Sunday, February 26, 2006

Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9
2Six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them;
3and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them.
4Elijah appeared to them along with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus.
5Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
6For he did not know what to answer; for they became terrified.
7Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, "This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!"
8All at once they looked around and saw no one with them anymore, except Jesus alone.
9As they were coming down from the mountain, He gave them orders not to relate to anyone what they had seen, until the Son of Man rose from the dead.

Theologians are a lot like racehorses. In the same manner that most racehorses can trace their lineage back to Northern Dancer, most theologians will happily describe how their lineage traces back to Germany. If you have been listening carefully over the last fifty years of sermons, you will know that Germans dominate the world of liberal theology. Think of it as a religious version of the Winter Olympics. Every time the preacher wants to make some kind of theological slam dunk (mixed-metaphor warning) she or he will quote or mention Barth, Bultmann, Buber, Moltmann, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer or anyone else that sounds vaguely German.

Beyond indiscriminate name-dropping, there is also the habit of tracing backward to make links with the luminaries of the last century. Ask any professor of theology to describe their academic background and you will hear many of the same words: beer, University of Tubingen and then someone in the "bloodline" that links them to Barth, Bultmann, Buber, Moltmann, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer or anyone else that sounds vaguely German.

In case you were wondering, I studied under Bob Bater, who when to both Tubingen and Union in New York, and studied under Niebuhr, who also taught Bonhoeffer, who went to school with Karl Barth. Try as I might, I can't make any solid links to Northern Dancer.


2Six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them;
3and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them.
4Elijah appeared to them along with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus.

Ascending a high mountain, Peter, James and John discover that Jesus has a lineage too. Transfigured, shining before them, Jesus is lost in conversation with Moses and Elijah. A voice speaks from a cloud and says to the three disciples "This is my beloved son, listen to him." And Jesus, to end the story of his transfiguration uses familiar words that are quickly ignored by his followers: "Tell no one."

The story of the transfiguration marks the end of Epiphany, the season of light. For eight weeks we have been surrounded by stories of healing and transformation as "the light of the world" began his ministry. Now we reach a critical moment, a bridge between the teaching and healing that characterized the first part Jesus' earthly ministry and the final journey down to Jerusalem. It is the transition that John describes in his prologue:

The true light that gives light to every one was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

Next Sunday begins Lent, and we will hear the final stories that lead to the cross, and we will discover the truth of John's words and the extend to which the voice that said "listen to him" was ignored. For now, however, we remain covered in light, and the true glory of Jesus is revealed on a high mountain.


It is no accident that Moses and Elijah are standing by. They too stand in the light, and prove the lineage of Jesus. They become the filter through which we can see the great light, the key to understanding much of Jesus' meaning.

Moses, of course is most familiar. Although some might argue that Elijah also deserves the Cecil B. DeMille treatment, only Moses can claim the fame that comes with being played by Charlton Heston. He was a Prince of Egypt, he liberated his people, he gave them the law, he led them through the desert, and he took them to the edge of the promised land. And more important that all of these, he "wrote" the first five books of the Bible. If you are only hearing this sermon, I confess that I put "wrote" in quotes. It's a stretch for even the most ardent of biblical literalists to explain how Moses could write a narrative description of his own death. Nevertheless, the first books of the Bible are credited to Moses because much of it is told in his voice.

It would be pretty easy to argue that Deuteronomy was Jesus' favourite book of the Bible. It explains the law that Moses received at Mt. Sinai and establishes it as the basis for the covenant that exists between God and Israel. It was part of the tradition that every kid, Jesus included, would commit to memory and hear read aloud over and over again. I'm going to share with you a couple of quotes and you will see the extend to which it forms the centre of Jesus' own theology. The first comes from Deuteronomy 6:

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. [a] 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

And the second from Deuteronomy 10:

17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.

