth, Jesus, and that he’s around. Like theater buffs at a stage door, they edge up to Jesus’ friend Philip and ask: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”

Now, for some reason, Philip isn’t sure they can, so he checks it out with Andrew, who also doesn’t seem to know what to say, and so they go straight to the top. “Master, a group of Greeks are anxious to see you. They don’t have an appointment and they’re not exactly our kind of people; but for Gentiles, you know, Master, they’re cool. They’re here from Macedonia for the Passover. What do we tell ‘em? Can you see ‘em, Master? They’re waiting for an answer.”

But the trouble, MF, is that John’s Gospel gives no answer. I suspect Jesus gave a reply to the question, but it’s not recorded by John for some reason. Instead, John launches into another heavy homily from Jesus about how it’s better to die than to live.

Well, MF, given this little episode, I have 3 questions for you and me. Before I preach any sermon, I first preach it to myself. So, my 3 queries: Can you see Jesus? How do you see Jesus? What will it cost you to see him?

First, can you see Jesus? Indeed you can MF! I have it straight from the Master himself! He’d be happy to see you. Trouble is, you and I can’t see him exactly as he was back then, 2000 years ago. Not the pudgy baby in a cradle of straw, clutching for his mother’s breast. Nor the pre-teen asking questions of teachers in the temple. Nor the young man leaving Nazareth to shout to the masses: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near!” Nor the compassionate healer as he laid his hand on a leper, ate with sinners, bared his back to leather lashes and died in agony on a cross.

That Jesus we cannot see anymore! Why not? Because that’s history, as they say. You can remember him that way, but that’s not the way he is now. He is risen you see, and though he still has his humanity, his body is a spiritual one, which not even his closest friends recognized him when he appeared to them after his resurrection on the road to Emmaus.

On the other hand, MF, we can still see Jesus—and see him now. Why? Because that’s why he took flesh and nailed that flesh to crossed beams. Jesus didn’t just take your flesh, so that you might see him after you die, in heaven. He did not sweat blood in a garden, only that you might know something about him, like you know something about computers. Jesus did not bleed on wood, merely that you might picture him in your imagination or hang a piece of jewelry around your neck which might resemble a bloodied cross.

No MF. Jesus lived, died and rose again that you and I might experience him, love him, feel him, thrill to him—today, right now, at this very moment, as I write and you read.  

Yes indeed! We can see Jesus and see him right now, as I suspect the Greeks were able to see him, although John’s Gospel does not report it. But the real question is: How will you see him? What does it mean to see Jesus now? Seeing Jesus is not a matter of 20/20 vision. Nor is it a question of whether your glasses are from Lenscrafters or your laser vision from Bochner or Lasik. To see Jesus is not that kind of vision! Nor is it mere imagination, like conjuring up Leprechauns on St. Paddy’s in 3 days or watching George Burns in “Oh God, You Devil” or Jim Carey in “Bruce Almighty.”

To see Jesus here on earth is to experience him, to encounter him, to come into contact with him in our neighbour, down the street or around the world.

Not a vision or image, not dreams or voices, not even bleeding statues in Quebec or elsewhere. No, my dear and good friends! You can see Jesus and come into contact with the real, risen, living Christ. How is that even possible? One way focuses on the people who touch your life, day after day. The other centers on who you are as a sister/brother to Jesus and how you touch the lives of others. Whom you touch and who touches you is how you will see Jesus!!

First is our focus on others as a way of seeing Jesus, who said that when we feed the hungry and slake the thirsty, when we clothe the naked and house the stranger, when we visit the sick and imprisoned, we are doing this to him. This isn’t a favor we do forhim, because he asked us to, but it is doing it to him.

Such was Mother Teresa’s experience. When she cradled a skin-and-bones infant in the grime of Calcutta, she was cradling Christ. Such was the experience of Franciscan priest, Father Ritter. The plight of 12,000 kids who each year tramped through Covenant House in NY Times Square—they are the 12-year-old Jesus lost 3-days to Mary and Joseph in Jerusalem. Or the tens of millions of global refugees stricken by war-without-end and natural disasters around the world. Or the tens of thousands of Toronto children who have been helped through the Santa Claus fund or the United Way. Or the hundreds of disadvantaged helped through the work of St. Joseph House downtown.

Such is our experience as well, MF, whenever we give to these and other agencies as the Canadian Lutheran World Relief, Red Cross and Red Crescent, Oxfam, and Habitat for Humanity.  But we also experience the Christ when we become Good Samaritans to the lives of those whom we encounter day to day.

But it would be a mistake to identify Christ only with the destitute and deprived,to see his face only in the persecuted and punished of this world. The fact is:  All of us reflect the face of Jesus. Every one of us is an expression of Jesus’ life. We are all created in the image of God and Jesus, his Son, our brother. For Jesus is the fully human God meant all 7 plus billion of us to be. Jesus walked our ways and lived our life and died our death as a model of true humanness. The very life of Jesus courses through your veins and mine like another bloodstream. And even when sin distorts the face of Christ we wear, our likeness to him never disappears. His love is too strong to allow it. That’s because love is not only stronger than death, love is stronger than sin.

Do you want to see Jesus, like the Greeks did when they asked Philip to see him? Of course you do! So do I. Then look deeply into another face…any face—the face of the person closest to you—even the face of a person you don’t like—an enemy or opponent. Jesus is there, even in your enemy, since Jesus died for him/her too.

But there is still another way of seeing Jesus and that is by focusing on you. And here we Lutherans are sometimes terribly obtuse and myopic, sometimes very nearsighted and narrow-minded, intolerant and prejudiced. (My wife, Sherry, who is a cradle Anglican, is wiping the sweat off her brow and thinking: Whew! Good thing Peter didn’t put me in that group of miserable Lutherans!)

  1. Look at yourself, as I look at myself! At this moment the living Christ who died for us is not only alive—he is alive in us! Christ alive in us, somewhere deep within the recesses of you mind and heart, buried within us. He’s there, MF! But do we know he’s there? Do we feel him, experience him? How will you make Jesus known to others, that he’s alive within us? That’s the real question. That’s where the rubber meets the road!

Well MF, don’t just take my word for it. Listen to Jesus the night before he died: If anyone loves me, my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home with him.  Within you, within your very being, there lives the risen Christ. There you encounter him! There is the very bone and marrow of your Christian life and living, your giving, forgiving and thanksgiving.

Which brings me to the third and last question, a perilous question indeed: What will it cost you and me to see Jesus? What will it cost? Really!

Will it cost your bank account, pension or savings? Will it cost your job, lifestyle or retirement? Or is the cost beyond money and material goods? Will it cost you your life and relationships, your morals and ethics, your principles and prayers, your power and control over others? Or is it a question you don’t want to ask, because you’re afraid of the answer—that you might have to give up something or perhaps even add something to your life?

There are many answers I could give, but let me supply one from Jesus’ lips in today’s Gospel, Jn 12:24: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and it dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. In other words, if you really want to see Jesus, encounter him person to person, touch him and thrill to his voice, then you must follow him to Jerusalem and then onto Golgatha. Not only when you breathe your last, but much more importantly, when you breathe Jesus every day—when you die and rise with him, day after day after day. That’s how you’ll encounter him, MF!

Lent would be a cruel religious joke, if Lent only means that we shift from NY steak to Mac & Cheese, from chocolate Godivas to pretzel sticks, from German Lowenbrau to French sparkling water.

Real Lent, MF, is learning how to die! No, not the big death at the end, but all the little day to day deaths before. Real Lent is going to Golgatha and learning to die. No, not when I’m 85 or 105, but today—to die to myself and die to all that is less than human in me. That’s why Lent is hard work. Learning to die is learning to suffer. That’s why today’s epistle reading from Hebrews is on target: Son though he was, Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered.

Yes, of course, Jesus had always been obedient, had spent his life doing his Father’s will. But in Gethsamane, when in bloody sweat he begged his Father “Don’t let me die,” Jesus learned what it means to get an answer different from what you ask or even from what you expect! He learned what it meant to take obedience to that point beyond which it can be taken no further, which is death on a cross. He learned to submit himself to the very conditions of human life and living from which he first prayed to be free.

So MF: What has this to do with seeing Jesus? Just about everything! We begin with a mystery-laden fact crucial to our Christian living: as with Jesus, so with you and me, it is in suffering that we learn obedience best. It is in dying to our own will that we learn to listen to God’s will. It is in our Gethsemane, when our fragile humanity and lust for life make us sweat blood, that we can hear at its most clear what the Lord Jesus wants of us. And once that happens, MF, once we really hear Jesus, then we will also see him. I promise. AMEN

For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its Saviour.  Jn 3:16-17

 

Dear Friends. John 3:16 is perhaps the most favorite passage of all time for most Christians, who, if they’ve memorized anything from the NT, this is it. It’s unfortunate that it’s located in the context of the story of Nicodemus and hence within the language of being born again. I say unfortunate, because Born Againism has made many feel that their Christianity is somehow inferior.

“You must be born again,” said Jesus to Nicodemus, which reminded me of two brief repartees. The first one made by a former Pentecostal churchman, informing me, tongue in cheek, that his mother didn’t appreciate having to give birth to him a second time. And the other by way of born againers, who knocked on my front door to ask if I had found Jesus? In true Socratic fashion, I answered with another question: “Oh, Is Jesus lost? Can I help you find him?!”

While the NT passage is part of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, John 3:16 finds itself in midst of a controversy over what happened to the followers of Jesus.

Three key references in John indicate that, because they believed that Jesus was the Messiah, they had therefore been expelled from the synagogue. John 9:22, for instance, says: “They were afraid of the Jewish authorities, who had already agreed that anyone who said he believed that Jesus was the Messiah would be expelled from the synagogue.” Similar verses are in John 12:42 and 16:2.

Now perhaps, MF, you didn’t know that had happened to the disciples and to anyone who openly talked about accepting Jesus as the Messiah. Also, it’s not easy for us to understand the trauma of what being excluded and expelled from the synagogue would have meant in the daily lives of the disciples and others. Imagine your life as a committed member of Zion, and suddenly you are denied access and entry, communion and baptism, denied the benefits of membership, because of what you believe?

For Jesus’ disciples, it means that they had been cut off from Judaism which provided for their life’s orientation and security amid Roman occupation. Their relation to the social structures, their roots in a tradition, their sense of identity and values, as well as their very notions of God had all been at stake in their allegiance to Jesus. That’s why, in contrast to the rejection and hatred they had received from the religious authorities who represented a hostile world to them, the disciples now needed to experience a community of love where they were accepted. Their focus became Jesus’ commandment, that in loving one another, they became a community.

Most churchgoing Christians agree that our ultimate values of life and love, giving and forgiving, are shared in a genuine acceptance of one another, in spite of our differences. While the dark side of our world does not always express itself in direct opposition to our values, it is often reflected in its indifference and callousness.

No imagination is needed to recall that there is a darkness to our world—a world of war crimes and massacres on a huge scale, whether in Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, or the former Gulag, Auschwitz or Yemen today in which thousands of children die weekly from the US supported war there. I’m reminded of a US Capital rioter on Jan 6, who had 6MNE emblazoned on his black shirt: 6 Million (were) Not Enough. We live in a world in which millions of children have been left to die in orphanages in China or to hunger in the deserts of Sudan; a world of natural disasters—tsunami floods in southeast Asia or volcanoes in South America; a world in which globally and nationally, the rich get richer and the poor poorer. Worse—there seems to be precious little we can personally do about it. Even democracies are complicit and hence unwilling and/or unable to help.

Ours is a world in which, whether in business or politics, industry or education—petty selfishness, greed and blind ambition often spoil relationships and spread disharmony. Lockdowns during COVID test everyone’s patience and willingness to abide by the rules. Too many still take advantage, play by their own rules and illegally profit from them. Pandemic cases and deaths are alarming, especially in our long-term care nursing homes.

Meanwhile, the politics of subversion and hypocrisy, cynicism and outright falsehoods continues unabated, north and especially south of the 49th parallel where, on Jan 6th, it led to a brief violent insurrection. Amid all this, Canadian indigenous communities continue to suffer more than most from suicides, murders, drug addiction and from shortages of all kinds, with real help in short supply.

God loves the whole world, says John 3:16-17. While God’s love does not change the evils perpetrated by humanity upon itself, the Cross of Christ is God’s symbol of suffering for and with all of us, in the entirety of our global grief and misery. MF, it’s not that the world is so big, that it takes a great deal of love to embrace our suffering; rather, the world is so bad, so notoriously evil, that it takes a very special and unique kind of love—to love it at all!

The very clear message John’s gospel sends us is that we cannot succumb to the temptation simply to retreat into our own little safe space and give up on the world—whatever justification there might be to do that. Because, if God can love the world in spite of its rejection of her/his divine care and love, then there’s got to be hope for the world, as well as hope for you and I who are in it and part of it.

We Christians cannot simply shake our heads in despair over the immorality and evil of this world and hive off into some holy huddle, to pronounce that the world is to be left to the doom it deserves.

The love of God is good news, says John’s Gospel, because it is not just a concept, but an action on God’s part. God so loved the world that he gave himself in the form and activity of his Son. So, what does this mean, why does it matter and what does it change?

What does it mean? It means that love is the answer to that which ails humanity, or as someone put it: “Whatever the question, love is the answer.” There is no other way out of our egotistical selves, MF, but to love, which is what God is: Love! And so, Jesus, becomes the divine personification of Love, which God means us to be.

And what does this change? Living by love will result not only in more love and loving, more giving and forgiving, it will eventually result in the dawning of a new consciousness in our human and global life. Jesus was a human who saw beyond the traditional boundaries of our security system, whose mission it was to elevate our vision higher, to empower us to embrace a reality that we never knew existed, and who enabled us to walk in a new consciousness, by lifting humankind to a new level of consciousness about ourselves, our world and our inter-connectedness with all things living.

When Jesus called God “Abba/Daddy,” he did so for a reason: He thereby demonstrated that God wasn’t some invisible white-haired old man who lived above the blue skies and who could be manipulated by the prayers of the faithful and the fearful.

Jesus calls God love, because he knew that love and loving is beyond all religion. To love is to leave behind all of the security boundaries that we have erected against our fears, which includes religion. It is to recognize that the world is so large, that differences can be embraced and honoured—not feared and exploited. Jesus’ was a life so full of compassion, he did not resist hostility; a life so complete he had no need to cling to survival. His capacity to love was without limit—total—and beyond Judaism and every religion.

Yes, Jesus was a Jew and a devout adherent of Judaism, but he went beyond the tenants of his own religion and was killed for it. It’s another way of saying, as St. Paul does, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. One could continue and say that in Christ there is neither Christian nor Moselm, atheist nor believer, male nor female, heterosexual nor homosexual, white or black or brown.

But the wisdom of the world is to make such distinctions, isn’t it? That’s because the world is dedicated to survival and driving all things into power relationships. Humanity is always impaired, when it builds its sense of worth by denigrating others. Jesus showed a vision of a new humanity in which absolutely no one is diminished. Why? Because love demands the respect, care and compassion for everyone, everywhere. Simply put: Love is beyond religion—always has been, always will be. Religion makes distinctions, as does the church. Love does not; neither did Jesus.

Jesus crossed the boundaries separating males from females and invited women into full discipleship. But he also embraced outcasts and touched the rotting flesh of lepers and gave them back their humanity. He also welcomed the touch of the woman with the chronic menstrual discharge, although it rendered him unclean according to the Torah. Jesus stood between the woman taken in adultery and her accusers. No sin ever made anyone ultimately rejectable, he said, and certainly not worthy of stoning to death.

Jesus reversed the human and religious value system that was dedicated to survival and self-preservation. He lifted up the downcast and humbled those who trusted in their own power. He valued the contributions equally of those who had labored only one hour, and those who had toiled through the heat of the day. He proclaimed that when the half-breed heretic Samaritans obeyed the first law of the Torah and showed compassion on those in need—that they were more the children of Abraham than were the priest and the Levite who passed by without showing compassion.

Jesus honored the prodigal son, because he returned to his father who made him equal to the elder brother who never ventured from home or duty. Jesus ordered the outcasts and marginalized from the highways and byways to be compelled to attend God’s Banquet. Jesus placed as great a value on a single lost sheep, as on the entire flock. He expanded humanity to include our enemies—that we also love and pray for them.

In short, MF, Jesus entered humanity so deeply, possessed his own being so significantly, gave his life and his love away so freely, expanded the boundaries of his existence so totally, that Jesus became the human channel through which the reality of God was able to flow into human history.

Even religious rules are not ultimate!  God cannot be reduced to meet our religious securities and insecurities, nor enable us to pretend that we are saved because of what we believe or imagine that we alone are true believers over against what others believe. No human tradition and no religion can ever corner the market on salvation and profess that it controls the only doorway to God. It is sheer human folly to think so, which of course is why Jesus was killed: He opened the door to God for all the dispossessed.

Jesus understood that no one can fit the holy God into any one religion. That’s idolatry. We cannot pretend that we are the chosen and all others will be damned. God cannot be created in our personal image or human likeness, and then expected to serve our ego-needs. God is God. You and I are not. But God does expect that, like Jesus, we live a life of love. Doing so we will also obey God’s commandments. Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. These are the two greatest commandments, said Jesus. Do these and you will live, because you will have obeyed all of God’s laws.

MF, I’ve said it more than once: I believe Christianity is headed towards a global, universal kind of human consciousness, which is beyond religion and all institutionalisms. Jesus did not promise to bring us religion. He didn’t promise to bring us Christianity, nor was he the first Christian. Christianity was the product of his disciples, then and now. Jesus was a Jew and an adherent of Judaism and yet he was beyond Judaism. Jesus promised to bring us life and bring it more abundantly, and with that a higher sense of human consciousness. I believe humanity is slowly expanding in such a spiritual consciousness—a consciousness Jesus shares with us.

Of course, there’s risk here, MF, because by doing the things Jesus did, and for which he was crucified by the religious establishment of his day, he reversed the human value system that was dedicated to self-preservation—a survival system which includes the church. The church must cease its quest for power, authority and the most insidious temptation of all—that everyone conform to a truth administered by those who are convinced God is on their side.

The Church is supposed to be the only institution in the world which exists not for itself, but for the world. Because the church is supposed to be in mission for others, it must continue to reform itself and channel its incredible resources of wealth, material and property in order to help humankind.

Jesus commissioned his disciples to go into all the world. They were to go beyond the boundaries of their Galilean tribe, beyond their nation of Israel and most specifically beyond the boundaries of their own Judaic religion. Why? Because like Jesus, they were to proclaim the infinite love of God for all humanity—a love which knows no boundaries. All human life and all living things are included in God’s love. Everyone becomes God’s chosen. No one is alien. No one is separate from God. We live in God and God lives in us…a new human-divine consciousness to which we are moving. A new spiritual consciousness is coming, MF. Although it’s always been here, it is only now beginning to finally dawn. AMEN

Making a whip of cords, he drove all the animals out of the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers… and ordered them: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jn 2:15-16

 

Dear Friends! I once knew a woman back in London, who was terminally ill with a rare disease. After several years of lingering in the neverland between life and death, her husband had enough. As he put it, “I choose life and so I’m leaving you.” It was a heartbreaking decision for me to watch, but he left and started a new life which included children and a new wife. His wife had nothing left when he departed—at least nothing but bad memories and seething anger.

Every day her anger grew and became more hot and hostile—mushrooming exponentially. She prohibited her friends to see him and made everyone she knew take sides and would even cut off those who didn’t want to choose sides. Some days, she literally spent all her energy dialing, with the pencil held between her teeth, the number of his office, so she could bitterly complain. Other days, she exhausted herself dictating her story into a tape recorder so that she would tell it to the world and make her former husband an object of shame and ridicule.

The nurses who cared for her tried to calm her down, but she resisted all their efforts and continued to fan the flames of anger and hate. And finally, people came to understand that anger was all she had to live for and it became her substitute for love.

A study of anger reveals much upon analysis. We’ve all seen images of the very angry, riotous mob, spurred on by the former US President, attacking the American Capital building on Jan the 6th. Anger is such an intense kind of passion that it makes people feel alive, feel they matter and feel they are in charge of their lives, as well as other lives, which they often manipulate by guilt.

Some people renew their anger a long time after the cause of the anger has died, because that anger is their protection against helplessness and emptiness, like a lone wolf howling in the night. Their anger makes them feel less vulnerable, at least for a while.

It is said that love looks forward and anger backwards, but the road from anger to hate is such a short one, many people travel over it without ever leaving home. I suspect that most angers result from unmet needs, usually in parenting. Dependency always makes us feel angry, because dependency makes us feel vulnerable and vulnerability makes us feel afraid. Some people turn their anger on themselves, but most project their anger onto someone else, who may just be walking or driving by, something like road rage.

More than not, it’s someone known, maybe a father or mother, a spouse or child, maybe a stepparent or a close friend. But whoever it is, that person’s vulnerability reminds them of their own. Guilt, which we lay on others, is really anger at oneself, but transferred or projected onto another, because it carries too many risks to turn it onto oneself. There are myriad kinds of anger, expressed in multiple ways, from envy to resentment and jealousy to blame. They’re all games we invent to hide from ourselves because of our lack of courage to love and be loved, to give and forgive…to turn the page and be finally done with anger.

Now, psychiatrists say that anger is good because it gets the pain moving and there may be nothing worse than bottled up anger. Trouble is, nothing is accomplished if we’re angry all the time—if we become the anger or the anger becomes us. Or if our anger reduces us to an occupied country, where we’re forever counting the evil deeds of the occupiers, who then write the history books.

I personally know people who have been hurt so bad and angry for so long, that they can’t see the wound anymore. A widow who is old and frightened, so angry for her husband dying on her and leaving her unprotected, that she takes it out on her children. She says she doesn’t want to burden them and yet the more they do for her, the more she complains to them, or about them to others.

Or, a widower, who is still angry that his wife left him with several kids to raise, then punishes all the women whom he meets who somehow don’t fill her shoes. Or a bachelor, angry at his mother for reasons he no longer even remembers, passes his days going in and out of sulks and often when he finds a woman who might make it all up to him, he punishes her emotionally, because she of course represents his mother.

Someone once said that being angry all the time is something like burning your house down to get rid of a rat.  Some people cling to anger because, to have been wronged, makes them feel right. And they then recite the horrors done to them as if they were saying a prayer, inviting God to give them brownie points for each wrong that they’ve endured. So important is it for them to confirm their rightness, that they dust off their hurts as often as they can and polish them until they gleam in the sun—feeling that by so doing, they’ve earned their keep. They puff themselves up with their moral indignation like a child who clings to a teddy bear for protection.

One major problem with holding on to anger, instead of letting go, is that you continue to make decisions based on what hasn’t been for a long time—decisions based on the past. And you live in that past, that long ago, constantly affixing fault by blaming someone else. Of course it’s someone else, because most people don’t have the courage, much less the wisdom, to blame themselves. And that’s because anger, you see, never points its fingers at itself.

Some people do very angry things to punish their husbands or wives, their mothers or fathers, their children or grandchildren—also their stepparents and stepchildren. Their anger never comes from what is, but from what has been—inconsolable longings from the past, their willful delusions, their repeat performances and of course their isolation and loneliness, their abandonment and their doomed quests. But as we know all too well:  When we don’t learn from the past, we’re doomed to repeat it—and until and unless we forgive, we continue to crucify ourselves on our own anger.

All of this, MF, is to tell you why traditional Christian theology has regarded anger as one of the seven deadly sins, even though it’s a sin we all try to justify. The church says “anger is a deadly sin” because Jesus puts anger in the same category as murder when he said, “Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to the fire of hell.” And I say “we justify our anger” because anger’s not a criminal offence. No one goes to jail because he or she displayed anger. If anger were a crime, everyone would be facing ump-teen consecutive life-terms in the Kingston Penitentiary.

Judge the costs of anger yourself in the following real situations: A 14 year old girl is raped and traumatized for life. The assailant is tried, and the LA judge prescribes a suspended sentence. As the rapist leaves the courthouse, he is accosted and stabbed to death by the enraged parents of the violated child. Courtroom witnesses react to the stabbing with a sense that justice has been finally done.

In a road-rage case, one driver shoots another driver, who merely cut in front of him on an inner-city expressway. Or consider a Toronto teen murder of one who was shot in the face. Or reflect on the men who batter and brutalize their wives and children, sometimes ending in death. Anger and rage, power and control are the motivating factor in battered wife and child syndrome.

Unchecked anger has not only personal dimensions, but national and global consequences. Anger can cause thousands of deaths, provoke torture, start world wars and a host of other cruel and diabolical scenarios too ugly to reveal in a sermon. Anger can stimulate spiteful actions which go far beyond retributive justice and result in the suffering of innocent people. Anger has no limits and left unchecked leads to vengeance which spirals out of control. Anger begets anger. Violence begets violence and war only begets more war.

These are spirals which never end, having first begun with anger.

In today’s Johannine Gospel, clearly Jesus was very angry. But his anger was a righteous indignation at what the religious leaders were allowing to happen in God’s house of worship and prayer. The Temple had been turned into an institution of big business—ungainly greed and profit. In those days, everyone, including foreign visitors, had to pay a temple tax of half a shekel—equivalent to a 2-day wage. Foreign currencies also needed to be exchanged into Jewish money at the cost of another day’s wage. Big bucks for poor people!

In fact, the annual revenue of the Temple Tax was approximately one-quarter million dollars and the annual profit of the money-changers was about $25,000. When the Roman General Crassus captured Jerusalem in 68 AD and raided the Temple treasury, he took an estimated $25 million dollars. That’s an obscene amount of money 2000 years ago. The Passover pilgrims were being fleeced royally at an exorbitant rate—and all in the holy Name of God and Judaism. It was a rampant and shameless social injustice!

All of which propelled Jesus into flaming anger. The temple of his Father’s house was being desecrated by irreverence, avarice and profit, as well as the irrelevant sacrifice of animals. “You’ve reduced my Father’s House to a marketplace!” shouted Jesus. In Matthew’s version Jesus called it a “den of thieves.” Rest assured MF, church bazaars and garage sales, strawberry socials and Oktoberfests, all pale in comparison to the ravenous greed and covetous passion of Jesus’ time. They’re not the same at all!

But motivation can be the same, MF, and that’s where we need to be very careful. Whenever money and its acquisition become job number one in a church; whenever money and material things become more important than people; whenever people go through the motions of worshipping and praying, the motions of giving and forgiving, and to do so without honesty and integrity, without reverence and the right reason; whenever we give God and his Church that which is left over of our time and energy, our abilities and material possessions; whenever we let other people, including family members, keep us from worship; whenever we let other events and things become more important, like our comforts and conveniences, appointments and recreation; whenever we desecrate God’s hour of prayer with our irreverence and irrelevant sacrifices and insignificant donations, our apathy and indifference, our complaints and criticisms…then surely, MF, surely Jesus can and will be angered by our actions or lack of them.

Lent is a time for repentance. If you and I have not contributed to the physical and spiritual well-being of our parish; if we have not given and done our very best for Zion; if we have not worshipped regularly, joyfully and willingly, COVID notwithstanding; if we’ve taken God’s House of worship for granted; if we’ve not supported the ministry of our parish and that of Zion House, then it’s time for a change of heart and mind and conduct.

We may think we have a right to be angry and obsess about that anger until it becomes physical and violent. But Jesus says that God alone has the right to be angry, while he nails our anger to a cross. The final solution to anger comes from deciding to imitate Jesus and be good to those who have made us angry; be good to our enemies, by making them our friends. What we do—how we act–does influence how we feel and that means that our feelings can be changed by what we decide to do.

The final words belong to Jesus: “Do good to those who hurt you or despitefully use you or do all manner of evil against you. Turn the other cheek. Pray for your enemies and do good to them. Then you will be called the children of God.” AMEN

Dear Friends. Today’s OT lesson from the 15th Chapter of Genesis is the establishment of a covenant between God and Abraham, whereby God will bless him and give his descendants a new homeland. The story actually begins in Gen 12:1-4, where God first called Abraham to leave his home and journey to a new country:

And the Lord said to Abram: Leave your country, your relatives and your father’s home, and go to a land that I am going to show you. I will give you many descendants and they will become a great nation. I will bless you and make your name famous, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. And through you, I will bless all the nations of the Earth! And Abram was 75 years old when he started out.  (Gen.12:1-4)

Now, Abraham didn’t leave home for practical reasons. It wasn’t a second career opportunity. He didn’t have a fiancé waiting for him in some foreign country, nor did he go away to teach Hebrew as a second language to the Philistines or the Egyptians and as far as we know, his parents didn’t toss him out of the house.

Now, Abraham was a good listener, who heard God calling him, to tell him to go to another country in order to be a blessing to the world. So MF, just what kind of person has the buoyancy of being, sense of adventure and spiritual inclination to intuit his inner voice as the very voice of God? Abraham! He listens, obeys and leaves.

MF, this theme of leaving home for another country is archetypal. It’s a pattern of human experience that is lodged in our collective unconscious, and an ever-present yearning of the heart. Think of the Iliad and Odyssey, the Quest for the Holy Grail, the great explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries, the adventures of heroes, like Jason and the Golden Fleece, in the mythological literature of the world, or the biblical account of the exodus and the exile—or even movies like Thelma & Louise or the Secret Life of Bees, which Sherry and I watched a good while back. We enjoy road movies!

Well MF, do you remember when you first left home for what perhaps seemed to be another country? I remember leaving for Saskatoon SK in 1970 to attend seminary. My grandfather said: “You must be crazy!’ since Waterloo had a Lutheran Seminary—a mere 1 plus hour drive from Burlington, my home town. For my grandfather, Saskatoon was another country. I explained to him that I had inherited his genes of adventure, but he dismissed such absurdity.

Now, my major leave-taking to another country was Richmond, VA, to enrol in doctoral work. I spent three years in the former capital of the Confederacy, earned a PhD, did some teaching at two universities and began to raise a family.

Of course, it’s possible to travel to another country without actually leaving home. That’s called tourism—a great and grand adventure. But to actually leave home for another country is, from a psychological and spiritual viewpoint, a journey of the heart and soul. It is a physical leaving-taking, which has a key inner dimension, meaning:

The real voyage of leave-taking is not just new landscapes but having eyes of faith and the heart of love to see landscapes and people in a way we never did before. It’s an expedition which can make one a hero or a goat—depending on the success or failure of the venture, and how success and failure are understood.

MF, we’re always in the process of leaving home as human beings. We have romantic fantasies of finding a place to call home, to put down roots, raise the family and live happily ever after. But does that ever happen? Really? What actually happens is that we think we’ve found the perfect place to call home, find the perfect partner, and so put down roots. But then, an inner restlessness sets in.

We get to the place in life where we’ve finally “found” ourselves and where we’re defined by our jobs, interests and commitments. No sooner do we have this self-definition in place than we wake up one day, only to ask ourselves What’s next? Something inside us wants to tear down a wall, call an architect, recalibrate and rebuild, or simply move elsewhere. There’s a sense in which we humans are meant for the open road. We’re always leaving the home of self.

That’s why pilgrimages never go out of fashion! Pilgrimages are an outer expression of our inner intuition—that life is a journey toward an ever-greater wholeness, which will never be realized completely, because the journey is toward the infinite, toward the heart of God, meaning:  The journey is the destination because it is the spiritual expedition with the sacred—with God, which ever ends.

This journey takes wisdom and maturity, but also courage and faith to discover. That venture is an inner spiritual one to God, no matter where we are or where we’re going, physically or psychologically.

Sadly, too many folks get too soon old and too late smart, always hungering for something further away or long ago, or still about to be, while everything we really need actually resides within us. God made it so. Our inner spiritual pilgrimage is the metaphor for all our journeys. Lent itself is a time for your spiritual pilgrimage and mine, walking, talking, carrying our cross on the road less travelled with Jesus to Golgatha. That’s why Lent is really a journey. Together with Abraham, Lent is the leaving home for another country.

MF, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating leaving behind family commitments, just because you are restless, or leaving behind good jobs, or leaving behind the kids and hitting the road with a new and improved model. In reality, God meant us to progress and mature naturally, which is a metaphorical leaving home. So, we need to find a vocation that allows us to grow. We need to find a partner who welcomes the road we’re on—a spouse who journeys with us, hand in hand, arm in arm, heart within heart. Meaning MF: we don’t always have to leave home, to leave home!

For most people, leaving home is a high and holy calling which never ends. We leave home with most lines and levels of development intact: psychological, emotional, physical, intellectual, social, political and spiritual. We are continually in the process of re-making and re-creating ourselves, transfiguring and transforming ourselves. To what end? To be as Abraham: a blessing to his family and community, this planet, and that those who encounter us may also be blessed. For Abraham, it’s nations to be blessed through him!

This leaving home is an evolutionary impulse, which is divine by nature. God built this impulse into the very fabric of the universe and into the very fibre of every human life. It’s the image of God within us. It’s the sacred spark is still moving, still creating. The NT calls this impulse Love: the living breathing love God has for us, we for him/her and for one another.

To use contemporary terminology: Love makes the world go round. It literally does! Love beckons us to leave the safety of home and explore the great and grand world God created. Love is that universal yearning inside each of us, to set sail and discover the uncharted territory, not only of land, sea and sky, but more importantly, to discover the inner landscape of our hearts and souls, as we negotiate the challenges associated with the country we call Love.

So, to understand the call of Abraham and Sarah is to realize that they set sail alright, and turned their faces to journey westward, to a new country, a country defined by milk and honey, love and laughter, giving and forgiving. Yes, God accompanied them to the Promised Land, to be sure, and there is a literal sense of that land, just like there was a literal sense of many of our fore-mothers and fathers coming to this Promised Land of opportunity and abundance we call Canada, as it was for my grandparents in 1948.

But Abraham and Sarah’s journey was also the discovery of God who walked with them—the God who gave them life and love, freedom and free will. We too experience God accompanying us on our life’s expeditions—the God of our interior desire and the divine power which sustains us as we fulfill our calling to be a blessing not only to ourselves, to one another and others, but to humanity itself.

After all, the Promised Land, MF, is not a place on a map, where we arrive one day to stick our flag in its ground Rather, the Promised Land is a sacred journey of inner abundance and blessing for family, community and humanity through you and me.

There’s always been a momentary sympathy—a sorry feeling within me—for Jesus whenever I read in the NT, that he had no place to relax and repose. “The fox has a den, the birds have a nest, but the Son of Man has no place to rest his head,” he said. I don’t think Jesus was feeling sorry for himself, nor he wasn’t fishing for sympathy. Rather, Jesus was totally apprehended by this unrest that motivated him to journey to bless every person whom he encountered and who wanted his blessing.

That’s why Jesus had no home, MF, because he was always in the process of leaving home for another country. This perpetual journey defines not only Jesus’ humanity; it also describes his divinity. Jesus is the one who had developed such an incredible capacity to tap into the power of the Holy Spirit, that he became one with this sacred power.

Jesus created and continues still to create new worlds, fresh expressions of the Spirit, with every encounter we have with him, through every healing, every parable and every word from his lips. Even his crucifixion was but another, albeit agonizing transition, to a fuller expression of God’s Spirit.

MF, Jesus’ death and resurrection didn’t just happen on Good Friday and Easter. His entire life was a continual death and resurrection, being born again and again—a perpetual exiting from the shelter of past tradition and custom, in order to completely inhabit the present and set sail for that country we co-create with him—a country we call the future.

MF, the Church of the 21st century moving forward must also recognize that there is no place to rest our head. We have been so busy building permanent structures and institutions, constructing unchanging beliefs systems and formulating creeds and credos written in stone, that we have lost the nomadic sense of adventure into the future which Jesus modelled for us. This is no small issue!

When we trust Jesus enough to follow through thick and thin, only then will we discover new landscapes and new countries, encounter new ways of creating the future, fashion new modes of understanding our lives, purpose and meaning, generate new approaches to worship in wonder and awe, transform ourselves to be blessings to one another and this world, and in so doing, craft new means to be a blessing to ourselves.

But this much will never change, MF: The Holy Spirit infuses the universe with a pilgrim-purpose and calls us to be a blessing to our one global human family and community.

When Nicodemus made his secret trip to meet Rabbi Jesus by night, he likewise was leaving home. Why? Because to be in Jesus’ presence is always to arrive in a new country. The borders have shifted! The rules have changed! The Spirit blows where it will, because it is unwilling to be confined by the structures and beliefs we always associate with religion. Nicodemus needed a new identity for the new country he had entered. He needed to be born again, but he didn’t know what this might mean, much less how to enter the Kingdom. Jesus was his passport, as he is ours, not only in the journey to the Kingdom, but in the journey to be the Kingdom wherever God has planted us to grow and bloom.

Lent is the journey to the land where creeds and credos, borders and boundaries end, and the Kingdom of God begins. Lent is that voyage to the Kingdom which welcomes all nationalities and ethnicities, where women and men of all sexual orientation and skin colour, all languages and dialects, enrich the endless variety and diversity, the timeless tapestry within God’s Kingdom. Lent is the expedition where we not only receive the Body and Blood of Christ for our earth-bound Journey, but where we become the very Body and Blood for one another and our world.

MF, this Lent, Jesus invites you and me to leave home for a new country, where we too have no place to rest. That’s why it’s a blessed unrest to Jesus’ heart and soul. That country will be different for each one of us; but there is bread for the human journey, and a spiritual cup of blessing for soul, that we might in turn be a blessing to this holy and hurting world. AMEN.

Dear Friends Lent is the six-week season of the church year, when we metaphorically walk with Jesus, as he sets his face toward an awaiting cross. It’s a journey toward the deepening of integrity. Why? Because Lent, you see, puts us Christians on a collision course with the messages we receive from our culture about what integrity means. Jesus is into the mathematics of subtraction—simplifying and getting down to the basics of life. Our consumer culture, on the other hand, advocates addition, by more accumulation and acquisition. Our culture operates on the fear of insufficiency: fear that we don’t have enough, while forgetting that the more we have, the more we want. It’s a never-ending vicious circle, Even churches are caught up in the brutal cycle of insufficiency, where money is always in short supply, in spite of hefty endowments.

Lent is supposed to be a season of stripping down, laying bare what lies beneath the trappings which so entangle our lives. Who are we deep down MF, when we finally lay aside our striving for success and status, power and wealth, together with all the stuff we store and carry around, sometimes like a milestone around our necks? The ultimate expression of this trappings-free life is Christ on the cross. Talk about an image of downward mobility!

To follow Jesus this Lenten morning is to enter into a genuine period of integrity and discernment: a time to distinguish between the voice of God’s Spirit within us and that of our oft unhealthy egos—a time to learn in the midst of our culture of entitlement and amassing. In Lent, we desperately need to re-establish limits, in order to get our physical, mental and spiritual bearings straight. Otherwise, we will be lost and not know how to follow Jesus.

So, giving in to temptation is the theme of expansion and the accumulation of more. The refusal to yield to temptation is the opposite: the theme of limits. On this First Sunday of Lent, we examine our lives through the lens of limits. MF, our generation has entered a period of history when, for the first time, we human beings are able to entertain the fantasy of living without limits. The global pandemic may simply be a momentary blip on the radar screen, until we return to “normal.” The fact is humanity has made the most amazing advances in technology and science, which has unquestionably improved the quality of our lives. But there is also a shadow-side.

Our refusal to accept any limits, to want all the fruit, and have it yesterday—this is devastating the earth, causing us to colonize the entire planet at the expense of other-than-human creatures, creating unconscionable gaps between the rich and poor, and turning us into hyper-individualists who equate financial wealth with freedom. The powerful nations are positioning themselves to take control of supplies of water and oil, and if history is any indication, doing this by peaceful means is not a limitation they will accept.

The wisdom of the creation story still holds true today: We have eaten the apple of “no-limit living,” and, in the process, we are becoming purveyors of death.

Today’s 2-verse Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation carries this theme forward without pretence. A shadowy figure is part of the narrative, symbolized not by a snake, but by Satan or the Devil himself. Lutheran theology allows us to think of Satan as an actual fellow, with a forked tongue and tail, and dressed in red to boot. Or you can think of the Devil as I do, not as a real person, but as a personified symbol of Evil Incarnate—the metaphorical embodiment of our unhealthy egos, as well as the voice of our culture, convincing us of the “no-limit lie”—that because we can have it all, we should have it all. In fact, we deserve it all.

From Matthew and Luke’s versions of the temptation story, we learn that Jesus refused to give in to temptation—three particularly powerful ones! He models a form of life and living which does not yield to enticement and entitlement; rather Jesus shows us that there are limits in this life and hence does not submit to temptation to have more and be more.

MF, I don’t know about your image of Jesus, but a perhaps a majority of Christians think of Jesus without limits. After all, he’s God’s Son; knows everything and can do everything and anything! Right?

Personally and theologically, I’ve never bought into that version of Jesus and if you want to test, or prove the orthodoxy of my Lutheran theology, I remind you that the disciples once asked Jesus for the hour of the end of the world. Do you remember his answer? “Only the Father in Heaven knows!” In other words, Jesus admitted that he did not know the answer.

As much as we might like to think of Jesus as a kind of “superman in a robe”—you know, capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound—that kind of Jesus diminishes his humanity. Why? Because in reality, Jesus struggled with limits. He strove and strained against them! Jesus’ wilderness temptations, which came from within him, as it does within us—those temptations are exactly the kind of inducement to limitless life we face. Of course, we all know that we will one day die, but who in their right mind gives death any thought, until we’re literally on our death bed?

Like you and me, the temptations Jesus faced were real! A part of him was actually tempted by what the world calls “having it all.” The superman model of Jesus has caused most of us to believe or assume that these temptations were little more than hoola hoops Jesus had to jump through, to pass the test en route to being the Son of God—you know, a kind of mere formality.

But the unvarnished truth is that Jesus struggled terribly: either accept abundance as defined by Caesar’s Kingdom, or accept the spiritual abundance of God’s Kingdom. In fact, if Jesus had not resisted genuine temptation, or if temptation was merely a piece of cake, a walk in the park for him—then there would be no Gospel story to tell you today, much less Good Friday or even Easter!

According to Luke and Matthew, who detail the three temptations, Satan first goes for the gut, literally. The first temptation has to do with food, a basic human need. Jesus has been fasting. He’s hungry. Why not just snap his fingers, and turn the stones into bread? An inner voice is sounding inside Jesus’ head. Hey man! You’re the Son of God. You can have anything and everything you want and wish. So, why wait? Have it now! Pay later!

MF, does anybody else recognize this voice? It is the air we breathe. You can have the Tag Hauser watch, the latest BMW or Mercedes, a second house in Florida or New Mexico or a cottage by the Muskoka Lakes. You can have the wrinkle free skin and the silky-smooth hair of the celebrities. And with a few more credit cards, you can have no interest rates, for at least six months, and with no limit spending. You can even multiply your fortune tenfold and dream the very dreams of avarice—if you just take the right seminar, enrol in the right course, think the right thoughts and banish negativity. You can have it all. Go for it! You deserve it!

Trouble is, there’s always something big that gets in the way, isn’t there? A few years ago, it was a credit crisis coupled with a global financial catastrophe, created not just by the big banks always craving higher profits, but produced by the little guy who also wants it all yesterday, including effortless mortgage loans which fed the fantasy of the easy life. Most have discovered that it’s an illusion. And today it’s the global pandemic which has badly hindered our right to have it all and have it yesterday, which we expect is only temporary.

Jesus rejects Satan’s claim, arguing that we don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God. In short: food, money and material things are not technological problems to be solved but are profoundly spiritual issues. Which means that we need to place limits on the mentality that equates food with profit and place limits on the amount of food we eat, and limit, as much as possible, our consumption to organically produced food.

Then Satan tempts Jesus, challenging him to throw himself off the Temple wall. He even quotes Scripture to Jesus, a Psalm that says that “God’s angels will bear him up if he would happen to strike his foot against a stone.” The premise of the temptation is that God is not already bearing Jesus up, that he’s lacking in divine support.

Well MF, like Jesus on the cross who felt abandoned by God, we all have dark nights of the soul when we imagine that God is nowhere to be found. We all know this geography of wilderness, I’m sure. Me too.  When things don’t go well, or don’t go as we think they should, we begin to doubt God and put him to the test.

I’ve known countless folks, who spent their lives feeling hard done by, really believing they’ve been unfavourably dealt with by God or family or friends. Or they did not get enough, whatever enough is, and that they received less than their due, as if there was a due recorded somewhere that everyone had a right to and issued at a store. And they never understood how blessed they really were, and how much they themselves had to give to others. All they knew was that the world was against them and that life was bloody tough.

I don’t know why this is, or why for some it isn’t. Nor do I know where some get that largess of spirit, that bigness of soul which makes them able to reach inside themselves, and give, and give again. While others, lacking the boldness of heart and mental resolve, remain in their man-made prisons and curse God.

What I do know is that we must finally begin trusting God, instead of testing him. By trusting, we will find the courage to be compassionate. For those who don’t give compassion, they will also not receive it, which is as firm a law of nature as there is. In the unknown depths of the soul, where strange things are stowed away, where we have our ghosts in pandora boxes, where compassion is locked up and the key thrown away, there is one door marked open and another marked shut, and the one and only key to both is our heart.

There’s a poem I once came across, written by Denise Levertov, entitled The Avowal. It’s about throwing herself onto the grace of God, not as a test, but as act of trust.

As swimmers dare to lie face to the sky and water bears them up, as hawks rest upon air and air sustains them, so would I learn to attain freefall, and float into the Spirit’s deep embrace, knowing no effort earns that all-surrounding grace.

Finally MF, Satan, who is our inner voice which wants it all and all on our terms—he takes Jesus up a high mountain. In Satan’s Kingdom—the realm of our ego, the culture of entitlement and the delusion of insufficiency—a mountain is a terrific vantage point from which to imagine: Hey man! It’s mine—all mine!

What is it about us human beings that we want to possess beauty and splendour? Can’t we just enjoy them! Why must we have them? Why must we delude ourselves that with the Almighty Dollar we can own splendour and possess beauty? Did you know that the indigenous peoples originally had no word for the ownership of land? They believed that Mother Earth happily shared her land with the people.

A next-door neighbour of mine once cut down many of the flowers of large plant which grew on my side of our adjoining properties. The flowers bent over his property. You see, he actually thought he owned and paid for the air space as well.

The ego is an insatiable possessor, amasses all things to itself, and clutches them close to its breast, as a bulwark against the rising tide of death and the exigencies of life. But then one day, we wake up to suddenly discover that the things we own, now own us.

The gospel narratives say that Jesus can have it all, if he is willing to fall to his knees and worship Satan. MF, of course this is a metaphor that describes the choice to offer our ultimate allegiance to our unhealthy egos and the culture of more, a capitulation to the forces of history strewn with the blood, sweat, and tears of the victims of the takers. As long as we get our piece of property, worshiping Satan means turning a blind eye to all that our comfort is built upon.

This temptation story wasn’t just something which Jesus experienced 2000 years ago. MF, it happens to you and me all the time!

In Lent we come face to face with the part of us that rails against limits and which honours and elects those who make promises to feed our insatiable appetite for more. Jesus quotes the First Commandment in response to the Satan. Worship God alone!

Welcome to the wilderness of Lent, MF. This is the stage upon which the battle for our soul still goes on. This is the season when we say “no” to more, and “yes” to less. Less is More in this case! Satan fled the very moment Jesus gave his heart into God’s care and keeping, after which the angels came and ministered to him.

Today, on this first Sunday in Lent, the angels are waiting in the wings for us to open our hearts to the unlimited love of God. Only then will our true spiritual hunger be quelled, and we shall find ourselves sustained in the thermals of God’s grace, and we will discover, maybe for the first time, the true wealth that accrues to those who are possessed by love alone. AMEN

When you fast, do not put on a sad face as the hypocrites do!          Mt 6:16a

 

Dear Friends! Ash Wednesday always reminds me of an Ash Wednesday many years ago, when my elder daughter once asked me: “Daddy, is that really true, what you said this evening about everybody turning into dust and ashes?” “Yes, Elizabeth, it’s true. One day, we all turn to dust.” Elizabeth, about 8 years old at the time, considered this for a few moments and then said, “Well, Daddy, then there must be a lot of dead people under my bed.”

Lent, MF, is something of a paradox. One part of the paradox protrudes today. If we were worshipping together, in-person, then I would have crossed your forehead with ashes and said the ancient formula of the church: Remember man, that you are dust and to dust you will return. Or, to use street nomenclature, I’d say: That body of yours man, that body you pamper with perfume and powder and fill with pizza and beer, it’s gonna crumble, man. You had better believe it and start making with the tears.

On the other hand, there’s a century old Anglican Collect for Lent which begins: “All powerful and ever-living God. Each year you give us this joyful season of hope!” Joyful season of hope? Well, MF, which is it? A season of dust and despair or of joy and hope? Will the real Lent kindly stand up, take a bow and be recognized?

Are we supposed to weep and mourn, like Martin Luther with ashes and lashes? Or are we supposed to give heed to the words of Jesus today, who tell us not to fast like the hypocrites? Are we supposed to douse our face with Dove, slap on some Brut or Chanel No5 and come out smelling like Beyonce? Or do we come out odiferous, like the Toronto Maple Leafs which last won the Stanley Cup in 1967?

The paradox of Lent is real, but we do not solve it by eliminating the paradox. As with any good paradox, so it is with Lent. The solution involves keeping both sides of the contradiction intact: sorrow and joy; tears and laughter; grief and thanksgiving; dying and rising—all intertwined together. So MF, let’s see how it works out, by affixing the twin symbols of dust and cross not symbolically only on our foreheads, but in our hearts and minds.

The first symbol is dust. The formula, “Remember you are dust,” originally stems from Genesis, and God’s judgment on humanity as represented by Adam and Eve: “In the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. You are dust and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19). It’s an image which dots the OT time and again: the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Job. Even Abraham, who pleads to God for Sodom and Gomorrah, says, “I, who am but dust and ashes….” (Gen 18:27).

So, what is dust? Some men think they’re made of dust, while some women think we’re made of gold dust. Some think dust is nothing, but throw it in someone’s eyes, and suddenly nothing becomes something. Let me quote from the insight of one Jesuit priest and German theologian, Karl Rahner, who symbolized dust this way:

Dust is the image of the commonplace. There is always more than enough of it to go around. One particle is as good as the next. Dust is the image of anonymity: one fleck is like the next and all are nameless.

Dust is the symbol of indifference. What does it really matter whether it is this dust or that dust? It is all the same. Dust is the symbol of nothingness. Because it lies around so loosely, it is easily stirred up, it blows around blindly, is stepped upon and crushed, and nobody ever notices.

Dust is nothing. It is just enough to be nothing. Dust is the symbol of coming to nothing. Dust has no content, no form, no shape. It blows away, the empty, indifferent, colourless, aimless, unstable booty of senseless change, to be found everywhere, and yet nowhere.

Today, Ash Wednesday, God says to us: You are dust. I am dust. We are dust. Now, it’s not the only thing God says to us; but to understand what else God says, is to accept our dustiness in all humility. I must accept and endure the dust that I am. Like dust, I am commonplace. I am Scripture’s blade of grass, puff of wind, a mere speck in a limitless universe. I am one of boundless billions of specks which have blown about this planet for millions of years.

Yes, we are all dust. I am dust—made from dust and destined to remain dust, because each day I experience my dustiness. From the moment I struggled from the womb of my mother, who herself became dust 3 days later, I have been in the process of becoming dust and dying. From my first year of life, suspended between life and death, today I suffer a kind of senile forgetfulness. My last funeral was of a 90 plus year old great grandmother, whose body has already returned to dust in the fires of cremation.

I’m also a creature of sin—not always sinning of course; but blowing hot and cold, dreadfully small, wrapped in a straight jacket of selfishness and sometimes desperately far from the God I ought to love above the life he gives me, sometimes adrift like the dust my broom cannot seem to catch. Is it any wonder, that for all too many in our society and even in church, despair is just around the corner?

MF, over 40 Ash Wednesdays, I have dusted countless foreheads. But I have also dusted them with yet another symbol: the sign of the cross. And that symbol declares that all dust has heretofore been redeemed—redeemed not in some shadowy sense, but with startling realism. The sign of the cross tells us that, in taking flesh, the Son of God himself became dust, that save for sin, his dust was the same as our dust. And his dust was even more short-lived, more fleeting than ours! For a few brief years, his feet scuffed the dust of Palestine; his sweat bloodied the dust of Gethsemane, and with a last loud cry, his body joined ours in the dust of death.

Precisely here, MF, is the bone and marrow of our Christian faith. Exactly at this intersection, joy transmutes sorrow, ecstasy weds pain, as nowhere else in history!

When God’s Son became the dust we are and nailed it to a cross, God’s judgment, “You are dust” was transformed and transfigured on the spot. I do not mean that we cease to be dust. We will always be women and men of flesh and blood. We can experience in every fiber of our being, the anguish and tears, the daily dying and sense of nothingness that fragile dust can never escape.

But the new thing, MF, the redeeming feature is that the Son of God experienced every bit of that for you and me as well as for the 7 plus billion people of dust which inhabit this vast world. Ever since Bethlehem and Calvary, you and I and every other particle of dust that ever was and ever will be—we are all sisters and brothers of God-in-the-flesh. Our dust is literally electric with God’s own life. Our nothingness is filled with God’s eternity. Our dust has Christ’s very own shape and character to it.

All of which is to say, MF: although we are dust and to dust we will return, this reality will no longer terrify us. We no longer have to despair at our ceaseless downward spiral to death. Yes, of course we shall die! No one since the beginning of time has been spared death. Not even Jesus!

I cannot speak for you, but for me—of course, I am not anxious to die. I do love this life with a passion that is perhaps at times unchristian. But I also am not afraid of death, having received the blows of life with its pain and hurt, its abandonment and vulnerabilities, its threats and abuses throughout my life. The sign of the cross cries to us that death is not the end of our dust, just like it wasn’t the end of Jesus’ dust.

And so, back to my original question: Is Lent for laughter or for tears? The answer…or better put: my answer is Lent is for both—Lent is for laughter and for tears. How could it possibly be otherwise? Lent plays out, in memory and in symbol, what the whole Christian life and living is about. It is a dying and rising. Not simply at the end of our days—but all of our days and nights.

On the one hand, we journey with Jesus to Golgatha. It’s a journey that cannot wait, mingled with gladness and sadness, satisfaction and frustration, high hope and near hopelessness. On the other hand, as we walk that dusty road with Jesus, we walk it as forgiven, risen Christians. We don’t have to wait for Easter to rise with Christ. We don’t have to wait for our last breath. We have already risen! From the moment that baptismal water flowed over our foreheads in the shape of a cross, the life of the Risen Christ has been coursing its way through our dust, like another bloodstream.

We can all be incredibly alive—if we will only let ourselves feel that life, be that life and live that life which Christ abundantly gives.

This Lent, MF, don’t give something up for your Lenten expedition. Rather, add something. Add life! L’chaim! For a change, come alive in Christ. Be alive in him. Focus on those twin symbols of dust and cross. And when you finish reading this sermon, continue your trek with Jesus to Golgatha—his and yours—wear those symbols with awareness, hope and love. Even when the dust disappears, recollect the reality: Remember oh man that you are dust—but dust redeemed by a cross. AMEN

And as they looked on, a change came over Jesus, and his clothes became shining white—whiter than anyone in the world could wash them. Mk 2:2b-3

 

Well MF, here we are—three days before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent…the day when, if it wasn’t for COVID, I would smudge foreheads with ashes, as well as all confess that we are indeed dust and ashes and to dust and ashes we shall return. Tradition calls today Transfiguration Sunday, for lack of a more original name, I suppose. This fantastic story interrupts Mark’s gritty narration of Jesus’ determined march to Jerusalem.

You know, the Transfiguration is a strange kind of an interlude, which has its parallels in Matthew and Luke, but not in John. It’s an odd kind of break for Mark, who in the chapters preceding this narrative, relates a host of healing miracles and right after the Transfiguration, Mark launches into the passion narrative of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. For the first 8 chapters, Mark makes a lot of stuff happen “immediately,” “right away” and “at once.” His is a gospel of action.

In fact, Mark is in such a hurry that he doesn’t waste any time with Jesus’ birth, but launches into the baptism of Jesus at the age of 30 and then for 8 chapters, hauls us on an express train to Jerusalem, pausing just long enough at each station for us to peek out the windows. Maybe that sort of thing has happened to you too, as it’s happened to my son Karl and me.

When Karl was quite young, we’d go twice a year to Port Stanley, south of London, where there’s a tourist train ride, mainly intended for children. Dubbed the Santa Express and the Bunny Hop, Karl and I would take this half-hour train ride to visit Santa or the Easter Bunny. Karl is now 42 years of age, but because he’s severely handicapped, he looks and acts like a boy of 7 or 8 with a height of around 3ft 9in. Oh, he still loves the train rides—”Toot! Toot!”—especially when there are gifts and chocolates waiting for him.

Reading Mark’s Gospel is something like that train ride. Karl and I would look out the windows of the train as it moved along at a steady pace, up and down, over hill and dale, rivers and ponds, bridges and through woods. The train doesn’t stop until it reaches its destination: Union Station! Oh, not Toronto, but about 10 kms north of Port Stanley, Union Station is a small one-room shack, smaller than the dining room in your house, where Santa waits with his crayons and colouring books, while the Easter Bunny lays his chocolate eggs all around the hut for the children to find. I always help Karl to find at least a handful of chocolate eggs.

Well, reading Mark’s Gospel is like that train ride. You’d like to stop Mark and ask some questions about his story telling, but you can’t. His gospel is the shortest of the four, and, like a train, it moves along at a steady pace, with no time to stop, ponder and ask this or that—at least not until you get to the Transfiguration.

