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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Always get out of the boat

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 4:12-23.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

One of my favourite movies is Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.  Loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, it tells the story of an American army captain named during the Vietnam War named Willard, played my Martin Sheen.  Willard is called upon to journey by boat up a river to eliminate Kurtz, a colonel who has apparently gone insane.

Without giving you a whole synopsis, the further Willard travels geographically, the further he descends into the darkness of the human heart and soul.

There is a scene in this movie where Willard and another of his boat-mates (Chef) pull the boat ashore to forage for mangoes and are attacked by a tiger.  Narrowly escaping, they make it back to the boat and as they set out again, Chef breaks down and starts screaming, "Never get out of the ****ing boat!"

In a voice-over, Willard says, "Never get out of the boat.  Absolutely ***damn right.  Unless you were willing to go all the way".

Today I would like to challenge you to get out of the boat.

The boat, of course, represents safety, security, the things we know, the things we can count on, rely on and control.  It marks the boundary of a comparatively small space where we are master and commander.

The water (or the shore) is an undiscovered country, the unknown, the places we have never been before and the things we have never done before, both literally and metaphorically.

I have a phobia of deep water.  I am a great swimmer and I am fine in a boat, but if I can't see the bottom, forget about it.  I am not getting out of the boat.  My mother tells me she watched Jaws while she was pregnant with me, maybe that's why, I don't know.  But I have friend who jump off the boat in the middle of the lake to go swimming and even though I know there is nothing bigger than a carp down there, I'm like "Are you insane!?  You have no idea what's down there!"

And that's the thing about the water.  It doesn't just contain the unknown, it is the unknown.  And yet that is often where we are called to be, where we need to be.

There is a fair amount of boat-leaving in today's Gospel.  Andrew and John literally leave their boat to follow Jesus, chucking in solid careers as fishermen.  Sure, they were never going to get famous or rich fishing, but it was an honourable profession.

But what often goes unnoticed is that Jesus steps out of a metaphorical boat.  We are told that he moved from Nazareth to Galilee, a distance of 40 kilometers.  Now that might not seem huge by today's standards, but bear in mind this would have to walked.  That would take about 7 hours at a good clip.  This was also before the dawn of our modern communication devices and even of a reliable postal service, so he would be out of contact with friends, family and loved ones.

Jesus, John and Andrew totally tossed their lives up in the air and said, "Ok God, take care of us".  How many of us would do the same?  I for one don't much like change.  I don't even like sleeping away from my house.  These were big changes, big risks, big adventures.

The problem is that we don't often grow by remaining the same.  In order to grow, we must always be learning, moving, trying new things, gathering new experiences.  We must constantly be getting out of boats.

If you want a comfortable religion, don't choose Christianity.  Contrary to what many seem to believe, the purpose of Christ was to make us comfortable, but to make us deeply uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable with our own faults, hypocrisy and mediocrity.  Uncomfortable with the abuses of elected and religious officials.  Uncomfortable with greed and consumerism.  Uncomfortable with injustice.

I say this because I suspect with recent political developments to the south, there is about the be a lot more injustice in the world, and I am aware that I am a white, heterosexual male.  To quote Louis CK, you can't even hurt my feelings.  I have never wanted for justice or opportunity, I have always been at the top of the pile.

In other words, I have always been in the boat.  Not everybody has that luxury, and Christ calls us to do something about that.  Christ calls us to rock the boat, because as the saying goes, real boats rock.  That's what they do.

The world needs people who have the courage to take those risks, rock those boats.  Whether it is something personal like you are thinking of starting a new job, moving to a new country, asking that person out on a date, or whether it is something wider like fighting for the rights of women or trying to assist refugees, the world needs people who are willing to get out of the boat and brave that unknown.

Today, rock the boat.  Get out of the boat and into the great unknown where life abundant lies waiting for you.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Reclaiming the middleman

My sermon this week was based on John 1:29-42.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

The middleman in our society gets a bad rap.  Any business model will attempt to "cut out the middleman" as he is largely superfluous to the process, ends up driving up costs and complicating the system, but I would like to argue that in many cases, the middleman is actually an honourable and humble thing to be.

