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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.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The slow burn of faith

My sermon this week was based on Luke 18:1-8.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

In my sermon last week, I proposed that we should consider gratitude as a spiritual discipline.  Most of us consider prayer, volunteering, giving to charity or church attendance a spiritual discipline.  These are all, it could be argued, external expressions that have very little to do with what is going on inside us.

One could, for example, assume the position of prayer, but be thinking about other things entirely.  One could volunteer or give to charity grudgingly, and we could attend church resentfully.

Being grateful, though...that's hard to get wrong and it's hard to fake.

This week I would like to suggest that perseverance is also a spiritual virtue that we should practice.

So here's the thing: being perseverant is easy when everything is going your way.  It's a lot harder when things go wrong.  Many of us can probably relate to the frustration of trying to learn a new skill, solve a problem, overcome hardship in our relationships or careers, or in just trying to get closer to God an figure out what he is all about.

Jesus tells a story in this week's Gospel passage about perseverance, and I think it is a message we can all learn from: the story of the Unjust Judge.

Personally, I don't think this is a good name for the Gospel passage because the story is not about the judge, but about the widow.  It is pretty obvious the judge in the story is supposed to be God and we are supposed to be the widow, and it must be said that the story does not paint a very appealing picture of God.  It rather makes God sound like a being who only gives us good things simply because we annoy him with our prayers.  I can only speak for myself, but I just don't think that is what God is like and how he works.

But the widow, whose cause is never explained, is said to have presented herself to the judge repeatedly, and eventually she gets what she was asking for.

The thing about faith and spirituality is that it's a slow burn.  It's not a get-rich-quick scheme and it does not provide instant gratification.  That's one of the reasons why fewer and fewer people are into it these days.  It's hard.  It takes perseverance.

What we have to realize is that whatever our spiritual path, whether it is yoga, Christianity, transcendental meditation, etc, we are entering into a relationship.  We are entering into a relationship with the divine.  And like any relationship, like a marriage, like parenthood, like working with colleagues, like even owning a pet, it takes patience, it takes work, it takes persistence.

We need to learn to be persistent because the payoffs of pursuing any of those relationships is well worth it.

Today, I hope we can all have the persistence to be in relationship with the divine, and the patience to stay in that relationship when things don't go exactly as we hope.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Even the mustard seed needed help

My sermon this week was based on Luke 17:5-10.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

So this week I have to go ahead and disagree with Jesus.  I totally get the point he is trying to make in this Gospel passage, and there are times when it is absolutely true, but there are also times when it is not.

I want to first address the question "Can we increase someone else's faith?"  The Gospel begins with the brief Lukan version of the Parable of the Mustard Seed where the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, to which Jesus' response ("If you had faith the size of a mustard seed...").  This response implies to me that Jesus thinks his disciples have no faith at all.

How could Jesus possibly increase something that does not exist?  Zero times any other number is still zero.

Jesus then adds a parable that seems like a non sequitur (and it may well be as many commentators believe this whole chapter of Luke is a series of more or less random reminiscences about Jesus on the part of the author rather than a coherent narrative), the Parable of the Master and the Servant.

The short and dirty interpretation of this Parable is this: don't expect to be thanked simply for doing your job.

This Parable frames what it was like to be a servant.  Servants were expected to do their duties around the property, whether that was gardening, harvesting, tending sheep, etc.  In the evenings, it was their job to come in from the fields and cook supper for their master, THEN they could eat and enjoy some leisure time.

What master, Jesus asks, would ask their servants to sit down after a day in the fields and cook supper for them before he himself had eaten?  In other words, what master would thank his servants simply for doing what was expected of them?

None, that's who.

Jesus uses this Parable to make the point that his disciples and we as people of faith ought not expect thanks or rewards for doing what is expected of us.  And what is expected of us?  Simply to lead a good, moral and upright life.

We shouldn't expect thanks from the cops for following the speed limit or thanks from the government for paying our taxes, because that is what we are supposed to do.  We should not expect thanks from our employer for doing our job because that is our job.

