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Monday, December 28, 2015

Loud night, profane night...

My sermon for Christmas Eve was based on Luke 2: 1-20.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

I always feel guilty around Christmas.  The reason is that I don't like Christmas as much as I think I should.

As a priest, I deliver sermons on hope, love, kindness, patience, etc, etc, and I have to admit that sometimes, even while delivering one of those sermons, I feel anything BUT any of those things I just mentioned.

Let's be realistic: we know the reason for the season, but the reality of the season is that most of us are stressed out buying gifts, finishing up work projects, booking vacations, making plans to visit family (some of whom we may not get along with), herding children, cooking for Christmas parties, attending special church functions, and so on and so forth.

So while Christmas is supposed to be about peace, it is often utter chaos.

But this year I got to thinking about what the first Christmas must have been like and suddenly I didn't feel so bad.

Let's go over the story:

Mary and Joseph have to go from Nazareth to Bethelem, some 100+ km (I mistakenly said 200 miles in my audio...mea culpa for not fact checking) in order to be registered by Emperor Augustus.  It should be mentioned that they had to get registered in order to pay taxes to the Roman Empire.  The Roman Empire had conquered the area.  Imagine if you will having to travel that distance in order to pay taxes to the people who had conquered your country...not a good recipe for happy thoughts to begin with.

Second, they have to travel at the coldest time of year, which is still pretty mild compared to Canada, but still pretty cold at night.

Third, they have to travel by donkey.  If you have ever ridden a horse or a donkey, you are aware that this is not the most comfortable way to travel, particularly (I would imagine) if you are super pregnant as Mary was.

Fourth, when they arrive in Bethlehem, they are told there is no room at the inn.  Have you ever pulled in to a strange city in the dead of night and not been able to find a hotel room?  Did you feel remotely hopeful, peaceful or calm at that point?

Fifth, Mary has to give birth in a barn.  No sanitary hospital with bright lighting, no doctor, nurse or midwife, no epidural, no hot water, no towels, no nothing.  Surrounded by animals who make animal sounds and animal smells, she has to go through what I have been told is the most excruciating pain a person can go through.  I am not certain of Jewish purity laws surrounding birth, but I am reasonable confident that the circumstances must have broken a few dozen laws which would have been important to observant Jews like Mary and Joseph.

Sixth, once she gives birth, three shepherds, complete strangers wander in and announce that angels had told them they should come and find Mary and Joseph.  Hot on their heels, three "Kings" from foreign countries (and remember how observant Jews felt about foreigners) show up and say they followed a star to find them.

Does anything about that night sound remotely silent, holy, peaceful or calm?  Far from it, that sounds like the most chaotic and insane night you can possible imagine.  The only thing missing is getting in a fight with a bouncer and stealing a traffic cone for your frat house.

But in the midst of all this chaos, a child is born.  The birth of any child is, as far as I am concerned, a miracle in and of itself.  But this child in particular was the Christ: the wisest, most compassionate, most loving, tolerant and patient being the world has ever known.  The closest example of God in the world that humans have ever known.

Despite the pain of birth, I have never heard a woman say after having their child laid upon their breast, "That was totally not worth it".  Far from it, every woman I know would do it over again, and many have.

This child was laid on the bosom of the world to lead us, to teach us, to show us how we should treat one another and to show us how we should live our faith.  This is the peace in the midst of chaos that we have been looking for.

I hope over the course of the holidays this year you have been able to carve out some time to be peaceful, to be hopeful, to find time to love and to be loved.  Sometimes you literally have to carve it out and claim it, but hopefully you have been able to find that peace in the midst of chaos and insanity that Mary and Joseph found.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Why religion is rebellion

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 1: 39-56.

Karl Marx famously said, "Religion is the opiate of the masses".  This is, of course, not a compliment.  Opiates numb you, dull you, make you more passive, pliable and easy to control.

I wish I could say that Marx was wrong about religion, but he was not.  Historically, just about every organized religion I can think of has indeed served as a system of control, a system to disseminate ignorance and a system to perpetuate the stratification of society.  This is particularly true and evident of my own religion, Christianity.

This is hideously ironic to me given that when Christianity (and indeed most religious movements) started out, it was profoundly rebellious, revolutionary and counter-cultural.

Don't believe me?  Well, check out Mary's song of celebration, now known as The Magnificat, in today's Gospel passage.  Click here to hear her song as we know it today.

Before I even address the text of her song, let's pause to realize first of all that the first true prophets of the New Testament are women.  This in and of itself is seditious.  In Biblical times, the status of women was abysmal compared to our own time.  Women were only a notch above being slaves.  They could be bought, sold, bartered, divorced and left destitute on a whim, they could not own property, earn money, etc, etc.

Briefly: compared to men, they were inferior at best, subhuman at worst.

And yet the first people with whom God shares his message in the NT are women.  Mary and Elizabeth learn they are to bear the Messiah and his prophet respectively.

Another thing we have to remember about Mary is that she was a case of unwed teenage pregnancy, at least in the eyes of society.  Whatever you believe about the Immaculate Conception, you have to realize that the majority of their friends and neighbours were probably didn't buy her story of having been visited by an angel.

The point is that above and beyond being reviled for being a woman, Mary would have also been reviled for being an adulteress.

When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, they share a moment when Jesus and John seem to recognize one another in utero.  This moves Mary to sing a song, and far from being the holy, peaceful, reflective and meditative song that we are familiar with today, it was a rock song.  It was punk.  It was a protest song.  It was an anthem of rebellion: "He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty".

These are profoundly seditious statements, right up there with John Lennon's Imagine and Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changing.

Her song describes a dramatic upheaval of society, a fight-the-power, f***-the-man, power-to-the-people vision that flew then and still flies today in the face of everything our culture and society tells us: you need money, you need power, you need to be important, you need to be king of the mountain to feel good about yourself.

Her song would have resonated deeply with the underprivileged, the poor, the needy and the hopeless.  It spoke of a frustrated awareness of the way things were and a new vision of the way things should be.

Religion in general and Christianity in particular were always meant to help us hold a mirror up to ourselves and in society, to discover what was immoral, unjust and unethical there and to motivate us to do something about it.  It was meant to shake things up and stir up some s***.

Sadly, the fundamentally rebellious, revolutionary and counter-cultural roots of Christianity are often forgotten against the backdrop of the monolithic status and miserable human rights record the Christian religion has amassed.

Christmas, which should be a celebration of brotherly and sisterly love, kindness and generosity has become a farcical parade of consumerism and materialism.  It is fair to say that Christianity and Christmas have largely become those very things that they set out to overturn.

Even more sadly, the majority of Christians forget the rebellious call of fundamental Biblical texts like The Magnificat and The Beatitudes.

Please understand I am not talking about armed rebellion, violence or anything like that.  Mary and her son after her were calling for a revolution within our own hearts.  They were calling us to rebel against materialism and selfishness that keep us from loving ourselves, living our neighbour, loving God and living a full life.  They were calling for us to revolt peacefully against war, justly against injustice, lovingly against hatred.

This Christmas, I hope that we all have the courage to join that rebellion.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Repent, the beginning is nigh

My sermon this week was based on Luke 3:7-18.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

You are probably familiar with the concept of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.  I remember debating morality and ethics in Philosophy 101 about whether doing the right thing for the wrong reason was a good thing or a bad thing.

John the Baptist had no such debate.  For him, doing the right thing for the wrong reason was wrong, plain and simple.

One thing in particular about this Gospel passage baffled me for the longest time, and most people I know are similarly baffled.  The scenario is familiar: John is preaching fire and brimstone out in the wilderness and calling people to a baptism of repentance.  A bunch of people present themselves to him, and his reaction is to chastise them with his now-famous "you brood of vipers" line.

Why would he react that way?  It seems to me he was getting just what he wanted.

I think John knew a thing or two about human nature and he suspected (quite rightly, it would seem) that some people presenting themselves for baptism were doing so out of fear, and for John this was not the appropriate motivation.