While the precise phrase "love your neighbour" is found in Leviticus, there is little doubt that the intent of the commandment finds full flower in Deuteronomy. Jesus love for the outcast, the sinner, the powerless begins and ends with Moses. It is his assumption that as former slaves, the Israelites should be the first people to understand the plight of the powerless. It lives at the heart of Jesus understanding of the Father, that as God heard the suffering of his people under Pharaoh, God continues to hear the cry of anyone who enslaved: physically, emotionally, spiritually.

In many ways, Elijah is more fun. Moses may be more famous, but Elijah's story has it all in a few short chapters of 1 Kings: an evil queen, a deadly contest, and even a chariot of fire. His greatest moment comes in chapter 18: Jezebel the evil queen, while married to the king of the Israelites, is quite devoted to the pagan god Baal. But Elijah is equally devoted to God. We pick up the story at verse 22:

22 Then Elijah said to them, "I am the only one of the LORD's prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire—he is God."
Then all the people said, "What you say is good."

25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire." 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. "O Baal, answer us!" they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. "Shout louder!" he said. "Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened." 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

Of course Elijah was able to call down fire from the true God and the priests of Baal were first embarrassed, then killed, and the story goes again from PG-13 to Restricted. The real duel, the one between Elijah and Jezebel continues, however, and we begin to see why Jesus might count the prophet as mentor.

In the 21st chapter the king wants to acquire a really nice vineyard, but the owner Naboth refuses to sell. The king is sullen. Enter his queen:

5"What in the world is the matter?" his wife, Jezebel, asked him. "What has made you so upset that you are not eating?"
6"I asked Naboth to sell me his vineyard or to trade it, and he refused!" Ahab told her.
7"Are you the king of Israel or not?" Jezebel asked. "Get up and eat and don't worry about it. I'll get you Naboth's vineyard!"

She then conspires to have Naboth killed and the vineyard reverts to the king's possession. It falls to the prophet Elijah, of course, to reveal this corruption and (like Justice Gomery) predict the downfall of the house of Ahab. Fast forward a few centuries and you can imagine a young Jesus hearing these stories and discovering the same corruption around him: moneylenders in the temple, Roman overseers drunk with power, a religious elite more concerned with piety than God's promise of new life.


It's not enough to do good things and quietly go about our work here at 33 East Road. We need to be able to explain our lineage and demonstrate why doing the things we do is consistent with what we believe. Care in point. In 1930 the Toronto Conference of the United Church voted to abolish capitalism, deciding that it was a cruel system that bred inequality. For those who say the United Church is too radical, the truth is we've mellowed. The church that came out of the Social Gospel movement of the teens and early nineteen-twenties was far more radical than we are today. They reflected on the question "Who is my neighbour" and read the Gospels and Isaiah and Deuteronomy and decided that the Kingdom Jesus preached needed to be built right away. History unfolded differently, but the line from the Social Gospel to ministers like J.S. Woodsworth and Clarke McDonald to the food bank in our basement is pretty direct.

The ultimate lineage we claim is to Jesus. From disciples to early church to Reformation to here is also a direct line and as we proclaim Jesus we also claim his values, his lineage, his radical love for God. We need to brag about it, because the world needs to know who we are and to whom we belong. Amen.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 2
1Jesus went back to Capernaum, and a few days later people heard that he was at home. [a] 2Then so many of them came to the house that there wasn't even standing room left in front of the door.
Jesus was still teaching 3when four people came up, carrying a crippled man on a mat. 4But because of the crowd, they could not get him to Jesus. So they made a hole in the roof [b] above him and let the man down in front of everyone.
5When Jesus saw how much faith they had, he said to the crippled man, "My friend, your sins are forgiven."
6Some of the teachers of the Law of Moses were sitting there. They started wondering, 7"Why would he say such a thing? He must think he is God! Only God can forgive sins."
8Right away, Jesus knew what they were thinking, and he said, "Why are you thinking such things? 9Is it easier for me to tell this crippled man that his sins are forgiven or to tell him to get up and pick up his mat and go on home? 10I will show you that the Son of Man has the right to forgive sins here on earth." So Jesus said to the man, 11"Get up! Pick up your mat and go on home."
12The man got right up. He picked up his mat and went out while everyone watched in amazement. They praised God and said, "We have never seen anything like this!"

