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Monday, February 8, 2016

The secret to moving mountains

My sermon this week was based on Luke 9:28-43.

There are some pithy religious maxims that simply aren't true.  "Faith can move mountains", for one.  No amount of faith is actually capable of moving an actual mountain, and it would be silly to think it could.  In reality, it takes a swack load of backhoes and labourers to move a mountain.

More to the point, why would you want to move a mountain?

Obviously, this is not a maxim that is meant to be taken literally.  Most people take this saying to mean that faith can accomplish a seemingly impossible task, and while it would be fair to say that with faith we can certainly accomplish some pretty incredible things, this statement is actually much more meaningful when we understand where it comes from and what it actually means.

This saying actually comes from the story of the Transfiguration Christ, which we observed this Sunday.  The Transfiguration, one of the most (and arguably the most) significant events in the life of Christ.  This event is recorded in three of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke.

These Gospels do not disagree with one another in any meaningful way, but not one of them tells the whole story.

For example, all the Gospels agree that Peter, James and John accompanied Jesus up the mountain and witnessed the Transfiguration.  All agree that Jesus' face shone with the light of God.  All agree that Moses and Elijah were seen to appear with Jesus on the mountain, and that Peter is the one who suggested that they build three dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah so they could in that place forever.  All agree that Jesus led them back down the mountain, and all agree that the next day Jesus healed a boy, and it has always confused as to why these two events are coupled together in all three accounts.

Here's where the accounts start to differ somewhat.  Luke and Matthew tell us that Jesus and the three disciples came upon "a crowd" in which a father pleaded with Jesus to heal his son.  Mark gets a little more specifically, telling us that the other disciples were in the crowd, as well as "teachers of the law".  He also tells us they were arguing about something.  We don't know what, though.

Luke and Mark tell us the boy was possessed, whereas Matthew tells us the boy suffered from epilepsy.  All agreed regardless that the boy was in great suffering and the father was deeply distressed as he implores Jesus to help.

The father says the disciples could not heal the boy, and Jesus responds in all three Gospels with something along the lines of, "You faithless and perverse generation!  How much longer must I stay with you and put up with you?"

Harsh!

I have never heard or read of a plausible explanation for why Jesus might have said this, but I think it is fair to say he was deeply frustrated and exasperated.  But with who?  The disciples for their failure to heal the boy?  The teachers of the law for arguing?  The crowd at large for following him for his miracles rather than for love of God?

Mark does have the father respond to this by exclaiming, "Help thou my unbelief!", but it actually in the Gospel of Matthew that I think this passage finds its fullest fruition, and where saying "Faith can move mountains" comes from.

After Jesus heals the boy, the disciples ask him why they were not able to drive out the demon.  Jesus  responds, "Because you have so little faith.  Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."

This is why I think these two events, the Transfiguration and healing the boy are always paired together: Jesus brought the mountain to us.  That is how we can move mountains.

The mountaintop has long been perceived as a place of communion with God or the gods in most world cultures.  The Greek gods lived atop Mount Olympus, for example.  Moses received the Ten Commandments atop a mountain.  God or the gods have always been felt to live "up there somewhere" and so to seek a mountaintop in order to commune with God seems only natural.

The mountaintop is where we seek perspective, and also where we have spiritual experiences, such that many people refer to spiritual awakenings as their "mountaintop experience", whether it occurred to them on a mountain or in a cave.

If you have ever had an experience like this, you have probably encountered the frustration of trying to describe it or explain it to other people who have not had that experience.  You have probably realized that it is essentially a mysterious and emotional experience that simply does not translate into language.

But these experiences inevitably lead to deepening of faith, and faith, like love, is a verb.  Faith is an action.  So while Peter, James and John wanted to stay up on the mountain and treat faith like a noun, in or around which they could live forever, Jesus calls them and calls us out of that bubble of awesomeness and down into the world.

So while we can't drag anyone to the mountain, it takes only a little faith to realize that we can be of some good, of some use in this world, to encourage us to get out there and do our part for our family, our church, our community, our world.

In other words, while we can't take the whole world to the mountain, we can take the mountain to the world.  Jesus refused to stay with the disciples on the top of the mountain, even though that would have been a wonderful, spirit-filled place to live, but that is not the sum of faith.  The sum of faith is not about having one emotional experience after another or living in a comfortable bubble of ignorance.  It means coming down off the mountain and taking action, taking up our yoke and taking responsibility for making the world a better place.

Today I hope you can find the mountaintop you need, and that it strengthens you to bring that mountain out into the world.