Today's Gospel is deceptively busy, and tells us the story of a couple of people who were quite happy to be middlemen.  They did not want the spotlight, they were able to recognize that they were not the main event, and they went about the very important task of bringing people to the main event, as it were.

I am speaking of course of John the Baptist and Andrew.

John the Baptist had gathered a fairly large crowd of people, and we are even told that he had disciples of his own.  One might suspect that John would give in to the very human tendency to revel in the attention he was getting, but he was always adamant that he was not the Messiah.  When he met Jesus and recognized him as the Messiah, he directed the people and his disciples (of whom Andrew was one) towards Jesus and encouraged them to follow him.

Later in the Gospel, we are told that Andrew was content to bring his brother Simon to Jesus.  Jesus renames him Peter, and most of us can name a few things Peter did to secure his place in history: he failed to walk on water, he lopped off the slave's ear, he denied Jesus three times, and he later became the first Bishop of the Christian Church.

Andrew, on the other hand, is somewhat more obsequious, and consequently history remembers very little about him.  What history does remember is that he brought his brother to Christ, and set something of a precedent in so doing.

I think we would all like to be lights to other people, but within a religious framework at least, we must remember that we are not lights in and of ourselves.  Like John, what light we have within us merely points to something greater: it points to God.  We must always remember that in order to remain humble and to not take on responsibilities that we realistically have no right or business taking on.

There is another aspect of this Gospel passage that hearkens to the role of middleman, and it is somewhat darker.  It has to do with the phrase, "Lamb of God", which John utters several times in the Gospel.  I used to think that this phrase meant that Jesus was like a lamb: gentle, meek and mild.

However, it must be remembered that within the system of animal sacrifice which ancient Judaism practiced, the lamb was the preferred sacrificial animal, and so another way of rendering this phrase would be to call Jesus the "sacrifice of God".

Now, soteriology (salvation theology) is not my strong suit, but as an anthropologist I know that sacrifices were seen as mediating the relationship between man and God.  Sacrifices were seen not only as a way of appeasing God, but of expressing gratitude to God for health, wealth, prosperity and so on.

In reality, when we put money in the collection plate, we are doing exactly the same thing, except with little or no bloodshed.  Money has become our modern sacrifice.

So what would that mean for Jesus?  Why call him the Lamb of God?  Perhaps it was to foreshadow his own death, in which he became a sacrifice to mediate all of humanity back to God.  Perhaps the phrase means that Jesus was God's sacrifice to us and to the world.  Perhaps the phrase refers to the sacrifice that Jesus made of his own welfare, desires, dreams, goals and ultimately of his very life in the service of God.

As I said, I leave soteriology to wiser people.

But there is a compelling question that Jesus asks in today's Gospel.  It is the first phrase he utters in this Gospel, and it is perhaps one of the most poignant questions anybody has every asked.  When Andrew and another of John's disciples start following Jesus down the road, he becomes aware of them, turns to them and asks, "What are you looking for"?

What other question is there, really?  I feel pretty confident saying that every human being has or will at some point ask, "What am I looking for?"  What is going to give us meaning and fulfill us?  What is going to fill the vacancy that just about every human being has felt?

Perhaps what we are looking for is be the middleman like Andrew was, to be that person that points other people towards the light, towards what they are looking for, towards wellness and wholeness.  Perhaps it is not always about accolades and being in the spotlight.  Sometimes it is about being behind the scenes, playing a support role.  These roles come perhaps with fewer accolades, but they are no less critical.

Today I invite you to reflect on the humility and glory of the middleman.

Am I an adult yet?

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 3:13-17.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

As far as I know, I am an adult, but the funny thing is I don't when that happened.

I have Jewish friends who had Bar and Bat Mitzvah's where they were told explicitly that they were no longer children.  They had become adults, were responsible for their own actions, and they were to leave childish things behind.  This is concerted, purposeful ritual that draws a clear line between childhood and adulthood.  It propels the child from one psychological or spiritual state into another.