In other words, MF, the Transfiguration is a stopping point, a kind of destination like Union Station, where you get off and let the story of the Transfiguration surprise you, just like Karl would get off and be surprised by Santa and the Easter Bunny. Some folks, of course, don’t want to get off the train, because they don’t believe in Santa or the Easter Bunny. Likewise, some don’t get off the gospel train because they don’t believe in the Transfiguration. But we do, and so we stop, and like Peter, James and John, we take a long, hard look.

At first sight, what we see is certainly plain enough. The story begins at Verse 2 with three simple words: “Six days later.” Well, that seems normal enough, but Mark doesn’t explain why he took these three disciples. Why not take Matthew, Bartholomew and Andrew? Why leave the other disciples below? I mean did not 12 disciples leave all to follow Jesus, and not just 3? What mountain did they climb? And why take a trip up a mountain in the middle of a sprint to Jerusalem and Golgatha? I don‘t know about you, but the story omits details to which I’d like some answers. Maybe you too!?

But then, without warning, Mark moves the story from dull grey to blazing and blinding white! I can almost hear Dorothy on her arrival in Oz whisper to Toto: “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” If we’re paying attention, MF, we wonder what’s happening here?

Mark writes: Jesus was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could wash them. Now, transfigured is an English rendering of the Greek metamorphothe, from which we get metamorphosis, meaning to transform, to change into a different substance, to alter an appearance, especially by supernatural means. To undergo a metamorphosis is not a detox or crash diet, but a real transformation!

Jesus was transfigured before them! Notice, MF, that the sentence is written in the passive tense. He was transfigured before them, meaning, Mark wants us to know that Jesus is no magician, doing tricks to dazzle this trio of friends. Rather, what happened to Jesus is by the hand of God. For Peter, James and John, as well as us, the Jesus we knew, is, for a brief moment, transfigured by God herself—that is, made stunningly white, as if everything else around Jesus is but a range of shadow colours.

And if we think that’s the end of story, well MF, we’d be mistaken, because suddenly, out of nowhere, Elijah and then Moses appear. In one snapshot, Mark shows us religious history from the 10 Commandments to the prophetic tradition to the promised Messiah! In short, on this unnamed mountaintop, we see the ultimate religious “Who’s Who” reunion! And at such a sight, Peter speaks the first reasonable, understandable words in the story. He says, Isn’t this great, Jesus, that we can all be here! It’s phenomenal! In fact, to capture the moment, I’ll build three tents: one for you, a second for Elijah and a third for Moses.

Now, just before climbing this mountain, Mark recounts that Jesus delivered a rather depressing sermon to his disciples about suffering and betrayal, tragedy and death—not something the disciples wanted to hear—nor do we, but the difference is that we’re used to it and we know how the story ends. But then atop the mountain, Peter says: Hey Jesus! This is more like it, man! Give me ecstasy over suffering any day! Give me mountaintops over shadowlands, give me life over death any day, and twice on the Sabbath!

Well, MF, I don’t know about you, but I’m with Peter. Give me even half a choice and I’ll take Peter’s pick any day. Just me and God’s all star religious lineup, sipping coffee with Arabica beans picked by Juan Valdez, or downing a Serbian Slivovitz, far above the maddening crowds way down below at street level.

I mean, who really wants to go down there anyway? Who wants to deal with neighbourhood killings, drive-by shootings, drug addiction and lethal injections, rising pandemic cases and deaths, Black Lives Matter deaths and suicides? I mean, who needs this?!

Hey folks…I’m with Peter, I’d sooner stay on the mountaintop and build monuments to spiritual icons. I’d sooner have the metamorphosed Jesus… the whiter than snow, whiter than Tide white, more cheery than Cheer Jesus, with no stain on him, in the midst of our sin-soaked humanity. But before Peter can pound the first tent peg into the ground, Mark repeats a scene from the flatlands, from the time when Jesus was baptized.

A voice from a cloud above once again announces: This is my own dear son, listen to him! Well, by this time, the trio of disciples look around, as if they’re hearing things, but they see nothing. Are their eyes and ears deceiving them? Moses is gone; Elijah has vanished and there stands Jesus all alone. In one very short sentence of 9 words, Mark says that you and I won’t find God by looking back or staying put. This is my own dear son, listen to him!

Well MF, there are still lots of Christians today who look for God by looking back to the days of yesteryear, when everybody came to church, whether they liked it or not; when everybody knew everybody else in church, whether they liked them or not; when the old hymns were easy to sing and anthems always made your heart dance. Some people look for God back in the days when children prayed in school and families sat around the dinner table for civil conversation and daily devotions.

But some other folks are less nostalgic! They are content with the way things are. Like Peter, they try to hold onto the moment of tranquility, serenity, and perfect peace. Look, life is fine the way it is, so why rock the boat? Why change things? Why speak out on divisive issues, yet again, when things have finally settled down? MF, we won’t find God by looking back or even by staying put!

Now, in addition to Peter’s response to capture the moment by building tents or monuments, the disciples also respond to their transfigured Jesus with fear. In our global time of chaos and crises, of democratic instability and COVID cases into the tens of millions and deaths into the millions, fear is where many of us are today. The disciples only mirror the itinerary of the spiritual journey: we start out with many concerns, fears and worries. Our minds and hearts are all over the place.

But Jesus comes, touches us, and heals the violated places within us and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” When the three disciples raise their eyes, they see nothing but one image: Jesus. Their lives have become fully focused and simplified on the one whom they desire—the one whom they need! What a moment of grace and encouragement!

And just when we start to be impressed by this inexplicable mountaintop interlude, Mark shows us the Jesus we know—the one who walks down the mountain to be among the people and then climbs up a cross. Days later, people will go to the tomb to locate his remains, but they don’t find Jesus by looking back or staying put—only by going forward.

And so, Jesus leads them down, back into the ordinary world to continue his labor of love, healing and nonviolent protest against the Empire. We can’t be mountain-topped forever. But then, Jesus ends with a one-liner which was always a big disappointment to me: Don’t tell anybody about what just happened. He might be saying, “Don’t spread this story around, because they’ll say they believe it without understanding it.”

Religious experience, MF, must be personal and undergone firsthand. We can’t believe it, just because someone else said it. Sooner, rather than later, we must have our own mountaintop experience. We must have our own transfiguration.

And like the disciples of old, we must also walk down the mountain into the ordinary world, on the path of love and suffering, which are ultimately identical. Like Peter, we’d rather linger with Jesus at the top, because we know what awaits him below: scars that come when trusted friends deny and betray, and when respected judges wash their hands of justice.

Again MF, we don’t find Jesus by looking back or staying put. As we experience a suffering world together, I pray that our little church family will be drawn to center itself on the cross and bring Jesus’ teaching to life.

MF, I’m not a soothsayer or seer. I can’t tell you where Jesus is leading any one of you, or collectively steering our parish. But this much I do know: Jesus is directing us to someplace other than where we are now and someplace other than where we have been. Are we ready to follow? That’s the question! Yes, following Jesus may involve a cozy mountaintop moment or a solitary gaze upon undulating waves, but mostly it will require crowded scenes, when there is more to do than time or manpower or money to do it, and certainly more than the spirit is willing to do.

There will be times of struggle, indecision and turmoil; times when some think they are absolutely right and others categorically wrong; flashes of threats and upsets, when the persistent don’t get their way. But there will also be instants of truth, when we must speak beyond the borders of our own self-interest and refuse to let stand the most comfortable of half-truths and half-lies.

Following the metamorphosed Jesus will most certainly involve two qualities: overcrowded moments of great suffering and loss; but also singular instances of much love and compassion. Both finally come down to great suffering—because if we love anything deeply and seriously, we will eventually suffer for it. When we were still young, this truth was hidden from us and as we got older, we didn’t think this truth would happen to us. But to genuinely love anything in depth and over the long term, we eventually must suffer.

MF, like Jesus, we must find the courage, or more likely, be given the courage, to come down the mountain ourselves, go below where mobs scream and crosses wait and where God’s love does not yet rule in every heart—sometimes not even in our own! Maybe Mark was crazy to suggest that God’s grace was enough for Jesus, was enough for Peter, James and John, and is enough even for you and me. I, for one, MF, would rather err on the side of such craziness. AMEN

At once Jesus knew what they were thinking, so he said to them, “Why do you think such things? Is it easier to say to the paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Get up, pick up your mat and walk’? Mk 2:8-9

 

Dear Friends: Do remember the little ode which ended with the refrain: Joshua fit de battle a’ Jericho, Jericho, Jericho. Joshua fit de battle a’ Jericho, An’ de walls come a’ tumblin’ down! Indeed it was a mighty battle fought against overwhelming odds. There’s the black slave version of the story after which the song was written and there’s Joshua’s OT account of the story. The reason there’s a difference is because African American slaves weren’t interested in history when the song was composed but were intent on furthering the faith. For them, slavery, like walls of Jericho, was a mighty fortress. But when God moves, all de Walls Come ‘a-tumblin’ down!’ Whether Jericho’s history or not, it was certainly its truth!

Which brings us to the first 2 chapters and 6 verses of Mark in which his Gospel does the same thing. That is, Mark champions the fact that when God is on the move, walls crumble. In this case, roofs come a-tumblin’ down.

For Mark, a wall of sin separates people from God. Institutional walls also alienate us from one another—then and today. Laws which once had been established to protect holiness and purity, became legalistic in application, rather than a spiritual force meant to liberate. Rather than offer understanding and compassion as Jesus did, the religious rules, back then, applied by religious people vilified lepers, sinners, women, adulterers, sick and infirm, poor and destitute— castigated all these and still others—those whom God clearly had not blessed—blasted them out of the circle of their communities.

That’s why God needed to break in, MF, by breaking down the walls with the advent of Jesus of Nazareth. Working through him, God waged war against sin and the legalization of all the rules which dictated peoples’ lives. People aren’t made for the rules, said Jesus, but rules are made for the people. Nor are people made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for people, he also said. In Jesus, God was breaking down the walls of legalism which separated people, by letting the Spirit of love and forgiveness unite us and free us.

Prior to today’s curing of a paralytic, Mark 1:34 tells us that Jesus healed many people and drove out various demons. Today’s narrative, Mk 2:1-12, is filled with the power of God to break through our man-made rules which separate people, and in this case kept a man behind high walls of sickness. Five men seek Jesus’ intervention with the illness of a friend but are met with a barrier of people who surround Jesus and block their path. Undeterred, they climb to the top of the house and proceed to open the roof so that their friend can be helped by Jesus. MF, this must have been an awesome sight. The story says much about the dedication of these five friends.

So, having reached Jesus in such an unorthodox and alarming way, what does he do? Jesus salutes their tenacity by extolling their faith. Theirs is precisely the kind of behaviour Jesus was seeking—behaviour which exhibits, not so much what we believe, but rather how we believe and whom we trust. Believing in rules, no matter how right and necessary, often leads to legalism. Behaviour which trusts God, day in and day out for daily necessities—that is real faith.

That’s why the five friends display real faith. They trust Jesus enough to break a hole in the roof to get health and healing for their companion. Jesus responds by transforming the life of the paralytic by forgiving his sin. The scribes counter that only God can forgive sin, which is precisely Mark’s point. Jesus is God’s Son and the representative of God’s Kingdom. Jesus does what God does: he breaks down the walls in order to break through to the person who needs him. And as proof that Jesus can forgive sin, he heals the paralysis of the paralytic who picks up his mat and walks away.

MF, it’s no different today. Jesus breaks down barriers to reach us, forgive us, heal us and transform us—if we let him! According to Mark, Jesus is the one who touches and holds lepers, parties with cheating tax collectors and drunkards, which is why Jesus is called “a glutton and wine bibber—one who consorted with the riff raff of society.” Jesus is the one who lets a woman, many thought a prostitute, stroke and anoint him at a house party of a leper. Jesus is the one who broke the Sabbath laws in front of the people who had been obeying these laws all their lives. Jesus is the one who told them that the law was made to serve people and not the reverse. So, when the law hurts us, we need to tear it in two the way God tore the Temple curtain in two.

That is what the world looked like when Jesus set the Spirit of God loose in the world. It was a dangerous and violent world and still is! Centuries of continual war and suffering, and now add a global pandemic to the mix! But ours is also a world that cares more about condemning sinners and wrong-doers—keeping track of who did what to whom and when, and being separate from them, than it is about repenting, being made whole, being transformed by the HS. Ours is still a world that’s ready for a hand-out, than it is to put its hand out to those who need a helping hand—the ostracized and marginalized.

Ours is still a world that sends soldiers into continual wars to die, that makes laws to allow the rich and powerful to get richer and more powerful. Money buy justice, but poverty only buys more poverty. Ours is a world where white privilege still dominates, while systemic racial hatred goes unchecked and unchallenged. In other words, our world isn’t too dissimilar from Mark’s world, where we need another Jesus who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, invites God to break in and break down walls that keep us from one another and from God.

Well, MF, we always have a choice in the kind of world we make. It’s not just my choice as a pastor, but it’s also yours because we need to be in this together, causing de walls to come a-tumblin’ down—to break traditions and customs which keep us from helping others and each another.

Or let me put it this way: Do we want to be holy and pure, right and righteous—folks who are set apart from others? If so, that makes us something like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day—the scribes, chief priests and Pharisees. That’s what they wanted: To have the holy folks over here and the unholy folks over there, separated and separate, for fear that the unholy might contaminate the holy. For them, religion was serious business, pure and simple.

Trouble is, they never figured that the opposite could happen—that the holy touch and embrace the unholy, that the pure cleanse the impure, that the people of the law help the lawless see why the law had been established in the first place—not to hurt, but help; not to stop us doing evil against one another, but start doing good for one another.

MF, Jesus wasn’t worried about the unclean contaminating the holy. He was worried that the holy people would separate themselves to the point where they could not help those who needed help. That’s why when Jesus touched a leper, he didn’t get leprosy, but the leprosy got transformed. That’s why when Jesus sat down with tax collectors and sinners he didn’t get taken, rather he took them with him on his journey to Jerusalem as disciples. That’s why when Jesus let the woman with the bad reputation soothe and salve him, he didn’t lose his way, but helped her find her way to faith. That’s why when Jesus broke the Sabbath laws in order to feed the hungry and heal the sick, he didn’t end up on the wrong side of God.

Jesus always showed people the right side of the law—the side which forgives and serves others—not be subservient to others. That’s precisely what it looks like when God breaks in and breaks down walls and they come a-tumblin’ down.

Well MF, all of this may sound very fine and good. But that was back then! Do we want a God who causes de walls to come a-tumblin’ down today? Probably not our walls nor holes in our roofs, under which we want everything to be “just so.” I suspect we’re all angling for a domesticated God, who operates within our rules and reason. God can have his power, but so long as it’s working for us. We want God to fit our viewpoints and our selective interpretation of his Good Book.

Well MF: Is that really how God works? I think when God causes de walls to come a-tumblin’ down, God breaks into our world and drives us to where she wants us to go. It was no different for Jesus, who unleashed a God who didn’t fit the OT mold, at least not the myriad of rules and laws the scribes and chief priests understood. Jesus was hunted down, persecuted and crucified by those same people because he turned the religious world upside down. He drove out the money changers from the Temple which was supposed to be the pinnacle of cleanliness and spiritual purity in the land. That’s what happens, when God causes de walls to come a-tum blin’ down.

Imagine if God caused us to change the way church works and change how we do church. Imagine if God caused us to reach out to our neighbourhood by going door to door like the JWs, just to invite folks to our parish. Imagine if the folks who consider themselves Christian all came to church on Sunday.

Imagine if Jesus’ followers became like him—leper touching, prostitute-protecting, sinner-forgiving, tax-collector carousing folks. Imagine if we stopped worrying about how morally right we want to look and started getting down into the world’s mud and muck and begin cleaning it up, beginning with ourselves.

Imagine if all Christians suddenly took Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount seriously: activate the true blessedness of the Beatitudes; actually be salt and light for the world; love enemies, pray for them and be good to them; let our yes and no be our yes and no; refuse to take revenge, in fact turn the other cheek; do good deeds, especially anonymously; when we fast, do so in private; store up heavenly riches of incomparable more value than earthly riches; give to God from the top and not what is left over; serve God and use money to help others in need; don’t obsess over what we will eat, drink or wear; do not judge others; do to others as you want them to treat you.

Well MF, when God is on the loose and causes our walls to come a-tumblin down, then God’s Spirit will drive us outside of the walls and from under the roofs of our houses and churches, and into the unknown—the wilderness—where staying clean is not an option, because, like Jesus, we’ve been driven into a down and dirty fight for God’s world.

That’s the good news, MF, whenever boundaries are broken down, buffers are ripped apart, dividing lines are shredded and people are set free to reach out to others and set them free too. The good news about God breaking free into Jesus and Jesus breaking free into our world is that we can tap into that boundary-breaking power to change our world.

Maybe, just maybe, God is causing the walls of our life, our church, our home, our family to come a-tumblin’ down, so that we can be transformed by the Holy Spirit and be transformed not just once, but many, many times over. God grant us spiritual transformation, to empower everything we do and bring spiritual change to every situation we meet. Allow Christ to say to you and me, as he did to the paralytic: Your sins are forgiven. Pick up your mat and walk! AMEN

Once again the Lord spoke to Jonah: Go to Nineveh, that great city and proclaim to the people the message I have given you!

Dear Friends: Over the two years I’ve been with you, today’s my first chance to talk about Jonah, given this morning’s OT text from the Book of Jonah. Let me begin with a small wager. I bet that when you hear the word Jonah, one of two associations leaps into your head; i) three days in the belly of a whale, or ii) a character who brings bad luck wherever he goes.

Trouble is: This hardly does justice to a Spirit-inspired book of the Hebrew Bible, in this case, the Christian OT. Jonah is not just the first occupant of an undersea condo without windows, not simply a symbol of misfortune like Calamity Jane. MF, you will not appreciate Jonah if your knowledge is limited to a Sunday School comprehension of Jonah-equals-whale-equals-bad-luck!

So, entering Jonah-Land this morning, let me offer you a 3-point sermon, instead of my usual dish of multi-points: i) Who was Jonah, the man and prophet? ii) What was his importance for Israel? iii) What is he saying to you and me now?

First, Jonah the man, son of Amittai, and a prophet, although never called one in this OT book. Who was Jonah? Good question given the fact that for those of you who are skeptical about the living conditions inside a whale—lack of oxygen, no sunlight, raw seafood diet, no toilet services—relax! The story is just that—a yarn about 1,300 English words, somewhat less in the original Hebrew. It’s fiction, but fiction with a specific purpose and a particular meaning. It’s a kind of Shakespearean drama in 2 acts, if you would.

Act I: God orders Jonah to go to Nineveh, capital of Assyria, to preach repentance to the Ninevites. Why? Because “their wickedness has come before me,” says the Lord (1:2). Trouble is: this task, this vocation, brings poor Jonah not one iota of joy. Preach penance to pagans? Announce salvation to non-Jews? I don’t think so! Jonah says to himself. So—fight or flight? He choses the latter and buys a one-way ticket to southern Spain on a freighter. Out to sea! But God raises such a storm, it threatens to break the ship in two. The pagan sailors draw lots to discover who has brought them bad luck.

Bingo! Who else but this Jew on board: Jonah! A good fellow at heart, he tells them to throw him overboard. They’re quick to oblige. Results? The sea settles down and the sailors are converted to Jonah’s God of Israel. As for Jonah—upon instruction from the heavens above, a leviathan—a big fish, a whale to be exact—swallows the poor man whole. After a long and bruising three days, and at the bidding of the God of the Sea, the monster fish spits Jonah out—or better put—vomits him out upon dry land. End of Act 1.

Act II. The Word of the Lord comes to Jonah yet again! Go to Nineveh! He really dislikes this assignment, but how do you argue with God who gets you out a fishy situation? Jonah preaches to the Ninevites. They’re converted. God changes his mind (3:10) and spares the city. But Jonah is exceedingly angry. I mean, pagans the beneficiaries of God’s pardoning powers? Jonah goes ballistic! He tells God to put him out of his misery: I’m better off dead than alive! (4:3)

So, Jonah sulks outside the city gates, shaded from the searing sun by a plant God provides. A godly worm then withers Jonah’s sunscreen, as the sun beats down on Jonah’s unprotected head. He protests and is angry enough to die. God will hear none of it, and let’s poor Jonah have it! You pity the plant for which you did not labour, nor did you make it grow. And you resent my pitying 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left. (4:10-11) And with those famous last words from the Almighty, the book ends.

Second, the meaning of Jonah’s importance to Israel? Why put Jonah among the prophets of the OT? After all, prophets we know—Isaiah & Ezekiel, Jeremiah & Joel—well, they had at least two impressive qualities: They were obedient to God and they preached repentance. But, when Jonah finally agrees to obey God and preach, he gets angry when the Ninevites repent—angry enough to die. Why put a reluctant prophet in God’s Good Book? Good question!

MF, the point is this: The Book of Jonah is not really centered on Jonah. Yes, it tells us a lot about Jonah, but says much more about God. Yes, it also tells us how stupid and stubborn a man sent by God can be, and how broad his prejudice can be on those who are racially, morally and theologically very different from himself—folks who worship other gods. But much more than this! We witness how good God can be—how loving even towards those outside his Chosen People, including cattle—the last word in the book. All men and women are the people of God’s caring. All are called to repent!

Jonah simply could not see that coming! He could lose his cool and grow livid with wrath when a castor-oil plant, which was his sunblock, withered. More importantly, he could let thousands of folks perish in their unbelief without turning pale. Now, Jonah’s not a bad or evil person. Remember, he was willing to drown for pagan sailors. No, not cruel and corrupt—just myopic and shortsighted. Much too wrapped up in his own narrow nationalism and religiosity. God was his God, the God of the Israelites—imprisoned in one nation under one flag, one temple practicing one religion, one set of commandments inside one Ark of the Covenant.

Well MF, whoever wrote this satiric drama in two acts, used Jonah as a prime warning to all narrow-minded, self-righteous, “we’ve got God in our pocket” Hebrews. The author was saying, in effect:

Jonah is each one of us, truly nearsighted and bigoted. Remember o Israel, our mission, our universal vocation: To declare to the nations the endless breadth of God’s mercy, love and forgiveness. Remember God’s promise to Abraham: By you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. And recall God’s directive to Isaiah: You are a light to the nations…that God’s salvation will reach the ends of the earth.

In a nutshell, the meaning of Jonah is that God’s loving purpose awaits all who ask for forgiveness, whoever they are, wherever they live, and whatever they’ve done or not done.

Thirdly, what does Jonah say to you and me today, MF, now 2,600 years after this tale was penned? Two items bear elucidation—two lessons above all. One from my point of view as a theologian and the other from my daily life and living as a Christian.

The theology is basically what Jonah’s ghost writer was commending to ancient Israel. Think big about God! Think about the Lord as a God of infinite surprises—as One who has distinctive amazements and utter astonishments in store for everyone—all 7 plus billion of us—than what we had ever planned or imagined for ourselves. MF, the calling for us today is actually the same as it was for Jonah: trust God in all things, not only for ourselves, but for this world.

Now, into my eighth decade of life and living, I’ve seen Christians shaping God in their own image and in each case a very small God indeed. There are still far too many of us who still believe that God only loves us and because we have the truth with a capital T, we alone will be grazing heaven’s green pastures. This is not just patently false, MF, it is bloody arrogant!

Yes, there are Christians who will let some “outsiders” in, but on a very selective basis: our kind and our colour, with a separate section for Jews of course. After all, we’ll be doing them a favor! And yes, there are tens of millions of Christians who really believe that the US is the greatest country in the world and that because “In God We Trust” is stamped on their currency, God has a special affection for capitalism, rewards the workaholic, marches with victorious armies, writes their triumphalist histories and blesses all their endeavours. Of course, there are other nations—big and small, rich and poor, which adhere to similar ideologies and idolatries. And, like the US, each of them also has its own “January 6,, 2021, riot to overthrow the People’s House.”

But, MF, our God is not such a God. The God of the NT loves the entire world and not just a part of it. Our hope is in the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth, whom we proclaim to be the Christ, who clothed himself in our flesh and carried it to a bloody cross—not simply for the nice and decent guys and gals. But God’s compassion reaches out to all the world, to all religions, to everyone—absolutely, categorically, unequivocally everyone and every living thing!

God even loves those who stretch her compassion to the breaking point—the proud and arrogant, who like Luke’s Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Lk 18:11ff), thanks God that he is not like the rest of humankind, like this publican. After all, this Pharisee has it made in the shade: believes the right stuff, does the right things, has the world by the tail, doesn’t need God before or after conception or implantation or fertilization. Even these God loves!

Yes, there is a breaking point, MF, but it is not God who succumbs to it. Rather, it is you and me—only I—if and when I say a final “No!” to God: I know who you are, o God, but I choose of my own free will to reject your love, reject you and your Son, and maybe not in so many words, but in what I do and especially in what I do not do!

Well MF, a God of surprises! What about my daily life and living? I was born in a German refugee camp because my parents and grandparents fled their Serbian homeland from the Communist armies of Russia at the end of WWII. This morning we join Jonah who also fled—not his homeland, but God on a slow boat to Spain. All of which brings to mind an stirring poem by Francis Thompson who depicts God as The Hound of Heaven. The poem begins like this:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him down the arches of the years;
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after,
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.

Well, MF, it’s time for a hard truth: All of us flee God in one way or another. Of course, we’re much more sophisticated than Jonah in our flight. We remember our confirmation graduation that God is everywhere and that a slow boat to China or a space flight to the Moon will not distance ourselves from God. We try to flee God more efficiently: limit God to an hour a week and resent it if God dares to run over his limit into our private time where our addictions thrive.

Or, we’re blooming philosophers, atheists and agnostics who dare others to prove God exists, as if he exists the toaster on my kitchen counter. Or we blame our disinterest and apathy on our parents who dragged us to Sunday School week after week, disregarding our rights against religion. Or, our love stumbles on the myriad of injustices and violence which holds the world in its vice—from the starving skeletons in the Sudan to the global pandemic which has ravaged tens of million and now killed over 2 million globally.

I mean, who really needs God anymore when science can do it all—well, almost all? Who needs religion at all—superstitious mumbo jumbo. A pox on all their houses of worship.

Or, we just don’t have time for God—or don’t wish to make time right now. The struggle to pay our bills and finally enjoy retirement with enough investments to make it to 90. Or, the struggle to get past my contracting COVID-19 or, God forbid, cancer. Get me past this, dear God, and I’ll make it up to you later—I promise!

MF, I’m not trying to mock this! Rather, it is all too human, which is precisely what makes it so dangerous! The human is so prominent and overpowering, that the divine takes second place, becomes unreal, is buried. God ceases to be God, while each one of us, together with the world—we turn into Jonah, whether we like it or not.

MF, we must not let that happen! The thrilling and chilling paradox is that the Love we may be fleeing is actually inside us—deep within us! Each of us is a temple of God—a shrine of the Holy Spirit. To ignore God is like ignoring your own body, your own self. To put God off till Sunday is like holding your breath for a week. To think he doesn’t exist, that she is not Being itself, is to deny the reality that you did not create yourself. You and I are the subjects of love.

Challenge God, if you must. Ask her to show you his Face; dump your anger and resentment on him; but don’t flee from her. Because if you do, or if you already have, you will, as Francis Thompson’s poem discovers,….hear God fleeing from you: That Voice round you like a bursting sea: Lo, all things fly, thee, for thou fliest me!

MF, don’t get me wrong. I don’t say that if you and I keep fleeing, we will be miserable. We sinners can make ourselves to be quite happy, if we want or need to. But, if we stop fleeing and if, in response to Jesus, we “repent and believe the Good News,” if we turn to the God who lives and loves, who laughs and leaps within us, if we live the Love which is inside us, we will know and experience a joy, a depth of delight, beyond our wildest dreams and imaginations. But, dear Jonah, we need to stop running! AMEN

Come with me and I will teach you to catch men. Mk 1:17

Dear Friends. If I were to apply today’s gospel to Zion, I’d begin like this. We’re all in our little Zion boat on a fishing expedition: Nick is at the rudder, steering; Wayne, second in command, is inspecting the water surface for fish with his ocular piece; Ed is making copious notes about our fishing trip. Ingrid is double checking the cost of the excursion. Jill is leading all the other Zion members in singing “Shall we gather at the river?” with a special solo piece by Alethia. Ginette and Christine are handing out sandwiches, while Kelli Anne is taking care of the kids on board. Pastor Peter is waxing eloquent about this inspired mission, while his assistant, Sherry, is fervently praying to catch fish, which she says is good for the brain.

Well, we’re underway, but the trouble is, Jesus is calling. What in the world do you want, we ask, annoyed that our trip has been momentarily halted. It seems he wants to make us fishers of men and women and children. That’s all very fine and good Jesus, but you know we’ve planned and budgeted for this venture for quite some time, and we don’t want to be interrupted and secondly, why call us to be people catchers? That’s why we’ve got Pastor Peter!

Well, my dear fellow fishermen and women, this morning Jesus calls you and I to catch people. Not an easy job. In fact, like fishing, it requires not only understanding the human psyche, but also patience and persistence. But whatever our individual career path or retirement activity, we are in the boat together, committed to Jesus and called to be instruments of his purposes. So, we fish together. I can’t do the fishing by myself. Neither did Jesus. Together we work in God’s vineyard, proclaiming the Gospel of God’s love.

Now, the trip may sound romantic, but who’s at home cooking up a storm, if we don’t catch any fish and when tall tales don’t cut it? This kind of fishing, MF, is serious business. That’s because the bottom line isn’t money. “We’ve got the money, honey” and so it’s only a question if we’re ready to dig into our pockets. Church fishing is vital because it’s about people and people aren’t a simple, take-for-granted commodity. I mean, how many GTA Lutheran parishes have shut down over the past decade because there weren’t enough people to make ministry viable?

Nor is this fishing trip solely my idea, because if it were, no one could pay me enough to do this kind of fishing. But as it is, MF, we’ve been given a job to do, and Jesus didn’t bother to ask our permission. Hence, woe is us, if we don’t proclaim the gospel and if we don’t do as Jesus commands. Whether it’s casting our nets on the other side of the boat or fishing at a different lake, we need not be afraid. Jesus is with us and he calls us to fish—for people!

When Jesus commands, then he also supplies the power to make a lasting difference in the lives of those to whom we are called and sent. In fact, it is God who does the calling and sending, regardless of our will and intentions. We may well influence and influence well, but it is God who makes work on his fishing boat possible.

No matter who does the fishing, MF, ministry is a call from God to you and me. We can only fish together or not at all. That’s because this kind of fishing is carried out regardless of demographics or finances, personal preferences or hardships. That’s why when St. Paul talks about ministry, he says: “We are not competent of ourselves to claim anything; our competence is from God who has made us to be ministers, not by the letter of the law, but by means of the freedom of the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3:5)

As fishermen, we have a goal and a purpose, which not only helps define who we are, but we serve that purpose and carry out a goal, which is infinitely greater than ourselves. Passing on the faith to those closest to us is the single most important purpose and goal any one of us can have. Passing on our faith to our children and grandchildren, to our family and friends, even foes, and sharing it with members of our congregational family is the one uniquely singular undertaking we could ever accomplish. Passing on the faith is the principal function of our discipleship; otherwise, faith will die.

But in passing on the faith, my sincere hope is that we do not become discouraged or embarrassed if our efforts don’t produce resounding results. MF, let us not despair! You know, if all the people who said to me that they’ll be in church on a given Sunday were to come, then we’d have to build an edifice 10 times the sanctuaries in which we Lutherans worship. Let us not despair, for the Lord is with us! Why? Because we are in his employ, working in her vineyard. The fact that you are reading this sermon, allowing it to inform and transform you this morning is evidence of the faith having been passed on to you. Someone was fishing and caught you!

The faith has taken root in us and it grows with every experience of our life. It stays with us when we are happy or sad, elated or grieving. We have faith in times of trouble and need, but also in positive experiences. We don’t always understand what God is up to, but we have come to trust him, even when the pandemic strikes our little corner of the world. The miracle is that we have the capacity to live with uncertainty without losing our faith in God.

MF, perhaps the new year has put some symbolic distance between us and 2020, a year that brought so much chaos, heartbreak and uncertainty to so many people throughout the world. The fact is this: No one lived through 2020 without experiencing a level of fear, as well as the loss of freedom, health, loved ones, and especially our cherished notions of how things “ought” to be. So far, 2021 has delivered much more than the same: more COVID cases and deaths!

MF, we’re living in a time when reality is either faced or an alternate is invented to escape truth, because it’s too much for us, or not enough. Evil, so-called alternate facts and reality have become more brazen, and so our sense of “normal” has been upended. Well into the global pandemic, many right-wing Christians began to use the word apocalyptic to describe what’s taking place. Often, this word is used to scare folks into some kind of fearful reaction, that we’re living in the “end times” of the world. But, as I said in a previous Advent sermon, the word apocalypse, from the Greek apokálupsis, means to unveil. In short, this pandemic time of chaos is a period of unveiling a rather frightening reality.

The beginning of the new year seems like a good time to pause, pull back the veil and ask, where all this is going and what’s the end goal for us humans, and, for that matter, the universe itself? Is our “Late, great planet Earth”—to use the title of Hal Lindsey’s 1970 best-seller—really headed for Armageddon? In these fractious and disillusioned times, I can hardly think of more relevant concerns.

Yet, in the midst of it all, MF, God continues to invite us to deeper transformation. No matter what’s happening, we need to remember that God keeps transforming creation into something both good and new. Instead of hurtling us towards catastrophe, God wants to bring us somewhere better. A helpful word for me is evolution. God keeps creating things from the inside out, so they are forever yearning, developing, growing and changing for the good. That might be hard to believe in this moment, but it is no less true.

While more and more people seem to believe that that the universe has no form, direction, or final purpose, as Christians, we can be confident that the final goal does have shape and meaning. The biblical symbols of the Alpha and Omega stand at both ends of cosmic time, assuring us that the clear and full trajectory of the world we know is an unfolding of spiritual consciousness with “all creation groaning in this one great act of giving birth” (Rom.8:22).

I began with the assumption that we are practicing parish ministry because of our commitment to Christ, our membership in his church and our desire to be the ministers of his purpose. The paradox of God’s call is that none of these becomes possible until we know their impossibility. Jesus’ words to become fishers of human beings is that they offer a way forward unlike any other we have known.  Come with me and I will make you fishers of men!

To say that fishing is someone else’s job—the pastor’s, for instance, is to refuse Jesus’ call and claim on you. Rather, we have all been invited by Jesus to catch others for God—even in these chaotic, alternate reality and pandemic times. It may seem impossible, but not to God. No, none of us can fish alone—do ministry alone. It’s always in conjunction with others and with God. And no, we can’t do ministry by e-mail, fax or telephone, or on bulletin boards, newsletters and bulletins. To be fishers with Christ, we must also incarnate ourselves, as Christ incarnated himself, into the presence of humankind, whether here in the GTA or anywhere around the world.

Our fishing, on behalf of God, is a continual “going up to the house of the Lord to serve at his altar” and then “going down to the houses of our members” to help and heal, give and forgive, love and be loving, to be understanding and sensitive in the power of the HS, amid all the rancorous disputes, pettiness and narrow mindedness, judgments and criticism in the church and in our society. Sometimes our armour will be pierced by bullies, manipulators and critics, and as a result, we will hurt, sometimes bleed and almost die internally—not because we don’t love enough, but love too much.

God does nothing which she cannot delegate to you and me. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly, what he could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. All our efforts in fishing, in spreading the gospel, are examples of God’s delegation. You and I are God’s delegation, MF. We are his church.

Yes, sometimes or even often, we fail in our mission and make serious mistakes. But, just as every romantic learns that marriage is the beginning, not the end, of making love work, every Christian also learns that the fishing is only the beginning and not the end of the fishing trip. Unless we try, MF, then no fishing will ever get done—no one will ever hear the Gospel of God’s love. No one! Only then will we discover the very meaning of ministry, but then we will also have entered into the reality Jesus himself experienced. Come with me and together we will catch men! AMEN

Here is a real Israelite and in him there is no deceit! Jn 1:47

Dear Friends! Sherry & I like watching movies together. We’ll get several recommended movies from the library and watch them in the evenings. As you know, sometimes, I refer to them in sermons. Recently I watched a movie I had seen quite some time back, called Regarding Henry, starring Harrison Ford, once dubbed the sexiest 70-something actor.

The story opens with Henry, a high-powered, hard-driving, Wall Street lawyer, who had left his luxury apartment to get some cigarettes. Henry interrupts a robbery-in-progress at the local grocery store and is unceremoniously shot in the head by the robber. He survives, but his life is changed forever as he undergoes a personality change. He has lost most of his memory and doesn’t remember his wife, nor daughter. He even forgets who Henry is, when other people refer to him.

The changes in Henry are epitomized in a few different scenes. For instance, when he goes to his office and rereads his most recent cases, he realizes that he used dishonesty to win. He visits an elderly couple who were victims of his deceit to set things right. Walking about with his wife, the new Henry holds her hand, something he never do in public prior to being shot. When she approaches him desiring to be intimate, she looks into his eyes and asks if he’s afraid, Henry does what no self-respecting man would do. He responds honestly and non-defensively that, “Yes,” he’s very afraid.

Henry learns that in his previous life, he and his wife were both having affairs. He’s so disgusted, he quits his job confessing to his wife that he hates being a lawyer and hates the culture of dishonesty at his office.

I remembered Regarding Henry after reading today’s Johannine Gospel. Jesus sees Nathanael and says: Here is a real Israelite in whom there is no falsehood. Nathanael was a rarity, who didn’t pretend to be someone else. He wasn’t a politician figuring out which way the wind was blowing and the polls going. He was no hypocrite, saying one thing to a crowd and something else to another. Nathaniel was a genuine article. What you saw is what you got and you knew where he stood.

He wasn’t malicious, but he also didn’t bend over backward to get approval. He exuded energy, which wasn’t wasted, trying to extract what he wanted from others. If Nathaniel needed something, he’d simply ask. He’d always give straight answers to questions. He didn’t make himself out to be smarter than he was. He had no reason to lie to himself or to others.

In short, Nathanial had nothing to hide. He was transparent, which is why Jesus was drawn to him. There was no deceit or falsehood in him. Jesus could easily work with honesty and a genuine heart, which is what he discovered in Nathanial. But to work with a pathological liar, con artist or religious bigot—the former US President being no small case in point—well, that would require herculean efforts to expose and transform.

The Bible, in fact, is full of stories of deception. From the outset, the serpent tries to deceive Adam and Eve, who then try to deceive God. Instead of eating the apple, Adam and Eve would have done better to eat the snake and saved you, me and all mankind a lot of deceit and deception, fraud and falsehoods.

Cain deceives Abel, murders him, and also tries to deceive God. Jacob and Rebecca con Esau and Isaac. Joseph’s brothers delude him and sell him into slavery. King David betrays one of his generals, Uriah, arranges his murder and takes his wife Bathsheba for himself.

In fact, the prophets confront their Kings for deceiving the people. King Herod attempts to mislead the Magi. Satan attempts to trick Jesus in the wilderness. Judas betrays Jesus, reminding us that deceit always ends in tragedy. It seems that we may be hard-wired for deception, and that’s why Jesus notices Nathanael precisely because he is the exception to the rule; he radiates honesty and authenticity!

Now, we don’t normally think about honesty as a mark of discipline. But there’s no question that the path towards moral integrity, with oneself and others, is a spiritual voyage. The greater our capacity to live without deceit, the closer we find ourselves to God. It’s only when we’re completely honest with ourselves and truthful with others that God can then work with us. We need to get to the point in our life’s journey when, like Samuel, we can say: Here I am Lord, send me!

In Regarding Henry, the storyline of having the protagonist take a bullet to the brain compresses this journey into an unrealistically brief period of time. That’s the power of film. It’s a cinematic technique to help us witness the sudden contrast of character before and after the bullet. But in real life, the moral and spiritual transformation is rarely as sudden or dramatic. In fact, it usually takes a lifetime. We are rarely transformed in the twinkling of an eye; most of us take a life span to move from self-centered to Kingdom of God building.

That’s because guile and pretense find their way into our lives before we can rightly take responsibility for them. We are unconsciously embedded in a process of duplicity and dishonesty as a matter of survival. We learn to shape ourselves to please others. We learn what it means to be a good little boy or girl. We learn to smile on cue. We quickly pick up on what is taboo. We learn to keep the family secrets faithfully, as we also learn to keep heartbreaks to ourselves, out of plain and simple fear.

But then one day, MF, we wake up and can’t remember what broke our hearts or even gave us joy. We manufacture a false self that “works” for us, helps us survive. But inside we are unfulfilled and empty. We’ve lost touch with what gives us life, because we’ve lived our lives to meet other people’s expectations, or as is often also the case, to meet our own self-seeking and venal goals. Part of the spiritual journey involves peeling back the layers of self-deception in order to find the true “me”.

In the words of one of best self-help therapists of the last century, John Bradshaw, we’ve become “a shame-based society of deceit, whose only worth is what we do—what we achieve.” Although we are human beings, we’ve become human doings in order to matter to people and to have personal significance.

We cannot heal who we are as human beings with our human doing—no matter how exceptional our achievements are. We suffer from a huge hole in the soul, simply because we don’t know who we are inside. We must be allowed to grieve our unfulfilled being—otherwise our hearts will freeze to death.

Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable,” the Wizard of Oz once told the Tinman. And how right he was, MF, because when we cannot be ourselves, when we must always cover up who we are with angry words and weapons, with deceit and deception, we then block the bridge over which we must cross to find another, much less ourselves.

To finally stop running away from all our obsessive doing, all our power struggles with others and control over others—running away from life itself—that’s the key. No one, but we ourselves can warm our own frozen hearts. Only the heart knows things the mind can never fathom.

MF, like you, I grew up in a patriarchal culture—a male dominated and driven society—where men make the rules and still do. And in that culture, deceit and deception are imbedded in what it means to be a man. Growing up, I quickly learned that it wasn’t safe to be soft or sensitive, vulnerable or fragile, gentle or generous. Why? Because then you are stepped on and stepped over. You are abused, misused and taken advantage.

That’s why I was taught to be hard and unbending, to vigorously apply the rules and without exception. I was not modeled to have emotional needs or to sustain intimate connections. Anger was the only acceptable emotion; success was the goal, defined only in financial terms. Life was about competition, not connection, much less intimacy.

That’s what I was modelled and taught, MF, but that’s not what I became. Our spiritual journey as humans involves waking up to the part each of us plays in the cultural deceit and deception of our male driven and dominated society.

A few years back, I found myself in a parking lot and in a discussion with church folks on my way to see the movie Brokeback Mountain. It’s about two gay cowboys in the 1960’s in Texas. Well, a little piece of reality hit the fan with these church types. Why would I, a pastor, want to see a movie about two “homos,” who not only break up their marriages, but engage in behaviour which has them bound for hell!

In addition to playing God, these well-meaning folks displayed zero capacity for sensitivity, understanding and acceptance of two human beings, who were forced by their culture into a life of deceit. Why else have gays and lesbians remained in the closet for centuries? These church people were unable to see how cultures like ours force people to live lies out of fear, creating hatred and tragedy for everyone!

The fact is we all live in a culture of deceit, which also extends to religion, education and politics. Richard Drayton, a senior lecturer at Cambridge University put it like this:

Conservatives and neo-Conservatives regard themselves as a strong and wise minority, who see it as their task to rule over the weak majority, by creating a deliberate deception and fear about a liberal agenda, rather than by democratic reason, persuasion or compromise.

MF, can you imagine Henry or Nathanael, or even Jesus, conjuring up military policies called “total spectrum dominance” or “shock and awe”? These are military realities, which the West engages against perceived enemies. MF, have we lost our humanity to the patriarchal definitions of masculinity? Is it any wonder that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been given deceitful spins by our politicians to the electorate?

Closer to home, the majority of Canadians have been disillusioned for decades with broken political promises, half-truths and the outright dishonesty from all parties for mere political gain. Since the pandemic began, for instance, many politicians have violated their own coronavirus rules and have faced no consequences. Meanwhile, ordinary Canadians are fined and punished for trying to live their lives. The hypocrisy of politicians isn’t anything new, but the breeziness of this double standard has shocked and angered many Canadians.

In our personal and collective lives, deceit is the default position we take when we’re afraid we won’t be able to get what we want by being honest; when we’re afraid someone else will get something more than what he or she should, because it’s more than what we get. So yes, self-deception is inevitable in the formation of our egos, and yes, we are born into cultures, which encourage and breed dishonesty.

MF, the fact is this: At some point in our adult lives, it is spiritually imperative that we take responsibility for disentangling ourselves from the deceitful web of lies in which we find ourselves—dishonesties and mendacities which are often of our own making.

On the other hand, to be without deceit, MF, represents radical trust that God loves the human being each of us are at this moment in time, and that we can survive the judgments and reactions of those folks who don’t approve. This is not to say we are the person right now that God intends us to be, and that God might not be calling us to change and evolve. But a necessary conversion and evolution can never occur without us being honest about who we are in the moment.

MF, Christ doesn’t need perfect disciples. By grace we shall grow into wholeness. Christ doesn’t need “good” disciples. By grace we will grow into the image of God within us. Christ doesn’t even need “spiritual” disciples. By grace, his Holy Spirit will transform us—to be sure MF!

But what Christ does look for are disciples in whom there is no deceit. Christ needs us to be authentic. The good news is that it doesn’t take a bullet to the brain for us to be transformed. A simple and honest yes—without deception and deceit on our part—a sincere and straightforward Yes to Christ’s invitation to follow will do. Dare we answer “Yes!” MF?! AMEN

You are my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased. MK 1:11

Dear Friends. Today’s story of Jesus’ Baptism is from Mark, but MT & LK also have similar versions, with a few extras. For instance, unlike MT and MK, LK says that “after Jesus’ baptism, he was at prayer” (3:21). For Luke, prayer is as natural as the air we breathe. Why? Because Jesus knows that prayer makes things happen. Prayer opens us up to the very presence of God and to power of the HS. Prayer for Jesus was simply connecting all life and living in the unity which God always intended from the beginning.

All three evangelists, MT, MK and LK, also agree that, “Jesus saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and alighting on him.” So, here’s where we get the image of the HS as a dove, MF. Even before the formation of the church, the dove had become the primary Christian symbol or image of the HS. In fact, the Celts spoke of the HS as a “Wild Goose.” And you may know that some Christians take this dove symbol quite literally. A church in Europe claims to have a feather of the HS in its relic box. That’s what comes from a literalism that misses the real message in the symbolic image.

There’s also agreement by all 3 evangelists as to Jesus’ real identity: “You are my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased.” But, more than anything else in this event, we need to understand that the baptism of Jesus is his spiritual transformation (2x). Jesus now completely and finally understands who he is and what his heavenly Father expects of him in terms of his sonship.

For Jesus, sonship is a personal relationship with God which involves dependency, intimacy and trust—all of which are absolutely and categorically central to Jesus as the unique Son of God. Only within this intimate relationship can the true identity of God as Father be actually passed on to and received by Jesus, as Son. That’s why: Who the Father is, the Son becomes. 2x

Remember the discourse in John’s Gospel 14:8-9, between the disciples and Jesus, where Philip says: Show us the Father and we will believe! Jesus response: Have you been with me so long that you still don’t know that whoever has seen me, has also seen the Father?

MF, for Jesus, discipleship is another word for Sonship & Daughterhood. Why? Because those who cannot be sons, cannot be brothers, and therefore cannot become fathers. Likewise, those who cannot be daughters, cannot be sisters, and therefore cannot become mothers. In other words, if we want to follow Jesus, then discipleship comes first, and discipleship means that we are willing to be taught and trained, willing to listen and learn how to be a son or how to be a daughter.

And that means how to act like one, by being good and faithful, honest and humble, truthful and trusting, giving and forgiving. Parishes filled with such sons & daughters are spiritually healthy.

But, there are churches where, instead of an attitude of honesty and humility, what rules and reigns is arrogance and intimidation, self-importance and superiority—sometimes by clergy, sometimes by laity, and often by both. Too many churches are simply a battleground where sonship and daughterhood, service and servitude, teaching and learning, have long been lost. When you know everything and you’re always right, then there’s nothing left to learn. Such churches not only have little community, little family cohesiveness, but they also have little spiritual practice and even less transformation.

Sonship is the mark of Jesus’ identity at the time of his baptism. It’s an identity which he learned and earned, and it is what he models for you and me—for we are his sisters and brothers, and children of the same heavenly Father with him. This is what every church needs to do: to model what it means to be a disciple and follower, a son and daughter, who is willing to listen and learn, before they can be a father or mother, a teacher or model. Jesus lets his Father teach him and so he grows in obedience and in wisdom!

That’s why Jesus also calls us to do exactly what the Zen masters call their students to do: become children, become sons and daughters, before they can become parents and masters.

That’s also why one of Jesus’ favourite visual aids was always a child. Every time the disciples got into head games, Jesus put a child in front of them, and said that only people who can recognize and be ready for what he’s talking about are the ones who come with the mind of a child who is ready to learn and be taught.

That’s why spirituality is about listening and learning, being taught and trained. Spirituality is about becoming wise and humble in one’s wisdom. Spirituality is not about earning or achieving, not about power and control over others, not about bigger and best, not even about success and achievement. Spirituality is about relationships, rather than results or requirements. Because once we see and hear, once we listen and learn, then wisdom will follow. You can’t push a river that’s already flowing—a native American proverb.

Tragically, too often the church has lost sight of Jesus’ message about spirituality. For the most part, the church has not tended to create seekers and searchers, who trust that God is always beyond them. Rather, the church has tended to create people who act as if God is in their pocket and so they’ve got all the answers.

EG, over the last 50 years, baptism has become a family-oriented tradition, although nowadays, not so much. You baptize your kids or grandkids because it’s always been done. Baptism is not primarily understood as the opening of the baptized to the Spirit of God, but as tradition, just like confirmation is a tradition, after which pretty much all learning stops, because we’ve graduated.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with traditions. We live in an age when there are precious few traditions to connect us to our roots. But baptism doesn’t take on its full meaning and significance, until and unless, we actually connect this metaphor of the HS descending like a dove upon us, like it did for Jesus, with what we believe and do.

Baptism is our connection to God. We Christians need to realize that our psyche is hard-wired into the spiritual dimension of the universe. We have a built-in desire to connect with God, as the sacred Source of all life and living. In Baptism, the human and divine is not only connected—it’s united. The question is: Do we realize this connected unity and what will we do about it? Will we follow Jesus, become a disciple, a brother and sister to Jesus? And if a sister & brother, will we then become a child of God with him?

MF, if we really open up to God’s Spirit, then the spiritual realm becomes more and more available to us. Our capacity to manifest the Spirit in our lives increases, to the point where, like Jesus, we too come to the spiritual awareness that we are also God’s sons and daughters, in whom God is pleased.

Our baptism actually empowers us to take up Jesus’ ministry: proclaim release to captives, sight to the spiritually blind, accept the unacceptable, have a heart for the left-behinds, and love God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbor as ourselves. We grow in our capacity to speak truth to power when necessary; to return hate with love, violence with peace, and grudges with forgiveness. When we take our baptism seriously, we engage in Jesus’ ministry. Period.

Back in my 2nd parish in London, ON, I once received a phone call from an irate father of a daughter who was a student at Western U and was worshipping at my parish. The father wanted to know what I was preaching Sunday mornings?

“What’s the problem?” I asked. The father then said: “Well, she’s talking about going to Haiti to work in a slum and serve the poor. I’m putting my daughter through university so that she could get a decent job and support herself in the real world. Now, don’t get me wrong, Reverend: I am life-long Lutheran, baptized Lutheran and proud of it.” “You chose to have your daughter baptized?” I asked. “Yes, of course”, the father responded. “Then I’m afraid I cannot take responsibility for your daughter’s decisions,” I concluded.

The point MF is this: The father honestly thought that baptism was just another family ritual. But, a dove landed upon that infant at her baptism, and the rest of her life was to be about living into that baptism. She took her baptism seriously and responded to the HS by, first making things right between her and God, and then decided to help bring justice and equality, life and love for the Haitian poor.

MF, know that you were baptized and be grateful and allow the dove that landed upon you at the time of your Baptism to make a real difference in your life, and perhaps for the first time.

A RC man I once knew, said to his grandson one day: “We didn’t come from a refugee camp to this country penniless, for you to become a priest and beg from the pulpit. You should become a lawyer. They make lots of money!” Like the father in my London story, this man was also irate that his grandson was forfeiting a potentially lucrative financial future to work in God’s Vineyard. But, like the girl who went off to work in the slums of Haiti, the HS was also infused into this infant at the time of his baptism, and so he made a spirit-led decision, with which his grandfather was in strong disagreement.

If you haven’t already guessed, that man was my grandfather who raised me, and that baptism was performed by a Serbian Orthodox priest 2 days after my birth under emergency conditions in a one-room shack. As I hung in the balance between life and death, my mother died 3 days after my birth in that German refugee camp.

Baptism by the HS, MF, has little to do with family traditions and everything to do with the claim which God has on us! And that’s because in baptism, God’s love comes to us in the intimate act of naming us and claiming us, just as God did with Jesus.

You are mine, says God. You are my daughter. You are my son. You are mine and I am yours! Like expectant parents searching for just the right name which will represent the soul of the emerging life, so God knows us this deeply. As God claims us as his own, so we claim this human and divine Love which gave us life for our core identity. Who are we? We are Jesus’ sisters & brothers and therefore, we are God’s daughters and sons, just as Jesus is and will always be. Together with Jesus, we belong to God and God to us. How great and grand is that, MF?

Remember MF, Jesus didn’t begin his ministry until he was named and claimed. At his baptism he receives his power to act in God’s name. He hears what we all long to hear. “You are my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It’s important to keep in mind that Jesus hadn’t told a single parable, healed no one, performed no nature miracles until he was named and claimed by the Voice of Love. At the end of the day Jesus did nothing more or less than pass onto others, what he heard that day: You are my Beloved and so live by the Spirit of Love which created you.

“You are precious in my sight, and I love you” says God.  Finally, the words we long to hear, and sometimes, in unguarded moments we let the meaning of these embracing words touch our loneliness. When we step outside of the pressure cooker that is sometimes our lives—step outside of our daily hectic rush, our workplace anguish, our relationship issues, our financial angst—step outside of our COVID bubbles and, for a change, look out at the starry night sky, and see the larger picture, we might notice that love is always rushing toward us, like a Labrador puppy on a beach; like a streak of unexpected light across the road; in the understanding of a listening friend, or the embrace of hands and arms; or in a healing dream.

When we have eyes to see and hearts to feel, when we are finally ready to hear and see, learn and be taught, when we realize deep down in our bones that we are loved and accepted, unconditionally, for who we are: God’s beloved child in whom God is very pleased.

A movie I once saw, entitled Normal, was based upon the true story of a man who lives in small Mid-Western American town. He’s happily married, a good father, a faithful husband, enjoys a couple of beers with his buddies on Friday evenings. He’s an elder of the local Baptist church, but he’s carrying a dark and terrible secret.

You see, inside, he feels like a woman. So, he experiments by wearing dresses and earrings. But when his wife catches him, he confesses, and so begins his descent into hell. He decides to have a sex-change operation which involves enormous amounts of estrogen. We witness the gradual transformation of his body and his character. His father rejects him. He’s escorted out of a worship service by the very elders he’s served with for years, and his wife has a terrible time accepting what has happened.

One day, he can’t take the rejection and pain anymore. He goes to his father’s barn to take own life. His wife finds him with a gun barrel in his mouth. She walks behind him where he’s seated, wrapping her arms around him. If he pulls the trigger, she goes with him. He drops the gun and she makes a decision to look beyond the surface into the soul of her husband, and love him unconditionally.

Where does this kind of love come from? The source is, none other, than God herself. Genuine love always feels bigger than oneself and beyond one’s will-power. MF, we’re always surprised, if not shocked, when love makes its home in our hearts because we know ourselves hearts only too well. True love is always beyond reason. Love knows things which the mind can never fathom.

Just when we’ve had enough and want to give up on a friend, a spouse, a child, or even oneself, love casts its all-encompassing net. Evil never negates love’s presence, because the greater mystery is that people can endure much evil and still have hearts to love.

Last Page & Last Thought: Jesus did not live in a clerical subculture, like ministers and priests, rabbis and imams are want to do. He did not live apart from ordinary people. He lived with the people, especially the marginalized. MF, I see Jesus and I take what I see personally: meaning–We clergy, rabbis and imams need to regain our true fatherhood and learn how to speak with authority once again and be listened to seriously. Certainly, the male-club of Roman Catholic clericalism has got to go, and the clergy-club of pastors, rabbis and imams must be reformed.

MF, when you read the 4 Gospels, you cannot help but see how comfortable Jesus is living and being a brother to every person he meets, with the exception of the religious people and leaders, whom he called hypocrites. When you walk the journey with Jesus, you cannot help but see how easily he moves among the people, and lives as one of them, and relates to each one as a friend and brother, a son or father. When we’re truly committed to discipleship, we become brothers and sisters to Jesus, and then daughters and sons of God her/himself. That’s our identity given to us by God at our Baptism. There’s nothing greater and grander, MF. Nothing! AMEN.

The Word was in the world, and though God made the world through him, the world did not recognize him. Jn 1:10

So MF, another new year has begun. 2021 is a brand new year. It is the second year, of the third decade, of the third millennium. 2021 provides us with yet another chance to start again. Having said that,

I’m sure you know that predictions and prophesies always abound at the beginning of every New Year. I’m not sure about 2021, but, according to seers and sages, the year 2012 began the fulfilment of ancient Mayan prophecies: namely, that there will be a global trans-formation —a spiritual awakening to our oneness with ‘All That Is’.

