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

—1 Thessalonians 1:6

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

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

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

Inspiration for the Mind: Brief Sermon Excerpts

2021

Dear Friends. Yesterday marked 20 years since 9/11 and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers of NYC and the Pentagon, in which 2,977 people were killed: 2,605 Americans, 24 Canadians and the remaining 348 deaths from some 88 other countries. It’s also been 20 years since the US has been involved in its longest, costliest, deadliest war—Afghanistan which the US under GW Bush invaded just weeks after 9/11. In that war 2,500 US soldiers died in battle, 4,000 US contractors were killed, 25,000 US soldiers permanently disabled and another 35,000 committed suicide after returning home to an American public, which cared little for its soldiers. We Canadians lost 158 soldiers in that war.

In spite of its huge military superiority in weaponry, this is a war the US lost, with no hopes of winning—no hopes of overcoming centuries of Afghani culture to impose American values and American style democracy. But American deaths pale in comparison to Afghans who lost ¼ million people—a conservative estimate, since there was no tracking of civilian losses—and rarely reported.

MF, this loss of life is an absolute, categorical, incalculable human catastrophe, which is beyond any words, by anyone—over 300,000 lives dead—lost in retribution for 3,000 lives.

Given the premeditated terror of 9/11 and the Afghan war to combat terrorism, the scale of unspeakable pain and destruction are still utterly inconceivable. Few adults north or south of the 49th parallel have been left morally or emotionally unscathed, economically or spiritually untouched. The personal trauma of thousands of lives forever severed by suicide—mass murder in a 767, and then the devastating psychic scars borne by millions from the death and destruction wrought by 2 decades of war on Afghani soil—an annihilating affliction which many nations, but principally the US and Afghanistan, will carry to their graves.

MF, if you watched 9/11 commemorations yesterday, we once again memorialized the names of the 24 heroic Canadians, whose bodies are forever concealed in the sacred soil of Ground Zero. They can never be replaced and so are committed to living memory. But, if remembrance in the name of national duty or personal obligation was all we Canadians ever did, it wouldn’t be enough, even after 20 years. To honor the dead is to serve the living, by deriving meaning and purpose from the dead. Otherwise, their deaths will have been in vain—proven as senseless as the carnage itself. The same is true for the 158 Canadian soldiers lost in Afghanistan.

Well MF, after 20 years, what still strikes me as compelling is how virtually everyone has subjected these stunningly simple attacks to correspond to their own personal notion of reality. There’s the theologically despicable—that God had visited his iniquity upon the US, Canada and other nations for embracing homosexuals and abortionists, as avowed by the former Moral-Majority founder and former president of Liberty U, Rev. Jerry Falwell. But there’s also the politically contemptible: quote “that imperial America impose democracy on all the world’s ‘rogue states’,” as argued by Oxford historian Nigall Ferguson in his volume, The Age of Terror.

MF, Permit me to reflect on a number of observations. 1. Of course, everyone’s an expert in “Hindsight 101.” But it’s not an unforgivable human failure to grasp that the desperate weapon of last resort in the Middle East—the despair-driven suicide bomber—could also be deployed over American soil. But this time, clothed in the shiny skin of a Boeing 767, brimming with jet fuel, loaded with innocent passengers and, like the bull’s eye of a bow and arrow, the World Trade Towers were targeted. And likewise, 1 or 2 desperate suicide bombers blew themselves up in Kabul airport, on Aug 26, killing over 200, including 13 US troops and injuring over 300.

MF, there is simply no technical, military or monetary solution to the vulnerability of modern populations to the weapons of mass destruction—WMDs—not from nuclear bombs nor suicide bombers, not on 9/11. nor on Aug 26th. Given the hundreds of Israeli victims of suicide bombers over the past 20 years, it is painfully obvious that the Israeli army, like any army, including the US army, is unable to prevent suicide bombings. But much worse—a military “solution” to half-a-century of bloodshed will never generate genuine peace! Rather, the urge to glorified martyrdom and bloody revenge is only increased and sometimes, increased exponentially!

My 2nd reflection is the reason for 9/11. I’m convinced that today’s appalling global economic inequality and injustice, as byproducts of the high-powered consumer/capitalist Western system, has helped spawn terrorism. Many Americans are still tragically unaware of how their global predominance in the economic marketplace and as the chief exporter of weapons of war and cultural clout, is rooted in abusive power. The consequent harboring of hatred against the US is especially rife in the Arab world, where half a century of Israeli patronage is perceived as overwhelmingly one-sided—at the expense of legitimate Palestinian entitlement.

There is, quite simply, an acute Western failure to exercise any meaningful shared stewardship over our resources, resulting not only in a profound disconnect between foreign policy and democratic global responsibility, but in the growing gulf between the have and have-not nations of the world, many of which are Islamic. On the other hand, many Middle Eastern countries have failed to develop economically and politically, preferring to cling to a religious code, whose fanatical interpretation has helped create the miserable conditions which fosters violent hatred of the West.

Third observation. My fear is that today’s continued “War on Terrorism” will be tomorrow’s “War of Civilizations”—a war which will never ferret out the tubers of global terrorism, but which, in the chilling words of Phil Jenkins in his, The Next Christendom, will include a wave of new-age Christian crusades and Muslim jihads, making the religious wars of the 12th to 17th centuries pale in comparison.

4th Reflection: What is fatally incomprehensible to me, MF, is that after centuries of war, our advanced 21st century sensibilities conclude that planetary justice can only be achieved by more war. The glaring unadulterated fact is this: War always begets more war. The military solution to terrorism is temporary at best—until the winner of the next war is announced. Yes, most of us have taken the safe and secure life with its material and freedom loving pleasures for granted. But we’ve never suffered blind-sighted assault on innocent civilians on our soil until 9/11. “Collateral damage” always referred to victims in other countries—until 9/11, you see.

MF, you may know I am a pacifist. Like you, I too believe that war is morally wrong, because it is wrong to kill another person(s), regardless of the reason(s). But I also believe that war is ineffective to bring ultimate peace, because war only sows the seeds for more war—more war spiraling into continuous war—war without end. No, I will never support war. Period. But having said that I will always respond in an active non-violent manner. Let me tell you why!

It is only the tough task of active non-violent resistance and subsequent dialogue and relationship-building with enemies which I firmly believe can address and resolve that which fuels their hatred and violence. To say this ain’t easy is understated. Almost every citizen in the West believes in the redemptive quality of war—meaning that more war will save lives. MF, this has become the learned response for almost everyone. We’ve been utterly indoctrinated, that war is the only resolution to global and national conflicts.

Let me tell you. War, like hate, is not inherited truth. War, like hate, is modelled and taught. War, like hate, is our default position, our learned response—including US Pres Biden who said of the Kabul suicide bombing: We will never forget, nor will we ever forgive. We will hunt you down! We understand this sentiment, me too! But MF, consider of the never-ending consequences. The war cycle continuously repeats itself, never to stop. Hate and revenge are modeled and taught even by the US president, who as a so-called practicing Catholic, should espouse mercy and national forgiveness. MF, just imagine a world leader promoting a value which Jesus embraced.

Instead, soul-filled hate and revenge are imprinted on our minds and hearts, so that we can never escape. We’re simply incapable of thinking outside the war box and the hate-revenge machine. That’s why hate, violence and war have received the status of religion in our times, demanding absolute obedience-unto-death. It’s a fact most people are not even aware of themselves.

MF, we live in a world, as Jesus did, characterized by injustice and violence, hate and war. So it’s quite natural to believe in a God who is all powerful and on your side. You can call upon this God to give victory to your armies, which is what Israel did, time and again. In fact, this OT God was one of violence and war, who commanded the death of entire tribes and nations, so that Israel could have a country of their own, which sowed the first seeds of anti-Semitism. Today Americans have used that same God to sow anti-Americanism.

Trouble is this, MF: Jesus rejected belief in this long-held, violent God of War. He refused to be crowned King of Israel and overthrow Roman rule by might, as his predecessor King David would have done. Rather, Jesus experienced God as the non-violent, merciful, loving Spirit at the heart of the life of the world. He rejected the use of violence to stop his own execution at the hands of his enemies—the Jews who rejected him as the long-awaited Messiah. Instead, Jesus forgave his enemies and commanded us to do the same!

Jesus portrayed God as one who loves everyone, including enemies, to achieve peace. Jesus’ weapon was not violence, but the spiritual forces of prayer and forgiveness. In his Sermon on the Mt, he said:  

Do not resort to violence against someone who wrongs you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for them who persecute you and do good to them.

What is necessary is not simply the management of national hatred and the subsequent containment of revenge, but the actual and active pursuit of hearts and minds to the beneficial realization of love and mercy, peace and understanding through non-violence. Only when planetary peace is waged, will war be learned no more! “It is one of the Church’s greatest betrayals of Jesus,” wrote Torontonian Tom Harpur in his 1992 book God Help Us– “to have dropped Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence in favour of war.” Violence does not save lives. War does not bring ultimate peace. Might is rarely right.

Trouble is: Because we Christians haven’t taken Jesus’ teaching and example of non-violence seriously, much of the world refuses to take us seriously. Christians talk of a new life, critics say, but the record shows that most Christians are afraid to live in a new way—a way that is merciful, loving and nonviolent. Too many think that going to church, being saved and a one-way ticket to heaven is what Christianity is all about. Rather, Christianity is precisely about changing people from the inside out and then changing the world—from revenge to mercy, from hate to love, from war to peace.

MF, Jesus invites his followers to embrace the mercy, love and non-violence of God, just as he did. Yet, most Christians only give lip-service to these values, whether personal, national or international.  But, consider that we live in remarkable times, when entire nations have been liberated by nonviolent struggle: the 1989 Fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Berlin and Germany itself; the collapse of the Soviet Union and liberation of dozens of Eastern Bloc countries from communism; the transformation of South Africa from white to black rule; the People Power Revolution of the 80s in the Philippines; the independence of India in 1948 from the British Empire upon which the sun never set. Not to mention, people around the world, who for the very first time, are all beginning to actively resist political and religious domination.

And yet, these are also times of endemic violence, ethnic hatred, genocide, political and religious loathing on the right and left, and economic privation around the world, as the super-rich hoard increasing shares of the world’s wealth, while the poor drown in poverty. Ours is a time of hope and despair. But I’ve seen enough of God’s ways to stake my life on the side of hope.

In 1967, MLK addressed his Riverside parish with the following:

As a nation, we must undergo a radical revolution of values and shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are treated    more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Compassion and reconciliation require the meltdown of violent defense-mechanisms and the painful gut-wrenching understanding of enemies, including terrorists. Nothing else will really work, because everything else has been tried and found wanting. To those who honestly think that this is unfeasible, Gandhi reminded us: Think of all the things you thought impossible—until they happened!

Can we together agree that retribution is not the way of Jesus? Can we remain steadfast in nonviolence, despite the skepticism of those who embrace violence and war to fight violence and war? Can we Christians follow Jesus’ model of non-violence—no matter how much our society, government and our own church ridicule nonviolence as idealistic and ineffective on the national and global scene?

One last key question: What implications are there for those Christians who want to embrace the God of non-violence, whom Jesus modeled time and again? 5 Points for your serious consideration:

1. Christians would not kill other human beings or be part of any military or police force expected to use lethal violence anywhere in the world. Rather, we would work for justice and non-violently resist injustice, much like the 60s civil rights movement under MLK or the Black Lives Matter today. Christians would be part of a civilian defense which applied social, economic, political, religious and psychological skills of defense to wage a war of constructive dialogue and non-cooperation.

2. Christians would support non-violent defense efforts and be part of national and international peace teams, which would be trained in conflict resolution skills and in strategies of non-cooperation. Member would be willing to risk their lives to intervene in organized non-violent ways in domestic and international conflicts. Such teams already exist, but many more are desperately needed; otherwise, there would be little investment in diplomacy or peacemaking.

3. Christians would become a major force within countries for nonviolent alternatives to war. They would work in a multiplicity of ways to break the spiral of violence and the systemic causes of war: hunger, poverty, indebtedness, militarism, imperialism, proliferation of WMDs, human inequality and political warmongering.

4. Christians would reject the centuries-old “just war theory” which says that a righteous nation has a right to defend itself from attack. Trouble is, no nation today is so righteous that it does not already have blood on its hands, either internally or globally. War never ends with true peace. War always leaves a remnant of hatred and thirst for revenge, which will eventually explode, as history reveals.

5. Christians who take the non-violence of Jesus seriously will work to dramatically reduce their country’s military spending, especially by the US—the greatest exporter of military hardware in the world. Reducing military expenditure would encourage demilitarization worldwide and free up financial resources to address global poverty and environmental collapse. In fact, according toCanada’s 2019 Exports of Military Goods, our government exported $4 billion of weaponry—the highest value on public record—to Saudi Arabia, which is now Canada’s prime customer, unseating the US. Saudia Arabia used our weapons to kill or wound more than 25,000 Yemeni civilians since 2015. Yemen is the world’s worst human crisis.

6. Lastly, Christians who take the non-violence of Jesus seriously are a global demonstration that non-violence is God’s transforming spiritual power in the world. Most Christians don’t believe that this is true, but it is Jesus’ way which he modeled and strongly advocated, many times. It is a most practical effective way, if given a chance by the 2 billion folks who claim to be Christians.

Last page. Remember the OT lesson read by Sherry? Inscribed on the front wall of the UN is the prophetic assurance from Isaiah:

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war no more.

Isaiah’s immortal words were penned 3,000 years ago. But given the horrific violence of the last 110 years, when 160 million died in multiple wars, these words sound so jarringly incongruous, almost irreconcilable. Unless we put an end to war, said John F. Kennedy addressing the UN in 1960, war will put an end to us.

Nonviolence is the spiritual foundation for building a world of peace and disarmament. Nonviolence is spiritual because it confronts violence without using violence, creates constructive alternatives and calls us to share the fullness of life with one another on this fragile planet. Living a non-violent life requires meditation and prayer, concentration and mindfulness. Just as mindlessness leads to violence, spiritual mindfulness leads to nonviolence and peace.

Nonviolence is not merely a tactical behavior, MF, but a person’s way of being and living in this world, the attitude of one who is so convinced of God’s love and power that we are not afraid to tackle evil with the weapons of love & mercy, truth & non-violence.

Then Jesus left and went away to the territory near the city of Tyre. While there, he went into a house and did not want anyone to know he was there, but he could not stay hidden. … Jesus then left the neighbourhood of Tyre and then went on through Sidon to Lake Galilee, going by way of the territory of the Ten Towns. … Jesus then ordered the people not to speak of the healing to anyone, but the more he ordered them not to, the more they spoke. Mk 7:24,31,36.

Dear Friends. Have you ever noticed, that the best way to spread a story is to try and keep it quiet? You call up a friend and have a good gab session about another person. But then it suddenly dawns on you, that you’d be devastated if it ever got back to that person, so you ask your friend if he or she wouldn’t mind just keeping it to themselves. It won’t be long before everybody knows the whole story, particularly the individual you didn’t want to know.

Well, we homo sapiens are a mischievous lot, aren’t we? No doubt, when our trusted friend shared our private conversation, he’d asked for confidentiality as well. We can’t seem to resist, can we? The best memoirs have been written this way. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney thought he could trust his old friend, Peter C Newman, when he asked him to eliminate certain details from his 2006 biography: The Secret Mulroney Tapes: The Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister. But, of course, those were the juiciest details!

Turning to this morning’s NT story, many theologians have never been able to figure out the so-called “Messianic secret” in Mark’s gospel. Meaning, Jesus wanted to keep his ‘Messiahship’ a secret, so that when he healed people, he then promptly notified them not to tell anybody, which is what he does in today’s gospel account—not once, but numerous times! In fact, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone; but the more he ordered them, the more they proclaimed it!

Did Jesus downplay his miraculous healings, knowing that people would focus on his miracles and not his message? Did Jesus worry about his messianic secret becoming known, fear that he would be made an earthly king, when his kingdom was of another world?

On the other hand, I’m thinking that Jesus simply knew human nature, because he himself was so immersed in it. He was a superb analyst of the human condition, par excellence, and he knew how to use paradoxical injunctions to his advantage. In other words, tell a child what they’re not supposed to do, and, more often than not, you can count on producing exactly that very behaviour.

So MF, a question for you! Were you shocked by the story of the healing of the gentile woman’s daughter, or even the healing of the deaf-mute? In the first case the woman was not even a Jew, but a Gentile who argued with Jesus. And in both cases, Jesus had to be begged to cure the two people. I suspect none of us were surprised by either healing, as we’ve heard the story many times, have developed a comfort level with Jesus and his words, so that we no longer see nor understand the radical nature of his words and deeds.

And yet, in today’s first gospel narrative, Mark portrays Jesus as exhibiting a tribal worldview, which divides the world up into us good guys and those bad Gentiles. Gentiles were called dogs by Jews in Jesus’ day. Gentiles of course also had their own metaphors to denigrate Jews—as Aryan Supremacists do today. MF, we would not expect a disparaging citation from Jesus! But listen to what he says to her when she begs him to heal her daughter: Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs! … a clear reference to Gentile dogs, you see!

In other words: Hey lady—my mission is to my own people. Why should I care about your daughter? Disturbing discourse, to say the least. The woman responds brilliantly: Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. To which Jesus replies: For saying that, you may go; the demon has left your daughter!

MF, this reads as if the woman showed either sufficient deference to the superiority of the Jews, or it could have been that her witty repartee pleased Jesus. But the question for us this morning is this: What are we to make of this story? Maybe Jesus was having a bad hair day. Earlier, the narrative did say that Jesus simply wanted to be left alone. Maybe he didn’t find the solitude he needed. After all, public figures and people persons need to isolate and seclude themselves, to recharge batteries, which Jesus does with regularity. But not finding solitude, he inadvertently slipped into the cultural default attitudes of his people against foreigners. At least that’s my assessment at this point, but I don’t know with any degree of certainty.

Now, as we know, Jesus’ followers understood him to be the fulfillment of OT prophecies, such as Isaiah’s reading this morning, which prophesied that God would strengthen the faint-hearted; open the eyes of the blind, unstop the ears of the deaf, and give the mute a voice.  But MF, notice that God only comes to His chosen people—the Jews—and would come with vengeance and terrible recompense to their enemies. … But, if Jesus was the promised one who would deliver the Jews from their enemies, Jesus did not follow the OT script. Why not? Whaddaythink? Three major issues:

One. Jesus’ mission was universal. It included all people, not just his fellow Jews and us Christians. Jesus didn’t just come to save just our people. Two: Jesus didn’t come with OT vengeance and recompense, but with sympathy and empathy, compassion and consideration, peace and non-violence. And 3: Jesus was crucified by his enemies. In other words: Was Jesus’ death a clear unequivocal defeat or was there a strange divine wisdom unfolding here?

Today’s gospel, MF, represents Mark’s community trying to come to terms with the first two issues. Personally, I think that todays’ healing narrative doesn’t reflect Jesus himself, but rather it reveals Mark, the writer-evangelist, trying come to terms with Jesus’ odd behaviour of venturing into Gentile territory and showing the same compassion toward Gentile dogs that he showed to his own people.

I think Mark needed to justify Jesus’ non-Jewish behaviour and so he presents the gentile woman as acknowledging that she occupied a lower rung on the socio-religious ladder. By admitting that she and her children are dogs, she wins Jesus’ approval and so he heals her daughter from a distance. This is Mark’s interpretation of the story he was given, since Mark, like the other gospel writers, was not an eye-witness to Jesus ministry.

MF, we should not at all be surprised to hear that Jesus’ first followers didn’t completely understand Jesus. I mean, even Paul had a tough time convincing Jesus’ disciples that the gentiles were loved by God! Paul had to fight with Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem, long after Jesus’ death. Acceptance of unclean, filthy foreigners was simply too radical an idea for them. The fact is this: Jesus exerted revolutionary and evolutionary pressure on the disciples.

Now, in a revolutionary world, ideas and beliefs, actions and reactions can change overnight—in the blink of an eye. But in an evolutionary universe, progress is very slow. In evolution, you can’t skip steps. The universe lays down structures—physical, biological, and spiritual—necessary for the emergence of the next level. Jesus comes on to the scene, and loves not just “us”, the so-called “good guys,” but he loves all people everywhere—everyone—all people and nations, tribes and clans, races and religions. What does he do? He exerts pressure that we jump to the next evolutionary level with him.

Well, if I’ve been raised in an ethnocentric and religious worldview, in which I belong to the chosen race and you don’t, then my understanding of Jesus, his wisdom and his message, is going to be filtered through my current stage of developmental comprehension.

Which is to say MF, each of the 4 gospel writers, who were also theologians, will present their own theological understanding of Jesus and his message. They will sometimes reflect, not Jesus’ consciousness, but their own. That’s why we get shocking stories like the one before us today. The gospel writers didn’t always and totally understand Jesus and his message. But then, neither do we. When your family and friends see you, what version of Jesus are they seeing?

So MF, we have a story in which Jesus intentionally journeys into the land of the enemy—the land of unclean, pagan Gentiles—and extends God’s compassionate healing to these foreigners. In the second narrative, Jesus commands that the hearing channels of the deaf mute be open. Ephatha! Be open! This is precisely the spiritual sensibility required for us to grow into the people God intends for us.

Jesus ventures into the foreign territory of your heart and mine, and invites us to be open: open to friend and foe, open to God and the HS. God knows that this territory is anything but pure and spotless. MF, if God limited her travels to the land of the holy and righteous, She might as well stay home. The good news of the gospels is that God crosses the borders of the holy and righteous and visits the profane country of our hearts. The Holy not only visits foreign lands, but is born in a cattle stall, because no other room is open. And yet, the HS opens our eyes and our ears and our hearts, if we allow it.

MF: that’s all that’s needed; a desire and a willingness to be open. When life hurts, be open. When life is hopeless, be open. When life is full of fear, be open. When life is loveless, be open. When life is too much to bear, be open. When we’ve done things that make us ashamed, be open. Be open to God’s healing grace.

MF, in the final analysis, that’s what a community of faith represents. We are a people who have been visited, in the strange and dark regions of our hearts, by the holy one. By nature, we are not holy people. We’re ordinary people who’ve been “opened up” by God’s grace, and desire to live out of that state of grace.

Living by grace means that we are not bound by all the states and conditions which chain us human beings: fear, prejudice, sexual orientation, loneliness, anger, manipulation, ego, bullying, hate, violence, abuse—even religion. That’s why doctrines, dogmas and creeds of any and all religions are but a stage of religious development. They are not eternal. They are not God. Creeds, doctrines and dogmas only serve to point towards sacred experiences. They can never ever capture the sacred, nor can contain divine truth.

And yet, many religious people think they own Truth with a capital T. That’s why these kinds of religious folks—and there are tens of millions of them across all global religions—that’s why they kill people who threaten their understanding of the truth. That’s why anyone who approaches God and truth from a context different from their own, that these folks are rejected and many murdered. We call them infidels and pagans if they are in different religious systems; heretics and apostates if they were part of our religious worldview.

More than anyone else, Jesus understood that no one can fit the holy God into creeds or credos, doctrines or dogmas, statements of faith or belief. Why? Because that’s idolatry. We cannot continue to create God in our own image and expect God to serve our needs. We cannot continue to pretend that we are the chosen few and all others will be damned. God is not an idol of our own creation. God does not do our bidding. God is God. We are not.

In the final analysis, that’s why Jesus commissioned his disciples to go into all the world. That is, they were to go beyond the boundaries of their nation and nationality, and most specifically beyond the boundaries even of their own religion and laws—just as Jesus did, many times. And having then escaped all these man-made boundaries, the disciples were to proclaim the gospel: the boundless love of God for all God has made—a love that recognizes no boundaries.

Boundless love will even love those who have sought to crucify the love of God. And that includes every species of living thing—every plant and planet, every tribe and tributary, every person and personality, here and everywhere. Boundless love means that everyone becomes God’s chosen. No one is an alien. No one is a foreigner. No one is separate from God or from one another. We are all connected. We all live in God and God in us.

We are to be witnesses of God’s boundless love starting in our own backyards to the ends of the earth. The name of Jesus is now Emmanuel, which means that God is with us—that is, God is with all 7 billion plus people in the world—people present, past and future. And God can be that because God is spirit, and as spirit, the boundaries of the nation-states, including their language and culture and tradition, are now erased and every person speaks the language of universal love. “Only through love,” said Albert Schweitzer, “do we attain communion with God.”

And that, MF, is the only way that God can be with us, now and through the centuries—for each of us to allow God to live and love through us, through our humanity. That’s the next chapter of our lives. We just need to turn the page and create that chapter.

MF, that’s the good news for today and for the rest of our lives. AMEN

Dear Friends. Thank you for coming to help me celebrate 42 years of ordained ministry, which includes over 4,000 sermons in English and God’s Mother Tongue. On this Anniversary Sunday, I’m reminded of the words of Mark Twain who asked: What ought to be done with the man who invented the celebration of anniversaries? Twain famously answered: Mere death would be too light a sentence! He may be right, if you good folks are thinking: Oh no! Not another anniversary, which is what Sherry said on the 12th of this month, when she celebrated the 24th anniversary of her 49th birthday.

Another anniversary is not a time for me to give God the cream in my coffee or the foam off my Lowenbrau, much less a sampler from my box of Black Magic chocolates. Ordination anniversaries have always been a compelling reason for me to rethink ministry—to advocate limits to our human and cultural excesses and to live a more simple, uncomplicated life. 42 years of anniversaries have forced me to conclude that, far too much of what I have considered Christian ministry in 4 bilingual parishes has been concerned with “churching” folks into an all too comfortable pew of ethnic and cultural belonging, rather than into a genuine spiritual transformation of what it means to follow Jesus.

Let me put it this way: The only people I can trust with saying that “It’s important to be Canadian and Lutheran” are those who know that to be Canadian and Lutheran isn’t finally what it’s all about. The Kingdom of God is what it’s all about! Even Luther argued that he was a citizen of God’s Kingdom, before he was anything else. Once we begin to commit to the Kingdom of God, only then can we begin to understand what following Jesus is really about.

MF, however important culture and ethnicity are, Jesus calls us to traverse our man-made boundaries of clan and clique, race and tribe, creed and religion, which is what Jesus himself did, many times, which of course got him into trouble—big time! That’s why I suspect that too much of my ministry only legitimated the cultural and ethnic self—fortifying it with all kinds of religious armour, which keep us from changing the way we do church, from business as usual to being transformed by the HS, from the inside out.

You may know that 1stC Christianity began as a movement called The Way, which flourished despite being labelled a sect of Judaism and traitors to the empire. So they worshipped in secret, in people’s houses and in catacombs; but if found out, they were executed in public for treason. Then in the 4thC, Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity, which became the institutional religion of the now Holy Roman Empire. The Church was no longer a movement to challenge mainstream. The Church became The Mainstream, and when you’re the mainstream, MF, there’s no need to change.

That’s why church folks are almost impossible to change. They don’t think they need it. On the other hand, because the church is in serious decline in the West, that should force us to change how we do church and do truth. The fact is, truth cannot be possessed. It can only be served. That’s why on this 42nd anniversary, I must confess: Parish ministry is a very hard road to hoe and much less travelled than it used to be. Ordained ministry is still the Calling from God it’s always been, but there are far less shepherds and sheep—white or black—than there used to be.

Having said that, the advantage nowadays is that those who are left in our small struggling parishes are there because they want to be, not because they have to be or should be. There is much more of a stigma attached these days to going to church than not going. You and I, MF, are the committed remnant of a once influential team of church members. And precisely because we are the dedicated      remainder, we have reason for hope, it seems to me.

In 2007, I saw a movie called The Visitor. The protagonist is an aging economics professor, Walter, who has been a widower for some years. Though still in grief, he is faking being alive. Walter’s uniform is a suit and a tie and he follows the same boring routine, day in and day out. He hasn’t written anything original, and lost interest in his field of economics years ago. He’s putting in time until his pension kicks in. Walter died long ago. He just forgot to stop breathing.

One day, his department sends him to New York to give a lecture, which he plagiarized, but doesn’t care. Through a series of surprising events, Walter strikes up a relationship with a young Syrian named, Tarek, who plays the jambe—a kind of drum—and Walter is fascinated with the instrument. Tarek teaches Walter to play. In fact, Walter even removes his tie, as his awkward hands learn to tap out a beat. When nobody is around, he even plays in his underwear.

Walter slowly, painfully starts to come back to life, as the two men become the most unlikely of friends. Then one day, the authorities arrest Tarek, and Walter is his only hope. By day Walter becomes Tarek’s visitor and sole advocate. By night, Walter becomes a jambe freak, playing in drum circles in Central Park, and listening to World Music on the stereo. It’s an amazing experience to witness the resurrection of Walter. You see, he’s got a life again.

After watching the movie, I thought: “Walter is like the church.” He’s only going through the motions. There are lots of folks who feel exactly like Water, because they’re still in grief for what church life used to be: hundreds of SS children; confirmation classes eager to learn; services filled to overflowing; vibrant youth groups; and pastors who were wise, respected and sought out.

MF, I wonder if church members, like Walter, are faking it. Sanctuaries and worship services once acted as our own personal and private space, buffer zones against the threat of change. Because we believed that God did not change, neither did the church. Like Walter, we were then jumped by a couple of unwelcome intruders. MF, these intruders were not people. They were worldviews which challenged our status quo in fundamental ways, just as Walter’s position was challenged. Here I’m talking about traditional vs modern vs postmodern viewpoints.

There’s an analogy I know Wayne will like, which helps us distinguish these views. Imagine that life is like a baseball game. It’s not about striking out or hitting home runs. In this game, there are not one, but 3 umpires assigned to call the balls and strikes. So, asked how he distinguishes between balls and strikes, the traditional umpire says: I call ‘em as they are! This ump instinctively knows a ball or a strike, because he is in possession of infallible judgment and truth with a capital T.

The modern umpire says: I call ‘em as I see them. And how he sees them, MF, is aided by technology, like the instant replay. This ump is objective and scientific in calling the balls and strikes.

The postmodern umpire says: They ain’t nothin’, till I call ‘em. For this third ump, everything is relative and contextual. Everything is subjective and personal. There is no objectivity or truth, only interpretations that are shaped by cultural context and viewpoint.

So, here we are MF, in the third decade of the 21st century at the beginning of the 3rd millennium. As the church, we have little authority as an institution. But like everyone else, we also have the right to make all kinds of truth-claims, even though they are made to a disbelieving public—that’s if the public is even paying attention.

We know that it’s possible to be good and moral without believing in God. The Christian story is just one possible narrative among many others. And if that’s not enough, there are folks inside and outside the church who have a strong bias against clergy, and therefore work to undermine their efforts. MF, I know something about that.

For many traditional folks, modernism and postmodernism entered their church, thicker than thieves in the night. MF, we can’t simply brush off our suits and straighten our ties. Like Walter, the church today desperately needs to incorporate different drumbeats: modern & post-modern, capitalism & socialism, liberal & conservative, etc. Why? Not only because God is a God of variety and diversity, but because no one “ism” has a market on the corner of truth. 

Well MF, we live in a finite world where everything is dying, shedding its strength, including the church. This is hard to accept, and so we look for exceptions to this. We look for something certain and strong, undying and infinite. Religion tells us that that “something” is God. So, we envision God as absolute and all-powerful, a God removed from suffering. But the trouble is: In Jesus, God says: Even I participate in the finiteness of this planet. Even I suffer.

Well MF, after 2,000 years, Jesus is still a revolutionary. He turns theology upside down and inside out, teaching that God is not who we/you think God is!Greeks, Romans and many other civilizations sacrificed humans to the gods. But Christianity turned that sacrifice on its head: In Jesus, God sacrifices himself for humanity.

God does not separate herself from our human ordeals. God is not a spectator. God does not watch our human suffering from a distance. Why didn’t God stop the holocaust? She couldn’t! Why not? Because God was in every one of the 6 million gassed in the chambers. God participates in our suffering.

MF, we encounter God not only in the beauty of the tiniest flower or bird and in the majesty of the Himalayas and Rockies, but we also meet God in our pain and in the suffering of our world. In fact, pain and beauty constitute the two faces of God.

MF what the church needs is less pastors who just carry out church work in business as usual, than prophets who call us to face the realities of enslavement to self and call the people to repentance and spiritual transformation, just as Jesus did. That’s why for me, however necessary institutional religion may be, Jesus calls for a much more arduous undertaking—to follow a road much less travelled.

Following Jesus is not a religion, but a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, forgiving and loving. Trouble is: We’ve made it into an established “religion” and all that goes with it—avoiding change and transformation. Believers in God have been warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain throughout most of human history and still believe that Jesus is “my personal Lord and Savior.” The world has no time for such brazen hypocrisy and blatant superficiality anymore.

I’ve said it before: There are only two kinds of religion. One believes that God will love me if I change. The other believes that God loves me so that I can change. The first is very commonly held. The second flows from a personal and profound experience of the spiritual indwelling of God’s Love. Ideas inform, but only love transforms.

Pragmatic, practice-based Christianity has been avoided, denied, minimized, ignored, delayed, and sidelined for too many centuries, by too many Christians who were never told Christianity was anything more than a denominational belief system and in which church just became our own little club. I know Christians who were afraid to step foot into a house of worship across the street for fear of eternal punishment. Now we finally know better.

Today, we also know that there is no Anglican or Catholic way of administering the sacraments. There is no Pentecostal or Presbyterian way of believing the right stuff. There is no Lutheran or Mennonite way of living a simple and nonviolent life. There is no Methodist or Tela-Evangelist way of financial success. There is no Baptist or United way of conversion to a particular denomination. MF, the denomination scene has long since served its purpose. There is only one way and that is the Christian Way. The church will continue to pay a huge price in decline, when we avoid what Jesus actually emphasized and mandated.

For me personally and professionally on this 42nd Anniversary of my Ordination, I’m not unhappy or opposed to a much smaller church, which should finally force all of us to seriously re-think Christianity and church and what it means to follow Jesus in our generation and in the global situation of suffering faced by hundreds of millions of men, women and children on our planet. Following Jesus and spiritual transformation go hand in hand for me. Rebuilding spirituality from the ground up is critical for me. “In this critical time, the love of Christ urges us forward” said Paul in 2 Cor.

So MF, what does this “urging us forward” look like, if I were to tell you what I think rebuilding Christianity from the ground up might mean for serious Christians. Let me put this in 12 points for you:

  1. Jesus is a model for life and living more than an object of worship Sunday morning.
  2. Jesus did not call us to a new religion. He called us to a new way of life and living—a simple, unadorned life of loving and living, giving, forgiving and thanksgiving.
  3. Affirming people’s potential is more important than reminding them of their brokenness.
  4. The work of reconciliation should be valued more than constantly making judgments.
  5. Gracious behavior and mercy is more important than believing the right things about God or Jesus.
  6. Questions are more valuable than always supplying answers.
  7. The personal search for questions and answers is more important than group uniformity.
  8. Meeting actual needs is more critical than maintaining institutions.
  9. Peacemaking and non-violent activism are imperative to the establishment of peace in the world. Peace through peacemaking is the essence of resolving global crises and much more effective in the long run, than continuous, endless wars
  10. We need to care more about genuine love and less about more gratuitous sex.
  11. Life in this world is much more central and important than the afterlife. After all, eternity is God’s business and work, not ours.
  12. We need to stop playing God, and let God be God.

