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Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Ugliness of the Nativity

Another game rained out today, so here is what I would have delivered as a sermon today.  I hope you all stayed home safe!

So Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has long been considered his greatest work.  It has been called by some the greatest piece of music written.  Ever.

So certainly such an unquestionably brilliant piece of music must have met with universal praise when it was first performed, right?  Certainly, the praise from Beethoven's contemporaries must have been ubiquitously positive, right?

Wrong.

According to Beethoven biographer Cook, "early critics rejected [the Ninth] as cryptic and eccentric, the product of a deaf and aging composer".

Verdi wrote that the symphony was "marvelous in its first three movements, very badly set in the last...it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as is done in the last movement".

Leonhardt wrote "That 'Ode to Joy', talk about vulgarity!  And the text!  Completely puerile!"

Certainly, Shakespeare could not be criticized though, right?  Surely the greatest playwright and wordsmith of all time was and continues to be immune to negative commentary, right?

Wrong again.

Voltaire called Shakespeare "a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada".

Tolstoy said, "having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best...not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium".

Samuel Pepys called Midsummer Night's Dream "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life".

So what is my point?  Well, I will tell you.

When most people ponder the Nativity Story, I think we have a tendency to see it through rose-coloured glasses.  Because it has become a 'modern classic', we tend to have a sanctified, sanitized, romanticized version of the Nativity, complete with the warm glow of the guiding star.  We need only turn to the lyrics of Silent Night for an example of how most of perceive the Nativity: "all is calm, all is bright".  The Holy Family and the Nativity scenario are always painted in peaceful, loving tones.

But the Nativity, if we reflect in all soberness upon it, was probably pretty ugly from start to finish.  Let's go through it.

Mary and Joseph were a young, working-class couple.  By today's standard, they were blue collar.  Mary was a teenager, and she was pregnant out of wedlock.  Forget the Imaculate-ness of the Conception.  Public opinion would have been against her.  You know those pierced, tattooed kids pushing strollers we "tsk, tsk" at in the mall food court?  Yeah, that would have been Mary and Joseph.

In the middle of winter, near Mary's time to give birth, they have to haul up stakes and make it to Bethlehem for this census.

Arriving in Bethlehem, they try to find a hotel.  Given their budget, they would not have been looking for a good one.  They can't even find a bad one.  They find an inn with a barn, and they are offered lodging there for the night.

Imagine trying to rest and giving birth in the maintenance shed of a Motel 6 in the middle of winter, and you are probably getting somewhere close to the mark.

Then Mary gives birth in the barn.  No doctors, no nurses, no heat or light.  No drugs.  No epidural, for God's sake.  How peaceful could that be?

Three foreign guys show up with weird gifts that they want to give your newborn baby.  All this against the backdrop of trying to avoid Herod's nefarious scheme.

So what about that scenario is possibly beautiful?  What about that scenario is possibly sacred?  It is probably just about the most shockingly awkward, uncomfortable, embarrassing situation I can possibly imagine.

And yet the fact remains that the Nativity Story represents the greatest intrusion of life, love and beauty this world has ever seen.  Granted, we know this after the fact, but did Joseph and Mary know this?  Likely not.

I don't like to romanticize Jesus simply because that romanticization dehumanizes him for me.  Yes, the Son of God, I know, but he was still gloriously human, and the Nativity Story to me is a great example to me that beauty can indeed come from some of the ugliest scenarios you can possibly imagine.

Many of our readings this Advent have revolved around John the Baptist.  Another perfect example.  He was a smelly hippy who lived in a desert cave, preached fire and brimstone, wore camel hair and ate bugs.  No part of him or his life screamed, "Yeah, I am someone you should pay attention to".  And yet his powerful message drew people.

Same with Jesus.  Nothing about Jesus actually identified his as anyone we should pay attention to.  Not his lineage, not his birth, not his life, not even necessarily his death (by that I mean that thousands of people were crucified, and as far as I know, they don't have religions).  His resurrection would certainly make us sit up and take notice, but I digress...

If I can take nothing else from the Nativity Story, I can take away the fact that true beauty in life often does not come from peaceful, sanctified, romantic scenarios.

It often comes from the heartbreakingly beautiful ugliness of everyday life, from the imperfect, from the failures, from the struggles.

We lionize men and women with degrees, money, position, pedigree.  But Jesus, like so many of the truly great men and women throughout history, had no degree, no money, no position or pedigree.  He spoke to us as one of us.

Power speaks down to us from on high.  Wisdom often speaks up to us from below.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The injustice of expectations

Well, we had a snow day yesterday, but here is what my sermon was GOING to be about...

Dennis Miller, once of my favourite comedians, once said that the most degrading thing you can do to a human being is to have absolutely no expectations of them.  He was aware that many people have a tendency to fall to the lowest common denominator, rather than rise to the highest.

While that intuitively makes sense, I think that the other extreme is equally as degrading.  In other words, having too many expectations of a person can be damaging.

The Gospel passage for this week (Matthew 11:2-11) is all about expectations, and how they can actually do an injustice to a person.

The first thing we need to realize is the expectation that Jesus' disciples had of him.  They called him "Messiah", which means "anointed one", a term which was used to refer to a king.  Any king.  It was not a term that was reserved for the only begotten Son of God.  In essence, the rule of any king was believed to be sanctioned by God, and so they would literally be anointed with oil to signify that sanction.

Based on the narratives we have in the Gospels, we have every reason to believe that Jesus' disciples expected him to be a king in that limited worldly sense of the word: they expected him to be a political warrior-king who would overthrow the powers that oppressed the Jewish people.

