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Sunday, December 28, 2014

The burden of being light

My sermon for this Christmas Eve/Day was based on John 1:1-18.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Since I was a child, I have always been obsessed with owning a lightsaber.  Star Wars was the first movie I remember watching, and it left a mark, let's say.

As I grew older and studied physics, I came to realize that a lightsaber, at least with current technology, is an impossible creation.  It may never be possible.

That is because light is a funny thing.  To our perception, it does not seem to exist until it meets an obstacle, whether that obstacle be a wall, the ground, ourselves, or the light-sensing rods and cones in our eyes.

For example, my fiance and I have a laser pointer that we love to torment our cat with.  I know the laser pointer is projecting a beam because I can see the dot on the wall.  But I can't see any evidence that the light exists as it passes through the air between the pointer and the wall.  There is not, for example, a thin pencil of light coming out of the pointer that I can wave around like a lightsaber Jr.

More's the pity.

At any rate, it strikes me that faith is much like that.  It seems to require obstacles for it to come to fruition.  Far from being a life of ease and ignorance, a faith truly and honestly lived is full of obstacles, and our response to these obstacles will prove our mettle.

I think of any number of natural or man-made disasters.  In these cases, many atheists and skeptics gleefully ask the question, "And where was your God when THAT happened?", assuming in the most child-like way that God is or would be a puppet-master who makes every atom move along a predetermined flight path.

My response is that God was in the people who helped neighbours dig out, who helped friends off roofs, who provided food for people, who provided relief efforts, who sent money.

God was not in the people who left others stranded, who ignored the needs of their neighbours, who looted or stole, who ignored basic human needs in other parts of the world.

An obstacle like that is where you have a chance to shine the light of your faith and convictions.  It is a wall against which you can cast your light.

Or fail to, as the case may be.

Conversely, faith becomes "dead air", the space where light seems to not exist when it is not acted upon, when it has no cause or goal.

Faith without acts is truly dead.

There are a few people who acted in the Nativity Story.  Traditionally, the Nativity is cast as a story in which God plays out His greatest act, where he commits His greatest deed since Creation itself.  By that I mean the sending of the Christ into he world, the conception of that person who was, is, and (barring new information) probably will remain the closest approximation of what God is like.

But in reveling in this miraculous act as we are wont to do during the Advent and Christmas seasons, we often neglect to remember that there were real people in that story who went to great efforts, demonstrating characteristics that I think we would all do well to emulate in the coming year if we want the light of our faith to truly shine.

The first characteristic is knowledge.  This gift was demonstrated by the Three Wise Men, aka the Three Kings, aka the Three Magi.  Tradition tells us that these men were actually astrologers.  Astrology is not considered a science today, of course, but in those days anyone who was knowledgeable in the movement of the stars and planets and what that movement allegedly foretold was considered wise indeed.

The Three Wise Men plied their trade and came to meet the Christ-Child therefore through knowledge.  We draw nearer to Christ and exercise our faith as we learn more about any subject, but most of all when we learn more about ourselves, about others, about God's Creation and about our place in it.

The second characteristic is courage.  This gift was demonstrated by the shepherds.  The shepherds knew nothing about a star, knew nothing about this great event which was about to happen, knew nothing except sheep.  They were likely not educated at all.  Suddenly, not just one but a multitude of angels appear saying, "Go to this place and find the Christ".

Talk about scaring the bejesus out of you...literally.

But despite their fear, they go anyway.  They found Christ through courage.  We draw nearer to Christ and exercise our faith as we overcome fear by being courageous: by being courageous in the face of obstacles, in the face of disaster, in the face of failure.

The third characteristic is action.  Whatever else Mary was, she was a doer.  When Gabriel came to her and told her she could not only be part of this historic event, but be the reason it all happened, when she was told that God was going to submit to her, she basically said, "Let's do this".  She paused to ask one question: "How can this happen?", but after that, she jumped right in.

No amount of knowledge or courage will do us any good if we do not act, so in a way, action is the most important characteristic of all.

Faith, as I said, is not a passive, feel-good, live-in-my-bubble-of-awesomeness kind of thing.  Faith is active, realistic, gritty and sometimes deeply troubling.  Faith requires us to look on the evil in the world and to take responsibility for making it better.

This Advent season, we have been preparing, reflecting on how we can welcome Christ.  The traditional interpretation of the Nativity would have us believe that all we have to do is wait with open hearts and minds to for Jesus to arrive and enter in.

Taken from the perspective of the people who surrounded the manger that night 2000 years ago, perhaps we should consider going out to meet him.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Why you would not want to mess with Mary

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 1:26-38.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

You have to look long and hard to find a really positive female character in the Bible.  Even those who are positive characters like Sarah or Ruth come across by modern standards as pretty submissive or at least easily manipulated.

You have Eve, who is to blame for the fall of mankind.  Thanks for that.  You have Delilah, who betrays Samson.  You have Jezebel, whose very name is a byword for sexual immorality to this day.  You have Jael, who is depicted as a heroine in the Book of Judges, but for having lured Sisera into her tent with overtures of hospitality, and then driving a tent peg through his head while he slept.

So although there is not shortage of fallen men in the Bible, there is a distinct lack of female characters who could be considered viable role models for girls and women.

Even Mary, some claim, is not really a positive role model because she is depicted as submissive.  They claim that Mary is not a positive protagonist at all because she is just essentially a container for God's grace, the passive bearer of the Messiah.

I don't think this is fair to Mary at all.  Let's look at the text again.

It is true, Gabriel's statement to her (Luke 1:30-33) does sound very directive.  He use the word "will" repeatedly: "You will conceive, you will bear a son, you will name him Jesus".  Very imperative language, indeed.

Some commentators claim that in the original Greek, the word for "will" is used in the sense of prognostication: Gabriel is not issuing a command, he is merely informing Mary of what is to happen to her in the future.

Unfortunately, I did very poorly in Greek, so I can't comment one way or the other, but what I can comment on is Mary's response.  Rather than simply salute and say, "Sir, yes sir, Mr. Gabriel, sir", she actually has the nerve to ask him a questions: "How can this be since I am a virgin?"

Any way you look at it, Mary was no idiot.  She knew the way things worked, and she was not so over-awed by Gabriel that she failed to be skeptical and to ask for clarification.

That doesn't sound submissive at all.  That sounds pretty brave and resilient.

In the end, Mary makes one of the most powerful statements in the Bible in response to Gabriel: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word".

Why would Mary say that unless she had a choice?  Why would Mary say that unless saying no could have been an option?

Some people claim that submitting, whether to God or to another person is an act of weakness ad therefore to be avoided by definition.  Some say submitting is an act of humility and compromise, and therefore to be embraced.

Either way, I don't think we can say that Mary was submitting to anything.  She was choosing.

She was saying a resounding "Yes!" to this invitation to be a part of history, to play a role in the life of a child, and the Christ-child, no less.  She was saying "Yes!" to her call, her vocation, her path.  She was saying "Yes!" to God.

There is a power and a majesty to saying "Yes", to choosing consciously what we see as our path.

Mary was not submissive.  She was one of the strongest people history has ever known.

This Advent, the readings and reflections have all been about preparation.  Preparation for commemorating the coming of the Messiah, preparation for the coming year, preparation to carry out our Christian mission in the world.

But if you prepare and then fail to execute, why prepare in the first place?  If you get your house ready for family and friends over the holidays but then fail to answer the door when they knock, you lose.

This Christmas season, and into the new year, I invite you to act on the things you have been preparing for, to do the things you have been meaning to do, to do like Mary and say a resounding "Yes!" to the path and mission you feel God is calling you to.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

You are the Voice, not the Word

My sermon for this week was based on John 1:6-28.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

If you have ever studied communications at university or in a workshop of some kind, the instructor probably started off with the most basic concept: communication of any kind requires 4 factors.  These four factors are as follows:

1. Sender: any communication requires a sender, a source, someone who wants to convey a message.

2. Message: the sender needs a message, something he or she wishes to convey.

3. Medium: the sender must decide how he or she wishes to convey the message.  Will it be spoken, written, conveyed by gesture or picture?

4. Receiver: for any communication to be successful, someone needs to receive it.

This is pretty basic stuff.  It is probably pretty obvious that any communication that does not have all of these four characteristics will fail.

Without knowing modern theories of communication, John the Baptist clarifies the difference between the message and the medium in today's Gospel passage.  When questioned by the chief priests as to who he claims to be, he says, "I am the Voice of one calling in the wilderness" (italics mine).  Particularly in the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ is referred to as the Word, and it is that distinction between John as the voice and Jesus as the word that I find so interesting.

