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

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?! Jesus of Nazareth had torn down the architecture of the ego and the walls of self-obsession. Now, the fresh wind of that same Spirit blows through wide-open spaces, once enclosed by suffocating egos and prejudiced wills.

Yes, the HS gave birth to the Church on Pentecost, but if the Church is to be a community of activated souls on fire, we must allow God not only to inform us, but to transform us, because only as transformed children of God can we help and heal the world. Our mission from Jesus is his message: Because we are loved, we must proclaim God’s Kingdom—and help and heal this planet.

MF, that’s a very tall order, especially when we consider the pervasive cynicism about religion in general and the Church in specific—the decline of the Church, its global pre-eminence and wealth, as well as its lack of accountability. And although the RCC finds itself precisely in such a crisis today, we’re all in it together. The 2 billion Christians in the world are the Body of Christ.

The fact is this: We can do nothing to help and heal this world unless we ourselves are first empowered by the HS. Being a Christian isn’t just about believing in Jesus. That’s only for starters. You can be a Christian, say you believe in God, the creeds and rules, and go through all the rites and services. But if you haven’t allowed the Grace of God to move into your conscious and subconscious, and really touch you—which is what conversion is—then you’ll have no real awareness of the HS in your day to day life and living……

Which of course is the malaise of Western Christianity today. Many Christians keep up the external religious observances of God, but underneath they depend only on themselves. “Nothing is going to happen unless I make it happen,” they say to themselves. MF, unless there is a day to day, hour to hour, trust in God, which is what faith is, then God will make no real difference in our lives

MF, the Holy Spirit wants to activate ordinary people, like you and me. The HS wants to trigger a vision compelling enough, hopeful enough, large enough, encompassing enough to help make the Kingdom of God real and near for each one of us. The Kingdom is what Jesus preached and that Kingdom is available when we engage God’s gifts—to love and be loved, to give and forgive, to apply mercy and justice for all.

MF we need to allow the HS to move us to a level of prayer and surrender. Even we Christians need to let go of all our anxieties and control issues and allow the HS to invade our conscious and subconscious. Until we let God’s Spirit touch us and free us from our deepest sins and most secretive agendas, then all of our knowing and believing won’t amount to a hill of beans, because we’ll only be going through the motions, which is characteristic of many church goers.

In the early chapters of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus underwent conversion: Jesus was baptized!! That was his conversion. The HS descended on him and God declared: “You are my beloved Son.” Jesus’ conversion is available to you and me. What an absolutely incredible experience: not only to know that I am God’s daughter, God’s son—but to experience his love and live it! I am loved. I am cared for. I am believed in. I am accepted!! That’s what we need to experience. That’s what the HS will accomplish in us if we let him.

What most people, including Christians, need to fix is their fixation on themselves, their obsessions and anxieties, their insecurities and securities—which is big time—not just economic security, but security of reputation, status and image. If you are anxious, if you are trying to control everything and everybody, if you are worried about many things, if you are using religion to justify yourself, then, according to Jesus, you don’t have faith. Why not? Because all these keep us from trusting God from day to day and hour to hour!

Sometimes on my way to National Church Council Meetings in Winnipeg when I served on the NCC board (2003-2011), I’d be sitting beside someone in the airplane who would invariably throw out this phrase: “Now, don’t get me wrong, Reverend. I believe in God.” But that’s not what Jesus is concerned about, MF. Belief in God has been the primordial tradition since the beginning of time. 99.9% of people who have ever lived, have believed in God. Atheism MF is only a recent modern rational phenomenon of the Western world, which is but a tiny blip on the radar screen.

Of course there’s a God! That’s not the question! Faith is the issue for Jesus, and not believing in God is not the opposite of faith. Fear and anxiety are the opposites of faith. Self-obsession and control are the opposites of faith. Why? Because these keep us from trusting God, which is what faith is. (Belief is only the stuff we believe about God. Faith is a daily trusting in God.) Anxiety and fear, self-obsession and control are the litmus tests of an active and loving faith. Real people of faith don’t have to control everything and everybody, nor do they have to change people—that’s God’s job—nor are they scapegoats or doormats for bullies in sheep’s clothing. We can’t fix our own souls, MF, but if we set our goal and purpose on God’s Kingdom, tomorrow will take care of itself!

I believe this: If we are humble and honest, if we are truly giving and forgiving, if we are genuinely loving and trusting, then we’ll be alright. Why? Because we’re journeying the path Jesus trod. But if humility and honesty, if giving and forgiving, if loving and trusting are missing, then we’ve got a lot of spiritual work to do—to allow God’s Spirit to break through and touch us, embrace us, hug us and hold us. MF, God is always for us more than we could ever be for ourselves. And all we have to do is to be open.

The One who created you and me and this ever expanding universe of millions of light years and which is now some 14 billion years old—the Divine One cares for you and me, like a parent cares for a child. God loves us in a way that has nothing to do with logic, or worthiness, or correct behaviour, or always being right.

We are cared for, MF, simply because we are beloved daughters and sons. Gal.4:6-7 puts it this way: “To show that we are his children, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. And since we are his children, God will give us his all.” God will give us his all!! How great & grand is that MF??!!

Pentecost Sunday. Jesus returns to the Father so that God can send the HS, and it is the HS who informs and transforms us and the world, if we let go and let God do the transforming. In fact, transformation is one of the central themes of Jesus, for both the person and society. Trouble is, we haven’t been good students of Jesus concerning personal transformation, emphasizing instead a kind of stoic “grin and bear it.” And as we might expect, the transformation of our institutions, including the church and society, structures and organizations has been even worse.

Commandment #One: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me!” Trouble is: That’s exactly what lot of folks have done. We’ve put all of our hope in the Empire, be it Rome or Ottawa, be it the value of our loonie or our pension plans, be it the divine right of kings or queens, be it our transplanted white European culture, be it anti-Communism or anti-socialism, be capitalism or democracy. Too often we’ve put our hope in these, as if they were all somehow ordained by God and Jesus. Sooner, rather than later, our faith in these gods will not only disappoint, but will come crashing down, which is already happening globally.

I think that most Christians are afraid of transformation by the HS, because they usually equate transformation with change. Change is when something new begins. Transformation is just the opposite. Transformation happens when something old falls away. Transformation happens after a crisis, when something we’ve learned to depend upon is taken away. Of course, not all crises lead to transformation. When something is taken away which we’ve grown used to or addicted to, then we will either turn bitter or be transformed.

The fact is: most of us have endured more change in the last 100 years than in any other century: psychological and cultural change, political and economic change, religious and worldview changes. Most people have lived their lives inside one paradigm and have operated within one worldview. But there have been some 4-5-6 major paradigm shifts in the past 100 years alone—most recent being the computerized shift. There’s been massive change, but the change has not always been accompanied by transformation.

MF, when change happens and does so without transformation of our soul—of who we are—then people are eventually destroyed. To be frank, most of us, for instance, don’t age well. Transformation is required to age well and understand the changes that life demands of us as we get older, to resituate ourselves in the world and in our little corner of it. The function of religion, it seems to me, is to help us hold our lives together in a meaningful universe and a purpose driven life under God. MF, the church desperately needs to be one of the places we get activated by God‘s Spirit.

That’s precisely why Jesus invites us to become a new Church—a new community of human beings. He calls us a little flock, not because the church is in a major decline, but because Jesus doesn’t want us to become the entire flock—the whole globe. He said we should be the yeast, the leaven, and not the entire loaf. He calls us to be salt, but we want to be the whole meal—we want to run and control everything. Jesus urged us to be the light that illumines the mountaintop, but we want to be the whole mountain.

Over large parts of this planet, Christianity and the Church have dwindling credibility. Why? Not because we don’t pray, Thy Kingdom Come, but because we don’t immediately add, My Kingdom go! We have rarely let our earthly kingdoms of power and control, of money and material things, of status and prominence, be replaced by God’s Kingdom of the Spirit. The church has been so busy worshipping the Messenger, that we’ve ignored the message.

We need to be passionate MF, not only about Jesus, but also about his message. No tradition, no religion, no church, no temple, no synagogue, no mosque, no cathedral will triumph before God. We all stand, not only in need of eternal compassion, but to get out of our little kingdoms and serve the lives of others—and to be in mission for others, which is the motto of our ELCIC denomination: In Mission for Others.

MF, the fact is this: The church must be a network of relationships once again! We must be a Church led by the Spirit which builds on community and not competition. We must be people who are passionate about the spiritual in our lives—passionate to speak and live the message and not just believe in the messenger.  

Our calling, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is to go into the world and communicate the Gospel of God’s Love with power from on high. In the pointed words of the hymn, God of Tempest and Whirlwind:

Sweep us into costly service and burn in us All that blocks your truth And hinders your purpose. For earth’s healing, set us free! Crumble the walls that divide us And make us one in Christ To claim us for the work of your Kingdom.

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.

I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me! Jn 14:6

Dear Friends. For those of you who are making the time to read the sermons I’m sending your way (due to the shutdown of all churches because of COVID-19), you may recall that two Sundays ago, I wrote about this very subject with the same title: Is Jesus the Only Way to God? Some of the responses to that sermon caused a stir, and that’s ok—even welcomed! It means that our reading has made a difference—even if it’s negative. So, given the counter-clockwise stir by some, I thought Part 2 regarding the question would be in order.

There is a line in the Westminster Confessions of 1646, framed by the Presbyterian Church at the time, which, similar to the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1531, sates that “No one who does not come unto Christ can be saved.” MF, if a particular religious system claims to possess the truth with a capital “T”, then it follows that this system clearly has a monopoly on truth and on salvation or at least on the pathway to God. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to see that such truth claims are proclaimed vigorously and often offensively.

For centuries this is exactly what the church decreed, that it held the keys to heaven and that outside of Christ and his Church, there simply was no salvation. If you were excommunicated by the church, that automatically meant that God would deny you salvation. Which is also to say that since salvation is found only within the Christian Church, then those outside the institutional church are either lost in moral darkness or invincibly ignorant.

The church then used this core doctrine as moral leverage in a very abusive manner, to threaten and control people and get them to conform to all the church’s teachings, rules of ethical conduct and their financial giving. For instance, most of the missionary hymns of the Church composed in the 18th and 19th centuries were written in the service of precisely this kind of definition of “no salvation outside the church.”

The 19th century, you may know, was in fact the greatest period of Christian expansion ever, which was also the greatest century of colonial conquest by so-called Christian countries. And that, MF, is no coincidence! When the missionaries landed on the shores of North America, they had their Bible in one hand and the native people had their land in the other. Once the missionaries finished evangelizing, the church had the land and the natives were left with Bibles. While missionaries were a dedicated lot, their efforts were fundamentally baseborn, deeply compromised and imperialistic.

Now, the favorite text used by the missionaries was John 14:6 “No one comes to the Father but by me.” That verse became the basis for the ultimate assertion that Christianity and the church alone controlled the doorway to heaven and to God himself. It was a powerful claim wrapped inside a text that has been the source of enormous pain to millions of people, and is still quoted in Christian circles today to justify religious bigotry and persecution and all in the holy name of God.

My question is this: Do these words of Jesus, “No one comes to the Father but by me” really support the claim that there is no salvation outside of the church? Does verse 6 support the claim that Jesus is the only route to God and salvation?

The answer is? Well, MF, whaddayathink? It depends! It depends if we are profoundly uninformed as to how and why the New Testament was written in the first place and if we fail to consider the social, religious and political context in which these words from Jesus were written. It further depends on how literally we take Scripture, as if God dictated this stuff in heaven and floated it down to us. It depends on how we interpret verse 6, which further depends upon our understanding of John’s Gospel, written around 100 AD, 70 years after Jesus. So MF, let me begin by providing you with the historical context of verse 6: “No one comes to the Father, then by me.” First, this claim by Jesus is only the second half of an entire verse, which must be considered in context. And two: This verse, like the entire NT is written in Greek—a language Jesus did not speak. Jesus spoke Aramaic, which is a dialect of Palestinian Hebrew, meaning that there is always a disconnect from Aramaic to Greek, which also needs to be considered.

It must be stated that verse 6 is only a small part of what is called in Greek, the ego-emi sayings of Jesus. Those are the verses in which Jesus is making all the very special claims about himself and his identity: I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Vine. I am the Bread. I am the Light of the World. I am the Door. I am the Resurrection and the Life. And here in verse 6 he says: I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” and then in the same breath he says: No one comes to the Father but by me.

Which is to say, when we are on the same path with Jesus, following his way of love and loving, giving and forgiving, practicing justice, mercy and peace; when we are truthful in all things, living the truth with a capital T like Jesus did; when we live life to the fullest as a gift from God, as Jesus did, then we will know God and know him as Father, or Mother if Jesus had lived in matriarchal society.

In other words, there are millions of people in this world who are following Jesus, without knowing it and without knowing much about Jesus’ life and teachings.

If you have ever read John’s Gospel in its entirety and then compared it to the first three, you will immediately realize how categorically different it is, to the point where you might even ask: Is John talking about the same Jesus who is presented in Matthew, Mark and Luke?

For instance, the afore mentioned ego-emi sayings of Jesus are recorded nowhere but in John. The resurrection of Lazarus is nowhere but in John. The long prayerful discourses Jesus had with God in private are nowhere but in John. Some very unique resurrection appearances, like the Emmaus Road experience and the discourse with Peter, are nowhere but in John. Why? There are some very cogent and convincing reasons for that MF and it’s got to do with when and why John’s Gospel was written in the first place.

So, let me briefly set the stage for you, MF. John’s Gospel was written around 100 AD, some 70 years after Jesus. By this time, Jesus still had not returned in a Second Coming as he said he would. The disciples and their many followers had long ago been excommunicated from the Synagogue and the Hebrew faith. More and more Gentiles were joining the religious movement called The Way which is what the disciples started.

The Christian Church as an equivalent challenge to the Synagogue did not begin for another generation or so in the second century. As a people, the Jews did not follow Jesus, even though he was one of their own. They never regarded him as the Messiah, who should have been the leader to remove the Romans from Israel. Instead he was crucified by them. Moreover, Jesus seriously contravened the first commandment by claiming to be God’s Son.

So, when you turn to the first chapter of John’s Gospel, what do you find? John “proves” Jesus’ unity with God from the foundation of the world, by stating that Jesus was with God from the very beginning. “In the beginning was the word,” which MF sounds very much like Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created….” John’s Gospel doesn’t begin with Jesus in the cradle, like Mt and Lk. John begins with Jesus up in heaven, with God, as co-creator, in a re-editorialization of the first chapter of Genesis, which you can check for yourselves.