But here is where I have to disagree with Jesus.  Yes, he's right, we should not expect thanks for simply doing our job, but with so much negativity in the world and with so little affirmation, with so many people lashing out at people under the guise of "constructive criticism" and with so few people letting others know that their efforts are appreciated, perhaps we ought to rethink this lesson.

Here is where the question that I opened with comes in: can we increase someone else's faith?  I would say no, BUT we can create an atmosphere where someone's faith can grow.

For example, many of us who are in paid or volunteer positions in the church only hear feedback when we screw up or make a mistake.  Very rarely do we hear random thanks or affirmations.  No, we don't do what we do to receive thanks, but it is nice to hear that every once in while.

Let me give you a fictional scenario stitched together from actual comments I have heard in churches:

It is your first time at a new church.  As you walk in the door, you overhear the greeters complaining that someone has worn jeans to church.  The greeter hands you a bulletin and says, "There's usually a lot of mistakes, but you should be able to follow along".  You take a pew and someone comes up and says, "That's actually Mr. and Mrs. X's seat, you should sit somewhere else, they go crazy if someone sits in the their seat".  This person goes on to explain, "If you sit at the back, you won't hear the sour notes the choir hits, but you won't be able to understand the priest because he has a terrible accent".

Does this sound like the sort of place you would want to plant the root of your faith?  Does that sound like a safe, positive, affirming environment in which to explore your faith?  Does this sound like a place that is living the love and joy of God?

Obviously not.  No faith could grow in such soil.

However, an environment that practices affirmation, positive feedback, that shows forth love, charity, forgiveness, peace and reconciliation is a place in which faith can actually be planted, be fed and watered, and that is the responsibility of the church.

Don't get me wrong, church is important and it deserves our best, even if we are just volunteers, however we should always remember that we are volunteers for the most part, and that what we do is an act of love and dedication to both our community and to God, and perhaps a little support would go further than criticism.

Today, I invite you to see the best that people have to offer, to see the effort that people are making and not the mistakes they make.  See Christ and them and let them see Christ in you.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The currency of the Kingdom

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 16:1-13.

So some people know that I restore antique cars as a hobby.  I recently put on up for sale on Kijiji, and almost immediately got a reply that set off some alarm bells for me.  It went something like this: "I love the car, and want to buy it.  I am out of town but I will send you the money via Paypal with a hold on it until my friend comes to pick it up, and then I will release the money".

Now I may be born again, but I was not born again yesterday.  Nobody, but I mean nobody buys any car without seeing it in person and kicking the tires.

I farmed this out to my FB community, and the scam was explained to me this way: they pick up the car and basically never release the money, so you are out a car and whatever money you thought you were getting.

At first I thought, "What a low-down dirty thing to pull", but my second thought was, "That's brilliant!"  I got to thinking about what kind of person would do something like that.  Poor moral choices aside, this person has to be pretty diligent (they must be scanning the internet waiting for suckers), has to be pretty good with people (we had a very nice conversation as they pumped me for more details and reeled me in), has to be a self-starter, have good computer skill, think on their feet, be inventive and knowledgeable about cars.

In short, this person has some pretty marketable skills!

I can't help but thinking what the ostensible scammer could accomplish in life if only they turned their energies towards good or at least legitimate things.  I think they could do really well for themselves and for others, if only they weren't a criminal, if only they turned those energies towards helping people rather than ripping them off.

The Gospel passage for today touches on a similar theme.  It's a tough one, no question, so if you are having trouble with it, don't feel bad, so do I.

A merchant finds out he has a dishonest manager who has been skimming off the top  for a while, so he says, "Call in all your bills because you are fired!"  Understandably, the manager is panicked: he is too old to do manual labour and too proud to beg, so he hatches a scheme.  He decides he will fudge the bills that are owed to his master to endear himself to them.  He takes a bill for 100 jars of olive oil and makes it 50.  He takes a bill for 100 bushels of wheat and makes it 80.  What he hopes is that when he is out on the street, the debtors will remember his generosity and take him in to their homes.

So basically, he screws the merchant twice: first he has been stealing from him, and then he cheats him out of what he is owed.  Whereas I think most of us would be reasonably angry all over again, astonishingly, the merchant commends the manager for his shrewdness.