The Mayans of Central America predicted major upheavals and dislocations, as businesses, religions, and all manner of cultural institutions and political systems fall and rise with this emerging consciousness. The Mayan’s is not a doomsday kind of prophesy; rather 2012 began a time of transition for the Mayans—from one age of scientific discovery, to an age of spiritual awakening.

With this in mind, this Jan 3rd morning, I want to take you to the movies, which I have not done for a good while. The movie appeared in 2009, won 3 academy awards and made almost 3B$–the most in history at that time. I speak of the blockbuster film, Avatar, which was James Cameron’s attempt to capture the impact of a new planetary, soul-filled, conscious awakening. Cameron developed the storyline over decades, which depicts the culture-clashes between tribal, mythic and scientific worldviews, as each comes to terms, or not, with an understanding that the universe has an inner divine consciousness which connects all living things together.

This consciousness is what Scripture calls Wisdom, in such books as the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiastes. This Wisdom, which is Sacred Wisdom, is the kind of spiritual intelligence displayed by the Magi, who were not Kings, but Wise Men—astronomers who combed the stars for signs of wisdom and understanding, signs of Divine Intelligence and spiritual insight about the universe and which led them to what John in today’s Gospel calls The Logos—the Word, which is Divine Wisdom taking human form in a Holy Child.

Sacred Wisdom comes from God since the beginning of time. Wisdom in the NT is Sophia, is feminine and integral to the identity of God and how she/God made us and the universe. Sacred Wisdom determined cosmic behaviour, which science calls the laws of the universe, and when we follow these laws from Sacred Wisdom, all created life serves the meaning, purpose and direction of God’s Spirit, now made conscious in the world.

As we know MF, planetary creation, ongoing evolution and human relatedness is not always peaceful, or even harmonious. Rather, life is one of creative disequilibrium, where we bring our most authentic, conscious and compassionate self to every encounter. This means that we’re always living on the edge of God’s new createdness, individually through billions of people like you and me, and collectively, through all the spiritual communities around the world.

Which is to say, in simplest terms: God is not only a God of incredible variety and diversity, God is One of change and change is the only constant in the universe God created. Why? Because change is part of God’s nature. Change is integral to God’s very DNA and thus our human DNA, since we’re created in God’s image. And making all this change possible is Wisdom, or Divine Intelligence. The OT calls it Chokma. The NT calls it Sophia. John’s Gospel calls it Logos or Word. In the movie Avatar, Cameron calls it Soul Tree. It’s a tree which communicates the wisdom of the ancestors, something like the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil in Genesis.

Avatar is set on the planet Pandora, foretelling that utter chaos is about to be released from the box. The film features a major culture-clash between the ways of Sacred Wisdom and the ways of Human Foolishness. According to the plot, the natural resources of planet Earth have been pillaged by humans, and so they’ve started to colonize other planets. Jake Sully is a Marine who has lost the use of his legs in battle, and so is offered a new start:

He is to serve his country by infiltrating a local tribe of people called the Navi, meaning the new way. Sully is supposed to gain their trust, to convince them to get out of the way of a mining operation, which is backed by the military. If not, the Navi will be eliminated.

Although the narrative is a tad simplistic in its caricatured portrayals of institutions as totally evil, conversely, who can scan the past ten years and argue that there isn’t an element of truth in this? Think, for example, of the close association between the military, the sale of weapons of destruction, the oil industry and big money.

In the movie, Sacred Wisdom is symbolized by Soul Tree—a humongous tree of life, something like the Tree God planted in the Garden of Eden. The Navi organize their communal life around this Soul Tree, the living roots of which reach deep into the heart of Pandora, forming a vast underground network connecting every life system on the planet. Its branches reach up into the heavens, tapping into the wisdom energy field of their departed ancestors.

Like the Genesis’ tree, Soul Tree is a spiritual expression of a vast field of sacred wisdom which is needed to live in right relationship with a living universe. The military and corporate brass—the bad guys, as my son Karl calls them—they’re portrayed as having absolutely no respect for the Soul Tree and the spiritual ways of the Navi. While this caricature is naïve and polarizing, Cameron means it to describe, in broad strokes, the last 300 years of industrial history.

MF, when the Evangelist John was trying to create a template through which to write about the life of Jesus, he concluded that Jesus was the Logos, the Word, which is the presence of Divine Wisdom in human form. And so, Logos, or Wisdom, became human and lived with us, taking on flesh in the Babe of Bethlehem who became Jesus of Nazareth and then the Christ, the Messiah.

From my viewpoint, James Cameron is attempting to create a wisdom story for our age and for people who may not be able to relate to the biblical wisdom tradition. With the movie Avatar, Cameron made an admirable, if limited attempt, to describe what this new sacred wisdom might look like—limited because there are qualities that perpetuate stereotypes. This film has a tendency to romanticize the indigenous worldview: If only we could return to a pre-modern, pre-scientific, pre-rational planetary perspective, then we would be able to live in harmony with God and nature and all living things.

MF, we now know that tribal peoples did not always live in a state of harmony, neither with the earth or with other tribes. Naturally, they lived closer to the earth than you and I do, and experienced the planet, plants and animals as spiritual, and God as the Great Spirit. That the cosmos/universe, is a living, breathing entity is a spiritual sensibility we scientific folks lost long ago.

There’s a noted Canadian anthropologist and ethno-botanist, Wade Davis by name, who rediscovers long-lost tribal wisdom. What is required, says Davis, is not a pre-modern, cultural tribalism, but an integrated spirituality which includes past and present, body and soul, mind and heart. You may know that Wade Davis came to prominence with his 1985 best-seller, The Serpent and the Rainbow. He publishes popular articles in National Geographic and was the speaker for the 2009 CBC Massey Lectures. His topic: Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world.

MF, the Spirit of God is always moving forward. Sacred Wisdom is a spiritually conscious gathering of tribal wisdom, but also traditional, modernist and postmodernist wisdom. You may remember in previous sermons: I have spoken of a spiritual consciousness, as an integrated wisdom which has been emerging on our planet. This spiritual consciousness is the continued gathering of the wisdom of present and ancient worldviews, which is then applied to technology, medicine, psychology, religion, history and business, in an effort to enhance all life-systems on our planet.

Clearly, James Cameron writes a spiritual story for our time. Other than holy books like the Bible, which is not being read these days, there are few such stories to awaken the soul. Soul-stories have the power to confer spiritual identities, and Avatar is of that genre. Personally, I could not watch Avatar without feeling drawn to expand my identity, from a 21st century consumer to a cosmic citizen, drawn to enhance my human life by letting in more and more of God’s Spirit, and drawn to enlarge my sense of core community, from nuclear biological family to global spiritual community.

This is what it means for me to live in the Kingdom of God, because I think that this is also what Jesus meant. It is Sacred Wisdom for a new decade, which is to say that, for me, Avatar is spiritual story to hope for and even live by.

The central character, Jake Sully, specifically undergoes this kind of identify change. He expands his sense of self, from a wounded marine to an Avatar. As a marine, he gave his life to fight against the enemy, as defined by his superiors. As an Avatar, which is what the people of the Navi tribe are called, he knows and lives by the spiritual connectedness of all living things. This is part of Cameron’s genius that brings to light a forgotten language of ancient wisdom.

By definition, Avatar derives from a Sanskrit word meaning “descent,” and when it first appeared in English in the late 18th century, it referred to the descent of a deity to the earth—typically, the incarnation in earthly form of the Hindu deity, Vishnu or another religious deity. In short, the incarnated one has returned to spiritually liberate the people, much like Jesus who becomes the Christ-figure. We could say that Jake Sully, the Avatar, is the Christ-figure in the movie, who connects and liberates spiritually. Jake undergoes a transformation, from an obedient warrior of the state to a conscious spiritual warrior, who harnesses all of his life energies for the cause of the Spirit. Jake chooses to become, in our language, the fiery presence of Sacred Wisdom, a Christ-figure who liberates spiritually.

The invitation of Sacred Wisdom, or Divine Logos, is to be a spiritual warrior on the side of rebalancing the pathological energies of the planet: rebalancing the masculine with the feminine; rebalancing the short-term perspective of “what’s in it for me,” with “what can I do to ensure a better future for succeeding generations; rebalancing our ego’s instinct to survive with the soul’s need to serve a larger purpose and make a difference; rebalancing the cultural pressure to conform with the desire to uniquely express our creative energies; rebalance the cultural definitions of who we are with an identity that is cosmic in scope.

MF, as you consider this New Year, 2021, and think about Growing in Wisdom, like the Child Jesus, as your New Year’s resolution, consider the following questions:

  1. Are you willing to be a Magi—a Magi on a journey to search for Sacred Wisdom? In the metaphor of the movie, are you willing to be an Avatar of Wisdom, or in the words of Scripture, a Christ-Figure who is spiritually connected and liberated, and who therefore works and prays for the spiritual connectedness and liberation of all living things?
  2. Are you willing to visit your Soul Tree, your God-given inner Tree of Spiritual Knowledge and tap into the field of Divine Intelligence which flows through your veins?
  3. Is your life expansive enough to evoke and awaken the energies of the God-given soul within you? Can you connect your intelligence and knowledge to the Sacred Wisdom inside you?

Sacred Wisdom to you my dear friends; but also the infinite riches of the Spirit, as you journey with Christ into this new year. AMEN

2020

The Child grew and became strong. He was full of wisdom and God’s blessings were upon him. Lk 2:40 (check vs 52)

Dear Friends! As I read this last verse 40…. The child grew and became strong and was full of wisdom … I thought: Wouldn’t this be a great & grand new year’s resolution? …  to grow in wisdom!

Now, if we read beyond verse it’s the all too familiar account of Jesus being left behind in Jerusalem. Mary & Joseph are a day’s journey out of Jerusalem, heading home to Nazareth after a festival, when it hits them: It’s awfully quiet! We forgot the kid! So, back they go—probably on foot. After all, the donkey that carried Mary the 80 kms from Nazareth to Bethlehem 12 years earlier, well, the poor pack-animal is getting very long in the tooth by now.

So they hurry back to Jerusalem, and when they finally find their 12-yr-old, Jesus is discussing the finer points of Jewish theology with the learned rabbis in the Temple. Lk 2:52 ends this singular anecdote, saying: Jesus “grew in wisdom and divine favor.

Verse 40: The Child grew full of wisdom. And verse 52: Jesus grew in wisdom. MF, two great & grand verses that make for a perfect New Year’s resolution: To grow in wisdom in the coming year!

That Christian curmudgeon, H.L. Menken of the last century once said: “No matter how long we men live, no man will ever be filled with wisdom as the average woman of 48.” He was a confirmed bachelor. MF, we can be knowledgeable with other people’s knowledge, but we can never be wise with other people’s wisdom. Why? Because wisdom, MF, is never about accumulating knowledge, much less facts or trivia. The game Trivial Pursuit has nothing to do with Wisdom. You can have multiple PhD’s and still be lacking in wisdom. Wisdom isn’t about what you know:

Wisdom is being able to see beyond facts and figures and apply what you know to life and living and do it well. MF, one of the most difficult lessons for us to learn is that knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Becoming “full” of all the information in the world, like a computer, does not accumulate into wisdom. Wisdom is not the gathering of more facts and figures, more information and communication, as if that would eventually coalesce into truth. Nothing new—no perspective, no experience, not even love itself can come to us when we are so full of ourselves, our agendas and our viewpoints.

That’s why wisdom only begins when we empty ourselves of ourselves, our agendas and our hardened viewpoints—that we’ve got the unvarnished truth with a capital T. That’s why wisdom is a different kind of seeing and knowing, MF. It’s a spiritual seeing and knowing which is only attained through our own self-emptying—just like Jesus did, who emptied himself of his own wants, demands and ego struggles, which he did whenever he was in prayer.

Wisdom only comes at the end of such self-emptying. Wisdom only comes when we practice detachment, which is letting go of all that hinders our spiritual transformation. Wisdom comes by opening the doors and windows to our soul and letting the splendor of God’s Spirit come in, so that we can be present to God and to ourselves. Only when we’re present to God and ourselves does wisdom begin—the wisdom to know how to see fully and rightly and truthfully.

Well MF, let me return to the title of this sermon: If our New Year’s resolution is to grow in wisdom, just like Jesus did, what would that wisdom look like? Let me answer that by turning “Wisdom” into an acronym.

Wisdom: W i s d o m and so W is the first letter and it stands for ?? Wonder, and wonder is that kind of wisdom which involves the spirituality of awe, and awe is that feeling of deep wonder and respect for overpowering grandeur. The spirituality of awe or wonder forms the very basis of every authentic spirituality.

Authentic spirituality MF is one which does not harden us into an ideology of right beliefs and correct doctrine, as if that’s what our salvation depends upon. For you and me to grow spiritually in wisdom means that we increase our capacity to be amazed by the life God gives us and the world. Wisdom is not about intellectual comprehension. Wisdom is spiritual apprehension – and apprehension is the capacity to be captured spiritually by the teeming miracle of life and life’s mysteries in this universe.

13th century Persian Sufism, a mystical expression of Islam says: The universe is divinity slowly growing a body. Or as Isaiah, 20 centuries earlier, wrote: The whole earth is full of God’s glory. Isaiah realized that the whole earth was shot through and through with the Spirit of God. That’s why he awakened to awe and wonder.

The Christian life, MF, is not, first and foremost, about believing the right things and holding the right doctrines. The spiritual life is about being transformed by the wonder of the life God gives us. The loss of wonder in our modern age has, in large part, led directly to the ecological disaster currently underway on the planet. Nowadays, everything and everybody is valued only according their economic utility and financial service. By making everything a consumer commodity, which is idolatry, MF we have lost the capacity for awe. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, leading American Jewish Rabbi of the last century, was absolutely right: “Forfeit awe and the world is reduced to a marketplace.”

The next two letters, I and S, stand for Intelligent Spirituality. To grow in Wisdom is to develop an intelligent spirituality. Notice that these two words belong together: an intelligence that is not spiritual has no divine direction or purpose; while spirituality without intellect makes no sense—in fact is open to non-sense. In my experience, an Intelligent Spirituality consists of the following 3 basics:

 

  1. An intelligent spirituality is in a continual state of development and evolution. No single religion contains all truth with a capital T, and that includes Christianity. The eminent 19th century German dramatist, Gotthold Lessing in his volume, Against Idolatry wrote:

If God should hold all truth in his right hand, and in his left hand hold only our human erring pursuit of truth, I would humbly turn to God and say: Father, give me what’s in your left hand, for Pure Absolute Truth belongs to thee alone.

MF, You and I live in an evolving universe, and therefore truth, whether it be scientific, mathematical, historical or even religious truth, also changes and evolves over time. Take biblical science as just one illustration. The science in the Bible believes that the world is flat, that it’s the centre of the universe and that the sun revolves around the earth. That’s why God and the angels live above the earth and Satan dwells below. Religion, like science, mathematics and all disciples, eventually evolve into higher learning.

That’s why any religion or spiritual system that claims to be the exclusive repository of a timeless and unchanging truth is not only dangerous! It is sheer arrogance and idolatry. Period.

We see this in every radical form of religion, whether Islam, Judaism or Christian. Intelligent Spirituality is always open to new informa-tion and knowledge, new truths and insight. I.S. never shuts down new understanding, nor shuts out new and different people.

 

  1. 2. An S. always celebrates the Spirit. And because the Spirit is inside everything, there is a radical interconnectedness to all levels of reality. We are connected physiologically, biologically and spiritually to everything in the universe. There are differences, of course, but no absolute disconnection anywhere. This is the basis of our commitment to justice for the outcasts and marginalized of society, as well as even-handedness for plants, trees and animals. We are all kin. We are all related MF. The realization of our radical inter-connectedness means major shifts in our ethic, from “me” to “us” and finally to “all of us in the world.”
  2. 3. S. also recognizes Mother Earth and all her creatures as teachers. Mother Earth is a teacher¸ if we have the wisdom to learn from her. Our attitude towards Earth and all things living—animal and vegetable alike—our attitude should be one of profound humility—not superiority. Why? Because Mother Earth and all her creatures were here billions of years before us homo sapiens.

MF, did you know that 70% of all religious faith on earth often stops at a very early level of spiritual development? For Christians in the church, spiritual growth usually stops after confirmation. Too often growth is stuck at a level where believers imagine that it’s us vs a hostile world. So, we’ll fight the world to hold onto our beliefs.

For instance, the old belief that the Jews were guilty in the execution of Jesus, resulted in the church in the middle ages, including Luther’s time, going out after Good Friday services and hanging Jews. Or, the old belief that homosexuals must pay for their sins, and so, after the church excommunicated them, they were murdered, burned and hung. In fact, there are quarters of the world where this is still being done and in the name of God. True Wisdom always regards all life as sacred, no matter our creed or colour.

The next letter in the word Wisdom is the letter D, which stands for Developmental. The universe evolves in a developing reality. This new information still needs to be incorporated in most religious systems, including Christianity. Too many Christians still believe that everything was just plopped down by God in the beginning— all in 6 – 24 hour time periods—material, life, mind, heavenly bodies, angels, soul/spirit, even Satan—that these realities exist in an ascending order of value and our goal at the end of this life is to rise above the material and ascend to the realm of the soul/the spirit.

But with Galileo in the 17th C and Darwin in the 19th and their study of the solar system and evolution, we now know that it wasn’t all just set down at the beginning, and that nothing new has ever happened since. Matter is not the lowest rung on the ladder of existence, MF. In fact, matter and material is the exterior dimension of the inner Spirit, which is to say: That’s precisely why God who is Spirit became one of us, became flesh and blood. Like everything else living, we humans are meant to evolve, especially spiritually.

The next letter in Wisdom is O, for One Earth Community. Wisdom spirituality is part of all the people in the world. There is only one community of life and we are meant to be members of this community, not rulers.

MF, I’m convinced that we humans are integral living parts of the earth as a single living organism. Science informs us that Mother Earth has been at work for 5 billion years regulating the atmosphere in order to sustain life on the planet. For example: Although the sun is 25% hotter than it was when the earth was formed, the temperature on earth’s surface has remained constant—otherwise all life on earth would have come to an end, long ago. But, the capacity of Mother Earth to self-regulate is being sorely tested at this point in human history. Our carbon emissions trap heat that is warming the planet up beyond what can sustain life.

In a recent PBS program, a scientist said that by 2030, the planet may reach a point of no-return with respect to carbon emissions affecting climate change. Meaning—after 2030, the world will heat up at an alarming rate, polar ice caps will melt, oceans will rise, and hurricanes will multiplied exponentially. Lastly, while politicians agree that global warming is real, there needs to be genuine concerted global effort to effect change, beyond mere signatures to the Paris Climate Accords of 2015.

MF, we don’t just live “on” the earth. We “are” the earth in a self-conscious form called human being. We are the earth incarnate, just like Jesus is God incarnate. Wisdom Spirituality requires that we reconnect with earth—take our place as members of one global community of the earth, and then become actively involved in the repair of the earth. This is what numerous theologians have called The Great Work of the 21st Century.

The final letter in the word Wisdom is M is for Memory. We humans are a forgetful lot and the list of what we’ve forgotten includes all of what I’ve been talking about. Our native, indigenous people helped themselves remember, over centuries, by teaching their children stories of their past. The details of these stories would never stand up to scientific scrutiny, but what they pointed to is undeniable: At the heart of the universe is a loving, compassionate Spirit whose desire is to be manifest in each and every living thing and creature.

For us to grow in wisdom MF means that we Christians inhabit the sacred stories of Scripture, including that of the Christ Child, to remind us of our essential identity as a Child of God—a daughter and son of God. The first step is Biblical literacy – to study the Bible, then learn the story and finally apply the story to our own lives!

In this coming New Year Anno Domini 2021, it is my fervent hope and prayer, as well as Sherry’s—that each and every one of us be awaken to awe and wonder, evolve toward an intelligent spirituality, consciously engage our human journey into a spiritual and Spirit-filled journey, reconnect with the one earth community and work toward its healing, that we also remember our sacred stories – of creation and cosmos, of the love of Jesus and God in your life and mine. Next year at this time may it also be said of us, what Luke said of Jesus – that we grew in wisdom and divine favour. AMEN

Dear Friends. Well it’s finally Christmas Eve, perhaps the most magical night of the year. No matter how faded or jaded we may be, Christmas always seems to work its enduring enchantment. No matter what the crisis or calamity, Christmas always seems to wave a wondrous wand over the world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful—at least for one night. To hear the story of the birth of the Christ Child and to worship him—that’s what tonight is about—at least for starters.

Tonight is a night which fills us with joy—that Jesus is born—that we are loved by a Child who is both beyond us and in us. This evening evokes wonderful feelings, when family members come from far and wide. But truth be told, this evening may also be a monumental disappointment. Why? Because this Christmas is not what we expected—not by a long shot—given the provincial lockdown and Zion’s lockup, after tonight.

This very night may also give way to feelings of extraordinary grief, if a loved one has contracted COVID—fear of being hospitalized—fear of dying. Or, the grief we feel if Christmas is the anniversary of a family death, as it is for so many folks I’ve known over the decades. As Bertrand Russell once said: The last thing a man wants to do, especially at Christmas, is indeed the last thing he does: Die. And then, tongue in cheek, adds: Most people would rather die, than think. And most do!

Now, the good news is that tonight’s preacher has you in mind. Now, that may have you worried and rightly so. There are a lot of church folks who don’t associate with the pastor during the week, because they don’t want to be in the sermon at the end week. But here we are together, MF, on this one sacred night of all nights to worship the Christ Child and to do it together, because together is what it means to be Christian. A Christian isn’t a solo trip around the world or barricading yourself at home. COVID notwithstanding.

In an oped I once wrote during my 7 years with the Toronto Star, the Christmas Eve sermon is one of the most difficult to write and deliver, given the expectations of worshippers on this holy night—expectations no one pastor could ever meet. Underneath our glossy suburban surfaces, underneath the colorful blazers and cozy winter coats, behind the ho-ho-hos and the lingering taste of eggnog and schnapps, there is a very human spirit, MF, a God-given soul, which is yearning to hear a message of new beginnings, restored relationships and hope-filled futures.

So, whatever your particular circumstances, MF, this preacher is in solidarity with you. After all, I’m a person just like you. I too have experienced joy and pain, the exuberant thrills and the bitter disappointments of this life—temporary as it is, which of course is precisely what old Ebenezer Scrooge was so afraid of, when he promised the last ghost to keep Christmas in his heart. And as we know, he was better than his word. And that, MF, is the Good News of Christmas. Christmas can change every heart, including old geezers and Ebeneezers.

Ah yes! The magic and mystery of Christmas MF. Remember the scene from the Nutcracker, where the scary mice are defeated, and the little boy and girl, holding hands, begin their mysterious journey through the enchanted forest, unafraid, the phantoms and monsters banished, led by a luminous star into a kingdom of radiant delight, where men treat women like precious jewels, where every child has a fairy godmother, who makes dreams come true, and when you really love someone, your kiss turns them into a Princess or a Knight in Shining Armour—and does so forever.

Or remember The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis? Lucy, Edward, Susan and Peter enter the world through a magical wardrobe to discover a land of talking beasts, dwarfs, fauns and centaurs. Remember how that world of Narnia became cursed to eternal winter by the evil witch. But, under the guidance of a noble ruler, the magnificent lion, Aslan, the children fight to overcome the Witch’s powerful hold over Narnia in a final epic battle. The lion of course is none other than the Christ-figure and the children are—you and me—followers of Jesus.

Or remember the charmed film, “Prancer” about a reindeer which a little girl believes belongs to Santa? She nurses him back to health in time to join Santa on Xmas Eve. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa, and he is us.

MF, did you know that for 300 years after Jesus birth, there was no such thing as Christmas? Not until 313 AD, when Roman Emperor Constantine turned Christianity into the state religion, that Christmas celebrations finally began. But it wasn’t until the 13thC—1000 years later—

that a very humble fellow—St Francis of Assisi by name–popularized what we now take for granted. You know Francis as the name of the current Pope, but St Francis is primarily known as the patron saint of animals, defending their humane treatment and protecting their right to life.

As a priest, Francis abandoned a life of luxury, lived in poverty to associate with the poor and vulnerable, as well as be compassionate to all animals, especially the injured ones. Sherry & I have a statue of St Francis in our backyard, his hands holding a bowl in which we put bird seed. We’ve also visited The Cathedral of St Francis in the city of Assisi, Italy, as well as Francis’ tomb, in the catacombs of that same cathedral.

With his love of animals, Francis created a living nativity scene, with real animals and people representing the nativity characters, all inside a genuine stall. Francis popularized Christmas as never before. Why? Because he understood, as no one before, that we didn’t have to wait for Good Friday, in order for Jesus to “solve the problem of sin.”

The problem was already solved, said Francis, when God became one of us—a human being, born into poverty in a stall. As the last verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem says: “Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.” The Incarnation of God into one of us—is already salvation—is already redemption, because in Jesus’ birth, God is saying: It is good to be human. It is good to be flesh & blood, with emotions to celebrate Christmas, said Francis.

From that point of view, St Francis just went absolutely bonkers over Christmas, as Sherry & I also do. Our Guildwood house is filled with over 50 candles and incense. Our real Christmas tree has genuine candles on it—24 red ones, burning brightly on its bows! In fact, Francis believed that each tree should be decorated to show its true status as one of God’s most beautiful creations, which is what we all do, now 800 years later.

Btw, do you know how many trees there are in the world? Over 3 trillion. That’s 3 plus 12 zeros—over 3 trillion trees, all sending out life-giving oxygen and beautifying Mother Earth, just as God always intended.

Well MF, Christmas isn’t always something literal and physical like trees & stables. We like to think of Christmas as magical. It’s what our dreams are made of. On the other hand, we’re so very conditioned to believe that magic is what we’ll get. So, as we dash through the dough, the illusion of magic puts billions of dollars in motion every holiday—as we give the media & advertisers permission to let us pretend—even just for one day—that there really is such a thing as dreams come true and peace on earth.

And yet, MF, where is the Good News when we look at the devastation wrought from today’s global pandemic—over 14,700 dead in Canada and almost 2 million world-wide. Yes, Santa’s on his way with a COVID vaccine, but it’s still months before it can be administered to all Canadians. Where’s the good news when we consider the monster wildfires in BC, CA and Australia, the ruinous hurricanes and tornadoes in NA, and the crushing famine and devastating drought in Africa?

Where is the Good News when violence and war continue to rein death upon fellow humans, many of whom suffer high levels of poverty? We see them on TV, all the time—but do we let them touch us, MF?

Yes, we can send Christmas cards about peace on earth, but that won’t make peace happen. We can say we’re against war, but our actions often give us away, when we don’t love our neighbours, nor help alleviate suffering around the world, especially among the 80 million global refugees.

The fact is, MF, this world will never be able to deliver Christmas to you, as you may want or even need it. Neither can I.  Only you can make Christmas happen! Otherwise, it won’t happen! That’s because Christmas is more than just an historical event, 2000 years ago in a dingy, backyard stable. Into this dark and dangerous world, the Christ Child comes to you, wanting to make his home in your heart. But only you can let him in. Only you can allow him to inform & transform your life. Only you can make Christmas happen. Otherwise, it won’t happen.

Jesus only needed to be born once to share our life in a way that staggers our human imagination. Jesus doesn’t just hold out a bouquet of roses for us. He enters our mortal life in all its negative dimensions of breakup & breakdown, hurt & pain, rejection & abandonment. MF, it takes bloody courage to admit our human needs; but even more bravery to admit that we’re really loved, and not just tonight, but our whole life long. The Christ Child is the incarnation of God’s love for us, with us and within us!

Which is also to say, MF, Christmas is much more than something long ago and far away. Jesus’ birth is just the beginning. We all need to move beyond a merely sentimental understanding of Christmas as “waiting for the baby Jesus.” We do the Gospel no favor when we make Jesus into a perpetual baby, who asks little or nothing from us.

Any spirituality that makes too much of the baby Jesus is not yet ready for prime-time Christianity. God wants mature religion and a thoughtful, free response from us. God loves partnership with us in a mutual give and take, so that we ourselves become the Christ Child we love.

We must all move to a mature, adult expectation that Christmas is a spiritual transformation within us! If our future is going to be Christ-shaped, filled with justice, peace, and compassion, then it will only be, because you have chosen to let Jesus into your life, so that he can shine from your heart and soul—mine too!

Well MF, after 40 years as a pastor and 4,000 plus sermons later—and that’s a lot of sermons—but let me tell you what matters most in life. It’s not our status, but our trajectory; not where we are, but where we’re going; not where we stand, but where we’re headed; not even what we believe, but how we believe; not if we go to church, but if we are the church; not how many gifts we get, but how we receive them. At its best, Christmas leads us forward to spiritual growth and transformation. But at its worst, Christmas keeps us chained to the past.

Too often we’ve allowed Christmas to lock us into the past, rather than move us forward. Too often we’ve allowed Christmas to keep us from constructive change and spiritual transformation. Instead of spiritual wisdom and guidance, too many folks only want a big dose of nostalgia for the lost golden age of the good old days. And that may well be a gross understatement. Because this happens not only in Christianity, but also in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and many other religions. Is it any surprise that modern folks by the tens of millions are leaving organized religion, and moving into atheism, secularism, as well as experimental forms of private religion?

What we so desperately need is spiritual growth and transformation—that we give spiritual birth to Christ Child—to bring him into the world, or as Luther liked to say: We become little Christs to the world. But even spiritual birth involves an ongoing commitment to growth and discomfort, to love and surrender. This kind of Christmas isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is God’s invitation to us and the world tonight. Our task is to give spiritual birth to the Christ Child and Mother Mary is our paradigm for doing just that.

From Mary we get the pattern: Let the Christ Child take root in our hearts and lives, that we become a fit cradle to receive the Child, to allow him to transform us, so that he can be born into this world, when you & I become little Christs for this world. Christmas, MF, was never meant to be a one-night stand. Giving birth to the Christ Child is always a process. Christmas is never automatic.

The birth began with Mary, but tonight, MF, each of us is asked to make our own contribution to putting flesh to faith in the world and for this world of ours.

If Christmas is to mean anything to us, we must incarnate Christ in our own lives, clothe our lives with him, so that people can see him in us, touch him in us, recognize him in us. And we must do exactly that, beginning tonight. Because if it’s not tonight, then when? How long can we put off Christmas, that the Child is inside us, waiting to come out and be seen in you and me?

That’s why we must finally begin to love one another, as Jesus commanded. We must finally begin to care for one another—especially for the least of our sisters and brothers in our human family–those who cannot even take refuge in a stable. The immense problems of war, social injustice, the million and one ills which beset our world, these can be solved only if we love one another. That love starts tonight. When people begin to see, love and reverence Christ in the eyes of another, then we will all be transformed, society will be transformed and so will this world finally be transformed.

Last Page! Finally, eh? MF, we are all meant to give birth to the Christ Child. To incarnate the Christ is to live out the Gospel with our lives, as faithfully and fearlessly as a woman in labor who holds nothing back in order to bring new life into the world.

If we want Christmas to be real, then we too must hold nothing back in bringing Christ into this world. We’ve heard the story of Jesus’ birth, long ago and far away, only to discover that his birth must be within us in order for Christmas to happen and happen tonight, which is what we’ve been waiting for all December long. A birth—centuries ago—takes place tonight. Instead of a feeding trough, tonight our hearts become his cradle, our lives become his home, and our souls become his spirit.

How great & grand is that? MF, I can think of nothing greater and nothing grander! AMEN.

Dear Friends. Since Sherry & I have maintained a high degree of isolation during this second wave of COVID, I’ve spent more time reminiscing and remembering past Advents and Christmases. A few years back, we went to see The Christmas Story at Church of the Holy Trinity, one of the oldest Anglican churches in the heart of Toronto, located on the same block as the Eaton’s Centre. This Nativity Pageant has been running at Holy Trinity for 83 years now and is performed entirely by a volunteer cast, with a professional choir and organist. Some of the adults in the pageant had their first role as a tiny Shepherd child and even as Baby Jesus. Because of the pandemic, there are no live presentations this year. Instead, the pageant is in film version and also live streamed, having begun Dec 11.

The live pageant, which Sherry & I saw, was great and grand. Susan Watson has been its director over the past 20 years. The story line was written by a gal in England over 100 years ago and is the combination of the two birth accounts from MT & LK. For the average participant, the melding of the two gospel stories was seamless, but for my trained eye, as well as Sherry’s, who also holds a MDiv from the RC college of St Regis—the weaving together of the birth accounts into one story was not achieved without difficulty.

The truth is the two birth versions in MT & LK agree on only four facts: Mary conceives by the HS; she’s married to Joseph; the name Jesus is given by an angel; and the birth takes place in Bethlehem.

On the other hand, the shepherds and the manger scene appear only in LK, whereas the Magi and the Star are found only in MT, meaning the Shepherds never met the Magi at the manger. The Magi came months later and found Jesus in a house. According to LK, Mary & Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to take part in Cesar Augustus’ census, but in MT’s version, Mary & Joseph are residents of Bethlehem and live in a house which the Magi enter to find Jesus, no longer a Baby, but a child. In MT, the Holy Family escape to Egypt from King Herod’s murdering hand, but in LK, the little Family returns straightaway to Nazareth, as the Law of the Lord required, with no mention of Egypt whatsoever.

In my theological judgment, the 2 accounts were never meant to be melded into one story, which of course is what we Christians have done for centuries. I believe this: The spiritual truth of Christmas does not lie in historical facts, however important they are. The spiritual truth of Christmas lives in our hearts, in the depth of our being. And that’s the only place Christmas can ever live, if the birth of the Christ-Child is to have any relevance and meaning to us, our society and world today.

But I also believe this: The way to read the spiritual literature of the 2 birth stories is to understand that all of the characters and images, indeed the very plot, is alive within each one of us. In other words, the Christmas Story is a pageant of the heart, in which all the characters are archetypal figures who live inside us. The drama of Christmas needs to be an internal one that takes place within us. If not, then Christmas is only a story from the past, however, true, delightful and humble it is. So, let me try to bring the characters of the Christmas story alive for you and applicable to you, on this last Sunday in Advent.

Shepherds: In the Bible, shepherd is not only an occupation, shepherd is also an esteemed metaphor. Shepherds were considered to be leaders. King David worked as a shepherd, and then utilized those skills to lead his nation. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, willing to lay down his life for his flock. He tells the parable of the shepherd who loves each sheep uniquely and is willing to leave the 99 to find the one that is lost.

So MF: Can you locate your inner shepherd? Who are the sheep given into your care? How are you doing with your vocation of shepherding? Are you defending them from harm? More importantly, are you leading them to greater spiritual awareness and transformation? We all need to access our inner shepherd. We need leaders filled with love for humanity, Mother Earth and all her creatures. We need leaders and prophets who are not afraid to tell the truth for the sake of the truth and do it in love.

Magi: MF, the Magi are not kings, in spite of a century of singing, We Three Kings of Orient are. The Magi are wise men who are modern-day astronomers and therefore understand that the whole universe is filled with spirit and meaning and purpose. For those with eyes to see and hearts to feel, the stars tell a sacred story of Divine Intelligence which brings love to the world.

Tragically, modernism and scientific rationalism emptied the cosmos of spiritual meaning and purpose long ago, leaving us human beings isolated in an impossibly huge and ever-expanding universe where there is only random selection and coincidence.

MF, there is a Magi within you and me, and that wise and divine being knows different. If you’re in touch with the Magi within you, you know the stars are your ancestors as they gave birth to the elements which make up our body and all things living. You & I have a place of inner wisdom that can trace patterns of meaning and direction in their glimmering. That a star should conspire in lighting up the story of a sacred birth 2,000 years ago, does not surprise us. That’s because the Magi within us enjoy an ancient spiritual wisdom which understands that the entire universe is the very face of God.

The Magi within us is also willing to travel across every religious and cultural boundary to pay homage to that which is sacred—even in other faith traditions. The Magi in the story of Christ’s birth were not Jews. They were Persians. They did not travel to Bethlehem to be converted to Judaism or Christianity. They traveled to pay homage to the sacred wherever they found it, and in this case, they discovered divinity in a little hick town, Bethlehem, population 80.

MF, contrast this with the Southern Baptists in the US and their journey to Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. These Southern Baptists went to Iraq, not to pay homage to that which is sacred among Moslems, but to complete the cultural marauding that President Bush had begun, with their own religious plundering.

They went, not with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but with religious tracts and intentions to convert a vulnerable and defeated nation. Is it any wonder that fundamentalist branches of Islam are in a holy war with the West and Christianity in particular?

MF, our inner Magi leads us on a journey to the place wherever the sacred is always being born. That’s why we can look at the world and see an enchanted universe, and so we practice the spiritual discipline of wonder and awe. Like the story of Christ’s birth, we refuse to cooperate with the forces of death and destruction.

MF, are you and I connected to our inner Magi—to the Sacred Wisdom God planted within us? Or is it a disconnect, because somehow we know better? Do we act and behave as if our human intelligence is superior to God’s Sacred Wisdom?

King Herod is our next character. MF, it is imperative that we identify the negative Herod energies within us. This part of us is frightened by all that is sacred and holy, because it threatens the ego-control we have over our own life and the lives of others. Security and status reign for this archetype. King Herod is threatened to the core by the prophesy of the birth of another king. All he hears is “opposition” and “overthrow.” His response? … Terrifying brutal violence—butchering male Jewish children two years and under.

MF, I believe this: The killing of the “sacred masculine”—men and boys—continues in our culture to this day. Men and boys, fathers and sons, are turning their backs on spirituality en masse. Why? Because the sacred almost always threatens men and males. Why? Because the sacred and spiritual, the transcendent and divine, always require qualities that we men have been socialized against for generations: qualities such as vulnerability, authenticity, humility, softness, deep feelings, intimacy, connectedness and many more.

And all these qualities MF have been replaced by?? work24/7, replaced by the all-consuming religion of consumption, replaced by entertainment and particularly sports, and replaced by rights to do what we want, when we want—to which our society is enslaved. The male obsession with mastery has replaced the love of mystery.

Our inner Herod is terrified of what we might have to give up, if we submit to the Kingdom of God values and spiritual priorities. MF, the moment any one of us seriously considers listening to the voice of our soul, our inner Herod will emerge. No question about it! We will begin to imagine all that we will be forced to give up – our security, our money, our lifestyle, our positions of authority and control. But God doesn’t want anything from us that we don’t want to give freely – all that is asked is that we open our hearts and soul.

MF, we desperately need to read the Christmas story for ourselves, again, for the first time, in perhaps a very long time. We need to get ourselves to the stable and do what comes naturally when we’re face to face with the Divine Mystery of the Universe: MF, we need to drop to our knees and give thanks. For the ego, the journey to our knees is always a lifetime. But remember, we are not our ego. Like the Magi, we can subvert the death project of Herod and choose to return home to God, by another route, which is what the Magi did.

Mary: Each one of us is a Mary. Each one of us is the mother of Jesus—meaning, when we consent to be a vessel of God’s HS, we are open and willing to giving birth to God’s will for our lives. Clearly we don’t give literal birth to Jesus. Mary already did that 2,000 yrs ago. But if we can say “Yes” with Mary, we will then be centers of divine creativity. I don’t mean that we will all start painting or writing poetry or playing music, although we may tap into these gifts, as Jill has.

What I mean, MF, is that we will see ourselves as agents of God’s intentions. Like Mary, we may resist at first. Who are we, after all, to give birth to divine purposes? Mary was merely a peasant girl, a “nobody” in the world. But her willingness to freely submit to God’s intentions, opened her heart and she recognized her inner worth.

MF, we all have women and men from within our families or our circle of friends, or from our years of membership here at Zion, or from our work colleagues—we all have folks who are modest illustrations of Mary’s humble willingness: “Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”

Joseph is our next character. In MT Gospel, Joseph is asked to transcend mere human decency and, like his betrothed Mary, to trust that he also has a role in God’s divine purposes. Religion for him becomes much more than being a morally good and decent person. God needs Joseph to trust God—that, like Mary, he is also drawing all creation towards God.

MF, Joseph is more than a decent man. Mary is found pregnant and Joseph of course thinks it’s by another man and so he decides to “quietly dismiss her,” meaning, he allows her to privately break their nuptial agreement without the tremendous embarrassment and legal implications to her of going public. But God wants Joseph to be more than respectable and reasonable. God wants Joseph to be?? humble—to accept and participate in God’s new truth. Our inner Joseph is the perfect foil for our inner Herod. Herod thinks he’s the greatest. But he lacks goodness. Joseph is already good; but is invited to also be humble and spiritually wise.

Last and most importantly MF, you and I carry within us the Christ Child. Luther called it “being a little Christ.” I refer to it as preparing our hearts to be his cradle. Each one of us is a divine offering, the Promise of God made flesh. Your life and mine is about making good on that promise—not through an effort of our will, but by being our deepest self – a radiant manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Our divine inner child knows we need to be an offering to the world, that, like Jesus, our brother, we too must be about our Father’s business.

Last Page. So MF, can we allow our hearts to become the cradle of the Divine Child? Can we allow the little Christ within us to really shine on behalf of God’s Kingdom? Can we give birth to the Christ Child within us and thereby transform ourselves and then others?

MF, I can’t answer that question for you. Only you can answer it for yourself. Not to answer is also No. But God not only hopes for a definitive Yes!—even more, God hopes that your Yes translates into action, into actually becoming a little Christ to your neighbour and world, beginning with your own family, and beginning now!

This entire cast of characters in the nativity scene lives within us MF. The Christmas pageant is playing out in your heart and mine and will do so for the rest of our entire lives. One year, a particular character may take center stage. Another year, you may need to connect with a different personality. You may even be asked to become the donkey that carries the Christ Child. I’ve said it more than once: Jesus always comes into this world on an ass. We could be that ass—that donkey. It would be an honor of great humility.

MF, my sincere hope and prayer is that you can reach down deep within yourself and reconnect with the Spirit of the Christ Child for yourself, before you can connect with others. What character is God asking you to be right now? Think about it. Meditate over it. Then, become that person. That’s the Good News for today, MF. God bless you with it this morning! AMEN.

God sent his messenger, a man named John, who came to tell people about the light, so that all should hear the message of hope and believe. Jn 1:6-7

Dear Friends. Advent is a season of longing and yearning. Advent usually begins in the dark with Scripture lessons that are foreboding, even harrowing, and then moves into a time of preparation for the Christ Child. Today’s Gospel from the pen of John introduces another John, this time the Baptist, who brings a message of light and hope to the people, that they believe in Jesus, the Messiah.

Advent is a season of hope, when we worship the God of Hope—hope that things which are not yet, will one day be. And while that’s both true and easy to say, real hope MF, is not easy to come by.

Just ask the indigenous communities across our land—hoping that after centuries, their treaties and land rights finally be recognized, not just by ordinary Canadians, who know right from wrong, but by governments whose legal responsibility it is to do so. Ask the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy Nations in the Maritimes, who in September 1999 were given the right by the Supreme Court of Canada to hunt and fish and gather in order to “earn a moderate livelihood.”

Or ask the mothers of the 1,000 Indigenous young women, who were murdered or went missing over two decades, and nobody cared. Police investigations were said to be perfunctory, because the women came from impoverished reservations and had no one to advocate for them. After all, wealth buys you justice and poverty still only buys you more poverty. Most cases went cold for years. Yes, there was a 5-member, 41-million-dollar inquiry commission by the Trudeau government, but it had no teeth to execute justice, and so the cases are still cold. Btw, there is a 600 km stretch of the Trans-Canada-Highway in northern BC known as “The Highway of Tears,” where 2 dozen young indigenous women have disappeared or been murdered. Is there any genuine hope here, MF?

Or across the border, just ask the parents of the children attending Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, who are hoping that their children and like all elementary school children in America are safe. Or ask Black families across the US who are hoping that their son or daughter is not killed by yet another white police officer.

With the coming of Jesus, whose sandals he was unworthy to even untie, John the Baptist declared a message of hope in a Messiah whom John proclaimed to be the light. Well, hope MF is a life-giving attribute, we’d all like more of. But sometimes hope fails, for many reasons. In the case of John the Baptist, whose voice cried in the wilderness “Make straight the way of the Lord!”—even that voice was silenced when he was executed at the whim of Herod’s niece. A message of hope from the John the Baptist this morning, to believe that Jesus is the light of the world. Not just our light—yours and mine, MF—but the light of the whole world, because God loves the entire world, not just a part of it—not just us Christians, and certainly not just you and me. Our first responsibility—Job #1—is to proclaim that light for the world, so that the world has hope.

Trouble is, the common understanding, especially in evangelical and fundamentalist circles, is that Jesus came to save only us Christians by some cosmic evacuation plan, while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket. This personal and private salvation plan is really very individualistic, but also very egocentric. It demands no solidarity with anyone, except oneself. The Good News has been whittled down into what Jesus can and should do for us personally and privately, rather than proclaiming, as John the Baptist did, that because the divine Light has entered the world, we are needed to work in God’s Kingdom, to spread the light and give hope to the world.

So, instead of believing that Jesus came to fulfill us separately, how about trusting God that we are here, like John the Baptist, to carry out the work of God’s Kingdom—to complete the work of Christ for the love of this world? Our job is not to make our own private and personal salvation the be-all and end-all. Rather, our task is to give birth to the Christ Child in our own lives—for the life of the world. That’s the Good News of Christmas. Like the John the Baptist, our job is to give hope to the world, to help it see the Light already here.

Well, that’s not easy to do, MF. In fact, it’s very difficult, because hope fails us, sometimes, or many times. Sometimes it’s our lack of imagination or courage, or not thinking big enough or seeing the larger picture. We often get so mired in the muck of tiny details. Sometimes our cynicism and disillusionment is like an epidemic, keeping us from hope and its positive impact not only in life and living, here and now, but hope for the future, near and far.

Other times, our hearts are so frozen against the windows of our own pain, that our joy and hope are stifled. And if every time hope flickers up like a fever, a sudden spasm of bad memories defies our hopes and dreams, and so we give up. We give up! We cancel our own cheque before we cash it. We scratch ourselves from the race before it even begins. We give in to the struggle to freeze out the pain, like a frozen tooth ready for extraction, but without extraction!

We nip meaning and purpose in the bud and freeze hope which helps keeps faith and love alive. Like COVID which is relentless in its march forward, our hope seems utterly doomed and so we dare not ask for more than what our eyes can see amid the bitter and unacceptable realities in which we currently live.

A while back, I received a letter from a former Virginia professor of mine. I quote from two paragraphs he wrote:

As the holiday season once again approaches, I want to wish you joy and happiness—COVID notwithstanding. But also, Peter, when I consider this world, so filled with poverty, hunger and violence, and in our country so rife with anger and hatred, especially against a president who foments fear and violence, who undermines our republic and democracy itself, where black men are being killed by white police in racially motivated deaths, where gay men and women are still the objects of severe prejudice and fear (I know you remember that gay man in Montana who was hung on a fence like a scarecrow by baptized Christians—you wrote about it in one of your Toronto Star editorials), and where doctors are being shot for performing abortions, and while abortions may be wrong, two wrongs certainly don’t make a right.

And then, of course, there’s the ongoing wars and battles we Americans insist on fighting, all the while one-quarter million Americans have lost their lives to the pandemic, with little hope in sight for meaningful change and only more deaths. We who are the richest country in the world with the foremost medical knowledge and practice—we who claim to be the greatest country in the world—we’ve become arrogant and self-serving, worshipping the idol we call America, unable to listen and learn from other countries, like your own. Will we change? I must confess: I have little hope for change.

Well, MF, sometimes, and particularly at this time of the year, hope seems shabby and miserable indeed, and inadequate as well as being surrounded by the apathy and mediocrity of this world.

Recently I was reading about a black fellow, Thomas Johnson, in Nantucket, Massachusetts. For 10 long years, Johnson had lived underground, in a hole, something like Saddam Hussein when he was finally discovered—a hole leading to a larger dug out compartment, deep down, about 20 feet, living in one of the most expensive real estate properties not only in Massachusetts, but in the world, until he and the hole, he called home, was discovered some dozen years ago, very close to Christmas.

Folks in the area had been questioned by the media and some said, “Oh, how nice it would be to scamper into the ground like Thomas Johnson and to pull the earth over me like a character in The Wind and the Willows.” However, some other folks said, “Well, poor old fellow was forced to join the rest of the human race above ground,” while others said, “Why should he enjoy those dark and private comforts, while the rest of us have to contend with Christmas and noisy and difficult neighbours?”

The fact is MF, that for too many folks, including Christians, hope is an illusion, a trap, a lollipop proffered in lieu of what they want or need or think they deserve. And so they refuse to hope, refuse to invest themselves in anything that isn’t a sure thing. To them, hope is to reality, what the mirage is to an oasis, just a trick your psyche plays on you and a sure sign that you are losing your marbles.

Other folks still think of hope as a kind of waiting game, a gift dependent on the whims of others, and not themselves, and so they just spend their days and nights pleading with God, bargaining with him, praying for luck as if their life were a ripple in a pond, and therefore dependant upon someone else throwing the stone.

I don’t know about you, MF, but I think of hope as a way of healing the present, so that I might have the health I need to face the future from COVID, or at least hope for the next day. Hope is actually a miracle! Why? Because hope is waiting for something, for which there is no scientific or verifiable proof that it will be so. But you have to believe in hope, before hope can work for you. Hope is a stroke of grace which transcends the pain of life. Hope is a kind of aurora borealis of the soul, without which our hearts could never be what they are—warm, pulsating, feeling, and knowing—and yes the heart knows things the intellect could never understand. Hope is that which we become. It is that which God meant us to be.

Hope,” said Samuel Johnson, an 18th century British poet, “Hope is a state of pregnancy, a species of happiness in itself and perhaps the chief happiness which God has given to this world.” And maybe Johnson was right, MF, because when you have hope, anything and everything is possible!! Things which would otherwise never be, hope has given them birth.

Emily Dickinson, the 19th century US poet, perhaps one of the most well know and loved poets, and who, by the way, wrote over 1,700 poems, mostly brief intense lyrics on themes of love and nature and death—1,700 poems, but only seven were even published during her life time. In one poem, she wrote: Hope is the thing with feathers, which perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words and never stops singing.” Isn’t that just beautiful?!

Hope, MF, isn’t a kind of mindless optimism, like when we’re at the bedside of a terminally ill person, but rather hope is a particular quality which allows us to hope beyond what our eyes see and ears hear. That doesn’t mean that hope does not face reality, but hope has a quality which, because it’s based in reality, goes beyond reality. Hope, MF, allows us to see beyond what is and to imagine what can be…to see with our inner eyes and hear with our inner ears, that which the outer eyes and outer ears will never see nor hear.

I believe that God wants hope to triumph over negative and bitter experiences. And real hope does exactly that! If life was nothing else but facts and figures, nothing else but money and material things—no matter how pleasurable or even necessary, then we would be doomed to understanding life as some mere mathematical sum total. But hope is meant to guide us into places where feelings matter and where the HS makes a real difference. Hope guides us to places where we have not yet been, and where we need to become the person God created us to be. That’s what hope is about MF.

Now, while hope is about the future, we can only hope in the present. Of course, the past is also important, and we need to learn from it—otherwise, we’re doomed to repeat it as we do war and hate, because that’s what we teach others by how we live. The world is always as we make it, isn’t it?… no better, no worse. Today is as good as it gets…and tomorrow is another day.

Well MF, does your optimism square with your perception of reality? We know that there is no genuine peace on earth, even those with whom God is well-pleased. We know that the holiday season tends to bring out the worst, and not the best, in folks, maybe in our own families, and maybe even in ourselves. We know that there are many folks who actually dread Christmas, because they are living with great expectations on the one hand, and grim reality on the other. We know that for ourselves, constant good cheer is hard to manufacture, and even harder to maintain—even and especially during this global pandemic.

That’s why real Advent hope is the only sobering antidote to false Christmas cheer. That’s why the Gospel actually requires you and me to look ahead and not back to the manger of Bethlehem. That’s why we light Advent candles: to lighten the darkness and not simply to allow you and me a better rearview window seat. That’s why my job as a pastor is to place this kind of Christian hope in front of you, not only for your honest consideration, but for the genuine application of real hope your life—and maybe for the first time.

Traditionally speaking, Advent is not intended to be a celebration—a moment for dancing around the Christmas Tree. Nor is Advent hope a continued exercise in nostalgia or seasonal optimism. Rather, Advent is the fortification against the very forces that would drive us to despair and drag us down. Advent is an exercise in endurance, in preparation for the long journey, for the long haul to a time and place where we have not yet been, but for which all of the past and all of the present are momentous preparation.

Advent reminds us that it takes genuine courage to hope in spite of overwhelming odds, courage to persist and persevere beyond the apparent and the convenient in our lives, courage not to be satisfied or dissuaded with our circumstances, not to take for granted who we are or what we do. War without end in our world is one reality; but the spiritual war for who we are before God is quite another. In that spiritual battle, the stakes are much, much higher, which is precisely why we need real, genuine hope all the more. God grant us all the real hope we so desperately need. AMEN

Well MF, looking at the sermon title, Guess Who’s Comin’ to Town? So-Who’s comin’? What town? And when’s he comin’? If you think I’m referring to the rotund fellow in the red suit and white beard—residence North Pole—sorry, you’re understandably mistaken. Nope! I’m talking about one St. Nicholas, aka St Nick, who was a Roman Catholic bishop in the 4th C, from the sea-faring city of Myra in Asia Minor, which today is the Mediterranean coastal city of Demre in Turkey.

So MF, when’s St. Nicholas a-comin’? He’s coming today, Dec 6th. Why Dec 6? Because that’s the date he died, exactly 1,677 years ago today, Dec 06, 343, in Myra. And where’s he coming? He’s coming to many towns and cities across Europe, but primarily where the Orthodox faith-tradition is strong and plentiful. But St. Nick is also coming to some towns and cities here in North America where there are Greek and Ukrainian Orthodox believers and churches, which certainly includes big cities like Toronto and New York. And does St. Nicholas remind you of Santa? Well, he should, MF. Why? Because there’s a real connection between St. Nick & Santa, btw, is a very, very long story. But let me abbreviate the remarkable tale for you this morning.

Little Nicky was born to wealthy Greek parents, Epiphanius & Johanna, March 15, 270 AD. Little is known of him as a child, but when he became a teenager, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine, after which he was called to become a priest and ordained by his uncle, who was Bishop of Myra at the time. Shortly thereafter, his parents became very ill and died and so Nicholas distributed their significant wealth to the poor in his parish and the city of Myra.

During his lengthy priesthood, countless miracle stories of him circulated. In one tale, Nicholas was sailing to the Holy Land when a terrible storm was about to destroy the ship, and so, like Jesus, he rebuked the waves and the storm subsided. When Nicholas returned to Myra, he was made Bishop upon the death of his uncle, the then Bishop of Myra.

In another narrative, Nicholas saved three innocent soldiers who were condemned to death by the governor. As they were about to be executed, Nicholas suddenly appeared out of nowhere, miraculously released the sword from the steel grip of the executioner, removed the chains from the soldiers and then angrily chastised a juror who had accepted a large bribe to convict the soldiers.

In another account, Nicholas chopped down a tree possessed by a demon, saving a family from demon possession. Later, he was imprisoned falsely, but released when the new Emperor Constantine, received a vision from the Virgin Mary to release him. In 325 at the Council of Nicea, Nicholas was defrocked and imprisoned—yet again—this time for slapping Arius, a heretic, who was also the Magistrate of Myra. Jesus and the Virgin Mary appear to Nicholas in his cell and he tells them he’s chained “for loving them,” so they free him, restore his vestments and position as Bishop. Btw, the slapping of Arius is celebrated in Orthodox icons and paintings in the 17th C in the Basilica of St Nicholas in Bari.

Another famed legend tells how, during a terrible famine, a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he then killed them, placed their remains in 3 barrels to cure, and planned to sell them as ham. Nicholas saw through the butcher’s lies and resurrected the pickled children by making 3 signs of the cross over the 3 barrels.

MF, although this story seems bizarre and horrifying to us modern-day folks, it was wildly popular throughout the late Middle Ages and beloved by the common people. In fact, the scene is depicted in stained glass windows, wood panel paintings, tapestries and frescoes throughout Italy. The miracle became so popular that, rather than showing it in its entirety, artists began to merely depict St. Nicholas making one sign of the cross over 3 naked children and one wooden barrel.

Well MF, you can decide for yourselves if these miracles were literally true or not. But one thing is abundantly clear: Nicholas had a reputation for countless acts of generosity and compassion, which he also performed humbly and anonymously, especially for poor children with no future. One case especially stands out. When the parents of three teenaged girls in his parish suddenly died, he reputedly gave them marriage dowries of gold. Otherwise, poverty would have forced them into lives of prostitution.

Now, the anonymity with which Nicholas gave the gifts of gold is particularly noteworthy. It is said that one frosty December night, he scrambled upon the roof of the girls’ abode, as they slept, and dropped the golden gifts, now in stockings, down their chimney. It rained that night and so the next day, the girls had to hang the stockings by the fireplace to dry before opening their gifts to immense surprise. Sound familiar?

Btw, this story of Nicholas’ secret gift-giving is one of the most popular scenes in Christian devotional art, appearing in icons and frescoes a-cross Europe, where Nicholas is often shown wearing a hood to maintain his anonymity, while the daughters are typically shown in bed with nightclothes. I must tell you that Nicholas’ desire to help these young women, and countless others, was characteristic of 4th century Christianity, due to the prominent role women played in the early Church.

On Dec 06, 343, Nicholas died at the age of 73 and was buried in Myra at the church he served for 4 decades. Now, 200 years later, the miracles of Nicholas were authenticated, and he was made a Saint by Pope Theodosius II, who then ordered the building of St. Nicholas Church in Myra, where his remains were moved to a sarcophagus in the church.