John takes great pains to let people know that he is not the Messiah.  He is not the one they are waiting for.  He is not the word, he is not the message.  He is merely the voice announcing it.

Jesus Christ had a voice, of course.  He taught a number of lessons, he preached a number of sermons, he told a number of parables.  So one could say that he was a medium as well.  But what Christ represented was much deeper than that.  Christ was God's greatest message, and that message was simple:

I love you.  You matter.

Christ did not just speak that message, he lived it.  He breathed it, walked, talked, ate and slept it.  He communicated that message in every word and gesture.

I propose that churches fail, individual Christians fail because they are confused about what position of that communication matrix they occupy.

I think a great number of Christians think they are the receiver, particularly around Christmas as we wait to celebrate once again they coming of God's greatest message into the world.  Most of us have heard and told that story every year for as long as we have been alive.

I have news for you: if you have been a churchgoer all your life, you are no longer the receiver.

If you have been hearing this message your entire life, you are in fact the medium now, just like John the Baptist, and it is time to get your ass out of the pew and do something about it.  You may no longer just sit in a pew every Sunday and hear how God loves you.

Love is an action word.  It may be a noun, but you cannot love someone or something and NOT be moved to act to protect, to nurture.

You and I have heard the message.  Repeatedly.  We know it well.  It has been received.

If we believe the message that you and I matter to God, it necessarily follows that everybody else matters to God, and the reality is that you and I are the voices, are the vessels through which this message is to be conveyed.

As we approach this Christmas season, it is of course gratifying to be in church, to be in a community, to be with family and friends, to eat good food, to drink good drink, but there are people out there who don't have that.  People who have very little reason to believe that God loves them because they have very few examples of God's love.

In other words, they have comparatively few voices conveying God's love to them.

We are those voice.  Go out and speak.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why obstacle courses are just dumb

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 1:1-8.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

When I was a kid, I used to love obstacle courses.  We had a bunch of jungle gym equipment in our schoolyard, and although it was not an obstacle course per se, we often turned it into one.  My friends and I would challenge each other to make our way across the schoolyard, climbing up this, weaving our way around that, jumping over the other thing.

Basically, we would challenge each other to take the most difficult route from point A to point B possible, because it was fun at the time.

But there was one kid in our class who was weird.  We tried to get him into our game, but he said, "Why would I make it hard on myself to get to the other side of the schoolyard?"

The wind was sufficiently sucked out of our sails.

I think of this chapter in my life in relation to this week's Gospel passage.  It has given me cause to reflect that sometimes it is appropriate to put obstacles or challenges in our way, and other times, it is simply better and wiser to remove them.

John the Baptist was all about removing obstacles in his own life, and I think his lessons and example can ring true to us still today.

John, let's be honest, would have been locked up or at least given a wide berth by most "respectable" people if he had lived today.  Hey, in the end, that's what happened to him in his own day.  He wore camel's hair (which is uncomfortable as hell), he ate locusts (or locust beans, the meaning is not clear) and wild honey (which probably didn't taste all that bad, but he would have had to fight the bees for it).

He was ascetic, he was wild, he was eccentric.  And people flocked to him in droves.

Why?

My personal opinion is that people were drawn to him, not in spite of his odd lifestyle, but because of it.  He eschewed comfortable clothes, palatable food and pleasant company.  The reason he did this was that these things were obstacles to him in his search for enlightenment and in his ability to commune with God.  There is something admirable about a streamlined, simplified life.

But I think John's message ran deeper than just the minor distractions of luxuries.  He was free of worrying what people thought about him, free of caring about judgment, free of the desire to please, to compete, to prove himself.  He seemed to be free of grudges, of needing to compete, of keeping up with the Joneses.

In short, he was free of a number of obstacles you and I struggle with daily.  These obstacles prevent wisdom, charity, peace, justice and love into our hearts.  These obstacles also prevent these virtues from flowing out of our heart.

John was a herald.  Heralds would have been a fairly common occurrence in John's time, and his listeners would have been well-acquainted with them.  When a king traveled visit the cities in his kingdom, he would send a herald, sometimes months ahead of the visit, and they would say things much like John said: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!"

This was to advise cities to patch and sweep their roads, to decorate the main drag, to put on their best clothes in order to show the king the best they had to offer.

Of course, John was not announcing the arrival of an ordinary king.  He was heralding the coming of Christ.  He was not advising them to patch the roads of their city and make them straight, he was calling on people to straighten the roads into their heart.

He was advising them to remove the obstacles that would prevent the message of Christ from entering into their hearts.

That is what we are being called to do this Advent season.  A season of preparation, we are called to wait for the coming of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas.  We are called to clear away all the things that might make the roads in and out of our hearts level so that we can not only receive the message of peace, justice and love he conveyed, but so that acts of peace, justice and love can flow our of our own hearts in return.

May we do so this Advent season.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

How to reign from below

My sermon for this week is based on Matthew 25:31-46.

Sorry, no audio this week:)

When I was a child, I used to love to play "King of the Mountain".  The concept of this game was pretty simple: claw your way to the top of a big pile of snow, throw off whoever was on top, and proclaim loudly that you were now the King of the Mountain.

Victory was always short-lived, mind you.  It never took long for someone else to dethrone you unceremoniously.  Even if a sixth-grader got up there and held the mountain for a few minutes, a group of third-graders would form an impromptu alliance, and several of them would mob the sixth-grader off the mountain.

No sooner would their task be completed than this alliance would promptly dissolve, and the third-graders would fall immediately upon one another to try to gain supremacy.

Although loads of fun, this was essentially a game of domination, superiority and power.  The goal was simple, there were no rules, and it was, ultimately, every one for him/herself.

I suspect just about every kid has played some version of this game.  I don't know when or why we stopped playing it, but I am fairly sure that in a very real way, we never really outgrew it.  We just set our sights on other mountains.

The reason I say that is that you cannot tell me we are not still playing one big game of King of the Mountain.  Whether you become king by education, money, power, property, position or brute strength, we are all still trying to claw our way to the summit.

Enter the Reign of Christ Sunday, a day in which we call to mind the kingship, the kingdom and the rule of Christ.

"But wait", you say.  "Jesus was never a king, he never ruled anything".

Quite true, but that is because we are judging kingship in human terms.  In truth, Christ's only crown was thorns, the closest thing he had to a throne was a crucifix and the closest thing he had to a victory march was the long walk to Golgotha carrying the instrument of his death.

Not very regal, is it?

You and I an just about every other person in the world throughout history judge or have judged the success of kings or kingdoms (and by extension our own success) in very real-world terms: do you have a great army?  Do you have luxurious palace?  Do you have lots of land or money in your coffers?  Basically, are you rich and powerful?

How, therefore, can we be audacious enough to claim that Christ was a king?  He was never in a battle, never claimed a country, usurped a throne or sacked a city.  He did not sit high upon a throne and rule from above.

We are audacious enough to claim it because he reigned from below, using different values than the ones the world uses.  Rather than rule through military might, financial, military or political prowess, he ruled through mercy, love, peace, justice, humility and service.

And that is why he is a king.

There are fridge magnets and FB memes out there that I generally cringe at, but which nonetheless ring true.  They run along the lines of "When you die, it will not matter how much money you had in the bank, what kind of car you drive, how nice your house is.  What will matter is who you helped along the way".

Cliche, perhaps, but all too true.  So how do we do what matters?  Are we not entirely inconsequential?  How can one person make a difference in the face of so much need in the world?

The great thing is that the world does not need us to be great generals, politicians, philanthropists or missionaries.  It just needs us to help in our cities and towns, in our neighbourhoods, on our blocks.  The world needs us to reach out to our neighbour.

Remember that the Divine is in everyone you see, and the Divine is within you.  Everyone deserves therefore to be treated as a child of God.

"Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do also to me".

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why isn't the Bible a living document?

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 25:14-30.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

I have always thought it a little odd that the Bible, of all documents, is not considered to be a "living document".

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term (as it is buzzwordy), a living document is a document which is updated and edited on an ongoing basis to reflect changes in the organization/topic it addresses.  So for example, a mission statement, constitution, scientific or legal document may be considered "living" as it can be changed to reflect new findings or situations.

The Bible, on the other hand, is a "dead" document, like a novel.  No changes are needed, required or welcome.

But this is what Jesus indicts the Pharisees for in today's Gospel passage.  The slave who buries the money his master entrusted to him is supposed to be the Pharisees.  Rather than trade, invest and grow the money he was entrusted with like the other slaves did, he played it safe.  By burying the money, he protected it, but it did not grow to the benefit of others and of God (the erstwhile landowner).

