“Do I wake or sleep?”

Text: Mark 14:26-42 (Jesus prays in Gethsemane)

I got the idea for this reflection when I woke up last Sunday afternoon from a nap. I was glad to have slept for an hour, and it felt like I could sleep a lot longer. But dimly, I realized this might be a poor decision. So I crawled out of bed, took the dog for a walk, and settled in for an evening of watching the Academy Awards.

Waking up from the nap helped me reflect on the discomfort we feel when we get up before we are completely rested. The other side of this is the discomfort we feel when we want to fall asleep but are unable to do so.

Sometimes, circumstances demand that we wake up whether rested or not. At other times, we are unable to fall asleep even when we are desperate for rest.

Today’s Gospel story is about sleeping and waking. Jesus wants his friends to stay awake with him as he prays during the hours before his betrayal. Nevertheless, they fall asleep, and so on three separate occasions, Jesus rouses Peter and the others from their slumber.

It isn’t clear to me why Jesus wants his friends to stay awake. Is he looking for support in his distress? Does he want them to witness his betrayal by Judas and his arrest by the Temple authorities?

Jesus has brought his friends to Jerusalem from Galilee. Three times on the road, he told them that he would be arrested and killed; but Peter and the others don’t understand . Jesus implies that death is at the heart of his Good News. But they don’t get it.

Because Jesus wakes them, Peter does witness the arrest. But Peter misses Jesus’ death the next day. According to Mark, of the friends who followed Jesus from Galilee, only Mary Magdalene and a few other women are present when he is crucified and buried.

But surely Peter witnesses the resurrection? Matthew, Luke, and John say “yes.” But Mark, which is the first Gospel to be written and the one we are reading this Lent, says only Mary and two other women come to the empty tomb on Easter morning. Mark writes that the three of them flee from the tomb in fear and tell no one.

Does this mean that Jesus’ work had been in vain? He had proclaimed the realm of God; created a movement based on this message; and healed people in Galilee. He led a welcoming and inclusive community; and he taught that the way to new life was to take up one’s cross. But his friends didn’t understand this, and they fell asleep when Jesus asked them to stay awake. Even when Jesus woke them, they missed his death and resurrection.

This outline of the Gospel of Mark might seem discouraging, but I find Grace in it. It can be difficult to understand Jesus, today as much as then. Nevertheless, we gather to reflect on the stories. The friends of Jesus must have found a way to follow him despite their incomprehension and fear or we would never have heard of them.

Fear and incomprehension are not a barrier to following Jesus because the path of death and resurrection is an inevitable one, I believe. Even the sleepiest of us will stumble onto it eventually. We may not understand it, but death and new life keep appearing in our hearts, families, and world regardless.

I have compassion for Peter and the others who sleep because, like them, we are often fearful and therefore unaware of what is going on.

Do I really want to know the toll that aging has taken on my body? Do I really want to know about environmental damage? Do I really want to know about the successes of racist politicians as in the elections in Italy last week? Often, I am afraid to know such things; and so I may stay both oblivious to what is happening and anxious about it. Because of these fears, I may have trouble staying awake during the day and trouble going to sleep at night.

Some people advise us to not dwell on things we can’t change. For instance, there is not a lot we can do about aging bodies, environmental damage, or the rise of racism. So why pay attention to these things?

I understand this perspective. It might help us avoid despair in the face of personal and social change.

But we also can’t change many of the things we love – things like the beauty of a sunset, the emotions we feel when listening to music, or the connections we create when we reach out to our neighbours. Because we love such experiences, we may be moved to engage with reality in all its colours.

We can also join faith communities that pursue love and justice. We may not be able to instantly create the world we want. But working with others who follow Jesus can help us resist the voices of those who would have us sell our souls for values that are not loving.

But can we really know what is going on? The news media are an obvious source, but they are prone to sensationalism, and so I am often skeptical of them.

Other sources are available. We can look inside our bodies, hearts and minds and notice the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that flow through us.

We can have deep conversations with loved ones at home and church.

We can pay attention to the works of creative artists. Novelists, poets, and musicians often explore reality at levels much deeper than news media.

We can also join movements for peace with justice. Their failures might discourage us; but sometimes they reveal shifts that encourage us, as with the success of the #metoo movement this past year.

The path of Jesus helps us to face both what we like and don’t like. It shows how facing fearful realities can lead us closer to Love.

All of us need sleep, and all of us crave moments in which we are aware of love and joy. Fear can interfere with both.

Happily, by stumbling onto paths of death and new life we learn that our fears need not disturb our sleep or cloud our consciousness.

In any blessed moment, we can accept the Grace to face reality, die to old ways, and wake up to love in a deeper way. And at the end of life, we trust that everyone rises to new life within the Heart of Love from which we have come.