When I was a child, it seemed to me that the church was telling me I needed to fear God.  I instinctively disagreed with this, which led to me departing church and spurning organized religion for many years.  I felt that in all good conscience if I was ever to be a person of faith that fear could not, should not and must not be the motivation for my faith.  I felt that if I was to have any relationship with a god, it would have to be one of love, not fear.

However, it must be said that fear is a powerful motivator, and has been the stock-in-trade of organized religion for centuries.  But fear will only motivate you to do the bare minimum to get by.  It can only foster resentment and hatred of the object of fear, and it is simply not a valid or productive basis upon which to build a spirituality.

Why?  Because fear cannot produce a change of heart.

John was all about a change of heart.  He was aware that many people presenting themselves for baptism had heard his apocalyptic message, were frightened by it and were presenting themselves for baptism quite literally to "flee from the wrath to come".  They were not interested in changing their lives, mending relationships, loving God or their neighbour, or even trying to be better people.  They were hedging their bets, hoping that John's baptism would be another notch in their belts of piety and that this would somehow convince God to spare them from his imminent wrath.

John was apocalyptic, and although it may seem counter-intuitive to believe in apocalypticism AND and loving God at the same time, this is indeed what John believed in.  He believed, as Christ did, that the greatest thing you could do was not to fear God, but to love God.

Think about it: we are prepared to do so much more, to go to greater lengths, to risk so much more for love that for fear.

John was not preaching salvation.  That was Jesus' thing.  John was preaching repentance.  The English definition of this word is tepid: "[to feel] sincere regret or remorse".  However, a brief etymological study of the word gives the dreary word new life.  That study demonstrates that repentance involves a change of heart, a commitment to change one's life, to steer clear from negative pathways in our lives.

In reality, who doesn't want a more positive lifestyle, one that forgives, that loves, that is less critical of ourselves or others, that is more generous, less judgmental?

That is what John was trying to encourage.  See, repentance isn't a feeling.  It is a lifestyle, and not a negative one.  Far from it, it is a commitment to pursue paths that are positive for us and for our world.

John didn't want people to treat baptism as a ward or talisman against the apocalypse.  He didn't want people to feel guilty or ashamed.

He wanted people to change their lives for the better.  He wanted to them to love God, not fear Him.

We can perhaps argue his apparently conflicting message, and I am sure that must have crossed the minds of many people who came for baptism or who at least witnessed this event, but in the end, John was a herald who was informing us of something.  He was informing people that God was about to do a new thing and our hearts, minds and spirits should be prepared to receive it.

That is what Advent is about: preparing ourselves for this new thing that God did through Jesus Christ.  May we all make his pathways into our lives straight, not out of fear of what might happen if we don't, but out of love and hope for what will happen if we do.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

How a crazy guy found balance

My sermon for this week on Luke 3:1-6.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

The concept of balance has been much on my mind lately, largely because I have none in my life these days.  Maybe you can relate.

For the Christian, Advent is supposed to a time of peaceful, prayerful reflection in anticipation for Christmas.  Even for the non-Christian and non-religious, the month of December is a time for renewing and reinforcing bonds between family and friends, sharing the messages of joy and peace that the birth of Christ ultimately represents, and joyful anticipation of vacation time.

But despite all these joyful things, the month of December finds many of struggling to maintain balance in our lives: a balance between work, family, friends and leisure.  Many of us have to triage special events that we attend: office parties, family gatherings, dinners with friends.  For those of us who are active in church, we have a number of additional responsibilities: special services, special events, turkey suppers.  The list goes on.

So while the reason for the season is peace, love, joy and hope, many of us (present company included) are stressed to the limit, short-fused and very tired.

Talk about a lack of balance.

The Gospel passage for today has always fascinated me, not only for its content but for its form as well.  What's funny is that the passage starts off with a list of really important people at the time: Roman prefects, governors, tetrarchs, high priests.  It takes up nearly half the passage.

Then you get sucker-punched: during the period when all these super-important people were doing their super-important things in their super-important places, "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness".

On other words, "the word of God came to a nobody who was a son of a nobody and who was living nowhere".

Furthermore, the word of God came to a nobody who was (and would still be today) deemed crazy because he eschewed the comforts of a home, a bed, good food and comfortable clothing for a a cave in a desert, bugs and honey, and a camel hair shirt.

For the life of me, whenever I read this passage, I think of God setting the scales right.  As the list of governors and prefects goes on, I always picture a balance that is tipping more and more to one side.  These people have positions, power, money, education, respect.  One would have expected the word of God to come to them, right?  Because God would surely only bother talking to important people, right?  Because surely only people with all those things are worth talking to or listening to, right?

Cue sad trombone.

Christ, and John who announced his coming, had this way of turning everything his contemporaries thought was true one its head.  Thought at the time (and sadly still today) was that some people were more important than others, and that importance was a result of them being more beloved by God.  Quite literally, the logic was "I am more powerful/rich/important because God loves me more than other people.

But here is the message that God brought through Jesus and John: I love you all equally, regardless of your circumstances, and your circumstances are not a reflection of how much or how little I love you because I am love.

At least in the New Testament, wealth and power are not celebrated, and Jesus spends a great deal of time warning his listeners against wealth.  I will reiterate that I don't think Jesus thought being wealthy in an of itself was evil, but he seems to have been keenly aware that wealth has a tendency of distracting us from what is really important in life, namely the aforementioned things like spirituality, family, friendship and community.

These are some of the hills and mountains that I think the author of Luke had in mind when he associated his quote from Isaiah and applied it to John and Jesus.  Wealth, power and self-importance has a way of puffing us up and placing us on mountains where we feel above it all and too cool to care.

Jesus and John would see these hills made low.  But the flip side of this Gospel passage, and the one that is least focused on when this Gospel is preached on, is also that John and Jesus would also see the valleys filled.

There is a darker side to the holidays.  Perhaps due to the short days or the increased responsibilities, December reports of depression, anxiety, stress and even suicide are higher than other months.  Many people don't have enough money to put food on their own table, much less take part in the artificially instilled consumerism that pervades this season.  Many people can't afford to heat their homes.  Many of us are spending our first Christmas without a loved one.  Many of us have living friends and relatives with whom relationships are fractured, and the spirit of this season leads us to reflect on that.

In other words, some of us know precisely what it is to be down in a valley at this time of year, struggling to get up to level ground.

This, just as much as wealth, can distract us from the things that really matter, and John and Jesus would see those things leveled as well.  Those who are up to high for their own good need to be brought down, and those who are too low for their own good need to be brought up.  We need to be on level ground, both individually and communally for things to be right in our lives and in our world.

This Advent a Christmas, we need to reflect on those obstacles that may be in our lives, whether they be ego or a lack thereof, whether we feel above our fellow people or below them, whether we feel we are too important to care or not important enough to make a difference.  These are obstacles we can do without, and God would have us live without them,

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The good news of the end

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 21:25-36.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Apocalypticism is not something that is current theology in most Catholic and Protestant churches.  For most of us, the Apocalypse, the Rapture and/or Armageddon is simply not something that falls on our radar.

Why this is, I don't know.  Judaism in Jesus' time was apocalyptic, early Christianity certainly was and Jesus himself was arguably apocalyptic.

But part of the problem is that the concept of the Apocalypse is largely misunderstood, maybe because a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation makes for great movies, and fear can be a great motivation to adhere to a religion.

The Apocalypse has largely been portrayed as a terrible event in which God's wrath is unleashed upon the entire world, and one part of the human race is spared because they are righteous, and the other part suffers because they are wicked.  The righteous get whisked away to live with God, the story goes, and the wicked are left on earth to burn.  That doesn't sound like Gospel at all, except if you are among the righteous, and I think most clear and humble thinkers realize how exceptionally rare true righteousness truly is.

My own opinion is that this is a travesty of what Christ's message was all about.  Any way you try to cut it, the Apocalypse as it is so often represented by popular entertainment and fundamentalist Christianity represents a wholesale pouring out of all God's anger, hatred and wrath upon the earth.

Any sane reading of the word of Christ would have to come to the conclusion that it is actually a wholesale pouring out of God's love, compassion and peace upon the whole world.

We all put our emphasis on different places when we read Scripture or reflect on the Christian story.  That can be a great thing, but it can also be bad because some people focus morbidly on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection message, and some people focus morbidly on the the burning of the wicked, rather than the world that is to come after.

