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

2022

Dear Friends. With the angels I greet you this Easter morning: Why are you looking among the dead for one who is alive? He is not here! Fear not, for he has been raised! For our part, we’d also act like the women or the guards who were so afraid, we’d have to be reassured that we weren’t going crazy from fear and utter disbelief. Fear not! the angel would also tell us.

But, after 2 millennia of hearing the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, we’re soaccustomed to an empty tomb and so adjusted to the message, that o/c we believe the good news, and o/c we’re not afraid. We’re familiar with the story—I suspect too familiar!

Trouble is MF, on an emotional level, many people, Christians included, still fear death—o/c they do. After all, we only know life on this side of the grave and have never experienced death. Maybe we’ve personally seen death happen to others, but so far death hasn’t come a knockin’ on our door! Your preacher is still livin’ and kickin’ and preachin’. Death may be a friend to some, but when push comes to shove, isn’t death really a foe?

Well, I suppose that all depends—depends on our perspective which has been conditioned over decades, as well as what we believe and how we believe. The witty American satirist and cultural critic, HL Menken, for instance, didn’t believe in immortality and saw death as a friend: The Christian belief in immortality issues from the putrid egos of inferior men, he wrote in his 1946 novel, Heathen Dogs.

Or Ralph Barton, an American cartoonist who committed suicide in 1899. He was the brother of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. In his suicide letter, he wrote: I’ve done this because I am simply fed up with inventing devices for getting through 24 hours every day. Who goes there? Death—my friend!

Now, most people wouldn’t give that answer. For them, death is an enemy. The late Malcolm Muggeridge, British atheist turned Christian, once said that death has become for us the dirty little secret that sex was to the Victorians. Death, he said, is the obscenity of our time and if God were found to be dead, somebody would have to take his place. Well MF, death is cloak and dagger stuff, isn’t it? Death is rarely mentioned publicly. But when we must, we clothe death in euphemisms: “So & so passed away, went to heaven, is looking down at us, etc.” The fact is MF: The last thing a man must do, is the last thing he does: he dies!

And of course, there are always such nice things said about us when we’re dead, which were never said to us when we were living. If a person dies and his relatives are glad of it, they say: He’s better off! Sadly, we’re all gonna miss our own funerals by a few days. Ah yes—death, my enemy. Having said that, I’ve gotten to know many people, who are something like Sean Penn in the movie, Dead Man Walking. Psychologically and mentally, they are already   dead to themselves. They just don’t know it. After all, the only fish, which swim with the stream, are dead fish.

So, why can we not speak about death in some plain or factual manner? Like the women who arrived at the tomb or the disciples, are we just all afraid of death? Freud said that we just keep putting off the very thought of it, until death is so near to us, that we haven’t any choice. Or, as Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote in his famous poem of 1952 by the same name: Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage against the dying of the light.

During 32 years of bilingual ministry, I always found it remarkable, that Germans would pack Good Friday services to overflowing, but fail to worship on Easter Sunday. Many English, otoh, skipped GF and worshipped ES to overflowing. Not one of our attempts to reconcile ourselves with death, or ignore death, will work. Who goes there? Death? Friend or Foe? Take your pick.

The fact is: Without GF, Easter could not happened. Jesus had to die, before he could be raised. It’s impossible to evade the reality of death. Even Jesus asked that the cup of death be taken from him. He did not want to die but faced death head on. Easter answers the question: Is death a friend or foe? Death is the enemy.

But, given Jesus’ resurrection, death is now a defeated enemy, a conquered foe which is the heart of the Good News. Death is the enemy God looked squarely in the face and routed. And since death was vanquished, we don’t need to fear death, deny death or avoid death—but we do it anyway, don’t we?

This doesn’t mean that we will no longer die. O/c we will. No one can take our place on the death bed. As Jesus died, so will we—sooner or later. The good news of Easter is that death does not have the last word. The final word belongs to God! Death is simply the last door which must be opened to reach the other side.

For this reason I say that death is neither friend nor foe. Once your enemy has been defeated, you can make him your friend. A woman once chastised Abraham Lincoln severely for his magnanimous treatment of the South after the Civil War. “Your responsibility, Mr. President, is not to be kind to your enemies, but to destroy them,” she said angrily, to which he replied: “But Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Something like that is what God has done with death Easter morning. What we need to do is to see death not as a final and ultimate end to all things, but as a limit to our human possibilities. We need to accept that our life has boundaries and always will. We need to see the experience of dying as the last stage of human growth and learning. We need to see death as that last horizon beyond which our human eyes cannot see.

So, this morning, MF, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which allows you and me and all believers to trust that all will be well. In the end, everything will be alright! And if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end—at least not yet. The resurrection is God’s way of saying that God can take the worst from our world, even the killing of his human Son and change it into the very best: the redemption of the whole world.

MF, let me tell you: To believe that God raised Jesus from the dead does not require a leap of faith, as many have told me over the decades. Rather, resurrection and renewal are the universal and observable pattern to everything. I could use non -religious terms like: winter/spring, regeneration, healing, forgiving, life cycles, dark/light, budding, ice to water, etc.

The Resurrection MF is not a one-time miracle in the life of Jesus which asks for our assent and belief. Nor is the resurrection a personal victory of one man to prove that he was God’s Son.

Nor is our resurrection a private salvation party for you or me. The Resurrection of Jesus is a blueprint in God’s creation from the beginning—a blueprint which has always been true and observable and which invites us to do more than believe in one miracle.

In 1 Cor 15:13, Paul says something very different from what most of us hear or expect: If there is no resurrection from death itself, then Christ could not have been raised. In other words, Paul presents the resurrection as a universal principle. Sadly, we only remember the next verse when he says: If Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless!

However true that is, MF, the reason we can trust Jesus’ resurrection is that we can see resurrection happening everywhere, in addition to the borrowed tomb where Jesus’ body was laid. The resurrection of Jesus, like everything else in creation, is simply God’s incarnation taken to its logical conclusion.

If the incarnation of God into Jesus at Christmas is real; if we human beings are created in God’s image and therefore spirit filled; if material creation and the universe itself come from God’s hand, then resurrection takes on countless observable forms in our life and on our planet. Or to paraphrase a statement attributed to Albert Einstein: It is not that one thing is a miracle, but that everything is a miracle!

If God’s incarnation has any truth to it, then resurrection is a foregone conclusion, not a one-time exception in the body of Jesus, which no one can prove or disprove anyway. If resurrection is universal, then there’s no need to always try to prove that Jesus was the exception to death. The Risen Christ is not a one-time miracle, but the revelation of a universal pattern, tho’ hard to see in the short term, but happens time and time again.

In other words, MF: If eternal death is not possible for Jesus, then it is not possible for anyone or anything which is spirit-filled. God is by definition eternal, and God is Love, which is also eternal and this same Love has been planted in our hearts by the HS within us. Such fully implanted Love cannot help but evolve and mature and prove victorious. And our word for that final universal victory is resurrection.

The Risen Christ is eternal and universal—meaning, he never dies —not in you or me or anyone. Nor is the Resurrection only about Jesus. Resurrection is about the entire creation, it’s about history, it’s about every human who has ever been conceived, sinned, suffered, and died—about every animal that has lived and died a tortured death, every plant and tree, every element which changes from solid to liquid to ether, over great expanses of time.

The fact is, MF: Nothing in this world is the same forever. Change is the great constant of the universe. Why? Because change is the central feature of God’s DNA. Did you know … 98% of the atoms of our body are replaced every year. Geologists can prove that no landscape is permanent. Water, fog, steam and ice are all one and the same, but in different stages and temperatures. Resurrection is just another word for change, but especially positive change which we tend to see only in the long run. Whereas in the short run, change just looks like death.

Btw, the preface to numerous funeral liturgies says: Life is not ended. It is merely changed. Science has been giving us a very helpful language for what Christianity rightly intuited and imagined—albeit in metaphorical or mythical terms. Don’t be thrown by the word myth, because myth does not mean “not true,” which is the common understanding. Myth refers to things and events that are always true, but not always literally true.

Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection—this and so much more is the blueprint for the entirety of creation. The Risen Christ is the microcosm for the entire cosmos—even the blueprint for our Journey with Jesus. While most folks nowadays don’t need or want a journey with Jesus, but the caprices and disappointments of life eventually make us all yearn for direction, purpose, meaning and goals to get us through another day.

The billions of people who hold any kind of unexplainable hope—all believe in resurrection, whether they know it or not, whether they are Christians or not. The resurrection affirms what the entire physical and biological universe is saying: resurrection is a distinctly observable pattern, not only on this planet, but in the universe itself. If matter is inhabited by God, then it is somehow eternal, so that when the creed says “I believe in the resurrection of the body, that means not only our bodies, but everything.

Christianity’s unique story has always been incarnation—God incarnates himself in Jesus, in the world, in you, me and every living person and thing. If creation is very good as God declares, how could such divine goodness be undone by any human failing or failure, even sin or sinning? Very good sets us all—every human and living thing on a trajectory toward resurrection, in which God does not fail or lose. That’s what it means to be God.

The resurrection isn’t just about you and me. It’s about everyone and everything—about the universe—the very cosmos itself. Our Journey with Jesus is just another name for everyone and everything, together with the cosmos—shot through and through with the Risen Christ—the Cosmic Christ—who journeys with everyone and everything. The God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise that which is dead in us, this morning, to new life. AMEN.

Dear Friends. We’ve all experienced it. We’re driving along, be it a side-road, a city street or a highway, and suddenly we see this sign. It’s not the usual run of the mill sign, promoting cigarettes, motels, alcohol, cars, food, gasoline—most of which use sexual imagery or innuendo to sell their product. Rather, we’re driving along and every once in a while we’ll look up or to the side, and what do we see, but a sign which says: Jesus died for your sins. And like most people, we wince, grimace or bite our lip.

Sometimes I take the DVP when I go downtown, and I exit onto Richmond Street and soon thereafter, there’s a sign along the roofline of a Baptist church building. Maybe you’ve seen it too: The wages of sin are death. I used to wince and grimace, but after seeing the sign numerous times now, I know I’m headed for the morgue. Or, sometimes, I’m driving in the country, along a sideroad, and I look up at the side of a high cliff, and there, painted stark white on dark stone, is another, similar sign: Jesus Saves. Or, sometimes, just before I go under a bridge, there at a corner abutment, scrawled in large clumsy letters, usually done in white paint which has trickled down from the bottoms of the letters, I see a similar sign: Jesus died for you!

God only knows what kind of a person must have crawled to these spots with paint bucket and brush in hand, to slap those words onto stone. Probably did it during the night. Less chance of being caught. And God only knows what reason he or she may have had for doing this, just those words, and just there for everyone to see and read; for everyone to wince and grimace.

Maybe the writer wanted to share his guilt—the gift that keeps on giving; or maybe she wanted to convince others of their guilt, so she and her guilt wouldn’t be alone. Or maybe he had a God-complex. After all, someone’s gotta play judge and jury; and why shouldn’t it be the painter of these signs—now, near slogans?

But it’s the effect of the sign, Jesus died for you, or The wages of sin are death, or Jesus Saves! The desired effect—that’s the bottom line. We wince and flinch, we grimace and recoil, we cringe and squirm, maybe even bite our lip. Why? Because we’re embarrassed—embarrassed for many reasons. Maybe the words Jesus Savesremind us of that “old-time religion”—that old sawdust trail with its pulpit pounding pastors and evangelists in their highly charged emotionalism and moralism and fundamentalism.

We wince because there’s something in the name Jesus which embarrasses us when it stands naked and alone on a stone wall like that—just Jesus with no title to soften the psychological blow. MF, I suspect that the words Jesus Saves would not bother us half so much, if it wasn’t for the fact that they seem dreadfully, cringingly, painfully personal! I mean, somebody named Jesus, of all names, saving somebody named Peter or Paul or Shirely, or your name. Just fill in the blank. It’s something very personal, you see, written up there in a place that’s very public, like the names of lovers carved into trees and park benches, or painted on stones walls and overhead bridges.

Maybe Jesus Saves written on a sidewalk, before the cement dried—something like Hollywood Stars—is embarrassing because religion itself has become embarrassing—especially to the unreligious, the secularist, the non-believer, who is offended by this momentary lack of separation between church and state. Although he no longer “has religion” anymore, he hasn’t rooted it out of his soul completely either. And so the sign Jesus Saves still festers inside, like a kind of cancer.

But the sign is even embarrassing to the religious person. Even though he has religion, his life of believing seldom looks religious–perhaps more threadbare or even beside the point, when you set his worn-out, tattered convictions against his neon lit, cluttered and clamorous world which he so much adores. But the sign, you see, looks down upon all of that, including the speeders-by.

Perhaps at a deeper level still, Jesus Saves is embarrassing, because if you can hear it, in spite of all your wincing and grimacing and lip biting, what the sign says to everyone passing by, and most importantly and unforgivingly, what it says to you, is that you need to be saved—you see. Rich or poor, young or old, educated or not, religious or not—the words Jesus Saves is an offence to all of them and all of us. Why? Because suddenly and without warning, we have no peace inside our own skin; we’re not complete, not whole. The sign says we’re lacking something.

So, here we are, MF, trying so hard to be happy and fulfilled; trying so hard to please and be pleased. Trying so hard to find some kind of inner peace, and maybe not doing too bad a job of it, considering all the odds. But then, we see the sign Jesus Saves and it tells us something which could not be any worse psychologically speaking: namely—You will never make it without help!

And what could be more presumptuous, more absurd, more pathetic, for some poor fool with a cut-rate paint brush and pail of white paint to claim that the one to give that help is, none other than Jesus himself. Now, if the sign said God Saves, well, God is like an idea—perhaps a bad one at that, which of course no one can prove. It’s easy peasy to reject God, because God is only an idea to be rejected on intellectual grounds.

But Jesus? Well that’s a completely different kettle of fish. I mean Jesus is a person—a real flesh & blood individual—however dim and far away and disfigured by time he may be—but he’s still recognizable as a human face. Because behind the poor fool with his pail and brush, there crucified is the Prince of Fools—saving others, when he can’t even save himself. Is there anything more presumptuous and absurd, more ironical and pathetic than this?

Jesus Saves. And the bad thief, the one who was strung up on his left, according to tradition … well, he managed to choke out the words that in one form or another, men have been choking out ever since they’ve found themselves crossed up and out by the world. “If you’re the Christ, then save yourself and us,” with the accent on—the us. If you’re the saviour of the world, whatever that means, then why don’t you just climb down from that cross, save yourself and us from this pain—the dying up here. Who needs it? Who wants it? Surely, you don’t Jesus of Nazareth.

And then there’s the good thief, the one on his right, who had the nerve to rebuke the bad thief for his words, wanting to save himself and his life so that his friends—thick as thieves they were—could carry on thieving. So, he scolded the other thief; after all, they were reaping what they sowed—a life of thievery begets crucifixion. Everyone knows that. It’s like 2+2=4.

Trouble is: The good thief also saw to himself and his future, asking not in anger, mind you, but in a pleading voice: Remember me when you enter your kingdom. Jesus’ answer: Today you will be with me in Paradise—words no less crude than painted words, still wet, trickling down a wall or cliffside. And if not crude, then certainly ridiculous at face value for anyone with ears to hear the absurdity of what was being asked, given the sheer lunacy of this scene on a Friday afternoon, on a Palestinian hillside. What was really real was red blood trickling down a cross. And what was unreal were mere words amounting to castles in the sky.

Lunacy, you say MF? I mean, think about the reality of this cold-blooded situation. Looney tunes to the left and right—each trying to save himself from his ignoble end. I mean: Death for just stealing? A hand—perhaps. A life—hardly! But then, there’s that one in the middle—the spindle-shanked crackpot, who actually thinks he’s God’s Son—blasphemer, bloodshot and drunk with his own torture, no less crossed up and crossed out than any other Jewish mother’s son. Such a one as this anguished Jesus, whose name is scrawled up there on that concrete wall—2,000 years after this shameless execution in broad daylight, where no one dared lift a finger in his defense. Instead, they ran away. They fled the scene, like fiddlers on a hot-tin roof.

Well MF, I suspect that our painful wincing and grimacing and lip biting is directed less to the preposterous nature of the claim that Jesus Saves, than to the preposterous claim that you and I are savable. Not that we are such sinners who therefore deserve saving, but that we are so hopelessly who we are, that we’re not even worth saving in the first place.

I also suspect the reason why the name Jesus stands so naked as it does on the cold stones is that it inevitably recalls to us our own names and therefore like Jesus’ nakedness on the cross, it recalls our own nakedness in front of a mirror. Whom does Jesus save? Joe & Nancy. Charlie & Ellen. Saves me. Saves you. Simply the names, without any titles: No Mr. No Mrs. No Dr. No Rev. No General. No Chief. No Pres. No Pope. No degrees. No titles. No Social Ins Number. No Nothin! Just who we are. No more No less. It’s our own nakedness at which we finally wince and grimace.

MF, ultimately and finally, the sign on the cliff, on the wall, on the bldg, or wherever it may, calls us by name, you see, and it is at our own names that we wince and grimace and bite our lips and do so painfully. Why? Because we know that more often than not, we are less than our names. We are less than we want to be; lessthan what God expects us to be. A question a person is apt to ask in the darkest of moments in life is what salvation can there possibly be, for the person who is less than their name?

Jesus Saves. The sign on the rock, on the cliff, on the wall, on some obscure Roman hillside—the same sign which makes us wince and grimace at the vulgarity of God who dares to leave this son of his nailed to 2 pieces of wormwood, hanging out to dry and wither like a flower ripped from its stem. The vulgarity of a God who adorns the sky at sunrise and sundown with colors no painter would dream of placing together on a single canvass. The vulgarity of a God who created a world of human beings in his image, but who then cast aside this divine reflection in their ceaseless warring against each other.

The vulgarity of a God who was born into a cave among hicks and the steaming dung of beasts only to grow up and die on a cross between crooks. The vulgarity of a God who tampers with the lives of crooks and of clowns like me to the point where we pick up pails of white paint to decorate hillsides and walls, underpasses and overpasses with the nail-biting sign: Jesus Saves.

Yes, it’s true, we convince ourselves: Jesus Saves. And if we choose, we too can be with him in paradise, even tonight.

But, if it’s not true, then all our religion or lack of it, is only futility or busyness. But if it is true, then it is we who are the crackpots, if we refuse to draw near to him—the one who saves.

But, how to draw near, we ask? I’m not sure, except that through wanting to draw near, we’ve already drawn nearer. So, in spite of all our wincing and grimacing and lip-biting, Jesus Saves still breaks through to our lonely and searching and unsaved appearances, reflected in the eyes and face of the one who tells us: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

So, how do we draw near to Jesus? Through the prayers not just that we pray in church, God knows, but through the anytime, anywhere prayer that is “Remember me, Lord Jesus, even if I don’t remember you before others.” We draw near to him by following even on clumsy and reluctant feet and without knowing more than 5cents worth about what is really involved in following him into the neon lit pain of our world.

We may all want to draw near to the cross in whatever impulsive or pleading way we can, knowing that in real life, his friends fled the terrifying scene that Friday afternoon. But, if we can put our doubts and reservations aside, for only a moment, we will go where he goes. We will see through his eyes and work with his hands. We will walk with his feet and think with his mind. We will listen with his ears and speak with his tongue. … And we will become like him: fully human ourselves, at last, and fully each other’s at last, and even more than that: We will become fully his at last. AMEN

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Teacher, order your disciples to stop. I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout out.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept and said: If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! The days will come when your enemies will surround you on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another.

Rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for your King comes to you, triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem. He will bring peace to the nations and his dominion will be from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth.

MF, you’ve heard these verses many times on Palm Sunday, but let me tell you, that it is almost impossible to understand the story of Palm Sunday without first appreciating what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. The KoG is what the world would look like, if God ruled this earth, over against how the nations and powers of this planet run the world, including you and me. Jesus meant the KoG to be the direct challenge to the assumptions upon which the political and religious institutions of his day and ours are built.

MF, let me also tell you simply and plainly: The spirituality of Jesus and his politics were not only connected, but so intertwined, that to try and separate them would be misguided—in fact, a big mistake! Jesus was a political presence to his contemporaries, as much as he was a spiritual presence.

Of course, I don’t mean by this that Jesus would buy a membership in a political party. But politics, you see, is about how power is exercised over citizens and human beings in order to control us. But when Jesus spoke about the KoG, he used parables to describe the power of love, justice and mercy, and how they would be used by God. In other words, the purpose and use of power in God’s Kingdom is quite different than it is in politics or religion.

In Caesar’s Kingdom power is equated with dominance over others. That is the nature of power. The purpose is to make sure that Caesar, who, btw, has gone by many different names over the centuries—Stalin, Hitler, Mao immediately come to mind and Putin in this century, and their underlings—that they maintain their privileged position. While peace may exist, it is always on Caesar’s terms, which means that physical force, violence and war, when necessary, is the means of retaining Caesar’s peace and kingdom.

But in God’s Kingdom, power is equated with service and servanthood. Contrary to Caesar is the desire and capacity to be a servant who serves. The purpose of power is not to enshrine the political, social and religious structures of the elite —pastors, priests and popes are part of the elite—but to persuade the poor and lowly of their ultimate worth before God, and their potential to be servants of God’s purposes. In the KoG, love and compassion replace arrogance and violence as the means of achieving this end. The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man are mostly not compatible.

So, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, he was consciously enacting Zechariah’s prophecy that a king would enter the capital riding a donkey—the poor man’s beast of burden—to inaugurate a reign peace as the Messiah. Trouble is: Jesus did this knowing full well that the crowds would misinterpret the nature of this event. Why?

Because they thought Jesus was entering Jerusalem as King David did—a conquering hero of enemies, who would take on Roman steel with Jewish bows and arrows and of course Davidic sling shots which once felled mighty Goliath. The Jews didn’t “get it”. We’re still trying to “get it” 2000 years later.

And that’s of course why there was a sadness within Jesus himself underlying his triumphal entry. What the crowds thought they “got” was that they had found someone who was willing to take on mighty Rome. They were sick and tired of Roman rule in their country and many were just waiting for God to destroy the arrogant Caesar.

But what they didn’t get, MF, was Jesus radically different understanding of the nature and purpose of power. The crowds were quite willing to take up arms if Jesus was himself the anointed one, whom God was sending as the new king. But had Jesus resorted to war, MF, the new Kingdom would only have been Caesar’s Kingdom in different clothing.

It was very puzzling for the crowds when, in the midst of their shouts of “Hosanna,” Jesus stopped, overlooked Jerusalem and wept. Btw, literally translated, the word Jerusalem means City of Peace. Jesus says: Even you, City of Peace, don’t recognize this day the things that make for peace!

Did Jesus weep, because he foresaw the terrible destructive end that was to come upon Jerusalem 40 years later, and with it the end of Israel, when Nero, the new Caesar, levelled the city, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, killed 100,000 Jews and sent another 100,000 to Rome in chains, and the remainder, the diaspora, fled to European lands for safety.

Finally, 2000 years later, in 1947, tiny Israel was raised from the dead. And now, 75 years later, 2022, the city of peace, Jerusalem, is today still a microcosm of a global strife and violence. Yes, Jerusalem is the foundation stone to the 3 major monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And yes, Jerusalem has served as the Capital City of Israel since 1980. But, like many other world capitals, Jerusalem still cannot recognize the things which make for peace.

We humans still have a taste for Empires, don’t we? Certainly Putin does! Power for Putin is domination by the use of violence and military force. It is still used, more often than not, to perpetuate privilege and the institutions which serve this privilege, which btw includes the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia, in which Putin is Primary Member #One. And in the midst of this kind of power and domination, whether by Jerusalem or Rome or Moscow, Jesus wept and still does, because we do not know what makes for peace.

If we did, then the 2.2 billion global Christians could refuse to take up arms, go to war and kill other humans also made in God’s image. Putin’s army of 200,000 which invaded Ukraine 5 weeks ago—these soldiers are all Christians and members of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia, which is the state church in which everyone is an automatic member.

And then, if the 1.8 billion global Muslims did the same—given the fact that the word Islam translated means Peace —if Muslims and Christians laid down their arms went to war no more, then there would be peace on earth. While I realize that will not happen, it still could, if Christians and Muslims were committed to Jesus’ espoused values of non-violence and peace. Moslems and Christians need to have the courage to be pacifists and peacemakers, who like Jesus, their prophet and Saviour, is loving, merciful and non-violent.

Jesus wept because the crowds which cheered him on as their potential King, did not recognize that he was the Prince of Peace. They wanted a warrior-king in the line of David who eliminated Israel’s enemies. But, when it became clear that the Kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed had no place for war and the overthrow of emperors, their cheers turned to jeers in a few days. Jesus wept because he knew that no one—himself included— could wear a crown without going to the cross. Why? Because Crown & Cross belong together!

MF, 2000 years later, we must still choose between the kingdom belonging to Caesar and the one belonging to God. Like oil and water, they do not mix well, recognizing that none of us—not one of us—has the ability to bring about peace on a global scale, including peace to Ukraine and Putin.

But what we can do is examine our own relationship with power—how we use power to control others, make them do what we want, or how we use power to reject others. If we say Christ reigns in our hearts, but then use our power to bully, abuse and hurt others, then we’re only fooling ourselves about being Christians. If we don’t treat others as having worth before God, as we believe we have worth, then we only deceive ourselves and our Christianity is a pretence.

MF, like Jesus, sometimes we need to suffer with others in order for them to see that we care for them enough to help them. I think of German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was teaching in NY when WWII was raging, but returned to Germany to be with and suffer with his people. Or I think of Pres Vladymyer Zelenksy who was offered asylum in the US, but rightly chose to stay and suffer with his people. Otherwise, he’d never be able to rebuild Ukraine with them.

MF, on this Palm Sunday, Jesus stayed the course of pain and suffering for the world—stayed the course of unity with his friends and followers, even including his detractors and enemies. When we live in solidarity with the world’s pain—and do not spend our lives running from necessary suffering, as so many today do—then we, like Jesus, will also encounter various forms of crucifixion—a term I do not use lightly!

Pain is physical distress—sometimes very intense. But suffering comes from our resistance, denial, and sense of injustice or wrongness about that pain—a situation very true for me. This is the core meaning of suffering on one level or another, MF, and we all learn it the hard way—don’t we? The cross was Jesus’ voluntary acceptance of undeserved suffering as an act of total solidarity with the pain of the world. Reflecting on this mystery of love can change our lives! Believe me!

MF, there is an inherent negative resistance from all of us when we are suffering, which is the necessary dying that the soul must walk through to go higher, farther, deeper or even longer. The saints called this dying the dark night of the soul. And because our society has few or no spiritual skills to deal with our personal and collective pain, we resort to pills, addictions and distractions to get us through—all of which does not bode well for the survival of global humanity.

We need to hold our suffering and pain, negativity and self-doubt with integrity and not simply take the easy route. Integrity is a willingness to hold the hard side of situations, instead of just reacting against them, denying them, or projecting our anxiety elsewhere. Integrity is another name for faith. Without the inner discipline of faith, most lives end in negativity, blaming, or cynicism, without even knowing it.

MF, think of the war in Ukraine. The war is not simply another news item we intellectually digest; nor is it simply images, however disturbing, we see on TV. I mean, how can we not feel shock or rage at what’s happening to the people of Ukraine—some 44 million? How can we watch their pain and suffering unfold in real time and from our unfair distance?  How can we not feel powerless before such manifest evil?

In loving solidarity with Ukrainians, the best we can do right now is to bear what is ours to share: the unjust weight of war and death—Ukrainian and Russian—because Jesus died for both. But it is the people of Ukraine, MF, who have so much to teach us and model for us, but also to teach and model for Russians and for the entire world.

MF, Jesus paid the price for all such reconciliation. He invites us to do the same and do so wholeheartedly.

That’s the good news for us this morning and for the rest of our lives. AMEN

 

My son. You’re always with me. Everything I have is yours. But we must celebrate because your brother was lost and now he’s found. He was dead, but now he’s alive. (v.31)

Dear Friends. A few Sundays ago, I said that any spiritual movement around for more than a decade is going to have to institutionalize, or it will die. That’s why 1stC Christianity which began as a movement called The Way, eventually became the church in the 2ndC and institutionalized by Emperor Constantine in the 4thC as the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Thereafter he promptly convened the Council of Nicaea which wrote the Nicene Creed. Btw, it was during Constantine’s reign that Dec. 25th was chosen as the date to celebrate Christ’s birthday and when Christmas started.

And, as I’ve said many times before, Jesus didn’t begin the religion we call Christianity. His disciples and apostles did that in the generations which followed. Jesus was born a Jew and died one. He believed in Judaism, which was an institutional form of the faith handed down from Abraham 1,500 years earlier. And, if you didn’t already know, Abraham was the founding father not only of Judaism, but also the father of the faith to Christians and Moslems.

In addition to being the Saviour, Jesus was also a reformer, who intended to reform Judaism. His Sermon on the Mount is filled with reform. You heard it was said of old … but I say to you. Trouble is, his Reform Movement could not be accommodated nor incorporated within the religious institution of Judaism, whose laws, by that time, were written in stone. Consequently, it came as no surprise that Jesus was killed, to silence his impact on Judaism and his contemporaries.

Today’s parable from Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is another attempt by Jesus to reform the image people had of God—from one who rewards and punishes, depending on your behaviour, to one who loves and forgives. That’s why this parable is not about one prodigal son, but two—both of whom stray from the same Father—the one father who loves both sons and invites them to celebrate with a feast.

Trouble is, each son responds differently to the father, which is why the parable is about 2 Religions, 2 Sons & 1 Father.

First, we’ve got the religion represented by the elder son. He’s been a good son and respectable Jew all his life. His assigned role is to inherit the farm, take care of his aging parents, and do his ancestry proud. The elder son is obedient, dutiful, moral and always seeks to please his father. One day, he expects to be rewarded with the farm and the material prosperity that will also follow.

Why does he expect this wealth and inheritance? Because as a Jew, he believes God rewards the faithful in this life, while in the next life, the son expects to be compensated with eternal life – a kind of badge of honour for those who have made the necessary sacrifices on earth—not too dissimilar from what many Christians still believe today.

MF, we could call this conformist religion. A full 80% of all religions in the world, including Christianity, are conformist, which is the religion of the elder brother. In his view, religion is associated with an unchanging moral order: a simple right and wrong, black and white, with no middle grey. Fathers on earth and in heaven exist to sustain this religion with rewards and punishments meted out in this life; while in the next, the good rest in Abraham’s bosom; the evil are cast into the fiery flames of perdition. Period. End of story.

The trouble is: The father has forgotten the rules–carefully handed down through generations. When the father should be punishing the younger son for squandering his share of the inheritance, the father is forgiving him. When the father should be casting him out as unworthy to carry the family name, the father is throwing him a party, to which even the older son is invited. In short, the father has turned the motives of reward and punishment completely upside down!

MF, now don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with conformist religion. Historically, it emerged in response to the life conditions created by the law of the jungle, which says that the spoils go to the strongest, who take what they want, when they want it, because they want it. Even today, where dictators and autocrats, warlords and drug dealers rule—Saudi Arabia, Mexico, China and Russia immediately come to mind—conformist religion would be an enormous improvement, establishing a moral order where none exist. So eg, Putin and his oligarchs can imprison and eliminate dissenters at a whim, or even invade countries, like Ukraine, to further their dreams of expansion and empire building.

Now, the downside of conformist religion is evident in today’s parable by the attitude of the elder brother, which is the tendency to uphold the moral order at all costs. So, when the younger brother finally returns home, having blown the father’s inheritance in riotous living with prostitutes and is received with open arms by the father—well, the elder brother is exceedingly resentful. He’s out dutifully working in the fields, when his debauched brother returns. But when he hears there’s going to be a party and that they’ve rolled out the barrel and the red carpet for him and killed the fatted calf to boot…well, big brother is most upset.  The younger brother must be punished—not rewarded.

Why? Because in conformist religion, rewards are only reserved for the faithful! Meanwhile, resentment by conformists against people like the younger son is evident at many levels. Eg, the violence of excluding sinners—and there are a lot of sinners of all stripes and streaks to exclude: heretics and hypocrites, heathen and homosexuals, prostitutes and adulterers—all of whom are to be stoned, if you take the Holiness Code of Leviticus at face value. You can also refuse to have anything to do with such people; or on a community level you can shun such folks. The conformist belief that all these sinners will end up in hell—is a shunning on the level of eternity, you see!

At the other extreme is physical violence, where you end up with the worst of the Taliban or the Islamic state, where you find Islamic fundamentalists executing young women for having been the victims of rape. When religion is all about being good, and you’ve spent your life trying to measure up, just to receive the reward of the faithful, compassion gives way to judgment and mercy gives way to righteous violence.

The elder son, you see, embodies the regressive tendencies of conformist religion, including the Church through the centuries, whether it was violence and death to slaves, homosexuals or especially Jews. The elder brother cannot accept his brother, because it goes against his religion!

You know, it’s not too dissimilar for many Christians who cannot except others, believing it’s against their religion.

Well MF, notice that in the prelude to the parable, vs 1-3, Luke makes it quite clear that Jesus is not a conformist. He is accused of being a wine bibber and drunkard, a sinner who consorts with other sinners—meaning, Jesus is impure. He’s like the prodigal son who is being rejected by elder son, who represents Judaism. This is a terrible shock to conformists, because if Jesus were among us today, he’d probably be hanging out with beggars and prostitutes, marginalized and social outcasts, including homosexuals, who are judged by many as gross sinners on their way to hell in a h/b.

So MF, if you’re still with me … If the elder son represents the institutional form of religion, we know as the church, which the average person in the street turns his nose up at, what represents the religion of the younger son?

Well, it could be a kind of individual spirituality, as represented by the personal and dynamic relationship between the younger son and his father. His religion could still be in a movement stage—a pre-institutional stage characterized by the moment when the son’s humility meets the father’s unconditional love—a kind of dynamic God moment, if you will, in which the younger son finally realizes there’s nothing he could do to prevent his father from loving him.

The younger son, you see, experiences something which the elder son rejects. It is the unconditional love of their father. Conformist religion believes in God’s love, to be sure, but believes that it’s a reward for behaving yourself. Pre-institutional religion, movement religion, reformist religion, spiritual religion—call it what you will—is about experiencingGod’s love and discovering it’s not a reward – it’s just God’s nature—the way God is.

Unlike creeds which believe something about God to be true, faith experiences the truth that we’re all held in God’s love, especially in our darkest moments. It’s like the air we breathe. The elder brother was held in the same love. It’s just that he didn’t experience it, because he believed he had to earn his father’s love by being dutiful and responsible. It’s the big difference between what he believed about his father, and what the younger son experienced with his father.

I’ve said it many times: MF, there are only two kinds of religion: One believes,God will love me if I change. The other believes, God loves me so that I can change. The first is the conformist religion of the older brother and is most common and has often been substituted for the second. The second is the religion of the younger brother and flows from a personally profound experience of the spiritual indwelling of God’s love. Ideas inform, but love transforms. What we believe about God in our creeds, eg, is important; but only real faith is in God. The first is intellectual and conformist, believing this, that and the other about God. The other is transformational and spiritual, which is a daily trusting in God. The one is institutional; the other is a movement, an existential moment between God and us.

In real life, it’s not easy to see the difference between each son: the religious/conformist type and spiritual/existential type are both good people. They both do acts of loving kindness, help out the church, volunteer at the local soup kitchen, etc. It’s not the behaviour that distinguishes them; it’s their attitude, the spirit with which they do their tasks! One does it from within an intellectualized institutional religion; the other from an existential movement of the spirit.

Well MF, we all have a hidden elder brother and younger brother, who are perhaps warring with each other. But, if the elder brother represents 80% of the world’s religions, including Christianity, then our greatest hope for humanity lies in his future growth & transformation.

Well MF, 1 page to go. My last thought in 3 paragraphs.

The Church needs to come to us from the future and not just the past. While Jesus lived his life in Palestine, I’m always hopeful that the Church will see its Copernican Moment, when it decides that its center is no longer located in white Anglo-Saxon Europe; nor is its Roman version willing to endure another 2,000 years of mandatory clergy celibacy. I also hope against hope that the spirituality of the younger son will one day reform the conformist religion of the elder son.

The gospel always wants to free itself from the places where it gets stuck and embedded in narrow, cultural structures and institutions. We must all take steps to help free the gospel and then find our way to a new-found life of the spirit. We need to allow the Church to become a movement again. Jesus says if we’re not gathering, then we’re scattering. We either pull people in or push people out.

MF, the disciples didn’t set out to create a uniform institution, where each tribe defends against another, which is why the church erred big time when, against Jesus’ own example, it fostered separateness—a divide and conquer mentality which worked for centuries. Nor did the disciples pass down a fully memorized set of beliefs. Rather, they modelled a spiritual and loving way of life, as Jesus did. MF, that’s the road less travelled we journey with Jesus. It’s our destiny.

That’s the good new for this morning and for the rest of our lives. Amen.

Leave it for one more year. I’ll dig and add manure. But if the tree bears no figs next year, then you can cut it down. (v8-9)

This morning MF I’m thinking about change in the church and why so many resist it, given Jesus’ parable today about the fig tree. Let me begin with a brief summary as to what often happens to our religious institutions, once they lose their original purpose.

The pattern is usually and often predictable. Founders of denominations, churches and congregations are typically generous, visionary, bold, and creative, but the folks who carry on the work often become the opposite: constricted, change-averse, nostalgic, fearful, obsessed with boundaries, turf battles and, o/c, money.

Instead of greeting the world with open arms as their founders did, their successors stand guard, sometimes with clenched fists. Instead of empowering others, they hoard power. Instead of defying tradition and unleashing vision and imagination, they impose stiff ritual and refuse to think outside the box. MF, a religion which cuts itself off from the revolutionary examples of its founders, be it Jesus, Martin Luther or Mahatma Gandhi, often become little more than an institution existing only for itself.

MF, you may know that many great movements and religions in history have started with a single human being. Abraham, Jesus, Mohammed, Luther come to mind. If a person says something full of life that names reality well, the message often moves to the second stage of becoming a movementThat’s the period of greatest energy. Christianity was at one of its most energetic periods during the 1st and 2nd centuries as the movement called The Way, which began as a sect of Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah. But over decades and the centuries which followed, The Way became the Gentile institution we know as the Church and in 333 AD, Emperor Constantine decreed the church to be the state sanctioned religion of the Holy Roman Empire.

Trouble is: What was first very exciting, creative, and risky, became institutionalized—became written in stone—meaning institutions are very difficult to change—the RCC being a case in point. But institutional cracks developed and the first great schism happened in 1054, between what was called the Latin West in Rome and the Greek East in Constantinople. The break occurred over religious and political differences. 500 years later, the Protestant Reformation under Martin Luther broke with Rome over theological and openly practical conflicts. All of which resulted in 3 large Christian churches, each an institution unto itself, each unwilling to yield to the other, each claiming God was on their side.

Historically, this may all be very predictable and understandable, but the institutional stage of the church has been with us for almost 2 millennia. While the institution is necessarily a less-alive manifestation of its original Jesus’ movement, it’s still surprising for those who see church as an end unto itself, instead of the means for Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom.

Trouble is MF: Institutions simply have limited capacities and we cannot make the church into something more than it is—an almost closed system operating within itself. It’s often self-serving and certainly it’s almost impossible to take risks for the kind of values Jesus espoused in his Sermon on the Mt, like the love of enemies. We’ve jumped over the human and movement stages and church has become what’s been called God’s frozen people. In this frozen state, the institution holds onto a memory of what was alive 2,000 years ago—a great adventure with Jesus.

MF, the secret to keeping the adventure alive, is to keep in touch with the human and spiritual within us, to keep in touch with Jesus’ way and movement in us, to keep in touch with how we believe and not simply what we believe—and do all this without being naïve about the necessity of the institutional church. We need a living faith in God and not simply cling to our stone-like structures and rules. And that’s particularly true of those who love institutions—especially most clergy: pastors, priests and popes who sit in their ivory towers.

But we must be honest, MF. Our love for the church must not blind us to our love of God and neighbour, and that our love must be translated into action for neighbour, whether friend or enemy. Why? Not just because Jesus said so, but he said so because all are God’s children, whether we know it or even acknowledge it.

Well MF, page 4 and it’s time to get to today’s gospel from Luke about a fig tree which is not bearing fruit and so the owner tells the gardener to cut it down, right then and there. The tree is a waste of valuable space. It’s supposed to produce figs—what fig trees do best. But not a fig in sight after 3 yrs. So, why keep it? says the owner. Cut it down! Get rid of it!

MF, this parable is often applied to the Church, which after 2 millennia, is on a serious global decline, not only in terms of membership and worship participation, but in a profound lack of credibility and planetary vision. The sins of the church are many and easily catalogued: centuries of political and military alliances with the blood of millions on its hands, its pedophilia and sexual transgressions, not to mention the endless sins of its clergy. For many, it’s well past time to cut the church down.

No wonder so many church folks today wear out, burn out, and drop out. No wonder more and more of us who are Christians by birth, by choice, or both, find ourselves shaking our heads in dismay, asking: What happened to Christianity and the Church? What happened to Jesus and his message? No wonder the church is on life-support and not removeable any time soon!