Whether we wake or sleep, we belong to God. And for this antidote to fear, I offer endless thanks and praise.


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Narrow paths

Text: Mark 14:1-9 (Jesus is anointed for burial)

The journey of Lent is sometimes called a “narrow path” because Jesus says “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:13). But is there only one path or are there many?

In today’s reading, Jesus describes an act of oil being poured on his head as his anointment for burial. Today, I reflect on what this phrase might mean and how it relates to the narrow path of Lent.

The word “anointing” is used in different contexts. Powerful leaders are sometimes accused of trying to anoint a successor. Monarchs are anointed with oil at their coronations. In the Catholic tradition, terminally ill people are anointed in a ritual called The Last Rites.

When an unnamed woman pours oil on Jesus’ head, his friends protest at the extravagance. But Jesus defends her. She has done him a kindness, he says.

Peter had identified Jesus as the Anointed One when they began their journey to Jerusalem. He assumed that Jesus would be revealed to the nation as the Christ at a coronation ceremony in the Temple. In a ritual from the time of King David, the High Priest would anoint Jesus with oil and put a crown on his head.

This is still the case with monarchs in Europe whose coronation ceremonies are based on those in the Hebrew Bible. Since 1727, the coronation of every British monarch has been accompanied by the singing of the anthem “Zadok the Priest” written by Handel. Zadok was the High Priest who anointed King Solomon in a ceremony in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago (1 Kings:38-40).

But Jesus is not like David, Solomon, or the monarchs of Europe. He is a king who wears a crown of thorns and who reigns in the hearts of those who follow a path of death and resurrection.

When Kim and I were on vacation in February, we participated in a ritual that included a moment that to me felt like anointment for burial. The resort where we stayed in southern Mexico had a spa overlooking the Pacific Ocean. To our delight and surprise, the spa not only offered massage, hydrotherapy, and pedicures. It also had a domed sweat lodge called a “Temazcal.” One afternoon, we entered this low-slung stone structure and participated in a 90-minute sweat.

I appreciated the experience, although it was far from easy. In the darkness of the lodge, ten of us sat around a central pit in which the leader placed heated stones and on which she poured scented water. While she offered prayers to the four directions, we confronted our fears and desires as the temperature and humidity soared to uncomfortable levels.

Before we crawled into the Temazcal, the elder who led the ritual smudged us with smoke from sacred herbs. She told us that the lodge represented both tomb and womb and that the sweat was designed to symbolize death and rebirth. Because of her words, I accepted the smudge as a kind of anointing for burial.

When I read more about Temazcal this week, I was not surprised to learn that the Spanish colonizers who conquered Mexico 500 years ago did not approve of them. Before the conquest, Temazcal were found in most cities and villages in Mexico. But the Spaniards destroyed them. Happily, in recent years, many have been rebuilt, and these sweat lodges have spread even to all-inclusive tourist resorts.

I don’t know how “authentic” our experience was, but it reminded me of the little I know about First Nations’ spiritual practices here in Canada.

This was the first sweat I had experienced, but not my first smudge. I first encountered smudging ten years ago in a course on First Nations’ spirituality. One day after a visit to a former Indian Residential School in Brantford, an elder in our circle smudged us with tobacco and sage to help us deal with the disturbing things we had encountered that day.

The Christian church can be divided along different lines. One divide is between those who say that the church has a monopoly on salvation and those who say there are many paths to new life.

I stand with the latter. While I love the rituals of the church, I also appreciate other traditions. I was born into the church, and I am sure that following the path of Jesus will fill my heart all the days of my life. But I also glimpse that the truths revealed by the death and resurrection of Jesus are also revealed in many other traditions of the past and present.

Another division in the church is between those who focus on Jesus as the sole actor in salvation and those who say that we all participate. Does Jesus do all the work for us? Or do all who love God and neighbour undergo our own death and resurrection?

I stand with the latter. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, which for me indicates that the narrow path is one we all walk.

Death and resurrection are not one-time events. They are a reality repeated many times in the life of all people and institutions; and rituals like sweat lodges can help us relate to this reality.

Baptism provides another example. When we baptize people here, as we did with Hazel Grace two weeks ago, we hear the following passage from Romans: “all of us who are baptised into Jesus Christ have, by that very action, shared in his death. We are buried with him in baptism so that we too may rise to new life just as Jesus was raised from the dead by God’s power. Having shared his death, let us now rise and live new lives with him” (Romans 6).

But baptism is only a ritual. The reality of death and resurrection is encountered in the vicissitudes of life in which we experience disillusionment and then rise to a life closer to Love. I appreciate baptism because it reminds us of the difficulties and joys of life’s journey and of how a loving community and God’s Grace can help us.