The Pharisees wanted to freeze the law.  They wanted to conserve it, bury it, strangle it so that it never changed.  They could not accept new thoughts or directions.  And for this, they are rebuked by the landowner.

The proof that Scripture and faith must be allowed to move, grow and change, and indeed are supposed to, is contained in the Gospel for today.

No one could disagree that Martin Luther King Jr. was a man inspired by God.  No one could disagree that the Civil Rights movement was good and Godly.  No one could disagree that the abolition of slavery, and the elevation of all men and women to a state of equal rights is perfectly in line with Christian principles.

And yet Jesus mentions slaves very casually in today's parable.

He mentions them in other parables very casually,  They are messengers, couriers and stewards, which was perfectly in line with Jesus' culture, which is why he did not speak out against them.  That was the culture he was raised in.

Are we to reason that simply because Jesus did not thunder against slavery from the mountaintop that he A) endorsed slavery or that B) we should endorse slavery?

Surely not.

The abolition of slavery, the equality of women, the right to same-sex marriage are all products of our ever-increasing and expanding consciousness, of our growing ethics, faith and morality.

Our faith, like Scripture should be allowed to breathe.  That requires a little bit of risk on our part.  It is a risk to share, to give, to sacrifice.

Last week I recommended we all do something a little foolish.  This week, I recommend we all take a risk.  We might lose something in the gamble, but we have so much to gain, and so many ways to grow.  If we do not take that risk, we will always get what we have always gotten.

Monday, November 10, 2014

In praise of foolish virgins

My sermon for this week is based on Mark 25:1-13.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

This week we observe Remembrance Day, and I can't speak for anyone but myself, but the observance of this day always leaves me in a bit of a quandary.  I had family who service in WWII, some of whom made it home, some of whom did not.  I knew someone in high school who died in the Gulf War.  I respect and honour their courage, but I do not respect and honour war.  I want to hold up the fact that they fought without holding up the fighting.

I have looked deep in the heart of me on a number of occasions, and I have to confess that I do not have what it takes to be a soldier, or to be a police officer or a firefighter.  I do not have what it takes to embrace a vocation where my life is on the line on a regular basis.

The fact of the matter is that it scares me.  Every fiber of my being calls me to keep myself safe, to not risk my life, to stay out of harm's way.  This is our inborn instinct of survival.

Military service is a vocation that seems like folly to me.  Don't misunderstand me, I am not calling our men and women who serve foolish.  I am merely pointing out that to deliberately and knowingly place yourself in harm's way for the good of other people is, by definition, folly, as in the opposite of wisdom.

I would like to speak out in praise of folly.

Today's Gospel passage describes an ancient Jewish wedding custom.  To simplify, the groom was to show up at the bride's house in the middle of the night, but the exact hour of his arrival was always uncertain.  So the bridesmaids were to wait with the bride at her house on the night of the big event.  When the announcement was made that the groom was approaching, they were to light their lamps and accompany the wedding party through the darkness to the feast.

In the Parable for today, five bridesmaids (or virgins in some translations) were wise, in that they had ample oil to keep their lamps lit, while five were foolish in that they did not.

It would have been folly for the wise virgins to give some of their oil to the foolish virgins,  It would have been folly for them to give something for which they had paid, something which they required to discharge their duty.

We are supposed to side with the "Wise Virgins", but I just can't.  I know I am supposed to be impressed and influenced by their wisdom and foresight, but I am not.

The problem is that I actually think they were greedy, stingy and self-serving.  I suspect that if they had shared their oil with the their "foolish" counterparts, all could have enjoyed the wedding feast.

What if, for example, all the members of the armed services sat down and said, "I have what is mine and that is all I need.  Screw you and your need, I am ok"?

What if all the members of the law enforcement services and firefighters said the same?

What if doctors, nurses and EMT said the same?

What if volunteers and people who worked for charities said the same?

What if every Christian said the same?

Well, you get the picture I am trying to paint.

The fact of the matter is that there is something present in the spirit of most human beings.  Something that tells us to give to those who have less that us, to protect those who cannot protect themselves, to uplift those who cannot lift themselves up.

But this is, by definition, folly.

If you buy a homeless person a meal, chances are he or she will never buy you a meal in return.  It is a losing proposition from you standpoint.  The transaction only works one way, so from an economic standpoint, the gesture is folly as far as you are concerned.

But as Christians, we are called to live a life of folly.

Perhaps we are not all called to go to war, but we are called to practice the same selflessness that our men and women in the armed services practice on a daily basis.

Today, do something foolish.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Re-writing the Beatitudes

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 5:1-12.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Ancient peoples laboured under a fairly straightforward equation: if you do good things, God will love you and He will give you good things.  You would be blessed.  The corollary was also true: if you do bad things, God will hate you and give you bad things.  You would be cursed..

We've come a long way, though, right?  Surely, we no longer make such a rigid distinction between who is affirmed and who is not in our society, right?

Haha, I just made myself laugh.

The fact of the matter is that the difference between the haves and have-nots are more pronounced than ever.  We glorify movie and rock stars, athletes, we affirm the wealthy, the powerful, the educated.  Conversely, we negate the poor, the homeless, the sick, the powerless.  We line up to buy the latest iPhone while others line up for a bowl of soup.

Why, in 6000 odd years of recorded history have we not gotten better at this whole humanity thing?

The Sermon on the Mount, and particularly the Beatitudes we read today have been rightly called the most revolutionary speech of all times.

The reason being is that Jesus' listeners brought the expectations of their time and culture with them when they sat down with Jesus on the Mount.  And when Jesus started talking about who was blessed, they were undoubtedly expecting him to say exactly what they already thought: blessed were the rich, healthy and powerful.  The evidence was that they were rich, healthy and successful.  Clearly, God loved and blessed them and had showered them with good things.  Obviously.

But Jesus didn't say that.  He said blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are outcast.

This would have stood his listeners on their heads because it would have run counter to their expectations, as it runs counter to ours.

We look at movie stars and say they are lucky (another way of saying blessed, really).  We look at athletes and say the same thing.  We look at the rich and envy them.

Perhaps we don't envy the poor, hungry or sick, but how revolutionary is it to think that their lack is in no way reflective of how much or how little God loves them, or that they are worthy of love, period?

The word "beatitude" means "supreme blessedness".  It has the same root as the term "beatific vision".  We celebrate All Saints Day today, and what distinguishes the Saints from the rest of us is that they had received a "beatific vision".  In simple terms, they had caught a glimpse of God that was clearer, more lucid and more accurate than your average person.  They understood God and his will more coherently, and that is what made them special.

So why do we call the Beatitudes the Beatitudes?  And why should people we normally associate with hard luck be the recipients of God's supreme blessedness?  I certainly don't feel that way when I am one of the people listed in them.

I think what it comes down to is wealth, comfort, power, prestige and constant health risks making us blasé.  There is nothing wrong with considering them "blessings", but the key is to be consciously grateful for them.  And so many of us take our blessings for granted.

The poor, the hungry, the sick, the homeless are those who actually constantly seek God and his compassion.  We, on the other hand, often feel we don't need it because we are just doing so darn well on our own, thanks.  The downtrodden know God and his mercy in way that you and I often forget or deliberately ignore.

The other key is to realize that even though someone may be poor, ill, homeless or mentally ill, that does not mean they are any less loved by God.

More importantly, they are no less worthy of our love and respect.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Gomeshi-gate will be gone next week...and why that is dangerous

I woke up this morning and rolled my eyes at yet another 8000 Facebook feeds about Jian Gomeshi.  I mean, go away already, will ya?

And then I realized how terrible a thing that was.

It got me thinking about the power of mass/social media, and how despite the enormous good it can and does often do in terms, it also has a corollary effect that may actually be dangerous.

It turns news into pop music.

We are all aware of the phenomenon: a song comes out, we hear it on the radio, in the shopping center, in the elevator, and although we might find it kind of catchy at first, within a few days, we become so saturated by it that we would rather gouge our ears than hear it again and we curse the day that "artist" was ever born.

Except when considered as a larger cultural phenomenon, pop music is by definition disposable and inconsequential.  Some news pieces fall into the same category.  We live in an age where any moron can have a YouTube channel, pen op-ed pieces or author a blog (case in point).

The vast majority of these pieces of news/information/opinion are not worth absorbing or dwelling upon.  But some are.