Our generation may well be characterized by the battle cry, “Cut it down”. Who needs superstitious mumbo jumbo? Who needs church and clergy telling us what to believe, especially when science shows religious beliefs to be castles in the sky? Who needs a Bible written from a pre-modern consciousness, which advocates violence—certainly in the OT, filled with codes of behaviour which stone adulterers, prostitutes, homosexuals and other evil doers? Who needs a Bible which discriminates against minorities, promotes the status quo of slavery and dictators, and that often portrays God as a Judge and Executioner, even of innocent children? Who needs a church filled with hypocrites! And in spite of centuries of preaching a God of love, more wars have taken place in the name of God and Church than any other single cause.

Now, some well-meaning folks have described the Church as a kind of well-oiled machine. That would be great, I guess, if it was a Mercedes, an Audi or BMW. But it may be a Russian Lada or a Yugoslavian Yugo or a GM Edsel, where the oil is running low and the motor has run down. With the rise of modern science, the world became the dominant metaphor of the modern era, while the Church has been turtle-like to adapt to the 21stC.

So, is the church “stuck in a rut,” and if so, how can it find its way to a new future? I mean, Jesus lived with imagination, and he preached with courage. “Imagine a small mustard seed,” he said. “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” He aimed to instill imagination in his disciples so they could think the unthinkable and do the incredible. Similarly, it is helpful to imagine the Church in a new way that enkindles us to think the unthinkable and do the incredible.

Well MF, I’m sure you get the picture. While this is my assessment, I also think that church restructuring—increased efforts in evangelism, outreach and stewardship, will not solve all the problems—however necessary these efforts today are!

The question isn’t: How will we get more folks to church? But how will we get “church” into the membership? How can members BE the church, while also GO to church? How can we be the worshipping, praising, praying, tithing Church and still be committed to a global vision of the Gospel? How can we take our faith seriously—faith which is based on relationships—with God and with one another? After all, real faith is not based on roles or duties, but bonds of friendship, sisterhood, brotherhood, respect, love, forgiveness and justice. Can we activate these values, so that our lives become deeper and richer, more alive and creative?

Or, will we content ourselves with merely managing our assets in order to just survive? If so, the figless church will be cut down, not so much by an external enemy, but by the apathy within.

So, what is the church, really? I’ve always understood the church as being a community with a shared story in our scriptures, which binds us together. Church is about weaving relationships together so that life for all of us is more deeply rooted in Love. Church needs to be more than friendly. It needs to cultivate friends.

Church is about working together to build a world that acts and advocates for the common good. Church needs to be peacemakers and peacekeepers. We need to be protectors, prophets, thinkers, and dreamers who gather together to celebrate our heritage as God’s children, no matter our colour or creed, ethnic or national heritage, gender or sexual identity. We need to shape our world for good and live meaningful lives. We need to be fully human.

We have an opportunity in this moment of great global peril and transformation. We can approach this time of violence and war, so far contained to Ukraine, as survivors, desperately clinging to our institutional structures and ways of being. Or we can see ourselves as pioneers, reaching out to others to discover new ways to live faith-filled lives. The decline of the church gives us the chance to let go of what might hold us back from that adventure.

After all, MF, nothing today will be the same ten years from now. We need to build the kind of faith movement we want to see 20-50 years from now. But to do that, we need a continuous pile of manure around the fig tree, so that the roots of the Church will sink down deep and strike out far in order to nourish us, especially Sunday mornings! After all, in the final analysis, we all want to save the fig tree and trust the Gardener, who is God.

Well MF, over the course of my life, I have discovered that, in wanting to save the fig tree, I myself am a lot like a tree which clings fiercely to its leaves. I suspect a lot of us are. We clutch our camouflage—the person we present to others and the world, to our own selves and even to God. We, too, are unwilling to shed our false selves and let go, to live vulnerably and authentically.

The camouflage of our leaves become everything, you see, such that we forget about the fruit we’re supposed to produce. Our leaves become everything. They are our busyness and productivity, our drive and efficiency, our achievement and success. We desperately cling to this perception of ourselves, which we’ve meticulously crafted over the years. But the Gardener, who, turns out, is God, want to do some pruning, you see—pruning you and me, which is also what Jesus’ parable of the fig tree is about.

Back at the Guildwood house where Sherry & I lived for some 13-14 years, there was a Japanese Maple tree in the front yard, which we planted back in the spring of 2009. It was a rather beautiful and unique maple, because it was a combination of dee red and green leaves, which I trimmed and pruned carefully every year, as well as fertilized and watered regularly.

But the secret to the longevity and beauty of this particular maple was that I cut not only dead branches and foliage, but often a number of perfectly healthy branches which detracted from the beauty inherent in the tree’s essential structure. This kind of pruning allowed Sherry and I to see through the treefrom inside our living room windows—to see the forest across the street; but also to see through the tree up into the blue sky. All of which created a spaciousness and letting light into our living room, while also enjoying the deep red and green of its leaves. This kind of trimming turned that Japanese Maple inside out, so to speak, revealing its inherent beauty.

MF, the truth is, God does not wish for the church to be cut down. Nor does she wish for you and I—the beautiful trees that we are—to stand stubborn, cloaked in some leafy façade of our own making, our truest, most authentic selves obscured beneath a tangled bramble of false security.

Rather, God desires us to live something like this Japanese maple, or like the fig tree in the parable which God, the Gardener, rejuvenated. Likewise, God wants our true inner selves to be revealed and flourish, our true self front and center, secure and thriving. God yearns for us to live wholeheartedly and truthfully as the unique, beautiful, beloved individuals she created us to be.

Last page. Last paragraph. Last thought: Most of all, God’s deepest desire is for us to know God, to root our whole selves in God like a tree rooted by a stream, and to know God’s deep, abiding love for us. MF, God invites us into intimate relationship with him, as Father and Mother, so that we may live more compassionately and intimately with those around us. We are the trees through which we and others can see God.

That’s the good news for us this morning, MF, and for the rest of our lives. AMEN.

Jerusalem! Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone the messengers God sends you. Lk 13:34

 Dear Friends. The readings from Luke these last 2 months have been tough on preachers and parishioners alike! Last Sunday eg, Jesus modeled the rejection of temptations to more material possessions, power, land, riches and the very testing of God. On Ash Wed Jesus told us that Lent is about reducing our intake of material and monetary goods. Prior, Jesus told us to love and pray for our enemies, to be good to them and bless them. But does that include Putin and his army of 200,000 soldiers waging war in the Ukraine, we rightly ask? What does loving enemies even mean?

This morning, Jesus tells his 1stC listeners that Jerusalem has been killing the prophets God sends. After two millennia, of course we understand that Jesus is also among the prophets God sends–prophets which synagogues and churches have rejected and even murdered. MF, trace the history of prophets from Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi to the Protestant reformers, to Thomas Moore and Joan of Arc—all the way back to John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah and Jesus—all prophets who were persecuted, rejected and many killed.

MF, the church and the House of Israel have a long history of killing prophets. We’ve beaten and stoned them, burned them at the stake, shot or hung them. Nowadays, we’re of course too civilized for that. So we’ve chased them out of our churches, given them the silent treatment or thunderous rejections. Why is that?

Well MF, prophets aren’t exactly on Dave Letterman’s former Top Ten list of Most Likeable Folks. Very few people actually like them. After all, prophets disturb the status quo and spot the often large gap between what we believe and how we behave. Prophets mark the distance between what we do and what God expects. Prophets interpret Scripture to challenge those who always think they’re right. Now, prophets aren’t fortune tellers, but they’ve got an uncanny eye for the signs of the times. They’re acutely aware of the political, social, economic and religious situation of their time and so can see more clearly where it is all heading.

Reading the signs of the time would have been an integral part of Jesus’ spirituality. Like many Hebrew prophets before him, Jesus grasped that it was only a matter of time before Rome felt sufficiently provoked to attack and destroy tiny Israel. For the Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple would mean the end of their worship, culture and nation. Jesus’ principal concern was for the people, especially the poor and oppressed, the powerless and those victimized by the Judaic religious leaders.

Well MF, we all know how boldly and radically Jesus spoke out against the assumptions and practices of the religious establishment of his time. Prophetically, he turned their world upside down. The conflict which this created became so intense that in the end they killed him to keep him quiet. Any attempt to speak truth to power as Jesus did, meant facing certain death.

Today MF, modern-day prophets include the Black Lives Matter movement and that’s because their prophets raise the issues of justice for Black People, like George Floyd and the hundreds of black folks who preceded and followed him in torture and death. Prophets also include Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of the Ukraine, who instead of fleeing his country to save his own neck, has remained in the capital to support his people, bring Russia to account and prod Nato to come to Ukraine’s survival. On Mar 04, after the largest nuclear facility in Europe was struck, Zelenskyy said this: The end of the world has arrived. And if Ukraine is no more, then Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania will be next.

Alexi Navalny is another prophet, who was poisoned by the KGB in 2020, but now, from his Moscow prison, he urges his fellow Russians to continue protesting Putin’s brutal war. I quote:

Let us not become a nation of frightened silent people—cowards who pretend not to notice the aggressive war against Ukraine unleashed by our obviously insane czar … Demonstrate in Russia, Belarus or on the other side of the planet. From every main city square, protest on weekdays, weekends, and holidays….

Everything has a price, and now, in the spring of 2022, we must pay this price. There’s no one to do it for us … Let us not simply be against the war. Let us show up in the hundreds of thousands and millions. We cannot all be imprisoned. Putin will take notice and if there are enough of us, the war will stop.

Well MF, today’s prophets confront the issues of today: war and its killing fields, death and destruction, skin color and justice, religion and politics, economics, climate change and morality. Prophets like Alexei Navalny, who call for non-violent protest, do so not merely as a tactic to help correct the misdirection of issues and stop brutal tyrants, but for them, non-violence is first a matter of the heart.

The non-violent protest of prophets, including Jesus–well, they would find the ability and willingness not only to suffer for justice, but go to prison for the sake of peace and for the real possibility of stopping war and injustice. MF, the tens of thousands around the world—including Russians—who have protested against Putin, know better than most what such protests can achieve.

Prophets know that no one can seek peace and truth, while at the same time, employ violence and war to combat violence and war. Jesus taught that only the practice of non-violence and love of neighbour, friend and foe, is the only spiritual truth which can overcome the evil of violence, including the dropping of the A bomb. Non-violence can of course always be preached by anyone. But for non-violence to work, it must be practiced which Jesus modelled.

The fact is: Jesus’ love of neighbour, friend and enemy alike, began with prayer, solitude and fasting. By renouncing violence and power—even rejecting Satan’s temptation to test God to achieve immediate results–Jesus discovered that the spiritual truth of non-violence was irresistible and all-pervasive for him. MF, why else would Jesus preach at length in his Sermon on the Mount the need to love enemies? Why else is non-violence against enemies and friends alike at the forefront in his battle against violence?

In order to seek God’s Kingdom first, for Jesus it meant a complete break with the use of violence and killing. And such a break, MF, was not a sign of weakness for Jesus, but a sign of strength. In fact, from Jesus’ point of view, there is no such thing as defeat for the person of non-violence. Why? Because when one accepts love and non-violence internally, then the external hate and violence has already been defeated, you see, and the doors of life have sprung open as they did for Jesus, time and again.

Love is one reality the atom bomb cannot destroy. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans made it abundantly clear, for all the world to see, what war is really all about: the mass pursuit of death. Truth and non-violence, MF, need to be the practiced not only by individuals, but by nations and their citizens, who together, in the tens of millions, alone can stop a Hitler, a Stalin or a Putin. So MF, can Putin be stopped?

Well MF, like me, you’ve been glued to the tube. You know that  Putin isn’t just destroying Ukraine, but two nations, condemning Russians to an isolation they didn’t choose. There are many Russians who’ve been horrified, shocked and numbed by Putin’s wanton aggression. Some or many believed Putin when he said he wouldn’t invade Ukraine. There are even players in the Kremlin inner circle who thought they understood Putin’s red lines, but now that trust is blown and they fear he has no limits at all.

What makes Putin’s actions all the more galling is how, in Trumpian fashion, he executed his Ukrainian plot in plain sight. Distracting with one hand, transfixing attention on diplomacy, even while insisting falsely that his 200,000 massed troops were carrying out exercises on Ukraine’s borders. Ordinary Muscovites didn’t even flinch as he perpetrated this betrayal by marching the nation to war on a cocktail of carefully stewed grievances.

The fact is Putin spent years building a false narrative along with Russia which he plans to morph into the likes of the former Soviet Empire. The wishes that he was denied, such as NATO withdrawing to 1997 lines or barring Ukraine from membership, was the West’s fault, he claimed. But if Putin did believe Russia’s security was threatened, and that the modern western world was pitted against him, the truth is that he never adjusted to the changing dynamics of the 21st century.

You may recall how the world was full of hope when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and how Gorbachev kindled Petrostroika and suddenly the Soviet Empire collapsed. But then Gorby was overthrown by a coup and eventually Putin, a KGBman, threaded his way to power at the dawn of the 3rd millennium, and the hope in a new Russia collapsed. Eventually, Putin even found an ally in Donald Trump—itching for the US to pull out of Nato which would have left Putin with an unobstructed path to Soviet expansion.

So MF, here we are 3 weeks into Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. And although the war has revealed cracks in Putin’s armour, he has tapped into nationalism, embraced imperial nostalgia and the conservatism of the Russian Orthodox Church which has completely supported Putin and his corruption. He has stoked Soviet-era suspicions of westerners and stifled dissent. None of this was done to make Russia a better place in which to live—rather, to make it easier for him to rule. For Putin, the breakup of the Soviet Union was a national disaster and one that he intends to right. And although Putin came to power pledging to eradicate corruption, in reality it has only spiraled under his iron-fisted rule.

Putin has had laws made to his order. And like many a strongman before him—Stalin and Hitler come to mind—Putin is ruthlessly unleashing the compliant and complicit state apparatus that he himself built, to obediently enforce them. In short, his every wish is readily executed. Yet, as more Ukrainian cities crumble under Russian bombardment, at home riot-ready police enforce Putin’s Orwellian writ to crush any sympathy for their neighbors. Across Russia, 1,000 protesters a day are being arrested.

There is a burning rage, MF, when you see what’s happening in both Ukraine and Russia, knowing thousands of innocents suffer and die, and you find your voice strangled and struggling to shout against the obvious concocted insanity of Putin’s justification for the war. Each morally repugnant outrageous act witnessed, is another coal to that internal fire. Each freezing evening watching protesters arrested for daring to question Putin’s war, daring to express their own views, turns chill to raging flame and fire.

A man like Putin, a psychopath whose feelings are colder than steel, cannot endure a thriving democracy like Ukraine at his borders. This war in Ukraine is the crucible of Putin’s challenge to democracy, where freedom meets brute force and cynical laws. Putin has shaped the Russian state entirely in his image, a move that will be difficult to right at best. The majority are cowed, the complicit in too deep to reverse their actions, his sanctioned cronies and oligarchs warned to swallow their anger and take their losses for the team like true patriots.

Putin has sown a very bitter harvest, with international condemnation reinforcing his tropes, strengthening his hand by silencing the unwilling. Independent media, on life support since the KGB poisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny 2 years ago, as I mentioned earlier, is suddenly suffocating under harsh new media laws suffocating any and all criticism, punishable with up to 15 years in prison.

Putin’s so called “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine looks like all his previous wars: Syria, Chechnya and Georgia. Lives crushed cities blindly smashed by long-range rockets and artillery shells. It’s impossible to know where Putin’s rage will end—in Ukraine or beyond. Putin insists Ukraine is not even a real country, and in fact part of Russia, but will he stop even if he conquers it? Or is NATO, as he claims, the real problem, suggesting he could stop at the Western military alliance’s border? Will there be a new Iron Curtain or will World War III erupt like the last one did — from the conniving calculating desires of just one, single, solitary man?

Part of the pain of seeing all this is knowing that so much of Russia’s vast wealth of history, intellect and resources lies untapped. Meanwhile, one man and his underlings are destroying the home of the brave and the free—no, not USA, but Ukraine and its people. Personally, MF, I need no further evidence of an emperor unchallenged in his domain.

But—and here’s the point MF—the emperor has finally been unmasked. He stands without clothing, naked, before the world to see—at least for those who have eyes to see. He is poised to inflict a multitude of pain and suffering, not known in Europe since WWII. This is Putin’s War, and perhaps if the world can understand and make this distinction clear, then Navalny will be right in his prophetic words: Putin will take notice and if there are enough of us protesting—in the millions–then the war will stop.

This is our prayer, MF AMEN

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he was tempted by the Devil for 40 days. Lk 4:1-2a

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 of integrity and the deepening of integrity. Lent, MF, puts us on a collision course with the messages we receive from our culture about what integrity means. Jesus applies the mathematics of subtraction to make life more simple—by subtracting rather than adding to get down to the basics of life.

Our consumer culture, on the other hand, advocates addition—the accumulation of more stuff, as if that adds integrity to our lives. Our culture, you see, operates on the fear of insufficiency: fear that we don’t have enough, conveniently forgetting that psychologically speaking, the more we have, the more we want. It’s a vicious circle which never ends. Even churches are caught up in the brutal cycle of insufficiency, where money always seems to be in short supply.

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, inside, MF, when we finally lay aside our striving for success and status, power and wealth, together with all the stuff we’ve accumulated and carry like a milestone around our necks?

To follow Jesus, MF, is to enter into a genuine period of integrity and discernment. It’s a time of learning to distinguish between the voice of God’s Spirit within us and the voice of our sometimes unhealthy egos. It’s a time of straining to hear God in the midst of our culture of entitlement and accumulation. Lent is an urgent time to re-establish limits—to get our physical, mental and spiritual bearings. Otherwise, we’ll be lost and not know even 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: it is the theme of limits. On this First Sunday of Lent, we examine our lives through the lens of limits and limitations, and we do so by examining Jesus who specifically models constraints and 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. In this most modern age of all ages, humanity has made the most amazing advances, especially in technology, medicine and science in which not even space is a human limit, given the cost of a flight to the edge of space offered by Jeff Bezos or Elan Musk for a cool quarter million. But of course, there’s a shadow-side to this, as there is to almost everything!

Our refusal to accept 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 animals—especially endangered ones—cre-ating unconscionable gaps between 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’ve eaten the apple of “no-limit living,” and, in the process, we’ve become purveyors of death. Btw, I’ve always recommended that, instead of eating the apple, Adam & Eve should have had BBQ snake for supper. Would have saved them, the world and you & me, a lot of trouble.

Jesus’ temptation narrative carries this theme of no-limits forward and without pretence. A shadowy figure is part of the story, 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. Wow! Satan in Red Prada! How do like them apples?

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. Certainly, that’s what all the ads tell us: how well we deserve this, that and the other.

Now, in today’s gospel, this time from Luke, we know that Jesus refused to give in to temptation. He models a form of life and living which does not yield to enticement and entitlement. Rather, Jesus shows us that there are be limits and limitations in this life.

I don’t know about you, but when most Christians think of Jesus, they imagine him as being without limits. After all, he’s God’s Son. He knows everything and can do everything and anything! A Jesus without limits, who invites us to an abundant life without limits. Do we believe that’s true? Well, that’s what the televangelists tell us.

But as you suspect: I don’t buy that version of Jesus. Never have! Never will. And if you want to test the orthodoxy of my liberal progressive theology, remember when the disciples asked Jesus when the world would end? Remember his answer? Only the Father in Heaven knows! Well MF, what else does Jesus not know?

As much as we might like to think of Jesus as a kind of superman in a white robe, leaping tall buildings in a single bound—that kind of Jesus diminishes his humanity! Why? Because in real life, Jesus struggled with limits and limitations! He strove & strained mightily against them! Jesus’ wilderness temptations, which came from within him, as it does within us—those temptations are exactly the kind of inducement to life without limits Jesus faced every day. Luke says that the Devil left Jesus for only a while, meaning, the temptations to limitlessness continued throughout his life.

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

So, 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 all now and pay later!

MF, do you recognize this voice? It’s in the air we breathe, surrounding us everywhere and always. You can have the Tag Hauser watch, the latest BMW or SUV, a second house or cottage by the lake. You can have the wrinkle free skin and the silky-smooth hair of celebrities. You can have more credit cards, all with high spending and low interest or even no interest at all. You can multiply your fortune tenfold and dream the dreams of avarice—if you just take the right seminar, watch the right televangelist peddling his gospel of financial success. You can believe the right stuff and give your hard-earned cash to the right god. You can have it all. Go for it, because you deserve it! I mean, that’s what the ads tell us!

So, together with western economies, we Canadians found ourselves in the financial and credit crises of 2007/8. It was a catastrophe created not just by the big banks, always craving higher profits, but created by the little guy who also believed he deserved it all, including effortless mortgage loans which fed the fantasy of the easy life, which was discovered to be an illusion. And then, again in 2020, we suffered a 7,000 point TSX market crash which signaled the beginning of the Covid-19 financial recession. Now, 2 years later, we suffer inflation on top of recession, given Putin’s unprovoked war upon the hard working brotherly Ukrainians.

MF, as we know, Jesus turns Satan down, claiming that we don’t live by bread, money and material things alone, but by every word that proceeds from God. In other words, food, money and material possessions are not technological problems to be solved, but are profoundly spiritual issues for Jesus. We not only need to place limits on the mentality that equates food, money and material accumulations with profit, but with a mentality which equates these as a test of God’s blessings to us.

In the 2nd temptation, Satan tries to seduce Jesus to test God by throwing himself down from the Temple wall. The Devil 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 Jesus is somehow currently 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 know this geography of wilderness, don’t we? Me too!  When things don’t go well, or go as we think they should, we begin to doubt God and put him to the test.

We all know lots of folks who spend their lives feeling hard-done by, thinking that they have been unfavourably dealt with by God or family and 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 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 they were hard-done by.

MF, 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 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.

But, what I do know is that we must finally begin to trust God, instead of testing him. By trusting, we will find the courage to be compassionate. For those who don’t practice compassion, they will also not receive it, and that’s as firm a law of nature as there is. In the unknown depth of spirit, where strange things are stowed away, where we have our ghosts in boxes and skeletons in closets, where compassion is locked up tight and where the key is thrown away, there is one door marked “open” and another door marked “shut,” and the key to both is our heart, of which there is only one. MF, we need to limit our testing, and maximize our trusting.

Take the brave Ukrainians as a prime illustration of maximizing trust. It takes more than bravery, MF, to put your body in front of Russians tanks to stop them. It takes a profound spiritual trusting that who the Ukrainians are as a people is intrinsically tied to the land—to the soil and dust of Ukraine. It takes more than bravery for a crowd of people to stand, non-violently in front of a 40-mile convoy of Russian military might and defy them and deny them another inch of their land. It is a profound spiritual trust in God, because in the final analysis, it is God’s land—his creation. It is Mother Earth, who gives of herself to us, as she does to thee people of Ukraine.

Finally, Satan, who is our inner voice which wants it all and on his 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!

MF, what is it about us human beings that we want to possess beauty and splendour? Why can’t we just enjoy these! Why must we have them! Why must we delude ourselves into thinking that we can own splendour and possess beauty with our Almighty Dollar?

MF, did you know that many indigenous peoples of NA originally had no word for the ownership of land? The land was a gift of the creator, to be shared and used to help feed the people and quench their thirst. But the ego is such an insatiable possessor, isn’t it.  The ego gathers all things unto 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.

For Vladimir Putin, all of this is a no-brainer. There are simply no limits for him—including territorial expansion. War against Ukraine, killing its people, levelling the country to possess the land is simply another test of Putin’s ability to enlarge Russia and morph it a new version of the former Soviet Empire. Trouble is: territorial expansion of land, like food, money and material possessions, like jumping off temples to test God—they are all spiritual issues— for the brave Ukrainians, as they also are for Jesus. Satan’s final temptation is a test of God’s willingness to bless us with whatever our hearts desire, no matter the reason or motivation.

Satan says that Jesus can have it all, if he is willing to fall to his knees and worship him. MF, of course this is a metaphor that describes our ultimate allegiance to our sick egos and the culture of more. The allegiance is a capitulation to the forces of history strewn with the blood, sweat, and tears of the victims by 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.

MF, this temptation story wasn’t just something which Jesus experienced 2000 years ago; but it is alive and well today. In Lent we come face to face with the part of us that rails against limits, that part of us 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.

So, MF, welcome to the wilderness of Lent. This is the stage upon which the battle for our soul still rages. This is the season when we say “no” to more, and “yes” to less. In this case, as in many other cases: Less is More! Satan fled the very moment Jesus gave his heart into God’s care and keeping. Mt’s version says the angels then came and ministered to him.

MF, at this very moment, 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 which       accrues to those who are possessed by love alone.

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

AMEN.

While Jesus was praying, his faced changed its appearance, and his clothes became dazzling white. Lk 9:29

Dear Friends. Many folks begin each day by swearing their unfettered allegiance to the tyranny of time. They alarm themselves into consciousness and gear up into overdrive with a frenzied obsession about it. When I was a child, my grandfather’s lectures on the subject were an indispensable staple of daily life: Zeit ist Geld und Geld zieht die Welt ringsrum. Time is money which makes the world go round! Arbeit macht das Leben suess; aber Faulheit staerk die Glieder. To the speedy belong the spoils and leisure is for the lazy! His words, spoken in German, still ring in my ears.

In his retirement years, my grandfather bought an ostentatious grandfather clock, the kind with the weights you draw up weekly. With much fanfare, the clock instantly became the object lesson for unrelenting sermons on the nature of time, of which there was never enough in his life. “It’s not the 40-hour week, but the 40-hour day, which I need,” he would constantly lament.

In the NT, Greek has two words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos is tick-tock time, which we measure by watches, clocks and calendars. It is chronological, linear, orderly, quantifiable and mechanical. It’s also fast, because it’s always later than we think.

Karios time, however, is organic, rhythmic, aperiodic, spiritual and unhurried. This kind of time always displays an inner cadence, which brings fruit to ripen, a woman to childbirth and a man to his senses and to his knees, if need be.

The realm of the Spirit, MF, operates on kairos time: poignant and profound events, like falling in love, the birth of babies, ideas and nations, the divine aperture upon our human senses and the cultivation of our souls. The Kingdom of God, which Jesus said “was at hand” and “within,” also emerges from kairos time when the heart is ready and the moment pregnant. Succinctly put, kairos is God’s time, the divine ticking within human history. It’s the infinite within the finite; the eternal within the here and now.

Our human affliction is that life-in-the-fast-lane is a cancer on the arteries of the Spirit. Speed is a demonic slayer of time. Madly rushing around, squeezing the last ounce of life into some concrete box or agenda, severely cripples our human creativity and spontaneity. Velocity not only blinds us from the precious nature of every existential moment, but prevents us from surrendering to the life-altering opportunities generated by God’s time.

Each of the 32 years of my full-time pastoral ministry, I received an appointment book. Lutheran Life, now Faith Life, sent all pastors such a book, fee of charge. You may have seen your former pastor(s) bring it to committee meetings. It was spiral bound, red plastic front and back which covered wrapped around pages.

Each page contained 6 black horizontal rectangles with the date printed in each rectangle. Sundays and Holy Days had an entire page for each in the form of a large rectangle, containing the date and liturgical data. In terms of time, each rectangle was a chron-ological frame equalling one day in the life of Peter Mikelic.

So, each day of each week of every month of every year, I would fill each rectangle with the folks whom I visited at home or hospital; fill them with the committee meetings and appointments I was attending; fill them with office hours and deadlines, confirmation classes and worship services, the many funerals I conducted, as well as baptisms and weddings. But woe betide if I didn’t write all this down in my appointment book, as I would have forgotten it all. I suffer from short-term memory loss, which, unlike a good wine, isn’t getting better with age.

Now, the four lines which made up each rectangle are the walls of chronos time which comprised my day-to-day activities. Like each of you, I can only live one day at a time, even though there are plenty of things written in future rectangles. But I can’t get to them, unless I’ve lived out the present rectangle I’m in.

While that may be obvious to you, but the fact is that many of us live our lives in different time zones, in different rectangles other than the one our bodies are in. Sherry, for instance, lives according to Anglican time, which is a tad slower than German Lutheran time. Anglican time is also a much more fashionable time zone.

As you may have guessed, each rectangle also has an invisible kind of trap door which leads to the next rectangle. At a silent stroke in time and space, the next door opened, and I was pulled through, as if by a magnet into the next rectangle, to once again live out the chronos time God gave me. As I got older, the rectangles seemed to get smaller and smaller; not as much went into each rectangle as before. In reality, the rectangles weren’t any smaller, I was just older and not as active as I once was.

One day, I know not when, I will walk into a rectangle which has no exit door. There will be no opening to the next rectangle. Given the fact that the average life has some 30,000 rectangles, one day I will enter rectangle #30,001. That rectangle will be terminal. Chronos time for me will be over. How that last rectangle is filled in, MF, depends not so much on what happens to me when I get to that space, as what happens to me in all the 30,000 rectangles or so, leading up the final one.

Today, MF, we heard from Luke about the rectangle we know as Transfiguration, when together with Moses and Elijah, Jesus was transfigured before the very eyes of his disciples into light—a kind of pre-resurrection appearance. What’s interesting about the Transfiguration rectangle is that it’s not a simple chronos space, but one where kairos impinges upon chronos; where time and eternity intersect. Moses and Elijah meet Jesus in a special chronos rectangle filled with kairos time.

What’s interesting is that the Transfiguration is 3 rectangles before Ash Wednesday—the rectangle which begins the Season of Lent—40 rectangles during which Jesus prepares for his final rectangle: Good Friday. That rectangle is also filled with kairos time: Jesus dies for the world—the world present, past and future. But what happened in that rectangle, MF, was also dependent upon all the other 12,044 rectangles which preceded it.

In other words, MF, each chronos rectangle is filled with kairos time: God coming into our time and space. The question is always the same: Do we acknowledge God in our day-to-day rectangles? Do we intentionally perceive God’s clock ticking in our time zone?

What we need is not some ethereal abstinence from chronos in our lives, but decisive moments in the kairos sun. As our society rushes away from mind-boggling Covid-time and the all consuming Russian invasion time, we need to determine what time it really is? Can 2022 be the time to eliminate things and schedules which have held us hostage? Is it time to give our lives the long-lasting dignity, depth and sheer delight we so desperately need, and which our toys, no matter how expensive, cannot provide?

Harry Potter’s train was boarded on Platform 9¾ by any road-weary person seeking the realm of the Spirit, because it’s open to all who look for that awesome stillness and silence to cleanse the areas of our misperception, renew our sense of wonder in creation and spiritually reorder our values and priorities.

MF, what we need to do is to daily set aside rectangles for silence and recollecting, for meditative thinking and prayer. As a practical matter, it is good to get up early, unlike your old pastor, in order to set the tone of your upcoming day by enjoying some moments for yourself, within yourself and with God as Father and Mother in conversation about those things which really matter in your life, whether personally, at your job or in retirement. Enter the rectangle of each day with a spirit of gratitude and devotion, with praise and thanksgiving for God who loves you

MF, the doorway between chronos and kairos time is open to each and every one of us, who know the value of Spirit filled time. The question is always the same: Are we willing to forsake family and friends, treasured prime-time sit-coms and recreational activities from time to time, to actually want a more Spirit filled life in the midst of Covid and a Russian/Ukrainian war?

Sometime soon after Sherry and I purchased our new house, and after a long day of moving and work, I sat exhausted in a Muskoka chair under a tree. I dropped off momentarily. But the first thing I knew, I had disappeared. Only the chill of a wind was blowing, reminding me it was December.

I, the observer, was absent, absorbed completely in the experience. With the disappearance of chattering thoughts and self-consciousness, I was suddenly part of a vast horizon, wrapped in primal silence. For a moment which seemed like an eternity, the work of my ego ceased, my cultural and theologically conditioned personality vanished. I was no longer the center of my world. Rather, physical rest, joyful completion of work and spiritual contentment filled my mind. God’s kairos had entered my chronos.

But then, all too soon, or just in time, I returned. The silence evaporated and my ego resumed. Back in my old skin, again. Who was “I” during that brief fleeting moment? During kairos-filled moments like these, which we all experience from time to time, the boundaries of the self are porous. We are inhabited, moved and inspired by the God within and without.

Remembering the self—the practice of self-awareness, systematic recollection and the forging of our human experience into an autobiography is a life-long work—a journey whose road is less and less travelled. By contrast, the life of God’s infused Spirit—inspiration, insight and creativity—come to us by grace. The joy that results from the fullness of God’s Spirit sneaks up on us when we are least aware, when our self-consciousness has been replaced by concentration.

MF, We all need to pay very close attention to the variety and quality of those Spirit-filled experiences in our lives, in which we enter so fully into the moment, that we lose all sense of self and chronos time. Recollect the history of your life’s journey till now—a spiritual journey which is always beyond time and travel. Re-enter those grace-filled kairos moments in which you sense the God’s Spirit come really alive within you. Do that and you will be transported and transfigured, much like Jesus, on this day.

There are many narrow and winding roads, which lead to such kairos moments, but which are less and less travelled these days, given all the glittering distractions in our lives. These moments, rare as they are, invite us to be who we really are to ourselves, to our loved ones and to God. But wherever and whenever the kairos moment, sit in its peace until you can feel your heart beat and your breath coming slow and gentle, because there, at its centre, eternity dissolves time. All clocks stop and you will feel inhabited and inspired by God’s Spirit within you.

And when we’re in that space, where all clocks stop and we feel inhabited and inspired by God’s Spirit within us, then we will finally know and realize that religion—even Christianity—is not about requirements. Rather religion is about relationships—the quality and capacity of our relatedness to God and others. It is the most important and essential rectangle there is, even though it is valued less and less these days.

We Christians can pray. Jews and Moslems can pray, and prayer is a good thing, an essential activity because it re-connects ourselves with God and with our inner selves. There’s a Moslem fellow, Shaffiudin, an electrician who is working at our house, bring the electrical stuff up to snuff. Five times a day, he gets a call from the prophet to pray. Sherry and I set a place aside for him at our house to pray; but so far I think he feels uncomfortable in doing so. But it would be a good thing for him to take 5-10 minutes out of his work schedule to pray.

But remember this, MF: We ourselves are the prayer. You yourself are a walking, talking, breathing prayer. Just by being who you are, just by walking from here to there. Or just by my insightful preaching or by your intensive listening—this is all a prayer. That’s why Paul can say: Pray always. 1 Thess 5:17. He doesn’t mean that we Protestants should be constantly repeating the Lord’s Prayer or Catholics praying the rosary or Muslims remaining prostrate on their prayer mats or Jews praying the Shema day and night.

Prayer MF is being in conscious union with God—kairos time intersecting chronos. The surprise for most of us is that this place of relationship with God is really not about being perfect. The self in God will still make mistakes, but it lives from a center other than its own. It’s hard to get a feel for this until we’ve met a spiritually centered person, who’s grounded and in union with God.

In fact, to be a Christian is to meet and know another Christian. Why? Not only because we cannot be real Christians by ourselves, but because the experience is contagious! When we meet a person of a certain quality or maturity, we too can become more mature. We meet a patient person and we learn how to be patient. We meet a loving person and we learn how to be loving. That’s the way we human beings operate. When we meet a really grounded, happy, and free person, we become more like him/her, because we’ll be satisfied with nothing less. This whole thing, our faith, spreads through and by the quality of our relationships.

In prayer, we experience that quality of relationship with God. In prayer, we know we’re not being manipulated or used. In prayer, we’re not being judged or evaluated. Prayer can be the place of ultimate freedom. It’s the state we need to live in. That’s why one reason Moslems to go pray for some set time each day, because when they do, they slowly learn to live in this place.

Likewise, when we Christians become the prayer we pray, we become a reflection of our experience with God. God rubs off on us. It’s that simple, and yet that difficult. I can’t say it any other way, MF. Pure and simple. If we become the prayer we pray, God will rub off on us and kairos time will always intersect our chronos time. That’s the good news for us this morning and for the rest of our lives. AMEN.

But I tell you: Love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you and pray for those who ill treat you. If you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you receive a blessing? Even sinners do that! Lk 6:27,33

Dear Friends. Renowned Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, spoke of synchronicity. Christianity speaks of Providence. Hinduism speaks of Karma. Buddhism speaks of Enlightenment. Judaism speaks of Benevolence. MF, they’re all talking the same lingo: a compassionate world whose foundation to everything is love. No matter how tragic and evil things get, love can be trusted. When we finally realize that the foundation of all life and living is Love, only then will we be at home in this world.

Yes, there are many folks who are never at peace, never at home in their own skin. Their life is characterized by excessive worry and anxiety They live in daily fear and hate. They live by revenge and retaliation—psychologically and physically. These are their real beliefs, because that’s what they practice and live daily!

MF, today’s Lucan Gospel narrative is called the Sermon on the Plain—an abbreviated 30 verse version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in MT, chapters 5,6+7. But …

Whether it’s the Sermon on the Mount or on the Plain, Jesus’ discourse is a shocking reversal to the Judaic Law and the Torah–how we treat and judge others, especially enemies. Jesus prefaces the practices of his contemporaries, saying: It was said of old. But I say to you—meaning, Jesus totally reverses all the issue and completely turns them upside down!

This morning, MF, we hear Jesus tell his stunned listeners to love their enemies. For the Jews living in the 1stC under Roman rule, it wasn’t just utterly shocking, but absolutely immoral for Jesus to expect his countrymen to love Rome, whose brutal subjugation of Israel was considered evil and demonic. Judaism expected a Messiah to deliver them militarily from the Romans, and so the last thing they assume is for an upstart itinerant preacher from hick town Nazareth to tell them to love their hated enemies.

MF, I need to tell you that these verses from Jesus are among the most radical and unexpected words in the entire Bible. Now, the love of neighbour was well attested in the Hebrew Scriptures and a common practice among at least faithful Jews. And yet, nowhere in the entire OT does it specifically advocate the hatred of enemies. What Jesus rails against is the OT dictum of an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. But Jesus says: Don’t take revenge. Instead: Love your enemies. Bless them. Pray for them.

So, for starters: The Romans ruled tiny Israel with an iron fist which clearly made them a very despised and hated lot. Eventually, Rome destroyed Jerusalem and levelled Solomon’s Temple in the 66-70 Jewish-Roman War. But, had Israel not started this war against the Roman Empire, convinced that God would bring victory to Jewish bows and arrows against Roman steel, Israel would not, I suspect, have been decimated. It would not have changed the loathing and animosity Jews had for their Roman rulers.

That the Romans were hated to the core—well, this was especially true of a far-right extremist sectarian community, known as the Essenes, who fled to the Sinai desert and commenced guerrilla warfare against the Romans. In fact, according to the Sacred Rules of the Essenes, papyrus discovered in 1948 among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Essenes were expected to “love all the sons of light but hate all the sons of darkness.” But there’s more MF.

Remember the Book of Revelation, which contains a final Apocalyptic War on the Plains of Abraham between the sons of darkness and the sons of light? Well, according to the War Scroll of the Essenes, this war was expected to endure for 40 years, the first 20 of which all hated foreign countries, beginning with the Roman Empire, would be destroyed, and in the last 20 years all depraved corrupted Jews would be put to death. That war never took place.

Instead, Rome slaughtered 100,000 Jews in a bloodbath, destroyed the nation, sent 1M Jews in chains to Rome, the rest, the diaspora fled to Europe. It’s precisely against this carnage, that Jesus advocates not the summoning of hatred and war against Rome, but the mobilization of love and compassion.

In fact, Jesus’ counsel to love enemies completely offended everyone, as hatred among the Jews for their enemies reached a fevered pitch. Hatred of the Romans and Samaritans—hatred of the sick and immoral, heretics and immigrants, hatred of unclean Gentiles and Jews who consorted with them—hatred of Jesus who peddled love. Hatred MF was endemic to the Judaic system.

While no specific passage can be cited, hatred of enemies is implied in page after page of Hebrew Scriptures. Judaic theology centered on the Jewish Exodus from 400 years of Egyptian bondage, in which God is God, precisely because of his superior military genius directed against the enemies of the Chosen People. And that’s why, MF, Judaic Law says that the overwhelming definition of salvation is ?? the crushing defeat of enemies.

Remember Charlton Heston who played Moses in the 10 Commandments a mere 62 years ago? Remember the final scene, when God causes the Red Sea to drown every Egyptian horse and rider, after which Rameses II returns to his queen, who is expecting the blood of Moses on his sword. What does Rameses say? His God … is God! Yahweh crushed the Egyptian enemy!

MF, can we imagine a more compelling contrast in terms of expectations and images of God, than those expressed in the Torah over against the words of Jesus? The Hebrew concept of God is that of a punishing deity, whose justice depends upon vengeance against Israel’s enemies, or against Israel itself, when its people become disobedient. Even rain and sunshine—normally blessings upon the land—are weapons in the hands of Yahweh—God of War.

Jesus, on the other hand, experiences God as a loving Father, infinitely giving and eternally loving, which is why he invited his listeners to imitate the generosity of God. Like the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, God is full of compassion and empathy. We are, says Jesus, to love our enemies! Why? Because God loves enemies. Rain and sunshine are not conditional blessings or objects of reward or punishment. Rain and sunshine are God’s very good gifts to all—to the just and the unjust, says Jesus.

So, Jesus states that we are to love our enemies, because his experience of God is rooted in a loving, caring and compassionate God. It is not linked to any fear of God’s crushing violence but is a welcoming invitation to imitate God’s love with which he made all human beings in the first place and set the universe in motion.