The narrow path that Jesus takes from Galilee to Jerusalem takes the form of a hero’s journey. When we symbolically join this path each Lent, we remind ourselves that each of us is on a hero’s journey. Jesus shows us the way, but we also walk it.

I am grateful that the narrow path of Christ helps in times of death and rebirth. I am also happy to realize that people and cultures outside of the church have found paths that follow this universal pattern. And how could it be otherwise?

The sweat that Kim and I experienced in Mexico was as powerful as any ritual I have encountered in church. This does not mean I will abandon the church for Indigenous spirituality. But neither should the church spurn such traditions. Everyone is enriched, I believe, by living in a diverse society that offers multiple ways to symbolize the truths of resurrection.

And for this awareness I say, “Thanks be to God.”


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“The Drum Major Instinct”

Text: Mark 10:32-45 (the greatness of service)

February has been a busy month for televised sports. It began with curling at the Tournament of Hearts, and it includes the Winter Olympics, which closed yesterday in South Korea. In-between was the Super Bowl, which is the most popular televised event in the United States and Canada.

I enjoyed this year’s Super Bowl. It was high-scoring ; the underdog won; and, as usual, I was entertained by the commercials. Many of them used humour. Others appealed for unity in the face of today’s sharp social divisions.

One of the latter immediately caught my attention. It began with titles saying it was an audio recording of a sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fifty years ago to the day, on February 4, 1968. This was just two months before Dr. King’s assassination.

As a video montage of first responders, teachers, and workers unspooled, we heard King’s marvelous baritone say: “If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness . . . [It] means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to [know a lot to serve] . . . You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”

After King stopped speaking, the grill of a Dodge Ram truck filled the screen followed by the truck’s slogan, “Built to Serve!”

It is not often that America’s current favourite Sunday pastime, NFL football, is interrupted by America’s former favourite Sunday pastime, a sermon; and this particular attempt did not go over well. Dodge was roundly condemned for using King’s sermon to sell trucks especially because this one condemned commercialism in general and advertising for cars in particular.

King’s sermon also condemned the War in Vietnam. In it he said, “we Americans are criminals in that war. In fact, we’ve committed more war crimes than almost any nation in the world.” This part of his sermon, also unheard in the TV ad, adds a further irony to Dodge’s use of it in a broadcast of the final event of the National Football League’s season because this year America’s flag and national anthem have been a flashpoint between a militarist U.S. President and football players who protest racism. But I’ll leave that one aside for today.

Today, I begin with the ad for Dodge Ram because King’s sermon — known as “The Drum Major Instinct” because of a repeated metaphor he uses in it — was a reflection on the same reading that we heard this morning from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Mark.

In the reading, Jesus tells his friends about his impending death for a third and final time during their journey to Jerusalem. Despite this being the third time, James and John still don’t get it. They ask Jesus to let them sit at his right and left-hand when he comes into his glory.

Jesus says that they will drink from the same cup and undergo the same baptism as him meaning they too will face painful death and joyous resurrection. But as for greatness, Jesus says that in his eyes greatness comes from service and that to rank first means serving the needs of all.

Jesus’ message is countercultural. In God’s realm, he says, to try to save one’s life is to lose it. In God’s realm, the first will be last and the last will be first. In God’s realm, greatness comes not from dominating others but from serving them.

Whatever one makes of Jesus’ words, they surely do not endorse the Dodge Ram! Nor does King’s sermon suggest that serving others is about buying the right truck; and so Dodge deserves all the scorn this ad received . . . although there is a cynical part of me that wonders if Dodge knew the ad would spark outrage. For instance, I have never mentioned a brand of truck in a sermon before! Perhaps Dodge is relying on the saying that there no such thing as bad publicity. Perhaps.

Regardless, this month’s sports events provide a backdrop for us to reflect on glory and what is most important in life.

Sports competitions like the Super Bowl and the Olympics offer stunning displays of superhuman achievement. To watch an athlete land six quadruple jumps in a five minute skating routine, or to ski down a mountain course at 140 km an hour, or to catch a football while running 35 km per hour and being shadowed by a huge opponent who is waiting to pounce on you with crushing force as soon as you touch the ball can take our breath away, even as they might give also us pause as to the risks such superhuman feats pose for athletes.

Partisanship adds to the pleasure we gain from watching sports. During the Super Bowl, I was mildly cheering for Philadelphia over New England. But if it had been Edmonton versus Ottawa, I would have been more engaged.

The same thing happens with the Olympics. While I admire watching Russian or American skaters dazzle with artistic and athletic prowess, I love the achievements of Canadian skaters even more simply because we live in the same country.

Competition between teams and countries provides much of the motivation for the athletes. It is hard to imagine anyone hurtling themselves down a mountain at literal break-neck speed without the tremendous rewards we give to those who manage to win without killing themselves in the attempt.