Of course there is no way to be sure, but even though Jesus seems to have been apocalyptic, I don't think this was his was the burning kind of apocalypse, and I think I have Scripture to back me up.  I think the Bible tells us where we ought to be putting the emphasis of our apocalypse.

For example, if most of us were to hear of a coming apocalypse, I think our natural reaction would be to run and hide, to find shelter from the coming whatever.  But when Jesus speaks of the trials that will beset his followers, he says "stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near".

He goes on to tell a parable of a fig tree, saying that "as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near".

Coming redemption, summer and the kingdom of God are very positive images, don't you think?  These are images of verdancy, of fruitfulness, of joy.  If the apocalypse was something to be feared, don't you think Jesus would have used images of winter, desolation or destruction?

Here's the thing: I am not a believer in a Biblical apocalypse, but I have certainly been through a few personal apocalypses in my lifetime, and I'm sure you have too.  Whether it is the breakup of a marriage, the loss of a job or the death of a loved one, most of us have probably felt the bottom fall out of our worlds at one point or another.

I don't want to sound flip or dismiss anyone's pain, least of all my own, but hindsight demonstrates to us that there is in fact life on the other side of these apocalypses.  As I delivered this sermon last Sunday, we were all fed, clothed and seated in a nice warm church.  We were likely all headed to comfortable homes afterwards.  That day, we were doing ok.  There is light to be had on the other side of darkness.  There is joy to be had on the other side of sadness.

Put another way, natural disaster occur in the world.  I do not think for one second that God causes any of these things to happen, but I do think God can be situated in how we react to these situation.  For example, every time there is a flood or earthquake or tsunami, there are people who loot, steal and hoard and there are others who take in strangers, share food and provisions.  My belief is that God is present in the latter and absent in the former.  When an apocalypse occurs, we have the choice to be overwhelmed by it and to seek only our own salvation from it, or we have the choice to work within it, to come together and to overcome it.

Christians are (or at least ought to be IMHO) a people of life and hope, not a people of death and sadness.  The Christian story is one overcoming adversity, supporting each other and reaching out to try to heal the broken in this world.

If you are going through a time of pain or your own personal apocalypse, please remember that there is always hope and support out there, and that sometimes you are the hope and support for others.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The beginning of the birthpangs

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 13: 1-8.

I cannot add much new to the storm of commentary (both informed and otherwise) about the recent attacks in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut.

I do not want to argue what constitutes a terrorist and what constitutes a terrorist attack.  I don't want to argue about religion.  I don't want to argue about refugees, national security or the fact that the "white world" has hardly heard anything about the terrorist attacks in the last two cities I mentioned.  I don't want to argue about whether or not Canada and the rest of the world should be involved in air and/or ground strikes against targets in the Middle East.

I don't actually want to argue anything.  I am just going to tell you what I am going to do.  It is naive and hopelessly optimistic, but given that I am not a politician or a soldier, I can't seem to do anything else:

I am going to keep hoping.  And that hope is informed by my faith.

Here's the thing: ISIS, ISIL, Al Qaeda and all of its repugnant permutations are nothing new.  Yes, they have new-ish weapons and tools of propaganda, but realistically, certain groups have used terror tactics to achieve their goals for thousands of years.

Take the Gospel passage for today: "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom".

This sort of thing was happening before Christ's time, it was happening during Christ's time, and unless the human race holds on to hope, it stands to happen again and again.

Interestingly, when this passage is placed in context many people, particularly fundamentalist Christians, read this as Christ's prophecy of Armageddon, the end times, etc.

Now, A) I am not a believer in that eschatology and B) I don't think Jesus was either.  The reason being in the last phrase of this passage:

"These are but the beginnings of the birthpangs".

Notice he did not say, "These are but the beginnings of the death throes".

Christianity is a faith of hope and new birth, not of death and destruction.  There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that Jesus was talking about "the end times" in the sense of the destruction of the world.  If he was predicting anything, he was predicting the end of selfishness, greed, hatred and injustice.  What he was talking about was the tumbling down of the "worldly" structures of the world, and a breaking in of the divine aspects of humanity, those aspects of humanity with which God is associated.

If we were all headed towards death and destruction, why would Jesus bother to have preached a Gospel of love and peace, right?  And if we were headed towards that, why would we bother trying to make the world a better place at all?

But Jesus' words imply that disasters and wars are not the final story.  Something comes after.  For example, I have, of course, never given birth, but I understand it hurts like a son-of-a.  But that being said, I am fairly certain that the love every sane mother bears for her child makes the pain worth it.  I am fairly certain that few mothers think the pain was not worth the payoff of bringing a new life into the world.

I am not going to try to ease anyone's pain over the recent terrorist attacks, and I will not tell you to love or forgive those who have committed these sins, but what I will suggest is that we not reach out in hatred and anger.  I cannot name one single ill in the world that was cured by meeting hatred with hatred.

What I will suggest is that we not give up hope.  I am going to suggest that we not think these birthpangs are the end, that we not think these pains are the way things will always be.  I am going to suggest that we continue to hope that human nature can rise above the base impulses of the people who commit these acts, and the base impulses of the people who respond by vilifying entire races or religions.

Human nature is capable of so much more.  We can never stop believing that, and hoping that we can change the world for the better.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

You had one job...

My sermon for today was based on Mark 12:28-34.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

If you google "You had one job", you will be treated to some pretty hysterical examples of people who literally had one job to do and cocked it up magnificently.

In the Gospel passage for today, Jesus tells us what our one job is, and it demoralizing how 2000 years later, we still cock it up with equal magnificence.

The problem is that the "one job" is simple, but not easy.  The job is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love you neighbour as yourself.

The setting is this: a scribe, who for once is looking for Jesus' wisdom rather than trying to trap him asks Jesus, "Which commandment is the first of all?" (meaning which is the most important commandment).

As we are all aware, there are 10 commandments, and the scribe is likely interested in knowing which one Jesus thinks is the most important.  Rather than respond with any of the 10 commandments, Jesus actually states the foundation of the 10 commandments: love God and love your neighbour.

Think about it: if we loved God and loved our neighbour perfectly, we would never have had to be told not to murder them, lie to them or steal from them.  But because we are not perfect, we had to write that down.

Kinda sad, huh?

The reason why I say this commandment is simple but not easy is that the commandment is simple to understand, but difficult to live into.  We need to start by asking the questions: How can I love God?  How can I love my neighbour?

When I worked with addicts, one exercise that was always interesting was to ask what they wanted out of life.  Invariably, the answer was "I just want to be happy".  Well, doesn't everybody?  The problem is that my happiness looks much different from yours.  For some, happiness means being financially independent.  For others, money is not important.  For some it is being surrounded by family and friends.  For others it is solitude and alone time.  For some people it is traveling the world.  For others it is being a homebody.

How we love God and our neighbour is as various as our definition of happiness.

But however we do it, this love should move us to action.  For example, if you love your children, you don't let them play in traffic with a loving look on your face.  No, you protect them and keep them safe.  If you love your spouse, you tell them and you do things to show them.  You don't just keep it to yourself and hope they get the picture.

Loving God and loving our neighbour means that we are moved to act, that we are moved to do things that demonstrate love to God, God's creation and God's people.  We don't just sit back and watch it all go to hell with a loving look on our face, hoping that everyone gets the picture.

I propose that we each need to find our vocational love.  Vocation is not just for the clergy, we are each and every one of us called to contribute to the betterment of God's creation, and they ways in which we do that are plentiful.  Perhaps we need to look at volunteer work, maybe we need to help organize church events, maybe we need to put on a food or clothing drive, perhaps we need to sponsor a refugee family, maybe we need to start a community garden, maybe we need to form a prayer/meditation/support group...I could go on forever.

The reason I say this is that a number of people have approached me lately complaining about a "blah" phase in their faith.  Let me be the first to say this is totally normal and healthy.  Faith is not nor can it be a 24/7 laugh riot.  A life of faith, like any other, is a serious of peaks and valleys.  There are days when you are into it, and days when you are not.