One of the more troubling things in the news lately is the publication of controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Created in Denmark, printed in Holland, and now being reprinted in various places in the West, the cartoons are extremely offensive to Muslims. They create conflict, not simply between Danes and Muslims, but within individuals who value both free speech and religious sensibilities.

You may recall back in October I quoted one of Jay Leno's man-on-the-street interviews when someone asked to name one of the Ten Commandments said "freedom of speech." What I didn't mention was another occasion when Leno asked the same question and the response was "God helps those who help themselves." Now, while most know that "God helps those who help themselves" is not one of the Ten Commandments," there is an alarming number of people who believe that "God helps those who help themselves" is found somewhere in the Bible. It is, in fact, a quote from Ben Franklin.

Watching people on the street insist that the phrases "freedom of speech" and "God helps those who help themselves" are both commandments is very funny, to be sure. What is disturbing, however, is that both of these phrases convey what I would call an "American Gospel" where the constitutional guarantee of free speech and the folksy notion that God will only help you if you work hard at the same time seems to trump most other values. In many ways "God helps those who help themselves" is anti-Gospel, in the sense that God, through Jesus, will help even the least deserving simply because they are a child of God. That's grace, and Ben Franklin seemed to have a limited understanding of the concept.

Back to cartoons, it seems that the twin values of free speech and freedom of religion have come into conflict. We prize both, but surely freedom of religion in a pluralistic society means both tolerance for other's belief and treating religions with great respect. Clearly the media would choose freedom of speech ahead of freedom of religion, and in this case it is the media who both created the situation and are now reporting on it. Seems like a bit of "conflict of interest" and the media seem intent on making it worse for themselves (and the world).

One of the sub-themes of this whole story is the way in which we in the West seems to perceive Christianity. At some point, I would guess beginning with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, it became permissible to mock religion. The same impulse that made it permissible to say awful things about the other side of the Catholic/Protestant divide eventually led to a place where it was possible to mock the Christian religion altogether. "Free speech" we called it, and allowed artists and writers to mock or condemn all aspects of the dominant faith of the West.

A telling example of this drift is an animated television series called Clone High (produced in Canada) which features the clones of famous people from throughout history attending the same high school: John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Gandhi. The set-up allows for clever and unexpected things to happen: Joan of Arc accidentally burns down her house and Gandhi needs a makeover to get ready for the annual prom. I've watched the show with my son, it is funny and clever (and being that we live in a small town, I know the producer).

MTV, who created the show, responded to criticism in India regarding the inclusion of Gandhi by stating that the show "was intended for an America audience." No one in North America objected, however, to the portrayal of Joan of Arc (one of the most revered saints among Roman Catholics) as a troubled high school girl pining for the affection of Abe Lincoln. Or the inclusion of a young Latino character name Jesús Cristo (Jesus Christ).

In our society religion is just one more category of experience that is open to parody and critique. What we fail to see is that while our attitudes and assumptions developed and took root the same thing was not happening in other regions and among other faith groups. We have found out the hard way that being the dominant culture is not the same thing as being right. Or at least I hope we have found out that being the dominant culture is not the same thing as being right.


Jesus was still teaching 3when four people came up, carrying a crippled man on a mat. 4But because of the crowd, they could not get him to Jesus. So they made a hole in the roof [b] above him and let the man down in front of everyone.
5When Jesus saw how much faith they had, he said to the crippled man, "My friend, your sins are forgiven."

One of the confusing aspects of this passage is the casual link between the forgiveness that Jesus extends and the healing that takes place. One of the easy misinterpretations is that the man's sin made him ill and Jesus had to fix one to bring about the other. As hard as it may be in this passage, it is important to separate the two and understand them as unique. Notice that Jesus' words of forgiveness do not heal the man. His healing happens after the discussion with the religious leaders and involves a separate blessing. As one commentator put it. "this remains a story about Jesus [and his ministry] and not a story about the origin of disability." (Texts, p. 160)

6Some of the teachers of the Law of Moses were sitting there. They started wondering, 7"Why would he say such a thing? He must think he is God! Only God can forgive sins."