Which brings me to the ego-emi—the “I am” sayings of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Do they remind you of anything in Exodus? When Moses sees the burning bush and visits God up on Mt Sinai, what does God say to Moses: “Tell the people of Israel, ‘I am he that I am’ has sent you.” In other words, Jesus’ “I am” sayings are a direct reflection of God’s identity. For John and only in his Gospel is Jesus the extension of God’s name, you see, thereby proving that the way of Jesus is the way of God, and to meet Jesus is to meet God. But that does not mean that the only way to God is to meet Jesus. How idolatrous would that be, MF? As indicated in the sermon 2 weeks ago, Jesus as the Only Way to the Father must not be confused with humanity’s access to God, the Creator.

John’s Gospel never meant Vs 6 to be a prescription that Jesus was the only way to God! How could it? It would then mean that millions and millions of people before Jesus and after Jesus would never know God and would be damned to hell by a church that believes in a so-called loving God.

MF, it is amazingly painful to me, that there is still the attempt by present-day Christians to use this text not only to judge all non-Christians, but to judge all other religious faith traditions as unworthy, morally corrupt and evil—including Judaism, which then of course becomes the root causes within the Church to practice Anti-Semitism. Let me remind you that the Holocaust was not just carried out by Germans or Nazis, these soldiers were baptized Christians—the whole lot of them—and therefore members of the Body of Christ with us.

MF, this is precisely the path that this verse has followed, as Christianity moved from a tiny sect within Judaism, a movement called “The Way,” to minority status in the second century and then to full blown major power in the 4th century under Emperor Constantine when he became a Christian in 313 AM and the Roman Empire then became the Holy Roman Empire.

MF, Allow me suggest a thought that perhaps never occurred to you: Because Jesus was born and raised a Jew, he didn’t have to rediscover what the Jews already knew and believed for centuries. Judaism had affirmed long before Jesus arrived that God is One; that there is only one true God. God is God and he cannot be usurped. It was all integral to Israel’s monotheistic faith, which Jesus learned over the course of his life. If Jesus were the only way to God, then it would deny the entire heritage of faith into which he and millions of Jews entered before he was born.

If Jesus is the only way to God, then think, MF, how impoverished Christian worship services would be. Anything from the OT and before Jesus birth would be excluded, which serves to bring home to you and me our enormous indebtedness to the faith of Israel. This indebtedness is not a recognition of Israel as another faith, but an acknowledgement that Judaism is the root of own faith, as it is the root of Islam, just like it was the root of Jesus’ faith.

Now, while the historical/theological roots of Judaism and Christianity and to some degree Islam are the same, this doesn’t mean that these religions are identical. Of course not. Christianity is the only one which makes truth claims about who Jesus is: that he is God made flesh—God incarnate, God with us and within us. While Christianity proclaims Jesus is the Saviour, Judaism is still waiting for a Messiah and Islam acknowledges Jesus only as a prophet.

The question is this: what are we Christians to do when we differ fundamentally with other religions? What place does tolerance have when we disagree, sometimes profoundly? Tolerance is necessary, for it is disagreement that makes tolerance possible (2x). Tolerance, MF, means that we Christians will not allow our disagreements to estrange us, not from one another, much less from others of different faiths. But tragically, that’s exactly what happens! We’re right and they’re wrong!

There is always a monumental difference, you know, between our experience of God as Christians, Jews or Moslems, and who God actually is within himself or herself. There’s a huge difference between affirming that I walk into the mystery of God through the doorway called Jesus, and that in my experience, this is the only doorway that works, but then asserting that there is no other doorway through which anyone else can walk except mine.

MF, try to imagine the idolatry present in the belief that God and/or Jesus must be bound by my knowledge, my experience, my understanding of the Bible, much less my understanding of Jn14:6! And yet the claim to religious superiority has been made and is still being made by not only imperialist Christians, but also by radical Moslems and Jews today.

Take the illustration of one, Rev. Frankline Ndifor, a popular Cameroon pastor of Kingship International Ministries Church and a former candidate in the country’s last presidential election. Ndifor asserted that his understanding of exactly this Johannine verse and his belief in Jesus were central for him in his claim to cure COVID-19 sufferers with the laying on of hands. Yet, he himself died of the disease and when the police came to investigate, Ndifor’s followers were praying for his resurrection, after having buried the pastor a few days earlier!

Last page. MF, we live in a religious pluralistic world, but there is only one God, whether his name is Allah, Jehovah or God or something else. God is not a Christian/Islamic/Judaic God, nor is God an adherent of any one religious system or institution. How could he be? All religious systems and institutions are human/man-made by which people in different times and places seek to journey into that which is ultimately holy and wholly other. Until that simple lesson is heard, accepted and believed, we human beings will continue to destroy each other in the name of the “one true God.”

God in her infinite wisdom grant us Christians, and all of his 7 billion plus children on this planet, the grace of humility and wisdom, truth and courage to know the right and do it. After all, a Christian only is, as a Christian does. 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.

And as Jesus was blessing them, he departed from them and was taken up into heaven. Lk 24:51

After saying this, Jesus was taken up to heaven as they watched him, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They still had their eyes fixed on the sky as he went away…. Acts 1:9-10a

Dear Friends. There’s a little humorous anecdote about an Englishman, a Frenchman and a German, who were asked to write an explanation of what happened at Jesus’ Ascension. The Englishman named his description The Ascension. The Frenchman called his L’Ascension: Une Introduction. The German entitled his work: Eine logische Untersuchung zu der Himmelfahrt Jesu in der Phaenomen-ologie Gott des Vaters, Sohnes und Heiligen Geistes, mitten unter der wissenschaftlichen Prolegoumena zur Dialektik in das Bewusstseins Jesu Himmelfahrt…. Vol.1.

Jesus’ Ascension occurred 40 days after Easter Sunday, which this year is today, May 21. And so, we commemorate the occasion with our prayers and the reading of this sermon. Now, maybe for you the story of the Ascension is cut and dried, but for me Jesus’ Ascension has always been difficult. Oh, it’s not that I don’t believe it! Rather, the question for me is always the same: How am I to understand this and apply it to myself and therefore to you?

MF: Jesus not only entered human history in a miraculous way, his exit from this earth was also miraculous. He “was taken up into heaven,” says Luke, thereby making the cycle of the divine round trip from heaven to earth and back again complete. The biblical account of Jesus’ return to heaven was based upon the ancient cosmological belief that the earth was flat and the sky above was God’s abode—up there somewhere–meaning, that for those of us, like myself, who take life on this side of Copernicus, Galileo and the space age seriously—a literal physical ascension makes little sense.

MF, we don’t live on a flat earth with a sky and God above and hell and Satan below. A literal ascension assumes that the earth is the centre of the universe. Since the world is round and going up means not reaching the sky, or heaven, but it means achieving orbit. By escaping the gravitational pull of the earth, we would journey into the infinite depths of space. Now, if heaven was a geographical place somewhere up in universal space, and traveling the speed of light, Jesus would only now be reaching the outer limits of this galaxy.

MF, this is why I need to interpret this event in a non-physical, non-literal way. Jesus’ ascension must be more than some resuscitated corpse on the way to some geographical place in the sky, we call heaven. But if we insist on a literal interpretation, a physical ascension means that Jesus becomes a kind of celestial visitor from another planet, something like Superman or even Mighty Mouse.

On the other hand, if Jesus resurrection was strictly spiritual, how could any of the disciples have witnessed the Ascension. Jesus would have been invisible, like Casper the Ghost. But if Jesus body was a kind of corporeal spirit, a combination of body and spirit, then the ascension takes on literal credibility. But then I would have to ask: Since Jesus went to heaven, isn’t that where all the resurrected people go—people like my grandparents and parents? I mean, what kind of a form do they have in heaven?

A few years ago, Thomas Merton became famous for his book “Care of the Soul” where he referred to heaven as “paradise ear,” meaning: Paradise is an inward realm of spirit as it is manifested in the world. MF, this further means that the realm of the Spirit and the material world actually belong together and always have. We Christians normally don’t think this way but increasing scientific and theological evidence points in this direction. If reality is a combination of spirit and material world, then heaven has got to be understood as more than some kind of literal geographical abode or strictly invisible place.

MF, personally I find the Ascension an interesting reversal for us Christians. Although Jesus ascended up to heaven, we’re so used to asking him to come back down to be with us: Come, Lord Jesus, and save me from my cancer. Help me through this ordeal. Get me safe to where I’m going. Worship with me here this morning Lord Jesus. Come back down from your throne, o Lord, and be with me. Help me in my predicament here Jesus, please!

The Christian hope, as I understand it, is not that Jesus will in all good sense come back to dwell on earth, and ultimately in Toronto, where he would find a life-style of multiculturalism to his liking. Our hope is that we will be with him, wherever that is.

To state it once more: The Ascension represents one of the greater struggles of faith in my life—not whether it happened, but how and why it took place. Jesus’ departure strikes at the core of my faith. I mean, would it not have been better if the Ascension had never happened? If Jesus had stayed on earth, he could answer our questions, solve our problems, mediate our disputes of doctrine and dogma, and tell us who’s right and who’s wrong—so important to us.

But now he’s gone and it’s up to us MF. It’s up to us! Jesus leaves our human problems, our social issues and our church crises in our hands, simply because he’s no longer here. But perhaps worse! Because he’s no longer here, we may well feel abandoned—deserted, like Jesus on the Cross, who cried to God who had forsaken him.

When I read Matthew’s Gospel, eg, I can’t help but notice that Jesus himself foresaw the very predicament of being abandoned. Four parables toward the end of the gospel have a common theme lurking in the background. An owner leaves his house vacant, an absentee landlord puts his servant in charge, a bridegroom arrives so late that the guests gets drowsy and fall asleep, a master distributes talents among his servants and then takes off. These four parables, you see, circle around the theme of the departed God.

In effect, MF, Jesus’ parables anticipated the central question of our modern era: “Where is God now?” Really? Where is he or she?… hiding somewhere in heaven, not to be seen? The contemporary answer, from thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and Camus is that the landlord—God—has indeed abandoned us, leaving us free to set our own rules. In places like Auschwitz and Srebrenica, Rwanda and Darfur, we have seen living versions of those parables, graphic examples of how many will act—brutally so—when they stop believing in a sovereign landlord. In short, if there is no God, as Dostoevsky said, then anything is possible and everything is permissible, you see! That, MF, is precisely the brutal history of humanity!

Reading on in Matthew’s Gospel, we come to the parable where Jesus divides the good sheep from the bad goats. The story gives a glimpse of the landlord’s return on Judgment Day, when there will be hell to pay—literally!! In other words, the Ascended and Departed One–Jesus—will return, this time in power and glory, to settle accounts for all that has happened while he was gone!

Here’s the point, MF: The Sheep/Goats parable refers to the present time, the centuries-long interval we live in, now 2,000 years since Jesus’ Ascension—2000 years of God’s seeming absence. And the answer to God’s absence is profound and shocking: God has not abandoned us at all! Rather, he has taken on a disguise, a most unlikely and disturbing disguise: Namely, he is to be found here on earth, in the form of the stranger, the poor, the hungry and the sick, the prisoner, the marginalized, and even the enemy:

I tell you the truth, says Jesus: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me. Love your neighbour. Love your enemy.” In other words. MF, if we cannot detect God’s presence here and now, if we cannot see Jesus working in the world, then we’ve been stubbornly looking in the wrong places!

Quite frankly, MF, many of my own questions of God are actually kind of “boomerang” inquiries that come right back to me. Why does God allow babies to be born in black and white ghettoes or by rivers of death, in Rwanda or Uganda? Why does God allow prisons and homeless shelters and refugee camps? Why does God allow flu pandemics like the Spanish, Hong Kong & Asian Flu which killed tens of millions, or plagues like Bubonic, Black Death and Cholera, and now the Coronavirus? Why did Jesus not clean up the world’s messes in the years he lived here? Really! Why not?

One human answer is because Jesus knew that the world he would leave behind would include the poor, the hungry, the prisoners, the sick, the handicapped, the minorities, the terminally ill, the marginalized and ostracized. The decrepit state of the world did not surprise him. So, he made plans to cope with it: a long-range plan and a short-range plan. The long-range plan involves his eventual return to straighten out planet earth. The short-range plan means turning it over to the likes of you and me. In other words, Jesus ascended so that we would take his place!!! (2x)

So, where is God when we are very hurt and in serious pain, when we are ghastly sick and diseased? The answer is another question: Where are you and I when our neighbour is in distress and in desperate need of our help. Answer: Wherever we are, that’s where God is. That doesn’t make us God—of course not—but it does make us his Body in this often godless world of fear and abandonment, which is the problem of human history in a nutshell, and is the reason why Jesus’ Ascension represents one of the greatest struggles of my faith. When Jesus departed he left the keys of the kingdom in our fumbling, foolish and failed hands, you see!

MF, your picture and perception of Jesus may well be dissimilar and altogether different from mine and that’s ok, because no one understands or experiences Christ the same. The God of diversity and variety made sure of that. But for me, I have always needed to strip away the incredible accumulated layers of dust and grime, racism and prejudice, slavery and the enslaved, intolerance and legalism, fundamentalism and institutionalism, which has obscured the figure of Jesus for me and still does. Making the Christ figure come alive and speak to me—today, this very moment, as I write and you read—is always a process, always a journey, never completed—a destination never reached in this life! And why would it be, MF? Faith is not static, nor is it the status quo; but genuine faith is living, growing, always moving, and always a journey.

What a pity that so hard on the heels of Christ come us Christians and our church, who claim to have the truth with a capital T. It reminds me of T-shirts CNN once pointed out at some political rallies: “Jesus, save us from your followers.”

The fact is, Jesus never once said (to us): “You shall be right!” But he did tell us to be faithful. There’s a line from the New Zealand film Heavenly Creatures, in which two girls describe their imaginary kingdom: “It’s like heaven, only better—there aren’t any of those Christians who always know everything because they’ve got the truth!” All of which is another problem with us Christians: We don’t know how to laugh at ourselves, you see—laugh at our foibles, failings and fumbling.

Contemporary American preacher, Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian, wrote about Christians being the Body of Christ: “Yes, we are Christ’s eyes, ears and hands, but we are these in such as way as to leave Christ bloodshot, ass-eared, all thumbs, and making this world even more fallen, if that’s possible.”

I could give you many other colourful quotes, but the point is this: It all under-scores the risk involved in entrusting God’s very reputation to the likes of you and me. I mean, if Jesus could foresee the sin of the Christian Crusades and Inquisition, the Christian slave trade, Christian anti-Semitism and apartheid, the Christian killing of homosexuals, witches and other deviants, then why did Jesus ever leave earth and ascend to the safety of heaven?!

