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Monday, August 29, 2016

The best seat in the house

My sermon this week was based on Luke 14:1-14.

Dinnertime at my house is usually pretty casual.  Although we have vowed to sit at the table when we have children, my wife and I usually eat in front of the TV.

When I was a kid, dinnertime was a little more formal: no TV, no radio, and we all sat at the table and usually talked about our day.  Our table was round, all the chairs were the same, and the table was in the kitchen.

My grandparents house was much different.  They had a small table in the kitchen that they ate at on a daily basis, but when family visited, dinner was served in the dining room.  The table was long and rectangular.  My grandmother sat at the end nearest the kitchen so she could shuttle food and dishes back and forth, and my grandfather sat at the far end.  His chair was the only one that had arms on it.

In perhaps a mild way, my grandparents' house was reflective of a certain cultural protocol when it comes to seating arrangement: the host (my grandfather) sat at the head of the table, which was recognized as the most important seat in the house, although no one actually ever said that out loud.

We don't have the same kind of protocol in our culture, but we do have seating arrangements: have you ever come into church and found someone sitting in "your pew"?

Seating arrangements in Jesus' time were much more formal.  The host would still sit at the head of the table, but the most important guests were seated closest to the host, and the least important were seated further away.

In today's Gospel passage Jesus is invited for dinner to the house of a Pharisee, and he notices how people are following that traditional seating pattern.  He warns them against assuming their seat without invitation: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you."

He issues this warning because "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

When we have a formal dinner in our culture, it can be pretty clear who the most important people are.  At a wedding, for example, we usually have a head table that consists of the couple, their parents, the honour party, and so on.

But if we were to sit down at God's table, who would be the most important?  Who would be, metaphorically speaking, invited to sit closer to God?  Would the rich, powerful and famous be seated closer to God?

Jesus would say no.  According to the Gospel for today, the people who would be invited to sit at God's table should and would be "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind", and these should be the very people we invite to our table.

There are several possible explanations for this.  Maybe Jesus is trying to encourage people to be humble.  Maybe he is trying to convince us to sit with people we wouldn't normally associate with.

I think he is trying to make a point about inclusiveness.  Society still has a way of dividing us: haves and have-nots, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, black and white, sick and well, etc, etc.  The dinner table in Jesus' time acted almost as a microcosm for this: those most important to the host sat near him, and the least important were seated further away.  The table perpetuated divisiveness.

Outside the dining room, society is divisive, and it was certainly so in Jesus' time as well.  The poor, crippled, lame and blind were sidelined and excluded, as they still are today.

But here's the thing: if we are to be Christians, these are the exact people we should make an effort to include, and what Jesus revealed to us about God is that these are the very people God would invite to sit closer to him.

Think of it this way: the wealthy, healthy and whole are already doing ok.  They already have so many advantages and things working in their favour.  They don't necessarily need constant reminders of God's love and presence because evidence of that should be all around them.

Don't get me wrong, I do not believe for one second that God "blesses" or "curses".  I don't think that because you are wealthy, that means God prefers you to a poor person, and just because you are poor that God dislikes you.

But those who suffer poverty, physical or mental illness, addiction, injustice or isolation already have the deck stacked against them.  They are precisely those who need to be shown love, acceptance and hospitality, and that is what we are called to do as Christians.

It is only natural to want to be around those who are like us: those who think like us, look like us, act like us.  This is not in and of itself a bad thing.  It only makes sense, and I think it is pretty endemic to the human race.

Where this becomes an issue is when we reject, isolate or sideline others as a result of our actions.  We have all seen cliques when we were in school, in our workplaces, at church or even in our own families.

Christ would call us to deliberately override this tendency.  Christ would call us to be inclusive, and in fact to show a preference to those people who routinely don't get a seat at the big table.

This week, I hope we can all have the courage to step out of the comfort zone of our friendship circle, that we take the time to talk to someone we wouldn't normally talk to, to show them God's love and to invite them to his table.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Physician, heal thyself: the story of Super-Christian Patrick

My sermon this week was based on Luke 13:10-17.

Do download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Many of us can probably relate to feeling like we have a weight on our shoulders.  Whether it is the weight of worry, depression, hatred, sorrow, anger or illness, most of us can probably relate to feeling like there is something in our lives weighing us down, and we can also likely relate to feeling light and free when that situation is resolved.

