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Monday, February 20, 2017

I'll see you in hell

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 5:21-37.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

So that may be an alarming title for a sermon, but bear with me.  Jesus tells us that if we have hatred in our heart, we have already committed murder and if we have lust in our heart, we have already committed adultery, and we are liable to the fire of hell.

See you there.

I think it is fairly obvious that Jesus is speaking hyperbolically in this passage.  If we all followed his direction to start hacking off limbs if they caused us to sin, I think we would all be stumps at this point.  Sin, whether it be anger, lust, greed or whatever is simply part of the human condition, and we all have felt their pull, but it is actually what we do with and about that sin that defines us as people and as Christians.

Oddly enough, I think this passage has everything to do with community, even though Jesus doesn't mention in explicitly, once again bear with me.

When you ask a person in my age bracket (50 and under or so) what their religion is, how they practice their faith, their response is most likely something that has now become something of a cliche: "I'm more spiritual than religious".

More often than not, what this actually means is, "I like sleeping in on a Sunday", or "I don't want the responsibility that comes with being a member of a community".

My generation is extremely selfish.  We are not joiners, we don't like to commit, we don't like strings attached.  We are taught, although perhaps not in so many words, to be self-reliant, self-supporting, to stand on our own two feet.  The problem with this attitude is that it does very little to foster a sense of community, and it is to our detriment, because it is only within the context of a community that we really become human beings.

Let me put it this way: if you were born and raised in a box and never had any contact with any other human being, you would most likely never have to learn how to cope with anger or lust because you would never have felt them.  Other people are often the cause of or at least the sounding board for our own emotions.  If we were raised in a box and somehow managed to have emotions of some kind, we would have no idea how to regulate them.  Our communities, whether they be our families, our friends, our churches or our workplaces are therefore quite literally a training or proving ground in which we are able to practice, exercise and regulate our emotion.  Our communities teach us what is appropriate and inappropriate in terms of our emotional reactions.

When you join a community, there are always expectations: dues to pay, volunteer positions to fill, schedules to keep, behavioural norms to adhere to, etc.  I can't think of a single group or community that has no expectations whatsoever.  Churches are no different.  Many people, particularly in my age range, balk at those expectations, and fail to adhere to a community because they don't want to take on those expectations.

The other thing about my generation is that we are consumers.  If we don't like the minister or the yogi or the soccer coach or the painting instructor, we just find one we do like.  If we get into a disagreement with someone at our church, our yoga studio, our sports complex or our art class, we just leave.

The problem with this is that if we leave without resolving these problems, we deny ourselves of one of the greatest gifts of community, and that is reconciliation and forgiveness.

It has been said that anyone who thinks forgiveness is for the weak hasn't tried it.  It takes enormous strength to forgive someone, to be forgiven, to forgive oneself.  How could one do this without a community?  True, without a community there would likely be no sin to begin with, but then in what sense could be possibly embrace the fullness of our humanity?  Life in a box would be awfully boring.

I think the gifts of being in community far outweigh the drawbacks.  I think that anyone who deprives themselves of community is robbing themselves of the full bounty of what it means to be human, with all our strengths and weaknesses, all our failures and triumphs, all our joy and sorrow.  I for one am glad of the community that surrounds me and all the blessings and trials that brings.

Just be perfect, that's all

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 5:38-48.

In today's Gospel passage we are told to be perfect.  Oh, is that all?

Here's the thing about perfection: it is impossible to achieve, but if you set the bar low, you are going to come in low.  Set the bar high, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

How many of us could actually do what Jesus asks us to do today, though?  How many of us could, when struck, offer the other cheek as well?  How many of us could, when sued for our coat, toss in our cloak as well?

Not me most days, I can tell you that.  Our human impulse when struck is to strike back, whether this be literally or figuratively.  At best, Jesus Christ is asking us to be good-natured doormats.  At worst, he is asking us to be perfect, which is simply impossible.

And yet I think he is on to something.  I think Jesus said these words knowing they were impossible, knowing that we knew they would be impossible, but Jesus was and is always trying to show us a new way, new territories of the human spirit, ways of acting that are contrary to our human impulses because sometimes our human impulses are simply not good for us.

Ever gotten into a fight?  Someone hits you, you hit back.  Has the other person ever said, "Well, that was fair, now we're even, fight over"?  No.  Generally, you hit back, they grab a pool cue, you grab a bottle, they grab a chair, you grab a table, they pull a knife, you pull a gun, and the whole thing escalates until someone really gets hurt.

That, I think I am fair in saying, is what our human nature tells us to do.

While we cannot take this Gospel passage 100% literally because it sets the bar so high that we would constantly be failing, it does make it clear that Jesus is trying to show us a different way, a way that could make things better and change the world.

This passage is actually part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus speaks at great length about what the kingdom of God is actually like, who is actually blessed, and what it means to be a Godly person.  To cut a long story short, it is, respectively, nothing like what we think it is like, not the people we think and not what we have been doing.

I preached on this passage on the same Sunday as our annual Vestry meeting, and it was particularly apropos: our church, like so many others in North America, is experiencing difficulty, mostly of a financial nature.  The future is uncertain, and what we look like in a year from now will probably be very different that what we look like today.  It will need to be in order to continue providing ministry in our area.

This is why I issued a challenge to our incoming council: if you want, need or expect church to go on being the same thing it is, please reconsider your seat at the table.  If however you feel courageous enough to try new things, to listen hard to our communities and to the movement of the Spirit, then please pull up a chair.

Look, it would be scary as hell I think to turn the other cheek and risk the hammer falling a second time, but if the way you are is not working, well, it would be madness to keep doing that.  That goes for people, families, workplaces, churches, etc.

Jesus was and is always trying to draw us forward to new things, and new things are always uncertain.  But I have said it before and I will say it again, trying new things, taking risks, doing something different is how we find the life abundant that God wants us to live.

I hope and pray that we can all find that life this year.

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.