This is a challenging passage, and like so many passages in the Bible, there are a number of possible interpretations.  What the passage is asking me to reflect on today is: what do I do with the resources at my disposal?  Am I using my gifts, talents and energies for the betterment of my family, church, community, workplace, etc, or am I using it for my own interests?

One could rightly argue that the manager is certainly acting in his own best interests, but the corollary is that the debtors get cut a pretty big break.  They are helped by his actions.

We all have gifts, talents and gifts, and we all have a choice as to whether we apply those things to good ends or evil ends.  Imagine, for example, what Europe and the rest of the world would be like today if Hitler had been a humanitarian.  Imagine what the Middle East would be like if al qaeda, isis, daesh or any of their many splinters were good people.  Imagine what Walmart could accomplish in their communities if they actually paid their employees a living wage (please note I am not placing these three examples on the same level of severity).

None of us are fascist dictators, religious zealots or owners of multi-billion dollar corporations, but we have our own power, perhaps more than we know or are willing to acknowledge.  We have the power to wield enormous influence in our homes, communities, churches and workplaces.  We have the power with our words and deeds to lift people up or grind them down, to support or undercut, to affirm or shame.

Sadly, some of the most energetic people I have met are habitually negative or critical.  They hurt people, put them down, undermine them, and just generally suck all the air out every room they are in.  I cannot help wonder what they could accomplish if  they would only turn those prodigious energies towards more constructive activities.

I hope that today, you and I can take stock of our talents, gifts and abilities, and that we can redouble our efforts to make sure that those gifts are dedicated to performing acts of goodness, kindness, mercy, justice and peace.  These things are the currency of the Kingdom, and the only currency a Christian should ever carry or trade in.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The hatred in my heart

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 15:1-31.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

The best advice I have ever received about how to read the Bible was: "Read the Bible as though it is a story about you".

The stories of the Bible are not meant to just be idle chatter or gossip.  We are actually supposed to locate ourselves in the stories of the Bible, to identify with a character and to learn the lessons they learn.

In just about every Bible story, we can probably identify at least one character that want to be, and more to the point of my sermon, at least one character we don't want to be.

My favourite example of how to do this is the story of the Prodigal Son.  There are three main characters in the Prodigal Son: the Prodigal Son himself, his father and his older brother.  I can list in numerical order the person I most want to be in that story to the person I least want to be:

1. The father: he was tender, loving, merciful and forgiving, and he welcomed his son back despite the injury he caused him.

2. The Prodigal Son himself: despite his failure, he had the humility and the wisdom to realize he was unable to cope on his own.  As humiliating as it must have been, he went back home.

3.  The older brother: I actually don't want to be this guy.  He was unable to join in the celebration when his brother came back,  He was selfish and resentful,

Of course, we all read the Bible through our own "lenses", through the experiences of our own lives.  I spoke to someone who thought the father was actually an idiot and the Prodigal Son was a manipulator.  Her son was a chronic drug addict who would steal from her, disappear for a few months, turn up on her doorstep apologizing, she would let him back in, and the cycle would continue.

I knew someone else who felt that the older brother was the only sane one in the bunch.  She had always felt that her parents loved her sister more, and that despite her many accomplishments, she could never quite live up to her.  She had always felt that she had never been celebrated, and so resonated with the experience of the older brother.

Regardless, when we read a story like the Prodigal Son, we can all identify the characters we would like to be and the people we would not like to be.

This week was the 15th anniversary of 9/11, and I have spoken with a number of people over the years about this incident, where we were and what we felt when it happened.  I was doing my MA at Laval in Quebec City, and I had slept in that day.  I woke up, made a cup of coffee and checked the phone messages.  There was one from my roommate who said, "Turn on the TV, someone has flown an airplane into the World Trade Center".

I have to admit, I didn't even know what the World Trade Center was or where it was, and I thought someone had flown a pleasure craft into it by accident, so I didn't turn on the TV for another little while.  Once I did, it did not take me long to understand that what had happened was far more serious.