I never had that, and I suspect that many people reading this might not have had that either.  Although I suspect I am an adult, no one has ever told me so, and I have had no ritual or rite of passage to propel me from one stage of life to the next.

When did I become an adult?  Was it when I was Confirmed?  When I graduated high school or got a degree?  Was it when I lost my virginity, got my driver's license, got my first car, my first job, my first apartment?  Was it when I got married?  Bought a house?  My wife and I are expecting our first child in a matter of weeks, will I be an adult then?

Many people bemoan the immaturity of my generation, and although I am not trying to blame society, perhaps it is because of this lack of ritual in my culture.  Never underestimate the power of ritual, is what I am trying to say.  Ritual can fulfill us, prepare us, empower us, ground us, root us.

Jesus takes part in a ritual in today's Gospel passage, a ritual he had no need or no business taking part in, but that I think he saw the need to take part in: he was baptized.

Christianity did not invent baptism, of course.  We adopted it from our Jewish ancestors.  If you were born Jewish, no rite of initiation was necessary, you were part of the People, but if you converted to Judaism from another faith, baptism was necessary to cleanse you literally and figuratively from the impurity of your past lifestyle, and to welcome you into the People.

We know Jesus was Jewish: he was born of Jewish parents, he was circumcised, he followed the Law.  The question then is why would Jesus present himself for baptism?

I think it is because Jesus understood and valued ritual.

Ritual marks the end of one stage of our lives and the beginning of the next.  It draws a line between who we were and who we are becoming.  It is a sending off, in a way.  I think Jesus felt a deep need to be baptized.  We know that both he and John preached a baptism of repentance, warning people not rely on their lineage or their religion to save them.

In my interpretation of Scripture, Jesus and John were both advocating that you had to be a good person, that fulfilling all the Laws and remaining ritually pure was simply not enough if you had no love for God or for your neighbour.  I think Jesus saw this ritual of baptism which he submitted to as an act of humility, a pledge between him and God that he was going to embark upon and follow the path that had been set before him.  I think he saw it as a necessary step, a preparation and starting point for the great journey was about to undertake.

We all have our rituals, whether they are religious or whether you just have a "morning ritual".  They help get our day or week started, they are things we turn to for nourishment and directions.  They are touchstones, they are a footpath, but the downside is that they can also be hollow cyphers, devoid of meaning perhaps because we don't put the proper emphasis on them (like baptism and confirmation) or because we do them so regularly (like communion).

I invite you to reflect on the rituals in your own life, whether they be religious or not.  Why do you do the things you do?  What do they mean to you?  What do you get out of them?  How do they prepare you?  How do they propel you from one state to the next?

Far from being stifling and empty, ritual can be rich and dynamic.  I invite you to reflect as Jesus did on the value of ritual, and let ritual nourish your life.

The things we fear the most

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 2:13-23.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

I want to ask you to do something this new year that will sound counterintuitive.  I want to ask you to do something that scares you.

Before I go on, I want to explain that here is such a thing as good fear.  I love horror movies and roller coasters, for example.  I actively seek those fears out and I enjoy them.  There are fears that are instinctive and are there to keep us alive, such as the fear of getting hit by a car that reminds us to look both ways before crossing the street.  I would argue that from a survival standpoint, those fears are also good.  But I also suffer from anxiety and depression, and those are decidedly fears I would rather do without.

Most of us would do just about anything to avoid most situations that scare us, but I would argue that it is those very situations into which God is constantly calling us, and from which we can expect to grow the most.  I cannot think of any new lesson or any new growth I have made in this life by remaining in my comfort zones, and I suspect neither have you.

Joseph did something that must have scared him a great deal in today's Gospel passage, something that likely goes unseen by our modern eyes.  He discovers that Herod is killing all the first-born males under the age of two in an effort to eliminate this "King of Kings" that has been prophesied.  So he takes his wife and newborn son and flees to Egypt.

This should sound somewhat familiar as a very similar situation transpired in the opposite direction some 1500 years earlier when Moses led the enslaved Jewish people out of Egypt after the slaying of the first-born.

