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Monday, November 18, 2013

An everyday Apocalypse

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

The Gospel passage for this week (Luke 21:5-19) should freak you out, but probably not for the reason you think.  Far from sounding like "good news", it speaks almost entirely of some pretty bad stuff.

Once thing that has to be understood about any book of the Bible (or any book for that matter) is that they were written by specific people, addressed to a specific audience with a specific purpose in mind.

Luke wrote his Gospel in AD 60, when the nascent Christian movement was being persecuted buy the Romans for being seditious, and by the Pharisees for being heretical.  This obviously would have led to a fair amount of despondency on the part of people trying to follow the moral path Christ had set out.

In this passage (among others in his Gospel), the author of Luke seems to addressing that hopelessness, reassuring his readers/listeners that there is indeed something to hope for, despite the vicissitudes of life.

But what exactly is that hope?

The reality is that having faith does not save you from anything.  It is not a magic pill that prevents you from having car accidents, guarantees that your basement will never flood or that there will be sunny weather on your family reunion.

In fact, the cold, hard randomness of the universe will still strike you, as it will anyone else.  But the person of faith also has the added burden of following a particular moral path, and this can be a burden indeed.

Jesus introduces his "litany of badness" by commenting on the Temple.  The Temple was stunning: the architecture was unparalleled, gobs of precious metals and stones had gone into its construction.  But as the disciples marvel at its beauty, Jesus draws them away from it.

Jesus tells them that one day the Temple would fall.  Of course, the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, some 37 years after Jesus would have said these words, and some 10 years after the author of Luke wrote his Gospel.

In all likelihood, this statement was not a prophecy in the traditional sense.  It was likely a general statement on the temporality of things.  Buildings fall, cities fall, empires fall.  That is just the nature of things that I am sure Jesus was well aware of.

But in the same way that the greatest of buildings and empires will pass away, so will all  things temporal, including the trials of life.  That is part of the hope Christ tries to convey.

But moreover, I think there is something that Jesus does not make explicit, but is nonetheless a subtext in this passage and throughout the Gospels.  And that is that in gathering the disciples together (and in gathering us together by his philosophy 2000 years later) he provided a community in which people can support one another through the ups and downs of life.

This is particularly important in this day and age.  Despite modern communication technology, despite the growth of towns and cities, more and more people are complaining of loneliness and community involvement seems to be at an all-time low in many places.

Community is what we crave.  It is part of our biology and our psychology.  That is what to me is the principal attraction of church: that is is a community.  The word "church" doesn't refer to a building, but to the community gathered in and around it.

Christ reminds us that buildings will fall, but community is always there for us.

Monday, November 11, 2013

What are we actually remembering?

Earlier this week, I was deeply moved by pictures of the Pope embracing a disfigured man.




I can only imagine what kind of a life this man has had to lead because of his condition.  This man has likely had to suffer rejection, ridicule and quite possibly outright abuse due to his condition (yes, I am hypothesizing as there is little information about this man, but given the way most people suffering any illness are still stigmatized even in modernity, I don't think I am reaching too far).

One the one hand, I was touched by the Pope's ability to physically embrace someone most people would be uncomfortable with.  More so, I was impressed by his ability to spiritually embrace that man's pain.  I am sure that spiritual and emotional pain is as much a part of that man's life as is his physical pain.

The fact of that matter is that most of us (and I included myself in this) do what we can to consciously avoid people, places and things that cause us discomfort, but oftentimes there is great spiritual and emotional traction to be found in facing and embracing those people, places and things.

But you know what?  That is what a spiritual leader is supposed to do.  In reality, that is what we are all supposed to do.  So in a sense, it was not the fact that the Pope was embracing the man that really moved me.

What really touched me about those photos was the spiritual solace that man was quite obviously finding in the very humble and human touch of another person.  What touched me was the depth of emotion that man was obviously experiencing in that moment.

In a sense, on Remembrance Day, we are doing just what is happening in that photo: we are deliberately embracing something that makes us uncomfortable, something that is challenging if not painful to embrace.  We are, in a sense, embracing war, pain and suffering.  In part, even though it is uncomfortable, I think it is important that we do this.  Lest we forget, we may do it all over again.  Lest we forget, we may let the devotion, selflessness and sacrifice of so many in the past, present and future go unnoticed.

But it must be said that we are not embracing these things in order to glorify them.  Like many, I have been somewhat bemused by the recent "White Poppy" campaign.  Some people dislike the red poppy because they think it glorifies or supports war.  I for one have never seen it that way, any more than I think people growing mustaches in November glorifies or supports prostate cancer.