By the time I turned on the TV, pictures of a man named Osama Bin Laden were being shown.  I had never heard of him.  He was linked to an organization called Al Qaeda, which I had also never heard of.  This man and this organization were being linked to Islam.

I had heard of Islam.  I had a number of Muslim friends when I was doing my undergrad at Ottawa U, and we are still in contact today.  We didn't really talk religion.  We drank, played cards and just generally did what university students do.  All that to say, even though I knew they were Muslim, I didn't really know what Islam was all about, what it stood for, what it represented or what it preached.

I am not proud to say this, but as I watched TV, I felt hatred growing in my heart.  I saw Bin Laden and I hated him.  I heard about Al Qaeda and I hated them.  I saw Muslims and I hated them too.

In retrospect, I think this was only natural.  A terrible thing had been done to innocent people.  I was angry, I was grief-stricken and I hated the people that did this.  I was not thinking rationally (because hate is not rational) and I threw the net of my hatred far too wide, because briefly I even hated people who had nothing to do with it.  I was apparently not the only one because in the hours that followed, there was a rash of anti-Muslim hate crimes: mosques were desecrated and Muslims were being attacked on the streets.  Sikhs and Hindus (who are not Muslim, by the way) were also being persecuted, just for having skin that was not white, just because people with hatred in their hearts fail to distinguish between the guilty and people who resemble them.

As I witnessed these acts of misguided recrimination against people who I realized had absolutely nothing to do with the atrocities of 9/11, I was brought up short and this made me reign in my hatred.

I thought, "I don't want to be that guy.  That's not the person I want to be".

John 3:15 tells us that if we have hate in our heart, we have already committed murder.  Whether someone uses a gun, knife, car or airplane, it is actually hatred that kills, and this is why I don't want to be that guy.  I don't want hatred to even be planted or take root in my heart because of where that could go.

There was a line from the Jeremiah reading for this week that stuck out to me: "My people...are skilled at doing evil , but do not know how to do good".  This is an interesting concept: good and evil are skills, and like any skill, good and evil require practice.  If we practice something, it becomes more natural, easier to do and we get better at it.  If we fail to practice something, we lose that skill, it becomes more difficult, and we don't get any better at it.

I don't want to be the guy with hatred in my heart, because I don't want to get any better at it.  I want to be the guy with love in my heart because that is what I want to get better at.  Love is what I want to plant, take root and grow in my heart, and I just don't think I can do that if hatred is in my heart.

How much hate, how little love must have been in the hearts of the men who perpetrated 9/11?  How far from grace and anything Godly must they have fallen to take it upon themselves to do that?  I can't even begin to contemplate it.  I don't want to contemplate it.

I want to contemplate how I can treat people better, how I can help heal people, how I can make the world a better place, how I can show God's love to his creation and its inhabitants.

Today, I hope that we are all able to decide who we want to be like and who we don't want to be like.  I hope we are able to make room for love in our hearts so that there is no room for hatred.  I hope we can hone our skills of goodness, and let our skills of evil atrophy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Things which matter most

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 14:25-33.

This week, I opened my sermon by asking people to raise their hands if their spirituality was one of their top 5 priorities.

I then asked for a show of hands if they would say that spirituality was their number 1 priority.

I stopped them before anybody raised their hands and explained that for your spirituality to be your number 1 priority would mean that it is your first thought when you wake up in the morning and your last thought before you go to sleep at night; it would mean you spend more time contemplating the state of your soul than you spend contemplating your finances, your career, your human relationships; basically, that your spirituality is the aspect of your life which informs all your other decisions, and from which all other considerations flowed.

Nobody raised their hands, not even me.

The problem is that even as a priest, my own faith and spirituality is expendable, disposable or at least a secondary consideration to the "busy-ness" of my daily life.  I worry as much as the next person about finances, my marriage, my career, my skills and abilities as an expectant parent, and so on.  I work at improving or balancing all those things, but my faith end up neglected and sometimes forgotten almost entirely.

I prioritize food, sleep, water, exercise, free time and quality time with my spouse, friends and family, but at the end of the day, that does not leave a whole heck of a lot of time and energy for prayer, meditation and spiritual well-being.