Imagine, if you will, being forced or compelled to return to a land that had historically enslaved, exploited and abused your people?  I have no idea what relations were like between Egypt and Judaism at the time of Christ's birth, but even if they were harmonious, it would have to take a fair amount of courage just to uproot yourself and your family and flee to a whole different country.  Most of us get stressed just moving house!

But God is always calling us towards something new, into new and sometimes frightening territory.  I would argue that this is positive sign.  When you are afraid, you know you are being challenged, you know you are going to grow.

Think of anything you have done that caused you fear: asked out that boy or girl out who later became your husband or wife; moved to that new house that then became your home; started that new job that then became your career.

Fear tells us we have something to overcome, and most of the time, there is a payoff to pushing through it.  Fear tells us that we are about to embark on the unknown, and our lives are quite likely going to change as a result.

Generally speaking, we can respond to our fears in one of two ways, exemplified by Joseph's reaction in today's Gospel passage, and by Herod's reaction.

Joseph is no doubt fearful of giving up everything he knows and moving to another country to escape persecution, and so he and his family become refugees.  But through it all, he trusts that as God has directed him to this place, he and his family will be safe.

Conversely, Herod responds to the birth of Christ, the birth of the King of Kings, by going mustang.  He locks down the whole country and commands every first-born male to be killed.  He did so because he was afraid of losing his power and position.

But the kingdom of God is not based on power and position.  Herod was afraid of losing it all and so he reacted with violence, but Joseph was ready to lose it all, and that's how the Kingdom works.

This year, if you are in the habit of making resolutions, I would invite you to resolve to do something that scares you: ask that person out, apply for that job you've always wanted, go back to school, try to cook a souffle, whatever.  Do something that intimidates you.  Try something you have never tried before.  Go out on a limb.

God is always calling us to abundant life, and that life is out there, beyond the boundaries we set for ourselves.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Joseph: the bass player of the Nativity Story

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 1:18-25.

If you have ever been in a band, you will understand why I say Joseph is the bass player of the Nativity Story.  Although nobody pays attention to them, bass players provide a solid backbone to any tune, and although you would notice something was off if they weren't there, most people would be hard pressed to point out their contribution.

And then there is Joseph.  According to the story, he is not really Jesus' father, and although he does have a feast day and hymns dedicated to him, I actually had to look that information up, as, I suspect, most Christians would.  He doesn't have a very active role in the Nativity, he is just sort of there.

In reality, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, when we contemplate the theme of love, we discover that Joseph actually does some pretty monumental things that often get glossed over.

When Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant and that he is not the father, he decides to send her away quietly and "divorce her" (although they were only engaged, engagement in that time and place was as binding as a marriage).  This does not immediately sound very loving until we consider the punishment for women who committed adultery: death by stoning.

Whatever you may personally believe about the Immaculate Conception (some believe Joseph must have been Jesus' father, some believe it was another unnamed man), the point is that from an outside perspective, Mary was pregnant out of wedlock and as such would be seen as having committed adultery, end of story.  Joseph would have been entirely in his right (in that time and place) to turn Mary over to the authorities to have her put to death.

But here is the thing: he didn't.  The passage says he was "a righteous man", a man who clearly loved Mary enough to not seek vengeance against her, who wanted to save her life be sending her quietly away so she could start over in another city or country.

Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him to go ahead and marry Mary, and Joseph assents, nd here is where Joseph shows the plucky backbone of the bass player: by actually going through with the marriage, Joseph was opening himself up to all sorts of shame, mockery and ridicule.  No matter what the true story was, most people would likely not have swallowed the angel story.  Most people would likely have assumed that either Mary had an affair or simply that Joseph and Mary couldn't wait.  At best, Joseph would be a cuckold.  At worst, he would also be an adulterer.  Either way, from an outside perspective, he had joined himself to a "shameful woman", and he would be an object of shame by association.

But Joseph chose to live with that shame and ignominy.  That takes some courage and some humility.  Most of all, it takes love.