I cannot provide a confident answer to such questions, MF, for I am, like you, also part of the problem, as my query takes on a distressingly personal cast. Why do you and I so poorly resemble him? On the other hand, Christ bears the wounds you and I carry around with us daily, just as he bore the wounds of the crucifixion.

Jesus ascended so that we would take his place!!! Wherever we are, that’s where God is. So, when Jesus departed he left the keys of the kingdom in our fumbling, foolish and failed hands. MF, how are you doing with those keys? I can’t answer that question for you. Only you can! So, give it a try, MF. How are you doing with those keys? 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.

“When I go, you will not be left all alone: I will come back to you” said Jesus. Jn 14:18

Dear Friends A woman who had been a member of my London congregation came to see me years later when I was in Kitchener, as she had moved there. We had much to talk about, including that her mother had died in the meantime. The mother had lived a long, happy and full life. She had done most of the things she wanted to do: most importantly, she loved and had been loved by a good husband, dear children and grandchildren. “Although I would not wish her back, Pastor Peter, but when she died, suddenly I was nobody’s child,” she said to me.

Whenever I bury a last remaining parent and I see the forlorn eyes of the children carrying out their last most onerous responsibility of burying a mother or father, I’m reminded of their loss and vulnerability, as “nobody’s child.”

And I suspect that’s true of most of us reading this sermon. It’s true of me. Both my grandparents who raised me are deceased. My mother died bringing me into this world, and when my father died in June of 2005 in Adelaide, Australia, it was as if the final torch had been passed to me. I felt exactly like “nobody’s child.”

Suddenly I felt alone—an emotion which I had never felt before.

While most folks are nobody’s child by bereavement, others are so by estrangement or separation, divorce or abandonment. It’s a startling statistic, MF. Some 5-6 million Canadians who live alone and most of them are seniors. That’s almost one quarter of the adult population of our country. In fact, that’s almost 4x as many people who now live alone than in 1970. Many of these people want to live alone. They love it and have no wish to change.

But many others can hardly bear it. Loneliness is a fatal affliction for most people in our needy society. There are statistics to prove that there are far more suicides among people who live alone and who find themselves not only alone, but lonely. For some, it’s of crisis proportions. I know a 30 plus year-old man who is so needy that he threatens suicide if his girlfriend pressures to leave him, or if his mother does not attend to his every need. Although he lives with his mother to this day, he acts like he’s nobody’s child.

I also know a woman who is nobody’s mother, not because she has no family or children, but because she is estranged from them. They don’t write, call, or visit. The fact is, MF, a great deal of sentimental nonsense is communicated in our society and media when it comes to home and family, which are often far from ideal or even sensible, and that’s why many young people leave their homes as soon as they decently can.

Tension is also and often created by parents who can’t let their children go; who insist on treating them like children long after they’ve grown up. With 40 years of parish ministry behind me, I’ve met dozens and dozens of bright, independent and successful people who are diminished by parents who treat them like little kids, who know nothing and must be instructed and questioned about everything. Many unthinking and inconsiderate parents often do not recognize that their relationships, even the most affectionate, need to change, and can do so without becoming inferior.

Unhappiness is not always the fault of parents who won’t let their children go. It may be caused by children who will not let their parents go. I once knew a man who had been divorced 6 times. His mother kept on interfering in his marriages. Of course he allowed this to happen. So, one day I said to him, “You keep divorcing the wrong person. You need to divorce your mother.” But by that time, it was much too late. That man was my uncle.

Unless children let go of their parents, they will never begin to grow up and mature. In fact, when there is no disengagement between parents and children, the result is often anger, hostility and estrangement—all of which are most unhealthy and psychologically detrimental. There are too many people who live this way their whole lives long, including Christians, who of course are not exempt from these kinds of crises.

I once knew a 20 something year old boy who brought every problem he had home to his mother. He wore her out with his manipulations and neediness. She lived in a state of such stress and pain that her marriage to her second husband suffered immensely. She did not have enough energy to live her son’s life, as well as her own. Because she could not distinguish the difference between her life and his, their lives became intertwined. I could never tell where the pain started, nor where it ended, it was so pervasive.

In a previous sermon, I mentioned an old Hindu saying about a melon and a knife. “Whether the melon falls on the knife or the knife falls on the melon, it’s always the melon that suffers.” And so it is: some folks hurl themselves at life, while others crouch and wait for it to roll up over them. I could tell you many stories of how we are our own worst friends or enemies, for that matter—men as well as women, because no one is immune—no one—not even pastors! Simply put, MF: We orphan ourselves from one another.

I could tell you the story of a man I know, whose family fled Europe when he was just a boy and how he grew up a stranger, like an orphan, in another land. And how he struggled to renounce the part of him that was foreign now, and to adopt the ways that were thought well of in the place where he now was. And what it cost him then, and costs him still, and how he even now tries to pass, but in doing so, he orphaned himself.

Or, I could tell you about a woman who orphaned herself. The first person she ever loved, was her father, whom she could never please, and this hard distant man she was trying so hard to win, the one with the iron band locked around his heart, was just a substitute for the father, someone with whom she could play at trying to please her father again, and again.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that life is simple, when it is not; or that there is a cause for every effect; but I will say, as Oscar Wilde once did, “We don’t need a god to punish us, to abandon us, to orphan us.” We do a good job of it ourselves, which means that it is often very difficult to tell the wound from the knife.

In my first parish in Montreal, I once buried a man who was estranged from his son, who lived in Ecuador. Because the father had died suddenly, the son had no recourse in bridging the tremendous gulf between them. I told him to write a letter to his father explaining his feelings of sorrow and guilt, and then place it in the casket the morning of the funeral service. Because his father was alive in the palm of God’s hand, God would read the letter and understand and forgive. The letter could never change the past, I told the son, but would change his attitude about the past and about his father, as well as soothe his guilt and sorrow, and begin the healing process.

Well, MF, our sense of being orphaned has many roots: bereavement, estrangement, lack of friends, failure in our relationships, etc. Being “nobody’s child” simply touches everything and everybody, for it is part of our human condition. We can be homesick, even within our own homes and in our heart.

Jesus addressed our homelessness in quite a specific way. At the end of his ministry, when the time came for Jesus to leave his disciples, he strengthened their troubled hearts by telling them that he would not leave them comfortless—would not abandon them, nor orphan them. In fact, the word John’s Gospel uses is the Greek word, “orphanos” which means exactly what it sounds like: orphan. Jesus would not allow them to become orphaned, so they need not be afraid. He would never leave them, nor us.

Think of this in terms of a little child who awakes in the night, afraid of the dark and the silence. But one glimpse of his mother or father’s face and all his fear is gone. He knows he is where he belongs, that he is safe at home. Well, MF, how may we strengthen the sense of our belonging, of our being at home, children of our heavenly Father/Mother in his world?

First and foremost, we need to acknowledge that love is the epi-center of absolutely everything God created. Love is the reason for creation and the reason for our life and living, our giving and forgiving, our thanks and thanksgiving. Love is the real purpose of who we are: to love someone, to count for someone, to stand up for someone, to take sides with someone, to be there for someone, to have our love make a real difference for someone! That someone is always you and me. That someone is always the subject of our love, whether it’s our spouse or fiancé, our lovers or friends, our children or grandchildren, our neighbours—even our enemies.

The love which saves you and me from the loneliness of being orphaned is the same love with which God saves the world. The unconditional love which God gives us is similar to the kind of unconditional love we need to give those who need our love the most. For when love is unconditional, we don’t have to deserve it. It’s freely given because of who we and not what we have done or failed to do. God loves us before we have done anything to deserve it. We are his children whom he loves with the life of his Son. God’s true love for us always means the best and wants the best for us. And that’s because unconditional love has no limits.

For you and I who still live on this side of the grave, we try to give unconditional love, but it’s always tinged with conditions, isn’t it? As parents we say, “I love all my children equally.” Of course that’s not true. How could we ever love our children equally? Our children are not all the same. We may try to treat their children equally, but we cannot love them equally. No one can divide his/her love into equal parts and distribute it equally. Neither can God.

Each child is loved uniquely, just like God loves us uniquely. As the Irish say, “Parents bring their own love with them.” And indeed we do. Our love for our children is like God’s love for us. It has no limits. Each of us receives all of God’s love. He loves you, MF, as if you were the only person in the world. And once we believe that, it brings an enormous sense of security and confidence. We live in the certainty that “nothing can separate us from the love God,” as St. Paul put it. It means that we may always safely will for ourselves what God wills for us, for we know that God’s purpose is the intention of her love.

MF, we also know that we are not orphans! Why? Because we are loved in the next world, just as we are in this one. In other words, MF, we are loved eternally, beginning in this life already. If we are not loved eternally, then even the deepest love in this life fails us. After all, what sort of love is it, which only loves us for a while, which only loves us so long as we do this or that?

Yes, we love our dear ones so much that the thought of losing them is excruciatingly unendurable. But we do lose them, don’t we, and we still endure it? Yes, we also desire the immortality of our loved ones, but we cannot achieve it. Yes, we love them in this life, but they die however much we love them and with broken hearts we put them into the ground. It is not that we are resigned, MF, it’s that we are helpless.

And God understands all of this better than we could possibly know. To be loved by God means that love is stronger than death–it always has been and always will be. To be loved by the Eternal is also to be loved eternally, which is to be loved beyond the grave. And that’s why the Christian church teaches and we believe in, what we call the “communion of saints.”

And what an enormous comfort that is, MF. The love of my mother, Elizabeth, who gave me life, still surrounds me. I dwell in it, as her love once gave me life. In fact, there’s a sense in which she loves me more now, than she did then. After all, heaven means belonging, and we belong where we are deeply loved. That’s why Christians speak of “going home” when we die. The love of our dear ones not only surrounds us on our earthly pilgrimage; it awaits to receive us and welcome us home.

The blessed dead, MF, are not beyond our reach and we are not beyond theirs. They love us still and forgive us freely, knowing how much they themselves have been forgiven, and understanding better than they ever did on earth, our actions and the remorse we feel because of them. This is especially true, given the hundreds and hundreds of nursing home deaths from COVID-19, where children are unable to hold a funeral after the death of their parent, much less hold their dying parent in their arms.

Nobody’s child? We never are, MF!! For those who loved us, love us still. And if, unhappily, no such love ever reached us from another human being, it is Christ’s promise that he will not allow us to be orphaned, for he loves us like my mother loved me, enough to give his life for us.

So, MF, do not be afraid. You are God’s child in your Father and Mother’s world. He will uphold you with his power and keep you safe in her love. She will whisper in the deep dark night that all is well. He will bring you at last to the Promised Land, to the Country of our Great God, to the universe of our King. 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.

I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me! Jn 14:6

Dear Friends. On this Fifth Sunday of Easter, I’ve got a question for you: Is Jesus the only way to God? I’m sure you’ve already have an answer, as I do too. But allow me not only to preface my answer with a short explanation, but hear me out, including an interpretation which may well come as a “surprise” to you.

I’ve been a Christian all my life—all 72 years, since my baptism in a refugee camp by an Orthodox priest on the second day of my life. And, I’ve been a pastor for over 40 years. I’ve always believed that, more than anything else, God is a God of love—one who loves the whole world, so that he sent his son, to be born in the obscurity of a manger for the world. This means that, if God is selective in his loving, if only the 2 billion Christians in this world will be saved because God loves only us, and will therefore condemn the other 5 billion to hell—if this is true, then my answer to the question “Is Jesus the only way to God?” must be a clear NO!

From that point of view, Jesus cannot be the only way to God. If the only way to God is through Jesus, who came in the first century AD, then it automatically denies access to God by every human being who was born before Jesus. If the only way to God is through Jesus, and if the other 5 billion in this world are not Christians, then they have no access to God! MF, if there is only one true living God, then she must be the God of all people, everywhere, past, present and future, regardless of race or religion, color or creed, nationality or ethnic origin, sexual identity or orientation. I’ve believed this all my life and still do! Maybe you do too!

If God is God, then he is the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, although each of them call him by a different name, whether Jehovah, God or Allah. And according to the Christian New Testament, the Moslem Koran and the Hebrew Scriptures, the followers of each religious faith are descendants of Abraham, who is the Father of many nations, whom God said he would bless.

Now, because Jesus was born, raised and died a Jew, he believed what Judaism had affirmed for centuries that God is One. God is the creator and he is Love. The prophets before Jesus, like Moses and Elijah, had already declared this. It was all part and parcel of Israel’s faith, which Jesus learned over the course of his life. If Jesus were the only way to God, then it would deny the entire heritage of faith into which he and millions of Jews entered before he was born in the obscurity of a manger. It would further deny St. Paul’s proclamation that God will not go back on his promise to save his “Chosen People”—the Jews!

Now, if you’re still with me: If Jesus is the only way to God, then think how impoverished our worship services would be. Anything from the O.T., anything from before Jesus birth would be excluded, which serves to bring home to you and me our enormous indebtedness to the faith of Israel. And this indebtedness is not a recognition of Israel as another faith, but an acknowledgement that Judaism is the root of our own faith, as it is the root of Islam, and as it was the root of Jesus’ faith.

After all, Jesus was a life-long Jew. Jesus wasn’t even the first Christian. His disciples were. And, like Martin Luther, Jesus did not intend to start a new religion, but reform the one he already had. Christianity regards Judaism as its foundation and is therefore part of our faith. The faith of Israel is the rock from which we Christians are hewn. It reminds me of a lady in my London congregation who was so indignant when I said that Jesus was a Jew, she said, “Well, Jesus may have been a Jew, but God is a Lutheran.”

Although the roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam go back to Abraham, the father of the faith, this doesn’t mean that these 3 religions are identical. Of course not! Christianity is the only one which makes truth claims about who Jesus is: that he is God’s Son made flesh—God incarnate, God with us. Christianity proclaims Jesus is the Christ, the Saviour, the Messiah. Judaism, you may know, is still waiting for a Messiah and Islam acknowledges Jesus only as another prophet.

My question is this: What are we Christians to do when we differ fundamentally with other religions, which of course goes to the center of John’s words from Jesus in today’s gospel text? How are we to understand that Jesus is the only way to God? Does it mean that God saves no one unless she or he believes in Jesus the way we Christians do? Does it mean that unless a person is baptized, he or she is going to hell? If that’s the case, billions of people, including innocent babies, infants and children never baptized are suffering in the flames of perdition, as I write and your read.

Having said that, I’d like you to listen with great care to what I am about to say/write, for I don’t want any misunderstanding. For me, taken very literally, Jesus is not the only way to God. Millions of people have found God and believed in him/her for thousands of years before Jesus was born in a manger. But here’s the crux of the matter: While Jesus never said he was the only way to God, he did say that he was the only way to the Father! Jn 14:6, “I am the Way the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” So, that’s my interpretation. But what does this mean?