I think many of us have the equation backwards, and I know I certainly often do: we think that if all these other things are going well in our lives, then our spirits will be well.  But in my experience, the reverse is actually true: if all is well with my spirit, THEN all these other facets of my life tend to go better, more smoothly, or at least I have greater strength, patience or wisdom with which to approach them.

Jesus uses some pretty harsh words in the Gospel passage for today to make this very point.  He says, for example, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple".

Now, if you have actually read ANYTHING else Jesus ever said, it would be pretty obvious that Jesus did not actually want anyone to hate anyone.  Jesus even calls his listeners to forgive someone 7 X 70 times, and to pray for our enemies.

Rather, I think what Jesus was trying to convey is that our relationship with God should be our first priority, before even our relationship with our parents, spouse or children, to the extent that compared to our relationship with God, all other relationships should pale.  You know how some people say, "You have to love yourself before you can love someone else"?  For a person of faith, that could quite accurately be changed to "You have to love God before you can love someone else".

The reason is this: Christ, God, the Divine, whatever it is you call the source of your spirituality, is for the Christian the source of all love, justice, mercy, forgiveness, tolerance and peace.  If God is at the top of your priority list, then all your personal relationships, how you go about your job, how you approach your finances, how you deal with your problems, frustrations and worries will be informed and guided by these principles.  Otherwise, we tend to just be taking stabs in the dark and reacting out of our baser impulses.  I don't know about you, but when I act out my baser impulses, I usually end up having to make apologies.

But how do we go about prioritizing our faith and spirituality?  I will share with you some simple steps that often help me get back on track and get my head straight.  Try this for a few weeks: 

1. When you wake up, set just 5 minutes aside and sit quietly contemplating the day to come.  Ask for guidance, wisdom, strength, humility, patience, whatever it is you think you need to get through the day.

2. As many times as you need to throughout the day, take a mental time-out before, after or during certain events, and ask for these things all over again.  Ask yourself in all things what the most graceful and productive way to respond to your daily challenges would be and act accordingly.

3. Upon retiring at night, take a "grace inventory" of your day: go over it again and note the things you are grateful for, felt good about or are proud of yourself for.

This is perhaps the simplest and most foolproof way to keep your faith at the top of your priority list, and to live your life according to spiritual principles.  It will take practice, it does not solve everything and it does not make everything in your life ok, but it is something that helped me.

I could also add one more step:

4. Contemplate your cross.

Jesus says one other thing in this Gospel passage that really sticks out for me: "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple".  What does it mean to  carry the cross?

Well, although this incident happened well before Jesus was crucified, we know that people who were convicted of crimes and sentenced to death by crucifixion were forced to carry their own crosses to the place of execution.  The cross was seen as emblematic or their crime, and those carrying their crosses were thought to be dragging the weight of their crime in the form of a cross.

But what does that mean for us?  What is our crime, what is our sin, why would we need or want to pick it up, and to where should we drag it?

This is where I think you and I need to contemplate our own crosses.  I am from a Protestant tradition, and you may have noticed that most Protestant churches do not portray Christ crucified.  Only Catholic churches have that.  I am simplifying the issue here, but that is because Catholic theology traditionally has placed the emphasis on the sacrifice and suffering of Christ, while Protestant theology has emphasized the resurrection and conquering of Christ.  For Catholics, the cross is, as the old hymn goes, "an emblem of suff'ring and shame".  For Protestants, Christ is no longer in the tomb, much less nailed to the cross, and so the cross becomes a symbol of life, resurrection and redemption.

So when Jesus asks us to take up our cross, what is he, in fact, asking us to do?  Is he asking us to shoulder our burdens of sin, shame and regret?  Doesn't sound too Jesus-y to me, and I don't think those are the things Jesus would see us yoked to.  Rather, I think he is asking us to cast of those burdens and take up the "burden" of the cross which represents love, joy, forgiveness, life and freedom.  I think he is asking us to take up the cross as our new yoke, a yoke which he promises is easy and light.

I hope that today we would be able to pick up our crosses, and to let the virtues that the cross represents inform our thoughts, words and deeds.