Unlike in the realm of God, in the Olympics, the first are first, the last are to be pitied, and those who place fourth just off the medal podium might be pitied even more.

But of course, the Olympics don’t pretend to be the realm of God, unlike the ad for the Dodge Ram. And that is OK, I guess.

Still, I do wish more of life were in synch with the message of Jesus and Dr. King. King notes that all of us want to win praise, recognition, and fame. He does not downplay that impulse, which he calls the drum major instinct. Instead, he prays that as we mature we learn to satisfy this impulse through loving service to others. We can all be great he says. All we need is a heart full of grace and love.

This echoes the call of Jesus to James, John and us. In family, neighbourhood and church we respond to a call to ministry not to gain brownie points in some sort of heavenly reward book, but because we experience deep joy when we glimpse that our egos and their desires are illusions and that our true reality is found in community and in caring for other people.

I love spectacular human achievement, whether in art, science, or sport, and I marvel at the level of excellence some people achieve under the spur of competition and the quest for glory.

But even more than that, I love moments of self-emptying when one finds oneself awake to the flow of Spirit and to God’s eternity in simple acts of service to family and neighbour.

Today , I close with words that King used in his sermon 50 years ago this February, just two months before his death.

King said: “Every now and then we all think about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator — that something we call death. And every now and then I think about my own death and my own funeral. I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. But every now and then I ask myself, ‘What is it that I would want said?’

If you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize — that isn’t important . . .

That day, I’d like somebody to mention that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I tried to feed the hungry,
to clothe the naked; and to visit those in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

If you mention that I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice; for peace; and for righteousness. All the other things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. In the words of a song . . .

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the Master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.”

“Yes, Jesus,” King concludes, “I want to be on your right or your left side not for any selfish reason. I want this not in terms of political ambition. I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others so that we can make of this old world a new world.”


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“You can’t always get what you want”

Text: Mark 8:37-45 (“take up your cross”)

Peter gets a bad rap in the gospels. He is the first person Jesus calls as a disciple. He has more conversations with Jesus than anyone else. He is present at every turn in the story, from the mission in Galilee, to the Transfiguration that Bruce preached about last Sunday, to the events in Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus’ life. And in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus singles out Peter as the rock upon which he will build his church. So, Peter is an important figure.

But Peter also comes in for a lot of criticism. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, Jesus warns that Peter will deny him three times, which, despite Peter’s protestations, he does a few hours later. On that same night, Jesus chastises Peter for falling asleep while Jesus is praying. And in today’s reading, Jesus calls Peter a Satan (!) for not appreciating Jesus’ predictions of death.

Many of us might resonate with Peter’s reaction. When Jesus asks his friends who they think he is, Peter says “the Messiah,” or Jewish king. Jesus doesn’t disagree with this, but he says that he is a king who will suffer, who will be rejected by the religious leaders, and who will be put to death.

Peter is shocked. He and the others who follow Jesus want a king like the ones of ancient story: a military leader who will expel the Romans and restore Jerusalem to its rightful place as both the earthly home of God and the capital of a Jewish empire.

Peter and the disciples love their life with Jesus in Galilee. They preach, heal, and build communities that discard old rules and reach out to so-called sinners.

Now that they are leaving Galilee to travel to Jerusalem, visions of kingly glory dance in Peter’s head. To Peter’s dismay, Jesus immediately dashes those visions by predicting his betrayal and death. Then, Jesus goes further. He says that all who want to follow him must take up their own cross and give up their lives too.

Peter and the others never come to fully understand this teaching even after they learn on Easter Sunday that Jesus’ tomb is empty, that he has been raised, and they will find him back in Galilee. But despite their lack of understanding, Peter and the others journey to Jerusalem with Jesus.

Peter lets Jesus know what he wants — a Messiah, Christ, or King. Jesus hears him, but immediately dashes Peter’s expectations. Peter complains about this; and Jesus responds with insult and anger.

Instead of offering the disciples what they want, he points them to what they need.

In life, sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we don’t. What Jesus teaches is that we can always get what we need if we receive the Grace to accept life as it is and not as we wish it were.

He says that if we try to cling to our life, we will lose it. But if we deny ourself and give our life away for the sake of Jesus and the Good News then we will gain new life.

Parenting provides a good example, I believe. It is important for parents to know what their children want. But it would be foolish if parents always gave their children what they wanted. Parents are called to establish boundaries and provide care based on their children’s needs and not their wants.

Parenting is also about self sacrifice. When you take on the responsibility of raising a child, you are called to put their needs above yours. Parenting involves seeing life from a child’s perspective – both their desires and their needs; and striving as best as a mortal can to ensure that many of those needs are met.