Today's Gospel passage has to do with Jesus healing a woman who is bent over double, and the image I get in my head is of someone who is literally and figuratively bent over by her problems, and of someone who can finally stand up straight again and enjoy life when that weight is lifted off her shoulders.

Now this woman was physically ill, so despite the ancient belief that physical illness was the result of sin, I don't think any reasonable person can indict her or anyone who has a physical illness.

But it seems to me like there is someone else in this Gospel who is carrying a weight that is quite literally of his own making, and he fails utterly to shrug it off, and that is the Synagogue leader.

When I was a teen, I worked at a Christian summer camp.  I would not have called myself a Christian then: I did not go to church, I was not asking the big questions, I was not interested in God, and in fact I considered myself an atheist.  But I had no objection to the religion of others, I needed a summer job, and several of my friends worked at the camp.

Part of what we did every day was Chapel.  This happened right after breakfast, and it consisted of a little morality story and some energetic songs to get the kids pumped for morning activities.  I played guitar, so I was one of several people who led the music for chapel.

Super-Christian Patrick was another music leader.  He was about my age and was as faithful a person as I have ever met, hence the reason I called him Super-Christian Patrick.

Although I liked Patrick as a person, there was something that bugged me about him.  At chapel, I would glance over at him as we were playing guitar, and although I was having fun, Patrick was LOVING it.  His eyes were closed and he was smiling and blissed out as we sang these songs about God.  He was loving God and God was loving him.

The thought in my head was, "You idiot".  I thought he was thoroughly naive and brainwashed, and at first I thought I pitied him for this.

As the summer went on, I came to realize that I was actually jealous and angry at him.  I was jealous and angry because he was happy.  He knew that God existed and loved him, and he loved him back.  I didn't have those things, and I have to admit, I wanted them.

My self-absorption robbed me of the ability to rejoice with Patrick.  My own feelings of anger and jealousy prevented me from being happy for Patrick that he was so easily able to bask in God's light.

What a weight I was carrying!  And what weight must the Synagogue leader have been carrying!  Rather than stand in awe of God's power, rather than sit down and learn at the feet of the man who had performed a miracle, rather than rejoice along with the woman who had been freed from her ailment, he instead rains on everyone's parade, accusing Jesus of breaking the law by healing on the Sabbath.

Maybe the leader was jealous because Jesus was able to do something he couldn't.  Maybe he was angry because God seemed to be working through someone other than him.  Maybe he just didn't like sharing the limelight.

Either way, one of the truths about human nature is that sometimes we resent the successes and joys of others.  We feel somehow that their success or joy takes away from our own.  We feel like if we are not happy, no one else has a right to be either.  We feel like there is a limited amount of joy and recognition to go around, that God has only a finite amount of love to divide up between all of humanity.

Nothing could actually be further from the truth.  Love, joy, success and recognition are not finite quantities, and I think we would actually find that we can derive great joy from celebrating with others in their own joys and successes.

The weights we carry prevent us from enjoying our own lives and from celebrating the joys of those we love.  Much of the time, these weights are of our own making, and can just as easily be unmade.

I hope and pray that whatever weight we are carrying around on our shoulder, whether it is sadness, depression, fear, anxiety, jealousy, a fractured relationship, that we can make a decision and take steps to come out from under that weight.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Bridges, not walls

My sermon for today was based on Luke 12:49-56.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Before I was ordained a priest, I worked in a drug and alcohol rehab for teens and young adults.  I am not proud to admit this, but every once in a while, a kid would come into the program that I just didn't like.   There was one kid in particular, let's call him Chris.

Chris was just weird.  He dressed weird, he did weird things and said weird things.  He had a weird sense of humour and he interests were weird.  I could find nothing in common with which to connect to this kid, and I am usually pretty good at that.

At one point, I was talking to the boss about how I felt about this kid, and I expected him to agree wholeheartedly with me.  What he actually said brought me up short.  He said, "Sound like you are the one with the problem".

"What do you mean?", I said, not really appreciating his tone.

"Well, he's just being who he is.  If you have a problem with that, it's YOUR problem, not his".

He recommended I make an effort to get to know him, so I took him out fishing for a couple of hours, and as it turns out, he was actually a pretty neat, smart kid.  But had I been left to my own devices, I would have left that wall between us and missed out on the opportunity to get to know him.

The Gospel passage for today speaks of walls, of how we connect and divide ourselves from one another.