Then, in Mt 5:48, Jesus ends his teaching on enemies with this: Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect. I repeated Jesus’ command to emphasize just how dangerous the word perfect really is! I mean, perfectionism is one of the scariest words I know. It’s a marked characteristic of our contemporary culture—a psychological affliction that makes the majority of North Americans too timid to take on necessary risks. Though we’ve done the best we can, our efforts fall short of some imaginary, unattainable standard of excellence.

MF, the Greek word for perfect is teleios, which means to make room for growth and the changes that bring us to maturity. Perfectionism in the Christian sense of this passage means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others. We are to be unstinting in our generosity to others, just as God is unstinting in his generosity to us and all of humankind.

MF, the reason God loves enemies and why Jesus asks us to love and pray for them, is not because enemies might ask for peace if they’re losing a battle or a war. Rather, it’s because God is infinitely loving and encourages us to imitate and be instruments of his love. That’s why God sends rain and sunshine on everyone because they are integral to God’s good gifts which flow to the heart of all life and living, and prompt thanksgiving and compassion to all, including enemies.

Jesus’ tender image of God as a loving, Father clearly undermines the Judaic expectation that ultimate justice will be imposed by Yahweh—the almighty, punishing God. The God whom Jesus reveals is not vengeful and violent, wanting to crush all enemies under foot. Rather, God’s power is humble, welcoming and inviting. God is Spirit, embracing humankind everywhere and always. God’s Spirit calls us to new life—to abundant life, says Jesus. Inside God’s Kingdom there is only acceptance and approval.

Jesus’ commitment to justice also remained firm, even as he embraced a non-violent God. His rejection of violent images of God, pretentions of messianic militarism and fantastical apocalyptic wars, openly broke with the longstanding tradition which accepted God’s violence and human violence, as necessary for the establishment of justice. Jesus did not hope in a violent God who would replace the domination systems in the near or distant future. Rather, he tells us to reflect God’s non-violent character in our resistance to violence.

MF, it’s the kind of non-violence practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and his followers who eventually freed India from British rule in 1947. It’s also the kind of non-violence practiced by Martin Luther King Jr and his followers who began the Civil Rights Movement in the early 60s, which resulted in the massive Voting Rights Act passed by LBJ in 1965.

MF, like Jesus, we cannot be human and then reject those who are different—especially enemies. Nor can we limit God to our own standards and boundaries of tribal worship: who God is and what she expects of us. That’s why Jesus said that the very first step to God is to cast aside an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and to love our enemies! And so Jesus abandoned all fear and hate, all violence and war, and practiced love and compassion.

Jesus’ claims concerning God’s non-violence and his command that we also act and resist non-violently to brutality and war, all clashed sharply with the practical expectations of many people in his time, and our own. This explains in large part why so few Christians even listen to Jesus on this matter, why the church rejected non-violence centuries ago and why the church also did not purge itself of a punishing God and his righteous vengeance.

MF, you already know that God’s wrath is featured prominently in the preaching of end-of-the-world fundamentalists, who base their so-called divine views on a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation. But let me tell you: The Apocalyptic Wars of Revelation have simply and unequivocally corrupted the church, preaching a violent God whose solution to the problems of the world and its sinners is nothing short of slaughter and complete annihilation—a kind of divine ethnic cleansing, by a pathological God who revels in killing the very humans he created in love. It’s no wonder that the Bk of Rev’ln almost never made into the NT.

The God of violence, who ends the world in Revelation, first begins his violence in the OT. MF, did you know that there are 600 pages of explicit violence by Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible; 1,000 verses where his own violence and punishment are described; 100 pages where Yahweh expressly commands his Chosen People to kill others, including women and children, in particular those occupying the Promised Land into which Moses led the people? Because our God images of violence and war shape our faith and lives so profoundly, we need to examine them much more carefully than we do. That’s an understatement.

Well MF, the elimination of the Roman Empire, any nation-state, tribe or race, color or creed, ethnicity or individual, much less global humanity and Mother Earth in a brutal Apocalyptic War on the Plains of Abraham is clearly not the solution which Jesus had in mind. For Jesus, the image of God mattered, and matters still, which is precisely why Jesus invites us to imitate the infinitely loving, infinitely hospitable, infinitely compassionate, infinitely giving and forgiving God, whose Spirit surrounds us everywhere, and always invites us to a life of abundance and abundant living.

MF, Christians need to choose between God-images which invite peace and love, over against God images which promise “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It’s amazing to me that scant few people embrace a God who is love, but then invites us to love our enemies. Almost everyone prefers a God of power and violence. We prefer a God made in our image—a God onto whom we can project who and what we are, who and what we stand for.

Loving enemies is much more humanly difficult than fighting them, warring against them—even destroying them. We much prefer to project violence onto God and therefore to turn God into yet another weapon of ours against our enemies, which is another reason why there are so many wars in the name of religion.

I believe this: Jesus’ God is done with war! The God of Jesus is done with war! Our enemies are not God’s enemies. Who today is actually willing to embrace a non-violent God? That’s why most Christians are not able to think outside the box of war and violence, because we’re rarely able to even consider other possible solutions. So we categorically reject Jesus’ non-violence, God’s non-violence & non-violent resistance.

Which is why, violence and war have always been accorded the status of religion. No one would put it that way, or even admit to it. But the roots of our human devotion to and need of violence, especially by God, whether Christian, Judaic or Moslem, are not only deep, but war and Violence are religious values. God is just another weapon in that religion. And as radical as my beliefs here may be, MF, they dramatically understate the real issue.

Last Page. Finally, eh? MF, the real issue for me is this: Violence is often at the center of all 3 major monotheistic faiths: Proclaiming God to be nothing short of almighty, whose superior violence crushes all enemies. Violence saves not only you and me but saves God by establishing and maintaining God’s credibility. I mean, what kind of a God is God, if he cannot crush his enemies? What kind of a God is God who cannot help us crush our enemies—we who believe in this God? And if he can’t crush his enemies and our enemies today, then at least crush all enemies in a final judgment at world’s end. All 3 global monotheistic religions continue to contribute to the destruction of the world, until and unless we affirm with Jesus, God’s non-violent, loving character.

MF, Jesus had shocking ideas about God, power and violence  . If we take Jesus’ life seriously, then we must grapple with the issues of God’s violence and our human violence against other humans, especially when we use God as our weapon against them. This morning, Jesus offers you and me and all of mankind, a way out of the many forms of divine violence and into a non-violent resistance which begins with the love of enemies, whom God sees as human beings with us, whom he also created in love.

Non-violence is a very difficult journey, at the best of times. But it can only begin with the first step. AMEN

All the people tried to touch him, for power was going out from him and healing them all. Lk 6:19

Dear Friends. Frank was a member of my London parish, who was a very sensitive man, but suffered from psoriasis in his hands and so was always self-conscious enough to wear gloves in public. One day, in an unguarded moment, he was not wearing gloves, and so I felt compelled to touch and hold his hands in mine. Because the trust level was deep enough between us, Frank allowed my acceptance of him to overcome his fear and shame. At that point healing began—meaning, he eventually went without gloves in public.

Today’s Lucan narrative begins with the folks who came from all over the countryside to hear Jesus speak and also touch him to be healed. There are many stories in the gospels which involve a healing touch from Jesus. In MK 1:40-45, eg, Jesus reached out and touched a man with leprosy and healed him. MF, we wouldn’t normally consider touch remarkable, much less miraculous, but that touch spanned more than the physical distance between them. The man in Mark’s gospel wasn’t part of a leper colony, so he could approach Jesus in public and Jesus’ touch began the healing.

MF, when we think of Jesus’ healing touch, we believe that he healed on multiple levels: physically, by curing diseases; socially, by integrating them into full members of society; mentally, so that people could function independently; and spiritually, that relationships with God were restored. In the case of Mark’s leper, Jesus reached across the barriers of revulsion and expulsion, to touch and heal him.

Well MF, for me—skeptic that I am—any serious study of healing miracles in the NT must at least include how sickness was perceived back in Jesus’ time. The fact is: Over the centuries, there have always been religious cultures which have operated from a supernatural understanding of illness—meaning, sickness was always explained as a divine intervention and usually as punishment for sins committed.

All pre-scientific cultures, like the Judaic one in which Jesus lived, did exactly that. Whatever manifested physically in one’s body correlated with what was happening in the religious spheres. Eg, if one contracted leprosy, it was divine punishment for sins committed—either your own, or that of your parents or grandparents, for which a steep price was always paid. In fact, according to over 2 dozen OT texts, including Ex 34:7, the sins of the fathers reached back to the 3rd and 4th generations. That’s a very long time to pay for sins of your fathers, especially when it’s not your fault.

Given this kind of pre-scientific understanding of illness, the prescription of both prayer and sacrifice, designed to placate God’s wrath, made perfect sense as an attempted cure in the first century. In fact, prayer and animal sacrifice to God is precisely what the Judaic Law in the Torah demanded. That’s why, attributing healing power to Jesus, you see, verified the claim that he was of God.

Now, during Jesus’ time, skin diseases were especially dangerous, because they were considered unnatural openings of the body to the outside world. The inherent fear for Judaism was that skin diseases brought suffering, death and the evil influences of alien cultures through open skin. In effect, the Jews believed they risked the distinctive character of their culture to Satanic external stimuli. That’s why they remained separate and separated—a closed society—barricaded and fenced in—to keep aliens, non-believers and evil powers out.

Of course Jesus’ contemporaries knew nothing about germs and the diseases germs produced. That was discovered by a Frenchman, Louis Pasteur in the 19thC, as well as how to combat the bacteria. Jesus’ generation never heard of viruses, either. That was a 20thC discovery by Jonas Salk, in which vaccinations for polio began in 1954 and continue today with vaccinations for Covid.

First century folks also had no understanding of cardio-vascular diseases, such as cancers, leukemia or tumors, which in our time still cannot be cured, but can be helped if discovered early enough. The NT also attributed mental illness and epilepsy to demon possession. Deaf-mute conditions resulted from the devil tying the tongue of the victim.

Well MF, we all live in a world of medical knowledge, which the minds of 1stC folks could never have imagined. Once germs and viruses were discovered, vaccines and antibodies were developed, radiation and chemotherapy was invented, laparoscopic and other surgical procedures designed, all of which worked just as well on sinners, as on saints.

But in the process—and here’s the point: Scientific medicine removed God from sickness, at least for the vast majority of modern-day people. In fact, it’s only within the last 50 years that the Lutheran and Anglican churches finally removed God as the source of illness as punishment.

What does this mean for us, who believe, not only that Jesus had the power to heal, but that God still heals today? Excellent question. Answer? Or at least myanswer. First, believing in the healing power of Jesus’ touch is clearly a litmus test for the faithful. I mean, if you don’t believe Jesus performed miraculous healings, then how is Jesus God’s Son and how are you a Christian?

Second. The primary focus on miracles as the foundation for belief in Jesus as the Son of God actually runs counter to Jesus’ own claims. How often did he downplay his miracles as a reason for believing in him? How often did he tell those whom he cured not to say a word about their own healing?

In last Sunday’s gospel eg. Luke tells us that Jesus called his first disciples to follow him, which they did, but only after first witnessing the mammoth haul of fish. MK and MT have the same story of Jesus calling the first disciples, but without the miraculous influence. Peter, Andrew and others follow Jesus without the incentive of a miracle.

Or take John’s post resurrection appearances of Christ to his disciples and Thomas in particular, who refuses to believe that Jesus is alive and risen from the dead, until he puts his fingers in the nail holes and his hand in Jesus’ side. Jesus’ response: Blessed are those who believe without seeing. He could just as well have said: Blessed are those who believe without the miracle. MF, do you see a pattern here?

Believing in Jesus as the Son of God because he performed miracles can be a dangerous supposition. Why? Because Jesus did not want faith in him to be premised on miracles. But if faith is prefaced on miracles, then the absence of miracles undermines the credibility of faith, you see!

In other words, the lack of miracles makes belief in Jesus not only difficult, but almost impossible—whether in Jesus’ day or our own. MF, how many times in Mt, Mk and Lk did the detractors of Jesus ask for a miracle, so he could prove who he was and that they could believe in him? Jesus’ response? What an evil and godless generation you are. No miracle will be given to you! Mt 12:39

MF, I’m sure you get the point, but I could extend that point and say this: Reliance on miracles as the basis of belief in Jesus or God signifies a creeping despair concerning Jesus/God’s lack of involvement in human history.

EG: When we consider the serious attempts at genocide over the last two centuries, doesn’t it seem like the world is out of control? And isn’t that true, especially for religious people, who believe that only God can rectify our human recklessness by his own divine actions to impose justice on earth or, if that doesn’t work, for God to end human history altogether. The trouble is: God does not seem to act. Why did God not personally intervene to stop the Holocaust against Jews or Armenians or Hutus, just to mention three?

On the other hand, expectation or belief in God’s potential intervention in the face of deepening social crises and global injustice can reinforce belief in God, even if God does not intervene to help and heal. Why is that, MF?

Because waiting for God to miraculously intervene, to help and heal, or correct injustice or stop genocide or war, does not require us to change or to change our belief system, much less challenge our military systems. A recent Pew Research poll showed that 59% of Canadians believe God still performs miracles—rerouting the path of hurricanes and limiting the human damage of earthquakes, curing cancers, etc.  A Newsweek poll said 84% of Americans believe the same.

Nearly half of all polled claim to have witnessed or experienced healing miracles. In fact, intercessions for healing still dominate the content of prayer for most believers to this day, and the phrase used most often by evangelicals is Thank you, Jesus! When some miraculous restoration to wholeness is achieved, MF, it is indicative of the lasting curative powers Jesus has on the consciousness of the faithful.

But now MF, a serious question for your consideration! What happens when God does not miraculously intervene to save lives? You may already suspect that a God who answers prayers is the last aspect most believers are prepared to surrender. Most believers have developed a remarkable ability believe—no matter what—to rationalize the evidence and explain why God did not intervene when the verdict goes the other way. God gets credit for the cure, but someone else gets blamed for an unwelcomed or tragic outcome.

There are countless major examples of wretched endings over just the last number of decades. Maybe you remember this one glaring illustration which was powerfully and painfully revealed to TV audiences in a coal mine explosion back in Jan 04, 2006, in Tallmansville, WV? The explosion trapped 13 miners some 260 below the surface in a shaft that was more than 2 miles long into the mine. The attention of Americans and Canadians was riveted on the rescue effort.

The hours dragged on. Family members waited. Each passing minute made it more likely that the decreasing supply of oxygen would snuff out the lives of loved ones. Suddenly, against all odds, the report rang out that 12 of the trapped miners had been found alive, with only one fatality. The celebration at Sago Baptist Church, where folks had gathered to pray, was unrestrained, as was the religious rhetoric. Thank you, Jesus! Praise the Lord! was the constant refrain.

In fact, the governor the state, Joe Manchin, pronounced it a “miracle,” and exhorted the people of his state to “believe in miracles from now on!” TV cameras interviewed loved ones who universally attributed the rescue to divine intervention.

MF, I remember this event quite well, and of course, skeptic that I am, I could not help but wonder how it is, that God could single out this one who was found dead? Perhaps this unfortunate miner had not qualified for God’s mercy, or he was somehow decreed to be undeserving. Maybe it was simply his time to die, in a strangely predestined world. Perhaps he was a Calvinist and Scottish to boot.

But then, about two hours later, there was another announcement, this time ominously official which claimed that the earlier report was tragically incorrect. In fact, only one miner had been brought out alive. He was unconscious, in critical condition and the suggestion was that he might be seriously brain damaged. The other 12 miners were dead.

Suddenly, all the glorious talk of miracles and a merciful God stopped completely, and the praises of Jesus also ceased—all of which were replaced by expressions of anger and grief, filled with threats of lawsuits against the mining company.

Well MF, a life based solely on the belief and expectation of miracles is seldom rewarded. Truth be told: the prayers of believers go unanswered, much more than they go answered. Even unanswered prayer from God is an answer from God—so it is rationalized. Nothing seems to be able to destroy the hope that God, defined as the last miraculous resort, will intervene—that miracles are available to those who really believe, really have patience, reallydeserve them, really earned divine favor by living morally.

MF, I believe this: Miracles and healing are not a one-shot deal in the midst of crises. Healing is always a matter of becoming whole—body, mind and spirit. Healing is always a growing more into the divine image—the DNA God implanted within each human being from the time of creation. Healing is salvation.

To heal we must learn to let go—let go of the past and the present with our fears and foibles, chaos and crises—allow God’s Spirit to change and transform us, even if we don’t know what the end-result will be. Healing is the transformation of our human dimensions of mind, body and soul—to allow ourselves to be drawn by Jesus into a wholesome expression of his Body in this world, which is what we are.

MF, Jesus stretches his hand out across all that inhibits our development and touches the blocked places in our soul and in our institutions, including the church—if we let him. What really matters is that each of us tune into and cooperate with the push and pull of the evolutionary Spirit of God as it moves through us individually and collectively.

Health and healing is not stationary. It’s a living, breathing, pulsating quality. The more we allow God’s Spirit in and cooperate, the more our narrowness of worldview and theology change, and the more health and healing we encounter. Physical death is only the cessation of our bodily functions. Spiritual death occurs the moment we stop learning and living, stop listening and questioning, stop growing and evolving, stop changing and challenging, stop Jesus from healing our insides, so that the outsides might also be healed.

The healing Jesus offers is for the whole world—you and me included. If you and I reach out, Jesus responds—to be sure. But miracles and healing cannot be on our limited, narrow terms, nor is it a one-shot deal. Healing is a process, a journey which itself is a miracle. If we have inside of us the stuff to make cocoons and caskets, then we also have the stuff of monarch butterflies and flight, which is to say, we have the stuff to mount up on wings! AMEN.

When Peter saw what happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said: “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Lk 5:8

Dear Friends. Here’s a very familiar text to all of us: Jesus calling the first number of disciples to follow him. It’s a story which has parallels in MT and MK, but not in JN. Interestingly, MT and MK’s version of the narrative repeats not one word about the miraculous catch of fish which almost tore the fishnets and sank the boats. Rather, in MT and MK, Jesus simply commands Peter, his brother, Andrew, and the others to follow him and they do so—immediately in fact. According to LK’s account, however, it takes a colossal catch of fish to lure the fishermen to follow Jesus.

Now, LK has an extremely curious line by Peter who, seeing all the fish after a night of not catching any, says to Jesus: Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!This admission by Peter is made not simply because of the obvious—he’s utterly dumbfounded that Jesus’ words could result in such an incredible haul of fish—but for Peter, it was a very clear indication that because Jesus is good and holy, God was with him. Peter, however, who caught not one fish, must be bad and a sinner to boot, you see.

In fact, that’s how folks understood the world back then, and many people still do. Things were divided between white and black, with no middle ground. If you were sick or poor, then God was punishing you for your sins or the sins of your parents or grandparents. But if you were healthy, wealthy and wise, then surely God has blessed you with goodness. Peter was operating from that perspective, you see—one that was held by everyone, but especially the religious leaders who taught this slanted stuff.

That’s of course why Peter tells Jesus to go away from him, because he is a sinner, who is morally incapable of catching the massive numbers of fish Jesus commands. Like you and me, Peter also divides things and people into black and white, holy and unholy, good and evil, right and wrong, clean and dirty, righteous and unrighteous. We’re always making divisions, aren’t we.

And so the task of religious leaders—pastors and priests, rabbis and imams—is to maintain these divisions, by keeping people in line and keeping order—getting folks to do the right thing, stand in the right line and believe the right things so we get into heaven. Ultimately, religious leaders lead by creating barriers and fences, to keep their people in and unwanted people out.

Don’t stand over there where there’s gambling, prostitution and drugs. Stand over here, where there are nice church people who give their money to God. Don’t stand over there where people are sexually immoral, who suffer and die from sexual diseases. Stand over here where people are spiritually clean and morally straight.Don’t stand over there with individuals who only love themselves and not their neighbours, much less God.

Don’t stand over there with those who cheat, lie, steal and disobey God’s laws. Stand over here where people cherish the laws of God and obey them. Stand over here with us who lock up criminals and law breakers. After all, no one is above the law, which is why God created humans in the first place—to obey God’s laws.

But if somebody starts saying and doing things differently, then that somebody has got too be stopped, which is what they did to Jesus. They put a stop to his breaking the law and putting people first—put a stop to his blurring the lines of distinction between the good guys and bad guys, the sinners and the righteous, between the do-gooders and the do-as-you-pleasers. Very simply put: Jesus broke down the barriers which kept folks in line, separated and divided, which is why Jesus had to be crucified.

MF, if you read Luke’s Gospel in its entirety, Jesus who is the one who touches and holds lepers, parties with cheating tax collectors and sinners. Jesus is the one who lets an unclean woman publicly stroke his hair and anoint him at a party in a leper’s house.

Jesus is the one who broke the Sabbath laws right in front of the people who had been obeying the Sabbath all their lives. In short, Jesus acted as if he was always above the law.

MF, this is what the religious, spiritual and social world looked like when Jesus started his public ministry. He broke down barriers and fences and told people to love their neighbors, give and forgive them. He modelled a world that willingly broke laws and customs which were erected to keep folks separate and separated. For our part, we either help Jesus break down human barriers to care for our neighbours, or we do everything we can to stop him and get people to toe the party line.

MF, the religious leaders never figured, like Jesus did, that the opposite might happen: that the holy might impact the unholy, the pure might cleanse the impure, that the law might help the lawless see why the law had been established in the first place, not to hurt but to help, not to stop us from doing bad to each other, but to start us doing good for each other.

That’s why, when Jesus touched lepers, he didn’t get leprosy, but the leprosy got transformed. When Jesus met tax collectors and sinners, he didn’t get taken, but he took them on his journey. When Jesus let the unclean woman to soothe and salve him, he didn’t lose his way, rather he helped her find her way to faith.

When Jesus broke the Sabbath to feed the hungry and heal the sick, he wasn’t on the wrong side of God’s law. He showed people the right side of the law which they had long forgotten—the side which serves people, helps and makes them whole.

The Judaic system Jesus encountered genuinely believed that it was in possession of the Truth, with a capital T. Such systems pretend that they speak with God’s authority and therefore cannot be challenged. That authority may be papal, because the Pope is believed to be Christ’s Vicar on earth. Or the authority may be biblical. Many Protestants believe that every word of the Bible is God’s Word, to be taken literally—or at least when it suits them. Or the authority may be charismatic, prophetic or miraculous, and those who exhibit these various spiritual gifts lord it over Christians who have lesser gifts, or simply no gifts because they/we don’t exercise them.

MF, you may know that religion meets a desperate and chronic need in our human psyche, and therefore has a tenacious hold on human life. But did you know that religion, as it has traditionally evolved, has never provided genuine security, but only the illusion of security. Why? Because traditional religion has been too often distorted to serve us, and not God and distorted religion is an opiate of the people—to use Karl Marx’s infamous dictum.

But genuine religion always embraces what it means to be a self-conscious human being.

That’s why I believe Jesus never came to start a new religion. His followers did that—big time! We’ve made Christianity into the institutional religion it is today—regardless of the version to which we belong. Nor did Jesus encourage the Judaic religion with which he grew up. To be a Christian is simply to be a follower of Christ, who calls us, not to more religion, but to more life, abundant life in all its human wholeness and spiritual completeness. That’s why Jesus is for me the ultimate expression of God.

And that’s also why Jesus broke religious boundaries and man-made barriers, again and yet again, in his constant attempt to call his own people into a new humanity, like his own. Anything that puts limits on our God-given humanity and anyone who teaches us to hate, reject or violate another, cannot be of God. That is what Jesus said and practiced in a thousand ways. That is why he so deeply threatened the Judaic leaders of his time and why so many religious leaders of our time do not speak for him—although of course they think they do.

So, how do the gospels portray Jesus?… as God-infused within a fully human life. Yes, Jesus acknowledged the rules of Judaism—the religious system under which Israel lived. But for Jesus, God was not a part of that system. Jesus understood that God allowed him to set aside religious rules whenever they ruthlessly hampered human wholeness and spiritual completeness.

Simply put: Jesus was life-oriented. His teaching was celebratory. He frequented parties and banquets. He lived with zeal and zest.

On the other hand, Judaism taught Jesus that moral rules were ultimate and that if you violate these rules, then you’d have to endure the applied punishment—lest the wrath of God fall upon an entire family or community. MF, that’s the mentality that produces a sense of external righteousness and fierce judgment. It’s a mentality which creates religious enforcers of God’s rules. But it never creates love and nor expands human life. So, what does Jesus do with this mentality? Reading the Gospels, we discover that Jesus breaks down the religious divisions and man- made barriers, and then he calls us to follow him and model him!

Remember the woman caught in adultery, Jn 8:1-11? Her story, like many others, is a case in point. She was hauled from her lover’s bed by the scribes and pharisees and placed before the moral gendarmes of the day. Like the back of their hand, they knew the rules handed down from the time of Moses. Such a woman must be stoned. They were affected with the vindictiveness of God, for whom judgment, reward or punishment were primary. And, if she was not put to death, then God himself would write their names down in his big black book as accomplices, who would also have to pay the price down the proverbial road heavily travelled.

So MF, what does Jesus do? As we know, he invites those gathered to stone her, provided of course those who throw the first stones are themselves without sin. So, not one stone was hurled. Throwing stones, like moral righteousness and ignoring one’s own sins, only issues in more hate and violence, and never in love nor new life, and certainly never in forgiveness. The quest to be human is never the same as the quest to be religious! The facts are incontrovertible: Jesus was always ready to put humanity ahead of religious rules and laws which blocked our humanity.

In another example, Mark 2:23-28, Jesus’ disciples were hungry and so plucked the heads of grain from a field on the Sabbath, which of course, was against the rules. Jesus countered that King David ate the ceremonial bread which the law said was reserved only for priests. In short, Jesus once again inverted the law in order to serve and enhance human life. Human life was not created to fit the Sabbath, said Jesus, but the reverse: the Sabbath was created to fit human life. It was a startling religious shift of authority, tradition and law in order to break down barriers.

Or, take the very next story in Mark 3:1-6, in which Jesus once again flaunts the religious rules and heals a man with a withered paralytic arm on the Sabbath. Because the man’s life was not at stake, the chronic condition of his paralytic arm should not diminish the holiness of the Sabbath, said the religious rules.

Jesus countered that, if good could be done on the Sabbath, why not heal the paralysis to prevent even further suffering? Mk says Jesus was so angry at how religion was used to distort life and increase suffering, that he healed the man instantly. It’s no wonder that the religious leaders conspired with the political authorities to remove Jesus as a threat to both religious and political rule.

MF, Jesus always understood our humanity as a journey out from under political rule and religious control and towards spiritual wholeness. He called on folks to step beyond the religious rules and defenses, tribal boundaries and prejudices to embrace life in all its abundance. Jesus’ approach, then and today, is unique to life and religion, which is also why his followers, then and today, see and understand God as an integral part of Jesus’ identity.

Let me close with one final illustration. In Acts 8:26-40, a deacon by the name of Philip baptized an Ethiopian eunuch. This man was a double threat to the Jewish establishment, not only because he was a Gentile, but his castration rendered him completely unacceptable. Now, putting this into context, the big battle which raged at the time was whether converts to Christ had to become Jews first, before becoming Christians, because obviously Jesus was a Jew. St. Peter said Yes. St. Paul said No. Guess who won that argument? Paul did—hands down—and is one major reason why Christianity grew to become a Gentile church.

So, before Philip baptizes the Ethiopian, Moses is quoted in the Torah: He whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. (Hey folks. I don’t write this stuff. I just read it. Deut 23:1) Now, this isn’t opinion from Moses. This is the word of the Lord. And yet, Philip set this OT ruling from God aside and baptizes the eunuch, once again challenging Judaic law to a higher humanity … which is precisely the action to which the meaning of Jesus had driven Philip.

MF, Jesus’ disciples in every generation have struggled against their own survival mentality. In fact, one can view Christian history as a constant battle between the religious rules of yesterday and the freedom which stems from Jesus of Nazareth. Even though victims have differed, the barriers to celebrating their full humanity have been overcome again and again, and yet again.

MF, I could tell you the story of a lot of people: mentally ill people, African American people, Jewish people, left-handed people, gay and lesbian people, women as a people, children as a people, Palestinian people, the Hutu and Armenian and Holodomor peoples, Protestants as a people, Catholics as a people, and many, many more, all of whom have been made to feel religious rejection. But in time, each of these exclusionary barriers has fallen before the same power which people experienced in Jesus.

God is not a heavenly judge here, but a life-giving force expanding inside humanity, until that humanity becomes barrier free. God calls us to live life to the fullest, as Jesus did—who himself lived the life of God in the flesh. Jesus’ humanity was so full and so complete that God’s divinity could flow through him and in him. It is that that human wholeness, that human completeness to which Jesus breaks down barriers to call us to join him.

That’s the good news for us this morning, MF, and for the rest of our lives. AMEN

Faith, hope and love abide—these three—but the greatest of them is love! 1 Cor 13:13

Dear Friends. If you didn’t know, the Numero Uno theme of my 4,000 plus sermons over 42 plus years is? … Love! In fact, today’s epistle from 1 Corinthians 13, is euphemistically entitled, St. Paul’s Ode to Love, in which Paul sends his love in spades, and then some. This morning, I’d like to concentrate on the “and then some” from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.

Written in 55 AD, this letter is the third oldest “book” in the NT, after First Thessalonians (51 AD) and Galatians (54 AD). All the other Pauline letters were penned a little later and the gospels written even decades later. But first, let me set the stage.

Corinth was a Greek, Hellenistic and Roman city located on the isthmus which connects mainland Greece with the Peloponnese. Surrounded by fertile plains and blessed with natural springs, ancient Corinth was a center of trade, even had a naval fleet and participated in various Greek wars. In the Roman period, Corinth was a major colony and for over a millennium was rarely out of the limelight. The city was visited by Paul in 50 AD, but today it lies in ruins. Only the impressive temple to Apollo stands.

In Paul’s time, the city claimed the distinction of having its name made into a verb. To “corinthianize” meant to “go to the dogs,” meaning the city had already gone to the dogs—the rich living a foul and vile life, while the poor suffered wretchedly. But in the heart of the city stood a temple to the goddess Aphrodite, which employed the services of a mere 1,000 sacred prostitutes. The Greek historian Strabo concluded: No man should go to Corinth!

I suspect Paul should have taken this warning to heart, because after he first arrived in Corinth, he spoke at the local synagogue to promote his claim that an obscure Nazarene, named Jesus, only 20 years earlier crucified in Jerusalem, was the promised Jewish Messiah. Well, this so horrified his Jewish listeners, that they told him—blasphemer and heretic that Paul was—to get out of the city and never return! Well MF, he obliged them, but not before converting numerous Jews who remained in the city and hastily converted others, founded a parish, and then 4 years later wrote to Paul. First Corinthians is Paul’s letter in answer to them.

Now, Paul wasn’t interested in communicating doctrine, as he did in Romans and Galatians. He simply wanted to address the problems which the members of the Corinth parish outlined, beginning with their current factionalism. It seems that instead of everyone being baptised in the name of Christ, members were being baptised in the name of Peter, Paul, Apollos and Christ.

The net result was a house divided, with its members pledging allegiance to Peter, Paul, Apollos and Christ, depending on whose name they were baptized. It was not unlike the Christian Church today, with folks thinking they were baptized Lutheran or Anglican, Catholic or United. Trouble is, the factionalism in Corinth became a global division within the Church over the centuries.

So, Peter was declared to be the first pope, whose followers began the Roman Catholic Church. Paul’s doctrine of salvation by grace through faith became the central tenant of Martin Luther’s discovery and the beginning of the Protestant church; Apollos was a Greek convert whose rational comprehension of the faith was the basis for the Orthodox Church. And Jesus Christ, who was followed by millions of individual minded Christians, broke from the unyielding institutions of Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodox, to form thousands of small denominations and congregations. Saint Paul tried to mend the factionalism in his Corinthian parish, but it was much too late for that—as it still is today!

Another splinter group within the four factions had also sprung up: charismatics (pneumatikoi) who possessed spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues (glossalalia) and prophecy (propheteia). They played a game of one-upmanship with each other, while looking down their noses at all the lesser Christians.

Other problems included one man and his stepmother living together as man and wife—forbidden by Roman and Jewish law. Others binged and glutted themselves and getting drunk at the Lord’s Table. Remember, communion in its early church stages was part of a complete Passover Meal. Trouble is, at Corinth, the rich gorged themselves while the poor ate miserly, which of course was the main reason the early church went to a ritual wafer and sip of wine. And so on!

Paul’s response? I cannot address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh and babies in Christ. (3:2) The members were in fact Christ’s Body, as Paul wrote in one of his most enduring metaphors: Christ’s eyes, ears, hands and feet. But the way the Corinthians were carrying on, could only leave Christ bloodshot, ass-eared and all thumbs to carry on Christ’s work in a fallen world.

MF, it’s too easy to say that Paul should have known better; but it’s early days in the church, where expectations take time, just like maturity takes time and effort. The journey of faith is long, arduous and usually very little travelled—a fact Paul knew, but struggled mightily, with a sense of futility and anguish. So, Paul answered their questions as best he could— issues about sex and marriage, the role of women in the church, about the propriety of eating meat, which in a city like Corinth had been already dedicated to a few little gods, down to the last lamb chop. Oh yum!

But then he added that if this consumption offended the “weaker faith” of others, then it’s better not to consume the protein. Paul of course had no way of knowing that over the centuries this view would be used to purge all kinds of goodly activity, like moderate drinking and dancing, for which Christ liberated his followers.

Paul’s answers in this first epistle tended to be pedagogic, practical, and appealing more to tradition than theology. It was better to marry than to burn, he told them—a phrase which has echoed down through the centuries. Women should be veiled and not even speak in church, said Paul—another dictum which literalists have reiterated ad nauseum. Trouble is, they conveniently omitted Paul’s phrase—quote: This is my opinion and not from the Lord, which he iterated more than once (7:40).

You know, when I first went to seminary in Saskatoon in 1970, my class was confronted with questions some of us had never pondered before. Like … Just how literally was the Bible the Word of God? I mean, this literal question buzzed around everything: from women and preaching, to manifest destiny and chosenness, to economic justice and homosexuality. So, our first question was, “Well, just what does the Bible say?”

We knew the 10 Commandments said nothing about being gay or women being silent in church, but, if they were SS teachers, well then, they could speak—another exception to what the Bible said. Jesus also never said a word about these issues, although some thought he was gay because he never married. So, we went to Leviticus and the Purity Codes of Ch 19-22. And what did we find?

We read about keeping kosher, not eating shellfish or pork, not wearing multiple fabrics, not touching a woman during menstruation, dragging adulterers from synagogues and stoning them, that a man shouldn’t lie down with a man as he did with a woman. But it made no sense to us that we were singling out the texts relating to gay sex, while wearing different fabrics, all the while eating shrimp and barbecue ribs, and not stoning adulterers, as Leviticus commanded! This all seemed so maddening and confusing to us.

But one day, we came across something totally astounding: 1 Cor 7:14: This is my opinion and not from the Lord. We discovered Paul’s opinion. Opinion in the word of God—human opinion which converted us from “What does the Bible say?” to “What is the context in which the Bible says this, that and the other? Does it make literal sense? But most important: Does it square with Love? More on that in a 2 pages.

MF, the real issue for Paul lay much deeper than any single question from the parish members at Corinth. The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, Paul wrote (1:18). In his heart of hearts, that was the ultimate problem which plagued him.

Trouble is, what sophisticated Greek at Corinth was going to believe a convicted felon, who claimed to be the bearer of God’s forgiving and transforming love? I mean, what uglier, more supremely inappropriate symbol of Plato’s philosophical The Beautiful and Good could there be than a bloody crucified Jew? But especially for the devout orthodox Jew, what a more scandalous image of the King David’s blood line born in a stinking stable, and before whom all the nations of the earth were to come to heel? Paul’s God did not look nor act much like what the converted Corinthian Greeks were used to—a mighty Zeus, reigning thunderbolts from the heavens, now reduced to a weak and foolish God who was even poorer than church mice!

But then, Paul adds insult to injury: Pray for your enemies—even love them—aid the poor, give them the shirt off your back and the shoes on your feet, even offer them your next meal—love your neighbour as yourself, and finally—pick up your cross and follow some crucified Jew—a supposed Messiah—to your own Golgatha! Well, that’s more than any sophisticated Greek could take. But that’s who this God was and what his Son demanded. This is the sublime foolishness of God which is ultimately wise, claimed Paul.

Terrible as all this sounded, Paul did not flinch in putting it down in black and white. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, he wrote to them, we are of all men most to be pitied (15:19). If Christ has not been raised, he flatly said, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain and if the dead are not raised, “then let us eat and drink—oh yum!—for tomorrow we die!” (15:14,32).

MF, it is impossible for us to read these words 2,000 years later and not sense that Paul is speaking, not simply theologically, but very personally here. After all, remember what drove him—this Jew who was balding, bow-legged and small of stature, but strongly built—this Roman citizen whose mind was sharp, with a tongue like a two-edged sword, cutting both ways—this Christian convert whose letters were bold and strong? What drove him?

His vision of the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus—that’s what drove him! That vision, in which he was blinded for days afterwards and a voice calling him by name. That’s what drove him. That’s what kept him going through thick and thin. That Christ would appear to him, of all people—professional persecutor of Christians as he was at the time and of Christ not only forgiving him but enlisting him as the Apostle to the Gentiles. The experience was always front and center—alive, like Christ was alive—always driving him forward—never backward.

Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the final trumpet. Therefore, my brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labour is not in vain. (15:51,58)

But then, in the next verses, Paul is down to brass tacks again, telling them how the money for the Jerusalem church was to be raised, sent and spent; where Paul plans to travel next; and when they can expect to hear from him again. For until the last trumpet sounds, there is much work to be done on Christ’s behalf, he said!

All of which finally brings me to the Epistle for today, Chapter 13—Paul’s Ode to Love. Not in all the Gospels, MF, is there a narrative and description of love even remotely similar!

I may speak with the tongue of angels…I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets, I may have the faith to move mountains, I may even give my body to be burned, but if I have no love, none of this does me any good. Without love, I am nothing. Love never gives up, for it is eternal. … Faith, hope and love abide—these three; but the greatest is love. (vss 1-3,7-8,13)

Words like these are like wrinkled foreheads, after many years of living—passed on from one generation to another. Paul had been speaking about spiritual gifts—prophesy, tongues, healing, miracles and making the point that these and many other gifts should not be the cause of further divisions and factions in the parish—people gifted one way only to disparage people gifted another.

Paul sees all Christians as part of Christ’s Body and each part in its own way as necessary as every other. The eye cannot say to the hand “I have no need of you!” Each gift, like each body part, is to be cherished. But earnestly desire the higher gifts, Paul concludes, and at that point sets off in what turned out to be perhaps the most memorable lines he ever penned.

The highest gift of all, even more than faith and hope, not to mention tongues and prophecy and the like, is love, which in Paul’s Greek is the word agapethe love between God and us. Without this mutual abiding human-divine love, even faith, almsgiving, hope, good works are mere busyness—all for nought! Love is the measuring stick! All the Letters Paul himself wrote—even the entire Bible itself: Did it square with love? That was and still is the central issue.

The power of agape, otherwise actually quite powerless in the world, is perhaps nowhere better seen nor understood, as in the Disney production of Beauty and the Beast. Beauty does not love the Beast because he is one handsome hunk, but she makes him handsome and human because she loves him. Ultimately agape is God’s love for you and me—for us and for the entire human family. Agape is God’s gift to us, help us to love … without condition, without circumstance and without fail.

So, when Paul says Love never ends! he’s not being sentimental or merely rhetorical. There is no doubt that eros ends, when the one being desired is no longer desirable, or when desire itself ends. Likewise, philos may well end when friendship dies or the friend dies! Agape, on the other hand, is eternal, because God is eternal and it is with God that agape originates.

In fact, God is love, which is what Paul experienced first-hand on the Damascus Road: The Risen Christ had every reason to find Paul deplorable, but instead found him lovable—even to his dying day in 64 AD, in Rome, under Emperor Nero’s brutal reign.

Of course, there are those who prefer certainty to truth, those who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. But what a distortion of the gospel it is, to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse, to have limited certainties but unlimited sympathies, is not only more tolerant but far more Christian. MF, if we fail in love, then we have failed in all other things, no matter how well we do them!

Paul’s last words in the letter: My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. He gives his readers “All my lovin” to use a Beatles’ song title. Paul sends his congregants his love and agape is the word he uses—the most precious gift he ever received and the most precious gift he ever gave away.

That’s the good news for us this morning MF, and for the rest of our lives. AMEN.

One day, all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last. Free at last! Thank God Almighty! We’re free at last!” Martin Luther King Jr, 1963

Dear Friends. Back in the 70s studying for my doctorate, I met a very old black man at a church service I was conducting in downtown Richmond, VA. This man once met Martin Luther King Jr. His great, great, great, great-grand-father was a slave and share-cropper. He told me how King’s “I Have a Dream” speech changed him. King delivered that historically poignant sermon on Aug 28, 1963, to over 250,000 Americans at the Lincoln Memorial, during The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in which he called for civil and economic rights and an end to racism in the US

At the time, JFK was the President, who, as you know, was assassinated 3 months later, Nov 22, 1963. King’s speech, together with his life-long non-violent activism awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He too was assassinated. On April 04, 1968, James Earl Ray, an escaped fugitive, shot him dead at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. Martin Luther King Jr was only 39 years young.