We have very reason to believe that John the Baptist had the same expectations of Jesus.  But Jesus kind of dashed those hopes with all his talk of peace and love and whatnot.  So much so did he dash those hopes that even John the Baptist was starting to ask questions from his prison cell.

Today's Gospel passage takes place about a year after Jesus' baptism by John.  John certainly seems to have believed Jesus to be the Messiah, but a year later, Jesus had not amassed an army or weapons and did not seem to be overthrowing squat.  Jesus had not even sprung John from prison.

Jesus, in other words, was not living up to John's expectations.  So in today's passage, John sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him point-blank: are you the Messiah?

Jesus responds to them by using John's own appearance to challenge him: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?  A reed shaken by the wind?  What then did you go out to see?  Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.  What then did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet".

Did people following John into the desert expect to see something beautiful, poetic and philosophical?  Because what they got was raw, naked and unvarnished.  Did they expect to see someone wealthy, comfortable and well-fed?  Because what they got was someone wearing the worst clothes and living on the worst diet.  People must have been challenged by John's odd lifestyle choices and appearance.  Looking at a man who lived in the desert, ate bugs and dressed in camel hair, people must have expected John to be off his rocker.  And yet Jesus affirms that John is indeed a prophet.  Jesus affirms that John, while unconventional, was indeed telling the truth.

So while even John may have had expectations of Jesus which involved political and military power, Jesus challenges him to rethink that.

The reality is that Jesus was not about winning power, property or prestige.  He was not interested in political or military conquest.  He realized that the only "conquest" that is possible or lasting is the conquest of self over self.

Human history has demonstrated amply that military and political conquests are often motivated by greed.  Let's be fair and take the history of Christianity as an example.  Never has such a great collection of moral philosophies become so twisted to serve the needs of those in power.

The only way the world can be changed is one person at a time, and that change must come from within.  If we could all practice the virtues that Jesus and most other religious and moral philosophies have expounded, what a world this could be.

I hope this Advent season is one of personal change for us all.

Monday, December 9, 2013

What the Desert is like in Winter

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.  It is based primarily on the Gospel passage for this week, Matthew 3:1-12.

John the Baptist was the kind of guy you would have warned your kids not to talk to.

By today's standard, he would have been deemed a raving lunatic.  For all we know, many of his contemporaries probably did.

John was a ascetic hermit who had eschewed society, all its luxuries and distractions in favor of a rigorous lifestyle in the desert.  His purpose was not to punish himself, but to shed the many distractions that he experienced in his like.  He preferred to spend concerted time in prayer and meditation.

We know little else about John.  We are told that he was actually a distant blood relative of Jesus, but otherwise, very little is known about his life.  Particularly, how he came by the message of repentance he was preaching, what compelled him to retreat into the wilderness or what motivated him to baptize people.

What we do know is that he was preaching a baptism of repentance.  Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of repentance is NOT to feel guilt.  Guilt is essentially a wasted emotion if it does not move you to personal growth and change.  THAT is actually the purpose of repentance.  Repentance is the act of rigorous self-reflection which ideally leads to a commitment to change.

That he was baptizing an entirely or at least predominantly Jewish crowd would have been seen as very odd.  In ancient Judaism, being part of the chosen people was seen as a birthright, a racial question.  Judaism practiced baptism only when someone converted to Judaism from another lifestyle.  Anyone looking at the scene of John baptizing Jewish people would have thought this was very odd indeed, and entirely superfluous.

John was calling people to a baptism of repentance.  He was calling people to move beyond the many laws and rules of Judaism, to move beyond the idea that God's love was bound to race.  He was calling them to the virtue that should have been motivating people's adherence to the law: love for God and neighbour.

But John rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees who approach him for baptism.  He sees their hypocrisy, in that they had no intention of actually changing their lives.

This is a particularly timely message for us as we work our way through the season of Advent.  Advent is a season of preparation, of reflection and anticipation.

What are we waiting for?  We are anticipating and remembering the entry into the world of the greatest light the world has ever known: Christ.  Christ was the greatest example of compassion and generosity the world has ever know, and these are virtues that the world would do well to emulate.

These are virtues that God represents, and when John calls the crowd to repent, he is calling them to be free of all of the emotional and spiritual detritus that is preventing them from exercising those virtues.  He is calling them to prepare a way into their hearts for these virtues to penetrate and to be exercised in the world.

This Advent season, we are called to to do the same.  My hope is that amid the busy-ness of this season, we are all able to make the time to prepare the way into our own hearts.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Servant King

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Last week, we celebrated Christ the King Sunday.

When I think of kings or queens, I think of someone with a royal lineage, lavish lifestyles, palaces, jewels, limos, fine clothing, thrones and crowns.

What does that have to do with Jesus?  Absolutely nothing.

Despite a somewhat fanciful genealogy in the Bible that tries to attribute the lineage of David to Jesus,  Jesus was not of a royal house.  He was born if not in an actual barn, then at least in humble circumstances.  He did not live in a palace, and indeed after his baptism, he seems to have been a homeless and itinerant preacher, relying on the generosity of strangers for food and shelter.  He walked pretty much everywhere, and rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a most humble animal.  He had no throne, and the only crown he ever wore was a crown of thorns meant as a mockery of the "crime" he was crucified for.

This gives us an idea of what kind of king he was.

In an ideal world, people who rise to positions of leadership and prominence carry their yokes with humility.  Whether you are a politician, royalty or just the CEO of a company, you are hopefully aware that people look to you for guidance.  People look to you to set an example.

That being said, if your leader is a good a leader and you support what he or she stands for, the next question is how well are you reflecting the example your leader is setting?

If Jesus exemplified the virtues of compassion, justice, peace, etc, how well are we reflecting those virtues?