No parent would say the work is easy. But for many, it is the most rewarding work they ever do. By denying themselves and providing for their children, parents stumble into the truth of the paradox that Jesus preaches. They find new life. Parenting does not always provide what one desires. Instead, it is a life that is lit up with love and shot through with joy. By taking up the cross of parenting, parents lose much of their old selves and find a new life that is radically closer to Love.

The challenges of parenting are many. Knowing one’s own desires is hard enough. Figuring out what children want can be tougher still. Then there is the task of discerning what the family needs. Even harder can be finding ways to fulfill some of those needs, especially in this world of too much greed and violence; and in a society filled with vast opportunities and rapidly-expanding social power.

No one gets it right. All who take up the cross of parenting stumble again and again. Parents can’t always listen so their kids will talk and talk so their kids will listen. They can’t teach their children everything they need to thrive in this crazy world. They can’t provide perfect protection. Parents are fragile mortals with spirits and minds that only partially reflect God’s love.

And yet, all across the world 350,000 children are born every day; and the blessings of family life continue to pour forth in endless fountains of love regardless of the heartache, conflict, and fear that also mark family life. Sacrifice is called for. Sacrifice is often achieved. And children and parents grow spiritually despite all our many personal limitations.

Something similar is found in ministry, I believe. In communities of faith like this one, we are called to mourn and celebrate together, to reach out to our neighbours in love, and to join Peter and the others as followers of Jesus who journey to the cross and beyond to new life.

As in family life, it is useful for a church to know what it wants. But as with parenting, we also learn that our desires are not always in alignment with our needs. We may desire to worship not only the God who is Love, but also the nation or empire into which we were born. The stories of Jesus tell us that we can’t have both, and this can be a painful lesson for us we stumble down the path to Jerusalem.

We may want to deny the poverty in this city and injustices like racism and sexism. The stories of Jesus suggest we do otherwise, and so, we may find ourselves involved in outreach and justice work that conflict with some of our wants, but which, with Grace, provides us with the spiritual growth we need.

Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones expressed this 50 years in the song which gives this sermon its title. “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Lent is a season in which we try to get what we need. But the rigours of the journey don’t mean that we ignore our desires. Spiritual journeys require both a growth cycle and a comfort cycle; both awareness and sleep; both hikes up the sides of mountains and restorative meals around the family hearth.

The journey with Jesus provides both. It is a journey to death and rebirth. It is also one in which we meet each other in joy at the baptismal font of Living Water and in hope at the Communion Table of Living Bread.

As fellow pilgrims, I am grateful when we know what we want and when we strive for what we need. May it be so in this beloved community as it continues its Lenten journey of faith, hope and love towards Easter morning.

Thanks be to God.


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Signs of confusion

Text: Mark 2 (Jesus bends the rules)

One of my work colleagues in the 1990’s was a man named Aubrey from Trinidad. One day at lunch, he compared driving in Trinidad with driving in Toronto. In Trinidad, he said, there were virtually no rules, while in Toronto there seemed to be nothing but rules.

The proliferation of signs on the streets in downtown Toronto exhausted him. How was one to drive, he asked, and also take in all the information conveyed by the signs? “Left lane must exit;” “No parking 7-9 am, Mon-Fri;” “30 KM when lights flashing;” “Seasonal parking ban;” and on and on. Reading all these signs left him with little attention to the task of driving!

Ten years later, I thought of Aubrey when I read about a traffic experiment in Europe. Several towns in Holland and Germany removed all signs and let cars, bicycles, and pedestrians co-exist without rules. The initial reports said that accidents were down as vehicles and people found ways to get along.

I suppose we can’t get rid of all rules. It would be disastrous if we felt free to travel north on Highway 2 on the western lanes as well as the eastern ones. Traffic might be permanently gridlocked if there were no lights at major intersections. But there are probably cases where we could benefit from fewer traffic signs and rules.

Jesus is not keen on rules. In the stories we heard this morning he breaks several of them. He befriends tax collectors and other so-called sinners; he doesn’t fast; and he doesn’t chastise his friends when they gather food on the Sabbath. In all these instances, Jesus turns his back on the religious rules of his time. For Jesus, the path of faith, hope and love is not about maintaining ritual purity. It is about putting the needs of suffering people first.

He does maintain one rule – to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Mark 12). Jesus suggests that if we focus on Love, the other details will fall into place.

This year, there is a lot of talk about changing rules in relationships between men and women. The #metoo movement is challenging the power balance between men and women, particularly in the workplace. Whereas in the past, women often had to live with sexist comments, harassment, and discrimination at work, they now have a better chance to be heard when they speak against such phenomena and when they try to stop men who abuse their power.

The movement tries to stop sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination. But it goes beyond this. It also challenges the ways in which men and women relate to one another in the private sphere.