When it starts to become a concern is when it endures for several weeks or months.  I see faith like any other relationship or endeavour: we have all had jobs we liked, but there are just some days when we wake up and are just not into.  We might be deeply in love with our spouses, but there are days when we would just love to be left alone.  If this goes on for several weeks or months, this might signal the need for change.

Maybe we have gotten so good at our job that the necessary element of challenge is absent.  So we need to try our hand at new challenges.  Maybe we have gotten so comfortable in our romantic relationship that we are taking our partner for granted.  So we need to break new ground somehow.

Faith is like that.  It gets dull.  It gets repetitive.  It gets routine.  But when this happens, this might be the ideal excuse to try something different.  What is that one thing you always wanted your church to do?  Offer to spearhead it?  What is that one ministry you have always wanted to be a part of?  Ask to be on the team.

Faith needs to break new ground, and we need to make the effort in order to show love to God and to our neighbour.

I pray that you can do that today.



You might be the voice in someone's head

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 10:46-52.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

We all have voices in our heads.  Not literal, of course, and if you do, please seek medical help.  But we all have figurative voices.  These voices often consist of things our parents told us since we were a child, things siblings told us as we were growing up, things partners told us while we were together.  Some of these voices might still be alive an present and still speaking.

This can sometimes be good: if our parents were supportive, if our siblings were encouraging, if our partners were kind and loving, we will likely feel pretty confident moving through life.

This can also be bad: if our parents told us we were incapable, if our siblings told us we were stupid, if our partners told us we were worthless, this can create an internal monologue that can be very difficult to overcome.

Here's the point I want to make: you could be the voice in someone else's head.  You could be the monologue in a person's mind that says, "I am worthy/unworthy, I am smart/stupid, I am capable/incapable".

If you are a parent, teacher, friend, boss, partner, or any one of a million other roles that people look up to and look to for guidance, you run the risk of contributing to their overall sense of self.

So.  If you think you might be a voice in someone's head, how do you think that voice is heard?  Do you think that voice is a voice of support and affirmation, or does your voice undermine or discourage?

Jesus makes this point in the Gospel for today.  Those who were ill or crippled or infirm for any reason were reviled in Jesus' time.  Truth be told, they still suffer stigmatization and discrimination today, but in Jesus' time, to be sick was a double whammy: not only were you sick, but you were sick because you or your parents or grandparents had done something to displease God, and you were sick because God was mad at you.

Consequently, no one wanted to hang around with you just in case God found you guilty by association.

Fortunately, our theology is a bit more sophisticated today.

But not so in the time of Jesus and Bartimaeus.  Bartimaeus was blind beggar.  As such, he was not like most of the other people surrounding Jesus who could get up and follow him, or at least see him out if they wanted to meet him.  Bartimaeus would have a pretty limited route.

So when he realizes that Jesus is passing the spot that he is begging, he raises his voice and cries out to him.  Here is the interesting point: the crowd shushes him!

People with disabilities , then as now, were considered to be less important.  Whether this is because they could not contribute to society as much or because people thought there was likely a darn good reason why God had smote them, they were reviled at least to some degree.  This is why some people in the crowd shushed Bartimaeus: he was not important enough (like they were) for Jesus to bother with him.

But Bartimaeus would not be silenced, and this is the touching and powerful thing about this story.  He refused to let the people quiet him.  He recognized his own worth and value, and somehow realized Jesus would see that, despite the fact that he had probably spent much of his life (if not all or it) being told he was unworthy, being mocked and ridiculed.

This is one of several times when Jesus uses the words, "Your faith has made you well".  Every single time Jesus says this, it has to do with a person rising above the voices of those around who tell them they have no right or are not good enough.  It is not so much about the miracle that Jesus ostensibly performs each of these times.  It is about people not listening to their shitty internal monologues, it's about people who recognize their basic human value.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could all do that?

Wouldn't it be even nicer if we were the voices that encouraged others to do that?

Don't be a shitty voice.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The cost of trophies

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 10: 35-45.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Most of us have some kind of trophy at home.  Whether it is a ribbon for best horse in show, a picture of us with the Queen, a golf trophy or the Stanley Cup, we have trophies of some kind.  Trophies commemorate great moments in our lives, moments where we excelled, moments where we conquered.

Now don't get me wrong, I think we have every right to be happy, pleased and proud of our achievements, but it behooves us remember the flip side of trophies:

For every best horse in show, there are a dozen nags who become dog food and glue.

For every person who gets their picture with the Queen, there are hundreds at the event who don't even get a photobomb credit.

For every Tiger Woods, there are dozens like me who can't even hit the ball reliably.

For every Stanley Cup victor, the Leafs go home empty-handed.

You get what I'm saying.  Every trophy, it seems, comes at the cost of someone else's defeat.

But what if we had spiritual trophies?  What if, instead of putting tokens on our walls and shelves for when we bested our fellow men and women, we gathered memories of when we aided them?  How different the world would be if instead of affirming victory, we affirmed assistance.

We would be much more cooperative, rather than competitive, for starters.  Perhaps we would share the world's resources rather than hoard them.

But I am getting off topic...

The Gospel for today underscores the fact that the Kingdom Christ envisioned was one of cooperation rather than competition.  Here's the scenario:

James and John, who by this point in the Gospel have already been identified as being part of Jesus' inner circle, decide to push their luck one step further, and they ask Jesus for a favour.  They ask to be seated at Jesus' right and left hands when he comes into his kingdom.

What we have to know is that James and John are talking about a real kingdom, here.  They still bought into the Jewish prophecy that the Messiah would be a great warrior-king who would lead the people in an uprising that would decimate the forces oppressing the Jews and restore them to their proper status.

In other words, what James and John are asking is to be Jesus' lieutenants or deputies when he kicks the emperor down the stairs of the palace and takes his place on the throne.  They are literally asking to be seated flanking him on the lesser chairs in the throne room as his seconds.

Sigh...

But of course, you and I both know that was not the kingdom Jesus had in mind.  The kingdom Jesus had in mind had nothing to do with victory or defeat, conquering or being conquered.  And he takes the time to sit the Disciples down to explain this to them.

"Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all", he tells them, clarifying that greatness is not a factor of how high you sit in the pecking order, but how much you go out of your way to raise up your fellow human being.

There is no ribbon for helping an old lady across the street.  Nobody takes a picture of you giving to charity.  There is no trophy for working in a soup kitchen.  Nobody gives you the Stanley Cup for volunteering at a suicide hotline.  They really should, but they don't.

And they don't need to.  The humble don't need trophies, the meek don't seek thanks, the generous require no accolades, because those actions are their own rewards.

Try them sometime.  You might be surprised how valuable those trophies can be.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Why turning away the immigrant/refugee/Muslim is actually turning away God

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 9:30-37.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

There are a couple of things that have happened in the last few weeks that really demonstrated to me both the power and the danger of social media.

The power was demonstrated by using Facebook to help a dog and his owner be reunited within 45 minutes.

The danger of social media has been demonstrated by the irrational, ignorant and quite honestly bigoted waves of anti-immigration, anti-refugee and anti-Muslim memes and articles being put on Facebook.

I say this is dangerous because it is always easier to sow fear, mistrust and suspicion than it is to sow hope, trust and acceptance.  It is dangerous because it is always easier to "them" people than it is to "us" them.

Yes, I am using "us" and "them" as verbs, and the grammar of that last sentence is horrible as a consequence.  English majors, please bear with me.

It seems in light of the Syrian refugee crisis that many people are drawing a line in the sand.  Some people are saying, "You are not of us.  You are not my race.  You are not my skin tone.  You are not my religion or language.  You do not eat the same food as me.  You are an other, you are them.  You are not of my tribe".  And what often goes unsaid, but the message is as clear as day, is "You are therefore unimportant".

Although I am generally reluctant claim that anything is un-Christian, I will say that if you hold this attitude and call yourself a Christian, you need to go back to your Bible, but this time read the black symbols on the pages of this book.

Am I getting on my liberal high-horse?  No.  Unequivocally.

The reason why is in this Gospel for today.  In this Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are traveling from A to B, and along the way the Disciples are arguing about who among them is the greatest.

