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Thursday, November 23, 2017

The grace of being reckless

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 25: 14-30.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

How we act when no one is looking

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 25:1-13.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The punch line of the Bible

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 22:34-46.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

Like most people my age, I am in a hurry. All the time.  I don't have a lot of time to read the newspaper or long articles on the internet.  I get impatient if a video on Youtube is longer than 3 minutes. In other words, I (and many other people, I am sure) want straight, to the point information, no beating around the bush.  We want to know the hook, the nutshell, the point, the punch line.

The Bible is not a short book (actually, it is a collection of books, but that is perhaps for another sermon), so it is no wonder even so few Christians have read it from cover to cover.  You might ask what the point of the Bible is, what is the hook, what is the punch line?

I won't claim to have THE answer, but I can claim to have MY answer, and it is one phrase contained in today's Gospel passage:

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; love your neighbour as yourself".

My New Testament professor in seminary said that this was the beating heart and soul of what the Bible has to say; everything else is just commentary.  I tend to agree.

I you ever have read the Bible from cover to cover, you will note that there are a lot of rules, particularly in the book of Leviticus.  Lots of laws and regulation that you are probably not familiar with, but some of them you likely are.  The Ten Commandments, for example.  Most of us can recite at least 4 or 5 of them: don't kill, don't steal, don't lie, and so on.

In today's Gospel, Jesus is asked by a lawyer which Commandment is the most important.  This was and is still a great debate in religious and philosophical circles.  I think most of us would probably default to "Thou shalt not kill", but the problem is that when you do that, you necessarily de-prioritize the others, and that can get tricky.  They are not called "The Ten Suggestions" for a reason.

But this essentially what Jesus is being asked to do.  In other Gospel accounts of this event, the intent of the question is less hostile: the lawyer actually seems to be asking a genuine question so that he can be a wiser person.  Not the case in this Gospel.  The lawyer is trying to set Jesus up, hoping he will say something contentious so that the Pharisees and Sadducees can finally trap him.

In typical Jesus fashion, he doesn't chose any of the Ten.  Some people say that he invented an Eleventh, but this is not strictly accurate.  What he actually does is name the very foundation, the framework, the underpinning upon which all the Ten Commandments and all the other rules are actually based on:

Love for God and love for neighbour.

I would go so far as to say that the two are one and the same.

Think about it: if you really loved God and/or your neighbour, would you really have to be told not to kill them?  Not to lie to them?  Not to steal from them?  No.  That lesson would already be written on your heart.

We had to write these laws down and codify them because we are so bad at loving God and loving people sometimes.  I have said that good acid test for whether or not what you are about to do is right is to ask yourself, "Does this show love to God and/or my neighbour?"

If not, reevaluate.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Why it is actually OK to pray in the face of tragedy

So it has been an awfully long time since I have posted a blog entry.  What can I say, being the father of an 8-month old has challenged my schedule, and sadly some things have had to go by the wayside.

In the time since my last post, I have been appointed to a new church in the city of Ottawa, and I am currently learning the ropes of this community which I am blessed to be a part of.

Although I have preached and recorded a few sermons at the new place which I will eventually get around to posting, I wanted to address something that has been on my mind for quite some time, and that is the reaction we have to tragedy, whether that be a human-made tragedy or a natural disaster.

One of the blessings/curses of social media is that we know almost instantly when tragedy strikes, and we can broadcast our reactions almost instantly.  Like most people of faith, I turn, at least in part, to prayer as a coping strategy.  Some people chose to post on Facebook or Twitter than they are praying about the event in question.

Here is the thing: nobody actually knows what prayer accomplishes exactly.  There are those who would (and often do) say that prayer accomplishes absolutely nothing.  There are those at the other end of the spectrum who believe that prayer can and will accomplish all things.

Both extremes (as extremes so often are) are simply not helpful.  One is obstructively cynical, the other hopelessly naive.

So where does that leave prayer?  The best I can do is offer what prayer accomplishes for me.