One hundred years ago, the rules for men and women were different. Women were not considered legal persons and they could not vote or own property. Children were owned by their fathers and wives were owned by their husbands. The public sphere was for men only. The private sphere was marked by sharp gender roles with many male privileges.

Economic, cultural, and ideological forces have challenged all this; and many of us applaud the changes. But this year, some have raised alarm about the extent of the changes promoted by #metoo activists. Some wonder if there is still room for romance, courtship, and friendliness between men and women.

They worry that a range of gestures and comments used by generations of men when pursuing women are now under threat. They wonder if men will have room to breathe in a #metoo world.

I applaud the discussions opened up by #metoo, #timesup, and other feminist initiatives. Not only do they help make life safer for women. They also help us to create relationships and families that are closer to our values of liberty and love.

It is clear that women gain when family life is less oppressive and more egalitarian. But can men also gain from such relationships?

In a less sexist world, men do more childcare, housework, and emotional labour. In more equal relationships, we focus not only on our own comfort and pleasure but also on those of our partners; and some might consider these to be losses.

But the benefits outweigh any perceived losses, I believe.

Relationships that strive for mutuality, respect, and equality offer more scope to know not only one’s partner but also one’s self. Egalitarian relationships might involve more work for men, but they offer vastly greater possibilities for spiritual growth for both men and women than do traditional ones.

I can understand the appeal of more traditional relationships. It might seem easier to be a follower than a fellow pilgrim. It might seem easier to obey than to create. It might seem easier to be a slave than an independent agent.

Perhaps this is why many people – both men and women — yearn for the “good old days” where kings were revered and husbands lorded it over wives.

Jesus presents us with a better path. Instead of slavishly following earthly kings, he says God’s kingdom is within us. He calls us to live as though God’s reign was already here on earth as it is in heaven. While this may not be completely true, journeying with fellow pilgrims who see Christ in one another opens us up to God’s eternal Love right here and now.

In a similar way, the #metoo and #timesup movements encourage us to create relationships and families marked by equality and mutual respect. They do so even though the forces that have weakened patriarchy over the last 200 years have not yet eradicated sexism in every heart and workplace.

But even though there is a lot of progress still to be made, living as though patriarchy is a relic of the past helps us to experience more love in families and relationships right here and now.

Critics suggest that a new set of feminist rules is being created that will be as oppressive as patriarchy. But for me, the feminist rule is simple: focus on equality and mutual respect, and let the other details flow from that.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus preached that we should focus on love and let everything else flow from that.

When Jesus proclaimed the cardinal rule of love and disregarded other religious rituals and rules, it upset traditionalists like the Pharisees. But it lead to a spiritual movement that was vastly more appealing to ordinary people than what the traditionalists offered.

Today, more and more people are trying to create families that exhibit equality between the sexes. Some traditionalists are upset by this.

Happily, feminism is helping us create families that are vastly more appealing to many of us, both men and women, than what traditionalists offer.

The Season of Epiphany is almost over. Time’s up. The kingdom of God has come near.

And for this I say, “Thanks be to God.”


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Healing pathways

Text: Mark 1:21-46 (Jesus heals many people)

Jesus heals. This is both a summary of the Gospel reading we just heard and a hope that many of us have when we are suffering. Today I reflect on what the phrase “Jesus heals” might mean.

Unlike the people mentioned in today’s Gospel reading – a person possessed by an evil spirit, Simon’s mother-in-law who is sick with a fever, and someone with leprosy — we don’t have Jesus in the flesh to heal us. Nevertheless, we still proclaim that Jesus heals.

In the first half of Chapter One of Mark, Jesus announces the Reign of God. In the second half of the chapter, which we heard today, Jesus teaches and heals. A traditional way to view Jesus’ miraculous healing is as proof of his ability to lead us to the kingdom. We also expect that the kingdom of God will be one in which our physical, emotional, and social ills will be healed.

In God’s kingdom, leprosy will be a thing of the past. Mother-in-laws won’t die of a fever before their time. Social evils like poverty, loneliness, and war will be a distant memory.

But how do we get to the kingdom; and can we access God’s healing even as we remain subjects of the earthly kingdoms into which we have been born?

I believe that spiritual healing occurs on the journey to God’s reign. By walking a spiritual path, by engaging in ministries of outreach and teaching, and by joining with others in struggles for justice and love, we open ourselves to healing.

The healing we receive on paths of faith, hope and love is not miraculous. All of life can strike us as a miracle, including the ability of our immune systems to heal infection, destroy tumours, and control inflammation. When we are injured, sick, or troubled, we can usually rely on the power of our bodies and minds to be healed.

But regardless of how well or poorly we fare with the various ailments that afflict our bodies and minds, we remain mortal. This is the human condition.