(This may be a sermon for another time, but perhaps we ought to be alarmed at the sickness of the Disciples given the fact that immediately prior to this argument, Jesus states that he will be killed and in three days rise again. So either A: Jesus dropped this bomb and the disciples didn't care, or B: they got it, and immediately started to argue about who was going to be in charge when Jesus snuffed it)

When Jesus and his crew arrive at their destination, Jesus asks (likely knowing full well) what they had been arguing about.  They remain silent because they know full well they ought to be ashamed of their themselves for being so self-centered and petty.

There is a child in the place they are staying, and in response to the Disciples' silence, Jesus invites this child into the midst of them.  He then makes an announcement that is perhaps not shocking to us, but would have staggered his audience.  He says, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and welcomes not only me but the one who sent me".  Basically, whoever welcomes a child welcomes God.

We aren't shocked because we love our children, but many historians point out that ancient peoples often had a much different attitude towards their children.

In an agricultural or nomadic culture, a young child who could not fetch water, sew clothing, chop wood or plow a field was not a joy, but a burdensome liability.  I once read that names were not given to children before their eight day because infant mortality was so high in the first week of life, parents were not encouraged to get too attached.

This young child that Jesus drew into their midst was not even regarded as fully human by some.  Remember the old saying, "Children should be seen and not heard"?  Well, it would fair to add in Jesus time, "...and the less, seen the better".

But Jesus takes this child into the midst of them and basically says, "This child is a person.  This person is important.  This person is the most important person in the room".

Here's the thing: Jesus made it a deliberate point to be with, to minister to, to show love and respect to those people that his Jewish culture deemed "them", "the other", "less important than us".  Be they children, prostitutes, tax collectors, the elderly, the sick, Jesus zeroed in on them,

Try looking at a complete stranger.  Try reminding yourself that this person has a life, maybe has children, parents, a spouse.  This person laughs, cries, makes loves, has fears, ambitions, hopes.  This person has been crushed by failures and elated by accomplishment.

Just.  Like.  You.

Don't get me wrong, I am willing to go farther for my family and close friends that I might be for a complete stranger.  This is only natural.

But when we start building literal walls between countries and hating the people on the other side, when we fear others because they don't share our religion, when we tell people they are not welcome in our country, our neighbourhoods or our workplaces because of the shade of their skin, when we ask people to leave our church because they have a mental illness, we are falling so short of the bar that Jesus asked us to jump over that may as well not even bothered lacing up our shoes.

And that bar is actually so low, you wouldn't even have to take a running start: just know that everyone is a child of God and that they are part of your human family.  You can be damn sure they are part of God's family.

The deadliest weapon we all own

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 7: 24-37.

Do download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

I have a deadly weapon in my house, and I can almost guarantee that everyone reading this has exactly the same weapon.  It is the remote to my television set.

Why do I say that is deadly?  Well, TV can be a great source of knowledge, inspiration and even sometimes wisdom, but the reason why I say our remotes can be dangerous is that with the flood of information we find on our TVs or on the internet, realistically there is absolutely no way we can take it all in.  So we have to choose.  Not only do we choose what we want to see, but we also choose what we don't want to see.

In weeks past, most of us have seen the tragic photos of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned as he and his family were fleeing from Syria.  As if his death was not disturbing enough, what disturbed me more were comments from people who were upset that people had posted the photo on their FB feeds, comments like, "The world is bad enough, why would you post this depressing shit?"

We need to post that shit because that shit happens, and we need to know that shit happens.  In light of current affairs, I think we have officially burned through our privilege to change the channel and pretend that this shit doesn't happen and isn't happening as we speak.

Why do we feel we can just change the channel?  Because this shit is happening to other people.  It is happening to "the others".  It is happening to "them".

Let me run something by you, and you tell me if this doesn't describe what most of us feel: most of us would be willing to impoverish ourselves for our spouse, parents, children or siblings.  We might be willing to go to great lengths to help cousins, uncles and aunts, but maybe not impoverish ourselves.  We might be willing to bend over backwards to help a close friend, but an acquaintance?  Maybe bend over a bit, but not much.  We might be willing to help our immediate neighbour, but the guy two doors down?  He can handle it.  Do we even know the name of the guy three doors down?  We might be willing to help out a homeless person that we see all the time in our own neighborhood, but across town?  Let his neighborhood help him.

The point I am getting at is that most of us operate under the assumption that those closest to us are more important that those farther away from us.  The farther away one gets, the more these people are "othered" or "them-ed".  I am not trying to argue that or say that is bad, but what I would like to challenge is the notion that one human life is more important than another.

In the Gospel for today, Jesus has his famous exchange with  the Syro-Phoenician woman.  To understand why this exchange is so poignant, we must understand the mentality of Judaism during Jesus' time, a mentality that Jesus himself likely ascribed to.

First century Judaism was convinced that they were the chosen people of God.  That meant that anyone who was not Jewish was despised by God, and as a consequence, it would seem that a significant number of Jews during Jesus' time also despised anyone who was not Jewish.

So when this woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, he responds, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs".

So while many Christians and commentators attempt to save Jesus in this passage by claiming that he said this with a nudge and a wink, I think the truth is that Jesus was actually responding to her request from a deeply-held belief that he had been raised with: Gentiles were less important than Jews.  Jesus is actually saying, "You are like a dog to me, less important and worthy than a person.  God's gifts and love are not for you".

The woman knows Jesus feels this way, and so she responds not by defending her dignity or intrinsic worth, but by responding humbly and in an even self-deprecatory way.  She says, "Even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs".  She is essentially saying, "I might be less important in your opinion, but God still has some love for me".

And here is where I actually consider this passage to be a miracle, the one miracle that happens to Jesus rather than being performed by him: because of her response, Jesus' eyes are opened, his heart is softened and he comes to realize that "the other" is not really "an other" after all.  This woman is still a child of God who loves her daughter and is willing to go to any lengths to help her.  A Jewish mother or father would do no less.

From hereon in, Jesus message and ministry throughout the rest of the Gospel changes focus.  No longer is he preaching and ministering exclusively to the Jews, but his message is opened up for all.

Surely if the Messiah can change his mind, so can we.

Like I said, it is only natural to love those closest to.  But my prayer today is that all our hearts may be softened so that we would cease to "other" people, that we would stop "them-ing" people because they have a different religion, skin colour, sexual orientation, etc.

In reality, there is much more that bonds us than separates us. That is something Jesus realized thanks to the Syro-Phoenician woman.  May her wisdom and humility pierce all our hearts.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The things that come out of us

My sermon for today was based on Mark 7:1-23.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

In quoting the Book of Isaiah, Jesus says something in the Gospel passage for today which I consider to be one of the most profound statements ever made: "These people honour me with their lips, but there hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines".

I think we all know regular churchgoers who are actually total assholes, and we know people who have never set foot in a church but who are nonetheless awesome human beings.

The fact is that that regular religious observance does not make you a good a person.  You could still be a bad person who just happens to have good time-management skills.

The corollary is also true: not attending church does not make you a bad person.

Jesus hits this particular nail on the head when he says, "There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile".

This would have been anathema to his listeners who were mostly orthodox Jews.  Orthodox Judaism in Jesus' time was marked by a morbid preoccupation with ritual cleanliness: an observant Jew had to follow in excess of 600 ritual purity laws that governed what they could eat, when they could have sex, how and when they should wash their hands, and whose hands they could shake without becoming ritually impure.

The reason was this: to be ritually pure was to be loved by God, and to be ritually impure was to lose God's love.

To be blunt, what this boiled down to was that you could beat your wife as long as she was not having her period, you could murder someone as long as you didn't touch the dead body, and you could rob someone as long as they were carrying Jewish currency.

OK, I am exaggerating, but the point is that Orthodox Judaism in Jesus' time was focused exclusively on avoiding "contaminants" and had little or no focus on how people treated one another.  The story of the Good Samaritan is a perfect example: people felt it better to let someone who was ritually unclean die in the gutter rather than to sully one's hands.

There are rules and there are regulations, but as we are all probably aware, laws are flawed and sometimes you need to know when it is better to follow the letter of the law, and when you have to follow the spirit of the law.

