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Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Ugliness of the Nativity

Another game rained out today, so here is what I would have delivered as a sermon today.  I hope you all stayed home safe!

So Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has long been considered his greatest work.  It has been called by some the greatest piece of music written.  Ever.

So certainly such an unquestionably brilliant piece of music must have met with universal praise when it was first performed, right?  Certainly, the praise from Beethoven's contemporaries must have been ubiquitously positive, right?


According to Beethoven biographer Cook, "early critics rejected [the Ninth] as cryptic and eccentric, the product of a deaf and aging composer".

Verdi wrote that the symphony was "marvelous in its first three movements, very badly set in the will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as is done in the last movement".

Leonhardt wrote "That 'Ode to Joy', talk about vulgarity!  And the text!  Completely puerile!"

Certainly, Shakespeare could not be criticized though, right?  Surely the greatest playwright and wordsmith of all time was and continues to be immune to negative commentary, right?

Wrong again.

Voltaire called Shakespeare "a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada".

Tolstoy said, "having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best...not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium".

Samuel Pepys called Midsummer Night's Dream "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life".

So what is my point?  Well, I will tell you.

When most people ponder the Nativity Story, I think we have a tendency to see it through rose-coloured glasses.  Because it has become a 'modern classic', we tend to have a sanctified, sanitized, romanticized version of the Nativity, complete with the warm glow of the guiding star.  We need only turn to the lyrics of Silent Night for an example of how most of perceive the Nativity: "all is calm, all is bright".  The Holy Family and the Nativity scenario are always painted in peaceful, loving tones.

But the Nativity, if we reflect in all soberness upon it, was probably pretty ugly from start to finish.  Let's go through it.

Mary and Joseph were a young, working-class couple.  By today's standard, they were blue collar.  Mary was a teenager, and she was pregnant out of wedlock.  Forget the Imaculate-ness of the Conception.  Public opinion would have been against her.  You know those pierced, tattooed kids pushing strollers we "tsk, tsk" at in the mall food court?  Yeah, that would have been Mary and Joseph.

In the middle of winter, near Mary's time to give birth, they have to haul up stakes and make it to Bethlehem for this census.

Arriving in Bethlehem, they try to find a hotel.  Given their budget, they would not have been looking for a good one.  They can't even find a bad one.  They find an inn with a barn, and they are offered lodging there for the night.

Imagine trying to rest and giving birth in the maintenance shed of a Motel 6 in the middle of winter, and you are probably getting somewhere close to the mark.

Then Mary gives birth in the barn.  No doctors, no nurses, no heat or light.  No drugs.  No epidural, for God's sake.  How peaceful could that be?

Three foreign guys show up with weird gifts that they want to give your newborn baby.  All this against the backdrop of trying to avoid Herod's nefarious scheme.

So what about that scenario is possibly beautiful?  What about that scenario is possibly sacred?  It is probably just about the most shockingly awkward, uncomfortable, embarrassing situation I can possibly imagine.

And yet the fact remains that the Nativity Story represents the greatest intrusion of life, love and beauty this world has ever seen.  Granted, we know this after the fact, but did Joseph and Mary know this?  Likely not.

I don't like to romanticize Jesus simply because that romanticization dehumanizes him for me.  Yes, the Son of God, I know, but he was still gloriously human, and the Nativity Story to me is a great example to me that beauty can indeed come from some of the ugliest scenarios you can possibly imagine.

Many of our readings this Advent have revolved around John the Baptist.  Another perfect example.  He was a smelly hippy who lived in a desert cave, preached fire and brimstone, wore camel hair and ate bugs.  No part of him or his life screamed, "Yeah, I am someone you should pay attention to".  And yet his powerful message drew people.

Same with Jesus.  Nothing about Jesus actually identified his as anyone we should pay attention to.  Not his lineage, not his birth, not his life, not even necessarily his death (by that I mean that thousands of people were crucified, and as far as I know, they don't have religions).  His resurrection would certainly make us sit up and take notice, but I digress...

If I can take nothing else from the Nativity Story, I can take away the fact that true beauty in life often does not come from peaceful, sanctified, romantic scenarios.

It often comes from the heartbreakingly beautiful ugliness of everyday life, from the imperfect, from the failures, from the struggles.

We lionize men and women with degrees, money, position, pedigree.  But Jesus, like so many of the truly great men and women throughout history, had no degree, no money, no position or pedigree.  He spoke to us as one of us.

Power speaks down to us from on high.  Wisdom often speaks up to us from below.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The injustice of expectations

Well, we had a snow day yesterday, but here is what my sermon was GOING to be about...

Dennis Miller, once of my favourite comedians, once said that the most degrading thing you can do to a human being is to have absolutely no expectations of them.  He was aware that many people have a tendency to fall to the lowest common denominator, rather than rise to the highest.

While that intuitively makes sense, I think that the other extreme is equally as degrading.  In other words, having too many expectations of a person can be damaging.

The Gospel passage for this week (Matthew 11:2-11) is all about expectations, and how they can actually do an injustice to a person.

The first thing we need to realize is the expectation that Jesus' disciples had of him.  They called him "Messiah", which means "anointed one", a term which was used to refer to a king.  Any king.  It was not a term that was reserved for the only begotten Son of God.  In essence, the rule of any king was believed to be sanctioned by God, and so they would literally be anointed with oil to signify that sanction.

Based on the narratives we have in the Gospels, we have every reason to believe that Jesus' disciples expected him to be a king in that limited worldly sense of the word: they expected him to be a political warrior-king who would overthrow the powers that oppressed the Jewish people.

We have very reason to believe that John the Baptist had the same expectations of Jesus.  But Jesus kind of dashed those hopes with all his talk of peace and love and whatnot.  So much so did he dash those hopes that even John the Baptist was starting to ask questions from his prison cell.

Today's Gospel passage takes place about a year after Jesus' baptism by John.  John certainly seems to have believed Jesus to be the Messiah, but a year later, Jesus had not amassed an army or weapons and did not seem to be overthrowing squat.  Jesus had not even sprung John from prison.

Jesus, in other words, was not living up to John's expectations.  So in today's passage, John sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him point-blank: are you the Messiah?

Jesus responds to them by using John's own appearance to challenge him: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?  A reed shaken by the wind?  What then did you go out to see?  Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.  What then did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet".

Did people following John into the desert expect to see something beautiful, poetic and philosophical?  Because what they got was raw, naked and unvarnished.  Did they expect to see someone wealthy, comfortable and well-fed?  Because what they got was someone wearing the worst clothes and living on the worst diet.  People must have been challenged by John's odd lifestyle choices and appearance.  Looking at a man who lived in the desert, ate bugs and dressed in camel hair, people must have expected John to be off his rocker.  And yet Jesus affirms that John is indeed a prophet.  Jesus affirms that John, while unconventional, was indeed telling the truth.

So while even John may have had expectations of Jesus which involved political and military power, Jesus challenges him to rethink that.

The reality is that Jesus was not about winning power, property or prestige.  He was not interested in political or military conquest.  He realized that the only "conquest" that is possible or lasting is the conquest of self over self.

Human history has demonstrated amply that military and political conquests are often motivated by greed.  Let's be fair and take the history of Christianity as an example.  Never has such a great collection of moral philosophies become so twisted to serve the needs of those in power.

The only way the world can be changed is one person at a time, and that change must come from within.  If we could all practice the virtues that Jesus and most other religious and moral philosophies have expounded, what a world this could be.

I hope this Advent season is one of personal change for us all.