Several weeks ago, Jennifer Lawrence's privacy was violated as someone hacked her computer and stole intimate photos of her.  What followed was a week or so of coverage, and then we grew tired of it.  No one mentions that injustice any more.  Or at least if they are, no one seems to be listening.

Now it's Jian Gomeshi.  I am already sick of it, and I note on Facebook that many people are feeling the same way.  The sad fact is that it will all be gone next week, and his name and the names of his victims will not be mentioned again until whatever court cases come out of it take place.

We must not let that happen.

Thanks to the speed and force of information to which we are all subjected, the injustices that are done in the world fade that much quicker into the background, because compared to our ancestors, we have so much more background to filter through.  We absorb more information over breakfast than our grandparents did in a week.

Jian Gomeshi himself can go away, but the issues this situation brings up cannot.  Issues of equality, issues of sexual consent, issues of male and celebrity abuse of power, issues of respect, issues of violation, boundaries, safety.

We can't let this conversation go away.  It is too important.  The fact that this still needs to be a conversation in this day and age is already an affront to our dignity as a race.  But it is obviously a conversation which still needs to be had.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Why we don't blame a gun for a murder

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 22: 34-36.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Like everyone else, I have been deeply shocked and saddened by the events in Quebec and Ottawa this past week.

Like everyone else, I am left with one resounding and unanswered question: why?

Why did these men commit these heinous acts?  What led them violence, to take innocent lives, to cast aside all semblance of human decency?

If you spent more than 5 seconds combing the internet in the days following these events, you will perhaps have been as disappointed as I was to see how willing people are to find an answer to that question, no matter how distasteful.

In the days following, people have blamed the fact that he was Muslim (even though this seems to be a recent conversion), that he was an immigrant (even though he was born in Canada), that he had a history of drug use, that he came from a broken home, etc, etc.

In the end, I don't think we will ever find an answer as to why these men abandoned their humanity, and I would certainly caution us from trying to find answers that are too easy.

In an interview on CNN, Reza Aslan, author of "Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" responds to the question, "Does Islam promote violence?".  He answers that Islam, like Christianity, like Hinduism, does not promote violence.  They do not promote peace, either.  It depends on what you bring to the table.  If you are inherently peaceful, your Islam, Christianity, etc. will be peaceful.  If you are inherently violent, your Islam, Christianity, etc. will be violent.

The fact is that most ideologies, whether religious, secular, political or philosophical are no inherently violent or peaceful.  It is how people wield those philosophies that will determine whether are violent or peaceful.

In the same sense, a hammer is not inherently violent or peaceful.  It can be used to build a shelter, or to hit someone over the head.  A gun can be used to procure food, or to cause harm to another human being.

These objects have no sense of good or evil.  They are inanimate objects, and it is in how they are wielded that determines their nature.

In the Gospel passage for today, Jesus calls upon us to have certain words written on our hearts.  When asked what is the most important commandment, he could have chosen from the 10 biggies, or one of the several hundred lesser ones scattered throughout mostly the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Instead of naming any of those laws, he quotes instead a passage in the Book of Deuteronomy, which bears repeating in its entirety: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates".

In other words, love God ALL THE TIME.  Combined with an admonition in Leviticus to love your neighbour as yourself, this "Great Commandment" that Jesus issues in the Gospel for today calls us to love God and love your neighbour ALL THE TIME.

He is not merely calling us to act loving or to commit loving acts, but to actually love God and neighbour.

He is asking us to write the words of love, peace, justice, mercy and compassion on our hearts, where other words can so easily be written.

For example, if you really hated someone and wanted to kill them, but the only thing preventing you from doing so was fear of punishment if you were caught, does that actually make you a good person?  Are you really comfortable with the very slender difference between wanting to commit an act and actually committing it?  Because if you were otherwise willing and able to commit such an act, that means that hatred and murder are written on your heart.

Jesus is advising us to not even approach that precipice where hatred and murder can become written on our heart.  He is advising us to write words of love on our heart instead.

In the end, the men that committed these acts simply had violence written on their hearts, and that is what they acted on.

Let us look on our own hearts to ensure better words are written there.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What Martin Luther King Jr. and Hitler have in common

My sermon for today was based on Matthew 22: 15-22.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Ok, so granted, MLK Jr. and Hitler rarely, if ever, get mentioned in the same sentence, but the reality is that both of them were very charismatic individuals, gifted orators and inspired thousands.

But there is, of course, one reeeeally big difference: one was good, the other was evil.

One used his words and his gifts to liberate, to empower, to build other people up.  The other used his gifts to enslave, to coerce, to crush an entire race and serve his own insane ego.

Each was gifted, but their motivations differed greatly.

And isn't that true about all of us?

We are all gifted, whether we are aware of it or not.  We all have talents and skills, whether they be artistic, intellectual, wealth, time, or what have you.

The relevant question is what do we do with those gifts?  What should we do with those gifts?

Today's Gospel is a perfect example of gifts gone wrong.  The Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus with perhaps one of the most loaded questions ever asked.

It should first of all strike us as funny that the Pharisees and the Herodians should even be in the same room together.  The former were the ultra-orthodox of Judaism, while the latter were from Herod's entourage, the same Herod who called himself the "King of the Jews", a big no-no according to orthodox Judaism.  But nonetheless, Jesus is enough of a threat to both groups that these enemies are willing and able to hop into bed together to put a stop to him.

They ask Jesus whether it is lawful to pay the tribute tax to Caesar.  This was a bone of contention within Judaism because it amounted to acknowledging the Caesar's claim that he was their king and that he was their God.  Neither sat well with a monotheistic people.

The problem is this: if he says yes, the Pharisees will hang him because he is speaking blasphemously against Jewish law.  If he says no, the Herodians will hang him because he speaking seditiously against Roman law.

Typical Jesus, he skirts the question by asking them to produce the coins that were used to pay the tax.  We don't know whether it is a Pharisee or a Herodian, but someone has one, and they are thus incriminated because according to Jewish law (which even the Herodians claimed to follow), they are not supposed to carry that currency because it bears the likeness and the title of the Caesar.

But Scripture makes nothing of that point.

It makes much of Jesus' response: "Give unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar", meaning if it has his face on it, it belongs to him, so you might as well give it back.

He follows it up by saying, "Give unto God that which is God's".

What is striking to me about this passage is not so much Jesus's answer, but it's that it is obviously a well-arranged set-up.

The Pharisees and the Herodians quite obviously got together and hatched this scheme together to entrap Jesus.  And is is a pretty brilliant scheme which Jesus only just manages to slip out of.  A pretty brilliant scheme which took some pretty brilliant minds to come up with.

I can't help but wonder what the Pharisees and Herodians could have accomplished if they had sat down and bent their significant intellects and resources towards bettering themselves, their fellow men and women, and their society.

But instead, they followed their own selfish drives and collaborated to eliminate a man who tried to free us all from bondage to self, the oppression of elitist religion and politics.

That's pretty sad.  Imagine what all of the evil in the world could accomplish if they just turned to good instead.

Imagine what we could accomplish.

Always come dressed for the occasion

My sermon for today was based on Matthew 22:1-14.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Most of us spend at least a few minutes every morning deciding what to wear.  We want to dress appropriately, depending on the situation(s) we will face throughout the day.  I for one don't feel there is necessarily anything wrong with this, but there is a corollary to this which often goes unconsidered.

While we dedicate time every day deciding how to clothe our bodies, do we also dedicate time to deciding how to clothe our souls?

To phrase it somewhat less esoterically, we decide every day how we will look to people.  Do we also take the time to decide how we will treat people?

Do we, for example, "clothe" ourselves every day with justice, peace, mercy, compassion, all the virtues we consider good and Godly?

Part of this Gospel passage deals with the metaphor of clothing, and I would like to focus on that aspect of the passage.

This Gospel passage is actually a mash-up of two pieces of Rabbinical wisdom with which Jesus' listeners would have been well familiar, but which are generally lost on the modern reader, or at least so deeply buried in metaphor and hyperbole that the wisdom contained therein is often lost.

The first has to do with being prepared (the king calling his guests for the feast), the second has to do with being appropriately "attired" for the event.

I want to focus on the second lesson.  Even in this day and age, we are expected to be appropriately attired for certain events.  We are expected to not wear pyjamas to a job interview.  We don't wear miniskirts to a funeral.  We don't wear shorts and sandals to a wedding (unless it's that kind of wedding).  But in ancient Judaism, that cultural imperative was much more serious.

So when this guy shows up for a special event and he is not appropriately attired, he is dealt with quite severely by the king.  The king's reaction in Jesus' parable is well over the top.  Jesus is trying to make a point.