Well, MF. On the 42nd Anniversary of my Ordination, this is my way for starting to rebuild Christianity from the ground up. And, if by chance you agree with me, you’re already participating in the Kingdom of God with me. That’s Good New for today and for the rest of our lives.

Let me close with Charles Dickens’ blessing in his famous A Christmas Carol: God bless us, everyone! AMEN.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him. (v.56)

Dear Friends. The Gospel readings in August have been from John Ch 6, which centers on Jesus’ words about offering himself as Body and Blood in the Bread and Wine, for his disciples and anyone who eats and drinks these. I’m sure you’re all aware that there are significantly different interpretations of the bread and wine, as there is of Scripture itself. This morning, let me provide you with some historical background in the development and interpretation of HC.

In 42 years as an ordained clergyman, I’ve celebrated the Eucharist a few thousand times. But I grew up, as you know, in a German speaking LC in Hamilton, where HC was only celebrated once a month and then not even as part of the service. The service concluded and most of the 300 plus worshippers left and the remaining 20 stayed to receive the sacrament. That was the mid-60s, but prior to that, HC was offered only once a year—Good Friday—when the Germans attended church in the 100s to receive the sacrament. A year later, their sins having piled up by the thousands, they’d return for their annual dose of forgiveness. From their viewpoint, when Jesus said, “Do this to remember me,” he didn’t give a number as to how he should be remembered.

Now, the word Eucharist is Greek for “Thanksgiving”—Greek because the NT was written in Greek by 2nd-3rd-and 4th generation Greek Christians. So, Jesus’ words of Institution of the Bread & Wine are written in Greek. The trouble is Jesus and his disciples didn’t speak the language. They spoke Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew, which means that like most translations, there’s a disconnect, resulting in differing interpretations of This is my body; This is my blood. Mistranslation is very possible, when we start with Aramaic, translate to Greek, then to English and over 450 other languages.

Now, there was a Jewish historian, Josephus by name, who lived 37-100 AD and he observed that the Romans and Greeks accused the Christians of being cannibals, who claimed to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus, whom they said is God’s Son. This practice was upside down, according to the Romans and Greeks who offered human sacrifice to the gods. The Christians turned this practice on its head: God’s Son offers himself in sacrifice to humans.

Now, when Jesus was baptized for the forgiveness of sins at the age of 30, his followers modelled this practice and were themselves baptized for the forgiveness of sins, as they awaited Jesus’ 2nd Coming. Baptism provided them with a clean moral slate in preparation for his return. Trouble is, Jesus wasn’t in a hurry to return and so the sins began piling up, which meant that multiple baptisms became necessary. The longer Jesus delayed, the more baptisms were needed, The question was: What to do? Well folks, any ideas? Anyone?

So, there were some wise church fathers decided that HC which also forgave sins, would be the vehicle to forgive personal sins, while baptism would be the vehicle to forgive our human nature to sin. In short, baptism forgives our sinful human nature, while HC forgives our individual sins which pile up from 1 week to another.

Let me give you another important distinction. When Jesus sat down with his disciples on Maundy Thursday in that locked upper room, it was the Passover Meal they commemorated—God passing over the Israelites to strike death upon the first born of the Egyptians, after which Pharaoh Ramses II let the Hebrew slaves go free after 400 years of bondage. So, Jesus commemorated the Passover with a meal of bitter herbs, which then concluded with the sharing of bread and wine which Jesus identified as his Body and Blood.

Now, when the early church was still in its infancy, a Passover meal concluding with bread & wine among small intimate numbers was no problem. But as the church grew, adding common Gentiles and wealthy Greeks, the mixing of rich and poor classes of Christians at a large Passover meal became not only lengthy and difficult, it became very unequal and uncomfortable—the rich bringing lots of expensive food; the poor bringing little and cheap food. So, what did the church do? It eliminated the Passover meal of bitter herbs, while Bread and Wine, representing Jesus Body and Blood, became the symbols of a complete and full meal. MF, it is at this point that the tradition of the Last Supper as we know it today crystallized.

But then another huge problem arose, which already had its genesis during Jesus-time: namely, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel which stated that the Bread and Wine were his Body and Blood. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they asked in anger. The result? “Many refused to believe in Jesus!” to which Jesus asks his disciples if they too were going to leave him. But Peter responds:

“Where shall we go, o Lord, for you have the words of eternal life.”

Now MF, turn the pages of history ahead 1,500 years. Martin Luther disagreed big time with the Catholic teaching of Transubstantiation, that Bread & Wine literally change into the physical Body & Blood of Jesus. So, when Luther celebrated Mass for the first time, he couldn’t do it—believing he was holding the very Body & Blood of Jesus in his hands. So, what did Luther then do? He changed the teaching from Catholic Transsubstantiation to Lutheran Consubstantiation, that the Bread & Wine always remain ordinary bread and wine, but that Jesus’ spirit is really present in these earthly elements. This Luther called The Real Presence.

Clearly MF, there is an historical evolution or development in the teaching and practice of HC from Jesus’ time to our own. That’s not opinion! That’s fact! There are many layers of tradition, countless nuances with respect to the theology and practice of HC, which one sermon could never communicate. But there are 3 basic layers of tradition in the early church to the development of this sacrament.

The first layer is that the origin of the Eucharist originates with Jesus. I don’t mean officially at the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday. I mean, that during his 3-year ministry as a Prophet from Nazareth, Jesus instituted what theologians have called a “Table Fellowship” in which he practiced an open hospitality to anyone who wished to participate. If you’ve ever read the four gospels, you discover that Jesus had meals with all kinds of folks—meals in which he was invited or in which he did the inviting, but also meals which he used as vehicles to get his message across about God’s Kingdom.

The problem for the religious leaders of the time was that Jesus invited anyone to join in the meals he offered—and quite often the people who joined Jesus undermined the class structures of Jewish society and purity codes. Nor did Jesus demand that his disciples wash their hands in a proper ritualistic way before eating. In fact, Jesus himself had a reputation for being a wine bibber and drunk-ard, who consorted with prostitutes, ate with tax collectors, drank with sinners and who ate and drank with defiled hands. Why? Because Jesus allowed the poor—those on the edges of Jewish society to participate in his Table Fellowship.

Jesus invited people who wouldn’t normally find themselves at the same table to eat with each other, much less with Jesus: the impure, women, tax collectors, prostitutes, adulterers, and sinners of all stripes and persuasions. And for this reason, Jesus gained the despicable reputation he did, not among the masses of people, but among the religious leaders and the synagogues.

Someone once said, “We are who we eat with,” and in Jesus’ case he ate with people the religious rules said was not proper. But Jesus disregarded those rules and broke down the walls which separated people, such that whenever this motley crowd sat down together for a meal, Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was coming into reality.

The second layer of meaning flows from the early church’s experience of the Resurrection. After Jesus’ Resurrection, the early church experienced that Jesus was somehow still with them. In fact, his presence was especially vivid when the church got together to share a meal in his name. The Emmaus story captures this experience most dramatically. You’ll remember that two disciples are walking home after the crucifixion, when they are joined by a stranger. It’s not until they sit down to break bread and share fish that they recognize the stranger to be the Risen Christ.

So MF, when we break bread and share the cup, we are also reenacting the radical hospitality of Jesus who invites all to his Table. We are celebrating the mystery of Christ’s risen presence among us today, just like the disciples’ experience on the road to Emmaus.

The 3rd major development is the primary meaning which the church attached to Jesus’ death as a sacrificial death. While the nature of that sacrifice has been debated over the centuries, Lutherans have a particular understanding of it, as we do of HC. Although it’s beyond the scope of this sermon, let me address a point I’ve made before. It’s a controversial’ but for me it’s axiomatic:

Jesus never came to start a new religion, but to reform the one he had. Jesus of course was a Jew who believed in Judaism, who also died a Jew. still believing in Judaism. Which is to say: Jesus’ religion is one thing, but what happened over the centuries in the church is that the religion of Jesus eventually became the religion about Jesus and his sacrifice. I cannot state this enough!

While Jesus preached God’s Kingdom, the Church preached Jesus as the personification of that Kingdom, made available in Bread & Wine. That’s why the Eucharist began to focus more on the sacrificial meaning of Jesus’ death, and less and less on the Jesus radical invitation for hospitality at an Open Table where everyone is invited—regardless of class and wealth, Gentile or Jewish origin. That’s why the RC, Anglican and Lutheran churches refer to an Altar where a sacrifice has taken place; whereas United, Methodist, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Christian Reformed, Salvation Army, etc, refer to a Table and Communion as a Rite and not a sacrament.

MF, you can now see how the church moved away from what theologians considered Jesus’ original notion of an Open Table, meant for the transformation of everyone, including outsiders, to an altar of sacrifice meant strictly for church insiders and their edification. Given this scenario, MF, the church then eventually initiated the following changes in thinking and practice:

(1) Only the properly initiated and educated, who share the same beliefs, were to be welcomed to the Lord’s Table. Children could not take communion because they were not really true believers, as they could not yet comprehend the meaning of the Sacrament.

(2) Given its new sacramental meaning, the Bread & Wine now required ordained priests to dispense the elements. Why? Because only the ordained were personally called by God and, given their holy life, they alone could use the Words of Institutionto change Bread & Wine into Body & Blood, or at least to bless it.

(3) So, as a practice within the institutional church, HC was no longer the welcoming of everyone and the transformation of society, but was the enactment of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Which is to say: HC now became a sacred activity within the membership of the church. Jesus’ Open Table became a Closed Altar, which had a fence or rail around it, setting it aside from the secular and the public, and which only priests and/or ministers could approach.

And if all this was not enough, let me remind you, MF, of all the churches which do not even allow other Christians to their Communion table—an indication of the restrictions which the church has placed on an originally welcoming and openness to all by Jesus. And btw, that restriction applies not only to HC, but to Baptism and Membership, and therefore what one believes about Jesus, which separates them from all others.

MF, have there been times when you’ve been denied HC in God’s church by other denominational clergy or lay leaders? There are many who would not allow you or me to receive HC. The RCC, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod; many associations of Pentecostal and Baptist Churches, the Christian Reformed Church, and many independent sectarian congregations.

It’s absolutely unconscionable how we’ve turned Jesus’ Open Table Fellowship into a closed, self-righteous, arrogant and absolutist activity in Christ’s Church. 2.000 years of the church playing god, which is the farthest removed from Christ’s vision to be all welcoming and inclusive. It’s a human disgrace, because it does not allow God’s divine grace in HC to operate!

Eg: Let me tell you that I was not allowed to baptize my own grandchildren, because their parents, including my elder daughter, belongs to the Christian Reformed church which regards me as a heretic, not only for believing in the rights of homosexuals, but belonging to a church which marries them and ordains them, together with women whom we’ve been ordaining for over 40 years now.

MF, it is always the Lord Jesus who invites everyone and anyone to his Table of Bread & Wine. So, if there is a Table or Altar at which you are not welcome, it is not Christ who turns you away, it is that church, that denomination, that priest or that pastor or that lay leader who turns you away, because in that church, they’ve made HC their sacrament, not God’s sacrament. And that MF, is the farthest removed from Christ’s original vision there can be!

MF, the experience of not being welcome at the Lord’s Table is an experience of condemnation and not one of salvation. It is an experience of exclusion and not inclusion. That’s why it’s long past time for the global church to make HC open to everyone, regardless of age. If infants can receive HB without understanding or being aware of what has been done to them, surely they can receive the Bread and Wine or Grape Juice by which they remember Jesus, who said, Forbid not the children to come to me, for such is the Kingdom of God.

That MF is the good news for today and for the rest of our lives. Amen

Do not be completely ignorant and stubborn, living like those who have lost all shame, giving yourselves over to vice and lack of restraint. Eph 4:18-19

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 bluntly to counter what he saw as a prevailing sense of entitlement in North Americans to an easy, carefree life. Covid notwithstanding, it’s a recent phenomena, says Peck, for people to be surprised and disillusioned when they experience struggle and hardship. But Peck states that it is the norm and childish to expect otherwise. In fact, you may know that the ideal of a carefree life has spawned the pharmaceutical to manufacture a pill which will alter our brain chemistry in search of that elusive state called happiness.

Give it up! says Peck. Life wasn’t meant to be easy! Even if we’ve got money, emotional stability, thriving and healthy relationships for support, unexpected tragedy or illness renders life precarious at best. Deep down, we know it, but refuse to admit it. Or we wake up one day, knowing that we are blessed, but also knowing that we’ve now lived more of life than we’ve got left. Mortality hits us like a rat in a drain. Scott Peck is absolutely right. Life is difficult—at the best of times. You know it. I know it. We all know it! The question is: What can we do about it, if anything?

Now, the televangelists say one thing, while reality is quite another. They live in their multi-million-dollar mansions and fly around in their private jets, and describe Jesus’ Gospel as success-driven and materially oriented, which gives credence to their lifestyle. But in reality, being a Christian is not a panacea. In fact, doesn’t Jesus make life even more difficult? Consider his words:

I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. A family will be divided against itself: son against father; daughter against mother. One’s enemies will be those in your own household. Pick up you cross and follow me. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Likewise, if your foot or hand causes you to sin, cut them off. You have heard it said: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you: Do not take revenge against those who wrong you. You also have heard it said: Love your friends and hate your enemies. But I say: Love your enemies and pray for them. When you do something good, do it in private, where only God sees. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Do not store riches up for yourself here on earth. You cannot serve both God and money. Don’t fret over your clothes and food. Do not judge others, lest God judge you. Why do you want to remove the speck in your bother’s eye, but not the log in your own? Not everyone who calls me “Lord” will enter the Kingdom, but only those who do what I say.

Well, it certainly does not sound as if Jesus is making our life any easier, does it? In short, it costs something to follow Jesus, and that cost is certainly much more than money. And so here we are, MF, living in a transitional age such as ours is very scary. We thought Covid was lessening, but now with the Delta variant, we’re in Stage 4 with cases and deaths rising again. But now we learn that Stage 5 and the B1.621 variant is just around the corner.

It seems that things are still falling apart, the future is unknowable, so much doesn’t cohere or make sense. We can’t seem to put order to it. This is our postmodern panic, MF. It lies beneath most of our cynicism, anxiety and aggression. In fact, there is little in the Bible that ever promised us an ordered universe. Scripture is about meeting God in the actual, existential moment. And I find it rather amazing that we ever tried to order and control everything.

Chaos often precedes great creativity, and in fact, great suffering and great love are the two universal paths of transformation. Both are the ultimate crises for our human ego. Like the onslaught of Covid, the global crisis begins without warning, shatters our assumptions about the way the world works, and changes our story and that of our neighbors. The reality which was so familiar is gone suddenly, and the majority of folks  don’t know what is happening.

Life is a fragile sphere which holds our daily routines and beliefs in order and stability. Then sudden and catastrophic crises shatter this illusion of normalcy. I’m referring to oppression, violence, unending war, pandemics, abuses of power, natural disasters, planetary disturbances. In our own country, we’ve been elated with the results of Canadian athletes in the Tokyo Summer Olympics, but it has all been overshadowed with the discovery of the hundreds of unmarked graves of native children, ripped from their parents 75 years ago and placed in residential schools. Now we learn that the government, in cahoots with the RCC, was secretly attempting to eliminate the native population.

MF, we can usually identity three common elements in every crisis: 1. The event is usually unexpected. 2. The person or community is unprepared. And 3. There is nothing that anyone could do to stop it from happening. Even if there are signs everywhere that something is not right, we tend to ignore the warnings and the signposts. This is especially true of climate change. What does it take to shift our gaze from the comfort of our daily routines—especially politicians? The slave catchers and roundups for native removal, the pandemics, devastating hurricanes and volcanic eruptions catch us off guard. Bereft of words, we all ask: How can this possibily be happening?

The American theologian and civil rights leader, MLK Jr once commented: When all hope amid crises and chaos seems unrealistic and groundless, the heart turns to a way of escape beyond not only the present order, but from God himself—in fact, the heart even blames God for the anarchy and disorder.

Well MF, when crisis and chaos is upon us; when a crack ruptures and shatters self and faith, community and institutions, order and presumptions about how the world works—when the ordinary isn’t ordinary anymore, it’s a very short distance, even for Christians, to begin to wonder if there are any constants left in the world? In fact, throughout recorded history, the very worst things in life have happened: entire peoples have been subjugated, enslaved, and even exterminated. Sometimes these acts were committed in the name of a king or queen, other times in the name of a tribe or country.

Often they were committed in the name of God. Always they were done to consolidate and expand the power of a select few. Always, vast numbers of people died for no good reason. Always, a greater number of people needlessly suffered to sate the appetites of that select group. These are crimes against humanity, and these crimes continue to be executed across our planet to this very day.

In fact, these crimes are perpetrated in a never-ending cycle. The powerful oppress the less powerful, who in turn oppress those even less powerful than they. MF, we often see this even within families! These cycles of oppression leave scars on the victims and victors alike, scars that embed themselves in our collective psyches and are passed down through generations, robbing us all of our humanity.

All of us experience the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust, but we do not all experience this pain and suffering in the same way. Wounds caused by oppression that are passed down over generations are the most painful; while the wounds that we don’t know about or don’t remember are the deepest.

And yet, the miracle is this: It is through our wounds that we travel to arrive at a peace that surpasses all understanding. Healing is possible because we have the ability to spiritually meet our wounds head on. Like Jesus who faced his wounds, we can allow crises to make us, rather than break us. We can allow Jesus’ wounds to heal us, because ultimately, only wounds can heal other wounds.

Now one can decide how many and how deep our wounds must be before we’re prepared to deal with them—to break the cycle of pain and to reclaim our humanity, which requires great effort and much work, individually and collectively.

Those who have been the victims of years, decades, and even centuries of oppression must heal from injuries received first-hand, as well as those passed down through the ages. Those who have been the perpetrators of unspeakable crimes, and those who continue to benefit from such crimes, have to honestly confront their deeds and heal from the psychic wounds that come with being the cause and beneficiaries of such great pain and suffering.

The fact is this, MF: Whether we identify as a victim or a victor, we are all wounded—me too! If we could confront our wounds as the way to healing, as Jesus did, then they would become sacred wounds, and not something to deny, disguise, or export to others. I’ve frequently said that if we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it, usually to those closest to us. The given is that we will have pain! Spirituality is about transforming both history and individuals so that we don’t just keep handing on this pain to the next generation, consciously or unconsciously.

MF, the fact is that Jesus rose with the wounds still evident in his hands, feet and side. MF, this wasn’t simply because it was the means by which the disciples identified Jesus as their Lord. Rather, the wounded and scarred risen body is a way of reminding all of us: Though this world continues to wound and scar, we need to transform spiritually in order to deal with the wounds—otherwise, we never will and the wounds will bury us, long before we die.

Only then can we walk in the newness of life over death, love over hate, sharing over greed, giving over hoarding, understanding over complaining, compassion over apathy, peace over violence, asking for forgiveness and forgiving over not asking and never forgiving.

There are more scars and wounds, hurts and pains, than we can count in one lifetime, and they will continue. MF, we all carry the cross-hatching of a thousand wounds. The wounds of childhood, still bleeding like a stigma, a badge of shame we wear our life-long. Or the wounds of adolescence, still stinging with remembered pain. Or, the bitter wounds of adult failures, or soured loves and lost dreams. Or the decimating wounds of old age and still advancing. How to make all these wounds just go away?

The answer does not lie in learning how to protect ourselves from life. The answer lies in learning how to strengthen ourselves, so that we can let more of life in, and therefore allow our faith to come alive! Let your faith be active in love. Let your faith be fired by love. And when your love cares for the wounded and the painful, then you will meet the risen Jesus whose wounds will heal you and me, because only wounds can heal other wounds.

MF, there are hundreds, if not thousands of pages in the book of life, numerous kinds of lives each of us can live—so many, many ways to be rich, but even more ways to be poor. There are those who chose their own hell, and having chosen it, inflict others with the wounds of their hell and even blame them for it. “April is the cruelest month,” TS Eliot once wrote, because April involves rebirth and most people would rather lie dormant and not come to life. But just as we have to walk with love, we also have to walk towards fear, and we must know what hurts a lot and look at its teeth.

Like each of you MF, I too am part of all that I have met.   I’d venture to say that most of us would have skipped a chapter of our lives here and there, if we were the ones to choose the chapters. But in the end, it doesn’t matter what happened to make you who and what you are today, only if you want to live in the past with all its wounds and sorrow, and many do—many prefer to wallow in their pain rather than attempt to move on with their lives. Why? Because they revel in their wounds, like battle regalia. The past covers their wounds, the lesions never heal; because they’re never exposed to the light of day, never exposed to the present.

The older I get, MF, the clearer it becomes to me, that no one is cheated in this world, unless it is by himself. As Oscar Wilde said: When we wish to punish ourselves, we answer our own prayers.

The fact is this: We’ve all held the hammer which pounded the nails and drove the spear into Jesus’ side and we’ve all beheld the wounds of the crucified one in the face of our neighbour, as well as in the mirror, after our morning coffee or tea. MF I know all this happens far more than we would wish. Meanwhile most Christians remain only itinerant pilgrims and never really come to live the resurrected life which God offers them in Jesus.

MF, it doesn’t matter how and what happened to you or me which has helped make us what we are today. What matters is that we are here today, right now. What matters is that our faith is an act of love today for our wounded Risen Lord, who meets us in our neighbour and enemy, but also in the mirror, the one who feeds us in order that we remain here and be whom he calls us to be right now!

For in this graced moment, MF, Jesus’ wounded body heals us in preparation for the unbounded love which comes to us in this world already; in fact comes to us right now, as I speak and you listen. Our wounded Risen Lord is forever, and we who have also been wounded and scarred, stand within the wings of his healing power. Like the world, we are healed by his wounds, because that’s the only power by which we be can be healed—in this life and in the next.

That’s the good news for today and for the rest of our lives. AMEN.

Since you are God’s dear children, you must try to be like him. Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us… Eph. 5:1-2a

 Dear Friends. After 42 years of preaching over 4 thousand sermons in English and God’s Mother Tongue, my Numero Uno all-time theme is? Love! And yet, it’s also got to be one of the most difficult subjects, which may seem odd, because if I was to ask you here this morning to define God, my hunch is that most of you would say God is love.

In today’s Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul admonishes his community to be like God—to love one another. Clearly Paul is responding to a failure to love. In fact, he warns his flock against wicked and immoral activity—lying, stealing, violence, dishonesty, greed—all kinds of behaviour which is inconsistent with the life that they have in Christ. Since they are God’s children, they must imitate Jesus’ life of love.

Trouble is, the human journey to love and be loved is fraught with enormous peril. Each stage of life is marked, not only by love’s triumphs, but also its ignoble failures. Not one of us gets to adulthood with our hearts intact. The failure to love and be loved at each stage of life always returns to haunt us. I tell couples, young & old, who are marrying: The demons of childhood will come back to vex and plague you, the very moment you pledge yourselves totally to one another.

MF, we all agree that God is love, and that we’re meant to love one another, but the reality of actually loving someone is much easier said than done! The German poet Rilke said that for one human being to love another, this is life’s greatest challenge, the last test and proof, the ultimate, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

In his book, Mein Glaube [My Belief], the German novelist Herrmann Hesse wrote: There is only a single magic, a singe power, a single salvation, and a single happiness, and that is called love and loving. MF, there is no better way I know out of our selfish selves, no better way I know to save ourselves from our egotistical ways than by love and loving, to love and be loved.

“All you need is love,” John Lennon once sang, and he was absolutely right. But then he went on to croon: “It’s easy!” MF I beg to differ big time! To quote The Rose, written by Amanda McBroom and made famous by Bette Milder in the 1979 movie by the same name–The Rose:

Some say love, it is a river that drowns the tender reeds; Some say love, it is a razor, that leaves the soul to bleed; Some say love, it is a hunger, an endless aching need. But I say love, it is a flower, and you must plant the seed. My sentiments exactly!

You and I are the seed which God plants in the little corner of the world in which we live and grow, bloom and blossom on behalf of God’s Kingdom. We are the candles with which God illuminates the darkness of this world and brightens the shadows of those who need us. Jesus calls us to be lights for each other, and through each other’s illumination, we will see the way Jesus points.

MF, the world needs all the power and love, energy and enthusiasm we have, because each of us has something positive to contribute. The responsibility is to find it within ourselves and then give it away, and having given it away, there will always be more. Why? Because hoarding always diminishes us, while sharing always enlarges our hearts.

Spiritual development is a long and arduous journey, an adventure through many strange lands full of surprises and joy, beauty and fear, difficulties and dangers. But in that journey, each of us is a seed, a silent promise to walk the road less traveled with one another. And doing that, it will always be spring.  

The fact is this: We cannot succeed in changing things and people according to the way we see them or wish them to be. But we can change ourselves! It’s the only thing we can change—how see others and how we wish things to be. Failure to change ourselves is to serve a life-sentence in the dungeons of self. 2x

MF, there are two fundamental urges in our human evolution: one is to grow and the other is to survive. So, let me tell you as straight-forward and candidly as I can: When we’re in survival mode, growth stops! If, for instance, we learn that the world doesn’t care about us, that others—family and friends—are indifferent to our needs for security, affection, freedom; or if we believe that the only way to get love is to please others; or that loving another is far too risky, that sexuality is unsafe at any price; or that we don’t feel a sense of belonging; or if things don’t go “my way”; if all or most of these conditions persist, then we will go into survival mode.

No question about it! There are a lot of people in survival mode—as well as in the church—especially the church, when we consider the folks who don’t want change in the church. When we’re in survival mode, then sermons are only words which have no real impact; folks worship only out of habit, tradition or duty; people are only there to be used and controlled. Pastors are there to be complained about, which makes some people feel better about themselves. But that’s only short-term. When we’re in survival mode, then there’s simply no energy or capacity or incentive to truly love others. Why? Because we can’t get beyond ourselves to love or care for another. How can we, when we’re so curved in on ourselves, perhaps on the border of obsession?

The only way to get to love others or another intimately is to bring our consciousness to bear on our lives. Here I’m speaking of the spiritual discipline of a life of consciously loving another. The first step is to take responsibility for the failures of love in our lives. And by this, we need to take personal responsibility to do three things:

  1. We must stop blaming others for what we didn’t get. Like our parents and grandparents before us, and like our children and grandchildren after us, we are all fallible, sinful people—me too! The church calls it original sin, which isn’t some kind of defective gene passed on from Adam and Eve to the human race. Rather, we human beings are simply born into a pre-existing, broken world. That’s the way it is on this side of the grave. We inevitably sin, as did Adam and Eve, and that’s because you and I are Adam and Eve, minus the fig leaves.

And being fallible, sinful individuals, we must stop holding everyone else responsible for our lot in life.

  1. We need to stop manipulating others to give us what we didn’t get. We need to stop making the unending comparisons between ourselves and others, whether it’s financial, material or moral, because in due course someone will suffer the short end of the stick. This is especially true in the church, where there is a terrible tendency to do comparisons: one pastor with another, one parish with another, today with yesteryear. Comparisons mean the grass is always greener elsewhere.
  2. We need to consciously negotiate with others to have our real needs met. EG, if a spouse or partner leaves for the evening or the day, you can tell her that you feel unsafe and need reassurance, or you can yell and scream that he is inconsiderate. The first is an act of love, assuming responsibility for my emotional wounds; the latter is me operating in unconscious survival mode, expecting my spouse or partner, my pastor or therapist, my next door neighbour or friend to be responsible for my insecurities and my neediness.

The fact is this: The closer we get to people, the closer we get to our personal demons. This is why most of us choose the way of polite and respectful distance, rather than the tough road of true love. This happens in most marriages, as well as in churches. Many parishes operate on a superficial and safe level, because they do not want to deal with the demons of failure. And if they must, then it’s just safer to take it out on others in the church. Some folks even take it out on the pastor who then becomes the scapegoat and over time, the door mat.

Which is to say–all of this is a safer path, than looking at the failed areas of our own lives. But none of this is the path of Christ. This is why getting to real, genuine love is such a challenge—especially for us Christians who act as if we alone have got the truth with a capital T.

MF, we always have a choice: Do we live with an open heart of love or a closed one? The human race is dying—not only from wars, Covid and climate change, but from an acute lack of love, and at the same time suffering from an aggressive criticism and constant judgment of everything and everybody. To live in love, to express and communicate such an open heart of genuine love, is the food of life itself.

Remember the Velveteen Rabbit? At one point in the story, there is an intriguing discussion between a toy rabbit and a toy horse:

What is real? asked the Rabbit one day. Real isn’t how you are made, answered the Skin Horse. Real is a thing that happens to you, like when a child loves you for a very long, long time, and not just to play with, but REALLY loves you! Then you become real.

Does it hurt? asked the Rabbit. Sometimes, said the Horse, for he was always truthful. Because when you are real, you don’t mind being hurt.

Do you become real all at once, like being wound up? asked the Rabbit, or does it happen bit by bit? … It doesn’t happen all at once, said the Skin Horse. Becoming real takes time, like real love takes time—and sometimes a very long time. By the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t love.

MF, the Velveteen Rabbit discovered what the Skin Horse knew all along: Love is not an art form, but love is life itself! Whatever the question is, love is the answer, and yet, somehow there never seems to be enough love to go around. In reality, there could be as much love as we all want and need, and then some. We just have not learned to give enough of ourselves—not learned to live with an open heart of love.

 Why? Because it takes huge courage and many people don’t have it. They run from themselves or they attack others to make themselves feel better. No one but we ourselves can warm our frozen hearts. We don’t have to improve ourselves. We just have to let go of what blocks our hearts. Love is a burden if you cannot give it away, and a pain if you cannot feel it. Only an open heart is capable of union with others. Only an open heart is the way of healing the wounds of separation by making connections, not only with others, but with ourselves and with God.

So MF, when our hearts are closed, we suffer not only from a darkened mind, but we turn from God—even if our words do not turn from God. When our hearts are closed, we lack compassion and are out of touch with the feelings of others. It’s like standing in a supermarket checkout line and suddenly all the people in the line look ugly—except ourselves of course. But when our hearts are open, we are alive to wonder and everyone is wonderful. We are alive with a spirit of gratitude.

Let us be kind and tender-hearted to one another and forgive one another, as God has forgiven us through Christ. Since we are God’s children, we must let our lives be controlled by love, says Paul in today’s epistle. And that’s precisely the rub. A church family is a gathering of wounded souls looking for love to heal their pain. It’s not that we’re looking for love in all the wrong places. Here in this sanctuary is the right place, MF, but the closer we get to one another, the more likelihood of triggering each other’s wounds, you see!.

Well MF, it’s already page 8 and so, if you’re counting, there’s 2 pages to go. Or, if you’re checking your watch or your i-phone, I’ve got another 5 minutes, so you can get your money’s worth. So, let me close with a brilliant example of the real, genuine Godly love I’ve been talking about. My illustration is from Lorraine Hansberry’s powerful play, A Raisin in the Sun, which debuted on Broadway in 1959, and made into a movie by the same name 2 years later, starring Sidney Portier.

The play is about a black family which lives in a cramped apartment on Chicago’s Southside. The father suddenly dies and leaves an expected and surprising financial legacy of $10,000 as a result of an insurance policy. The widowed mother wants to use the money as a means to fulfill one of her fondest dreams which is to purchase a little house for herself, her son and daughter on the other side of town—the white side. She dreams of a rather modest bungalow, complete with bright shutters and window boxes filled with colorful flowers. Those windowed flowers had come to symbolize the bliss that she believed such a house would bring to her and her children.

The problem is that the elder son wants the money in order to go into business. The young man has never had a chance, not a break, and never a long-time job. Now, the son has a friend who has a “deal in mind” and convinces the son that with his deal, they could start a business together that would make them lots of money—hand over fist. The son would use the money to help his mother and sister.

Pathetically, he begs and pleads for the money from his mother. At first the mother refuses, but ultimately she knows she must concede. How can she deny her son, who has never had a chance to make something of himself and prove himself worthy to walk in his absent father’s shoes. So, she gives half of the money to her son, and you can imagine what happens next.

The family is gathered together at home, when another victim of the swindler drops in and reveals the news that the son’s so-called friend has taken thee money and skipped town. Head bowed and shoulders slumped, the son confesses the whole story. His sister, Bertha, wastes no time tearing into him verbally. She rips him up and down and condemns him for being so stupid, as a small portion of that money was to pay for her college. Bertha screams at her older brother for having lost, for them all, the only escape route from the hell in which they have lived for years. When she finishes her tirade, the mother speaks:

I thought I taught you to love your brother!? Bertha shouts back: Love him? There’s nothing left to love! … after which the mother says:

There’s always somethin’ left to love, and if you ain’t learned that yet, you ain’t learned nothin’ girl. Have ya cried for that boy today?! I don’t mean for yourself and for the family, ‘cause we done lost the money. I mean, have ya cried for him? For what he’s bin through and what it’s done to him?

Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? … When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t learned nothin’ yet! The time to love somebody is when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in himself, ‘cause the world done whipped him so. When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done take into account what hills and valleys he done come through, before he got to wherever he is.

That’s real love, MF—the kind that God has for us, which God showed time and again through his Son, Jesus of Nazareth, who became the Christ, the Saviour, the Messiah, for us and for the whole world.

Coming to church is, first and foremost, about entering into Christ’s field of love. You can call it Christ consciousness, or “abiding in Christ” as in John’s gospel. But when we pray together, sing our hymns, open  Scriptures, listen with our ears and our hearts to the sermon, and turn in words of peace toward one another with loving intent, we enter this living and loving field of Christ consciousness.

The abiding in the love of Jesus, the Christ, acts as a catalyst to heal our wounds and take us to the next stage of our growth in love. We cannot skip over our wounds to get to love; we must go straight through our wounds, just as Jesus did on the cross. … MF, let us love one another, as the Christ loves us. Let us open the catalytic, healing powers of the living Christ, so that we might be Christ’s presence in a love-starved world—Christ’s presence right here, right now! AMEN

This morning, I’d like to depart from John’s Gospel and speak on Psalm 84:4—How happy are those who live in your House, oh Lord. Why? To bring some joy and humor into my writing and to your listening. Some of today’s stories you may have heard before, but I’ve added new ones and some one-liners to turn this sermon into Part II of Humour in Worship Produces Joy. How great and grand is that? Hannah is nodding. Maybe she needs some humour big time?

Now, as you can well imagine, there are always some sad-sacks in church 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 tell me. 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.    

At my installation at Epiphany in Sept of ’97, the place was a rockin’ n’ rollin! I overheard one member in the first pew say to say to another: “I think the pastor is trying to be funny.”

In fact, the first Christmas Eve at Epiphany, a young woman at the exit door asked if I had been a comedian, before I became a pastor, to which I answered: I was a pastor before I became a comedian.

MF, let me tell you: Every pastor can pretend to be serious, but no pastor can pretend to be humorous. That’s because wit and humour, love and laughter is not a state of mind, but 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, as well as 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. 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.

And singing, MF, is something which Lutherans are good at—at least most of them.  I have made fun of Lutherans for years and made fun of Anglicans the last dozen years. Both suffer from blandness and excessive calm, from a fear of giving offense to a lack of urgency and an open and immence fondness for church potlucks.

Life hasn’t been easy: 1 ½ years of COVID, social distancing and wearing masks all the time, 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. Don’t plan anything too far in advance, because Jesus may come any minute—so Sherry’s Mom, Maid Marion, used to tell me. That’s why worship needs to address our existential problems in meaningful ways, but also produce love and laughter using wit and humour.