Martin Luther King Day was officially recognized by the City of Toronto in 2005. It’s not a statutory holiday for Torontonians, but is a federal holiday in the US, marking King’s birthday, Jan 15, 1929 and recognized on the third Monday of January—Jan 17, 2022.

MF, you may know that the OT contains many stories of kings, patriarchs and prophets of Israel, while the NT has apostles, martyrs and saints who were all used to instruct us on God’s will and ways. Hebrews calls them living testimonies, designed to reveal not human heroics, but rather God’s continuing grace. Ecclesiastes 44:1 put it this way: Let us now praise famous men for the Lord has caused great glory through them. What Plutarch did for the pagans of the ancient world, Christians did for the faithful and biography, MF, was the means to accomplish this end.

Read no history, declared English PM Disraeli in the 19thC—Read nothing but biography, for that is life without theory. In the same century, American poet, Waldo Emerson, wrote: There is no history, only biography! What began centuries earlier, was reinforced in the 19thC, continued into the 20th and 21st centuries, where the chief form of literature is still biography. This is especially true of historians on both sides of the 49th parallel, who write best selling biographies of presidents and prime ministers alike. Trouble is, biography is a two-edged sword: individuals can be exalted, but can also be humbled and brought down.

Biography is still a popular form of literature, aided and abetted by the less modest autobiography, and even the less pretentious memoir. Today we’d rather have human than heroic types; rather read that the hero is no better than we are, and even quite a bit worse! In fact, there’s an acute shortage of heroes in our day and those few who remain stand on rather tenuous pedestals.

To fill our deep-seated need for a hero we’ve created an alternate replacement, a synthetic substitute: the celebrity—whether of movie, sport, politics, religion or other fame. We used to expect much of celebrities but have learned they deliver less than much. Celebrities are integral to our throwaway culture—a commodity here today and gone tomorrow—why we create so many of them!

MF, nowadays our romance with heroes and the heroic is tempered with a heavy dose of reality. Given the disappointments and deceptions we’ve shared as a culture, we desperately search for those who not only can make the present and future easier for us, but those who are worthy of our loyalty and love. Such a search is accentuated during times of crisis and uncertainty, and the hero we seek must transcend the times and transform us. And so the purpose of biography is to identify these human heroes and write of their personal, local and global impact.

Personally, my pastor, the (late) Rev. Philip Weingartner was my “hero,” although I did not perceive him that way growing up. Rather, he was my model for life and living—a very human father who would always embrace me and tell me that I was included in his daily prayers for own children. I’ve spoken and written of my pastor many times in short biographical sketches. He had much empathy for me as an emotionally abandoned child raised by my grandparents. Out of thankfulness for his care and love, I followed my dreams, deciding to become a pastor at the tender age of 13.

At the time, my grandparents regarded this dream as terribly unpractical—in a world where “he who has the gold rules.” Their son, my uncle, called me a “dreamer,” who would amount to nothing. But without my dreams, I would not be who I am today.

Dreams are central to the psychologist’s work, and since Freud, no dream is devoid of the most telling analysis. Think about how silly the boy Joseph (and his coat of many colours) was to share an arrogant dream with his angry older brothers, whose response was irrational and indignant: Let’s slay this dreamer and then we shall see what becomes of his dreams! Gen 37:19-20. Well MF, not only was Joseph not slain and had the last word and laugh, but there are aspects of his story with which we can all identify!

Joseph and his dream illustrate for us the ambiguity of the hero, but given half a chance, we may well destroy the very means to our own salvation in order to preserve the shreds of our own dignity. Heroes are born of their dreams and need the very qualities that make them heroic; but which also set them apart from us at their own peril—and ours!

When Pastor Weingartner died at the age of 91 in 1993, I was heartbroken, not only by his death, but by the exclusion of my home church to participate in the funeral of the man who was my father image and without whom my dreams would not have come true. In fact, St. John’s Lutheran, Hamilton, forever excluded me from their pulpit, as one who has a theologically progressive interpretation of Scripture, which for instance, elevates homosexuals to equality. St. John’s closed its doors in 2020.

With the death of Martin Luther King Jr at the hands of an assassin, MF, we learned once again the reality of those words of Joseph’s brothers: Here comes the dreamer. Let us slay him and then we shall see what becomes of his dreams! While Americans and Canadians honoured his life this past Jan 17, he was killed during Passion Week of 1968, and 3 days later was Palm Sunday. How rich and meaningful were the associations of King’s death, as well as another dreamer, RFK—Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy—who died two months later at the hands of another assassin.

There could be no more vivid lesson in proximity than this one, which reminds us of our ambiguous relationship to those heroes who would save us, including Jesus who cried out: Jerusalem! Oh Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone the messengers whom God sends you! Somehow, we’ve managed to translate Martin Luther King Jr—a man who was always difficult to live with—into a comfortable myth who can do no wrong. This too is the risk heroes face.

Today, more than half a century later, there are very few still living who heard Martin Luther King Jr speak, even less who knew him personally. I moved to Richmond, VA, in the fall of 1975, more than 7 years after his death. I’ve heard him preach his Dream speech numerous times on video—each time more moving than the last. If I had met him in person, I would have felt awe, but also awkwardness.

The fact is: moral power, spiritual rigor, intellectual acuteness and physical courage are all qualities we admire in the abstract, but when we (must) confront them in person and face-to-face—especially if we doubt our own supply of these qualities—well, it’s difficult to be anything but awkward. Even within his own lifetime, Martin Luther King Jr appeared to many to be aloof and preoccupied, while many blacks resisted his natural ascendancy and single-mindedness, not to mention his demanding, scrupulous pacifism, especially among numerous militant black organizations.

At the time of his death, King’s vision called him to the basic needs of the garbage workers of Memphis, TN, and to the immoral enormity of the US gulag in Vietnam. In so many ways, larger than anyone or even larger than many combined, his ministry was always concerned with the least of his sisters and brothers.

You may remember that a precipitous wave of guilt swept the US at the time of King’s death—perhaps equal only to the deaths of Lincoln and JFK. Americans across the country blamed themselves for creating the climate of violence and indifference in which Mcould be assassinated for just wanting to do good. In death, he was finally able to claim the loyalty which was denied him in life.

MF, it is far easier to honour the dead, than follow the living—Jesus being the epitome of that truth. And so we take the dead to our bosoms, for only there can they no longer do any harm. We then translate a living, breathing, noble and fallible human being into a hero, satisfying our need to both admire and be protected from someone larger than ourselves, only because we may be too cowardly to stand where Martin Luther King Jr stood and do what he did.

Can we afford to restrict such heroes to the moral archives of history, for they are all we have? The purpose of biography is not to create a cult, whether of Trump or Trudeau—personalities which feed upon public guilt and culpability, but see God acting in them!

The art of biography is to see in the human the hint of the divine and to see the divine in terms of flesh and blood which we can understand. But if we fail in this delicate translation, we will be left with just one more matinee idol or one more victim.

MF, we Canadians are led to remember Martin Luther King Jr , not because there is a moral imperative on our part to do so, or even because the City of Toronto has set aside such a day. Rather, he was in the time of our prime as one whom God had raised up to also elevate us from our personal and collective bondage to the things that were and are, to the liberty of the things that can and ought to be.

MF, if we look for human perfection in Martin Luther King Jr , we will never find it, as we will never find it in ourselves or each other, succumbing to our own foibles and failures. If we look for him to serve as our moral guide for our day—to “cash in” on his virtue—we will find the supply insufficient. But, if we look to see in him what God was trying to do and say to us, if we look beyond the cult and the deeds; if in fact we look where King was looking, we will begin to see what sustained him in the long, narrow and tortuous road barely travelled and which will sustain us, if we desire it enough.

When the Israelites spoke of righteous Abel, faithful Abraham, successful Joseph and mighty Moses, they saw those great heroes as the mirrors of faith in which God could be found and through whom God could do his work with us. Such lives were not testimonies to themselves, but to God, and the recital of such lives reminded the faithful hearers that God has always taken frail flesh and made of it something of his own and for his own.

The fact is, MF, we are all the heirs of God’s promises: rich and poor, black and white, male and female, red and brown, slave or free, heterosexual or homosexual, religious or atheist. Though frail of flesh, heroes serve as beacons of integrity. No real hero is so, unless, like a symbol, he points beyond himself and reflects what we must also do and what God can do with and through us.

The hero stands, not as an end, but as a means, which is the difference with the celebrity who only attracts curiosity and self-imitation. Whereas the hero sends us to the source and the end of his good worth and merit. Insofar as any hero is worthy of praise, it is to the degree that he proves what can be and who God is.

Even we Canadians have learned much during the perilous years since the disappearance of this dreamer. And yet, his big dream remains deferred to haunt us in its incompleteness. How could we mortals be expected to handle this? It’s simply too much for any of us! And yet, the grace of his life and ours is that God continues to inject himself into this pointedly painful world of ours, where God is both needed and not wanted, both loved and abandoned.

Such MF is God’s love towards us that he sent us himself in the form of a vulnerable baby boy and then sends us dreams not only to disturb our sleep and slumber, but dreamers to disturb our comfort and comfortability.

God grant that in our pilgrimage, it may always be so. AMEN

And Mary said to him: “They have no wine!” Jn 2:3

Jesus’ mother, Mary, who was a guest at the party, as were Jesus and his disciples—Mary notices the impending calamity. She tells her son and so expects him to do something about it. MF, let’s not be fooled by the indirect nature of what seems only an observation: “They have run out of wine.”  Mary’s not merely taking note of a verifiable fact and then making some idle conversation with her son. Any son of any mother would know what she expected. Her intention was clear: “Son! You need to do something!”Well MF, it was an absolute unmitigated disaster. Running out of wine at a wedding brought lasting shame to the host-family. It wasn’t simply a miscalculation of how much they would need. No, it’s more likely that given the widespread poverty of the day, the parents had provided all they could. It just wasn’t enough! And now everybody in the village of Cana would know.

Now, there are a few places in the NT where Jesus comes off as shockingly human. One is where he cries at the death of Lazarus, when he sees how much the people loved Lazarus, which stirs Jesus’ very own feelings for his friend, brother to Mary and Martha. Another place where Jesus’ humanity comes across loud and clear is precisely here in this exchange. I mean, he’s not exactly thrilled with his mother. Woman, what concern is that to you? The Good News version says: Mother, you must not tell me what to do! It sounds like something we might tell our mothers at the ripe old age of 30—although perhaps we might be a tad more polite, even if we thought that our mother was imposing on our time, agenda and rights. Maybe, his “hour had not arrived,” as Jesus said. But, dare I say that Jesus comes off as kind of arrogant, perhaps even petulant? But then, Jesus in fact does what his mother expects: he changes the water in nearby jugs into good tasting wine!

Beyond mother-son relationships, is there someone who wants to debate whether this miracle really happened? MF, I’ve witnessed it too many times: How often do we get bogged down in interpretations of Scripture to the point where we never get to first base with the Gospel? There are still too many Christians trying to prove that the world was created in 6 – 24 hour time periods or that two of every kind of animal, including dinosaurs, were on the ark. Life is simply too short to try to prove the improvable.

Like many stories of Jesus, this narrative also represents a dynamic of the spiritual life we all face. So, MF, when’s the last time you were asked to step up to the plate and do something, even though it wasn’t your job or part of what you had planned for the day? This happens to all of us, more than once—me too!

I could give you scads of illustrations, but let me relay this true story. One late Friday afternoon, back in London at my second parish, I was about ready to lock the church doors and call it a day, when suddenly, a young man in his mid-30s appeared at the door. He was an aboriginal—a Canadian Indian—an Iroquois from the Potawotami Tribe and his name iwas Pikita—“Big Rabbit.” He was a big man, who went by the Christian name, Paul.

It was winter and bitterly cold and so I invited him into my warm, spacious office. He told me his story—the long and short of it—which moved me deeply and I believed him. He was very hungry and needed a bus ticket back to Sault St. Marie, his home. Now, two hours later, I treated Paul to a nearby Harvey’s and then to the bus station downtown, where I bought him a one-way ticket to the Sault and waited with him till he got on the bus.

It’s not what I had in mind that Friday night, returning home very late. Like Jesus, it wasn’t “my hour” either, but then the Holy Spirit blows where it will, MF! Our task is to let the spiritual winds and waves blow into our hearts and minds and help where we can, even if it’s an inconvenient time and truth, which costs us.

It was Paul’s hour of need. His wine had run out, you see! Sometimes, being a Christian means stepping up to the plate, even if it doesn’t fit our schedule, or there’s someone else who could do better at the plate than us. The fact is, we all need to hear the voice of Mary, pointing out to us the obvious want, the palpable poverty and the dreadful need, which stares us in the face.

It could be global refugees, child poverty, or even our next-door neighbours. Sometimes we just don’t want to be bothered – or we hope somebody else will deal with it, or we find a rationalization that will make us feel better for not having done anything at all. MF, think of Mary’s voice as the voice of your mother or grandmother, father or grandfather—maybe even your spouse or children—the voice that interrupts you with God’s agenda.   

Surely, one of the voices that interrupts us with God’s agenda, comes to us from Mother Earth herself. Terry Glavin wrote a haunting account of what he calls the Age of Extinction in his 2006 best seller, Waiting for the Macaws. A dark gathering pervades the earth. Ecologists call it the Sixth Extinction. The world isn’t losing just the ecological legacy of animal and plant species, but Glavin says we’re also losing the vast human legacy of languages, ways of living, seeing and knowing. The first five extinctions have been the result of natural causes. This one is our very own responsibility, says Glavin—the rape and pillage of Mother Earth and her resources for financial greed and gain.

The fact is: Our scientific knowledge has run light years ahead of our spiritual wisdom. We’ve forgotten how to live with Mother Earth from which we originated. Every day our wine glass runs out for an entire species of plant and animal. Wine is running out on the Bengal Tiger, the Sea Tortoise, the Spotted Owls, the Kihansi Spray Toad, the Marlin—just to name a few!

Is it petulance or indifference or just plain not wanting to be bothered that causes us to act as though this is of no concern to us? Recently Sherry and I watched Who killed the Electric Car?—a 2006 documentary which investigated the birth and death of the electric car, as well as the role of renewable energy and sustainable living in the future. Though dated, it wasn’t just Big Oil that killed the electric car; it was ordinary people who refused to buy them. Why? Primarily because they were much too expensive!

That each gallon of gas from piston power spews pounds of pollutants into the air, seems to matter little. Quite frankly, sometimes I didn’t even think of it as I drove around the city on behalf of the churches I served. The good news is that companies like Tesla are making remarkable inroads into the purchase of electric vehicles.

That’s when Mother Mary comes to us as the voice of Mother Earth. She looks at us, or should I say, she looks through us and sees through our addiction to convenience, past our obsession with electronics and the timelines we’ve created in our pursuit of more goods and gold. She interrupts our rampage through earth’s natural resources by reminding us, as she did Jesus, of what we already know: the wine is quickly running out and, in many places, has already run dry!

Sometimes it’s our own wine that runs out—yours and mine—not withstanding the endless needs of the world. Where is that need this week, MF? Mary speaks to us from deep within, pointing out the obvious: that sometimes we have nothing left to give. For those of us in that situation, the party stopped a long time ago. Instead, it has become an unrelenting obligation to take care of others—aging parents and grandparents and spouses.

Still, we do not welcome the voice of compassion when it’s directed at ourselves. We push it away, like Jesus, who says to his mother: “Don’t tell me what to do!” We may not think that the hour to love others has arrived; but Mary, the spiritual voice of the Divine Source of Life and Living begs to differ. The need in this case is not just out there, MF. It begins within our soul!

So, Jesus steps up to the plate, just as his mother knew he would, and orders that nearby stone jars, used for purification rites, be filled with water. Stone—because clay is too porous, risking contamination. The symbolism is unmistakably clear: If the wedding celebration is to continue, it will begin with purification.

Which begs the question: What is there within us which is in need of purification? I want to suggest that collectively, the purification we’re being asked to undergo, begins by learning to distinguish between our needs and our wants or wishes.

We’re so inundated with advertising everywhere—the purpose of which is precisely to blur the line between need and want – that our judgment is truly contaminated.

A while back I was reading an article about folks who called themselves Compacters? Some 10,000 people around the world made a resolution not to buy anything for an entire year—except food and underwear! Their actions made a statement: They were resetting the gage which measured when enough is enough! MF, the fact is: we need help. There’s plenty of research which shows that happiness and money are correlated, but only up to a surprisingly low level of income. Shortly after we reach the poverty line – the correlation actually begins to break down.

It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with money, and it’s not that those of us with lots of it can’t be happy. Of course we can – but if we are, it’s not the money making us happy. It’s the quality of our relationships, the integrity of our values, the sense that we’re making a contribution to our family and friends, to our neighbours, church and society. Our joy in sharing our wealth. That is what makes us happy!

Jesus turned the waters of purification into approximately 600 bottles of wine! How great & grand is that, eh?! The symbolism in the Jewish tradition is clear. Abundance of wine was associated with a new age, in which God would act to bring wholeness, health and healing to the people and to Mother Earth herself.

MF, let’s listen to the prophet: The time is surely coming says the Lord when the mountain shall drip with sweet wine and the hills shall flow with it; when my people shall plant vineyards and drink their wine (Amos 9:13,14). On this mountain the Lord will make for all people a feast of rich food, and well-aged wines strained clear. Let us rejoice and be glad in God’s salvation” (Isa 25:6,10).

Abundance, MF, that’s what Jesus wants to bring us, if we let him: I have come to bring you life and bring it more abundantly! Jesus didn’t come to bring us religion—more creeds & credos, more doctrines & dogma. He came to fill our cups up with wine—wine to overflowing! And not just any wine—but the best and most qualitative wine. A rich and fruitful life Jesus wants to bring us, if we’re not too busy to receive abundance from him; so that we can share that abundance with others, which is the life of discipleship! Disciples naturally make more disciples you see!

The Good News is that just when we’re ready to settle into sadness and hopelessness, into running everything and everybody down, that there’s not enough during economic tough times—Jesus is just getting started. He always saves the best for the last.

MF, I believe humanity is on the verge of a break-through of spiritual awareness and consciousness! More people are aware of their authentic spiritual natures; more folks are unprepared to trade the abundant life of the spirit to chase after more goods and gold; more of us are falling back in love with the planet and the gift of life on earth More corporations are leading the way with green technology. More individuals are looking for alternative ways of life that leave time for deep, authentic relationships.

There is an abundance of spiritual consciousness in the world. God is constantly on the move, if we’ve got eyes to see. Drink deeply of the wine of the spirit, which our Lord Jesus always offers to you and me—from abundance to overflowing. The (wedding) party to which Jesus invites us, as he was invited, continues!  AMEN

You are my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased. Luke 3:22

Dear Friends. Today’s story of Jesus’ Baptism is from LK, but MK and MT also have similar versions, with a few extras. Eg, unlike MT and MK, LK says that “after Jesus’ baptism, he was at prayer.” For LK, prayer is as natural as the air we breathe. Why? Because Jesus knows that prayer makes things happen. Prayer not only reaches to the very core of our being, it 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. In fact, even before the formation of the church, the dove became the primary Christian symbol 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 deep meaning of symbolism.

Which brings me to a significant controversy back then about the HS: namely, when did Jesus receive the HS and did he always retain it throughout his lifetime? Now, if you were reading MK’s Gospel, you would conclude that Jesus received the HS at the time of his baptism when he was identified as God’s Son. Why? Because Mk begins his gospel with the baptism of Jesus.

But if you’re reading MT and LK, you’d have to say that Jesus received the HS at the time of his birth. Why? Because MT and LK begin their gospels with Jesus’ birth, in which they determined that Mary’s pregnancy was conceived by the HS.

But, if you’re reading JN’s Gospel, you would know that Jesus and the HS, together with God the Father, are 3-in-1 before the creation of the world; that Jesus is “the Word without whom nothing was made”; and that “God became flesh and lived among us.”

Another question which plagued theologians was whether Jesus retained the HS throughout his entire life? Of course, you and I would like to think so. But the trouble is, Jesus gave up the HS just before he died, says LK. Why? Because if God cannot die, the Son of God also cannot die, while still retaining the HS. Only a truly human person can die. So, Jesus gives up his Spirit in the last moments before his death.

Now, when it comes to Jesus’ identity as God’s Son, there is agreement by all 3 evangelists: “You are my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased.” God confirms who Jesus is by his baptism, according to MT, MK and LK. So, what about JN’s gospel. Well, JN does not need a baptism to confirm Jesus’ sonship. Why not? JN already confirms Jesus’ identity before the creation of the universe. Jesus is the Word since the beginning of time who creates everything that is. Jn 1:4.

Now, we finally get to the crux of the matter. Why did Jesus submit to baptism by John the Baptist for the forgiveness of sin, when Jesus was without sin? MF, Jesus’ baptism perhaps had little to do with sin, other than modelling baptism for us; but it had everything to do with his identification as God’s Son.

In short, more than anything else in this event, we need to understand that Jesus’ baptism is his spiritual transformation! With his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, Jesus completely and finally understands who he is and what his heavenly Father expects of him. All of which is emphasized by what Jesus does immediately after his baptism. He goes into the wilderness for 40 days and nights to pray and meditate about his mission as God’s Son and how to accomplish it, during which time Jesus is tempted by Satan, who knows he is the Son of God.

Which is to say: For Jesus, sonship is a personal relationship with God which involves dependency, intimacy and trust—all of which are absolutely, categorically and unequivocably 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!

Remember the debate in John 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 and 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 disciples, how to mature into sons and daughters, how to grow up and grow into mothers and fathers!

Which also means how to act like these—to be good and faithful, honest and humble, truthful and trusting, giving and forgiving. Parishes filled with such folks are spiritually healthy.

But, there are churches where, instead of an attitude of honesty and humility, what rules is intimidation, self-importance and superiority—sometimes by clergy, other times by laity, and often by both. Too many churches are battlegrounds where discipleship, 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.

Whenever I was pushed to the edge by some German members in former parishes of mine, I’d tell them: Jesus hat nie gesagt, Du sollst Recht haben. Jesus never said: You shall be right! Such members have no cohesiveness with others and little spirituality.

Sonship is the mark of Jesus’ identity at his baptism—an identity which he learned, earned and modelled 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 we can be fathers and mothers, teachers and models for others. MF, Jesus lets his Father teach him and so he grows in obedience and in wisdom!

That’s why Jesus calls us to do what Zen masters tell their disciples: to be children, before they can be sons and daughters in order to 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 the only people who can see the kingdom are children. Why? Because children, who are uncorrupted by adults, are loving and trusting, ready to learn and be taught.

That’s why spirituality is first about listening and learning, being taught and trained. Spirituality is becoming humble and wise in our knowing. Remember when old Scrooge came to his senses after the visit by the Ghost of Christmas Future? He says to himself: I thought I knew everything; but I knew nothing. Now I know that I know nothing! He was chastened in this wisdom!

Spirituality is not about earning or achieving, not about power and control over others, not about bigger and best, not about results and requirements—not even about success and achievement. Spirituality is about inner growth and learning, inner wisdom and relating to oneself and to others. Because once we see and hear, listen and learn, then wisdom follows. To quote a native American proverb: You can’t push a flowing river!

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 know that God is always beyond them. Rather, the church has tended to produce people who act as if God is in their pocket and so they’ve got all the answers.

EG, over the last 75 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 HS, but, like confirmation, baptism is a tradition, after which learning stops. We’ve graduated! We’ve now got the truth with a capital T.

There’s nothing wrong with traditions. We live in a time of few customs connecting us to our roots. But baptism doesn’t take on its full meaning and significance, until and unless, we actually connect the HS in us, with what we believe and what we do.

Baptism is our first connection to God. In fact, our psyche is hard-wired into the spiritual dimension of life. We want 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. Many Christians are simply unaware of this connection and unity. If we open up to the HS, then the spiritual realm becomes more and more available, and we too come to the spiritual awareness that we are also God’s sons and daughters, in whom God is pleased.

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

“What’s the problem?” I asked. The father replied: “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 can start with a decent job and support herself in the real world. 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 said.

MF, the father thought baptism was just another family ritual. But a dove landed upon that baptized infant, who eventually took her baptism seriously. She responded to the HS by first making things right between her and God, and then decided to help bring justice and equality to the Haitian poor!

Baptism by the HS has nothing to do with traditions, but everything to do with God’s claim on us! In baptism, God’s love comes to us in the intimate act of naming us and claiming us, as God did with Jesus. When we’re finally ready to hear and see, learn and be taught, when we realize deep down in our bones that we are unconditionally loved and accepted for who we are, then we’re God’s beloved child in whom she is very pleased.

A movie I once saw, entitled Normal, was based upon the true story of a man who lives in small Mid-West American town. He’s happily married, a good father and husband, enjoys a beer 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 to him—to them.

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. True love MF is always beyond reason. True love knows things which the mind can never fathom.

Last Thought: Jesus did not live in a clerical subculture, like many current pastors and priests. Jesus lived with ordinary people, like you and me. MF, I see Jesus and I take what I see personally. Which is to say: the male-club of Roman Catholic clericalism has got to go, and the clergy-club of pastors and priests, rabbis and imams must be reformed. With the exception of the religious leaders whom Jesus called hypocrites, we see how comfortable Jesus is living and being a brother to every person he meets.

When we journey with Jesus, we 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 herself. That’s our identity given to us by God at our Baptism.

There’s nothing greater and grander, MF. Nothing! And that’s the good news for us this morning and for the rest of our lives! Amen.

Well MF, it’s movie time again. How great is that? And one of the more delightful films about Christmas was from 2005, which has a surprising amount to say about peace on earth. The film is an adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ children’s story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe written in 1950 as part of the Narnia Chronicles. Lewis wrote the story to help children find hope in the midst of all the violence and evil, the death and destruction and to suggest a way forward to peace.

Like the book, the movie is an allegory of the story of Christ, in which Jesus is depicted by Aslan, the lion. The story takes place in the context of the WWII bombing of London, in which 4 siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy—are sent to the country to stay with an uncle for their safety. In playing hidin’ go seek, Lucy, the youngest, hides in a very special wardrobe, which opens out into the magical land of Narnia.

It’s been winter in Narnia for 100 years—an entire century without Christmas in Narnia. This is because the wicked white witch, servant of the evil Emperor, has reigned in Narnia. She is one vicious, malicious queen—pure evil— savouring every opportunity to deep-freeze her subjects with a wave of her magic wand.

In the meantime, Narnia is waiting the arrival of the daughters and sons of Adam—the human ones—to fulfill an ancient prophecy that their appearance would coincide with Aslan’s march against the evil witch. Trouble is, Edmund, the obstinate sibling of the bunch, swears his allegiance to the white witch, in exchange for the power to rule over his older brother, Peter, along with an endless supply of Turkish Delight. Oh Yum! When he realizes the evil of his ways, Edmund returns to Aslan’s camp and is forgiven.

The white witch then invokes the deep magic of Narnia, the laws that were laid down from the beginning of time. The deep magic is written on a stone table—a sacrificial altar. The witch then confronts Aslan: You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery, I’ve a right to kill. So the life of the human, Edmund, is mine and his blood is my property.

Now, many Christians think this story is only about us being sinners like Edmund—that the white witch has got it right—just as Edmund must pay for his sin with his blood, the rest of us also deserve to die for the sins and sinfulness, the evil and immorality we commit, and only blood for blood can redeem us. That’s part of the story, which includes the wicked witch, who says to Aslan:

Do you really think that you can rob me of my rights, by mere force? You know the Deep Magic better than that. You know that unless I have blood as the Law says, all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.

Now, the evil witch is actually working from an old script, as they say in movie parlance. She is articulating what is called the myth of redemptive violence. Perhaps you’ve never heard the catchphrase before, but in its broadest form, redemptive violence says that violence ultimately saves lives—that immediate violence will stop more war, killing and death. But specifically to this story MF, redemptive violence advocates the slaughter of an innocent victim on behalf of one or more guilty victims.

So, to give you a NT illustration: When Caiaphas refers to Jesus’ execution, It is better that one man should die rather than an entire nation, he is articulating redemptive violence: Jesus’ death on behalf of the nation of Israel. This is what the white witch means when she says that unless she has Edmund’s blood, all of Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and flood. This is the “deep magic” of the witch, the myth of redemptive violence. Trouble is, the wicked witch has it wrong.

Aslan, you see, intervenes with a deeper magic, hidden from the witch. Her magic only goes back to the dawn of time. She thinks it is an eternal, divine law, but actually, it was instituted by the evil emperor. In other words, hers is a temporary magic, a cultural contrivance, not instituted by God at all. History is humanity waiting for the deeper magic—a magic articulated by Aslan after he is killed by the witch and comes back to life, and says this:

The queen’s knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she looked back further, into the stillness and darkness before time, she would have read that there is a deeper incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed out of love in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.

Aslan’s willingness to die was, first and foremost, an act of love, you see, transforming the violence and evil of the witch into his own suffering, on behalf of Edmund and puts an end to the queen’s magic. It is his love and love alone that breaks the spell of redemptive violence, and Aslan’s sacrifice, you see, is part and parcel of his love—the central act of the story. The sacrificial altar is broken in two, and redemptive violence is shattered by the power of non-violent, self-giving, suffering love.

In Narnia, the moment of Aslan’s death is the moment death itself is reversed. The winter gives way to spring, all those frozen by the white witch come back to life and Christmas is a reality again. Similarly in the Gospels, the moment of Christ’s death is that time in history when the cries of all the innocent victims of violence, evil and death are gathered up and given divine priority.

So MF, the spell cast by violence and evil is revealed as a sham. Yes, violence and evil will continue, but their power, you see, is ultimately broken. When love is exercised, it brings an end to violence and evil as the foundation upon which humankind and our civilizations are constructed—which of course is the deepest of all magic, the power of love to end violence, evil and death.

Beyond this great & grand story from CS Lewis, which mirrors the Gospels, it’s clear to me that many folks are confused about the nature of evil. Do we understand evil, how it operates, or what we can do, personally or collectively, to reduce its power over us and its impact on our world? Critical questions we must face! Why? Our planet’s life-sustaining systems are disintegrating. Authoritarianism is emerging globally. Since the pandemic, the physical and mental health of millions continues to deteriorate. Wars and their killing fields persist. All in all, no country and no one is spared.

For the first thousand years of Christianity, it was believed that there were 3 sources of evil: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Over centuries, we became very used to equating evil with individual, personal sins—meaning, we’ve lost a sense of the collective nature of evil. That’s one reason we’ve reduced salvation to private and personal—an affair only between me and God, in which he issues me a Free ‘Get into heaven card’. All I’ve got to do is repent of my individual sins and believe the right stuff.

Up to now, many fundamentalists and right-wing churches have placed almost all of their attention on the sins of the flesh, by policing sexuality, whether on the streets or in the bedrooms of the nation, including that of consenting adults of the same sex. What we should do, MF, is address the more serious and pervasive forms of collective evil and injustice, whether by corporations and industry, by governments or institutions like the church.

MF, if we only imagine Satan as a red, horned figure with a tail and pitch-fork, then we have clearly not taken evil seriously. The global implications of true evil have been massive, blinding, and hugely destructive, especially for minority cultures and races, poor countries and Mother Earth. We especially misunderstand the nature of political, corporate and institutional evil, if we only and always reduce evil to our personal sins. When small, easily forgivable sins are equated with evil, we trivialize the very global nature of evil. Before evil becomes personal and shameable, evil is often culturally agreed upon, admired, and deemed necessary.

So eg, we use redemptive violence to stop further war and killing. But does it? Evil spirals into more evil in different forms, which may bring us a respite from the killing fields of war, but not for long. Meanwhile our planet is in the grip of monstrous social, corporate and institutional evils all the way to our 21stC. That’s why we’ve also lost the benefit of a collective notion of salvation that far exceeds anyone’s individual worthiness or unworthiness.

All this leaves me very conflicted. We often call war good and necessary, but murder bad. National or corporate pride is good, but personal vanity is bad. Lying and cover-ups are required for the common good, whether it’s by the church, politicians, or corporations. But it’s wrong for individuals to lie, we say. This moral, foundational confusion shows me why we must not put all our focus on changing the world only at the private and personal level.

As long as we Christians are preoccupied with the individual sins of “the flesh,” those things we’ve done, said, and gotten wrong over the course of our lives, we will never find the courage to face the larger problems of evil in the world. MF, we desperately need to connect within ourselves, to our ancestors, neighbors and our common humanity. Only from a place of solidarity, can we have any hope for a collective human rescue and work towards it.

If we, together with Aslan and Christ are serious about confronting evil, we must first convict evil in all its forms—not only in its personal adherents, but more importantly in organizations, corporations and institutions, which unbeknown, beneath the surface often act criminally. And that especially includes the church whose evil is worse, because it’s committed in the name of God. We must also consider authoritarian and dictatorial governments, political and media organizations, penal systems, banking systems, pharmaceutical industries, for-profit nursing homes, etc, etc, etc.

These systems may all be good and necessary; but when we idolize them and refuse to hold them accountable for all manner of fraud and exploitation—and here MF I’m going to say the unsayable—they usually become demonic in some form. We normally can’t see it until it is too late! Anything considered above criticism will soon become demonic. Let me remind you that the first exorcism of a demon in the gospels was found not in a brothel or bar, but in a synagogue—Mk1:23–28.

The fact is, MF, we are all guilty with one another’s sin and not just our own. But we are also good with one another’s goodness and not just our own. My life is not just about me! We are in this together. If we sink or swim, MF, we sink or swim together.

It is love and love alone, which will give birth a new humanity, made known in the sons and daughters of the new Adam. We are the ones the Christ Child has been waiting for, to be his Word made flesh in our day and age—that he might be born in us, in order to come forth from us.

So here we are, MF, the Second Sunday after Christmas, 2022, with so much for which to be grateful: great & grand gifts, the love of family and friends, spouse or lover, and an overabundance of good food and good jokes! Tx Wayne! By themselves, these do not constitute real Christmas. And no, the Christ Child is not interested in taking away our joy at receiving any of these gifts.

But the Christ Child adds the needed reality of the Word made flesh. He adds the deepest of all magic, which C.S. Lewis portrays in today’s story, and what John’s gospel describes in his opening narrative: The Word was in the beginning with God, and was God, was made flesh and dwells among us. That MF is the key to peace on earth; the key to ending redemptive violence; the key to the Christ Child born in us, in order to come forth from us.

The Christ Child is the Word made flesh. Like Aslan, he comes to break the spell under which we humans live: trapped in violence, bound by materialism, addicted to culture and consumerism. Jesus comes to end the winter of our lives, to thaw our hearts, reverse spiritual death, break the sacrificial altar upon which we offer ourselves to these false gods.

Which is also what we’ve all been waiting for. In John’s Gospel the Word is the eternal principle, which orders the Universe and towards which the entire Universe is headed. That principle, MF, is love. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us in Jesus the Christ. He is fully human and divine—the one who unites God and humankind, God and Mother Earth, God and her universe.

MF, let us remember that freedom is possible and a world without violence is also possible. Christ demonstrated it on the cross, but also in his daily living and loving, giving and forgiving. Violence, death and war will continue to spiral out of control, until and unless politicians of every stripe, priests and pastors of every ilk, corporations and institutions of every monetary value, as well as ordinary people like you and me, confront the global power of evil

Peace on earth and good will to humankind will only happen when we all take seriously the spiritual and literal peace on earth God has to offer—an offer which will only work through you and me.

Like Jesus—like Aslan, we must refuse to participate in evil and demonic power structures and systems. Not private salvation, but universal health and healing is what Jesus came to bring.

God has created a world where there is no technique or magical method for purity or perfection. Forgiving love is the only way out and the only final answer is God’s infinite Love and our ability to endlessly draw upon it. If God gives us the grace to see and understand this, he will also give us the courage to draw upon God’s love and exercise it.

That’s the good news for us this morning and for the rest of our lives. AMEN

2021

Bethlehem: House of Bread

But you o Bethlehem Ephrata, though you are small among the thousands of Judah, yet from you will come one who is to be ruler in Israel. Mic 5:2

Well, this morning, MF, you can just check the title of the sermon to know that Bethlehem means House of Bread. The name refers to the fact that the village of Bethlehem was situated in a fruitful and fertile place, where with work, its soil yielded food and harvest. Grain and fruit could be grown as well, and there was always an abundance of fresh water in the numerous wells. Bethlehem was not a flourishing place, like a great market town or trading center, but it was a special place where favourable circumstances produced refreshment and food for its 200 inhabitants, at the time of Jesus’ birth.

Now the very first mention of Bethlehem is in Gen 35:19, where it first known as Ephrath and located some 8 kms south of Jerusalem. The mountains and valleys between the two make it impossible to see the one from the other. Bethlehem is located on a ridge some 35 meters higher than Jerusalem. It has a deep valley to its north and another to its south, which explains why the Hebrews and Philistines alternately put a garrison there to protect its southern flank.

To the east of Bethlehem, the land drops quickly down to the Dead Sea. To the west, there is a slightly milder drop to the Plains of Philistia. These slopes are known in ancient times for their terraced gardens.

Of course it was Jerusalem, which was the holy city and not tiny Bethlehem. Jerusalem was the great & grand capital, the center of worship, ritual and influence. Bethlehem was just a hick town in comparison, a modest little village. It was a favored place, not in terms of riches and opportunity, but dear to Jewish hearts, because Bethlehem is where King David originated—the 2nd king of Israel. In short, Bethlehem was a large hamlet with a history, and not simply a past.

Bethlehem was the location of the monument to Rachel—the wife of the great patriarch Jacob. It was also the centre where Ruth lived with her husband Boaz. And Ruth became the great grandmother of Bethlehem’s most distinguished son, David—Goliath slayer, 2nd King of Israel (as I said), but also murderer of Uriah and adulterer who took Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, for his own. And so, Bethlehem became “the city of David,” as the evangelist Matthew described it. In short, Bethlehem was rich with associations for the Jews—a history with a future.

Well MF, you may remember the prophet Micah from today’s OT reading. He was distressed with the worldly splendours of Jerusalem and the corruptions that surrounded him on every side. So, Micah pointed to this modest town of Bethlehem, least among the princes of Judah, as the place out of whose past will come Israel’s future hope—the long awaited Messiah, at least so the faithful believed. The text is a promise that in the midst of bad things, great happenings can emerge from small incidents. Micah warns that in extraordinary times, it is to the plain and ordinary that we must look.

In other words, where we least expect to see the power of God demonstrated in a corrupt and demonic world, there we will find God working out his purpose by the ordinary means of flesh and blood. Though thou art small, little Bethlehem, our hopes reside in thee, wrote Micah, 8 centuries before Christ.

And so, on this first day after Christmas, MF, we are reminded that the greatness of God is seen in the tiny and teeny, the dust and dirt of history. The miracle of God MF is that he can make much of nothing and something of almost anything. A little town becomes the focus of the world’s last best hope; a little baby comes to oppose the forces of Caesar and fear; and human flesh and human life are dignified and made whole, as never before.

The test of God’s power is not in his capacity to move mountains and out manoeuvre the phenomena of nature, nor in his power to perform tricks or even rebuke the mighty forces of nature. God’s power lies in his capacity to make much of little. After all, that’s what God does in creation with a speck of dust. That’s also what he does at Easter and Christmas. That’s also what God does with you and me.

Now, I’ve never been to the Land upon which Jesus walked. We call it the Holy Land, although of course, the entire Earth is holy land, because it’s made by God. One day I hope Sherry and I will trod the paths Jesus walked. Certainly, I would like to see the oldest Christian Church, which stands on what is believed to be the site of the nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Holy Nativity.

Now, the sanctuary of this church was considered old in Emperor Constantine’s time in the 4th century. In its cave-like crypt, beneath the high altar where the seven lamps burn eternally, there is found the place where it is believed that Mary bore her son. It is considered the most sacred spot of the Christian Church in the whole world, and both the sacredness and the space are important, for they remind us of the tangible physical quality of God become flesh in the Christ Child.

Christmas belongs to those who recognize the real presence of God in their lives and in the world.

As I said Christmas Eve: MF, we all need to move beyond a mere sentimental understanding of Christmas as waiting for a baby to be born. We must make room for him in our lives so that he can be born in us. Otherwise, we consign the Child to the pages of history. That’s why the Child must be born in us, to come forth from us. The divine birth must take place in us, to come forth from us. The light which is Christ must come forth from us. After all, we don’t light a candle, only to stick it under our beds.

Granted, Christmas may seem real to a lot of people, with their tinsel, trees and adult toys. But that’s only surface stuff. Christmas—real Christmas—must be deep down, existential, experiential, spiritual and practical.

That’s why Christmas isn’t simply once upon a time, long ago and far away, but God here and now. God isn’t some Big Man in the sky, out there, or up there, directing traffic here below against the realities of chaos and crises. God is much closer to us than we can ever imagine. In the 1stC world of little Bethlehem, God was very real, but so were Caesar Augustus and Herod—very real. Taxation, death and slaughter were real. Despair and desperation were real and quite normal. Change and chaos were mainstream, and hence not surprising that Joseph and his very pregnant wife, Mary, had to suddenly travel to Bethlehem to be registered.