The point is that we should be appropriately "attired" for special events.  But Jesus was not shallow: he most certainly was not talking about clothing or physical appearance.  Jesus always stressed spiritual values over material ones.

Jesus, I think, is talking about being spiritually attired for the outside world, demonstrating virtue in the world.

Are we more concerned with how we look rather than how we act?

Let's be properly dressed for the occasion.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Sometimes the sermon is about you

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 21:33-46.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Like most preachers, I try to craft my sermons to make them relevant to things that are relevant to the congregation, obviously without  mentioning names.  So a few years ago, I had a very impatient parishioner to whom I will assign the pseudonym "Jim".  Many members of the parish were finding it difficult to work with him, but he had somehow become involved with just about every committee at the church.

So when a Gospel passage came up that spoke of the virtues of patience and tolerance, I took the opportunity to extol those very same virtues in the hopes that Jim, among others in the parish, would seriously consider how they were treating their fellow brothers and sisters.

As I preached, I noticed Jim smiling and nodding sagely, and I thought, "Great!  He is getting the point!"

At the end of the service, as I said goodbye to everyone, Jim came up to me and shook my hand.  He said, "That was a terrific sermon.  Boy, do I wish my wife had been here to hear that!"

Sometimes, the sermon is about you, not about the person sitting in the other pew.

Similarly, sometimes Jesus' parables are about us.

Actually, they are ALWAYS about us.

The Parable of the Landowner has often been promoted by Christianity as proof positive that God no longer favours Judaism, but favours Christianity instead.  The idea being that God is the Landowner, the vineyard represents the Kingdom, and the tenants are the Jews.

But this is not even close to what Jesus meant.  Jesus is issuing an indictment, but it is not against "the Jews"...after all, he was one.

He is issuing an indictment against the chief priests and scribes, though, because they had failed to take care of the greatest fruit of the Kingdom.

In the OT, a "vineyard" is often used a a metaphor for the people of Israel.  Not for land, not for the Kingdom of God, but for people.

This should alter our perception and understanding of the parable.  If the vineyard is a metaphor for people, then the indictment against the chief priests and scribes is not that they have squandered the wealth of God's Kingdom, the fruits of God's generosity, but that they had failed to care for that wealth and those fruits, and that wealth is people.

We are called to care for each other, to defend one another, to love, support, cherish and encourage one another.

The problem with the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees was that they were asked to tend to the people, and they failed to do that.  They did not use their knowledge of the Law and their positions to elevate anyone but themselves.

The problem is that many of us are in positions of power and knowledge, whether we like it or not.  Whether we are parents of children who need us, grown children with elderly parents who need  us, whether we are in positions at work that place people under our supervision, whether we volunteer, are members of a church or support group, whether we have a friend in need, we have power and influence.

Do we use this to care for the vineyard, or to hoard the fruit for ourselves and trample the vines?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

If you're happy and you know it, shut your face

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 20:1-16.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here

There is a creepy twist of human nature that never ceases to disappointment me, not least when it occurs in me, which I admit it occasionally does.

That twist is this: people who are safe, comfortable, secure and having their needs met (if not grossly exceeded) criticizing others for getting their needs met.

Let me give you a few examples: this week I was listening to the CBC, and there was a call-in show to discuss the Canadian government's decision to deny refugee status and deport a Pakistani woman back to her home country where she faces the death penalty...for adultery, of all the stupid things.

Now, once I had overcome the shock over our government's appalling lack of judgement and mercy, I waited for the phone calls to flood in supporting this woman.

But most of the people who called in complained that "If you come to our country, you follow our laws or go home", and some such other similar bullshit.

(Let's ignore the fact that these people totally seemed to miss the point that this woman did NOT commit a crime in Canada.  She was employed at a diner, payed her taxes and was a contributing member of Canadian society)

Let's get to the other point: it is easy to pontificate when the justice system is working comfortably in your favour.  This is an easy statement to make when the justice system is not condemning you to death.

I have friends who occasionally make glib comments or post pithy little memes on Facebook to the effect of "If I have to get a drug test for my job, welfare recipients should have to get a drug test to receive welfare".

This is an easy statement to make when you have a full-time job, when you are paying the bills, and when you are not suffering the ravages of addiction.

I hear people complain that gay marriage means that gay people now have access to the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples.

An easy complaint to make when you get the tax breaks, the baby bonuses and societal, legal, emotional, and spiritual affirmation and benefits of your relationship on a daily basis.

So to recap: if we are being treated fairly, if our needs are being met, if we are doing ok, why do we feel we have any reason to complain about the needs of others being met?

This gospel passage should be a slap in the face to us.  It tells the story of a landowner who goes out and hires some labourers in the market first thing in the morning.  Later in the day, he hires more.  Several more times throughout the day, he does this, until 5 pm rolls around, one hour before the end of the working day, and he hires a few more.

At the end of the day, he calls them all in, and he pays the men he hired at the literal eleventh hour a full days' wage.

The workers who were there first thing in the morning must have thought their ship had come in, reasoning that if he payed people who worked only one hour a full days' wage, they would be getting a HUGE pay.

But he pays them a days wage, what they had contracted for in the first place.  And they complain.

The landowner says, "Look, I have treated you fairly, haven't I?  I gave you a fair days' wage for a fair days' work.  If I chose to give these other guys a full wage, that is none of your business".

Are our needs being met?  Are we doing ok?  Did we eat breakfast this morning?  Did we get in a car and drive to a job?  Did we come home to a house, apartment or condo?  Do we have a few dollars left over at the end of the week to play around with?

Then we are already head and shoulders above a huge swath of the world's population.  There are people out there who do not and will never have any of those things.  And do we yet complain?

If we are being treated fairly and our needs are being met, the reality is that we may have every right to complain, but we have very little reason to complain.  Furthermore, most people don't want to hear us complain either.  They have their own problems.

And people being deported, living on welfare and facing discrimination (to cite just several examples) do not need our resentment and derision added on top of their burdens.

Perhaps the world would be better served if we cultivated the virtues of mercy, forgiveness, tolerance and justice for those in the world who are not as blessed as we are, rather than crapping on people who just need a little help and understanding.

Perhaps we would better serve ourselves and each other by cultivating gratitude for all the gifts we so often take for granted.

Perhaps we would be better off if we could just learn and decide to be happy.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Astronomical forgiveness

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 18:21-35.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

In today's Gospel, Peter asks Jesus how many time we should forgive someone.  He suggest 7 times.  Chances are, Peter was trying to suck up to Jesus here, because it was apparently pretty clear in Jewish Law that the maximum number of times you should forgive someone was 3.  After that, all bets were off.

Now Peter was probably expecting to get a gold star from Jesus for suggesting that he forgive someone 7 times, which is double the prerequisite, plus one.  But Jesus ups the game by saying, "No, you should forgive someone 70 times 7 times".

I'll save you the trouble, that's 490 times.

Now, the most obvious question to me is what kind of moron would allow someone to sin against them 490 times and still forgive them?  No one, that's who, and I don't even think Jesus is really suggesting that number.

Rather, I expect he is using hyperbole to make the point that we should adopt a permanent and constant attitude of forgiveness.  I do not think Jesus would advocate us being good-natured doormats!

The reason I expect he is using hyperbole is that he unquestionably uses it in the parable he tells to illustrate his point, but that hyperbole is lost on most of us because we do not know the exchange rate of talents to denarii.

Jesus tells the story of a king whose slave owes him 10 000 talents.  A talent was a monetary unit that could be divided into denarii.  There were 6000 denarii to a talent, and one denarius was considered a day's wage.

So let's put this into modern perspective: Ontario minimum wage is $11 per hour.  An average work day is 8 hours, so therefore, an average day's wage would be $88.

So, multiply that by 6000 (the amount of day's wages in a talent) and multiply that again by 10 000 (the amount of talents the slave owed) and what do you get in modern terms?

$5 280 000 000.

That's not a mistake.  This slave owed the king in excess of 5 billion dollars.

So there are a couple of things which lead me to believe Jesus was exaggerating.  First, no "slave" would ever have had that much money at his disposal.  Second, no king would ever forgive that much debt.  This is an impossible sum of money when you consider that according to one source, the average GDP of the Galilee in Jesus' time was estimated to be about 300 talents.

But Jesus is trying to make a point here.  The king clearly represents God, and the first point Jesus tries to make is that God's forgiveness knows no bounds.

Except to those who are not forgiving, apparently.