Jesus called his listeners to be better people.  Jesus called them to be more concerned with what came out of their hearts that what went into their mouths.  Jewish Law at the time was all about what went in very little concern with what came out.  And Jesus calls us to reflect on ourselves in light of this oversight.

I have an enduring complaint about the New Atheists: they accuse religion of being the source of all evil in the world, but they are only able to quote examples and statistics of individuals and sometimes groups of people acting shitty in the name of religion.

You might consider this splitting hairs, but bear with me: religion is just a philosophy.  It has no life by itself, no volition, no conscience.  Same with a hammer.  A hammer is not good or evil, it is just a thing.  It is how I as an individual wield a hammer that determines whether it is good or evil.  If I pick it up and build a house, good.  If I pick it up and bop someone on the head and steal their wallet, evil.

Religion, like media, like politics, like philosophy can be wielded for good or evil purposes, but it is the individual human heart that must be tamed, that must be tried and tempered in order to do good.  In that sense, the arguments of the New Atheists are, by and large, grossly irresponsible because they do not acknowledge the culpability of the human heart.

Jesus places the responsibility for our actions squarely on our own shoulders.  This is deeply terrifying, but also deeply empowering because it means we are active players in the story, not just NPC's in life.

Today I hope that we can all operate from a good and clean heart, and that only goodness and kindness will flow from us.

If your spiritual journey feels good all the time, you're doing it wrong

My sermon for today was based on John 6:56-69.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

I think most of us pursue some kind of spiritual path, whether it is within the confines of an organized religion, outside of one but loosely based on one, a secular philosophy, or some kind of patchwork of our own making.  Heck, even most atheists I know describe themselves as spiritual and take their spiritual journey as seriously as any religious person.

Spirituality is of course a very broad term that means different things to different people, but you should know that when I say it, I mean it to refer to those aspects of our humanity which are not physical, but cannot exactly be described as intellectual or emotional.  So for example, our definitions of good and evil, sacred and profane, our more or less universal agreement as a species on what constitutes virtue and vice, our ubiquitous wonder at the marvels of creation, existence and consciousness, and our willingness to embrace and explore mystery.

Fact is, no religion or philosophy has a monopoly on those things.  At their best, religions and philosophies merely represent a framework upon which we can hang these questions.

But I digress...

The thing about spirituality is that it is supposed to make us better people, and if it never felt good, well, aversion theory alone would dictate that we would not pursue it.

But if your spirituality feels good all the time, you are doing it wrong.

Let me give you an example.  Most of us would say that we uphold justice, peace and freedom.  But how did we come to that conclusion?  Usually by witnessing firsthand or through the media examples in injustice, war and slavery.

Did it feel good to see those things?  Of course not.  It probably made you feel queasy and shaky and furious.  That didn't feel good, but it strengthened your resolve to go out and make sure the same things didn't happen to you or to anyone else.

Going out into the world and defending these virtues was and is probably equally uncomfortable, but if you are being true to yourself, you have no choice but to defend them,

Therefore, you progressed spiritually, but with some discomfort.

Spirituality is not about retreating into a little bubble of incense and incantations, isolating yourself from reality.

Spirituality is about staring reality in the face and refusing to back down because you have a firm grasp on what is good and evil, right and wrong, no matter how uncomfortable or downright terrifying it can be.

That's where some people failed in the Gospel passage for today.  When Jesus says, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them", some disciples lament, "This teaching is too difficult; who can accept it?", and they actually turn away from Jesus and wander home,

I don't think the disciples found this teaching difficult because they had trouble believing it.  I think they found it difficult to follow.

Let me explain.

The words Jesus spoke might have sounded a little odd to his listeners, as they do to us.  I mean, superficially, Jesus is inviting them to cannibalism (and certainly early Christianity was accused of just that).  But his listeners had a frame of reference that we as modern readers don't: the Jewish sacrificial system.

It was the duty of the faithful to present a sacrifice at the Temple.  These sacrifices were animal, grain, vegetable, fruit, wine or oil.  Only a small portion would be burned at the altar, but the rest would be eaten by everyone present.

Quite literally, bountiful crops and healthy livestock were believed to be a gift from God, and during the sacrifice, the faithful presented back to God just a little of what He had given them.  It was kind of like sending a thank-you card for a gift.

The meal after the sacrifice was seen literally and figuratively as filling oneself with the gifts of God in order to go out and do His will in the world.

So what would have upset his listeners was not Jesus' talk about eating and drinking flesh and blood, as his listeners would have been familiar with the language of eating flesh and blood of the sacrifice.  What would have upset them was Jesus equating himself with the sacrifice.

This might have troubled some people because perhaps Jesus was foreshadowing his death, but more likely they were perturbed because Jesus was asking them to do what he was doing.

I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks ago that the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes was one of the most significant moments in Jesus' life and ministry, not because he fed 5000 people, but because he was sending a message he was hoping people would get: "I feed people, now you go out and feed people".

It has been said that Jesus had no intention of starting a religion, and he would be appalled at some of the things that have been done in his name, but he was trying to change the world by changing individual human hearts.

What Jesus was asking his disciples in the passage today was to incorporate into themselves all the things that he was and did.  He was asking them not to bask in his presence, but to follow his example and do as he was doing.

Some people want to be led, and not lead.  They want to receive and not give.  Those are the people that turned away from Jesus: the people who were prepared to be fed, but not feed.  They were prepared to take what Jesus had to give but not to pass it on.

They were ready to be made to feel good, but not to bring that out into the world and make others feel good.  And that's the tragic mistake of those who want their spiritual journey to feel good all the time.  They haven't the courage to stare the injustices of the world and try to make them better.

Have that courage today.

The "Chicken Little Method" of reading the Bible

My sermon for today was based on John 6:51-58.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Like most of us, I went through a period of adolescent rebellion.  I didn't really have a clear focus for my rebellion, I just resented pretty much everything and everyone who wasn't me, and if I recall correctly, I think I hated myself most of all during this period in my life.

One thing I did rebel against was authority: ANY authority or perceived authority would do.  Anyone or anything who told me what to do or what to think, or anyone who allowed someone else to tell them what to do or what to think became targets for my petulant contempt.

So of course, I rebelled against the church, and I was fond particularly of eroding people's confidence in Scripture.  Basically, I would tell any of my religious friends how silly the Bible was.

The irony was that I had never actually read it from cover to cover.  Not even close.  So at some point in my mid-20's, I decided to sit down and read it through.  I must confess, my motivation was not personal enlightenment, but to marshal better arguments against religious folk.

I won't say it was immediately a life-changing experience.  There was still a lot in there I considered silly, ill-advised and unbelievable, and yet I could not deny that life leaped off of just about  every page.  That book had something.

One thing I came to realize is that every story, even the unbelievable ones, had something for me: some lesson, some moral, some warning.  And I came to realize that the people who insist on taking the Bible literally (and many atheists are guiltier of this than religious people) rob themselves and others of rich stories that could otherwise inform and enhance their lives.  Instead, they get hooked up on the physical impossibility of Noah's Ark or the parting of the Red Sea.

So I developed what I call my Chicken Little Method of reading the Bible.  We all know the story: Chicken Little gets hit on the head, insists the sky is falling, runs around the barnyard whipping everyone into a panic.  Finally, a cooler head prevails and leads the mob back to the scene of the crime, and they notice that the piece of "sky" was just an acorn.

The moral of the story is that we should get our facts straight before we run around spreading information.  But if we get to the end of the story and say, "Wait a minute, that story is total bullshit: chickens don't talk!", and we discard the whole thing, we miss out on the moral, which was, after all, the whole point of telling the story in the first place.

The point of the passage for today is to demonstrate that God (however you conceive of God) is about life.  Not about death, not about fear, vengeance or judgement, but about life.  I'll prove it.  Click on the link to the passage above and count how many times the word "life" or something similar appears.  I'll wait for you.

I counted 12 (although I counted "abide in me" and "you have no life in you", which you might argue...either way, somewhere between 10 and 12).  Whatever else Christ is inviting us and his listeners to, it is life.  Not a life of guilt or fear or shame (which used to be the stock-in-trade of the church, to be sure) but a life of freedom, justice, self-actualization and self-realization.