Monday, December 9, 2013

What the Desert is like in Winter

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.  It is based primarily on the Gospel passage for this week, Matthew 3:1-12.

John the Baptist was the kind of guy you would have warned your kids not to talk to.

By today's standard, he would have been deemed a raving lunatic.  For all we know, many of his contemporaries probably did.

John was a ascetic hermit who had eschewed society, all its luxuries and distractions in favor of a rigorous lifestyle in the desert.  His purpose was not to punish himself, but to shed the many distractions that he experienced in his like.  He preferred to spend concerted time in prayer and meditation.

We know little else about John.  We are told that he was actually a distant blood relative of Jesus, but otherwise, very little is known about his life.  Particularly, how he came by the message of repentance he was preaching, what compelled him to retreat into the wilderness or what motivated him to baptize people.

What we do know is that he was preaching a baptism of repentance.  Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of repentance is NOT to feel guilt.  Guilt is essentially a wasted emotion if it does not move you to personal growth and change.  THAT is actually the purpose of repentance.  Repentance is the act of rigorous self-reflection which ideally leads to a commitment to change.

That he was baptizing an entirely or at least predominantly Jewish crowd would have been seen as very odd.  In ancient Judaism, being part of the chosen people was seen as a birthright, a racial question.  Judaism practiced baptism only when someone converted to Judaism from another lifestyle.  Anyone looking at the scene of John baptizing Jewish people would have thought this was very odd indeed, and entirely superfluous.

John was calling people to a baptism of repentance.  He was calling people to move beyond the many laws and rules of Judaism, to move beyond the idea that God's love was bound to race.  He was calling them to the virtue that should have been motivating people's adherence to the law: love for God and neighbour.

But John rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees who approach him for baptism.  He sees their hypocrisy, in that they had no intention of actually changing their lives.

This is a particularly timely message for us as we work our way through the season of Advent.  Advent is a season of preparation, of reflection and anticipation.

What are we waiting for?  We are anticipating and remembering the entry into the world of the greatest light the world has ever known: Christ.  Christ was the greatest example of compassion and generosity the world has ever know, and these are virtues that the world would do well to emulate.

These are virtues that God represents, and when John calls the crowd to repent, he is calling them to be free of all of the emotional and spiritual detritus that is preventing them from exercising those virtues.  He is calling them to prepare a way into their hearts for these virtues to penetrate and to be exercised in the world.

This Advent season, we are called to to do the same.  My hope is that amid the busy-ness of this season, we are all able to make the time to prepare the way into our own hearts.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Servant King

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Last week, we celebrated Christ the King Sunday.

When I think of kings or queens, I think of someone with a royal lineage, lavish lifestyles, palaces, jewels, limos, fine clothing, thrones and crowns.

What does that have to do with Jesus?  Absolutely nothing.

Despite a somewhat fanciful genealogy in the Bible that tries to attribute the lineage of David to Jesus,  Jesus was not of a royal house.  He was born if not in an actual barn, then at least in humble circumstances.  He did not live in a palace, and indeed after his baptism, he seems to have been a homeless and itinerant preacher, relying on the generosity of strangers for food and shelter.  He walked pretty much everywhere, and rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a most humble animal.  He had no throne, and the only crown he ever wore was a crown of thorns meant as a mockery of the "crime" he was crucified for.

This gives us an idea of what kind of king he was.

In an ideal world, people who rise to positions of leadership and prominence carry their yokes with humility.  Whether you are a politician, royalty or just the CEO of a company, you are hopefully aware that people look to you for guidance.  People look to you to set an example.

That being said, if your leader is a good a leader and you support what he or she stands for, the next question is how well are you reflecting the example your leader is setting?

If Jesus exemplified the virtues of compassion, justice, peace, etc, how well are we reflecting those virtues?

Monday, November 18, 2013

An everyday Apocalypse

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

The Gospel passage for this week (Luke 21:5-19) should freak you out, but probably not for the reason you think.  Far from sounding like "good news", it speaks almost entirely of some pretty bad stuff.

Once thing that has to be understood about any book of the Bible (or any book for that matter) is that they were written by specific people, addressed to a specific audience with a specific purpose in mind.

Luke wrote his Gospel in AD 60, when the nascent Christian movement was being persecuted buy the Romans for being seditious, and by the Pharisees for being heretical.  This obviously would have led to a fair amount of despondency on the part of people trying to follow the moral path Christ had set out.

In this passage (among others in his Gospel), the author of Luke seems to addressing that hopelessness, reassuring his readers/listeners that there is indeed something to hope for, despite the vicissitudes of life.

But what exactly is that hope?

The reality is that having faith does not save you from anything.  It is not a magic pill that prevents you from having car accidents, guarantees that your basement will never flood or that there will be sunny weather on your family reunion.

In fact, the cold, hard randomness of the universe will still strike you, as it will anyone else.  But the person of faith also has the added burden of following a particular moral path, and this can be a burden indeed.

Jesus introduces his "litany of badness" by commenting on the Temple.  The Temple was stunning: the architecture was unparalleled, gobs of precious metals and stones had gone into its construction.  But as the disciples marvel at its beauty, Jesus draws them away from it.

Jesus tells them that one day the Temple would fall.  Of course, the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, some 37 years after Jesus would have said these words, and some 10 years after the author of Luke wrote his Gospel.

In all likelihood, this statement was not a prophecy in the traditional sense.  It was likely a general statement on the temporality of things.  Buildings fall, cities fall, empires fall.  That is just the nature of things that I am sure Jesus was well aware of.

But in the same way that the greatest of buildings and empires will pass away, so will all  things temporal, including the trials of life.  That is part of the hope Christ tries to convey.

But moreover, I think there is something that Jesus does not make explicit, but is nonetheless a subtext in this passage and throughout the Gospels.  And that is that in gathering the disciples together (and in gathering us together by his philosophy 2000 years later) he provided a community in which people can support one another through the ups and downs of life.

This is particularly important in this day and age.  Despite modern communication technology, despite the growth of towns and cities, more and more people are complaining of loneliness and community involvement seems to be at an all-time low in many places.

Community is what we crave.  It is part of our biology and our psychology.  That is what to me is the principal attraction of church: that is is a community.  The word "church" doesn't refer to a building, but to the community gathered in and around it.

Christ reminds us that buildings will fall, but community is always there for us.

Monday, November 11, 2013

What are we actually remembering?

Earlier this week, I was deeply moved by pictures of the Pope embracing a disfigured man.

I can only imagine what kind of a life this man has had to lead because of his condition.  This man has likely had to suffer rejection, ridicule and quite possibly outright abuse due to his condition (yes, I am hypothesizing as there is little information about this man, but given the way most people suffering any illness are still stigmatized even in modernity, I don't think I am reaching too far).

One the one hand, I was touched by the Pope's ability to physically embrace someone most people would be uncomfortable with.  More so, I was impressed by his ability to spiritually embrace that man's pain.  I am sure that spiritual and emotional pain is as much a part of that man's life as is his physical pain.

The fact of that matter is that most of us (and I included myself in this) do what we can to consciously avoid people, places and things that cause us discomfort, but oftentimes there is great spiritual and emotional traction to be found in facing and embracing those people, places and things.

But you know what?  That is what a spiritual leader is supposed to do.  In reality, that is what we are all supposed to do.  So in a sense, it was not the fact that the Pope was embracing the man that really moved me.

What really touched me about those photos was the spiritual solace that man was quite obviously finding in the very humble and human touch of another person.  What touched me was the depth of emotion that man was obviously experiencing in that moment.