But in the middle of all of this, God had to be made real and was made real, not in some romantic ideal, but in the flesh. For that’s what the Incarnation is about: “God with us” which is what Emmanuel means. This is not just a translation of a Hebrew name, but a translation of the living, loving purpose of God, to be present in the world and in the universe, and present for every living thing. God does not abandon that to which she gives birth, that she may become one with us, and we with him. That’s what Christmas is about.

So, this morning MF we join with God and with one another in this feast of feasts, which can never be reduced to one day a year. But Christmas—Christ born in us to come from us to the world—is everyday, not just one day. The gift of the Incarnation continues in the fellowship that we have with Christ around his Holy Table. In these most ordinary, tangible elements of bread and wine, served by sinful hands, but willing hearts, we become one with God, who became one with us, and remains so through time and eternity.

MF, an old Judaic legend says that every time a baby is born, God endorses his world. And every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we revel in the Spirit and experience once again God become flesh and divine flesh become bread and wine.

Well MF, can you and I be a small Bethlehem for others? Can we be a small House of Bread for others, to feed them, as Jesus of Bethlehem did—to help and heal them, to give them health and hope. The miracle of Christmas is the Christ Child born in us, to come forth in us, so that we may be bread and material goods, spiritual and psychological goods for others, as the Christ Child is for us! And that’s not easy, especially when so many people are so tired, worn out and even exhausted, considering Covid. And that’s just for starters.

It is precisely because we are weary and poor in spirit, especially at Christmas, that God can touch us with hope, which is not an easy truth, MF. It means that we need to accept our common lot and take up our share of the cross. It means that we do not gloss over the evils we confront every day, both within ourselves and without. Our sacrifices may be great or small or somewhere in between. But as the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, once said: It is only the poor and hungry, those who know they need someone to help and heal them—they are the ones who know the real meaning of Christmas and can celebrate it unabashedly.

MF, This Christmas, we need to acknowledge that the world we have made is in darkness. We need to be attentive and keep the light of the Christ Child burning inside of us and outside. For we and our world, are broken. So many homes have become places of physical and psychological violence.

Christmas, MF, is an opportunity to allow the Christ Child to be born in us, to be born from us—that we, together with our world, will no longer be desolate, or forsaken, but found and loved. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel provides us with a note of hope. In the long list of Jesus’ forebears, we find an entire range of humanity: not only God’s faithful, but also his fearful—adulterers, murderers, rebels, conspirators, transgressors of all sorts. In other words, God’s purpose is not obstructed. In Jesus of Bethlehem, God turns human dysfunction to good.

The genealogy of Jesus reveals that God chooses to work with us as we are, using our weaknesses, even more than our strengths, to fulfill God’s purposes. God chooses to work with hick towns, like Bethlehem, as well as holy cities like Jerusalem. In a world as cold and cruel and unjust as it was at the time of Jesus’ birth in a stable, we desire something better. And in desiring it, we know that it is possible.

Christmas has happened and continues to happen in us and through us. Bethlehem—House of Bread—has happened and continues to happen in us and through us.

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

On Making Room & Giving Birth

Dear Friends.  A shabby, tired-looking couple appears at the door. The woman is expecting a child. The man says that the baby is going to come very soon, and so asks for a room in the inn. We sigh, a long depressing sigh. It’s most unfortunate, we say. But the inn is already full…that is, full of paying customers, we think to ourselves. We’re even somewhat relieved that there isn’t room, because this couple, you see, just doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the clientele.

But there’s something about them that pulls at our heart strings—something about the man’s rugged resolve and the woman’s serene countenance. And so, we give them room in a stable out back, out of sight and out of mind, because we just can’t shut them out altogether, you see. Little do we realize, that upon this small act of half-kindness depends the very hope of humanity.

The Baby is born in the compressed heat of the night. He comes into the world like any other child: crying, helpless, defenseless and vulnerable, needing warmth, protection and nourishment. And so he’s fed at his mother’s breast and then rocked back to sleep in her loving arms and heart.

The Baby sleeps peacefully in its straw-filled feeding trough, all the while is heard the cacophonous sounds of the cattle, as their musky aroma fills the dense night air. Shepherds soon descend on the little family, informed by angels where to look in little hicktown Bethlehem, population 200 souls. They worship the child at the manger, only to be interrupted by visitors from the east, bearing gifts for the baby, whom they believe to be a king. Eventually a tenuous joy overtakes the family, but little do we realize, just how unique and special this rather common birth is, in these crude unsophisticated surroundings. This birth changed the world.

MF, each year, this simple scene gets re-enacted in many churches, although that number is fewer and fewer. In spite of the ongoing pandemic, there are rounds of parties, gifts, decorating and feasting, while society makes limited time and room for the birth of this Baby. Of course, we’re all at the mercy of our own material inventions, time restrictions and psychological defenses. The First Christmas is a faded memory for many and lost in the annuls of antiquity for others—a mere footnote to history.

The fact is, MF, there’s nothing really appealing about the first Christmas. We have a child born in a stable for animals—hot breath breathing down, mixed with dung streaming down. We have a baby laid in a feeding trough for hungry beasts of burden. We have Joseph breaking the law, knowing what he should do with a seemingly “adulterous woman.”

We have a mother in the last stages of pregnancy but finds she must travel 80 kilometers to Bethlehem—sometimes trudging on foot; other times carried by a small pack animal. We have a couple, now a family of 3, who are soon homeless and refugees in their own country, run by Rome which is about to execute all babies to eliminate a potential threat to the emperor. We have the family flee to Egypt, to find refuge in a country which enslaved their Hebrew kin for over 400 years. MF, the irony is searing.

In the meantime, where is this God, who supposedly reveals himself in this tiny baby? Well, born in a stable, obviously this God does not reveal himself in the “safe” world, but at the edges of the world, at the bottom, among people and places where we don’t want to find God, where we don’t look for God, where we don’t even expect God to be. Maybe that’s the reason our experience of God is so limited—because we’ve been looking for God in places we consider nice and pretty, middle class and safe. Instead, God chooses the less than mundane—the dingy and dirty.

What is our Christmas point of view MF? Is it God being totally vulnerable, poor, little child? Or, are we honest enough to say that this is not a fitting image for God? Is God really who we think God is! Is God a jolly Santa or is God this helpless baby who has come to love us in ways MF that we’re not ready to be loved?

Tonight, MF, I’d like you to seriously consider how Christmas can not only be more simple and meaningful, but how the Christ Child can become your central focus, the spiritual point of your life. Tonight, I’d like you to seriously consider how you can make room for the Child in your daily life. But more than that! How you can allow him to be born in you, so that those whom you greet and meet in your life’s journey, will also greet & meet the Christ Child.

We urgently need to move beyond a mere sentimental understanding of Christmas—waiting for a baby to be born—year after year! We must make room for him in our lives so that he can be born in us—and born in us tonight. Otherwise, we consign the Child to the dusty, forgotten pages of history. That’s why the Child must be born in us, to come forth from us, starting tonight. The divine birth must take place in us, to come forth from us. The light which is Christ must come forth from us. After all, we don’t light a candle, only to stick it under our beds.

Granted, Christmas may seem real to a lot of people, with our tinsel, trees and adult toys. But that’s only surface stuff. Christmas—real Christmas—must be deep down, existential, experiential, spiritual and practical. 2x

When God became one of us in that small child, God is saying that it is good to be human, and God is on our side. MF, we want to believe that God is on our side, especially at Christmas time. And yet, too many, like myself, have struggled with the pain-points of religion. Healthy religion always unites, but toxic religion always divides and uses God to create increasingly more separation and hurt in the world.  I mean, how can the God of Christmas whose name is Love, be used to justify violence, hatred, and enmity around the world?

The word religion comes from the Latin, religio, which means to bind together. So, how did religion give us humans the license to hurt others, to put people down and out, to leave people behind and disregard their suffering, and condemn so many who don’t agree with us, as heretics headed for the fiery flames of perdition. Who made us God? After all, God is not bound by our commonly held presumption that we humans are the center of everything.

Religion needs to connect us—to bind the human family together. Religion needs to help us see how our biases about color, gender, sexuality, and class cause deep hurt to body and soul.

Tragically, religion is too often weaponized. Wars are waged in the name of religion. People are enslaved, terrorized and even exterminated in the name of religion. Wealth, especially in the church, has been amassed on the backs of the poor in the name of religion. I could go on, but is it any wonder, MF, that there is so very little room for the Christ-Child in our world today? Yes, Merry Christmas is bandied about, but it is a mass without Christ.

You know, I’ve always found it one of the greatest ironies, when nations at war would lay down their weapons on Christmas Day, only to return to the Killing Fields the next day!

That’s why there really is only one message tonight, and we just have to keep saying it until finally we’re undefended enough to hear it and really believe it: Because God became one of us in the Christ Child, there is no separation between God and us. That’s the message. If we’re praying, this message goes deeper and deeper. And if we’re quiet once in a while, even on a busy day like today, it goes deeper and deeper still.

In the Christ Child, God heals every bit of separation and division that we experience. When we feel detached and disconnected, when we feel split from our self, from our family and friends, from Mother Earth and reality, from God herself—we will be angry and depressed. Why? Because we know we weren’t created for isolation. We’re created for union. That’s what healthy religion teaches

So God sent into the world one who would personify that union—who would put human and divine together, put spirit and matter together. That’s what we spend our whole life wanting to believe: that our earthly sojourn ought to mean something significant!

I believe everything is a lesson—everything. Every day, every moment, every visit to the grocery store, every moment of our ordinary lives is meant to reveal, My God, I’m a daughter of God! I’m a son of the Lord! I’m a sister—I’m a brother to the Christ Child. I’m already home free! There’s no place I have to go. I’m already here! But if we don’t enjoy that, if we don’t allow that, we fall into meaninglessness.

MF, we need to surrender to some kind of ultimate meaning. We need to desire it, seek it, want it, and need it. I know no one likes to hear this—myself included—but we even need to suffer for it. And what is suffering? Suffering is the emptying out of the soul so there’s room for love—room for the Christ-Child, room to be born in us, so that he can come forth from us.

Well MF, in each heart here tonight, there lies an inn, where each one of us must answer whether there is room for the Christ Child. In each heart tonight, there also lies a cradle, waiting for us to give birth to the Christ Child, so that the world will see the child in you and me. Each of us needs a personal, living and trusting relationship with the Christ Child; otherwise, what good is all our believing? Faith isn’t just what we believe, it’s how we believe.

Christmas isn’t just past history, but needs to happen—even tonight, but only if and when we give the Christ-Child birth from the cradle of our hearts, so that our face is his face–a face of peace and joy to the world. MF, we need to practice Christ being born in us, so that he can come forth from us.

Practice is an essential reset button that even we Christians must push many times before we can experience genuine newness. You know, I find it quite ironical that we have come to understand the importance of practice in sports, in most therapies, in any successful business, and in any creative endeavor; but for some reason, most people, including Christians, do not see the need for practice in the world of religion and the spiritual.

The fact is this: Spiritual and religious practice is more important than any other area of life. Practice, like praying and meditating, allows us to know ourselves better and experience God personally Yes, God’s gifts are totally free and unearned, but God does not give them except to people who really want them, choose them, and say Yes! to them and practice them! Why? Because God’s love never manipulates us, never shames us, never forces itself on us. God’s love always waits to be invited and desired by us, and only then rushes in. Last thought, MF …

There’s an 11thC Byzantine monk, you’ve never heard of: Symeon by name. He believed that we humans can experience the Christ-Child personally and directly. To do so, the child must be born in us and come forth from us, which is to recreate Christmas, as if it happened tonight, in 2021, and not just in 7 or 6 BC, when Jesus was born. Symeon wrote a collection of hymns and Hymn #15 says that God invites us to literally join his Son, by allowing the child to be born in us, that he will come forth from us.

MF, this poem says it all for me. It moves me from a mere knowledge about the child, to a personal experience of him, even on a cellular level. I close with Symeon’s poem #15 which I reworded from Latin, to make it more understandable for us:

I give birth to Christ who awakens my body, as part of his.
I move my hand, and it becomes an extension of his to feed the hungry and quench the thirsty.
I move my foot and at once he is walking in front of me, leading the way in my spiritual journey with him.
I move my eyes, right and left and they become his eyes, facing the masses of people who come to him for health and healing.

Do my words seem impossible, even blasphemous, to you, MF?

Then open your heart to Him and let yourself receive the Christ Child who opens himself to you.
For if we genuinely love Him, our body will become his Body—one Body, realized in joy as Him—he who makes us, utterly real.

Everything that is hurt, everything that seems to us dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged, is in Him transfigured and transformed.

We are his Body and he is ours. He has no hands and feet, no eyes or ears, no mind or intellect, no voice or speech, but ours.

The Christ Child, born yesterday, but also born today, from me, from you, from us, to the world and for the world.

That MF is the Good News for you and me this evening and for the rest of our lives. AMEN.

Advent Blessings to you & yours this Fourth Sunday in Advent. 

In place of a sermon on this 19th day of December, the parish sang lots of carols from around the world. Six carols  were from Germany and introduced with historical sketches. They were then sung in English accompanied with my Italian accordion, which needed much coaxing to play German music. The other carols were accompanied by Jill on the organ and/or piano.

Below, I include the historical sketches of the 6 German carols, together with the lyrics. I hope you find them enjoyable and informative.

Continued Advent Blessings to you & yours,

Pastor Peter

Carols from other Countries: Dec 19, 2021

German Carols with Accordion Accompaniment

Süßer die Glocken nie klingen“—Never do Bells Ring more Sweetly—is a very popular German Christmas carol. It is included in countless hymnals, as well as a great number of musical recordings. Why? The carol begins with the sound of bells chiming sweetly night and day, thereby evoking symbols of peace and joy, amid the clangor of daily consumer culture and global wars.

Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, who was a theologian, pedagogue, poet and hymnwriter, wrote the lyrics to this carol in 1859 in Droyssig, Germany. It then promptly appeared in print the following year, 1860, in a musical collection called, Liederstrauss (A Bouquet of Songs), by Bernhard Braehmig. For the tune, Kritzinger used a well-known folksong from the 1830s—an evening melody known as “Seht, wie die Sonne dort sinket”—“Look how the sun is setting there.”

Born in 1816, Kritzinger studied theology in Berlin and was eventually appointed by the Prussian minister of education, Otto Victor von Schoenberg, to become director of the newly founded Lutheran State educational institution in Droyssig to teach women educators across Germany. Kritzinger remained in this position for 38 years, during which time he received numerous awards for his poetry and music, including knighthood to the prestigious Prussian House of Hohenzollern in 1878.

“Süßer die Glocken nie klingen” has been included in many collections of Christmas carols and sung by popular artists including Peter Alexander, Roy Black, Heintje, Ivan Rebroff, Nana Mouskouri, The Bony M and Roger Whittaker.

O Come, Little Children / Ihr Kinderlein kommet

This is a special Christmas Carol written specifically for children. It’s another German favorite. The carol found its way into a collection entitled, Religious Odes and Hymns, published in Hamburg, in 1789, by the son of a baker, Johann Abraham Peter Schulz.

Like many other talented boys of his time, he was discovered through his singing in the church. Schulz became quite a distinguished composer in his time, having known and worked with Franz Joseph Hayden and being elevated to the prestigious position of Director of Music to Prince Heinrich of Prussia. In 1796, all his sacred songs were published and then translated into the Danish, for whom Schulz became a household name. He died at the turn of the 19th century in the year 1,800 at the young age of 53.

The words for O Come Little Children originated in the form of a poem, written by Christof von Schmid in 1792.

 

As Each Happy Christmas / Alle Jahre Wieder

Alle Jahre wieder, which is literally translated as Every year again, is another well-known German Christmas carol, written in 1837 by Johann Wilhelm Hey. The most common melody is usually attributed to Friedrich Silzer. But other melody versions come from German composers Ernst Anschütz and Christian Heinrich Rinck, who also set Hey’s words to music.

Unlike a few other German carols, Hey’s lyrics are quite religious, referring to the annual return of the Christ Child to earth’s inhabitants. Like the other carols, Alle Jahre Wieder is also quite popular among Germans to this day.

Born in Gotha, Thuringen, in 1789, Hey became the court chaplain in Thuringen, where he dazzled folks with his childrens’ stories, especially his fables and fairy tales, rivalling even his contemporary Hans Christian Anderson, the Danish prolific writer of fairy tales.

Hey became very famous in Germany for his 1833 best seller, 50 Fables for Children with Illustrations. But then, a second volume, 2 years later, entitled, Another 50 Fables for Children in Picture Form. The 2nd volume was then translated into French, English and Dutch in 1844.

‘Tis the Eve of Christmas / Am Weihnachtsbaum die Lichter Brennen

Am Weihnachtsbaum die Lichter Brennen—literally translated: The Lights burn on the Christmas Tree—is a German carol whose lyrics were written by Hermann Kletke in 1841, which he promptly published the same year in his Phantasia Collection. The carol is yet another favorite among Germans and very well known, found in just about every carol collection throughout Germany.

‎Hermann Kletke, who was born in 1816 in Breslau, Germany, became a lyricist, a printer and publisher. After earning his doctorate in philosophy, he eventually became the editor in chief of the most prestigious newspaper in Berlin, where he took a particular interest in designing the political section of the newspaper. Overall the news paper featured a multilingual mix of cultures in which poetry, music and legends captured the essence of Kletke’s Silesian homeland. As a liberal thinker and opinion-forming publicist, Kletke was a much sought-after speaker, who at Christmas time would read the words of his carol to the delight of younger German audiences.

Trouble is, 19th century Germany featured a period of secularization in many disciplines, including music, which is why the birth of Jesus isn’t even mentioned in the song. Instead, Kletke focuses on describing the mood of celebrating Christmas in its time. The entire family, young and old, is gathered around the festively decorated Christmas tree, which is lit with real candles. Invisible and inaudible, two angels bring God’s blessing to good and loving people.

In fact, years earlier, O Tannenbaum/O Christmas Tree was dedicated as a carol, paving the way for Kletke’s carol. Like O Tannenbaum, Kletke’s Christmas tree is also called a symbol of hope. While O Tannenbaum refers to the ever-green leaves of the tree, Kletke’s carol emphasizes the lights on the tree as burning brightly. The custom of a candle-lit Christmas Tree was not yet widespread in the first half of the 19th century, when Kletke’s carol was published, and only wealthy families could afford such a tree and decorations.

O You Joyful People / O du Froehliche 

This German Christmas Carol is a very traditional and well-known, sung by virtually all Germans from memory. The original text was written by the prominent Johannes Daniel Falk, poet, author, composer and a resident of Weimar, a city in central Germany of some note. In 1816, Falk wrote the lyrics of this famous carol, which anticipates Christmas Eve with rejoicing.

What is most interesting about Falk is that he was known as the Weimar “orphan father.” After losing 4 of his 7 children to typhoid fever, he founded an orphanage for abandoned children in Weimar: Das Rettungshaus für verwahrloste Kinder—The Rescue House for Abandoned Children and promptly dedicated this carol to them.

The tune, however, was originally a Sicillian Mariner’s song among staunch Catholic fishermen, with words that were a prayer for safety as fishermen braved storms at sea, hard work and time away from home and family. Clearly, life was a very difficult in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But the resilience of the human spirit was always evident in this popular German carol, whether in the case of fishermen at sea or in the life of Johannes Falk, who was still able to rejoice with the orphans he cared for.

In its long existence, the tune was offered as a prayer for safety by fishermen, a children’s song to encourage children orphaned by a plague, and a Christmas carol celebrating the arrival of the Saviour.

In the Protestant churches of Germany, the song is traditionally sung at the end of Christmas Eve services.

O Christmas Tree / O Tannenbaum

There are legends galore about the yuletide tree which stretched back to creation itself, in which it was believed that the fir tree—the evergreen—was the Tree of Life which God planted in the middle of the Garden of Eden, and from which Eve picked the forbidden fruit to tempt Adam. After the deed, it is said that the foliage and flowers  shrank to needles, only to bloom again on the night of Jesus’ birth.

It is the Germans who can be credited with developing the Christmas Tree tradition as we know it today. It is said that Martin Luther, in an attempt to describe to his wife, Katie, and all their children, the beauty of the snow-covered forest under the glittering star-filled sky, that Luther cut down a small fir tree in his backyard, set it up in the nursery, then placed lighted candles on its branches to represent the stars. Now, that’s still only according to legend.

The fact is, however, that in 1531, Christmas trees were sold at the Strassburg Market to be set up at home, but undecorated. A local ordinance stated that: “No citizen shall have for Christmas more than one bush of more than 8 shoe lengths, which is about 4 feet or 1 and ¼ meters high, depending of course on whose shoe you chose. They had small feet back in those days.

Now, in 1605, a diary fragment was found to read: “At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlor at Strassburg and on it hung roses cut out of many coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold foil and sweets.”  The roses symbolized the Virgin Mary and the wafers represented the communion host.

So, by the turn of the 17th century, the evergreen, which was once an ancient symbol of life, now decorated with cookies and wafers representing the Body of Christ, became known as the Christ-Baum, or Christ-Tree and hence Christmas Tree.

Carols from Germany

 

Never do Bells Ring more Sweetly / Suesser die Glocken nie klingen

Never do bells ring more sweetly, than at the Christmas time

Then do the angels in heaven, join in the joyful chime.

As on the night when the Christ Child was born.

Sound the good news near and far,

Sound the good news near and far.

Now while the sweet bells are ringing, Jesus comes once more to earth.,

Bringing his blessings to mankind, as on the night of his birth.

Brings he redemption to one and all.

Sound the good news near and far,

Sound the good news near and far.

Ne’er stop your joyful ringing, over this old world-wide,

Tell us again that our Saviour, comes on this Christmas tide.

Then let us join in your joyful song.

Sound the good news near and far,

Sound the good news near and far.

 

O Come Little Children / Ihr Kinderlein Kommet

O Come, little children; O come, one and all.

To Bethlehem come to the crib in the stall,

And see what great joy our good Father above,

Has sent us this night a bless’d gift of his love.

O see, little children, who lies in the stall.

In clean swaddling clothes is a dear Baby small.

Upon his sweet face shines a heavenly light

Which bathes all the stable in radiance bright.

There lies he, King Jesus, on hay and on straw,

Before him the shepherds are knelling in awe.

Above him the angels in jubilance sing,

While Mary and Joseph keep watch o’er the King.

O kneel with the shepherds and worship the King;

Give thanks to our God for the love that he brings.

In joy, all you children, your glad voices raise,

And join with the angels in jubilant praise.

As Each Happy Christmas / Alle Jahre Wieder

As each happy Christmas, dawns on earth again,

Comes the holy Christ Child, to the hearts of men.

Enters with his blessing, into every home,

Guides and guards our footsteps, as we go and come.

All unknown, beside me, He will ever stand,

And will safely lead me, with his own right hand.

 

‘Tis the Eve of Christmas / Am Weihnachtsbaum die Lichter brennen

O festive night, the eve of Christmas

And on our tree gleam candles bright.

Symbols of hope, of love and joy

Of God’s eternal Word of Light.

With faces gleaming and happy laughter,

The children gather round the tree.

To them the tree speaks of the Saviour,

And through their eyes, we heaven see.

Symbol of Christ among thy branches

The angels keep their watch of love.

Unseen by mortals, they come to bless you,

And bring God’s peace, sent from above.

O may our faith be as ever green

And ever kind our deeds to all.

May we, like thee, bring joy and peace,

Unto God’s children, large and small.

 

O Ye Joyful People / O du Froehliche

O ye joyful people. O ye happy people,

Join the song that the angels sing.

Tidings of great joy they bring:
‘Lo, this day is born a King.’

Halleluja, hallelujah, Christ is born!

Praise God, all ye people. Praise God, all mankind.

Sing, rejoice for Christ has come.

Hark the heavenly host proclaim:

‘Peace, good will on earth shall reign.’

Halleluja, hallelujah, Christ is born!

Praise God, all ye people. Praise God, all mankind.

Join the throng, at his manger kneel.

Unto us God sends his Son.

May on earth his will be done.

Halleluja, hallelujah, Christ is born!

O Christmas Tree / O Tannenbaum

O Christmas Tree, o Christmas Tree, your leaves are ever faithful.

Not only green when summer glows, but in the winter when it snows.

O Christmas Tree, o Christmas Tree, your leaves are ever faithful.

O Christmas Tree, o Christmas Tree, you are the tress most loved!

How oft you’ve given me delight, when Christmas fire were burning bright!

O Christmas Tree, o Christmas Tree, you are the tree most loved!

O Christmas Tree, o Christmas Tree, your faithful leaves will teach me

That hope and love and constancy, give joy and peace eternally.

O Christmas Tree, o Christmas Tree, your faithful leaves will teach me.

The Face in the Sky

MF, This is your lucky day. With our move to a new house, my sermon is 3 pages shorter than usual. Loreen is thinking: The pastor should move every week. … Well, today is the 3rd Sunday in Advent and 12 days before Christmas. Maybe someone should sing the 12 Days Before Christmas Song. Anyone? Hannah? Babsy? Sherry? You’re right, S’heart. Better not. The last time Sherry sang a solo, 200 people changed their religion.

Well MF, I haven’t taken you to the movies for some time—free of charge of course, but alas, no popcorn—sorry. Now, some of you oldsters may have seen the movie. It’s a 1960 Italian comedy-drama entitled La Dolce Vita, which translates? … The Sweet Life, written & directed by Federico Fellini, with English subtitles. Other than Arrivederci Roma, cappuccino, spaghetti, fiat and mucho sapporito, which means very tasty, referring to Italian pastries, oh yum—that’s pretty much the extent of my Italian and so subtitles are critical to my enjoyment of this film. I saw it a very long time ago at the movies with a number of other university students in Waterloo in the late 60s, at a small cheap-o theatre in one of the back alleys of town by the university.

The film follows Marcello Rubini, played by Italian star, Marcello Mastroianni—a journalist writing for gossip magazines, over seven days & nights on his journey through “the sweet life” of Rome in a fruitless search for? … love & happiness. The screenplay was divided into seven episodes, corresponding to 7 days.

The film opens with the first episode—day 1. A helicopter is flying slowly through the sky and not very high above the ground. Hanging down from the helicopter is a life-size statue of a man dressed in robes with his arms outstretched, so that he looks almost as if he’s flying by himself. In fact, sometimes the camera cuts out and all you see is the statue with the rope around it. It flies over a field where some men are working in tractors and causes a great deal of excitement and confusion. The men wave their hats, hop around like bunnies and yell. But then, one of the men recognizes the statue—who it really is!—and then shouts in Italian: Heya! It’s a Jesus! Heya Jesus! Howa are-a you? (I told you my Italian was rusty!)

Looking up, the other men also recognize that it’s Jesus! And so they begin to run along under the plane, waving and calling to it: Heya Jesus! Nice-a to see-a you! But the helicopter keeps going, and after a while, it reaches the outskirts of Rome, where it passes over a building, and on the roof, there is a swimming pool, surrounded by a number of bikini-clad girls, basking in the sun. Of course, they also look up and immediately start waving.

But this time, the helicopter does a double take, as the young men flying it, get a good look at the girls and come circling back again to hover over the pool, where above the roar of the engine, they try to get the phone numbers of the ladies in question. They explain that they are taking the statue to the Vatican and will only be too happy to return–soon after mission accomplished.

Now, during all of this, the reaction of the audience—all bright intelligent university students of course—their reaction? … was to laugh uncontrollably at the incongruity of the entire situation! I mean, there, dangling in the clear blue Italian sky, was this sacred statue, on the one hand, and the earthy young Italian bathing beauties, on the other. The one was made of cold, hard stone, so remote, so out of place, there in the sky, at the end of a rope—a kind of a hangman’s noose. The others were made of warm, tanned skin, just bursting with dolca vita—sweet, sweet life. Nobody in the audience was in any doubt as to which of these two came out ahead, or at whose expense the laughter was.

But then the helicopter continues on its way, and the great dome of St. Peter’s looms up from below. For the first time, the camera zooms in on the statue itself with its arms stretched out, until for a very brief moment, the screen itself is completely filled with the rugged, bearded face—of Jesus—the serene, comforting face of Christ himself! Amma mia!

And at that very moment, MF—and here’s the point, so listen up: At that precise moment, the entire audience stops laughing. The theatre, filled with university students, their luscious dates and their buttery popcorn and their slurpy drinks, together with all of their hype & hoopla—it all simply comes to an immediate dead stop … and the student audience is totally mesmerized by an eerie silence which fills the small capacity theater.

MF–Nobody laughed during that moment! Not a soul. Not a peep. Not a pin drop was heard. Why not?!

Because there was something about that face—that rugged, serene face, for a few seconds on the big screen, which made us students all shut up, stop laughing and, for a change, be silent—be quiet and be still. Why? That face, you see MF, hovering there in the cloudless, Italian blue sky, and the outspread arms, as if to envelop everyone, everywhere, watching and listening. Only for a moment, not very long, mind you—there was no sound, as if the face in the sky was somehow … our faceour very own face—our secret face which we had never seen before, but we knew belonged to us. Or, the face we had never seen before, but we knew, if only for a moment, that we belonged to that face.

MF, the Christian faith is something like that face and our individual and/or collective reaction to it. It’s just for a very brief moment, seeing the face and then being very still. There is so much about the entire Christian religion which, at times, seems so irrelevant—almost obsolete and out of place in our advanced scientific age, as the antique statue was out of place in that Italian sky.

Likewise, just for a moment, MF, say, of Advent, or especially of Christmas, there can be only silence when and if we come face to face with the face of Christ, and his face, like ours, comes alive with spirit and hope, with love and forgiveness. The face is something born into this world—something that is so strange and new and precious, that not even a cynic can laugh, although he might be tempted to cry.

Otherwise, Christmas in our culture is only and always laughter and parties, rushing around and worrying about .. eating and drinking, buying and gifting, listening to so-called Christmas music, night and day, till it’s coming out of our ears.

That face in the sky—rugged, tender, serene. The child born in the night among cattle and beasts and their sweet breath and their streaming dung, among feathered birds flocked together and creepy-crawly things … and nothing is ever the same again.

In fact, we who believe in God can never be sure of him again. I mean, once you & I have seen God in a stable, we can never be sure where he will appear next—can we? Or, to what lengths God will go, or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound, but that holiness can be present there too—just as it was present in that face in the sky!

But this, MF, means that you and I are never ever safe, that there is no place we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless, that he is most strong, and just where we least expect God—that’s where she comes to us most fully.

We who believe in God—it means that in this birth, God is never safe from us, and that may be the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence … meaning, God comes in such a way, that we can always turn him down, as we could crack the baby’s skull like an eggshell or nail him against pieces of wood when he gets too big to crack. The fact is: God comes to us in the hungry people we do not have to feed. He comes to us in the lonely people we do not have to comfort. She comes to us in all the desperate human need of people—not matter who they are or where they are, and against whom we are always free to turn our backs.

MF, it means that God puts himself at our mercy, not only in the sense of the suffering we cause him by our blindness and coldness and cruelty, but the suffering that we can cause him simply by suffering ourselves. Because MF, that is the way love works! When someone we love suffers, we suffer with him or her, and we would not have it any other way, because the suffering and the love are one and the same, you see! just as it is with God’s love for us.

The child is born in the night … the mother’s exhausted body, the father’s face clenched like a fist … and nothing is ever the same again. Nothing is ever the same again for we who believe in God. But as a matter of fact, nothing is ever the same again also for those who do not believe in God. Why? Because once the birth has happened, it isn’t just God non-believers must deny—it is also this event, this birth they must deny—for to deny this birth is to deny every birth, including their own.

For those who do not believe, all the great poetry of this ignoble birth—the angels, stars, magi, shepherds—all of whom laid their prayers and praise, their dreams and hopes, at the feet of the child—for all their poetic beauty, they are still only written in the sand which washes away. For those who do not believe, they simply don’t have the eyes to see that this poetry points beyond itself to the heart of divinity within human reality—just waiting to be born.

But, MF, what about those who both believe and do not believe at the same time, which of course is some people all of the time and all people some of the time! The statue with its outstretched arms hovers in the sky, the still face looks down and they recognize the face and call its name. They wave and go running a little way along the uneven ground beneath it. The night deepens and grows still and maybe the only sound is the birth cry, the agony of new life coming alive. Or maybe, there is the sound of legions of unseen and unheard voices raised in joyous song and praise.

For them too, nothing is quite ever the same again, for what they have seen and heard in that moment of stillness is, just possibly, the hope of the world. And what they feel in their hearts, as they wave to him—maybe only with one hand, a little wave, not very certain, but with his name on their lips. It’s all the stirring of new life, new courage, new gladness seeking to be born in them, born in us, even as he is born into this world of pain and suffering, of war and never-ending war. If they and we, together with Mother Earth, stretch out our arms to those arms and raise our empty faces to that rugged but comforting face, we will be one with him.

Lord Jesus. Son of God, Prince of Peace, be born into our world. Wherever there is war in this world, wherever there is pain, wherever there in loneliness, wherever there is hopelessness, come with health and healing, come with your saving grace and favour.

Holy Child, whom shepherds and magi, cattle and beasts adored, be born again—be born in us—be born from us and into our world. Wherever there is boredom, wherever there is fear of failure, wherever there is temptation too strong to resist, wherever there is bitterness of heart, come Holy Child with health and healing, come with your saving grace and favour.

Saviour of the world, be born in each of us, day after day. Be born from us, to be born into our world,  We raise our face to your face and greet your outstretched arms with our own outstretched arms, not knowing fully who you are, or even who we are; but knowing only that your love is beyond our knowing and that no other has the healing grace to make us whole. Lord Jesus, come to each of us who longs for you, even though we so readily forget your name—even to speak it to ourselves, much less repeat it to family and friends or even foes. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Advent ends soon and your birth, your face, your arms will meet us and greet us with your saving grace and favour.  AMEN

Shopping for the Christ Child?

MF, one word captures the essence and intention of Advent. That word? Waiting. But the very word creates a problem, compelling me to recall our human experience of waiting. And so, for a brief moment, let me play the not-so-grand inquisitor. … Right now, how many of you are waiting? And if you are, what are you waiting for?

Oh, I know, here and across our country, countless folks are saying: I just can’t wait for Christmas, especially after last year’s Covid non-Christmas! So, for all sorts of good reasons, we can’t wait for Christmas: dear faces too long absent; students waiting for the long-awaited reprieve from classroom tyranny; others, waiting for some new-fangled Wrangler jeans, fashioned just for the female figure or the male body type—Wrangler, not to be confused with a Wrangler Jeep—an expensive adult toy for which you may be waiting; or waiting for wassail, in the form of eggnog or schnapps on your lips—oh yum!—or waiting to sing a new carol composed by none less than the angels; waiting for another ruthless assault on Mr. Tom Turkey; or waiting patiently for the commercial attack during the holidays which ignores the name “Christ” in the word “Christmas” to finally come to merciful end.

Well MF, all good reasons indeed. But how many of you are saying this morning: I just can’t wait for Christ to come!

Of course, the obvious problem here is: Why should you wait for Christ to come? No one waits for someone who has already come, already arrived and is still here, in some shape or form. Yes, Christ came one midnight clear and came in the imprisoning bands of a baby boy. And when he left us, paradoxically he still stayed with us at the same time. He took from us the sensible charm of his presence: the face of his mother, the voice that was music to his disciples ears, the feet which Mary Magdalene grabbed at his grave.

And he’s still here, MF. You heard him in his word proclaimed. You glimpse him in our gathering together this morning and in a short while he will rest in the hollow your hand and touch your tongue! MF, what could you possibly be waiting for? For the final coming of Christ on a pink cloud, who will then separate the sheep from the goats—the saved from the damned. Well, if that’s what you’re waiting for, I would advise you not to hold your breath.

One problem to the waiting game is that Advent means precious little these days, playing last fiddle to the ads for shopping. MF, don’t misunderstand me! I’m not saying we should not celebrate the very First Christmas, remember it lovingly each year and relive it in our worship services. I’m only asking if waiting for Christ makes any sense at all when Christ surrounds us, when he rests within us, when he lies on every Eucharist table on earth.

Waiting made sense for the Hebrews of old, yearning for a promised Messiah. Waiting made sense for John the Baptist–preparing people for the One who was coming after him. But to wait for a Christ who is already here. Waiting for a Christ who never left, whose spirit is alive and kicking? Isn’t waiting just another game of pretend?

This potential problem of waiting, MF, compels me to make a second point: The human experience of waiting is one we often experience on two levels. A poignant example of the first level is a diary in a book penned in French, entitled La Guerre/The War, by Marguerite Duras in 1985. The diary focusses on the pain of the author, Marguerite, who is a woman of the French Resistance, as she waits for her husband to return from Dachau.

The story of her waiting is a very human one, MF, filled with anguish and at times verging on desperation and despair. As the Allies advance into Nazi Germany, the reality of the concentration camps filters back to Paris. Marguerite doesn’t know what to think, what to make of the rumors and speculation. Paris is jubilant, but how can Marguerite rejoice when her husband may be dead, in a ditch somewhere? Paris, the City of Light, is lit up, time and again; but it is without her husband, you see! And so, she says to herself:

It is a sign of death—a tomorrow without him. Peace is like a great darkness falling. It’s the beginning of my need to forget. But how can I forget? I’m caught in the middle, not knowing, just waiting for an answer that may never come; but in never coming, my answer comes.

The other experience of waiting is quite different. It’s the experience of Mary, told by an angel that God wants her to bring his Son into the world—from her very womb. From the moment Gabriel left her, Mary knew that Jesus was there—inside her. She had 9 months to wait—but wait for what? For her child to be born, to appear, to show himself and for her to see and touch him, cradle and kiss him.

So, what was it like for Mary to wait for Jesus? As a man, I can only imagine. You mothers know what it’s like to give birth. I suspect that if men ever gave birth, it would be called a sacrament. Jesus was there, and yet not there—at least not the way Mary wanted him to be, not the way he would be in a stable some 80 kms away. In the meantime, there was the paradox of pregnancy: hours of ecstasy, offset by days of discomfort, anxiety, fear and sleepless nights.

But then, one midnight clear, when the stars were deep, crisp and even, amid all the cattle dung in that little Palestinian stable, Baby Jesus came forth—came to light—came from God, to come from her, to come to her. She looked into his eyes, heard him wail, held his shivering body and kissed him roundly. Of course, he was hers before—inside her—but what a difference one night makes!

This is what Mary had been waiting for. Here is where Jesus becomes real to her, as never before. Before, she believed with her mind, even felt with her body. But now she experienced Jesus with all her senses: eyes and ears, touch and taste and smell.

Which summons up my third point: How can the experiences of Marguerite and Mary make our Advent more Christian, more human, more humane? The point is this, MF: Your Advent and mine needs to reflect the experience of both Marguerite and Mary. Marguerite who waits for her husband who may never come—like the tens of millions of refugees who did not escape Syrian, Afghani and Saudi bombs. They’ve come to God, and so the wait is over.

Or, Mary who waits for her child to be born, as we wait for the birth of Christ, no longer in a stable—but to be born within you & me. Jesus is already here—all around us, deep within us. MF, the real question is: Not, how alive is he? But how alive is he for you?

If Christ within you is only like an embryo, if you haven’t felt him move, or been surprised by his kicking, if he hasn’t warmed you with his presence, if he hasn’t brought you to your knees out of joy or because of yours sins, and if, above all, you do not embrace him, like the very best of brothers, then his birth in you, MF, is overdue—long overdue! Because without giving him birth in you, there can be no Christmas for you—not really.

As I said last Sunday, if you don’t have a personal, living and trusting relationship with Christ, then you will never hear him speak to you! In fact, he will remain absent and silent for you, as he does for tens of millions of Christians.

Yes, Christ is in the face of everyone you meet, but you will not see his face in them, if you’re only looking at the shiny surfaces of stuff this Christmas: tinsel, trees and adult toys. If Christ is someone you sup with on Sundays, because it’s a family tradition, but the rest of the week is Christ-less—not sinful, just without Christ—then you’ve got it tough these next dozen days. Christ is alive and here, but you can only find him if you’re looking deep down inside, which is what looking spiritually is about. Then you will find him thrillingly alive for you and as pulsating as you could possibly imagine.

MF, it’s not enough to just wait for something to happen as Mary did; or wait for something not to happen and accept it, as Marguerite did. Do you remember Samuel Beckett’s devastating play, Waiting for GodotGodot being diminutive for God? Didi and Gogo are two pathetic creatures, two halves of a single mentality, two absurd clowns who wait each evening at the same tree, waiting for Mr. Godot to come along and give meaning to their futile existence, killing time before it kills them—as Didi says: Habit is a great deadener.

MF, If we want Christ to actually come alive in us—if we dare to desire this—then we must get off your haunches, as Mary did when the angel went winging away. No, she did not, as one pastor suggested to me, go to church and offer prayers to God. Lk 1:39: Mary went with haste to the hill country to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who was 6 months with child. The reason? Elizabeth wasn’t some pregnant young chick. She was an older woman who needed Mary.

So also for us, MF, and here our perennial holiday craze may help. Every store window, every colorful commercial, everything that sells Christmas for a profit, is trying to seduce us into spending more and still more, as if that will somehow produce a merrier Christmas. But what does not come through clearly is that the very best gifts, Visa can never buy. Why? Because the very best gifts are priceless, but also free! Gifts, you see, are symbols, pregnant with depth of meaning, often not verbally stated. And the very best gift is the one which represents us—when in the gift, we are giving ourselves or myself. The gift is me, myself and I to you. That gift is priceless!