Love is a word we toss around, and we have been mulling it over as a species for thousands of years.  I am no great philosopher, so I am not able to add any great revelation to the concept, but I do know that all love has its challenges: it sometimes takes effort to love our spouses, our children, our parents.  This becomes a little more obvious over holidays live Christmas where families get together and are often reminded why we moved out in the first place.  Love is not effortless much of the time.  It takes work, it takes sacrifice.

These are things Joseph was able to do, and although he is often an afterthought, I think there is much to admire in him.  May we take all that is admirable in him and in all the characters of the Nativity Story and practice that this Christmas.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A sure and certain hope

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 24:36-44.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

Happy New Year!  Liturgically speaking, of course.  We have now entered into the Advent season, and as such we move into a new liturgical year and start the great story of Judeo-Christianity all over again.

Each Sunday of Advent explores a different theme, and the theme for the First Sunday of Advent is Hope.  I would like to explore this theme a little.  Hope comes from Old English roots that mean "trust", so when we talk about a hope for the future, our hope in God, we are not talking about a wish: we wish the future would be like this or that, we wish God would do this for us.  We are talking about trust in the future will be good, trust that God is working in us and the world.

The passage that we have been given to explore hope is a little odd, and certainly difficult for most modern Christians because it is apocalyptic.  It deals quite clearly with the Second Coming of Christ, something in which the people to whom the author of Matthew was writing most certainly believed in, but something in which most modern Christians do not.  If they do, it is certainly not thought to be as immediate or imminent as in Matthew's time.

The Gospel of Matthew was written around 80-90 AD, ten or twenty years after the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans.  The destruction of the Temple was synonymous with the end of the world, such that "When the Temple falls" was used much in the same way you or I might say "When Hell freezes over".  The fall of the Temple was seen as impossible, but if it happened, it signaled the end of everything.

So these proto-Christians (at the time of Matthew's writing, the differentiation between Judaism and Christianity was by no means clear) were traumatized by the fall of the Temple.  They needed hope.

They also needed hope because not only were they being persecuted by the Romans who could not distinguish between them and Jews, but they were also being persecuted by their fellow Jews who felt that their movement was heretical.

They were alone and hopeless.  It was into this situation that Matthew wrote his Gospel.  It is a Gospel that foretells Christ coming back, and soon, to make things right: to overthrow the powers of oppression, to unify Judaism, to rebuild the Temple and the nation.

But there was a problem: he didn't come back.  He's still not back.  Despite the immediacy of Matthew's advice ("Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming"), life had to continue as normal, people had to get back to the real world, and people had to find a new way to frame the Second Coming.

What does this mean for us as modern-day Christians?  I for one certainly don't live with the expectation that Jesus will come back tomorrow.

But what if I did?  What if we all did?

There is a phenomenon in psychology referred to as reactivity.  Broadly, this describes the fact that most people tend to act differently when they think they are being observed.  So while people can commit unspeakable acts when they think no one is watching, we also tend to act a little better when we think someone is keeping an eye on us.

Around Christmas, the lyrics to Santa Claus is Coming to Town go "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows when you've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake".  Perhaps this was a way to keep children behaving around Christmas!

Let's be honest: if we knew Jesus was keeping track, if we knew Jesus would be back tomorrow or later on this afternoon, wouldn't we all act a little differently?  Wouldn't we all make an extra effort to be kind, loving, considerate and generous?  Wouldn't we all make an effort to mend fences with family and friends so we wouldn't have to report to Jesus that we can't get along with so-and-so?

So the question then becomes: why don't we act that way all the time?

Maybe Jesus will come back, literally, bodily, in person and in the flesh.  Maybe he won't.  But I don't believe that really matters.  Jesus said repeatedly, in one way or another, "The Kingdom of God is within you".

I have hope for this Kingdom, meaning I trust in this Kingdom.  I hope and trust that the kingdom of God, which the returned Christ would ostensibly bring about, is actually possible without him bodily returning, because the Kingdom is that state which could exist on earth if only a critical mass of people would stop being such jerks to each other.

The kingdom of God is marked by all the things Jesus was: kind, loving, caring, compassionate, merciful, forgiving.  If we could all be like that, the Kingdom would literally be here.