In a sense, on Remembrance Day, we are doing just what is happening in that photo: we are deliberately embracing something that makes us uncomfortable, something that is challenging if not painful to embrace.  We are, in a sense, embracing war, pain and suffering.  In part, even though it is uncomfortable, I think it is important that we do this.  Lest we forget, we may do it all over again.  Lest we forget, we may let the devotion, selflessness and sacrifice of so many in the past, present and future go unnoticed.

But it must be said that we are not embracing these things in order to glorify them.  Like many, I have been somewhat bemused by the recent "White Poppy" campaign.  Some people dislike the red poppy because they think it glorifies or supports war.  I for one have never seen it that way, any more than I think people growing mustaches in November glorifies or supports prostate cancer.

I can't speak for anyone else, because I think we all keep Remembrance Day in our own way.  Many of us, myself included, have been touched by armed conflict in some way.  But I for one have always felt that Remembrance Day has always been a celebration of peace.

We observe a moment of silence at 11:11 on the 11th day of the 11th month.  Although the date is accurate, the precise hour the armistice was signed is apparently somewhat apocryphal, referring to ending hostilities at the proverbial 11th Hour.

What occupies my thoughts in that minute of silence is this: what did that minute of silence feel like to the people who signed the documents ending the war?  What did it feel like when the guns finally went silent?  What did the soldiers feel in that first minute they put down their guns?  I can almost imagine the whole earth heaving a collective sigh of relief in that minute, or at least in the first minute they were first made aware that peace had come.

The red poppy to me symbolizes the flowers that were once again able to grow over the fields of battle once the war ended.

Remembrance Day celebrates that sacred space of peace and silence that were able to enter the world when hostilities ceased.  It celebrates the fact that healing could begin for those who had survived the conflict, and those who had lost loved ones in conflict.

In the Gospel passage for this week (Luke 20:27-38) sidesteps an academic question by simply saying "God is a God of life".  Similarly, I think we can sidestep the academics around Remembrance Day by being reminded that the message of the day is not one of death, but one of life.  In the same sense, the story of Christ's life is less about his crucifixion than his resurrection.  In the same sense, Elijah could not hear God in the storm, but could hear him in the silence that came after the storm.

May this day be a day of life for you, a day of peace and and day of grace.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Go climb a tree...

I have always been charmed by the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), for some reason.  I don't know why, maybe because he was such an underdog, maybe because the concept of a grown man climbing a tree to catch a glimpse of the traveling freakshow that was Jesus and his disciples is so absurd as to be laughable, maybe because the desperation and/or hope which drove him up the tree is so visceral and relate-able.

But let's go over the story.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and he was rich, the Gospel passage tells us.  This defines him as a three-time loser.

First of all, tax collectors were Jews who had betrayed their people by collaborating with the Romans.  They collected taxes from the Jews and gave the money to the Romans, in other words.  Strike one.

Tax collectors were, by definition, ritually impure as they regularly consorted with Gentiles (ie the ritually impure).  Tax collectors therefore routinely defiled themselves.  Strike two.

That we are told Zacchaeus was rich is not random.  Tax collectors were not supposed to be rich.  The implication is that Zacchaeus was skimming some cream off the taxes he collected.  Strike three.

Zacchaeus was a traitor, was defiled and was a thief.  Ouch.

Maybe was can understand why Zacchaeus did not seem to care what people thought about him as he climbed the tree.  They could hardly have thought worse of him.

And yet there is something truly charming and redeeming about Zacchaeus.  And that is that he recognized his shortcomings.  Literally and figuratively.

We are told that he was short, hence the reason he had to climb the tree in the first place.  We cannot be sure, WHY he climbed the tree.  Was he looking for salvation, forgiveness, enlightenment, or was he simply rubbernecking?  We don't know.  But either way, he recognized that his size stood in the way of what he wanted, and in order to reach his goal of seeing Jesus, he was willing to do what he had to do.

Similarly, he has something of a conversion experience later in the passage.  I don't mean he converted to Christianity, I mean he had a change of heart.  As a tax collector, he must have realized all along that he was sinning against his own people and against his own conscience, and that must have weighed on him heavily.  Somehow, his exchange with Jesus convinced him to stop sinning and to try to make amends.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I personally do not believe that God keeps score.  He doesn't need to.  I keep score.  And I think we all do.

We are all bright enough to know the difference between right and wrong, and unless you were born without a conscience, I think we all suffer the weight of the misdeeds we have committed.  God doesn't even need to enter into it.

The only way to make that right is to make that right.  As Zacchaeus did.

The charm of the story is that not only did he recognize his literal physical shortcomings, but he also recognized his spiritual shortcomings.  Not only did he recognize where he fell short of the mark on the wall, he recognized where he also fell short of his own conscience.

And more importantly, he did something about it.

I think we live in an age where as a species we are coming to terms with our own intrinsic goodness.  Thankfully, gone (or at least going) are the days when the church told us we were all terrible people.  It's ironic that it has taken the church 2000 years to catch up to the theology espoused by its founder, but there you have it.  We deserve to acknowledge our own worth, value and dignity.

But this is something that has to be held in balance.  We are not perfect, and we all do things we regret.  Go too far in the direction of self-love and you become self-absorbed.  Become too preoccupied with your shortcomings and you fall into self-loathing.

But Zacchaeus teaches us the value of recognizing our shortcomings and doing something about them.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Bazooka Joe, the Pharisee

I used to love Bazooka Joe bubble gum when I was a kid.  The comics inside the wrapper were never brilliant humour, but there was one punchline that stuck with me, and the Gospel reading for today reminded me of it.

In it, Bazooka Joe calls his friend Mort stupid.  Someone overhearing the exchange rebukes Joe, and says "Tell Mort you're sorry".  Bazooka Joe turns to Mort and tells him earnestly, "Mort, I am sorry you're stupid".

I thought that was pretty funny, and it was a style of apology I once tried on my brother.  Oddly, it was not acceptable.

This is the big issue with the prayer of the Pharisee in today's Gospel (Luke 18:9-14).  It is disingenuous, to say the least.

Prayer is an ill-defined concept, at best.  It is versatile, and there are no rules, as such, but broadly speaking prayer falls into four categories:

1. Adoration, where we simply adore God.

2. Thanksgiving, where we express gratitude.

3. Penitence, where we acknowledge a wrong we have committed, and express our regret for having committed it.

4. Petition, where we ask God for something.

Number 4 is where 90% of us probably spend 90% of our prayer time.  This is not a bad thing, as a prayer of petition can include asking for guidance, strength and wisdom.  While I probably don't need to explain why asking God for winning lottery numbers or for a new car is barking up the wrong tree, there are perfectly valid prayers of petition out there.  We just need to be sure we don't conceive of prayer as a wish-fulfillment list, or that we don't treat God like a dispensing machine.

Either way, the prayer of the Pharisee is not a valid form of prayer in any sense of the word.  One could argue that it is technically a prayer of thanksgiving, but it really isn't.

It is a list of judgments parading as a prayer.

Martin Luther said, "Two things especially make our prayers void and of no effect: confidence of our own righteousness, and our contempt of others", and the prayer of the Pharisee fall into both categories.

Prayer is a powerful tool for communication with whatever way we conceive of the divine, of communing with something outside ourselves, and as a tool for self-reflection.

I am often struck by how most modern self-help concepts are actually a repackaging of spiritual concepts such as prayer.  Whether we speak of meditation, mindfulness, living in the moment, attentiveness, we are essentially talking about prayer.

At its base, prayer is an act of self-reflection and/or an act of reflecting upon the sacred, however we conceive of it.