One of the things I treasure about Mark is the rather blatant way he seeks to draw us into the text. 'Who does he think he is?' the Pharisees ask: "He must think he is God." And there we are, reading along thinking "this is God! This is the incarnation of God, of course he can forgive sins!" Drawn in, we recall the command to the twelve to go out to the world and share to Good News of the coming Kingdom, to forgive sins and seek healing. Drawn in, we assume the mantel of the disciples and fulfill this mission of forgiveness.

I want to share with you some words from William Countryman:

What God says in Jesus is this: You are forgiven. Nothing more, nothing less. This is the message Jesus spoke and lived...God says something quite unambiguous: 'You are forgiven.' What is means is, 'I love you anyway, no matter what. I love you not because you are particularly good or because you are particularly repentant nor because I'm trying to bribe you or threaten you into changing. I love you because I love you.

The larger meaning underneath these words is that in order to accept this forgiveness, this unambiguous love, we need to forgive and love ourselves. This is what God extends to us, and unless we accept it, we're going to be unable to extend it to others. In other words, we enter a place where forgiveness becomes an ethos, a worldview, a paradigm. When we internalize this forgiveness, when we know it in our bones, then the impulse to forgive happens that much quicker.

If you will forgive me another quote, this one from Thomas Merton, we can begin to bring this full circle:

We must try to accept ourselves, whether individually or collectively, not only as perfectly good or perfectly bad, but in our mysterious, unaccountable mixture of good and evil. We have to stand by the modicum of good that is in us without exaggerating it. We have to defend our real rights, because unless we respect our own rights we will certainly not respect the rights of others. But at the same time we have to recognize that we have willfully or otherwise trespassed the rights of others.

How much of the cartoon controversy is rooted in an unwillingness to forgive Islam for altering our world? When an artist creates a picture of Mohammed with a turban shaped like a bomb, what he is likely expressing is the anger that most of us in the West feel when we remember the days before 9-11 and the so-called "War on Terror." Have we confronted what exists in our hearts when we see the news? We see the protests and the shouting and it seems to reinforce the ideas we already have about Islam rather than recall that this is a media story about a media story. Rather than look at our own bias and our own failing we cling to "free speech" and carelessly think that other religions should act the way we act because we somehow have it right.

Another quote from Thomas Merton:

We are already one.
But we imagine we are not.
And what we have to recover is our original unity.
What we have to be is what we are.

When you sense only unity you cannot help but forgive. We forgive our children because they are a part of us, they exist in a circle of unity where forgiveness and generosity is assumed. Jesus says widen the circle. Jesus says, through Thomas Merton, that we are already one and what we have to recover is our original unity. This is true for families, communities, nations and religions. If I respect myself I will treat others with greater respect. If I honour and respect my faith, it follows that I will extend the same honour and respect to other faiths. What we have to be is what we are.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 9
24You know that many runners enter a race, and only one of them wins the prize. So run to win! 25Athletes work hard to win a crown that cannot last, but we do it for a crown that will last forever. 26I don't run without a goal. And I don't box by beating my fists in the air. 27I keep my body under control and make it my slave, so I won't lose out after telling the good news to others.

I regard it as a sure sign of getting older that I react badly that the Olympics have begun. Measuring your life in four year segments, experiencing alarm that the games have come around again, and knowing that the next games are right around the corner all add the chilling sense that the passage of time continues to accelerate.

It is easy to get caught up in the excitement. Gold for Jennifer Heil in moguls, disappointment for Beckie Scott in cross-country skiing, a 16-0 rout in women's hockey: the games are back and it's only day two. As a "winter country" we have much to look forward to, and we will no doubt swell with pride as the games unfold knowing that for such a small nation we do remarkably well at the winter games.