To believe in God you can be a Christian, Jew, or Moslem. But to believe that this God is a Father, you can only accept by way of Jesus. Why? Because no one but Jesus shows us that God is Father. Since Jesus reveals the Father, that means Jesus is the Son. And if we reveal the Father, then we are also his daughters and sons, because God is our Father, which is what Jesus taught us to pray: Our Father who art in heaven. But let me say that if Jesus lived in a matriarchal society, he would’ve revealed God as Mother.

Jesus called God Abba which is Hebrew for Father, or more specifically, Papa or Daddy. No one else said that God is Father in such an individualist, personal and intimate way, and certainly no one in Jesus’ time revealed God as Father to the Jews. I mean, for the Jews, you couldn’t even speak God’s Name, or write God’s Name, it was so holy. Therefore when we come to God as Father, we do so because Jesus first came to God as Father. And precisely because of Jesus, you and I have first-hand experience of God as Father.

The uniqueness of Jesus does not consist in what he taught us about God. Rather the uniqueness of Jesus is that Jesus is the truth of his teaching. He is the way: meaning, when we love and forgive as he loved and forgave, even his enemies, then we are following him—even if those who are loving and forgiving are Moslems, Hindus, Jews, Bahai, or any and every other religion—or even no religion, like so-called atheists!

The fact is this MF: There are many people who are not Christians and yet who follow in the path which Jesus trod! Why? They may not “talk his talk” as you and I do, but more importantly, they “walk his walk,” you see. It’s not only what you believe which counts, but how you believe—how you live which counts more. If we want to know God intimately, then we must look to Jesus who showed us God as Father. Why? Because Jesus is the Father’s very presence in a personal way no one else has ever been!

Having said all this, MF, let me also tell you that when I affirm that no one comes to the Father but by Jesus, that doesn’t mean that I’m attacking other religions! Otherwise, I’d be guilty of a terrible arrogance—as if I alone or we Christians alone have the truth, because God is in our pocket. I’m simply saying that my understanding of God as Father is inseparable from Jesus of Nazareth who has revealed God in this unique way. The entire 14th Chapter of John’s Gospel is nothing else but the revelation of God as Father by Jesus.

Now, does all this mean that those who do not believe in Jesus will not go to heaven? Many Christians think so! I do not agree! Absolutely not! I think that such a belief is wrong, no matter what parts of the Bible you choose to interpret in this selective way. For some Christians to say that others will go to hell because they don’t believe in the Bible is not only wrong, it’s immoral and evil! Who made their interpretation of the Bible correct? More importantly, who made them God? We must, said Martin Luther, let God be God. As much as we Christians might like to enclose God within the walls of our church and lock him away within the limits of our Lutheran theology, the fact is that God is always free. She is always free!

Let me close with this last important consideration: Of course it’s important to state the substance of what it is we believe, but much more important is how we believe, which is what faith is: Faith is how we believe. How we live our faith is much more important than what we believe—however important belief and believing is—and it is crucial to be sure. The creeds were written to set a standard about what it is that we believe about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Church, the Bible, heaven and hell, etc.

But much more important is this: Jesus lived the truth of his faith. Time and time again, Jesus showed us how to believe; how to live our faith; how to give and forgive, how to love and live; how to turn our enemies into our friends.

To our shame, too many Christians have witnessed to their faith in a way which denies God’s loving Fatherhood, Motherhood or Parent-hood. We have sometimes preached love, lovelessly; sometimes declared the Gospel of God’s grace, gracelessly; sometimes spoken of God’s mercy, mercilessly; sometimes failed to radiate God’s redemption because we ourselves don’t look redeemed. IF we do not practice loving, as our Father loves us, then it doesn’t matter what we believe or say we believe and no matter how right our belief and believing may be. The fact is this: Too often belief has been used as an instrument of humiliation to diminish the faith of others, But MF that only discredits our own belief.

We need to practice being little Christ’s, as Luther liked to say. This means being a brother and sister to our fellow human beings It means that all the things that Jesus was—we need to also be: We need to be shepherds to others. We need to be the door and the light for others; the way and the truth for others. We need to be bread and wine for others. We need to be little Christs for our world which so desperately needs us, so the world can find Jesus and finding Jesus, the world will be find a merciful Father and a loving Mother who is God—the one true living God who chose all the inhabitants of the world to be his/her people.

MF, with God as heavenly Father, Mother and Parent, we can practice our sonship and daughterhood in God. God has blessed us to be a blessing to and for others. Let us make it so. 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.

John 10:1-10: They will not follow a stranger, says Jesus, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers. (vs.5)

Dear Friends: However enduring the image of sheep is in our churches and theology, the fact is that for most people, especially those who lives in big cities, like Toronto, not a great number of folks have seen real sheep up close. The closest perhaps they’ve come to seeing sheep is when in trying to sleep, they’re counting ‘em. On the other hand, if a cure for insomnia were ever to be found, you know, it would put thousands of sheep out of work.

Without turning my sermon into a report on the benefits and/or hazards of sheep, let me ask 3 questions for your thoughtful consideration: 1. What is it that has kept the image of shepherds and sheep alive throughout centuries in the church? 2. Why doesn’t this age-old picture turn on us and simply go away? 3. How might this likeness of sheep make any sense today when many folks, ourselves included, have never seen a real shepherd, except on Christmas cards?

First, MF, what is it that has kept the shepherd and sheep image alive over 2 millennia? More than anything else, it’s gotta be the role sheep play in the Bible. In the OT, eg, God is Israel’s Shepherd, leading his people “like a flock” (Ps.80:1). We all know and sing or chant Ps. 23: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

But God’s shepherding is not just poetry—it was embedded in Israel’s history. When Jerusalem was laid waste and thousands of Jews were deported to Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th century BCE, the Lord promised: “I myself will shepherd my sheep.” In the NT, it is Jesus who is pre-eminently the Shepherd. He sees himself as “sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus is also the “Good Shepherd” who “lays his life down for the sheep.” Later in the life of the early church, the community leaders are also seen as shepherds. The risen Jesus commissions Peter to “tend” his sheep, to “feed” them. (Jn 21:16-17)

No doubt about it, MF, shepherds and sheep stud the pages of Scripture—white ones and black ones, because there’s a black sheep in every family—which compels my second question: Why doesn’t this image of sheep keep us from yawning?

Well, one answer is our very limited experience as city dwellers. Sheep and shepherds don’t exactly loom large on the Canadian landscape. Outside of the Laurent Plateau, there are few sheep in Canada. Not like the land Down Under, Australia, which has 1 dozen sheep for every person or New Zealand which has about 2 dozen sheep for every inhabitant.

The fact is this: sheep and shepherds give off baaaaad vibes. Sheep are mute animals, except for an occasional baaa. They’re not exactly extremely intelligent animals. I mean, sheep are sheep are sheep! You can’t change ‘em. They do what they’re told. They don’t have qualities of leadership. Have you ever heard of a “lead sheep” in a team of sheep? I mean, the first sheep in a herd of sheep is still only a sheep. The job of sheep is to follow, and if they haven’t got enough sense to do that, then an Australian sheep dog would certainly keep them in line.

Even Webster’s Dictionary calls people “sheep” if they’re too meek and submissive. People who act like sheep are wimps! “He who lieth with sheep,” wrote George Herbert back in 1651, “riseth to be fleeced.” Ha. And when it comes to black sheep, families always try to keep them black. Ever heard of the black sheep of the family changing colors? Don’t think so, although many black sheep would sooner be called a “dark horse.”

Back in my London parish, I once played a black sheep with 4 white hoofs and a bushy white tail in a SS Christmas pageant. That would have been quite a sight, eh? Down on all fours, this big black sheep led about a dozen children, dressed as little white lambs down the center aisle of the sanctuary on the way to Bethlehem. Baaa. Bleeeet. Bleeet. Baaa.

Well, MF, a few humorous anecdotes about sheep aside, sheep is not our favorite image for Christians. We are not dumb animals. We are human beings with reason and freedom and speech. We don’t mind following, but we don’t care to be led by the nose. Most of us have a healthy respect for authority, but we do not want the sheep dogs yapping and snapping at our heels. But for some Christians with unfortunate experience, the bishop’s staff in the shape of a shepherd’s crook, recalls only the original purpose of the crook: to catch the back leg of a straying sheep.

So, my third question is this: How might this image of sheep and shepherds make sense to us and speak to us in 2020—we who might never have seen a shepherd or our children or grandchildren who have seen sheep only on cards or TV? First of all MF, let us not surrender the symbols of Scripture too quickly. After all, symbol—whether cross and crib, sheep and shepherd—is one of the ways in which God speaks to us, even us modern scientific computer literate folks. Symbols speak to us like the way paintings and poetry, sculpture and architecture, music and dancing, books and movies communicate. Symbols have a language, a value and meaning all their own.

And so it is with today’s symbols from John’s Gospel: sheep and shepherds. We should not shrug them off, just because we don’t find any sheep grazing between Zion’s tombstones. God is still trying to tell us something very important.

For me, the shepherd without peer is the Good Shepherd, the Jesus who took our flesh and still wears it before his Father. Oh yes, others are called shepherds—bishops and archbishops, pastors, priests and popes, even kings and counselors. But they are shepherds only in the measure that they resemble Jesus. And why is shepherd so seemly for Jesus? In a word MF, because Jesus cares. He truly cares!

Dear God, how Jesus cares! The only Son of the living God could have left us to our hellbent sinfulness. But no! He borrowed our skin, grew in it as we grow, sweated in it as we sweat, faced Satan in it the way we also must, bloodied that skin as an act of love unique in human history. And not only for reasonably respectable folks like you and me! He found his supreme joy when he left the 99 docile sheep to search for the single sheep that had strayed. Why? Because the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the 99? Why? Because Jesus cares!

And what does Jesus do when he finds the strayed sheep? Does he curse it roundly, beat it with the shepherd’s staff, as we might have done to our disobedient children? No, MF! He “lays it on his shoulders rejoicing.” And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.”

But even more than that, MF. This shepherd cares for and loves all his sheep, each and everyone of them. Not in some kind of shapeless mass. Not like Linus of Peanuts’ fame, who confessed to Charlie Brown: “I love humanity! It’s people I can’t stand.” Jesus cares for you as a unique person, unrepeatable, shaped for ever in his image and likeness, destined to live his life, to live with him, not simply today, but days without end. As Jesus himself put it: “He calls his own sheep by name,” somewhat as Palestinian shepherds today have pet names for their favorite sheep: “Long-ears,” “White-nose,” and so one.

Jesus knows his sheep personally and they also know his voice and respond only to his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will follow him because they know and recognize his voice.

When I was in Australia, visiting my father in 1993, we were driving around the countryside and among a few wineries, also stopped at a sheep farm run by a family friend. The man welcomed us and then took us out to where his sheep were. He then invited me to call the sheep in. He taught me the right words to say in the Serbian language. So, I called the sheep, but they didn’t even bother to look up! Just kept on chewing the grass.

But right thereafter, the man called the sheep, using exactly the same words I said. Of course the sheep looked up and immediately gathered around him. The sheep were taught to respond to one voice only, you see. They were taught to trust that single voice and no other. This way thieves can’t come and steal them away in the night.

Today MF, you make a commitment to distinguish the voice of Jesus from all the other voices in your life. It’s an awesome challenge and it’s a challenge which will last a life-time.

Jesus knows you and me more intimately than we know ourselves. He knows what makes you tick, what turns you on or off, and why. He knows how thrilling and how tough it is to be a human of flesh and blood, of matter and spirit, of intelligence and freedom. He suffered it himself and rejoiced in it. And no matter how far you stray from him, he never stops loving you, will ceaselessly search for you, track you down and when he finds you, MF, please let God cradle you in his arms.

Which brings us from the model shepherd to us sheepish sheep. I admit, to see ourselves as following like sheep can bring bile to our throats, make us gag. But only if wooly sheep make us woolly-headed. Only if we forget whom we are following and why and how. Following Jesus is Love enmeshed. It is Love that gave life itself for you. It is Love that at this moment is a living prayer for you before the Father. To follow him is not mute slavery, mindless submission, leaving your brain at the back door. Rather, to follow him is the most human, the most sensible thing we can do. To follow him is to return his love—that love which is actually Jesus’ only hold over us, the only bonds with which he draws us.

To follow Jesus is also not for the fragile, the timid or the self-centered. To return his love is to love as he loved: intelligently and passionately, freely and with every fiber of our being. To love as he loved is to care as he cared: not for a misty mass called humanity, but for every sister and brother who crosses our path; not simply those we like and who like us, but those we dislike on sight, those who have no socially redeeming qualities, the weirdos, those who live, think and even sin differently from us.

But more than anything else, MF, to love as Jesus loved is to care for the sheep that limp and are lost, those who hunger for bread or justice or love; those who have no pillow for their head, no shoulder for their troubled heart; those who are imprisoned behind bars or within their tortured selves.

My good and dear Friends! I hope with all my heart that the Jesus whom the First Epistle of Peter calls “the shepherd of your souls” (2:25) will spark you with fresh enthusiasm for an inspired image. But in the last analysis, the picture and symbol of sheep is not all that important. You can pass St. Peter’s gates in total ignorance of sheep. You can refuse to be called sheep.

But what you dare not refuse is to follow your shepherd. To be Christian, you must dare to care, dare to let yourself love, in spite of the cost, in spite of the vulnerability and pain, in spite of the risk, to gain everything or even lose everything. To follow your shepherd is to open your arms wide to an entire world, a global village which is desperate for your compassion. Do that, and when the Good Shepherd finally calls you by your own name, you won’t have to look…..sheepish! 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 Jesus said to them, “Why are these doubts coming up in your minds? …He showed them his hands and feet; but they still could not believe. Lk 24:38,40

Dear Friends. Victor Frankl, the great Viennese psychotherapist of last century, once said: “The basic need for human beings is to have purpose and meaning in life.” This may sound elementary to our ears, but his statement was borne in the crucible of war—in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl was a Jew, for whom life without meaning and purpose was simply intolerable. While doubting is part of the human condition, it becomes obsessive, said Frankl, when doubt blocks our human search for meaning and purpose.

Frankl studied the differences between people who were able to survive the horrors of prison camps and those who were destroyed by them. Those who survived were those who had clearly defined goals for life and living, while those who doubted big time, quickly capitulated to the subhuman conditions created by their captors and died.

Today’s gospel from Luke is not a re-creation of 20th century concentration camps, but it is a parallel to the kind of doubt which, if left unchecked, could easily have defeated the disciples and the early church. By challenging his disciples to touch his hands and feet, by eating fish in front of them, Jesus transformed their doubting into a meaningful and purposeful belief, and thereby refitting and re-commissioning them to spread the faith. Otherwise, serious doubt would have stopped their gospel work on behalf of Jesus.