Now, sometimes I would begin my sermons with a skill testing question, at which point everyone would slink under the pews not to be seen: What’s the most Lutheran instrument in a symphony orchestra? The Harp! Why? Because you can’t run around with it. How do we know that Jesus and his disciples drove a Honda Accord? Mk 6: 32: Jesus and his disciples were in one accord. Why did God create a world that sucks? So we don’t fall off.

Now, some of you may remember this piece of self-deprecating humor from my previous sermon: 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: Do not associate with the pastor during the week, lest you might find yourself in the sermon at the end of the week. Obviously Sherry is unable to follow that dictum; but for all others, the principle remains: To all things clergic we are allergic.

Now, lest you think I’ve lost my marbles—don’t answer that—there are times when I do say something sensible and judicious. Eg, not long after that gardening episode, Sherry and I were sitting down at our patio for BBQ supper. Sherry noticed that I didn’t offer a prayer, asking God for her 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.

Now, I do like taking credit for stuff, but after 42 years of ministry, I’ve conducted over 400 weddings, where there were always folks who thanked me for the 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 requests, and told them that I have nothing to do with the weather. I’m in sales, not management. Want management? Go see my wife, who has an MBA in management.

God gave us the gifts of mirth and laughter. But, 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. Wit and humour are gifts which keep on giving. They are the work of the soul. They 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. Humor helps us relax and enjoy the moment—especially in church. Humor–How happy are those who live in your House, oh Lord.

Love and laughter are contagious, even for God who gave us these in the first place. Humor is part of God’s DNA. Humor is not to be hidden under a bushel, but to be used—including church. Wit and humour 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 are the only ones who try to practice what the preacher says! That’s a long shot!

Now, when it comes to one-liners, I remember saying to many a confirmand over the decades: Well, hard work may pay off for you in the future, but laziness obviously pays off right now. And for those who only bet on winners, instead of underdogs, I say: “Eagles may soar, but you know, it’s not weasels which get sucked into jet engines!”

Occasionally, I’ve mentioned my grandfather, who raised me and from whom I learned discipline, hard work and the value of money. He was always preaching at me about the early bird that catches the worm. In German: Die Morgenstunde hat Gold im Munde. If I didn’t hear it once, I heard it a million times, after which I finally said: Well Grandpa, the early bird may get the worm, but it’s the 2nd mouse that gets the cheese. Now, it took him a while to get it, but then asked: Are you trying to be smart? Oh no, Grandpa, I’d say.

When I was still a little kid, I remember asking my grandfather for a nickel to buy an ice cream cone, at which point he would always launch into his story about when he was kid and had to get up at 7 and walk a kilometer to milk one cow with a bucket that had a hole in it—and all before going to school.

And every time I asked for a nickel, he’d unleash a new version of the same old story, where he’d get up earlier, walk more kms, milk more cows with a bucket whose hole became increasingly larger. The last version I heard was him getting up 4:30 to walk 15 kms to milk a dozen cows with a bucket whose hole was the size of toonie.  Did I ever get my nickel for the ice cream cone? I don’t think so.

But, when my kids went to visit their great grandfather, he’d pull out his fat wallet and call the kids over and say: Ooooh, let’s see what Grandpa has in his wallet for Elizabeth & Maria? He then proceeded to hand them each a 5 or 10 or even 20 dollar bill. At which point, I took their money, because that was my money.

Humor, MF, is not only contagious, it is fragile. We enjoy it when we can and we may find humour in the most unexpected places.—like funerals. It may not seem obvious, but humor at funerals is almost a staple. The bereaved crave some lightness to alleviate their stress.

Now, there was a funeral situation, where the wit was rather subtle. A Scottish widow, who was actually Presbyterian, asked me to conduct 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 asked: “Rev’d 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.

So, with some wit, I answered: “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?”

Now, I had never bargained over funeral services, but we were this far along. I just needed some more levity 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, humor is not recognized, even when 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. After all, 99% of clergy give the rest of us a bad name. And if perchance you think that nobody cares, try missing a few payments. Or, if by chance, you’re in luck because everything is finally coming your way, it probably means you’re in the wrong lane.

Last story. And it’s one you’ve all heard before, but with an addi-tional ending. Remember Alleluia Lutheran Church in Richmond VA? Back during my doctoral studies at Union Seminary, I got an invite by the Council Chair at Alleluia Lutheran to preach during Lent. Now, to my surprise I discovered that Alleluia was an all-Black parish, with the exception of the organist, who looked like Bach.

Now, the church accomodated around 250 worshippers and I quickly realized that the dozen council members—all men—sat in the first 2 rows, right under the massive and elevated pulpit. I also learned that if the councilors agreed with what you had to say, they would shout out: Preach Brother, Preach! I mean, if you were preaching and a mass of heavy set Black Men hollored: Preach, Brother Preach! … I mean, your corpuscles would start a hummin‘ and your hormones would start a bubblin‘ and you’d want to preach as if your life depended on it! Of course, that never happens in white churches, where the white folk check their watches and count the pages of your sermon and then mumble: Stop Rev! Stop!

Now, I also heard that if the women of Alleluia Lutheran liked what you had to say, they would raise their hands, give a little wave like the Queen, and whisper together, out loud: You da man! You da man! I mean, if you were preaching and a mass of black and silver-haired women were waving their hands at you, and whispering out loud You da man. You da man … I mean your chest would expand with pride and your heart would burst with passion.

But, I got to tell you good folks, I did not hear one Preach Brother Preach! nor one You da man! Instead, in the middle of my sermon, one little ole silver-haired lady in a back pew, she done put up both hands and prayed feverishly: Help him Jesus! Help him! Jesus!

Well, I almost died and went to heaven that morning! But, luckily for me, the council invited me back — for Good Friday. They thought I could learn something about how to preach. The one stipulation was that I deliver a 5 minute GF sermon. Nothin‘ more/nothin‘ less.

Well I arrived at Alleluia Lutheran early that Good Friday and soon discovered that there were 7 preachers, preaching back to back: 6 Black men and myself. I was in the middle of the pack and when it was my turn, I preached with ferver and passion. But, I was just getting warmed up, when my 5 minutes was up. So I sat down in my appointed chair and the previous preacher looked at me and said: Ya done aright, boy! Ya done good! But old Brother Jeremiah—he‘s gonna show us up for what we is: Beggars! Just you wait & see.

Well, I didn’t know it then, but old Brother Jeremiah was the former long-serving and suffering pastor. He was quite elderly, with a walker and had to be helped to climb into the pulpit. The absolutely amazing thing is that once he got started, he was like a train—nothing could stop him. He preached for an hour and half and had everyone mesmorized and he did it with a one liner, over and over and over again: It’s Friday, but Sundays a’Comin‘!

Now, that one-liner may not blow you away, MF, and that’s because I’m no Brother Jeremiah. He started his sermon really slowly and softly: It’s Friday and my Jesus is dead on a tree. But that was Friday and Sunday’s a-comin!

One of the coucilors yelled: Preach Brother Preach! And it was all the encouragement old Jeremiah needed. So he came on louder and stronger: It was Friday and Mary was cryin‘ her eyes out! The 12 were a-runnin‘ in every direction, like sheep without a shepherd. But that was Friday and Sunday’s a-comin! The ladies of the parish began waving their hands and whispering: You da man! You da man! Men began hollering: Keep goin brother, keep goin! And he did:

It was Friday and Pilate thought he had washed his hands of a lot of trouble. The Pharisees were struttin around laughin, pokin each other in the ribs. They thought they were back in charge. They didn’t know it was only Friday, but Sunday’s a-comin!

The old preacher used this one line over and over for one and half hours. He had worked the congregation up into a absolute frenzy until everyone was just exhausted. And finally, when no one could take it anymore, old Jeremiah just yelled at the top of his lungs: It’s Friday! and the congregation yelled back: Sunday’s a-comin!

MF, that’s the good news for today and for the rest of our lives! AMEN.

There’s a boy here who has 5 loaves of barley bread & 2 fish. But they will certainly not be enough for all these people! Jn 6:9

Well, MF, here’s another miracle story, this time from John’s pen, although the story exists in all four gospels. It’s a very familiar story—perhaps dangerously familiar, where all that’s left is our nodding approval. We know all of the characters by rote: the hungry mass of 5,000 to the nervously doubting disciples, from the 5 barley loaves and 2 fish to the good-hearted little boy, who in John’s version of the story actually had the food and finally to our Lord Jesus who pulls off yet another miracle. There’s seemingly nothing left to surprise us anymore, for we know the ending, as we know the beginning.

Now, I suspect that the question, “Is the miracle true?” is a non-question for us—even for Thomas-doubters like myself. But 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!

I mean, if God has the power to answer the prayers of parents, that their son or daughter might be spared death in time of war, does the death of a soldier mean that his/her parental prayers were ineffective? Or, does it mean that the victim deserved God’s wrath? Or is there another suitable explanation?

Now, 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 simple multiplication of loaves and fishes, which is the usual way in which today’s miracle is explained —if all this is literally true—how is it that God then allows starvation to strike a land like the Sudan in a time of drought and/or war? If God is good, then why does he not act, when we pray for the hungry to be fed?

I mean, here we are, MF, disciples of Jesus, praying to God, knowing that he has the power to feed the hungry, and yet he doesn’t. Yet, here the 12 disciples have 5 loaves and 2 fish and still don’t believe Jesus can feed the hungry. Go figure?!

Or, if God had the power to defeat the enemies of the Jews and destroy them during the Exodus under Moses, then why did God not intervene to stop the Holocaust? If one attributes to God supernatural powers, then, from my viewpoint, one has to explain why God uses his power so sparingly, why there is so much pain, tragedy and death 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.”

On a lovely summer morning like this one, when the Covid rules are lessening and living is easier and many have escaped to their Muskoka cottages, maybe I shouldn’t pose difficult questions. I understand that. Like you, I too believe everything in the Bible from cover to cover. But that’s not the issue. The real question is: How will I interpret that which I read between the covers? If I can believe that Jesus healed the sick and cured the lame, then why doesn’t God heal my severely handicapped son, Karl, soon to be 43 yrs old?

Now, most Christians believe in a God who is all-powerful and has absolute control of the Universe. Maybe you do too. This is what makes God God for most believers. I mean: What good is a God who is not in control of everything? Really!

MF, let me tell you 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. Why would an all-powerful God even let natural disasters happen? We all know painful stories of people who have lost entire families, looking beneath rubble for signs of loved ones, as they just did in the collapsed 12-storey Surfside Towers in Miami-Dade county Florida.

The usual theological response to such innocent suffering is that there are things we just don’t understand. God’s ways are not our ways. But we are assured, God has a plan which includes natural disasters and the suffering they cause.

The corollary to this way of thinking is that disasters are part of God’s will, which is what a Fox News host recently announced. As a minister, I would never be able to find the courage to tell a father holding his drowned infant in his arms that this was God’s will, nor to tell this to myself as the father of a severely handicapped son. Why? Because I don’t believe it.

I believe that we have placed far too much stock in omnipotence—in an all-powerful God, as the defining characteristic of God. If God had the power to stop an earthquake, or prevent the holocaust, or the Rwandan genocide, but chose not to for whatever reasons, it leaves me with a God I cannot believe in.

On the contrary, I believe that it is the nature of God to place limits on his own power. God empties herself 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. The defining characteristic of God is not in the capacity to control the Universe, but in the abiding biblical promise to be present to us, to be here for us and with us in all circumstances, as the abiding presence of Love and Compassion. That’s what I believe.

Where is God in any and every disaster? God is in the weeping of the mother for her child. God is in the inconsolable presence of the grief of the man who has lost everything and everyone. God weeps with us and through us. MF, it is a central feature of the Gospel that God didn’t intervene to stop the execution of his Son 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’s 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 even the point! Why? Because miracles are not events or arguments to which there must be a right or wrong. The question we should be asking is: “What does this miracle mean?” Why? Because at its essence, a miracle is the demonstration of a divine message or an 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, his 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 to worship at the manger. The blind man who was given his sight 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 great had happened to them and they knew it. They experienced it first hand! They not only heard Jesus’ message; but 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

In other words, MF, the divine itself was incarnated in the 5000 partakers of bread and fish. Each of them received Jesus as the Source of Life and Living—not just physical life, but eternal life—and not just eternal life somewhere down the proverbial road, but eternal life, right now—as I speak and as you listen. A mere 10 verses later, Jesus says to the same crowd:

You’re looking for me because you ate the bread and had all you wanted, and not because you understood my miracles. Do not work for food that goes bad. Instead work for the food that lasts for eternal life. This is the food which I give to you.

When all is said and done MF, the essence of a miracle is not in its extraordinary power or supernatural capacity, nor in its ability to attract attention and high visibility. Yes, the need of the mass of 5,000 was satisfied by the extension of the loaves and fishes. But that was not the principle or primary miracle.

The real miracle was that in this personal experience, 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, making us to be his Bread and his Fish when we bring his loving message to the world.

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. It’s always 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, the hunger and poverty of this world 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 wonderful resources that God has given us.

Like the disciples of old, you and I are Bread and Fish to the world. You and I are incarnations of God’s divine presence in this world and to this world. Or, as Luther so often liked to phrase it, we are little Christ’s who also perform miracles when we, like him, 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.

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 thirsty, the helpless and homeless.

The story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes tells us what can happen when we’re able to stay connected 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 a chance for abundance.

I wanted to tell you about Matthew’s version of this miracle, which is different from the other 3 versions. In MT, Jesus commands his disciples: The people don’t need to leave, just because you don’t think we’ve got enough resources. I tell you: You yourselves give them food to eat! In other words MF, Jesus is saying to them:You be the food for the people. Make it happen! Seize a blessing from this situation! Deal with it!

Jesus not only multiplies the food, but also the disciple’s creative capacity to deal with a seemingly dead end. Feeding others means that we ourselves become the resources—that we  first care and love others. The shortest distance isn’t always a straight line. In this case, the shortest distance is a love circle.

There’s an old rabbinic tale, which illustrates Jesus’ words to his disciples – Seize a blessing from this situation! – quite well. One day, the Lord said to the Rabbi: Come Rabbi and I will show you hell. They then entered a room where a group of people sat around a huge pot of stew. Everyone was quite famished and very desperate. Each held a spoon that reached the pot, but had a handle so long, it could not be used to reach their mouths. The suffering there was terrible.

After a bit, the Lord said: Come. Let me show you heaven! So they entered another room, which was identical to the first: the pot of stew, the group of people, the same long spoons. But there, everyone was happy and quite nourished. I don’t understand, said the Rabbi. Why are they happy here, when they were so miserable in the other room and everything was exactly the same? The Lord smiled and said: Ah! But don’t you see?! Here they have learned to feed each other!

Likewise, MF, you and I need to learn to feed not only one another, but the world, which is starving from love and loving, from giving, forgiving and thanksgiving, not to mention bread and fish, water and wine. We need to make unimaginable things happen. Every 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 the spiritual lesson that when we are connected to God as Source of all Life and the Stream of all creativity, then all things become possible.

First though, we need to enter the Kingdom of God and 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.

But, like the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, this won’t happen, unless WE make it so—unless we let God act by letting go of our inhibitions and allowing the Spirit to breath and grow, to love and live, to laugh and cry within us, not only for our own sake and that of Maple, but for our neighbour around the world. MF, let us make it happen. Let us make it so! AMEN

And everywhere Jesus went, to villages, towns or farms, people would take those who were ill to the marketplaces and beg him to let them at least touch the edge of his cloak. And all who touched it were made well. Mk 6:56

Dear Friends. Since Pentecost, the Bible readings have concentrated on the activity of the HS, which not only wants to inform us, but more importantly, to transform us. The HS wants us to believe in the Risen Christ, but more importantly, to be Risen Christians. The HS wants us to know the truth, but more importantly, to do the truth. The HS wants us to believe in Jesus’ message, but more importantly, to carry it out. The HS wants us to be the message.

MF, this fact is also that God did not discriminate when He sent the HS. Rather, the HS was given to all flesh, from the beginning of time. The HS does not exclude, but includes everyone, everywhere. And this is no less true in today’s Gospel taken from Mark 6: 30-34, which includes the beginning of the feeding of the 5,000, but focuses on Jesus healing and transforming the folks who come to him. The passage ends with these words from Mark: All who touched him were made well. Although Mark doesn’t say it here, Jesus’ healing  included not only Jews, of course, but also Gentiles.

MF, it’s absolutely remarkable that Jesus healed Jews and Gentiles! To extend God’s gracious healing power to unclean Gentiles, heretical Samaritans and all sorts of sinners was extremely risky on Jesus’ part, for which he was regularly criticized. Jesus, you see, seldom validates the tidy religious identities and boundaries which we, like the religious Jews of Jesus’ day, normally have about other people, races and religions—even other denominations. If Jesus were to visit our society, I’m sure that he would not please many Christians, who think that God only operates from our perspective and only works in our backyard.

On another occasion, Jesus is speaking to the disciples of John the Baptist and says: The lame walk, the blind see, the lepers healed, the deaf hear and the dead are raised to life. How happy is the man who does not lose faith in me! (Lk 7:22) which I translate: Happy is s/he who is not scandalized by what I do and for whom I do it.

MF, I suspect we don’t realize how potentially radical that statement really is! Happy is s/he who is not scandalized by what I do and for whom I do it. Jesus knows that most people want a nice tidy little God who is enclosed in the walls of their church, their theology and their pockets—a God who fits inside their theological limits and their narrow worldview. But God is always free. He/She is always free. 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.

That’s why Jesus says—to use my words: I hope that all the work I do with the people who are less fortunate than you—that all this does not offend you; rather that you are accepting of what I do. I’m not building buildings, nor teaching songs. I’m not doing fund raisers or mediating disputes. I’m not threatening or withholding. I’m simply out on the streets, healing the people who really need me. I set them free from all the petty anxieties and self-obsessions which chain them and keep them from entering God’s Kingdom. I heal their outsides and transform their insides. I’m telling them what really matters.  

MF, what I find so extraordinarily amazing is that Jesus heals and transforms, without any question of rules or religion, customs or tradition; without a single question about the morality or ethical codes of the people he heals, much less a question about what they believe about God or even about Jesus, for that matter!

The fact is this MF: Jesus sees only deep human hurt and pain. He understands the unqualified suffering and affliction of the folks who come to him. He is sensitive to their desperate needs and their gaping vulnerabilities. And so, Jesus acts! He acts! No questions asked—no strings attached, and then concludes: How happy are those who are not scandalized by what I do and for whom I do it!

Like the Jewish Synagogue of Jesus’ day, the Church is often scandalized by anyone who helps and heals unreservedly, who loves and liberates unconditionally; anyone who elevates minorities and the marginalized, the poor and homeless; anyone who treats homosexuals equal to heterosexuals; anyone who regards Moslems and Hindus, Jews and Buddhists, as equal to Christians.

The fact is this: Anyone—anyone—who treats all human beings as God’s daughters and sons, with no questions asked, no morality tests given, there the church is scandalized. Too many Christians think that the church is only about gathering into buildings, recording attendance, singing songs and listening to prayers led by professionals. MF do we realize what an historically distorted development of Christianity that is?

MF, you may already know that, too much of the Christian Church in North America and especially in Europe is taken up with its interests in real estate and money management. Clergy in Europe, eg, are obliged to staff offices and manage real estate as a major part of their work. Why? Not only because the Church is a state-church in Europe where the clergy are civil servants and paid big bucks to act on behalf of the government. But primarily because European churches have so few attending worship services that they are unable to keep up the astronomical expenses on their massive properties and huge buildings. MF, it’s to the point where many cathedrals and huge churches are now museums, where RC priests and Lutheran pastors are almost nothing else but curators and fundraisers to maintain buildings erected in the 10th to the 19th centuries.

MF, don’t get me wrong, while such work is not morally wrong and needs to be done, it is, nonetheless, a critical matter of priority and emphasis. You’ve got to wonder where the message of God’s love and care for our neighbour comes into all of this management of real estate. I remember a German pastor once saying to me: We expanded the church in order to provide a school and educational programs for the town. Now the school runs the church.

MF, so many parishes are overburdened with self-made issues which run their agendas—and so much so, that no one is free to ask: What does God really want us to do in his church? How many white elephants sit in church buildings, nowadays, absorbing the bodies, minds and spirits of lay and clergy alike?

MF, how beautiful, simple and straightforward is Jesus’ gospel! Jesus doesn’t deal with bricks and mortar—but broken hearts and empty souls. Jesus deals with the truth—telling it and facing it. He dispenses justice and shares peace. He lets go and lets God take over. He teaches the way of transformation and daily spiritual renewal. He cures the sick by touching them or letting them touch his clothes to be healed. Jesus brings people back from the dead—not only of the body, but of the spirit. Jesus is a helper and healer. He informs and transforms. He injects us with life and love. He takes our pain and hurt, our sorrow and grief, our diseased bodies and psychological illness and graces us with spiritual health and well-being. MF, there’s nothing, but nothing greater and grander!!

Jesus knows we need to be passionate about our spirituality. He knows we need to face the tough spiritual questions: What we believe on Sunday and how we act on Monday. He knows when religion, its leaders and people are healthy, instead of using religion for personal ends. He knows when religion is the conscience of society, and not its lapdog. He knows when religion is a burning bush, and not a beating stick. He knows when spirituality is the centre of our human identity, and not on the periphery or when it’s convenient.

MF I’ve said it before: As the church, we must acknowledge our part in the disintegration of our Western values. If our culture has become soft and superficial, it is in part, because we have allowed Christianity to be such. It’s not the hot-button issues of homosexuality or abortion or LGBT rights, to which I refer, but those, oh so subtle ways, in which all of us slowly stop seeing and loving, slowly stop trusting and surrendering, slowly stop being present for each other and God. Even we Christians can’t see the truth, if we’re not ready to see it; nor hear the truth, if we refuse to listen.

Spiritual transformation is always a journey of discovery, not of new scenery, but to see old landscapes with new eyes of love and faith. Transformation is continuous process, where we are always arriving and where every step is a destination. Trouble is, too many of us get too soon old and too late smart, forever hungering for something further away or long ago, or still about to be, while everything we really need already resides within us—which is where the HS is.

The HS wants to transforms us, by leading us away from our usual perspectives which are engrained. MF, every once in a while, someone says to me: “Good sermon Pastor, but you gotta know that the bottom line is always the same!” And by that he/she means the green stuff. I know these folks are sincere, and however important money is, these folks never see an alternate reality. “Bottom line” always and only means one thing for them: buying and selling, money and more of it. What an unsatisfying foundation for life and living, and for anyone passionate about spiritual reality.

MF, the Christian vision is that the world itself is a temple, a church, a synagogue, if you wish; but buying and selling in the temple is the one thing that drove Jesus to anger. And however important buy and selling is to capitalism—buying and selling destroys inherent spiritual values and replaces them with only one kind of seeing. When the sacred is reduced to market value and exchange rates, it destroys the soul.

Spiritual transformation reconnects us with inherent value, where everything and everyone is sacred, when the world itself is a temple, a sanctuary, a synagogue, a church, a mosque. Spiritual transformation sees the truth about reality, as it really is. Not an easy task, and especially not for Christians who think that because we’ve got the truth with a capital T, we don’t have a vision problem. The fact is that religious people are harder to transform simply because they don’t think they need it. It wasn’t any different in Jesus’ day.

Spiritual transformation is about being ready. All the spiritual disciplines of your life—prayer, study, meditation, worship—these are gifts to you from God so that you can break through to the eternal. Spiritual transformation is about awakening our eyes and ears, our mind and emotions, our heart and soul, so that we can see what is happening right in front of us, behind us, beside us, around us, and most importantly inside of us. But first, MF, we must get our personal egos and obsessions out of the way, so that we can be informed and transformed by God’s Spirit. Our little kingdom must go, so that God’s Kingdom can come.

So, MF: Be empty. Be open. Be ready. Simply be. Then let go and let God. Being Lutheran or Anglican or RC, however good that may be, is not what it’s finally about. The Kingdom of God is what it’s about.

And once we’re committed to Kingdom values, we will bloom and blossom on behalf of God’s Kingdom, in the little corner of the world where God has planted us. So, MF, bloom and blossom. That’s the good news for you & me today. AMEN

Dear Friends: Two Sundays back, I delivered a feel-good touchy sermon, which evoked a few rave reviews online. Last Sunday was a barn-burner about prophets. A fellow in my last parish said: Pastor, why can’t you preach something nice? Sure, I replied, but you gotta speak to Jesus about that. He doesn’t always say nice stuff.

Well, today MF is a gruesome twosome tale about a girl, daughter of Herodias, wanting the head of John the Baptist. So Herod had his head is cut off and handed it to her on a platter. Grisly and ghastly stuff, I’d say, about which I will not sermonize. Instead ….

Back in the 90s, I was conducting a number of workshops dealing with Inner Child stuff. It was designed for those folks, like myself, who had especially difficult childhoods, where we had to grow up very quickly and so lost our needed childhood. Ultimately, the workshops dealt with the need for transformation. At this one particular workshop, a crusty old professor was in attendance, and I remember him because he made an immediate impression. The moment I would start to speak, he would close his eyes. I suppose he’ll at least awake refreshed, I thought.

Well, he had a point. Some folks spend their lives remaking themselves. I know workshop junkies who are on an unending search for the key to unlock their full potential. There is an earnest quality about these individuals, who can be a bit obsessive. But I rather doubt if the good professor had ever been to a workshop on personal growth. By far and away, the greater problem among us human beings is not an earnest desire to evolve, but the refusal to do so, because most folks don’t want change. Most fear change!

But how do we evolve spiritually as human beings? Good question! In John 12:24, Jesus describes how this happens: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Actually, this is a great paradox. The disciples are having much difficulty understanding Jesus’ notion that he has to suffer and die, in order to accomplish what is needed. To help them understand, Jesus says: Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it cannot multiply. Those who love their life in this world will lose it; but those who hate their life will keep it.

MF, Jesus’ invitation is not one to self-loathing. For many folks, self-loathing probably comes quite naturally. We can find all sorts of reasons to beat up on ourselves. Rather Jesus is alluding to something much more difficult and spiritually challenging. Before any real growth is possible, death is inevitable. Some folks die many little deaths in order to live life to a fuller capacity. As seeds need to undergo death for life to be released in them, so it is with all life.

Well, this is also true on a planetary level. When the environment changes, a species dies in one form in order to live in another form.

Charles Darwin discovered this a century and a half ago. When the seas began to dry up, some life forms learned to live on the land. Gills shrunk, lungs grew, fins became limbs, and new creatures evolved. The animals of Australia and Madagascar are the greatest testimony to this living truth. And it is no different for human beings. MF, I’m fully convinced of that. Goethe, eg, wrote the following bio-spiritual truth: Die in order to become. Till you have learned this, you are but a dull guest on this dark planet.

That sleepy professor became for me a kind of a metaphor for transformation. It was a lesson I learned through a dream, which presented itself to me around that time—the early 90s. It was a dream I had more than once. It wasn’t until I understood the dream, that I stopped dreaming it. In the dream, I found myself locked in a kind of a cage, with wooden bars all around me. I soon discovered that the bars were part of a huge wooden chair. I just couldn’t get out from between the bars, no matter how hard I tried. I was also bleeding profusely, so I screamed for help, but no one heard me. It seemed I was doomed to die. No one could come to my rescue.

Then a fascinating thing happened. I did die in the dream—an excruciatingly traumatic experience, if that’s ever happened to you in a dream. But from my corpse, a bird evolved—a very large feathered fowl, which flew up and away, free, soaring high above the tree line, and vanished in the clouds. MF, I dreamed this scenario several times, before it became clear to me what it was really saying.

My life behind the wooden bars, bleeding to death, represented my old life, you see, all the old loyalties and loves that would be threatened and come to an end in the new life. It was abundantly clear that, in order for the new life in me to grow, I would have to die to an old self, which is what happened to me in real life.

John the Baptist knew and learned by his gruesome death in today’s gospel story from Mark: Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit. More often than not, genuine suffering is the soil in which death occurs, so that a new life can flourish. Suffering can crack open the hard shell. But the shell, MF, is not the same as the life within the shell. The fact is: We all have psychological shells which we think protect and define us, but often they are just prisons for the life within us.

A lot of men, eg, live inside a shell that they confuse with who they really are. In today’s society, the shell in which many men live requires that they act like men: don’t express your needs; don’t be soft; and for heaven sakes, don’t cry, don’t be sentimental and don’t be romantic unless you crave some sex. Always be strong; always be brave; always be in control. It’s quite rare for most men to give themselves permission to break out of the shell.

I endured much suffering when I had that recurring dream. My grief and pain was quite intense, but I did not regret this time of suffering. I had to die to self in order to live to a new self. So, when Jesus says that we should hate our lives, he is referring to that shell to which we get so attached, that it becomes like a tomb—a grave we dig for ourselves, rather than a womb for new growth and new life.

Our lifestyles, MF, can also be a shell that we fall in love with, confusing it with life itself and preventing our spiritual evolution. The media bombards us with images of the desirable lifestyle we then think we cannot do without: this product, this style of house, this car, this cottage—by the water of course, this new real estate development, this golf club, this suit, this perfume, this new i-pad or i-pod, this technological gadget—etc, etc, etc. ad infinitum.

This is the precisely the package which promises to deliver happiness, contentment, and satisfaction—at least we like to think so—so much so, that we become quite enamored and focused on acquiring this package. But in the process we lose our souls. Jesus’ words are apt: Those who love their life in this world will lose it.

It’s not easy to accept Jesus’ words or even understand them, because, unlike Jesus who lived on the margins, we’ve been living in the mainstream much of our lives, as does the Church. The fact is, we’ve tended to soften Jesus’ conflict with the system, or the established powers although his ministry also took place on the margins!

MF, let me give you a little historical context, here. With the Edit of Milan in 313 AD under Emperor Constantine, the Underground Church dramatically changed sides and Christians officially became the Church of the Establishment. Prior to that decree, the Church was by and large of the underclass. It identified with the poor and the oppressed, and the Church itself was still being oppressed and persecuted. The early Church read and understood its history from the catacombs.

I’m sure Emperor Constantine thought he was doing the church a favor when he ended official persecution and made Christianity the established religion of the empire, which then became the Holy Roman Empire. Yet it might be the single most unfortunate thing that ever happened to Christianity, because once we moved from the margins of society to the center, we developed a new film over our eyes.

After that, we couldn’t read anything that showed Jesus in confrontation with the establishment, because we were the establishment, and usually conspicuously so. Clear teaching on issues of greed, powerlessness, nonviolence, non-control, simplicity—including persecution and death to gain life—these were all moved to the sidelines and, in fact, countermanded!

MF, it seems to me, that now, 20 centuries later, we need to find a way to dis-establish ourselves—meaning, we need to identify with our powerlessness instead of our power, our dependence instead of our independence, our communion instead of our individualism. Unless we begin to do this, Jesus’ words—that only dying seeds give life—will not be understood, much less his Sermon on the Mount really be appreciated.

In that Sermon, Jesus intends us to take the road less travelled. He wants us to operate from a minority position and not that of the moral majority. When we’re protecting our self-image as moral, superior or even “saved” persons, we always lose the truth. The daring search for God—the common character of all religion—is replaced with the search for personal certitude and control.

The inconvenient truth is this: As soon as we citizens are comfortably enjoying the fruits of the established system, we don’t normally want any truth beyond our comfort zone. And yet, those who are not enjoying those benefits, those who have been marginalized or oppressed, are always longing and thirsting for the coming of the Kingdom. MF, the Gospel always keeps us in a state of longing and thirsting for God. Grace creates a void inside of us that only God can fill. That’s why only a seed that dies can germinate into new life.

When we are content and satisfied on the inside of any group, especially inside the church which affirms the truths we’ve always believed—that’s when we often suffer from structural indifference. We do not realize that it is largely a belonging system that we have created for ourselves. It is not until we are excluded from a system that we are able to recognize its idolatries and lies. That was as true for Martin Luther 500 years ago, as it is for the rioters who stormed the US Capital on Jan 6 and now face prison and hefty fines.

It is the “knowledge of the outsider” that opens up the playing field for the “insider.” All kinds of people can be personally well-intentioned and sincere, but structurally they are unable to understand what is transpiring in front of them. In his ministry, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9 to describe this collective social disregard: You will hear and hear again, and not understand, see and see again and not perceive. (Mk 8:18)

MF, that’s why so many saints and mystics and even so-called “ordinary, everyday” people have chosen to live their entire lives at the edges of big systems—be they financial, political or even religious. They take their small but sufficient place in the great & grand scheme of God by living on the edge. They build on solid traditions from the inside but from a new and dynamic stance on the edge, where they can no longer be co-opted by a need for security, possessions, or the illusions of power.

People such as St. Francis of Assis, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, St. Catherine of Sienna and to a lesser degree Martin Luther, MLK Jr and Nelson Mandela—all of whom tried to live on the margins so they would not become enamored by the illusions and payoffs of prevailing systems. They know this is the only position that ensures continued wisdom, an ever-broadening perspective, and even deeper compassion.

Such choices may also be seen in the lives of monks and monastics, nuns and sisters, hermits and solitaries, even Amish communities. There are also many, many softer forms—like people who refuse to watch TV, folks who live under the level of a taxable income, individuals who make prayer a major part of their every day, others who deliberately place themselves in risky situations for the greater good and even citizens who allow themselves to be imprisoned for the sake of Mother Earth.

MF, it is ironic that we must go to the edge to find the center, but that is what prophets, and the like, invariably do. They all know, much better than most, the power of the seed that must die, in order to bring life. Through their insights, writings,   rituals, art and multiple other media and venues, these men, women, and movements inspire us to cease protecting the surfaces of things and fall into the core of our own souls.

Last Paragraph and Last Thought. It is this:

Those who hate their lives in this world will find it, says Jesus. And what Jesus means is that we need to trust the inner voice of the soul, which finds materialism—as an ultimate life goal—extremely unsatisfying. The spiritual life is ultimate—learning and developing, evolving and changing to become what God expects us to be.

But, MF, that can only be achieved through suffering and death in order to gain life in the first place and to live that life to the fullest in the here and now. Those who have ears, let them hear.

AMEN

Jesus then went back to his hometown and began to teach in the synagogue. And when the people heard him, they were all utterly amazed, and so asked themselves: Where did he get this knowledge? What wisdom is this which has been given to him? How does he perform miracles? Isn’t he just a carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon? And aren’t all his sisters also living here? And so, they rejected him. But Jesus then said to them: A prophet is respected everywhere, except in his own hometown and by his relatives and his family. Mark 6:1-4

This morning MF, I’ll be focusing on the first 4 verses of today’s Gospel from Mark, which I just read to you. In short, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in his home-town of Nazareth. The worshippers are amazed at Jesus’ wisdom and ask themselves how he came by his spiritual insights? After all, he just comes from an ordinary family: son of a mere carpenter and his wife Mary. He also has 4 brothers and many sisters. In short, the synagogue members reject Jesus’ status as a teacher and prophet.

I suppose that if Jesus was teaching in our Lutheran Church, we might say: “Look here, Jesus, where did you say you got your theology degree? Do you come from a long line of pastors, or are you just an itinerant preacher parading as a prophet? Or, maybe you’re just some homeless dude from some hick town no one’s heard of. In fact, how do we even know that you’re telling us the truth?”