I have trouble with the Jesus in today's Gospel passage, incidentally.  I have an image in my head of Jesus, tender, meek and mild, the Prince of Peace who suffers the little children to come unto him and so on.

The Jesus in today's Gospel passage speaks of dividing families and bringing fire.  In have trouble putting the two images together.

The reality is that we can't catch inflection and tone of voice in the written word.  I don't think Jesus is saying these things gleefully while rubbing his hands together like a mad scientist.  Rather, I think he is saying it in a tone of weary resignation, with the realization that no matter how much peace and love he preached, human being would find a way to screw it up, that even families would be divided over how to show love.

And how religion has divided us over the years!  How did we do this?  How did we take the fundamental message of most religions, that we are all one, and turn it into an excuse to judge, condemn and divide?

Do we really think that God cannot tolerate a little difference?  Do we really conceive of a God who is so small and so petty that he cannot handle different viewpoints, different worship styles, different interpretations of Scripture?

I think Jesus came to help us embrace and celebrate our differences, but he was aware that doing so takes a fair amount of courage, far more than many people seem to have.

The problem is that it is so easy to build walls and say, "You are not of me, you are not of us".  We do it all the time.  We do it to women, LGBTQ+, immigrants, refugees, other religions, other ages.  I did it to Chris.

I suspect the real reason we build walls is not that we really have an objection to other people, but because we lack the courage to embrace their differences.

When we stop and think about it, how much reason is there really to build walls between other people?  People may have different skin colours, recite difference creeds, have different political views or sexual preferences, but in reality, we all love our children and our parents, we are all afraid of the future, we all laugh at pretty much the same things and cry for pretty much the same reasons.

In reality I would say that are more things that make us similar than make us different.  I am pretty sure if we could just get past the walls we build around ourselves and others, we would find great gifts in other people.

The bricks we use to make walls can also be used to make bridges.  I pray that today we would all have the courage to tear down walls and build bridges with them instead.

How do we live our lives when we think no one is watching?

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 12:32-48.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

I saw a t-shirt a few years ago that I regret not buying.  It said, "Jesus is coming!  Look busy!"

This was a joke about the the Second Coming, of course, and although the Second Coming is not current theology in most of Christianity, this shirt did put its proverbial finger on what I think are nonetheless poignant questions:

How and why do we live our faith?  How much room do we make in our lives for our faith?  What are we doing to make room for God?

Like many people, I drifted away from the church when I was younger, partially because I felt I had to fear God.  It seemed to me like the only reason to be a person of faith was to avoid eternal damnation, and consequently the main reason for being a person of faith was fear: fear of God and fear of Hell.  There was something that just struck me as wrong about that.

Not that those things do not deserve to be feared, but I felt deep within me that if I was ever to come to God, it should be out of love and not fear.

I was once told that love was something you had to make room for, and that really resonated with me.  My wife and I are expecting a baby, and I realize as we get ready for his/her arrival that a baby is something that you have to make room for.  Babies are small, but they are prop-heavy, so our basement currently looks like a maternity garage sale.

I think part of the problem is that we expect God or Christ to just pop into our lives, or we pick them up and put them down when it is convenient for us.  We seem to think that religion and/or faith are things that only happen for an hour or so on a Sunday.  We expect God make his own space in our lives, when in reality we are the ones who have to make room for him.

If Jesus was to walk into our church on a Sunday morning, sit next to us and ask, "So.  What do you do around hereto honour God?", what would our answer be?

I think for a number of churchgoers, that answer might be easy: we are wardens, we are in the choir, we cook for the bake sale, and so on.

I think, however, that the answer to that question might be much less evident if Jesus was to show up at our house or place of work and ask the same question.  What do we do from Monday to Saturday to honour God?  What do we do to preach the Gospel?

I am not suggesting that we all invest in a soapbox and head for Rideau Street, but what I am suggesting is that we follow the advice attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.

Honouring God is less about outward displays of piety or being able to regurgitate Scripture passages like parrots.  It is about how we live our lives when we think no one is watching.

Our daily lives are the best testament to our faith, or the worst as the case may be.  The integrity of our Christianity is demonstrated in how we treat complete strangers in our daily lives.

It has been said that we should be vigilant in our words and behaviour because we might be the only Bible someone reads, the only Gospel someone ever hears.

The Gospel passage for today speaks of good and bad servants: the good ones remain vigilant while the master is away from the house, doing their duties and taking care of the master's property and possessions; the bad servant slack off in their duties and are not ready to receive their master when he returns home.