The question this morning is: What about you and me, MF? Is serious doubt blocking our work in Jesus’ Vineyard?… that our work isn’t good enough, that it doesn’t matter, that we don’t have time or interest, or that we’re preoccupied with other things which have priority in our lives? I believe that it is of ultimate importance for every person to know that God is inviting him or her into a relationship in which a purpose and goal can be worked out and delineated. But first, serious doubts need to be dealt with before we can know what God’s intentions are for us.

The problem is not day to day doubt. In fact, doubt is integral to faith. Without doubt we’d never question anything and we’d still be back in the dark ages in terms of what the church taught. It’s not normal, day to day doubt which is our problem, MF! It’s compulsive, obsessive and debilitating doubt which is a huge hindrance when it comes to the faith. In fact, if I had a patron saint, it would have been “doubting Thomas.”

MF, it is important to affirm that there is something great that we will never do, unless you and I come to Jesus with real daily living faith. That there is something wonderful that God will never be able to accomplish through you and me, unless we surrender to his will. And there is something of ultimate importance that God wants you to achieve for her: namely, that your mission is to work in his vineyard on her behalf. That vineyard is here, where you live and that mission is today. After all, Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t just for life after this one, but it was for life in the here and now…abundant life right now, as I write and you read.

While there are still lots of Christians who devote their lives to working for Jesus, tragically, too many still think that the Christian life is only a bunch of rules—dos and don’ts—especially the don’ts. I suspect that teenagers growing up in church-going-homes know a lot about the don’ts. I remember when I was a teen—just a couple of years ago—and was given a long list of the things I wasn’t supposed to do. There was so much negative stuff, I wasn’t sure what I was still allowed to do. I remember our youth group, back in the 60s, well we had a little verse we boys would chant:

We don’t dance & we don’t drink.
We don’t smoke & we don’t swear.
We don’t cheat & we don’t chew.
And we don’t date girls who do!

Now, being a Christian, for me, back then, was essentially defined as “not doing stuff,” the giving up of worldly things and pleasures, etc. It would never have dawned on me back then, that Christianity had anything to do with commitment to work in God’s vineyard.

I also remember evangelists coming from Germany to our German speaking church in Hamilton. And I specifically recall this one dude, pounding his fist on the pulpit and shouting: “Dancing stimulates the lust of the flesh!” I mean, after that, you could hear a pin drop, and my home church seats about 400 people. This hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher then went on to describe in erotic detail the ways that dancing pumped up the hormones and stimulated sexual cravings. And I remember thinking to myself—Hey man, this dude must have some first-hand experience to speak in such detail, but for a teenager like myself, this stuff sure sounded interesting.

I think I once told you about another German evangelist, the one who said that Christians weren’t allowed to go to the movies. “What if you’re in the movie theatre when the trumpet sounds and Jesus returns?” he thundered from the pulpit. “What if Jesus suddenly returns to earth and finds you at the movies?” Well, I gotta tell you good folks, as much as I tried to slide under the pew, it seemed that that preacher was pointing his finger right at me!!

And of course, every time I went to the movies after than sermon, I was scared half to death. I was sure I’d never see the entire film without a heavenly trumpet sounding and the Lord Jesus returning and saying to me: “Peter, what are you doing in the movies?” On the other hand, I would fret that I wouldn’t get to see the end of the movie, not to mention lose my 1 buck 50.

Smoking was another “no-no” among our church young people back then. At youth group we used to say, “The family that smokes together, chokes together,” and as a teen, I always felt that kissing a girl who smoked would be like licking an ashtray. On the other hand, some smokers tell me that it’s better to smoke here on earth, than below in the hereafter. (A little humor there!)

MF, don’t get me wrong. If we think that Christianity is simply a matter of giving up stuff, not doing certain things, then we’ve completely misunderstood the faith. The truth is that we can give up all of these things and then some, and still be nowhere near to what it really means to be a Christian and lead a Christian life-style. After all, what does it really mean when Jesus said, “If you wish to be my disciple, take up your cross, come and follow me”? What does it cost us to be Christians? For most people, the price is simply too high, and that’s why church and Christianity nowadays is a matter of convenience, and not priorities, much less commitment. Merely following rules, however important the negative rules might be, is no substitute for loving sacrifice.

I’ve talked about commitment from many pulpits, many times. There’s also a tendency for many people in our “me-first and my rights” society to make Christianity into a commitment to abstract principles, rather than making it into a commitment to people—to love and care for them. And so, there are many Christians who think that being a Christian is simply a matter of believing the right stuff, being conservative or orthodox in what they believe about God or Jesus, the church or the Bible. We can very easily delude ourselves into assuming that simply having the right theology, or being Anglicans or Lutherans, Roman Catholics or Pentecostals—that that makes us great Christians and makes us God’s children. Sorry folks. It just ain’t so. The Epistle of James says that Satan believes all the right stuff, but that doesn’t make him a Christian.

Being a Christian is much more than believing the right stuff. Being a Christian is giving yourself and all that you are and have, to the One in whom you say you believe, as doubting Thomas and all the doubting disciples eventually did. Being a Christian is giving yourself, without reservation, to God in Christ, you see. Our theology—whether it’s Anglican or Lutheran—may be all well and good; but do we love Jesus? Do we love and care for others, or do we only use people for our own ends and means?

Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish Lutheran theologian of the 19th century, once described how he went into the great cathedral in Copenhagen and sat in a cushioned burgundy seat and watched as sunlight streamed through the exclusive stained-glass windows. He saw the Lutheran pastor, up at the front, dressed in elegant flowing robes of purple velvet, take his place behind the fine-grained mahogany pulpit, open a gilded Bible, turn to the page with the silken marker and read: “Jesus said, ‘If you would be my disciple, sell what you own and give it to the poor; then, come and follow me’.” Kierkegaard then wrote, “As I looked around the sanctuary, I was absolutely amazed that nobody was laughing.”

MF, when Jesus saved us with his death and resurrection, he did so for a high and holy purpose. He saved us in order that he might use us to meet the needs of others—and there are many who have needs in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic we all face; that we might begin to transform this world into one of care and compassion; that we might be God’s instruments through which her love can flow into the lives of the hurting and doubt-filled.

Let me close with an illustration I may have used before, about a friend, whose doubt moved him to a greater faith commitment. When I was a doctoral candidate and teaching as an adjunct instructor at the College of William & Mary in historic Williamsburg, Virginia, quiet some years back, my friend Ron was also a doctoral graduate and a lecturer at a Lutheran university in Roanoke, VA. One day Ron 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 Ron. You can’t do that.” “Watch me!” Ron said and walked out.

Now, his mother called and asked me to speak with Ron asap, which I did. Ron was living in an attic apartment which was 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. Ron finally says, “I quit.” I say, “Yeah, I heard. But why?” I ask. Ron says, “I doubt that I can 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 I’ve shared some of myself and my feelings about God, some confirmand says, “Oh Pastor, is the gown from the church I have to wear gonna match the colour of my blue dress?” I mean, it makes you wanna puke!

Anyway, so I say, “Ron, what are 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?”

Ron 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,” Ron says, “but I don’t sleep at nights.” “Why not?” I asked. “Well, how can you sleep after you drink 20 to 30 cups of coffee every day?”

Suddenly I realized what happened. Yes, Ron had stepped down several notches on the socio-economic ladder because of his doubt in reaching students with the Gospel. But Ron was carrying out a commitment—to love and serve 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.

Commitment determines who we are and what we do, regardless of doubt. Commitment is more than a job, career or profession. It’s infinitely more than what you get paid to do. Commitment is the essence of our identity, MF, and commitment to Christ is the essence of our identity as Christians. And when we have that commitment, then we’re ready to go anywhere and do anything for the Lord. We just have to accept where he sends 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

Thomas! Put your finger here and look at my hand; then stretch out your hand and put it in my side. Jn. 20:27

Dear Friends! Easter is always a tough act for every preacher to follow. Me too! The crucified Christ rising from the rock more alive than ever before, his risen body a triumphant cry: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” A body so gloriously alive that even dear Mary Magdalene does not recognize the love of her life, nor are the disciples ready to believe the foolish tale of inferior women without some kind of hard, physical proof.

“April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliot wrote. Why? Because April involves rebirth, and like Mary Magdalene, we’d rather remain dormant, not realizing life is staring us down. But just as we Christians must walk in love, we must also walk towards fear. Like Thomas, we must touch the wounds of pain, the aching scars to know what hurts and then look it in the teeth. However glorious, Jesus’ resurrection is not without the scars, you see—not without the painful, wounded reality of this world and the brokenness of our own lives.

It takes many people, including Christians, a lifetime to begin to see a pattern to their scarred lives and most never do or they do too late. Which means that a lot of people remain hostages to their negativity and narrow mindedness, hostages to their grudges and griefs. Meanwhile, many abandoned children remain abandoned even into adulthood—grown children walking around in adult bodies. People who feel insecure usually feel that way for a long time. Their lives continue a burning blight begun generations ago; but the pain is no longer felt, because it’s been repeated so often. They’re so used to the scars that they don’t see them anymore, much less feel the sores under the scars.

That Jesus rose with the scars still evident in his hands, feet and side was not simply because it was the means by which the disciples identified Jesus as their Lord and Master—whereas Mary Magdalene only needed to hear the sound of his voice. Jesus’ scarred risen body, you see, is a way of reminding all of us that though this world continues to wound and scar, to bleed and die, ever so slowly, ever so relentlessly, without mercy and without compassion, we Christians need to walk the walk and talk the talk of the resurrected life. Why? Because only the resurrected life is the life of love over hate, sharing over greed, giving over taking, thankfulness over complaining, humor over dour and sour, and compassion over violence.

Yes, there are scars and wounds, aches and pains, little dying and the big death—and these will all continue in this life—in yours and mine. But MF, I believe this: Scars and wounds do not diminish our life, nor our faith. Rather, they help our faith be realistic. That’s why we need to face our wounds and pains head on. Only then will we meet the risen Jesus of the Scars whose wounds will heal us, because only wounds can heal other wounds.

There’s an old Hindu saying about a knife and a melon. “Whether the knife falls on the melon or the melon falls on the knife, it’s always the melon which suffers.” Some people hurl themselves at life, while others crouch and wait for life to roll up over them. But if we’re astute enough, we can usually tell who it is who is taking on life and who it is who is fending it off. And whether it’s the new game in town, or the same old game, life is often like a Greek tragedy: the scars of our pain are apparent already in the first scene.

The thing about Jesus’ resurrection, MF, is not so much that it brought life after death, but it brings life before death. Jesus resurrection brings life before death. His resurrection breaks the old patterns to which we’ve become so accustomed. Is it any wonder that Thomas, like the other disciples, wasn’t ready to believe that the old habitual blueprint of birth to death was broken. The resurrected Christ, whom the disciples—ourselves included—barely recognize, is the Jesus of the Scars, crucified but a mere 10 days ago!

In other words, our Jesus of the Scars is visible in our world today by the scars we humans carry—the scars of the verbally and physically abused, the emotionally neglected, the mentally bereft and the spiritually lost. Our Jesus of the Scars is present in the hundreds of thousands of starving children in the Sudan and many other parts of Africa, in the millions of homeless refugees of Syria, in the endless conflicts in Ukraine, Iran and the Middle East, the victimized in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course the 2.3 million plus confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world and the 157,000 plus global deaths, with over 1,300 deaths in our country, and 2 out of every 3 Toronto deaths in long-term care or nursing homes. The Jesus of the Scars is present in all of these human beings and still more—in you and me—present in every man, woman and child who walks this earth. For Jesus is our brother—brother to every human of God’s green earth.

Like Jesus, we too are often bruised and beaten by the battles of life—some more, some less—in which we have also been our own worst enemies from time to time—men and women, because of course no one is immune from the wounds we inflict upon one another and the scars which we bear as battle regalia.

So, for instance, MF, I could tell you about a man I know whose family fled Europe when he was just a little boy, and how he grew up a stranger in new land. And how he struggled to renounce the part of him that was foreign now and adopted the ways that were thought well of in the place where he now is. And what it cost him then, and costs him still, and how he tries to heal his wounds and conceal his scars, but cannot, because he’s lost—lost to himself and to others.

Or I could tell you of another man I once knew, whose parents had divorced when he was small, and how his mother’s anger at his father, and her stories of how he’d done her wrong, made him hate his father, and therefore hate himself. I could tell you about the years it took him to find out who he was. And all the scars and the wounds he inflicted upon himself, not to mention the pain of them, all because he didn’t want to find out that he was very much like his father, whom he vowed never to be like. The last I heard, the battle wounds had almost killed him.

Or I could tell you about a friend with whom I have lost contact. Like the cat who is said to always return to the place where it once lived, this friend went home again and again. The first man she ever loved was her father, whom she could never please. But this man she was trying so hard to win, the one with the iron band locked around his heart, was just another substitute for the father she loved—someone with whom she could play at trying to please all over again.

I could also tell you of a boy I once knew, who was born deathly sick in a refugee camp in Europe after the war, while his mother died 3 days later and his father returned to the land of his ancestors. So the boy’s grandparents set sail for a brave new world—a foreign land which became his home. And I could tell you how the boy grew up living in fear of abandonment and how he lost his childhood, because he had to be courageous and grow up quickly. I am that boy.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that life is simple, or that there is a cause for every effect, so let me just tell you as Oscar Wilde once did, “When we wish to punish ourselves, we answer our own prayers.” Which means that it is often very difficult to tell the knife from the melon and the wound from the knife—the knife merely being an extension of the person who used it to inflict pain and suffering, not unlike those who nailed Jesus to the cross, and those who ordered it, and those who urged it on, and even those who did nothing, preferring to watch from a distance, for they too held the knife.

The unvarnished truth, MF is that we’ve all held the hammer which pounded the nails and drove the spear into the side of Jesus and we’ve all beheld the wounds and scars of the crucified one in the face of our neighbour, and in the mirror, after our morning coffee. Our complicity started at the beginning, if we knew where the beginning was, but none of us knows for sure. I only suspect that it starts with the first deep wound, and after that, like a person who limps or cradles their withered arm close to their side, we favor the place where the knife went in.

Like Jesus of the Scars, each of us carries with us an inner knowledge about the way we have been hurt and betrayed by others, and how we will hurt and betray others again and again. And so, there are those who believe we make it happen out of our unrest. But maybe it’s simply that great needs cause great fears, and great fears keep us needful long into the cold, dark night.

MF, I do not know the answers. I only know that our hurts and fears happen far more than we would wish, which is why so many Christians remain only pilgrims in this life and never really come to live the resurrected life which is offered them.