Part of the coverage I have enjoyed is looking forward. As the host nation for 2010 there is a sub-set of stories regarding preparation for Vancouver and the next wave of Olympians. Will they be ready? Are they sufficiently funded? Organizers look forward to the natural boost that comes with being the host country, but are also aware of all the added pressure. As the only country to host the games twice and fail to win a gold medal at either event, there is pressure but also national pride to consider. Clearly, these remarkable young women and men are not only preparing for their own Olympics but the team and the nation they represent. Not only do they feel the pressure of improving their individual performance, but must remain mindful of the Olympic hopes of the 30 million Canadians watching. I'm trying to imagine a situation that creates more pressure, and I can't.


You know that many runners enter a race, and only one of them wins the prize. So run to win! Athletes work hard to win a crown that cannot last, but we do it for a crown that will last forever. I don't run without a goal.

St. Paul used a variety of images to convey the same idea. Like a good preacher, he knew that different members of his audience would respond to different ideas. So he added a mixture of metaphors (and sometimes mixed his metaphors) and trusted that something he wrote would reach the reader. In the verses that immediately precede our passage for today he shares his famous idea, "I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some." In other words, he will adopt local customs and consider the context when he is attempting to share the story of Jesus.

An athletic metaphor such as running the race is readily understood by athletes and non-athletes alike, and also gives birth to a variety of insights: You run to win. This is not the same as defeating the competition, but rather recognition that the purpose of the race is to do your best. Athletes must work hard. Race day is preceded by years of preparation, and at the heart of this preparation is self-discipline. In this way, most of the competition is internal: a race with yourself.

Applying these insights to a life of faith is a trickier matter. Paul is not simply giving life lessons but trying to prepare his reader for life in the Kingdom: "Athletes work hard to win a crown that cannot last, but we do it for a crown that will last forever," he writes. The prize is a life with God, and a realized vision where the ways of God are made known to all people. One way to imagine this is like a race: performing with an eye on the prize, doing our best, working hard, and always exercising self-disciple. Again, most of the competition is internal: a race with ourselves.


From the Waterloo Record:

Win your race to financial security by playing catch-up

Marathon runners must top up their fluid levels at regular intervals during a race or they will never make their personal goal times at the finish line. The same strategy is true for you in the long race toward financial security at retirement. If you don't top-up your RRSP at regular intervals along the way, you'll never reach your financial goals at the retirement finish line. But unlike those marathoners, you can catch up to peak RRSP performance even if you've neglected your RRSP top-ups for years.

By shear coincidence, the end of RRSP season corresponds with the Olympics. No shock then that a clever writer would use an athletic metaphor to describe the best route to financial security. For the record, he is correct that one of the secrets to a good race is hydration. And, without the benefit of being a financial person, I imagine he is also correct that one of the keys to long-term financial security is making regular contributions to an RRSP.

I highlight this article because it speaks to our age. By the way, I knew this article existed before I knew it existed. I guessed with complete certainty that if I googled the words "RRSP" and "race" that someone somewhere would have written an article comparing retirements savings with a marathon. Call me a prophet of the Internet age, because sure enough, there it was.

Here's the message you will never here in February of the year: Pay your taxes and feel the satisfaction of helping others. Has anyone ever seen such as ad? Of course, not, because even the government doesn't have the nerve to frame it in such a way. Instead, the messages are "let us help you avoid paying taxes" and "safeguard your own financial future through a tax deductible RRSP contribution." Somehow our society has made a virtue out of avoiding taxes when the very taxes we avoid paying provide the things we say we treasure most: health care, education and security.

Back to the race, it is a metaphor that can lead to selfishness and an excessive focus on the individual. In our time, when we think of winning, we inevitable think of getting the most for ourselves. This even bleeds in the spiritual life of many. In some expressions of Christianity the focus is almost exclusively on the life of the individual soul, with personal salvation as the object of faith. The other danger is a focus on perfection, and the quest for a personal piety that does not fit with the understanding that we continually fall short of God's desire for us yet remain a forgiven people.