If we believe (as I firmly do) that we are stewards of God's creation, that we are responsible for taking care of God's people and his "stuff", that means we need to be vigilant all the time.  We need to be engage in acts of justice, mercy, truth, love and forgiveness 24/7, not just for an hour on Sunday.

Today, I hope we can all remain vigilant and that we can all live our lives with integrity, courage and honesty.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The collateral damage of sin

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 12:13-21.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

Ok, we need to talk about sin.  I know, it's not popular, it sounds Catholic or at least Baptist, but we have to talk about it.  We have to talk about it, not for your own good but for the good of those around you.

When most people talk or think about sin, they tend to think about "those things that make God angry at me".  They think of sin as something that is only between them and God, and as something that only impacts them personally.

Take the Seven Deadly Sins, for example: pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth and greed.

If we look at each of those sins, superficially they would seem to only affect the person committing them.  If I am prideful, nobody gets hurt, its my problem.  If I am gluttonous, I get fat and have health problems, but they are my problems.  If I am wrathful, I am the one who is angry, my problem.  If I am slothful, I am the one who is lazy, nobody else should care.

What often goes unnoticed with each of these sins and others, is that there is most often collateral damage to sin, a cost to others for our own sin.

Most people who are prideful, for example, buy their pride at the expense of shaming someone else: "Look at my nice car.  I don't know how you can drive that little thing.  Look at my nice house.  I don't know how you can live in an apartment".

If I am gluttonous, for every meal or snack I have that I don't need, mathematically there is less food available for those who don't have enough to live on.

If I am a slothful employee, my employer suffers, our clients suffer, as does the business for which I work.

My wife is occasionally wrathful.  I suffer.

All this to say, we are not the only one who suffers when we sin.  There are other people who are caught in the blast zone, and even if we don't much care what God think of our sin, we should at least care about the impact we have on other people's lives, especially about those we claim to love.

The Gospel passage for today has to do with an inheritance and greed.  Jesus is talking to a crowd, and someone says, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me".

We know a few things about inheritances in those days.  First of all, it was a matter of law.  Sons had every right to expect an inheritance if there was one, and fathers were obligated to divide their estates among their sons when they died.

Second, the eldest son was typically the 'executor' responsible for dividing of the inheritance along some pretty strict guidelines:  the eldest son got a double portion, either because they had less time to enjoy it it, or because the older son typically took over the family farm/plantation/business.

What we can infer from this situation is that the eldest brother is a holdout.  He has control of the family estate and he is not following the law.  He is not giving what his younger brother what he deserves.

I have preached on this passage a number of times, and I always assumed that Jesus was addressing the Parable of the Rich Fool to the man who asked Jesus to intercede for him.  Now I am not so sure.  Chances are, the older brother was also in the crowd, perhaps standing right beside him, which is why the younger brother made his request in the first place: they are treating Jesus like a lawyer or a judge.  I now think Jesus is probably addressing the parable particularly to the older brother, warning him of the collateral damage of his greed.

Here's the thing: yes there is law, there is what is right and what is wrong, but in the end, what must the relationship have been like between these two brothers in the first place?  How fractured and ruptured must their relationship have been for the eldest to withhold the birthright of the younger, and for the younger to feel compelled to drag out the dirty laundry in front of a crowd?

Law is all well and good.  I am a big fan, we need it, I don't want to abolish law at all and neither did Jesus.  But Jesus was not about law, he was about love.  We write laws down, like "Don't kill", "Don't steal", "Don't lie".  If we could, as Jesus admonishes us to do, love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and love our neighbours as ourselves, we would have no need for law because love for one another would already have us acting in a way which would make law irrelevant.

Law is needed simply because we can't, as a species, quite seem to do that.

I think Jesus would tell us to follow the law if and when we could not find it in our hearts to love one another, but I really think what Jesus is trying to get these brothers to do is look at and fix the problems in their relationship that got them to this point in the first place.

Loved ones should not have to quarrel over money or possessions.  We do occasionally, and that is why it is good to have laws in place, but the tragedy of this Gospel situation is that the sin of greed generates casualties.  It likely did not end with the two brothers and their relationship either.  There were likely wives, children, aunts, uncles and cousins embroiled in this battle as well.

Sin is not something that stops and starts at our doorways.  It is something with far-reaching consequences in our families, churches, communities and the world.

Today, let us follow the law of love.