Trouble is, some 500 years later, in 1087, the inhabitants of Myra were subjugated by Muslims from Asia Minor, who promptly announced that St. Nicholas Church no longer belonged to the Church of Rome. Italian merchants from the coastal city of Bari in southern Italy were so outraged by this turn of events, that they and others sailed to Myra, hastily removed the bones of Nicholas’ skeleton from his sarcophagus and brought them to Bari. With permission from Pope Urban II, the Basilica of St Nicholas was constructed to perpetuate the memory of St. Nicholas and house his skeletal remains, where they are to this very day.

Btw, in our 2018 vacation, Sherry & I actually visited the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari and viewed the remains of St. Nicholas. I can’t say that the skeletal vestiges were particularly appealing or even biologically noteworthy. But they clearly provided spiritual value and merit for the faithful of Bari who regarded relics substantial in promoting the faith.

So it also was in Luther’s day, when the RCC paraded venerated relics, like a sliver of Christ’s cross, a dried droplet of blood from the Saviour himself and a feather from the HS, which was perceived as a dove. Why this veneration? To promote the faith and to extract the necessary funds to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, by way of indulgences, which released folks from purgatory. Indulgences, you may remember, were the primary motivating factor for Luther’s Reformation of the church.

Btw, Nicholas’ skeletal remains in Bari are said to exude a miraculous watery substance, known as myrrh—not to be confused with the gift of myrrh from the Wise Men. This myrrh emanating from Nicholas’ remains is claimed by the believers in Bari to possess supernatural powers. Sherry & I did not ask for a demonstration of such powers. Nonetheless, the demand for pieces of Nicholas’ skeletal remains rose dramatically. Small bones quickly began to disperse across Europe.

For example, a knight, William Pantulf, took 1 tooth and 2 bone chips home with him to Normandy in June of 1092. Nine years later, 1101, Nicholas appeared in a vision to a French cleric visiting the Bari shrine, telling him to take a bone with him to his hometown of Port, France, where a chapel was built to honor the relics. 500 years later, a basilica was built over the chapel and dedicated to Nicholas, after which the town’s name also changed to St Nicholas de Port.

The clergy of Bari also gave away bone samples to promote his name and prestige. A church in Rome called St. Nicholas in Chains, which was built over a prison, claimed to have his entire right hand. Mothers would come to the church to pray for their imprisoned sons. An index finger was kept in a chapel along the Ostian Way to Rome. In fact, many churches in Europe, Russia and the US claim to possess relics of Nicholas’ remains. It’s a wonder, I suppose, that any skeletal remains were still left at St. Nicholas’ shrine in the catacombs of the Bari Basilica.

Well MF, as you can imagine, all this veneration and supernatural potential, attracted pilgrims from all over Europe, who not only came by the hundreds to pay their respects to the shrine of St. Nicholas at his Basilica in Bari, but who also took the legend of the venerable saint back to their native lands—together, of course, with a cherished relic as proof that the stories were true.

All of which resulted in hundreds, if not thousands of churches erected in his name. The legend of Nicholas grew exponentially. He not only became the patron saint of many European countries, including Greece & Turkey, Germany & Russia, but also the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, soldiers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, brewers of beer and ale, makers of barrels, pawnbrokers, prisoners, falsely accused sons, children and, of course, unmarried girls.

In a nutshell: To own a holy relic of St. Nicholas meant that you and your community were blessed beyond compare, and you were expected to be generous and giving to the unfortunate, especially to children. So, when pilgrims returned home from Bari, they brought the legend of St Nicholas with them, together with his anonymous gift giving—all of which spread unabated.

In each European country, St Nicholas came on the 6th of December, stuffing gifts, including gold coins, in shoes and fireplaces. For the most part, Nicholas’ gift giving assumed the flavor of national characteristics and traits. So, in Germany, for instance, St. Nicholas became Sankt Nicholaus who bore a sack of presents on his back, but also a stiff rod in his hand. In Switzerland, a girl angel, Das Christkindl, came down from heaven laden with gifts. In France, St. Nicholas was called Pere Noel who visited the children. In Italy, the good witch, La Befana, dressed in black, delivered her treasures. In Spain, children awaited The Three Kings to bring gifts. The Scandinavian countries celebrated with a jovial elf called the Juletomte. In England, St. Nicholas became the austere Father Christmas who delivered his trove of goodies.

Now, the Dutch, however, they settled the Hudson Valley of the new world in 1626. They established New Amsterdam, which was eventually renamed New York, when the English (from the English town of York, known as Yorksters) outnumbered the Dutch. The point here is that the Dutch brought their tradition of St. Nicholas with them from Holland, whom they called him Sinterklaas. Now, Sinterklaas was a forbidding primate who wore a red bishop’s outfit, rode a white stallion and carried the names of all the children in a big black book, as well as a record of their behaviour. The good children were rewarded with gifts, but the bad ones punished with a switch by his assistant, Zarte Pete (Black Peter).

It took American’s “first man of letters,” Washington Irving … remember him?… the creator of ?? Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, to begin the Americanization of Sinterklaas to Santa Claus. In his 1809 comic magazine, “The History of New York,” which Irving intended as a spoof on the rigid Dutch regime in New York, Irving transformed Sinterklaas from the stern gift-giving, switch-strapping Bishop of Holland, into a merry old elf, whose name translated Santa Claus and was readily adopted by the English-speaking majority in New York.

The creation of an exclusive storyline for Santa Claus, however, followed in 1822 with Clement Clarke Moore—a pastor’s son and theologian, who simply wanted to amuse his children that Christmas Eve in 1822 with a little poetic prose he called A Visit from St. Nicholas. We know that masterful stroke of narrative genius as ?? The Night Before Christmas!

The transformation of Santa Claus was not complete without an irresistible visual image. A German American cartoonist, Thomas Nast by name, working for Harper’s Weekly in New York, provided the winning drawing. On the front page of the 1862 Christmas issue of Harper’s Weekly, Nast linked the jolly elf to the Civil War effort at the time and drew a Santa Claus dressed in patriotic Stars and Stripes, who visited soldiers to distribute a cargo of Christmas gifts from his sleigh. Santa wasn’t just for kids anymore!

But Nast’s most famous illustration, “Santa Claus and his Work,” showed Santa at his North Pole workshop, which provided him with a permanent address. Why the North Pole as his residence??? Simple. Since the North Pole belonged to no country, Santa would never be the citizen of any one country. Without national citizenship, Santa could never be owned or usurped. He could serve the children with political or national interference.

An interesting postscript to this story. Until the advent and arrival of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, St. Nicholas’ arrival on December 6th never interfered with the birth of the Christ Child. No child and no adult would have to switch allegiance or compete one against the other. St. Nick arrived Dec 6. The Christ Child was born Dec 25.

But, when the Anglican/Episcopalian preacher, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote his famous “Twas the night before Christmas” Santa’s arrival now moved to December 24, the night before Christmas. All of which put Santa in competition with the adoration of the Baby Jesus. While this took time to evolve, the clash of dates was inevitable. While this can be very upsetting and much can be said about this, remember that no one really knows what the date of Jesus’ birth actually is. Dec 25 was chosen by church fathers in the 4th century from several possible dates.

A few personal reflections: The crystallization of Santa Claus into the image we and our children enjoy to this day is a creation of the 19th century. As the patron of the gift-giving festival of Christmas, however, we must credit the 4th century Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas, without whose legend there would be no Santa.

And, from my point of view: Not in any age has Santa Claus ever represented selfishness, greed and waste, nor today’s frantic busyness, unbridled spending and masked unhappiness. Santa is not to blame for the gifts we buy for those who already have everything; the decorations that always look more festive than we feel; nor for the child-like faith we have lost in simple things by transforming Christmas into a surreal material and monetary blowout. Santa is not to blame for the greed and excess into which we have made Christmas.

On the other hand, Santa Claus still remains a powerful symbol in our society, now in the 21st C. Like St. Nicholas before him, Santa is another embodiment of the universal spirit of peace and good will we preach, the generosity of unconditional love and good deeds we perform, the spiritual blessings of healing and redemption for which we pray.

So, MF. Is there a Santa? Yes, Virginia! There’s a Santa Claus, and we are him! We are St. Nicholas. That’s the good news for today, MF. AMEN

In the days after that time of fear and foreboding, the sun will grow dark, the moon will no longer shine, the stars will fall from heaven and the powers in space will be driven from their courses. Then the Son of Man will appear, coming in the clouds with great power and glory. He will send the angels out to the four corners of the earth to gather God’s chosen people from one end of the world to the other.24-27

Dear Friends. If we pretend we’ve never heard these words from Jesus, they will strike fear into the heart, because the events sound like they’re going to happen any minute now. These words in Mark’s gospel actually describe the 4-year war between Israel and the Roman Empire, from 66-70 AD. It’s a war Israel lost big time—destroyed as a nation, Jerusalem demolished, and Solomon’s Temple torn down, except for the east wall we know as the Wailing Wall. Many Jews were slaughtered, while the remaining fled to Europe. Their descendants returned 2,000 years later, in 1947, when the UN re-established the State of Israel.

Back then, zealous Jews started this war with Rome. In their arrogance, thinking they knew God’s will, that he was on their side and in their pocket, tiny Israel waged a suicidal war against the might of Roman steel. The Jews deluded themselves into believing that God would once again intervene and save his Chosen People by sending the Messiah. For the Jews, that Messiah was not Jesus. Why not? Because Jews were and still are strict monotheists, believing in one God, and therefore such a God could never have a Son, a kind of second God, much less a HS —a kind of third God.

So, the Jews were waiting for a Messiah who would be the King of a new Israel. That messianic intervention never came. But, during that war, the Christians were also awaiting intervention—the highly anticipated 2nd Return of Jesus, their Messiah. What Jesus was not able to achieve with his 1st Coming, he would accomplish in his 2nd Coming—a return to establish the Kingdom of God on this planet.

Trouble is MF, that messianic intervention also never happened. Jesus’ 2nd Coming never took place. And yet, in verse 30 of today’s gospel, Jesus himself says: “Remember—all these things will happen before the people now living have died.” LK & MT say the same thing. These folks died expecting Jesus’ Return.

But what’s also quite interesting is Vs 32, in which Jesus says: No one knows the day nor hour when the Son of Man will come—not the angels, nor even the son, but only the Father. Isn’t it absolutely remarkable that Jesus, the Son of God, does not know the hour or day of his own return? You’d think he would know everything. But what’s also troubling is that Jesus seems mistaken about the time of his return. He tells folks he’s returning in their lifetime but does not. Did Jesus decide to delay his return but didn’t let us in on the secret? I’m not being facetious, but 2000 years later—still no Jesus!

It is clear to me, that MK had no way of knowing that Jesus was not immediately coming back. How could he? And neither did MT & LK, who copied this chapter on Jesus’ 2nd Coming from MK. That MK, MT & LK are all mistaken with respect to Jesus’ immediate return gives us an important clue as to why John’s Gospel says not one word about Jesus’ Return. Why? Because for JN, Jesus never left the planet. But that’s another sermon. Stay tuned!

So, here we are MF, 2,000 years later, still waiting for Jesus to come back on the clouds with power and glory. I don’t know of any church conducting fire drills as we wait. But in the meantime, we must not only face the truth that something has seemingly gone very wrong, we must also face the prospect that Jesus is not going to return any time soon—today’s gospel from MK notwithstanding.

Throughout the 20 centuries since the time of Christ, millions of Christians have expected the return of Jesus during their lifetime. Waves of Christians eagerly expecting Jesus’ imminent return has surfaced countless times over the centuries. At the 2nd millenium, 1000 AD, entire countries expected Jesus’ return. Then, again in the 13th C and 16th C with Luther’s Reformation. Again in the 19th C, among sectarian movements and with the 3rd millennium, at 2000, when there was great anticipation, especially by US Christians who sold everything they had, quit their jobs and waited on mountaintops, valleys and plains in state after state, watching the skies for Jesus to return.

You may know that the entire 13th chapter of MK, like its parallels in Matthew 24 and LK 21, is called Apocalyptic Literature. AL is a particular kind of writing which provides signs and events culminating in the last days of world history. Obviously, AL exists in Christianity and the NT, in Judaism and the OT, in Islam and the Koran, but also in many cultures and societies. AL is always written in times of extreme persecution and suffering, which is the case in MT, MK, LK and the ruinous 4yr Jewish-Roman War.

MF, when MK wrote his chapter about Jesus’ Second Coming, he did not have you and me in mind. MK, LK & MT had no idea that their Gospels would be read by folks 2000 years later, much less that their Gospels would be part of the NT. Today’s gospel text refers to the Roman Empire during Mark’s time. MK did not refer to WWI or WWII or some futuristic apocalyptic WWIII on the Plains of Abraham to defeat the Antichrist, as fundamentalists believe must happen before Jesus can return, together with the wholesale conversion of Jews worldwide to Christianity. And yet, there are Christians today who take the apocalyptic passage in MK very literally.

MF, the question for us Christians today is this: If the early church was mistaken about Jesus’ imminent return, are we also mistaken? In his 1st Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul refers to “meeting the Lord in the air,” as an event which he believed would happen in his lifetime. MF, are we right to believe it will still happen and happen in the literal kind of way which is described in the NT?

As you know, back then, people believed that the earth was the center of the cosmos, with the sun revolving around the earth. The earth was also believed to be flat, with 4 corners to it. Remember vs 27?.. He will send the angles out to the four corners of the earth. If you walked too far, you’d fall off. In fact, there’s a California group called the Flat Earth Society which says that one of the four corners is Fogo Island, NFLD. Sherry & I were there a few years ago. A gigantic sign was erected on the island, identifying it as one of the 4 corners of the earth. I took a photo.

Back then, people also believed that below the earth was hell, the domain of Satan and his angels. But above the earth was an invisible dome. You couldn’t see it, but it was there and inside the dome were the stars and the moon. Now, God lived above this dome in heaven with his angels, but God could manipulate the stars and make them move, like the star which guided the Wise Men. In short, earth, hell and heaven was a kind of 3-tiered universe, each one stacked on top of the other.

Given this spatial understanding, Jesus would leave heaven and enter the dome, and descend on the clouds where he would be visible to everyone from the flat earth. Sounds crude MF, but that’s what they believed. They had a scientific understanding of the world which was clearly false, but like every discipline, whether science, medicine, mathematics or even religion, truth takes time to evolve, and that includes Christian truth. Not that long ago, people said, “If God wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings.” I remember my grandmother saying that to me.

All of this is why I don’t conceive of Jesus’ return in a literal, physical or scientific time-space continuum. In our post-Einstein era, we know time and space as expanding, evolving and relative. I can surely imagine an end to this world, not just by God, but by a nuclear holocaust caused by arrogant politicians. But what I cannot imagine is a return of Christ within the 3-tiered universe and belief system of the NT. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe Christ will return. It means I cannot imagine Jesus’ return the way the NT describes it. How could I? I’m not a 1stC Christian.

Now, there are Christians who say to me: Pastor Peter, everything and anything is possible with God—you just need to believe! MF, I often hear this logic—meaning, when we can’t explain something, because science or physics or reality simply gets in the way, we then just stick God in the gaps, to make what we can’t explain—believable. Trouble is, that makes my faith sound somehow deficient—that I don’t believe God enough to take the Apocalyptic Literature of the NT literally.

MF, there’s a huge difference between believing something about God and having daily faith in God. The notion of how and when Jesus returns is a question about what I believe. The much more important notion that Jesus is Lord of my life is a question of faith. That Jesus has not returned means his Lordship is not yet complete. But one day, it will be complete.

MF, there’s much more I could say about Jesus’ 2nd Coming but let me introduce a theological concept which I’m sure you’ve heard many times before. But this time, let me apply it to Jesus’ Return.

The theological concept comes from 2 Peter 3:8ff—which is the Epistle next Sunday: Vs 8 says this: There is no difference in God’s sight between one day and 1,000 years. To him the two are the same. And why did 2nd Peter make this claim? Why?

Precisely because this is how the writer of 2 Peter deals with the delay of Jesus’ Coming. That’s his reason, his rationale, his accommodation for the failure of Jesus to return any time soon. Let me remind you that 2 Peter was written in 140 AD—110 years after Jesus. Of St. Peter wasn’t the writer because he could not write nor speak academic Greek, which is the language of this 2nd Letter. But the point is: Jesus’ failure to return by 140 became a major crisis in the early church. The solution? 1000 years is like 1 day to God!

Which is also why the writer urges his readers, like you & me, to seriously consider his solution to the crisis: The return of Jesus may seem delayed in human terms, but from God’s viewpoint, Jesus is coming back any minute. What seems like a long time in human terms—now 2,000 years—is but the blink of an eye in God’s time.

MF, God’s time is not our human time. Because God created “tick-tock time,” he is beyond tick-tock time, nor can she be measured by our man-made clocks. If we apply this concept literally, it means that 1,000 human years are like 1 day to God…which also means that since Jesus time, only 2 days have elapsed in God’s sight.

Taken literally, a mere 2 days have gone by since Jesus lived on earth 2000 yrs ago. Yes, the church was wrong to believe that Jesus was going to return any minute—in the lifetime of his followers—but taken from God’s view of time, the NT can rightly say that Jesus is not only coming again, but his return is just around the corner.

So, here we are MF, just two days removed from the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. From God’s sight, only two days separate us from Jesus’ life & death, resurrection & ascension. In fact, there’s a sense in which that’s true of all human time. My mother, Elizabeth, who died 73 years ago has, from God’s point of view, just died a minute ago. Sherry’s father, Bill Row, who died 36 years ago, has died just a half minute ago.

Likewise, the millions and billions of people who died over the course of thousands of years of human history, these folks have only been dead about a week, given God’s view of time. It’s something like sleeping. If you have a good night’s sleep, the 8 hours go like 8 seconds. Or, look at it this way: Sleep is a form of death on the installment plan. If Wayne were here, he’d crack a big smile and have a hearty chuckle over that line! But that is some serious humor to think about, MF. Jesus’ Second Coming is just a sleep away.

Well MF, The heart always knows things which the mind can never grasp. The heart always communicates feelings which the mind cannot possibly understand. Expecting Jesus to return soon is a matter of the heart, and not an issue of intelligence or experience, nor is it believing right stuff or even being right. Remember MF: Jesus never said “You shall be right!” But he did say: “Have faith. Trust God.” Expecting Jesus to return is an expression of the poetic language of love, which is part of our human relationship with God and with one another as a faith community.

Because I love Jesus, I expect to be with him. But to be with Jesus also means to be with my mother whom I have never met in this life, and with my father whom I met only three times, and with my son, who will no longer be handicapped, but made whole in the next life. So MF, when I read in the NT that the first Christians loved Jesus, I can most certainly understand why it is that they expected him to return in their lifetime, even though he didn’t.

That’s why the Second Coming of Christ is not a guaranteed reality we can definitively count on in our lifetime. Rather, it is a hope in this life. It’s a genuine hope which envelops my heart and my senses. I too look for Jesus to come “soon and very soon” to quote Andre Crouch in the Advent song Jill will play after this sermon.

Hoping Jesus to return is not a matter of the intellect or even of theology. It’s a matter of the heart, an expression of love which sustains my relationship with him. Expecting his return is not a matter of church dogma and blind belief, but an attitude of faith, an expression of heartfelt hope, longing and yearning.

MF, God bless us in our hope and longing and yearnings for Jesus, which will be complete one day soon and very soon! AMEN

These will be sent to eternal punishment, but the righteous will go to eternal life.” (v.46)

Dear Friends. Well, here we have another peerless parable from the lips of Jesus. Initially, it doesn’t sound like a parable. It sounds like real life. But note Jesus’ words: The end will be like this. In other parables, Jesus says: The Kingdom will be like this, and then proceeds to tell the parable. And today is an exceptional barnburner. Like last Sunday, folks are tossed into the fiery flames of perdition.

It reminds me of an anecdote in which a Swedish Lutheran pastor was waxing eloquent about hell, where Jesus says: There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Well, one old silver-tongued curmudgeon dares to interrupt the sermon: “But—but Pastor Inquivst, what if we don’t have any teeth to gnash?” To which he replied “In your case, Mrs. Sorensen, teeth will be provided.”

Today’s Gospel is a daunting story about the Final Judgment, which sounds quite personal and very literal. But MF, who really believes in hell, unless it’s for someone else. In this parable, Jesus finally returns in glory, and while sitting on his throne, the nations of the world are gathered, only to be separated, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats: the righteous to heaven, the evil to hell.

The scene is both tremendous and terrible. Taken literally, we will all shiver in our boots, as did Luther, who trembled at the mere thought of Jesus perched on a rainbow, consigning the wicked to a fiery flames of perdition and the righteous to heavenly bliss—and all with the mere flick of his divine finger. You can check out the 17th C painting of this scene online.

Call it poetry; call it myth; even call it a nightmare from the forgotten times when the church used hell to threaten people to conform—call it what you want, MF, but here’s a parable which cannot be taken lightly. Perhaps within each one of us here, there is an inarticulate dread, the feeling that someday, somewhere, somehow, there will be a final reckoning—a decisive accounting for me.

So, in this parable, all human beings—past, present and still to come—will be judged by Jesus who will hold us accountable for our sins. Christians are the sheep winging their way to heaven, while the goats are roasting in hell. Oh yum! Hell is always for someone else, but never for me.

It’s a fact: The Church has presided over centuries of Western history, in which brute punishment has been the primary means of discipline in so many quarters of our society—physical retribution not only for naughty children and defiant teenagers, but for prisoners and slaves, for subversives and dissidents, and yes, also for loose women and disobedient wives, even for those in religious orders, as Luther once was.

Violence and war between neighbours and nations for millennia continues to be the way of the world MF. And in spite of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to love one’s enemy, do good to them and pray for them, the Gospel of Threat & Punishment has been the way of the church for ages. It’s only the last 50 years, that a segment of the church stumbled on the so-called Gospel of Success—especially the Gospel of Financial Success.

There is something within the Christian story which pushed the church to utilize punishment to get people to believe, think and do what the church thought should be believed and done. How many times in the history of the church has exactly this parable of the Last Judgment been used to threaten people to conform to a particular understanding of what is right and wrong?

The idea of God as a punishing heavenly father figure is certainly present in the Christian story, as it is in today’s parable. The picture of God or Christ as Judge, assigning people to the eternity of hell with its ever-burning flames is found in the gospels alright. But let me tell you, honestly and bluntly: The fiery flames of perdition were never a major theme in the NT, until the church made hell a chief consideration in its attempt to get people to obey its teachings and, of course, to provide the church with more money.

In other words, enhancing guilt became a necessary prerequisite for the church to maintain its institutional power and control, its authority and dominance. The church’s use of manipulative guilt over the centuries is one which is hard to overestimate.

Nowadays, among televangelists, past and present, and among some of the more conservative denominations like Baptist and Pentecostal, instead of the threat of hell-fire and brimstone, there’s the promise of rewards if you believe and do what they preach and teach. But no matter how you slice the cake, MF, it’s still the old carrot & stick routine! But what does the NT really say about hell? Well, let’s have a little look-see.

The earliest texts in the NT are the Letters of Paul written between 50 and 62 AD, some 20-30 years after Jesus. Let me tell you that Paul’s letters contain not one iota about God or Jesus as judge sending folks to hell. The Gospels were written next, between 70-100 AD—some 40-70 years after Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel was written first in 70 AD, and he has only one passage which refers to hell, where in Mk.9:47, Jesus says “It is better to remove an eye, hand or foot which causes one to sin, than to let the whole body be thrown into hell.” It’s an absolutely incredible text, if we take it literally. Interestingly, not even the biblical fundamentalists take Jesus’ words here literally, because then they themselves would be eyeless and toothless, handless and footless.

Now, there’s a saint you’ve never heard of—Origen—a theologian of the 3rd century, who had himself castrated as a direct result of these words of Jesus. Origen never revealed just how it was that his male organ caused him to sin. But what we need to understand is that this is an extreme form of physical punishment—one that Origen believed he deserved. For centuries the church taught that the body must be disciplined in preparation for heaven. Even Luther punished his body regularly to subdue its evil nature.

Luke, the 3rd Gospel written around 90 AD, contains only one reference to hell (12:5), in which Jesus warns us not to fear those who can kill only the body. The real one to fear is God who has the power to send a person to hell. John is the 4th Gospel, written around 100 AD and makes not one blessed reference to hell. Why not? Well, MF, that’s another sermon all by itself. Theology is complicated!

Matthew’s Gospel is a very different situation, which I left to the end because today’s parable is in this Gospel. MT was the second gospel to be written about 80 AD. What’s particularly interesting is that, unlike the other 3 gospels, MT contains over 100 OT references and quotes in an attempt to prove that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.

Citing the OT, MT contains more “hell” citations than the other 3 gospels combined. MT has 7 specific references to hell in four separate passages, one of which is today’s parable. So, before we make hell into a major theme in the NT, let us keep in mind that there are only 12 specific verses to hell in the entire NT and today’s gospel has two of them. 12 references. That’s it! That’s 1/100th of 1% of the entire NT about hell, and yet, MF, you wouldn’t believe the countless volumes written by theologians specifically about hell.

Now, according to the parable, the sheep are rewarded by the judge with entry into the kingdom of God. The goats, however, are condemned to eternal punishment. Why? Because, unlike the sheep, the goats have refused to be caring for those in need—refused to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, water the thirsty, visit the imprisoned and lonely, orphaned and widowed. In other words, hell is reserved for those who have not been Good Samaritans to their neighbours, whether next door or around the world. So, when Jesus discovers followers who did not do what he required of them, at least in this parable, he bundles them off to hell.

Well, does that seem right? Reward for the good and punishment for bad. We’d all like to think so. Me too. After all, it’s right here the NT, in black and white, from the very lips of Jesus. What could be more plain? MF, I’d like to bring to your attention a number of very interesting facts about this parable—facts we don’t normally see because we’re so conditioned after decades of hearing this story and taking it literally, that we’ve arrived at unwarranted conclusions.

The first is the moral standard that is being used to judge the sheep and the goats—to judge you, me and the rest of the world. Take particular note MF: The standard of judgment, for making it into heaven or hell, according to this parable from Jesus, has got nothing to do with what we believe or don’t believe … about God and whether he’s really 3 gods rolled into one; about Jesus and whether he’s really born of a virgin; about the Bible and whether it’s God’s spoken words literally dictated to human writers.

Nor is the standard for heaven and hell even about our behaviour towards sinners, adulterers, murderers, rapists, homosexuals—that they should be stoned, as God commands in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, Ch 17ff. None of this has got anything to do with whether one goes to heaven or hell—at least not according to this parable.

2: MF, if we took this parable as the only basis for heaven and hell, we would be wrong to do so. Why? Because we’d be taking it out of context, as if everything else said by Jesus in all the gospels was irrelevant. Reading this parable, you’d never know that God was a God of Love, first and foremost, and not a God of Judgment. MF, if I ever believed that God was anything else besides a God of Love, I would have quit as a pastor and as a Christian.

We must not take this parable out of context, that the entire Gospel of MT was originally addressed to Jews, to get them to believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah by proof-texting more than 100 OT passages which refer to the Messiah as Jesus. This picture of heaven and hell, with God as Judge, is straight out of the Jewish OT, which is why this parable exists only in Matthew.

3. Parables are not meant to be taken literally. Jesus used parables to speak about the eternal, invisible God in human language. Jesus never meant parables to be a literal description of God or his heavenly kingdom, or even hell for that matter.

4. Just how much punishment should we human beings endure, in this life or the next? How are we humans to be properly punished, before we can be saved? It’s a major question in Christian theology. If we are deserving of punishment, then we are all deserving of punishment, because we have all fallen short of the glory of God, says St. Paul. We’re all sinners. We’re all goats and all deserving of hell. Yes, we do our best to be Good Samaritans, but in the final analysis, we fail. We even fail at following Jesus.

5. The fact is: Every person is both a sheep and a goat, both good and bad, both good and evil. If we are to be saved, MF, then it’s all of us, or none of us—and then it’s only and always by God’s Grace. God so loved the whole world, and not just a part of it. Jesus is God’s verification of that love for all of us and for the entire world.

6. MF, I believe this: Because the judgment of hell is already upon us in this life, will not God find a place in his heart and in her heaven for us all? Not because we’re so wonderful, or even because we ask for forgiveness of our sins, but simply because God loves us.

MF, let me end this tough sermon to write and even more difficult to listen to, by talking about unwarranted conclusions and perspectives when it comes to the Bible. I’ve got my interpretation of this parable, which you’ve heard. You may or may not agree with me, and that’s ok. Why? Because I don’t preach for your agreement or disagreement. But I preach to allow the HS to transform real listeners and seekers, including myself! Trouble is, the legions who have disagreed with me—whether in newspaper articles I’ve written over the span of some 15 years, or the 4,000 plus sermons I’ve preached—the many, many who have disagreed with me, have tended to play God —that they are right, I’m definitely wrong and therefore I’m on my way to hell in a handbasket.

MF, listen up and listen well: The Bible is the best book in the world, and if we’re really honest, it’s also the worst book in the world. Why? Not because of its contents, but because of the spiritual maturity or immaturity of its readers. In the hands of loveless, judgmental Christians, the Bible is credited with more hatred, bigotry, war, evil and killing than almost any other book ever written. That’s a fact, MF.

MF, the Bible is also capable of great good; but we all understand it at our own stage of emotional and spiritual development. If we’re still black and white, rigid thinkers, who need certitude and control at every step—well, a God of love feels quite out of reach. No matter what biblical passage is given to us, we will interpret it in a mean-spirited, vengeful, literal and controlling way—because that’s the way we do life itself. That’s who we are inside and that’s why we desperately need spiritual transformation!

Have you ever noticed that hateful people see hatred everywhere? They are always thinking someone’s out to screw them over big time. They create problems wherever they go. In their hands, the Bible is poisonous. What they see in the Bible is what they are inside: judgmental and self-righteous, arrogant and always right.

They’re like the third servant in last Sunday’s parable: mistrustful, not able to trust themselves or anyone else. And so, they lay it you or me. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been assigned to the fiery flames of perdition by such Christians, who act as if they are God—judge and jury. Hell exists for them alright. But it’s always for others—never for themselves.

So MF, how can we Christians get out of the vicious cycle of terrible hell-like interpretations of Scripture? How? We must own our own projections! We must own the projections we project onto others—their motives and manipulations, their sins and short-comings We must also own the projections we put onto God, which is whenever we act like we’re God. Because if we ascribe hell-fire and brimstone to God, then we’re really in trouble spiritually. Why? Because then, we have no way out, no exit from the hell to which we have assigned ourselves.

This pattern is why so many of our problems are psychological in their manifestations, but spiritual in their solutions. In the Middle Ages, most folks could see spiritual solutions, but not understand the psychological symptoms. Today, we can articulate the psychological indicators, but most of us don’t see the spiritual problem. Today, we’re often trapped in psychological problems, but are unable to see a God to whom we need to surrender.

To sum up, MF. I do not believe, nor can I ever believe, that there is wrath and judgment with God at all. It’s theologically impossible when God is Love itself, which is what God is: Love. That’s the good news for us this morning, MF. AMEN

For to everyone who has something, even more will be given. But for the person who has nothing, even the little that he has will be taken away from him. Mt 25:29

Dear Friends. The Church is like manure! Pile it together and it stinks up the neighbourhood! But spread it around and it enriches the world. This farm imagery reminds me of a Call interview I once had at a bilingual (Ger/Eng) country parish in Alberta farmland. The then Bishop, Don Sjoberg, was at the interview and he introduced me as a pastor with 4 academic degrees, including a Ph.D. The Chairman of the Search Committee, a German pig farmer, then said, “Bishop, we all know what B.S. stands for, and M.S. stands for “more of the same,” and Ph.D. stands for “piled higher and deeper.” I did not go to that congregation.

After 40 plus years of parish ministry, I’m convinced that the use of our time, talents and treasures is an integral factor in the life of the church. The generous use of our financial gifts is essential in countries of extreme poverty, hunger and hardship, like the Sudan, Syria or Afghanistan. Over the last few decades, our contributions have assisted tsunami and hurricane victims, earthquake and flood victims around the world. Our donations have also helped sustain Zion House in Tanzania, as well as our Synodical office in Kitchener, our National Church office in Winnipeg and our Lutheran Seminaries in Waterloo and Saskatoon.

Of course, our personal time, talents and treasures have been crucial to the life of every parish, including our own. But, over the din, I can still hear one particular Finance Chairman waxing eloquent with this line: The good news is that we’ve got the money to reach the budget. The bad news is that the money is in our pockets! And by that he meant to say: When we think that we don’t have enough to operate the church, we then need to cut back and save our valuable commodities and financial assets. I suspect, we all grew up thinking and acting that way. I did.

Growing up in Burlington in the 50s and 60s, money was scarce for my grandparents who raised me. My grandfather’s litany of one-liners were always pointed: Spar dein Geld, Peterle. Save your money, little Peter. He also extended that to other valuables: Save your car. Save the kms!

Trouble is: In the paradox of faith, only those who give will grow, and those who hoard will die—those who give unselfishly, who generously share their gifts, these are folks who know the cost of ministry and are prepared to pay the price. These are folks who come away enriched, and not impoverished, who are faithful in their giving, Sunday after Sunday, not only what they have, but more importantly in giving who they are.

Jesus’ parable today is another barnburner. Two servants invest or earn the landlord 10 and 5 times the gold given them. But the third servant buries his one talent, earns nothing and is promptly removed. Jesus’ conclusion says it all: To everyone who has, more will be given; but from him who has not, even what he has not, will be taken away!

You know, MF, when Jesus tells a story, he knows how to get our attention, and with today’s parable, Jesus wants to get under our skin. Since we’ve all heard this parable many times, what’s the bottom line of this economic tale of woe? What of course gets our immediate attention is the fate of the third servant and his poor investment strategy. MF, did you know what the most precious commodity on Bay Street or Wall Street, next to money, is? It’s information. If your money is tied up in stocks, it is only as good as your information. So, what did the other investors know, that our poor hapless third investor did not?

Since information is the most important thing in the marketplace, then the worst thing is incorrect or misleading information. We don’t know what other investors knew. We only know what the third investor thought he knew —namely, that it was ok to bury the gold coin worth 1,000 buckaroos. He then tells us why he does this by way of a rationalization—an excuse, really: “Sir, he says to his boss–I know you are a hard man; you reap harvests where you did not sow and you gather crops where you did not scatter seed. I was afraid, so I hid your money in the ground. So, look, I now return what belongs to you!”

MF, imagine trying to escape responsibility, the next time someone like a boss or friend entrusts you with some cold hard cash. Or imagine the wife of this poor fellow: Like every wife, she wants her husband to have something tender about him, especially legal tender, but then he pulls a stunt like this. And if we want to know what God thinks of money, look at some of the people he gives it to—like this poor schmuck.

Notice MF, that the Master response does not deny this description of himself: hard, calculating, demanding, severe. He knows that money is not everything, but it’s sure way ahead of the competition. The problem here is that our poor friend had good information about his boss, but came to wrong conclusions. It was like the French who in 1940 built this magnificent defensive line across their country, the Maginot Line, to keep the enemy out. And so, the Germans then went around the line and attacked from the sides and back. Accurate information always presupposes the intelligent use of it.

Our hapless investor knew that his boss was tough as nails, shrewd as a fox, with impossible expectations to boot, and so, for fear of losing his one golden coin, he hid it! Like a pirate, he buried the loot! Today we’d say he put it in a coffee can or hid it under the mattress. But the meaning is still the same. He hid the 1000 smackaroos!! For him, it wasn’t “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” It was “Nothing ventured, nothing lost.” He discovered that what he buried was indeed lost. His description of the boss was spot on! If you ventured much for him, you were greatly rewarded. But if you risked nothing, you would lose everything, including the shirt on your back, which is what happened to the 3rd servant and then some.

Now, if this parable was strictly about finances and capital, then it would reassure those who put their money in trust and their trust in money! But this story isn’t just about mutual funds and investment strategy. It’s about responsibility and accountability, as well as incentives and invectives about doing the best we can for the one who has placed trust and confidence in us.

MF, if this parable were only about money, then this is the worst form of economic strategy and punitive capitalism around, where the filthy rich get more filthy and the poor get more penniless. But like every Jesus parable, this one is more than surface stuff. It’s also about possibility and potential. The first 2 investors understood the financial capacity of what they had be given, if they could act with prudence and risk. And risk, MF, is something we all know and have personally experienced.

Like money in stocks, life is risky. When we make decisions about our money, our lives or even our loves affairs, then we risk disappointment big time. Marriage, eg, may grand, but divorce is about 250 grand. I once knew a man who divorced 6 times, after which I told him: “You would have risked better, had you divorced your mother.” American psychoanalyst, William James, once said: “Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a risk. And it is only by risking our persons from one hour to the next that we live at all.”

Well, the first two servants in the parable ventured risk and won. But the third servant refused to risk, and so lost not only the gold piece he was given, but he also loses himself. MF, he loses his identity—who he is. He is no longer himself, you see. His sin is that he cannot see further than the security of the moment. He trusts neither himself nor the master, and so, by fear or by caution, he is driven to inaction. “Not to decide is to decide,” said Martin Buber, 20th century Jewish existentialist. Not to act is to act, but also in an unthinking and unimaginative way. This servant is simply not fit to be trusted because he cannot trust himself—not even to carry out the orders of the boss to increase the talent he had been given.

Think of it, MF: Those who have imagination and who risk beyond the security and fears of the moment, often gain the benefits of their foresight. They are prophets and visionaries—not just shrewd investors, but valiant dreamers moved by insight, as well as sight. They see things that are not, and act upon them, and thus bring them into fruition. Trouble is: We all know what Jesus said about prophets on their home turf: They’re not welcome! They’re not appreciated. No one will listen to them!

A good piece back, I watched a movie/documentary entitled Mandela and de Klerk, with Sidney Poitier and Michael Cain in the principal roles. The real star was not Mandela, but de Klerk, the former president of South Africa. Why? Not because he was good or virtuous, but because he acted to save the future of his country. He risked moving beyond the safe and predictable present to the necessary future. Yes, he was out-maneuvered and manipulated, but at the end of the day, he risked to advance a process for change and thereby saved the country he loved. He used his talents and made them work for his country and not for himself.

Why does Jesus tell us this parable, if it’s not a lesson in money and economics? It is to remind us and underscore the critical importance of courage and risk. Courage and risk—two necessary qualities in working for God in his Kingdom. MF, we can’t just be good, moral or even right. We must also risk, because the way forward always includes risk. So, the way forward for congregations to grow in numbers is for members to risk their time, energies and efforts to beat the bushes for new members. Otherwise, parishes will die a slow death, which is precisely what is happening now to many of them.

MF, to fail to do what we know we can do and must do is not modesty or humility, it’s cowardice and perhaps laziness. Not to engage the talents God has given us, not to put our abilities and possessions to use in service of the Gospel also displays a lack of trust and irresponsibility. What good would all the things we own and all the gifts God gives us if we did not use them to do good, not just for ourselves and our families, not just for this church, but for the globally poor and dispossessed, the millions of refugees, war-torn, earthquake and hurricane-ravaged who need our help, because they’re also part of the global human family with us!

Each of you knows what God has given you. The question is always the same: What use are you making of God’s gifts? Are you hiding them or hoarding them? Are you using them only for yourself or are you sharing? And if you’re sharing, what kind of sharing is it? Do you share only what’s left over? What’s God share? What gifts and talents, money and material possessions do you pour into your work in the vineyard where God has planted you to bloom and blossom on behalf of her kingdom?

Your money, and mine, can buy a house and a cottage. But money can’t buy you a home. Your money can buy a conventional clock and a digital, computer-like watch, which does amazing things; but neither one can get you additional time, nor more time at the end of your life. Your money can buy acquaintances but can’t buy genuine friends who really care for you. MF, it may well be later than you and I think. It may well be time to write the script of your life, because if you don’t do it, some one else will.

In the final analysis, MF, nothing will change your life until you determine what you’re going to do with the gifts God has given to you in trust and to which he holds you responsible and accountable. If you know what you want your legacy to be, then start to create it now, because there’s no better time than the present.

After more than 40 years as a preacher with more than 4,000 sermons under my ever-expanding belt, it is abundantly clear that sermons in themselves have no long-term effects. Even their short-term results are negligible. That’s why you have to find God’s truth for yourself—really find it and believe in it and act upon it for its own sake. In short, MF, you alone must exercise God’s gifts with responsibility and accountability. Because if you don’t, you will not only lose God’s gifts, you will lose the truth which once set you free. And, you will lose your own identity, to the point where you will no longer know who you are anymore.

Today, MF, right now in fact, is the best time to finally look, not at our losses, but at our graces, not on the negative side of the ledger, but on the positive side; and then to decide, for the sake of the Master, how best to use the gifts he has given you. And if you’d like a cliché with which to remember this parable, it is this: “If you don’t use it, you will lose it!” AMEN

And so Jesus concluded: Tend to your light, because you also do not know the day nor the hour. Mt 25:13.

Dear Friends. During the time at which Matthew was writing his Gospel, the Christian Church was a church in waiting—waiting for the fulfillment of a promise, in which Jesus of Nazareth was the down-payment on that promise. In Jesus, followers received a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven: a world of compassion, in which the poor would be lifted up, barriers broken down, the marginalized and outcasts accepted, enemies would become friends, violence and war would end, broken hearted healed, love and forgiveness reign. Cynicism and despair would fall away like an old snakeskin. In Jesus, the people discovered a spiritual fire we call love.

Trouble is, by the time Matthew wrote his gospel, around 80 AD, 50 years after Jesus’ ascension— countless folks were asking serious questions about how much longer before Jesus’ Second Return. In today’s Epistle from 1 Thess, written in 51 AD—2 decades after Jesus—Paul stated that Jesus would return during the lifetime of his readers:

We who are living when Christ returns will be gathered up along with the dead in Christ to meet the Lord in the air. (4:17)

Then, 15 years later, AD 66, Jerusalem, together with the Temple of Solomon, was destroyed by the Romans, after which the Jews dispersed throughout Europe. By that time MF, waiting for Jesus’ return became a serious theological and ethical problem. How many times did Jesus himself say that the “Son of Man was returning in the lifetime of his listeners”? That’s why in this morning’s gospel, Matthew takes another parable of Jesus and tweaks it, in order to speak about the problem of waiting for Jesus’ return.

Ten bridesmaids are waiting for a groom, who, like Jesus, is delayed in returning. Five of the bridesmaids are wise, the other five are foolish. The wise ones tend to their lamps, keeping a fresh supply of oil so that when the bridegroom finally does arrive in the dark, they can see him and follow him. The foolish bridesmaids exhaust their oil supply, are forced to leave and buy oil from dealers in the middle of the night. Of course, the bridegroom arrives just when they’re gone. Their wait was in vain, because they failed to tend to their lights.

MF, tending to the light—title of this sermon—is a metaphor meant to deepen our spiritual consciousness, intensify our locating Jesus in this loveless world or seeing him in the anguished faces of our society. Tending to the light means that we prepare ourselves to see Jesus and then follow him. Very little is sweetness and light given the global pandemic and the ominous challenges to democracy by the current US President.

However tempting it is to stay in our comfort-bubble, Jesus tells us: Tend to the Light, so that it outshines the darkness and the chaos around you and in you.

Well MF: Are we Tending to the Light, with oil to spare? After all, Jesus may well arrive in the middle of the night, in the middle of our toil and trouble, our heartache and heartbreak, our fright and flight from COVID, and our withering escape from all that life throws at us? Are we wise or foolish in our readiness to see Jesus and follow him, wherever he leads? Only by Tending to the Light can we see the world through the clear unflinching eyes of Jesus, as in today’s parable.

MF, US citizens voted in record numbers this week, but many felt demoralized and countless others displayed serious distrust of their politicians and their political institutions. The most vulnerable Americans experienced profound pessimism from which they continue to suffer. Millions of Black and poor White Americans know that the system does not work, especially not for them. They are very depressed and angry.

MF, you may know that Jesus never condoned any one political system and yet, voting in a democracy is, for me, a deeply moral and personal act. Voting is a decisive statement of Christian faith: that I matter, justice and democracy matter, other people matter and that light, hope and healing matter—begun by the spiritual and political act of voting.

Tragically, for too many religious people, whether Christians, Moslem or Jews or others—the public and political forum has historically remained the most disconnected from their faith. It’s as if God has absolutely nothing to do with Caesar, that church and state are eternally separated, and that faith is always and only private, never public, and certainly never political. In fact, in the first 2,000 years, Christianity has kept its faith and morality mostly private, interior, and heaven-bound, with very few direct implications for what we now call our public, collective and social life.

We’re so intensely focused on personal salvation, that we’ve failed to connect our inner spiritual world with the outer physical world. It’s as if the light we’re supposed to shine in the dark is only for our own personal benefit and redemption. Trouble is: personal private salvation does not even come close to making us members of the Body of Christ, much less participate in that Body, which is to turn our focus outward and not inward, which is what personal salvation does.

MF, how can I be good for the sake of my neighborhood and city, my church and community, my world and Mother Earth herself, if religion and salvation is private, if tending to the light is only to benefit me, personally, with salvation or other so-called religious rewards? Tending to the light means that we do not seek our own ego enhancement, but the spiritual and physical well-being of others, just as Jesus did.

Tending to the Light means that we allow the light of Christ to also shine in politically dark and desolate places.

After all, Jesus allowed himself to be put death by Caesar’s puppet, Pilate. His crucifixion made a political statement with political consequences! His crucifixion wasn’t just spiritual in nature. It was also a political and social statement, as well as morally and ethically unjust.

We must use the power of the Gospel to critique the political Left, Right and Center in their public positions, even while knowing that political changes, of themselves, including changing prime ministers and presidents—these changes will never fully bring about the goodness, equality or transformation which the Gospel offers the world.

The light which we tend must shine in the darkness—our own and others. Why? So that like Jesus, we can be in solidarity with others, as opposed to the usually exclusive concern with “our personal rights.” MF, because we belong to the Body of Christ, Jesus expects us to use our gifts in service for our hurting world and not just for our private sense of “salvation.”

MF, we all live in a time of much hostility and it’s not just the Americans who flirt with the collapse of democracy. The era of Trump can happen here and anywhere, and it already has. We must defend ourselves from the temptation to pull back from involvement and retreat into our own isolated positions, where I’m right and everything else is fake news. Such temptation is the illusion of separation—like America first, England first.

Tending to the Light demands our own ongoing transformation, often changing sides to be where the pain is, just as Jesus did. Rather than accusing others of sin on the political Left or the religious Right, Jesus “became sin” for them, for us and for the world, MF. He stood in solidarity with the problem itself, and his compassion was itself the light and the healing of our wounds, because only wounds can heal other wounds.

Tending to the Light, MF, is no small matter, especially not in our often ugly and injurious present climate, which is especially true the US. It’s become all too easy to justify fear-filled and hateful thoughts, words, and actions in defense against the “other” side. We project our anxiety elsewhere and misdiagnose the real problem—the real evil—forever exchanging it for smaller and seemingly more manageable problems.

The over-defended ego always sees the hatred and attacks by others, but never acknowledges its own hatred and attacks. We do not want to give way on important moral issues, but this often means we don’t want to give way on our need to be right, superior and in control. Nor do we give way to our deepest illusion: Most of us do not see things as they are; we see things as we are and wish them to be.

As I said earlier, Jesus never condoned one political system over another. Like you, I believe that democracy, though not perfect, is the best of all possible systems of government. But democracy is at another crossroads, especially in Europe where there are no national borders, or currently in the US, in spite of Biden’s win yesterday. Democracy allows us to be serious about what it means to be a Christian who gives to God what is God’s and gives to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and without confusing the two. MF, in the midst of political polarization and division, it’s very difficult to exercise our spiritual values of loving, living, giving, forgiving, thanksgiving, justice, equality, faith and hope.

Tending to the Light makes serious spiritual demands on all of us: To heal division means that we are obliged to finally identify our own personal value system. It requires that we finally admit what really drives our individual social decisions, our votes, our political alliances, our real spiritual values. Is it our need to be or look powerful? Or, is it our desire for personal control? Do we have the courage to confront political and moral corruption? Or, is cowardice our secret spiritual sickness, in which case personal and national health will only get worse?

MF, if democracy fails here in NA and in Europe, how will it possibly succeed anywhere else? Tending to the Light means that to “love one another as I have loved you” is not only the foundation of personal relationships within a civilized society, but is the groundwork of national and international respect, as well as the underpinnings of global security and peace.

To be one people and one nation, MF, we don’t need to all be in one party and deliver one set of policies. What could be more dull, more stagnant, more destructive of the soulfulness it takes to create and preserve the best of the human enterprise than such a narrow-minded view of life? 

What we need is to Tend to the Light, which means that we have one heart for the world and one single-minded commitment to making our country—not the best or even the greatest—that would be sheer arrogance and idolatry—but to make our country work for everyone—absolutely everyone—but especially the poorest and most vulnerable among us. We need to create one national soul—one heart large enough to listen to one another, not only for our own sake, but also for the sake the world, including Mother Earth. Why? Because God loves the whole world and not just Canada or even the US.

By Tending to the Light, we first begin within our own hearts and souls, because the fact is—politics, like government—does not exist for itself and, if it did, that is precisely when it becomes death-dealing, if not entirely evil. MF, in the end, politics is nothing more than an instrument of social good and human development. It is meant to be the right arm of those who give to God what belongs to God.

Tending to the Light means we dare not accept any kind of politics, economics or even salvation, based on violence, social pressure or moral coercion. God saves by loving and including, not excluding or punishing.

Tending to the Light means that, within our politics and religion, we need to soften our hearts toward all suffering, to help us see how we ourselves have been “bitten” by hatred and violence, and to know that God’s heart has always been softened towards us and the world. Accepting this truth, we gain compassion toward ourselves and all others who suffer. It largely happens on the psychological and unconscious level, but that is exactly where our hurts and our will to violence lie. Christianity must touch us at this brainstem level, or it is not transformative at all.

History is continually graced with people who have been transformed by the HS in this way, learning to act beyond and outside their self-interest for the good of the world. They are Christians who have Tended to the Light. They are exemplars of public Christian values. They include Nelson Mandela, Corazon Aquino, Stephen Lewis, Bishop Desmond Tutu, John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And add to them Corrie ten Boom, Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr, Óscar Romero, César Chávez, and many others.

These inspiring figures gave the world strong evidence that the mind of Christ still inhabits the world. They have tended to the light, just as we must Tend to the Light. It means becoming beacons of light and hope for others.

MF, God bless our hearing of these words, especially in these chaotic and dangerous times. AMEN.

Dear Friends. Today is All Saints Sunday, which makes me wanna digress over a witty line from Sherry: “If you think it’s tough being a saint, try being married to one!” So, my come-back this past week was that “plaster saints are always more honoured than living ones.” And because Sherry is rarely at a loss for clever repartees, she responded with this one: “My problem, sweetie, is how to tell the saint from the sinner, when I know both intimately!” Well, it’s tough to top that, but I did construct a little poem for my sweetie:

My grandparents thought I was crazy; my kids think I’m a bookish blah. But my true love thinks I’m wonderful—the handsomest she ever saw! So, who am I to disagree, with one so sensible as she!

And before I forgot: Last night was not Spooktacular at all. We had not one spook, goblin or ghost at our door. Now, that’s ok because that leaves all the treats for me. Mentioning Halloween, I heard on the radio a few weeks before, that the politically correct weren’t going to call it Halloween anymore. They want us to call it Spook Night, or something like that. Why? Because Halloween is really a Christian word—All Hallows Eve and therefore not sufficiently inclusive for a multicultural society, which is to say: We need to get All Saints Day back into proper focus.

One of our problems is that we end up regarding only the holy men and women of the past as the saints of the church: St Peter & St Paul, St Francis & St Augustine, St Catherine of Siena & Mother Teresa of Calcutta. But the fact is, said Martin Luther—every Christian is not only a sinner, but also a saint at the same time. In Latin Luther called it “simul justus et pecator.” We are declared saints by God, not because of what we’ve accomplished, but because God loves us. But Luther also maintained and rightly so, that we are not individual saints, only collective saints. That’s why the creeds say: We believe in the communion of saints.

In the 4 full time parishes I served from 1979 to 2011, candles were always lit on All Saints Day to commemorate the deaths of the parish members over the previous year. Each one of them was God’s child and an heir to God’s Kingdom and therefore a saint—saints who live with God in her Kingdom, which of course is also true of the saints of this parish over the course of more than 200 years.

The biblical view of our human condition is that if we were left to ourselves, our lives would end in emptiness and our names would be nothing but dust. But because of Jesus, God overlooks our human condition, forgives our sins, regards us as dust no more, and in fact calls us and elevates us to be his saints. For our part on this side of the grave, death may seem like an enemy, but it is in fact only a door—an entrance to the surprise which awaits us, which includes the folks we never thought would get into heaven. Nor did they think we’d make it to heaven. Touchee! Surprises all around!

Of course, I know full well, MF, that death, cemeteries and gravestones are the least humourous situations known to us, which we try to put off as long as we can. When death finally arrives, we camouflage it. At a funeral home, we say, “Doesn’t he/she look natural?” Why don’t we say, “Doesn’t he look dead?”

MF, the grieving process which none of us can circumvent, would be easier if we had a sense of humor about ourselves and about the deceased. After all, wouldn’t our loved ones, who are now with God, want us not only to live life to the fullest, but have a sense of humor about life, especially since they’re gone?

So, I think about the gravestones which Sherry & I have visited over the years—funny ones, which I think I’d like to have. Here are some choice epitaphs, beginning with two from the Old West in Tombstone, AZ. Remember Tombstone? It’s the location of the Gunfight at the OK Corral—the 30 second shootout between Wyatt Earp and his brothers against the Clanton Gang which took place at 3 PM on Wed. Oct 26, 1881, Tombstone, Arizona Territory, US. Sherry & I saw a reenactment in Tombstone some 5-6 years ago. The first 2:

Here lies Les Moore.
Shot six times from a 44.
No less. No More.

Under the clover and under the trees;
Here lies the body of Jonathan Pease.
Pease ain’t here, only his pod.
Pease shelled out bullets,
received some in return
and then went home to God.

The next 3 epitaphs are from the Maritimes:

In memory of Beza Wood, departed this life Nov. 2, 1837. Aged 45. Here lies one Wood, enclosed in wood. One wood within another wood. The outer wood is very good. But the inner wood, we are unable to praise. Much less to say.

Sacred to the Memory of Mr. Jared Bates, who died Aug. 6th, 1904. His widow, aged 24, who mourns as one who can be comforted lives at 7 Elm Street. She possesses every qualification for a Goodly and Godly Wife.

Here lies as silent clay, Miss Arabella Young, who on the 21st of May, 1871, finally began to hold her tongue.

On a serious level, Benjamin Franklin’s tombstone is often quoted at American funerals, even to this day.

The Body of Benjamin Franklin, Printer,
Like the covering of an old book, its contents torn out

And stripped of its lettering and gilding, lies here,
Food for worms;

But the work shall not be lost; as he believed, it will

Appear once more, in a new and more elegant edition,
Revised and corrected by the Author of all Life.

Or how about an epitaph from the apostle Paul: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.” These meaningful words would be suitable epitaphs for any one of us.

While writing this sermon, I thought of Melanie & Heinrich (Henry) Schlang. Their surname was actually German—Schlange, which is the word for snake. I buried both of them some 2 decades back. Heinrich died of old age at 96 and Melanie of ovarian cancer at 92. They lived in Scarborough, east end, on a dead-end street—lived in an old run down farm house since their marriage some 70 years earlier. Henry was a curmudgeon his lifelong, but Melanie was always a bundle of joy. I’d bring her flowers and give her a hug. They attended the German services at Epiphany like clockwork.

My first visit to them, Heinrich says: Pastor, you’ve rightly told us that humour is a gift from Lord. Fine & good. But do you really need to exercise it in church? For her part, Melanie, who, on her death bed, says: Pastor Peter, if the Lord wants to take me home, I’m happy. But if he doesn’t, then my family will be happy. So don’t you worry. I’m in good hands.

I smiled and said “Aren’t we all, Melanie?” “Whether we live on this side of the grave or on the other, we’re all in God’s hands. We’re his saints. We’re her children—all of us. How great & grand is that, Melanie.” She too smiled a big grin, nodded and gave me a hug. In the final analysis, MF, we can laugh at death! Why? Because for those who have placed their trust in God, death is not the end. Laughter can indeed relate to the hereafter. If we have peace with God, we have every reason to laugh.

So, let all the theological killjoys and the philosophical sad sacks who discourage humor bow down at the feet of God, who not only gives and forgives, but smiles and laughs, because it is God who will have the last laugh over death and all the ills of the world.

MF, you may know that Mother Teresa once diagnosed all the ills of the world this way: We’ve forgotten that we belong to each other, and when we belong to each other, we face death and suffering together and do so with love and laughter.

Kinship is what happens to us and for us, when we stand together, in community and in communion as saints and sinners alike. When we are in kinship, then all that which is essential falls into place; but without kinship, there is no justice, no peace, no love.

Look at the Black Lives Matter Movement—a movement of kinship, related in community with one another, aiming for justice for the many black lives which have been lost through police violence. But when justice is realized, peace materializes, and love prevails.

Kinship, MF, is not easy to achieve, because too often there is an “us, over here” and “them, over there” mentality—an “us” and “them” separation. It is God’s dream that there is no more daylight between “us” and “them.” Serving others is good—but only a start. It’s just the hallway which leads to God’s Grand Ballroom. That’s why kinship is not just serving the other, but it is being one with the other. “Us” and “them” becoming “we, together.”

Jesus was not just “a man for others”; he was one with others. And that’s a world of difference.