When Gregory of Nyssa (writing in the fourth century) considered Paul's idea of the race, he summarized it this way: "we consider becoming God's friend the only thing worthy of honour and desire." The goal of the race, achieving the name "friend of God," takes practice and determination and a willingness to embark on a lifelong journey. We race beside others and we all have the same goal: but unlike the Olympics, we can all win the prize. Everyone who completes a marathon gets a medal. At first I thought this was a little trite, but when I actually stumbled over the line I realized that I had won my race, and the medal seemed like a nice reminder of that fact.

Every Olympian is part of a team. And at the Olympics, unlike many other sporting events, the desire to support the overall performance of the team is never far from the athlete's minds. Christianity, like the Olympics, is both about the individual and the team. We run our race and we do our very best for the sake of our selves and for others. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are building something together. We must never lose sight of the fact that this is a common endeavor undertaken by faithful individuals. The tension is built in, but also the truth that personal achievement means more when it supports our common life and that a friendship with God is both individual and collective.

May you run with renewed strength the race before you, and may you remember that we never run alone. Amen.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1
29As soon as Jesus left the meeting place with James and John, they went home with Simon and Andrew. 30When they got there, Jesus was told that Simon's mother-in-law was sick in bed with fever. 31Jesus went to her. He took hold of her hand and helped her up. The fever left her, and she served them a meal.
32That evening after sunset, all who were sick or had demons in them were brought to Jesus. 33In fact, the whole town gathered around the door of the house. 34Jesus healed all kinds of terrible diseases and forced out a lot of demons. But the demons knew who he was, and he did not let them speak.

What’s your cosmology? Do you have one? Students of English literature will recall reading Milton and encountering a multi-tiered cosmos that essentially begins on earth and heads in either direction. Head skyward and you will enter the realm of angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim and eventually you will reach God. Head south (down) and you will encounter demons, fallen angels and soon the devil himself. Dante assigned hell a series of rings, and by the time you reach the ninth ring, things get rather unpleasant. Better to mind your P’s and Q’s, as my mother would say, then to contemplate a journey below.

It’s a simple leap to recall the cosmology picked up in English Literature and read this backward into the Bible. This cosmology, which reached full flower in the middle ages, has become the caricature that springs most readily to mind when we try to imagine the structure of reality. Think of Looney Tunes and the angel-on-one-shoulder-and-devil-on-the-other-shoulder that acts as convenient shorthand for the forces that tug at us when faced with a difficult decision. Think of Halloween and the number of angels and devils that come to your door year-by-year and it becomes clear that this well-worn cosmology surrounds us.

30When they got there, Jesus was told that Simon's mother-in-law was sick in bed with fever. 31Jesus went to her. He took hold of her hand and helped her up. The fever left her, and she served them a meal.

To begin, I want you to ignore the fact that this poor nameless woman had to go—without pause—from sick person to hostess. Trained as I was to read the scripture with a feminist interpretive eye, this passage gets a failing grade in an almost absurd way.

Back to the healing, notice that the language is less “healing an illness” and more like ending demon possession. The illness “left her” in much the same way demons were cast out in the verses immediately before and after the healing of Peter’s moth-in-law. The fever cast out, she was able to resume her normal life. We have no way to know the precise way in which medical people would have regarded fever in this time and place, but for Mark’s purposes, demon possession was the appropriate and favoured way to imagine the departure of this fever.

Back to cosmology: The biblical scholar N.T. Wright corrects any multi-tiered cosmology we might want to read backwards in the New Testament period. A better way to imagine the cosmology of this period according to Wright would be to a people surrounded by the supernatural. There are no ups and downs in this worldview. His best example would be to describe the resurrection of Jesus not so much as ascension, but as Jesus stepping into a room next door. I’m certain that a hint of John 14 is intentional here: In my Father’s house there are many rooms. Would I have told you this unless I intend to take you to myself?