Now, the verses from MK also have parallels in MT and LK, but not JN. LK added to Mark’s version, to include a portion of the sermon Jesus gave to his listeners in the Synagogue, after which they rejected him and tried to throw him over a cliff at the edge of town. Somehow Jesus escaped their clutches and simply walked away.

Now, MT’s version is identical to MK, but a few chapters later, MT includes a parable from Jesus, in which the tenants of a vineyard refuse to pay the owner his share of the crops. So, the owner sends representatives to collect his due, but the tenants kill them all. Finally, the owner sends his son, thinking that the tenants will respect him. But the tenants also kill the son—meaning, Jesus tells the religious leaders that they’ve been killing the prophets God sends them, including Jesus. But now, instead of revenge, the Lord of the vineyard raises the Son from the dead. Well, after 2 millennia, we understand this. We get it. But that’s the easy part MF.

What’s not easy for us church folks to understand and finally “get” is that the representatives, including Jesus, are the prophets God sends—the prophets we’ve rejected, many of whom we 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 who was promptly crucified, after a brief 3-year ministry.

MF, we in the church and the entire House of Israel have a very long history of killing the prophets God sends. We’ve beaten and stoned them, burned them at the stake, shot or hung them. Nowadays, we’re too civilized for that. So, we segregate our churches and chase the prophets out. If we can’t stop them from speaking, then we stop listening. And if that doesn’t work, we kill them. Why?

Well, prophets, MF, aren’t exactly on the former Top Ten 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!” … Now, prophets aren’t fortune-tellers, but they have learned to read the signs of the 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’s all heading.

Now, reading the signs of his times would have been an integral part of Jesus’ spirituality. In the first place, like many Hebrew prophets, Jesus saw the threatening armies of the powerful Roman Empire on the horizon. In Jesus’ view, it would only be a matter of time before the Roman armies felt sufficiently provoked to attack and destroy Jerusalem and tiny Israel, which in fact, Rome did exactly that in the Jewish Roman War of 66-70. The religious Jews thought God would come to their rescue, but Rome defeated Israel—big time!

For the Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple meant the end of their worship, culture and nation, after which the Jews dispersed throughout Europe, only to return 2,000 years later when the UN re-established the state of Israel in 1948. For Jesus, MF, his concern was not for the temple but for the people of Jerusalem, especially women and children, the poor and oppressed. The people were powerless 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 oppressed of dignity and hope. MF, do we hear them? Are we any more likely to act on their wisdom than our biblical ancestors or do we dismiss them and their message? More than likely, it’s the latter.

MF, we know how 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. Any attempt to practice the same spirituality as Jesus would entail learning to speak truth to power as he did—and face the results.

Today MF, prophets include the leaders of Indigenous Peoples and Nations across Canada, who speak truth to power in the face of hundreds of unmarked graves of their children ripped from their families by government and church officials and put into residential schools and promptly stripped them of their cultural identity.

Prophets always raise the issues of justice, whether it’s on behalf of the thousands of minorities and marginalized or the millions of global refugees and displaced people. 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 worried that folks like their sermons; but 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! Surely, MF, 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 2ndAmendment right to bear arms? The fact is Americans have quickly become a society which lives in dreaded fear of one another.

In a little more than 2 months, the US will mark 20 years since 9/11, when terrorists struck the Twin Towers in NY and 2,977 people died, including Canadians. 20 years later, the US led wars against the terrorism of 9/11 in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen have killed almost 1 million people, displaced more than 37 million civilians and at a staggering cost of US $7.2 trillion. In spite of their motto, engraved on its coins and bills, “In God We Trust,” the US is the global leader in waging and perpetuating war!

“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, get married 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 deemed 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 daily need for God.

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 too many 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 those oh so subtle ways in which we have slowly stopped seeing and loving neighbour, slowly stopped trusting and surrendering to God.

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.

Last page. Last thought: Prophets know that no one person, including pastors, can save the church. The church is only and always saved by faith in God’s Grace. Prophets also know 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.

Jesus immediately knew that power had gone from him and so he turned to the crowd and asked: ‘Who touched my clothes?’ Mk 5:30

Dear Friends. In the middle of today’s Gospel narrative, there’s an uncommonly moving scene described in Mk 5:25-34, about a woman who experienced incessant bleeding for a dozen years. Knowing that Jesus is in the crowd, she pushes her way through, comes up behind him and touches his outer garment. Instantly, she feels within herself that the bleeding has stopped and that she’s been healed. Aware that power has gone from him, Jesus turns and asks the crowd: Who touched my clothes?

Luke, btw, has the identical story, which he copied from Mark, but where Jesus rephrases the question: Who touched me? Matthew, however, has a rather truncated version of Mark which is only 3 verses in length and no question as to who touched Jesus.

Back to Mark, where the disciples are amazed, almost amused, by Jesus’ question: The large crowd is pressing upon you, and still you ask: ‘Who touched me? But Jesus keeps looking around until the woman comes in fear and trembling, kneels at his feet and relays the facts of the event, to which Jesus responds with care and sensitivity: My daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your trouble.

Well MF, it’s an interesting, if not haunting kind of question from Jesus: Who touched me? I mean, as the Son of God, shouldn’t Jesus know without having to look around amid the crowd? An evocative and poignant question which borders on giving me the shivers, if I really think seriously about it! I mean, who is this Jesus who responds like this—in a way most of us would not? I mean, physical touch seems to characterize the life of Jesus. Here, the woman with the hemorrhage who touches him; but so many of the sick he cured and the dead he raised—so often Jesus touched them!

The other story in today’s gospel features a 12-year old girl who died. She was the daughter of Jarius, a local synagogue official. Jesus took her hand and said Talitha, koum! (Little girl, get up!) In Mt 8:3, Jesus stretched out his arm, touched a leper and said Be clean! In the giving sight to two blind men, Jesus touched their eyes and said: Let it happen as you believe (Mt 9:29). A deaf man with a speech impediment was also healed, when Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears, spit, and touched the man’s tongue and cried out Ephphatha! which means ‘Open up!’ Mk 7:33. An epileptic boy was cured when Jesus commanded the evil spirit to leave the boy, after which the boy looked like a corpse and so Jesus took the boy by the hand and helped him up Mk 9:27.

All of these, MF, and so many more, Jesus touched them all and healed them! He not only blessed children, he embraced them by taking them up into his arms. Mk 10:16.

And like the woman in today’s gospel who touched him, Jesus also let others touch him! For instance, the many sick who at Gennes-aret touched the hem of his clothing and were made well, Mt 14:36; the woman who wet his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, Lk 8:38; and Thomas whom Jesus invited to touch his crucifixion wounds: Put your finger here and your hand in my side Jn 20:27.

Well MF, I’m not saying that Jesus was a Jesus Christ Superstar or the Gimme some Skin! kind-a-guy. But I am saying that this Nazarene, whose life was marked by compassion and love, was not satisfied with just words, however eloquent and true. The same man who gave his body to a bloody death on two-cross beams, did not hold his own flesh detached from the maddening crowds. It was not a distant dermis, nor a separated soma which attracted Mary and Martha, Peter and the eleven, Mary Magdalene and many others. Jesus’ tears and his touch were as much part of his care and concern, as his words and prayers. How expressive Jesus’ touch must have been! How consoling and comforting! How supporting and strengthening! How caring and compassionate!

All of which tells me something significant about myself. Like many children raised by grandparents whose world view was very different from mine own or whose parents were far too busy making ends meet to put food on the table, my childhood was not easy. I had to grow up very quickly. A warm, gentle touch or a soft, sensitive word, a loving, affectionate hug were almost impossible to come by.

Then, coming to this country from 50 years of poverty in another taught my grandparents to work even harder to finally climb out of poverty, buy a house and car and save for rainy days. Too busy working 24/7 to make time for feelings and sensitivity was dangerous stuff, especially since it also opened up the pandora’s box of the death of their daughter, buried in foreign soil across the ocean.

MF, the fact is that emotions and passions are undeniably part and parcel of our very human and down-to-earth experiences, which if denied for years, even decades, will erupt with vengeance somewhere else down the proverbial road. Emotions and passions are perilous indeed! Unleashed by our own ignorance, they are no loner under our despotic control.

That’s why touch is the tinder which kindles passion. Rough-and-tumble touch—the crunching body check, the brutal football tackle, the sweaty arm around the neck, even the swift pat on the bottom—all seemed to be no problem not that long ago. Even marital touch with no barriers—also seemed free and easy for generations in a male dominated and driven society.

But outside such situations, touch is a slippery slope and a dangerous devil. Ask the family of George Floyd, who suffered death under the weight and touch of a policeman’s knee on his neck. Or ask the high-profile politicians who have been accused of unwanted sexual touching by scores of women, who have risked their reputations and financial well-being by coming forward to accuse them. Or ask children beaten by fathers, if the harsh touch ever leaves the memory?

MF, I don’t wish to caricature the past; nor want to deny the latent power of touch. Absolutely not! Our social emphasis on the threat in touch played down the extraordinary essence of touch. It took years before I came to a thorough recognition that touch is also communication! Touch says something no other human sense can rival!

With just a minimal touch, I can tell you I care … I like you … I love you … I’m sorry for your troubles … I rejoice with you … I share your sadness, your worry, your pain … I understand … I don’t know what to say … I accept you … I bless you … I know how you feel … I too am lonely … I also need you. There is little touch cannot say.

Touch is not good at hiding the truth—at lying. I can weave words in an eloquent fashion to deceive you, so that my mind and heart do not really lie open to you. But I can rarely, if ever program touch that way. Touch will not obey me! Touch translates me! Which of course is another reason why life during this pandemic has been so difficult: Social distancing is vital. But it keeps one from needed embraces, particularly our elderly, especially in nursing homes.

Which MF leads to a broader issue. Physical touch tells others in a uniquely powerful way what I am, who I am, which indicates what my whole life should be: touching and being touched! Not only the touch of my hand or my lips, but an entire web of relationships. It tells me that life is communication. To be alive is to communicate. To touch means to share. Life is a giving and receiving; touching and being touched. Life is exchange.

The following excerpt from Rosemary Haughton’s volume, entitled, An Exchange with God, says it beautifully:

Creation itself is an exchange. Sit on a hillside.Look at the wild flowers and the trees below you. Each draws life from the soil, from the sun and rain. It grows, leafs, flowers, fruits. Its leaves fall, it dies and become part of the soil. The plants can grow only from the soil, the living soil can be made only from the plants. This is exchange of life.

Speech and meaning exist only in exchange. I receive meaning and I give it back, with something of “myself” in it. This is an exchange of life. What is “myself” then? I live only in exchange. Because I am human, I recognize myself as being in exchange. I receive life and give it back, at all levels—physical, cultural and spiritual interchanging with one another. My “being in exchange” is the image of the ultimate and perfect Exchange, the life of God.

Living in God and God living in me, in us, is the assertion that the very being of God is exchange—a total and absolute outpouring of being, a total and absolute acceptance of being, a total and absolute giving back of that received being; and the very name of that exchange is Love, the Very Being of God. There is no claiming, no possessing, but eternal and utter giving and receiving.

Who touched me? Whom have I touched? Why, God herself! God himself! Countless women, men and children, even the “things” that God and others have made. My whole life is touch, because my whole life is exchange. The tragedy lies in not recognizing this, not living it consciously, not making my life increasingly an exchange!

MF, Jesus’ question Who touched me? also tells me something significant not only to life and living, but to our life and living as Christians. I’ve already indicated that our human living is an exchange—a touching and being touched. But, what about our touching and being touched as Christians? What about the touch of Jesus, the touch of his Body and Blood or the touch of Christ’s love?

Personally, I find Christian living admirably symbolized in today’s Gospel of this hemorrhaging woman. Jesus the Christ is here with you and me, right now, as I deliver this sermon. By faith, we too can touch the hem of his garment and be healed. Doing that, he turns to us, looks directly at us, wants us to know him and yearns to live within us. The faith we show in touching him begins to make us whole. It is the overture of an exchange that marks our entire lives. But take note, MF, we could never reach out to Jesus, if he had not already reached out to you and me.

This touch of Jesus also finds a physical reflection in our two sacraments: Baptism and Communion—a ceaseless touching which gives life, forgives and heals. I pour water over the head of a freshly born and God claims them, divinity coursing through their veins. Or I immerse an adult into the waters of a river, a lake or swimming pool and God makes herself known to her/him in ways never experienced. I touch a hand what looks like bread and bring to lips what looks like wine, except that they contain the spirit-filled Christ and fragile flesh ingests eternal life.

Or, Jesus reaches out in so many other ways, when the rites of the church—confirmation, marriage, ordination, commendation of the dying—are applied through the office of the pastor or priest. I lay my hands on a young woman or man, apply oil on the forehead in the sign of the cross, and an outpouring of the HS empowers him to be a witness of his faith. I embrace an individual who asks for forgiveness for sinful wrongs—sometimes terrible sins—and he takes up his pallet—his life—and walks free again.

I anoint a dying grandfather in the presence of his family and God brings peace amidst suffering and death. A Bishop’s hands grip my arms and raise me from kneeling, now ordained to serve God’s church. A loving couple link hands to symbolize their endless oneness, and in so touching, they touch God to each other. Another couple celebrate renewal of their vows after 10, 25 or even 50 years, with a touching embrace.

Well MF, the touch of Jesus and the sacramental touch should be reflected in our human exchange. As Jesus told us more than once, we must love one another as he loved us, which demands that we Christians take the initiative in loving. I dare not wait to be loved. As the writer of 1 John penned this oft-repeated one-liner: This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, sending his son to be the amends for our sins.

As a Christian, it is our responsibility, our calling, to reach out and touch another pulsing person. At times, it will mean physical touch, more often than we think. But even here, the touch of my hand or arms, should be expressive of something deeper, fuller, richer—a symbol of my whole self. Because I touch you with my love, as well as my hand, I am touching to you the love of Jesus the Christ.

Now, the physical and sexual abuse suffered by the Indigenous children decades ago, and who were ripped from the arms of their parents by governmental and church officials—that touch was one-sided! But truly caring and sensitive touch is never one-sided. It is always and forever an exchange! In touching, I am also touched.

Likewise, in giving, I have also received, as St. Francis so singularly put it. Whether it is my hand or my heart which reaches out to another, I not only give life, I receive life. Nor can I receive abundant life and living unless I live from the vine which is Jesus. Likewise, I cannot live as a Christian, unless I receive life and love from the Body that is Christ—meaning, from you!

That’s why one of the marvels of the Eucharist is that I not only distribute bread and wine to each of you, but your eyes also meet mine—meaning, there is not only your communion with Christ, but at the same time, your communion with me. You receive from me and I receive from you! We receive from each other.

My final thought, MF, is in question form: After receiving Christ’s Body, should we not be more aware of the sisters and brothers around us—the women, men and children with whom we exchange our life and living on so many levels and without whom we would be less alive, less human, less Christian? Will the touch of Jesus within the context of our Zion family open you to those who need your touch, because they need your life and your love? Not the starving children in far-off Sudan, but your next-door neighbour on the street where you live, or the one(s) down the corridor in your condo or apartment, or members of your own family living with you or in another dwelling?

MF, it’s a thrilling experience to see budding on another’s face that wondering, wonderful question: Who touched me? And to realize it was not so much you, as it was Christ in you! And yet, more thrilling still, when you reach out that way, it is often you (or me) who are surprised by joy—you who ask in awe Who touched me?

May your touch be a blessing to others, as well as to yourself, MF. AMEN

Why do you fear? Why have you no faith? Mk 4:40

Dear Friends. Today’s very familiar and famous narrative about Jesus calming the storm and the waves is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but not in John. Today’s gospel is from MK who first penned this miracle story in 70 AD. MT and LK copied MK for their versions in 80 and 90 AD respectively. All 3-story lines are nearly identical, although MT and LK omit MK’s claim that there were other boats also present, when Jesus and his disciples set sail.

Now the word fear or afraid is used a total of 13 times in the 3 accounts and in each of them, Jesus tells his disciples, including you and me, not to be afraid. Why? Because an active faith always drives out fear, because faith is the opposite of fear—not doubt.

The word faith originates from the Greek word pistis which means to trust and so when we trust God from one day to the next, this puts fear to flight. Those who trust God fear not! So much of our anxiety and worry, our stress and distress, is the result of fear and being afraid. We moderns may never admit it, but psychologically speaking, fear motivates much of what we do, or don’t do.

Fear, of course, has countless forms. There’s fear of physical retribution and assault; but most of us have psychological fears: fear of a loss of control, fear of what others think of us, fear of not being number one, fear of not being liked or loved, fear of being alone, fear of pain or being hurt, even fear of fear itself. So, when we’re afraid, MF, it matters not a twit whether the fear to which we are chained is made of gold or iron. Simply put, we’ve allowed fear to chain us—even we Christians!

Our fears also do not go away, just because we ignore them or dismiss them. Our fears only go underground and fight a guerilla war deep inside us, and most of the time we’re not even aware of it. We don’t realize how our fears possess us and motivate us. As a Jewish motto has it: We just go on dancing faster to contain our fear.

A man lives in fear until he finally finds himself, said Ben Gurion, Israel’s first President. But how do we find the fear or fears which are hidden deep within us? Most of us can make jokes about the things we’re afraid of, especially when we were small. I was afraid of large dogs, like German shepherds, and still am. But our fears, once generated, do not get laughed away! Even those who laugh behind their hands when others acknowledge their deep fears, are often the killers of their own best dreams, and the tragedy is that they don’t even know they are.

MF, I know that fears often keep us from moving forward, especially if we haven’t finished with our fears from the past. We’re like the person who keeps on coming out the same door we went in. We want to be free of our fears, but don’t know what door to choose.

MK, like LK and MT, tell this story of Jesus commanding the wind and waves to be still, as a way to not only calm our fears, but to set us free from fear. I mean, everything about Jesus is setting everything and everyone free. The Jesus who can free our hearts to live in the truth, can also free all of nature to live in peace, because he controls even the winds and the sea.

MF, being set free means much more than simply the denial of our fears, which, of course, takes a lot of emotional energy and requires that we bankrupt ourselves and mortgage our fears. But when we divert our energies to do the devil’s work of spreading fear to others, then we no longer are motivated by faith in, nor love of God. Which means many people spend their lives shunting back and forth between their fears and their defenses which they think they’ve erected to keep fear out; but in reality, their defenses keep fear in.

There are so many who are afraid of doing some thing wrong, or saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. There are immigrants, like my grandparents, for whom 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 folks who are afraid of opening up their hearts to another person; afraid of trusting; afraid of being vulnerable. There are other people 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.

You may know that deep-seated fears actually go through several stages, something like the stages of death. Anxiety is the first stage, then despair and then denial. But denial of fear, as I said earlier, doesn’t mean that our fears go away or that the scar tissue is covered up, not to be seen any more. Eventually we know that we’ll feel the pain of fear, even if we don’t see or name the fear for what it is.

Few of us know what toll we pay on the freight of our unconscious wishes or how we make the thing that we fear the most knock on our door, night and day, or even how we might have lived our life, if the fear of life had not lived us. There are many pages in the book of life and even more if fear immobilizes us. There are many kinds of lives we can live, many ways to be rich and even more ways to be poor. So, there are those folks, Christians included, who would say we chose our own hell, and having chosen it, blame God. There are many kinds of fear, and each kind has a way of finding us.

I remember telling you that I had once been invited to the Ritz Carlton in Montreal, following a wedding I conducted in my first parish. The groom was very wealthy and seated me at a table with the presidents of Sears and the Bay. But there was also a bullfighter from Spain at the table, and everyone deferred to him and paid him court. Finally, a woman who had been most attentive, asked what was on everyone’s mind. “You aren’t afraid of anything, are you Luis?” she asked. “Yes, I am,” he answered. “I’m afraid of bulls!”

It didn’t surprise me that a man who feared bulls would spend his life facing his fear and staring it between the ears. When we have troubles and fears, MF it’s always best to deal with them head on.

The best way is always through our fears and not around them

by blaming others, which is what the disciples did when faced with the violent storm and waves. “Don’t you care that we’re about to die, Master? The storm isn’t your fault, but surely you can save us!” For his part, Jesus tells his disciples to deal with their fear of the storm and fear of death by simply having faith, that God cares for them and loves them—much more than the value of many sparrows! But their fears overtake them and overwhelm their faith.

MF, we’ve heard this story over and over. We’ve become so accustomed to it, that it’s all too easy to find fault with the disciples. I mean, they had Jesus’ presence. We don’t, which becomes our excuse, you see—that we too have our fears, against which we bargain deep into the night. When we want to, there are many ways to give hostages to fear, many ways to be sucked like a firefly into the flame, so that those who fear abandonment, inevitably find someone new to abandon them all over again, and yet again. We position ourselves to get the kind of pain we want, and many people do it very well, including Christians, perfecting the art throughout their lives of cruelty not only to others, but to themselves.

I once knew a man, whose father was an alcoholic, who was violent and most unkind. The secret to his life resided in his childhood. As a boy, he was often made afraid because he could not protect himself or go to the aid of his mother whom he loved. Today he still sets himself up so that he can feel fear and powerlessness all over again.

I could tell you how hard he works today, not only to make a living, but to make sure that he is abused—and all out of fear! And I could tell you how he lets down all the people who love him, so that he can feel fear and guilt all over again. Sometimes, the only way to protect yourself from fear of the monster is to become the monster yourself, and that’s what happened to him. That’s also what happens to many who on the surface, resemble monsters, because they inflict the fear by which they’ve always lived.

For too many people, fear has become a roadblock which they service and maintain their entire lives, whether the fear is recent or long ago. And, as I said earlier, it matters not an iota, if we are chained by a golden chain or an iron one. By holding on to old hatreds, angers and fears, instead of letting them go, is that we continue to make decisions based upon the past, because we continue to live in that long ago, constantly affixing fault and blame.

Which is why those who cannot trust enough, make sure they will not be trusted, and those who fear the most to be orphaned or widowed, abandoned or worthless, find themselves so, again and again, with broken hearts to boot. Yes, broken hearts must be mended and can be mended, if we allow faith to unlock the chain. MF, we need to look after our hearts, because only the heart which trusts God can banish the fear which haunts us and chains us every time.

There are over 200 references to fear in the New Testament, which is to say that fear rules all of us, one way or another, even those who think it doesn’t affect them and the most ruled are those who’ve had to develop a large rational scaffolding to support their fears. That’s why for myself, personally and professionally, the highest task of bonding among people, the greatest responsibility within a family—especially between a couple—is that we should always stand guard over the vulnerability of one another. Why?

Because what is lacking in our world is trust, which is the opposite of fear. The world is gripped in fear—in its vice—and therefore unable to trust. But if we want to trust, if we want to be unchained from fear, we need to trust again, which means we need to be found trustworthy—a quality also missing in action nowadays. Why? Because those who betray, are themselves betrayed and those who doubt are themselves doubted and the buck always stops somewhere else and with someone else, instead of ourselves. Why? Because it’s always most difficult to face our own fears head on.

You know MF, 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!

When we really think of it, fears fight wars and fears conquer worlds and fears commit genocide. Fears may also seek the security of large bank accounts. Some fears may even build churches and temples and mosques, believing these will conquer fear. But those who fear, always plan their defenses and their retreats, never really living life, just escaping; never really loving, only weighing the odds.

Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace, song and laughter? O’Neill wrote in his book The Great God Brown

Why am I afraid to really live, I who love life? Why am I afraid to love, I who love love? Why am I afraid, I who claims not to be afraid? Why must I live in an invisible cage, like a criminal, defying and isolating myself, I who love peace and friendship? O God, why must I wear armour to touch and be touched?

The answer to fear, MF, as Jesus knew and experienced over and over again, does not lie in learning how to protect ourselves from life. It lies in learning how to strengthen ourselves, so we can let more and more of life in. I mean, here is our Jesus, sleeping with his head on a pillow at the back of a boat, all the while the little craft is letting more and more water in from a sudden storm. Sorely afraid of sinking and dying, the disciples awaken their teacher: Don’t you care that we’re about to die?

 So Jesus calms the storm and then rebukes his disciples: “What are you afraid of? Why don’t you have more faith?” The disciples don’t say it, but maybe they’re thinking: “Easy for you to say, Jesus. If we could calm winds and waves, we wouldn’t fear either.”

The Hasidic Jews have a story, that on Judgment Day, each person will be invited to hang from the Tree of Sorrows all of his fears and sorrows, and that done, he will then be given permission to walk around the tree and survey everyone else’s fears in order to select a set of fears he likes better. According to legend, each person then freely chooses his own personal set of fears and sorrows once more.

“Take what you want,” God said, “and pay for it,” and many of us pay again and again. But how do we stop the cycle of fear? That’s the question! There are no human roadmaps, no simple solution to the elimination of fear. It’s not something we can buy at a store.

But what we can do is apply the words of Jesus who tells us not to fear. Who tells us to put our hand into the hand of God, trusting him from one day to the next. And how do we not fear? By having faith and trust in God; by love and loving God; by loving one another and ourselves, as Jesus loves us. Only true love conquers fear.

“There is only one single magic, one single power, one single salvation and one single happiness which casts out all fear and anger, and it is called Love,” wrote Herman Hesse, German poet and novelist, in a book of essays he wrote between 1904 and 1961 and called Mein Glaube (My Belief). Well MF, I couldn’t agree more! There is no better way I know out of our egotistical and fear-based selves, and no better way to become ourselves, to be what God meant us to be, no better way to help God save us from ourselves, than to love.

MF, it is through practicing faith and love that we live and grow into what God means us to be. It is through faith and love that we invest in God and in ourselves. It is through faith and love that we grow rich in life and living. It is through faith and love that our connectedness to one another, to others and to God, grows deep in joy and commitment.

There is no better way out of our selfish selves, as Jesus showed us, no better way to become that which God meant you to become, except by practicing faith and love, which alone casts our fear. AMEN.

It is like this, said Jesus: A man takes a mustard seed, the smallest seed in the world and plants it in the ground. After a while it grows up and becomes the largest of all shrubs. Mk 4:26

This morning, MF, the Holy Spirit is sending you forth on a mission, which the Spirit likes to do, because the HS is mission minded. Now, it’s not the first time you and I we’ve been on a mission from the HS. Since our baptism he’s sent us on many assignments. I suspect you’re asking: Well Pastor Peter, what’s the mission this morning? Isn’t Jesus just talking about some mustard tree in Palestine—a tree I’ve never seen first-hand? What’s the mission?  

Your mission, MF, should you choose to accept it, is to proclaim the gospel which in terms of the mustard shrub, is to plant a seed—in fact, many seeds. Your assignment—mine too!—is to be a planter. What’s the seed? The Word of God is the seed—meaning the Gospel that God loves the world so much that he sent his son to save it.

That’s the seed you and I need to plant, MF. Seems like an easy job, certainly in comparison to other tasks from Jesus, like turning the other cheek, loving our enemy, not judging lest we be judged, forgiving lest we not be forgiven. A lot of responsibilities Jesus gives us are much more difficult than planting seeds. But let’s have a look!

As we Christians plant God’s seed, despite our human weaknesses and frailties, the seed we spread is indeed the smallest possible seed, isn’t it? The little seed doesn’t always fall on receptive soil, for the ground is frequently thorny and stubborn, repeatedly rocky and thick-skinned, and every so often, the soil has no depth. It’s quite thin-skinned, you see! Yes, you and I, we humans are the soil and there are many of us, including church people, who really couldn’t care less about the seed. Time and again, we only care when it’s convenient or if there’s something in it for us and our specialized interests. Our hearts are simply too frozen to allow this smallest of seeds to become a generous bush within us.

A seminary professor of mine, Dr. George Evenson, who taught the art of preaching, stunned us one day. His long right arm and hand stretched to the limit, as he bellowed in an unmistakable tone:

Students! When you preach to the converted in the pews, presume disinterest, especially after the honeymoon period is over and people have gotten used to you. Presume that the congregation would rather feed their children to crocodiles, than listen to you. Presume many are even actively hostile to God’s message or the preacher or to both.

MF, your mission and mine as Christians means that the seed must still be planted, regardless of its reception. Oh yes, every satan and charlatan will come and carry off what was sown. Men and women will listen joyfully in the beginning, but they will falter under pressure or persecution; lust for more money and material possessions or the anxieties of sheer survival will choke the seed from one end of the parish to the other.

But, take heart MF! We’re not alone! Jesus experienced similar woes, but with even more difficulty in planting the seed. There were fellow Nazarenes who wanted to throw him over a cliff after a sermon he preached in their synagogue. Well, I can’t say that happened to me, but the Scarborough Bluffs weren’t too far from Epiphany—my last parish. Or members of Jesus’ family—siblings accusing him of madness, when he said that other people were his mother, brothers and sisters. Then there were always men plotting to kill him over what he said or believed or what he did or didn’t do.

And yet, there are always those who listen to the Word, take it to heart, which is where the seed germinates and then bears fruit. You’ve experienced it. I’ve experienced it. God has used your words and mine to melt hearts of stone, so that the seed could be planted. Of course, first our hearts had to be melted to accept the seed, before we could spread it and allow God to plant it in other hearts.

Precisely here, MF, lies a crucial realization. It is always by the Grace of God that the planting of God’s Gospel is even done. We are indeed channels of God’s Grace, meaning: It is always in God’s good time that the smallest of all the seeds of the world grows up and becomes the largest of all shrubs. It is in God’s good time that spreading the Word and planting the seed brings about a world that is more fair and more just—a world which flowers into a fuller rule of God over human hearts and minds.

Of course, the spreading of the seed is not accomplished without us mortals—fragile and vulnerable, sin-ridden and failed folk that we are. God needs us to spread her Word of Love; that we might hone the incredible talents God has given us, to help others help themselves; that we might also yearn to see Jesus more clearly, to love him more dearly, to follow him more nearly, as a popular hymn goes.

But if the seed stops growing because of our existential anxieties and fears, Jesus says to us (and I’m paraphrasing here):

Don’t be worried nor upset. Do you believe in God? Then believe also in me. Things will not suddenly change. Seeds take time to grow. Change can only begin and come in the form of a seed.

For me, MF, love is the beginning and the end of that which is most meaningful in my life. Love was the first word when I was born and love will be the final word on my lips. From that perspective, I fear that the world is dying for lack of love. Love is the food of life, and so we Christians need to give what we can. We need to plant seeds of love; because whatever the question is, love is the answer. Love and loving are the seeds which are today so desperately needed.

And yet, somehow, MF, there isn’t enough love to go around! But there could be! There could be as much love as we need and then some. We just need to allow that seed of love to grow within our hearts and become the largest shrub, so that we’ll have lots of love, and even more to give away and then with lots left over.

Remember the poem set to music called The Rose? It’s a beautiful rendition of planting God’s seed of love. The refrain goes like this:

Some say love, it is a river that drowns the tender reeds. Some say love, it is a razor, that leaves the soul to bleed. Some say love, it is a hunger, an endless aching need. I say love, it is a flower, but you must plant the seed.

Seeds, MF, they require lots of patience to grow! The writer of Hebrews 10:32ff put it this way:

Brothers (and sisters), we must endure a hard struggle with suffering; we must be publicly exposed to abuse for preaching Christ. Therefore, do not lose confidence. To do God’s will and receive what is promised, you need patience. The just shall live by grace.

So, patience is what we all need. Me too, as does the Church, including Zion. Luther knew what he was saying when he called the Christian a solitary bird, sitting somewhere on a rooftop and warbling its little song. We have all experienced what it means to have no one in our job or office, or in class or even in our homes and families who is at one with us in the ultimate things of life. We know what it means to be a minority and how we give in to the majority, day in and day out…even within our own families who, together with God, vie for our attention Sunday mornings.

MF, what we need is to let God give us the godly nerve and the stouthearted audacity to venture out into the soup of the world with its apathy and indifference, its violence and death. Wherever we are, we Christians need to say who we are and what we believe.

Then and only then will we have the surprise of our lives. We will not only find the seed growing within us, but we will be enlivened by that mustard seed now becoming a shrub. If we do not, cannot and will not spread the seed to others—especially if they are family and friends. If we do not allow God’s seed within us to spread to others, we ourselves will grow sour, which is what has happened to many churched, both active and paper members.

The courage to sow the seed and be this seed on behalf of Christ for others comes not from ourselves, but from God. Maybe that’s too easy to say. But if we don’t use the courage God gives us, we never will sow the seed, and that’s because courage expands with use. Courage isn’t something we can put on the shelf and keep stock-piled until a rainy day. If we don’t use it to sow the seed, even courage that comes from God diminishes and dies with non-use.

MF, I know how very hard it is sometimes to find the courage to face life wholeheartedly and to respond honestly, knowing that there are no guarantees—not a one! Too many people, including church people, are afraid to sow the seed God gives them, afraid to plant that seed into the hearing of another person, afraid to listen with an open heart what is being said and then to respond with God’s seed, no matter what reception we think the seed will get.

You know MF, sometimes when we’ve been in the habit of not taking chances, not exercising the courage God gives us to spread the seed, when we are always hedging our bets—it seems too hard to reach back to others with seeds. Sometimes it’s even too much to demand of ourselves. We give up before we try to discover whether there is something out there to do, and so we sit back instead and complain about life, because we’ve not got the courage to move out beyond ourselves and do something for God, for his church and for our neighbour on God’s behalf.

MF, we need to “sally forth,” as the British used to say, as the early Christians once sallied forth and upon whose blood the church was built—the church which once became a mighty mustard tree. We sally forth with confidence, because it is God who does the planting of the seed we sow, as we proclaim the Gospel of God’s love for the world. We sally forth with courage because it is precisely through suffering that our words kindle a flame within us and therefore within the hearts of others. And we sally forth with inexpressible joy, because we share in the mission of sowing the very seeds of God’s love into the world and into the hearts of our neighbours.

Having said that, it’s not easy to “sally forth,” is it? It requires not only strength and courage, it demands that we let go of the past – let go of what used to be, which so often binds our hearts and minds and souls to the past, even though our bodies live in the present. I mean, God wants her seed to be planted to bring spiritual change and growth now, but only those with new minds and hearts can see a new world breaking through the cracks of the old.

The fact is this: If we are to plant the seed successfully, our faith also needs to be one which accepts and even embraces change, which is integral to the DNA of every living thing. Faith comes from the Greek word pistis, which means to trustand trust MF is always an existential reality. Belief, on the other hand, is often static, originating from the Latin word credo—believing something about God or Jesus.

Which is to say: Real change and transformation happens when things fall apart. The pain of something old cracking apart or unraveling invites us to change and evolve, instead of tightening our personal controls and organizational certitudes – instead of always trying to piece “Humpty Dumpty back together again.” The current challenges of church and society is also God’s way of “cracking open” people for greater possibility, responsibility and change, which includes church and society.

How do the families of the victims of the Canadian church and government operated residential schools, which ripped indigenous children from the arms of their mothers and fathers, come to terms with the attempted cultural genocide in the 1940s and 50s? And now, as we all know, the Tk’emlups te Secwepec First Nation has said ground-penetrating radar detected what are believed to be the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School site.

Indigenous leaders are rightly expressing genuine disappointment and frustration over comments by Pope Francis which they say fell far short of an apology for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools. How can healing possibly even begin without soul-searching apologies from church and government? Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said: “It’s truth before reconciliation.”

Seeds and plenty of them desperately need to be planted: the seeds of sincere apology and change, the seeds of real truth–telling and reconciliation, the seeds of existential hope for the Indigenous Peoples and Nations of this land.