Our trust in God does not require us to believe in divine interventions more miraculous than natural repair mechanisms.

What trust in God gives us, I believe, is courage to engage in journeys of love with family members and fellow pilgrims. These journeys connect us to reality with all its blessings and wounds.

Yesterday, I chatted with Evelyn Day about the goal of Truth and Reconciliation between non-native and native Canadians. Evelyn, Dave Elliot, and I were at Mill Woods Library to staff a table for the church at a Resource Fair. Evelyn and I talked about the ancestral shame some non-natives feel when we learn about the history of colonialism and how it devastated First Nations people; and about the shame some native people feel about the (understandable) inability of their ancestors to prevent their children from being removed to residential schools.

This shame can prevent us from engaging in the work of truth and reconciliation. But if we accept the grace to feel it and move to other feelings that lie beneath it, we might find ourselves able think and act more freely.

All of us, both native and non-native, are negatively impacted by the wounds of the past. These wounds are not distributed evenly, of course. But all of us are affected.

The good news is that both native and non-native Canadians can be freed and healed by the work of truth and reconciliation. The goal is not an easy one, and we may never fully achieve it. But by taking up the struggle in our hearts, minds, and actions, we open ourselves to ways of being that are less aggressive and more caring.

One example is the sacred circle that is part of many First Nation traditions. In such circles, we are encouraged to listen more deeply and empowered to speak more freely. In listening and sharing, we might express some of our shame and grief and touch greater compassion and care with all with whom we share the journey.

Even though the goal of truth and reconciliation is one that might not be fully achieved, walking towards it can help us grow in love and gain new insights and friends with whom healing can flow.

Similar dynamics are at play in other spiritual and social movements, I believe. The second one I will mention today is the struggle for peace.

This past week, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved their symbolic Doomsday Clock ahead by 30 seconds to two minutes to midnight. This group of scientists first created their metaphorical Clock in 1947 to warn humanity of the danger of nuclear war. This is only the second time their clock has been this close to midnight. The first time was in 1953 after the USA and the Soviet Union began testing the first hydrogen bombs.

If we ever needed to find a symbol of the burden of past wounds, the existence of nuclear weapons would do. The fact that we live under the shadow of civilization’s destruction can lead us to feel shame and helplessness.

Nevertheless, many people struggle for peace and disarmament. The early 1960s was a moment of peak activity to Ban the Bomb, perhaps because of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

In the early 1980s as a recent graduate, I got involved in another wave of activism against nuclear weapons. In 1982 and 1983, I went to large demonstrations in Toronto and New York against the Cruise Missile and took training in civil disobedience from the Alliance of Non-Violent Action. Our demonstrations and actions didn’t stop the deployment of more missiles. But I don’t regret being part of the movement.

I met people there whom I loved, and I was moved by the Spirit that flowed through our actions. The movement didn’t achieve its goals, but the participants grew in awareness and love. We refined our sense of what was sacred and we regained some of the self-respect that living in the shadow of nuclear war can destroy. By accepting the courage of the Spirit of those times to protest nuclear weapons, we strengthened our hearts and built more loving communities.

Perhaps that was so, you may say. But where does Jesus fit in social movements for reconciliation or peace? Some people who join them bring explicit Christian teachings with them, while others do not.

I see the Spirit of Jesus even when it is not explicit because of the central act of Jesus in the gospels. This is the journey he undertakes with his friends from Galilee to Jerusalem, a journey that occupies the second half of the Gospel of Mark, and one that we retrace during Lent in the seven weeks before Easter.

Jesus undertakes the journey to Jerusalem without any illusions of worldly success. Nevertheless, he calls his friends to take up their cross and accompany him to his fate. It is a journey that is both doomed to failure and graced with eternal success. The Jesus movement doesn’t unseat either the religious elite or the imperial rulers it confronts. But it heals its participants, I think. By walking the path with others, they move from loneliness to community; from shame to respect; and from fear to faith. Just by participating in the journey, they are healed.

Happily for us, the journey continues.

Every time we take a leap of faith to create a family, a church or a social movement, we accept God’s grace to be healed right here and now.

No family is without dysfunction. No church avoids disappointment. No social movement completely achieves its goals of peace with justice. But by joining the movement, we align ourselves with sacred values of compassion and love. We see Christ in the faces of family members and fellow pilgrims. We open ourselves to healing. We enter God’s eternal kingdom.

Where can we find Jesus’ healing powers today? On pathways to peace and justice while walking with our brothers and sisters.

Thanks be to God.


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Time to choose a new king

Text: Mark 1:1-20 (baptism of Jesus, temptation, call of first disciples)

“The time has come. The kingdom of God is at hand!” These are the very first words spoken by Jesus as he begins his ministry in Galilee.

They are bold words; words that could get one in trouble; and they do.