Like everyone else, I react to things.  When I am struck, my automatic reaction is to strike back.  When I am wounded, my automatic reaction is to deal a wound in return.

When I see a tragedy in the world, I am filled with anger, rage, even hatred for the person/people who perpetrated it, or in the case of natural disaster I am filled with an overwhelming sense of helplessness and hopelessness because I simply feel powerless to do anything about it.

While I think these are all common and natural reactions, I think you would agree when I say these are simply not useful or productive emotions to feel.  This is where prayer comes in for me.

For people who do not pray or meditate (the two terms are synonymous for me), I think the assumption is that folks who do pray say something like this: "Please dear (insert deity here), let the dead get into heaven and please kill all the bad people, feed all the hungry people and clothe all the naked people", and then they dust off their hands and feel that they have done their good deed for the day.

Sadly, there are probably people whose prayers and meditations go no deeper than this, and perhaps it is right to chastise them.

But few non-praying people ever bother to ask us praying people what it is we are praying about, and so snide memes which replace actual thought and reflection abound.

So here is why I pray and what I pray for:

- I pray so that I do not fall victim to the same feelings of hatred, anger, rage, fear and sadness that motivate so much human-made tragedy, because I so often feel them automatically well up within me when I hear about tragedy.

- I pray so that I do not give myself over to the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that threaten to paralyze me in the face of tragedy.

- I pray to reflect on how I can best go out and actually do something to alleviate the suffering brought on by tragedy.

- And finally sometimes I pray because there is really nothing I can do about because the tragedy is on the other side of the world, or it is happening to someone I love, and grief and anger are the only things on my soul, and prayer is the only thing I've got.

In short, I don't think that prayer affects anything outside me.  I don't think it brings rain or sunshine, I don't think it affects the outcome of hockey games, or how well I do on a test.  By prayer has a profound effect within me.  Prayer prevents me from going off half-cocked, from reacting from the baser elements of my nature, from doing or saying something I might regret.  The best secular prayer there is is simply counting to ten when you are upset.  That's what prayer does: force me to pause so that I can respond to tragedy thoughtfully and deliberately, rather than in a reactive manner.

The whole point about prayer is that you are supposed to pray THEN go out and do something about it if you can and the fact is that many people do just that.  I know that some people hate seeing "Praying for..." on their feed because they think it is cheap.  They think it is a form of slacktivism, and that the posters are not actually doing anything useful, and so they post acerbic memes in response like "Or you could actually do something useful".

Newsflash: those memes are equally useless, and unless you are actually going out and doing something more useful than praying, you should probably think twice before posting them.

Here is the thing: when tragedy occurs, we are all affected.  We are all impacted in some way, and we all react in different ways.  Some people post "Praying for...".  Some people decorate their profile pic with a flag, slogan, or what have you in order to express solidarity with those who are suffering.  Some people hug their children a little tighter before going to bed, or tell their spouse they love them a little more seriously.  Some people give money, donate relief items, get on a plane and go to the affected areas.

Bottom line, these are all valid responses, including posting "Praying for..." on your Facebook feed.  I would much rather see FB light up with "Praying for..." instead of "Kill all...", because it means that other people out there are reaching out from a place of sympathy, empathy and solidarity, rather than a place of indifference, animosity and divisiveness.  They are trying to act or react from a better place that the people who perpetrate tragedy.

Who am I to take that away?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

An uncomfortable question

My sermon this week was based on Luke 24: 13-49.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

What are some adjectives you would use to describe a Christian?  Rather, knowing what some people who claim to be Christian can be like, what are some adjectives you would use to describe what a Christian is supposed to act like?

I think the answer is pretty obvious.  A Christian is supposed to act in loving, patient, tolerant, kind, generous and forgiving ways.

More on that later.

Today we read about the incident on the road to Emmaus, where two disciples who do not believe in the Resurrection actually meet, walk and talk with the resurrected Jesus for some time, yet they do not recognize him.  Theories abound as to why this might have been: maybe they had the sun in their eyes, maybe they were all teary-eyed at the death of their friend, but that is immaterial.  The point is, they didn't recognize him.  Even though Jesus unfolds to them the entirety of Scripture, illuminating the prophecies about himself, something which must have taken several hours at least, they still don't recognize him.