Only kinship—inching ourselves closer to creating a community of saints and sinners, related to one another as kin. We stand together with those whose dignity has been denied. I think of the Indigenous Peoples of our county—the terror and terrible things executed against them over the centuries, including in our lifetime. You may know that after 25 years of always having to boil their water, the 300 Neskantaga First Nations Community in northwestern Ontario said: Enough is enough and have begun to resituate in Thunderbay—unless the federal government steps in at the last moment.

That’s why we Christians need to locate ourselves with the deprived, powerless and voiceless. At life’s edges, we join Jesus by connecting with the easily despised, the marginalized and ostracized, the lost and forgotten. We stand with the terrorized and demonized, so that the terrorizing and demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable, so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away, like the disposable society we continue to be.

MF, the kinship of saints is what God presses us on to be, knowing that the time for kinship arrived long, long ago. As kin, we finally become a communion of subjects and no longer a collection of objects. We are held together by the love we have for one another and no longer thrown away as another object which has become useless and expendable, like so many seniors and elderly have become.

The fact is, this kinship, this communion of “us” and “them” together, is the recurring experience of the saints of all religions. And because we are all related and all kin together, every one of us is exactly what God had in mind when she made us. MF, this is a truth no bullet can pierce and no death can touch. This truth is huge!

A foundation of relationship of kinship, of saints and sinners alike, is what all real religion and genuine spirituality is about. To be connected to one another, to God and Mother Earth—that’s the gift we need to be and to share with others. The way of Jesus is always an invitation to living, loving and relating. While we may not always recognize it, we are all together in a web of mutual interdependence. When we recognize it on a spiritual level, we call it love.

MF, I believe this: For God to be good, God is one. But for God to be loving, God must be two, because love is always a relationship. But for God to share joy and delight, variety and diversity, God must be three. Why? Because happiness only occurs when two persons share their common joy and delight in a third something—their togetherness—their kinship and all which kinship entails. Just witness a couple after the birth of their new baby, proving this is true.

The people I have served and cared for, were not just the people who were members of my parishes, but were people who also cared for me and they were people who also loved what I loved: equality, justice, truth, freedom, relating, caring and of course humor.

People who care about community, the Gospel, the poor, justice, honesty—this is where the flow is easy, natural and life-giving. Two people excited about the same thing are the beginning of almost everything new, creative and risky in our world. Surely this is what Jesus meant by his first and most basic definition of church as two or three gathered together in my name, there I am.

That’s a spiritual community of people who will treat each other as subjects and not objects. That’s why there is no seeking of power  over one another or over God herself, as if God fits into our pocket. Only by giving away, sharing and letting go, can there be an infinity of trust and mutuality. This has the power to change all relationships: in friendship and marriage, in culture and society, and even in international and global relationships.

If we believe in a God who is 1 God in 3—Father, Son & HS—then we must hold fast to the truth that God is also community—a completely loving, mutually self-giving, endlessly generative relationship between equal partners. We are included in that community MF, and so is everyone else! MR, we need a relational image of God, and not a static one of a Santa-like figure up there, somewhere. Only a relational image of God can change our politics, even our religion, can change our gender relationships, even change our friends and foes. Tragically, most of Christian history was never relational in its practice—was never a matter of kinship with others. Too often Christianity & Church was just a matter of proving we Christians were right and everyone else wrong.

Last Page. Last 2 paragraphs.

Well MF, let me close with this little anecdote. I remember a Richmond Virginia seminary professor of mine who, in his huge southern drawl, was waxing eloquent during one class session about all the problems in this life, but then suddenly he said: “I bin reading my Bible and I done took a peak at the last chapter and the last verse….And Jesus wins! Jesus wins!! Alleluia!”.

As a postscript, I would not frame Christianity in terms of winning and losing; but if I were to, and Jesus wins, then the whole world wins. Why? Because God loves the whole world. AMEN

Dear Friends. Once again we gather to celebrate the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, led by Martin Luther in his search for a gracious God. With the posting of his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Castle Church door on October 31, 1517, Luther unleashed a reformation against Roman abuses which began the Protestant Church and also changed the nature of the church itself, from its humble beginnings in the first century into an institution which, though weakened by division, still controlled the world.

Although the church has always thought itself to be something like God—unchanging and unchangeable—the fact is that the church is precisely one of change, like everything else in life. After all, change also reflects the nature of God; otherwise, there would be no change in the world, nor in our lives. Certainly, the Reformation was nothing short of cataclysmic in the change it brought to the church. Priests and nuns were allowed to marry and of course not just to one another, as Father Martin & Sister Katie did. The Bible was translated into the language of the people—German—so they could finally read it for themselves and then mass produced for the first time by the Gutenberg Press.

Music became a staple for worship which was now also conducted in German—“the language God meant only for horses”—at least so said the Pope of the time, one Leo XIII.

Salvation now became a matter of God’s free Grace and no longer something to be earned or even dispensed by the church. The theology dealing with statues and saints, the authority of the church and the pope, all of this was changed—in the twinkling of an eye.

Change and reform! MF, it’s been in the nature of the church since it’s inception in the first century, when Christianity began as a sect within Judaism in which Gentiles expected to become circumcised Jews before they could become Christians. But since the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, the church then turned to the Gentiles for conversion and growth. The Church which was first Jewish with one God, suddenly became Gentile with seemingly 3 gods—Father, Son & HS. MF, it took 2 centuries before the church finally agreed upon a doctrine we call the Trinity before 3 gods became 1 God again. That was 325 AD at the Council of Nicea.

Only 8 years later—333 AD—the Church became institutionalized, as the State religion of the now Holy Roman Empire, whose Emperor, Constantine, became a Christian, and whose armies defended the church. The Church and its popes then began to rule the world from Rome. Those outside the church, especially Moslems and Jews, were enemies, doomed to hell, unless they converted.

On the other hand, the Church did make positive contributions over the centuries. It preserved civilization through the dark ages, producing exquisite music, architecture and art. The Church began the system of higher education that we today take for granted. Even the roots of capitalism have its beginnings in Christianity, in which the Church built the first hospitals and established a person’s right to health care. Church & Christianity gave birth to the fact that life is sacred, an awareness that still underlies our western culture. These and other accomplishments over the centuries were enormous!

Tragically, Church & Christianity also gave us religious persecution in the name of biblical fundamentalism which endorsed slavery, oppressed women, justified wars, opposed scientific knowledge, vilified and killed social outcasts including homosexuals, and even sanctioned anti-Semitism by blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death. The Church displayed a religious imperialism over the centuries in which people of other religions—Jews first and then Moslems—were forced to convert at the point of a sword or torture. Some of the darkest centuries were that of the Crusades and the Inquisition. Tragically, Luther also contributed to this racial prejudice in his

anti-Semitic writings at the end of his life in 1546.

Luther sought a gracious God; but today’s consumer culture does not search for such a God. Nowadays, we desire self-fulfillment, actualization and knowledge. The pendulum of history has swung from ultimate control by the Church to the other extreme, where we individuals have all the rights and controls in our hands. After 17 centuries of dozens of countries professing to be Christian, Christendom has ended. Christendom is no more!

Now, that may be very hard for lots of older and conservative Christians to accept. But we must realize that the Jesus we put in the center of our religious institution was always in conflict with the system. In fact, Jesus’ ministry took place on the margins of society, outside of intsitutions and never at the center of human culture!

MF, when the Church suddenly became the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire in 313 AD, we Christians officially became the Church of the establishment. Before that decree by Emperor Constantine, the Church was of the underclass—the poor and oppressed, while also being persecuted. During its first 2 hundred years, the early Church read and understood its history from the catacombs—literally from underground, which gives us a different perspective on Christianity than that found in palaces and dictated by kings and queens.

I’m sure Constantine thought he was doing Christians a favor when he ended official persecution and made Christianity the established religion of the empire. But from my perspective, this might be the single most unfortunate thing that happened to Christianity. Once we moved from the margins of society to become the center of the world, we formed a film over our eyes—a starry haze which kept our vision of reality selective.

Thereafter, we couldn’t read anything that showed Jesus in confrontation with the establishment, because we were the establishment, and egregiously so. Clear teaching on issues of money, greed, powerlessness, nonviolence, non-control, and simplicity were moved to the sidelines, if not actually countermanded. These issues were still taken seriously by those Christians who fled to the deserts of Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Cappadocia. Their practices grew into what we now call “religious life” as observed by monks, nuns, hermits, and others who held onto the radical Gospel in so many ways.

As long as the Church bore witness from the margins of society and operated from a minority position, we Christians had greater access to the truth, the Gospel and to Jesus himself. In our time we must find a way to disestablish ourselves, to identify with powerlessness instead of power, dependence instead of independence, communion instead of individualism, peace instead of continual violence and war without end.

MF, the fact is, when we’re protecting our self-image as moral, superior, or even as “saved Christians,” we will always lose the truth. Luther’s daring search for a gracious God has been replaced with the search for personal certitude and control. When we enjoy the benefits of the establishment, we don’t need other truths beyond our religious comfort zone. But the real Gospel always keeps us in a state of longing for God, while Grace always creates a void inside of us only God can fill.

MF, let me now fast track back to 1945 to Flossenberg, a concentration camp in Nazi Germany where one Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, was martyred by hanging. Well before his execution, he anticipated the end of Christendom and subsequently proposed what he called a religionless Christianity. For Bonhoeffer, Jesus never meant to start a new religion—his disciples did that—but following Christ meant to live a way of life which was modeled after Jesus, especially after his suffering.

In his Letters & Papers from Prison, published posthumously Bonhoeffer wrote:

To live the Christian life is not to gloss over the ungodliness of this world with a veneer of religion and religiosity—to make oneself more than one is as a human being—but to live the Christian life is to participate in the life of God and his suffering in this world. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian, but it is participation in the life of God through the lives of men and women in this world. Christianity is not to be concerned with our own religious needs, problems, sins and fears, but true Christianity is to travel the road with Christ. Only by living completely in this world as Christ did are we Christians.

MF, if Christianity could separate itself from its sectarian Jewish roots in the first century in order to become the state religion of the Roman Empire in 313 under Emperor Constantine; if Christianity could separate itself from a Roman Catholicism in the 16th century to initiate a Protestant Reformation across Europe….Is it not possible that Christianity in our generation can separate itself from an outward religiosity, and enter into a universal global human and spiritual consciousness?

To quote Bonhoeffer: Christianity is not the religiosity of any man or woman, but it is that of being human, pure and simple, just as Jesus was a man, pure and simple, who did not acquire faith by living a holy life, but learned to believe by living life completely in this world.

MF, I think that that is what is slowly happening today: We have already entered into a new universal global human and spiritual consciousness. A religionless Christianity is being born—a kind of new Reformation, in which the true one living God is not Christian or Moslem, Jewish or Buddhist. That’s because the God of the universe is not an adherent to any one religion or religious system or faith tradition. Why? Because no matter how inspired religious institutions and their doctrines and dogmas may be, they are still ultimately human creations by which people in different times and places have sought to enter that which is ultimately holy.

God isn’t Lutheran or Catholic. God isn’t Christian, Moslem or even Jewish—though his son was born a Jew and died a Jew. Nor is God a he or she. God is Spirit and therefore permeates the entire universe which is trillions of light-year in size and still growing and expanding. God simply IS. God is being itself. God does not exist. The toaster on my kitchen counter exists. But God is much more than mere existence. Because God IS, God cannot possibly be defined by our human categories and institutions, nor by our brains or brawn. Until this simple lesson is heard, learned and applied, we human beings will continue to destroy each other in the name of the gods we create in our own image and in our own institutions of religion.

Jesus is God’s Son, to be sure MF, but that does not mean that he understood himself to be a Christian, much less the first Christian. Jesus was a Jew and an adherent of Judaism to his dying day. Nonetheless, he wanted to reform the tenants of Judaism. But that did not happen. He was put death for his attempted reformation of Judaism. It was the 2nd and 3rd generation of followers of Jesus who called themselves Christians and who started the Church.

And so, here we are, MF, 2000 years later, still fighting the same battles the church has always fought. This time, however, there’s a global religious fundamentalism active in the 3 major monotheistic religions. Islam and to some degree Judaism have taken on a terrorist perspective against its enemies; whereas Christianity has taken on a global fundamentalism and biblical literalism, whereby the Bible equals God, which btw is another form of idolatry called bibliolatry. MF, I believe in the Bible from cover to cover! But that doesn’t mean I take every word literally, nor should we.

I mean, if we did as Jesus said: If you eye offends you, pluck it out. Or if your arm or foot gets in the way of entering into the Kingdom, cut it off. Well, MF, if we took these words literally, we’d all be eyeless, footless, armless, toothless Christians.

Sometimes, MF, deeply religious, well-meaning and pious Christians have caused others in the church a great deal of pain, not only because of their incredible disrespect and intolerance of others and their points of view, but what’s most painful is that biblical literalists have been so absolutely sure they know what God wills and whom God saves. The fundamentalists in Jesus’ day did the same thing. That’s why they were so upset when Jesus told them that tax collectors and harlots would get into God’s kingdom before they did. And so they had Jesus killed.

Biblical fundamentalism within Christianity and the church is the result of a deep-seated, psychological fear triggered by the breakup of cultural patterns and by a loss of authority and control by traditional institutions like the church. Fundamentalism within Islam is the result, in part, of Western interference and domination in a religious culture and society in which we Western Christians have no business. But oil and money, which mix very well as we know, have given western governments like the US the pretext to interfere and invade Moslem countries like Afghanistan and Iran. Is it any wonder that Moslems regard this as holy war. Lastly, Jewish fundamentalism has arisen in the last 70 years as a defense against the huge threat posed by its Arab neighbours who outnumber Israelis 100 to one and have simultaneously vowed to eradicate Israel.

I believe that Christianity is headed towards a global, universal kind of human consciousness which is beyond all religion and the institutional church. After all, Jesus didn’t promise us a new religion, he promised us abundant life—a transformed spiritual life—a new consciousness of the Spirit, which is where our globe is headed.

I also believe that because Jesus’ life was so whole and free, he had no need to hold on to it. His was the life of one who escaped the survival mentality which marks humankind. One cannot give away what one does not possess. Jesus possessed himself. Jesus gave his life away, because he knew how to live life completely and fully. That’s why Jesus’ cross is the place where, fully alive, Jesus gave all that he had for you and me and for the world. And in that crucifixion, Jesus made God known in a way that no one ever did before.

The cross MF isn’t just a place of torture and death, it is the portrait of the love of God seen when one can give all that one is and has. The cross becomes the symbol of a God who calls us to live and love, give and forgive, and simply to be. The cross stands for a love that embraces the human diversity of race, tribe, nation, gender, sexual orientation, left-handedness, right-handedness, blue, green and brown eyes, and any and all variety and diversity found in life—because God is the God of variety and diversity.

The call to follow Jesus means to build a world in which everyone can live more fully, love more wastefully and finally have the courage to be all that God wants us to be: loving, giving, forgiving, simply being. Human life and living is included. Everyone becomes God’s chosen. No one is alien. No one is separate from God. We live in God as his image and God lives in us as her reflection—a new human-divine consciousness—a new reformation of the Spirit—a new Kingdom come and is coming!

Once Jesus is freed from the prison of religion, and what we’ve made of religion, a new reformation will dawn, a new spirituality and consciousness will occur. And that is already happening MF. I anticipate and await Jesus’ new explosion into our human consciousness. AMEN

Whose face is this? Caesar’s, they answered. Then, pay the Emperor what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to God.

Dear Friends When we are confronted by a person of deep integrity, we have a couple of choices. We can honor them by creating a space within ourselves to be influenced by them, or we can try to destroy them. We look for their weak spots, scrutinize their every move and every word, so that we can then cut them down to our size. Listen to how the religious authorities speak to Jesus in this morning’s gospel:

Teacher, we know you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.

It’s a set up, MF, plain and simple. The key phrase in their opening salvo is “you show deference to no one”.  One suspects that this backwater peasant from Galilee, this self-proclaimed rabbi, this wannabe prophet from the hick town of Nazareth, has shown the religious authorities absolutely no deference. Jesus is not impressed by their credentials. Rather, he judges according to a person’s capacity, not only to discern the will of God, but more so—to do it. Jesus doesn’t give a fig about a person’s social status.

In short, Jesus shows no partiality—in fact, he breaks down barriers others have erected: fences which have kept the outcasts and marginalized, lepers and untouchables, the sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors at a considerable distance.  

MF, it is Jesus’ unwillingness to defer to conventional authority and his apparent unwillingness to kowtow to important people—especially the religious leaders, which is about to be tested. Jesus won’t be kissing their feet, but what about the feet of the Emperor of Rome? With the stakes dramatically escalated, will Jesus defer to Rome?

That’s why they ask: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” They’re sure they’ve got Jesus trapped in a no-win situation. If he says Jews shouldn’t pay taxes to the Emperor, then the Roman goon squad will pay him an unscheduled midnight visit. But, if Jesus says that they should pay foreign taxes, then he’s legitimizing the Roman occupation of God’s Holy Land, as well as colluding in an oppressive taxation system.

But Jesus is no fool. He wasn’t born yesterday. He’s aware of their malice, and so, he questions them! “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” MF take note: Jesus doesn’t have a Roman coin in his pocket. This is our first clue about Jesus’ stand on the issue. He requires them to produce a silver Roman coin, which is precisely Jesus’ way of exposing the avarice of his adversaries and their indebted collusion with Rome!

Whose face is this?asks Jesus. When they answer “Caesar’s” Jesus’ response is disarmingly simple, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Great answer!—wouldn’t you say MF?…at least on the surface. But beneath lies the lingering question: So tell us, Jesus of Nazareth: What exactly belongs to Caesar and what precisely belongs to God, so we can give each their due?! 

Notice that Jesus will not be led into theological traps, when he can see clearly that the priests and scribes, pharisees and religious folks are playing games. Jesus sidesteps their traps and either offers a parable which speaks to his enemies or, in Socratic fashion, counters their question with one of his own, and in this case: Whose face do you love?

Jesus’ response is important because of how divisive religious debate can be. Many folks like to argue religion. The Jehovah Witnesses who knock on our doors like to challenge us about Scripture. Like Jesus’ opponents, the JW’s always start with a skill testing question. But the arguing of biblical texts, says Jesus, is not faith building, but tearing down to prove I’m right and you’re wrong. Such discussions go nowhere. I should know, because I’ve tried debating the JWs. It’s hopeless, because they’re always right! And that’s because they’ve been indoctrinated with one religious’ point of view and the only way to change indoctrination is by spiritual transformation.

MF, Jesus’ method is to bypass theological traps because he knows when his enemies are trying to manipulate him. He does not give into exploitation and showmanship, but speaks a powerful truth at the end of his parables and lets that sink in, or he returns a question with another one, as he does here.

Controversy undermines real faith because it destroys relationships and respect between people. In such discussions, people feel on the defensive or offensive. They don’t experience a safe atmosphere of love and understanding, but rather a competition where battling egos take the place of God’s truth—a truth which is not a matter of possession, but relational.

Jesus’ directive this morning, Give to God what belongs to God and to Caesar what to Caesar is also given to you and me. So, what do you think? Is the giving to Caesar and God a simple division of what belongs to each; something like a divorce settlement, where everything is divided right down the middle?

Or, is it simply a matter of worshipping God Sunday morning and then giving to Caesar Monday through Friday, with Saturdays to ourselves? Whatever our answer MF, let us not for a minute underestimate the directive!

This is not a simple choice between a religious spirituality and some godless secularism. The Roman system also had its gods, just like our consumer capitalist culture has its deities and divinities—its idols and idolatries—to be sure! The ethical dilemma, MF, then and now, focuses on what god and religion, what government and system of governing do we choose? Whose head will we obey? Whose face will we love? To whom do we pledge our allegiance? In short, MF….

Whom will we serve—not only with our money and material goods, but with our lives—our minds and souls, hearts and hands? Whom will we serve? Which God will we serve? Whose face will we love? Well MF, whose face do we love? That’s precisely the question Jesus is asking us this morning, as he did 2,000 years ago! Whose face do we love?

So, let’s take our economic and financial system as illustrative of a certain worldview, while employing a theology in the service of this worldview. Let me suggest the following scenario:

The economic marketplace is god and we are the cultured consumers of this god. The activity of consuming is our religion and that which is consumed is our right. The economists are the high priests of this religion, and our spiritual practice is conspicuous consumption. The more we consume, the more we need to consume—whether things, services or activities. While this scenario sounds simplistic, MF, it is true to form.

At the same time, let’s not misunderstand Jesus. He’s not saying that we shouldn’t pay taxes, or obey the rules and regulations of the Emperor, or that we shouldn’t have a good life if we work hard to earn such a life. But Jesus is saying that we must be extremely careful that in our giving to Caesar, we don’t end up worshipping Caesar and thereby relegating God and what is God’s due, to the backburner… which is certainly easy enough to do, when we give God our left over crumbs!

The fact is this: The admonition to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s, requires daily spiritual practice and discernment. 2x Otherwise , we end up, by default, rendering ourselves, our children and families, our money, homes, cars, cottages and all our material possessions—indeed, our very hearts and souls—to a system which is governed only by economics and the market place, not by love and justice, not by mercy and compassion, nor by giving, forgiving and thanksgiving.

MF, let me amplify. Here in Canada, like in the US and the EU, we enjoy certain rights and freedoms, such as the freedom of movement, free speech, free elections, free markets, the freedom to be secure and safe, even the freedom to defend ourselves, which in the US involves the 2nd Amendment—the freedom to purchase guns and other fire arms, openly carry them and use them against others, rightly or wrongly.

But we pay scant attention to the fact that no government can guarantee liberties and freedoms without responsibilities on our part! Governments can ultimately only offer us as much freedom as we ourselves have earned from within ourselves. MF, if we haven’t achieved the inner, personal freedom to love, then we are dependent on the outer systems of government, which can never fully deliver the very freedoms they promise. Our inability to recognize this has made our freedoms very selective, class-based, often dishonest, and open to much bias.

EG: Are we really free to imagine that there could be better alternatives to our free-market system? We are likely to be called radical or undemocratic if we even broach this subject. Yes, we believe in free democratic elections, but we know very well that money to Caesar controls our politics and politicians and has a huge influence on our elections. We see it time and again, when Caesar goes forward with the construction of huge pipelines, but goes back on indigenous treaties and land rights.

When we place all of our identity in one country, one economic or social system, one religious or ethnic group, one educational or legal system, in one Caesar and his minions, then we are unable to imagine another way of thinking. Yes, we can step out of our man-made box. But are we stepping out into freedom or into just another box, albeit, larger. Are we genuinely certain that our giving to the box we call God, does not end up in the pocket we call Caesar?

Now, boxes can be good, helpful, and even necessary. Boxes allow cultures to function and people to work together. But my job, and the job of spiritual wisdom, is to tell you and me that “We are first citizens of God’s Kingdom, before we are ever soldiers of Caesar’s Empire.” As Christians, our allegiance is first and foremost to the Kingdom, before it is to the Empire.

MF, we must first live in the biggest box of all, while still working and living practically inside all the smaller boxes of society. That is a necessarily creative and difficult tension, yet it is really the only way we can enjoy all levels of freedom. “In the world, but not of the world” is the biblical and historic phrase used by Christians over centuries. Today, however, most of us tend to be in the system, of the system, and for the system—without even realizing it! 2x That’s why our Christian commitment to freedom must be inner and outer, personal and cultural, economic and structural, transcendent and spiritual. And this, MF, is the task of a lifetime.

I am convinced that the world and the Church needs this message from Jesus. When you give to Caesar and give to God, do not confuse them. Why do you think that Jesus was so upset when he threw the money changers out of God’s House? The empire always commands power and potency. The Gospel, however, always leaves us fragile and vulnerable, or as Jesus said, “as sheep among wolves.”

MF, for me to give to God, I must be more than just a pastor in a white robe who reflects current cultural values, upward mobility and short-term benefits over the long-range costs of discipleship. So long as I’m in this robe, I must communicate the Gospel—not to preach to or at people, but to make God’s Truth personal and challenging. I need to live a simple life, so that others may simply live 2x. And that is a life of simplicity over complexity and confusion, nonviolence over war and hate, humility over bravado and pride, and care for Mother Earth over using her for material and monetary gain.

When we live simply, that allows so many others to simply live. Why? Because we then put ourselves inside God’s realm and therefore outside of the ability of others to buy us off, reward us falsely, or control us by money, status, salary, punishment, loss or gain of anything belonging to Caesar. This is the most radical level of freedom, MF; but it is difficult and costly to come by. Why? Because it involves restoring justice to minorities, especially Blacks and Indigenous and because it also involves solidarity with global humanity and Mother Earth.

When we live simply, we have little to protect and no need to always be right. Why? Because when we Christians imagine that we are better, holier, higher, more important to God than others, it’s a very short step to “justified” arrogance and violence against others. In fact, it’s inevitable and we are witnessing how it manifests itself at every level of our society.

Think of the cruel death 2 weeks ago of one, Joyce Echequan, the indigenous mother of 7 who died being mocked by white nurses in a Montreal hospital. The hate and mockery against Joyce is a symbol of manufactured superiority on display in our country and around the world. Religion—all religion—needs to become nonviolent in thought, word and deed. All religion needs to commit to peace, instead of violent acts on behalf of Caesar and even in God’s name. As long as we hold on to the moneybag of our racial superiority, we have not given up everything for God.

When we agree to live simply, we no longer consider immigrants, refugees, poor people, marginalized and homeless as threats to our lifestyle or racial or ethnic integrity. When we choose to relinquish our privileges, whatever they are, we have freely and consciously chosen to become “visitors and pilgrims” in this world, as Scripture puts it. A simple lifestyle is quite simply an act of solidarity with the way most people have had to live since the beginnings of humanity.

When we live simply, we have time for spiritual and corporal works of mercy, like prayer, service and justice, because we have renegotiated in our minds and hearts our understanding of time and its purposes. Time is not money anymore, despite the common aphorism! Time is life itself and we Christians need to give our lives away freely as Jesus did.

MF, all this may sound very radical to you, if your theology, ethnicity and global viewpoint differs radically from mine.

But truth be told, Jesus was radical. This is not a bad word. Radical comes from the Latin radixmeaning the root. Jesus was a prophet and like the OT prophets, including John the Baptist, Jesus struck at the very roots of evil. These are the very systems of the world which have long since lost their way, robbing us of the “straight and narrow path” to God, robbing us of the wisdom to distinguish God from Caesar, and robbing us of the spiritual ability to let go of our man-made kingdoms, so that “Thy Kingdom come,” as Jesus taught us to pray.

When we agree to live simply, we have little energy to defend or protect our group, ethnicity or country, or even defend our money, our church, our religion—even God, as if God needs our defense to be God. Our circle is no longer defined by these external and accidental qualities. Why? Because we now find joy in giving to God and living for God—and maybe for the first time! AMEN.

One of them, seeing that he was healed, turned back, praised God with a loud voice, prostrated himself at Jesus feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan.

Dear Friends!

Ten are healed, but only one returns to give God thanks and that one is a Samaritan, an outcast, who ends up flat out, face down in the dust at the feet of Jesus in a posture of deepest gratitude. Ten lepers are challenged to return to Jesus and give thanks for being healed; but only one meets the spiritual challenge. Now, this is not to say that the other 9 weren’t thankful. I’m sure they were. But they never returned to Jesus, with their faces in the dust at his feet to show how grateful they really were. And that’s the point MF!

Think about all the times you were grateful, but had real difficulty uttering a genuine, heartfelt “Thank You!” Or, you couldn’t return to church to give thanks to God in his house. Why is saying “Thank you” so hard and such a spiritual challenge? Why? Because authentic gratitude is not only very humbling, but also very humiliating. Bona fide thanks is an acknowledgment of dependence, you see! That’s why genuine gratitude is always a spiritual challenge and anything spiritual, MF, is always difficult for us humans.

We have received something from someone or from God—something we could not manufacture, which pretty much covers all of life—from birth to death and in between. Life is pure grace and gift, which we did nothing to deserve. MF, we didn’t even ask to be born. By no effort of our own, we came upon this spinning planet and it was all there for the taking. And because this isn’t easy to accept, we put up all kinds of defense mechanisms against sincere gratitude.  

The fact is: Real thanks always dies with illusions of self-sufficiency. Why? Because self-sufficiency recognizes no god to whom one would give thanks. We take, because it’s there for the taking—ours to do with as we please. But genuine thanks is always a spiritual challenge, because it requires that we surrender our illusions of self-sufficiency—that we are the self-made authors of what we have and who we are!

Thanksgiving is a spiritual challenge, because it’s difficult to be grateful in a culture of dissatisfaction and insufficiency, where we never seem to have enough—whatever enough is—enough money and material goods, enough of my way or the highway, enough in this “me-first” society. Advertisers do a good job of making us aware of what we don’t have and convince us that we need bigger and better, more and most.

A newspaper article on Happiness once described an experiment at Harvard University:

The students were asked to choose between two scenarios: In the first, they would get $100,000 per year and everyone else half that amount. In the second, they would get half a million dollars, and others would double that. Most chose the first option. Why? Because they were happier to be poorer, as long as that meant they were richer than others.

Chronic dissatisfaction cultivated by our consumer culture and the tendency to get accustomed to what we have, combined with a desire to have more than others around us, is the spiritual challenge—to voice genuine thankfulness, by returning to God in her house of worship to give thanks.

Being thankful, articulating thanks, voicing thanks and simply being thankful, also take time in a time-stressed culture. And that’s because busyness is one of the mortal enemies of genuine gratitude.

MF, it takes time to notice our life; time to notice this planet, time to see our loved ones as gifts from God. It takes time to allow the intrinsic beauty of a red rose to take us to our knees. Gratitude is always born of a child-like fascination with the world. I find it utterly ironic and tragic that we’ve structured our lives almost as a defensive mechanism against gratitude.

When we tacitly agree that the meaning of life is primarily the pursuit of more things and more money, we sell our lives in exchange for material and monetary goals and so we sacrifice genuine gratitude. When we feel compelled to keep ourselves so busy with activities, that we have no time and we make no time to reflect on how our hearts burst, when we see how a beam of light renders a bed of flowers into a sacred picture, or how the orange and red hues of a Canadian sunset transforms into an aura borealis of the soul. So, MF, here’s the question:

Can we make Thanksgiving Day into a spiritual reorientation of our life? Can we transform this holiday into a holy day, and enter into a more sacred space with God and with one another? Can we take more time, to be more satisfied with what we have and who we are? Can we risk letting go of our illusions of self-sufficiency and be grateful—really grateful—perhaps for the first time, in a very long time?

Gratitude is a spiritual challenge. Why? Because genuine gratitude means that we end up with our face in the dust before Jesus, with tears streaming down our cheeks, if we could, even for one moment, take in the gifts we have received freely from God. Genuine gratitude means that we will grieve for all the lost years and missed moments, grieve the very life-style we thought we needed and the global pandemic around us.

Thanksgiving is a spiritual challenge. Why? Because there’s a thin line between thankfulness and taking for granted; between absence which makes the heart grow fonder and intimacy which breeds contempt. If there’s one thing which disturbs my faith more than anything else, it’s the lack of thankfulness which has become a standard model of behavior.

Unless we return to Jesus, return to God’s House and express thanks to God, we will never be completely satisfied—not with what we own, nor achieve, much less with who we are.

When we tie ourselves up with money and things, it’s hard to be loving. Instead, we turn our neighbour into another article for consumption. Instead of words of appreciation, we wonder: What can this person do for me? How can he or she be useful to me? Even God has become a consumer item for many Christians. What can God do for me today? Give me health, happiness and a stress-free retirement. As long as we think only in terms of getting, we won’t be giving any time soon—not to others, much less to God.

MF, ultimately we are our choices made and not made. We can chose to return to Jesus, and with our faces in the dust, we can give him thanks, with our voices and lives. Or, we can choose to be concerned about everything else first, believing that Jesus and his Kingdom will always wait for us. The choice is ours.

But let me warn you MF: Unless there is genuine gratitude on our part, we will lose the Kingdom. Why? Because without authentic appreciation, without returning to Jesus, we place ourselves outside his Kingdom. Gratitude is not only spiritual, gratitude is always an inside job! Gratitude is always up to us!

But, if we fail to give real, authentic, heartfelt thanks to God; if we fail to return to Jesus, prostrate on the ground with our faces in the dust, it means, more than not, that we are possessed by our possessions. And being possessed, we will always seek more and more, and the spiral of addiction will always increase. As Alcoholics Anonymous says: We need more and more of what does not work!

This morning, MF, we journey together with Jesus. That journey includes many possibilities: Reading the Bible; reading the sermons I’ve sent over the past 6 months; listening to what the HS is saying to you. Giving to someone who needs your help. Forgiving others, starting with yourself. Receiving forgiveness. Praying, that as God knows you, you will come to know yourself. Worshipping God regularly in his house, just as Jesus did. Thanking God for all that you are. Meditating to find your soul. Living the life of the Spirit, and finally, to break free from your material attachments, including your self-made-image.

The goal of all spirituality is that we stand naked before God, who was born naked for us in a manger in Bethlehem. Just like true lovemaking requires nakedness, the same is true with loving God and God loving us. We must throw away our self-made images in order to stand naked before God. Only then are we ready for genuine thankfulness—ready to prostrate ourselves before Jesus, with our faces in the dust, giving our lives over to him.

You know, if we were to create a religion, would we think of an image of a naked, bleeding, wounded man? It is the most unlikely image for God, to be sure! We prefer God to be all powerful. Not one of us would have created God on a cross. Such a God exposes the central problem of our human existence—God coming into the world as a baby in a manger, born naked, defenseless, powerlessness and needing our help.

Trouble is, we Christians have now become so accustomed to the cross, that we’ve domesticated it, wearing it as beautiful jewelry, that we are no longer shocked at the scandal of this image of nakedness and suffering, death and failure.

MF, if we don’t let Jesus heal our wounds and transform our pain, if we don’t return to him to give thanks, we will never be truly healed, physically much less spiritually and we will always transmit our wounds and pains onto others.

Well MF, 2 pages to go. So, let me recommend a spiritual challenge to you on this Thanksgiving Sunday. Sometime, when you’re home today, sit alone in silence for just 15 minutes. Try to remove all your self-made images, whether positive or negative. Likewise, try to remove all your thoughts and ideas, worries and anxieties, criticisms and judgments, anticipations and expectations.

Having removed all of these, you will be naked. Now, seek out your soul. Only when you are naked, can you find your soul, and finding it, you will find God, because that’s where God resides. Discover your soul and you will unite with God.

MF, there’s no right or wrong here. The important thing is to complete this silent search for your soul. How? By letting go of your self-made images. Do not be afraid of the silence, because God is with you, leading you in that silence and in that search. Put aside your fear or go through your fear if you must. If you have the faith and the courage to do this, in a short time you’ll know which images you cling to and which patterns of thought energize you.

To do this is a humbling experience! Why? Because most people find out that they don’t know who they are, apart from their possessions and surroundings, their negative or positive self-images, apart from what they do and achieve. Being naked before God is to locate our real selves—our souls. You’ll need at least 15 minutes, but whatever you require, MF, just do it!

Why? Because this is precisely what the Samaritan did. Cured of his leprosy, he put aside his fears, returned to Jesus, humbled and prostrated himself, with his face in the dust, and thanked God from the bottom of his heart. It was a deeply spiritual experience, which he relived time and again. I’m sure.

Now, after your spiritual experience, take a few minutes and try to find a word, an adjective, a phrase for what happened to you during those 15 minutes. To tell you once again, right and wrong do not apply here. If you’re frightened, or if you had the feeling that you could not do this, write it down; and if it was breathtaking, then write that down too.

The spiritual goal of the soul is for you to be at one with God. This unity includes head and heart, body and soul, feelings and memories, intuitions and subconscious—in fact, it includes our entire being. Having located our soul, we will then hear God, in a way we’ve never heard God before. But to hear God, we will also need to listen. We will need to listen and stop talking, for a change.

MF, the Christian life is always a journey less traveled, between the radical way inward and the radical way outward. From where I stand, that’s the best form of thanksgiving we can offer God.

Take a few moments to give thanks and be thankful. AMEN

So the tenants seized the landowner’s only son, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him….The chief priests and Pharisees then tried to arrest Jesus, but were afraid of the crowds who considered Jesus a prophet. Mt 21:39,45b

Dear Friends. The recent Gospel readings have been real tough on preachers and parishioners alike! Last Sunday Jesus tells the religious people, that tax collects and harlots will get into the Kingdom before they do! The Sunday before, Jesus tells the same crowd, that those who have only worked one hour will also get into God’s Kingdom with those who have slaved all day long in the vineyard. Today, we’ve got another barnburner, and this time Jesus tells the same crowd that they’ve been killing the prophets God sends them!

MF, can you picture Jesus preaching this sermon to a religious crowd of listeners, including the high priests and teachers of the Law? Jesus is telling them a story about?….themselves! A man owned a vineyard and he sent representatives to collect his share of the profits. But his vineyard workers kill the representatives. Finally, the owner sends his only son, and they kill him too. “What will the Lord of the Vineyard do with his wicked tenants?” Jesus asks the crowd. The listeners thought they knew—namely the Lord would kill them for murdering his son, and so they begin to organize a lynch mob. In short, the parable got to them!!

Will the parable also get to us, MF? It certainly got to me! There is the obvious interpretation that we are the vinedressers who ultimately end up killing the son, who is Jesus. But instead of revenge, the Lord of the vineyard raises the Son from the dead, so that we too will be raised from death to life. After two millennia, we understand this and that’s the easy part for us.

What’s not easy for us church folks to understand is that the representatives, including Jesus, are the prophets God sends—the prophets we reject and murder. MF, trace the history of prophets from Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr to Mahatma Gandhi to the reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, to Thomas Moore and Joan of Arc, etc—all the way back to John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah and of course, Jesus., for he too was a prophet sent by God and promptly crucified, after a brief public ministry of only three years!

MF, we in the church and the entire House of Israel have a very long history of killing the prophets God sends us. We’ve beaten and stoned them, burned them at the stake, shot or hung them. Nowadays, we’re too civilized for that. So we’ve chased them out of our churches, given them the silent treatment or thunderous rejections. And if we couldn’t stop them from speaking, then we’d stop listening to their sermons. The obvious question is: Why? Why is that?

Well, prophets, MF, aren’t exactly on the Top Ten (former) list of David Letterman’s “Most Likeable Folks.” Very few people actually like prophets, especially in the church! Prophets disturb the status quo. Prophets spot the gap between what we believe and how we behave. Prophets measure the distance between what we do and what God expects. Prophets interpret Scripture to challenge those who always think that they are right. After all, Jesus never said “You shall be right!” Prophets are typically people who can foretell the future, not as fortune-tellers, but as ones who have learned to read the signs of their times. It is by becoming fully aware of the political, social, economic, military, and religious tendencies of their time that prophets are able to see where it is all heading. 

Reading the signs of his times would have been an integral part of Jesus’ spirituality. In the first place, like many of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus must have seen the threatening armies of a powerful empire on the horizon—in this case the Roman Empire. In Jesus’ view, it would only be a matter of time before the Roman armies felt sufficiently provoked to attack and destroy Jerusalem.   

For most Jews, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple would mean the end of their worship, culture, and nation. Jesus’ concern was not for the future of the temple but for the people of Jerusalem, especially the women and children, the poor and oppressed. The people were powerless and helpless and the victims of huge structural violence which is largely invisible except to those who are suffering from it. 

Two thousand years later, prophets still raise their voices against the spirals of violence that continue to rob the poor and the oppressed of hope. MF, do we hear them? Are we any more likely to act on their wisdom than our biblical ancestors or do we also dismiss them and their message? I’m afraid it’s the latter, but it is only by choosing the former that we play our part as disciples of Jesus.

MF, we know all too well how boldly and radically Jesus spoke out against the assumptions and practices of the social and religious establishment of his time. Prophetically, he turned their world upside down. The conflict that this created became so intense that in the end they killed him to keep him quiet. Any attempt to practice the same spirituality as Jesus would entail learning to speak truth to power as he did—and facing the consequences.

Today MF, prophets include the Black Lives Matter movement and that’s because prophets raise the issues of justice, whether it’s on behalf of the thousands of marginalized or the millions of global refugees. Prophets confront the issues of color and creed, economics and environment, politics and religion, sexual identity and morality. Prophets are at the forefront of challenge and change. They’re not concerned about whether their sermons are well liked. Rather, they are concerned that justice is done and equality practiced.

Consider the issue of war and peace. If we agree that God wants peace, then why, prophets ask, do Christians go to war to kill? The USA, eg, spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually on military hardware, for themselves and in sale to others including Canada. US hardware is used to kill—now more people in less time than any other nation! Has anyone ever thought that there are other ways to solve global problems without always going to war to kill?

Learning from Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi personally lead a national movement of active resistance, after which India declared independence from Britain in 1947, without going to war. Martin Luther King Jr, likewise, began the American black liberation movement of non violent resistance in the 60s. Societal, personal and relational problems can be solved without resorting to violence, killing and war.

Or consider that, in the US, there are more homicides and state authorized executions than in any other country in the world, combined! Likewise, the annual US death toll by guns and other firearms exceeds 35,000, more than all other Western countries combined. God gave Commandment #5: You shall not murder. Then why are there 29 US states that still allow the death penalty? And why are most Americans armed to the teeth? Just because it’s their constitutional right to bear arms? The fact is Americans have quickly become a society which lives in dreaded fear of one another.

One month ago, the US marked 9/11 commemorations of the 2,977 deaths, including a number of Canadians in the Twin Tower arial attack. Today, 19 years later, the US led wars against the terrorism of 9/11 in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen have killed more than 800,000 people, displaced more than 37 million civilians and at a staggering cost of US $6.4 trillion. In spite of their motto, engraved on its coins and bills, “In God We Trust,” the US is the global leader in waging war, launching war and perpetuating war over the last 19 years!

Love your neighbour” said Jesus, and “whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done to me!” Then why do so many churches spend most of their budgets on themselves, instead of on their less fortunate neighbours, like the refugees around the world which number in the tens of millions? “Honor the Sabbath day to keep it holy?” says the 3rd commandment. Then why do 95% of Christians in Canada not worship? Why are our churches more half empty from one Sunday to the next, in the pre-pandemic days?

Or picture the security system of our day shattered by the prophets against racism, which outlawed slavery and made the black man equal to the white man; or the prophets of the women’s liberation movement who made women equal to men and therefore ushered in the age of sexual equality, which eventually brought about women’s ordination. And lastly, the prophets who finally brought about the sexual equality between heterosexuals and homosexuals in our society and in our Lutheran church, where today homosexuals can come out of the closet and also marry and be ordained.

Prophets have helped us learn the hard way, how to face change and uncertainty—like having long-standing beliefs change over time: women and children not as male property, illness not as punishment from God, nor left handedness, nor the physical or mental handicapped. Prophets have helped us face the angst of watching our security systems crumble—whether monetary, physical or religious, or whether in the face of war, poverty or illness.

Prophets have forced us into a brutal honesty about our human definitions of good and evil and the ways that we hide from ourselves, from others and God. Prophets have helped us to face the fact that too often our Christianity is a matter of pure conformism and expedience; our faith little more than a permanent evasion of reality; and that for too many Christians, there is no real need for God from day to day. Prophets have helped us dismantle our obsession with self, so that our churches can be in mission for the world, instead of being in mission for themselves.

Prophets challenge us to be more than simply “informed.” Prophets challenge us to be personally and spiritually transformed. St. Paul made it very clear: Law can give us correct information, but only God’s Spirit can transform us. Too many churches are only concerned with bolstering their obsession with themselves and the question: What’s in it for us, rather than transforming ourselves and the church to serve humankind.

MF, I believe this: The Christian Church here in North America and Europe have too many priests and pastors and not enough prophets and spiritual leaders who have a vision and mission for the church beyond our usual preoccupation with buildings and budgets—all of which creates a very imbalanced Christianity. Prophets challenge us to live daily in the Spirit and by the Spirit; otherwise, we Christians degenerate into legalists and literalists, who are always killing the Spirit. And the church already has too many of them.

Prophets challenge us to give up our need to be God and act like God. That’s why prophets are not appreciated by church members who act as if God is in their pockets. Too many churches are simply content to have people in the pews—and the more people the greater possibility that the budget can be met.

MF, let’s be honest: The church would sooner have control, than real conversion; the church would sooner be informed, than transformed. That’s why prophets always address the real and subtle ways which we lose our soul to everything – everything but God. Prophets always ask the hard questions. Jesus who was a prophet always challenged his listeners to put away self-obsession and grandiose visions of themselves. Instead, he challenged his followers to be healthy and empathetic disciples who are filled with the HS.

Prophets like Jesus always challenge religion to be the conscience of society and not its lapdog. Jesus knows that if our culture and society are weak and superficial, it’s because our Christianity has become weak and superficial. And it’s not so much the hot-button issues of abortion and sexual identity, but it’s because of those oh, so subtle ways in which we Christians have slowly stopped seeing and loving neighbour, slowly stopped trusting and surrendering to God.

Prophets are, first and foremost, true disciples of faith. In fact, it is their deep love for the faith that allows them to criticize it at the same time. Their deepest motivation is not negative but profoundly positive. There is a major difference between negative criticism and positive critique. The first stems from the need for power; the second flows from love. That’s why institutions, including churches, prefer loyalists and “company men” to prophets. We’re terribly uncomfortable with people who point out our sins and shortcomings, but it is in the genuine struggle with these that we are transformed into real spiritual consciousness. People who learn to expose, name, and still thrive inside of a world filled with contradictions are bona fide prophets. They are both faithful and critical. 

Prophets know that too many Christians have stopped accepting the high price of conversion and transformation—the high price of carrying our cross as Jesus told us to do. Prophets know that too many churches have substituted the success of increased revenue, with the much more difficult path of spiritual warfare which involves prayer and suffering.

MF, prophets challenge us to see what we normally refuse to see; to hear what we have not been prepared to hear; to unlearn what we’ve been taught, so that we can actually learn to be loving, giving and forgiving—maybe for the first time. Prophets know that we all have an amazing capacity for missing the point—especially we Christians. Prophets know that personal issues of control and authority or personal investments of money or material things, simply get in the way of how we see and what we see, how we hear and what we hear, what we do and how we do it.

I’ve said it many times before: There are only two kinds of religion: The first believes that God will love me if I change. The second believes that God loves me, so that I can change. The first is the most common and most Christians fall into this first category. The second kind of religion is based not upon what one believes in the head, but upon a day to day experience of God’s Spirit of Love and Mercy. Ideas, MF, inform us, but only love transforms; only the Spirit transforms in a lasting way. God is always willing to wait for our spiritual transformation. Trouble is, we want immediate results that are practical.

Last thought: Prophets know that no one person, including the pastor, can save the church. The church is only and always saved by faith in God’s Grace. Prophets also know, much better than you and I that it is not men and women of power, authority and control—whether politicians or popes, whether billionaires or military might—but it is listening to the Voice of the Spirit of God which changes us, changes the church and changes the world. Or, as Napoleon, in his final defeat at Waterloo, said: “We men of power merely rearrange the world, but it is only people of the Spirit who can really change it.”

MF, let us be the People of the Spirit. Let us be People of the Spirit who think, decide and act on the basis of spiritual values. AMEN.

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

Truly I tell you, said Jesus: Tax collectors and the harlots will go into the Kingdom of God before you do! Mt 21:31

Dear Friends: Harlots have always had a bad rap. Of course, not all of them have gone on to fame and fortune. Not all of them have had renowned customers, and no less a likable fellow than Hugh Grant of movie fame reminded us a few years ago that the world’s oldest profession is alive and well—still flourishing in the Western world. City politicians of every stripe have attempted to reduce the sex trade in big cosmopolitan cities like Toronto, beginning with shutting down so-called message parlors a few years back. In so doing, I suspect that the politicians disapproved of the sinners and the sin, at least publicly. After all, there’s a pleasure motive in the sin.

Jesus, on the other hand, who was never a candidate for political office, had a good word for harlots—a word that those of us who think ourselves morally superior to them, and others, ought to hear. And this morning, MF, we’ve heard it—right here in Matthew’s Gospel. Without any compromising conditions, Jesus says “Tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom before you.” And the “you” here refers not only to the chief priests and elders, but also to you and me!

Today’s gospel starts off as a parable about two sons. One says to his father, he’ll work in the vineyard, but doesn’t. The younger son says that he won’t work but changes his mind and goes to work. Jesus likens the older son to the religious leaders who say one thing but do another. The younger son, however, is likened to the tax collects and harlots, who change their mind about their sinning. Hence Jesus concludes with a good word for prostitutes and tax collectors, but for the religiously self-righteous, he only had a word of judgment. Tax collectors and harlots will get into the kingdom before you!

Now, this could be a sermon about tax collectors, but they don’t appeal to our carnal interest. After all, unlike prostitutes, tax collectors don’t give pleasure—they take it. Harlots and prostitutes, however, not only appeal to the naughty and to the sensuous in us, but passion and pleasure combined illegitimately create a winning combination in a profession that has supposedly been around longer than any other.

Secondly, although there is no instruction manual about this profession offered in Lutheran and Anglican seminaries in Canada, the fact is, MF, we are at our most morally anxious wherever and whenever sex is involved. That’s precisely why Jesus gets our attention this morning and tells the uptight Puritans within us, that harlots and prostitutes have a prior claim on heaven and will get there before we do.

MF, it’s annoying—this illegitimate pleasure which will get the harlots into heaven before us. But it’s also downright unfair, especially to those of us who don’t go back on our promises and commitments to God—that we walk our talk and give to God our ultimate allegiance.

Now, if you were to check out how many harlots are mentioned by name in the Old & New Testaments, you’d find a dozen or so, some of whom have become rather famous or infamous, if you wish. Rahab, for instance, mentioned in Joshua Ch 2, became a well-know prostitute, a woman of considerable pleasure who, for some 40 years, plied her trade, which back then, 40 years was indeed a very long time, and, as the story goes, no prince or ruler had been denied her sexual favors.

Now Rahab is a Hebrew name which means “wide” or “expansive” and you don’t need a degree in etymology to figure out why. But please note, I said “expansive,” not expensive, although I suspect Rahab’s tastes were that too, given the fact that according to Rabbinic tradition, she was “one of four most beautiful women in the world.” The mere mention of her name is said to have inspired lust and longing. In fact, Scripture describes her as a “giver of hospitality,” which sounds like the term the Japanese used to describe the Chinese and other women forced to serve the needs of the invading army in WWII: “comfort women”—a disgusting euphemism.

Now, until I read the story of Rahab in the OT, I had never heard of her, nor of such a name. But there she was: well-known and world famous, says Joshua, a woman of pleasure, who lived just within the walls of Jericho. It was an ideal location on the border between the city and the outskirts, conveniently situated for a house ill-repute. She was well-connected to the great and high ranking, which arguably made her the best-informed person in the city. After all, prostitutes are always in the forefront in learning the news through pillow talk, whether it’s Jericho or Jerusalem, Ottawa or Washington.

Joshua also tells us that Rahab was exceedingly shrewd and when the Jewish spies came to her house to scout the city for Joshua’s attack, she bargained with them. She would protect them from the search party, if they would protect her and her household when Joshua finally attacked the city and won, when “the walls came a-tumbling down”—so says the SS song.

The story goes that the men were hidden under the flax of Rahab’s roof and escaped by being let down over the wall of her house by a scarlet chord—a sign of protection and redemption. Rahab displayed the scarlet chord from the same window, so that when the Jewish invaders came to slaughter Jericho’s inhabitants, they would identify the house and spare it. Btw, the scarlet color of the chord came to be associated with prostitutes and their district to be known as the red-light district.

Rahab was then taken to Israel and her conversion to Judaism affirmed. In fact, in Matthew 1:1ff, Rahab is listed as an ancestor of Jesus in the Jewish family tree going back to Abraham. To add insult to injury, the book of Hebrews, written early in the 2nd century, lists Rahab among the saints.

Having said this, it’s no wonder that some early church fathers were quite morally “uppiddy,” finding it difficult to think of Jesus as having an admitted prostitute among his ancestors—a sexy skeleton in the divine closet, so to speak. In fact, some of the early biblical scholars tried to sanitize the text, by saying that Rahab was merely an innkeeper, or at the most, the proprietress of the Jericho-No-Tell-Motel. But that effort did not succeed, to which I must say that hypocrisy is a less honorable calling than harlotry. So, here she remains—Rahab, the prostitute—listed in Matthew’s Gospel as an ancestor of King David and therefore of Jesus—Son of God.

But here’s the point which Jesus wants to make for us this morning: There is more truth in harlotry than in religious and moral hypocrisy, and here is where we must remember the substance of the text where Jesus gives the harlots the pride of place. We are fascinated with the apparent facts of Rahab’s life for 40 years. We think of her as the prostitute who helped the spies, or as the British might say: The tart with the heart. That is to us who she was.

But having said all that, MF, we might rightly ask: Why did she do what she did? Just how many men did she entertain, and what accounted for her charity to these Jewish men? I mean, the Book of Joshua is not an exercise in sexual therapy! But we know one thing: Rehab really did earn her living on her back and between her legs. But much more importantly, she knew where God was to be found and understood which side of the equation God was to be figured. She had sexual and political skills, not unlike politicians, prime ministers and presidents. But Rahab had moral insight into the Kingdom of God and was determined to be on the right side of history, on the winning side of the war. After all, they’re the ones who write the history books. And so, she confessed to the spies: For the Lord, your God, is God in heaven above and earth below.

Rehab did not require a ton of bricks, or the walls of Jericho, to fall on her head. She had heard of the wonder workings of God and she acknowledged it. “Your God is going to win,” she deduced, “and I want to be on the winning side.” She had heard of the Children of Israel being led dry shod through the Red Sea, and despite her devotion to pleasure and profit, she knew that in the end, God would prevail.

So, in order to save her life, she changed her mind and her ways. Today, we’d say, she amended her lifestyle. She recognized the opportunity for salvation. She was not so immersed in her life that she couldn’t change it, and having recognized her options, Rahab acted. She didn’t dither or dote. She didn’t speculate or procrastinate. She acted. She chose God and repentance, however expedient that seemed at the time — something like a last-minute conversion to get into heaven. Rahab was saved, was spared and became an ancestress of the Lord.

But to the early church fathers, now all stuck-up, Rahab lied. She was not a saint; nor was she a Girl Guide selling no fat chocolate chip cookies. She had not sunk so low, that she could not look up and out, live and laugh. She was not the victim of her circumstances, as we would say in this age of sanctity of victimhood, that she could not recognize an opportunity for repentance and salvation, grabbing hold of it with both hands. She was not so immersed in the seedy commerce of the world, stuck in her profession, locked into her own opinions, that she could not see the way out to the other side.

What is more, MF, is that Rahab acted. She did not hide behind pretense and hypocrisy. Rather, she struck a bargain, did what she had to do and was saved. We have to admire her sense of the expedient, even though some of the fastidious among us might say that this was just the problem: it was all so expedient! She knew that she would die with everyone else if she didn’t change, and so she opted for survival. Tsk. Tsk.

So there we’ve got it, MF. Repentance is expedient. It’s what you do, if you don’t want to go on as you are and die. Salvation is expedient. It is designed to get you out of the way of an oncoming train which cannot be stopped! There’s only one thing you can do and that’s get out of the way. So, when we speak of being saved, we mean literally it—being rescued from life as it is, in order to take on life as it can be and ought to be.

Jesus is more than annoyed with the so-called “righteous” and that’s why the tax collectors and harlots will inherit the kingdom, well before the righteous. Jesus delineated the clear and present option for new life—a life of peace and joy. But the virtuous who are so filled with themselves, so content with who, what and where they are, find no need for repentance. They are like so many churched, who find no reason to be “born again” and repent, when their baptismal certificate says they were born again at the time of their infant baptism.

The virtuous, the righteous, the respectable, all the decent Christians have no need to hear the Good News of Jesus yet another time. They have already achieved a level of perfection consistent with their level of comfort. They already have the truth and they are in the right. MF, who of us here this morning thinks of ourselves so bad and sinful, that we have an urgent need to repent and repent here and now?

MF, I believe that the vast majority of Christians in the western world cannot see God’s future because we are so seduced by the conveniences and conventional wisdom of our times. Unlike Rahab, we are unwilling to give up what we have and what we know to risk picking up a cross to follow Jesus.

Rahab, on the other hand, had everything to lose and still gave up everything to go with God. The trouble is: too many Christians don’t want to lose anything or give up any of it. “Let me keep my intellectual superiority, my economic security, my social stability. Let me keep my bad habits and my deficient ways of dealing with others. Let me keep to my timetable and my priorities. Indeed, let me even keep my fears and anxieties, my neuroses and psychoses,” we say to ourselves. “Then, if God can fit into all that, I’ll pencil him in.”

And that, MF, is why the prostitutes and harlots, the taxman and CRA drones will get into heaven before we do.

So MF, what are we to do now? Take up prostitution? Work for some taxation department? I think not. After all, there’s got to be more to life than we expect. Let’s take a hard and long look at the life which so many think we’re trapped into or to which we think we are committed. Let’s look at what our priorities and anxieties really are.

We all know that the life God gives us has more to offer than what we now have of it, no matter how much we own or how smart we are or how important we think we are. There has to be more than this. And there is, MF! All we have to do is turn around, which is another way of saying: All we have to do is to repent and claim a place for God in our lives.