There are few men who dare to utter the intensely personal prayers which they make to God. Over the course of 40 years of parish ministry, I have made such prayers public. MF, if I had one prayer, I’d pray that my mother had stayed longer in this world—long enough at least for me to better spread my wings than I already do. I cannot of course help but wonder, how my life would have been different if my mother had not died when I was three days old. Whether I would have grown up to be a different person than the one that I now am—one who is a garden, as well as the gardener—one who did not always have to be brave and strong—one whose wounds and scars are hid from the world and even from myself from time to time.

There are no answers to questions like these, at least not in this life, and so I will never know what I would have been like, or even whether I would have liked me, if I’d have met me with the heart and wisdom I have today.

But the good news for me is that in a very real sense, my mother has never left me—none of our loved one ever have, because through the mystery whom we call God, we are in communion with the saints and they with us, as we confess in the creed. You and I are part of all that we have met and who have ever met us.

Having said this, I suspect that most of us would have skipped a chapter of our lives here and there, if we were the ones to choose the pages and chapters of our lives. But in the end, you see, it doesn’t matter what happened in the past to you or me which has helped make us who and what and how we are. What matters is who we are today—that our faith is an act of love today for our Jesus of the Scars, who not only meets us in our neighbour, but also in the mirror, the one who feeds us in order that we remain here and be whom he calls us to be today. For at that graced moment, MF, Jesus’ risen scarred body will continue to heal us in preparation for the unbounded love which first comes in this world, before it can come in the next.

Let me close with this sparkling commercial which I may have used before. Now, in my eighth decade of life and living and after more than 4,000 sermons later—in both English and God’s Mother Tongue, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember what I said and to whom I said it So, let me close with this sparkling commercial which claims: Diamonds are…??? Yes… forever. I’m not a gemologist, and so I cannot comment. But some women say that they don’t care who casts the first stone at them, so long as it’s a diamond.

This much I do know: For us Christians, there is a still more enduring gem: Jesus of the Scars is forever, and we who have also been wounded and scarred—me too—stand within the wings of his healing power. Like the world, we are healed by his wounds, for that’s the only power by which we be can be healed! 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.

P: Christ is risen. C: He is risen indeed! MF, this is the one and only message of Easter that really counts! P: Christ is risen. C: He is risen indeed! Jesus lives, MF, and I believe that as firmly and faithfully as I always have and always will. Simply because it is reality for me—always has been and always will be.

Now, how Jesus rose from the dead, and how he now lives and what kind of spiritual body with which he lives today—at this very minute—well, that’s quite another matter, MF, to be sure! I believe in God. I believe in the Risen Lord Jesus. I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Bible from cover to cover. I believe in the 3 ecumenical creeds. But how I believe in these is, again, another matter altogether. That’s because the unexamined life, like the unexamined faith, is not worth much!

I am now 72 years of age. I live in the present, learn from the past and hope in the future. I am both a man of faith and of science, because I believe that genuine faith and true science are not in disagreement. Nor will I deny the critical questions which the expanding knowledge of the last 500 years inevitably poses for my faith, as a modern scientific man of faith in the 21st century.

So, for instance, I take very seriously the pioneering work of Sir Isaac Newton who, as an English physicist and mathematician, was one of the most prominent and culminating figures of the 17 century Enlightenment. Newton’s scientific discoveries did much to remove from our human consciousness the categories of magic, superstition and witchcraft, as well as eliminate the “God” who could be controlled by humans, especially when we had to invent divine reasons for events and consequences we could not understand or accept at the time. This was especially true when it came to medical illness which all have their genesis and cures in real science and nothing to do with divine punishment or protection.

Let me give you two modern day illustrations. Maybe you saw the TV clip of a female parishioner at a Louisiana church whose pastor was arrested for holding church services during the state shutdown. When a reporter asked the woman why she would risk contracting the corona virus by attending church, she responded that “the blood of Jesus protects her against all illnesses.” I would ask that parishioner why she believes that God should protect her from this pandemic, when God gave her the intelligence to safeguard herself and secondly, why she insists on disobeying the commandment: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”

2. Perhaps you also heard the reason President R. ya Muungano of Tanzania gave his citizens for keeping churches open for worship during the COVID pandemic: “Satan cannot dwell in holy places,” he said. In other words, for him, the coronavirus is not a medical ailment, but a satanic affliction, which cannot reside in holy spaces, like churches. Now, if I could, I would remind him that if Satan can read and utter the holy words of Scripture (Mt.4:1-11), surely he can also inhabit churches, which are just as holy as this world which God created.

In short, MF, my post-Newtonian thinking does not put God in a box, outside of which she cannot operate. Too often, churches and our narrow religious thinking has put God in a box. Here I can give you many more illustrations: Not too long-ago Christians believed that if God wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings. MF, God gave us brains to use for good, and it precisely with my God-given brain that I can assert that God raised Jesus from the dead.

I also take very seriously the criticism of Christianity made by Sigmund Freud, who, at the turn of the 20th century, recognized the dreadful anxiety that death creates within our hearts and the unconscious. That’s why Freud was correct in asserting that wishing something about God to be true, does not make it so. I am quite aware that much of the language in which the Christian story is framed, reveals unconscious desires, oedipal conflicts and superstitious assumptions. But it is precisely as a post-Freudian Christian, that I can and do assert that God raised Jesus from the dead.

I am also a student of what is called the historical-critical approach to Scripture, and as such I am quite well aware of how the Bible, and in particular the NT, came to be constructed, written by flesh and blood people, faithful believing folks, just like you and me.

Some of you know that back in the mid-70s, I taught NT Theology in university for two years as an adjunct instructor in Virginia. MF, there is a definite and developing oral and written tradition in the stories of Jesus’ resurrection, which can be traced from Paul’s letters in the early 50s to the Gospels—Mark written in 70 CE, Matthew in 80, Luke in 90 and John’s Gospel written at the turn of the first century 100 CE—70 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Although the Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection, they are exceedingly different in relating the facts of the resurrection. Mark, for instance, quite abruptly ends his gospel with the women running away from Jesus’ tomb in “great fear and trembling” because his body was no longer there, whereas the other 3 gospel each have numerous sightings and conversations with the resurrected Jesus.

In spite of and even because of the clear textual anomalies in them, I can and still do assert that God raised Jesus from the dead: that the Easter claim is true and that life, not death, is our ultimate human destiny. And it is a destiny MF, not just for us Christians, but also for Jews and Moslems, for people of every religious stripe and non-religious persuasion—a destiny made possible for all the inhabitants of the entire world—past, present and still to come.

But MF, I am also a student of the Hebrew roots of Christianity, because I am also keenly aware of the Judaic origins of Jesus’ faith. The fact is Jesus was a Jew and a devotee of Judaism—the religion he daily practiced. Which is to say, Jesus was not a Christian—not even the first Christian. Jesus remained a Jew even on the cross. Nor did Jesus intend to start a new religion. His followers did that, just like the followers of Luther established the Lutheran Church, even though Luther himself simply wanted to reform the Roman Catholic Church. I suspect that Jesus may also have simply wished to reform Judaism, so that it could reach beyond itself, which, btw, is precisely what Jesus did, and was crucified for it.

MF, Jesus’ resurrection reflected an enormous power. Although his disciples were first scattered in fear and despair, a moment of incredible power did occur and occurred within them, such that this massive and deep power called them out of their cowardice and into courage, out of hiding and into publicly proclaiming what God did in this man Jesus from the hick town of Nazareth whom they now proclaimed to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world.

Something dynamic transformed this humble band of poverty-stricken fishers of fish, to become fishers of men—men who dared to go beyond what their religion taught them, who dared to speak of this holy God whose name could not even be spoken by Jews— who dared to identify this living God with one human in particular—a man who became the model of what it means to be truly human.

But, as they say: Ya ain’t heard the half of it, MF. Whether the disciples lived or died, were tortured or imprisoned, their own lives became quite secondary to their compelling need to tell others of the lordship of Jesus, whom they were absolutely convinced, God raised from the dead. And the power of that resurrection would become the forerunner to the resurrection of all people everywhere…the resurrection of all of humankind—regardless of race, color, creed, ethnic origin, language, religion, no religion, even regardless of sexual orientation. And it would be the resurrection of everybody in every place and every time: past, present and future—till time is no more.

Engaging the scientific words of Albert Einstein, the fact is this: “Nothing is ever lost in this life—all energy and matter, all living things, all power and mass, go on, albeit in different forms.” How great and grand is that, MF?

The power of Jesus’ resurrection has taught me that when I risk, when I venture, when I dare to walk beyond the religious and secular definitions that have bound me in this life, a new future beckons from beyond myself. Truths that were once hidden and realities that were once unseen, begin to emerge, when I allow the power of Jesus’ resurrection to open my eyes, open my mind and heart, as it did the first disciples.

Gentiles, for instance, did ultimately find welcome in the church. Slavery was finally abolished as an acceptable practice in the church. Racism and racially motivated segregation and apartheid in the church also had their backs broken. Once regarded as pieces of property, women were finally elevated to equality in the church, including ordination to the priesthood, and made equal in their relationship with their husbands.

All this and much more has changed because of the power of the resurrection to change thinking and attitudes. Mentally ill people were finally understood and treated as sick people and not “crazy.” People whose depression led them to suicide were finally buried within the walls of the church. Divorced people were nor longer rejected but were offered a second and third and more chances at marriage and happiness. MF, I know something about that. Even left-handed people were eventually accepted by the church.

And finally, in our very own generation, two critical things changed: firstly, the Church finally recognized its abhorrent contribution to anti-Semitism throughout the centuries, and for which our Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada officially apologized in 1993.

And secondly, gays and lesbians finally received the welcome of Christ into the church without the barriers to willingly “reform”—ie., become someone they were not created by God to be—nor did they cave into a guilt-laden celibacy imposed upon them as the price of becoming Christians and joining the church.

But much more than even this, MF: Homosexuals can now finally be married to each other and be ordained for church ministry in our denomination. And I know something about that also, since I was a member of National Church Council when NCC forwarded the motions for the same to be accepted by the ELCIC at its ratifying convention in 2009.

All these people, all these human beings—Children of God everyone of them—once rejected by the Church, were finally accepted by the Church in its application of the power of the resurrection to change institutional thinking, believing and acting! How great and grand is that, MF?!

What has this got to do with Jesus’ resurrection? Everything! Absolutely everything! Jesus wasn’t raised by the power of God just so that the church can prattle on about a private salvation scheme for Christians only, so that when we die, we get go to heaven, while everyone else is on their way to hell in a hand basket. Jesus was raised by God’s power so that we might have life now, and have it abundantly now, which means that lives can only be transformed and the church can be reformed, once we admit and refuse the limits imposed on us by our culture and education, imposed upon us even by our prejudices and the narrow-mindedness of our vision and thought, behavior and practice.

MF, the fact is this: The power of the resurrection resides within you, as it does within me. And for me the power of the resurrection means that God empowers me to live as fully as I can, by loving wastefully and having the courage to be all that God created me to be. Which is also to say that the power to transform lives and change thinking lies within us all. We cannot worship God and give thanks for the resurrection of Jesus without being an agent of change and humanity, an agent of abundant life and unconditional love to others.

The pathway to God opens us to the truth, that it is only in giving that we receive; it is only in forgiving that we are forgiven; it is only in loving that we are loved; and it is only in dying to self and our obsessions that we find the fullness of life in the here and now.

The resurrection means that, like Jesus, we give our life away in love, we live for and love one another. Love lowers our barriers and exposes our fragile security systems. Love opens us to move beyond ourselves into the shoes and space of another. Real love always moves us into God herself/himself. And in God, all things are different. Jesus, for instance, lived out God’s love as he embraced lepers, Samaritans, outcasts, demented, women, Gentiles, executioners, adulterers, betrayers, deniers, children, terminally ill, and tax collectors! Jesus embraced all these people and more—even those who forsook and fled him, when he needed them the most.

Love emerges as the very power of the resurrection, which means that love is not fair. Love can be as generous to those who worked one hour in God’s Vineyard, as it is to those who have borne the burden and heat of the day. Love embraces the prodigal son who wasted his father’s inheritance in a life of prostitution, as it also embraced the elder brother who stayed home and always did his duty. Love values the single lamb that strays from the flock, as much as it values the 99 sheep that stay securely inside their boundaries.

When God’s love is personally experienced MF, when God’s love is heard and seen in the life of Jesus, then you and I can surely understand why the first disciples met the holy God, when they met the Risen Christ.

Easter is much more than some kind of supernatural miracle. Easter is the touch of a new reality that breaks into our consciousness—a reality centered in a self-giving, loving God. Death cannot destroy Jesus, because love is stronger than death. God made love stronger than death. Love is stronger than death! Always has been. Always will be. And that’s why the resurrection of Jesus holds out to me the promise that when I live inside the powerful love of God, death cannot destroy me either. Nor can it destroy you, MF, nor anyone else who abides in the power of God’s love. No one, absolutely no one, regardless of religion or lack of it, is destroyed if he or she lives in genuine love, which is what God is. And one can live in God’s love, even if God’s Name or Jesus’ Name is never spoken. MF, I’m convinced that’s also true.

This Easter morning I assert that I believe in the resurrection of Jesus and I commit myself to continue to live my life, as one who can accept vulnerability, and love wastefully, for in doing that, I enter Easter and I myself become a resurrected child and son of God, just like Jesus. And this morning MF, I invite you to commit yourself to live your life fully, accept vulnerability and love wastefully—all through the power of the resurrection, and thereby become a resurrected child of God, a daughter or son of God, just like Jesus. Alleluia. AMEN

Dear Friends! In one of his more remarkable novels, At the Gates of the Forest (1966), the Jewish storyteller and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, has one of his characters, Yehuda, gently reprove his troubled, reserved friend Gregor:

It’s inhuman to wall yourself up in pain and memories, as if in a prison. Suffering must open us to others. Suffering must not cause us to reject them. The Talmud tells us that God suffers with man. Why? In order to strengthen the bonds between creation and the creator: God chooses to suffer with man in order to better understand man and be better understood by him. But you, Gregor? You insist upon suffering alone! Such suffering shrinks you, diminishes you, my friend. That is almost cruel!

MF On this austere Good Friday, you have hopefully read the Cross words of Jesus from John’s Gospel (noted above). You’ve read the story of Jesus’ passion and suffering. This morning, therefore, calls for a minimum of preaching/reading, and a maximum of reflection, meditation and musing. So, let me share with you three thoughts that struck me forcefully, as a I pondered the passage from Wiesel—Christian thoughts which I lay reverently upon the insights of the Jewish Talmud.

