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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.