What Rahab found is free and also available to us. Jesus’ good word for harlots is also a good word for us: Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. That’s what Jesus says to the harlots and tax collectors of his day. That’s what Jesus says to you & me. We just have to try out his words and find out for ourselves…as Rahab did. AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money?” answered the owner, “or are you jealous because I am generous?” And so Jesus concluded: “Therefore, those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last.” Mt 20:15-16

Dear Friends. You may know that Henry Ford, inventor of the Model T at the turn of the 20th century, was very opinionated—from automobiles to horses or politics to religion. A favorite line was “Whatever is good business is good religion!” Not necessarily so, MF, even though business back then was quite different than today. But no matter what the century, including Jesus’, a boss who hands out the same paycheck for one hour’s work as for 8 or 12 hours, not only has a naïve understanding of finances, but would soon have a picket line around his vineyard and a grievance committee knocking on his door. This is bad business, but is it also bad religion?

So, what does Jesus say this morning about what we would consider unfair labour practices? “The Kingdom of God is exactly like this scenario!” Well MF, how is that possible? Like the people who heard this parable, we too might respond: Well Jesus, obviously fiscal prudence was not the concern of the landowner! To pay the last workers as much as the first workers, is not only financial inefficiency, it’s sheer lunacy! The workers would quickly learn to sleep in and only show up for the last hour. The owner’s methods are short-sighted, unsustainable and insane!

So MF, if we’re looking to this parable for a viable economic paradigm, this one makes no sense. That’s why Jesus’ parable today is not about some economic blueprint for success, but about the Kingdom of God, in which Jesus challenges conventional wisdom with the unsettling spiritual wisdom. Contrary to Henry Ford, Jesus invites us to consider that bad business practice may well be good religion.

On the other hand, we may ask: Is there to be no extra reward for faithful service when God opens the Book of Life and adds up the accounts? Most of us were born into the church, were publicly baptized, and ever since have been trying our level best to live out the Christian life. Are we to get nothing more than those Christmas & Easter Christians who only show up twice-a-year for church? Is God gonna give a skid-row drunk who offers a last-minute prayer of repentance the same reward reserved for Billy Graham? If so, then there’s gotta be “something rotten in Denmark,” don’t you think?

After all, when we do more than others, then don’t we have a right to expect more? What’s the use of being a Christian, getting up most Sundays to go to church, if it doesn’t get us more than those who don’t? If we work countless hours for the church, doesn’t God owe us something? $100 for 8 hours of work and $100 for one hour? Eternal life for a life-time of Christian work, and eternal life for one year of work at the end of life? You know God, this is outrageous! You’ve generated a crisis of equality!

MF, first some historical background to better understand this crisis of equality. Jesus parable describes a situation typical of the social and economic breakdown of his day; namely that the economic system of the Roman Empire was replacing the traditional Jewish rural economy. In rural economies, unemployment of course doesn’t exist. The land provides what families require to comfortably live and everyone has work.

Roman urbanization, however, devastated many Jewish lives. The social crisis is symbolized in the parable by men who are “standing idle.” These are city men have no work. There are landowners and there are the unemployed, without even a plot of land to grow a garden. MF, this is a signal that something has gone terribly wrong with the system.

That’s why, after hearing the story, we don’t first focus on the unemployed waiting to be hired! Rather, we identify with the valid protests of the first workers: How can you make these men, who have only worked one hour, equal to us?

This question also indicates that the social fabric is so frayed, that these “Johnny-Come-Lately” workers are only seen as competitors and not as co-workers or compatriots, in an unjust economic system. Not much has seemingly changed, MF. In fact, they are all victims of a degrading economic system.

And yet, the searing irony is this: No one in this parable was treated unfairly! Everyone was paid exactly the amount to which they agreed. What sticks in the craw of the first workers is that these last guys are being treated as equals.  

When the last crew of workers is asked by the employer, “Why are you standing here idle all day”, their response is disarmingly simple: “Because no one hired us.” Today, we’d follow this response with “duhhhh!”  This response is also a reflection of those who blame the unemployed for their station in life. But the fact is that our economic system today virtually depends on an unemployment rate of 6-10%, even though there is a stigma attached to unemployment, as we usually associate our worth with our work. And that’s also because there are too many people in our society who only live to work.

MF, the complaining workers were simply wrong in their assessment. The owner didn’t “make them equal” by paying them the same. The owner recognized that all the workers were already equal. They just happened to be without work. Maybe they had just been “downsized”, “right-sized” or “rationalized”—to use today’s corporate euphemisms.  By paying the last workers the same as the first, he was affirming their intrinsic worthiness, a worthiness not tied to their exchange value in the marketplace. They were paid according to their need for a living wage, and specifically not what the market determined was their worth.  

So MF, what is Jesus really saying here? He is challenging the employed, the privileged “first” workers, to make room in their hearts for the unemployed! This is the spiritual principle at the heart of today’s gospel—a principle which extends far beyond vineyard workers 2000 years ago. Jesus exposes the grumbling of the employed for what it is: the greediness of “a hard heart” or a “stiff neck,” which the Bible calls obstinacy. The hard hearted have long since lost the sensitivity to see beyond their own selfish desires and agendas. Like the Pharisee who compared himself to the publican, the first workers believe they’ve been short changed when they compare what they got, to what the last workers received. 

MF, it’s no surprise that recognition and affirmation of intrinsic worth of every human being was not accepted, nor celebrated, by the first workers. The history of humanity can be told as a story of resentment and criticism by those of privileged status toward the latest group of ostracized and marginalized to acquire equal status. The illusion of the privileged is that they’ve done something to merit their special status, and if “everyone” is allowed into “the old boys club,” then the privileged are diminished. They can only be special, you see, if they have something other folks don’t.

MF, I can’t begin to tell you the history of resentment and criticism throughout the centuries—a history whose list ended in racism and segregation, lynching and burning, gassing and genocide. It is also a history which ends with the existential Black Lives Matter movement, in which Black and Brown, Red and Yellow lives matter in the face of white privilege.

The history, MF has included all kinds of minorities and marginalized, foreigners and refugees, natives and aboriginals, Jews and Moselms, Chinese and Asiatic, slaves and blacks, women and children, gays and lesbians—all people whose status as God’s children continues to be devalued—even interpreting the Bible to support their inequality. The protest of the privileged has sounded down through the ages: You have made them equal to us!

But that’s not all MF. In this 3rd millennium, you and I have entered an ecological age, in which we are realizing that the privileged status we’ve granted ourselves over the animal and plant life, as well as Mother Earth herself—this must also end! Otherwise, the crisis of climate change will put a premature expiration to everything living!  

Having said this, you might rightly ask: “Pastor Peter, how can you believe this about climate change and still have hope?” Good question, MF. For me, faith and hope are rooted in the conviction that, regardless of how bad things may be, a new spiritual story is waiting to take hold. We just need to respond to God’s call for us to work with her and millions of others to champion that new narrative!

For the vast majority in our society, that new story remains unseen. Wresting our future from the grip of fossil fuel, for instance, seems impossible—our addiction is too strong, affordable options are too few, and the powers that defend the status quo are overwhelming. We cannot be freed by chipping away at this millstone. We must begin to live into a new story by accepting God’s call to change our human destruction and restoring creation’s viability.

MF, that means we must be willing to take action. We become partners with God when we act in unfamiliar, untested ways. Those new actions will be guided by a future which embraces:

  • resilience in place of growth

  • collaboration in place of consumption

  • wisdom in place of progress

  • balance in place of addiction

  • moderation in place of excess

  • vision in place of convenience

  • accountability in place of disregard

  • self-giving love in place of self-centered fear . . .

MF, I believe, as do other theologians, that a new humility is finally dawning in our human consciousness which recognizes that we humans are only one part of a larger eco-system within God’s good green earth. When the salmon disappears, the bear and the eagle are not far behind. When the rivers and oceans are polluted, our blood fills with poison. If non-human life forms disappear from the face of the earth, as so many have, we lose our brothers and sisters which inhabit Mother Earth with us and whom God put here before us humans! MF, if we lose the non-human world, MF, the human world is not far away from extinction.

This means that the way we manufacture products must change. The way we do business much change—given the market crashes—the last one being 2008. The way we treat this planet must change. The way we treat animals and plants, birds and fish must change. The way we treat our environment must change. The crisis of equality is disruptive, but it is a spiritual disruption.

I believe God meant that the Universe to evolve according to the celebration and manifestation of distinctiveness, not privilege and pleasure. God is a God of diversity and variety, and not one of privilege and partiality. We need to shift from creating systems which perpetuate preferential treatment, to systems which honour distinctiveness and variety.

As Christians, we need to give to every living thing and person all what they need to live and thrive. Globally speaking, we are all in this together! From today’s parable MF, we need to learn that when anyone is excluded, we are all excluded. When anyone is diminished, we are all diminished. When even one person is homeless, we all homeless. When one person is hungry, we all hunger and thirst. When one person is violated and suffers, we are all victims. And that’s because we’ve all connected, whether we see it or not, like it or not, whether we live by it or not. Privileged status is no compensation, for on the spiritual level everyone looses.

I believe most Christians have good intentions to follow Jesus’ example, but we are quickly overrun by the “me-first” norms of mainstream culture. In moments of crisis, however, we need to tap into something deeper and truer. We need to remember that we’re all in this together. We’re all related and have a kinship with one another. In the first weeks of the pandemic, I heard media reports of hoarding and price gouging, here and in the US, but I have heard far more stories of generosity, courage, compassion, and sacrifice for the sake of others. We do not have the same gifts, but many are giving their best.

In the final analysis MF, everything in God’s good green world is Grace. Absolutely, positively, categorically, unequivocally everything is Grace. Working in God’s vineyard where God has planted us, whether we’re working from 6:30 AM or from 4 PM to the end of the day—it is a joy and a privilege, as well as meaningful and purposeful—where the payment isn’t in dollars, nor in status or privilege, but payment is in the work itself: to love and be loved, to give and be forgiven, to be merciful and apply justice, and to be peace makers and committed disciples of Jesus.

I believe most Christians have good intentions to follow Jesus’ example, but they are quickly overrun by the “me-first” norms of mainstream culture. In moments of crisis, however, we seem to tap into something deeper and truer. We remember our kinship with one another. In the first weeks of the pandemic, I heard media reports of hoarding and price gouging, but I have heard far more stories of generosity, courage, compassion, and sacrifice for the sake of others. We do not all have the same gifts, but many seem to be giving their very best.

But, if by chance we didn’t see fit to working in God’s Vineyard until the 11th hour of our lives, then we will entreat God with tears and beg forgiveness that we did not know the profound joy and purpose of working in God’s vineyard longer than we did; nor did we experience the value of giving him a tithe of all that we had accumulated in this life. And that’s because in the economics of the Kingdom of God, Grace, MF, is everything!

God’s Grace is everything, where there are no distinctions between the privileged and the underprivileged. We are not only all equal in God’s Vineyard, but we are loved by him uniquely and totally. Should we not also practice this love for the world, to which we are in mission? AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

That is how my Father in heaven will treat everyone of you, unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart! Mt.18:35

Dear Friends. Forgiveness was one of Jesus central concerns, not only in his teaching and preaching, but in his personal life and the relationships he had with those whom he encountered. The surprise is that forgiveness for him also extended beyond the arena of interpersonal relationships. For example, in this morning’s parable of The Unforgiving Servant in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus isn’t just talking about personal sins, but the forgiveness of financial debts! The word Matthew uses is the Greek verb aphiemi, which means “to forgive a financial debt.”

It’s not that forgiveness in interpersonal relationships was unimportant to Jesus. To the contrary it was, and is, absolutely imperative! But the meaning of this kind of personal forgiveness is derived in this parable precisely through its association with a monetary remittance of debt.

We modern Christians have reversed this strategy, when we center our theology solely on whether we’re “saved” from sin and hell, in order to receive eternal life. This reflects a thoroughly modern preoccupation with the state of our individual souls.

MF, however pressing the world after this one is and whatever may be in store for us there, Jesus was much more concerned with how we treat each other in this life. This includes how we treat each other when it involves money—your money and mine!

There was a debate in Jesus’ day which focused on economic debt. A spiritual practice known as the Year of the Jubilee occasioned the discussion. The Jubilee Year happened every 50th year. It was an ancient institution, put in place by those who witnessed the devastating effects on families and society, when a person was unable to repay a loan—major or minor.

Unable to repay, the borrower would be forced into a kind of financial slavery, selling himself, his family and ancestral lands to make the repayment. He would then be forced to go to work for the lender, leading to a life of meager subsistence. Witnessing the injustice of this, Jewish lawyers came up with the Year of the Jubilee. In this 50th year all debts were forgiven, and all property which was taken in lieu of debts was returned to the debtor. A fresh, hope-filled and liberating start was granted through the forgiveness of all these debts during the Jubilee Year.

Trouble is, two major problems surfaced regarding this Jubilee. One, loans became very difficult to get in the years immediately prior to the Jubilee, for fear that such loans would automatically be forgiven, and the money lenders never repaid. Secondly, the money lenders themselves found a loophole whereby immediately after the Jubilee Year, a court could order a collection agency to recover the entire debt for the money lender. Needless to say, Jesus was extremely opposed to these loopholes and practices.

But Jesus also witnessed how the heavy taxes of the Roman Empire eroded people’s capacity for self-sufficiency. There came a point when they needed to sell their possessions, including ancestral lands, to pay the Roman tax. Hence, peasants were forced into economic slavery. No doubt Jesus saw friends plummet into poverty because of debt incurred under the new Roman economy.

But Jesus was also very opposed to the kind of usury and interest-fees charged by the religious leaders and money changers in the synagogues and temples. It was a financial scam, not too dissimilar from some of today’s televangelist fraudulent methods to obtain more and more money from a gullible public. We dare not forget Jesus’ furious overthrow of the money tables in the temple and chasing out the religious robber barons with a whip.

All this contributed to a huge financial burden, particularly for peasants. Against this injustice, Jesus proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lord—code for the Year of the Jubilee. It formed an essential part of his mission, to reinstitute the Jubilee practice with no conditions or loopholes. Because God had forgiven all debts, it was now incumbent upon the faithful to also forgive all debts.  

Perhaps, MF, you can imagine how the Roman authorities, the Jewish aristocracy and religious leaders regarded this idea. Because it was highly idealistic, not much money was made for the religious and political leaders. Also, the Romans knew that it would shut down the economy, along with the massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, meaning the Roman Empire would suffer financially. But for Jesus, the economic injustices were an affront to God, who would act to end this oppressive system. The Kingdom of God, MF, always has a different operational and finance manual than the Kingdom of Caesar.

So, Jesus relays this parable about the remittance of debt in an effort to break the vicious cycle of indebtedness by practicing a virtuous cycle of relieving debt all the way down the line. This was a rather subversive idea, which, if implemented, would have brought down the Jewish economy of the day. Jesus understood that nobody was going to get rich under Jubilee law. Nor was anyone going to get bone-crushingly poor either.  

Well MF, what difference does Jesus proclamation of the Jubilee and his invitation to an ethic of generosity, with no strings attached, make in today’s world? Consider the following:

One quarter of the world lives in poverty, many of whom work for less than $1.90 a day and don’t know where their next meal is coming from. These are brothers and sisters created in God’s image, who share this planet with the rich—you and I. Just like we inherit wealth, poverty is also inherited. The unequal distribution of global wealth is actually structured into our Western and North American economic system. One of the major factors which perpetuate chronic poverty among the global poor is third world debt which has climbed to a staggering US$55 trillion in 2018. This marks an 8-year surge which has been the largest, fastest and most broad-based in nearly 5 decades, according to the World Bank (WB).

The global COVID-19 pandemic has also increased this debt immeasurably, says the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In addition, the world’s largest HIV epidemic continues unabated in South Africa. In some communities of KwaZulu-Natal Province, SA, 60% of women have HIV. Almost 5,000 South Africans are newly infected every week, one-third of whom are females aged 15-24—staggering figures!

World Bank experts estimate that it would take an annual commitment of US$50 billion annually to eradicate the AIDS epidemic. Sub-Saharan Africa pays almost US$60 billion in debt service charges every year to wealthy nations and institutions. In 2013 WB estimated that all developing nations owed U.S. 6.25 trillion in foreign debt. Yet between 1989 and 2013 developing nations paid more than US$5.6 trillion in interest payments alone.

History shows that large debt surges often coincide with financial crises in developing countries, at great cost to the population,” said Ceyla Pazarbasioglu, the WB VP for Growth & Finance.

Former U.S. Secretary of State in the Eisenhower Administration in the mid 50s, John Foster Dulles (remember him?), once made the observation that “there are two ways of conquering a foreign nation. One is to gain control of its people by force of arms. The other is to gain control of its economy by financial means.”

Joseph Stiglitz, President of the World Bank for 3 years—1997-2000—would not disagree. Since the end of WWII, WB mission has been to end world poverty. This institution works in close cooperation with the IMF, which sets the terms for the giving and the forgiving of loans to developing nations. In his book, Civilization and Its Discontents, Stiglitz bluntly concluded: “A half century after its founding, it is clear: the IMF has failed in its mission. The message from western governments is: You buy into our economic system or you get no loans and/or no debt relief.

It seems to be a no-win situation for Third World nations. Paying massive debt on interest alone means they spend less on health, education and social services. It means that the national currency continues to devalue, lowering export earnings and increasing import costs. It means cutting back on food subsidies, jobs and wages for their own dollar-a-day workers. It means the privatization of public industries—selling them to foreign investors. It means replacing subsistent farms, which grow staple foods for the hungry at home, with large farms growing cash crops for export.

Global poverty in the 21st century has actually increased, including “unseen” poverty in developed countries, like Canada and US. After the end of government subsidies due to COVID, thousands of Canadians and millions of Americans will be evicted from their homes when back rent is due. Canadian child poverty rates are also increasing to 1 in 6, while in the US it’s 1 in 4—astounding statistics for Canada and the US—richest country in the world.

MF, I’m sure you get the picture. But now compare what has been done to keep the globally poor in poverty, with Jesus’ own ethics for lending money. I quote Jesus from Luke 6:33:

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what good is that? Rather lend without expecting anything or even despairing; and your reward shall be great, and you shall be children of God; give and it will be given to you; there shall be poured out into your lap a good measure, pressed and shaken down and running over.

Jesus’ way is an ethic of generosity. The only pay-off is knowing that you’re doing the right thing by helping others in need. Following Jesus’ way, we would acquire genuine wealth, namely the gratitude and the friendship of those whom we have helped.

Every once in a while, we see the kind of generosity of which Jesus spoke. For example, Frank Stronach, billionaire owner of Magna International of Aurora, was acting like a good corporate citizen some years ago. You may remember, he made his staff residences on his horse farm available to victims of Hurricane Katrina. He did this for five years, at no cost, and pledged to help them get back on their feet, while he also purchased land in Louisiana so he could build houses for them.

There is more good news: Canada is one of the countries leading the way in the movement to forgive crushing foreign debt. In 1989 we cancelled the debts of low-income countries, mostly in Africa with a face value of Cdn$672 million. Henceforth, Canada’s aid to these countries would be in the form of grants, not loans. After the Gulf War, Canada cancelled Cdn$239 million dollars worth of debt with Egypt. To date, Canada has forgiven the debts of 15 countries worth over $1 billion in total. Three countries – the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Burma and Sudan – remain eligible for future debt forgiveness.

Developing Third World nations continue to speak out against what they experience as the economic imperialism of wealthy nations—and rightly so. In Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, networks of organizations have emerged who are challenging the legitimacy of this unconscionable transfer of wealth from poor nations to wealthy nations. Tellingly, they are called “Jubilee networks”.

In wealthy nations like Canada, when businesses and individuals get themselves into overwhelming debt we have a compassionate legal option called bankruptcy. Our debts are forgiven, and while the bankrupt person is required to follow and adhere to certain conditions, these conditions are not oppressive. This is moving in the direction of a Jubilee practice which Jesus endorsed.

MF, this is part and parcel of a Christian spiritual practice to advocate on behalf of the poor for the forgiveness of debt. “Proclaim liberty throughout all the lands and to all in the inhabitants thereof, it shall be a jubilee for you.” (Leviticus 25:10).

Imagine MF, just imagine but for a moment that we could apply the Year of the Jubilee not only to the debtor nations, but to those whom we believe are indebted to us and those to whom we are indebted. Wouldn’t that be liberating? Wouldn’t that be Christian?

AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. Mt 18:15

Dear Friends! One of the most common sources of absolute bewilderment and head-shaking disillusionment, especially for newcomers to a congregation, is discovering conflict. I mean, it’s one thing to leave a place of conflict, and expect to arrive at a place of harmony and peace, but instead, to find more conflict—and in church of all places. Can we believe that followers of Jesus would be quarrelling with one another, complete with shouting and shoving matches? Of course, outside the church such may well be expected. But surely one of the defining characteristics of a Christian community is the absence of conflict. Or, is it?…really? Let’s think seriously about conflict for a moment, MF

I can’t tell you the number of younger, never married couples, whom I have counselled in pre-marital sessions, and who actually believed that conflict is bad—even morally wrong—because when I ask them to talk about an area of conflict in their relationship, they would deny having had any. When I hear this, I become very suspicious about what’s happening in such relationships.

To enjoy a genuine relationship, whether personal or family, at work or in a parish, is to experience a degree of conflict. It is inevitable!! But, conflict doesn’t need to be a bad thing! Why? Because God made each of us with a distinct personality and perspective, who I am will inevitably clash with who you are. While that’s true, it’s also true that the absence of conflict often signals the absence of intimacy. That’s why conflict is not the problem. How we view it and deal with it is the problem!

How we deal with differences and disagreements, or how we don’t deal with them, like the proverbial ostrich, has the potential to destroy or deepen a relationship. And we all know about that I’m sure! Most people don’t deal with conflict! Most people stay and fight or take flight. Some folks scream or yell at others, while still others silently freeze and leave—escape before the other person reacts.

Did you know that only 50 years after Jesus’ death, churches also underwent conflict. In today’s Gospel, Matthew presents his model for conflict resolution in the church. Of course it’s not the only model available to the church, but it is one which can work if people are genuinely honest about themselves and with others. Now Matthew presents this model of conflict resolution, because too many disagreements and differences were hindering the proclamation and enactment of the gospel.

Now, the model for conflict resolution, which Matthew uses, looks rather suspicious to me. Why? Because it looks like lots of folks ganging up on one individual. This model has the potential of encouraging the practice of scape-goating. Just because someone offends me, doesn’t make what they are doing necessarily wrong, bad or evil. So, who gets to decide what’s sinful and what’s not? Those with power could use it to simply get their own way, you see.

In her profoundly psychological book, A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews writes about a family of Manitoba Mennonites. First the mother, then the father, and finally the daughter are shunned by their congregation of believers, in which Matthew’s model of conflict resolution was applied to the letter of the law, for behaviours which you and I as modern-day Christians would consider quite normal.

First the preacher goes to the mother, one on one, and tells her about her so-called offending “sinful” behaviour. The elders are then brought in, supposedly as “witnesses”, following Matthew’s conflict-resolution model. But in actuality, MF, their role is to support the minister and accuse the sinner. Eventually, the family is indeed treated, in Matthew’s words as “Gentiles and tax-collectors”. They are totally cut off by their fellow believers. How painful, malicious and malevolent is all that, MF, and in a church?

The fact is, any model of conflict/resolution is open to abuse—even biblical ones! But if honesty is the rule and the application, Matthew’s model can work. Verse 15: If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” MF, if we could follow just this much, we’d all be way better off—wouldn’t we??—but we rarely do!!

Typically, we tell a third party that the pastor, or some committee member, or church member has offended us, rather than speak directly to the offender, to resolve the difficulty. Engaging a third party in this manner is what is called triangulation, and triangulation leads to nothing else but trouble—big time! After 40 years of ordained ministry, I’ve got scads of illustrations.

For instance, someone tells me, even in front of others, that they don’t like something I’ve said in a sermon, or something that I have done or not done—and what’s more, there are half a dozen others who also don’t like it, which makes that person feel all the more right and righteous. I respond that I would like to hear how I’ve offended him/her, so we can resolve the problem; but I also say that I am not at all interested in the opinion of these other anonymous people, unless of course, they would like to reveal themselves and the matter could be resolved. All of which doesn’t happen. I am told that anonymity protects the truth of what they claim to be the case.

Conclusion: Not only is the truth not served by anonymity, there’s nothing worse than this kind of triangulation in a church, because these folks refuse to identify themselves, which means, that such conflict can never be resolved, nor can the truth ever be known. That’s why such accusations are always unscriptural: These kinds of church people don’t want conflict to be resolved. They want to continue to hurt and punish other church members, sometimes including the pastor, and punish until they get their way. Now, sometimes it’s the pastor who does the punishing, because he/she is immature and has major insecurity problems.

The other significant difficulty in this scenario of anonymity is that there can never be any recourse to solving whatever the problem is. Nor can an apology ever be given: not by the pastor, nor by the nameless person(s) making the accusation. It’s all very unbiblical and unchristian, especially in church where ministry is supposed to be mutual, honest and caring.

Matthew then says: “If he listens to you, you have regained that one. MF, here’s where success of the model hinges. Success is dependent precisely on that moment when it’s most difficult to listen. Why? Because listening is imperative to solving the problem(s)! Trouble is, most people don’t really listen! That’s why sermons are often meant for someone else. “You know, Pastor Peter, too bad so and so did not hear that sermon,” is the oft repeated line. What matters most in this model is that we are willing to listen—especially to those whom we have hurt. Take note MF that Matthew engages the verb “to listen” 4 times in his model. That’s how critical listening actually is. The gift of really listening is the first step in the healing of relationships—what Matthew calls “regaining” a person.

MF, we can never “regain” another person if conflicts are only resolved when I get my way. Nor is there any meaningful community building, when I require others to agree with me. This is not about personal vindication so that I can feel better. It’s about restoring friendship and “regaining” that person from a broken relationship.

On the other hand, there are people, including church folks, who don’t want their relationships repaired. They have lived in dysfunctionality for so long, that they don’t know how to listen, how to say “I’m sorry” for the hurt and pain they’ve caused. Their dysfunctionality continues, because it’s the only way they know how to live.

MF, the entire point of the gospel this morning is to regain relationships. God is concerned with “regaining” those who are out of relationship—the lost and lonely, the judgmental and critical, the greedy and heartless, the insensitive and unfeeling, the outcast and marginalized, which is what and who we all are MF, in one or more aspects of our behaviour. The paradox is that we’re the ones who’ve offended God, but God is the one, who comes to us in Jesus to regain us. Following Jesus means that we’ve entered into a holy agreement—a sacred responsibility—to listen, to listen to God and to listen to one another—friend and foe alike.

I cannot think of a more difficult spiritual discipline than listening; and I did a lot of listening over 40 years, and still do. But now, since I’ve been retired, I only listen to my wife, Sherry. Because I took my listening seriously, genuine listening tired me out—big time. The two body parts which will outlast the rest of my anatomy are my ears and my tongue. I try to listen twice as much as I speak, since God gave me two ears and only one tongue.

I can’t begin to tell you of the numbers of people who no longer listen to others, nor to their children or life-long partners. How many committee meetings happen where two or more people are talking at the same time to be heard? How many worshippers no longer listen to the musical prelude which the organist has taken time to practice, to help people prepare spiritually for worship?

MF, each one of us is created by the God who listens to us, hears our cries and enjoys our praise. While God listens to each person, I’m grateful God doesn’t give me everything I ask for. Much more important than the results I seek, is the affirmation of a God who listens to me, especially when I’ve been hurt by insensitive people.

Listening is the lost art of a sacred responsibility on your part and mine. The capacity and willingness to listen is a divine quality, which we need to take much more seriously and engage more regularly as a sacred gift from God. To be a Christian, therefore, is to enter into a covenant defined by a willingness to listen, and especially to listen when it’s really tough. Jesus often concluded his most difficult teachings with the phrase: If you have ears to hear, then listen.

You know, MF, in the beginning of his 3-year public ministry, Jesus went into the wilderness/desert to first listen to God in order to be a recipient of spiritual knowledge and qualities which allowed him to become the Saviour we know and recognize. Because Jesus is always listening to God and experiencing God’s presence, God is able to continually teach him. Jesus doesn’t begin his life full of power and authority. He is born helpless and vulnerable like all of us, but throughout his life, he continues to listen to God in order to handle all manner of crises with love, wisdom and compassion.

Likewise MF, the local and global crises we find ourselves requires that, like Jesus, we listen to God, listen to one another and listen to others. Only by listening will we know how to change and what to change, because change is necessary for our survival—whether personal or social, whether institutional (including church and religion) or cultural, whether ethnic or national. Only by first listening can we bring about the necessary changes we need. Only by first listening was Jesus able to bring about change to Judaism and the Roman Empire or Martin Luther the change necessary for the Reformation or Gandhi the change necessary to for the British Empire to grant India its independence and Martin Luther King Jr the needed change to America’s segregationist society.

Listening is how we find the path forward, MF. Howard Thurman was an American black theologian and social activist in the 20th century who founded the first major interracial, interfaith church in the US. In his most notable book, Jesus and the Disinherited, he wrote: There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings which someone else pulls.

To follow Christ is to tune our ears especially to the voice of the most vulnerable. Like Jesus, we need to continue to help us connect our hearing to our hearts. Why? Because listening is a holy discipline and a sacred obligation, especially for us Christians who profess to care for others.

MF, listening involves not only our ears, but also our hearts and hands, our brains and brawn. Listening must also be achieved with all our time, talents and treasures, all our ability, capacity and dexterity. Listening must be concrete and practical. We also need to listen to the needs of our parish, as we try to move forward together!

Listen and learn, live and love, give and forgive, laugh and cry, hope and help—and let us do all this together MF. God has blessed this parish richly over two centuries. Let us continue to move forward in that blessing from God. He who has ears, let her hear and let him listen. AMEN.

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

MF this morning, I’d like to depart from Matthew’s Gospel, for a change in pace—and speak on vs 4 of today’s Psalm 84—How happy are those who live in your House, oh Lord—to bring a little joy and humor into my writing and your reading. Here we are at the tail end of a hot and humid summer, punctuated by the pandemic which produces fear and anxiety at many levels. As well, for those of you who have been faithfully reading my sermons, for the last 3 months or so, we’ve been attuned to Matthew’s Gospel which has laid some very heavy narratives upon our hearts and souls. Which is to say, I suspect we, myself included, need a little joy and humor!

Now, in case you didn’t notice, Matthew’s gospel can be brutal, especially Jesus’ parables in which he picked on clergy and lawyers, the rich and elite. But his interactions with others, including his disciples, were at times also severe, which Jesus then applies to good folks like you and me. His Sermon on the Mount was especially fierce, when we consider Jesus’ pronouncements and directives which almost no Christian in our society follows today: turning the other cheek, cutting off body parts which cause us to sin, instruction on what produces true happiness/blessedness, as well as his teaching on adultery, anger, revenge, hate, enemies, riches, heaven, fasting and prayer. MF, it’s time to lighten up—at least it is for me.

Now there are church folks who don’t like to lighten up. “Pastor, religion is serious business. You don’t see Jesus laughing or telling jokes, do you?” they would ask me. And so, there were always folks who left the parish because they could not stomach some humor. They didn’t have to argue with George Bernard Shaw who said: “If we sing in church, then why can’t we also laugh and dance?” Or consider the wicked wit of Oscar Wilde who said a lot of negatives about clergy: “If you’ve not got any humor, then you’re finished. You might just as well be a clergyman. The trouble with the clergy, is that they can convert others, but they’re unable to convert themselves. In public, they wail against pleasure, but in private they worship the pleasure of gratification and indulgence.”

I remember my first service at Epiphany back in 1997. There were two members sitting in the first pew, as the place was rockin’ and a rollin’. I overheard one member say to the other: “I think the pastor is trying to be funny.” MF, let me tell you: Every pastor can pretend to be serious, but no pastor can pretend to be humorous. And that’s because wit and humour, love and laughter is not a state of mind, but a state of the heart. Over the 15 years at Epiphany, there were members who left because they did not believe that humor had any place in the worship of God. I wholeheartedly disagree.

Because humor is a gift from God, she expects us to use it, including in church. Humor is great preventative medicine. If not for humor, I would have been buried 6 feet under a long time ago, together with the 629 people who were dying to see me and whose funerals I conducted. As Mark Twain once said: “Humor must both teach and preach, if it would live forever, and by forever, I mean 30 years.” Humor and laughter MF: How happy are those who live in your House, oh Lord, and, if I may add—use humor to sing your praises.

Well MF, life is difficult these days, given the reality of COVID-19, huge unemployment numbers, continued global terrorism and endless wars, Black Lives Matter movement, climate change and the endangered animal species list, or family breakups and marital breakdowns. Marriage may be grand, but divorce is about 250 grand—so Wayne McCracken tells me. Love may be a sweet dream, but marriage is the alarm clock—so my wife tells me. MF, it’s vitally important that our worship services speak to our existential problems in serious and meaningful ways, but that they also produce joy and enjoyment, love and laughter, wit and humour.

Now, sometimes I would begin my sermons with a skill testing question, like: How do we know that Moses drove a Triumph motorcycle? Exodus 22:10: “After Moses delivered the people of Israel from 400 years of slavery in Egypt, the roar of his triumph was heard throughout the land.”

Here we are MF, at the tail end of August and with autumn just around the corner, and so let me try some self-deprecating humor on for size. A few Saturday’s back, Sherry & I were doing some gardening in our backyard. Sherry began working quietly, just a few feet away, when I interrupt her: “Sweetheart, I can’t possibly rip these obstinate weeds from the hard ground with my bare hands. Tomorrow morning I’ve got the communion service at Zion to conduct. I can’t distribute the bread with these green stained fingers. I mean, what will the good people of Zion think?”

Don’t be so silly,” Sherry responded, without blinking an eyelash, as she’s always very focussed on whatever she’s doing. “This is not a problem!” she says with a determined look. “For heaven’s sakes, put some garden gloves on and you’ll be just fine!”

Now, I’ve got to tell you good folks that, that Saturday was not a good day for me. You all know Murphy’s Law: If things can go wrong, they will. And because it was just one of those days, I responded with something rather dumb: “Sherry, how can I possibly celebrate the eucharist wearing garden gloves?! How will that look?!” Well MF, what seemed like an eternity went by with Sherry only shaking her head in disbelief. But finally her stupified gaze rested heavily on me with these words: “My dear husband, my reference to wearing gloves had more to do with gardening, than communing.”

By the way MF, you may remember that principle to which most church members adhere: namely, they don’t associate with the pastor during the week, fretting that they might find themselves in the sermon at the end of the week. No, Sherry is unable to follow that dictum, since she’s the pastor’s wife. But for all others: the dictum remains the same: To all things clergic, we are allergic.

Now, lest you think I’ve lost my marbles, there are times when I do say something sensible and judicious. For instance, not long after that gardening episode, Sherry and I were sitting down outside at our patio for BBQ supper. Sherry noticed that I did not offer a prayer, as I normally do, and so she wondered why we weren’t going to ask God for his blessing on the food. To which I said: “My dear wife, you spoke eloquently about the garden gloves, but with respect to this food on my plate, well… I have prayed for God’s blessing on these leftovers on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Additional blessing over the same food is simply not necessary, even with the best of human and divine intentions.”

Humor, MF, is not only contagious, it is fragile. We enjoy it when we can and we may find it in the most unexpected places. Humor–How happy are those who live in your House, oh Lord. I remember one Christmas Eve, a young lady sat in the front pew under the pulpit, because she came late and it was the only place left to sit. In the sermon, I had the audience a rockin’ and a rollin’—again!. On the way out, she asks: Were you a comedian before you became a pastor?” I replied: “No, I was a pastor before I became a comedian.”

I’m reminded of a lady at St. Michael the Archangel AC, where I was the Honorary Assistant before I became the Interim Pastor at Zion. With a huge grin, she says: “O Pastor, you’re so much fun to be around!” It was a compliment, for which I was happy to take credit.

Now, I’m always eager to take credit for stuff, but after 41 years of ministry this past Aug 26, I’ve conducted over 400 weddings and in many of them, there were always folks who thanked me for the great sunny weather, or mothers of the bride who wanted me to change the rainy weather. They all thought I had a hotline to God. But, I politely declined their thanks and their requests, and told them that I have nothing to do with the weather. That’s because I’m in sales, not management. If it’s management you want, go see my wife.

God gave us the gift of joy and laughter, fun and humor. The fact is: We don’t own laughter. Laughter owns us. We don’t stop laughing just because we’ve gotten older. We know we are old, when we stop laughing—laughing with others and at ourselves. Love & laughter, wit & humour are gifts of God which keep on giving. They are the work of the soul, which is the reason I’m a pastor.

Love & laughter, wit & humor–these enrich the soul and enliven the spirit. Humor heals the heart. Humour keeps the church from suffocating under too much seriousness. Humor also keeps the church from suffering cardiac arrest. Humour helps give us a positive disposition about other people. Humor helps us relax and enjoy the moment—especially in church. Humor–How happy are those who live in your House, oh Lord.

Humor reminds me of the famous words of the German philosopher and so-called atheist, Friedrich Nietzsche who said: If you Christians want others to believe in your Saviour, then you had better act saved, and spare the world your sanctimonious hellfire & brimstone.

MF, love and laughter are contagious, even for God who gave us these in the first place, which is to say that humor is part of God’s DNA. Humor is not to be hidden under a bushel, but to be used—including church. Love and laughter, joy and wit are essential ingredients for all of us—especially for preachers and those who must listen to them—including their wives and sometimes their mothers, who according to Oscar Wilde—quote: “Mothers and wives are the only ones who actually practice what the preacher says!”

Earlier, I mentioned funerals and I’ve conducted more than my share: 629 and counting. I’ve turned down a few requests for funerals because some families didn’t want to hear about grief and grieving. They only wanted a celebration of life. I would always explain that I could not do one without the other. Both are realities when facing funeral services. I also included some appropriate humor, together with the necessary seriousness which the occasion demands.

I think I’ve mentioned a funeral where the family refused to acknowledge that their loved one actually died. They did everything possible to promote the illusion that he was alive and living—until of course they were faced with his body in the casket. The funeral service was stopped for an hour, to allow them to grieve. There was nothing humorous in this situation.

But in another situation, the wit was very subtle. A Scottish widow wanted me to lead her husband’s funeral. She had heard flattering reports from her friends who attended funerals I conducted. She wanted me to quote “speak most eloquently about my husband, to enshrine his memory in the hearts of the attendees for years to come.” And then she asked: “Reverend: How much will that cost?”

Well MF, it didn’t take me long to recognize both the frugality of this widow and her egotistical request for self importance. With a little humor in my voice, I said to her: “Well, let me see: For that kind of a funeral, my fee is $350.” To which she said: “That’s what the funeral home told me, but I said—It’s too much.” Then she asked, quite unabashedly: “What can you do for half that price?”

Well, I had never bargained over funeral services, but we were this far along. I just needed some humor to keep my sanity. “Well, for half the price, it would be nothing fancy, you understand, but no one would be able to doubt the solid virtues and endearing qualities of your late spouse,” I said. “That’s still too much, she replied. What can you do for $100, she asked? Tongue in cheek, I responded: “For that price, I would tell the listeners the truth about your husband.”

Sometimes MF, humor is not recognized, even if it’s in your face. And sometimes, humor is personal, to keep our senses and saneness, while at the same time, making truth the double-edged sword that it is. A lot of stuff can be funny, as long as it happens to some one else. Ain’t that the truth?

Last story. I had an invitation a few summers back to preach at Martin Luther Church in Etobicoke. It’s one of 5 biliingual English & German GTA parishes. I was subbing for their vacationing pastor in German and I could tell that the worshippers were really enjoying the sermon. They were smiling and shaking their heads in agree-ment. Some were holding their mouths closed to keep from laughing out loud. How happy are those who live in your House, oh Lord.

But something happened, which never ever happens—and certainly not in German congregations where everything is always done right —jawohl (yes indeed): namely, after the sermon, almost all of the worshippers got up and clapped and shouted their pleasure. I was impressd and the congregants were surprised at themselves. It was the first time they had ever done anything like that!

But, when folks were leaving the sanctuary, everyone, but two crusty old gentlemen, expressed their pleasure and desire that I come back asap. The two old fellows? The first one says: Pastor, Humor has no place in the worship service. To which I said: I guess the other 99% disagreed with you! And the other elderly gent said: Pastor, the only redeeming value this morning were the hymns. To which I said: Well, how great & grand is that? Your pastor had you in mind when he picked these hymns. Glad you enjoyed them.

Humor and laughter is one of God’s good gifts to mankind & womankind—proof that God has a sense of humor. How happy are those who live in your House, oh Lord. AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

What about you? Jesus asked them. Who do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered: You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Mt 16:15-16

Dear Friends! Here’s a text with which we’re all familiar: Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. Matthew and Luke both relay today’s gospel, but it’s Matthew’s version which identifies Peter as the Rock upon which Jesus will build his church. Jesus then gives Peter the Keys to the Kingdom—the power to forgive and withhold forgiveness. You all know that the Catholic Church takes this narrative to mean that Peter is the first Pope.

This morning, MF, I don’t intend to argue the counter validity of Martin Luther’s interpretation of this text—that Jesus founded his church not upon Peter, but upon the faith which recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and Saviour. Rather, I want to talk about something more practical and consequential for us Protestant Lutherans—namely our identity. Jesus identified Peter as the Rock, while Peter identified Jesus as the Christ, as we also do. But my question this morning is: How do others identify you or me? How do we identify ourselves? What makes us who we are? What is the central identification factor for us as Christians?

Let me begin with a little historical background. For the older folks among us, including myself, we’ve experienced more than one cultural shift throughout the decades, as we’ve moved from being an agrarian society to an industrial one and now we’re in a 2nd or 3rd wave of a technological, computerized society. Although the benefits are both positive and negative, the fact is that we’re all playing catch up—not just us oldies. Life is simply moving too quickly for most of us to keep up. Even young people are having a hard time staying the course with every new technological bauble and bangle.

Now, one of the more startling social changes is the basis for mate selection. In the so-called “good old days,” it wasn’t that important to be “in love,” as it is nowadays. Back then when you got married, you did so for economic reasons. When someone was looking for a wife, he was looking for someone who could milk cows, plow fields, paint barns—you know—important stuff like that, as well as have lots of children without interrupting work. Now, if your wife happened to be attractive and could even keep financial records, that was icing on the cake. But the real question was: Can she cook? Can she cook like Mama? In short, her identity as a cook, as a mother or housewife, was critical. That’s what mattered back then!

I used to teach some university back in the State of Virginia, when I was in a PhD candidate there in the 70s. So, every once in a while, I’d lecture about the wife and mother in the agrarian society. I’d sneak in some verses from the 31st chapter of Proverbs. “Canst thou find the virtuous woman? Her price far exceedeth rubies. She riseth while it is yet night and prepareth food for her household.” Well, I’d get started on this stuff, but not get past the first verse, “Canst thou find the virtuous woman. Her price far exceedeth rubies,” and some smart aleck in the class yells out, “Hey prof! What’s Ruby’s price?”

After I restored order, I said, “This is what the agrarian woman does. She sows and cooks, bakes and cleans, gets up while it is still dark to serve her household. Now, what wife does that today? Today’s wife uses shake and bake and orders in pizza.

The point is this: the wife and woman of the past knew who she was and who she was, determined what she did. The same can be said for the man and husband. Agrarian society promoted identity and commitment to that identity. I mean, have you ever heard of a man getting a divorce from a good cook? Now lots of marriages may be grand, but divorce is about 250 grand. That’s what Wayne McCracken tells me.

Trouble is, today, in the 21st century, our society is one which causes us to lose our identity. Why? Because, if we’ve not already lost ourselves to our ipods and ipads, our cell phones and smart phones, or allowed our money and material things to own us, then we’re always with different groups which define and redefine our identities: Our family and friends, our schools and churches, our organizations and institutions, our office and jobs, our religion and politics. The most prominent question facing us is: Who am I?

Who do other people think I am? Who and what defines my identity? Is my life defined by my bank accounts, my house and cars, as well as the material things I own? Or am I defined by my job and family, my religion and priorities? Or am I defined by what I do, my career or job, or am I defined by who I think I am?

Take kids in school for instance. I’ve met and taught many of them in over 40 years of parish ministry, and the 2 years of teaching university teaching back in Virginia. Every kid was similar. Every student was going through a period of introspection. They would come to my office at the church or the university and their core problems would be almost identical.

Students would say, “Hey Prof/Pastor. I’m tired of playing all these roles which society has prescribed for me: the “me” my parents want me to be; the “me” the church expects me to be; the “me” my friends need me to be; the “me” a university degree is supposed to make out of me. I’ve got to peel away each of these socially prescribed identities and come to grips with the core of my being. I’ve got to find myself.” Sound familiar? And where do the students go to find themselves? The ski slopes of Beaver Valley and Aspen, Co.

Reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon, where Sally goes to camp because her parents say “Camp is good for you. That’s where you’ll find yourself!” Trouble is, as soon as Sally gets off the bus at camp, she immediately turns around and comes home a week early, telling her dazed parents “I found myself when I stepped off the bus.”

The fact is this: The self is not something we find, whether on ski slopes of Beaver Valley, on the sun drenched beaches of the Caribbean, or in rap or heavy metal which purports to be music. Nor is the self to be found in the newest and sexiest 4-cylinder car, which is only an extension of the ego. In fact, the self is not something to be found! But it is something to be created. Identity is something to be made. Who we are is something to be formed. So MF, how do we create identity? How do we build who we are?

MF, there’s only one way to create identity and that’s through commitment. Commitment creates identity. Commitment creates the self. Commitment creates self-worth and value. Commitment creates meaning and purpose. Commitment creates who I am and who I am determines what I will do.

Jesus identified Peter as the Rock, given his loyalty and faithfulness, his trust and commitment. Peter then identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. The Saviour. He saw in Jesus that commitment to God, to love and be loving, giving and forgiving, which defined and identified Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.

When I was a kid of 13, just a few years ago, I made a commitment to follow in the footsteps of my pastor, Rev. Philip Weingaertner. Out of thankfulness that he became my father figure and mentor, I made a commitment to become a pastor. Commitment determined who I was to become. Likewise, commitment to Jesus makes me a Christian and as a Christian, I go to church. It’s not the reverse, even though many people think that going to church makes them Christian. Sorry, it just ain’t so.

As I’ve told confirmands year after year: If you were to park your body in a garage, would your body become a Beamer or a Jag or a Porsche—the cars you idolize so much? I don’t think so! We are committed Christians, that’s why we go to church, and, like Jesus, that’s why we do what we do.

Commitment, MF, is the essence of our human existence, and like Peter’s gospel declaration, commitment to Christ must be the bottom line for us. Without commitment, we are the hollow man, the straw man, blown to and fro by the wind. The root problem of our age is that we have a generation of uncommitted people, and it’s not just our young people. In large part, they only mirror the lack of commitment they see. Lack of commitment, says John Bradshaw, one of the foremost self-help therapists of the latter 20th century—lack of commitment is the diagnostic category of our generation, without which there is no genuine direction and values, no true purpose or meaning.

Commitment determines who we are or what we will become, and that in turn determines what we will do or will not do. Commitment remains constant, even though jobs and responsibilities, careers and accountabilities change, even though people and families change, even though pastors change churches and churches change pastors. Commitment to God remains constant! And Jesus is the Incarnation of God’s commitment to us!

When I was a doctoral candidate and teaching at the College of William & Mary in historic Williamsburg, Virginia, in the mid-70s, I had a friend who was also a PhD candidate with me and a lecturer at the Lutheran college in Roanoke, VA. One day Tim walked into the dean’s office and said, “I quit and I’m not coming back!” The dean said, “It’s the middle of the semester Tim. You can’t do that.” “Watch me!” Tim said and walked out.

Now, Tim’s mother, who was a gentle soul, asked me to speak with Tim, asap. And so I went to see Tim. He was living in an attic apartment, crammed with books, posters and stereo equipment higher than the CN Tower. He said, “Sit down Peter,” and so I sat in this bean bag chair. You know the kind. It looks like an amoeba, ready to swallow you up on the spot. So I’m sitting there, not knowing what to say and Tim finally says, “I quit.” I say, “Yeah, I heard from your Mom. But why?” I ask. Tim says, “I can’t teach those students anymore! Every time I walk into the classroom and try to lecture, I die a little bit.”

Now, I understood that. I was teaching at the time also. I know what it was like to walk into a classroom, pour out your heart and soul to the students and then some skinny little kid in the back row puts up his hand and says, “Hey prof, do we really have know that for the final exam?” Or, in confirmation class, after the pastor has shared some of himself and his deep inner feelings about God and Jesus, some confirmand says, “Oh Pastor, is the gown from the church I have to wear on Confirmation Sunday gonna match the colour of my blue dress?” I mean, it makes you wanna puke!

Anyway, I say, “So Tim, what are ya gonna do?” He says, “I’m gonna be a mailman.” I said, “A Ph.D. mailman?!” “Yup,” he says, “There aren’t too many of us.” “Well, then be the best mailman you can be,” I say to him. But he then says, “I’m a lousy mailman!” “Why” I asked quite puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Tim says, “Well, Peter, everyone else gets the mail delivered by one o’clock. I don’t get finished until about 6.” I say, “What in the world takes you so long?” He smiles a long, slow smile and says, “I visit!” “You what”?” “I visit,” he says again. “Yup, you wouldn’t believe how many people on my route never get visited until I come, and I share the Gospel of God’s love with them. It means a great deal to them.” “I visit all the time,” Tim says, “but I don’t sleep at nights.” “Why not?” I ask. “Well, how can you sleep after you drink 20 to 30 cups of coffee every day?”

And suddenly, I realized what had happened to Tim. Yes, he had stepped down several notches on the socio-economic ladder. But Tim was carrying out a commitment. As a Christian, he was committed to loving and serving other people. He didn’t change jobs because he was against teaching. He left teaching because it did not allow him to carry out and live his commitment.

The easy part of commitment is identifying Jesus as the Christ and Saviour of the world. The hard part is first to talk the talk and then to walk the walk. Christian is as Christian does! We must carry out the commitment we have to behave as Christians—to act on Christ’s behalf—to be “little Christs” as Luther liked to state.

The tough part of commitment is not just being informed, but being transformed from the inside out that we become little Christs, that we become Christ’s Body and Blood, become bread and wine for the millions who need to be fed—not just food, but the spiritual food of love and forgiveness, and the acceptance of who we are—God’s children—regardless of our tribe and clan, or ethnicity and nationality, our color or creed, or sexual orientation, our religion or lack of it.

We cannot really be Christians until and unless we have a commitment to Christ which we live out day by day. I’ve said it before, many times: Faith is not so much what we believe, but how we believe—how we behave and act towards our neighbour, whether in the pew or half way round the world.

MF, God strengthen your commitment to Christ—strengthen your resolve to be Christ in the little corner of the Vineyard in which you work for God’s Kingdom. AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

Jesus did not even answer her [because] “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”… Then Jesus finally said: “It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (v.24,26).

Dear Friends! I don’t know about you, but I must seriously question this Saviour of mine, who almost borders on being rude to this Canaanite woman. Is this the same gentle Saviour who says “Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”?—this Jesus whom we have all come to know and to love. So, like the Canaanite woman, you cry to Jesus for help, and what does he do? First he ignores you, like you’re not even there. Then upon a second plea, he finally answers, saying he has only come to help his own people, the Jews, and in effect, telling you to get lost. And then finally, in a desperate last ditch effort, you kneel down before him, pleading for help—not even for yourself, but for your daughter whom you love—and what does Jesus tell you?—that the food will be given to the hungry Jewish children and not to the “dogs,” which is what Jews called the Gentiles, you see.

Well MF, are you shocked by Jesus’ words and attitude, as I was, in this gospel story? Or did you simply gloss over Jesus’ words because, after all, Jesus could never say anything insulting to those who seek his help?

I don’t know about you, MF, but I have been shocked many times by Jesus’ words, and this morning is no exception. What words of Jesus could possibly shock me, you may rightly ask? Let me tell you:

Unless you hate your mother and father, you cannot follow me.” “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other cheek.” “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” “Anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” “Give to everyone who begs from you.” “Love your enemies and pray for them and be good to them.” “If you call anyone a ‘fool’, you will be liable to the fire of hell.” “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” I could go on MF, but these words and attitudes from Jesus have always sent waves of fear and trembling up and down my spine, as they did the first disciples of Jesus.

This story in Matthew has a parallel in Mark (7:24-30), both of whom portray Jesus in the same manner: initially ignoring the woman, and then answering in a cryptic critical manner, as well as exhibiting a very tribal worldview, which divides the world up into us good guys and those filthy Gentiles. As I said earlier, Gentiles were called “dogs” by the Jews in Jesus’ day, and which is precisely what Jesus also does. So MF, listen to what Jesus says, and listen like you were listening for the first time:

Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”. (7:27) In other words, “The Jewish children need to be fed first, because we can’t waste precious food on dogs, like you Gentiles. Listen up lady: My mission is to my own people. Why should I care about your daughter?” To my ears, MF, this is very disturbing stuff. And no, I’m not making this up!!

Then, finally, the Canaanite woman says to Jesus: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” To which Jesus finally replies, and according to Matthew’s version, he says: “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” But, according to Mark’s account of the very same story, Jesus says nothing to the woman about her faith—not one word. Instead he replies: “For saying that, you may go. The demon has left your daughter.” (7:29) In other words, “For that witty repartee, dear lady, consider your daughter healed.”

MF, what are we to make of all this? Mark’s gospel says that Jesus “did not want anyone to know that he was even in the region” (7:24). In other words, Jesus wasn’t different than many pastors, myself included, when we become exceedingly tired, given the constant demands and pressures of public ministry. I believe Jesus found himself deluged by public demands, to the point where he was severely stressed, and thus inadvertently slipped into the cultural default attitudes of the day, ie, against the godless Gentiles.

Naturally, Jesus’ followers understood him to be the fulfillment of prophecies to the Jews, the Chosen People. But that Jesus’ mission was also to the Gentiles was not understood by the disciples. Jesus did not come with vengeance and recompense against the enemies of the Jews; rather with compassion, even though he was crucified by those same enemies.

Divine wisdom, MF, isn’t just stranger than fiction, it’s stranger than human truth! And that’s of course why Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand him. Paul had a terrible time convincing Jesus’ disciples that the Gentiles were also loved by God! Paul had to fight with Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem, long after Jesus death. Accepting Gentiles was simply too radical a truth back then, like accepting homosexuals is too radical a truth today.

It’s taken the church centuries to accept Catholics and Protestants as equals, blacks and slaves as equal to whites, women and children as equal to the men who ran the church for centuries. Tragically, the Catholic Church is still run by men—old ones. Now the debate is over homosexuals who are equal to heterosexuals. Happily, they’re not only equal in our denomination of the Lutheran Church, the ELCIC, but they can get out of the closet, get blessed and married—even ordained as pastors! How great & grand is that?

The fact is, MF, Jesus exerted evolutionary pressure on the disciples to be accepting and loving, giving and forgiving, especially to those on the outside of their male dominated and driven society: to include women and children, who were regarded as property; to include the poor, marginalized, outcasts, divorced and lepers, all of whom were being punished by God for their sins—so it was believed. Jesus comes into the scene, and loves not just us, but loves them too. In other words, God loves not only Christians, but Moslems and Jews, Buddhists and Sikhs, theists and atheists alike—and not only them, but God loves the whole world! Period. Exclamation mark!

MF, let me word it to you this way: If I’ve been raised in an ethnocentric and religious worldview, in which I belong to the chosen people and you don’t, then I’m going to understand Jesus as supporting my perspective. This means that Church, Bible and religion will all be filtered through my status as belonging to the Chosen Few, who alone will be saved. That’s why Jesus’ first followers didn’t understand him, and, frankly, many today still don’t.

So MF, to ask once again: Just who is this Jesus who seems to be looking for excuses, ignoring pleas for help, and finally insulting a desperate mother by calling her and her people dogs? After all, according to the OT, Canaanites are described as everything the people of Israel are not. Canaanites were polytheists, who engaged in fertility rites, child sacrifice and committed abominations. Like our popular images of Huns, they were seen as savages—in a word—dogs—a tribal attitude Jesus seems to reflect in today’s story.

The fact is that, like the tribal god of Judaism who abhors other races and tribes, there is far too much in every religious system of every nation and in the portrayal of their tribal god—including the traditional view of Christianity, that always and forever validates the hatred and exclusion of those who are different and not of our ethnicity or race. This tribal God of Israel was alive and well in the first century Jewish world in which Jesus lived. It was therefore inevitable that Jesus would confront this tribal mentality, which he eventually does in today’s Gospel, primarily because of the initial tenacity, cleverness and persistence of the Canaanite woman.

She successfully cajoles Jesus into healing her daughter. She doesn’t give up! She has a ready answer when Jesus offers an excuse for not helping her. She persists to the point where Jesus finally gives in, gives up and consents to healing the daughter. Jesus’ heart is opened and his definition of who he has come to serve and to save is expanded. For me, this is a compelling explanation, not least because it reminds me of Jesus’ full humanity—a humanity he shared with the Canaanite woman and with every human being. 

To come to terms with this difficult passage is to examine the situation faced by Matthew’s church in the first century. Matthew’s Gospel was written in the 80s, 50 years after Jesus, and like all churches since, Matthew’s church faced divisions and conflicts over who was to be included and excluded. There were followers who were Jews, but who still participated in synagogue life. There were also Gentile followers who from a Jewish perspective were unclean and needed to become Jews first, before they could become Christians.

A huge divisive debate arose as to whether these Gentiles, who were largely Greeks and Romans, could be accepted into the church just as they were, or whether they had to become Jews before becoming Christians. Likewise, for centuries the church argued that homosexuals had to become heterosexuals before they could become Christians and join the church. Many still do!