When do they recognize him?  When he breaks bread with them when they stop to rest for the evening.

Now while these two were disciples, they were not among the Twelve and as such were not at the Last Supper.  So how would they recognize this gesture of breaking bread?  It has been theorized that perhaps they were in attendance at the Feeding of the Multitude where Jesus divided up the fishes and loaves.  If this was the case,  they recognized Jesus in that moment, when he did something they recognize as Jesus-like.  That's how and when they knew they were in the presence of the Christ.

Here's the uncomfortable question: how would anyone know you are a Christian?

Sure, some of us wear crosses or have cross tattoos, but I hate to say it, the cross has become a watered-down symbol in popular culture.  Sure, we might be able to quote Scripture, but so can parrots.  I was in traffic the other day and had someone with a Jesus fish on the back of his car cut me off and flip me the bird.

The fact is, we can say we are one thing and wear all the symbols and trappings thereof, use all the codified language of the group, but we can act like the complete opposite.  Surely, the only proof that someone is actually a Christian is in the way they act.

Make no mistake, Christians are called to be better than other people.  Not that we are superior, mind you, but we are called to be more loving, more kind, more tolerant, more forgiving than your average person, but all too often, people who call themselves Christians act in the exact opposite way: they preach hate, they judge, they are intolerant, they hold on to grudges as though they were life preservers.

It's not too complicated: read the Gospels, note how Jesus acted, note how Jesus didn't act, and try to do that.  I am not giving you license to flip over tables in the Temple, just use your common sense.

The fact is that the disciples finally recognized Jesus when they saw him do something that reminded them of him.  If we are to call ourselves Christians, that means we should be out there doing things that remind us and others of Jesus.

If you are not out there acting in kind, loving, compassionate, forgiving ways and you call yourself a Christian, you're doing it wrong.

Do it right.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When did doubt become a bad thing?

My sermon this week was based on John 20:19-31.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

I LOVE preaching about Thomas.

When I was in seminary, a female colleague noted that it was difficult for her to relate to Jesus sometimes because he was male and she was female.  This opened up a really interesting discussion about how easy or difficult it was to relate to Jesus, and as it turns out, even though Jesus and I share a gender, we really don't have that much in common.

I am white, he was of Middle-Eastern descent.  I am Christian, he was Jewish.  He lived in the Middle East, I've never been further East that Germany.  He lived 2000 years ago, never saw a car, a cellphone, read a blog, used a microwave, and all these things are daily events in my life.

All this to say, I really don't have much in common with him either.

Perhaps the thing that most makes Jesus difficult to relate to, at least for me, is his divinity.  He performed miracles, was perfect in every way.  I go to the corner store to buy 3 things and forget what 2 of them are by the time I get there.

But the Apostles...those are guys I can relate to.  From impulsive Peter to traitorous Judas, I can relate to their all-too human impulses, thoughts, words and deeds.

Thomas is perhaps my favourite Apostle.  History remembers him as "Doubting Thomas", and this epithet seems to be construed my many people as an insult or a criticism.

When did doubt become such a bad thing?

We are curious, questioning beings gifted with the skills of reason and critical thinking.  Do we really think that God did not mean for us to use them?

But the problem is that we often get deeply entrenched in our ideas: if we decide on something, we naturally gravitate towards people, institutions, thinkers and writers who espouse what we believe to be true.  It can often be next to impossible to change our minds, even in the face of empirical, incontrovertible, overwhelming evidence.

And this is what I find so redeeming about Thomas.  When told about the Resurrection (something which is, by its very nature, nearly impossible to believe), Thomas says, "I will not believe until I see and touch the holes in his hands".

Lo and behold, some time later he gets the opportunity to do just that, and he changes his mind.

Thomas didn't want to be foolish.  He didn't want to believe in something without a purpose.  He wanted proof.

