Follow by Email

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.