The prayer of the Pharisee is none of those things, and is therefore invalid.

How are we praying these days?

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Your faith has made you well

I used to work with a guy who used to say, "You gotta have an attitude of gratitude", and I wanted to punch him in the head every time I heard him say.  He was just so cheerful and grateful, and I disliked him.

I realize now that I disliked him because I was jealous of him.  I was an angry ingrate, and so it was only natural that this guy would tick me off.

Today Gospel passage (Luke 17:11-19) presents an interesting portrayal of gratitude and ingratitude.  Jesus cures 10 lepers, and only one turns back to thank him.

Jesus says to this one leper, "Your faith has made you well", and interesting phrase that Jesus employs in at least 3 other distinct situations throughout the Gospels.

He uses this phrase when Mary Magdalene come in and washes his feet.  He says it when he heals the blind man.  He says it when the bleeding woman touches his cloak.  And he says it of this leper.

It is interesting to note that he makes this statement AFTER the healings have taken place.  And in the case of Mary Magdalene, there was actually no healing that took place.

At least not in a physical sense.

Could the healing that Jesus refers to be emotional, psychological, spiritual?

Certainly, all 10 of the lepers in today's passage were healed bodily, but only one showed any gratitude, an indication of his humility and spiritual maturity.  He actually stopped to be thankful for his return to a normal state of health.

We all do it: we pray when we are in trouble, but we often neglect to pray when things are well.  We forgot to pray in gratitude, to bring into our conscious minds those things we are actually happy for in our lives.

Take the time to do that today.  I guarantee you are richer than you thought.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Where faith actually comes from

As the old question goes, which came first, the chicken or the egg?  This is a paradox, of course.  It can't be solved.  It binds us in an infinite regress.

But lets switch the terms, and ask another question which Jesus implies in today's Gospel passage (Luke 17:5-10): which came first, faith or service?  Theologians have argued over the centuries as to which one ought to be most important, to be sure, but we need to consider the possibility that one flows from the other.

Faith is an elusive concept.  For some, it means belief in a being in the sky.  For others, it means trust.  For still others, it means hope.  Regardless, the disciples demand of Jesus that he increase their faith.

This is a rather silly request, for one particular reason: how could Jesus possibly increase or decrease in another person that which it is their sole responsibility to cultivate?

Think about it: how can you increase your partners' love for you?  How can you increase your employers' trust in you?  How can you  increase your friends' hope in you?  Sure, you can me more loving, more trustworthy, more hopeful, but in the end, the love, trust and hope of others is not within your power to affect.

People must risk love, risk trust, risk hope, and that is how these things grow.

How do you make these things grow?  I think Jesus makes it fairly clear in today's Gospel passage that we grow these things by serving others.  Try it.  Do something that serves somebody other than yourself and tell me how it made you feel.  I guarantee you that it felt good.

The rather cliched and ironic truth is that if you want it, you have to give it away.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The jingo saint

As far as saints go, we don't know much about Nathanael.  We know that he was one of the Twelve, he is credited with bringing Christianity to Armenia, where he apparently converted the king Polymius, and was either beheaded or flayed alive for his troubles.

What most people remember about Nathanael (as he is not mentioned often or in great prominence in the rest of the New Testament) is his question from today's Gospel passage (Luke 1:43-51), "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

His casual dismissal of all people who heralded from that rather insignificant burg is almost comedic.  Not quite racist, not quite bigoted, not quite jingoist, he refuses to believe that the Messiah could possible come from such a humble place.

This alone should give us pause: how do we estimate a person's worth or wisdom?  Is it based on their career, their income, their pedigree, their education?  For most of us, we probably gauge a persons' worth based on a combination of these things.

But Jesus had a humble career, income, pedigree (his apparent blood relation to King David is arguable) and education.  Furthermore, as Nathanael points out, he came from a town which was neither an important center of commerce, politics, religion philosophy, nor was it of any strategic or military value.

So how ought we to value the input of other people?  Should we disregard someone because they have little formal education?  Should we ignore someone because they are not wealthy?  Should we belittle someone because they come from the wrong side of the tracks?

Jesus' answer would be fairly obvious.

The other point that this Gospel passage seems to want to make is about the fig tree.  The fig tree under which Natanael was supposedly sitting prior to meeting Jesus is never actually mentioned in the Gospel passage, yet apparently he was indeed sitting under a fig tree.

What could this represent?  I have a couple of theories, incumbent upon the symbolism of the "shadow".

First, a shadow can be a comfortable place, a place where we seek refuge from the elements, a place of solace.  Metaphorically though, a we rarely are growing when we are in a place of comfort.  More often, comfort zones are places of inertia and stagnation.  Perhaps Jesus called Nathanael out of that literal place of comfort, and perhaps we are being called out of our metaphorical places of comfort.

The second possibility is that the "shadow" represents the shadow of the Law.  The Pharisees followed the Law to the letter, but did not do it with love in their hearts for God or neighbour.  Rather, they used the Law to judge, to criticize, to indict.  While Jesus did not eschew the Law per se, he did point out that the fundamental reason to follow any law should be because we love God and/or our neighbor.

Apparently, rabbis used to teach the Law while sitting under the shade of a tree, so it has been suggested that perhaps the point of this passage is to indicate to us that Nathanael transcened the litigiousness of the Law and came to understand Jesus' point that we follow the Law out of love.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The dishonest messiah

Ok, so I admit, the Gospel passage (Luke 16:1-13) for this week is a toughie.  Most of the times, Jesus' moral message is pretty clear, and his parable are not that difficult to understand.

Bit every once in a while, he throws us a curve ball, and sometimes I wonder if, hours after having had delivered a certain speech, Jesus himself had not lain awake at night wondering if he could have come up with a better analogy.

The problem with this Gospel passage is that it uses phrases like "Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth" and it portrays the manager as the hero of the story, essentially for having committed embezzlement.

A parable is, by definition, a metaphorical story, which means that we as readers or hearers of the story cannot afford to get hooked up on the details.  It means that we must often step back to see the wider meaning of the story.  Granted, for some parables we need to step waaaaaaay back, and this is one such case.

To understand the passage, we might have to look at the broader context of the Gospel narrative in which it is situated.  It is found back to back with the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son, all of which are essentially indictments against the behaviour, attitude and religion of the Pharisees.

The Pharisees followed the Law to the letter, but with no love for God or neighbour in their hearts.  They excelled at legalism, but failed miserably at faith.  This was Jesus' overarching criticism of the Pharisees.

Certainly, the God of the Old Testament and the Pharisees were a reflection of one another: rule-bound, judgmental, vengeful, angry, fear-inspiring.

Not so with the God of the New Testament that Jesus revealed to us.  The NT God is one of generosity, forgiveness, love, compassion.

How could the rich man possibly be please with the manager?  One possibility is that if we assume that the rich man is God, then prior to his managers' disobedience, his debtors only knew one side of him: the side that was penny-pinching, legalistic, unforgiving of debts.  Then the manager comes along and slashes their bills.  He was actually showing another side of the rich man: one who was generous, forgiving, flexible.

If you were the rich man, how would you rather be seen by the people?  And by extension, how do you think God would want to be seen?

Now, this theory falls down slightly, as the rich man had no idea the manager was doing this, and presumably Jesus was acting in the knowledge and wisdom of God, but as I said, sometimes we need to step waaaaaay back and forget some of the details to get at the meaning of the story, but I still think the meaning is there: God wants us to know that He is a God of love, compassion, forgiveness.  God is a God of bounty who had gifted us with all creation.