Now, this debate is evidenced throughout Matthew’s Gospel. In Chapter 10, Jesus sends the disciples out and instructs them to avoid the Gentiles and go only to the lost sheep of Israel. Yet this occurs against a backdrop in which Israel’s lost sheep do not respond to Jesus’ message, but the Gentiles do. In other words, there is a definite transition and evolution here, as the church shifts from Jewish to Gentile membership, shifts from closed to open borders.

One of the key divisions in the early church was access to the Lord’s Supper. There is evidence of this struggle in today’s text. Where Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food…”, the actual Greek word is artos, meaning not food, but bread. In other words, this Canaanite woman wants the bread of the Lord’s table, or communion. In fact, she’ll even settle for its crumbs! This godless Gentile, who has not been baptized nor confirmed, not a follower of Jesus, much less church educated—this woman now seeks a place at the Lord’s table! Absolutely astounding, don’t you think?!

The truth is this: Any parent, anywhere, who must beg for the life of their child in the face of hostility and indifference, there Christ is ready to help and heal. Any non-Christian facing exclusion from Christ’s Church and Supper, there is Christ crucified all over again. No one—absolutely no one will be excluded by Jesus from his own Table—not this Canaanite woman, nor Judas, nor any other sinner!

MF, today’s Gospel challenges us to enlarge our hearts, by expanding our borders and boundaries. After all, God cannot be restricted by the narrowness of our theology and exploding fears. Matthew reminds us that God’s love is absolutely boundless because it extends to all the world. There is more than enough for everyone! 

God’s Kingdom is one whose gates are thrown wide open: there are no requirements: no entrance exams or means tests, no passports or visas, no creeds or credos, dogmas or doctrines. The single requirement is the compassion of an open heart and open borders.

Today MF, we have a story in which Jesus intentionally journeys into the land of the enemy—Gentiles, for whom Jesus extends God’s health and healing to the daughter of a foreigner—a Canaanite. But Jesus also ventures into the foreign territory of your heart and mine. He knows that this territory is anything but pure and stainless, much less sinless. The good news is that God crosses the borders of the holy and righteous, and visits the profane country of our hearts, whose only requirement is to be open and receptive.

MF, the unvarnished truth is this: Jesus empowers his followers to lay down our survival barriers, to step beyond nation and tribe, clan and clique, religious denomination and faith tradition—to step beyond language and culture, social customs and standards—to step beyond the fear-imposed levels of our insecurity. Jesus calls us to step into a humanity that opens to all people the meaning of life in God’s Kingdom. This is the gift Jesus offered then and today!

And when we penetrate this meaning, we discover a Jesus whose Gospel was not the message of rescuing the sinners outside his/our own tribe and saving the lost outside his/our religion, or attempting to patch up the personal insecurities of all he met. Rather, Jesus’ message to transform his followers into a new and inclusive full humanity for themselves. Jesus called people to risk stepping outside their man-made walls and defences, beyond the self-imposed fears and insecurities, and to embrace in a way not known before what it means to be fully and wonderfully human.

MF, when our humanity is called to risk all in loving those who are different—different color and race, different nation and ethnicity, different religion or no religion, different language and culture—in a quest for fulfillment which expands life, then we have a very different image of what it means to be human. In the fully human one, Jesus of Nazareth, we now finally see that the only way into the life of God is to walk the walk of our humanity.

The fact is: Divinity does not make us more than human, as the Church has taught. But divinity is the completed fullness of our humanity, when limits disappear, boundaries are torn down, hatreds fade and are forgiven, so a new creation can emerge. I must make it clear that even the word “divine” is a very human word, created or invented to name a rather human experience of God.

MF, when I look at Jesus, I don’t just see God in a human form. I see much more than that because that understanding was designed to meet the survival needs of the Christian tribe. It’s similar to the need to see God as some kind of a “man upstairs” or a glorified Santa Claus who checks to see who’s naughty or nice. I look at Jesus and view a humanity open to all that God is—love and life and being itself—which is more than any one religion or faith tradition.

Granted, MF, it’s a new way to look at Jesus and God—outside of the confining box of God’s identity inside organized religion. But, given the alternatives, at least for me, it’s a welcome transformation. AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed a strong wind, he became afraid and beginning to sink, he cried out: “Lord, save me!” Mt 14:23

Dear Friends. Every time I read this miracle of Jesus’ walking on the water, I’m reminded of the humor which distinguishes Anglicans from Lutherans and which I’ve reiterated numerous times from a variety of pulpits. Both Lutherans and Anglicans believe that Jesus walked on water, but Lutherans believe Jesus walked on the water in the wintertime.

This miracle story has parallels in John and Mark, but not Luke. Why not? Well, that’s outside the scope of this sermon, but take note that John and Mark’s version of this miracle do not include Peter’s attempt to also walk on the water. Why only Matthew contains this anecdote has a connection with Peter’s faith claim two chapters later, that Jesus is the Christ. Today, however, I’d like to concentrate on Peter’s failure to walk on water—a failure which is born of fear.

Matthew’s version of this miracle story of Jesus walking on water and then calling Peter to join him—well MF, Peter just about pulls this one off! He sees Jesus walking on water and thought he just might be able to do the same. But it is fear that causes him to sink.

American poet Waldo Emerson put it this way: “Never strike sail to fear, but sail with God the stormy seas.” MF, one of the spiritual disciplines I have long wanted to engage in is the careful tracking of fear in my life and its effect on my decisions and my way of being in the world. This may seem a strange spiritual discipline to be attracted to, but I am convinced that fear has a much greater influence in our lives, privately and professionally, individually and collectively, than we’re be willing to admit.

At a Lutheran Synod Convention a few years ago, I remember having a chat with a person who was opposed to homosexuals on the grounds that she didn’t want their life-style affecting hers. After engaging the delegate, it turned out that she was afraid of them, simply because she didn’t know any gays or lesbians. She then admitted that the chances of their daily life affecting her was exceedingly slim. In short, her opposition to them was born out of fear.

I can recount specific times in my life when I was afraid, as when I was assaulted four times. It’s a fearful thing to be physically attacked. In one case I was still a boy and very afraid of my assailant. In the other case, I was a man and unafraid of my attacker—a 20 something year old, who was not afraid of me, because he knew that I’ve been a pacifist all my life and would not counter assault him.

Psychologically speaking, physical assaults are unnerving events, which cause nightmares. MF, to be at the receiving end of physical assault is one kind of fear, an external force which threatens our security. But the more subtle and perhaps more determinative fears come from within us, precisely because they often operate unconsciously—a much more subtle form of fear.

Karl Barth, one of the foremost Reformed theologians of the last century, once wrote, “Fear is the anticipation of a supposedly certain defeat.” Fear signals to us that a future, not of our choosing, is somehow fixed and certain, and that we’re going to suffer some kind of defeat, emotionally, psychologically, relationally. It is this certainty of defeat that often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our worst fears are realized. Fear is the most formidable opponent anyone of us must face.

MF, I believe Jesus had broken open the boundaries of what is possible for us. With a little encouragement, Peter overcomes his fears, and like a little child taking its first steps, he’s walking on water. But then he notices the wind and the waves and suddenly it dawns on him: He’s doing what we humans are not capable of. And so, fear enters the equation for him, as it does for so many of us—me too!—and at the very moment he anticipates defeat, it’s over and he is defeated.

You know, it’s staggering to keep track of the number of times fear affects us on a daily basis. I’m talking about the little explosions of fear that pass so quickly through our consciousness as thoughts and images that we barely notice. Remember the famous one liner from Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the Americans decided to enter WWII. He said, “We’ve got nothing to fear but fear itself.” And he’s got a major point there!

Fears fight wars and conquer worlds. Fears can even build temples and churches, synagogues and mosques. People who are obsessed with fear are always planning their defences and retreats; never forging ahead, only escaping; never living, only existing; never loving, only calculating; never giving, only taking; never committing, only hedging bets.

Well MF, what are you afraid of? Really? Or, are you afraid to even contemplate what you’re afraid of? For instance, most people are no longer genuinely afraid of death, but they are afraid of dying, and certainly fear dying in a long protracted suffering—for themselves and their loved ones. Some folks are afraid of dying too soon, before their time; others are afraid of poor health in their senior years and of not dying when the quality of life is severely diminished. Others are afraid to die, because they still want to live, while others are afraid to live, because they want to die.

On a daily basis, there are many who are afraid of doing some thing wrong, or saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. There are also very thoughtful people who are afraid of too much power and too much success, because then others start expecting too much of them. Conversely, there are folks who are afraid of too little power and success, because then they won’t have any influence or control over others, much less over their own lives.

For many immigrants, like my grandparents, there is the ever-present fear of being poor, or being poor all over again. There are Christians I know who are afraid of waking up one morning and having no faith. There are people who are also afraid of opening up their hearts to another person; afraid of trusting; afraid of being vulnerable. There are other folks who fear losing their memory, but also their minds and becoming a prisoner of their bodies. I know pastors who are afraid that they’ll run out of things to say on a Sunday morning; and so they go to another congregation where they can start their sermon series all over again.

We all know a little psychology. We know that we humans have a way of turning fear into hatred. Why? Because we’re unconscious of the fear. This is especially true of men who have been socialized away from fear. It is an unacceptable feeling, so it gets expressed as anger and even hatred. Road rage is about people, especially men, compensating for fear with anger and hatred because most men cannot admit to being afraid. Wars are started and sustained because men are unwilling to tell each other that they are full of fear, so the fear gets expressed as anger and hatred, violence and rage, ultimately ending in war and killing fields.

Fear of not being loved is another major fear, which prevents us from being our genuine selves. We allow fear to take a hold of us and we suddenly become someone we are not and don’t know who we have become! Alice Miller, an Austrian psychotherapist, wrote a bestseller “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” The title recognizes the extent to which we go as children, to procure the love of our parents when we are afraid that their love is not given unconditionally. We learn to be good little boys and girls, to keep negative feelings inside, to excel to the extent that out of fear, we create a self which aims to please others, but is alien to our genuine self. It’s a fear of being abandoned, over and over again.

MF, what can we really do about fear and can our faith help us? Jesus is often presented as the one who saves us from sin. But in today’s gospel, Peter cries out to Jesus to save him, not from sin, but from the effects of fear. Jesus dealt with sin by forgiving it, but fear is more challenging!

Jesus is the one who saves us from fear, not by taking it away, but by inviting us to enter more deeply into our fears. There’s an expression: “The way out is the way in.” In other words, Jesus validates Peter’s courageous gesture by helping him to lean into his fear. He doesn’t take it away, but he makes it clear that, with more faith, he could overcome his fear and go beyond the limits of what he thought humanly possible.

I once attended a very pricey wedding reception at the Ritz Carlton in Montreal where I was seated at a table with dignitaries including the presidents of Sears, The Bay and Bata Shoes. At the table was also a bullfighter from Spain, and everyone, especially the ladies, paid him court. “Oh Louis, you couldn’t possibly be afraid of anything!” the ladies gushed. “Truth be told,” Louis replied, “I’m afraid of bulls!!” In short, he conquered his fears by starring them in the face, between two horns.

That was 1980 and although Spain continues this blood-soaked centuries-old practice, I think back over the decades and it’s shocking to see how much the world has changed in such a brief time. Each of us has had our lives and communities disrupted over the long haul by fear. Right now, it’s the fear of contracting COVID. I remember flying home from Peru just a few days before the country was shut down, and although I conducted our March 15th service, the very next day Sherry & I were self-isolating. Of course, we have fears for ourselves and our Zion family, but also for Sherry’s mom, Marion Row, who is 95 and living at Trilogy Long Term Care, especially given the high rate of nursing home deaths in Ontario.  

In the midst of the fears over this raging pandemic, I’m trying to take in psychologically, spiritually, and personally, what path the Holy Spirit is moving us globally? I’m convinced that God uses the fear and suffering we bring upon ourselves to teach us and lead us. I believe that God always wants us to stay connected and in the case of this pandemic, God wants us to experience global solidarity. We all have access to this suffering, fear and death, while the pandemic bypasses race and religion, gender and nation. 

MF, our global human family at a highly teachable moment in time, if we’re willing to learn. There’s no doubt that this period will be referred to for the rest of our lives. We have a chance to go deep and go broad. Globally, we’re in this together. Depth is being forced on us by fear and great suffering, which hopefully will lead to heroic love and unity, but may also lead to intense bitterness and division. 

For God to reach us, MF, we must allow suffering to wound us—our own or someone else’s. Now is no time for superficial solidarity and lip-service. Real solidarity with those who fear and suffer can only be felt. That’s the real meaning of the word “suffer” – to allow someone else’s fear and pain to influence us in a real way. We need to move beyond our own personal feelings and take in the whole.

At the end of each night, Sherry & I watch the news on TV and we see and feel how people in other countries, as well as we Canadians, are hurting. What is going to happen to those living in isolated places or for those who don’t have health care? Imagine the fragility of the most marginalized, of people in prisons, the homeless, or even the people performing necessary services, such as ambulance drivers, nurses, and doctors, risking their lives to keep society together?

Our feelings of fear and anxiety, urgency and devastation are not exaggerations: real people are responding to real human situations. We’re not pushing the panic button; we are the panic button. And we have to allow these feelings and invite God’s presence to hold and sustain us in a time of collective prayer and suffering. 

I truly hope and pray that this experience will force our attention outwards to the suffering of the most vulnerable. Love always means going beyond oneself to others. It always takes two. There has to be the lover and the beloved. We must be stretched to an encounter with otherness, and only then do we know it’s love. This is what is called the subject-subject relationship. Love alone overcomes fear and is the only true foundation which lasts (1 Cor 13:13). 

MF, I will conclude with these last thoughts:

Following Jesus is to follow without fear and in love. This means that as Christians, we should never be surprised or scandalized by the sinful and the fearful all around us and within us. We need to do what whatever we can to be peace and love, to do justice and dispense impartiality; but at the same time, never to expect or demand perfection from others—especially not from those closest to us. Such expectation and perfection almost always leads to a false moral outrage, a negative identity, intolerance, paranoia, and self-serving crusades against “the contaminating element,” instead of “becoming a new creation” ourselves (Gal 6:15).

We must resist all ideologies and idealisms as utopian or heroic, for they are ultimately idolatrous. Human ways forward must always be tempered by patience, tested by love, but also taught by all that is broken and beaten, flawed and fearful, sinful and poor. Jesus is an utter realist and does not exclude the problem from the solution. We Christians must always work toward situations which are a win/win/win for all sides. That being said, we must also mistrust all win/lose dichotomies, because someone else always wins at the expense of someone else losing.

Following Jesus is not a “salvation scheme” or a means of creating social order, which appears to be why most folks are religious, as much as it is a vocation to share the love of God for the life of the world. Some people are overly invested in religious ceremonies, rituals and rules that are all about who’s in and who’s out. But Jesus did not come to create a spiritual elite or an exclusionary system. He invited people to “follow” him by personally bearing the mystery of human death and resurrection. Of itself, this task does not feel “religious,” which is why it demands such faith to trust it. 

MF, the fact is this: We who agree to face our fears head on, and to carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within ourselves–these are the followers of Jesus. We are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is the dramatic image of what it takes to be such usable followers for God. AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

They don’t have to leave. You give them something to eat! Mt 14:16

MF, if you like miracle stories, here’s another one—The Feeding of the Five Thousand—this time from Matthew’s pen, although the story exists in all four gospels. It’s a very familiar miracle story to us all—perhaps even dangerously familiar to the point where all that’s left is our nodding approval. We know all of the characters by rote: from the hungry multitude to the nervous, doubting disciples, to the five barley loaves and two fishes. In John’s version there’s a good-hearted little boy, who actually had the food. Last but not least, there’s our good Lord himself, Jesus of Nazareth who pulls off yet another miracle. There’s seemingly nothing left to surprise, for we know the ending, as we know the beginning.

Perhaps for all of us, the question “Is the miracle true?” is a non-starter—even for Thomas-doubters like myself. However, this is not to say, I don’t have any questions about miracles. I certainly do. After all, once miraculous supernatural powers are ascribed to Jesus, and therefore to God, then one can certainly ask for explanations as to why God acts on some occasions and not on others, especially in the case of natural disasters and pandemics, when the lives of millions are at stake. So MF, What’s in a Miracle? What do you think?

So, for instance, if God has the power to answer the prayers of parents, that their son/daughter might be spared death in time of war, does the death of that soldier mean that the parental prayers were ineffective, as in the case of the 158 Canadian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan? Or does it mean that the victim deserved God’s wrath? Or is there another reasonable explanation, apart from God?

In the case of feeding miracles like this one: If God can feed the hungry with manna from heaven as he does in the OT, or by the multiplication of loaves and fishes, which is how this miracle is typically explained, how is it that God allows drought and starvation to strike Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia? If God is good, then why does he not act, when we pray for the hungry to be fed?

So, here we are, MF, praying to God, knowing that he has the power to feed the hungry, and yet she doesn’t. Jesus’ disciples, on the other hand, have 5 loaves and 2 fish and they’ve got his physical presence, but still don’t believe Jesus can feed the hungry. Go figure, eh?! But in this case, we’re talking about 5,000 people, and according to Matthew, that’s just the men. He’s not counting the women and children, which doubles or even triples the number to be fed!

To continue my line of argument: If God had the power to defeat the enemies of Israel during the Exodus under Moses, then why did God not intervene to stop the Holocaust? If one attributes to God supernatural powers, then one has to explain why God uses his power so sparingly, why there is so much pain, sickness and tragedy in human life. As the playwright Archibald MacLeish said in his play J.B., based on the Book of Job: “If God is God, he is not good. And if he is good, then he is not God.”

Perhaps on a lovely summer morning like this one—COVID 19 notwithstanding—we would rather not think of difficult questions like these. It’s a view which certainly has my sympathies! Like you, I too believe everything in the Bible from cover to cover. But the question is this: How will I interpret that which I read in Scripture? If Jesus healed the sick and cured the lame, then why doesn’t God heal my handicapped son, Karl, soon to be 42 years old—born mentally and physically impeded with a chromosomal deficiency?

Now, the average person of faith believes in a God who is all-powerful and who therefore has absolute control of the Universe. Maybe you do too. This is the characteristic which makes God God for most Christians. After all, what good is God if he is not “almighty” and in control of everything?  MF, in all honesty, there are real problems with this kind of thinking about God!

Besides the problem of free will which this belief undermines, it raises critical problems in the face of natural disasters. If God is all-powerful, why would he let natural disasters even happen, like the massive Indonesian tsunami and the devastating earthquake in Japan a few years back? Do you remember seeing folks on TV, wandering around looking beneath the rubble for any sign of loved ones, or parents carrying their dead babies in their arms and rooms full of infants washed up on some shore, waiting for identification? 

The usual religious response to such innocent suffering is that there are things we just don’t understand. God’s ways are not our ways, we say. But, God has a plan for every person and even natural disasters and the suffering they cause are part of that plan—part of God’s will—we also say. As a pastor, I would never be able to tell a father holding his drowned infant that this was God’s will. And as a father of a handicapped son, nor could I tell myself that this is God’s will. Why? Because I honestly don’t believe it’s true.  

MF, we Christians have placed far too much stock in omnipotence —in an all-powerful “almighty” God, as the defining characteristic of God. If God had the power to stop an earthquake, or prevent the holocaust, or the Rwandan genocide or COVID 19, but chose not to for whatever reasons, it leaves me with a God I cannot believe in.

To the contrary, I believe that it is the nature of God to place limits on his own power. I honestly believe that God empties himself of absolute power in order to make room for freedom in creation, freedom for you and me to make decisions and face the consequences of those decisions, even if the consequences are at times in the service of evil.

The defining characteristic of God is not in the capacity to control the Universe, but in the biblical promise to be present to us and for us, to be here with us in all circumstances, as the enduring presence of Love and Compassion. Where is God in any and every disaster? God is in the weeping of the father for his child. God is in the inconsolable grief of the woman who has lost everything and everyone. God is hanging on the gallows of Dachau, the first concentration camp established in 1933. MF, God weeps with us!

It is a central feature of our Christian story that God did not intervene to stop the execution of his faithful son, Jesus of Nazareth, on the cross. Rather, God entered into Jesus’ suffering and pain on the cross. In identifying with his suffering, God also identifies with the suffering of humanity. God is a suffering Presence with those who suffer. That, MF, is precisely how God is in every disaster!

That’s why if you ask “Is the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 literally true?”—that’s not the point! Why? Because miracles are not arguments or propositions to which there must be a yes or no, a right or wrong. The question should be: What does this miracle mean? Why? Because at its essence, a miracle is the demonstration of a divine message or illustration that God chooses to communicate to us. A miracle is God’s extraordinary message in the midst of the ordinary. A miracle is to see and understand something of God’s nature and purpose, her direction and communication to us.

Now, the people of the Bible may not know what a miracle is, at least not in the scientific sense we 21st century folks do. But they knew a miracle when they saw one—much like the Saskatchewan farmer who was asked if he believed in infant baptism, said: “Believe in baptism? Why, I’ve even seen one!” The shepherds did not ask themselves if they “believed” in the angels they saw. They went in fear and haste and worshipped at the manger. The blind man from birth who was given his sight by Jesus also did not ask to understand what happened to him. He simply acknowledged with plain eloquence that he could now see.

The 5,000, once hungry and now satisfied, didn’t ask questions about the economics of supply and demand. That’s because something unusually good had happened to them and they knew it. They experienced eating and being full first-hand, you see! They not only heard Jesus’ message; but more importantly, they received Jesus as the Bread of Life, when they received the bread & fish. That’s why their bellies and souls were full, and that’s why there were baskets of food remaining—because the Bread & Fish were Jesus himself.

When all is said and done MF, the essence of a miracle is not in its power nor in its extraordinary supernatural capacity, nor in its ability to attract attention and high visibility. Yes, in today’s feeding of the 5,000 plus, the need of the crowd was satisfied with the loaves and fishes. But that was not the primary miracle!

The real miracle was that in this personal encounter, the people saw “the prophet who is to come into the world.” Their eyes were opened and they saw Jesus as he was: God’s presence in the world, his making us to be his Bread and Fish by bringing his loving message through you and me who are now God’s Bread and Fish to and for the world. That’s the miracle which still needs to happen each and every day!

MF, it’s not the will of God that people should go hungry. The gospel is never offered as a substitute for the fundamental needs of human survival. For it is the will of God that those who hunger and thirst should be given food and drink and that they should be provided generously and without stint. In fact, global hunger and poverty are not signs of insufficient piety—that God is punishing us for our sins. Rather, miracles are signs that we humans continue to mismanage the great & grand resources God has given us. Like Jesus’ disciples, you and I are God’s Bread and Fish to the world. You and I are incarnations of God’s presence in and to this world.

Or, as Martin Luther so often liked to phrase it, we are little Christ’s who also perform miracles when, like him, we give ourselves to others as Bread and Fish, as Love and Compassion, as Giving and Forgiving, as Mercy and Justice, and as Acceptance of everyone as God’s Child—no matter race or religion, clan or clique. 

When the disciples saw the enormity of the need before them, they questioned Jesus as to whether there were sufficient resources to feed all of them. Likewise, millions await our help. It is our responsibility to help. The global need is enormous, overwhelming in fact! Jesus has confidence in our capacity to multiply what we’ve been given in the service of those who have so little. May our compassion as a nation, as a community of faith, and as individuals multiply and be distributed among the hungry and homeless.

This miracle of the bread and fish tells us what can happen when we stay connected to one another and to God, both as the Source of Life and as the dynamic impulse to create new futures. Where the disciples see only insurmountable limits and dead ends, Jesus sees an opportunity to manifest abundance. Jesus commands his disciples in Matthew’s version of this miracle to “Make it happen!” “Wrest a blessing from this situation! These are the life conditions confronting you. Deal with it!” Jesus multiplies, not only the food, but more importantly, the disciple’s capacity to feed the crowd. 

You see MF, it is good to feed the poor and hungry. We’re called to do that as Christians. But it’s even better to give them an experience of the divine power within themselves and to make something unimaginable happen. The next step is to change the social systems that perpetuate hunger—to figure out how to feed one another, which is the fullest expression of Christian discipleship. 

The loaves and fishes are just the first course. The real feast is this spiritual lesson: When we are connected to one another and to God as Source of all Life and the Stream of all creativity, then all things become possible. I’ve said it many times in over 40 years of preaching over 4,000 sermons: There is so much potential in each and every congregation, including little Zion—that together we could change the world—starting with us!

In short, MF, this miracle only works when we, like Jesus and his disciples, are connected together, relying on one another and within our communities, no matter what our personal, social, or economic circumstances. No one can do it all—feed, clothe, heal, comfort, house, employ, and educate—for ourselves or our families. Despite our current obsession with independence and individualism, we are meant to do things collectively, stay connected to work together in mutually beneficial ways. Even the fittest, biggest, and strongest among us do not survive without the cooperation of others. Our human societies have worked this way for thousands of years. 

Thankfully, we’re now seeing many people, religious and secular, from all around the world, coming together to form alternative systems for sharing resources, living simply, and imagining a sustainable future. It has been one of the spiritual gifts of the COVID pandemic. God never misses a chance to help us grow up.

 It’s sad to say, but for centuries the Christian vision was narrowed to what we have today—a preoccupation with private salvation. Our “personal salvation” is be based on a very small notion of what Jesus did and said. We’ve modeled church after gas stations where members attend weekly services to “fill up” on their faith.

But MF, there are members who want more from church. There are members who long for a spiritual home that connects with their whole life, not just somewhere to go on Sunday morning. Church is meant to be a community of faithful people who nurture and support each other and others along our full journey toward the ultimate goal: the Reign of God “on earth as it is in heaven,” as we pray every Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer.

MF, it’s all too easy to project unrealistic expectations on any one community. No group can meet all our needs for emotional, mental, and physical well-being. The human psyche needs space and healthy boundaries and not co-dependent groupings. Every isolated individual is fragile and helpless to evoke long-term renewal. By ourselves, we can accomplish very little. We must find common ground and purpose to move forward. In fact, Jesus’ very first and foundational definition of church and divine presence—that where two or three are gathered together, there he is!

We must enter God’s Kingdom, be awake to the Ocean of God’s Being in which we swim, and then throw ourselves into the evolutionary Stream of divine power to bring forth the future that needs us in order to emerge. MF, this won’t happen, unless WE make it so—unless we welcome God’s Kingdom by letting go of our own little kingdoms, unless we let go of our fears and inhibitions and allow the Spirit to breath and grow, to be Bread and Fish for the world.

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

Jesus used parables to tell all these things to the crowds. He would not say a thing to them without using parables. (Mt 13:34)

Dear Friends. I don’t know if it’s ok to start this sermon off with a joke that is almost completely gratuitous, if it were not for the fact that it’s got something to do with heaven. There was once an old cat who died, met St. Peter at the pearly gates and told him of how he had grown weary of chasing 3 mice and then sleeping on hard wood floors all his life. And so St. Peter kindly ushered him into heaven and supplied him with a down filled pillow to rest his weary bones.

Soon thereafter, the same 3 little mice appeared and told St. Peter about their extremely worn-out paws, having been chased by this mean old cat all their lives. St. Peter also ushered the mice into heaven and kindly supplied them with 6 pairs roller blades to ease their weary paws from years of running.

The next morning, St. Peter surveyed heaven, greeted the cat and promptly asked about his night, to which the cat replied: “Oh St. Pete, this down-filled pillow gave me the best night’s sleep ever. But unsurpassed were the meals on wheels you sent me for breakfast!”

MF, if you read the 4 Gospels, you quickly notice that Jesus uses one particular phrase repeatedly: “The Kingdom of Heaven.” The words stand out everywhere. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…!” So, in today’s Gospel from Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a Field, a Pearl and a Net and in each case the 3 objects are treasures for which a person gives everything—her/his all! That’s how much God’s Kingdom means in terms of commitment and dedication. The Kingdom of Heaven is of foundational importance to what Jesus is teaching us.

So MF, what is the Kingdom of Heaven? Many Christians, particularly literal evangelical ones, believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is the place you go when you die—if you’ve been “saved,” like the cat and the 3 mice. The big problem with this interpretation is that Jesus specifically contradicts this view many times over, when he says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you. It is at hand,” meaning, it is accessible to us right now, in this very moment. Like the field, pearl and net, the Kingdom of Heaven has everything to do with this life and how we live it. The Kingdom of Heaven is not about the next life and our flight plans to get there from earth.

MF, I consider it tragic that so many Christians have made the Kingdom of Heaven into a reward system for such a precious few in this world. The Kingdom an evacuation plan—my personal reward of salvation because of what I believe. Sadly, too many Christians rely only on principles, instead of an active and living faith in God.

MF, the fact is this: The price for the Kingdom of God is very high. It means that we need to change our loyalties from power, success, money, ego, and control to the imitation of a Vulnerable God where servanthood, surrender and simplicity reign. Of course, most people never imagine God as vulnerable, humble or weak. We want to see God as Almighty, and that vision validates almightiness all the way down the line—meaning, history affirms Christianity’s role in oppression and violence.

MF, when Christians affirm that “Jesus is Lord,” we are actually announcing our commitment to Jesus’ upside-down world of values, where “the last are first and the first are last” and where Jesus is Lord over all power systems. So, if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar and Trump are not! If Jesus is Lord, then the economy and the TSX are not! If Jesus is Lord, then my house and possessions, my country and career/job are not! If Jesus is Lord, then neither am I Lord!

This implication was abundantly clear to first-century members of the Roman Empire because the phrase “Caesar is Lord” was the empire’s loyalty test and political bumper sticker. Early Christians changed “parties” when they welcomed Jesus as Lord, instead of the Roman emperor as their savior. A lot of us have still not changed parties. In fact, political parties are for too many, especially Americans, their only frame of reference today, where America is the “greatest country in the world.” This kind of blatant idolatry is nowhere close to the Realm or Kingdom of God.

Now, sociologists have concluded that there are three kinds of cultures in the Western world today, each with its own “bottom line”: political cultures based on the manipulation of power; economic cultures based on the manipulation of money; and religious cultures based on the manipulation of (some theory about) God. These three cultures are built on different forms of violence, although it is usually denied by most participants and hidden from the superficial observer. Evil and lies gain their power from disguise. When Jesus unlocked our masks of disguise, he revealed that our true loyalty was seldom really to God, but to power, money and group belonging.

In fact, religion is the easiest place to hide from God, as well as the easiest place to claim that God’s will is on our side! And in every hidden scenario, truth always takes a back seat.

Consider this week’s news story of Junia Joplin, a Baptist pastor at Lorne Park Baptist Church in Mississauga, who hid from God and her parish for some 6 years that she was a woman disguised as a man with long hair in a bun. Junia finally “came out” June 14 and revealed the truth of her transgender status in a sermon on the “hidden pearl and treasure” of “the woman God created me to be.” A month later, the parish fired her, claiming in a majority 58-53 vote that it was “not God’s will that she remain.” Pastor Joplin hoped “love [would] cast out fear.” Unfortunately, not enough fear was cast out, perhaps because not enough love was present. But the Truth is now out in the open for all to see. In fact, the truth is the truth is the truth, no matter who says it and no matter who believes it.

MF, Jesus always lived a life which inaugurated a new social order, an alternative to violence, exclusion, and separation. This is no utopia, but a very real, achievable Kingdom which is inside of us and at hand, as Jesus said many times over. This Kingdom is the subject of Jesus’ inaugural address (Lk 4:14-30), his Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), and most of his parables, including today. In fact, the Kingdom of God is the guiding image of Jesus’ entire ministry. Most Christians glibly recite “Thy kingdom come,” but this means nothing until and unless we also say “My kingdom go.”

Now, the Greek word for “Kingdom/Empire of God” is basilea, whichhas to do with the economic order Jesus advanced. Although many Christians think of God’s Kingdom as otherworldly and immaterial, Jesus says God’s Kingdom is real, material and with a moral agenda opposed to Caesar’s empire.Basilea says that in God’s Kingdom, there is no poverty or fear, the needs of the poor and marginalized are met and not despised nor ignored by those in control.

The citizens in God’s Kingdom model a community of mutuality and solidarity with the poor and marginalized, thereby making them God’s agents and leaders in rejecting and dismantling kingdoms built upon oppression and inequality. This is precisely the vision of society the early Christians sought to create on earth, and that we who follow Jesus today are commanded to strive for as well.

Trouble is: What we’ve done, as church, is focus on the messenger—Jesus—rather than the message—the Kingdom, which is to say we know lots about the messenger, having erected an immense and unwieldy system of beliefs about him—but very little about his message. Allow me to quote John Dominic Crossan, a renowned Catholic theologian and his understanding of the Kingdom:

To summarize Jesus’ meaning of the Kingdom, we must not separate religion and politics, or ethics and economics, in that first century world. Kingdom of God means what this world would look like if God, not Caesar, sat on its imperial throne; if God, not Caesar was openly, clearly and completely in charge. It is, at the same time, an absolutely religious and absolutely political concept. It is absolutely moral and absolutely economic at the same time. How would God run the world? How does God want this world run? The Kingdom is not about heaven, but about earth. (Who Is Jesus? pp. 54-55)

To understand the nature of God’s Kingdom better, Crossan imagines that we are Germans at the time of the rise of the Nazi Party. The whole country knows that there is only one Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler. Now, think about going to church in Nazi Germany, where Lutheran and Catholic clergy are teaching their people that they have only one Fuhrer, who is Jesus.

MF, the pastor and priest risked their lives to say this, and so did Jesus, for that matter! That’s because the Kingdom of Heaven is a revolutionary principle, which subverts all claims to absolute power and all attempts to operate with total power, by any person, religion, or nation. Rather, the Kingdom of Heaven is allowing God’s love and justice, his mercy and forgiveness to be practiced by you and me in the here and now.

When Jesus is in court, being tried before the authorities, he tells King Herod: “My Kingdom is not of this world” and by which Jesus is conferring no authority upon the leaders and the institutions of the day, who represented the world and also took their domination of the world for granted. Back then, Caesar was not only the emperor, but he was god and his rule was divinely ordained—so they believed. Trouble is, Caesar’s rule was built to serve the powerful, and it was militarily reinforced to perpetuate that privilege. Of course, Jesus’ heart broke for those who were excluded—the poor and sick, the marginalized and vulnerable, the outcast and exiled.

So, when Jesus said in the beatitudes, “blessed are the destitute,” he was not romanticizing poverty, as we at times do. The source of their blessedness, said Jesus, was that, being forcibly excluded from synagogue and society, meant that they could now live by the rules of God’s Kingdom: not the rule of power, privilege and wealth, but the spiritual principles of love and justice, mercy and forgiveness.

In today’s Matthean Gospel, Jesus utilizes 3 images of the Kingdom of Heaven. First, Jesus says that it’s like a mustard seed—a plant which grew almost entirely in the wild. It multiplied so rapidly that once it got into a cultivated field, it was exceedingly difficult to eliminate. Today we would regard it as a weed, a nuisance, which grows into a small tree, about three feet high in which birds then nested.

Jesus used this plant to highlight how those who live according to God’s rule would also be regarded as nuisances, to spread and infiltrate, and eventually over-take, the fields of the Caesar’s empire. Jesus followers are like the mustard plant, popping up everywhere, not always appreciated in dominant culture and institutions. In short, Jesus means for us to mix in with our culture, like leaven in bread. We don’t proclaim and enact God’s Kingdom by withdrawing and hiving off from society. Jesus wants us to act like yeast, enabling the institutions—including church—communities and individuals with whom we mix, to rise to their greatest potential.

If our careers are in the world of business, we Christians are the ones who have a triple bottom line—meaning, we put people and social and ecological responsibility ahead of business, politics and profits. If we collect garbage, we do so with purpose, understanding that our work is not only our ministry to the community, but a holy work to preserve God’s nature by recycling, reusing and reclaiming. If we’re in accounting, we call our society and its institutions to account for the cost to God’s good green earth of the way in which we do business and make profits.

In short, as disciples, Jesus calls us to a higher, spiritual purpose. We are a hidden, subtle presence, which facilitates others to reach their full potential. Far from hiving ourselves off in some holy huddle Sunday mornings, we need to love this world, as God so loves the world, and dedicate ourselves to help it rise to its full potential.

Jesus then compares the Kingdom to the finest pearl, or to a treasure buried in a field. Those who find this treasure know it to be of incomparable value. So, in order to have it, they are willing to risk everything they have—everything which the world counts as valuable, in order to receive and cherish spiritual gifts no money can buy: love and loving, giving, forgiving and thanksgiving, mercy and justice, equality and integrity, commitment and dedication. It’s something like Rev. Joplin risking her career and self-esteem to finally reveal the treasured truth of who she really was in God’s sight.

That’s why the Kingdom of Heaven is the very presence of God’s Spirit in the world and within us. Tragically, many Christians have lost a sense of God’s sacred presence, having replaced it with the lure of money and material goods, of power and privilege, or in the case of Lorne Park Baptism Church, replaced God’s presence with fear and moral right. Jesus says our task is to find the pearl of great price, located deep in our hearts and finding it, we give it away, so that the Kingdom in our hearts becomes the Kingdom of Heaven in our neighbourhood and our society, in our country and world.

So MF, how do we enter that Kingdom? Great question! Jesus’ answer: To enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must become like children! And childhood is a magical time, when pretending is real, and animals talk and kisses turn warts into chocolates, frogs into princess and awaken sleeping beauties. Childhood is a enchanted time, when the world is alive with splendor and sparkle, when anything and everything is possible. You just have to believe!

We didn’t call it God then, but somewhere we intuited that it didn’t get any better than this. Too see the world and our lives through the magical eyes and mystical hearts of childhood once again, to believe and hope again, to love and forgive again—as only children can do so honestly, genuinely and completely. Childhood—where and when everything and anything is possible! This MF is God’s Kingdom.

If we enter the Kingdom of God by becoming like children, it follows that remembering how to play once again, may be the key to our liberation from Caesar’s Empire. The mystics have been telling us this for years, while scientists tell us that play might be the key to our evolutionary success. Play is the medium with which we experiment with radically new ways of being and being creative. Inventors are typically those of us who never stopped playing. After all, the first scientists weren’t Copernicus and Galileo and their telescopes. They are the child within each of us who says: When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are.

So MF, I’m giving all of us lots of encouragement to play and have fun. Let’s be kids again. After all, there’s a child within each of us, who still wants to play, and that’s true whether we’re 35, 75 or 105. For the future of our species and our planet, it’s important to play. In fact, most afternoons, Sherry & I play a card or board game. We especially like Rummikub and Qwirkle, Cribbage and Scrabble.

MF, the secret to playing is to allow yourself to be, which is to say that we are human beings are beings first and foremost. We are not called human doings, even though that’s exactly what we have been programmed to be. Our culture has programmed us to be human doings—to only be hard working and industrious. Too many Canadians live to work, instead of work to live. We need to be the humans God created us to be and playing is a way of just being.

We also need to play in church. Worship also needs to feel like fun—to laugh and smile, chuckle and clap. If King David could dance in the Holy of Holies, surely we can worship the God who invented fun and frolic, love and laughter. After all, this God of ours is the God of variety and diversity. I not only subscribe to Snoopy’s motto of Peanut’s fame, “To live is to dance and to dance is to live,” I wear a blue T-shirt with Charlie Brown and Snoopy in a whirly-gig dance.

For our own future and well-being, let’s play. We may just stumble upon the treasure, the hidden pearl, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Why? Because it is only as a child that we can enter that Kingdom. AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

Let the weeds and the wheat grow together until the harvest, said Jesus. Mt 13:30a

Dear Friends. The last few lines of today’s gospel from Matthew’s pen remind me of a little humorous anecdote which may be completely gratuitous, but perhaps bears some affinity to today’s parable. A Swedish pastor was waxing eloquent about hell and where there would “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” to quote Jesus. An elderly, silver-haired member of his congregation, one Mrs. Sorensen, dared to interrupt the sermon with her plea: “But Pastor! Oh Pastor! What happens if you don’t have any teeth to gnash?” “Have no fear, Mrs. Sorensen,” he replied, “in your case, teeth will be provided!”

Today’s parable, Jesus addresses a fundamental human problem: What do we do with the bad apples in our midst, especially when they’re mixed in with the good? In the real world, spotting good and evil is much more ambiguous than we like to believe. In a monoculture, like a field of wheat, it’s easier to catch sight of the weeds, but in our 21st century global human mosaic, it’s almost impossible.

That’s why Jesus completely rejects the strategy of ripping out the weeds, fearing that the wheat itself will be destroyed—that responding to our enemies with indiscriminate violence ends up backfiring—big time. Why? Because violence only breeds more violence in a never-ending cycle in which the good and innocent are ongoing collateral damage!

In every religion, there are always zealots and fundamentalists, evangelicals and right wingers, who believe that offending weeds and evil be rooted out, thereby leaving the world safe for the wheat—the good people. That’s why through 20 centuries, the Church has always identified the weeds, then ripped them out and burned them up.

The weeds included Jews and Moslems, atheists, witches and heretics, blacks and other minorities, even women who didn’t conform to the male rules of Church and Bible and yet were male-property for hundreds of years. And, over the course of the last 70 years, homosexuals have been the new weeds—all to be removed and burned—in spite of today’s parable.

In my view, the reason for the parable is clear: the evil is not other people—no matter who they are! We are all God’s children—all 7 billion plus inhabitants of this world and each one of us is a sinner. Evil grows within each & every human being, you & me included, growing together with the good within us.

Here I’m reminded of a constant question raised by the media, regarding the police officers who have shot Black men dead: How do we get rid of the bad apples in the barrel? Black Lives Matter says that the problem is not simply a few bad apples, but it is a crisis of major proportions, because it’s a matter of systemic racism within the police forces across the country. MF, I’m in agreement with this assessment of systemic racism.

But Jesus says that evil can only be completely eliminated at the end. This parable speaks not of people, but of the evil within every heart. That evil is prejudice—the prejudice with which we live and breathe, think and act—the prejudice which shows up in our violence and hate against others. For Black Lives Matter, that evil, MF, is racial and is evidenced in the prejudice against Black & Brown, Red & Yellow people. Prejudice is a disease, a pernicious, insidious and malicious virus which marks each human being.

Psychologically speaking, prejudice is a survival technique, which is also why it can only be rooted out in our last breath. Prejudice is a distorting power which prevents us from becoming the fully human beings God means us to be. Prejudice prevents us from the kind of abundant life and living Jesus offers: to love, give and forgive completely and unconditionally. And that’s of course why Jesus is the breaker of prejudice!

Prejudice, MF, always operates through an overt act of human projection, which involves three steps: First, we designate the victim; then we project all our inadequacies, hurts and fears, whether real or imagined, upon him or her, and lastly, we reject the victim. Nor are we to be blamed for our feelings projected onto these victims.

After all, it was the fault of the Jews, Christians argued and many still do, that the Jews killed Jesus and that’s why the kingdom of God has not yet come. By rejecting Jesus’ offer of salvation, Jews have kept the Christian church from succeeding in its goal of global evangelization and for some, world domination. It was the fault of Blacks that the Civil War was inflicted upon the US. It was the fault of the Communists that the depression rocked the world in the 1930s. It was and still is the fault of women—who want equal jobs, equal pay and equal power—that family values are in decline. It is the fault of homosexuals that marriage is today under the pressure it is. And, it is the fault of liberal-minded Christians and pastors, like myself, that the church today is in decline in the west.

The fact is this, MF: Race, gender and sexual orientation are the major arenas of prejudice in our society. As a 2-term member of National Church Council of the ELCIC (2003-2011), I assisted in the transformation of the need to accept homosexuals, not only as open, practicing members of the church, but also their marriage and ordination. It is abundantly clear that the faith has been misused to justify Christian prejudices against its victims of race, gender and sexual orientation.

Today, MF, Jesus comes not to divide the wheat from the weeds, but to deliver us from the evil of prejudice within every human heart. Jesus calls us to a new sense of humanity—to be fully and completely human. That’s why salvation is not the confirmation of our sinfulness—no matter how sinful we are—but salvation is the empowerment to step into a new spiritual consciousness that transcends all our sense of sin and inadequacy.

For some nineteen hundred years now, institutional Christianity lived comfortably with its own prejudices based on 1) the male-female gender discrimination; 2) racial bigotry—especially against Blacks and Jews—and 3) sexual orientation of homosexuals. The church’s official participation in religious prejudice and persecution throughout history is well documented.

For instance, those who have disagreed with official church positions have been excommunicated, tortured and burned at the stake. I have seen in museums a display of instruments of torture used by Christian leaders on so-called heretics. They included an iron collar with a spike aimed at the throat of the victim, which would be tightened until it produced either “conversion” or death. There were also devices used to impale the deviant thinker that left the victim’s intestines shredded.

But with the emergence of the 20th century, Christianity started to fade precipitously in Europe and then spread to North America. Power shifted dramatically from institutional Christianity to a rising, vigorous, secular humanism. And it was this particular secular spirit that proceeded to route the prejudices with which Christianity had accommodated itself for centuries. This also enabled the 20th century to become the most dramatic century in human history for the rise of human rights. In other words, the church was not the advocate for human rights, but was itself the institution which harbored, fostered and legitimized prejudices.

Women first broke open the social order, demanding equality in the voting booth, before the law, in education, jobs, professions, military and equality in church and religion. Next, racism was broken, as segregation fell and the doors for Blacks opened to reach the pinnacles of social, political and business life in America, such that a Black man, Barack Obama, could become the 44th US President in 2008.

Second to the racial discrimination is the global prejudice against Jews, from the church fathers in the first century, to Martin Luther whose later writings were anti-Semitic and culminating in the Nazi Holocaust 20 centuries later. And finally in the second half of the 20th century, gay and lesbian people abandoned their closets and demanded and won civil and political equality. Many Christians, myself included, continue to work to ensure their equality and acceptance in the church.

MF, I do not mean to suggest that there is no more sexism, racism or homophobia, but no prejudice in human history has ever been debated publicly, that it did not proceed to die. Debated prejudices are always dying prejudices! Why? Because debate is part of the death process. And, in that debate, my questions have always been the same:

Why did these enormous transformations of consciousness take place only when Christianity finally receded, and secularism replaced it? Why did the church not challenge these dehumanizing prejudicial practices? Why is it still true that the largest expressions of institutional Christianity, Islam and Judaism continue their relentless battle against the full equality of women and homosexuals? This is true in Catholic churches, but also in evangelical ones like Baptist, Pentecostal and some Lutheran (Missouri, Wisconsin & Canada Synods)?

And why, MF, is the most segregated hour in the world today still the hour of Christian, Moslem and Jewish worship? Why is one of the strongest bastions of homophobia in the western world today still the Christian Church? What is there about Christianity that seems to always require a victim of prejudice? Why is the basic modus operandi of the Church throughout history, the need to dehumanize its so-called enemies and even its own members of their sin and guilt to keep them in line?

Why? Well, MF, there are very good reasons for all of this; but in one line and from one psychological viewpoint, the reason for this deals with the church, having made us victims of our own sin and guilt, we have needed to find other victims to blame and therefore exonerate ourselves.

MF, we’re all living in very tough times, with COVID-19, unemployment and insecurity everywhere. But today’s parable provides us with necessary wisdom. Jesus tells us that we are all connected and, in more ways than one. We are not separate. We only think we’re separate. But we’re not! What affects one, marks others. Yank out weeds and wheat come along.

We think that we catch diseases as individuals: “I’m sick! You’re not!” But now, we realize that we contract diseases as individuals who are part of families, and families who are part of cities, which are part of provinces and countries, states and nations. We now understand that our whole species can become infected, and that our entire globe can be changed—negatively or positively—because of our interconnectedness.  MF, this is an opportunity for us to be smart about other viruses which spread and cause even greater damage, without being acknowledged: social and spiritual viruses that extend from individual to individual, generation to generation, century to century, but are never named. We don’t fight against them, and so they continue to mushroom—sometimes exponentially—causing all kinds of sickness, even death. Social and spiritual viruses like racism, white supremacy, human supremacy, Christian supremacy, anti-Semitism, any kind of hostility that is spread, based on fear and prejudice.

MF, what would happen if, as passionate and right as we are about being tested for coronavirus, we all wanted to test ourselves for these social and spiritual viruses that are lurking inside of us—me too? But then, when I contact you, I then inflict this virus on you and make you suffer! What a remarkable opportunity for us to pray to be healed and made whole, not just of a physical virus, but of these other invisible ones that are such a massive and devastating part of our human history!

In this pandemic, many of us are nostalgic for the old normal. We want our favorite coffee shop, restaurant and church service back. There’s nothing wrong with our desires for the old normal. But let me suggest: If we are wise in this time, we will not go back unthinkingly to the old normal. There were problems with that old normal many of us weren’t aware of. The old normal, when we examine it from today’s perspective, was not so great, not something to be nostalgic about, without also being deeply critical of it. As we experience discomfort in this time, let us begin to construct a new normal, which tackles the weaknesses and problems that were unaddressed in the old normal. And if we’re wise MF, we will not go back. Instead, we’ll will go forward.

Jesus’ message is about wholeness. He saw humanity from an entirely new perspective. He believed that the humanity in one person could touch the humanity in another and empower that person to step out of the fears and security systems, the defining prejudices and other boundaries behind which we human beings always seek an illusive security.

Jesus’ invites us into a new humanity of abundant life and living, of love and loving, of giving and forgiving, of thanks and thanksgiving. That’s his liberating message of salvation—saving us today for tomorrow. AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

So God created human beings, making them to be like himself. He created them male and female Gen 1:27. Then God said: “It is not good that man should live alone. I will make a suitable companion to help him.” Gen 2:18

Dear Friends: I grew up at St. John’s Lutheran, Hamilton, where the Pastor was my father figure and mentor. He treated me as one of his own and so out of thankfulness, I decided to become a pastor. Now, Pastor Weingaertner and St. John’s were very conservative theologically. The entire Bible was to be understood literally, as if God had personally written the words of Scripture, which is to say that I am not a hostile critic who stands outside the church to cause it harm, make fun of it or even bring it down.

MF, I am a retired pastor, now in my 41st year of ordained ministry, who was raised within biblical fundamentalism. But then, over the course of 12 years of post graduate education, including the teaching of religion and the New Testament at two American universities, I outgrew fundamentalism, but not my love of church nor Bible. I believe in the Bible from cover to cover.

Now, that’s not the issue, MF. The question is always: How will I interpret the words of Scripture in the context of the 21st century? Based on my recent Noah’s Ark & the Flood sermon and now Adam & Eve, clearly my interpretation is not always literal. Scientific facts, historical context, linguistics, translation, together with other fields of inquiry and disciplines, inform my biblical interpretation.

Today’s biblical text on man’s creation by God in Genesis reminds me of a little humor. After the serpent tempted Eve who seduced Adam who then ate the forbidden fruit, Adam says to God: I’ve got more ribs, if you’ve got more females! I suspect that Adam and Eve would have been much better off—not to mention humankind—if they had eaten the snake instead of the apple.

MF, if you don’t already know, there are actually two stories of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis. In the first, God creates by divine fiat: “let there be…” (Gen 1:3ff) and there was, including “human beings … and making them to be like himself, he created them male and female” (Gen 1:27), after which God commands them “to be fruitful and multiply, so that your descendants will inhabit the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28).

In the second creation story which begins with Gen 2:4b, God actually breathes into Adam the nephesh—the soul—the life-giving spirit. Note that in true patriarchal fashion, God creates Adam first in God’s image and then, according to this second account, the animals are created in a vain attempt to make a fit partner for the man. So, finally, God takes a rib from Adam to make Eve, his helpmate.

MF, take note that Eve is not created in God’s image, but in Adam’s: “At last,” says Adam, “here is one of my own kind” (Gen 2:23). God sets the pair in the Garden of Eden, where they are naked, but without shame or embarrassment. Soon thereafter, they are enticed by the serpent and fall into evil, disobeying God. The church calls this (our) “original sin” for which the ultimate penalty is banishment from the Garden and death.

There are a lot of Christians who believe in a literal reading of Genesis in which God created the world in 6 days, including Adam and Eve, who not only start the entire human race, but are to blame for our sin and universal death because “Satan made me do it.” But the unvarnished truth is this, MF: Theological truth must be separated from its pre-scientific biblical constructs of reality; otherwise, the Christian faith will be reduced to just another ancient folklore as in the multiple gods of Greek and Roman mythology.

Now, the issue in the creation story and in the Bible as a whole is not evolution versus creationism, as so many conservative Christians like to maintain. The obvious reason is because the writer of the creation story did not know about evolution. How could he? Charles Darwin came along a few thousand years later. Today, it’s a widely accepted scientific truth that evolution is a fact of ongoing creation, which says, at least to me, that God used evolution, in whole or in part, to create the world as we now have it.

But, MF, this only scratches the surface of the problem. The real issue is that the scientific supposition which underlies biblical cosmology—that God created a one galaxy universe, where a flat earth is the center, with God above and Satan below and the sun revolving around the earth—this is held by almost no one nowadays, including those who call themselves ‘Bible Believing Christians’.

The fact is that the Bible relates to us the way our ancient forebearers understood and interpreted their world and God. Our task, MF, is the same: We must interpret our world in the light actual scientific knowledge, which is to say that the Bible does not become a literal road map to reality, but an historic narrative of the journey our religious forebearers made.

So MF, given the discussion so far, the question is: Were Adam and Eve two literal historical figures from whom the rest of humanity was conceived? Well, that depends on your interpretation of the creation story! For openers, however, you need to know that the Hebrew name of Adam is “Atham’ and Atham can have four different meanings or interpretations. It can refer to “one man,” to his name “Atham,” to “all men” and to “mankind” (which includes women).

So, according to the second account of creation from Gen. 2:4b-25 (I referred to earlier), God could have created one man named “Adam” and one woman called “Eve” and they could have populated the world from the beginning. But, since Atham can also mean “all men” or “mankind,” God could also have created all men (and then all women) or created all of mankind (including women), who then populated the world. In fact, according to the first account of creation, that’s precisely what God did: “So God created human beings … making them male and female” Gen 1:27.

Extending this interpretation means that God could have created many different races and colours of men and women at the beginning who then populated the world. Or, maybe God created one race and one colour of men and women who then, through evolution, took on different colours and races of people. And further extending this interpretation means that each one of us is Adam and Eve. Each one of us has sinned against God’s good will and intentions for us, by not loving, giving and forgiving. Consequently, Adam and Eve’s sin is hardly original—but originates with each one of us whenever we metaphorically “eat the forbidden fruit”—disobey God.

Which is to say that the pronouncement of death to Adam and Eve is also our death-knell and removal from the Garden of Eden. But of course, the surprise of surprises is that although everyone who has ever lived in this world has died, we think we won’t. And the other surprise is that when we’re ready for death, we somehow treat it as a medical event only—especially our loved ones who think they can medically prevent our demise. But death, MF, is both a personal and spiritual event. Adam and Eve thought that by eating the forbidden fruit they could become like God. We’re no different, MF.

Back to the previous argument: If God created only two individuals, Adam and Eve, clearly their children would have had to commit incest to populate the world, thereby making us all products of incestuous relationships. I once posed this logic to a number of “Bible Believing” Lutheran pastors, who answered uniformly: Since incest was only ruled contrary to God’s will in (the Holy Code of) Leviticus, Adam & Eve’s children (in Genesis) were not guilty of incest and neither are we humans products of the same. Well, MF, if that’s true, then murder, adultery, stealing, lying, etc, is not disobedience to God until the 10 Commandments were handed down to Moses in Exodus. This kind of interpretation is both patently false and tortuously fixed to fit a predetermined literal result and interpretation!

MF, there is another significant consideration of the creation story, as it deals with Adam & Eve: namely the issue of sexuality. Genesis wants us to get it straight: We are sexual beings! That’s how God made us. Sexuality is a fundamental part of who we are. As a result, one of the most critical questions going inside all of us is: How am I doing as a woman or as a man? The answer to this question is as legion as the ways in which women and men prove to each other that they are sexually attractive and virile.

MF, lest you think that this is just my interpretation of Scripture, read (below) some of the most sensuous literature ever written and recorded in the Bible! Song of Songs, also known as Song of Solomon, is a series of erotic love poems, spoken/sung between a man and a woman together with a chorus of women:

The Man: How beautiful you are, my love! How your eyes shine with love behind your veil. Your hair dances like a flock of goats…. Your breasts are like gazelles, twin deer feeding among lilies. (SS 4:1,5)

Women Chorus: Lovers! Drink until you are drunk with love! (SS 5:1)

The Woman: My lover is handsome and strong. His eyes are beautiful as doves washed in milk…His body is like smooth ivory with sapphires set in it. His thighs are columns of alabaster set in sockets of gold…His left hand is under my head and his right-hand caresses my body.…I am a wall and my breasts are its towers. My lover knows that with him I find contentment and peace. (SS 5:10,15;8:3,10)

Now, these earthy, unpretentious passages could not have survived the anti-flesh, puritan-like crusades of the Western church of the 12-13th centuries, without first being allegorized and turned into metaphors—initially by the Jews who pictured the man/woman relationship as a bond between God and his people Israel, and then by Christians, who interpreted the Songs as the relationship between Christ and his Church.

However true these allegorizations may be, they miss the point entirely! Genesis wants to tell us that our human sexuality is the singular most irreplaceable relationship we have and can enjoy—that two bodies can now become one. The allegories, however, do remind us how tenaciously and convincingly the anti-flesh attitude and Puritan tradition have been imposed on Scripture. The fact is, MF, Puritan interpretation is not original to the Bible.

I mean, there was no Jewish Queen Victoria! The Adam, who upon beholding Eve for the first time, could shout with lustful joy “At last, this is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone!” (Gen 2:23) reflected the view toward the physical body as biblical and as integral to the Song of Songs. The anti-flesh, Puritan interpretation would have us focus only on God’s directive to human beings in the first account of creation: “Be fruitful and multiply!”—which is what the Roman Catholic Church with its priestly male hierarchy who vow chastity, focussed on for centuries.

