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Monday, March 10, 2014

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

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

I have always loved super-heroes.  I still do.  I think super-heroes fill the cultural void that used to be filled by stories of Gilgamesh, Prometheus and Hercules.  I think they articulate for us an age-old dilemma: what do we do with power?

As Marianne Williamson once wrote, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure".  Super-heroes embody that fear.

As a child, I used to imagine what it would be like to have a super-power.  And I must admit, sometimes I imagined using that power to help other people, and other times I imagined using that power to help myself.  And that tension is, of course, where we get super-villains.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday (Matthew 4:1-11) is one of the most vivid in all the Bible.  It tells the story of Christ's retreat to wilderness.  Having just been baptized by John, he has accepted his call to mission and ministry, but it still remains to him to understand HOW he is to discharge that mission and ministry.

As he ponders this, he is tempted three times, and each temptation is representative of directions he could have taken in order to fulfill his mission.  These directions reflect the ways of the world, but fortunately, wisdom prevails and he chooses a different direction, perhaps realizing that the ways of the world would not be sufficient, nor would they be Godly.

First, he is tempted to turn stones into bread.  Literally.  This would not only fill his own hunger (he had been fasting for 40 days), but this was also the temptation to literally feed people in order to get them to follow him.  It is still a basically understood principal that he who can feed a people can lead a people.

But the problem is this: people would be following him for the wrong reasons, and would likely desert once the food ran out.

Second, he is tempted to throw himself of the top of the Temple tower.  Ostensibly, angels would save him from death.  This is the temptation to dazzle people into following him with amazing and miraculous feats.  Admittedly, miraculously surviving a fall into the most crowded square in Jerusalem would convince most of us to follow someone.  Of course, the Gospels are replete with miracles, but notice that most of these miracles are performed under much less conspicuous circumstances, and often come with the admonition not to tell anyone about them.

The problem is this: people who are impressed by miracles often keep requiring more and more amazing miracles to sustain their faith.  That is not a firm foundation upon which to build a movement.

The third temptation is to bow down before Satan, and Satan will give him all the cities of the world (the rather disturbing implication is that Satan owns all the cities of the world, but that is perhaps for another sermon).  This is the temptation to politics.  I have heard many people imply or state baldly that Jesus was communist, socialist, etc, etc.  My personal feeling is that if he was not anti-political, he was at least apolitical.  Time and time again, Jesus eschews politics, and if anything, he was an outspoken critic of the political systems of his time.  Those systems did not work for him.  But he could have played the political game, and likely could have played it very well, and people would have followed him.

The problem is this: politics are fickle.  Most of us have lived through many transitions in government and will likely live through many more.  Political philosophies come and go, and partisan politics and bureaucracy often hamstrings the good that politics could do.

None of these ideologies would have sufficed for Christ.  None of them would have accomplished what he wanted to accomplish.  But he could have done it, and it might have been more successful in the short term.

You and I are often faced with the same dilemma, and it is the dilemma we face poignantly as we embark on our own Lenten journeys.  We are meant during this 40 day period to be reflecting on our own lives, and quite possibly making some changes.  One of the things we could reflect upon is what our own gifts and talents are, and how we want to exercise them in the world.

Do we want to use our gifts and talents to help ourselves or to help others?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return"

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

When most of us hear the words "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return", chances are we are think of funerals, and certainly these words are spoken at most funerals in one form or another.  But they are also the words spoken by the priest when he or she uses ashes (usually derived from last years' palm crosses) mixed with oil or water to mark people with the sign of the cross.  So why do we speak them on Ash Wednesday?  What does this phrase have to do with the beginning of Lent?

Lent is one of my favourite seasons, and it is the season, unfortunately, from which most non-Christians derive the notion that we are a people that likes to punish or deprive themselves.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

True, Lent often sees Christians giving up a luxury or two for the 40 days of Lent (there are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but Sundays are Sabbaths/fast days anyway, so they don't count), but the reason why we do is life-giving and affirming, not self-denying.

The 40 days of Lent are meant to reflect Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness immediately following his baptism.  Having accepted his call by God, he had to they figure out what it was God wanted him to do exactly, and how he was supposed to go about it.  We are told that he fasted for 40 days (this does not mean that he didn't eat for 40 days, fasts usually last from sunrise to sunset), and that he was tempted...more on that in this Sunday's sermon:)  Fasting and solitude have long been aids to prayer and meditation in many cultures and religions, and it seem that this what what Jesus was doing, as he came out of the wilderness with a direction and a mission, and he seems to have set immediately after it.

See, when we fast or give up something at Lent, the idea is not that we are punishing ourselves.  Lent is a somber season, perhaps, in that it is not marked by joyful feasts and celebrations, our liturgies drop their "Allelujahs" and "Glorias", but by no means is this a punishment.

The idea is twofold: first, we are encouraged to dedicate the time and money we would otherwise spend on that which we have given up in order to direct that money and energy elsewhere, either towards prayer, meditation, volunteering, charity, self-improvement, and so on.  This in and of itself can be life-altering, and will take us out of the season of Lent with a greater sense of purpose and direction in our lives.