This passage also begs an important question: if God is not stingy with His gifts, with creation itself, do we need to reevaluate our own stinginess?  In view of the disparity of wealth on this planet, of the great rift between the haves and have-nots, are we really managing creation wisely?

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Who needs God, anyways?

There is a strange thing happening in this world, and I noticed the other day when I was at the hospital: the hospital was crammed with sick people.

I noticed another thing when, later on in the week, I had to take my car to the garage: the garage was crammed with people who needed their car fixed.

The fact of the matter is that when we need something, we go somewhere.  When we need food, we go to the grocery store; when we need tools, we go to the hardware store; when we need guitar strings, we go to the music store.

Our whole economy is based on need and need-fulfillment.  The Gospel passage for this week (Luke 15:1-10) brings up some very interesting questions: What need does the church fulfill?  Who needs church?

In the Gospel passage, the Pharisees rebuke Jesus for eating and talking with the "undesirables" of society: the sick, the tax collectors, the prostitutes.  Those that the Pharisees had rejected for being unable or unwilling to follow all the rules.  Those that the Pharisees deemed profane, deeming themselves to be righteous.

It seems blindingly obvious that these were exactly the people Jesus would and should have spent time with.  Those who are broken need to be mended.  Those who are alone need a companion.  Those who are friendless need a friend.  Those who are hated need love.

This is exactly what Jesus did, and it ought to be what we do as Christian individuals and Christian communities.  Too often, our churches become upper-crusty social clubs that recoil when someone from below the poverty line walks in.  To have this reaction cuts against the very grain of what Jesus taught.

Church is supposed to be a place of welcome, of fellowship, of acceptance, of love, of transformation.  Most of us who are already there have all of these things in ample measure.  The people who need church are the ones who don't have these things.

To hear the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Monday, September 9, 2013

There's a difference between being a groupie and being in the band, man

Do you love your children halfway?  Do you love your parents occasionally?  Do you love your friends every once in a while?  Do you love your spouse when it suits you?

Don't get me wrong, there are of course days when we get angry at kids, spouses, parents, etc.  There are days when they sadden us, irritate us, anger us, etc.  But beyond those relatively minor nuisances, I think it is fair to say that there is always a stable undercurrent of love that does not go away.

Why would our relationship with God, with the divine be any different?

In today's Gospel passage (Luke 14:25-33), Jesus uses some language that ought to disturb us, principally because if we take him literally, he seems to be inciting us to hatred.  More disturbingly, he seems to he inciting us to hatred towards our own parents and children.

My personal belief is that God, Christ and living a Christian lifestyle are simply incompatible with hatred.  If you or your God hates anyone, you seriously need to reevaluate the validity of your religion and/or your spiritual focus.  You may or may not be wrong, but in my limited experience, hatred has never been a constructive force, either for personal growth or collective progress.  Just sayin'.

But Jesus uses the H-word, nonetheless.  There are 2 things we must bear in mind when reading this passage.

1. The translation may be a little wonky.  The word translated as "hate" in the original Greek is also the word for "forsake".  Still makes for a grim message, but Jesus may be calling us to be prepared to forsake our family for doing the right thing.

Many of us have had to follow our hearts in terms of faith, marriage, career, lifestyle, politics, and sometimes our friends and family have been unable to follow along with us.  But the alternative is NOT doing what we feel is that really a viable option?

2. Jesus may simply be employing hyperbole.  More than European and North American cultures, Middle Eastern language and storytelling is given to exaggeration and drastic language.  Middle Eastern stories are dramatic and epic.  Just read the Old Testament.  Jesus may be informing his listeners in very vivid language what they must be prepared to do to follow him.

Following the path of goodness, whether it is religious, political or personal is fraught with sacrifice and judgement.  Think about it: you can drift along with societal currents and keep your head down or fight for right and end up like Jesus, Lincoln, Gandhi, MLK Jr. and Kennedy.  Standing up for justice puts you in harm's way, disturbingly.

A commitment to justice and the good is not a part-time, tepid affair, and Jesus in this Gospel passage is warning us that we may need to sacrifice a few things and a few people along the way.  He is not calling us to discard those we love and who love us, but he is warning us that our faith journey is not always going to be baptisms, weddings and potlucks.

He calls us to be aware of this and to think ahead.  Are we prepared to stop hanging AROUND the church and get IN the church?

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Friday, September 6, 2013

How much is one human being worth?

Jesus had this funny way of turning our perceptions upside down in a way which is no less relevant today than it was 2000 years ago.

One of these perceptions was/is how we judge the worth of a human being, and the discouraging thing is that not much has changed on that score in the last 2 millennia.  In this week's Gospel passage (Luke 14:1-14), Jesus uses the highly formalized custom of ancient Jewish seating arrangement at a feast to point out how we value (or devalue) one another.

Today, as it was 2000 years ago, we use a number of criteria to judge the value or worth of a human being: wealth, education, physical appearance, pedigree, social status.  Those with a higher degree of these things are judged to be more valuable, more worth, to have more valid opinions and perceptions...basically to be better and more important than someone without these things.

While most of us would acknowledge on paper that these factors do not actually reflect the true value of a human being, in reality we consciously or subconsciously defer to our "betters" on a daily basis or expect our "lessers" to defer to us.

For example, when we go to a restaurant, do we think we are better than the server or cook because we are placing the order?  If it were not for them, we would not get fed.  When we go to a mechanic, do we feel we are better than him or her because we are paying for the work?  Without them, our car would not function.

Jesus challenges us to reflect that the person being served is not always the most important person in any transaction.  Jesus would remind us that all are created equal.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The importance of knowing when to break the rules

As the saying goes, "There is the letter of the law, and then there is the spirit of the law".

The Anglican church, among others, is bound on all sides by laws: what do to, when to do it, and who can do it.

A perfect example is the Ten Commandments, which of course comes to us from our roots in ancient Judaism.  One of these Commandments is "You shall keep the Sabbath day holy".

This "law" was introduced as an assurance that people would have at least one day of rest a week.  Ancient peoples knew well that all work and no play resulted in a scene from "The Shining".

But somewhere along the way, this piece of advice which was meant to refresh people turned into a point of argument: what does it mean to keep the day holy?  Does this mean no work?  What constitutes work?  What constitutes non-work?  Is it work to go fishing or play golf?  Is it work to cook yourself lunch?  If your roof caves in and you are getting rained on, should you just wait until the Sabbath is over to fix it?  If the roof has collapsed on your children, should you wait until the next day to save them?

Ok, I'm going a little overboard, but not by much.

The point is this: some laws keep us safe from other people, and vice versa.  Generally speaking, the law protects us.

But some laws, some rules simply don't, and it behooves us to use a little critical reasoning when it comes to discerning the difference.

In today's Gospel passage (Luke 13:10-17), the miracle performed is actually the background to the more important point that Jesus is making: the women who came to the Temple had been suffering for 18 years.  Would it really be God's wish for her to suffer another 24 hours just so she does not transgress the law concerning the Sabbath?  Could our own sense of justice, compassion and mercy really allow that to happen, simply for the sake of adhering to a "law".

Blind allegiance to anything is not a healthy way to live, whether that be to the tenets of a religion, a law, a philosophy, a person, a cause, an ideal.  Jesus certainly did not.  There is a reason why we have the characteristics of curiosity, skepticism, critical thinking and discernment.

Use them.

To hear my sermon for this week, click here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Life of Brian

Like most priests, I am a huge fan of Monty Python's "Life of Brian", a movie about a man who gets mistaken for the Messiah.

Not surprisingly, the movie was banned in many places in the British Isles when it first came out.  It was branded heretical.