Trouble is, there are still a lot of church folks who don’t like to hear about sex and the joys of sex in church, just like there are a lot of clergy who don’t like to preach on the subject. It’s just too sensitive and embarrassing—even in the 21st century! That’s why Song of Songs is rarely used in liturgical readings in churches–tragically!

MF, you might like to know that when Sherry & I celebrated the renewal of our marriage vows a couple of years ago, we deliberately chose pertinent verses from the Song of Songs! How great is that?

Another major biblical concern is that God recognized that by his creation, men and women need each other. We cannot be who we are without other people: men and/or women. When Adam received Eve, he recognized that nothing else in all the world could make him feel wanted, necessary and appreciated like a soulmate. “Here at last is one of my own kind—taken from out of me!” (Gen.2:23).

Last, but not least, is the final 25th verse to Genesis Chapter 2 which describes the fullest relationship possible between two people in love: Adam and Eve were naked, and yet not ashamed.” MF, how many of us today are willing for the naked truth about ourselves to be known? Who is willing to reveal how they hurt and what they hope in the depths of their being? It’s a frightening prospect, being completely known and that’s why we spend an inordinate amount of our time making sure that we will not be known. Mistruths and falsehoods, outright dishonesties and deceptions are the order of the day for so many people, especially those in the public sector from politicians to pastors, car salesmen to lawyers.

We cover ourselves with education or deliberate ignorance, with religion or atheism, with status or wealth, with privilege or lack of accountability—with anything to keep us from being exposed. But then, one fine day, even by accident when our guard is down, it happens that someone does see us and still approves of us!

That’s what it’s like loving another who is flesh and bone and is integral to our flesh and bone. We will dare to reveal our deepest selves only to a person in whom we have absolute trust and confidence that he/she will not make fun of us or run away. It takes a lot of time and effort, a lot of hurting and forgiving, a lot of tears and years to develop the kind of commitment two people need. And that’s also why the ultimate sex act itself cannot be shared frivolously or thoughtlessly or just used as a means to another end.

The final reality is this, MF: The more men who are really men with nothing to prove, but unfettered love to give, and the more women who are really women with nothing to prove, but with liberating love to share, the more whole and human this world will be—something like the Kingdom of God. AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen.

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and put it upon you and learn from me ,,, and you will find rest. For the yoke I will give you is easy and the load I will put upon you is light. Mt.11:28-30

Dear Friends! Life is difficult. This is the opening sentence of Scott Peck’s 1978 best selling book, The Road Less Traveled. He states this baldly to counter what he saw as a prevailing sense of entitlement in North Americans to an easy, carefree life. In Peck’s view, it’s a recent phenomenon for people to be surprised and disillusioned when they experience struggle and hardship. It is the norm, he says, and childish to expect life to be otherwise.

Give it up! says Peck. Life wasn’t meant to be easy. Even for the lucky ones among us, who have enough money, emotional stability, thriving and healthy relationships for support, unexpected tragedy or illness renders life precarious at best. Or you wake up one morning, knowing that you are ridiculously blessed, but a little blue cloud is following you around, reminding you that you’ve now lived more of life than you’ve got left. Mortality hits you like a rat in a drain. Scott Peck is right. Life is difficult—at the best of times. You know it. I know it. Even Jesus knows it.

The fact is: It’s hard to bear God—but it is even harder not to. The pain we bring upon ourselves by living outside of reality is a greater and longer-lasting than the intense but brief pain of facing it head on. On the other hand, MF, if Christianity has no deep joy and no inherent contentment about it, then it is not the real thing. If our religion is primarily fear-based—fear of self, world and God; if it is only focused on religious duties and obligations, then it is indeed a hard yoke and heavy burden, while the sharing of other people’s weights and afflictions is also difficult, but sharing makes the yoke much easier all around. If our soul is at rest in God, we can bear the hardness of life and see through failure. If the truth does not set us free, it is not truth at all.

This is especially true today, MF, as we move from Peck’s 1978 best seller to the 2020 reality of the Black Lives Matter, which began south of the border, but is now also in our Canadian streets and around the world. It’s a movement which has rightfully pointed to the appalling pain and permanent injury of racism which underlies white privilege, where Blacks and Browns have been shot dead and killed at alarming rates by the police.

The fact is, Blacks survived centuries of slavery and injustice at the hands of white folks. We need to unlearn our attitudes of bias against others, especially Blacks and Browns, Reds and Yellows—all who have suffered because of an inherited racism, which many whites may not even be aware.

So, how do we unlearn racism? How do we unlearn prejudice and bias? As I said in a previous sermon, we begin by calling for relationships of accountability, where we listen to Black and Brown, Red and Yellow people tell us what actions and attitudes hurt them and their communities, whether here in the GTA, in Reservations across this land or in northern Aboriginal towns and villages. We talk to one another about how we can unlearn implicit bias, leverage social privilege for the common good and follow the leadership of impacted people working for systemic justice.

MF, I suspect that many white folks have naively hoped that racism would be a thing of the past by now. Those of us, who are Caucasian, have had a very hard time accepting that we have constantly received special treatment over the decades because of social systems built to prioritize our skin colour. Systemic “white privilege” makes it harder for us to recognize the experiences of people of colour and differing races and ethnicities as valid and genuine, especially when they speak of racial profiling, police brutality, discrimination in the workplace, continued segregation in schools, lack of access to housing, and so on and so forth. This is not the experience of most white people, so how can it be true? 

But now, MF, with the violent treatment and deaths of Blacks and Browns at the hands of white police officers, we are being shown how limited our vision actually is!

Because we have never been on the other side of the racial equation, we largely do not recognize the structural access we enjoy, the trust we think we deserve, the assumption that we always belong and do not have to earn our belonging. All this we take for granted as normal. Only those on the outside can spot these privileged and benefitted attitudes in us.

Of course, we all belong. There is no issue of more or less in the eyes of our loving God. Yet the ego believes the lie that there isn’t enough to go around and that for me to succeed or win, someone else must lose. And so we’ve greedily supported systems and governments that work to our own advantage at the expense of others, most often people of color or highly visible minorities. The advancement of the white person has been, too often and too long, at the cost of other people not advancing at all. A simple history lesson should make that abundantly clear.

Personally speaking, as a child growing up in Burlington ON, I’ve rarely reflected on the privilege of my whiteness. Born to Serbian/German parents in a post-WWII European refugee camp, I had quite enough prejudice against my ethnic background in school in Burlington, without considering the privileges of receiving an all-white public education. My maternal grandparents who raised me eventually earned sufficient financial wherewithal not to suffer want, although it certainly was not the case when they first emigrated to Canada in 1948 with only a dime to their name.

MF, I would probably have never seen or understood the roots of my own white privilege if I had not travelled across our diverse country, studied theology and taught religion and New Testament in university in Virginia and then worked as an ordained minister in multicultural settings and cities for over 4 decades and hence outside of the dominant white culture in which I was raised.

The fact is: Privilege and power never surrender without a fight. If our entire life had been to live unquestioned in our position of privilege and power—positions which were culturally given to us, but we of course think we earned—there is almost no way most of us would give these up without major failure, suffering, humiliation or defeat. As long as we want to be on top and take advantage of any benefit or short cut to get us there, we will never experience true “liberty, equality, fraternity”—the revolutionary ideals which endure to this day as mottos for France and Haiti.

So MF, in light of the preceding, what are we to make of Jesus’ words in today’s Matthean text: “Take my yoke upon you; my yoke is easy, my burden is light”? Interesting words coming from someone who met life and its hardships squarely. Is this an easy yoke or simply a bad joke? Because Jesus knew what it meant to carry heavy loads, he invites us to learn from him how to wear the yoke of our Christian life and living for ourselves and for others.

So MF, how did Blacks and Browns carry their white imposed burdens over four centuries of slavery and enslavement, segregation and Jim Crow, racial discrimination and injustice, police brutality, incarceration and death? How did the American and Canadian Indian bear their crushing burden of near extinction at the hands of European conquerors, who eventually forced them into reservations? How did Canadian Innuit and Aboriginal carry the humiliating weight of their culture, decimated by English and French invaders, and then to have their children taken from their mothers and forced into church run schools? Was their yoke easy to carry? Categorically not! Nor is the yoke any easier today!

MF, the ongoing grief of this yoke for the American Indian—specifically the Lakota Sioux—was further seared upon the souls of the Sioux this weekend, when President Trump commenced American July 4th celebrations at Mt Rushmore, South Dakota—the mount which features the monumental carvings of 4 US Presidents. Trump vowed that “this monument will stand forever as an eternal tribute to our forefathers and will never be desecrated,” even though desecration is exactly what the American government originally did to these lands in the 1880s.

Mt Rushmore was previously called “The Six Grandfathers” by the Lakota Sioux before it was carved with the presidents’ faces. It sits on land called the Black Hills considered sacred by territorial tribes and was initially protected in treaty rights by the American government solely for Lakota Sioux, until gold was discovered in the area and Indigenous peoples were forced off their land. “Nothing stands as a greater reminder to the Great Sioux Nation of a country that cannot keep a promise or treaty than the faces carved into our sacred land on what the US calls Mount Rushmore,” said Cheyenne River Sioux Leader Harold Frazier,  condemning Mt Rushmore and the Trump event.

MF, when we frame Christianity as only a matter of what we believe, over against how we believe and how we live what we believe, then our understanding of Jesus is limited to a very small box, which bears no relationship to the hardship and yoke of others—especially Blacks and Browns, Reds and Yellows. If believing in Jesus is only a matter of believing creeds and doctrines, then such a Jesus is not tethered to earth—to the real, historical, flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth who had compassion for others, especially those outside his own tribe and country.

Mere information only informs, however important that is; but it does not transform our life. Truth is always for the sake of love—not an absolute end in itself, which too often becomes the worship of an ideology. In other words, a yoke which does not engage the body and heart of the persecuted around us is no yoke at all.

After all is said and done, MF, doing is more important than believing. Jesus was clearly more concerned with what Buddhists call “right action” than with right saying or right thinking or right believing. For instance, we can hear this unmistakable message in Jesus’ parable of the two sons (Mt 21:28-31): One son says he won’t work in the vineyard, but then does. The other son says he will go, but in fact doesn’t. Jesus told his listeners that he preferred the one who actually goes, although saying the wrong words, over the one who says the right words but does not act.

Our urgent local and global situations need a Jesus who is historical and relevant for real life, physical and concrete, like we are—one who is yoked with us, facing genuine life and living, real death and dying—one who knows not only that all lives matter, but that in today’s context—black lives especially matter. A Jesus whose life can save us even more than his death does. A Jesus we can imitate in practical ways and who sets the bar for what it means to be fully human. A Jesus whose yoke is a model of how we must carry ours—enduring the cost of white privilege.

MF, the fact is that real spirituality is about what we do with our pain—our being yoked with others whose suffering we may have caused. We can obey commandments, believe doctrines, and attend church services all our lives and still daily lose our souls if we run from the necessary cycle of pain, loss and renewal.

Death and resurrection are lived out at every level, but only one species thinks it can avoid it—the human species!

I am afraid that many of us with privilege have been able to become very naïve about pain and suffering in our very own country. It’s easier to see the grief and hurt south of the border and around the world. But the fact is: We also don’t have time for the suffering and pain; nor do we make time for it. That’s why it’s not easy for us to see. Yet, in trying to handle suffering through willpower, denial, medication, or even therapy, we have forgotten something substantial that should be obvious: we do not handle suffering; suffering handles us! If we faced the yoke of our suffering head on, like Jesus did, it would ultimately be easier.  

It is amazing that the cross became the central Christian symbol, when its rather obvious message of inevitable suffering is aggressively disbelieved in most “Christian” countries, individuals and churches. We Canadians, especially of European decent, are clearly wanting ascent, achievement and accumulation. For too many of us, the cross is a mere totem, a plain piece of jewelry to wear and be admired, thereby reducing Jesus to a symbol and not a flesh and blood reality. It seems that nothing less than some kind of pain will force us to release our grip on our small explanations and our self-serving illusions. But as I wrote earlier:

Now MF, and perhaps for the first time, we are being shown how limited our vision actually is and it’s registering!

In this time of Black Lives Matter, we have to ask ourselves, what are we going to do with their pain and our pain? Are we going to execute the blame game, or are we going to fix this? No one lives on this earth without pain and suffering, which are two great teachers, although few of us want to admit it. We must transform our pain and suffering by yoking them together with others. And then we must joke up with Jesus who provides an inner quiet calm amid the outer raging storm.. AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen.

Build an ark for yourself of gopher wood…and collect two of every sort of animal (Gen 6:14) …. And God caused the waters to prevail so mightily that they covered all the high mountains and covered them 15 cubits deep (Gen 7:20).

Dear Friends. Firstly, a skill testing question: Can you name the wife of Noah? If you said, Joan of Arc, nice try. It seems quite a few folks agree with you. But Jeanne d’Arc, her real name, actually lived in 15th century France and helped Charles VII recover French territory from English domination in the Hundred Years War. At 19, she was captured by the English and promptly burned at the stake as a heretic. A mere 500 years later, Joan was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.

Noah and the story of the Ark, however, is some 4,500 years old and is taken from Genesis of the Old Testament, as you see it in the above chapters. According to legend, the name of Noah’s wife was Naamah and Genesis tells us that she and Noah had 3 sons, each of whom had a wife. All 8 family members were on the ark.

The story of Noah’s ark is probably the most well-known of all the Bible stories because of its perennial appeal to children. “The animals went in two by two, the elephant and the kangaroo.” MF, do you know how difficult it is for preachers to persuade their listeners to read the flood story on an adult level? Why? Because the ark narrative is so scientifically unbelievable and physically impossible to have two animals of every species of this earth on a vessel hardly big enough to contain 1/1000 of two of every kind of animal. This is only one major objective recognition, from many, that this story is not a fact of human history.

There’s also the detail that the writer of the story was not an eyewitness, nor was he aware of the size of the entire world, which he considered flat, nor cognizant of the whereabouts of the African or Indian elephant, much less the Australian kangaroo.

MF, you may know that there are numerous stories about universal floods in the literature of ancient peoples, written over various periods of history, many of which, in fact, pre-date the Hebrew Bible’s version. Catastrophic local floods have always been magnified into global, planetary proportions! The world of people thousands of years ago was small and localized. It’s the only world they knew, and so it’s quite understandable that they would magnify a local flood into a global one, which is what happened to Noah’s ark and the flood—a local event blown up big time. Now, that’s not a criticism of the people and the writer of the biblical flood story. It’s simply an objective observation.

Many people remember that the flood story says that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights; but a careful reading of the Genesis narrative emphasizes that it was the “vast fountains underneath the dry land,” accompanied by the rain, which brought the flood (Gen 7:11), which in turn allowed the water to cover the entire earth. In fact, “the waters prevailed so mightily that they covered all the high mountains and covered them 15 cubits deep” (Gen 7:20).

Now, a cubit is about 21 inches. Mt Everest in the Himalayans soars over 28,000 feet, which means that if the flood was global, water more than 5 miles (8 kilometers) deep would have covered the entire earth. This is more water than our current oceans combined, many times over. It’s more water than we could ever imagine and also a quantity the earth could never absorb, in order for Noah and his family to step on dry land. This truth also makes this global flood story not a fact of human history.

And yet, there are many Christians who get bogged down in a fruitless exercise to prove that Noah gathered two of every kind of animal on a boat he built in his backyard in preparation for a universal flood. What’s truly important here is the purpose and meaning of the ark story. If God flooded the entire world to put all sinners to death, I’d have to ask: What kind of a God of Love and Forgiveness is this? I suppose God can do what he wants; but is that the real question?

If God meant us to fly, then he would have given us wings, which was the battle cry of Christians 150 years ago. I suppose God did intend for us to fly and so she gave us a brain to figure it out. The point is that God is not limited to how we think he should operate, based upon how we understand God and how literal we take biblical narratives like this one.

Until Copernicus and Galileo, science was linear, one dimensional and under the control of church and faith. With a kind of egocentricity, it was men of faith who determined that the earth was the fixed center of a very small observable cosmos. The earth was flat, with God and heaven above, Satan and hell below.

But after the Copernican revolution in the 17th century, true science became a legitimate discipline and not only discovered a growing number of galaxies—our round earth circling the sun in one galaxy—but showed that we humans are not the center of anything. Science observed that we humans are but a tiny particle within multiple universes which are light years in measurement. MF, it is a very humbling experience to which we are still adjusting–now 500 years later!

MF, our questions about the Bible must be faith oriented. While Scripture contains (pre)science, history, mathematics, geography, poetry, prose—even sex—the Bible is not a textbook on any one of these. Rather, the Bible is a book of faith and any questions arising should be from a faith perspective! So, for instance: What does the flood story say about us humans and our relationship with one another and with God? Or, what does this story say about God and his violence against evil doers? Or likewise: What impact does the story of Adam & Eve, Jonah & the Whale, or the Tower of Babel have to our relationship with God?

MF, at a minimum, we need a God who is as big as our expanding universe of light years! Otherwise, many earnestly searching people will continue to think of God either as a mere add-on to a world that is already awesome or of a God of Retaliation against his own creation which he first determined “good.” Faith is the key to understanding that God, humans, Earth, solar system and universe are not ultimately separated, but intricately joined together! We all belong in one way or another, because we’re all conjoined!

And because we belong, we need to wake up and pay attention to everything that is happening all around us and the world. In the last sermon Martin Luther King preached before his assassination, he urged his listeners to “remain awake through a great revolution.” MF, we are on the cusp of racial and social breakthroughs.

Although we have a fascination with space and the possibility of life in other realms, we steadfastly refuse to respond when God invites us to broaden our horizons. We are beckoned by blazing sunsets and the pictures returned by powerful telescopic lenses, yet, on any given day, we court a busyness that beguiles us into focusing on the limited perspectives in our immediate space. Like little Trumpians, we become focused only on what serves us/me.

Today, scientific information about the universe is increasing exponentially while global ethnic and racial imbalances are shifting radically. In the medical field, countries like Brazil and the US are still shutting their eyes to the COVID pandemic. In the social realm, the foundations of democracy, rationality, spirituality and community are crumbling.

MF, we are more than hamsters on a wheel, waiting to fall into the cedar shavings at the bottom of the cage. We are seekers of light and life, but right now we are also struggling to journey together to achieve peace and justice, especially for Black and Brown, Red and Yellow peoples. We’re not just citizens of one nation or another, but of the global human community. We are citizens of God’s created world. We belong together. But when we don’t act like it, catastrophic floods will consume us—as they already are doing. Are we paying attention? Or, will it be too late, as in Noah’s time?

MF, Noah’s Ark, like a few other OT stories, is ultimately about you and me and God, which is why we can never forget this tale. We pass it on to our children to enjoy, as they play with wooden boats and cute animal figures. That way our children and grandchildren will never be entirely lost; otherwise part of the truth about who and what we are as humans may well be lost.

The truth, MF, is that left to ourselves, we are doomed. What else can we conclude? Left to ourselves, to our own insatiable lust for power and possessions, money and material, manipulation and control, we will use any means to assert our goals, including violence and war, which clearly only beget more violence and war. Despair, destruction and death are our ancient enemies, and yet we are so helplessly drawn to them, that it is as if we are more than half in love with them.

Even our noblest impulses and aspirations, our purest hopes and dreams get all tangled up with our own destruction, whether its Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki or New York; whether it’s Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq; whether it’s Rwanda, Sudan or Yemen; whether it’s devastating pandemics like COVID-19, the Spanish Flu, the Black Death or Bubonic Plague. When we are silent and do nothing, we allow death and destruction to fall on the innocent, only to recoil at the horror of little children with their faces burned off, as if we’re all innocent bystanders.

This is the way we are doomed, MF—like the flood of Noah’s world—doomed to seek our own doom. And the turbulent waters of chaos and nightmare are always threatening to burst forth and flood the earth, first in one corner of it and then in another, and another and yet another. We hardly need the tale of Noah to tell us this. We read it and see it and hear it daily in all our media outlets. It’s the same story, over and over again, for which we only need to admit that fear and evil have us by the throat, as in the days of Noah.

But the tale of Noah tells us other truths as well, MF. It tells about the ark, which somehow managed to ride out the storm. God knows the ark is not much—if anyone knows it’s not much, God knows—and the old joke seems true, that if it were not for the storm without, we could never stand the stench within. But the ark was enough. Why?

Because the ark, you see MF, isn’t just a boat! The ark is wherever we human beings come together in such a way that the differences between us stop being barriers—the differences between white and black, majorities and minorities, rich and poor, homosexual and heterosexual, healthy and hospitalized, hungry and well-fed, young and old, healthy and sick, homeless, helpless, hungry, hopeless and all their opposites.

The ark is wherever divisions no longer divide us, but become a source of outer strength and delight, and inner hope and healing. The ark is wherever there is no evil done against others and no instilling fear to divide us. The ark is wherever we can look into each other’s faces and see that beneath all our differences, we are bound together on a voyage for parts unknown.

The ark, MF, is wherever people come together because this is such a stormy and chaotic world, where nothing stays put for long among the mad waves, and where at the end of every voyage, there is another burial at sea. And precisely because our world is such an incomprehensibly violent and vulnerable place, the ark is where we need each other more than we know or are ever ready to admit.

The ark is wherever we human beings come together because, in our heart of hearts, all of us—me too!—we all dream the same dreams and hope the same hopes: that one day there will be peace on earth and good will to all women and men and children of our global human community. The ark is where we have each other—where we have peace and justice, hope and health, love and life, giving and forgiving—where we walk together, hand in hand on the proverbial road of life where God places us.

Noah looked like a fool in his faith, building an ark as the sun beat down. But he did save his world from drowning. Likewise, another Noah-like person looked like a fool, spread-eagle-like up there on a cross, himself cross-eyed with pain, but who saved the whole world from drowning. We must not forget Jesus, because he saves entire the world still, for wherever the ark is, wherever we meet and touch in love and forgiveness, it is because Jesus is also there, brother to us and all mankind.

Into his gracious hands, we commend ourselves through all the days of our voyaging to our journey’s end. The real voyage of discovery consists not in setting sails to seek new landscapes but in having new eyes of faith and love to see new landscapes and view our contemporaries in a new and better light. And so, MF, we build our little ark with faith and sail the seas of discovery with love, and ride out our storms with courage, knowing that beyond each storm is hope—the likes of which not even we Christians can ever imagine. AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen.

God created them male and female, blessed them and said: “….Live over all the earth and bring it under your control. I am putting you in charge…..” Gen 2:27b-28b

Dear Friends. Today is the first day of summer! How great & grand is that? And so, as we begin yet another season of summer maybe up at the cottage, while Jesus goes to spend the summer at his cottage by Lake Gennesaret, I wanted to talk to you about God’s good green earth. It’s a kind of sermon on the environment, if you wish, but in some ways much more than that.

I’ve always believed that, however important and central you and I are to God in the process of creation, the fact is that, as human beings, we need Mother Earth far more than she needs us. Earth doesn’t just “host” or “sustain” life, the Earth is life. It is a dynamic, self-sustaining life-giving organism, which not only requires protection from the hands of our human destruction resulting in climate change, but is part and parcel of the universe that is still being created by God as the largest growing expanding life form.

For those who take science seriously, the categorical fact is this: Mother Earth existed without us humans for millions, even billions of years. So, what makes us think that the Earth needs us? That is sheers arrogance, MF! We need Mother Earth far more than she needs us! We fragile creatures are dependent on the life-giving-and-sustaining form of the Earth far more than we realize or are prepared to admit. Tragically, our attempts to subdue the Earth and bring it under our domination has, in large part, led us to environmental catastrophes, like climate change, which continue to unfold and for which we pay a heavy financial price, but much more notably in human life and, ultimately, the life of this precious planet. Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” makes that abundantly clear!

A good while back, I remember coming across a beautiful and touching piece of writing by one Alice Groeneveld, in a back edition of the New York Times. Here’s an excerpt:

Each day I see a shooting star in the vastness of our cold sky and I make a wish…to one day to come eye to eye with a white moose. Already I can hear people snort, “A white moose! Where do you think you’ll find one? Is there such an animal?” Yes, here I can assure you that there is. A few years ago, it was in the daily newspaper that two hunters had spotted a white moose somewhere in Alberta—that’s a province in Canada, north of Wyoming. And what did they do when they got over their surprise? Yes, you’re right! They shot it! They shot it dead! They shot that magnificent animal. They shot it. Are you silent with this news? I certainly was!

Groeneveld then continued with her passionate reflection: Who can possibly shoot such a mysterious creature of nature as a white moose? My God, I would go on my hands and knees in awe before such a creature! But, not those hunters! They felt no inner appeal to keep their guns down. They fired. They just wanted to bag this extraordinary sample and show it off as some kind of victory, have it mounted, and then sell it. An albino moose. What can be better that?

MF, I didn’t want to just talk about the environment, but to speak to you about the environment and spirituality. Put those two terms together and we get what today is called “eco-spirituality.” Eco-spirituality is about our relationship with the earth and with other living things. Eco-spirituality is about changing the fundamental ways in which we think about our relationship with the earth and with the non-human species of the earth.

MF, you may know that that relationship underwent a dramatic change some 8 to 10,000 years ago. Up to that time, homo sapiens understood themselves to be one species of animals among many other animals. That’s why when Sherry & I go to the zoo, I like to look up my relatives…the monkeys! Ha! Like other animals, these primal peoples were nomadic. They wandered in search of food and water, taking from the earth what they needed just to survive, no more, no less. They intuitively understood themselves to be a part of an intricate ecosystem. For them, the earth was a living organism. Their wisdom was derived from nature and Earth was their sacred Mother. Like other animals, they were subject to the laws of nature. MF, we should be grateful that we still have descendants of these primal peoples, who were nomadic hunters and gatherers.

But then something very significant happened. It dawned on some wise fellows that there was no need to go chasing after animals and follow the seasons and cycles of nature. They realized that they didn’t need to be so dependent and vulnerable; they could actually domesticate the animals, plant crops, store up water and grain, and eventually build great cities. In fact, over much time, human beings discovered that, rather than be subject to the laws of nature, one could actually master nature—a rather remarkable discovery!

And so the agriculturalist, the farmer, was born. From that moment, humanity began to separate itself from the other animals and from the earth. As in the story of the Tower of Babel, we humans left the earth, left Paradise, left the Garden of Eden to build towers to reach the heavens so we could be like the gods. The earth was no longer divine, no longer sacred, and no longer regarded as something which gives and takes life—but something we humans could control for our own ends and means, our own greatness and greed.

The first book in the Bible, Genesis, describes this transitional era in human evolution. It is captured in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain, the firstborn, is symbolic of the hunter and the gatherer. Abel, the second-born, is symbolic of the agriculturalist, the farmer. And in that story, Cain murders Abel, and thus begins a prolonged history of human conquest over the primal peoples of the earth, the domination over the other species of the earth, and the sense that nature itself could be conquered. It is also the history of violence: human against human, human against the Earth; but also human against God, becoming like the gods—in fact replacing God.

From this point of view, you see, it is of course a descendant of Cain who shot the white albino moose—and shot it without any sense of sacrilege or remorse. The moose was simply a prize, a conquest, another trophy, exactly like the kind of trophy hunting Don Trump Jr does in Africa. The moose, you see, was not a conscious being with any intrinsic value.

If the truth be known, MF, we are all the descendant of Cain! We modern human beings look at rainforests and see only raw material to be exploited, which is precisely how Jair M. Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, treats the Brazilian Rainforest today. Not only is he destroying the rainforest, he is annihilating the homes of hundreds of native Amazon tribes and their way of life. We gaze upon the oceans and see only a storage bin for our toxic wastes and plastics which register in the tons! We’ve depleted fish stocks in the Great Lakes, including the now extinct blue pickerel, native to Lake Erie. Hunters capture black and brown bears and see at the end of the barrel $10,000 per liver, or a gorilla’s hand which fetches $5,000 as an ashtray—as in Jane Fosse’s docudrama Gorillas in the Mist.

Do you remember the disciples arguing over who would be the greatest in God’s Kingdom? This, MF, was Cain’s argument, you see. Tragically, we humans can settle the dispute only with violence. This has led us to conquer and subdue the earth and all non-human species—not only animals and plants, but polluting the land, air and sea, conquering and subjugating other nations, even other races and religions we consider inferior to us Christians. It is the motivating dynamic in all domestic violence—getting straight just who exactly is in charge of the world!

With the dawn of the 18th century Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, the conquest of nature was complete. Francis Bacon could speak about putting the earth “on the rack,” and torturing her until she gave us all we desired. All mystery, divinity and sacredness were lost. Science declared the earth and all non-human species devoid of spirit. The God who made the earth and dwelt in every living thing was no more. The earth was now the dominion of Man and it was no longer a question who was the greater.

Clearly MF, the way of Jesus is quite contrary to this kind of thinking and acting. Greatness, said Jesus, is about serving others, not dominating them, and that includes the good green earth God made. Jesus himself lived more like Abel than like Cain. He was a nomad. He owned no home. He trusted the God of nature to provide for his daily needs. Don’t worry about what you will eat, or what you will wear, said Jesus. Consider the lilies of the field. Think of the sparrow. God gives them what they need to survive. Jesus regularly went into the wilderness to pray. In fact, he drew most of his wisdom teaching and his parables from his observation of nature. And although his central concern was not for the earth per se, his spirituality was certainly grounded in a profound sense of the generosity of God, as observed through the workings of nature.

Eco-spirituality, MF, is about changing our relationship with God’s good green Earth and our relationship with every living thing. Mother Earth is herself a living organism—the greatest living organism within the universe which is always growing and expanding. There is absolutely no question that we have already done irreversible damage to the earth and therefore to ourselves, to our children and our children’s children.

It’s not that we human beings are wicked, deliberately bent on doing evil against the Earth and Mother Nature. But we’re all living out of an old script—especially we Christians—being that we have taken far too literally the words of Genesis that we are to “subdue” the earth for our own pleasure and consumption. And from that script, we continue to live out the violent story of Cain. MF, until and unless we begin to live out the new script, the good news story, the spiritual story of how Jesus went about treating this Earth with love and respect, nothing is going to change, you see. Only with the eyes of Jesus will we finally begin to see and hear the story of love for all living things, including Mother Earth.

There is, in my opinion, little use in setting targets for CO2 emissions, in determining salmon quotas, in logging companies sitting down with environmentalists to work out compromises—little use in this and many other worthy efforts, if we cannot first agree on the story we should be living out—the one with Cain or the one with Jesus. Let me conclude this sermon by giving you some principals of how to relate to Mother Earth:

One: Mother Earth does not belong to us. We belong to her. The earth does not need us. We need it. It’s always been that way and will always be such.

Two: There’s a sense in which the Earth is God’s Body, the physical manifestation of his Spirit. To put this poetically to you: “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.” The Earth is a sacred living organism, with its own intrinsic value. What I mean by this is that the Earth is more than a source of raw materials to satisfy our addiction to consumption and control, to profit and financial gain.

Three: There’s a sense in which even we homo sapiens don’t live on the earth; but we ourselves are the earth in human form. The kind of spirituality Jesus practiced will end a false separation between us and the Earth and all living things. We are the earth’s creatures with consciousness and therefore capable of understanding that there exists no greater miracle than creation itself. MF, there is only one proper response to creation and that is awe—something like the reverence Gruendevold had for the white moose.

Four: I personally don’t believe that God intended evolution to stop with us human beings. We humans do not represent the sum total of God’s imagination for the universe. Thirteen billion years ago, God didn’t suddenly say: “Well, I think I’m gonna aim for males and finally females as my best effort, after which I’ll stop creating.”

Five and lastly: In the new eco-spirituality, we must go beyond simply the idea of us humans taking care of Mother Earth. That’s almost a form of arrogance. If we can understand and accept that we are an integral, inseparable part of the Earth, then the spiritual truth is that Mother Earth also takes care of us. Our task, MF, is that we take our place with all the other life forms of this planet God made possible. And having done that, it should evoke a renewed sense of gratitude and awe, as well as humility and respect.

This morning, MF, I cannot begin to offer practical solutions to our environmental crises. Rather, I can only offer a sensibility from which to begin discussions among the businesses and environmentalists, religions and governments of the world. We are of the earth and our destiny, at least on this side of the grave, is bound up with the destiny of the Earth. This is for me at least one of the major spiritual issues of the 21st century.

Let me end this sermon with a quote from one of the greatest Christian theologians of the 14th century, Meister Eckhart:

Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature, every living thing is alive with God, full of God and a book of God, if we could but read the chapters and pages. Because every creature is a word of God, if I spent enough time with even the tiniest creature, such as a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every living thing.

How great & grand is that?! Alleluia Amen!

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen.

These twelve men were sent out by Jesus with the following instructions … (Mt 10:5a). Jesus called the twelve disciples together and sent them out two by two … (Mk 6:7a). Jesus then sent the twelve disciples out to preach the Kingdom of God … (Lk 9:2a).

Dear Friends. In today’s Matthean Gospel—a text which has parallels in Mark and Luke, as you see in the above one-liners. Jesus sends his 12 disciples out on the road. They go out, two by two, without food or money or extra clothing—just sandals, walking sticks and authority to heal and cast out evil spirits. The disciples go to the nearby towns and villages to proclaim the Good News, that because the Kingdom of God is near, people should turn from their sins.

Let me briefly recount a true story which fits today’s gospel theme of Jesus’ sending of the Twelve, two by two, which is a variation on what the Church calls The Great Commission from Jesus. The story is about literally thousands of Christians —in this case Southern Baptists from the USA—the largest denomination in the US with some 20 million members. The SB went on a pilgrimage to Iraq in order to convert the Muslims to Christianity. This took place shortly after the US invasion in March 2003 under the pretence of Sadaam Hussein’s WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). The evangelistic enterprise was a well-meaning, spiritually motivated crusade with the International Mission Board of the SB Convention regarding the US occupation of Iraq as a unique opportunity to win the souls of the Iraqi people for Christ.

Unfortunately, Jerry Vines, former head of the SB Convention, described the prophet Mohammed as a “demon-possessed pedophile.” Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, who delivered the invocation prayer at George Bush’s presidential inauguration in 2004, described Islam as a “very evil and wicked religion.” His father, Billy Graham, went on to disavow these remarks by his son. Jon Hannah, a missionary who returned from Iraq after having distributed some 1.3 million Christian pamphlets, concluded: “Islam is an antichrist religion.”

In this model of evangelism and missionary work, the Christian Church has the Truth, with a capital T; whereas Islam and all other religions are nothing else but a lie, with a capital L. MF, it should come as no surprise to us that Moslems quite naturally understand this arrogant attitude for what it is: a holy war! Is it any wonder that Afghanis burned an effigy of President Obama in the aftermath of the murderous 16-death rampage of one deranged American soldier? Remember that? But they also burned a Christian cross, as I suspect that the soldier was a baptized Christian.

Frankly, when I survey the history of religious wars over the centuries, with the deaths of thousands of folks in the name of the Almighty—whether his name is God, Allah or Jehovah, I am repulsed to think that we must evangelize and/or convert others with the threat of hell or the prize of heaven, or at the point of a gun or sword. I mean, isn’t there a way to uphold what we believe, while also showing respect and honoring the values we share with others? The fact is: Before we can pledge the mobilization of our resources in response to the Great Commission of Christ, by the sending out of missionaries, we must first prioritize our attitudes, acknowledge our prejudices and biases towards those who are not Christians and who do not profess Christ in the same way we do.

God holds us accountable, MF, not only for what we believe, but more importantly, how we believe—how we live out our faith. What if we finally began to recognize that our doctrines, dogmas and creeds are only part of our religious development, and not eternal truths in the mind of God? What if religious people stopped rejecting others and even killing them, because their religious convictions are different than our own, and because they are a threat to our religion? What if we actually stopped playing God in religious games designed to prove our spiritual superiority?

What if God is not a being who can be manipulated by the prayers of the faithful and or the fearful? What if God is not a security-giving heavenly parent who hands out threats and favors, rewards and punishments? What if God is not a judge who delights in our quivering before the throne of judgment? What if God has a different understanding not only about organized religion, the Church and its unity, but about what place true spirituality should have in our lives?

And what if following Jesus meant that we were no longer bound by our usual prejudices of religion and race, gender and sexual orientation, fears and finitudes? What if following Jesus meant that, in the words of St. Paul, “there was neither male nor female, slave nor master, Jew nor Gentile”; but what if following Jesus meant that there was neither Christian nor Jew, Moslem nor Buddhist, heterosexual or homosexual, atheist nor believer, but that in following Jesus, there were only folks who were truly human, modeling their lives after Jesus, himself the truest human. And what if there really was absolutely nothing that separated us from the love of God, because of who Jesus is for us and the world.

The fact is—not one of us can fit the holy God into our creeds and doctrines, much less into our pockets, as if any of us has a market on the truth. Why? Because that’s idolatry. We cannot create God in our own image and expect God to serve our needs. We cannot pretend, as the Church has done for centuries, that we alone are the Chosen, and all others are damned. God is God. You and I are not, and that’s why we must finally abandon our misuse and selectivity of Bible verses to justify our religious prejudices, not only against people of other religions, but against Christians of other denominations.

Here I’m reminded of Trump’s most recent exploitation of the Christian faith in his fake “Bible photo-op” in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC—fake because he didn’t go to the church to read the Bible or pray to God or worship in the sanctuary of this historic parish, also known as The Church of the Presidents. Rather, Trump went to portray himself in a most shameful pretence where everything, including religion, is reduced to political gain. He wrongly thought that the Bible would give him the divine stamp of approval he sorely craves.

Now, if you’re still with me, according to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus did not come into this world to make us religious or even right, perhaps not even to make us Christians. After all, Jesus was not the first Christian. His disciples were the first Christians. Jesus was a Jew to his dying day. Jesus came to “bring [us] life and bring it more abundantly.” That’s why, MF, to know Jesus is to experience God himself. That’s why Jesus is the life which could not be contained by death or the grave. That’s why Jesus is the life whom God made available to all—even outside the traditions of organized religion, including Christianity. That’s why the Jesus story is not just of the Church but is the story available to all who follow Jesus’ path, even if they don’t recognize the path or name it as Christian.

The Kingdom of God is here for all, just like it was when Jesus walked the earth and welcomed all people, including sinners and outcasts, marginalized and even Gentiles—all of whom became part of the Kingdom. Jesus is the centre of a new unity and humanity which is finally emerging in our own time and generation. Jesus commissioned his disciples to go beyond the boundaries of their own country and tribe—Israel—and most specifically beyond their own religion—Judaism. Should it be any different for us, MF? Like the first disciples, you and I must also finally escape our man-made church boundaries and proclaim the gospel—that God loves every human and that each and every person matters to God!

In our generation, that is especially true for the Blacks in the US and around the world, including Canada. Black lives do matter! George Floyd, like Treyvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade are only five current symbols of the thousands upon thousands of Blacks who lives have been snuffed out after 400 years of white institutional knees crushing their throats. Each of these five were Black, but their race was not the only cause of death. Each was also murdered because of the systemic structures that endow white people with an unimaginable authority and privilege based on the perpetuation of lies.

The onus for justice is not on the victims, but on the perpetrators and their oppressive and unjust systems. The fact is Black and Indigenous people have shared the trauma of colonialism supported by the church, as well as dispossession and police violence in our country and in many others. That’s why and now more than ever, MF, our duty is to proclaim the Gospel: that not only do all lives matter to God—but especially Black lives matter!

But the Gospel, MF, involves more than simple verbal proclamation. It requires change—changing the structures which have promoted and maintained white privilege! It’s hard for most whites to see that we have constantly received special treatment, which makes it harder for us to recognize the experiences of people of color and indigenous people, ethnic and sexual minorities, as valid and real when they speak of racial profiling, police brutality, discrimination in the workplace, continued segregation in schools, lack of access to housing, and on and on. This is not the experience of most white people, so how can it be true? Protests in American cities, as well as Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver, but also global protests around the world have now finally demonstrated how limited our vision actually is!

Of course, we all belong. There is no issue of more or less in the eyes of an Infinite God. Yet the ego believes the lie that there isn’t enough to go around and that for me to succeed or win, someone else must lose. And so we’ve greedily supported systems and governments that work to our own advantage at the expense of others, most often people of color and indigenous people, or minorities with highly visible differences. The advancement of whites was too often at the cost of other people not advancing at all. The fact is that the Gospel must speak to Power and Privilege, which never surrenders without a fight. Otherwise, it’s not the Gospel.

If God operates as me, then God also operates as “you” and so the playing field is leveled forever. Change must come from the bottom up, which, like Jesus who sent out his disciples, begins with you and me. In the act of letting go and choosing to become servants, authentic caring communities, like church, can at last be possible.

But, allow me to be frank, MF. After all that we have seen and heard since George Floyd was murdered in public and which exposed the racial divisions in our societies, it’s more than just caring communities we require. We also need relationships of accountability. We need to make opportunities and spaces where we listen to each other, especially to people of colour and minorities, who can tell us what actions are hurting them and their communities. Then and only then will we be able to unlearn implicit bias, leverage social privilege for the common good, and follow the leadership of impacted people working for systemic justice.

Allow me a few for instances. You may have seen the video where Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and his wife, Freda Courtoreille, were assaulted on March 10 by the RCMP over an expired license plate. Adam said his wife, who suffers from late-stage rheumatoid arthritis, was put in an arm hold and slammed against the vehicle. Another officer struck Adam multiple times, drawing blood and nearly going unconscious. Bystanders pleaded for the officers to stop, but to no avail. The racial incident has left Adam’s community in anguish and anger.

MF, you may also know that currently, the Alberta Government is rushing to pass Bill 1, which would outlaw legal protests and other disruptions to “critical infrastructure.” Arthur Noskey, Grand Chief of the Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta, said the Critical Infrastructure Defense Act violates Indigenous and treaty rights, calling it a “racialized bill,” and one that will aggravate tensions between nearby communities, police and Indigenous people.

Or, you may have seen the video of the Inuk man being struck by a truck driven by a Mountie. Or you may have followed the long and tortuous saga of our National Inquiry into the 1000 Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women & Girls whose recent first anniversary was remembered due to an absolute lack of action on the Calls for Justice contained the Inquiry.

In speaking about these grievous episodes, PM Trudeau said that Canada does “suffer individual and institutional racial inequalities” and that “far too many Canadians feel fear and anxiety at the sight of law enforcement officers and authorities because systemic racism against Indigenous and racialized people persists.” Trudeau went on to acknowledge that “we cannot change this overnight, but we must start by being accountable.”

MF, individually as Christians and collectively as the Church, our evangelism must start with accountability, beginning with inappropriate attitudes and behaviour. My task, like yours, my responsibility, like yours, first and foremost, is to be Christ for myself, so that I can be Christ for my neighbour, whether she or he is Black, Brown, Red, Yellow or White.

Let me finally close by introducing the Magi to this sermon and telling you that the so-called “3 Wise Men” were not Christians, much less Jews. They were probably Zoroastrians who came to pay the Christ Child homage and offer gifts. I conclude with the Magi because I believe that their perspective can provide us with a model for respect and honor of other cultures and religions even within Canada. What would our missionary work and ecumenical relations look like if we used the model of homage and respect? Imagine what would it mean for us Christians, if like the Magi, we were to make a long journey across strange cultural and religious landscapes, to also pay homage and bear gifts, in respect for all that is sacred in other religions, cultures and faith traditions?

MF, I believe we Christians must articulate and enact a vision, in which Moslems, Christians and Jews can work together because all three are monotheistic faiths, whose spiritual father is actually Abraham and who therefore all believe in the same God—albeit we call him by different names. It’s a vision which respects and honors each person as a child of God, created in God’s image from the very beginning.

We will win people to God sooner with respect and honor than we will by believing that only we are right. Truth is the truth is the truth, no matter who says it and no matter who believes it. The deeper we go into our own faith, the more we are informed by the values of variety and diversity, inclusivity and respect for the inherent dignity of all people and their faith systems. MF, may the wisdom, practice and attitude of the Magi prevail not only among us Christians, but among all people, regardless of race or religion, color or creed, nation or ethnic origin. O God, let this happen in us and through us. AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen.

Dear Friends. Last Sunday was Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was sent by God, and the day we Christians celebrate the founding of the Church. The Church has been one of the longest existing institutions on this planet for some 20 centuries. It certainly is one of the most wealthy of institutions in the world, which in my read of Jesus, is an indictment upon the church given the degree of global poverty. As we know, the influence of the church has waned considerably in the last quarter century. From my perspective, that’s not a bad thing, because it finally forces the Church to do some serious soul-searching, by asking a number of very foundational, bottom-line kinds of questions of itself:

Can the Church be trusted to do the right thing for the right reason, or is the Church just in it for itself? Does the Church worship itself and defend itself at all costs? Are we, as women and men of the Church, so busy worshipping Jesus that we have forgotten or even ignored his message and teachings? How can the Church liberate the world, if the Church is imprisoned by its own sin and serious short comings?

I would like to start on these questions, basing them upon a gospel story of one of Jesus’ miraculous cures, located in Luke 8:26-39 and which I encourage you to read in its entirety.

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, and as Jesus stepped out on the land, a man met him from the city who had demons. For a long time he wore no clothes and lived not in a house, but among the graves and tombs. (26-27)

MF, here is a picture of a man who lives among the dead and isn’t quite civilized, because he runs around naked. No—he wasn’t a member of the naturalist society. The city from where the man originally came was quite comfortable with the fact that this man lives in the country cemetery among the dead—and the man himself is also at home with that reality, so that when Jesus came to him, he cried out and fell down before Jesus, and said in a loud voice: “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!”

In short, the man didn’t want what Jesus had to give him. His restriction and self-imprisonment was the only world he knew. As women who suffer from battered-wife syndrome say: It is easier to live with the devil they know, than the devil they don’t know. The same is true of the homeless who brave the frigid Toronto winter nights, rather than the warm sanctuary of–the devil knows what?

Which is to say: We also feel much more comfortable with our slavery, than with our freedom. Freedom means that we must assume responsibility for what we are and accountability for what we do, that we are accountable for how we behave and treat others. But to be enslaved, however, means that we always have somebody else to blame and accuse for our problems. Or, if we’re guilty, we will always find excuses and rationalizations.

An evil spirit had already possessed this poor man for a very long time. “His hands and feet were bound by chains,” says Luke. In this way, people tried to keep him under control. Nowadays, he’d be carried away by little men in white coats, put away and the key thrown away. Now, the man in the story was possessed by evil spirits—meaning, when we project the darkness in us onto another person or group, then he or they end up accepting our projection. Sooner or later, you see, we all believe the world’s version of who we are!

The Church has always tried to realize freedom as personal and salvation as individual. Because the Church preaches personal salvation, it has often neglected the problem of institutional evil and structural sin. The best example is the incredible lack of accountability of the RCC and the horrifying evil of its pedophile priests who inflicted pain and suffering upon innocent children—the very children of whom Jesus spoke that we become, in order to enter the Kingdom of God. Only now that it has been found out, has the Church finally come out of its closet of sin and has been made to accept liability by its very victims.

In its global entirety, the Church has often not recognized that in a great number of cases, such institutional and structural evil is the primary cause of our individual lack of freedom, which is made quite evident when we learn the name of the demon in the story: Legion. Legion is his name, meaning that evil has a myriad of faces, which tell countless lies. And so the demons beg Jesus to go into a herd of pigs. The swine of course typify the economy of this gentile area—as Jews did not raise such unclean animals.

The demons go into the herd of swine, rush over a cliff into a lake below and are drowned. The story immediately spread everywhere and the people who heard it, eventually found the man sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind. MF, you’d think that the next line from Luke would read: “And they all rejoiced!” But Verse 35 says: “And they were all very afraid.” Why is that?

MF, it’s not because Jesus performed another miracle cure which brought everyone to their knees in awe. Rather, it’s because the city now had to deal with this man, whom they once treated so shamefully. It’s something like alcoholics who get healthy. Suddenly, their family no longer have anyone to shame or blame. The members of the alcoholic’s family must now grow up themselves. It’s called co-dependency. In other words, we reciprocally bind one another with our lies, our destructive feelings and our negative thinking. And this holds true not just for families, but also for congregations, institutions and countries. And here’s the point, MF: To escape this trap always brings a terrible amount of anxiety.

That’s why Jesus says something most Christians don’t like to hear: that we must hate father and mother, brother and sister (Lk.14:26), if we are intent on following him! But of course most preachers hesitate to give sermons on this subject because they don’t know what to say, much less how to handle it. Jesus means to say that family and society can become a source of death, just as they can become life. MF, we all know something about that, if we honestly examine the lives of our families, ourselves and society. That’s precisely why the inhabitant of that city, where this formerly demon-possessed man lived, came out to see Jesus and say to him (my words):

Get out of here Jesus! You’ve ruined our economy. Our pigs are dearer to us than the salvation you bring—and certainly not the salvation of one demon-possessed individual. Our swine are our source of income and our economy is our salvation—certainly not you, Jesus!

MF, the practical definition of freedom that we have formed under capitalism is to have endless opportunities and options—to do what we want, when we want. But Jesus said that the world cannot give us the freedom and peace we seek. And that’s because the freedom the world offers is always freedom which serves its own purpose. It’s the Pax Romana and not the Pax Christi. Jesus of course never sanctioned capitalism, communism or socialism, nor democracy, theocracy or dictatorship. They are all human systems which have their positives and negatives, their idolatries and heroes.

The story ends with the man wanting to join Jesus’ troupe, but Jesus sends him home to spread the good News about what God has done for him. Jesus says: “You d’man, because you’re no longer the problem. The people in the city are. I cannot liberate them and send them back into sick cities and countries, with their supposed private salvations.” Biblical salvation, MF, is the redemption of all of history and humanity itself, and not just of separate isolated individuals, which is what the Church has often reduced salvation to.

That’s why our kind of individualism has taken away the credibility of the Gospel in our NA and European society. We think that we can seek our own personal salvation, independent of and apart from everyone else. That’s why Christianity has been reduced to a private matter in our society, and why so few seem responsible in spreading the Gospel. That’s why the church is in serious decline: it’s someone else’s job to grow the church and work in God’s Vineyard. It’s someone else’s job to witness God’s love and verbalize God’s blessings.

MF, I believe this: Salvation and evangelization can only move forward on two rails. We must simultaneously evangelize individuals to be sure—calling them to freedom from their self-made idols and we must also evangelize institutions, nations and systems, calling them to conversion from their self-made obsessions, especially profit. If you do the first, you will be called a saint; but if you do the second, you’ll be called a radical, anti-Christian, and a revolutionary. MF, I know something about both!

It’s precisely this reason that 99% of Christians remain safely on the first rail. Few Christians are ready for the encompassing salvation Christ gives. We want salvation, only if it doesn’t take away our pigs —our financial well-being. We want salvation only if we can continue to live comfortably among the tombs of our dead—whether traditions or customs, politics or religion, systems or institutions, including churches some of which are more social clubs and cliques, than sacred living communities keen on spiritual transformation.

The fact is that we’re part of a needy society and an addicted culture. The obvious addictions are alcohol, nicotine, coffee, food, sex, recreation, work, shopping, material goods and the greatest addiction, of course, is money: making it, collecting it and hoarding it. I know people who pile up more money than they can spend in a lifetime. And yet, some of these folks have the nerve, not only to claim outward poverty, but to also quote Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and consider themselves followers of this poor Jesus.

Do you remember the Natural Church Development of a few years back? I don’t know if Zion participated in NCD, but Epiphany Lutheran, my last parish before I retired, engaged the service. Well, Christian Schwarz, the German Lutheran pastor-developer of the NCD program, determined that most western denominations and congregations suffer from a lack of passionate spirituality.

In fact, after Epiphany’s first NCD survey, it was discovered that the parish was no different from thousands of other congregations. Epiphany LC was deficient in a passionate application of spirituality, meaning, they lacked the ability and the will to verbalize to others what Jesus meant to them. Why? Because Epiphany members, like most church adherents, suffered from an inability to let go of their securities and fears, and let the HS transform them to transform others. Most parishes expect that it’s the pastor’s job to transform and recruit new members!

MF, I believe that our greatest addiction, even as Christians, is not money, but the system itself which dispenses the money. Our chief dependency is the addiction to our own hallowed explanations and rationalizations. Could there be a world not built on power and control? Could there be a world not built on money, its affluence and its hoarding? Could there be a world not built on violence, war and militarism? MF, I don’t think we can even imagine it!! Which shows how dependent we are on our systems! That’s why we can’t take Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount seriously. It’s too dangerous! It’s too revolutionary! It’s much too spiritual! It’s simply too transformative!

Love your enemy? Turn him the other cheek? Bless’d are the poor, the humble and the persecuted? Become like a child and only then will you enter God’s Kingdom. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing to your neighbour or giving to church. If you look at another woman lustfully, you have already committed adultery with her. Pluck out your eyes and cut off all body parts which cause you to sin. Always speak the whole truth. Give generously to the needy and don’t make a parade out of it. Pray often, and don’t find excuses not to pray. Forgive others, otherwise God will not forgive you. Seek true spiritual riches. You cannot serve God and money. Do not judge others, for God alone is judge.

MF, Jesus wants his Church to be informed and transformed by the power of the HS. I believe that Jesus continues to renew his church, not from above, but from below, with the likes of you and me as his agents who need to be passionate about our spirituality—who need to verbalize our commitment to Jesus before others—articulate our blessings from God. MF, if we don’t break the silence of what God and Church mean to us, then our parish, like every congregation, will be dead in the water—sooner rather than later.

The fact is: Jesus doesn’t turn people into Lutherans or Catholics, Anglicans or United, Pentecostals or Baptists. Rather Jesus touches our pain, and, like the man in the NT story, we who “live among the graves” suddenly find that we’ve been freed from our disease, our insecurity and our fear. This is not something which can be accomplished by merely thinking about it. For over 40 years now, I’ve preached over 4,000 sermons, and not one of them converted anyone. I hope some of them have made an appreciable difference in the lives of people. Not sermons, MF, but circumstances convert people, and that’s always by the Holy Spirit.

You and I always have to find our way to new circumstances, so that the reality of God’s Spirit can really get through to us, because that’s where Jesus has hidden himself—in the humiliation of our human condition. Christ always comes into the world and into our lives on an ass—a humble 4-legged one. Or, as Luther liked to say: “Christ always comes into this world as a beggar.” For our part, we’d rather have him enclosed in the walls of the Church and locked into our Lutheran theology. But God is always free. She is always free!

I hope that each and every one of you has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ—a relationship which not only informs you, but much more importantly, a relationship which transforms you, which grows you and matures, and makes you to age like good wine. Just believing in Jesus is not enough, because that’s only the start of what it means to be a Christian. Many Christians may know the truth, but they don’t do the truth, which is what Jesus said to his contemporaries. Unless and until we do the truth, we aren’t free.

My last thought is this: All this of which I write and which comes from deep down within me MF—all this is something that happens to us through the power of the HS. The only thing we can do is get our personal egos and obsessions out of the way. Don’t take yourself too seriously MF. Be empty. Be open. Be ready. Then and only then will Christ himself be your Teacher and Master, your Guide and Friend, your Lover and Savior. And how great & grand is that!!! AMEN

MF, do spend a few minutes getting in touch with God’s Spirit within you and then pray the following prayer:

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen.

Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak. Acts 2.3-4

Dear Friends. Around the world today, Christians celebrate Pentecost, which is the most important celebration after Easter—at least it ought to be, if Jesus had his way—Jesus who said, “I must leave in order that the Spirit may come.” Pentecost is a Greek word meaning “50 days” and has its roots in Judaism. In today’s story of Pentecost from Acts, the Jews were gathering in Jerusalem from all over the Mediterranean basin, for the Jewish Hag Shabu’ot—the “feast of weeks.”  This Hebrew commemoration was set 50 days after Passover in Egypt to celebrate the renewal of God’s covenant with Israel by the giving of the 10 Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

On this day of Hag Shabu’ot, the gathered Jews accused Jesus’ disciples of being drunk. Peter’s response to this accusation was not moral indignation—after all, the disciples weren’t teetotallers. Like Jesus, they enjoyed wine. The charge of drunkenness was outrageous because it was only nine in the morning!

Theologically speaking, you could say that the disciples were drunk on God’s Spirit. They apprenticed with a carpenter from Nazareth, who was an expert in tearing down and rebuilding. The Spirit had room to move, as it entered into these freshly renovated souls. MF, the NT says that when the Spirit of God is given some breathing space, watch out! … Which is to say that ordinary people, like you and me, now filled with the HS, must get busy with the task of taking up the mission of Jesus of Nazareth, the Risen Lord.

Luke, who also wrote Acts, quotes Joel’s OT prophecy, which is being fulfilled:

This is what I will do in the last days, says God. I will pour out my Spirit on everyone. Your sons and daughters will proclaim my message; your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams. Even upon slaves I will pour my Spirit and they will declare my message. Acts 2:17-18

Notice, MF, that God’s Spirit isn’t just poured out upon the great leaders of society, or only relegated to religious people, or rich folks. Rather, the HS will be poured out upon all flesh”, including folks we wouldn’t expect. They would prophesy and to prophesy isn’t simply a fore-telling of the future. Prophecy is the speaking of God’s truth to those in high places—speaking truth to power.

Daughters,” who played second fiddle to sons in Jesus’ day, and often discarded at birth—daughters will prophesy. And “old men”, relegated to obsolescence, would chart a new course for humanity. Even “slaves” will prophesy, speaking to their masters for their right to liberty and equality.

Christianity began as a grass-roots movement of marginalized people, who, in getting drunk on the Spirit, proclaimed God’s truth: that we are all God’s daughters and sons, and loved uniquely and unequivocally by God. So MF, Is there any reason, that the Spirit would not be poured out upon the likes of you and me on this Pentecost Sunday?!