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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.