Years later, when the comedy troupe was interviewed about the movie, they mused that originally they wanted to make a movie which poked fun at Jesus himself.  After doing some research, however, they discovered that Jesus did not really open himself up to comedy because what he had to say was just good moral philosophy.

What they did think was funny was that Jesus said all these great things like "Love thy neighbour" and his followers spent the next 2000 years slaughtering and torturing each other because they couldn't decide how he had worded it.

This week's Gospel passage (Luke 12:49-56) is one example of a passage that is open to a fair degree of interpretation.

It speaks of fire and division, of things to come.  Pretty scary stuff.  But the problem with the written word is that it does not convey inflection or any number of subtle non-verbal nuances that Jesus' original listeners would have been privy to.

We could, of course, interpret this passage at a surface level: Jesus relishes the thought of a coming judgment and he relishes the thought of family members being at each others' throats.

That doesn't quite jive with me.

Like most people, I have an image of Jesus: tender, compassionate, forgiving.  The person speaking in this Gospel passage does not sound like Jesus if we assume that he is speaking with a tone of joy, triumph and/or anger.  However, reread the passage with a tone of sadness, of weary resignation, and we might be getting closer to the spirit in which the passage was intended.

Would Jesus relish the thought of families being divided?  I have my doubts.  However, being the shrewd judge of human nature that Jesus seems to have been, he must have known that even his message of peace, justice, love and compassion would cause rifts between family members who wanted to follow this new way, and those who wanted no part of it.

The fact of the matter is that we have all probably had to make difficult decisions in life.  We have had to do what we thought was right, sometimes at the expense of relationships with people who cannot journey with us.  Jesus certainly did: from other Gospel passages, it is clear that some of his family members thought he was insane, or at least an embarrassment.

But he had to do what was right.

Jesus was clear on a few things: there was such a thing as right and wrong, and there was very little wiggle room on either side.  Love, compassion, justice and mercy were right.  What showed love to God and to neighbour was right.  What did not WAS not.

When we are faced with having to make a difficult decision, one which may fracture relationships, we are faced with a conundrum: be true to ourselves and to our own calling, or be true to someone else and what they want us to be.

There is no easy answer, but if you are facing such a decision in your own life, I wish you grace and blessings.

To download my sermon, click here.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Jesus is coming...look busy!

There was a great t-shirt I saw a few years ago that had a silhouette of Jesus on it, and it said “Jesus is coming…look busy!”

There is a phenomenon in psychology whereby test subjects tend to alter their behaviour when they know they are being observed.  For example, when given the chance to do something unethical, many test subjects will do just that if they don’t know they are being observed, whereas if they know they are being observed, they will take the ethical alternative.

So what is it about human nature that we feel we can do evil if no one is around to judge us?  Certainly, we are (or at least ought to be) our own judges.  Certainly many of us are our own worst critics.  We know what is right and what is wrong, we have consciences, so why do we choose to ignore them when we are the only ones watching?

Why, in other words, do we not always act with authenticity and integrity?

I wish I had an answer for that, but Jesus didn’t seem to have an answer for it either.  His only solution, which he tells in a metaphor in this week's Gospel passage (Luke 12:32-48) which is likely troubling to our modern ears, is to always try our best to act with integrity.

He uses the metaphor of a master who leaves his slaves in charge of his house while he is away at a banquet.  This metaphor likely troubles us because in this day and age, slavery is simply not acceptable in any shape or form, but we have to understand that it was quite acceptable in Jesus’ time.   He is not endorsing slavery; he is simply speaking of something which was a reality to him and his listeners.

Regardless, the slaves have two choices: either they can be derelict in their duties while their master is away, or they can be diligent.  And which will be the more rewarding?

This passage brings up the concept of reward, and this is where the metaphor falls down somewhat, or at the very least leads to some bad theology.  The metaphor has the master returning to his diligent slaves and rewarding them with a feast.  This leads A: to the notion that we are to be God’s slaves, and B: that God will reward us personally for our diligence.

The fact of the matter is that Jesus is challenging us to authenticity because it is its own reward.  We aren’t supposed to do this stuff because it pleases anyone else, but because it pleases us.  The fact of the matter is that when you do good, you feel good, and when you do bad, you feel bad.

It is really not that complicated after all.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Monday, August 5, 2013

You can't take it with you

One of the most enduring arguments in Christendom has to do with wealth.  More specifically, what Jesus' attitude was towards wealth, and therefore how we should approach it.

Today's Gospel passage (Luke 12:13-21) tells the parable of a wealthy farmer whose crops produce excessively one year.  Without a thought of sharing with friends, family or the poor and needy, his solution is to tear down his barns and build new ones to store his excess.

Given that it is not a true story, it is almost comedic that despite his preparations, the man dies without ever enjoying his harvest.  You can't take it with you, indeed.

The problem is that Jesus is ambivalent about actual money.  On the one hand, he says that it is easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to inherit the kingdom of God, but he says elsewhere that the worker deserves his wages.

I don't think that Jesus felt wealth or prosperity were evil in and of themselves, and I think that we deserve to be proud of whatever we have accomplished in like, but I do think that in his talks about wealth, Jesus was forever trying to draw us past the distracting allure of money and possessions to a greater "gold".

We spend time investing our money, but how much time do we spend investing in our relationships with family?  Friends?  Colleagues?  Our church?  Our community?  With God?  Essentially, what are we doign to invest in our emotional and spiritual well-being?

I don't think Jesus would ever recommend that we NOT invest in our financial security, but if we have more than we can possible use at the moment, why not experience the joy of giving to others?  That is where the true "gold" lies.  Go out and mine it!

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Prayer: the original self-help

In today's Gospel passage (Luke 11:1-13), Jesus introduces us to a prayer that we now know as The Lord's Prayer.

First, the introduction and focus on this prayer give us the opportunity to reflect on our own personal prayer discipline.

We in the Anglo-Catholic tradition have a great tool in our formulaic prayer books in that the repetition of a prayer often enables us to appreciate the prayer on a more profound level, however our familiarity with a prayer can also enable us to mentally "check out" as our mouths form the words of the prayer.  So the first thing I would invite you to do is perhaps revisit some of these familiar prayers and refocus on them, phrase by phrase, word by word.  I am fairly certain your will rediscover a sanctity that is in those prayers that you had perhaps lost through familiarity.

Second, it also gives us the opportunity to reflect on what prayer is, and perhaps more importantly, what prayer isn't.  Many of us have probably gone through the child-like phase of prayer where we pray for things: wealth, possessions, etc.  What we are actually doing is confusing God with Santa Claus, and we need to grow past that.

We have likely gone through periods where we have prayed for a particular outcome, either for ourselves or others, and that outcome has not come to pass.  Although our motives are perhaps more laudable, we are nonetheless still treating God like a wish-fulfillment cafeteria.  Once again, we need to grow past that.

The truth is that prayer is much less about the results, less about the answers, and much more about the questions.

Most modern psychology and self-help invites us to something called "mindfulness".  This is the act of taking the time and effort to be more aware of our feelings and to ponder where they come from and what we are going to do about it.

This is the power of prayer.  Prayer is not a manifesto or ultimatum.  It is not magic.  It is the act of bringing something from our subconscious into our conscious.  It is the act of conversing with the divine.  It is the act of outwardly expressing that which is lies on our heart.

To hear my sermon from this week, click here to download the podcast.  It's not in MP3 as I had to record it on my phone:)  Hope that doesn't cause any problems.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Honest Politician

Today's Gospel passage, Luke 10:25-37, tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  Unbeknownst to most of us, this is a title which would have drawn scoffs and laughter from Jesus' original Jewish listeners.