First: “God suffers with man.” For us, MF, that startling statement from the Talmud should be fearfully real. No exaggeration here! No fantasy run amuck! God suffers with us! Plain & simple!

Then combine that reality with the story of Jesus real passion: that God’s own Son borrowed our flesh. No! Not borrowed, but took our flesh and then took it forever. And in that flesh, he lived from dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn, pretty much as we do. He spoke and slept, danced and drank, loved and laughed, gave and forgave, grieved and wept. And like us, he also died. And yet unlike us in so many other ways, he died.

On Calvary there is no need to exaggerate: the plain unvarnished truth is staggering enough. It’s sufficiently difficult to believe that God could become a man. It is even more incomprehensible to accept that this divine-human being from a little hick town—Nazareth—unknown to the world, could die, and die as he did, the way he did. But there it is: “Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his Spirit” Yes MF. God indeed suffers with us women and men of all stripes and colours, of all religions and non-religions, of all sexual orientations—with all of humankind.

But why? Really!!?? Why all this pain and grief? Why all this sorrow and suffering? Why all this aching and heart-breaking? The answer, MF, is not self-evident—not at all! Yes, of course. I know as well as you do, MF, that our Christian religion has its answers to that question, but so does the Talmud. The Talmud says God suffers with man to [quote]: “strengthen the bonds between creation and the creator; to better understand man and be better understood by him.” [unquote]

Love, MF…. Love is the reason for the shame and suffering, the grief and sorrow, the death and dying. Love is what strengthens the bonds that link us to God and deepens our understanding of God. For Calvary is not just another tragedy, the execution of one more innocent man/victim. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”

That’s why God sent the Son into the world, for the world, that all of the world, all humankind, every human being, each and every woman, man and child—past and present and still to come—will be saved through him. This, in the very last analysis, is why “God suffers with man.”

But, if that’s true, Pastor Peter, then where is God in our pain and suffering? Where is God in our death and destruction, our wars and warring upon each other? Where is God during this COVID-19 pandemic, when over a million and a half cases have now been detected globally and over 60,000 have died, while here in Ontario up to 15,000 deaths are being projected?

Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it so starkly and succinctly: Where was God during the holocaust, when over 6 million Jews were slaughtered by Lutheran and Roman Catholic Nazi soldiers? “Where was God?” asked Bonheoffer? “He was there, hanging on the gallows! He was there, gassed in the death chambers!”

God suffers with us and for us, MF! This is not simply something merely to be mentally understood and to understand, much less to be accepted as an acceptable answer. That God suffers with us is first and foremost an experience—a personal experience—an act of love for you and me and our entire human race. And that’s why the crucifixion of Christ is, first and foremost, also an experience—a personal experience—an act of love, you see! It is a love that saves and redeems, because it is a love which suffers with us and for us—a love that transfigures and transforms suffering into sacrifice and pain into gain.

Jesus of Nazareth—the God-Man—not only suffered with us, he suffered for us. “The life I now live in the flesh,” said St. Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). It is not sheer crucifixion which changed the world; but it is crucified love which changed the world and which alters you and me, transforming and reconciling us and the world to God. Jesus made it possible for you and me to be one with God through grace by faith, with hope and in love.

This leads directly to my final musing: “Suffering must open us up to others,” says the Talmud. Otherwise, as Yehuda warned Gregor, suffering can only diminish and demean us, shrink and shrivel us, making us bitter and biting, insulted and aggrieved.

History and our own memories are crammed with men and women imprisoned in their pain. The death of a dear one, disenchant- ment, depression; feelings of guilt or of utter worthlessness; acne or alcoholism or terminal cancer; the vast encyclopedia of illness and decay; simply growing old in a world that does not seem to care, because it’s so fixated and obsessed with youth and wrinkle-free skin. A thousand and one afflictions, MF, we list under “suffering,” which wall up within us, in pain and memories as if we were imprisoned within ourselves.

Such turning in on ourselves, which the church calls sinning—such sinning with such ego-centrifugal force MF, may be understandable, and at times, even beyond our control. But it is always inhuman and always un-Christian. Why? Because the curving in on myself, my selfishness always keeps me from living and breathing Christ in the here and now, and therefore keeps me from helping my neighbour who is need and who requires my help right now.

In other words, MF, just like my love for God is not a private matter, neither is my suffering, nor yours, a personal affair. As a Christian, as a member of Christ’s own Body—whose Body we call Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Maple—and just like Christ himself, I dare not “insist on suffering alone.” Suffering is our sharing in the passion of Christ. I suffer with him. We suffer with him. He suffers with me and he suffers with us!

Like myself, I’m sure you have heard and seen numerous coronavirus pandemic stories which chronicle the bravery of doctors and nurses, health care professionals and front-line responders in our country and around the world. The stories of the families of long-term care residents who have died in nursing homes are particularly poignant and heart rending. Why? Because the most elderly are among us are some of our most vulnerable and defenceless citizens, and we who are on the outside looking in, can do nothing to assist. At the time of this writing, 55 nursing home residents in Ontario have died of COVID-19—almost one-third of the total number of virus related deaths in our province.

Margaret Calver recently celebrated her husband Wayne’s 84th birthday at Markhaven Home for Seniors in Markham. Wayne is quarantined along with all the other residents. Margaret says she worries about how staff will cope following a COVID-19 outbreak in the facility. Like many Canadians with loved ones in long-term care, being denied the ability to visit during the pandemic has been very difficult for Margaret, who at 81, used to volunteer daily at her husband’s residence.

Personally speaking, I think of Sherry’s mom, Marion Row, at Trilogy Nursing Home, a 10-minute drive from our Guildwood house—she will be 95 this month and unable to celebrate this milestone with us and her entire family. In fact, because of our vacation, Sherry & I haven’t seen Marion in over 3 months.

All of which raises for me the urgent question: What does Jesus’ living & dying mean for my living & dying? After all, God’s Son did not visit this earth, share my flesh, the way I might spend a week on an Indian reservation: to broaden my own experience of loneliness, poverty, joblessness and seeming hopelessness.

No, Jesus suffered and died for me to free me from my sin-soaked self; to free me from my small egotistical self, severed from my sisters and brothers by the mark of Cain; to flood me with her love that I might be able to reach out to others, including my enemies; and to see death, not as a door to darkness, but as a horizon beyond which my eyes cannot see, but my heart can: that to die with Christ is to live.

That God suffers with me means that my dying is not an isolated event, a disagreeable episode which I must endure. As with Jesus, so with me, my entire life must be a journey to Jerusalem. As with Jesus, so with me, I must ceaselessly let go—let go of yesterday. And to let go is to die—at little at a time.

Let go of the Glory that was rightfully his, and to walk the way of Golgatha. Let go of secure little Nazareth and become an itinerant preacher. Let go of his mother, whose own deep hurt must have tormented him as she stood at a distance from him on the cross. Let go of Lazarus and Mary and Martha, his friends whom he loved. Let go of his beloved Twelve, who still had so much to learn. Let go of the hill of Transfiguration and the Garden of Gethsemane. Let go, last and hardest of all… let go of the sheer miracle of being alive. Jesus had to let go; otherwise he would never have set his face towards Jerusalem, and his dying would never have become our living!

And so, for you and for me, MF, to live as Christians with Christ is die as Christians with Christ. Not in two stages: dying here and rising in heaven. No! Dying and rising is one inseparable continuous reality. In our dying is our rising—now, today, this very moment as I write and you read. To journey the road less traveled with Jesus, MF, we have to let go of where we’ve been, so we can live now—this very moment—and live fully with him.

Postscript: I know quite well how terribly painful that letting go can be and is; for I’ve been there more times than I can tell you. The past can have such an iron-clad hold on us, that we can not break free. I don’t know what your past is, MF; but I do know that it is real, and a very real part of you.

The peril is not in remembering the past; the peril lies in living in the past. The peril lies in not forgiving the past, even if I can’t remember the wound which caused the pain or that my mistrust becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Christ is now, not yesterday. Only by a self-emptying similar to his can we grow into him and he into us, to be shaped day after day, hour after hour, into his likeness. Only by reaching out in faith and hope and love to whatever tomorrow may hold, we will discover—we will experience how much God suffers with us so that he may live in us.

It is what Paul found so exciting: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Gal 2:20

MF. Good Friday is the epitome of God suffering with us and for us. Jesus died; but the pain of that experience needs to be transformed into a fresh existential joy with which you finish reading this sermon and get up to live life to the fullest you can. Our Lord Jesus didn’t simply die. He died for you. If he loves you that much, you must be quite extraordinary. The least—no, the best—you can do in return is: Don’t simply live! Live for him!

God bless us and you reading. God bless our living and dying to Christ. AMEN

Dear Friends. If the title of this sermon sounds more than vaguely familiar to the oldsters among us, I stand guilty. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a 1967 movie in which a couple’s racial attitudes are challenged when their daughter Joey unexpectantly brings her African-American fiancé, a distinguished surgeon played by Sidney Portier, home for dinner. The movie won best actress Oscar for Katherine Hepburn and arrived in theatres just in time for Christmas cheer.

Which is to say, MF: it is now Maundy Thursday of Holy Week during Lent and hardly a time for merry making by those who commemorate this solemn and somber occasion. Nor was there any guess work associated with who was coming to dinner that night. It was pretty much the same uniform crew who were invited the two previous years: Simon, called Peter, who would deny him, and his brother Andrew; James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, who would doubt the Resurrection, James son of Alphaeus and Simon called the Patriot, Judas son of James and Judas Iscariot, the one who kept their common purse and who would betray him by handing him over to the Roman authorities that same night.

It was also pretty much the same instruction that evening, as it was for other Passover meals. The commemoration of the night, when the Lord of Hosts passed over the houses the Israelites, marked with the blood of a Lamb without blemish. Except that this night, of all nights, Jesus himself was the spotless Passover-Paschal- Lamb, whose blood was shed, in order that the Lord of Hosts would forgive, not only the sins of Israel, but that of the world.

There was also no guess-work associated with the Seder Meal of bread and bitter herbs that night, as it was also the same as it had been over the centuries: the Matzah and Marror, the Chabad and Charoset, the Karpas and Shulchan, and of course the red wine, flavoured and full-bodied. And, as in previous years, Jesus arranged the supper in advance, located this time in an Upper Room for that Thursday night. The meal, likewise, was prepared in advance by the women of the company: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other women who served Jesus and his disciples from their headquarters in Galilee. It was the same women who followed them from Galilee to Golgatha and who were to come early Sunday morning with spices to the tomb where the Body of Jesus, their Master, had been laid.

There were no big treatises that Passover evening. No gigantic explanations. No extended sermons. No lengthy discourses. Just a supper of commemoration, reminding them of 400 years of bitter slavery under the yoke of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but also reminding them of the strong hand of deliverance by the God of their ancestors.

But then, suddenly, after dinner, the Master initiated a mysterious demonstration of love. He was never one to observe custom for the sake of custom—in fact, he often turned tradition upside down as he did that night: It was Jesus, their Master and Teacher, their Rabbi and Friend, who washed their feet. “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later,” he told them. It was only the beginning of what would turn out to be the slow disappearance of much that was familiar over the course of the previous 3 years of following him through thick and thin, during which they thought they knew him. Only afterwards, as he said, would they understand what had happened and why.

Now, that particular Passover was also the prelude to the handing over in the garden with a kiss. It was the preface to the dead night of silence from their Master whom they mistook for a geo-political Messiah—thinking that he would lead an armed revolt against the dreaded rulers of the known world—the Romans—and that God himself would be at the head of the army. But instead of a political messiah, the night of the Passover was the door that lead to a crucified messiah, an empty tomb and scattered linens. MF, it is the night which also marks for us, when the linens of altar and pulpit are scattered and removed; when the altar itself becomes the tomb of the Body of our Master and Friend.

Tonight—the night of Maundy Thursday—marks the beginning of the end. Tonight, the time for words is over. Tonight is the evening of the Last Supper, as the Master called it. Tonight is the final dinner for 13. An odd number: a dinner for 13. But it is also a dinner in which we are unexpectantly invited (if it wasn’t for COVID—19)—a dinner which encompasses gestures and feelings, perhaps too great for human language to convey: the giving of the bread as his body and cup poured out as his blood.

And perhaps the strangest action of all this night: the washing of feet by Jesus—24 feet and all 120 toes. Here MF is a sign and a symbol which perhaps can never be captured by our human aspirations. For many people nowadays, feet are unspeakably ugly. In ancient cultures, however, feet were unspeakably filthy, always filled with desert dirt, sand and soil—and hence their washing fit only for the job of a servant. Only a radical host capable of drastic hospitality would ever lower himself, quite literally, to wash the feet of his guests. And yet, we too are invited to join in. The many feet and countless toes represented by each one of us reading this meditation—the washing of our feet and toes is something we can accomplish in the privacy of our homes, if we are daringly servile.

It’s a humbling and humiliating act, MF—not only by the one who is doing the washing, but by the one who allows it to happen to her/his feet. I mean, such lavish, magnanimous gestures would upset our well-ordered 21st century apple cart. They disturb the neat hierarchy of the way we think things should be. And yet, it is precisely at this juncture, between the human and divine, between the sacred and secular, that we encounter the God who stoops to save, and in so doing, we find the gracious gateway to God open for us and for all who seek her/him.

So, that’ll be dinner for all of us, please, including wine! And, that’ll be foot washing for all us, including toes!

Now, the Passover itself, which wasn’t exactly New York sirloin, but bitter herbs as a reminder of 400 years of Jewish bondage in Egypt under Rameses II, and to be concluded with bread—the staff of life—and wine—the fruit of the vine. Bread and wine—sounds sumptuous enough, wouldn’t you say, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was a reminder of a body broken and blood spilt, only to be followed with the washing of feet? Sure, it’s nice to have clean feet, but who goes to a dinner invitation with dirty feet in the first place. “Not I Lord. You will never wash my feet,” we would cry out with Peter, I’m sure of it!

But, here’s the deal, MF. At this table, dinner for 13, is Jesus who is our host, who also partakes and who also serves us. And he is recalling the Father’s love, present from the beginning of time. God’s largess has been there from when there was ex nihilo—when there was nothing, after which and from which he made everything that is. In fact, even God’s Incarnation was made from his creation.

Jesus the Christ came forth from the womb of Mary to offer his life, to share his body and blood, and to serve by washing feet, the very feet collecting dust and following him everywhere for 3 years, step by step, in every direction, on every journey, every path—except the last one–Golgatha—the one where he needed them the most…. but they scattered like sheep without a Shepherd.