So it is for our country and our churches! In the midst of destabilization and displacement, we Canadians and church folks have been tempted to re-stabilize by putting Humpty back together again, instead of rebuilding and facing divisions. Will a return to the past power structures of the church –especially in the Catholic Church with its patriarchal power concentrated in old red-caped men—accept the planting of new seeds and the desperate need for growth and change?

Harkening to the beginning of this sermon, MF, it seems to me that the Holy Spirit calls us Canadian Christians to embrace a new mission and new imagination, since the old continues to unravel and its puzzle pieces can no longer be rearranged.

In this sense, MF, the malaise of the Western church has been the work of God! I believe that’s true. A church that has been humbled by disruption and decline may be a less arrogant and presumptuous church. It may have fewer illusions about its own power and centrality. It may be less willing to ally with the empires and powers that have long defined it. It may finally admit how much it needs the true power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. That’s a church with which God can work! That’s a church which needs to be on a new mission to plant new seeds of spiritual change and growth. AMEN

Who are my mother and my brothers? And looking around at the crowd, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.”

Mk 3:34 Isn’t he the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James Joseph, Judas and Simon? Do not his sisters also live here? And so they rejected him!Mk.6:3

So MF, just who is my family? That’s the question Jesus asks when he hears that his mother and siblings are outside asking for him. His answer: His mother, brothers and sisters are in the crowd he is addressing. And three chapters later, Jesus is rejected because he’s just a carpenter, a member of a human family.

A person I once knew goes into congestive heart failure. She calls her brother and sister in the US. They either don’t believe her or don’t seem particularly interested, and certainly neither one is able to come at this time. She has to turn to her friends for help. She asks herself: “Just who is my family?”

A gay man decides to come out to his parents and siblings. They reject him. He asks, “Just who is my family?” A young black woman, in the film ‘Secrets and Lies’, decides to search out her biological mother after the death of her adoptive parents. Her mother turns out to be white, and so she asks herself: “Just who is my family?”

A mid-aged woman goes into therapy because she can’t stand her husband’s touch. She faces head-on what she knows she must face: her father and his friends sexually abused her repeatedly as a child. She confronts her father, but her mother, sisters and brothers ostracize her for doing so. She asks, “Just who is my family?”

This morning, MF, I want to talk about the importance of family and the need to exercise family values. Our politicians—federal, provincial and local—all preach this when it’s election time, as they give speeches with their families by their side. Great optics: politicians of every stripe all publicly professing their belief in the family as the foundational institution of civilization. Not to do so would be political suicide. In fact, the driving force behind religiously right organizations like the Promise Keepers, a Christian men’s movement, is a return to biblically based family values. We assume we can turn to our spiritual leaders for unambiguous support in this arena, just as we can presume that Jesus and family values go hand in hand.

Yet, what are we to make of Jesus’ words today’s Gospel? After a healing-spree, the crowd follows Jesus home, wanting more. His family is very concerned about him because in this account, Jesus is accused of being the son of Satan, deriving his healing power from evil sources. Jesus answers with characteristically colourful logic: Why would Satan, who causes sickness, according to first-century Judaism, want to heal these people? “No” says Jesus. “My healing is a sign that I am Satan’s nemesis, not his servant.”

All this speculation is deeply worrisome to his mother, brothers and sisters, who come to “restrain him”–to shut him up from further inflammatory utterances! Jesus gets a message that his family wants a word with him. Simple request, it seems. But Jesus’ response gives us needed pause: Just who are my mother, brothers and sisters? Jesus distances himself from them, you see!

Imagine how his mother must have felt at that moment. What about his brothers and sisters? If they ever needed confirmation that Jesus was losing his mind, this was it! In first-century Judaism, family was everything! So we rightly ask: What’s going on in this narrative? Well MF, we can surmise Jesus’ attitude about family through only three passages in the entire New Testament.

In addition to this reference, there was the occasion, according to Luke 11:27-28, when someone says to Jesus: Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that suckled you! Again, Jesus is not exactly gushing with a son’s love for his mother. He replies: How fortunate rather are those who listen to God’s teaching and observe it. Then in Lk 12:49ff, Jesus tells a crowd that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword. His purpose to bring division: father against son; mother against daughter, brother against brother and sister against sister. We don’t hear that from any of our family-oriented politicians, do we? I think not!

MF, here is the sobering reality of the gospels. When Jesus does talk about the family, he is almost savage in his attack on it, as it was known in the Mediterranean world. It won’t do to simplistically invoke the name of Jesus in support of a return to family values! That’s because Jesus continually undermines conventional sentiment and traditional morality for the sake of a deeper progressive ethic that goes by the name of the Kingdom of God.

Now the family in first-century Mediterranean culture was a reflection of society in miniature, as it is today. In the family, we learn patterns of love, hate, helping, abusing, caring, confronting, compassion and violence. In the family, we also experience power and control, as reflected in the relationships between family members.

So MF, how was the family organized 2,000 years ago in Mediterranean society? First, the family was hierarchical and patriarchal. Men were the head of the household, whereas women were subservient. Men could divorce women with a mere piece of paper, clapping and saying 3-times: “I divorce you!” Women simply had no rights and often had to resort to prostitution to make ends meet after divorce. Because women were the legal property of men, when divorced, they were left penniless and homeless.

Given this background of stunning male abuse, Jesus spoke against divorce: to protect and defend the dignity of women! Yes, Canadian divorce rate of 42% is high, but it pales in comparison to the ease with which wives could be sacked in Jesus’ society.

Children, on the other hand, had no rights whatsoever. They, too, were the property of men, and could be disposed of at will. Boys were more treasured than girls, and there were many recorded instances of infant female deaths in the Roman era. In short, the family was the institution that both reflected and perpetuated an ethic of male privilege and domination.

With the notable exception of Jesus, the Bible supports this social arrangement. Only 20 years after Jesus, Paul softens Jesus’ radical message. Rather than undermine the hierarchical and patriarchal nature of the family, he humanizes it. This is what right-wing religious movements like the Promise Keepers do as well. They accept that this system of male domination was instituted by God, because it’s in the Bible. But to the contrary, MF, just because something is in the Bible, that doesn’t mean that it is instituted by God! Jesus wasn’t intent to humanize the social arrangement. He intended to subvert it in order to change it to conform with God’s will and word!

So, that was 2,000 years ago. Families are different today, right? In many ways, it’s true. But even in our 21st century democratic Canadian and Western society, there are painful vestiges of that system of male domination and submission, together with male privilege, especially white male privilege. Let me offer two illustrations.

The first has to do with how couples divide up the household chores. During 32 years of pastoral ministry, I gave premarital counseling and always assumed that that young men and women coming to me were committed to equality. This would be reflected in the fair division of household tasks. Wrong! Although these couples were both working 8-10 hours daily, I discovered that after work, women were doing 80% of the housework, but men only 20%. On average, it takes 18-25 hours per week to do the household chores.

This means that women are spending 2-3 working days outside their jobs, while men do only half a day on chores. We may smile and nod in recognition, but this reflects an area of assumed male privilege. Over a lifetime, there are sizable quality of life issues at stake here. Jesus came to break up such patterns of inequity.

The second vestige of domination and submission which Jesus sought to subvert is a much more tragic: family violence! Although there are instances of such violence originating with women, the overwhelming evidence is that physical aggression is a male phenomenon. That’s no surprise us, but the percentage of violence is shocking. The fact is reported cases of male violence occur in one quarter to one third of all families. I know something about this, because I myself have been assaulted four times in my life by two different family members. In neither case did I charge either man with assault, although I was perfectly in my right to do so.

MF, when you spend time talking to men who sexually or physically abuse their wives and children, you realize that at the core of this conduct is a single deep-seated attitude. That attitude is one of ownership. An abuser believes that his wife and children are his property, and he can do with them as he pleases. MF, where does this idea originate? It’s a vestige of the politics of domination, found in every generation and nation. It must be continually confronted and prevented.

MF, Jesus rejected precisely these attitudes. Like all human life, family life comes under the critique of God’s Kingdom, including Jesus’ own family. Images made upon a community count not, nor impressions made on TV count not in the polling station. What counts is one’s citizenship in the Kingdom of God.

The flip side is that in the Kingdom of God, there are all kinds of family configurations which fall outside conventional notions of family. They don’t fit the mold but are unquestionably good families: single-parent families, families with stepparents, even same gendered families! What matters is not the form—that is, who forms the family, but the substance and quality of the relationships.

If families are based on mutual respect, a willingness to listen deeply, and a conscious decision to extend oneself for the well-being of the other, that is family. If our children are taught to value diversity, love God, respect themselves and others, that is family. If people of different color, gender, sexual orientation and religion are all equal before God, then that’s the kind of family Jesus would call his mother, brothers and sisters.

Let me close with a scene from the 1996 movie Sling Blade, directed by Billy Bob Thornton, who also stars in the lead role. Set in Arkansas, the film tells the story of a man named Karl Childers who has an intellectual disability and is released from a psychiatric hospital where he has lived since killing his mother and her lover when he was 12 years old. He returns home to kill his father for all the abuse he suffered at his father’s hand. But after seeing him, a pathetic old man talking to himself in a chair all alone, Karl changes his mind and walks away. In the next scene, he is baptized in a river. He had no choice about his biological family, but he is able to choose his spiritual family.

Some of us were born into wonderful families—kind, caring and nurturing. Others, like Karl, were less fortunate. For good or bad, we had no choice. But there is another family we can belong to only by choice. We can choose to belong to the family of Jesus Christ. We can choose to learn the will of God and do it. And when we do, Jesus calls us his own. If we value belonging to the Family of God, then we are his own, MF. We belong to Jesus and he to us. AMEN

Do not be surprised I tell you: You must be born from above!  (v7) 

Dear Friends. There’s a big difference between being “born again” and “born from above.” Let me illustrate with a little true story. Occasionally I get a telephone call from a former parish member. She’s what we call a “born again Christian.” She has little patience for my kind of Christianity, because she tells me I’m not born-again. Now, from her point of view, neither are most Christians in the Lutheran Church, or the Christian Church in the Western hemisphere for that matter. Why? Most of us, she says, don’t believe in the Bible—don’t take it literally and so we’re not “born again.”

Of course, most Christians—Lutherans and others—don’t believe as she does. For her that’s not good and although she has stopped saying it, she’s certain I’m doomed to the fiery flames of perdition. MF, it’s not the first time, nor the last, that I will be consigned to the heat of hell. Even we Christians live between the judgments we make in this life and the surprises God has for us in the next.

A few years back, while driving in the American Southwest, I heard a radio talk-show host interviewing a mere 7-year old about her faith. “How long have you been a born-again Christian?” he asked. The girl answered that she had been a Christian since she was three when she accepted Jesus as her Saviour. “What happens to people who don’t believe in Jesus?” asked the radio host? “They go straight to hell,” she answered. Well MF, that’s a least two-thirds of humanity, most of whom were not born into Christian families through no fault of their own. But, they’re going to hell, declared the girl and she was utterly convinced this was the gospel truth.

If you’ve watched the recent PBS “American Experience” series, one featured the famed evangelist Billy Graham, who for most of his life believed just like the little girl—in this case, that the Chinese were headed for hell. But once Richard Nixon betrayed Graham’s trust, the evangelist became considerably less political and realized the gross sin of playing God. Thereafter he at least left salvation to God.

Jesus tells Nicodemus in today’s well-known gospel story that he must “be born from above.” Another source on the exact same text quotes Jesus as saying: “You must be born again!” Nicodemus of course gets confused and asks Jesus how it’s possible to re-enter his mother’s womb, to get “born again.” It’s ironic, MF, that this misunderstanding has spawned another entire branch of the Church which calls itself “born-again Christians.”

I’ve met many wonderful people who refer to themselves as “born againers” and I’ve met others who are more frightening; and others still who are down-right judgmental, spouting about who is going to heaven and who’s going to hell, as if they were God. My point here is not to denigrate brothers and sisters in the faith, but rather to explore the possibilities of what might be meant by being “born from above” as distinct from being “born again.”

Those of you who watched ER from 1994 – 2009, you may remember this episode: Head nurse Kerri gets a telephone message from her birth mother, whom she’s never met. Kerri decides to meet her biological mother for dinner. Kerri pulls out a photo of her son. Kerri’s deceased life partner, a woman, with whom she parented their son, is also in the photo. Her mother assumes she’s a nanny. Kerri tells her she’s gay. But her mother is a born-again Christian. She offers to pray for Kerri’s healing. But Kerri just wants to be accepted for who she is. Her mother’s born-again faith cannot accept this scenario and Kerri is forced to walk away from her mother.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to see the Kingdom of God one must be born from above. The born-again position of Kerri’s birth mother prevented her from seeing the Kingdom of God revealed in her long-lost daughter. She missed a significant opportunity to be born from above, which means to be radically open to what God’s Spirit blows your way, to the Stranger whom you chose not to befriend, to the threatening idea—the Holy Other which may just subvert your religiosity and your carefully constructed identity. And if there’s a choice between your hardened beliefs and your long-lost daughter, you choose your daughter—every time!

Jesus tells Nicodemus: “The Spirit blows where it will.” In Hebrew and Greek, wind and spirit are translated from the same word. We don’t know where the wind comes from or where it’s going, but we can hear it. It’s beyond our control. All we can do is to be open to the possibility that sacred seeds are carried by that wind and planted where needed. The Spirit blows into our carefully constructed lives and, if we have a feel for the wind, we’ll expand our hearts and minds to make room for the life God lays at our doorstep.

MF, I learned long ago that God’s Spirit blows not just verbal communication which the mind receives, like in the different languages spoken on the day of Pentecost. But God’s Spirit also blows that which is beyond oral transmission—it whooshes into our hearts a message which only the heart can comprehend. After all, the heart knows things and communicates feelings which the mind can never fathom. Just ask lovers! Maybe you were one once, or you still are!

MF, we need to put less stock in what our minds can accomplish and listen more for what God’s Spirit writes on the wind and waves, what is etched on the walls and windows of our hearts. We westerners think that reason and rationality is all we need, when in fact the intellect is at best a stratification of what we know intuitively. But then we often get it wrong by trying to fit what we learned today, to what we learned last week. Perhaps not everything is supposed to fit together like a puzzle. Maybe there are pieces which belong to another picture, which we’re trying to force into our situation.

When I speak to the newly married at their wedding service, of course I speak as a pastor, which is how wedded couples perceive me. But what if I also spoke as a poet—for only poets best know the heart of two lovers, where no preacher should even dare to tread. St Paul was inspired by the HS to speak as a poet in that famous passage in 1 Cor. 13:1-13, which we know as his Ode to Love:

Though I speak in the languages of men and of angels, but have no love, I am just a noisy gong or a clanging bell. I may have the gift of inspired preaching. I may possess all knowledge and understand all secrets. I may even have the faith needed to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give away all that I have to the poor and even give my body to be burned; but if I have not love, none of this does me any good. Love is patient and kind; not jealous, conceited or proud. Love is not ill-mannered, selfish or rude. Love does not keep a record of wrongs. Love does not coexist with evil and is always happy with the truth. Love never gives up… Love is eternal.

That, MF, is the HS speaking from the heart of one who loved God beyond everything else.

There’s an anecdote which claims that Michelangelo once rejected the congratulatory remarks someone offered him on turning a block of stone into a man. Michelangelo said that the HS inspired him to see the man trapped inside the block of stone and just required a little help in getting out. Well MF, there is still time for us humans to learn how to hold each other’s hand and care for one another in ways that allow us to come from out of our stone dwellings. It’s the HS speaking to and from our hearts.

Communication is an activity of the HS. For myself, I am often drawn to communicate in the direction of my hopes–hopes which the HS translates into treasures. But, as you know MF, it’s not easy! Communication requires courage; in fact, it is only with courage that we live from one hour to another, as Jesus did.

Courage expands with use. Courage isn’t something we can put on a shelf and stockpile against a rainy day. If we don’t use the courage God gives us, then courage withers with neglect. It’s often very difficult for us humans to find the courage to face life wholeheartedly and to respond honestly, knowing that there are no guarantees–not a one! That’s why we’re so afraid to fully experience another person in whom the Spirit is also communicating, and then to hear with an open heart what is really being said, and to speak our own truth back, no matter what reception we think we might receive.

But this is what Jesus did, day in and day out, allowing the Spirit to communicate to his listeners, planting seeds which would germinate and bloom one day, if his listeners had the courage to receive his difficult words. MF, it’s not much different for us.

Many of us have been so habitualized, when we don’t take chances and hedge our bets when someone is reaching out to us. It then seems too hard to reach back to others, too much to demand of ourselves. But the HS is always challenging us to take the courage God gives us and move to the next step…whether it’s listening or learning, accepting a new idea or a different person from ourselves, whether it’s giving and forgiving, maybe for the first time in a very long time. It’s also hard to know how to be a good or better friend–more responsive and sensitive, more open and aware. It’s even harder to know how to reach inside our hearts, where the HS lives that we might find enough love to feed ourselves and then some–to give it away as well!

There’s a story about a man who turned to God one night when he was sorely tried and called out, “When can I stop giving, God? I haven’t anything more to give!” “You can stop giving, when I stop giving to you,” came God’s answer.

“When you stop giving to me?” the man cried out, enraged, thinking of his son who was fatally ill and his ex-wife who made his life miserable, and even of his friends who couldn’t muster enough courage to call him from time to time, to help him with his pain and grief. “All you’re giving to me,” said the man to God, “is pain and sorrow!”

“No, that’s not right,” came God’s answer in reply. “I gave you life, and I gave you my Spirit that you might have life. And that’s my gift to you, a pearl of great price. The pain and sorrow are another matter. But since you brought them up, they have made you a strong man, don’t you think? Would you rather be a weaker man, perhaps a man like one of your friends who is less certain of his strength, because he is unable to give to you in your time of need.”

“Well, God, since you put it that way,” said the man, feeling somewhat chastised, “I thank you for the gift of the Spirit which gives me life. Thank you for helping me develop the strength to be a giver. I realize now that it is a privilege to be able to give, as you give to me.”

MF, this is the way God works, through the HS which he places in every heart and soul, having been created in his image. God always comes to us, in one way or another, sometimes in the face in the mirror, in precocious 2-5 year olds, in homeless men, in children whose life-style and sexual orientation is different from ours, in refugees far from home, in hostages at gun-point, even in a peasant rabbi—Jesus by name. If we open God’s gifts of the Spirit, we will have to expand our hearts and our minds because the hearts and the minds we have right now are simply too small to accommodate the life we’re being offered by the Spirit.

MF, opening our hearts to what the Spirit blows our way, day to day, is the key to receiving what Jesus calls “eternal life.” Jesus didn’t hold eternal life up as a reward for those who believe the right things about him, or threaten those who don’t with eternal damnation. I shudder at how that 7-year old girl, whom I mentioned earlier—how her heart and mind were closed down at such an early and impressionable age, to play God, and actually believe that God was going to send most of the world to hell, when in fact God loves the world in its entirety. If I ever thought that God would send two-thirds of humanity to hell—assuming there is such a place—then I would not only stop preaching, I’d stop being a Christian!

MF, Trinity Sunday is Jesus telling us we can be born from above, again and again and yet again, eternally so. Such is God’s love for the world, and for you and me and every human, made evident by the love we show and give to others. MF, let us continue to open our hearts and minds to what the Wind of God’s Spirit is blowing our way.  AMEN

 

The city is called Babylon, because that’s where the Lord confounded the language of all the people. Gen 11:9

How is it that we hear them speaking in our own language? Acts 2:8

Dear Friends. At Pentecost we hear the story of the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples, as they wait for guidance about the future. After his death, Jesus mysteriously appeared, telling them to wait until they received the power of the HS to continue the mission he began—to communicate God’s Love to the world through the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

But let me crystal clear, MF: The HS didn’t just suddenly appear upon the earth on Pentecost. It wasn’t as if the earth was completely devoid of Spirit until it was poured out upon the disciples in Jerusalem. Clearly, Spirit was present—shot through and through—the evolutionary force of the universe. It is God as Spirit which is the life of the universe itself, the life of every living thing, including we homo sapiens, which is what it means to be created in God’s image. The HS is alive, dwelling within us and every human being since time began.

God’s Spirit MF was also present in the various cultures and religions of the day. When we talk HS, we’re talking about the source of our power to communicate the Spirit of Christ, not just to Christians, but to whole the world, to speak a new language of good news to a world accustomed to bad news.

Language is such an incredibly powerful tool. All animals possess the capacity for language—to communicate in one form or another: whales use sonar, bats apply radar, herons screech, frogs croak, birds sing, dogs bark, cats meow, wolves howl and sheep—well, they go baah. All creation declares the Glory of God is the way the Psalmist put it.

And we humans? Well, MF, we’ve evolved to the point of being able to symbolizeour experience with vocal sounds and gestures. We’ve entered into cultural agreements that this sound stands for that reality. We agree, for instance, to call that large thing that spreads out at the top and grows brown skin and green leaves a tree. The word “tree” not only symbolizes a particular kind of life, but also a very efficient way to speak. Those who are unable to speak clearly and properly, like my 43-year-old handicapped son, Karl, have developed a method of communicating that uses efficient hand signals rather than verbal ones. Language, MF, is a shorthand, symbolic representation of the world we share!

Talking about language, of course I can’t help but remember the celebrated Mark Twain quote: “A gifted person should be able to learn English in thirty hours, French in 30 days and German in 30 years.” So, in case you’re interested, I finally accomplished that feat 12 years ago. [Grin]

But language does more than simply reflect reality in the world out there. It also reflects our inner reality and shapes what we call “reality”.  As the saying goes: We do not see the world as it is – rather we see the world as we are.  The images and metaphors we put into language describe our unconscious assumptions about the way things are. These assumptions are built into our language. Change the language and our whole way of seeing the world also changes!

EG: I’ve heard 3-5 year olds ask their parents or grandparents about how God made people. Their actual question was: How did he make people? Somehow, at those tender ages and with little church background, children used a male pronoun to describe God. A patriarchal worldview had already lodged itself into their young psyches. Language, MF, doesn’t just reflect the world – it helps create the world!

And that’s what Pentecost is about: language and its power to both create and reflect our worldviews, for good or ill. In today’s 2 biblical lessons, we are presented with two languages – one secular and the other sacred; one profane and the other divine. One is the language of Empire & World and the other is the language of God & Gospel.

Take the Genesis account of the Tower of Babel, which the ancients told to help them understand why there were different languages. The whole earth, Genesis 11:1 says, had one language and the same words. What did they do? They began to talk to each other about the dream in their hearts. Come, let us make bricks. Bricks were the new technology of the day! Then they sai:, Let’s build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves.

Now, the writer recognizes this as secular discourse, not because of what we call cursing happened, but in the building of the Tower of Babel, their language exhibited the desire to triumph over others and assume a god-like status. Genuine secular language, MF, always conveys spiritual ignorance and arrogance, which is the desire to rise above all others and assume a god-like status in the world.

The writer of Genesis ingeniously concludes that the easiest way to disrupt this kind of project is to introduce different languages. If you can’t understand each other, you won’t know where to put the next brick in the tower. Granted, you and I know lots of people who speak the same language and still don’t understand each other—where the next brick is placed.

You remember that this is God’s second attempt in Genesis to put a final stop to human pride–hubris. First God sends a flood to wipe the slate clean and start again. And when that didn’t work, God confounds the Babel project to get to the top of world by introducing new languages.

Of course, it’s only a temporary diversion. We humans simply divide up into our own tribes and territories, races and nations and use our native tongues to execute the Babel project – to make a name for ourselves and scramble to the top. The rise of the great city-states is prefigured in this story, because eventually, the Babel projects evolve into world Empires—Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman, British, Communist, American—the era of domination through force. But even empires fall, and give rise to economic imperialism, the age we’re living in, in which he who has the gold rules or he who has the most toys wins.

But what has not been lost in all of this time, MF, is our human desire to become like the gods, or like God himself, to develop new technologies that far transcend bricks and mortar, to dominate and control others, by conquering them, accumulating more wealth, building psychological and cultural towers, as well as economic and religious towers which separate us from the masses below. It’s the power that puts God and Truth with a capital T on our side, just because we’re Christians.

But, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it is categorically clear that our yearning for greatness has left in its wake a mass of pitiable sorrow and suffering, death and destruction, a depleted and polluted earth, and chronically dissatisfied cultures whose souls are sick with themselves.

Pentecost, MF, is about the deconstruction of the language of the Empire by the introduction of a new sacred language – the language of the Holy Spirit: God’s language of Grace, Love and Forgiveness via the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s why Pentecost is the Babel project reversed. New languages are once again introduced—not to confuse and confound—but to unify and empower a new movement—the movement of the HS.

So the HS comes upon the disciples in Acts 2:1ff to enable them to proclaim the loving acts of God, in particular Jesus’ Resurrection, and does so in the native tongues of the pilgrims visiting Jerusalem—some 2 dozen cited varieties of languages, possibly many more! MF, here are some words and phrases that constitute the vocabulary of God’s Gospel of Love:

Forgiveness: It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Peruvian or Sudanese, Tamil or Hindu, Christian or Jew, agnostic or atheist, when you hear the words, Forgive us our sins as we forgive others who sin against us, you look twice at the weapon in your hand and the hate in your heart and you do something constructive to change—not only to forgive; but to live forgiveness—to be forgiveness to and for others.

Mercy : It doesn’t matter if you’re a Canadian Mountie or a Scottish Highlander, if you’re a radical Moselm terrorist or a Palestinian suicide bomber—to be merciful as God / Jehovah / Allah is merciful, you need to seriously consider how you treat your enemies.

Love: It doesn’t matter if you’re Irish or British, Serb or Croat, Syrian or Lebanese, when you hear “you are loved unconditionally,” it should result in the tearing down of walls that divide and segregate and stop the bombs that maim and kill.

Peace: It doesn’t matter if you’re in the majority or minority, healthy or sick, rich or poor, when you hear about a man transforming the violence of the world into his own suffering, rather than transforming his own suffering into more violence which only begets more violence, Jesus’ life inspires you to also turn the other cheek and become a peacemaker and, like Jesus, a child of God yourself.

Blessed are the meek: It doesn’t matter if you’re a Torontonian or Parisian, Muscovite or Washingtonian, when you hear Blessed are the meek, you know that the plans to build your own Trump Tower high above all other nations and the earth itself are profane and result in more hubris and arrogance.

The Spirit is poured out upon all flesh: It doesn’t matter if you’re African or Asian, First Nations or Aborigines, when you hear Joel’s prophecy that the Spirit is found equally in all flesh, you begin to question what gives some the right to sentence many to poverty and others to privilege? Or what gives us Christians the spiritual arrogance to believe that God will save only us—and then only some Christians—while the rest of the world goes to hell in a hand basket?

If the Spirit of God is poured out upon all flesh, then everyone is graced by Spirit, and that means that the Great Spirit also lives in absolutely everyone—that we’re all God’s children however we understand God, and whatever his/her Name is, by which we name God.

Jesus of Nazareth is now the name of him who not only has been risen as the Christ but is now the name which symbolizes and embodies a new way of being human. Finally stripped of all church doctrine and dogma, his name is synonymous with a new way of loving and living, giving and forgiving. The purpose of life as defined in the language of Empire is to become lord over everything and everybody. But when defined by Jesus, life’s purpose is to become servant of all.

To proclaim Jesus as the Christ and Risen Lord and to wait upon his Spirit is to join a movement. And a movement is like a journey of living and loving, a road less travelled.              The word church has simply become too static, too institutional, too religious to contain the kind of movement which the Holy Spirit unleashes. Church must be more than buildings and money. Church must be a movement of the Spirit, which is what church was in the 1st century. Called The Way, church was first and foremost people moved by the HS.

MF, you and I and the other 7 plus billion people in the world are all part of the movement of the Spirit. Joel’s prophecy is correct: The Spirit is poured out upon all flesh. Because that’s true, God’s language of Love, Mercy and Grace is spoken in thousands of languages by every inhabitant of this world.

In fact MF, I believe that the Spirit of God herself is expanding in our human consciousness. And in the expansion of that spiritual consciousness, I believe that God is less and less the supernatural parent figure who is going to solve all our problems for us. Rather, God as Spirit is becoming an integral part of our own consciousness. We cease being dependent recipients and become God-Bearers to one another. We become Bread and Wine for others and little Christs to others.

Today, Pentecost Sunday, Jesus invites us to share in the spiritual consciousness of God. He invites us to step into our own potential and full humanity with him. Of course, his invitation carries with it the power to risk; because Jesus reversed the human value system that was dedicated to survival and self-preservation. Jesus reversed the Babel project and made multilingualism the language of God, in which God is the God of everyone, speaking everyone’s language. Why? Because she poured his Spirit upon all flesh—all humans flesh and blood, bone and sinew. No one is excluded and everyone is included in a new human consciousness of the Spirit.

MF, that’s the Good News for today. Alleluia. AMEN.

Galileans! Why are you standing there, looking up at the sky? This Jesus, who was taken from you up into heaven, will come back in the same way that you saw him go into heaven. Acts 1:11

Happily for me and mercifully for you, MF, there are often two or more ways of interpreting any one biblical passage. The lessons for Ascension Thursday are good illustrations of precisely such options. The events described in Luke and Acts do not, however, make any clearer our understanding of the events of Jesus’ Ascension. Whether you chose the upward event of Luke or the downward (still to come) event of Acts, will depend upon your cosmology and astronomy, as much as your theology of the Bible and of Jesus himself.

The upward story of Jesus ascent to heaven is a kind of second Easter, with Jesus returning to “heavenly splendor” from which he first came to earth in human form, only to return 33 years later to a “heavenly throne, seated at God’s right hand,” so say our creeds. But if you’ve heard my previous Ascension sermons, you know that I don’t interpret the ascension literally, geographically or spatially.

After all, I’m a 21st century Christian who knows that the world is round and not flat, that the earth revolves around the sun and not the reverse, and that God and heaven are not “up there” somewhere, still to be located by US astronauts or Russian cosmonauts. Nor for that matter is Satan and hell below the earth, “down there” somewhere, whose fires, roasting many a heretic and gross sinner, have yet to be discovered by unmanned sputniks or space rockets.

Firstly, God is invisible and ubiquitous—everywhere all at once, and hardly an old man with a beard, who, like St. Nick, keeps track of who’s naughty and nice. And secondly, provided you believe that Satan is also a person, dressed in red with a pitch fork and tail—the personification of evil—he, likewise, seems omnipresent, luring good little boys and girls, women and men, to evil intentions and deeds.

Which is to say that you are welcome to believe, as did the first century Christians, that heaven is above and hell below and, as Kipling once said of East and West, “never the twain shall meet.” But MF, I, for one, have experienced both heaven and hell here on earth, as you also have, since they’re not designated places, so much as spiritual attitudes with parallel experiential modes already in this life.

I remember my grandfather who was raised Catholic but eventually became an atheist. Since there was no objective verification of God’s existence, he determined God did not exist. “If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist,” he often said. I tried numerous arguments, none of which convinced him. But finally he did say: Little Peter, if I discover that there is a heaven when I die, I’ll come back and let you know. My grandfather died in 1995 at the age 91 and 26 years later I’m still awaiting word from him about heaven.

I once relayed this little anecdote to a friend, who quipped: Well, that means your grandfather was assigned the other place, from which he could not escape to inform you. Seriously, it seems to me that the knowledge of heaven is not for us, at least not yet, and that is why we’ve been given the idea and imagery, as well as vivid descriptions. Which is why on Ascension—a Thursday—we must give some serious thought to the idea, that heaven is where Jesus now resides!

What an immense domain heaven is, both in “territory” and “conception.” And while heaven seems a fitting place for the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is, in the meantime, down here with us, as Jesus said: I will send you the Comforter. An old Collect for Ascension prays: May we also in heart and mind to heaven ascend, exalted to that same place where Jesus is, that we may dwell with him continually.

Well MF, what an interesting reversal that will be for us—we who are so accustomed to praying that Jesus come down and be with us!

O Jesus, come and be with me during this exam. O Jesus, worship with me here in my church this morning. O Jesus, come and keep me safe as I drive here and there; help me win this game I’m in; help me draw the winning lottery ticket. O Jesus, come and stay by me and keep me safe from Covid.   

MF, we’re so accustomed to asking Jesus to be here with us, in the midst of our human reality, that we find it odd, peculiar, even off-putting to think that we might be with Jesus anywhere but here and now. Our hope, after all, is not that Jesus will in all good sense come back to dwell on earth with us and ultimately here in southern Ontario, where he would find a lifestyle to his liking. The hope is that we will be with him elsewhere—wherever elsewhere is!

That’s it, MF! Elsewhere! Elsewhere is where Jesus is! Ascension reminds us of that other place, that “better country,” as the Book of Hebrews puts it, for which we are ultimately destined, in order to be with Jesus. Does this not stir our human imagination and enlarge our capacities to see and feel and hope for a rendezvous with our Lord Jesus? I’m sure it does, much like our hope for an engagement with those whom we have loved but lost in this life. Ah yes, MF, such are the hopes of which dreams and longings are made.

Truth be told, it’s on holy days and feast days that I become increasingly aware of how necessary the imagination and the heart are to my faith. They are the things by which vision is enlarged and life as a consequence made not simply more bearable, but even redeemable. Of course, modernity has its benefits, but not sufficient to exclude the lively imagination of a pre-modern sensibility. For when all is said and done, we do not understand, control, or even describe, that whom we worship is not with us, but is gone on before us, and everyone else for that matter.

So MF, we embrace the mystery of faith, we rejoice in the promises of God, and we follow Jesus as best we can, not simply in what he tells us to do, but also to that place he has gone, where he has ascended. The triumph and glory, the kingship and dominion are all God’s and all ours as well, for we too are God’s.

On the other hand, MF, maybe there was more depression than glory at that mountaintop from which Jesus ascended. Luke has the disciples racing to Jerusalem, filled with joy after the Ascension, babbling like reformed alcoholics about what they have just experienced. But then there’s also Luke’s account in Acts (as Luke wrote Acts as his second letter to Theolophilis), where he describes the disciples watching the ankles of their Lord Jesus disappear up into the clouds. They must have felt a sense of abandonment —now left to cope alone in an alien and hostile environment without Jesus!

Well MF, you know what they say? The brighter vision of heaven, the gloomier the perception of earth. For 40 days after the Resurrection, the disciples benefitted from fellowship with their Risen Lord, knowing who he was and what his will for them was. But now, with an irony almost crueler than the crucifixion, Jesus is taken away from them. It was a feeling they had had before: Jesus appearing unreliable and popping off somewhere, just when you need him the most.

Well MF, what kind of a religion is this, in which the faithful appear regularly abandoned by their God? Seriously!! After all, wasn’t Jesus himself abandoned on the cross by his God? Yes indeed!

It reminds me of CS Lewis in his book, A Grief Obsessed, writing about the death of his wife, Helen Joy Davidman:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolation of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

Isn’t heaven great and grand for those who are there, wherever there is? But what about those left behind? Ascension isn’t just a brief essay about the future. It’s not simply bon voyage, Jesus! It’s not only upward in focus. The Ascension has a downward, earthly dimension which is precisely where you and I come in, just as the poor old disciples also came in—to collect their wits about them and once again set about the dreary task of living until the Kingdom of God arrives —literally, geographically, spatially, in ordinary plain sight.