Jews and Samaritans did NOT get along.  I will spare you the details, but I invite you to Google it to find out more.  What we need to understand is that the hatred between these two ethno-religious groups was so severe, that Jesus' Jewish listeners were likely not able to conceive of such a thing as a "Good Samaritan".  The very phrase itself would have been considered to be a contradiction in terms.  It would have been like us saying "an honest politician".  Hence why the story is specifically called "The Good Samaritan".

But the story is familiar, even to most non-churchgoers: a man is waylaid by bandits on the road, stripped, beaten and left for dead.  The first person to find him is a priest, the second a Levite (a tribe of Judaism consecrated to work in the Temple).  Both men pass him by.

Many people assume they passed him by simply because they did not want to get involved, or that they simply had no compassion or concern for their fellow countryman.  This may or may not be the case, but another possible reason exists, and given the context of a discussion about the law, it is likely the scenario Jesus is trying to paint: ancient Judaism was hemmed about by a multitude of ritual purity laws and prohibitions.  One of these prohibitions was against touching a dead body.  If you touched a dead body, you defiled yourself and became ritually impure.  For a priest and Levite, this would have been inconvenient.

So the irony is that according to the strict letter of the Law, the priest and the Levite were totally justified in passing the man by.

But is this really what the law intended?  To instruct people to leave a man on the side of the road because he may or may not be dead?

It makes me think of that maxim, "There's the letter of the law, then there's the spirit of the law".  In many ways, most modern religions are still hemmed about with ritual, instructions, prohibitions, and so on.  It behooves us as modern, rational beings to reflect seriously on these laws and submit each and every one of them to that great acid test: does it show love to God or neighbour?  Yes?  Then keep it up.  No?  Reevaluate.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Dirty words

There is a word which had become dirty in most modern mainline churches.  That word is "evangelism".

When most of us hear that word, we likely conjure images of manic street preachers, people knocking on our doors, judgement, tent revivals, conversions, and so on.

In reality, we are actually thinking "evangelicalism" when we think of these things.  Evangelism is something else entirely, and it is in fact the duty of all Christians, and I would even argue that it is the duty of all faiths and even those who do not adhere to a faith.

The reason being is that the word "evangelism" comes from the Greek for "bearer of good news".  Yes, this word was specifically generated within the context of Christianity (the word "Gospel" meaning "good news") and it referred specifically to bringing the good news of God's love to others.

But at least within the context of today's Gospel passage (Luke 10:1-20), there is no mention, implicit or explicit, of trying to convert people to any ideology.  Jesus calls his disciples to simply go into the world and do good things: to heal, to cure, to help, to assist, to companion, to bring peace.

What would the world be like if we all just went out and did good things for one another, not to try to change their minds or convert them to our way of thinking, not to criticize their lifestyles or ideas, not to get anything out of them, but just because it is better to do good in the world than to do evil?

This is, I think, the actual call of Christ, and in fact the call of most credible prophets and thinkers from the majority of world ideologies, whether they be religious or secular.

To hear my sermon from this past Sunday, click here.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The fine art of leaving

Well, this was my last Sunday at St. Bart's, and as I am 98% packed up and ready to move, I seem to have packed up my recorder, so this Sunday, I'll have to give you a written version.

This week's Gospel passage was Luke 8:26-39 which tells the story of Legion, the man who is possessed of many demons, and who Jesus exorcises.

Now, the concept of possession and exorcism and demons and so on cause great difficulty for the modern church (and well they should).  Most of the conditions which were thought to be caused by demonic possession we have now identified as a variety of psychiatric and physical ailments that require professional medical care.

To this day, for example, we still use phrases like "What possessed you to to that?" and we refer to "confronting our demons".  It is understood that we are not talking about demons per se, but of personal issues or challenges we face.

But I don't necessarily want to argue about whether or not possession and exorcism are a genuine phenomena, but I would like to point out something that never fails to move me about this story.

When Jesus asks the man his name, he responds that his name is Legion.  He had no other identity left than his "demons", his personal problems, the negative aspects of his life and personality.  He does not even seem to have his own life or identity any more.  How sad is that?

Are we like Legion in any way?  I hear people refer to themselves most often by using negative terminology about themselves.  I hear people most often talking about what they lack or dislike, more than what they have or like.  It is entirely possible to become so involved with and consumed by our negativity and problems that we cease to have any other identity.  Maybe we should spend a little more time taking an inventory of positives rather than taking an inventory of our negatives.

The other thing that strikes me about this passage is that Legion asks Jesus to take him with Him as he leaves the area.  Jesus declines, telling him to return to his home and declare what God has done for him.

This makes me think about the transfiguration, another instance where something really awesome happened, and the people who witnessed it wanted to stay in that moment as long as possible.  But the problem is that when we experience something really life-changing, we are called out of that moment of comfort and revelation.  We are called out into the world to try to bring that experience to others.

St. Bart's has been like that for me, I am sad to say that this was my last Sunday there.  I am excited to be moving on to my new parish, but I am sad to be leaving a situation that I enjoyed and was comfortable with. It is gratifying to know that that feeling was reciprocated, and I think we might all have wanted to stay in that for a while longer.

But we have had this great experience together and we are now to part ways, hoping to share those experiences with others.

I wish all my St. Bart's family and the wider community of the Sunshine Coast the best, and blessings to all my colleagues in the Diocese of New Westminster.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The unlevel playing field

Someone asked me the other day "Why do you go to church every Sunday and talk about the same stories you've been talking about for 2000 years?"

Because the world still hasn't got it yet.

I do not mean that I think everyone should convert to any one religion.  What I mean is that religious or not, much of scripture from every world religion evokes wisdom and lessons that it would behoove us to learn and to practice.

Today's Gospel passage (Luke 7:36-8:3) tells one such story.  It is the story of an unusual encounter between Jesus, a Pharisee and a woman who is identified only as "a sinner".  Tradition hold that she was a prostitute, even though Scripture does not actually specify what the nature of her sins were.  But let's just proceed under that assumption, because it adds a great deal of meaning to the story.

The woman, believing Jesus to be at least a prophet of God, is seeking forgiveness for her sins, which he freely gives.

But the Pharisee is actually the subject of the Gospel passage.  Ironically, the Pharisee does not seem to realize that he stands in need of Jesus forgiveness as well, and on a much more personal basis: the rules of hospitality in ancient Jewish culture were well-established (foot-washing, the kiss of welcome, anointing), and the Pharisee had shown Jesus none of those courtesies.  Furthermore, he apparently had no remorse for his lack of courtesy.

Why was this?  Perhaps because the Pharisee saw himself as superior to Jesus, and therefore he did not have to show those courtesies to an inferior.  He certainly saw himself as superior to the woman sinner, and he judges her accordingly.

But Jesus, in that uncanny way he had, turns social convention on its head and says that the woman has been forgiven much, and therefore loves much and is much loved.  He flips the tables and lets the room know that the woman is therefore more important and blessed than any of them.  Not the wealthy, the respected, the well-to-do, the pure.

No, the blessed are the poor, disrespected, hard-luck, the impure.

Have we really come that far since Jesus' time?  We still see wealth and social standing as an objective measure of importance.  We still make detours around street people rather than reach out to them in compassion.  Education and pedigree makes us more worth listening to.

Jesus would (and did) tell us that this is rubbish.

One day, maybe the world will get it.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The "trick" miracle

Superficially, today's Gospel (Luke 7:11-17) tells the story of what seems to be a pretty straightforward miracle: the resurrection of a dead man by Jesus.