Over the course of this Advent season, as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ as we relate the Nativity story, let us all redouble our efforts, to do our part to hope and trust in that Kingdom in which all are loved, all are accepted, and all are welcome.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Business as usual: yet another Christian response to Donald Trump

My sermon this week was based on world events.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

So, Donald Trump, huh?

Since the election, a few parishioners, friends and colleagues have asked "What do we as Christians do now?"

My answer is, "Business as usual".

Let me explain.

If you have met me or read any of my other blogs, you can probably figure out what my political leanings are.  But I have a problem: I firmly believe in the separation of church and state, which is essentially the separation of religion and politics, but it is difficult, nay, impossible for me to divide my politics and my religion into two neat little piles.

For better or worse, my religion and my politics feed into and inform one another, and how and why that works is something I hope to make clear over the course of this missive.

Funnily enough, religion and politics are both things that were meant to unify.  A religion or a political philosophy are what Yuval Noah Harari calls "collective fictions" (read his book Sapiens, it will blow your mind).  That does not imply that they are not true, but that they are collective narratives that we tell one another and gravitate towards in order to unify and work together with a common set of terms and assumptions.  They are vital to human society.

But (and here's the funny part), they just as often divide.  Take the recent American election, and even our own Canadian Federal election not that long ago.  People were divided.  You had families and friends not talking, people unfriending each other on Facebook hand over fist, arguments, debates, strained tempers.  I had no idea until this American election just how divided people were along political lines.

In Canada, we can be Liberal or Conservative (our equivalent of Democrat and Republican, roughly speaking) and generally still get along, but in the States, "Democrat" and "Republican", "left" and "right" can be and are hurled as insults, which is something that baffles the Canadian mind.

Either way, Canada and the rest of the world watched the American election like it was a spectator sport.  For all its intellect, wit and sophistication, I felt like I was watching a monster truck show or that American football league where women play in their underwear.

Don't get me wrong, there are some things worth getting upset about, and perhaps Donald Trump is one of them.  I don't know yet.  I know he said some things that ought to offend just about everyone, but I don't wish him ill.  I wish him well, because he has just moved in next door to us, and the fates of Canada and the United States are so intimately related that it is simply in my best interest that he does well.  Nuclear fallout tends to drift, and hostile ideologies tend to permeate borders.  For the sake of America and the world, I really hope he proves to be a wise and humble leader.

I'll be honest.  I doubt he will, though.

Like many people, I am worried.  I am worried that this man who demonstrated so many character flaws is now at the helm of what is still a reasonably powerful country, that a man who cannot seem to control his tongue, his temper, his sexual impulses is now in charge of an advanced military that has a huge nuclear arsenal at its disposal.

Yes, I know, checks and balances, blah blah, but it is still the principle of the thing.  He's at the big table now, and I suspect totally out of his depth, and not emotionally equipped to deal with it.

So what do we do?  What should be our response as Christians?

Business as usual.

I don't want to sound like a downer here, but fact is the world is always falling apart.

In any given second of any given day, somewhere in the world, something is falling apart.  Whether it be a culture, a city, a country, a civilization, a group of people or just one individual person, things are always falling apart, and they always will.  There will always be someone objectionable in power  doing objectionable things somewhere.

But fortunately, there are also always people who are willing to stand up to the forces of evil and put the world back together again.  That's what Christ calls Christians to do.  That is what we are.

So someone you object to is now Prime Minister?  Someone you object to is now President?

Nothing has changed, it has just hit closer to home.  Our marching orders are as clear as they have always been, and I can say it no more clearly than St. Francis did:

Make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

If Christianity has any business on this earth, this is it.  So like I said, business as usual.

My faith informs my politics.  When I see any politician or religious figure sowing anything from the first column of that prayer, I have to reject it, cry foul and resist.  I am compelled to try to bring things from the second column into the situation and the world.  I firmly believe this is what Christ calls us to do, regardless of who our leaders are, and indeed sometimes in spite of them.

I sincerely hope Donald Trump is a better man than he appears to be.  All I know is sometimes we are called to be better than our leaders.  Let's always strive to be that.