Galileans! Why are you standing there, looking up at the sky? This is not so much a question from the two men/angels dressed in white, as it is a rebuke—a scolding. Watching Jesus ascend to the clouds, the disciples are naturally struck by awe and wonder at this turn of events. We would be too. But didn’t he promise to be with us, never forsake us? And yet, here he is, leaving, while some mysterious power is pulling him upwards. Great and grand experience, MF, but by itself, it is not sufficient to maintain the faith!

MF, I suspect that the disciples would have wanted to leave the mountaintop with Jesus, as he ascended up through the fluffy white clouds. After all, given the choice of returning to the mundanities of Galilean subsistence living or of partaking of the glories of heaven, well, who wouldn’t?! It was not and is not yet to be. Like the disciples, we too are called to love life and live it to the fullest, and to do so, in the words of W H Auden, at least for the time being.

MF, we are not permitted the luxury of gazing at Jesus’ feet, as he exits, stage upwards. No! Our task is to get on with Jesus’ work in this world, for there is much to do and so little time in any one lifetime to do it. It’s a world without the luxury of Jesus literally at our side—a world impoverished in spirit, making life increasingly long on nastiness and brutality, but short on meaning and purpose much less seeming scientific proof of spiritual realities.

We cannot and must not linger any longer on the mountaintop. We must carry out Jesus’ directive to return to the cities and countryside to witness and proclaim the Good News of God’s love for the world, without thought for the morrow. So MF, let us get on with it—get on with the mission before us.

But how do we do that? How do we accomplish this without Jesus physical presence, his assurance and support? I will not leave you comfortless. I will not leave you without assistance! says Jesus, and I suspect more than once.

On the Feast of Pentecost, which is one Sunday hence, we celebrate the coming of that singular assurance, assistance and support by the gift of the Holy Spirit, who, like Jesus, is God with us, Emmanuel. God with us, today, in the present, right now, as I write/speak and you read/listen.

MF, despite the tremendous odds and every indication to the contrary, we are not alone! God has supplied us with the power of the HS, who is the remembrance of what was and what still is to come, while the Spirit helps us in managing what is—the present. The HS fortifies and strengthens us through many and myriad gifts, including the sacraments, which transcend through the boundaries of time and the frailties of the human condition. And, we also have one another, we who are the Body of Christ in and for the world.

Until that time, MF, when the upward and downward dimensions of the Ascension, the Kingdom and this world, shall be no more, I end this sermon by inviting you to read the powerful words of St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans 8:35ff:

Who or what shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? Shall tribulation, distress, famine, nakedness or persecution, peril or the sword? No. In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither things present nor to come, neither powers, nor height, nor depth, or anything else in all of God’s creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That MF is the Good News for today. Alleluia! AMEN

Arise …women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly: “Our husbands will not come to us,
reeking of carnage for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
all that we have been able to teach them
of charity, mercy and peace.
We, the women of this country,
Will be tender to those of another country
And not allow our sons to be trained to injure or kill them…”

So begins the Mother’s Day Proclamation, MF, written in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)—prominent American pacifist and suffragist, poet and prodigious author. Howe saw Mother’s Day as a call to the wives of warriors and mothers of sons to rise up against the destruction of war. As a leading American abolitionist, she also wrote the iconic Battle Hymn of the Republic in 1861, published by The Atlantic Monthlyin February 1862 for 5 dollars.

Howe was inspired by another woman of Appalachia, Ann Maria Jarvis (1832-1905), who, as a social activist, organized women throughout the American Civil War of 1861-1865 to work for better sanitary conditions for both sides and then promoted the reconciliation of Union and Confederation neighbours.

But it was Ann Jarvis’s daughter, Anna Jarvis (1864-1948) who was successful in lobbying the state of West Virginia to establish Mother’s Day. The tradition spread quickly throughout the US and, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the first nation-al Mother’s Day, the second Sunday in May—a date which we Canadians have also adopted.

Now, why would I begin Mother’s Day with references to American writers? Remember MF, I spent 3 years in Richmond VA, the heart of the former Confederacy, as a doctoral candidate, while also teaching at two universities as an adjunct instructor, which is to say: I’ve been immersed in a little American history.

MF, we look in vain for a Hallmark or Carlton card, current poetry or social media for Mother’s Day sentiments which call on them to unite against global war. Now, there’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), but not against wars. Mother’s Days are meant to be about apple pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. The day wasn’t supposed to advance radical techniques applied by mothers to stop all wars and keep their sons out of them.

Thank God MF we do stop to honour mothers this day, not only for all they do and have done, but more importantly, for all they are and mean! Mothers have a unique sense of love for their children, having carried them in their wombs for a mysterious 9 months. It’s a kind of love fathers are unequipped to understand.

Mother’s Day is an opportunity to affirm and celebrate the power of the feminine spirit which manifests in mothering love across the world and is alive in the passionate commitment to peace and justice. Julia Howe’s anti-slavery hymn, Battle Hymn of the Re-public, not only bolstered the flagging spirits of the Union troops, but its refrain, “God’s truth is marching on” gave rise to the truth that women also had the democratic right to vote. Howe became a defiant leader in the movement, which succeeded in nationwide suffrage for women in 1920—a decade after her death.

Of course there’s lots of evidence that the origins of Mother’s Day go back even further than Howe and Jarvis. The ancient Greeks had a custom of Mother worship—the festival to Cybele, the Magna Mater(great mother) of gods—which spread throughout the Mediterranean basin around 300 BCE.

Religious intuition through the ages has always honoured the fierce feminine spirit at work in creation. Princeton theologian and biblical scholar, Elaine Pagels points out that a curious feature of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian God is the relative absence of the feminine divine. As portrayed in much of the Bible, ours is a jealous god, sharing no power with female deities, nor was he the divine lover of any. MF, contrast this with the religions of Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, Africa, India and indigenous people across the planet, which all feature feminine deities.

You’ve all heard of the Gnostic Gospels, which are 52 copies of ancient Coptic writings, found in 13 leather-bound papyrus codices (books) in Egyptian caves of Nag Hammadi from the 3rd & 4th centuries. Although the Gnostic Gospels were excluded from the collection of the four NT Gospels, they were more likely to portray God as both Father and Mother. Many of these writings assigned priority to the feminine aspect of God, given the valid observation that it is the feminine which gives birth and life.

However, in churches like the Roman Catholic committed to male authority structures, we won’t find sparkling conversations about God as Mother. The RCC know all too well that once a feminine metaphor is used for God in heaven, power arrangements begin to shift here on earth. No longer is there any logical or theological rationale for men being the head of the household, or for not   having a woman as Pope. If God is Mother as well as Father, what contrivance justifies the hoarding of power by men in red robes?

MF, the fact is this: Father is still our default image of God, especially for those grown up in the church. Yes, Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Our Father” in heaven—not “Our Mother”—but attempts to change this must pass through the neural network in our brain circuitry which consistently throws up a father image for God. Is it any wonder then, that men are made in God’s image, but women are made in man’s image from (one of) his ribs?

Trouble is, the history of women goes downhill from there. Not even the disciples are willing to believe that the women of their company witnessed a Risen Christ. Paul’s Letters forbid women to take positions of leadership, much less even speak in church. Church power structures had almost succeeded in relegating women to a “tag-along,” second-rate status.

So, how did this happen, you rightly ask? Incrementally! The feminine divine was slowly squeezed out of existence early in church history by the church fathers. Around the 3rd century, these very same fathers determined which 27 books were to be included in the NT and which excluded. As  intimated above, there were many more gospels in circulation than the four of our NT. They include the following female authors: The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, The Gospel According to Mary, The Questions of Mary and The Gospel of Pistis Sophia (Faith Wisdomis feminine).

Now, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene features an argument between Mary and Peter, which I summarize as follows:

Disheartened and terrified after the crucifixion, the disciples asked Mary Magdalene to tell them what Jesus has told her in secret. Mary agrees, and proceeds to inform them, until a Peter, furious, asks, ‘Did he really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we all now expected to listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?’ Upset at his rage, Mary replies, ‘My brother Peter. What do you think? Do you honestly believe I made all this up, or that I lied about the Saviour?’” The other disciples intervene and convince a wounded Peter that Mary has authority to teach and that the Lord did love her more.

Another argument between Mary Magdalene and Peter is in Pistis Sophia:

Mary says: “Peter makes me hesitate; I am afraid of him, because he hates the female race.” Jesus replies that whomever the Spirit inspires is divinely ordained to speak, whether man or woman.

MF, the good news is that feminine imagery could not be totally expunged from the Bible nor from the male dominated church hierarchy. The feminine divine can be repressed but never elim-inated and we see that in the above examples in Gnostic Gospels. The feminine divine makes an appearance as Sophia in Proverbs and Wisdom. Women are there at the cross, when others have fled. Women are first to the tomb after the crucifixion, are the first to witness the resurrection and thus the first to evangelize.

Clearly, Jesus honoured women, challenging the patriarchal norms of his culture by including women among his disciples, conversing openly with them in public. When Mary anointed his feet with expensive oil, Jesus said that because of this act, when-ever the gospel is proclaimed, she would be remembered. The fact that gospel writers cannot leave women out of their stories com-pletely testifies to the historicity of Jesus’ inclusion of women among his disciples and friends.

Next Sunday, April 16, the church commemorates the Ascension. The event is recorded only by Luke who also wrote Acts. The Ascension in Lk 24:50-53 and Acts 1:6-11 is Luke’s way of getting Jesus off-stage to allow for the coming of the HS and Pentecost.

In previous Ascension sermons, I posed the question whether Jesus lifted off like some NASA launch. Of course, the disciples weren’t scientists and so, the question really is this: What does the Ascension mean to the church, to you and me?

In short, MF, all that Jesus stood for and proclaimed while on earth was now lifted up as eternally and universally authoritative, high above all pretenders to the throne; high above and more en-during than all principalities and powers, says Paul; high above and destined to prevail over rulers and leaders of every age who assert their privilege and status at the expense of others; whites over blacks, rich over poor, straights over gays, powerful over the weak, upper classes  over lower and middle, humans over the planet and, of course, men over women. Christ’s Spirit, not Caesar’s, reigns as the radical claim of the Ascension.

The Risen Christ also reigns this Mothering Sunday, always and for-ever lifting up the feminine in acts of justice, when compassion and vulnerability rule over power and dominance, when the forgotten receive seats of honor, when women the world over are given equal status and pay, and when gentle mothers wipe the fevered brows of their children.

The fierce feminine spirit of the Risen Christ, present in the earth- born Jesus of Nazareth, is loose in every age and incarnates in souls offended by injustice and moved by love and mercy.

The Spirit of the Risen Christ will come again and again to “trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” He will return until the names of all women, from the beginning to the end of time itself, are in the Book of Life and until our Mothering God, who gave you and me and all of humanity birth, is herself celebrated.

Julia Ward Howe, mother of Mother’s Day, has the final word:

From the voice of a devastated Earth
a voice goes up with our own, saying: “Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe out our dishonour,
nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel….
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
each bearing after his own time the sacred impress,
not of Caesar,
But of God.

Alleluia! Amen!

If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. You can do nothing without me. Jn 15:5b

Dear Friends! Of all the NT gospels, John’s is the most mystical meaning that the writer conveys an intimate communion between God and Jesus, together with the disciples: God in Jesus, Jesus in the disciples, and the disciples in God. To the extent that we are “in Christ” we know God, not just intellectually but relationally. In this morning’s reading we are introduced to one of John’s favourite metaphors: abiding in Christ as Christ abides in us.

The Greek word “to abide” is meinen en, meaning divine indwelling. It is used 40 times in John’s gospel, 27 times in John’s 3 Letters, but only 12 times in the other three gospels combined. From time to time, my wedding ceremonies include John 15:9-10:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in God’s love.

The fancy word for this indwelling or abiding love is perichoresis, which means “being-in-one-another”. This is the way the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are in relation to one another. In John’s gospel, this intimate communion of the Trinity is repeated with the disciples. It was available to them, as it is available to you and me, by our abiding in Christ. Read Jesus’ prayer in John 17:11ff:

May they all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them, even as you have loved me…

The life of the Christian, according to John’s gospel, consists in abiding in Christ. If we do MF, then we will bear much fruit, the same way that a branch connected to a vine will bear fruit. Now, we might protest that this was easier for the first disciples, since they enjoyed Jesus’ physical presence, heard his teachings firsthand, and experienced the power and grace of Jesus’ Spirit directly.

We, however, are separated by 2,000 years. How are we supposed to abide in Christ?  Remember that John’s gospel was written 70 years after Jesus’ death. The disciples would have long departed. Hence, the gospel was written for subsequent generations of Christians.

The fact is, Christ’s abiding in us, and us in Christ, is not dependent upon his physical presence. We’re now in the realm of spiritual reality. The witness of John’s gospel is that being in Christ is not limited to the dimensions of human time and space. There is an eternal divine presence in which we abide, and which abides in us. All that is required is spiritual intention, or openness, and spiritual discipline of “abiding”.

This is difficult to understand because we’ve been so deeply influenced by scientific materialism. Yes, science is that empirical discipline which helps us to test our beliefs, through careful examination of reality, measurement, and verified by a community of the able, through rigorous adherence to accepted standards. But, as I said in a previous sermon, scientism, on the other hand, is the scientific equivalent of religious fundamentalism. Scientism reduces science to the measurement of physical dimensions of reality only. Scientism is not concerned about interior invisible measurements.

Consequently, the focus of concern gets narrowed to what has been called “flatland”, ie., the world of surfaces which can be visually measured. But there is another science which concerns itself with genuine discovery in the interior dimensions of reality. In this realm there are scientists who are breaking new ground.

A British biologist, Rupert Sheldrake is one whose research into the life of cells converted him from being a scientific materialist to a passionate believer in God. The theory he is most known for is morphogenetic fields. We’re familiar with electro-magnetic fields. Think of the last time you were listening to your favourite song on your car radio, and then you pass under a section of electrical streetcar cables which disrupt the radio waves and all you get is static.

We human beings exist within these invisible fields of energy. Morphogenetic fields are comprised of the distinctive energy fields left by all forms of past creation. They’re like electromagnetic fields, but they are composed of and transmit information, not energy.

This information is transmitted without losing any energy and thus not reduced by time or space. The information they contain and transmit is the essence of the various life forms throughout the history of the planet. No information is ever lost in the Universe. Every life that was ever lived on this planet remains present and available through these morphogenetic fields. To use the language of John’s gospel, we abide in these information fields, and they abide in us.

In my opinion, this has interesting implication for us when we consider all those whom we have loved but have passed to the next life. Because nothing and nobody is ever lost in morphogenetic fields, our parents and grandparents are available and present to us when we choose to “dial them in.” They abide in us and we in them.

MF, I believe that we live and move and have our being in a vast field of interconnection with the living and the long-departed. Personally, it is Sheldrake’s discovery which confirmed what my heart and emotions always believed: that the morphogenetic communication I enjoy with my deceased mother of 73 years is very real.

So, how is this possible, you would be right to ask??!! Think of it this way. Picture your TV screen, whether 55 inch or 15 inch. We all know that the images we see on the screen do not originate inside the TV. They are signals encoded in electromagnetic frequencies, whether in a cable, antenna, modem, fibre or WiFi. The TV contains an antenna and a transformer to pick up and convert the signal into a series of images which are visible to us.

This is where it gets interesting and controversial, because Sheldrake claims that our genes are merely receptors of these morphogenetic fields, like antennae and transformers in the TV. So it’s the field of a particular organism interacting with the genes, which forms the body, not the genetic material exclusively. We are not genetically determined, as a lot of science tries to tell us, as much as we are formed by our interaction with these fields. In fact, there is evidence that genes can be altered by environment, for good or ill.

The same goes for our brain. For decades now, scientists have been trying to figure how the mind can be in the brain. But what if the brain is just our reception device for consciousness, in which the brain abides? Consciousness, as the Eastern religions have been saying for millennia now, is the fundamental medium of reality. The brain is in the mind, not the other way around.

This is why, by the way, yoga is so good for us. Yoga, in the final analysis, is about the health of the spinal cord, and what is the spinal cord? It’s our antennae. It’s what connects our nervous system to our information/distribution center, the brain. The healthier this nervous system is, the more effective our brains will be, in picking up and transforming signals from the field of consciousness in which we all abide. It connects our brains to our minds.

I believe that our bodies are fine tuned to pick up spiritual frequencies. In the last few hundred years our tuning devices have been receiving a lot of interference from scientific material rationalism. But under this interference we have all the gear we need to lock back into these spiritual realities. When we lock into a particular field we were meant to lock into, our cells literally resonate. Through this morphic resonance our systems are activated and the field of consciousness we’ve tuned into in-forms us.

This lends credence to the ancient idea of anima mundi, the soul of the world. Ancients believed that the soul of the cosmos gave birth to the various forms. It’s not that we have a soul, but rather that our souls have us, contain us, give us form. We abide in cosmic soul, and we do it collectively, as so uniquely pictured in James Cameron’s Oscar winning 2009 movie Avatar.

But it’s not just me or us Christians who abide in cosmic soul: Hindus and Buddhists, Moslems and Jews, together with every race and nationality, abide in cosmic soul. After all, MF, God as Cosmic Spirit, does not stop or begin at the 49thparallel, nor at the equator or Arctic circles, much less stop or begin at the borders we’ve drawn to keep ourselves in and others out, or at the boundaries which define Ukrainians from Russians, South from North Koreans, Taiwanese from Chinese. Our man-made fields of separation pale in comparison to the cosmic fields of energy which are all-encompassing.

MF, when we see folks protecting their tiny tribes and nation-states of self-constructed identities, as if they were lasting or inherently meaningful, we know that they’ve not yet experienced the measureless and substantial reality of cosmic soul. But when we allow the flow of cosmic soul in and through us, then, as Jesus said more than once, the Kingdom of God is not only near, but within.

MF, I’m thinking about our Risen Lord as a morphogenetic field, eternally present, and in whom we abide. Obviously, this is technical language to describe a far more personal dynamic. To abide in Christ is to activate the very life of Christ, in whom we live. move and have our being. When we use our conscious intention to open the field of the living Christ, we are transformed in his image. The Christ consciousness begins to manifest through us.

We discover that we are intimately related to God, as Creator, Christ, and Spirit—we are “at one” with divinity. Christ abides within us, personally. Because these morphogenetic fields do not lose energy over time or transmission, this Christ consciousness is as immediate, vibrant, and dynamic for us as it was for the first disciples.

What’s even more interesting, is that these fields of consciousness are not static. They evolve over time. It’s not just the consciousness of Jesus as the Risen Christ, but the collective energy of all the generations of disciples for the last two millennia, which have strengthened and shaped the Christ field. St. Paul’s intuition was that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses”, whose power we can access and manifest. They become, as you and I shall become, part of that great cloud, the morphogenetic Christ consciousness.

Our primary ways of tuning in, or downloading this field, are twofold: One is action-oriented, what we do and how we are in the world. The other is stillness-oriented, the various forms of meditation.

With regard to the action-oriented field, Jesus tells his disciples that if they obey his commands, they will abide in him and he in them. MF, when we act Christ-like, with compassion, justice and peace, we do so in the spirit of the Christ, we resonate with a Christ field. We abide in Christ and he in us. This is not achieved by our own willpower or strength, but through Christ who empowers us.

With regard to the mediation form, most Christians have not been taught this way of abiding. Meditation is a kind of praying– discovering how to abide in Jesus, as the HS within us. It is learning how to rest, hence abide, in that quiet place where we are held by the HS, who is doing the knowing and loving in us, with us and for us.

Similarly, as we enter into stillness by meditation and prayer, we tune into Christ consciousness. The more time we spend within this field of love, the more our lives reflect the qualities of love. We not only find ourselves forgiving others; we find ourselves wanting to forgive. Our hearts are broken open by the suffering of others.

We develop a holy rage against injustice—much like Blacks in North America grew a righteous wrath against the inequality and discrimination of the slave trade and subsequent slavery on this continent. Many of us long for the time when our human species will overcome our spiritual ignorance. We yearn to find meaning, less in being served, than by serving others. The fact is, MF, the two modes, the active and the stillness-oriented, belong together. And so, as we abide in God, in Christ and in the HS, we experience the divine like a kind of force-field which moves and motivates us.

MF, Jesus Christ is as close to us as the air we breathe. His life can transform ours as we choose to abide in him. The more you personally and the more we collectively as the family of Zion abide in Christ, the more Christ will shape our lives and shape the life of our congregation. It is both humbling and inspiring to realize that the life of Christ has been patiently breaking into our parish over 200 years now. There is literally no limit to what Christ can accomplish in this world through souls willing to abide in love, and have love abide in them.

God has blessed Zion over all these decades and generations, that we might be a blessing to others, provided we continue to abide in Christ and he in us and we in each other. AMEN.

They will become one flock with one shepherd. Jn 10:16

Dear Friends. Let me begin with a little gratuitous humor, which has relevance to today’s words from Jesus: There will be one flock with one shepherd. A while back, the Pope was hosting a number of guests, when he was suddenly interrupted by an aid. “Holy Father. I’m so sorry to disturb, but there is a very important phone call you must answer.” The Pope excused himself, informing his guests that he will return shortly, which he did. “Thank you for your patience. The very important call was from Jesus himself, who reaffirmed Jn 10: 16, that one day soon, there will be one flock with one shepherd. Trouble is, Jesus was calling from Salt Lake City, Utah.”

Humor aside, MF, I’m sure that the Roman Catholic Church would like nothing better than to be the one and only church, once again, with one shepherd, the Pope, at the helm. That’s before it split in two in 1054 AD with Catholic and Orthodox churches, headquartered in Rome and Constantinople, and then 5 centuries later, split again with the Protestant Church which today has more than 33,000 denominations, each one more right than the other. That’s 2 billion Christians divided into 3: Catholic, Protestant & Orthodox.

Now, Scripture does teach that unity is a purposeful goal and aspiration, especially in church. While Jesus today assures us that there will be one flock with one shepherd, the early church experienced much discord and division. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians expressed plenty of conflict, with the parish split into four factions following Peter and Paul, Apollos and Christ:

Each of you says something different. One says, ‘I follow Paul,’ another ‘I follow Apollos’ another ‘I follow Peter, and another ‘I follow Christ.’ Christ has been divided into groups and churches! Was it Paul who died on the cross for you? Were you baptized as my disciple? 1 Cor. 1:12-13

Paul didn’t hide the divisions; rather he supplied evidence of just how rancorous and serious the partitions were in his parish in Corinth. In fact, the issues which divided the early church have been around for centuries. Each faction claimed to be right in what they believed. And these distinctions were not merely academic, like how many angels can sit on a pin in Sherry’s pin box. No, the divisions had to do with baptism and marriage, eating and drinking, circumcision, qualifications for church membership and leadership, etc.

The divisions in the early church have their parallels in today’s global church scene, 2000 years later. Although I’ve dealt with this in a previous sermon, you may remember, this morning let me first briefly describe again the major church schisms, which Paul divides into four factions: the followers of Peter, Paul, Apollos and Christ.

Well, the followers of St Peter are of course the 1-billion-member Roman Catholic Church, whose leader is the Pope, who they believe is the successor to St. Peter, the first Pope to whom Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom (Mt 16) to forgive, save or damn. The RCC is headquartered in Rome, where, legend has it, that St. Peter died by being crucified upside down, because he denied Jesus 3 times.

Now, the RCC does not regard itself as a denomination, like Anglicans or Lutherans, but insists that it’s still the one true church, and so refuses communion to the 1 billion non-Catholics, as if they were somehow less Christian. Now, that’s a terrible judgment Jesus would never have tolerated, since he himself gave bread and wine at the Last Supper to Peter who denied him and Judas who betrayed him. For almost 2 millennia, the RCC continues to be an all-male dominated and driven hierarchy, which also hid the pedophilia of its priests. Since 1990, some 5,000 priests have been charged. Globally the RCC continues to suffer a major short supply of priests

Now, my grandfather, who raised me, was Roman Catholic. Although he wasn’t surprised by the revelations of pedophilia, he didn’t want me to become a priest for 2 reasons. 1. Financial—I’d be begging from the pulpit to be paid a paltry sum considering the education required to be a priest. And 2. Sexual—Priests don’t marry. But then when I became a Lutheran pastor, he thought that was ok, because I wouldn’t have to give up my sex life, nor listen to everyone else’s sex life once a week in the confessional booth.

Next is the church of Apollos, which today is the Orthodox Church with 220 million members. Apollos was a Greek convert to Christianity who brought the tradition of Greek philosophy, mental persu-asion and “orthodox” explanations of revelation to the church. The Orthodox Church broke with Rome in 1052 over the question of the pope’s so-called infallibility in matters of faith and morals, after which both Roman and Orthodox popes excommunicated each other. Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Jan 6, when everyone else observes Epiphany and the Wise Men. My father was Serbian Orthodox, but didn’t attend Orthodox services because, as he put it: “Three hours of listening to hocus pocus is intolerable.”

Then there’s the Church of St. Paul, which today is the Protestant Church in the world. Theologically speaking, this was a 16th century movement which protested the unscriptural doctrines of the RCC and the power wielded by popes which led to massive corruption and abuse of European Christians. Basically, the Protestant Church adheres to Paul’s doctrine of Justification by Grace through Faith, which Luther re-discovered 500 years ago to begin the Reformation in 1517. The Protestant Church has 1 billion adherents in the world, but they are, subdivided into thousands of denominations.

Now, the two largest Protestant denominations are the Church of England, established by King Henry the 8th in 1534, so he could get his divorce and the Lutheran Church established in 1531 by Martin Luther after the 1517 nailing of his famous 95 Theses.

Today, both denominations have about 75 million adherents each with similar theology. Here in Canada, Church of England members are called Anglicans, but in the US, they’re Episcopalians. Headquartered in London, Jean-Michel Girard is the Archbishop of Canterbury. In Canada, the AC is headquartered in Toronto, with a membership of 300,000 led by Linda Nicholls as the Archbishop.

The world-wide Lutheran Church is not One Communion like the Church of England. The Lutheran World Federation in Geneva is the umbrella organization for 150 member churches around the world and headed by Nigerian Archbishop Filibus Musa. There are 150,000 Canadian Lutherans in 2 major church bodies: the ELCIC and LCC—the Lutheran Church-Canada, which rejects the ELCIC, since we ordain and marry homosexuals, among our other sins.

The other major Protestant denominations include the Reformed & Presbyterian Churches of John Calvin; Menno Simons and the Mennonites and Amish with their black garb, buggies and horses; John Smith and the Baptists, the largest one being the Southern Baptists with 14 million members; John Wesley and the Methodists and W.J. Seymour and the Pentecostals.

The 4th and final faction listed by St. Paul was those who followed Christ, which today are the hundreds of thousands of independent parishes whose 250 million adherents say they only follow Jesus.

These miniature independent parishes claim to have freed themselves from the oppression of the great global churches with their authorities and traditions. Trouble is, each one of these parishes is more right than the next one.

Two boys were friends. One asked the other to come to his church. “I can’t go to your church!” the lad said.  “Well, why not?” asked the friend perplexed. “Because I belong to a different abomination!”

Yes, denominations can be abominations. Nowhere and never in 2000 years has there existed so many strains and varieties of the Christian religion, as here in North America—so many denominations and dioceses, synods and sects, presbyteries and communities, with so many creeds and canons, doctrines and dogma, confessions and professions, adhered to by so many unerring and unswerving spectators, and practiced by so many undeviating and unfailing devotees, as on our continent. So, MF, why is that?

A portion of the answer lies in the reasons for escaping European religious intolerance, our rugged NA individualism, our human need to be constantly right and our more practical carrot/stick emphasis on this continent. The carrot/stick approach works particularly well in the mega TV churches which promise financial well-being, especially for their “evangelical” preachers, who, like Joel Osteen, own multi-million dollars homes, with private jets and yachts to boot. It’s no wonder the Gospel of Financial Success is so profitable.

But, you know MF, each time the Christian Church divides and further subdivides, both sides lose—not only members, but they lose each other. They lose the communion which they claim to believe in. They lose an integral part of the Gospel message to the world, which perceives them as hypocrites in a house of hypocrites. There is a critical loss of spiritual wholeness when churches separate.

But it’s not just religion, MF, it’s also a separation of cultures and communities, a separation between sacred and secular, spiritual and material, divine and human, which I talked about last Sunday. In fact, almost all of our Judeo-Christian history reflects a male split from the feminine, which certainly loses half of the complete truth. And this is especially true in the Catholic version of the church, where truth is male-dominated, controlled and disseminated. The truth women impart has long been forgotten and ignored.

Somehow, MF, we Christians need to understand that faith is not so much what we believe, what creeds we repeat, or what we believe is right, and therefore what makes us different from Presbyterians or Pentecostals, Catholics or the Orthodox. Faith is much more how we believe and how we trust in God, day after day. Yes, what we believe can change and often does. But how we believe can also change. How we believe can become deeper and more qualitative, more giving, more forgiving, and more thanksgiving. Faith can become more spiritual, more spirit-filled, more lovely, and loving.

The great commandment from Jesus was not “Thou shalt be right!” The great commandment is: “Love God and love your neighbour, as you love yourself.” The great commandment is to be “in love”—to be inside the great river of compassion. MF, all that is really needed is surrender and gratitude. Our first and foremost task is simply to thank God for all that is and to be an integral part of all that is. That’s how we believe. That’s how we practice our faith. That’s how we trust in God from one day to the next.

The problem Christianity and in particular Christian denominationalism has created is that the church has repeatedly presented itself, not as a way of seeing all things, but as one competing ideology among many. Instead of leading us to see God in new and surprising places, the church has too often led us to confine God inside our little space and place, inside our right theology and practice. Simone Weil, the gifted French resistance fighter, once said: The tragedy of Christianity is that it sees itself as replacing other religions, instead of adding something to all of them. MF, I agree!

We’ve usually presented Christianity as an ideology competing with communism, materialism, capitalism or other isms. I can see why our perception of the faith slides in the direction of competition. But institutional religion gets so tied up with arguments about right and wrong, that it can no longer hold the necessary tension between differences and similarities, life and death, right and wrong, and then pay the price for that reconciliation within itself or within ourselves.

And it’s not just Christianity, MF. Every major and minor religion or movement or philosophy has done exactly the same thing. This obsessive preoccupation with religion as an ideology leads to over-identification with a group or faction, with a particular church or synagogue, temple or mosque, or identification with a cultural, linguistic or ethnic grouping. And of course, the trouble is that this kind of group loyalty becomes the principal test and the standard, instead of ultimate allegiance to God or to truth itself.

The fact is this: The truth is the truth is simply the truth—no matter who says it or what church believes it or what religion performs it. The only real question is veracity and not origin. It’s always easier to belong to a group, than to God. Group-think is often a substitute for God-think. We believe that God is found only by and in our group, after which we claim that identification with our group is the only way to serve God. Sound familiar?

When “the way” becomes an end in itself, it becomes idolatry. Early Christianity was called “The Way.” It was a movement concerned with finding truth. Trouble is, the movement called “The Way” became an institution which was no longer seriously concerned with finding truth, because it already had the truth in its pocket, in its doctrines and dogma, in its theology and practice.

MF, the only people who grow in truth are those who are humble and honest, which, btw, is the maxim of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Growth in the spiritual life takes place not by acquisition, more this and more that; but by subtraction—by the release of our defensiveness, by the letting go of our fears and attachments to self-image.

The Gospel, likewise, is not a competing idea among many others. The Gospel is that by which we see all ideas in proper context. Our hearts must remain open to hearing the Gospel without prejudice. Our lives must be attuned to love and loving, otherwise we will never know, much less experience God. Times come when we can think of hundreds of logical reasons to close our hearts. Haven’t we all done that? Some are already closed down in their late teens!

We need to open our hearts and allow them to become vulnerable once again. When we invite Jesus into our hearts, he will challenge and change us. He will expand our horizons and transform us. Only then will there by unity in Christ’s Body, even if we disagree.

To believe in Jesus is to welcome the one who alone is able to overcome evil and disharmony to create good will and unity. And unity is not the creation of our own strategy or good will. Unity will not occur because we deliberately down play our differences and play up our similarities. Unity will occur only as we allow Jesus the central place in our life—“to eat with us, as he ate with his first disciples.” In so doing, we all become unified members of his Body.

In short, MF, inviting Jesus into the depths of our lives means that we will learn to love each other who are different, and learn to love others who are dissimilar from us, who hold diverse opinions and convictions, who think and act in ways that are strange—perhaps even offensive. By focusing not on our differences nor similarities, but on Jesus, we will begin to live in a place of love—that place which is the basis of all true unity among all people everywhere.

AMEN

We had hoped that he was going to be the one who would set Israel free. Lk 24:21a

Dear Friends. Among the saddest words in the NT are the ones in today’s Lukan Gospel when the two disciples spoke to the stranger on the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion. We had hoped he was going to be the one who would set Israel free! These words express the deep sadness of every warm-hearted person in the history of humanity whose hope for a better world has been crushed by the relentless weight of brute reality.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus were looking to Jesus as the one who might have redeemed Israel. It’s deeply discouraging, that some 2000 years later, the world is still awaiting someone who can redeem, not just Israel, but the whole Middle East situation. Politician after politician, including US Presidents have tried and tried to fix the situation with accord after accord.

Even former Pres. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, himself Jewish, tried and failed. The political situation there simply degenerates, getting progressively worse. The people of Israel and Palestine, Gaza and the West Bank, the people of Jerusalem—even the world—all hoped that these politicians could have been the ones…like Jesus was the one. And so, the disciples return home to their village of Emmaus, broken-hearted.

Well MF, we all know the road to Emmaus, don’t we? I mean, we’ve all been down that road before—and more than once? Emmaus is the road we take and the place to which we escape, when all we had hoped for comes crashing down around us. For some, Emmaus is a local bar or a bottle. For others, it’s a secret affair or a brand-new car. Perhaps Emmaus is a friend you can count on. For many, Emmaus is a lonely place we go to, when things are just too painful to talk about. Emmaus may be a gravesite of a parent, spouse or even a child.

Another name for Emmaus is cynicism–the refusal to hope after the heart has been broken time and again. This is the saddest Emmaus of all, because it’s not until a long time after we’ve made the decision to shut down emotionally, that we become aware of it. We notice that the world we see, our relationships, our prospects for a future are all shadowed by the worst that has happened to us and to our world.

We’ve all traveled this road to Emmaus, and some of us travel it still—perhaps even this morning! Jesus has been crucified; but I had hoped he was going to be the one to save me.

These conversations of despair, MF, are so easy to fall into along the way, aren’t they? God knows they are easy to justify, given the state of the world, not to mention our personal lives and the havoc which COVID, eg, has generated in our collective lives.

It was Eric Berne, author of The Games People Play and founder of a psychological model called Transactional Analysis, who coined the name of a particular game we play with each other. That game is called? Remember? Ain’t It Awful! is the name of the game. When we’re deep into this particular game, it doesn’t matter what anyone says: Life couldn’t be worse.

Ain’t it awful what’s happening to our planet? Ain’t it awful that my dog got sick and died? Ain’t it awful what my neighbour did to me? Ain’t it awful what those politicians are doing this time? Preachers are particularly susceptible to this game. Left-wing, socially concerned preachers focus on how awful the big old world is and how corrupt especially political systems are. Right- wing conservative, fundamentalist preachers zero in on how awful and sinful we are as individuals, especially those who don’t accept the Bible as God’s literal personal spoken words.