In reality, I don't think God wants anything from us.  I don't think God needs or wants our guilt, fear or shame, I don't think God wants our service, our worship or our sacrifices.  I don't even think that God wants or needs our love.

But I do think God wants something for us.  I think God wants us love happy, joyous and free, and many people religious or otherwise have discovered that striving for justice, peace and equality (all things that Jesus Christ demonstrated) is what makes us happy, joyous and free.  Our love of God, our service and our worship are merely natural by-products: they are our response and reaction to our happiness, joy and freedom.

I had a friend who said that he had a God-shaped hole in him.  It was that void that only God could fill.  No amount of money, sex, drugs or rock n' roll could fill it.  I think we all have these voids, and only the right-shaped thing will fill those voids.

We all know how to eat, so feeding our bodies is pretty simple.  Fewer of us know how to feed our souls, so I want you to look for your God-shaped hole, I want you to find your spiritual mouth, and I want you to try to put the right thing in the right place (as weird as that all sounds).

In the end, what Jesus had to offer was the bread of life, the bread that would fill our spiritual void, the bread that would feed our souls.  That bread is nourishment indeed, and I hope that today you have your daily bread.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bread is useless unless you eat it

My sermon for this week was based on John 6:35, 41-51.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Ok, so that title should be a pretty obvious point, but it seems that it is a point that still needs to be made.

In order for bread to nourish you, you have to eat it.  If you are hungry and you put bread in your pocket, no good.  If you are thirsty and somebody gives you a picture of a glass of water, no good.  If you want to absorb the lesson of a book, it won't do you any good to balance the book on the top of your head.

In other words, just being in proximity to bread will not suffice.

In the same sense, just living near a gym won't make you fit, just being in proximity to a police station won't make you a law-abiding citizen, and more to the point, just being in proximity to a church will not make you a faithful person.

We have all met people who are regular churchgoers, who punch in and punch out regularly for their weekly hour of power, and yet who seem to miss the very fundamental lessons that Jesus was trying to convey.

Part of this might have to do with the language we use in church.  Most of our language, like in any organization, is highly codified.  Much of it, not surprisingly, is based on Scripture.  Two such phrases come out of the Gospel passage for today: "I am the bread of life" and "Whoever eats of this bread shall live forever".  Jesus makes both of these statements about himself, or at the very least, the Gospel author attributes those words to Jesus.

These words and concepts are echoed in some form or another at every single Eucharist, every time we take the elements of Communion.

But what do they actually mean?  Do we actually know what Jesus meant by "bread of life" and what he meant by "live forever"?

Because the pretty obvious point is that every observant Christian who take Communion still hungers and thirsts, and every observant Christian dies, despite the promises Jesus makes in today's Gospel.

The equally obvious point is that Jesus is not talking about bodily hunger or bodily life and death.  Rather, he is talking about spiritual hunger and spiritual life.

Following hot on the heels of the feeding of the 5000, where Jesus satisfies the physical hunger of the people, he invites them to reflect on spiritual food (see last weeks' sermon).  This spiritual food, as I mentioned last week, is that which feeds others: acts of kindness, generosity, love, compassion, forgiveness and justice.  Spiritual food is every value and virtue of goodness, those which Jesus exemplifies.

But what does all this have to do with eternal life?

In the original Greek, as well as in English, the word "eternal" has two meanings, one quantitative, the other qualitative.  In other words, one refers to an amount of time, the other to the quality of time.

"Eternal" can mean endless, existing forever, without beginning or end.  God is certainly that, but the other definition of "eternal" is valid for all time, essentially unchanging or immutable.

So which definition did Jesus have in mind when he invited his listeners to eternal life?

Traditionally, most Christians have associated "eternal life" with Heaven.  The idea, it would seem, is that we are supposed to do good things, NOT because just because they are the right things to do, but because we are trying to buy our way into Heaven where we can live together with our relatives an friends forever and ever.

Am I the only one who sees a fundamental problem with this?  Foremost, this means that we are trying to buy God's love, which is one of the things Jesus criticized the Pharisees for.  It is fairly evident that Jesus' mission and ministry focused first and foremost on how we should act in this world, how we should treat one another.  He seems to have had relatively little to say about what would happen in the afterlife, or whether there even is one for that matter.

My personal feeling is that we should be more focused on how we live our lives day to day.  What happens afterwards will take care of itself.

We spend so much time worrying about what we put in our bodies, but what are we feeding our souls?  Are we more worried about what happens when we die than we are about how we live?

The answers to those questions should be fairly obvious.  Today, I hope we all choose the focus on the right things.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Soul Food

My sermon for this week was based on John 6:24-35.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Here's the punchline: we are supposed to be feeding one another spiritually.  We are meant to nourish one another, help one another grow and become better than we are.

A few years ago, the "Occupy" movement was at its peak, and while it seems to have lapsed into obscurity somewhat, it did leave an indelible mark on our culture.  Tellingly, that mark was in the form of a bumper-sticker slogan: "We are the 90%".

This refers to the alarming statistic that 90% of the world's wealth is in the hands of the 10% richest people in the world.  The corollary is the bumper sticker: the 90% remaining of us subsist on 10% of the world's wealth.

Furthermore, the bottom half of that 90% have to subsist on a mere 1% of the world's wealth.

So to visualize, imagine you and nine of your friends get together and order a pizza.  Would if be fair for your nine friends to have to split one piece of pizza while you stuff your face with nine slices?

Hell, no.  But this is our world.

Superficially, the story of the Feeding of the 5000 (which immediately precedes the Gospel for today) can be seen as a lesson about food justice.  On its surface, it is a story of people who have food feeding those who do not.

Hey, food is great, we all need it, most of us have more of it than we need, and there are many people out there who live on the edge of starvation.

But I think Jesus actually wanted to push the meaning of this act further.  Jesus wanted us to learn a lesson and have a change of heart.  He wanted to feed us spiritually, and the act of feeding us literally was meant as a token of this spiritual food.

 I think this principally because of what he says to the crowd in today's Gospel passage when they follow his and find him on the other side of the Galilee: "You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life".

There are people out there who are bottomless pits.  They take and take and eat and eat and never give back.  Nothing they have will ever be enough, and they do very little to contribute to the common good of their churches, families, communities or workplace.  They fail to be spiritually moved by the many gifts that are probably present in their lives.

Jesus is calling us to be better than that.

The crowd was fed and they followed Jesus to be fed again.  Perhaps they were looking for real food, which Jesus gave them one way or another, and perhaps they were looking to be fed spiritually, we Jesus certainly did through his teachings and ministry.

But the problem is that at some point, enough is enough.  Hey, we all have to be fed, literally and spiritually, but at a certain point, we also have to say, "Ok, I am full!  Now I need to go out and do something with this".

The whole point of eating is so that we have the energy to live and work.

The whole point of feeding spiritually is that we have the energy to go out and do ministry.

I see church as breakfast: I go there to get my soul food for the week.  It is not the extent or even the principal expression of my faith.  It is where I go to recharge, refresh and recreate my energy.

But I have to do something with that energy.  I have to pass it on.  I have to pay it forward.

Let's operate under the assumption that the true miracle of the Feeding of the 5000 actually consisted of the example Jesus set by sharing his food with those who had none.   This encouraged others with food to share with their neighbours.  Now imagine if each of those 5000 people had in turn gone out and fed 5000 people each.

Any good at math?  25 million people would have been fed.

These people would have been fed literal food, which in and of itself would have been a great feat, but their spirits would have also been fed with the virtues of hope, generosity, kindness and love.

These are the real things Jesus was serving up.

No, you can't eat hope or love, but there is no food in the world that can satisfy loneliness, depression or hopelessness.

Today, I pray that we would all feed one another that we we hunger for most.

Faith is a moving target

Sorry folks, no audio for this one, forgot my recorder at home.

My sermon was based on John 6:1-21, however.

I want you to imagine something.  I want you to imagine the scene of the Feeding of the 5000, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.

One of the best-known stories in all of Christendom, it is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels.  This ought to tell you it has something important to say.