This slave, who should be in the best mood ever recorded by man, goes out and gets stingy with his fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii.  Using the same math I used above, he is owed $8800, which is not an insignificant sum, but compared to 5 billion dollars?  Come on...

Clearly, something was wrong with this guy that he was not able to show the same forgiveness he was shown.  Clearly, he had failed to absorb any gratitude or any lesson whatsoever.

Here is the thing about forgiveness: it is essentially selfish.  When I forgive someone, I don't do it to make them feel better.  I do it to make me feel better.  Yes, the other person probably feels better, and that is great (I have certainly felt relieved when I have been forgiven by others for things I have done), but the truth of the matter is that I do it principally so I don't have to walk around carrying a grudge.

My shoulders are not that broad that I could go around carrying every petty grudge I have against someone, and so call it lax if you must, call it selfish, but I try as much as possible to let things go.

Like I said, we are not called or expected to be door-mats, but neither are we called to be dumping ground.  Just because someone dumps on us doesn't mean we have to take, and it doesn't mean we have to hang on to it.

Try to imagine someone in your life against whom you bear a grudge.  Now try to imagine waking up tomorrow and that grudge is gone.  See how much headspace and heartspace you have just opened up?

Yeah, it's simple.  Why would it need to be any more complicated?

And if God can forgive the sins of an entire world, if Christ could forgive those who betrayed, mocked, scorned, beat, scourged and ultimately executed him...can we not forgive others for their transgressions against us?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

How to kill a church

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 18:15-20.

To hear my sermon, click here.

I'll let you in on a little secret.  I know a sure-fire way to kill any church, stone dead.  For that matter, I also know how to kill any marriage, friendship and working relationship.  The secret is simple.

Avoid conflict.

It sounds counter-intuitive, because like most sane people, I am hard-wired to avoid conflict.  I don't like it.  I don't like the way it makes me feel.  I don't like how vulnerable it makes me.  I don't like facing the possibility I may be in the wrong.  I don't like being the person telling another person they are in the wrong.

But the fact remains that just about every lesson worth learning I have learned in this life, just about every new and rewarding level I have attained in all my personal and professional relationships have come as the result of successfully negotiating conflict.

Conflict is not the terrible thing we as a society make it out to be.  It can and often is extraordinarily positive and life giving, as long as it is addressed in the appropriate manner.

Jesus gives us some hints as to how we should approach conflict in today's gospel.

Now, there are a couple of things in this passage that don't quite ring true.  First of all, the author refers to "the church", when in reality the Christian movement would only start referring to itself as a church several decades after Jesus' death.  Second, Jesus advises his followers to treat unrepentant "conflicters" like "Gentiles and tax collectors", meaning that they should be ostracized.  In truth, Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors pretty well, and I don't think he would have advised anyone to ostracize anyone else.  Ever.

So we can be sure that Jesus did not actually utter those very words.  However, we can be equally sure that he uttered something like it, important enough to be recorded in Matthew's gospel.

You will notice when it comes to conflict that he says we should address the person we are in conflict with in person, face to face.

Notice what he does NOT say:

"You should complain about each other behind each others' back"

"You should sow dissent amongst each other around the water cooler"

"You should triangulate one another, gather recruits, and stab each other in the back"

"You should let conflict fester and go unacknowledged"

I have a colleague whose office is right next to the church kitchen, and he is fond of saying that he had been assassinated more times in that kitchen than he can count.  Clearly, some people in his church are not aware that sound travels in their church, so if anyone is unhappy about something he has done, he has little choice but to hear about it, because that seems to be where people air their complaints about him.

And his question is, "Why don't they come next door and tell me to my face?"

As a priest, I am often privy to person A complaining about person B, and my response is usually to suggest they stop telling me, and they go to the person in question.

Jesus advocates an immediate, face to face resolution to the conflict.  Should that fail, others may be involved to act as mediators.

The fact of the matter is that very few people like to rock the boat, but as the saying goes, real boats rock.  That is how boats establish their equilibrium upon an unpredictable surface, and that is how boats actually stay afloat.

Relationships, whether they be church, family, romantic or professional are much the same.  They stay afloat not by failing to rock, but by successfully negotiating the rocking.

The fact is that in any organization, particularly one as large and eclectic as a church, people will disagree.  They will disagree on trivialities such as what pattern of paper plates to use at the church picnic, and they will disagree on crucial church matter such as how to disburse donations or what mission projects to engage in.

But in the end, we are called to do God's will, to help the world wherever we can.  That sometimes means disagreeing, but committing anyway.

Ideally, a church can be a unified body.  In my experience, that has NEVER happened, at least to my knowledge.  But if we can put our egos aside and keep our eyes on the prize (which is DOING God's will, helping our brothers and sisters, supporting each other through the rocking of life), we will doing much better.  We are here for a greater purpose that ourselves, and we are meant to be saving our energies for greater conflicts out there in the world.

If our boat must rock, let us all at least be rowing in generally the same direction.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How to identify an elephant

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 16:13-20.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

There is a great fable from India that tells the story of 3 blind men who are tasked with understanding the what an elephant looks like.

The first man grabs hold of the elephant's tail and asserts, "An elephant is like a rope".

The second grabs the trunk and says, "An elephant is like a snake".

The third lays hold of a leg and claims, "An elephant is like a tree".

There are different variations, but as the story generally goes, the three men cannot agree with one another on the nature of an elephant based on their own individual perceptions, and actually begin beating one another up because they are so sure of those perceptions.

I get the impression that this is precisely what has happened to Jesus over the years.

Jesus is of course the namesake and role model for our faith as Christians, or at least he ought to be.  But the problem is that we often have such radically different interpretations of who or what Jesus was or is.  This is compounded by the various ways in which Jesus has been understood or appropriated by different groups over the years.  How are we to know who, exactly, Jesus is?

In a sense, it is rather unfortunate that Peter answers the question for us in today's Gospel.  When Jesus asks, "Who do you say I am?", Peter responds, "You are the Messiah".

This kinda closes down the discussion, doesn't it?  It's in the Bible, so it must be true, right?

Not so fast.

Jesus is a pretty versatile character.  The disciples called Jesus rabbi, which means teacher.  They also called him friend.  MLK Jr. portrayed Jesus as the ultimate liberator.  Today, Christians use Jesus as a moral role model by asking "What would Jesus do?" (remember, freaking out and throwing over tables therefore becomes an option).

In reality, you and I need to ask, "Who do we think Jesus is?", because as Christians, we should know who and what he is to us.

There is an interesting corollary to this Gospel passage that often goes unnamed.  Peter tells Jesus who he thinks he is, but then Jesus tells Peter who he think he is.

Rash Peter, who whips out his sword and cuts off the Centurion's ear; reckless Peter who jumps out of the boat and nearly drowns; impulsive Peter who says, "Let us go to Jerusalem to die with you!"; cowardly Peter who chokes and denies Jesus three times when the chips are down.

Now, Jesus was a bright guy and he must have know what Peter was about.  Despite Peter's pretty obvious flaws and character defects, he still chooses Peter as the rock upon which he builds his church.

If Jesus can look on Peter and see that which was good about him instead of his flaws, maybe we need to ask ourselves how Jesus would see us in return.  Would he see our weaknesses and deficiencies, or would he see us simply as gloriously flawed human beings, worthy of love?

And how ought we see ourselves and others?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Saving Jesus

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 15: 21-28.

To download the podcast, click here.

There is a tendency among Christians to want to save Jesus from all criticism, as though Jesus was incapable of error.  It comes from a good place, but I think it is wrong in a few cases, and the Gospel passage for this week is one such case.

This week, we heard the story of Jesus healing the Canaanite woman's daughter.  A little background: Canaanites and Jews were mortal enemies, and so when this woman approaches Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter, he responds by saying, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs".  Earlier in the passage, Jesus claims that he was sent "only to the lost sheep of Israel".

The what these two phrases imply is that up to this point in his life, Jesus believed that his mission, message, miracles and ministry were reserved for the Jews.  Jesus is protesting that he should not have to heal this woman's daughter because they are "dogs".

Even in Canada, this is a pretty mean insult, but if you are even remotely familiar with Middle Eastern culture, you will know that in some quarters, this is one of the worst insults you can level at someone.

Now here is where everyone wants to save Jesus.  Churchgoers, preachers and teachers of all stripes try to turn this into one of Jesus' "teaching moments".  They claim that he is speaking ironically or at least in hyperbole, that he was sharing an inside joke with the woman for the benefit of his listeners, and so on.

I suspect that the exact opposite is actually true.  I suspect that this is a "teaching moment", but that it is actually Jesus that is learning a lesson.