Suddenly ideas such as the communion of saints hold new power. Surrounded by the supernatural, people in this period had a far greater sense of connection to those that had gone before.


There are some cultures that have never sold on the multi-tiered cosmology of the middle ages. Celtic spirituality, rich with the supernatural, spoke (and speaks) of “thin places,” places where the membrane between this reality and the other reality becomes quite thin. In the places where the membrane is very thin you find pilgrimage places, such as Iona or Lindisfarne, and there the Spirit seems more present and the path to wonder is well trod.

In addition to “thin places,” Celtic spirituality allows for “thin people” (not skinny) who in their very being seem to bring us closer to the divine. Think of Henri Nouwen or Bishop Tutu or Maya Angelou and it’s easy to imagine this Celtic cosmology and the “thin people” that bring us closer to God.

Let’s add one more element to this thinness then: I would argue that the font and table are thin places, places and moments in time when the separation between our ordinary reality and the extraordinary reality of the Spirit come together.

Remembering your baptism, experiencing the joy of having a child or God-child baptized, joining in the ritual of renewing you baptismal vows–all of these seem to draw is closer to God. In the same way, coming forward, receiving the simple elements of bread and wine, recalling body broken and blood shed, being refreshed at this table with the presence of the Risen Christ–all of these moments are thin insofar as they draw us nearer to God and the joy of fellowship with all believers.

The sacraments of baptism and communion are thin places, places where the supernatural world that surrounds us bears more heavily on our consciousness and our sense of reality. And thinking of Peter’s mother-in-law, the gift of healing is a thin place, a mysterious place where God touches us with a great gift.


There was a good chance I wasn’t going to make it back this morning. I spent the week in Florida with four theologians getting a recharge and the return flight was delayed. Luckily I anticipated this and had Brian on standby to preach in case I couldn’t get back. But here I am–a bit weary–but here, nonetheless. One of the things I didn’t make provision for was communion. According to the rules of the United Church (a denomination with few rules) I am the only one in this community of faith that can consecrate the elements of communion or baptize. I’ll try to explain why and then I’ll tell you why this is wrong.

The standard argument is that “ordered clergy” (me) have the training and the appropriate license (by virtue of my ordination) to administer the sacraments. I am called to a ministry of Word, Sacrament and Pastoral Care and placed here in your midst to undertake this ministry under the oversight of Presbytery. After that, the argument wears thin (not the Celtic thin or the skinny thing, but the vague thin). More likely it is a holdover from Roman Catholic and Anglican days when the minister was still the bridge to God in whatever theological rational the tradition could construct.

Let’s go back, instead, to the thin places. If the table and font are thin places, places where the Spirit moves with greater intensity, or the Spirit would surrounds us more completely, then why limit the role of celebrant to just one person? If the congregation is the body of Christ and the table is the table of our Lord, then surely it doesn’t take me to bless these elements and commend them to you.

You are the ministers (according to Martin Luther, the architect of the Protestant Reformation) and therefore anyone the congregation chooses should be able to stand behind this table. Maybe I’m a dangerous radical, or maybe I’m just tired, but it seems to me that if font, table, bread and wine truly belong to the people of God, than anyone this congregation calls leader should find a place behind this table.

I think the roots of this dangerous thinking go back to Queen’s and my days at the theological college when the then Principal made an unlikely ruling. The Principal, Dr. Clifford Hospital, decided that students should be able to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and have the experience as part of their training. Not wanting to break the rules too thoroughly, he decreed that he could personally preside over the communion service from anywhere in the room, even sitting at his usual place at the organ (he has many talents). Thus a new tradition was born and the students gained valuable new experience.

I think it follows then that surrounded as we are by the whole of the supernatural realm, with the Risen Christ himself as close as this room or the next, then the celebrant who truly presides over this ritual is clear. The one who says “this is my body broken for you and this is my blood shed for you” is fully present whoever speaks his words.

May this be a thin place for you. May you sense the presence of Christ as we celebrate together. Amen.