Doubt prevents us from being taken advantage of.  Doubt is actually something that pushes us to greater wisdom and knowledge.  Doubt is that which allows us to sift through the flood of information we now as human beings receive daily, to find the nugget of truth, to find that which really matters.  Without doubt, trust would be meaningless.

Today, I invite you to doubt everything.

Why it's actually not that difficult to believe in the Resurrection

I recently read an article that stated that a full 25% of Christians don't believe in the Resurrection of Christ.

I'll be honest with you: I do believe in the Resurrection, as it is reported in the Bible, 100%, no metaphor, no simile, no hyperbole.

In other words, I believe Jesus was dead, was in a tomb for 3 days, and then came back to life.  Literally.  I kid you not.

I don't blame you if you don't, it's pretty unbelievable.  I mean, that's what a miracle is after all, right?  If it wasn't hard to believe, it would just be a thing that happens every day.

I don't actually find it that hard to believe in the Resurrection, and the reason is that by my estimation, we are daily awash with things that would be considered miraculous to people who lived 100 years ago, and which we would consider to be miraculous if only we weren't so jaded.

Let me tell you about my Easter morning.  I got up and popped a muffin in the microwave.  In 30 seconds, invisible radiowaves agitated water molecules in my muffin, and it came out hot.  I didn't see it happen, but it did.

Then I got in my car, which is powered by fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels which are essentially liquefied dinosaur bones and prehistoric biological material.  Somehow, these fuels catch fire in my car's engine, and this controlled explosion propels me forward, somehow managing to not blow me up with it.

As I drove, I popped in my bluetooth headset which communicates invisibly with my cellphone, and my cell phone communicates invisibly with my parents' cellphone, and we wished each other a happy Easter, even though we are separated by several hundred kilometers.

Have you ever flown in an airplane?  You are sitting in a chair in machine that weighs several hundred tons and travels at several hundred kilometers an hour, and somehow manages to not fall out of the sky.

Now all of the foregoing examples have very solid science behind them, but they would have been inconceivable and incomprehensible to someone who lived 100 years ago.  And this brings me back to the Resurrection: I believe it happened, I am just waiting for the science to catch up.

The problem with this modern-day miracles is that we fail to see them.  We get annoyed when there is a cold spot in our muffin.  We pine for a nicer looking car.  We are irritated when we travel through a dead zone.  We positively bark with rage when our plane is delayed or if the person next to us touches our elbow mid-flight.

We should be wandering around in a constant state of amazement and gratitude.

The Resurrection is the greatest message any God has ever sent any species on any planet we know of, and when we contemplate it, we have only two possible reactions: either we believe in it or we don't.

If you don't, read no further.  Go outside and play, get on with your life, do whatever you want because it literally can't possibly matter to you.

If you do, however, believe in the Resurrection, then that should be something that guides your behaviour and the way you live your life.

If you believe in the Resurrection, that means you believe that through Christ, God send the most important message he ever sent to humanity.  It means we should be wandering around with a profound sense of gratitude, humility and a profound sense of responsibility.

Most churchgoers have head the Resurrection story every year their whole lives.  None of us gasped on Easter morning when we heard about the Resurrection.  We all saw it coming.

But maybe that has made us a little blase about the Resurrection.  Familiarity breeds contempt, you could say.  Sometimes, when you spend enough time in a system, whether it be a workplace or a family or a church, you forget how cool your job can be, how neat your spouse is, how interesting some fellow churchgoers can be.

If we really consider ourselves to be children of the Resurrection, how dare we take each other for granted?  How dare we mistreat one another?  How dare we abuse other people?  How dare we sell our own selves short?

For me, the Resurrection is a story of the fragility and beauty and goodness of life itself, and I have been reminded of that this Easter as I watch my new baby grow.  I am reminded that I live in the shadow of the Resurrection, and no longer the shadow of the tomb.

This Easter and this coming year, I hope we can all feel the new life we have.  I hope we can all remember that we are all fearfully and wonderfully wrought, and that we can treat each other with the same wonder and love with which God treats us.