St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

Phone: 604-877-1788


The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

Home Who We Are UAM What Is On Sermons Contact Us
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

Home Who We Are UAM What Is On Sermons Contact Us


August 11th Pentecost 9, 2019                      John Marsh

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Long ago there was a sage who was deeply respected by the people. But he was also feared, for he was known to have a short temper, wild penetrating eyes, and strange, almost supernatural powers. While he generally kept away from the city, he would sometimes be seen walking through the markets in the middle of the day with a lit torch held high in one hand, a bowl overflowing with water in the other hand, and a huge sword strapped to his side.

The citizens knew to keep out of his way and never once asked why he carried these objects everywhere he went. But one day a small group of travellers saw the sage and, not knowing who he was, mocked him.

“Old man,” said one, “why do you stumble around in the middle of the day with a torch, a bowl of water, and sword strapped to your side?”

“Maybe he’s blind,” laughed his friend.

“Or maybe he’s afraid that thieves will steal his precious water,” shouted another.

The sage stopped for a moment and listened to them as they laughed, then in an instant he threw the torch in their midst and said,” With these flames I consume heaven!” Then he spilled the water onto the parched earth and cried, “With this water I extinguish hell!” Finally, he unsheathed his sword and approached the travellers, who were now silent. “And with this sword,” whispered the sage with sacred conviction, “I lay waste to God.”¹


Truth to tell, one occasionally comes across a text expressing a voice, admittedly a minor yet persistent voice, a voice which explodes…

As with all explosions, the results are unpredictable, potentially devastating…

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation-- I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.                                                                              (Isaiah 1:11-15)

“But what of religion, my, our religion,” we ask. “What of our rites, rituals, priesthoods and structures?”²

The text provides an answer, although perhaps an answer unsettling, disturbing in its call…

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.                                                                                                                                                              (Isaiah 1:16-17)

One of the devastations of this textual explosion, if you think about it – I pray you do -  is the end of the god of religion, the god of sacrifices, rites, rituals and structures, that god invested in being placated, committed to economies of salvation, offering forgiveness for a price, dangling promises of eternity…

Perhaps more disturbing yet, this religious god is ended by god, god beyond, beneath religion’s god, this god beyond religion, emptied wholly into the world, astir within justice, calling for acts of compassion, hospitality, acts of faith, hope and love…

Is it possible – it is – that this Isaiah passage gives voice to the deep desire of Meister Eckhart’s prayer, ‘I pray to god to rid me of god’?³

Is it possible – it is – that we have been mistaken about that which we name as god, about that which is astir within religion, at least a religion worth its salt?

Is it possible - it is - that we have confused prayers for love and justice with acts of love and justice?

Is it possible – it is - that we have confused life’s haunting calls projecting them into a limitless afterlife, deflecting our limitations into fantasies of eternal life, thereby abandoning the world to its own devices?

If so, what are we to do?

Is it possible – I’m just asking but I think it is - that that which may be so devastating and disturbing to our religious and spiritual mindsets is, in fact, our salvation, a gift, a necessary, though perhaps difficult transition, a transition requiring work?

If so, where do we begin?

That questions of religion, of god, arise should not surprise us for it could be said that some of the most pressing questions since at least the mid nineteenth century is what do we make of god and what is the nature, hence the future of religion?  

Usually, answers have abounded within a conventional continuum ranging from dismissal and condemnation to fundamentalist fideism…

Perhaps, rejecting convention, we can begin by ignoring what I term atheistic and theistic fideism, continuing with a more worldly way, ignoring the binary battles of belief.⁴

Perhaps, within the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to name but one, one who struggled to live the way of the Christ, we can discern starting points…

In Letters and Papers from Prison, a compilation of his personal correspondence, Bonhoeffer makes the point that the question for us today is whether religion is necessary to fully participate in the life testified to by Christ.⁵

Or, as he said in Witness to Jesus Christ:

The Pauline question whether circumcision is a condition of justification seems to me in present day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation.