Jesus’ first public words — at least according to Mark, the earliest Gospel writer — are political. He proclaims a new kingdom, one that will replace the slavery, exploitation and brutality of the kingdoms of his time.

Of course, his phrase the kingdom of God has been interpreted in other ways over the years. Fifteen years after Mark, Matthew copies Mark to write a second gospel. In it, Matthew changes Mark’s phrase “kingdom of God” to “kingdom of heaven,” perhaps to avoid using the word “God,” which Matthew feels is blasphemous; and perhaps to soften the political challenge presented by Jesus to King Herod in Jerusalem and the Emperor in Rome.

Some see the kingdom of God as a purely spiritual idea, one that points to “pie in the sky when you die by and by” to use the lyric written by union activist Joe Hill in 1911.

But Jesus’ first followers take his phrase more concretely. Once Jesus leaves his ministry in Galilee to go to Jerusalem, his followers proclaim him as the Christ or King, one who will regain the throne of David in Jerusalem and restore Israel to its ancient glory as a powerful, slave-holding monarchy in the Middle East.

I can understand the political expectations of the first followers of Jesus — people like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, whom Jesus calls in today’s reading. Their only experiences of kingdom have been ones led by powerful and ruthless men. In their ancient past, as told in the Bible, the tribal god YHWH was both god and king, until the Prophet Samuel reluctantly anointed the first two human kings of their tribe– Saul and David.

When his first followers proclaim Jesus as the Christ, they harken back both to David and to the time before David when YHWH conducted wars on behalf of the Hebrew people and acted as their earthly benefactor, judge, and executioner.

But as Jesus continues his ministry in the months after his baptism, he makes it clear that his kingdom will not be like either YHWH’s or King David’s. While starting from his own people — the Jews of Galilee and Judea — Jesus expands his love to include all people. His kingdom is not just for one tribe or nation, but for all of humanity.

Further, when Jesus accepts the title of Christ or King, he says that he is a king who will be betrayed, arrested, and executed; a fate he shares with all who follow him (Mark 8). He also says that we will be raised to new life, but he leaves the details of this new life vague.

St. Paul makes clear where the new life in Christ the King lies — within the heart of every pilgrim. Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but it is Christ that lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Jesus says something similar in Luke 17: “the kingdom of God is within you.”

This is a radical reversal of the ordinary notion of kingdom. In ancient history, political sovereignty rested with a tribal or national monarch (a king, Caesar, czar, emperor, or kaiser). In modern democracies, sovereignty rests either with a figure-head monarch or an elected President.

In contrast to this, Jesus and Paul say that in God’s reign, the king rules from the hearts of all people. This is a notion of power that is not only international. It is also radically distributed. “Power to the people,” Jesus and Paul say, and not just power to choose a new policy or new ruler, but to rule collectively as a united humanity from the thrones in every heart.

The kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus says. To me, this means that we are called to collectively take the power that is our God-given birthright; and to build a world that is beyond nation, one in which each person is sovereign — a world where no one lords it over others, whether in family settings, in a nation, or on the world stage.

Two thousand years after Jesus’ bold words, we are far from this reality. In too many families, husbands still lord it over their wives. In too many countries, presidents still lord it over their suffering subjects. In too much of the world, state effort is wasted on protecting against invasion or waging war to conquer and exploit other nations.

But the dream of Jesus and Paul continues to live on and to grow. It was evident here in Edmonton and around the world yesterday with the second annual Woman’s March — and congratulations to our own Paula Kirman for taking a central role in organizing Edmonton’s march again this year. It is evident in the #metoo and #timesup movements against sexual assault, harassment and misconduct. These movements grew this year in the wake of the ascension a year ago yesterday of an admitted sexual predator to the most powerful political post in the world — the “a-house in the white-hole” as I have started calling the 45th U.S. President.

Their dream is evident in global efforts to help refugees, bring peace to warring people, increase understanding between people of different languages, races, and religions, and create more sustainable economies that could preserve oceans, atmosphere, and natural habitats.

In the face of voices that call us to retreat to tribe and nation, to oppress women and sexual minorities, and to shut out refugees — even when these voices come from church pulpits — Jesus calls us to proclaim the radical, human, and distributed sovereignty of the reign of God.

Jesus says it is time to choose a new king.

I choose the Christ, a monarch who reigns in each of our hearts, who doesn’t care what colour, gender or religion our neighbours are, and who shows us that the same sovereign Christ is evident in everyone we meet.

Time’s up. The kingdom of God has come near, and we are called to choose our king. May we all receive the Grace to choose Christ, a king whom we can see in every baby, every senior, and every neighbour.

The time for sovereign presidents and kings is over. The time for the distributed reign of Christ has drawn nigh.

Thanks be to God.


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