MF, I’m urging that we activate and energize our waiting. If we want the Christ within us to come to living birth, we need to stop waiting listlessly at the same old tree for Mr Godot. Bring not only food and clothing, medicine and education to our sisters and brothers who so desperately need these; but bring Christ to them!—especially to those who look like Jesus because they’re pinned to a cross. Crucified Christs continue to encircle the globe, when I think of the hundreds of thousands who have died needlessly from the global pandemic because of lack of political will, lack of care in our for-profit nursing homes and by sheer incompetence at so many levels.

MF, I can’t tell you where to go, to whom you should give of yourself and how to go about it. Let the Lord Jesus tell you that—Jesus and your own two eyes and ears, your experience and empathy.

What I can tell you is this: If you mirror Mary and you carry Christ to someone who needs your caring, the effect will be amazing grace.

MF, so may it also be for us this Advent. A scarred sister or a broken brother will be touched by you and me—more accurately, by the Christ within us. And when he comes to life in the other, Jesus will come to life for us! … A real person more alive and filled to the brim and overflowing with aliveness—even more alive than you or me— if we could but just imagine that kind of aliveness!

So MF, let’s imagine aliveness—for just a moment. Aliveness comes down to one thing—to your consent and mine! To consent to life and living, to liveliness and aliveness —what Ginette calls Le Joie de Vivre!—the joy of life and living. Aliveness!—to happily consider where we are at this very moment, to muse and mull what energizes our lives and makes us enthusiastic. Aliveness—absolute and utter aliveness—springs from making our experience come alive and receiving the aliveness of what experience makes of us. This is the wonder Jesus recommends we become: alive—filled with aliveness!

On the other hand, if we’re wanting to protect ourselves from psychic pain, we limit our aliveness, limit our imaginations, limit our ability consider ideas, limit our bodily sensations. We take someone else’s word, instead of fumble for our own. We neglect giving attention to our dreams. We fear to go down the rabbit hole, accepting the devil we know, from the devil we don’t. We fear the depths of even one relationship. So instead, we substitute ever new ones. We avoid saying the hard truth to the one we love.

Aliveness MF is the pearl of great price we sell for the sake of riches, fame and security—none of which ever guarantee happiness. The pearl of great price is life in the Kingdom—being alive and feeling alive. It’s the vibrant aliveness that belongs to each one of us.

Aliveness. That’s what we want, pure and simple—to be alive and to feel alive. Not just to exist but to thrive, to live out loud, walk tall, breathe free. We want to be less lonely, less exhausted, less conflicted, less afraid. We want to be more awake, more grateful, more energized, more purposeful. And this quest for aliveness is one of the best things about Christ who said—more than once, I’m sure: I have come to bring you life and bring it more abundantly.

Life and aliveness is what we hope for when we pray. It’s why we gather, celebrate, eat, worship, pray, sing, meditate. You know, when people say to me, “I’m spiritual; not religious,” what they’re really saying is simple: I seek aliveness, not rules and regulations. I seek life and living, not doctrines and dogmas. I seek verve and vitality, not creeds and credos.

Well MF, this kind of Advent aliveness is not easy. But it is also not pixie dust from Tinkerbell or fairy sprinkles from Pinocchio’s Blue Angel. Like any mother in labour, aliveness will only come if we first cry and grasp and pray, first push and sweat and bleed. Like Marguerite, we may verge at times in despair, wondering if we, whom we want so much to love, will ever come within the circle of our arms. And so, like Mary, we will need all the faith, hope and love we can muster. We’ll need all the courage and daring God alone can give us, if we are to “go with haste to the hill country”—unto the hill where Christ is crucified each and every day, where a naked cross may await … perhaps even us.

Rough and tough indeed, MF. But it’s worth it if Christ comes alive for you and for me—that we come alive with aliveness! Otherwise, Christmas is only ancient history, only a crib, a holy day, we’ve turned into yet another holiday, with rounds of oohs and ahs, spiked with rum and eggnog. These I do not knock. Oh yum, for they can be splendidly expressive of joy in each other.

But let me tell you quite frankly MF: I shall be terribly sad and my heart will ache, if your Christmas is defined only by gifts Visa can purchase; if your Christmas is only Christ in a cradle born in a little hick town; if Christ is locked away in you, like some lock box and never let loose, so that you might jump for joy; if on December 24, Christ does not shine out from your face, onto the faces of others!

Last page. Finally. Well MF, believe me. I’m not trying to play the part of Scrooge. Quite the contrary. You want joy that is deeper than a belly laugh? You want joy that doesn’t end with a New Year’s hangover—a joy that never ends? You want joy that makes your large and small crosses bearable? You want joy that thrills your every sense, oozes out of every pore? Then let the Christ in you, finally come out! No…not as an infant. He’s grown up. He’s risen from the dead and risen from all that is death. Risen precisely to be your life—to infuse his life into all the life that is latent in you!

19 days before Christmas, MF. 19 days to shop for the Christ Child. 19 days to prepare to give him birth in you, for others. 19 days to finally let the Christ in you come out.

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

The Absence/Silence of God/Christ?

There will be strange things happening to the sun, moon and the stars. On earth, entire countries will be in despair. People will faint from fear. The powers in space will be driven from their courses. Then the Son of Man will appear, coming in a cloud with great power and glory. … But remember, all these things will happen before the people now living have all died. Lk 21:25-27,32

Dear Friends! Advent is traditionally a time of waiting and preparing for the Christ Child. But it is also a time of contradictions. I mean, is not Christ present in our world, right now, as I speak and you listen? Or is he somehow absent until he is born? And when he was born on Christmas Eve, clearly there can only be one birth, and not 2,021 births. And, btw, that birth in Bethlehem was probably 7-6 BC, because Herod who was King during Jesus’ birth, died in 4BC

Today’s text from Lk, which has its parallels in Mt & Mk, is also a traditional Advent I lesson—one of fear and foreboding: earth and stars, seas and oceans, sun and moon, all driven from their trajectories. MF, Scripture isn’t about rudimentary lessons in astronomy, oceanography or even thermodynamics. The Bible isn’t a 21C textbook on science, mathematics or medicine. Scripture is a book of faith, nothing more, nothing less. But in the case of today’s Lucan narrative, clearly Jesus is outlining a coming crisis, whose signs will be evident in the skies above.

Now the belief back then in the 1st C was in a 3-tiered universe: Earth sandwiched between heaven & hell. The earth was flat and a semi-circular dome covered the earth, inside of which were the stars and the sun all moving above the earth, which was the center of the universe, as they knew it. Above the dome, was heaven where God lived and personally directed the sun and stars inside the dome, including the Star of Bethlehem which the Wise Men followed. And of course, below the flat earth was hell, where Satan lived and if you walked too far, you fell off the earth and were promptly toasted and roasted in the fiery flames in time for somebody’s next meal.

Now, given this primitive and non-scientific cosmology, Jesus advocates a string of catastrophic signs, which all the folks to whom he is talking will be eye-witnesses and after which Jesus will return on the clouds of heaven. Be patient, says Jesus, observe the signs and have no fear. I am returning soon after these signs and events take place. As we all know, MF, we’re still playing the waiting game. Jesus’ 2nd Return has been delayed, at least until further notice.

But the point this morning is that, like the generations which followed Jesus, we too live in a time of crises—an age of crises which agonize the human heart. There is the catastrophe of endless war: How much blood should any person or nation shed to defeat an adversary? There is the crisis of race: Where, why and how do so many white folk dare to draw a colour line? There’s the issue of sex: What may two human beings do in the name of love?

There’s the perennial problem of poverty: How long must two-fifths of the world go hungry? There’s the crunch of financial inequality: How did one-tenth of 1% own as much wealth as the bottom 60% of the world’s inhabitants? There’s the crisis of religion: At what point does belief become heresy and worship become idolatry? Or better still: At what point does religion become meaningless and institutional religion become abusive? There’s also the crisis of multiple religions in the same country: Did you know that a US Republican senator recently called for one religion in US—Christianity of course, similar to the one recognized Moslem religion in Arab countries? There’s the crisis of politics: Where does democracy draw the line on autocracy and potential emerging dictatorships? I could go on.

War & Peace, Black & White, Rich & Poor, Woman & Man, Politics & Religion, Climate Change: Human induced or not. These and others are indeed significant issues of our time. But at this historical moment, MF, there’s a crisis just as crucial as these. The issue is not bombs, not food, not climate, not church, not morals, not even politics. In one word, the crisis is?? God.

I say God because there are tens of millions who do not believe in God. That’s not God’s problem, but ours. After all, God is not bound by our commonly held presumption that we humans are the center of everything. Oddly, many Christians nowadays limit God’s love to only humans. How different we are from Jesus, who extended divine care to sparrows and lilies, even the hairs of our head.

No stingy God here! But I suspect that human stinginess made us limit God, even call him silent and absent from human affairs.

Well MF, what can we human beings really believe with any certainty? Yes, belief in God or Allah, Jehovah or Elohim is a reality in the 21st C. But, when we consider the horrors and holocausts of this world, especially during the last century, belief in God can’t be easy. I mean, why can’t God do something about the crises we face globally, locally or personally? Doesn’t it seem that God is silent, if not completely absent amid all the suffering and pain of this world?

There’s also the question of Jesus of Nazareth who became Jesus the Christ—Messiah and Saviour of the world. And I don’t just mean Who is Jesus? but What is he? How does the human mind grasp God, much less the Son of God—a God-man—divinity and humanity made one in the womb of one Nazarene virgin? Secondly, where is this Son of God? Can we point to him and say: There he is! … like I can point to you and say “There you are!” Is Jesus really present, or do we simply, honestly admit his absence and/or his silence?

That’s the scenario, as I see it for many folks outside these walls. Jesus is simply not here. He is not here as he was in Palestine. I do not see him, as Mother Mary did, bundled in straw. I do not reach for him, as Peter did, walking on the water. I don’t receive a response from him, as did the thief crucified with him: You will be with me in paradise!  

I do not grasp him as Mary Magdalene did, risen from rock. I do not trace his wounds with my fingers as Thomas did. I do not see him appear to me, as he did 13 times to his disciples, much less ascending to God before vanishing totally from the view of the Twelve.

MF, an entire generation or two is behind us. Most have grown up not sensing the presence of Christ, as you and I do. They don’t even find him in nature as we do. In fact, many don’t find him in the preached word—even if they were to attend a Christmas, Good Friday or Easter Sunday service. I mean, how are they to find him in the preached word, when that word does not translate into 21st C norms of science and medicine, objectivity and rationality?

Is Christ really absent from our world, or is he just silent? The fact is this: A real encounter with Jesus is not easy. It never was. But for centuries, we just pretended it was.

I don’t know about you, MF, but for me, the experience of Jesus is both possible and very real. Why? Because for me, Jesus is alive and is here—no, not physically, mentally, scientifically, but is here spiritually and spiritually is a dimension which requires faith to see. Jesus’ absence only seems that way, because we’re forever looking only at the shiny surfaces of stuff and rarely looking deep down inside ourselves, which is what looking spiritually is about.

There’s a quote from a renowned 20th French Catholic theologian and cosmologist, you may never have heard of: Teilhard de Chardin by name. He wrote a book called: The Divine Milieu, whose language is difficult, but Chardin’s insights are remarkable. A sample:

Christianity is not the appearance of things, but the transparence of God in the universe. Not only the ray of sun that strikes the surface, but the ray that deeply penetrates the surface. Not only our Epiphany, but our Transparency is how we locate and see and hear God.

In other words: Jesus’ disclosure to you and me does not change or modify the apparent objectivity of things. Rain still remains rain. Precipitation has not been displaced by Jesus’ tears or the tears of the world. The words of Scripture and the words of this preacher are still man-made symbols to express a spiritual reality which requires faith to see. The Bread and Wine of HC remain the selfsame chemical constitution of bread and wine, by touch, feel and taste, as it was before consecration. We humans remain women and men, with all of our hates and loves, our agony and ecstasy, as always.

In short, what strikes our eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin always remains the same: raindrops, words, pumpkins, human beings. But on a deeper level, below the surface which the ray of sun penetrates, there is something different and new—something spiritual which requires faith to see it and experience it. Like translucent material MF put a light inside it and you illuminate the whole. It looks new, because the ray of light has penetrated the old to make it different.

So, if Christ is the light and he has illuminated the whole world, including ourselves, if we let him, then everything is different and new. We ourselves are new and different and spiritually transformed. If God has come to this world in the flesh of a baby in a cradle, then all creation is transformed. Why? Because God in human flesh gave it a new direction. That direction MF is Christward.

For Teilhard, this means, in his words: Universal matter is charged with creative power, oceans turbulent with the Spirit, clay molded by divinity, and all things living dynamic by the Word made flesh.

MF, I’m not trying to dazzle you with theological pie in the sky. But how does Jesus’ absence turn into presence, his silence into speaking? If the Christmas story is just past history, then nothing changes. Nothing! But if Christmas is taken seriously, as something which happens today—God in the form a baby—then then God also takes our form and becomes one of us. But MF do not look for one face of Christ, because he is in every face. Christ is in every being.

I’m reminded of holocaust survivor Elie Weisel, who in his book, Night, recounted a conversation between two old Jews who were witnessing another hanging at Auschwitz: Why doesn’t God do something to stop this slaughter? asked the one. Where is he? Where is God? To which the other said: He’s here, hanging on the gallows!

MF, read the words of Jesus in the Gospels, then listen—really listen to the words you’re reading, and you will hear Jesus talking to you. Or listen to this old preacher and I will confirm that your hearing is faith, because faith, though scientifically unverifiable, is real and alive. God’s breath warms every cold syllable and every frozen vowel, but only if and when we trust God that she is speaking.

Why trust? Because trust is what faith is. The word faith in the NT is the Greek word, pistis, which means to trust and to trust is not a noun. It’s a verb. So, when you are in a personal and living relationship with God, then you will hear God speak. If not, God will remain silent and absent for you, as he does for millions.

Remember Jesus’ words to the Jews who did not believe in him? The reason you do not hear God is because you are not of God! Jn 9:47, meaning, they have no trusting relationship to the living God.

MF, I used to teach a little Philosophy 101 back in Virginia where I would introduce a Greek philosopher who said: Birds of a feather flock together. His name? Aristotle. He lived in the 4thC before Christ and taught that there were ten different qualities to all things, including “substance” and “relationship.”

Substance, said Aristotle, is that which is “independent” of all else and can stand on its own, while relationship is that quality which connects all substances. So MF, the early church then applied these two qualities to the divine, concluding that the God of Substance was in Relationship to all other substances. So, when Jesus called himself the Son of the Father and also one with the Father, he was giving clear primacy to relationship. Who we are, is who we are in God as Father or Mother. That’s our identity says Jesus—that we may be one in relationship to Jesus & God, as Jesus & God are one.

MF, we humans are not independent substances, nor is any part of the universe. Everything exists in relationship—ecosystems, orbits, cycles, circulatory systems—even climate. We humans are in the mix—mixed into everything together. Everything is connected. Everything is related and in relationship, whether we agree or not.

In the 5th after Christ, Augustine described God in 3 substances united as 1. God is one substance who functions as 3 relationships: the Father who creates, the Son who redeems and the HS who transforms. In the 13thC Aquinas said that God is one substance, but the relationships constitute the very nature of that substance–subsistent relationships Aquinas called them.

That’s why salvation isn’t some free Get-Into-Heaven Card—God’s reward for believing. Salvation MF is the readiness and willingness to stay in relationship with God. As long as we show up with a degree of vulnerability, the HS keeps working in us and through us.

But let me tell you what makes relationships with God impossible. It is self-sufficiency! Self-sufficiency makes the God experience impossible! Self-sufficiency makes relatedness to others and relationship with God impossible.

Remember Jesus’ parable about the farmer who built ever bigger barns and silos to hold his grain? He was pleased and proud of his self-sufficiency. But God was not and that night he died. Self-sufficiency makes thankfulness and thanksgiving impossible and makes relatedness to others and relationship with God impossible. Self-sufficiency relegates God to absence and silence.

That’s precisely why Jesus showed up in this world as a naked and vulnerable baby lying in a place where animals eat. Talk about an unreserved relationship! Naked vulnerability means I’m going to let you influence me; I’m going to allow you to change me. We all have many experiences, MF, but they do not have the power to change ourselves, until and unless we are in relationship with God.

MF, let me close with a little Psychology 101 and arguably the foremost psychiatrist of the 20th century: Carl Jung by name, who identified the problem this way: He said that Christianity no longer connects with the soul or transforms people anymore. Christianity needs an actual inner, transcendent experience to anchor us humans to God, otherwise, God will be seen as silent, or worse, absent. MF, Jung brought Christianity back to its internal foundations, by emphasizing the power of the inner spiritual experience of God.

To quote Jung: Relationships are primary and must be healed, to understand that everything and everyone is connected, is related.

Trouble is MF, Catholics were told to believe the pope, bishops, and priests. Protestants were told to believe the Bible. The Catholic version has utterly failed, given the pedophilia crisis worldwide. The Protestant version has also failed, given our postmodern scientific worldviews which deny God as the Creator, but also failed, given the impact of our egotistical self-serving culture—of me, myself & I.

Catholics and Protestants made the same mistake. We’ve given folks answers that were extrinsic and outside of the soul—doctrines and dogma, creeds and credos. We’ve dismissed everything that was known from the inside out—the value of inner connections, relatedness and relationships. Instead of trusting the God within, we trusted the God who was up there somewhere. Christ and Christianity became a matter of intellect and will, instead of a deep inner trust with an inner dialogue of love. That’s why Jung advised:

The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely. Do not be afraid to tell God everything you fear, because God cannot heal what you conceal; but he will heal everything you reveal. For God, inward is the way of healing and relatedness.

MF, for too many years, we’ve been gazing at our own “performance” instead of searching for a relationship to God in us and in all things. If the issue of our core identity is relatedness to God, then our spiritual journey will continue. Trouble is: too many people start in the basement and never even get to the first floor. They just opt out. We need to stop the outer dogma and start the inner quest for aliveness in God–aliveness in Christ, which is the best thing Christ ever proclaimed: I have come to bring you life and bring it abundantly.       MF. That’s the good news for us today and for the rest of our lives. AMEN

Of Cabbages & Kings

So Pilate asked him: Are you a king, then? Jesus answered: You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for one purpose, to speak about the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth, listens to me.

 When I say “king,” what comes to mind? … The 3 Kings of Orient are? … or perhaps the 4 Kings of Spades, Hearts, Diamonds and Clubs?  Maybe the romantic legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table? Or perhaps King Henry VIII who defied Pope Clement VII in 1534 to divorce, not only his first wife Catherine, but divorce Rome itself to begin the Church of England. Or do you think of David, the shepherd boy, who slew Goliath and became 2nd King of Israel—but who was also branded murderer and adulterer, when he had Uriah slain and then promptly bedded his wife, Bathsheba?

Or perhaps you think of Solomon with his vaulted wisdom, but also with his 700 wives and 300 concubines, who said to them: For better service, ladies, please take a number. Or how about the butcher of innocent children, King Herod the Great? Or what about Old King Cole, that “merry old soul, who called for his pipe and bowl and fiddlers three”? Or what about Good King Wenceslas, who probably would have done better if, instead of snow, his blessings for the poor “was deep, crisp and even.”

Or King Edward VIII who in 1936 abdicated the English throne to marry a commoner for love, and not status —one sophisticated American divorcee, Wallis Simpson by name. Or maybe, if you’re hungry, you turn to that whopper of a king, Burger King? Or, if you’re an oldster like me, your musical inclinations spin to the King of Pop, Elvis Presley. who since his purported death in 1977, has been spotted in no less than 5000 sightings? Or maybe kings are of no consequence to you—outa style, outa sight and outa mind.

Remember the memorable lines of Through the Looking Glass?

The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things; Of shoes and ships and sealing wax; of cabbages and kings …. And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings.

What comes to your mind, MF, is important, for it influences your reaction to today’s feast, put on by another king. No, not the King of Jacks, but the King of Kings. What does Christ the King say to you this morning? Of course, only you can answer that. But let me add two more questions to your answer: Why is the last Sunday of the church year called Christ the King and how might the so-called kingship of Christ help make us more Christian, more human?

Well, MF, you may know that a few years ago, Christ the King Sunday was celebrated on the last day of October, which didn’t make any sense to many folks, including myself. It was like having Pavarotti’s Ava Maria inserted into the 2nd Act of Samson & Delilah.

But today is different. Christ the King Sunday fits here, because next Sunday, Advent 1, is the start of a new church year which begins with awaiting Christ in a cradle, followed by his 3-year public ministry, his crucifixion on Calvary’s Cross and rising from a borrowed tomb, his resurrection appearances and final ascension. Thereafter, we’ve waited 20 centuries for Christ to return on the clouds of heaven, only to be much delayed until further notice. The world can wait a few more centuries, I’m sure.

 At the close of the church year, MF, celebration of Christ the King is like the final flourish in a Beethoven symphony. It not only brings the movement to a decisive end, it forms a climax to what has gone on before. That was the church’s intention, given its 3-year cycle of Bible readings to tell the story of Christ from infant to king. Whether the church succeeded in this endeavor, I leave to your assessment.

Well MF, it’s one thing to agree that Christ the King is better situated for today than in Oct; but it’s quite another to make sense of Christ’s kingship in the midst of democracies, autocracies, republics—banana or otherwise, dictatorships—military or otherwise—none of which have any practical use for monarchs.

While we Canadians have a constitutional monarchy, Queen Elizabeth II does not reside here, nor is she personally involved in our politics, nor rules in any direct hands-on manner. In the case of our neighbour, however, the US, it was some 250 years ago, when they thumbed their colonial noses at King George III of England.

Now, a central problem for today’s Christ the King Sunday is a seeming contradiction. “King,” you see, was not a title Jesus particularly liked. Remember after the feeding of the 5,000, the people wanted to take Jesus by force to crown him king; but he then took to the hills to escape them. In today’s passage from Jn 18:33-37, Pilate asks Jesus if he’s a king. Well, Jesus doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t confirm it either. Given that this was a very critical moment in the last days of his life, Jesus did not give Pilate an unequivocal “No! I am not a king.” Jesus did not plead “not guilty.”

The point here, MF, is that Jesus was not positioning himself to challenge Roman rule. His kingdom was not of this world—not one which could be defended by swords and slingshots. Rather, it was a kingdom of peace and justice, love and mercy, giving and forgiving. It was a kingdom of the spirit, which required spiritual transformation to see it and be part of it. It required not power and dominion, might and right. After all, Jesus never said You shall be right! Rather, Jesus’ Kingdom required servanthood and suffering, humility and meekness from its wannabe citizens.

The trouble is what in fact happened historically in the church, especially in the RCC, growing so much out of the European medieval milieux. Namely: ministry in the church came to be identified with power and hierarchy. Why? Because church pastors and priests, particularly popes, cardinals and bishops throughout the centuries, modelled themselves on the princes and lords of Europe, the kings and queens of England. Clergy modelled themselves after the royals and crowned heads….and many still do! I’m not joking!

When Sherry and I were in Europe and visited numerous palaces, we were surprised to hear how many of these “pleasure palaces” belonged to Catholic bishops, whether in Italy or Austria, Germany or France. And what’s particularly amazing about these palaces is that the churches in these countries dare to call themselves Catholic, after centuries of blatant abuse of its citizens, who don’t even know it.

Christianity, especially the Roman version, sold out to the world’s model of authority and hierarchy centuries ago. The church said, “If a king has a crown, then the pope is three times better,” which is to say that the pope has to have a tiara, which is 3 crowns in 1, something like the Trinity. I’m not saying it is immoral for any pope to wear a tiara, but historically speaking, that image comes from medieval hierarchical thinking and reveals what the church considers its real treasures to be and, believe me they ain’t spiritual!

MF, contrast this with the Jesus who consistently denied kingship, who wore, not a tiara, but a crown of thorns, who railed against riches and money corrupting hearts and usurping synagogues, who said that the greatest was the least and the servant of all and whose home was not the marbled halls and gold-plated ceilings of the Vatican, but whose home and bed was under Galilean fig trees.

Well, MF, how did the church become so corrupted? It is a fair statement to conclude that for the medieval ecclesiastical leaders the church was better than the state, just like the kingdom of God was more just and peaceable than the kingdom of men and their war machines. While that’s true, in trying to express that truth, MF, the church tragically sold out to the symbols and riches of the world’s systems—and promptly corrupted itself!

The church enriched itself beyond all human avarice—a huge financial gain, beginning in the 4th century, when the church was forever excluded from paying taxes—any taxes!—to the Roman Emperor. No wonder the church was able to amass vast wealth and huge tracts of property over the next 16 centuries! During the Middle Ages, huge sums of money was accrued on the backs of the poor.

Remember what spurred Luther’s Reformation?—the sale of papal indulgences to the poor! For a small fortune, papal notices could be bought to free family members from the fiery flames of purgatory. Wenn ein Muenchen im Toepfchen ringt, eine Seele von Fegfeuer springt! Once a coin in the kettle rings, a soul from purgatory springs! In today’s currency, millions of dollars were raised in this manner, which helped pay for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in 1517 when Luther posted his 95 Theses.

Now, if a king could have a train on his robe that was 50 ft long, then a cardinal could have a 55 ft long train. And so, in church processions, cardinals began to have satin trains with ermine on them. Ermine, btw, is a short-tailed weasel—in Latin, Mustela erminea—and not just because the church was greater than the state—it had much more money. In fact the RCC is not only the longest surviving global institution, it is the most wealthy—by far.

A conservative estimate is that the global RCC is worth 3-4 trillion dollars. The Vatican, which is a tiny nation unto itself, is estimated at 50 billion dollars and is the 12th richest country per capita in the world. Btw, the pope does not receive a salary. Why? Because the Vatican Bank provides him with every possible monetary and material item for his disposal. In fact, the so-called Holy See is the last absolute monarchy in the world today. And when the pope is elected, he is answerable to no human power. Period.

When the Pope speaks “ex cathedra,” Latin for “from the chair,” he literally speaks from God’s throne. His decisions are God’s decisions. He acts for God and is literally the Vicar of Christ on earth. The pope has absolute authority over the entire RCC, direct power that reaches down even to individual members.

So MF, as the Vicar of Christ, will Pope Francis issue an apology on Canadian soil to the families of abused indigenous children and secretly buried in the soil of residential schools across Canada? A small delegation of chiefs is headed to the Vatican to persuade the Pope to do just that. But an apology shouldn’t require that kind of persuasion, should it? Other chiefs rightly question the value of a papal apology, now 75 years too little and too late—and only because the church’s evil doings have finally been exposed. MF, how can the Vicar of Christ possibly give an apology, when Christ himself never had anything for which to apologize?

MF, I can acknowledge, but also disagree with the biblical assumptions upon which the papacy and its office are founded. But on a practical level, which is ultimately what matters, it is behavioral heresy and fiscal sacrilege by the leaders of the Church—by Catholic priests and nuns, popes, cardinals and bishops who have vowed poverty, chastity and obedience, and by Protestant clergy, especially the filthy rich televangelists, in their multi-million dollar homes and jet planes, who are supposed models of love, mercy and justice.

MF, you may not be aware of the cost of clerical vestments—so that we clergy can dress regally and spend royally, like kings & queens? The stole I wear is the bottom of the line—an all purpose, year-long 6-colour stole, costing $600. But most pastors and priests have one stole for each colour of the church year, not to mention special vest-ments in all 6 colors, which are worn for just administering HC. All these clergy vestments are in the tens of thousands of $$. I know pastors who’ve spent over $50,000 just for vestments. Why would anyone want to wear this stuff, much less pay such astronomical prices? Well, I don’t want to open yet another Pandora’s box.

Btw, when Sherry & I were in Rome in 2017, we passed the official papal vestment church store. In the window, was one splendiferous, gold-studded, silver threaded, shining like the sun outfit, covering hard head to tender tootsies—a paltry $75,000—that’s precovid $$.

MF, on this Christ the King Sunday, we need to redefine church authority, not just because Jesus did not accept the title “King,” but because we’ve changed what was once a church function to an elevated office. The priesthood, whether Roman, Protestant or Orthodox, is still infected with that power of position, since priesthood is still seen as an office—a role and title, given to a person which metaphysically raises him/her above every and all laity. Exclam Mark!

The church then says that the priest or pastor is in that office “forever!” Now, maybe God knows what forever is, but I sure don’t. MF, the real questions to Christian clergy is this: Do you really function as one who engenders faith, hope and love, or are you in it for the pomp of the office and the ceremony of the title? Are you an agent of transformation for the soul or for the money, power and prestige?

Thank God we Lutherans and many other Christians world-wide are returning to an emphasis on function and service, rather than title and office. The church is just in the beginning stages of understanding the true source of authority in the church. Which is?… service!

MF, Jesus said it more than once and lived it his entire lifetime: namely, authority comes from living the life of service and servanthood—from being involved in serving others and laying down our life for sisters and brothers of the global human family. That’s what qualifies anyone to be called a priest or pastor, and not simply someone like me, who has the training and education. Gospel authority comes from following Christ and living the faith, and not simply because some clergy or bishop has laid hands on you or me.

For Jesus, authority comes from servanthood. The greatest among you, said Jesus, is the one who behaves as the least, and the one who leads is the one who serves. So, what does kingship and service mean? It doesn’t mean that Jesus is gonna stroll down Parliament Hill and snatch Trudeau’s place of honour, nor stride regally down Pennsylvania Ave and take Biden’s seat in the Oval Office.

But the fact is that kings, like queens, deal with dominion, rule, authority and with that dirty little word “power”. The question is not whether there is dominion, authority, rule and power in our lives? The question is: Who or what exercises dominion over our lives? Who or what is Lord of the Flies?–to use the title of William Golding’s 1954 Nobel Prize novel.

The fact is this: Because Jesus won by losing on a cross, he does not need to compel our compliance. When Jesus is king over our hearts and lives, that’s our ticket to the Kingdom! 2x

Well MF, last page, finally. Last thought, finally. The kingdom of God is not a place—not a Ludwig-like castle in the sky or in outer space. No MF. The Kingdom of God is right here and right now. Why? Because we are the Kingdom. You and I are the kingdom, MF. If the kingship of Christ is his rule over our hearts, then the Kingdom of God at his very root is deep within us. God’s kingdom is people—a people responding passionately to the passion of their King. We are the priests of the Kingdom, which isn’t just the ordained, but it’s each and every one of you—all of us together!

The kingdom will not fully come until and unless we complete our work in this world: to bloom and blossom in the tiny corner of the world where God has planted us—to connect with each other and the entire global human family, to connect with all things alive and living, to be more loving and just, than we have ever been, heretofore. It’s a fair piece of work to do, MF; but for your consolation and mine, it can be done. Why? Because we do it with the King, in the power of his dying and rising.

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

  End in Fire? End in Ice?

These great buildings—not a single stone will be left in place. Every one of them will be thrown down. Countries will fight against each other. There will be earthquakes and famines. Mk 13:2.9

Well MF, today’s gospel from Mark, which also has parallels in MT and LK—this morning’s words from Jesus are not exactly pure pleasure for preachers. I mean, to preach on the destruction of Jerusalem and the so-called end of the world—I gotta stretch this stuff a lot to make it sound like good news, which is what the word gospel, from the Greek word—evangeliou—really means.

First of all, today’s gospel is not a lesson in astronomy or oceanography. Whether from Mt, Mk or Lk, Jesus is not telling us what will happen to the sun, which heats and lights Mother Earth, to the moon on which we humans walked in 1969, or to the 999 quadrillion, quadrillion stars in space, or to the seas and oceans that cover more than 70% of the earth’s surface. Scripture does not spout modern science, but Jesus uses these images as apocalyptic props for a twin truth: 1. That this world, as we know it, will come to some kind of an end, and 2, after which Jesus says he will return.

In the meantime, MF, I weep for the Holocaust which was Jerusalem in the year 70 AD, some 40 years after Jesus’ prediction that not one stone would remain upon another.

Tiny Israel was mercilessly crushed by Roman steel in the 4-year war of 66-70 AD: 6,000 refugees dying in the flames of Solomon’s Temple, over 1 million others dead from the Roman sword, another hundred thousand put in chains and marched off to Rome. The vast treasures and furnishings of Jerusalem and its splendiferous Temple of Solomon were also carried off to Rome as trophies and spoils of war by the triumphant Roman General, one Titus Cesar Vespasian, who himself became Emperor 9 years later in AD 79.

MF, I don’t care to dwell on this, but already having opened Pandora’s box, I can tell you that the Jews bare some responsibility for these events. They goaded the Romans into a war which they could never win. Tiny Israel put God to the test in hopes that he would eliminate Roman boots over their sacred land and defend Jewish honor as he did so often in the past. But Jewish bows and arrows and sling shots were no match for Roman steel. This time, there was no divine rescue. Jerusalem ended in fire. The remaining Jewish diaspora scattered over Europe, returning a staggering 19 centuries later in the 1948 UN establishment of a new Israel.

In the meantime, the little band of Christians were hoping against hope that Jesus would return during this 4-year Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 AD. After all, he said he would return before those hearing him themselves died. Emperor Nero was ruthless in his execution of Christians who were slaughtered, like sheep to be sheared, and blamed them for Jerusalem ending in fire. But worse, Jesus did not return on the clouds to save his followers, much less rescue his own people—the Jews—not to mention the salvation of the world.

AD 70 was an ending in ice—a frozen finale—a kind of ice age of waiting in vain for the ice to melt and Jesus to come again. So here we are MF, 2 millennia later and the church isn’t exactly practicing fire drills in expectation of Jesus’ return.

Well MF, let me put a few historical events into perspective. While Jesus prophesied the end of Jerusalem and its mighty temple, that Mt, Mk & Lk all quote Jesus as saying that not one stone of the temple will remain upon another, these words from Jesus were all written after the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple. Now, did Jesus want to see the temple in ruins? On the one hand, Mary & Joseph presented him to God in this temple for his naming 6 days after his birth. But on the other, Jesus’ anger burned hot against what had become of Solomon’s Temple—a den of thieves, he called it, when he threw out all the money-changers.

Well MF, why these dark and violent words from Jesus this morning? Why not something cheerful, genuinely good news, like Jesus multiplying 5 loaves of enriched Jewish rye some thousand times over to feed the hungry or turning 6 large vats of water into 300 gallons of sweet Manischewitz, or better still, into Chilean Vinedo from its world-famous Miapo Valley. Why not?!

Because the liturgical readings from one Sunday to the next are not a helter-skelter, haphazard selection of Bible lessons to make us all feel good—especially those who must preach. I mean, don’t bad mouth the preacher if the listening to Jesus gets tough! Scriptural texts are intended to tell the story of salvation—beginning with Advent in two Sundays and ending one year later, with the Christ the King next Sunday. But today, MF, we listen to the second last scene on this 25th Sunday after Pentecost: the end of Jerusalem, the end of Solomon’s Temple and, seemingly, the end of the world.

MF, a little lesson from human history. Life is a constant movement, a continuous ebb and flow, a relentless back and forth between the good, bad and the ugly. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that. In fact, Scripture is a primary witness to this, as were the Israelites. They had their exile and Exodus, their enslavement in Egypt and their passage to freedom through the Red Sea. They griped against God in the desert but blessed him in the promised land.

Then, 900 years later, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia, laid waste to Jerusalem in 588 and deported the Jews to Babylonian captivity—a second enslavement. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed and partially rebuilt after the Jews returned decades later. Add another 500 years and King Herod completely rebuilds the temple. But then, along comes this itinerant prophet from Nazareth and says: Not one stone will be left upon another; but I will raise it up in 3 days!

Then the curtain of the temple was torn in two—meaning the Temple never saved a single Jew. Is it any wonder Jesus was rejected?

And now, MF, a few notes about the so-called end of the world. First, the time of the end is not ours to know, is it? We can speculate all we like. We can consider the signs of which Jesus spoke to herald the world’s demise: wars and quakes, plagues and persecutions, famines and martyrdoms, signs in the sky, earth and sea.

And since then, the world has never lacked for self-proclaimed prophets who thought they knew the time of Christ’s return to inaugurate his kingdom, which of course would include the Christian know-it-alls. Some said 70 AD and then 100 and 156 AD, then 1,000 followed by 1260 AD and 2,000 AD. Again and again, even in my own lifetime and yours, tens of thousands and millions have gathered on the hilltops and mountaintops of the world to greet the conquering Christ on the clouds of heaven. But it did not happen!

TV evangelists, one after the other, have laid out the precise battle lines of Armageddon on the plains of Abraham in the Middle East: Russia vs America, the East vs the West, Evil vs Good. Let me tell you–back in the mid 70s when I was teaching religion and philosophy at The College of William & Mary in Virginia, I was assured by numerous evangelical students that every sign in the Book of Revelation was here for all to see—for all to see, except for one myopic Lutheran professor, who had poor eyesight. He still does!

Without exception MF, these right-wing Christian brothers & sisters have always focussed on the signs … and bingo!—discovered them everywhere: from the oppressive Roman Empire to the thousand year reign of the Nazi Reich, the Huns to the Sarascens, the Jewish Holocaust to the atomic bomb, the Aids epidemic to the global pandemic of Covid 19—all vehicles of Satan himself, they’ve said, as if we humans had no hand in these evils—sinners that we are.

But these know-it-all Christians failed miserably to calculate one simple declarative sentence by one Jesus of Nazareth: About that day and that hour, no one knows, not the angels, nor even the Son, but only the Father. MT 24:36. So, how do they know the time of the end of the world, when Jesus doesn’t even know? Who do they think they are: God? No, they’re not God, but they act like God.

Well MF, ‘nuff said. The important question is this: How might you and I respond to today’s Gospel—react to our own temple experience of glory and destruction—counter with what we would do if the world around us begins to crumble and disintegrate?

What can I tell you, MF? Life and living as a Christian and a human is a ceaseless struggle, a fluctuation between joy and sorrow, success and failure, manic and depressive, highs and lows, bad things happening to good people and good things happening to bad people—to which I say: Define good people and bad people?

The fact is: We’re all comprised of good and bad, aren’t we? It’s the extremes of good and evil which are the danger: radical righteousness and deadly evil. There’s always a tension between sanctity and sinfulness. We are, said Luther, saint and sinner at the same time, always holy but also horrible, always in need of reformation, transformation and new life. Not that long ago, we thought that the destination was be all and end all. But we’ve come to recognize that the journey is the destination—the walking and talking with Jesus right now is the experience of his Kingdom here and now.

The journey is always one of following faithfully, even if the road is less and less travelled. The spiritual life isn’t just for gurus sitting atop mountain ledges, waiting for peans like us to scale icy slopes to glean a word of wisdom. Rather, the spiritual life is an adventure with Jesus in which the HS constantly surprises us and however unexpectant the event, God is always there.

The most important feature of Christianity is not this temple, not this building—not even this 140-year-old sanctuary. Not today, but one day, not one stone of Zion will be left upon another. For as lovely as it is, house of God though it is, though we breathe freedom and liberation here inside these walls—this building, MF, like Solomon’s Temple, does not automatically save any of us. The more important temple is the one St. Paul commended to the Christians of Corinth: You are God’s temple and it is God’s HS which dwells in you! For God’s temple is holy and you are that temple!

1 Cor.3:16. Which is also of course why Paul was so furious with Christian fornicators who should have known better:

Do you not know that your body is part of the Body of Christ, that your body is God’s his temple. You are that temple! You were bought with a huge price and so glorify God with your body. 1 Cor 6:19-20.

In a sentence, MF, our bodies contain the house of God and that house holds a precious tabernacle, a kind of holy of holies in which God herself lives and to which we bow down in reverence before one another—for each of us contains that holy image.

MF, let me strongly recommend the following to you and me: Do not allow today’s signs and symbols of destruction, to shatter our peace of mind or even threaten us with the end of the world, end of Mother Earth, or end of the universe, for that matter…nor allow Christ’s coming again on the clouds to one day threaten us with judgement and the fiery flames of perdition throughout eternity.

What I do endorse, MF, is Luther’s answer to the question: If Jesus were to return tomorrow, Martin, what would you do today? His response: I’d plant a tree in my back yard. In other words, Luther tried to live each day of his life as if Christ was returning that day! MF, let us live life ‘as if’ Christ were returning today …

not in fear and trembling, but with the quiet joy that stems from the realization that the Christ, who is yet to come, is already here, already within us and in our world. In fact, there’s a sense in which he never left. He meets us not only on the road less travelled, but he greets us everyday in our neighbour, locally and globally, regardless of race, colour, creed, sexual identity, nationality or ethnic origin.

Christ meets us, greets us and touches us in the hungry we feed, the illiterate we educate, the homeless we shelter, the poor we help, the refugees we house, the imprisoned we visit, whether behind iron bars or walls of loneliness, the sick we heal, the newborn we raise and the dead we respect and revere.

In other words, even if I were somehow persuaded that the human race is soon to end in ice or end in fire, soon to be nuked by the atom bomb or baked to a crisp by the sun or found drowning in fast rising ocean tides, or crystalized in an avalanche of ice, I must still prepare myself and my little acre of God’s good green earth to fit into Christ’s kingdom—a kingdom of peace, justice and love—and a kingdom prepared not just for me and the likes of me, but for all life and living in the universe.