Second, breaking the Lenten fast on Easter morning after abstaining from whatever we have chosen as a Lenten discipline gives us a greater appreciation for what it was we put aside for a while.

The significance of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a subject of some discussion.  There are Biblical precedents, and some cultures still place ash or dust on their heads when they are mourning.  We usually place soil on coffins or urns before we bury them.  So why the reminder?  Why are we being asked to contemplate our own mortality during Lent?

Ash Wednesday energizes me.  It personally reminds me that I don't have forever.  I don't have forever to mend a broken relationship.  I don't have forever to tell that person I love them.  I don't have forever to take that trip I have always wanted to take.  I don't have forever to complete my bucket list.

Rather than being a time of death, Lent is a time of life, and life abundant at that.  It is a time where we take the time to be calm and gather energy for the coming seasons of life, where we remind ourselves that spring is on the way, and life is about to come back to the landscape.

Lent is a season of repentance, and part of the definition of repentance is to "feel remorse for past sins", but the other half of the definition is equally important: "such as produces and amendment to lifestyle".

See, Lent is not about beating ourselves up.  It is about taking a moral inventory and dedicating ourselves to giving up that which is not working for us.  It is perhaps about death, only insofar as we put old way to death, but to make room for new life.

Have a great journey.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

All the Law and the Prophets

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

When I was a child, only occasionally when I questioned them on an order did my parents say, "Because I told you so".  For the most part, my parents were keen to share with me the logic and reasoning behind certain laws and rules in our household.

Although at the time, I did not appreciate these laws and rules at the time because they ruined what would have been an otherwise splendid crime spree, but now I understand why there were laws, and I why I needed to understand the reason why.

Some laws were there to protect me, to be sure: don't put your hand on the oven, don't play with matches (both of which I did, with disastrous consequences in both cases), and so on.

Other laws were there to ensure that I would grow up to be a respectable, responsible and respectful young man: say please and thank you, respect your elders, do your homework.

These laws were in place because my parents had a vision of what a good person should be, and teenage rebellion aside, I think they did a fairly decent job, and I am grateful now that they had some vision of the type of person I should be.  Things might have gone a completely different way had I been left to my own devices.  Without their vision and guidance as elucidated in their rules, I might not have turned out as well.

I think this is what Transfiguration Sunday is all about (click here to read the text from Matthew I preached on).  The setting is fairly simple: Jesus and several of his disciples go up to the top of a mountain to pray.  This is not so odd: most of us can relate to the wonderful sense of peace and detachment we get from being in a high place.  It also seems to be a fairly ubiquitous aspect of human nature that God, gods or the divine are somewhere "up there".

While they are there, Jesus is transfigured (trans meaning change, figure meaning face or shape).  He is clothes in white and is radiant with the presence of the divine.

This moment indicates a couple of things in the life of Christ and the lives of the disciples.  First, it represents the first moment when the disciples had any notion of his divinity.  They realized then in that moment that Jesus was something more than human.  He shared in God's divinity.  He had, more than any other human before or since, a closer contact with, knowledge of and affinity with God than any other person.

Something else is realized in this passage, and this is evinced by the presence of Moses and Elijah.  These are not just random apparitions.  They are very significant.  Moses, you may recall, went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments.  As such, in ancient Jewish thought, Moses was associated with the Law.  He brought the Law on behalf of God.  Elijah, you also may recall, went up a mountain to be with God, was trapped in a storm, and heard God speaking in the silence after the storm.  As such, Elijah was seen as the greatest of prophets (that is before Jesus came along).

So here you have two aspects of spiritual life which are bound up in the person of Christ: Law and Prophecy.  If I may simplify, what distinguishes these two things is that Law is what we do, Prophecy is what God does.

Law were the rules the ancient Jews followed: the Ten commandments, the food laws, the purity laws.  Sounds pretty straightforward.  But Jesus biggest criticism of the Pharisees was that they had lost the understanding of why these rules existed in the first place: to show love to God and neighbour.  The Law can be a hollow shell, and that was what it had become.

On the other had, Prophecy is the progressive revelation of God's will and action in the world.  Prophecy is the story of God's people at work in the world, of God's hope in the world.  One could say that it is the gradual story of God's plan for the world.  But without rules, it would be very difficult for us to know how or what we should do to be part of that unfolding.

Both Law and Prophecy are incomplete without the other, and indeed they were until Christ made it clear in The Great Commandment ("love God, love your neighbour") that the function of the Law was indeed to ensure peace, compassion , mercy and justice.  In other words, Jesus represents the synthesis of Law and Prophecy.

In the same sense that when our parents reveal the reasoning behind the rules to us, we may appreciate and understand them a little more, Jesus life, mission and ministry made it clear why we were following the rules.

Similarly, in the same sense that the household rules guided us towards being the people we are today, the Law was still necessary to help us become part of God's unfolding will here on earth.