So I want you to imagine the scene: late afternoon/early evening on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Warm breezes, a nice sunset, perhaps.  5000 people gathered together (for those of you who worked at the Maxville Highland Games this weekend, there were 5000 people there, just to help you visualize).  Imagine being seated on the grass with everyone else.

Who are you in that story?  When you picture yourself, who are you?

Without fail, people always respond, "One of the crowd".

Wrong.

We are actually supposed to see ourselves as Jesus in this passage.

Let me explain why.

There are two possible interpretations of what happened that day:

1. The line that Christianity seems to have traditionally taken, that Jesus, through the power of God, magically and miraculously multiplied the loaves and fishes.

2. That Jesus set an example for the crowd by sharing their meager fare, thus allowing an opening for a spirit of generosity to flow throughout the crowd, those of whom who had brought food sharing with those who had neglected to.

Either way, one could say a miracle happened, because is generosity any less of a miracle than the multiplication of food would be?

And then Jesus gets up and leaves.  His work there was supposed to have been done.  His lesson was transmitted, and the crowd was supposed to have figured it out and gone and done likewise, but they did not.

The problem is one of comfort.  Not unlike some churches, the crowd just wanted to be with Jesus, to live in that bubble of his teaching and charisma, to bask in his presence, and quite possibly to have someone do the thinking and the acting for them.

But the problem is that ministry exists out there.  Ministry is something that can happen in a church, for sure, but for the most part, we are literally preaching to the choir.

North American churchgoers need to realize that they are no longer the recipients of the message of Christ, they are the ministers of said message.  We are not supposed to bask in Jesus, we are supposed to do what he did.

Jesus gave of what he had and that is what we are called to do.  We are called to minister to the needs outside our walls, outside our churches, in our communities, in our world.

The world is hungry and thirsty.  Jesus did not stay in one place and feed a small group of people forever and ever.  He fed them, equipped them for ministry, and asked them do as he did.

I hope we are prepared, willing and able to do the same.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Jesus takes some "me" time

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

To  download a podcast of my sermon, click here.


One of the trickiest things in this world is striking a good balance in life.  Many people find it difficult to juggle work, family, friends, etc, etc.  The problem being that in an attempt to fulfill all the obligations, to try to fulfill all our responsibilities, there is one thing that often gets jettisoned: recreation.


Yeah, yeah, "first world problems", you say.  But it's not.  Recreation is actually extraordinarily important.  Look at the word: re-creation.  Recreation is not goofing off, it is the act of recuperating the energy we need in order to go out into the world.  It is the act, quite literally, of re-creating ourselves.


Our modern culture is crippled by depression, anxiety, burnout and physical ailments related to those disorders.  For many of us, these problems are often brought on by work/life imbalance.  If not the cause, it is certainly a contributing factor.


Look at it this way: you can't give someone the shirt off your back if you are not wearing one.  You can't feed the world if you yourself have not been fed.  It is not selfish to look after yourself.  It is a necessary life skill.


Jesus tried to strike this balance, and he was thwarted.  After the Disciples come back to him after discharging their first acts of ministry, Jesus invites them away to a place where they can be by themselves.  Jesus recognized the value of being away from the crowds, away from work so he and the Disciples could relax and recoup their energies.  But the crowd follows them, giving them no reprieve.


Although he demonstrates some questionable boundaries, it is of course a great example of Christ's love and dedication that he nonetheless forsook his own needs to minister to the needs of the people.  But you know, he was Jesus, and maybe he had the energy to give.  Most of us are not endowed with the super-human abilities he might have had.


The Lectionary does something weird here though, something that makes the Gospel excerpts difficult to interpret.  If you check the chapter and verse, you will notice that between the stories of Jesus trying to retire to a quiet place and failing to do so, the Lectionary cuts out the story of the Feeding of the 5000, the miracles of the loaves and fishes.


So I am going to do something I rarely do and go "offbook" by reinserting that story.


I think this important to do because I believe the moral of the story, the solution to not wearing ourselves thin on work, life, ministry, etc, is to realize that we are not islands, that no one man or woman can carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.  In reality, we are reliant upon one another, and this is not a bad thing.


Ok, so the miracle.  Traditionally, the superficial interpretation of the passage is just to assume that Jesus magically multiplied the loaves and fishes through the power of God.  This and of itself would be pretty impressive, of course, but how can you and ever relate to that?  You and I are mortal, incapable of performing miracles like that.


A more realistic interpretation is that in a landscape devoid of Quizno's and corner stores, in a crowd of 5000 people, surely some would have brought food with them, especially if they were going to walk from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other.  If Jesus and his Disciples modeled generosity by sharing their food with others, chances are others began sharing with their neighbours as well.


What would be the greater miracle: that food was magically multiplied by some mysterious force, or that a spirit of generosity was modeled and unlocked in the crowd?


Because the reality is that no one, not even Jesus could feed 5000 people.  Over and over again, Jesus enlists the help of others, such as sending out the Disciples in the passage right before the one we read this week.


If even Jesus needed a helping hand, should we really be so reluctant to ask for one?


The trick in life is to be aware of when we need to help and when we need to be helped, when we need to be "on" and when we need to be "off".


Today my hope is that we can all take a bit of time to be fed, some time to retreat from the hustle and bustle, and take some time to re-create.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The cowardice of rhetorical questions

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 6:1-13.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Even notice how some people ask questions as statements?

See what I did there?

I made a statement but phrased it as a question.  What I actually said was, "I have noticed that some people ask questions as statements, and I am hoping you have too".

It's a harmless little rhetorical trick that draws people into a story.  But sometimes, rhetorical questions are far from harmless.

Take the Gospel passage for today.  Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, enters the synagogue and begins teaching.  Some of the people in the synagogue take offense at him.  They take offense for a number of reasons, chief amongst them being that Jesus was not a trained rabbi, and yet he was surrounded by disciples and was teaching at the synagogue.  He was also a 'local boy' that they had all seen grow up and ply his trade as a carpenter before he embarked on his ministry.

So they begin asking questions.

But the problem is, the questions they ask him are not honest, nor are they even asked directly to him.  Rather, they are grumbled amongst one another.  They are questions meant to blame, shame and to diminish.

Let's go over their questions and translate what they are actually saying:

"Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hand!"

The statement in these 'questions' are pretty obvious: "He is not qualified to teach.  He has no training, no credentials, no authority.  He is a charlatan".

The next questions they ask are, "Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?"

The statements are once again pretty clear: "He is a manual laborer, the son of an unwed mother, the nothing from a family of nothings whom we have know are whole lives".

It is also telling that they call him "The son of Mary".  In a patriarchal society like ancient Judaism, once would generally trace lineage to one's father.  But of course, the whole town knew that Jesus was not Joseph's son, so they call him "the son of Mary".  It sounds innocent enough until you realize they are actually trying to diminish Jesus by pointing out that he is a bastard (using this word in the dictionary definition of the term, and not the pejorative).

Now, who knows why they reacted like such jerks.  Chances are, they were irked at someone who had little or no formal education expounding on spiritual matters more profoundly than they were capable of.  Perhaps they were jealous that Jesus was stealing their spotlight.  Maybe they feared for their positions of importance in the community.  Maybe they just resented a 'local boy' who had done better than them.  Who knows?

Either way, they made a snap decision about Jesus and didn't even give him the benefit of the doubt.  They just decided that he was not worth listening to and so they begin to grumble to other people to undermine him.

How differently might this situation have gone if they had just listened to Jesus?  How differently would it have gone if they had just asked their questions directly to Jesus, loaded as they were?

And more the point of my sermon, how differently would this discussion have gone if they had just gone up to Jesus and said, "We are angry at you and afraid of you because you are threatening to us", thereby actually opening an actual dialogue with Jesus.  Real progress could have been made that day.

So are we asking the same questions?  Are we asking these questions of ourselves, of each other, and even of God?

Questions are great.  Questions are the way we increase our knowledge.  But if we are asking questions to make statements, we are just being jerks.  In the future, perhaps we can restrict our questions to things for which we are actually seeking answers, and restrict our statements to things that will make us, our families, our churches, our workplaces and our communities better places.