Monday, February 1, 2016

I wasn't talking about you

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 4:21-30, but hearkening back to last weeks' Gospel passage, Luke 4:14-21.

There is something funny that has happened to me enough times since my ordination for me to suspect a pattern.

Oftentimes, my sermons are inspired by events in my churches: situations that are going on, conflicts, issues, and so on.  So while strictly adhering to the confidentiality to which I am bound as a priest, I sometimes deliver a sermon hoping that someone in particular in the congregation will absorb the message.

Whenever I do this, almost without fail, the very person I hoped would get the point comes up to me and says, "Great sermon.  Boy, do I wish my wife had been here to hear that!"

Facepalm.

I think Jesus often came up against the same problem, and he certainly did in today's Gospel passage.  The problem is making the distinction between when someone is talking about us, and when someone is talking about other people.

Sounds like it should be simple, but it's not.  We make the mistake all the the time, and so did people in Jesus' time, and today's Gospel passage is a perfect example.

To summarize, Jesus comes home to Nazareth and goes to the Synagogue.  He is appointed to read a passage from Scripture, and the passage he reads is from Isaiah, which says, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour".

He then makes the tremendous statement, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing", basically stating plainly that he is the man who is going to do all those things.

And the people love him!  We are told, "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth".  But then Jesus says something that seconds later infuriates the crowd to the point that they actually attempt to throw him off a cliff.

Why?  What did he say?  Why were the people happy and then suddenly outraged?

They were happy at first because they thought Jesus was talking about them, and they got angry because he was actually talking about someone else.

The inflaming statement Jesus makes is to point out two Old Testament stories, one where the prophet Elijah is sent to a starving widow in Zarephath during a great famine, and the second when the prophet Elisha is sent to cure Naaman the Syrian of his leprosy.  What got the people so mad is that both of these people were Gentiles.

We know that in Jesus' time, there were clear and stark lines drawn between observant Judaism and Gentiles.  Gentiles did not follow the same ritual purity laws and food laws, and so were considered profane.  They were not considered to be part of the people of God, and hence not deserving of God's favour.  But here is Jesus pointing out two instances when God's favour clearly fell on a Gentile.

When Jesus read the passage from Isaiah, chances are that most people in the crowd thought he was talking about them.  In other words, they thought they were the poor, the oppressed, the blind, the captives to whom Jesus referred, and Jesus was going free them.  Not the case, because they were already doing okay.

Although it is very difficult to get an accurate demographic reading on attendance at the Synagogue in Jesus' time, historians suggest that attendance then mirrored church attendance today: your average churchgoer today has a higher-than-average education and higher-than-average salary.  In other words, we are the haves, not the have-nots.  We are not the poor, the captives, the oppressed, the blind.

Chances are the crowd in the Synagogue where Jesus was speaking were similarly not poor, captive, oppressed or blind.  They certainly were not starving like the widow at Zarephath, and they certainly did not have leprosy like Naaman.  But maybe they, like us, were perhaps a little self-centered and focused on their own problems.  That's why they loved Jesus at first because they thought he was talking about them, that their good situation was going to get even better.

They failed to realize that even though from time to time we all feel a little poor or oppressed, that is nothing compared to the oppression and poverty that is felt by other people, and this is what Jesus points out to them.  There are, he points out, people who are literally starving and people who are literally dying of sickness, and that is who God is actually for.  He was trying, I think, to move his listeners to action.  Rather than sit there waiting for even further redemption, he was hoping his listeners would be grateful for their already good fortune and then go out and minister to the truly needy.

Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to diminish anyone's problem.  God is for everyone and it is not like God hates us if we are rich and free and healthy, but if we are rich and free and healthy, how do we respond to that?  Do we reach out in gratitude and share with others, or do we sit back and ask for more?

Case in point, I hear people complain about taxes and high hydro fees (and I am not above complaining myself), but as I consider my own life, I eat at least three times a day.  I have a home and a car, and enough money to pay for both.  My neighbourhood has regular garbage pickup, water and sewage.  I am not a refugee.  I am not suffering from any major illness.  I am not doing too bad, and I suspect that many people reading this are in similar situations.  Heck, if you have the internet and a computer to read this on, you are already doing better than a lot of people!

Today, my hope is that we could all be grateful for our good fortune and blessings, and to reach out from our places of privilege to help in God's work of freeing true captives, bringing good news to the real poor, restoring hope and vision to those who truly dwell in darkness and to proclaim a year of the Lord's favour.