Here's what I think happened: even if Jesus was raised without or managed to overcome the long-standing racial hatred between Jews and Canaanites, he was almost certainly raised with the belief that Jews were God's chosen people, the elect.  So when this woman approached him asking for a boon, his response was that of a typical Jew of his time: disregard and indifference, tinged with open hostility.

But this woman responds "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs from their masters' table".

What must Jesus have felt at her response?

Her response gave witness not only to the love she had for her daughter, but also the humility (and indeed humiliation) she was willing to endure in order to have her healed.

Despite the fact that Jesus was probably taught that Gentiles were, in fact, sub-human, this woman shows the utmost love, devotion and humility.  She shows to Jesus the best that humanity has to offer, the qualities that exemplify humanity itself, regardless of race, creed, religion, politics or colour.

From this moment on in the Gospel, Jesus takes a much different tack: his message and mission include everyone, Gentiles as well as Jews.

And why is this such a bad thing?  Why is it so unbelievable that Jesus had to learn a few lessons along the way like the rest of us?  Why can Jesus not be human an fallible, just this once?

I think the true power and the true lesson in this Gospel passage is that is that if Jesus can overcome centuries of racial hatred, if he can overcome the false lessons he was taught about the people he was likely told to fear and despise, if he was able to see through the insignificant differences that separate groups of people to the things that really make us similar on an individual level, then so can we.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Unsung Gospel Protagonists

Sorry, no audio this week.  My batteries ran out.

But my sermon was based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

In this passage, Jesus uses a number of vivid metaphors to describe the Kingdom.  Now, the first question that needs to be answered is what is the Kingdom?

Contrary to what some people may think, I am not convinced that when Jesus refers to the Kingdom, he is talking about Heaven or some celestial reward we are privy to in another life if only we toe the party line in this life.

Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus states that the Kingdom "is within you" (Luke 17), "is near you now" (Luke 10), "has come upon you" (Matthew 12).

Does this sound like something far off?  Not really.  I maintain, and I think Jesus would have too, that the Kingdom is that state which could occur here on earth if a critical mass of people would just stop being such jerks to one another.

Which brings me to my second point: if the Kingdom is something which could occur here on earth, then you and I surely have a responsibility to make that happen.  We are not meant to wait around for God to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and right the wrongs...that's our job.  That's our responsibility.

I think this is the subtext of the series of metaphors Jesus presents us with in the reading for today.  While the metaphors tell us what the Kingdom is like (and this is where most preachers and commentators go), what often goes unremarked is that each these metaphors has a protagonist.

If you have forgotten your high school English, a protagonist is a person in a story who advances the plot.  It is usually the main character, the person with whom we are most likely to identify, with whom we are meant to identify.

For example, in the metaphor of the mustard seed, it does not just say, "The kingdom is like a mustard seed".  It says, "The kingdom is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field".

In the metaphor of the leaven, the kingdom is like leaven, but it still required a woman to mix it into the dough.

In the metaphor of the hidden treasure in the field, it took a man to stumble upon it over the course of his daily labours.

In the metaphor of the pearl, it took a merchant to go seeking it and to have the knowledge and skill to identify it.

In the metaphor of the fishing net, it still took a fisherman to cast the net out in the first place.

All this to say that we are not passive recipients of the kingdom.  Like the men and women in all the stories contained in this Gospel reading, we are active participants in the Kingdom.

Not only that, but we are and should be protagonists of the Gospel.

What I mean by that is that we are the people who right the wrongs, who seek truth and justice, who feed the hungry, clothe the naked.  That is not God's job.  This is our job.

Let's get out and do it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sow what?

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

My sermon this week was base on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

The Parable of the Sower is no less fruitful (get it?) for us today than it was 2000 years ago.

The parable itself is pretty straightforward, made all the more so because it is one of the few parables that Jesus actually bothers to explain.

The tendency is for the preacher to follow the line that Jesus took: the seeds represent us and our individual faith/truth/enlightenment journeys, and each of the different fates of the seeds represents a way in which our journeys can be lived (or, more often, fail to be lived).

The first seeds fall on the path, and birds come and eat them.  The path represents the heart that is either hardened or lacks comprehension, so the seeds of wisdom cannot penetrate.

The next seeds fall on stony, shallow ground, and while they spring up quickly, the wither away just as quickly because the soil is not deep enough for the roots to find purchase or substance.  This, Jesus explains, represents those of us who find faith/truth/enlightenment quickly, but are then discouraged when we realize that the "high" passes away.  Faith is not an easy journey filled with sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, and many people who come to faith do so in a very sudden and visceral manner, expecting that they will always feel that way.  But true enlightenment is a lifelong process that takes effort, evaluation and reevaluation.

The next seeds are strewn among the thorns, and the thorns choke the good seeds out.  The thorns, Jesus explains, represent the distractions of the world which can consume us and thereby make it impossible for enlightenment to take root.

The next seeds do OK.

That is the common line.  But there is another way we can see ourselves in this passage.

What if we are not the seeds, but the sower?

What if the seeds represent not the seeds of faith/wisdom/enlightenment which may or may not be sown in our hearts, and which are seemingly prone to the caprice of elements over which we have no control?

What if our role in the world is meant to be much more active?

As any farmer will tell you, they only have limited resources to work with.  No farmer would be so careless as to throw seeds on a path, on stony ground, or into the thorns.  Farmers have to treat their resources with more care, or risk crop failure, bankruptcy and starvation.

OK, maybe I'm exaggerating, but the point remains: you and I only have limited personal resources to work with, whether that be time, talent or money.  This applies to individuals as much as to churches and any other organization or company.

Are we using our resources wisely?

Are we doing what we do best and really focusing on that, or are we madly dashing off in all directions expending our energies on things that will never bear fruit?

Don't get me wrong, I am all for trying new things, both as individuals and as churches, but there is something to be said for being a little more focused in life, for finding out what we are really adept at and putting our energies there.

Are there relationships which are depleting our energy?  Are we involved in so many activities that we do them all poorly, and should we maybe reduce our activities and do them well instead?

Today, may you spend your energy wisely, and may it bear fruit.

Monday, July 7, 2014

No good deed goes unpunished

Do download a podcast of my sermon for this Sunday, click here.

My sermon is based on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

If you have ever lived or traveled extensively on the East Coast of Canada, you are likely familiar with the term "contrary".  That word is used to refer to people who cannot be pleased, no matter what.  They complain about a free lunch, look a gift horse in the mouth and are just generally unpleasant to be around.

Despite being one of the most enlightened, loving and patient human beings to have ever existed, there must have been days when he was seriously tempted to run away and join the circus after having to deal with contrary people.

Witness the Gospel passage for today.  In this passage, Jesus is responding to people who are criticizing him.  Incidentally, these are the same people who criticized John the Baptist, but for opposite reasons.

John was a ascetic hermit, meaning that he had deliberately forsaken all the luxuries and pleasures of life.  He had even forsaken the company of other people.  He lived alone in the desert, wore a shirt of camel hair, and ate locusts and wild honey.

People looked at him and thought he must be insane or possessed.  No one in their right mind, so it was said, would eschew all the comforts of life and actually choose a lifestyle that was so difficult.

But then along comes Jesus.  Although I don't think you could call Jesus a party animal, he drank wine, ate good food and broke a lot of rules.  He also enjoyed the company of others.  In fact, he sought out the company of the "undesirable" elements of society: prostitutes, tax collectors, Gentiles and other "sinners".

And people criticized him for it, of course.

How do you win with people like that?

The answer is that you can't.  Don't bother.

At a church which shall remain nameless, there was a young man whom I will call Michael.  Michael was born with severe intellectual deficiencies and learning delays.  Due to his condition, his speech was very slurred and difficult to follow.  He expressed a desire to do a reading at church on a Sunday, and the pastor at the time was pleased to let him do it.

When the time came, he stood up and read.  And not a single word of it was intelligible.  His speech combined with his anxiety of reading in public made the reading completely incomprehensible.

But at the end of the reading, he raised his hands in a gesture of triumph and said something that everyone heard and understood.

He exclaimed happily, "I did it!"

There was not a dry eye in the house and the entire church erupted into applause.

It didn't matter to him or to anyone else that day that his reading could not be understood.  He was thrilled that he had had the courage to read in public, and everyone was thrilled for him.

What kind of person would have missed his pride and success?

The hideous irony is that Jesus' message was so simple, you have to deliberately decide to get it wrong.  All he said was love God, love your neighbour, don't judge others, forgive others, God loves you.

How did we screw that up?  How did Jesus' detractors miss his message?