I can't speak for anyone else, because I think we all keep Remembrance Day in our own way.  Many of us, myself included, have been touched by armed conflict in some way.  But I for one have always felt that Remembrance Day has always been a celebration of peace.

We observe a moment of silence at 11:11 on the 11th day of the 11th month.  Although the date is accurate, the precise hour the armistice was signed is apparently somewhat apocryphal, referring to ending hostilities at the proverbial 11th Hour.

What occupies my thoughts in that minute of silence is this: what did that minute of silence feel like to the people who signed the documents ending the war?  What did it feel like when the guns finally went silent?  What did the soldiers feel in that first minute they put down their guns?  I can almost imagine the whole earth heaving a collective sigh of relief in that minute, or at least in the first minute they were first made aware that peace had come.

The red poppy to me symbolizes the flowers that were once again able to grow over the fields of battle once the war ended.

Remembrance Day celebrates that sacred space of peace and silence that were able to enter the world when hostilities ceased.  It celebrates the fact that healing could begin for those who had survived the conflict, and those who had lost loved ones in conflict.

In the Gospel passage for this week (Luke 20:27-38) sidesteps an academic question by simply saying "God is a God of life".  Similarly, I think we can sidestep the academics around Remembrance Day by being reminded that the message of the day is not one of death, but one of life.  In the same sense, the story of Christ's life is less about his crucifixion than his resurrection.  In the same sense, Elijah could not hear God in the storm, but could hear him in the silence that came after the storm.

May this day be a day of life for you, a day of peace and and day of grace.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Go climb a tree...

I have always been charmed by the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), for some reason.  I don't know why, maybe because he was such an underdog, maybe because the concept of a grown man climbing a tree to catch a glimpse of the traveling freakshow that was Jesus and his disciples is so absurd as to be laughable, maybe because the desperation and/or hope which drove him up the tree is so visceral and relate-able.

But let's go over the story.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and he was rich, the Gospel passage tells us.  This defines him as a three-time loser.

First of all, tax collectors were Jews who had betrayed their people by collaborating with the Romans.  They collected taxes from the Jews and gave the money to the Romans, in other words.  Strike one.

Tax collectors were, by definition, ritually impure as they regularly consorted with Gentiles (ie the ritually impure).  Tax collectors therefore routinely defiled themselves.  Strike two.

That we are told Zacchaeus was rich is not random.  Tax collectors were not supposed to be rich.  The implication is that Zacchaeus was skimming some cream off the taxes he collected.  Strike three.

Zacchaeus was a traitor, was defiled and was a thief.  Ouch.

Maybe was can understand why Zacchaeus did not seem to care what people thought about him as he climbed the tree.  They could hardly have thought worse of him.

And yet there is something truly charming and redeeming about Zacchaeus.  And that is that he recognized his shortcomings.  Literally and figuratively.

We are told that he was short, hence the reason he had to climb the tree in the first place.  We cannot be sure, WHY he climbed the tree.  Was he looking for salvation, forgiveness, enlightenment, or was he simply rubbernecking?  We don't know.  But either way, he recognized that his size stood in the way of what he wanted, and in order to reach his goal of seeing Jesus, he was willing to do what he had to do.

Similarly, he has something of a conversion experience later in the passage.  I don't mean he converted to Christianity, I mean he had a change of heart.  As a tax collector, he must have realized all along that he was sinning against his own people and against his own conscience, and that must have weighed on him heavily.  Somehow, his exchange with Jesus convinced him to stop sinning and to try to make amends.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I personally do not believe that God keeps score.  He doesn't need to.  I keep score.  And I think we all do.

We are all bright enough to know the difference between right and wrong, and unless you were born without a conscience, I think we all suffer the weight of the misdeeds we have committed.  God doesn't even need to enter into it.

The only way to make that right is to make that right.  As Zacchaeus did.

The charm of the story is that not only did he recognize his literal physical shortcomings, but he also recognized his spiritual shortcomings.  Not only did he recognize where he fell short of the mark on the wall, he recognized where he also fell short of his own conscience.

And more importantly, he did something about it.

I think we live in an age where as a species we are coming to terms with our own intrinsic goodness.  Thankfully, gone (or at least going) are the days when the church told us we were all terrible people.  It's ironic that it has taken the church 2000 years to catch up to the theology espoused by its founder, but there you have it.  We deserve to acknowledge our own worth, value and dignity.

But this is something that has to be held in balance.  We are not perfect, and we all do things we regret.  Go too far in the direction of self-love and you become self-absorbed.  Become too preoccupied with your shortcomings and you fall into self-loathing.

But Zacchaeus teaches us the value of recognizing our shortcomings and doing something about them.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.