MF, the destruction of one magnificent temple can build up gloriously the temple that is you, as well as me. But that’s only if you’ve got eyes to see and ears to hear and if you take the necessary time to reflect and ponder what Jesus is saying to you, as well as me … not just this morning, but every morning.

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

Cheap Grace? Cheap Church!

Dear Friends. We gather once again to celebrate the Reformation. This time it’s the 504th Anniversary—504 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Church door, Oct 31, 1517. For the 500th Anniversary in 2017, Sherry & I went to Wittenberg and saw the church doors, which are now metal with the 95 theses stamped on them. Although Luther attended St. Mary’s down the street, he was buried inside the Wittenberg Church, which was the cathedral for the professional class, like himself, as he also taught OT theology at the University of Wittenberg.

So MF, here we are—504 years later. A lot has changed in the Lutheran Church since Luther’s time. In fact, there’s nothing in this life which will guarantee the Christian Church, much less the Lutheran Church of some 70 million folks globally speaking, will remain the same. On the contrary, it is painfully obvious that the church will continue to change, as it has during the Protestant Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the computerized, technological era of the 3rd millennium and now, given the deep global decline of the church. Change is constant and that’s because change is part of God’s DNA. The only constant is change, wrote Heraclites, Greek philosopher of the 5th C before Christ.

This is not to say that the church is headed for the nearest cemetery, which in this case, is our backyard. Jesus will always be present where 2 or 3 are gathered together in his name. Most of us here remember when our churches were growing by leaps and bounds, in the 60s, 70s, 80s, even 90s. Back in those days, we just had to open our doors and people would come flocking in. The pastors back then were not very wealthy, but they were respected and revered men and women of the cloth who were real “shepherds of souls.”

Of course the church of the past was not perfect. It tended to be uncritical about itself, had a self-righteousness about the morality of its members, indulged in theological narrow-mindedness and exhibited tunnel vision about the future. The Lutheran church was particularly judgmental of Roman Catholicism. If the RCC did this, that or the other, Lutherans specifically avoided this, that and the other, in spades, and then did exactly the opposite. In fact, parishes of the Missouri & Wisconsin Synods still have as their first 2 lines to Luther’s A Mighty Fortress: Lord, keep us steadfast in thy word. Refrain the murd’rous Pope and Turk.

While the Church is in serious decline here in the Western Hemisphere, in Africa, Southeast Asia and Indonesia, the church is thriving, although much more conservative in theological outlook and practice. In fact, those churches have been sending missionaries to us. But, in terms of the bulk of Lutherans globally, Germany, Luther’s home, a scant 1.8% worship with any kind of regularity.

So, why is the Christian church facing serious decline globally and locally, which would have Luther turning in his grave? There are many reasons, but let me to focus on one, which is exemplified by many folks over the years who would promise to see me in church next Sunday, but rarely did. Occasionally I’d remind them that they didn’t have make any extra promises about coming to church, since that’s what they promised when they became members/confirmed.

Well MF, 504 years ago, Martin Luther was searching for a gracious God who would forgive him his sins. He found this God in the words of St. Paul in Ephesians 2:8: You are saved by grace through faith and not by works of the law. In short, salvation is a free gift of God’s grace. While God expects me to do good works, love my neighbour, pray for my enemy, obey the commandments and love God above all else, I am not saved because of what I’ve done or failed to do. By faith and God’s grace, salvation is received as a free gift from God.

Here’s the point: What is given freely is not gotten cheaply. Free does not mean cheap, nor is it taken for granted. God’s grace is costly, even though it is given freely. This cannot be understated! God’s free grace is not cheap; but we treat it cheaply when we take it for granted or our actions don’t match what we say or believe. Our salvation and the world was paid in blood on a cross. That’s why grace is free, precisely because it cost God so much. But when we treat it as if costs nothing, then we devalue God’s grace as if it was worth nothing—running through our fingers like water.

MF, if Luther’s time was characterized by works without faith, our time is surely characterized by faith without works. But in both cases, such faith is dead. We cannot stand before God no matter how wonderful our works may be, said Luther. Nor can stand before God no matter how correct our doctrines and our believing may be. In either case, we’ve only searched out the place where God’s grace may be given and obtained at the cheapest possible price.

And this place where Grace is given at discount prices is from the church’s big warehouse. It’s where the church is stuffed with members, but most of them are on paper. It’s where everything in the church is important—everything but regular worship. It’s where Christianity only means becoming better and more decent persons; where Christ is always good to us and forgives us no matter what we do or fail to do. It’s where God showers us with blessings and gifts, but we use his blessings and gifts without her.

MF, where God’s grace is treated cheaply, there is membership alright, but it’s without regular worship or participation. Where God’s grace is considered cheap, there is forgiveness alright, but without real contrition, without feeling genuinely sorry or saying I’m truly sorry! Where God’s grace is received cheaply, there is absolution for our sins alright, but without any sincere desire to be delivered from our sin—even the same ones, which we repeat over and over again.

Cheap grace seems to convert people, but doesn’t expect any authentic change in them. Cheap grace informs people with new ideas, but does not transform them with the HS and change them from the inside out. Cheap grace also offers justification of sin, but without justification of the sinner. And, when God’s grace is cheap, then we give of our time, talents and treasurers, but we only that time, talent and treasure which is left over.

Cheap grace officiates at baptisms, whenever parents fail to bring their baptized child to church, as they promised. Cheap grace also communes at the Lord’s Table, but it is without real confession and change. Where God’s Grace is treated cheaply, taken for granted and given without cost, there is Christianity to be sure, but without the discipline of discipleship, without commitment and priorities, without sacrifice and accountability. Where God’s grace is treated cheaply, there is the love of God’s Kingdom, but without the cross, without pain and suffering. Where God’s grace is cheapened, there is Easter, but without Good Friday; there is Pentecost but without spiritual transformation. Where God’s grace is taken for granted, there is the church alright, but it’s reduced to a building.

But on the positive side of the equation, MF: When the church lives by the grace which costs God the life of his son, that’s the church which seeks converts, not for the sake of increased statistics, both in members and money, but does so for the sake of building up their personal relationships with one another and with God.

The church which lives by costly grace is free from idolatrous concern to preserve itself at all costs; but serves God by serving one another and neighbors, locally and globally, regardless of the price.

The church which lives by costly grace is not simply an institution made by human hands where business and finances are conducted as usual, but is, first and foremost, a fellowship of people who are alive in Christ. The building is not bricks and mortar, but it’s the Body of Christ, a spiritual fellowship, for which a person loses his life, as Christ himself did and who said: Whoever would save his life, will lose it, and whosever loses his life for my sake will find it.

The church which gives itself as Christ’s Body for neighbour and world is the church which lives by costly grace. Such a church serves as both the servant and the master of all. But if the church passes by on the other side of human need, it will cast serious doubt even upon the most brilliant preaching and teaching about God’s love. If the church only judges and damns human sins and shortcomings, how can anyone believe God is loving and forgiving?

The church which lives by God’s costly grace is the church where membership is active with regular and joyful participation and worship; where there is genuine forgiveness and contrition for our sins; where absolution occurs together with a real desire to be delivered from sin; and where there is both the forgiveness of sins and the justification of the sinner.

Where the church lives by God’s costly grace, there is real conversion and transformation by the HS; there is the keeping of baptismal promises; there is communion with honest confession and actual forgiveness. Where God’s grace is costly, there is the genuine giving of time, talents and treasures off the top. Where Christians live by costly grace, there is real commitment and discipleship; there is the bearing of Christ’s Cross; there is doing good works for neighbour and world precisely because we know the high stakes involved.

For Martin Luther, the cost of the Reformation was great, because it resulted in yet another split within the church—a split Luther did not want. He wanted to reform the RCC, which did not happen, because the costs of reform were simply too great for Pope Leo X, but never too great for God, who in Christ paid the price in blood.

Well MF, when I say God in Christ paid the price in blood once and for all, I simply mean to say that God’s job is to make up for all the deficiencies in the universe. What else would God do? Why? Because Grace, you see, is God’s first name, and her last name too.

Costly Grace is what God does to keep all things alive which she has made in love—and to keep alive forever! Grace, which is always costly, is God’s official job description. Grace is not something God gives. Grace is who God is! God’s costly Grace is at work in the universe, MF and has been since day one.

When we receive it as costly, God’s Grace prevails over anything, any time and anywhere. And of course, that’s precisely why it is so difficult to see and experience God’s grace—because it is everywhere, in every life and living thing, in every time and place. After all, MF, what do we respect if we get something for nothing? When I was still a child, I remember my grandparents complaining bitterly about cheap Chinese goods—nothing like German manufactured stuff—especially cars, they said. We don’t value cheap stuff, and when it comes from the church, it’s especially difficult to appreciate.

Cheap grace, MF, is no grace at all. That’s why Mt 21:19 presents Jesus as cursing the barren fig tree. Even God expects a return, you see, a pass-through account. If not, it means the gift wasn’t even received or accepted. Authentic grace, like genuine love and salvation, has an effective quality to it. Gifts always need to work through us, you see. That’s why there’s a real sense in which we don’t “deserve” anything, if everything is gift! Until we have begun to live in God’s big Kingdom, instead of the tiny little man-made kingdoms, we will think exactly like the world, which determines who deserves what and who does not, who is entitled to what and who is not.

Gifted, free and un-earnable love is a humiliation for our narcissist egos. That’s why only a radical experience of costly grace can move us beyond the self-defeating and tired story line of reward and punishment, in which we all lose. Only a deeply personal experience of unearned love can move us beyond the narrowness of arbitrary requirements to a worldview of abundance and availability.

MF, it is indeed the banquet feast to which everyone is invited, but, as Jesus rightly says: No one wants to come to it, and most even resent it, including the entitled! Even God has a hard time giving away God, it seems. Why? Cheap grace, you see. Cheap grace, that’s why!

My last thought is this: Too many Christians still think that God is somewhere out there. But God is not out there somewhere. Why not? Because we humans don’t look at reality. We look from reality. We are already in reality, in the middle of it, right now! We’re part of it; integral to it. We participate in reality. We can’t step outside reality!

And this MF, changes everything about how we see our lives, see God and how we treat grace—cheaply or costly. If we’re writing our life-story by ourselves, we think we’ve got to write it absolutely correctly, down to the last final immutable detail. We’ve got to be clever and figure it out. If anything goes wrong, we’ve only got ourselves to blame. MF, that’s a terrible way to live, even though a high degree of Christians do. And I would call that bad news.

God’s good news is a completely different experience of life. When we live by God’s costly grace, we will say: I am an instrument. I am actively being chosen, I am being led. It is not about joining a new denomination or having an ecstatic moment. In other words, my life is not about me. I am about life. I am but one instance in this agony and ecstasy of God that is already happening inside of me, and all I can do is say Yes to it. That’s all. That’s costly grace. That’s spiritual transformation, MF, and that changes everything.

This idea of participating in the goodness and continual unfolding of God’s creation reminds me of the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that begins, “Make me a channel of your peace,” which is what God did when he made Luther a channel of his reform.

Looking back on my life, I can see that God did everything. God even used my mistakes and failures, to bring me to herself and then bring God’s wisdom to others! I hope that you will be inspired to look at what has happened when you also said yes to God’s costly grace in your participation as God’s instrument in the world.

God has blessed you to be a blessing to others. Continue to be that instrument of blessing and of grace. That’s the good news for today and for the rest of our lives. AMEN

Cheer up! they said. And get up! He’s calling for you! Mk 10:49

Dear Friends. Today’s miracle story of the man born blind is an interesting example of what’s called oral tradition (OR), which is a story verbally handed down over time, decades in this case, by story tellers. This is precisely how the 4 Gospels came to be written. Since the gospels, like the entire NT, is written in Greek, obviously, no one followed Jesus around taking notes in Greek, since Jesus and his disciples didn’t speak the language.

Folks who were eye-witnesses to Jesus activities told the stories over and over in Jesus’ spoken language—Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew. These stories then became etched in their memories and in the memories of their listeners, who then also reiterated the stories to other listeners and other listeners again. Eventually, after Jesus’ death, Greek speaking Gentiles became Christians, who heard these stories and then put them into Greek narratives. Huge numbers of stories were collected and eventually editors emerged who made gospels from the accounts in Greek.

Mark wrote the first gospel in AD 70, then MT in 80, LK in 90. Both copied from MK. So the first 3 gospels are similar, but also different, since each writer wrote to separate audiences. Finally, John’s Gospel was written around 100 AD. Although JN has a few similar stories to MT, MK & LK, including today’s text of the blind beggar, JN did not copy the other gospels. JN is a stand-alone book, very dissimilar from the first three. Why? By 100 AD, which was 70 years after Jesus. the expectation of Jesus’ 2nd Return was at a crisis point and so JN’s gospel is an answer to the existential question: Why hasn’t Jesus returned yet, as he said he would?

As I said earlier, today’s account of the blind man is a good illustration of oral tradition, because the story appears in all four gospels. The first 3 gospels each have a slightly different version of the story line, whereas JN’s gospel is very different and much longer. In fact, John embellishes the narrative into an entire chapter.

So eg: LK says Jesus entered the city of Jericho. MK & MT say Jesus left the city. MK names the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. LK gives him no name and MT claims there were 2 blind men. JN does not provide a name but involves the blind man and his parents in several heated arguments with the Pharisees who try to discredit Jesus and his healing, by casting doubt on the testimony of the blind man and his parents.

Now, if you were to read each of the 4 gospel accounts, MF, you could not help but notice how different the effect each story has in each gospel. This kind of textual comparison helps us come to understand how there was an original Aramaic oral tradition out of which came the written gospel accounts in Greek.

Now, the 4 gospel writers do have something in common. They highlight the striking faith relationship between Jesus and Bartimaeus. Like many beggars, outcasts and crippled people, Bartimaeus is situated along the roadside, pleading for help from passersby. He hears Jesus is in town and so calls out to Jesus to take pity on his condition. The towns people rudely tell him to shut up, but the more they tell him, the louder he yells: Son of David! Have pity on me! Jesus finally hears him and asks to have the man brought to him. They tell Bartimaeus: Cheer up! Get up! Jesus is calling for you!

Well, Bartimaeus can’t believe his ears; but sure enough, it’s true. He throws his cloak off, jumps up and is led to Jesus, who simply asks him: What can I do for you? Bartimaeus, who isn’t just any blind beggar: He’s the son of Timaeus who must have had some standing in the community; otherwise, he would never have been identified as the father of Bartimaeus, who, as a beggar, owns a cloak. He tells Jesus” I want to see! Jesus immediately heals him, informing Bartimaeus that his faith has saved him. Out of gratitude, he follows Jesus along the road, says MK. Next stop: Jerusalem.

Now, a page or so back, I highlighted some minor difference among the first 3 gospels. But the major difference is John’s story line, in which there are hot accusations from the Pharisees who don’t believe that Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus. Not just because they were forever trying to trap Jesus, but because being born blind, like being a cripple, a leper, lame or terminally ill, meant that you or your parents or grandparents had committed a gross sin or sins and that God was punishing you. Like many others in his situation and condition, Bartimaeus was probably tossed out of his father, Timaeus’ house, to fend for himself and has no other recourse but to beg.

That’s why in John’s Gospel, the Pharisees not only question Bartimaeus about the healing, but they also interrogate his parents regarding their son’s blindness. The Pharisees desperately try to discredit Bartimaeus and his parents, which would denigrate Jesus and the healing. Jesus’ response? He waxes eloquent about the Pharisees’ spiritual blindness: If you were blind, says Jesus, then you would not be guilty. But since you claim that you can see, this means that you are indeed guilty of spiritual blindness. No wonder the Pharisees were furious, says John, wanting Jesus put to death.

Well MF, for you and me this Oct morning, listening to this story and understanding it better from 4 gospel writers, now 20 centuries later, it is critical to recognize the role of faith and the relationship between Jesus and Bartimaeus at work here.

So, what does having faith or trusting God actually mean in the context of this healing story? I’ve said it many times: Faith comes from the Greek word, pistis, which means to trust, which further means that faith is not a noun, but a verb: to trust, like an uncorrupted child would trust a parent or teacher. Faith is not a passive trusting, but an active trusting. Faith isn’t a kind of dependency, a handing over of responsibility to someone else, without my personal involvement. Faith isn’t: Okie dokie, God. You can do it. I know you can do it for me! Faith is always a both/and, even though sometimes it’s by God’s initiative and sometimes by ours—like Bartimaeus.

In other words, MF, faith is relationship building—like the one between Jesus and Bartimaeus. Faith doesn’t mean that God will always intervene. Why? Because faith is not an end to another means. Faith is an end in itself. Bartimaeus had faith which then became the vehicle of his healing. He didn’t say: You heal me, Lord Jesus, and then I’ll believe in you. Nor did he say: You must heal me because I believe in you. Faith is an end in itself.

The faith of Bartimaeus says: Lord Jesus. I need you. I love you. I want you to help me! Please! Faith becomes the channel of trust and openness between the two of them and through which the power of Jesus flows to heal Bartimaeus and change his life. MF, I think that this is the most central aspect of this gospel story: Faith is the power of a personal relationship which works its healing and loving qualities as an end in itself.

That’s why faith is not the destination. Faith is the journey. It is the road travelled and quite often much less travelled. Faith isn’t even something we do to get to heaven. Faith is already a heavenly quality. Faith is already being alive in God, being alive in the HS. Your faith has saved you, is how Jesus put it to Bartimaeus. Your faith has placed you in the Kingdom of God which is heaven. Faith is the journey. The destination is only part of the journey.

Faith is also the opposite of resentment, cynicism and negativity. Faith is always and finally a self-fulling prophecy. Faith begins to create what it desires. Faith re-creates God’s good world. Without faith, we all continue sink deeper and deeper into the bad and evil we create with our hands and intentions, our fears and wars. But with faith, we keep on hoping and trusting, loving, giving and forgiving, Faith is a matter of having new eyes to see old landscapes in a new light or to see old friends in a fresh and better way.

That’s why Bartimaeus’ faith gives him a kind of sight and spiritual insight no one else has. He knows Jesus can heal him, even though the crowd tells him to shut up. But his faith will not keep silent and his faith begins to create what Bartimaeus so desperately needs: to see! The gift of sight is like the gift of faith. We didn’t ask to see when we were born. We didn’t even ask to be born. Life and sight are gifts from God, just like faith and love.

In short, MF, God takes the initiative at birth and we hopefully respond. Bartimaeus takes the initiative and Jesus responds. Faith is trust—God to us and we to God. Put today’s Gospel in contemporary nomenclature: Cheer up! Get up! Jesus is calling you! and me!—to begin by coming to him. That’s how faith responds. Faith isn’t so much what we believe. Faith is much more how we believe, how we respond. Jesus is calling each of us. And when Jesus asks us what we want of him, we will say, together with blind Bartimaeus:

Master, let me see! I want to look for all those lost horizons I was too blind to see before. Open my eyes, o Lord, not just on beauty, but also on ugliness, on the poor and powerless, on other beggars like me, on the ailing and aged, on the hatred which eats away at my human heart. Master, let me see where I can love without limit, without measure or calculation. Not some fluffy, flimsy kind of loving. But real genuine loving, like yours, o Jesus, for you loved even unto death by crucifixion. Let me experience your kind of love, o Master, where real love will make me hurt and feel pain.

Well MF, Jesus is asking each of us, me too—not simply to return love for love. Rather, he asks us to take the lead in loving. Mother Teresa should not be yesterday’s illustration of an extraordinary Christian today. This is our ceaseless journey with Jesus—starting with the gray day he mounted a Cross for us and for the world, without our even asking him to do so.

Like Bartimaeus, we too are beggars and probably blind to boot. Maybe not today, but when push comes to shove, we are often reduced to begging—begging for heaven; begging for forgiveness; begging for help; begging not to be abandoned. Even Luther, close to his death bed in 1546, famously said: We are beggars! All of us!   

The journey of faith with Jesus is always one of risk and grace. It’s a journey made by every person who sets out to seek God, whatever God’s name. In the book of Exodus Egypt is the place of slavery and the Promised Land is the place of freedom. The journey from Egypt to the Promised Land—through the Red Sea to Sinai and across the desert—is a saga which symbolizes our own struggle towards ever greater inner freedom. And it’s all made possible, all empowered by God’s costly grace, for there is no other kind of grace, but costly.

Or, I think of another the journey of faith—that of the enslaved African American, hundreds of thousands of them, who knew the book of Exodus and knew that their journey of faith was much more than just a symbol. For Blacks, their harrowing trek from the soil of Africa to the shores of America and the ensuing Civil War became a very long and arduous journey of liberation from the white man’s exploitive system of slavery. As the Black theologian James Cone once wrote: The record shows clearly that black slaves believed that just as God had delivered Moses and the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, by God’s amazing grace, he also will deliver black people from the white spiritual blindness of American slavery.

The stories of Exodus, no matter what color or creed, what nationality or ethnicity, the Exodus only makes real sense to people who themselves are walking an existential journey of faith.

Last Page. Well MF, if we are walking in the Spirit and listening to the Spirit, we can relate these stories to our own personal life and identify with their experiences, however arduous. We all have to turn to God and let ourselves be led on this faith journey. We have to be willing to experience the Exodus in our own lives, to let God take us from captivity to freedom, not knowing how to cross the desert between the two.

Like Moses, Bartimaeus also takes the risk of faith. People of faith are the ones who expect the yearnings of their deepest soul to be fulfilled. Life for them becomes a time between longing and fulfillment. It is never a straight line, but always three steps forward and two steps back.

In our journey of faith, we will find that the desert is not all desert. The way to healing, the way to liberation, the way to the Promised Land, always leads to life even in the midst of the desert. Like Bartimaeus, when he least expected it, there’s always an oasis along faith’s journey, where Jesus will make the desert bloom for us. Cheer up! Get up! Jesus is calling and he’s calling us to come to him … for health & healing! How great & grand is that, MF?

That’s the good news for us today and for the rest of our lives! Amen

A Baptismal Homily for Two Unsuspecting Children

Dear Friends. This morning, I trust that you will pardon me, if I address my sermon directly to the 2 main characters, the two principal actors, the 2 rising young stars in today’s sacramental drama: Muriel Barbara and Louis Paul Mlckovsky?

Dear Muriel. Five years ago, on Sunday, March 13, 2016, at Mackenzie Health Centre in Richmond Hill, you were born. And dear Louis. Four years ago, on Wednesday, August 16, 2017, at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, you were born. The fact is that both of you were born without your knowledge and even without your consent. Your mother, Kelli-Anne and your respective fathers, did something to you that is at once wonderful and fearful. They initiated you into the human family.

These were two moments in our God-given time filled with awe and wonder. Why? Because two more children of God were born: two of countless millions, from the fashion of the first Adam to the final Eve. And because there had never been this “you” before you both came along—and there never will be again, Muriel & Louis—you are that unique and special, because God revels in diversity, variety and unique singularity.

And so, two infants markedly precious and distinctive came forth to the world on those two days in 2016 and 2017—to lengthen our laughter and season our tears. Those 2 days—a Sunday and a Thursday—you Muriel and you Louis gave the world such fresh hope—a lift of the heart and spirit, none but the newborn can give. Your birth into the human family was an unspoken hope that because of you, we just might be more human, more in love with God and with all her human children, regardless of race, color, religion or ethnicity.

And yet, dear Muriel & Louis, those two moments, so full of wonder and hope were also quite full of fear and foreboding. And that’s because your parents also initiated you into a community of contradictions—where God’s baptized children not only die for one another, but also kill one another; where love mingles with hate, faith with infidelity, truth with half-truths and out-right lies, hope with despair, comfort with taking for granted, and promises with the breaking of vows.

It’s a planet, where at any given moment, half the world is at war; where a cross is erected over history; where despite the miracles of science and technology, the threat of annihilation hangs over us all, like the legendary sword of Damocles. Limited as we are, loving you as we do, we know not what this world holds for you both, as you grow into the child, adolescent, the woman and man, God intends you to be.

Yes, my dear little Muriel & Louis, although your birth into global human family is both wonderful and fearful, this morning we celebrate a second birth—a second initiation. Once again, without your knowledge and consent, we have dared to initiate you into the global community of God’s family of faith. It too is a moment filled with both wonder and fear.

Wonder, because when the waters of baptism bathed your brow, the image of Christ shaped your heart and mind; the HS entered in and proclaimed you as God’s very own. Wonder because God as Father & Mother lives in you, loves you, forgives you, graces you. Wonder because the HS has given you the power to love—not in some superficial Disneyland fashion, but to love God and neighbour, as you love yourself. By faith, love is poured into both of you this morning—the gifts of God which will enable you to act in God’s eye, what in God’s eye you are: his daughter and son, sister and brother to Jesus.

But your dual baptisms are also full of fear. As your church family, we’re also initiating you into a community of contradictions. As you both grow up, I’m afraid that as Christians, you will often be scandalized—as we all are! We call ourselves a family of faith, but too many Christians are long on propositions and short on actions. They are less suffering servants and more lip service, all the while serving many masters:
possessions and power, fame and fortune, comfort and comfortability, money and material possessions.

We’re also a family of hope, and yet, dear Muriel & Louis, you will be saddened to discover how many Christians put their hope in the genius of men and women, in hardware and software, in weapons of war, the power of politics and the dominion of the almighty dollar, forgetting that we only diminish ourselves when we hoard or fail to give and give generously.

We also call ourselves a community of love. Yes, Jesus commanded us to love one another, as he loves us. But look how some Christians treat other Christians who are different from them, whether in Ireland, South Africa, the US, or right here in Canada. And then look also at all the barbed wire and walls around the world which keep one race from another, the haves from the have-nots, the hungry from the bloated, the developed from the underdeveloped countries of the world.

Well, dear Muriel & Louis: Is Christianity working well? Is Islam or Judaism or any religion working well, these days? Suffering, fear, violence, injustice, greed, lies, refugee camps and meaninglessness still abound. Meanwhile, staying slavishly strapped to smart phones, Facebook, Twitter and social media have become the new religion.

The majority of religious people are not highly transformed people but reflect their own culture and norms more than anything else. Let me be very frank with you both: Religion nowadays does not have a good name. Christianity is seen as “irrelevant” by many and often as part of the problem, rather than the solution. Young people especially are turned off by how judgmental, exclusionary, impractical, ineffective and abusive many Christians and some churches are.

EG, recently discovered records show that the RC priests in France have sexually abused more than 300,000 children. Here in Canada, government and church have been complicit in the hundreds of unmarked graves of indigenous children in former residential schools across our land. Apologies decades later are hollow, as Indigenous leaders have already told us.

Critical, dear Muriel & Louis, is what we Christians are going to do with this pain, with this tragic, unjust and undeserved heartbreak? We can ignore it. We can blame the Catholics and Anglicans, but we’ve all closed our eyes to the painful reality, pretending not to see. If we could feel the pain as wounds, as Jesus did, then they’d be sacred wounds rather than open scars to deny, disguise or project onto others. Too many see wounds as an obstacle, more than what they are—wounds which can bind the world together. Healing is a very long road less travelled. Healing is the journey of a lifetime.

If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become cynical, negative or bitter. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and ultimately—our children and grandchildren.

Dear Muriel & Louis: What will make a difference to the future of our world—and your world in particular—is to awaken to a faith that fully communicates God’s love—a love that transforms people from the inside out—transforms not only what we believe, but how we believe-transforms not only what we say and do, but how we say and do it. Who would then dare to think of us 2 billion Christians in the world as a community whose life is faith, hope and love?

This morning, dear Muriel & Louis, you have been touched by God in this breathless mystery we call HB. Your baptisms are the 252nd and 253rd here at Zion since 1988. That’s quite a few over 33 years. I would certainly hesitate big time to think what those numbers are since Zion’s founding 216 years ago. That’s the good news! On the other hand, where are even a fraction of the children who were baptized and confirmed since 1988?

“Our hope is in the Lord!” How often you will hear us Christians chant this endlessly from the diaphragm. But you will be disenchanted to discover how often our hope is not in God, but in money and material goods, especially when we hoard them because we don’t think we’ve got enough. How often is our hope only in what we can see, we can say and we can do.

Your mission, dear Muriel and little Louis, should you choose to accept it, is to hope with real hope in the living God who alone can help and heal the human heart and psyche.

Well, dear Muriel & Louis, despite all our inner contradictions, the family of faith to which we welcome you is not just another sin-ridden bunch of oldsters. There’s a Presence here that is not of this world; a Presence that pervades and invades us; a Presence that breaks through our smallness and sinfulness and makes us better than we are; a Presence that is palpable, because it is a Person, a living, pulsating risen from the dead Person in our midst! And that person is Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, the Saviour and Messiah of this world.

Here at Zion, Muriel & Louis, you will find Jesus—find him in our Sunday worship, find him in the spoken word, since he promises to be present wherever two or three gather in his name. You already find him present in the bread you receive and eat; find him touching you in the waters of Baptism with which you have been washed this morning; find him in the smiles that crease our faces, forming more lines and emphasizing the wrinkles already adorning our faces; and finally find him in the love we lavish on you.

This morning, dear Muriel & Louis, we’ve welcomed you in this sacrament of HB, which Jesus commanded us to initiate, just as he was initiated with water, but in a river. You are now integral—part and parcel—of our church family—Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Maple—a parish we’ve grown to love and appreciate, where we have also found joy and laughter, love and life, where we’ve wept but also whistled.

For all of the institutional idiosyncrasies and idiocy at times, here at Zion I find a real reason for faith, hope and love. For all the individual repressions I constantly see around me, here at Zion I breathe an air of freedom. For all our society’s obsession with sex, here at Zion I discover the redemption of my body, mind and spirit. In an age so inhuman and warlike, here at Zion I touch tears of compassion. In a world so grim and humorless, here at Zion I share rich joy and earthy laughter. In the midst of death and dying, I breathe a genuine hope for life. For all the horrors against Mother Earth, here at Zion I sense the saving presence of Jesus himself.

Dear Muriel & Louis, I pray that your lives within this church family and through the active membership of your mother, Kelli Anne, that we will continue to be a blessing to both of you. Take your first steps, dearly baptized, into a kingdom you can only enter through the eyes of faith. God will take your hand and guide you, as she guides us all.

And lastly, dear Muriel & Louis, I am sure that you will both be showered with a variety of gifts, with pretty bows and ribbons. And that is splendid indeed. But there is one gift, Visa cannot buy, because that gift is priceless.

In turning both of you to Jesus, we who are gathered here together, also need turn ourselves again and again to Jesus. In bringing you to the one and only Saviour of this entire world, we also need to rededicate and reconsecrate  our lives to him. Only in this way, can we justify asking God’s blessing on you and that the name Christian be also affixed to the names: Muriel Barbara Mickovsky and Louis Paul Mickovsky. Having done that, God will say to you, as he did to Jesus: You are my very own dear child in whom I am well pleased. AMEN

Thanksgiving Sunday /  Matthew 6:25-33

That’s why I say to you: Do not be worried about the food and drink and clothing you need. Mt 6:25a    

Dear Friends. This year, the Thanksgiving Gospel comes to us from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mt in MT. It’s a warning about excessive worry. In fact, Jesus reiterates the word worry 6 times in this passage. By itself, worry is ok; it’s built into our DNA and for good reason. Natural worry puts us on alert in the event of danger and fear to ourselves or others. But obsessive, compulsive, neurotic worry is not ok. It’s a menace to good physical, emotional and spiritual health and well-being!

The fact is that worry, like fear, is the opposite of faith. Gentiles worry, Jesus tells his disciples, but don’t you. In this context, “Gentile” is synonymous for anyone who doesn’t trust God, which is what worry and fear generate. We can be like the Gentiles, says Jesus, if we allow all kinds of negative stuff to bring us to a state of excessive worry: be it clothing, food, money, job, possessions, house, car, or people, like neighbours, family or friends.

Now, did the disciples worry about the same things as we do today? What’s for dinner? What should I wear for the trip or the invite? Given the global pandemic, health is our Numero Uno worry of course, followed by illness and death. Granted, life expectancy back then was closer to 40 years, and their worry wasn’t “What’s for dinner?” but “Will there be dinner?” They actually had something to worry about. But even at this level of subsistence, Jesus counsels them against excessive, compulsive worry. Why?

Because, ultimately, worry is a spiritual diagnosis, signifying that we’re not prepared to entrust God with our lives. In his Mt Sermon, Jesus tells us to consider the lilies of the field, which neither toil nor spin, and yet their beauty trumps King Solomon’s wisdom every day. Or consider the birds of the air, says Jesus. Seemingly, not a care in the world. A bird might spend all day looking forfood, but that’s different than worrying about food, as we do. And, if we’ve got 2 or 3 fridges, 1 or 2 freezers, then there’s more food to worry about.

Birds and lilies possess natural instinctive abilities, but they lack our kind ofintelligent human ego, which stands on perpetual guard for our survival. The ego protects us against all kinds of threats, perceived or real—physical, psychological, emotional, even spiritual. The job of the ego is to meet our survival needs. The more serious the threat, the more vigilant the ego is to protect us. The ego even worries about surviving death or at least delaying it.: build monuments, amass great wealth, eat less food, exercise more, take vitamins. Believe in Jesus so you can get a free Enter Heaven Card.

We actually owe a debt of gratitude to our egos which have taken good care of us all these years. Our egos never rest—and that’s the precisely the problem. Our egos are so hyper-vigilant, they take over every aspect and detail of our lives—as well as other people’s lives. You wake up one morning and the only part of yourself you know is the ego, because it’s always center stage. Worrying and fretting is what normal folk do.  But a critical insight of every major religion, MF, is this: We are not our ego! We also have a divine image which watches this ego drama with frustration and compassion. So, this Thanksgiving morning, MF, let me tell you what God’s image says about the personal effects of the Ego:

  1. Worry preoccupies the mind. Eg, you argued with a friend and the problem is unresolved. You worry about the now broken relationship. What’s to be done? You’re afraid to deal with it, and you’re afraid to let it go. You mull it over and over, day and night. You’re so filled with anxiety, that you’re paralyzed from taking any action. Your mind is preoccupied, and that preoccupation is your reality. You begin to manifest anxiety; you can’t eat or sleep and don’t have the energy to do anything. It becomes a viscous cycle.

In extreme states of worry, we actually create a mental world of preoccupation, which generates fear and fear not only builds armies, but fear also builds churches as a defence mechanism. So, one day when the enemy surrounds us, we have a meltdown and cry out: “I told you, I’ve got good reason to worry!” This is one of the highly visible negatives that the global war on terrorism has accomplished: we need to be even more vigilant because, well, look at all the terrorists at our doorstep! The day after 9-11, plans were already in place to attack Iraq and dismantle its WMDs. Tragically, thousands of lives were lost in order for the US to finally admit, there were no WMDs.

  1. At the other extreme, worry also induces passivity. In this scenario, worry actually paralyzes us. Worry is fear’s last stand, which is another trick of the ego. Worry requires so much energy that we convince ourselves that we’re doing something constructive about a problem, when in reality, we’re not doing anything at all. Worry makes us feel as though we’re facing our deepest fears. But in truth, worry is also an avoidance mechanism!

It’s not as simplistic as the advice I receive from my evangelical friends, when they tell me to just “give it all to God.” Why would God want it? I ask in return. Trusting God means to stop our gnawing away at stuff and to create the most compassionate, responsible action plan we can, implement it, and then and only then, trust the outcome to God. There are times when we gnash away at something for weeks and it accomplishes absolutely nothing, except robbing us of the life we haven’t noticed, because we were so worried. So MF, make a plan and then trust the outcome to God.

  1. 3. Worry distracts us from wonder and worship. You know, when we’re deep in worry, we don’t see or hear anything else going on around us. Worry is a windowless, self-imposed prison, which even prevents us from worship and from natural wonder. When Sherry & I hiked trails, whether Ontario, the American Southwest, Canadian Rockies or Chilean Patagonia, we’re always on alert for scenic vistas, sparkling streams and glistening waterfalls—always on watch for deer or fox, wolves or rabbits, or colorful birds we’ve not seen before.

Worry distracts us from awe and awesome! Think of the letters AWE as an acronym for Awakening to Wonder Everywhere. When Jesus directs his disciples to consider the lily, the correct translation is actually to “study the lily.”  How did the lily get so beautiful? Think about God’s creativity involved in fashioning a lily! The lily simply emerged when the time was right by pure grace.

Tomorrow it may be gone, but the lily goes into God’s care and keeping, as do we all. Awe is God’s quintessential spiritual sensibility. Even one moment of authentic awe returns our hearts to God. It reminds us that we didn’t do a blessed thing to earn the gift of our life on Mother Earth. We came equipped with 14 billion years of evolutionary history built into our genes, and with imaginations capable of creating futures full of awe and awesome!

  1. Worry always focuses on our insufficiency. Worry focuses on what we don’t have: the money we haven’t yet accumulated for our retirement, or the money we’ve already spent in retirement. Worry focuses on the one body part we don’t like, the work that is not yet done, the Thanksgiving dinner we have yet to make. We live in a culture which reminds us constantly of what we don’t have! We define ourselves by what we lack. The advertising industry exists to create and exploit this pervasive sense of insufficiency. I remember a magazine which one day arrived in my Globe & Mail called Driven. The subtitle, set in large red print, was Money! How to Make It. How to Flaunt It! It was filled with products which only the rich and famous could afford, and the likes of me could only covet.
  2. Worry is also an idol-maker. Worry turns whatever it is we’re worrying about into an obsession and therefore into an issue of ultimate fear, as though it defined ultimate reality. When we’re in the midst of a worry session, and someone tells us, Get over it! They just know we’re making a mountain out of mole hill and so we respond with great indignation. Whatever it is that’s worrying us, this stewing and hissing attains god-like status. We make an idol out of it, to the point where we think something is wrong if we’re not worrying.

Worry, you see MF, elevates the ego to the status of God. Was he mad at me? Did she like what I said? How did I do? What did he mean when he said that? How can I make it up to her? Everything and everybody has value to the extent that they bolster my self-image. But watch out if they wound it!  That’s why narcissism is a coronation of the ego which coerces us into believing that what we’re worried about is of ultimate consequence, when it’s not.

Maybe you’ve seen the movie about high fashion, with the terrific  title: The Devil Wears Prada. If Jesus tells us not to worry about what we wear, it makes sense that the devil would wear Prada. The protagonist, played by Merle Streep, almost loses her soul in the world of fashion, as she goes from being a graduate student, comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt, to craving to be a fashion mogul. As she descends into the extremes of fashion, Streep’s biggest worry of the day is whether her outfit needs a scarf or not. She begins to identify with her clothes and eventually she becomes her clothes. She has no identity beyond her what she’s wearing.

Not surprisingly, the culture of high fashion is portrayed as a cauldron of anxiety, people striving to be somebody, to get just the right look, to please the high priests of fashion. Now, personally, I’m not the opposite, but close. Periodically, Sherry instructs me on what matches with what I’m wearing. Not the Devil, but the Saint Wears Matching Socks, argyle preferably, a blend of Lycra and merino wool.

And lastly–6. Worry destroys gratitude. Worry always destroys a thankful heart and attitude! Even when I’m overly aware of the global atrocities, they aren’t alleviated one bit by my worrying about them. Weep over them, but don’t worry about them. Write letters to my MP, march, donate time and funds for the global refugees in camps, etc. But letting all this steal my gratitude to God by worrying about it does not make me, or any of us, any better or wiser. Worry is not a badge of honour announcing to the world that I really care.

I look at the joy of a Nelson Mandela or a Bishop Tutu, who have both seen more suffering than I ever will, or the Dalai Lama, giggling, despite the history of oppression in Tibet. On the other hand, I’ve been in public discussions with Christians and other faith leaders, whose worry about the world made them literally ill.

And yes, I too am most sickened by non-ecology: the destructive unbalance of nature, poisoned by chemicals and human exploitation; land ruined, rivers and lakes contaminated, soil charged with pollutants and clean air killed with toxins, etc.

But having said that, MF, Sherry and I have a sanctuary, in addition to this one, in which we find a small piece of heaven. It’s whenever we reflect on God’s nature in our very own backyard: flowers and trees, birds and bees. We take much pleasure in the mature trees which are integral to our Toronto home: the half-dozen birches, the many yews and maples, the magnolias and evergreens, as well as one redbud. And of course, I cannot forget the lovely little grove of 6 trembling Colorado aspens. Our patio flower garden which stretches the entire width of our property always inspires beauty. We also love the birds: the growing community of talkative sparrows, the cardinals and blue jays which protect their turf. And, a couple of racoons, coyotes, two chipmunks, and a family of deer which sometimes lounge in our backyard on a sunny day.

Sherry and I reflect on this God-given variety and diversity even in our patch of property and we honestly wonder: How is it that so many people only love others who are like themselves with regard to their race, nationality, religion or political party? Our respect for human dignity must be extended to all people, everywhere!

MF, on this Thanksgiving Sunday, we need the grace of universal solidarity to join the One God in our ever-expanding love for the world, for Mother Earth and its ever growing 7 plus billion inhabitants. A few years ago, I wrote a prayer—a portion goes like this:

God of all races, nations, and religions. You know that we cannot change others. Nor can we change the past. But we can change ourselves. We can join You in changing our only and common future where Love “reigns” the same overall. Help us not to say, “Lord, Lord” to any personal or political gods, national or financial gods, or even gods of our own religious-making. But to hear the One God of all the earth and to do God’s good thing for this One World of hers we share.