But then there are preachers who toss both of these perspectives together on a Sunday morning, in order to get their flock feeling really awful—disgustingly bad! There really is an awful lot to complain about, you know, even in church, and especially when the pastor becomes the center of complaints and criticisms. After all, it’s his/her job to please everyone, isn’t it?

When despair monopolizes our conversations, especially us Christians, then something is terribly out of alignment. 

Notice how the stranger in Luke’s story this morning interrupts the disciples’ conversation of despair. What are you talking about on the road while you walk along?” They, in turn, ask the stranger what planet he’s from, because everybody, except this stranger, knows what just happened in Jerusalem, and how awful it is. They recite the whole grizzly tale, and make no mistake, it is grizzly…a bloody God-forsaken Friday and a body, barely cold, removed by stealth only three days later.

MF, ever notice how we like to take every opportunity we can to recite these narratives of despair and hopelessness? How, for instance, we take one person’s negative comment and suddenly everybody is reflecting that negativity. Or how when one person is guilty, everyone is guilty by association?

Btw MF, we now know that focusing on hopelessness has a bio-chemical correlate in the brain. We humans actually lay down neural networks that can become like ruts or grooves we slip into so easily and follow that particular track all the way to the edge of a psychic and emotional cliff.

Well, the Risen Christ interrupts the conversation and introduces a whole new way of seeing things. Perhaps he caught them before it became a permanent trace in their neo-cortex. You may know that Paul Cezanne, the French impressionist artist of the 19th century, developed a technique which came to be known as Cezanne’s doubt. Just when he got what he was painting into his preferred perspective, he would tilt his head slightly, and a whole new perspective would emerge. He intentionally interrupted his take on reality, realizing that most of what we call “reality” is actually a construct of our mind. The post-modern intuition is that reality is all about perspective and context. So Jesus sneaks up on these two disciples and gets them to tilt their head—or as we might say: He gives their head a shake.

In other words, MF, what Jesus does for them is first to listen to their narrative of hopelessness. He meets them where they’re at, which in therapeutic jargon is called “joining”. Where there’s no joining, there’s no conversation and no emotional connection.

But Jesus takes them into an alternative story, found in their own Scriptures. He’s going to give them another angle on reality. Luke says that “he opened” the Scriptures to them. It was all right there in their own Hebrew Scriptures, that the Messiah would suffer and die, and 3 days later be raised.

The mistake the disciples made and which most of us make, is to forget the rest of the gospel story: that Jesus was raised from the dead. Death, MF, in all it’s guises, whether physical or emotional, in the form of despair, or spiritual, in the form of cynicism and pessimism, is so powerful that we act and behave, as if death were the only reality—the ultimate reality. … It’s like death and taxes are the only reality we can be sure of and they alone define our lives. But the stranger tells them that death is only a chapter in the larger story of life. Death is only a horizon and that horizon is only limited by our human sight.

Life is the context for death, not the other way around. Death happens as a part of life, within life. Life is not subservient to death. The Universe employs death in the service of increasing complexity and meaning, purpose and depth, on the level of our physical existence.

On the spiritual level, death comes to us as despair, which is a signal to us that we’re stuck. It’s telling us that we need to evolve to a new level of vision and reality, because we’re trying to solve our problems from the same level at which they were created. Despair is a symptom which indicates that we’re stuck in a perspective, a way of seeing our lives, a way of telling our story, which is not working. In other words, it’s time to give our heads a collective tilt, you see.

We don’t know which OT portions Jesus was referring to by way of helping his disciples out of their despair, but they liked what he told them, and so they responded, Stay with us! —still not recognizing that he was the same Jesus they followed for 3 years. But, they knew a good thing when they saw him. Why?

Because Jesus motivated them to hope, and that hope was compelling. Whatever else Jesus fed the disciples that morning by the lakeshore, he provided them with renewed hope! He relit a fire which had just about gone out in their hearts, and in the breaking of bread, their eyes opened.

The fact is, the answer to many of life’s questions begins with hope, that we hope in the directions of our needs, and hoping in an active sense rather than passive. Of course, hoping always runs the risk of disappointment, to be sure. But it’s also true that all of life is a risk when we hope. Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a hope. It is only by risking our persons from one hour to the next that we live and hope at all.” said William James, 19thC psychoanalyst.

Hope, wrote Samuel Johnson, 18thC English poet–hope is a state of pregnancy, a species of happiness in itself, and perhaps the chief happiness which this world affords. Why? Because when we have hope, anything and everything is possible—things that would otherwise never be, because we’ve given them birth!

Some of the most beautiful words about hope I’ve ever read come from the loving and sensitive pen of Emily Dickenson, premier American poet of the 19thC: Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. And sings the tune without the word, and never stops at all.” Isn’t that absolutely beautiful?

MF, Jesus personified precisely this kind of hope for the disciples that morning on their Emmaus road of despair. This is Luke’s way of telling us that it was the early church’s experience that Jesus appeared to them in the midst of their despair, and that it was only when they gathered together to open the Scriptures and break bread as Jesus had taught them, that they recognized the ongoing resurrected presence of the Risen Christ.

Well MF, here we are 2000 years later. As Christians, do we still follow the same pattern as the disciples of old? We come in out of the world for one morning a week, because death is so much with us out there. We open our Christian Scriptures. We break bread together and we feast on the presence of hope, the One who was crucified and is risen. And the Risen Christ still breaks in on our narratives of despair with Good News, a fresh perspective, and the offer and hope of new life.

But where, we ask?  Where is Jesus on our road? What are we expecting from him? The expectation of the disciples is made clear in their response to the stranger: “We had hoped he was the one.” They were waiting for a hero to rescue them. They had hoped that he would be the new King David who would set them and their nation free from Roman rule.

But, MF, what is clear from all the accounts of the resurrection is that Jesus turns the tables on this expectation. Wait here in the city until you receive power from on high. Until who receives power? The disciples!…meaning, you and me. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

In each of the gospels the Risen Christ commissions the disciples to go out and be his presence in the world. The power comes from God, but the initiative comes from us. The Risen Christ interrupts our narratives of despair and passivity. We can spend our lives waiting for God, but what Jesus says is that God is waiting for us to show up!

It’s when we get that message, deep down, that we are provided with power to transform the world, beginning with our own lives—that’s when despair takes flight. When we really get that we are commissioned by the Risen Christ to pray for our enemies, be good to them who wish evil upon us, make sandwiches and soup for the hungry, provide shelter and a roof over the heads of the homeless and helpless and refugees.

When we hear Christ say to us—Wait until you’re clothed with power from on high—that’s when we go and transform a native village, like Olive Branch does on our behalf, demand from our politicians policies which address climate change and the pandemic, address the need for justice and health.

That’s just the beginning, MF. We need to heal the sick in body and soul, forgive what happened yesterday in the service of a new tomorrow, don’t just speak about peace, but be a peace-maker—then MF and only then will we know the meaning of resurrection, not as a once-upon-a-time event in the distant past, but here and now, in our very own lives. Just when we’re ready to go to our Emmaus, the Risen Christ sends us back into the fray, as ambassadors of Easter hope.

Christ is risen! Alleluia! AMEN

Jesus then said to Thomas: Put your finger here and look at my hands. Stretch out your hand and put it in my side. Jn 20:27                                                                                                           

Well MF, there’s no question about it! Thomas takes a proverbial beating—once again—in today’s very familiar story from John’s gospel. The truly blessed are those who, unlike poor doubting Thomas, take it on faith that Christ is risen. But, as we all know, Thomas is holding out for evidence. Unless he is able to see and touch Christ’s wounds for himself, he is not going to believe. Tsk. Tsk. As a disciple of Jesus for 3 long years, Thomas should know that the only evidence a real believer needs is the say-so of fellow believers. Oh really?!

But Tom has a point. He’s a skeptic you see, as am I, from way back. Far too much is taken on faith! From Jonestown to Waco, people have taken the word of strong charismatic leaders and believed pretty much anything—with tragic, heartbreaking, even deadly results.

The fact is this MF: It was easy for the other disciples to believe Jesus was alive. Why? Because they saw him! We heard John’s Gospel:

It was late Sunday evening, and the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. Then Jesus came and suddenly stood among them and said: Peace be with you. He then showed them his hands and side, and the disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord!

The other disciples had visual evidence that Jesus was still alive. So, why label Thomas a doubter and a skeptic? And if that’s not enough, remember the reaction of the disciples when they heard from the group of women who went to the tomb and were told by 2 angels that Jesus was not there because he had risen? Did the disciples believe the women? Absolutely not! They thought the women were speaking foolishness, as women were apt to do. So, why subject poor Thomas to ridicule, when he doesn’t believe his male counterparts?

MF, this is precisely one reason why the scientific method was first developed: To test all claims to the truth in order to tear down unreality—to dismantle the castles in the sky as defined and defended by vested interests, including the church. So, when Copernicus upset the cosmological apple cart in the 16th century by proving that the sun did not revolve around the earth, he was silenced and gagged by the church, together with his students.

A number of them, including Bruno Giogordo, a Dominican monk, were burned at the stake, for supporting Copernicus’ theory, which went against centuries of church doctrine: namely, that God placed us humans on a flat earth with 4 corners, around which the sun revolved, together with stars inside an invisible dome, above which was heaven where God lived. Meanwhile, the devil waited gleefully below, for his clientele to fall off the earth and into the fiery flames.

Then, in the 17th century, Galileo, named “father of modern-day science,” was forced to recant what he discovered in his telescope. Subsequent generations of scientists, who were not prepared to take the church’s word on scientific matters, began to question whether the church, never mind the sun, was the center of the universe, which is when things got downright nasty. In the age of rationalism and the scientific method, all claims to truth would first be tried and tested   —not blindly believed simply because the church said so.

With this in mind MF, you can now see why the church has a long history of holding in contempt and deriding the likes of Thomas who dare to want direct, scientific and empirical evidence for their faith, unmediated by the power structures of the institutional church.

The fact is this: You and I are 21st century products of the Copernican Revolution and the Galileo’s scientific method. Like Thomas, we don’t normally take anybody’s word for it! Except for God, there’s little we take on faith. In short: Thomas is a kind of proto-scientist of the early church. Unless he touches the wounds for himself, he’s not going to believe, even if his best friends are telling him it’s true!

But let’s get one thing straight. There is nothing about science itself which threatens the Church or Christian beliefs. The scientific method is not chiefly concerned with proving or disproving God. As a method of gaining direct knowledge of the world, we have benefited from science, technology and its methods many times over, including the development of the various COVID vaccines to protect us.

The problem is not with science and its methods, but with some historic assumptions of science—what scholars call scientism. Some scientists are limited by their assumptions on the nature of reality.

Those assumptions in the 19th and 20th century were based in a belief every bit as powerful as religious belief – namely, that all reality is only and always material! Scientism says that everything must be reduced to physical reality which has “no spirit it.”

According to scientism, spiritual reality is a non-starter. I can’t state this strongly enough. Material reality as the only reality is a scientific system, but it’s a biased assumption. Just because something is invisible and cannot be tested by science, doesn’t mean it cannot exist.

Take Darwinian evolution, eg, which was rejected by the church as heresy. Darwin’s big-time problem was that he had no theological model which could accommodate his discovery of evolution. In plain English, the church left Darwin no wiggle-room for the possibility that God could have used evolution to create the world, as well as we human beings. The only model Darwin had was the model the church taught: that God created men from dust and women from men’s ribs, after which God retired to his heaven above the earth.

Had Darwin argued that God used the science of evolution to not only begin creation billions of years ago, but that God was still active in his creation, by continuing to create, he still would have been considered a heretic by the church, but at least Darwin would have had the option of including God in his evolutionary theory, which today, over 150 years later, is unassailable, undeniable and undisputable.

 

Cosmogenesis is a word you’ve probably not heard. It’s a scientific term, meaning that God didn’t just create once upon a time and let his creation unfold, while he watched from a heavenly distance. Cosmogenesis literally means that God is continually creating, which is why the universe constantly grows and is now innumerable light years in size. MF, this means that nothing is the same forever.

Everything is in flux. 98% of our body atoms are replaced every yr. With irrefutable evidence, geologists can prove that no landmass is permanent. Water, fog, steam and ice are all the same material, but at different stages and temperatures. Nothing is the same forever.

Theologically speaking, MF, this means that resurrection is but another word for change—particularly positive change, which we humans tend to see only in the long run. In the short run, change often looks like death. How often at funerals have I said: “So & so’s life has not ended. It’s only changed!” Science has given us helpful language for what Christianity has always rightly said but using mythological language. MF, myth does not mean “not true,” which is the common misunderstanding. Myth refers to things that are always and deeply true, but not necessarily literally true!

Jesus’ incarnate life, his passing over into death, and his resurrection into the ongoing Risen Christ is the classic model for the entire evolutionary pattern of creation, change and ongoing universal progress. Jesus’ resurrection is the microcosm for the whole cosmos.

Personally, of course I believe in the resurrection of Jesus because it affirms what the whole physical, biological and spiritual universe is also saying. If matter is inhabited by God, then matter is not only spiritual, but also somehow eternal. So eg, when the creed says, “we believe in the resurrection of the body,” this refers not only to Jesus’ body, but to our bodies as well!

MF, if you are still with me, let me tell you: There are scientists today, of our generation, who are suspending materialistic assumptions and employing scientific methods to show that the spiritual reality of this world infuses and influences our material world.

EG: Masaru Emoto, a Japanese scientist who died in 2014, claimed that our human consciousness could affect the molecular structure of water. His NY Times best seller, The Hidden Messages in Water, tells how he took frozen semi-polluted water crystals from bodies of water around the world, and then tested the impact of various ideas, thoughts, music, attitudes, etc, on the crystals. He recruited a Buddhist master to meditate in the presence of his collected water to see if it would impact the inherent structure of the water molecules.

MF, the transformation was dramatic! The crystals went from being a dull lump to exquisitely patterned and in each case, the water crystals reflected the quality of energy to which they were exposed.

I believe that our human consciousness is itself a manifestation of the evolutionary Spirit of God, and when we employ our self-aware-ness to the healing of the planet, we do so as spiritual beings. Why? Because we reflect the spiritual image of God herself. In other words, this world is more than simply material reality. God as Spirit is involved in this world. God hasn’t secluded herself in some remote universal space, up there somewhere, even though most Christians believe precisely in this kind of dualism: that there are two separate realities—heaven and earth, spirit and flesh, mind and matter, which is what the church taught for centuries.

With the advent of science, MF, we humans promptly handed the material realm over to science, but then kept the spiritual realm as a reality totally separate from the physical. That’s why we’re always looking for God outside of time and space or when we die.

So, what’s all this got to do with Thomas? Plenty. The belief in the separation of the material and spiritual world is precisely why Thomas didn’t believe his fellow disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. Dead people, who cross from the material world into the spiritual world, do not or cannot simply reappear in our physical world.

People don’t just come back from the dead, which is why Thomas didn’t believe the other 10 disciples. In the final analysis, for Jesus to come back from the dead, he can’t simply raise himself. Only God has the power to accomplish that. And if Jesus is alive again, he is not a resuscitated corpse. How gruesome would that be?! A professor of mine once said that if a video camera had been placed in front of Jesus’ tomb, it wouldn’t have filmed a lone man emerging from a grave. That would have been a resuscitation, and not a resurrection.

Rather, God resurrects Jesus from the dead, meaning: Jesus is now a resurrected body: a blend of body and spirit, a spiritual body which one can see and touch, but also one which can appear and disappear at will, which is what John tells us. The disciples gathered behind locked doors and suddenly Jesus appeared! Out of nowhere it seems.  Jesus is the joining of the material visible with the spiritual invisible.

MF, I believe this: Jesus represents the blueprint for our combined material and spiritual world. Jesus is also our model of spiritual and material living. This means that, when we talk about the Incarnation of Christ at Christmas, the incarnation isn’t just a noun. It’s also a verb which describes as Spirit always becoming flesh in each of us. But not just we homo sapiens! The entire planet becomes the outward expression of Spirit that is unfolding in an evolutionary universe. Heaven infuses earth, spirit animates flesh, and mind is found inside matter. While we can distinguish these realms, they are not inseparable. Spirit, body and mind belong together. MF, this may not sound revolutionary to you, but it is!

1977 Nobel-prize winning chemist, Ilya Prigogine, a Russian born Belgian, examined the evolving interconnected relationship between the material and spiritual of this world and invented the term self-organization, meaning that a spiritual/material dynamic is the fundamental condition of the cosmos. Galaxies, solar systems, Earth and all life—human included—have a built-in capacity for increased complexity and consciousness. The intelligence which created this is the standard-feature of the universe—meaning, concluded Prigogine:   We enter the world equipped with this kind of spiritual intelligence and life. Well MF, how great & grand is that??!!

David Bohm, was an American born British physicist whom Einstein called “his spiritual son” and the Dalai Lama called his “science guru” and who was the doctoral student of Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called “father of the atomic bomb.” Bohm examined reality from the perspective of sub-atomic physics. Reality, he said, is not mere disconnected bits of material, but and I quote:

Reality is like a spiritual dance—an unending process of movement and an intelligent relationship which is ferocious in its commitment to new life. There is a hidden spiritual wholeness at work in the universe, moving through every cell and every life form, including human beings.

MF, this is a physicist speaking. there is something which lives in the deep-down of everything that is, and it desires maximum self-expression and self-transcendence. It’s the evolution of the Spirit.

Well, MF, I hope you get the picture, in spite of the complicated nature of this subject. So, what does this mean for the Resurrection? MF, it means that the Easter story is not discontinuous with nature. Eg, at Easter we greet one another with “Christ is risen!” Why? Because, Christ is always rising, always becoming manifest in this beautiful, incomprehensible, mysterious world of ours. The spiritual Risen Christ is always connecting with the human Jesus of Nazareth, which is also a reflection of the deep and abiding connection between the material and the spiritual, between the sacred and the secular, the divine and human.

Finally, the last Page. Well MF, you too can also hold out with Thomas for direct experience of the Risen Christ. Start anywhere. Start deep. Start by suspending your materialistic assumptions. Start with your own life. Start with the 50 trillion cells of your body which convert energy to make protein so that you can be here this morning. Start with the body you’ve carried around all these years. It’s not the same body you schlepped around even 7 years ago. Your body today 7 years later, has completely rebuilt itself from the inside out. In other words, we have all undergone a resurrection of the body.

MF, the Spirit is coursing through our very veins—as I speak and you listen. But don’t take my word for it. Together with me, make St. Thomas your patron saint – your first Easter scientist. How great & grand is that, MF? St. Tom—our first Easter scientist!  AMEN

Today, MF, we have no choice! We who are alive have to talk about death. I don’t particularly like it, having buried Sherry’s Mom, Marion Row, barely one month ago. I would much rather hold your hand and tell you to cheer up, since the COVID vaccine is being injected into every Canadian arm. Moreover, Easter is only a day and half away. But two pieces of wood forbid it: 2-crossed beams tell me harshly that someone died there. To save my life, I must discover: (i) Who died there? (ii) Why did he die like that? (iii) What his dying means for my living and by extension, for the life and living of the world, including Mother Earth? A prayerful word on each.

First: Who died on those 2-cross beams? Yes, a man—a human being shaped much like you and me: face, hands, feet, bone and blood, sinew and senses. He began his life just like you and I—cradled within the womb of a woman for nine mysterious months. But when he opened his eyes, he did so not in a clinically clean hospital as almost all of us have done. Rather, his opened in a cheerless stable for beasts of burden.

He grew up much as we, our children and grandchildren do: a child among children, including four brothers—James, Joseph, Simon and Judas (Mt 13:55)—and two sisters—Lydia and Assyia (names according to legend), together with a small cadre of relatives—Mary’s sister, Elizabeth and her son, John (the Baptist), Jesus’ cousin. As a child of Galilean Jews from Nazareth, he retained the Semite characteristics of the time: honey/olive skin, short black curly hair, dark brown eyes and short of stature.

Growing up as a child, teenager and young man, initially there seems little startling to report, with the exception of 3 days in Jerusalem, debating theology with the religious leaders in Solomon’s Temple. Jesus never married nor was he given in marriage, perhaps because he announced, more than once, that he had to tend to his Father’s business and so had no roof over his head. This too, of course, raised eyebrows: hardly good Jewish tradition!

But then, he turned 30 and abruptly burst onto the scene, like a sudden storm at sea. Baptized by his desert cousin John in the River Jordan, it was transformative. His heavenly Father spoke to him through a cloud: This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him! Thereafter, he trudged through a land holy in history, proclaiming God’s Kingdom and preaching repentance!

Jesus gathered 12 dedicated disciples around him and began a 3-year ministry of doing good. If you were ill, he healed you. If you were hungry, he multiplied bread for you. If you were down on yourself, he lifted you up. If you were a sinner, you could count on him to share your supper. If you were a child, he gathered you in his arms and blessed you.

Trouble was, this Nazarene made enemies, big time! I mean, he was his own man—not particularly prudent, but always turning tradition upside down. Said the Sabbath was made for us, and not we for the Sabbath. Unlike disciples of other Jewish Messiahs, his twelve did not fast, nor did he force them. He censured the cities which refused to believe in him and threatened a judgment on them fiercer than Sodom. He dared to claim that harlots and tax collectors would enter heaven before the religious elite.

In fact, he said the same to his own people—that the godless Gentiles would take their place. He whipped animals and traffickers from the temple and claimed that not one stone would remain. He warned the rich against their greed and assailed the powerful for abusing their privilege. He even dared to call the local Roman ruler, Herod, a devious fox and laughed at his threats.

In short, his enemies did not take this lying down. They called him a traitor and subversive, a drunkard, glutton and blasphemer. His own Nazarene townsfolks tried to throw him over a cliff. Even his family tried to intervene in a dispute with the religious leaders who said he was possessed by Satan. But, in a moment of defiance, Jesus said that the crowd is his mother, brothers and sisters. Finally, a high priest argued that to keep Israel from destruction by the Romans, it would be expedient that Jesus die.

And when the end came, it was bitter and cruel. One of his own betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver, while another denied he even knew Jesus. Roman soldiers whipped his naked back with chords, crowned his head with thorns and compelled him to carry his own cross to which they nailed him and let him die in agony, abandoned by his twelve, as well as his God. Heartbroken his mother looked on.

Yes, a man died on Golgatha. But if that was all, we’d ascribe a day to remember him, as Gandhi and MLK are memorized and whose deaths brought meaning and purpose to untold millions. But Golgatha is more than New Delhi or Memphis. Golgatha is unique because the man who died there was more than a man. He was also the Son of God—simultaneously human and divine.

All of which raises urgently and poignantly my second question: Why did the Son of God die like this? If he had been a mere mortal, like you and I, this kind of death—a brutal crucifixion—would have made some sense. He was up against impossible odds. But this was the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Glory! He didn’t have to take our flesh and blood at birth, only to sweat blood and disintegrate flesh on from 2-crossed beams 33 years later.

Remember the Garden of Gethsemane—how he begged his heavenly Father: Don’t let me die! Recall the Good Shepherd who said of himself: I lay my life down of my own accord. So, why die? The answer is the most powerful 4-letter word ever: Love! Listen to John 3:16: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Listen to Gal 2:20: He loved me and gave himself for me. The answer lies in Love.

Simple enough: God saves you, me and the world, because she loves us and the whole world. But could not divine imagination have discovered a different road to redemption—love-laden to be sure, but not the kind of tortuous execution on two wooden cross beams? Couldn’t God just have forgiveness us, if we uttered a “hearty and heartfelt sorry”? Wouldn’t that have been sufficient for God? Did Jesus have to die and die like he did? And if so, good God—why not just die in your sleep, or die of cancer or heart attack? At least die with dignity! Why demand that your only Son breathe his last in bloody disgrace and mocked by the very world for which he died?

Well MF, believe it or not, I do not have an adequate answer to these questions for you. I honestly don’t think anyone knows, except God, and she’s not telling…and I don’t mean that facetiously. But one thing I do know for sure: Where God’s love is concerned, we mortals are dreadfully dense, exceptionally egotistical, and truly lack understanding. Day after day, we experience what we men and women will endure for love’s bittersweet sake. We know that when the chips are down, we will toss life itself into the wind for the one we love.

But, we find it strange, if not incomprehensible, to think this way about God. Why is that? Perhaps because the God of our dreams, our wishes, even our education—that God sits up there, in heaven, like a Buddha, unmoving and unmoved, hard as flint. And yet, Golgatha cries more clearly and loudly than any religious textbook:   We do not really know God!

Clearly, God did not want some impassive legalese and moral mumbo-jumbo to express his forgiveness. Rather, God wanted to experience our earth-bound life and live our human condition. God wanted to learn as we learn, love as we love, laugh and cry, drink and dance, blacken with anger and whiten with fear. God wanted to feel what it’s like … to die!

In a word, God’s Son wanted to be one of us, one with us, for us, to us and in us. Even for God—especially for God—love is stronger than death. Always has been. Always will be

All of which raises urgently and poignantly my third and final question: What does Jesus’ dying mean for my living and your living and the living of our global family, as well as Mother Earth? Of course, Jesus did not take on my flesh and blood in the same way I experience life on Guildwood Pkwy in Toronto or in an indigenous community in northern Canada. But He died for me so that I can be at peace with God, no longer shackled to my small self, no longer severed from my sisters and brothers by the mark of Cain.

I can reach out to others, as Jesus did, in love and in forgiveness. Because Jesus died for me, death is no longer a door to darkness, but will rise from the dead, as Jesus did, by the very power of God.

In fact, Jesus’ dying says something quite specific to me: that dying is not an isolated human event I must somehow endure. Like Jesus, I must take the road less travelled to Golgatha. Like Jesus, I must constantly let go of yesterday. Jesus let go of the glory that was his. He let go of his mother who loved him but watched him die. He let go of Lazarus whom he raised from dead, and his sisters, Mary and Martha—all of whom he loved. He let go of the Twelve, who still had so much to learn. And lastly, Jesus let go of the miracle of life itself!

He had to let go, so that his dying could become our living.

So too, for you and me. For us to live is to share in the dying and rising of Christ. Not in two stages: dying here and rising later, over there. But one inseparable, continuous reality: Our dying is our rising, now. To journey to Golgatha, we must let go of the past; otherwise, we’ll be living there, while our bodies exist in the present.

Now the past may seem like the peak of human living: the sheer strength and lustiness of youth; a job for which I lived; a wife or husband, a child or grandchild who was closer to me than I am to myself; ears that listened to me; hands that supported me; tongues that praised me; just the ability to walk tall and straight, to talk firm and fast; and simply to be needed by somebody.

Yes, the past is so very real. It’s an integral part of you and me. But the peril is not in remembering the past. The peril lies in living in the past. MF, Jesus is not yesterday. He is today, right now, as I write, and you read. Only by a self-emptying, similar to his, can we grow into him and be shaped day after day in his likeness. Only in such dying is our living!

By reaching out in faith, hope and love, to whatever tomorrow may hold, you and I will discover—you and I will experience what St. Paul found to be 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 has more than an aura of sadness. It is grief beyond compare. For the Son of God died in the flesh and blood he took for your sake and mine, together with the entire global family, as well as Mother Earth herself. Our response? We must not only live life to the fullest, but live life in him. AMEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next 3 epitaphs are from the Maritimes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Page. Last 2 paragraphs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When we agree to live simply, we no longer consider immigrants, refugees, poor people, marginalized and homeless as threats to our lifestyle or racial or ethnic integrity. When we choose to relinquish our privileges, whatever they are, we have freely and consciously chosen to become “visitors and pilgrims” in this world, as Scripture puts it. A simple lifestyle is quite simply an act of solidarity with the way most people have had to live since the beginnings of humanity.

When we live simply, we have time for spiritual and corporal works of mercy, like prayer, service and justice, because we have renegotiated in our minds and hearts our understanding of time and its purposes. Time is not money anymore, despite the common aphorism! Time is life itself and we Christians need to give our lives away freely as Jesus did.

MF, all this may sound very radical to you, if your theology, ethnicity and global viewpoint differs radically from mine.

But truth be told, Jesus was radical. This is not a bad word. Radical comes from the Latin radixmeaning the root. Jesus was a prophet and like the OT prophets, including John the Baptist, Jesus struck at the very roots of evil. These are the very systems of the world which have long since lost their way, robbing us of the “straight and narrow path” to God, robbing us of the wisdom to distinguish God from Caesar, and robbing us of the spiritual ability to let go of our man-made kingdoms, so that “Thy Kingdom come,” as Jesus taught us to pray.

When we agree to live simply, we have little energy to defend or protect our group, ethnicity or country, or even defend our money, our church, our religion—even God, as if God needs our defense to be God. Our circle is no longer defined by these external and accidental qualities. Why? Because we now find joy in giving to God and living for God—and maybe for the first time! AMEN.

One of them, seeing that he was healed, turned back, praised God with a loud voice, prostrated himself at Jesus feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan.

Dear Friends!

Ten are healed, but only one returns to give God thanks and that one is a Samaritan, an outcast, who ends up flat out, face down in the dust at the feet of Jesus in a posture of deepest gratitude. Ten lepers are challenged to return to Jesus and give thanks for being healed; but only one meets the spiritual challenge. Now, this is not to say that the other 9 weren’t thankful. I’m sure they were. But they never returned to Jesus, with their faces in the dust at his feet to show how grateful they really were. And that’s the point MF!

Think about all the times you were grateful, but had real difficulty uttering a genuine, heartfelt “Thank You!” Or, you couldn’t return to church to give thanks to God in his house. Why is saying “Thank you” so hard and such a spiritual challenge? Why? Because authentic gratitude is not only very humbling, but also very humiliating. Bona fide thanks is an acknowledgment of dependence, you see! That’s why genuine gratitude is always a spiritual challenge and anything spiritual, MF, is always difficult for us humans.

We have received something from someone or from God—something we could not manufacture, which pretty much covers all of life—from birth to death and in between. Life is pure grace and gift, which we did nothing to deserve. MF, we didn’t even ask to be born. By no effort of our own, we came upon this spinning planet and it was all there for the taking. And because this isn’t easy to accept, we put up all kinds of defense mechanisms against sincere gratitude.  

The fact is: Real thanks always dies with illusions of self-sufficiency. Why? Because self-sufficiency recognizes no god to whom one would give thanks. We take, because it’s there for the taking—ours to do with as we please. But genuine thanks is always a spiritual challenge, because it requires that we surrender our illusions of self-sufficiency—that we are the self-made authors of what we have and who we are!

Thanksgiving is a spiritual challenge, because it’s difficult to be grateful in a culture of dissatisfaction and insufficiency, where we never seem to have enough—whatever enough is—enough money and material goods, enough of my way or the highway, enough in this “me-first” society. Advertisers do a good job of making us aware of what we don’t have and convince us that we need bigger and better, more and most.

A newspaper article on Happiness once described an experiment at Harvard University:

The students were asked to choose between two scenarios: In the first, they would get $100,000 per year and everyone else half that amount. In the second, they would get half a million dollars, and others would double that. Most chose the first option. Why? Because they were happier to be poorer, as long as that meant they were richer than others.

Chronic dissatisfaction cultivated by our consumer culture and the tendency to get accustomed to what we have, combined with a desire to have more than others around us, is the spiritual challenge—to voice genuine thankfulness, by returning to God in her house of worship to give thanks.

Being thankful, articulating thanks, voicing thanks and simply being thankful, also take time in a time-stressed culture. And that’s because busyness is one of the mortal enemies of genuine gratitude.

MF, it takes time to notice our life; time to notice this planet, time to see our loved ones as gifts from God. It takes time to allow the intrinsic beauty of a red rose to take us to our knees. Gratitude is always born of a child-like fascination with the world. I find it utterly ironic and tragic that we’ve structured our lives almost as a defensive mechanism against gratitude.

When we tacitly agree that the meaning of life is primarily the pursuit of more things and more money, we sell our lives in exchange for material and monetary goals and so we sacrifice genuine gratitude. When we feel compelled to keep ourselves so busy with activities, that we have no time and we make no time to reflect on how our hearts burst, when we see how a beam of light renders a bed of flowers into a sacred picture, or how the orange and red hues of a Canadian sunset transforms into an aura borealis of the soul. So, MF, here’s the question:

Can we make Thanksgiving Day into a spiritual reorientation of our life? Can we transform this holiday into a holy day, and enter into a more sacred space with God and with one another? Can we take more time, to be more satisfied with what we have and who we are? Can we risk letting go of our illusions of self-sufficiency and be grateful—really grateful—perhaps for the first time, in a very long time?

Gratitude is a spiritual challenge. Why? Because genuine gratitude means that we end up with our face in the dust before Jesus, with tears streaming down our cheeks, if we could, even for one moment, take in the gifts we have received freely from God. Genuine gratitude means that we will grieve for all the lost years and missed moments, grieve the very life-style we thought we needed and the global pandemic around us.

Thanksgiving is a spiritual challenge. Why? Because there’s a thin line between thankfulness and taking for granted; between absence which makes the heart grow fonder and intimacy which breeds contempt. If there’s one thing which disturbs my faith more than anything else, it’s the lack of thankfulness which has become a standard model of behavior.

Unless we return to Jesus, return to God’s House and express thanks to God, we will never be completely satisfied—not with what we own, nor achieve, much less with who we are.

When we tie ourselves up with money and things, it’s hard to be loving. Instead, we turn our neighbour into another article for consumption. Instead of words of appreciation, we wonder: What can this person do for me? How can he or she be useful to me? Even God has become a consumer item for many Christians. What can God do for me today? Give me health, happiness and a stress-free retirement. As long as we think only in terms of getting, we won’t be giving any time soon—not to others, much less to God.

MF, ultimately we are our choices made and not made. We can chose to return to Jesus, and with our faces in the dust, we can give him thanks, with our voices and lives. Or, we can choose to be concerned about everything else first, believing that Jesus and his Kingdom will always wait for us. The choice is ours.

But let me warn you MF: Unless there is genuine gratitude on our part, we will lose the Kingdom. Why? Because without authentic appreciation, without returning to Jesus, we place ourselves outside his Kingdom. Gratitude is not only spiritual, gratitude is always an inside job! Gratitude is always up to us!

But, if we fail to give real, authentic, heartfelt thanks to God; if we fail to return to Jesus, prostrate on the ground with our faces in the dust, it means, more than not, that we are possessed by our possessions. And being possessed, we will always seek more and more, and the spiral of addiction will always increase. As Alcoholics Anonymous says: We need more and more of what does not work!

This morning, MF, we journey together with Jesus. That journey includes many possibilities: Reading the Bible; reading the sermons I’ve sent over the past 6 months; listening to what the HS is saying to you. Giving to someone who needs your help. Forgiving others, starting with yourself. Receiving forgiveness. Praying, that as God knows you, you will come to know yourself. Worshipping God regularly in his house, just as Jesus did. Thanking God for all that you are. Meditating to find your soul. Living the life of the Spirit, and finally, to break free from your material attachments, including your self-made-image.

The goal of all spirituality is that we stand naked before God, who was born naked for us in a manger in Bethlehem. Just like true lovemaking requires nakedness, the same is true with loving God and God loving us. We must throw away our self-made images in order to stand naked before God. Only then are we ready for genuine thankfulness—ready to prostrate ourselves before Jesus, with our faces in the dust, giving our lives over to him.

You know, if we were to create a religion, would we think of an image of a naked, bleeding, wounded man? It is the most unlikely image for God, to be sure! We prefer God to be all powerful. Not one of us would have created God on a cross. Such a God exposes the central problem of our human existence—God coming into the world as a baby in a manger, born naked, defenseless, powerlessness and needing our help.