Because they focused on what was "wrong" with him.

If Jesus walked into the room today, what would be our reaction?  Would we focus on his long hair?  His beard?  His robe?  His sandals?  His probably lack of personal hygiene?  The fact that he is Middle Eastern?  That he is Jewish?

Chances are, many Christians would be deeply unimpressed with Jesus and would discard him based on superficial aspects of his personal appearance and demeanor, rather than on his heart and message.

More to the point, is that what we do to other people?  Do we focus inordinately on their "shortcomings" and "failings"?  Because that is pretty easy to do.  In fact, that is plucking at the lowest-hanging fruit possible.

We are called to be better than that.  We are called to be wiser, more tolerant, more loving, more forgiving than that.

The point of faith, of religion is to lift ourselves and others up.  If you are putting people down, if your church is a place of judgement, you are doing it wrong.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The consequence of love

To download a podcast of my sermon for this week, click here.

My sermon for this week is based on Matthew 16:13-19.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, both of whom, we are told, suffered and died for the Gospel.  Therefore, naturally, they are referred to as martyrs.

Now, I have an ambiguous relationship with martyrdom.  On the one hand, I think there is something to be said for trite inspirational statements that run somewhere along the line of "If you have nothing worth dying for, you have nothing worth living for".  Whether it be your children or justice or freedom or equality, I think that we should be passionate about something in life, to the extent that we are willing to suffer for it.

But then there are people who call themselves "martyrs" because they kill themselves and take innocent people with them.  These people are NOT martyrs, and by no means should they be respected, admired or venerated.

I guess what I am saying is: be careful when tossing around the term and be careful which "martyrs" you respect.

Either way, once again, the Gospel for today revolves around love.  I have said it before and I risk saying it again that love is not a noun, it is a verb.  It is not a person, place or thing, but it is an action word.

For example, if I love someone, I try to help them, nurture them, comfort them.  I don't sit back in admiration as they go through the ringer.

Jesus asks Peter three times in today's Gospel if he loves him, and the third time Peter is understandably hurt.  Does Jesus not trust him?  Is Jesus testing him?  Is Jesus feeling whiny and insecure?

No to all three.

What we need to pay attention to is Jesus' response to Peter's answer: "If you love me, feed my sheep".

As I child, I used to ask my parents, "Do you love me?", to which they would always say, "Yes".  But then I would follow up with a request like, "Then buy me a toy".  At an early age, most of us are aware that to use the word "love" is to imply a bond, a promise, a covenant.

At its basest level, we are aware that there is a consequence to loving someone.

There is a consequence to loving Jesus, to loving God, to loving that which exemplifies the best that humanity has to offer.  That consequence is that we need to pull our heads out of the sand (or wherever we are hiding it) and get out into the world to feed the poor, clothe the naked, right the wrongs.

To say we love Christ or God and to fail to reach out and heal others or the world is to pay lip service to humanity.  It is to reduce love to a noun and not a verb.

Turn love into an action today.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

In thought, word and deed...

No audio this week, I am afraid, as I had to use visual aides and step away from a comfortable pulpit upon which to place my little recorder, but here is the writ:

I may have mentioned in a previous post how the Trinity is a poorly understood theology, and even more poorly explained by most theologians.  The reason this is so is that it is fundamentally a mystery, and there really is no way to explain it accurately.

For example, explain love.  Can't?  There you go, mystery.

Trinity Sunday is usually the day where most of us trot out really bad metaphors for the Trinity, and I am not going to be any different.

I have had the Trinity explained to me as an egg: shell, white, yolk, but all one egg.

Yeeeeeeahhhh, no.

I have had it explained as a cup of coffee with cream and sugar in: three ingredients, fully incorporated.

Neither.

My metaphor is this: there are three main ways you and I interact with our world: thought, word and deed.

Thought is pretty self-evident: it is the source of all motivation and inspiration, the source of all action, the source of intellect, judgment, discernment, interpretation.

Word: we speak, we hear, we communicate.  We state our intentions, we question, we explore through word and language.

Deed: we act.  We build, we destroy, we heal, we hurt through our actions in the world.

What I would like to imply is that the the three modes of interacting with the world correspond to the the three way God interacts with creation.

So you have in the Trinity God the Father/Mother, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  Or God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Sustainer, etc, etc.

In other words, you have God, Jesus and the Spirit.

So let's bring this back to thought, word and deed.

God as thought is once again the source of all knowledge, wisdom, morality, inspiration, motivation.  God is the wellspring through which all goodness flows.  God is the starting point of all action and indeed of all creation.

Jesus is often referred to as the Logos, the word of God made flesh.  Jesus literally spoke to us God's mind.  he told us about God's infinite love for creation, and he told us how we were meant to treat one another.

Then you have the Holy Spirit.  The problem with God is that he is not really accessible to us in the way our five senses normally access the world.  Nor is Jesus accessible to us in the same way he was to his disciples 2000 years ago.

But the Spirit is.  The Spirit used to be called the Holy Ghost, which freaked the crap out of me as a kid because it sounded like God was haunting me, but in reality we use the word all the time in a more understandable context: "They were in good spirits", "The spirit of the law is..."

The Spirit is not a ghost, the Spirit is an intention, a mode of being that puts God into action.

In effect, we are the Spirit.

Let me explain.  There is a mode of prayer that consistently annoys me.  It goes like this: "Dear God, please feed the hungry and clothe the naked".

I think many people walk away from that prayer feeling they have actually accomplished something.  Like the Holy Spirit is going to start flying around dropping food and clothes on people.

No.

A better prayer would be "God, I am thankful that I have extra clothes and food to give to the needy.  Please give me the strength and the will to go out there and find them and to do your will in the world always".

We are the vessels out of which the Spirit flows.  We are the lights through which it burns.  We are the tools through which good deeds are built.

Everywhere acts of justice, mercy, love, compassion, peace, forgiveness are wrought, there the Holy Spirit is found.

May that Spirit flow through you today.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Why the Trinity actually does make sense

Do download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

My sermon for today is based on John 14:15-21.

I am an Anglican.  That means that I am a Trinitarian.  The problem is that the Trinity is, by its very definition, a mystery.  "Mystery" is the word religious people often use to explain that which they cannot explain.

As a young person and even into seminary, I had great trouble with  the concept of the Trinity.  It seemed that God was reduced to a distant administrator, Jesus became God's clerk and the Holy Spirit became an errand boy of sorts.

Then add to that the fact that the Trinity seemed to border on polytheism ("But God is one!"), and we can perhaps understand why this is such a mystery indeed.

I have heard a number of explanations of the Trinity, ranging from the absurd to the merely whimsical (and most of them had to do with food: "The Trinity is like an egg; The Trinity is like a cup of coffee") but none of them actually ever got close to being a useful tool for spiritual wisdom.

Until seminary.  I can't remember who told me this metaphor, but this one worked for me.  This person said that as people, we interact with our world in 3 different ways.

1. Our thoughts.  We perceive the world, we analyze, we make assessments, we judge...our brain is how we perceive the world and thought is the first basis of how we interact with it.

2. Our words.  Whether we speak or write, our words have an impact on people.  Words communicate knowledge, perception, intent.

3.  Our action.  This is where we actually go out and do stuff.

So if we follow the chain, we think something, we say what we are going to do about it, and we do it.

Comparing this to the Trinity, this person said that God was the principle of thought.  God is the source of everything.  Christ, often referred to as "the Word of God made flesh" was someone to spoke the word of God, who told us what God was like and what God was not like.  He is the one who told us that God loves us dearly, and we ought to love one another dearly.  Then there is the Holy Spirit, which is that principle of action through which God still moves in the world.

The Holy Spirit is not a ghost, of course.  Whether we are religious or not, we often use the term "spirit" when we refer to the mood in a room or in a group, or even when we talk about our own mood ("He was in poor spirits; The volunteers were in high spirits").

The Spirit therefore can be conceived as the extend to which we allow ourselves to be moved by God, by our own thoughts, by the things we experience.

We perceive something, we make a statement about (internally or externally) and we act on it...hopefully acting out of love.

This chain can be interrupted, of course.  Many of us think things we do not say, we say we are going to do things but never do, and sometimes we act in ways that neither reflect what we think OR what we say.

We have a choice in most of our interactions with the world.  We can do the right thing or we can do the wrong thing.  It comes down to a moral choice: we can reach out to individuals and the world in love, or we can allow any number of other emotions to step in the way and guide that series of thought, word and deed.  We can let anger, fear or selfishness guide our process.

Let love guide your process today.