MF, as long as we operate inside models of scarcity, we will continue in our obsessive worry. Not only will there never be enough of this, that and the other to go around and to worry about, there will also never be enough God or grace to go around. Jesus came to undo our notions of scarcity and tip us over into a worldview of absolute abundance and thankfulness. The Gospel reveals a divine world of infinity, a worldview of enough and more than enough. The Christian word for this undeserved abundance is grace. It is a major spiritual and heart conversion to move from a scarcity model to an abundance model and to live with an attitude of gratitude.

MF, each of us always has a choice to step back and let go of the mind-set of scarcity and excessive worry. Once we let go of scarcity, we discover the surprising truth of sufficiency. By sufficiency, I don’t mean a quantity of anything. Sufficiency isn’t an amount. Sufficiency is an experience, a life-context we generate, a declaration, a human experience that there is enough and that we are enough.

When we live in the context of sufficiency, we find a natural freedom and integrity. We engage in life from a sense of our own wholeness rather than a desperate longing to be complete. We feel naturally called to share the resources that flow through our lives—our time, our money, our wisdom, our energy, at whatever level those resources flow—to serve our highest commitments which include God.

This Thanksgiving, MF, we need to remind the obsessive worry-wart within us, that God is present everywhere and at every moment, weaving a tapestry of beauty even out of the worst atrocity. God is the hidden presence of grace in this universe. During the course of 14 billion years, there has been a steady and irrepressible divine intelligence at work, bringing life out of death, simplicity out of complication and elegance out of chaos. The beauty of creation and the heartfelt love we feel is but a glimpse of the glory of God.

MF, lean into this grace from God which continues to be more than enough for all we need, and then some. God’s Grace—here and everywhere—now and always. That‘s why nothing will ever be lost in this universe. Everything is all gathered up—we’re all mobilised together in the heart of a holy and loving Presence.

Breathe this Divine and Human Presence in, MF. Be aware of your life. Consider the lily. Talk to a sparrow. Let the child within you play—maybe for the first time! Give thanks to God. MF, it is my and Sherry’s fervent prayer, that you take pleasure in a worry-free Thanksgiving. AMEN

Pentecost XIX/ Mark 10:2-16

A man, who divorces his wife and marries another woman, commits adultery against his wife. In the same way, a woman who divorces her husband and marries another man commits adultery. Vss.11-12

Dear Friends.Well, here we’ve got another barnburner—more controversial, almost incendiary, words from Jesus; but this time about divorce, remarriage and adultery. If taken literally, like Jesus’ words last Sunday about hating father and mother, wife and family, or about cutting off body parts which obstruct the faith, leaving us limbless and sightless—if today’s words from Jesus are taken literally and without cultural context, then some 80-90% of Western marriages are adulterous, including my own, since I’ve also been divorced and remarried.

Divorces rates here in the west have fluctuated between 40-50%, a figure which is both high and worrisome. Because I presided at the wedding of some 450 couples over 42 years of my ministry, their divorce rate produces considerable sadness for me. Btw, the divorce rate drops some 15-20% for couples who take pre-marital counselling. But with increasingly more folks simply living together, there’s little or no incentive for counselling, which provides skills to give marriages the best possible chance to survive—and even thrive.

Despite such efforts, however, many marriages simply break down and for good reason. Some are physically abusive; many others are mentally and psychologically destructive; still others are loveless; and many dissolve after a series of extramarital relationships … etc.

If you also belong to the embattled ranks of the divorced and remarried and now you’re a survivor of the marital wars, I suspect, that your ears perked up when you heard the reading from Mark’s gospel this morning. It outlines Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Btw, MT has an almost identical version, since he copied MK’s passage. Taken at its prima facia level, Jesus’ words are difficult to hear for divorced people, since Jesus seems to take an exceptionally hard line.

Many Christian denominations of conservative persuasion, the RCC being in the forefront, have taken Jesus’ words, here in MK and MT, quite literally and very seriously, by absolutely forbidding divorce and refusing to perform weddings for divorced people. Consequently, the weddings I officiated often included divorced Catholics, who were denied the sacraments, including weddings, in their own parish. Mind you, for those in the know—meaning, who you know —the RCC has created loopholes through an elaborate process called annulments which claim that a marriage wasn’t really a marriage in the first place. Go figure, eh?

Well, there are Christians I know who are divorced and happily remarried, but deep down feel guilty and rejected because of Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage. So MF, it behoves us, as difficult as it may be, to go deeper into Jesus’ teaching on the subject.

First, we need to set Jesus teaching in the context of 1stC Jewish divorce laws if we’re going to take the inexplicable leap of trying to apply them to the 21stC. No easy task, MF! Suffice it to say, the divorce laws in Jesus’ day were very complicated, perhaps even more so than our modern-day civic law. So MF, bear with me, as I try to place this divorce-debate into the cultural context of Jesus’ day, which will help us to understand why Jesus says what he does.

Let’s begin with women. They represent 50% of the human race and in Jesus’ time were treated by the male half of the population as little more than chattel, private property or personal effects. And Judaism supported that view. Gen 2:18 states that women were created by God for the purpose of serving the male as a helpmate. Later, in the 10Cs, building on this sense of 2nd class marital partnership, women were actually defined as property. Ex 20:17: You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, ox, ass, maidservant, manservant, or any other property that belongs to your neighbour.

As a piece of property rightfully belonging to a man, polygamy made sense in ancient Jewish culture. A Jewish man could have as many wives, sheep, goats or cattle as he could afford. It was what the wealthy and civilized did: the more wives, the more respect you got. While polygamy was winding down in the 1stC, the church began to emphasize the infant bearing qualities of women: namely, that God made women for marriage in order to procreate and give birth to lots of children. The imperative was spoken by God to Adam and Eve: Be fruitful and multiply! Gen 1:28

Now, prior to Jesus’ day, a Jewish man with many wives, could simply divorce one or more of them, by clapping 3 times and repeating the words, I divorce youin the presence of witnesses, be they credible or not. Since the wife was his property, the man could do what he wanted, which of course made wives exceedingly submissive. Otherwise, they’d be thrown out onto the street without a penny, having to either beg or become prostitutes in order to survive. And just to make it clear: No wife had the right to divorce her husband, no matter how cruel, abusive or punishing he was. She had no recourse, no means of escape, since she was his property. Period.

MF, you may know that some societies have actually encouraged widows to throw themselves on their husband’s flaming funeral pyre. Why? Because in such societies, a woman has no value, whatsoever except as the wife of her husband. Other societies have bound the feet of women, so that their lack of mobility would keep them under constant surveillance and control.

In Islamic culture, girls are forced to undergo genital mutilation in order to remove the possibility of sexual pleasure, and with it the desire to stray from the domination of the male to whom a woman’s body would later be committed. In 2019, over 200 million girls and women in some 30 Islamic countries, had genital mutilation forced upon them. As Islam expands, this number continues to grow.

On the Christian side of the equation, men have been free to beat their wives throughout most of the past 20 centuries and women have been forced to promise “to obey” their husbands as part of the marriage liturgy of the church well into the 20th & 21st C, depending on what denomination the service takes place. And in many churches, it’s still the case that the father of the bride is asked: Who gives this woman to be married to this man? as if she was his property. Our denomination stopped making this sexist request years ago.

Now, in Jesus’ day, polygamy was in a downturn and monogamy was on the upswing. Jewish men married within the Law of Moses, whether they had many multiple wives, or only one. Jesus said that divorce and remarriage was wrong because it was adulterous. He aimed his remarks at husbands, who could easily end their marriage to one wife or more with a divorce certificate before two witnesses, whether they were credible or not, paid or not.

In Jesus’ day, there were 2 avenues of divorce: the one of Rabbi Hillel and the other of Rabbi Shammai. The divorce/remarriage debate centered around Deut.24:1-4, which is the OT passage Jesus is quoting in Mark’s gospel this morning. Wanting to trap Jesus, the Pharisees ask him: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” MT adds: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?

In this text from Deut 24, the Mosiac Law stated that a man can divorce his wife for an “indecent matter”—namely, adultery. The Hillelites argued that every single word of the Bible had meaning, and so they separated “indecent” and “matter” and concluded that a man could divorce his wife for adultery or “for any matter”. Consequently, a Jewish man would be granted divorce for virtually any reason by going to a Hillelite rabbi.

The Shammaites thought this was absurd and only accepted divorce on grounds of adultery. They wanted to know Jesus’ position. This wasn’t just academic interest. It had immense practical implications.

The question was not: Can a man divorce his wife? Any bar- mizv’d/confirmed child of 12 knew it was written in Jewish Law that divorce was possible, and as a male Jew, Jesus also agreed divorce was feasible. But what the Pharisees wanted to know was where Jesus stood on the issue of valid cause for divorce.

In short: If you wanted a divorce, you could go the Hillelite route which made it as easy as it is today to get a divorce—you just needed the big bucks—or you could go the Shammaite route, in which case you had to prove infidelity, which required two witnesses, credible or not. If you were unable to prove your case, there were severe penalties, but depending on who you knew, and the amount of money you had, a man could get away with a cheapie divorce. The result of the big risks of going to a Shammaite rabbi was that virtually all men took the no fuss, no muss, no fault, Hillelite route.

Btw, this is what Joseph does when he decides to divorce Mary, because she’s pregnant with another man’s child. Although he was only engaged to Mary, in Jewish law an engagement was only broken by divorce. Joseph was a “righteous man,” precisely because he decided not to disgrace Mary by taking the Shammaite route for divorce, which would require that she be dragged before the courts and the public. Before the angel saved the day, Joseph had decided to “quietly divorce” Mary, meaning, Joseph went to a Hillelite rabbi.

Btw, given Joseph’s decision to take the Hillelite route regarding Mary, it’s quite interesting to note that Jesus takes the Shammaite position on divorce. After the Pharisees recite the passage from Deut, namely that God allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, Jesus further clarifies his position,

Because of your hardness of heart, Moses wrote this commandment for you, says Jesus. Now, hardness of heart, MF, is a phrase often used in the OT to mean stubbornness and the breaking of promises. Stubbornness of course is the unwillingness to compromise, which is responsible for a good portion of the 50% of failed marriages. The breaking of promises refers to betrayal of the vows of fidelity.

In short, Jesus recognizes our limitations as human beings. We are not perfect, so God’s laws make room for our marital failings. Jesus is accepting, not rejecting, the law as it is written in Deut, but does regard it as a failure of a sacred covenant. He is saying if our hearts weren’t so hard, we wouldn’t need a provision for divorce in the law, but God knows we are imperfect.

In taking this position, Jesus digresses momentarily from the question of divorce and takes on the meaning of marriage. This is very important, MF, because we mostly miss his intent here in this narrative, in large part because we don’t understand the 1stC Jewish context. Jesus sets marriage in the framework of the creation story of Genesis, thus reinforcing the sacredness of the institution. But in referring to the creation story Jesus is doing more. He says:

God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate. 

MF, you may have heard this passage at your wedding, which, in his debate with the Pharisees, Jesus is establishing something extremely important. By citing this passage from the Genesis creation story, Jesus is making the point that marriage is between two people—one man and one woman, who become one flesh,

MF, listen up, because here’s the point and it’s huge: Jesus is not arguing about heterosexual vs homosexual marriages. Jesus doesn’t quote Gen to make the claim for Adam & Eve against Adam & Steve. Jesus is arguing against?? polygamy! He’s defending the marriage of 2 people, against the terrible abuses, cruelties and human rights violations against multiple wives at the hands of polygamous men.

Let me give you the proof: In the original Hebrew, the text reads, they shall become one flesh, with no mention of “two”. But Jesus adds the word twothetwo shall become one flesh, in order to make his case against polygamy—against having numerous wives.

So, there you have it, MF. In spite of all the venomous rhetoric by evangelicals, fundamentalists and right-wing pastors, priests and televangelists, Jesus is not quoting Genesis to prove that homosexual marriages are wrong, but to put a final end to polygamous marriages, where abuse of women is crushing, divorce is easy-peasy and adultery is rampant—all of which are of epidemic proportions.

This is not to say that female abuse, divorce and adultery in monogamous marriages is just fine. Of course not. Too many women are in especially physically abusive marriages and what they need is the courage to change that which needs changing—to take care of them-selves first. That may well mean securing a safe space in which to live and a time of separation and possible divorce. MF, there is no re-marriage I’ve ever conducted, where I’ve had any sense that the couple did not regret the pain and guilt from a former marriage. But I did sense that they believed that God not only forgives, but always gives us a new chance to form a loving and long-lasting union.

So, to restate: Polygamy was not against Judaism. The practical implication was that men could never be convicted of committing adultery since legally, under Jewish law, it was not possible.Polygamists weren’t committing adultery; they were just taking another wife.

Which means? Only women could commit adultery since they were not allowed to have multiple husbands. By coming out solidly against polygamy, Jesus undermines the misogyny implicit in the Jewish law and closes the loophole. This is why Jesus says: Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her—meaning: Whoever divorces his wife for reasons other than adultery, also commits adultery against her.

But then Jesus adds: And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. Because it was almost impossible for a woman to sue for divorce, Jesus places additional moral weight on the man. His initiative to divorce, for reasons other than adultery, causes not only his sin of adultery, but hers as well.

So MF, in taking this stand on adultery, Jesus addresses the blasé attitude toward divorce and so introduces a corrective moral approach. Jesus is not condemning all divorced persons to divine punishment. Rather, he says: Think twice about what you’re doing. You’re breaking a sacred covenant, for which you are accountable, one way or another. But Jesus also dealt with sin by calling sinners to repentance, offering forgiveness and a new start—a new life.

Jesus tackles the sexism, misogyny and gender prejudice so rampant then, as today, and still so deep within our cultural behaviour and norms. MF, this has to do with the powerlessness of women. In order to survive, powerless women have been driven to use the allure of their bodies, their ability to provide pleasure in meeting male sexual needs and to lock in even the slightest bit of security.

For most of Western history, women have been relegated to second-class status, with the Christian church validating that definition as God-inspired and God-imposed. In many times and places, women have not been educated, nor allowed to own property in their own name or given the power of citizenship expressed through voting.

A woman’s lack of size, speed and physical strength was used to relegate her to a state of child-like dependence, which clearly met the needs of male-driven society. In fact, the male fulfilled his survival needs by claiming that the female’s lower status was in fact God’s plan in creation. That way, if the woman objected, she had to fight against God as well. Well, how do you like them apples?! Eve asked.

MF, we cannot be human, if we must achieve power by diminishing others. Sexism and bigotry is one more humanity-robbing prejudice. It victimizes women by treating them as subhuman, which is one major reason why Jesus is against divorce. Divorce further victimizes women, you see. Jesus understood that female prejudice also warps men and diminishes their own humanity. No one can be built up, at another person’s expense.

The Church, at least for 20 centuries, with its male Father God and the RCC, the longest surviving male-dominated institution of popes, cardinals, bishops and priests in human history—the Church’s actions say that it has built itself up at the expense of women. It validates male behaviour by invoking the name of a male deity, who creates women from the ribs of men. Eve and her kind are not even an equal creation to males. Women originate from males and therefore are seen as subordinate to men and in need of male protection and rescue—a view the church has validated for centuries.

Which is precisely why we need to see Jesus, not only as a rescuing saviour, but seriously examine what he says and what he does. Why? Because the talk he talks and walk he walks, shouts more loudly about his earthly identity, than anything else—the God-man who stood up for principles, but first and foremost for ordinary people.

Last Thought. Sexually speaking, we all have our sacrosanct areas that cannot be touched. But our job, MF, is to keep working to enjoy, respect, reverence, honor, love, and listen to our bodies—before we start judging or even controlling other people’s sexuality.

Whatever God is expecting of us, it certainly is beyond our cultural fears, fads, and social taboos. Open and prayerful people will discover a very intuitive, almost common-sense wisdom about what is real and unreal, in regard to our sexual relatedness and the many ways it allows us to discover our true bodily and spiritual selves. We do this together with our spouse, partner or lover and do so without succumbing to the hardening of our hearts and immediately taking the much travelled road of separation, divorce and remarriage.

Our personal sexual actions must aim to liberate the self, enrich the one we love, and do in an honest, faithful, socially responsible, life-serving and joyous manner. That’s the task and journey of a lifetime MF! But it is no more and no less than what Jesus lived and taught, day after day after day. That’s why the only biblical mandate which really matters is to copy and allow the pattern of God’s love in you to bloom and blossom in the corner where God planted you.

If this sounds too vague for you, perhaps it means that we have never loved totally or completely. To attain a truly passionate sexuality, which takes seriously both the failure of divorce and the sacredness of marriage—that’s not only hard work, MF, it’s holy work. God’s passionate sexuality created ours, and so, if we are afraid of our sexuality, we are also afraid of God.

My hope is that you initiate a healthy and holy dialogue within your own soul and in doing so, the HS will assure you, that, like Job, you too will see God from your flesh. That’s the Good News! AMEN

So, if your hand makes you lose your faith, cut it off. It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God without a hand, than to keep both hands and go off to hell. Mk 10:43

Dear Friends. If you were listening with both ears to James and Mark, the epistle and gospel for this morning, you might conclude that to be a Christian is a very tough proposition. I mean, miseries for the rich, says James, and body parts cut off because they impeded your faith, says Jesus. Or, perhaps you’ve concluded that these passages to do not apply to you and so you reject them.

On the other hand, MF, maybe James has a point about the rich. Are you well off financially? Maybe you’re not as rich as the super-rich, but compared to the other half of the world, they probably count you among the world’s wealthy! Do you gad about in Gucci garments, dine deliciously at Auberge du Pommier, or whip through Maple in a Jag? Well then, according to James, you had better “weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you!”

But, if that’s not enough and you wanna take the Bible literally, because you think God dictated it, word for word, well then MF, following Jesus has got to be absolutely absurd, out-and-out crazy!

I mean, cut of your hands and feet, pluck out your eyes and pull out your teeth—all of which would leave you and every other Christian handless, footless, eyeless and toothless—and if, out of frustration, you pull out your hair, you’ll be hairless to boot.

That may be the easy job, MF, because—and allow me to say it—Jesus doesn’t mention cutting off private body parts, which could also lead us to sin. And if that’s not cringe-worthy enough, in many segments of Islam, female genital removal is still practiced in Islamic countries today, now 16 centuries after the Prophet Mohammed.

MF, I don’t know about you, but for me, cutting off all these body parts is nothing less than bloody mutilation—body parts which, as Christians, we believe God made in glorious fashion. But now Jesus of Nazareth, rabbi and teacher, advocates an ethic to remove all body parts which cause us to sin. Do that MF, and we would be unable to help others, much less ourselves—a laughable, pathetic parade of eyeless, toothless, limbless, privateless Christians.

But what is not laughable are the body parts which in fact sinned—reminiscent of Jesus’ words, but which had been forcefully and violently removed by church leaders in bygone centuries—tongues which lied, hands which stole, feet which ran away, eyes which roved and heads which rolled in revenge for stealing the affections of another man’s wife. Well, one millennium later, we’ve become civilized. But that too has a multiplicity of other sins.

MF, my sermon has 3 questions: 1. What did Jesus’ words really mean back then? 2. How do they fit into the Christian understanding of things? 3. What do Jesus’ words say to you and me today?

So, what did the passage from Mark mean back then, when it fell from Jesus’ lips? One issue MF can be settled quite speedily: Jesus was not recommending mutilation! And that’s not because mutilation is always and everywhere immoral. After all, we may remove an inoperable eye, a mangled hand, a gangrenous foot, parts of a cancerous colon, which we do when the health of the whole body demands it. Given this medical scenario, it’s not beyond the pale to suggest that Jesus would be prepared to sacrifice a lustful blue eye or greedy green eye for the spiritual health of an entire person.

But, that’s not the point of the Mark’s narrative. If we fasten too firmly on the literal and physical in certain phrases of Jesus, we run into absolute absurdities and incredible impossibilities. Eg, Jesus did say: If you have faith as a tiny grain of mustard seed, you can say to this mountain “Move over here!” and it will move. (Mt 17:20) MF, Jesus was not suggesting that faith is at our disposal or whim, for our amusement—like ordering Mt Logan to move to southern ON. Mt. Logan, btw, is Canada’s highest mountain in the Rockies, located in the Yukon. In 2018, Sherry & I saw it’s majestic peaks from a 2 prop plane which landed on a southern ice slope. Awesome stuff; but, you know MF, we didn’t think to test Jesus’ words about moving Mt Loga, much less the entire Rocky Mountain Range.

MF, plainly put: Jesus’ way of speaking here, in this gospel narrative, is typically Semitic, which is often graphic, vivid and even exaggerated to make a well-defined point—that being: Jesus is assuring us, as he did his disciples, that if we have real faith, we too can manufacture miracles of grace, which we cannot do with our nakedly human powers, what is impossible—except for God.

So, to repeat myself: Jesus’ words this morning are markedly and graphically Semitic. Jesus’ stress is not on a particularly special part of the human body. After all, if one lecherous eye is plucked out, I still have my other eye with which I can scope my victims. In short, MF: If we focus on the physical removal of body parts, we will indeed miss the real message from Jesus … which is???

Jesus, who uses violent imagery, says to anyone who is listening: In your journey with me, you must be ruthless against obstructions—obstacles which hinder your relationship with God. Why? Because I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me! Com-mandment #1, MF, upon which all the other commandments are built, says Luther. You must be ruthless against all impediments which keep you from exercising your faith and trusting God.

Jesus said the same thing in Lk 14:26, when, using other extreme language, he warned his listeners: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—even hate his own life, then he cannot be my disciple.

MF, Is Jesus really serious here?! Maybe he’s making this up, as he goes along? How can he possibly expect us to hate, when his entire life, from Bethlehem to Calvary, was one long commandment to love —even love enemies! Why should we followers of Jesus hate our parents, wife and family, but love our enemies? Seriously!

Well MF, hate is a very strong word—a word I rarely use. Trouble is—that’s precisely the word Jesus uses. The NT Greek word here is misei which translates to hate! The meaning of Jesus’ words from LK is provided by the parallel in MT 10:37, where Jesus says: He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is also not worthy of me. In other words: Nothing comes before Jesus! Nothing! Nothing comes before our Christian discipleship! Absolutely Nothing!

 Similarly in today’s narrative from Mk. Whatever causes you to sin, Jesus means to say to his disciples, then and today—whatever supplants God in your life, whatever devalues the transformative activity of the HS in your life, get rid of it! Whatever the cost, whatever the price—even if it’s your own life—let it go!says Jesus.

It’s better to enter the Kingdom of God, here and now, without your sins and possessions, than to be thrown into hell with them. Mk 9:45

In other words: If we want to live with God; if we want to be alive in the HS, let nothing possess us—not even the love of family and friends—let nothing take second place to God. Let nothing take second place to Jesus. Period. Exclamation mark!

So MF, there you have it, MF. Such is the message of Jesus to you this morning and such is his meaning. The violent imagery—Cut it off!—is cruel and brutal indeed. But the image is justified by the issue: Heaven or hell? God’s big Kingdom or your little kingdom?

My second question is this: How does Jesus’ message fit into our Christian understanding of things? In one word, I’d say: Admirably! Our Christian spirituality reflects the intent of Jesus. As I said earlier: Jesus’ message echoes the first of  the 10Cs’ but it also copies what Jesus called the 2 greatest commandments: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, mind and strength. And you shall love your neighbour as you love yourself. Mt 22:37.

This basic spirituality was summed up almost 9 centuries ago by St. Francis of Assisi, who stated that all living things, humans and animals, birds and plants, this planet, Mother Earth, and beyond are all created to praise, revere and serve God. That’s our function, said Francis. But if that praise, reverence and service to God is hindered, then we must rid ourselves of the hindrance—eliminate the obstruction. Francis’ intent is less colorful than Jesus’ “Cut it off,” but in substance, Francis issues the exact same imperative.

MF, did you noticed that for St. Francis, as for Jesus, Christianity is not first and foremost negativity and refusal. Not “Cut if off” and not “Thou shalt not this, that and the other.” Why? Because Mother Earth, upon which you and I dance, is not the creation of some evil genius like Darth Vader. Rather, creation stems from a very good God who lent Mother Earth to us, for us to shape as his good servants and to mold with intelligence, reverence and respect to ME.

MF, the ideas we all struggle with, the tools we all work with: blueprints and formulas, molecules and atoms, vaccines and scalpels, politics and diplomacy, laws and statutes, computer chips, smart phones and even smarter tvs, these and so much, much more—these are not Satanic instruments forged by Faust in some fiery furnace of perdition. Rather, MF, they represent our human response to the gifts God has freely given us, that we not only extract from God’s good creation, but then lay these before sisters and brothers of our global human community, for our collective life and growth, our collective health and wealth, our collective delight and salvation—our collective being together as the human family of God.

Of course, MF, all these can be misused and abused: atoms for peace or atoms for another Hiroshima & Nagasaki; laws which civilize or laws which enslave; scalpels that heal or scalpels that kill. That’s precisely why you and I have a distinctive role as members of Christ’s Church: It is our task, as lay and clergy alike, to change and transform all that which needs the Gospel, all that which needs the HS, all that which needs love and mercy; all that which needs giving, forgiving and thanksgiving. And we dare not let anything get in the way. Otherwise, we mustcut it off!—be that physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically or spiritually!

If you’re still with me, you might conclude that my efforts and explanations are too vague, abstract, impractical, perhaps even idealistic—you know, the kind of ivory-tower stuff you might expect from a pastor with 4 academic degrees. That’s why I’ve got a final, down-to-earth question: What does all of this say to you and me right now? Jesus’ incisive Cut it off! and St. Francis’ penetrate the world with the Spirit of the Gospel—How ought these twin imperatives shape our life and living, our 16-hour days and 8-hour nights?

First, “Cut it off!” 42 years of ministry in the parish has brought me profound joy and painful sadness. Joy, because I have experienced thousands of parishioners, just like you, struggling daily to live like Jesus, to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love their neighbours. But also sadness, because I’ve seen so many friends, parishioners, acquaintances, even personal family members set up false gods—idols which control their lives to the point of ruining human relationships—including mine with them—but also forcing the one, true living God into a forgotten, isolated background.

So MF: What claims top-priority in your life? What tops your Top Ten List? Not abstract principles, but day-to-day practice in the way you live? Who or what rules your life? Who or what sits on that throne of yours, commanding you to “Go!” and you go? “Move!” and you move? “Do this!” and you do it? If it is not in some way the God who made you and for whom you are made, then you are in desperate straits—even if you don’t know it or aren’t prepared to admit it.

Cutting a cancer ou from your body is only one side of life’s coin, the negative side, which makes possible the positive side, the divine side, the sublime burden your baptism laid on you years ago. Water was poured on you not only to wash Satan right out of your hair, but you were commissioned by the HS to take Christ wherever you go, especially where the ordained rarely set foot: in the boardrooms & cloakrooms of IBM & GM, Royal Bank & Wells Fargo, Parliament Hill & Capital Hill, Hollywood & Bollywood, CBC & Fox, Toronto Blue Jays & Tampa Rays, as well as, of course, the 19th Hole.

*Here and in a thousand and one other places is your territory, MF, your turf—not by episcopal or even papal permission, nor by patronage of your pastor or until I can buy a stack of clergy collars for you. Here in this world is where you are, for you are the church, by God’s calling and by the power of your baptism.

MF, to you I say “Carry Christ!” Not by mounting a soapbox and spouting Scripture ad nauseum. Carry Christ by being a little Christ to your neighbour, here in Maple, at Olive Branch in Tanzania and around the world. I mean, fully human, and by God’s grace, more than human—spirit-filled. Liking who you are but also loving others. Open to all that is life-giving; but closed to that which is death-dealing. Sensual and sexual, but always with respect and reverence. Yes, sex plays, MF, but it is never a plaything. Eager to get ahead, but not at the expense of Christ’s “little ones.” Thankful to God for your life, but more than thankful to help the less fortunate. We’re also in love with God’s creation—birds and bees, flowers and trees—but even more deeply in love with God herself. Critical of the church and her sins, as I am, but poignantly aware that the church is you and me together—even though many Christians beg to disagree.

MF, we Lutherans have been rightly accused of a nauseously negative approach to life and many of Lutherans have lent warrant to such a charge. In religion we are “sad sacks”; worship is a duty, not a joy; faith is an endless don’t this and don’t that; lent means to give this up, but never add anything; and holiness says Cut it off/out!

MF, we are less than Lutheran, if we fail to see that Cut if off! is not mutilation, but liberation! It frees you to love God with every fiber of your being. We miss the joy of life if we carry Christ only to church, but then fail to carry him to the concrete and glass outside these walls, to our desk and our bed, even to our families and friends.

Love God above all else MF and you won’t have to calculate how you carry Christ to the turf outside this sanctuary. All you need is to be yourself, for that self carries Christ. No, it won’t be fun all the time. Christ did not laugh on Calvary’s Cross but laughed when he picked up little children and blessed them. He laughed when the water he changed to wine was tasted, MF, I’ve experienced all this first-hand, so I can promise you the same: a delight in human living and loving, that will only grow richer as you grow grayer—a fascination with creation that will rival the breathless day of your birth, when God looked at what he “made and saw that it was very good.” AMEN.

“What are you arguing about?” Jesus asked his disciples. But they would not answer him, because they had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. Verse 34

Dear Friends. If you glanced at today’s sermon title, you might be asking yourself: So, who is the greatest? And you might answer: It can’t be the disciples who are the greatest; after all, they’re arguing among themselves who is the greatest. So, you might conclude that Jesus is the greatest. After all, he’s the Son of God on earth. He performs miracles and dies on a cross for my sins so I can get a free “Go straight to heaven” card. If that you’re thinking, MF, you may want to rethink.

Now, down here on earth, you might want to conclude that the greatest is Mohammed Ali. After all, he’s quoted as saying it hundreds of times: “I’m the greatest!” and perhaps in boxing, he was the greatest boxer the world ever produced. But of course, Jesus isn’t talking about boxing.

A while back, I was reading an article about leadership which quoted John DeLorean, who once worked for GM. He eventually created his own company, The DeLorean Motor Car Co., which, back in the 60s, produced The DeLorean, a modernistic car with doors that opened like wings of a bird and featured in the movie, Back to the Future. John DeLorean’s car company ultimately failed, which was attributed to his style of leadership.

After being dismissed by DeLorean, one board executive commented:

I told John that he couldn’t bear having someone disagree with him, so he had to stack the Board his way. He just nodded and said: “That’s right. It’s my company and I’m going to do what I want to do. So, when you get your own company, then you can do the same. You’re fired.”

Turning to today’s narrative from Mark, Jesus says to his disciples, You want to be great, then be servants of others. If you didn’t notice, Jesus is doing leadership training. He had a vision called The Kingdom of God, which was not some far away fantasyland you had to die to experience. Rather, for Jesus the Kingdom of God comes to reality in the here and now, but only when, like a child, we trust God. It’s what happens between human beings when we lead with our hearts and not our egos. If you want to become great leaders, you must first be great servants.

Now, Jesus had a plan to make the Kingdom of God a real and present possibility, and a large part of that strategy was choosing a group of ordinary people who would go into training, by teaching others about the Kingdom of God, so that they too could dwell in that sacred space and time. So, for 3 years Jesus worked with his disciples, lived and ate with them, day in and day out, grooming them for that day when they would have to carry on without his physical presence. In short, central to Jesus’ strategy, MF, was the cultivation of spiritual leaders … which was no easy task—not even for Jesus to hear his disciples arguing which of them was the greatest! So, Jesus then sat his disciples down and said: If you want to be first and greatest, then you must be last and least greatest. In fact, you must become like a trusting child, whom Jesus then placed in front of them as an illustration of trust.

Of course, the disciples didn’t wanted to hear this kind of negative stuff from Jesus. They were more interested in places of authority, honor and respect. In fact, in the tenth chapter of Mark, there’s a plan being cooked up by James and John to position themselves for a seat of honor when Jesus comes into his glory—a sinister kind of one-upmanship.

I mean, this is back-room politics, MF. You’d think that after a couple of years with Jesus, that his message of servanthood would have resonated –rubbed off on James and John. Nope. They’re calculating to the end. According to Mk10:37, James and John call a clandestine meeting with Jesus and say: Teacher, we want you to grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, when you enter the glory of your Kingdom.

Now, we could give James and John the benefit of the doubt—that they’ve got honorable motives. But Mark says that the other disciples got angry. They recognized the request for what it was: a brazen case of secretly lobbying Jesus for positions for themselves in Gloryland—of all places. Jesus, of course, is quite displeased with the request, which he says is not his to offer. But more importantly, he states that they don’t know what greatness really means and so Jesus gathers his disciples together, yet again, but this time pounds the pulpit with this brief sermon to them:

You disciples have no idea about greatness and what it means to become great. And you, James and John, don’t have clue as to what you’re asking, which is not mine to arrange for you. That’s God’s job. You should know that among the Gentiles, those whom they recognize as their leaders lord it over them. In fact, their greatest are tyrants over them. You observe when people get some power, how quickly it goes to their heads. It must not be that way with you! Whoever wants to be great among you, must first become a servant of the others. Mk10:38-43

So, for the next 300 years, the early Christians tried to be servants of one another. They formed a movement called The Way and would meet in people’s homes, out in fields or underneath in catacombs. Why? They were afraid of being stoned by the Jews who regarded them as an heretical sect of Judaism. They also feared the Romans who regarded them as traitors to the Empire, and if caught, would be publicly executed.

But then, in 333AD, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the now Holy Roman Empire and so started to build churches in which to meet and worship. This was a foreign concept to Christians for whom church was never reduced to a building. Church was always people. In fact, the Greek word for church, ecclesia,translates people.

So, during and after the time of Constantine, the church became identified with a building, which needed not only to be managed and maintained, but needed professionals to run. These became known as the clergy and the clergy then also needed helpers, which then became the role of the laity who then became the volunteers. MF, I can’t begin to tell you the number of churches, now 1,700 years later, for whom this has become their sole purpose: the maintenance, management and survival of the church building. It’s a far cry from Jesus’ initial strategy of raising up spiritual leaders so that the Church would be in mission for others.

So MF, when it comes to worship Sunday mornings, the fact is that the pews, whether filled or not, always contain potential spiritual leaders capable of delivering Jesus’ vision about the Kingdom of God.

There are congregations today, here and around the world, in which a great renaissance is taking place, because there are lay folks who are in fact stepping up to the plate. In Jesus’ vision, the laity aren’t just volunteers in a charitable organization. MF, Jesus regards you as spiritual leaders, his personal disciples and therefore each of you is called to make things happen here for the Kingdom of God. Each of you is a minister together with me. Luther called it the Priesthood of all Believers.

The question of course is: How are we doing? Is our leadership and servanthood bringing folks in, or driving folks out? Or perhaps neither? What I can tell you is that negative stuff in church is precisely what drives those outside the church crazy, and rightly so. I mean, these folks imagine that the church, of all places, should be free of politics and power plays. And the moment they get a whiff of parish negativity, they’re outa here and pronto. Jesus had to deal with this stuff, as we also must. After all, like the disciples of old, we too are all fallible and faulty, nor have we arrived at perfection in Gloryland. We are a work in progress, just like everyone outside the church is also a work in progress.

Well, MF, I don’t know about you, but I personally find the candor of James and John and the argument among the disciples about personal greatness—well, rather refreshing. I mean, the disciples make no bones about what they want from Jesus. I mean—they don’t backdown, nor are they prepared to take a back seat to anyone; whereas most folks in congregations who want power and control, status and respect, do so in much more subtle ways.

In 42 years of parish ministry, I have yet to have anyone come up to me and say, “Listen up Pastor Peter. I would like to become chairman of Council so that I can do things my way. So I’d like you to pull a few strings for me and make that happen!” I mean, that I can deal with,

But, it’s the person who is only subtly influenced by ego gratification that there’s a real problem—who go behind backs or who threaten to leave or reduce offerings, etc, etc. MF, the fact is, we all live in such a narcissistic age, that few people have even the vaguest idea of what it means to be a team player in church, or elsewhere. If I don‘t get my way, it’s the highway. I’ll take my marbles and play elsewhere. Sometimes, it’s even the minister who has a superior self-image, or at an unconscious level, feels inferior. But in both cases, the pastor compensates by abusing his power.

The point, MF, is that we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God like James and John and the entire troupe of disciples. But the real acid test of whether our heart is in the right place, is whether we are prepared to become real servants, or just utter lip-service. Narcissistic personalities—and there are many in the church—they’re simply incapable of servanthood. Some church councils in parishes across our Synod have top-notch CEO’s as chairpersons; but if they’re not willing to also do the little things, the menial tasks, the servanthood jobs—if they can only talk the talk and not walk the walk—then, they’re incapable of spiritual leadership. Spiritual leadership simply requires another resume altogether.

Well MF, over two centuries of this parish, there’s been indescribable effort—physical and spiritual, mental and emotional, psychological and sacrificial effort, across the board, in contributing to the overall work and mission of this parish. We and this building would not be here if an indescribable number of lay and clergy alike did not contribute selflessly to ZELC. Trouble is: Over the last few years and given the ever-dwindling numbers of worshippers, more and more work is done by council to keep the parish afloat.

But, having said that: No matter how well or poorly everything else goes, unless the center of a parish is its weekly gathering for worship, that parish will collapse from lack of spiritual care and growth. Worship numbers since we opened on Father’s Day are in the single digits. MF, that should be cause for alarm.

The work of the church, especially small parishes like ours, is not easy. Sometimes, it’s difficult, even at the best of times. And that may be an understatement, because there’s less and less people to carry out the work and mission of the church. And if there’s no significant growth, the effort is only and always focussed on keeping the church doors open. You may know that on behalf of Council, I’ve reached out to 3 other parishes in hopes of working out a 2-point parish arrangement to help reduce our costs and that of the other parish. Unfortunately, the results so far have been negative and that’s not for a lack of trying. Although it’s very disappointing, I’m still a believer, that together is always better than alone.

Parishes need to have both a long view and a short view of their life and mission. Parishes need to do the right thing for the right reason. It’s all too easy to get side-tracked, because we Christians live in a seductive culture of instant gratification and immediate satisfaction. For too many Christians, other things are often more important than worship and fostering relationships with each other.

And because that’s true, MF, it is also difficult for most Christians to be spiritually hungry. Too many Christians are complacent, while a small minority of them are also ticked off about the direction of the church, or the in-fighting that goes on, or complaints about the pastor. Too many others are only interested in the bottom line—money and business as usual, all of which contributes to the fact that most churches are half empty. There are still other church folks who don’t really care what’s being said from the pulpit, because they will believe what they’ve always believed. No one will them what to do or what to believe. The church often reflects our culture, insofar as we give answers far too easily and quickly—as if we know it all. Too many Christians like to think they’re right and therefore have the right answer to everything.

Too often, we satisfy our loneliness and longing in false ways, with quick fixes that avoid our necessary learning and growing, avoid our need for formation and transformation. In terms of our soul-work as Christians, MF, this is absolutely critical. We dare not get rid of pain before we have learned what it has to teach us!

MF, to resist the temptation of the instant fix, and acknowledge that as life-long Christians and as members of this parish, we must be open not only to one another, but open to others, by servicing them. We must be open to change—not for the sake of change, but for the sake of transformation, of being more and more deeply rooted in the Spirit of Christ for the sake of neighbour and world.

That’s precisely why Jesus often set children in front of adults, to teach us adults the meaning of trust and transformation. Only uncorrupted children trust implicitly—a trust that leads to their ongoing development. Trouble is: Too many adults and Christians don’t want developmental change and transformation, because they think they don’t need it, when in fact, deep down they fear transformation.

A few years ago in my London parish, a newly separated man came to see me. He was feeling very confused, lost and alone, with no one to turn to. I made a coffee and then patiently listened to his story, how he had been abandoned by his wife in his time of need. Three hours later, when he had finally ran out of words, there was a long moment of silence. I got some paper and scribbled three words on it: Make new friends and handed it to him. He stared at those words for a long time, wondering if I was making fun of him—that this was simply too difficult a task, not knowing where to start and wanting only to recite his woes all over again.

Last Page. When he left my office, I didn’t know if he would carry out those 3 words. Months later, he returned, handed me the now crumpled paper with the words Make new friends! and said: Pastor Peter, I have made new friends! MF, the answer to making new friends lies, only and always, in offering our service to others as servants, hoping to become their friends, which is what Jesus said to his disciples: There is nogreater love than this—that you give your life for your friends. You are my friends, when you love one another. Jn15:13

The Kingdom of God came to that man in my former parish who had the courage to trust others to become his friend, just as they trusted him to become their friend. True servanthood accomplishes this kind of friendship. It is a gift which can only be opened by trusting God, day to day.

My last thought is this: None of us here this morning in the church is perfect—not by a long shot. But we do know enough about the nature of sin which works its way through our egos, that we understand the need to be in prayer, the need to worship regularly, the need to be with a trusted group of friends, or even just one genuine friend, who isn’t fooled by the subtleties of our unchecked ambition. No church can grow without lay servants who are also lay leaders—spiritual lay leaders, who know what it means to drink the cup that Christ drank, who know that suffering and every little death leads to new life in the here and now of God’s Kingdom.

MF. God bless us that we may become a blessing to many others. AMEN.

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 Jo