In other words, is there such a thing as a religionless Christianity in which god - if there is a god⁷ – is not answerable to us, is not a Deus ex Machina,⁸ but one beyond, one who despises the pretence of our sacrifices (see the Isaiah text), one whose ways are not our ways…

Is it possible – remember I’m just asking – that that which matters is a faith, hope and love astir within the world, concerned with the world for the world’s sake?

Is it possible that the questions I raise are stirring within the faith and hope written of in the passage from


faith is the assurance of things hoped for….                                                                                              Hebrews 11:1a               

Is it possible that this faith and hope is that which disturbs religious certainty, storming the beachhead of omnipotence, omnipotence more medieval than biblical?

Such faith is not a calcified creedal faith but one deeper, beyond/before creed, a faith in life, the awakening of a hope hoping against hope, of a love which loves despite, or perhaps, because of reality; such hope is not an institutional hope, as this passage predates both creed and institution, expressive as it is of an experience, the experience of Yeshua, albeit a mediated experience, where faith and hope is expressive of the faith and hope of Yeshua, one deeply concerned with the world, with god, in my language, with god emptied into the world…

This is a quantum shift in awareness, a turning toward what I and others call a religion beyond religion, that life which embraces not ideas about god or the world but practices, not beliefs but faith: that particular way of seeing, understanding and feeling in which we experience the world as worthy of living for, fighting for and dying for...⁹

The name we give this way of life is love, ‘loving god’ or participating in the reign of god, that immanent transcendence astir within the very fabric of the world...

Paraphrasing the Christ: love god, love your neighbour as yourself, love your enemies on these commandments hang all the law and the prophets…

Which is to say that god is present where and when we love, that religion, religion worth its salt, is astir where and when love and hope abound…

Is it happenstance – I think not – that I John, written 80 to 90 years after Yeshua’s death still expresses the dusty memory of the Christ:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him…Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.                                    I John 4:7-9, 11-12

So, is it possible – I’m just asking – that the god that we hear, that we respond to, the one who is calling us is wholly emptied into the world, known in acts of love, acts of justice, acts of compassion and hospitality, that the religion that calls, that lures us is a religion of lovers, those who ask “What do I love when I love god?”

Is it possible that whatever I love when I love god is that which calls to me from the world, the voice of neighbour, stranger, the voice of those other?

Is it possible that whatever is going on in and under the name of religion, with or without religion, is that which we name as love and justice, compassion and hospitality, those acts which seek to be embodied within the world, these treasured worldly values honouring the name of god…

¹ Adapted from an Islamic parable and found in Insurrection by Peyer Rollins (Howard Books, 2011) 19-20.

 ² Let’s not hear the insipid comment that this is a rejection of Jewish religious practice. It is Jewish only in so far that the letter of text is contextually Jewish in origin. Its spirit is devastating to usual religious practice in all times and places.

 ³ Writing god with a lower case is not meant as disrespect, to dismiss whatever is going under the name but as deeply respectful, acknowledging an unknowing, that whatever is astir within the name is beyond us. This is profoundly Jewish, giving voice as well to a protestant principal. God written with an upper case is a warning, a cautionary sign, that such is a construct, a God known and controlled by us.

 ⁴Atheism, especially the new atheists (e.g. Richard Dawkins) and theism are but arguing different sides of the same coin of belief. If you reject the coin of belief, the discussion is shaken but not destroyed as we are left with those loving, hospitable actions done by religious or, dare I say it, non-religious persons. Of course, not every action is laudable, after all, we do need something to talk about in the pub!

 ⁵ See Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Touchstone, 1971) 280-82.                                                                                                             

 ⁶ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Witness to Jesus Christ, ed. John De Gruchy (San Francisco: Collins, 1987) 278.

⁷  All that I am saying is that the question of god is not answered by debates about existence. See John D. Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Indiana Press, 2013).

⁸  Deus ex machina, (Latin: “god from the machine”) a person or thing that appears or is introduced into a situation suddenly and unexpectedly providing an artificial or contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.

⁹ This is also how I would describe being religious, not religious in the sense of religious people, those who go to church on Sunday morning but as the religious in all of us, as a basic structure of human experience on par with being political, creative, or artistic.