Jesus’ hospitality that night was intended for his friends, his disciples, the inner group of twelve. This gesture was made especially for them in what remains their most intimate encounter as a small, inner circle of his most trusted friends. Church ministry, MF, if I may draw a parallel—church ministry is perhaps impossible to imagine without coming back to this moment in time: the defining act of priestly service in humble self-giving, surrender and intimacy with the Lord of loving service. Which means that this evening, Jesus wants to fit us, like the disciples of old, with the joy and the burden of service.

MF, it is a service that can never be removed; for it is invisible and given by this same Lord of life who himself serves. The call to service comes on this night—this last dinner for you and me, with our Lord as host, in union with him as the Servant of all. It is a service which is not only bound to this parish and parishioners whom we love, but to this world, at the very altar of God. It’s a service Jesus demonstrates this night, of all nights, on the eve of his final passion and death, as it unfolds like a rare but solitary flower whose petals open, only to close briefly, and then open again—but this time forever.

Our words fade away this night, only to leave us with a Lord who surrenders in his service to us and to the world in the nakedness of a cross. It is the most complete and compelling act of service that we know, and which continues until the end of time. And so, on this hallowed and holy night, in this sombre and solemn dinner, our Master also invites us to participate. We humbly accept his offer. Instead of taking flight, Jesus washes our feet with his love and tears for us, and then refreshes our bodies and souls with bread and wine.

This is a night of memory, when the bread and the cup were forever transformed and transfigured into the manna we need for our life’s journey on the good Mother Earth God gave us. It is a dinner, not just for 13, but for all who participate—and not only a meal of memory, but a sacramental supper, through which God’s love and grace, his giving and forgiving, is forever infused into our minds and memories, our hearts and souls. One day, soon we hope, we will again join Jesus and his 12 for the Last Supper—a meal of profound, never-ending love—till human time is no more. AMEN.

Jesus then called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave cloths, and a cloth around his face. “Untie him,” said Jesus, “and let him go.”

Dear Friends. On this 5th Sunday of Lent, let’s raise a glass of Chardonnay to playwright Eugene O’Neill—not for his Pulitzer-winning Anna Christie, nor for the brutal Desire under the Elms, and not even for the pessimistic Iceman. Rather for one of his lesser plays which, though muddled, has rather unexpected insights. Entitled Lazarus Laughed, this acclaimed O’Neill play deals with the life of Lazarus after Jesus had summoned him from the grave.

It is the story of Lazarus, who was more than follower of Jesus. He was a man whom Jesus loved, says John’s Gospel. It is the brief story of a man who had tasted death and saw it for what it really is—the story of a man whose one invitation to us here this morning is his constant refrain: Laugh with me! Dance with me! Death is dead! Fear is no more! There is only life! There is only laughter!

In the play, O’Neill writes: “Lazarus begins to laugh, softly at first, then full throated—a laugh so full of a complete acceptance of life, a profound assertion of joy of life and living, so devoid of all fear, that it is infectious with love, and so infectious that, despite themselves, his listeners are caught by it and carried away.” And so are we, MF.

At the root of O’Neill’s play lies John’s Gospel proclaimed to us this morning. And from that Gospel, O’Neill captured dramatically as truth that Martha recognized, but one which Martha herself missed. Subsequently, my sermon asks 3 significant questions: 1. What’s the basic truth of today’s gospel? 2. What deeper level did Jesus communicate, which even dear Martha missed? And 3: What does the risen Lazarus have to say to us this morning, if anything?

First MF, what is the Lazarus story about? Consider the basic facts. A dear friend of Jesus falls terribly ill. His sisters, Mary & Martha, also friends of Jesus, send word to him: “Lord, he whom you love is ill!” What does Jesus do? Does he speed off to Bethany to heal his friend, as he did for so many others, whom he had never met before? Against all expectations, Jesus delays 2 entire days! Finally, Jesus arrives in Bethany only to find that Lazarus had been dead for 4 days. Martha implores him: “Lord, if only you had been here, he would not have died!” Even some of the grieving Jews weren’t impressed with Jesus’ tears at Lazarus’ death: “If he opened the eyes of the blind, could he not have kept this man from dying?”

But Jesus’ love for Lazarus goes well beyond what his sisters and the crowd had been asking” “Jesus! Don’t let him die!” That love is revealed in Jesus’ dialogue with Martha. “Your brother will rise again,” says Jesus, to which Martha replies, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus then says, “Martha, I myself am the resurrection. He who believes in me, even though he dies, he will come to life.” In other words, the believer, like the unbeliever, will go to the grave; but the life which Jesus gives will conquer sheer physical death.

To prove he himself is the Resurrection and what he says is true, Jesus calls Lazarus back to life—back to life in Bethany with his sisters Martha & Mary: “Lazarus, Lazarus! Lazarus! Come out!! Come out I tell you!” And so, Lazarus comes out!! Well my good friends! Doesn’t this just send needles and pins up and down your spine? Lazarus comes out to eat and drink again, to dance and play again, to laugh and weep again, to pray and believe again, to hope and love again, to give thanks and be thankful again. But, to also be a living witness, for the first time, to Jesus’ astonishing claim: I am the Resurrection! He who believes in me will never die!

Second. If this were all, MF, it would surely be enough: to rise from the dead and share in new life from God’s Son! What an elation! What an exclamation! But there is something still deeper, even more remarkable than dying at 8 or 88 and rising again like Lazarus.

When Jesus spoke to Martha, he didn’t simply say: “I am the resurrection,” he said: “I am the Resurrection and the Life!” And with that, Jesus didn’t mean that you had to wait till the last day to receive eternal life. Jesus meant that because he is the resurrection now, we can have eternal life right now—eternal life which begin today and ends before the very face of God, herself. Never die?! Exactly, MF. Never? That’s right! Never! Physical death is but another door in life’s revolving doors. Death in this life is but another doorway, another entrance, another entry to a spiritual dimension unknown in this human life. Eternal life, MF, does not begin with death. It begins here and now, in this life already.

And that’s why, you see, Jesus consoled a mourning Martha and Mary as he did. Jesus was not satisfied with their belief in another life—or as Martha put it: “I know my brother will rise again on the resurrection on the last day.” In other words, Jesus not only has life. He is life. Just like God is much more than existence. God is being itself. God is Spirit itself. So, when Jesus bowed his head on the cross and gave us his Spirit to God, at that moment Jesus was gloriously alive and alive forever more.

MF, to say this again: Eternal life does not begin with death! Eternal life has its beginning today, this morning, as I speak and you listen! Jesus isn’t satisfied with our belief in another life somewhere, at the end of time! Why? Because Jesus not only has life, he IS life. He is the resurrection right now, well b4 we’re 6 ft under. MF, this is not some pious pap from your preacher and pastor! This is the most significant facet of Christian life and living in the here and now! Eternal life not simply a gift you hope for, yearn for—a life you desire to live beyond the grave. Eternal life is the life you and I are already living. To be one with the God of Love is have eternal life right now. “If you love me,” says Jesus, “my Father will love you, and we will come to you and make our home with you” (Jn.14:23).

And this, MF, is the beginning of eternal life. You and I share in the life that God gives and lives. Human spirit and divine Spirit are marvellously intertwined. And because this is true, we are different people. We are in Christ and he in us. We have a fresh dignity: daughter of God and son of God, by love and grace. And because we recognize who we are—God’s children—we can and will act differently. We can and will put aside all obsessions with self, can and will love indiscriminately, can and will give and forgive enthusiastically.

Last Question: What might the risen Lazarus say to you and me this morning? Let me suggest that Lazarus would first repeat the refrain O’Neill put on his lips: Laugh with me! Dance with me! Death is dead! Fear is no more! There is only life! There is only laughter! MF, I would add that you and I can echo that refrain with a deeper understanding than the Lazarus in O’Neill’s play. Why? Because you and I know why “fear is no more”; we know why “there is only life”; we know why “there is only laughter.” Why? Not only because Christian laughter is not hysteria and not a belly explosion over a vulgar joke; but sheer joy in living and loving. But more importantly, “there is only life” because Jesus is the resurrected life right now and not just at the end of our lives. Jesus gives us life now, as I speak and you listen.

The trouble is, very few Xians really live that abundant life. Here we are MF, women and men who are shrines of the HS, women & men who believe in a living, loving, dancing God. And yet we resemble, not Lazarus come back from the dead—but resemble a leading character in another one of O’Neill’s plays, entitled The Great God Brown who said: “Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter? Why am I afraid to really live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colour of earth and sky and sea? Why am I afraid of love, I who love love?”

Yes, of course, I know that we dance, we come alive when we love. But, do we dance and come alive in the power of the HS? Believe me, MF, I marvel at our society’s ability to dance. I envy the vitality of the young. I am moved beyond telling of the love between a man and a maid. But what distresses me is that so many, who even consider themselves Christians, are insensitive to the power of the HS which lurks within them and within each of us—me too.

The fact is this: That Spirit of God only needs a Yes to be released, a Yes to charge our little acre with spiritual energy—that acre in which God planted us to grow and bloom and blossom on his behalf —and so change you and me—transform you and me from a mediocre pedestrian Christian to an energized and invigorated Christian.

As I move quickly towards ¾ of a century in age, there is really only one wish for you and this congregation I cherish above all other wishes. I want you to know how special you are. I want you to experience a joy, a thrill, a deep satisfaction in God’s presence which is already within you—a presence which rivals love and loving and love-making—a presence which rivals any one of Toronto’s professional sports teams winning big-time—a presence which rivals the downing of a icy Lowenbrau on a sizzling summer day—a presence which will not dampen your natural ardour or put a lid on your inherent happiness.

Rather, the spiritual presence of God will only intensify these. The HS will inject a Christian sense into our unconcealed sadness, darkness and the tragedies which shadow our human existence. Really living life in the HS will keep us from turning stoic or cynic, from sheer resignation to evil and adversity to which we can do little or nothing about. The HS will keep you from spinning helplessly between manic and depressive like a yo-yo.

MF, I am thoroughly convinced that only the HS within us can shape our lives to conform to Jesus, who called Lazarus from the grave, as he calls us also from the grave of self-doubt, resignation and death. Only in the power of the HS can we respond with a resounding “Yes!” to the question God asked of Ezekiel: “Son of man, can these dry bones live?” Only in pulsing consciousness of the HS will we learn and live, change and transform.

Only in the power of the HS does life leap from death—the death of the God-man on the cross to his rising to new life 3 days later to our own ceaseless dying to sin and self. Only when we truly surrender to the HS without condition or reservation—“Lord of life, do with me as you will”—can we expect to exult “Laugh with me! Dance with me! Death is dead! Fear is no more! There is only life! There is only laughter!” Only then will our laughter be Lazarus-like, full-throated—“a laugh so full of complete acceptance of life, a profound assertion of joy in living, so devoid of all fear, that it will be infectious with love!”

Hard to believe? Perhaps so. But, as they once said in the Big Apple: “Try it. You’ll like it!”

Dear Friends: Let me depart from the gospel reading this morning, for a change and tell you about a famous abbey located on an island off the southeast coast of France, called the Abbey of Lerins and inside is a rather unusual sculpture. The sculpture is a life-size figure of the Christ nailed to a rugged cross. His head is leaning slightly to the right. His eyes are closed, seemingly in death. But what makes this sculpture so rare is the shape of Jesus’ lips: On his lips, there is a soft, serene smile—a gentle perhaps mysterious smile lightens the burden of his pain, and maybe ours too. The sculpture, appropriately enough, is entitled, “Le Christ souriant,” which means “The smiling Christ.” How beautiful, MF, how inviting, how meaningful—how miraculous—at least for me.

This “Smiling Christ” is the springboard for my sermon this morning. Now, if you need a Bible text to test or prove my theological point of view, I give you Jesus who, appropriately enough for our Lenten journey, said: “When you fast, do not look gloomy and do not put on a sad face like the hypocrites!” (Mt.6:16) MF, I don’t know if this smiling Christ raises a problem for you, but if so, the quarrel is not with me, but with Jesus, who causes us to think seriously, not only about the real meaning of Lent, but also about what kind of Jesus we believe in—whether he can smile or not, much less smile during Lent. I mean, I’ve had German members leave my last parish over stuff like this.

Anyway, this reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon in which Linus says to Charlie Brown: “I think you’re afraid to smile, Charlie Brown. Are you afraid that smiling would be bad for you? “Oh, I don’t know,” says Charlie Brown. “What are the side effects?” So MF, does a Lenten Jesus who smiles have negative side effects for you, this morning?

So, three questions for you: 1. Did Jesus really smile? 2. Is Lent for laughing or crying? 3. What can a smiling Christ mean for us on this 4th Sunday in Lent? First: Did Jesus really smile? Or, did he actually laugh? As far as the Gospels tell us, No—Jesus never laughed. In fact, it seems he disapproved of laughter: “How terrible for you who laugh now. You will mourn and weep!” (Lk.6:25b)

Yes, Jesus probably had a “joy of the spirit” and a “merriment of the soul,” but for outright smiling, big grins and laughter—it seems not—at least the gospels don’t record it.

Well, I don’t know about you MF, but I can never understand how one who was like us in everything, excepting sinning, could have wept from sorrow at the death of his friend Lazarus, and not also laughed for joy at the resurrection of Lazarus? How could Jesus fail to smile when a child cuddled comfortably in his arms, or when the headwaiter at Cana wondered where the good wine had suddenly come from, or when he saw little Zacchaeus up in a tree, or when Jarius’ dead daughter awoke to life at his touch, or when Peter displayed foot-in-mouth disease, yet again? Or, to use this morning’s Gospel story, how could Jesus have failed to smile at the joy of the man born blind, now healed, now seeing again for the first time?!!

MF, I don’t know about you, but I for one refuse to believe that Jesus did not laugh when he saw something funny, or when he experienced in the depths of his manhood the celebratory presence of his heavenly Father. Too often, we Christians have been so aware of Jesus’ divinity, that his humanity has become somewhat unreal and artificial. No MF. Jesus was exactly like us, including smiling and grinning, mirth, amusement and laughter—from the belly.

Of course, I don’t say that Jesus smiled when his fellow townsmen threw him out of the Synagogue, ran him out of town and were ready to throw him over a cliff. Nor do I pretend that Jesus laughed in the Garden of Gethsemane. And I don’t know if he died with a smile on his lips, as the Statue in the Abbey of Lerins would suggest. Of course, there are moments in life, when it makes no sense to laugh. That Jesus attracted fishermen and centurions, but also children and simple down to earth folks—Jesus could never have done this with only thunderbolts for words and a stern expression for a face. Rather, his lips would have had to break out into a smile and even merry laughter from time to time. I’m convinced that’s true, especially when I consider this Jesus’ words from his sermon on the mount: Don’t look gloomy and put on a sad face, like the hypocrites do!

2nd Question: Is Lent for laughing or for crying…or both