Trouble is, we Christians have now become so accustomed to the cross, that we’ve domesticated it, wearing it as beautiful jewelry, that we are no longer shocked at the scandal of this image of nakedness and suffering, death and failure.

MF, if we don’t let Jesus heal our wounds and transform our pain, if we don’t return to him to give thanks, we will never be truly healed, physically much less spiritually and we will always transmit our wounds and pains onto others.

Well MF, 2 pages to go. So, let me recommend a spiritual challenge to you on this Thanksgiving Sunday. Sometime, when you’re home today, sit alone in silence for just 15 minutes. Try to remove all your self-made images, whether positive or negative. Likewise, try to remove all your thoughts and ideas, worries and anxieties, criticisms and judgments, anticipations and expectations.

Having removed all of these, you will be naked. Now, seek out your soul. Only when you are naked, can you find your soul, and finding it, you will find God, because that’s where God resides. Discover your soul and you will unite with God.

MF, there’s no right or wrong here. The important thing is to complete this silent search for your soul. How? By letting go of your self-made images. Do not be afraid of the silence, because God is with you, leading you in that silence and in that search. Put aside your fear or go through your fear if you must. If you have the faith and the courage to do this, in a short time you’ll know which images you cling to and which patterns of thought energize you.

To do this is a humbling experience! Why? Because most people find out that they don’t know who they are, apart from their possessions and surroundings, their negative or positive self-images, apart from what they do and achieve. Being naked before God is to locate our real selves—our souls. You’ll need at least 15 minutes, but whatever you require, MF, just do it!

Why? Because this is precisely what the Samaritan did. Cured of his leprosy, he put aside his fears, returned to Jesus, humbled and prostrated himself, with his face in the dust, and thanked God from the bottom of his heart. It was a deeply spiritual experience, which he relived time and again. I’m sure.

Now, after your spiritual experience, take a few minutes and try to find a word, an adjective, a phrase for what happened to you during those 15 minutes. To tell you once again, right and wrong do not apply here. If you’re frightened, or if you had the feeling that you could not do this, write it down; and if it was breathtaking, then write that down too.

The spiritual goal of the soul is for you to be at one with God. This unity includes head and heart, body and soul, feelings and memories, intuitions and subconscious—in fact, it includes our entire being. Having located our soul, we will then hear God, in a way we’ve never heard God before. But to hear God, we will also need to listen. We will need to listen and stop talking, for a change.

MF, the Christian life is always a journey less traveled, between the radical way inward and the radical way outward. From where I stand, that’s the best form of thanksgiving we can offer God.

Take a few moments to give thanks and be thankful. AMEN

So the tenants seized the landowner’s only son, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him….The chief priests and Pharisees then tried to arrest Jesus, but were afraid of the crowds who considered Jesus a prophet. Mt 21:39,45b

Dear Friends. The recent Gospel readings have been real tough on preachers and parishioners alike! Last Sunday Jesus tells the religious people, that tax collects and harlots will get into the Kingdom before they do! The Sunday before, Jesus tells the same crowd, that those who have only worked one hour will also get into God’s Kingdom with those who have slaved all day long in the vineyard. Today, we’ve got another barnburner, and this time Jesus tells the same crowd that they’ve been killing the prophets God sends them!

MF, can you picture Jesus preaching this sermon to a religious crowd of listeners, including the high priests and teachers of the Law? Jesus is telling them a story about?….themselves! A man owned a vineyard and he sent representatives to collect his share of the profits. But his vineyard workers kill the representatives. Finally, the owner sends his only son, and they kill him too. “What will the Lord of the Vineyard do with his wicked tenants?” Jesus asks the crowd. The listeners thought they knew—namely the Lord would kill them for murdering his son, and so they begin to organize a lynch mob. In short, the parable got to them!!

Will the parable also get to us, MF? It certainly got to me! There is the obvious interpretation that we are the vinedressers who ultimately end up killing the son, who is Jesus. But instead of revenge, the Lord of the vineyard raises the Son from the dead, so that we too will be raised from death to life. After two millennia, we understand this and that’s the easy part for us.

What’s not easy for us church folks to understand is that the representatives, including Jesus, are the prophets God sends—the prophets we reject and murder. MF, trace the history of prophets from Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr to Mahatma Gandhi to the reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, to Thomas Moore and Joan of Arc, etc—all the way back to John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah and of course, Jesus., for he too was a prophet sent by God and promptly crucified, after a brief public ministry of only three years!

MF, we in the church and the entire House of Israel have a very long history of killing the prophets God sends us. We’ve beaten and stoned them, burned them at the stake, shot or hung them. Nowadays, we’re too civilized for that. So we’ve chased them out of our churches, given them the silent treatment or thunderous rejections. And if we couldn’t stop them from speaking, then we’d stop listening to their sermons. The obvious question is: Why? Why is that?

Well, prophets, MF, aren’t exactly on the Top Ten (former) list of David Letterman’s “Most Likeable Folks.” Very few people actually like prophets, especially in the church! Prophets disturb the status quo. Prophets spot the gap between what we believe and how we behave. Prophets measure the distance between what we do and what God expects. Prophets interpret Scripture to challenge those who always think that they are right. After all, Jesus never said “You shall be right!” Prophets are typically people who can foretell the future, not as fortune-tellers, but as ones who have learned to read the signs of their times. It is by becoming fully aware of the political, social, economic, military, and religious tendencies of their time that prophets are able to see where it is all heading. 

Reading the signs of his times would have been an integral part of Jesus’ spirituality. In the first place, like many of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus must have seen the threatening armies of a powerful empire on the horizon—in this case the Roman Empire. In Jesus’ view, it would only be a matter of time before the Roman armies felt sufficiently provoked to attack and destroy Jerusalem.   

For most Jews, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple would mean the end of their worship, culture, and nation. Jesus’ concern was not for the future of the temple but for the people of Jerusalem, especially the women and children, the poor and oppressed. The people were powerless and helpless and the victims of huge structural violence which is largely invisible except to those who are suffering from it. 

Two thousand years later, prophets still raise their voices against the spirals of violence that continue to rob the poor and the oppressed of hope. MF, do we hear them? Are we any more likely to act on their wisdom than our biblical ancestors or do we also dismiss them and their message? I’m afraid it’s the latter, but it is only by choosing the former that we play our part as disciples of Jesus.

MF, we know all too well how boldly and radically Jesus spoke out against the assumptions and practices of the social and religious establishment of his time. Prophetically, he turned their world upside down. The conflict that this created became so intense that in the end they killed him to keep him quiet. Any attempt to practice the same spirituality as Jesus would entail learning to speak truth to power as he did—and facing the consequences.

Today MF, prophets include the Black Lives Matter movement and that’s because prophets raise the issues of justice, whether it’s on behalf of the thousands of marginalized or the millions of global refugees. Prophets confront the issues of color and creed, economics and environment, politics and religion, sexual identity and morality. Prophets are at the forefront of challenge and change. They’re not concerned about whether their sermons are well liked. Rather, they are concerned that justice is done and equality practiced.

Consider the issue of war and peace. If we agree that God wants peace, then why, prophets ask, do Christians go to war to kill? The USA, eg, spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually on military hardware, for themselves and in sale to others including Canada. US hardware is used to kill—now more people in less time than any other nation! Has anyone ever thought that there are other ways to solve global problems without always going to war to kill?

Learning from Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi personally lead a national movement of active resistance, after which India declared independence from Britain in 1947, without going to war. Martin Luther King Jr, likewise, began the American black liberation movement of non violent resistance in the 60s. Societal, personal and relational problems can be solved without resorting to violence, killing and war.

Or consider that, in the US, there are more homicides and state authorized executions than in any other country in the world, combined! Likewise, the annual US death toll by guns and other firearms exceeds 35,000, more than all other Western countries combined. God gave Commandment #5: You shall not murder. Then why are there 29 US states that still allow the death penalty? And why are most Americans armed to the teeth? Just because it’s their constitutional right to bear arms? The fact is Americans have quickly become a society which lives in dreaded fear of one another.

One month ago, the US marked 9/11 commemorations of the 2,977 deaths, including a number of Canadians in the Twin Tower arial attack. Today, 19 years later, the US led wars against the terrorism of 9/11 in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen have killed more than 800,000 people, displaced more than 37 million civilians and at a staggering cost of US $6.4 trillion. In spite of their motto, engraved on its coins and bills, “In God We Trust,” the US is the global leader in waging war, launching war and perpetuating war over the last 19 years!

Love your neighbour” said Jesus, and “whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done to me!” Then why do so many churches spend most of their budgets on themselves, instead of on their less fortunate neighbours, like the refugees around the world which number in the tens of millions? “Honor the Sabbath day to keep it holy?” says the 3rd commandment. Then why do 95% of Christians in Canada not worship? Why are our churches more half empty from one Sunday to the next, in the pre-pandemic days?

Or picture the security system of our day shattered by the prophets against racism, which outlawed slavery and made the black man equal to the white man; or the prophets of the women’s liberation movement who made women equal to men and therefore ushered in the age of sexual equality, which eventually brought about women’s ordination. And lastly, the prophets who finally brought about the sexual equality between heterosexuals and homosexuals in our society and in our Lutheran church, where today homosexuals can come out of the closet and also marry and be ordained.

Prophets have helped us learn the hard way, how to face change and uncertainty—like having long-standing beliefs change over time: women and children not as male property, illness not as punishment from God, nor left handedness, nor the physical or mental handicapped. Prophets have helped us face the angst of watching our security systems crumble—whether monetary, physical or religious, or whether in the face of war, poverty or illness.

Prophets have forced us into a brutal honesty about our human definitions of good and evil and the ways that we hide from ourselves, from others and God. Prophets have helped us to face the fact that too often our Christianity is a matter of pure conformism and expedience; our faith little more than a permanent evasion of reality; and that for too many Christians, there is no real need for God from day to day. Prophets have helped us dismantle our obsession with self, so that our churches can be in mission for the world, instead of being in mission for themselves.

Prophets challenge us to be more than simply “informed.” Prophets challenge us to be personally and spiritually transformed. St. Paul made it very clear: Law can give us correct information, but only God’s Spirit can transform us. Too many churches are only concerned with bolstering their obsession with themselves and the question: What’s in it for us, rather than transforming ourselves and the church to serve humankind.

MF, I believe this: The Christian Church here in North America and Europe have too many priests and pastors and not enough prophets and spiritual leaders who have a vision and mission for the church beyond our usual preoccupation with buildings and budgets—all of which creates a very imbalanced Christianity. Prophets challenge us to live daily in the Spirit and by the Spirit; otherwise, we Christians degenerate into legalists and literalists, who are always killing the Spirit. And the church already has too many of them.

Prophets challenge us to give up our need to be God and act like God. That’s why prophets are not appreciated by church members who act as if God is in their pockets. Too many churches are simply content to have people in the pews—and the more people the greater possibility that the budget can be met.

MF, let’s be honest: The church would sooner have control, than real conversion; the church would sooner be informed, than transformed. That’s why prophets always address the real and subtle ways which we lose our soul to everything – everything but God. Prophets always ask the hard questions. Jesus who was a prophet always challenged his listeners to put away self-obsession and grandiose visions of themselves. Instead, he challenged his followers to be healthy and empathetic disciples who are filled with the HS.

Prophets like Jesus always challenge religion to be the conscience of society and not its lapdog. Jesus knows that if our culture and society are weak and superficial, it’s because our Christianity has become weak and superficial. And it’s not so much the hot-button issues of abortion and sexual identity, but it’s because of those oh, so subtle ways in which we Christians have slowly stopped seeing and loving neighbour, slowly stopped trusting and surrendering to God.

Prophets are, first and foremost, true disciples of faith. In fact, it is their deep love for the faith that allows them to criticize it at the same time. Their deepest motivation is not negative but profoundly positive. There is a major difference between negative criticism and positive critique. The first stems from the need for power; the second flows from love. That’s why institutions, including churches, prefer loyalists and “company men” to prophets. We’re terribly uncomfortable with people who point out our sins and shortcomings, but it is in the genuine struggle with these that we are transformed into real spiritual consciousness. People who learn to expose, name, and still thrive inside of a world filled with contradictions are bona fide prophets. They are both faithful and critical. 

Prophets know that too many Christians have stopped accepting the high price of conversion and transformation—the high price of carrying our cross as Jesus told us to do. Prophets know that too many churches have substituted the success of increased revenue, with the much more difficult path of spiritual warfare which involves prayer and suffering.

MF, prophets challenge us to see what we normally refuse to see; to hear what we have not been prepared to hear; to unlearn what we’ve been taught, so that we can actually learn to be loving, giving and forgiving—maybe for the first time. Prophets know that we all have an amazing capacity for missing the point—especially we Christians. Prophets know that personal issues of control and authority or personal investments of money or material things, simply get in the way of how we see and what we see, how we hear and what we hear, what we do and how we do it.

I’ve said it many times before: There are only two kinds of religion: The first believes that God will love me if I change. The second believes that God loves me, so that I can change. The first is the most common and most Christians fall into this first category. The second kind of religion is based not upon what one believes in the head, but upon a day to day experience of God’s Spirit of Love and Mercy. Ideas, MF, inform us, but only love transforms; only the Spirit transforms in a lasting way. God is always willing to wait for our spiritual transformation. Trouble is, we want immediate results that are practical.

Last thought: Prophets know that no one person, including the pastor, can save the church. The church is only and always saved by faith in God’s Grace. Prophets also know, much better than you and I that it is not men and women of power, authority and control—whether politicians or popes, whether billionaires or military might—but it is listening to the Voice of the Spirit of God which changes us, changes the church and changes the world. Or, as Napoleon, in his final defeat at Waterloo, said: “We men of power merely rearrange the world, but it is only people of the Spirit who can really change it.”

MF, let us be the People of the Spirit. Let us be People of the Spirit who think, decide and act on the basis of spiritual values. AMEN.

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

Truly I tell you, said Jesus: Tax collectors and the harlots will go into the Kingdom of God before you do! Mt 21:31

Dear Friends: Harlots have always had a bad rap. Of course, not all of them have gone on to fame and fortune. Not all of them have had renowned customers, and no less a likable fellow than Hugh Grant of movie fame reminded us a few years ago that the world’s oldest profession is alive and well—still flourishing in the Western world. City politicians of every stripe have attempted to reduce the sex trade in big cosmopolitan cities like Toronto, beginning with shutting down so-called message parlors a few years back. In so doing, I suspect that the politicians disapproved of the sinners and the sin, at least publicly. After all, there’s a pleasure motive in the sin.

Jesus, on the other hand, who was never a candidate for political office, had a good word for harlots—a word that those of us who think ourselves morally superior to them, and others, ought to hear. And this morning, MF, we’ve heard it—right here in Matthew’s Gospel. Without any compromising conditions, Jesus says “Tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom before you.” And the “you” here refers not only to the chief priests and elders, but also to you and me!

Today’s gospel starts off as a parable about two sons. One says to his father, he’ll work in the vineyard, but doesn’t. The younger son says that he won’t work but changes his mind and goes to work. Jesus likens the older son to the religious leaders who say one thing but do another. The younger son, however, is likened to the tax collects and harlots, who change their mind about their sinning. Hence Jesus concludes with a good word for prostitutes and tax collectors, but for the religiously self-righteous, he only had a word of judgment. Tax collectors and harlots will get into the kingdom before you!

Now, this could be a sermon about tax collectors, but they don’t appeal to our carnal interest. After all, unlike prostitutes, tax collectors don’t give pleasure—they take it. Harlots and prostitutes, however, not only appeal to the naughty and to the sensuous in us, but passion and pleasure combined illegitimately create a winning combination in a profession that has supposedly been around longer than any other.

Secondly, although there is no instruction manual about this profession offered in Lutheran and Anglican seminaries in Canada, the fact is, MF, we are at our most morally anxious wherever and whenever sex is involved. That’s precisely why Jesus gets our attention this morning and tells the uptight Puritans within us, that harlots and prostitutes have a prior claim on heaven and will get there before we do.

MF, it’s annoying—this illegitimate pleasure which will get the harlots into heaven before us. But it’s also downright unfair, especially to those of us who don’t go back on our promises and commitments to God—that we walk our talk and give to God our ultimate allegiance.

Now, if you were to check out how many harlots are mentioned by name in the Old & New Testaments, you’d find a dozen or so, some of whom have become rather famous or infamous, if you wish. Rahab, for instance, mentioned in Joshua Ch 2, became a well-know prostitute, a woman of considerable pleasure who, for some 40 years, plied her trade, which back then, 40 years was indeed a very long time, and, as the story goes, no prince or ruler had been denied her sexual favors.

Now Rahab is a Hebrew name which means “wide” or “expansive” and you don’t need a degree in etymology to figure out why. But please note, I said “expansive,” not expensive, although I suspect Rahab’s tastes were that too, given the fact that according to Rabbinic tradition, she was “one of four most beautiful women in the world.” The mere mention of her name is said to have inspired lust and longing. In fact, Scripture describes her as a “giver of hospitality,” which sounds like the term the Japanese used to describe the Chinese and other women forced to serve the needs of the invading army in WWII: “comfort women”—a disgusting euphemism.

Now, until I read the story of Rahab in the OT, I had never heard of her, nor of such a name. But there she was: well-known and world famous, says Joshua, a woman of pleasure, who lived just within the walls of Jericho. It was an ideal location on the border between the city and the outskirts, conveniently situated for a house ill-repute. She was well-connected to the great and high ranking, which arguably made her the best-informed person in the city. After all, prostitutes are always in the forefront in learning the news through pillow talk, whether it’s Jericho or Jerusalem, Ottawa or Washington.

Joshua also tells us that Rahab was exceedingly shrewd and when the Jewish spies came to her house to scout the city for Joshua’s attack, she bargained with them. She would protect them from the search party, if they would protect her and her household when Joshua finally attacked the city and won, when “the walls came a-tumbling down”—so says the SS song.

The story goes that the men were hidden under the flax of Rahab’s roof and escaped by being let down over the wall of her house by a scarlet chord—a sign of protection and redemption. Rahab displayed the scarlet chord from the same window, so that when the Jewish invaders came to slaughter Jericho’s inhabitants, they would identify the house and spare it. Btw, the scarlet color of the chord came to be associated with prostitutes and their district to be known as the red-light district.

Rahab was then taken to Israel and her conversion to Judaism affirmed. In fact, in Matthew 1:1ff, Rahab is listed as an ancestor of Jesus in the Jewish family tree going back to Abraham. To add insult to injury, the book of Hebrews, written early in the 2nd century, lists Rahab among the saints.

Having said this, it’s no wonder that some early church fathers were quite morally “uppiddy,” finding it difficult to think of Jesus as having an admitted prostitute among his ancestors—a sexy skeleton in the divine closet, so to speak. In fact, some of the early biblical scholars tried to sanitize the text, by saying that Rahab was merely an innkeeper, or at the most, the proprietress of the Jericho-No-Tell-Motel. But that effort did not succeed, to which I must say that hypocrisy is a less honorable calling than harlotry. So, here she remains—Rahab, the prostitute—listed in Matthew’s Gospel as an ancestor of King David and therefore of Jesus—Son of God.

But here’s the point which Jesus wants to make for us this morning: There is more truth in harlotry than in religious and moral hypocrisy, and here is where we must remember the substance of the text where Jesus gives the harlots the pride of place. We are fascinated with the apparent facts of Rahab’s life for 40 years. We think of her as the prostitute who helped the spies, or as the British might say: The tart with the heart. That is to us who she was.

But having said all that, MF, we might rightly ask: Why did she do what she did? Just how many men did she entertain, and what accounted for her charity to these Jewish men? I mean, the Book of Joshua is not an exercise in sexual therapy! But we know one thing: Rehab really did earn her living on her back and between her legs. But much more importantly, she knew where God was to be found and understood which side of the equation God was to be figured. She had sexual and political skills, not unlike politicians, prime ministers and presidents. But Rahab had moral insight into the Kingdom of God and was determined to be on the right side of history, on the winning side of the war. After all, they’re the ones who write the history books. And so, she confessed to the spies: For the Lord, your God, is God in heaven above and earth below.

Rehab did not require a ton of bricks, or the walls of Jericho, to fall on her head. She had heard of the wonder workings of God and she acknowledged it. “Your God is going to win,” she deduced, “and I want to be on the winning side.” She had heard of the Children of Israel being led dry shod through the Red Sea, and despite her devotion to pleasure and profit, she knew that in the end, God would prevail.

So, in order to save her life, she changed her mind and her ways. Today, we’d say, she amended her lifestyle. She recognized the opportunity for salvation. She was not so immersed in her life that she couldn’t change it, and having recognized her options, Rahab acted. She didn’t dither or dote. She didn’t speculate or procrastinate. She acted. She chose God and repentance, however expedient that seemed at the time — something like a last-minute conversion to get into heaven. Rahab was saved, was spared and became an ancestress of the Lord.

But to the early church fathers, now all stuck-up, Rahab lied. She was not a saint; nor was she a Girl Guide selling no fat chocolate chip cookies. She had not sunk so low, that she could not look up and out, live and laugh. She was not the victim of her circumstances, as we would say in this age of sanctity of victimhood, that she could not recognize an opportunity for repentance and salvation, grabbing hold of it with both hands. She was not so immersed in the seedy commerce of the world, stuck in her profession, locked into her own opinions, that she could not see the way out to the other side.

What is more, MF, is that Rahab acted. She did not hide behind pretense and hypocrisy. Rather, she struck a bargain, did what she had to do and was saved. We have to admire her sense of the expedient, even though some of the fastidious among us might say that this was just the problem: it was all so expedient! She knew that she would die with everyone else if she didn’t change, and so she opted for survival. Tsk. Tsk.

So there we’ve got it, MF. Repentance is expedient. It’s what you do, if you don’t want to go on as you are and die. Salvation is expedient. It is designed to get you out of the way of an oncoming train which cannot be stopped! There’s only one thing you can do and that’s get out of the way. So, when we speak of being saved, we mean literally it—being rescued from life as it is, in order to take on life as it can be and ought to be.

Jesus is more than annoyed with the so-called “righteous” and that’s why the tax collectors and harlots will inherit the kingdom, well before the righteous. Jesus delineated the clear and present option for new life—a life of peace and joy. But the virtuous who are so filled with themselves, so content with who, what and where they are, find no need for repentance. They are like so many churched, who find no reason to be “born again” and repent, when their baptismal certificate says they were born again at the time of their infant baptism.

The virtuous, the righteous, the respectable, all the decent Christians have no need to hear the Good News of Jesus yet another time. They have already achieved a level of perfection consistent with their level of comfort. They already have the truth and they are in the right. MF, who of us here this morning thinks of ourselves so bad and sinful, that we have an urgent need to repent and repent here and now?

MF, I believe that the vast majority of Christians in the western world cannot see God’s future because we are so seduced by the conveniences and conventional wisdom of our times. Unlike Rahab, we are unwilling to give up what we have and what we know to risk picking up a cross to follow Jesus.

Rahab, on the other hand, had everything to lose and still gave up everything to go with God. The trouble is: too many Christians don’t want to lose anything or give up any of it. “Let me keep my intellectual superiority, my economic security, my social stability. Let me keep my bad habits and my deficient ways of dealing with others. Let me keep to my timetable and my priorities. Indeed, let me even keep my fears and anxieties, my neuroses and psychoses,” we say to ourselves. “Then, if God can fit into all that, I’ll pencil him in.”

And that, MF, is why the prostitutes and harlots, the taxman and CRA drones will get into heaven before we do.

So MF, what are we to do now? Take up prostitution? Work for some taxation department? I think not. After all, there’s got to be more to life than we expect. Let’s take a hard and long look at the life which so many think we’re trapped into or to which we think we are committed. Let’s look at what our priorities and anxieties really are.

We all know that the life God gives us has more to offer than what we now have of it, no matter how much we own or how smart we are or how important we think we are. There has to be more than this. And there is, MF! All we have to do is turn around, which is another way of saying: All we have to do is to repent and claim a place for God in our lives.

What Rahab found is free and also available to us. Jesus’ good word for harlots is also a good word for us: Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. That’s what Jesus says to the harlots and tax collectors of his day. That’s what Jesus says to you & me. We just have to try out his words and find out for ourselves…as Rahab did. AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money?” answered the owner, “or are you jealous because I am generous?” And so Jesus concluded: “Therefore, those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last.” Mt 20:15-16

Dear Friends. You may know that Henry Ford, inventor of the Model T at the turn of the 20th century, was very opinionated—from automobiles to horses or politics to religion. A favorite line was “Whatever is good business is good religion!” Not necessarily so, MF, even though business back then was quite different than today. But no matter what the century, including Jesus’, a boss who hands out the same paycheck for one hour’s work as for 8 or 12 hours, not only has a naïve understanding of finances, but would soon have a picket line around his vineyard and a grievance committee knocking on his door. This is bad business, but is it also bad religion?

So, what does Jesus say this morning about what we would consider unfair labour practices? “The Kingdom of God is exactly like this scenario!” Well MF, how is that possible? Like the people who heard this parable, we too might respond: Well Jesus, obviously fiscal prudence was not the concern of the landowner! To pay the last workers as much as the first workers, is not only financial inefficiency, it’s sheer lunacy! The workers would quickly learn to sleep in and only show up for the last hour. The owner’s methods are short-sighted, unsustainable and insane!

So MF, if we’re looking to this parable for a viable economic paradigm, this one makes no sense. That’s why Jesus’ parable today is not about some economic blueprint for success, but about the Kingdom of God, in which Jesus challenges conventional wisdom with the unsettling spiritual wisdom. Contrary to Henry Ford, Jesus invites us to consider that bad business practice may well be good religion.

On the other hand, we may ask: Is there to be no extra reward for faithful service when God opens the Book of Life and adds up the accounts? Most of us were born into the church, were publicly baptized, and ever since have been trying our level best to live out the Christian life. Are we to get nothing more than those Christmas & Easter Christians who only show up twice-a-year for church? Is God gonna give a skid-row drunk who offers a last-minute prayer of repentance the same reward reserved for Billy Graham? If so, then there’s gotta be “something rotten in Denmark,” don’t you think?

After all, when we do more than others, then don’t we have a right to expect more? What’s the use of being a Christian, getting up most Sundays to go to church, if it doesn’t get us more than those who don’t? If we work countless hours for the church, doesn’t God owe us something? $100 for 8 hours of work and $100 for one hour? Eternal life for a life-time of Christian work, and eternal life for one year of work at the end of life? You know God, this is outrageous! You’ve generated a crisis of equality!

MF, first some historical background to better understand this crisis of equality. Jesus parable describes a situation typical of the social and economic breakdown of his day; namely that the economic system of the Roman Empire was replacing the traditional Jewish rural economy. In rural economies, unemployment of course doesn’t exist. The land provides what families require to comfortably live and everyone has work.

Roman urbanization, however, devastated many Jewish lives. The social crisis is symbolized in the parable by men who are “standing idle.” These are city men have no work. There are landowners and there are the unemployed, without even a plot of land to grow a garden. MF, this is a signal that something has gone terribly wrong with the system.

That’s why, after hearing the story, we don’t first focus on the unemployed waiting to be hired! Rather, we identify with the valid protests of the first workers: How can you make these men, who have only worked one hour, equal to us?

This question also indicates that the social fabric is so frayed, that these “Johnny-Come-Lately” workers are only seen as competitors and not as co-workers or compatriots, in an unjust economic system. Not much has seemingly changed, MF. In fact, they are all victims of a degrading economic system.

And yet, the searing irony is this: No one in this parable was treated unfairly! Everyone was paid exactly the amount to which they agreed. What sticks in the craw of the first workers is that these last guys are being treated as equals.  

When the last crew of workers is asked by the employer, “Why are you standing here idle all day”, their response is disarmingly simple: “Because no one hired us.” Today, we’d follow this response with “duhhhh!”  This response is also a reflection of those who blame the unemployed for their station in life. But the fact is that our economic system today virtually depends on an unemployment rate of 6-10%, even though there is a stigma attached to unemployment, as we usually associate our worth with our work. And that’s also because there are too many people in our society who only live to work.

MF, the complaining workers were simply wrong in their assessment. The owner didn’t “make them equal” by paying them the same. The owner recognized that all the workers were already equal. They just happened to be without work. Maybe they had just been “downsized”, “right-sized” or “rationalized”—to use today’s corporate euphemisms.  By paying the last workers the same as the first, he was affirming their intrinsic worthiness, a worthiness not tied to their exchange value in the marketplace. They were paid according to their need for a living wage, and specifically not what the market determined was their worth.  

So MF, what is Jesus really saying here? He is challenging the employed, the privileged “first” workers, to make room in their hearts for the unemployed! This is the spiritual principle at the heart of today’s gospel—a principle which extends far beyond vineyard workers 2000 years ago. Jesus exposes the grumbling of the employed for what it is: the greediness of “a hard heart” or a “stiff neck,” which the Bible calls obstinacy. The hard hearted have long since lost the sensitivity to see beyond their own selfish desires and agendas. Like the Pharisee who compared himself to the publican, the first workers believe they’ve been short changed when they compare what they got, to what the last workers received. 

MF, it’s no surprise that recognition and affirmation of intrinsic worth of every human being was not accepted, nor celebrated, by the first workers. The history of humanity can be told as a story of resentment and criticism by those of privileged status toward the latest group of ostracized and marginalized to acquire equal status. The illusion of the privileged is that they’ve done something to merit their special status, and if “everyone” is allowed into “the old boys club,” then the privileged are diminished. They can only be special, you see, if they have something other folks don’t.

MF, I can’t begin to tell you the history of resentment and criticism throughout the centuries—a history whose list ended in racism and segregation, lynching and burning, gassing and genocide. It is also a history which ends with the existential Black Lives Matter movement, in which Black and Brown, Red and Yellow lives matter in the face of white privilege.

The history, MF has included all kinds of minorities and marginalized, foreigners and refugees, natives and aboriginals, Jews and Moselms, Chinese and Asiatic, slaves and blacks, women and children, gays and lesbians—all people whose status as God’s children continues to be devalued—even interpreting the Bible to support their inequality. The protest of the privileged has sounded down through the ages: You have made them equal to us!

But that’s not all MF. In this 3rd millennium, you and I have entered an ecological age, in which we are realizing that the privileged status we’ve granted ourselves over the animal and plant life, as well as Mother Earth herself—this must also end! Otherwise, the crisis of climate change will put a premature expiration to everything living!  

Having said this, you might rightly ask: “Pastor Peter, how can you believe this about climate change and still have hope?” Good question, MF. For me, faith and hope are rooted in the conviction that, regardless of how bad things may be, a new spiritual story is waiting to take hold. We just need to respond to God’s call for us to work with her and millions of others to champion that new narrative!

For the vast majority in our society, that new story remains unseen. Wresting our future from the grip of fossil fuel, for instance, seems impossible—our addiction is too strong, affordable options are too few, and the powers that defend the status quo are overwhelming. We cannot be freed by chipping away at this millstone. We must begin to live into a new story by accepting God’s call to change our human destruction and restoring creation’s viability.

MF, that means we must be willing to take action. We become partners with God when we act in unfamiliar, untested ways. Those new actions will be guided by a future which embraces:

  • resilience in place of growth

  • collaboration in place of consumption

  • wisdom in place of progress

  • balance in place of addiction

  • moderation in place of excess

  • vision in place of convenience

  • accountability in place of disregard

  • self-giving love in place of self-centered fear . . .

MF, I believe, as do other theologians, that a new humility is finally dawning in our human consciousness which recognizes that we humans are only one part of a larger eco-system within God’s good green earth. When the salmon disappears, the bear and the eagle are not far behind. When the rivers and oceans are polluted, our blood fills with poison. If non-human life forms disappear from the face of the earth, as so many have, we lose our brothers and sisters which inhabit Mother Earth with us and whom God put here before us humans! MF, if we lose the non-human world, MF, the human world is not far away from extinction.

This means that the way we manufacture products must change. The way we do business much change—given the market crashes—the last one being 2008. The way we treat this planet must change. The way we treat animals and plants, birds and fish must change. The way we treat our environment must change. The crisis of equality is disruptive, but it is a spiritual disruption.

I believe God meant that the Universe to evolve according to the celebration and manifestation of distinctiveness, not privilege and pleasure. God is a God of diversity and variety, and not one of privilege and partiality. We need to shift from creating systems which perpetuate preferential treatment, to systems which honour distinctiveness and variety.

As Christians, we need to give to every living thing and person all what they need to live and thrive. Globally speaking, we are all in this together! From today’s parable MF, we need to learn that when anyone is excluded, we are all excluded. When anyone is diminished, we are all diminished. When even one person is homeless, we all homeless. When one person is hungry, we all hunger and thirst. When one person is violated and suffers, we are all victims. And that’s because we’ve all connected, whether we see it or not, like it or not, whether we live by it or not. Privileged status is no compensation, for on the spiritual level everyone looses.

I believe most Christians have good intentions to follow Jesus’ example, but we are quickly overrun by the “me-first” norms of mainstream culture. In moments of crisis, however, we need to tap into something deeper and truer. We need to remember that we’re all in this together. We’re all related and have a kinship with one another. In the first weeks of the pandemic, I heard media reports of hoarding and price gouging, here and in the US, but I have heard far more stories of generosity, courage, compassion, and sacrifice for the sake of others. We do not have the same gifts, but many are giving their best.

In the final analysis MF, everything in God’s good green world is Grace. Absolutely, positively, categorically, unequivocally everything is Grace. Working in God’s vineyard where God has planted us, whether we’re working from 6:30 AM or from 4 PM to the end of the day—it is a joy and a privilege, as well as meaningful and purposeful—where the payment isn’t in dollars, nor in status or privilege, but payment is in the work itself: to love and be loved, to give and be forgiven, to be merciful and apply justice, and to be peace makers and committed disciples of Jesus.

I believe most Christians have good intentions to follow Jesus’ example, but they are quickly overrun by the “me-first” norms of mainstream culture. In moments of crisis, however, we seem to tap into something deeper and truer. We remember our kinship with one another. In the first weeks of the pandemic, I heard media reports of hoarding and price gouging, but I have heard far more stories of generosity, courage, compassion, and sacrifice for the sake of others. We do not all have the same gifts, but many seem to be giving their very best.

But, if by chance we didn’t see fit to working in God’s Vineyard until the 11th hour of our lives, then we will entreat God with tears and beg forgiveness that we did not know the profound joy and purpose of working in God’s vineyard longer than we did; nor did we experience the value of giving him a tithe of all that we had accumulated in this life. And that’s because in the economics of the Kingdom of God, Grace, MF, is everything!

God’s Grace is everything, where there are no distinctions between the privileged and the underprivileged. We are not only all equal in God’s Vineyard, but we are loved by him uniquely and totally. Should we not also practice this love for the world, to which we are in mission? AMEN

Gracious and compassionate God. I thank you for living and loving in me and through me. May all that I say and do flow from my deep connection with you and with all whom I encounter in my life. Help me become an increasingly more kind-hearted human being, who is willing to share the burdens of others, as Jesus shares mine. Listen, o God, to the longings of millions for the healing of our world. Knowing that your hearing is much better than my speaking, I offer this prayer to you o God—you who have so many holy names by which your children on earth call you. Amen

That is how my Father in heaven will treat everyone of you, unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart! Mt.18:35

Dear Friends. Forgiveness was one of Jesus central concerns, not only in his teac