Sidestepping the issue of whether or not we believe in miracles for a moment, I propose that this passage is not that straightforward after all.

The problem is this: who is the miracle actually happening to in this passage?  Who, for lack of a better word, is the recipient or beneficiary of the miracle?

I think most people would say that the resurrected man is clearly the person upon whom the miracle is "performed".

But read the passage again: "When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep”(13, italics mine).

Without one mention of concern for the dead man, the motivation for the miracle was actually Jesus' compassion for the bereaved widow, and she is essentially the recipient of the miracle.

Widows had a particularly tough time in Jesus' day.  As women could rarely retain property and wealth of their own, a widow who had no male children to support her in her old age could find herself destitute.  So Jesus' miracle of resurrection is less for the sake of the dead man, but much more about her.  Christ was concerned for her well-being and security.

What can we learn from this passage?  Perhaps a number of things.  First that God is not only a principle of life, but also a principle of compassion.  God embodies that principle of concern and compassion which we all should show to one another.

Granted, no one I know can bring people back from the dead, but we can support one another in our times of grief and sorrow, equally in times of joy.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A miracle you can perform

I have often expressed a certain ambivalence about the Biblical miracles.  They are, by their very definition, difficult (if not impossible) to believe.

But this in and of itself is not the problem.  The problem is that I can't perform them.

It is all well and good to report on the miraculous activities of Jesus and the other Biblical "biggies", but when it comes down to living out our faith in the real world, how are you and I as normal, non-miracle-performing people supposed to proceed?  How can we possibly emulate or repeat miracles?

I have a theory: behind every impossibly flamboyant Biblical miracle lies a deeper message, a deeper miracle, a miracle that you and I can, in fact, perform.

Take this week's Gospel passage, for example.  Luke 7:1-10 tells the story of Jesus healing the centurion's slave.  We could read this superficially and still be impressed with Jesus' abilities and leave it at that.

But there are actually a few things going on in this passage that go unspoken, unnoticed by readers in our time and culture, but which would have been no less miraculous to readers in Jesus' time.

The first being that the centurion cares enough about a slave to seek Jesus out to help him.  The second is that the Jewish elders in the story actually admire and respect the centurion, even though he is part of the Roman occupation forces.  The third is that the elders would seek Jesus out, even though his message essentially undermines their whole structure of authority.  The fourth is that Jesus, himself a Jew, would go out of his way to help a Roman slave.

At every turn in this story, you have people seeing past race, creed, colour and class.  You have people looking past prejudice and intolerance.  You have people valuing and caring for one another despite the cultural norms of the time.

This is truly a miracle, more impressive to me than parting a Red Sea.  And furthermore, it is one that you and I can do ourselves.

To hear my sermon, click here.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Three for's that's a good deal

The concept of the Trinity is one of the most enduring (and controversial) mysteries of the Christian faith.

It has been accused of being non-scriptural.  This, at least in a sense, is true.  Jesus never commanded anyone to believe in the Trinity, however he does several times explicitly mention a third manifestation of divinity that would be present after he departed this earth.  Today's Gospel passage (John 15:26-16:15) is one such example.

In reality, the Trinity is a doctrine which was essentially extrapolated from somewhat oblique Scripture references combined with the experience of Pentecost and later experiences of the divine that believers had.

How can God be one and three all at the same time?  How can God be unified but divided?  Are Trinitarians essentially polytheistic?  God and Jesus are comparatively easy to grasp as concepts, but what are we to make of this "Holy Spirit"?  Who or what is it?  How does it operate?  Why does it exist?

These are some of the questions I address in my sermon for this Trinity Sunday.

Click here to download the podcast.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

What language do you act?

Well, today I unfortunately forgot my recorder, so you're going to get the written summary from memory of my sermon.

Today is Pentecost, the day upon which we are told in the Book of Acts (Acts 2:1-21) that the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and worshipers present at the event of Pentecost.  As a result of this, those present, who were from a number of different areas and spoke a number of different languages, were miraculously able to understand one another.

We often take for granted our ability to communicate verbally.  Most of us are unaware of how many people we speak to or hear speaking in a day.  Imagine being stripped of your ability to communicate either verbally or through the written word.  Imagine being unable to understand or to make yourself understood.

The events of Pentecost make me think of an experience I had while doing a hospital internship during seminary.  I was called to emergency where I was briefed on a situation: an elderly couple had been walking down the street when the husband suddenly collapsed.  Despite the efforts of the staff, he had died shortly after arriving at the hospital.  I was called to comfort the disconsolate wife, but there was a problem: she was Italian and did not speak a word of English.

I do not speak a single word of Italian.  This was before my ordination, and so although I was functioning in a pastoral capacity, I did not have a collar, which would otherwise have been a convenient way to identify myself to her.

By chance, I happened to have a rosary in my pocket for some reason, and I showed that to her, and she seemed to understand.  Even if she did not understand who or what I was, I was nonetheless able to sit with her, hold her hand and be a presence to her.  That was all I could do, but it was clear that she appreciated my presence.

There are other ways to communicate than language.  Anyone who has has traveled to a foreign country or been accosted by a tourist in our own country where languages differ has perhaps felt the frustration of not being able to communicate.  You have maybe also felt the thrill of pleasure that comes from breaking through that barrier through gestures or another method of communication.

On its surface, the Pentecost miracle is about language.  It makes me think that behind the story of the Pentecost miracle lies a deeper meaning, a meaning that you and I can tap into.  I have often said that one of the problems with the Biblical miracles is that if we focus on the miraculous, we may find it hard to relate to because most of us cannot perform miracles (and if you can, let me know, we can take that act on the road).

On a deeper level, I think the Pentecost miracle is not so much about language, but about communication.  As my previous reflections explain, language and communication are not always the same thing.

As the maxim goes, "Actions speak louder than words".  Compassion, peace, justice, love, mercy, tolerance: all are ways of communicating with one another which transcend language, race, religion, creed and colour.

Unfortunately, hard-heartedness, war, injustice, hatred, vindictiveness and intolerance are also ways in which we can communicate with one another.  These actions speak just as loudly as their positive counterparts.

What language will you speak?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why you should never play with matches

As a child, I fell afoul of the rules of my home once or twice.  One instance particularly comes to mind: I was 5 or 6 years old and I was discovered lighting matches in the basement of our home.  On that occasion (as with a few others) I was punished for my deeds.

At the time, I was resentful of that punishment.  I felt that my parents were trying to ruin my fun.  I did not understand why I should be stopped from doing something as fun as setting things on fire.

Years later, my mother made a comment that helped put a few pieces of the puzzle together.  She said to me, "You are a part of me".

It seems now like such a self-evident point, but I realized in that moment that people cared so much for me that what I did actually affected them.  What I did affected the members of my household and family.  My parents were concerned for my health and well-being.  Yes, my match-play may have burned down the entire house, and I'm sure that was a concern, but I think the principle concern was for my own safety.

This connection, this sense of oneness is perhaps felt more viscerally between a parent and child, but this sense of connection can also be felt between close friends, other family members, colleagues.

This is what Jesus is driving at in today's Gospel passage (John 17:2-26).  He is trying to point out the fundamental inter-connectedness of all peoples and indeed all persons.

How nonsensical would it be for us to discriminate against our hand?  To oppress our foot?  To dislike our own eye to the point that we want to poke it out?  To abuse our own flesh?

It would make no sense at all.  But if we acknowledge that we are connected (as Christ and just about every major world religion and culture has implied or stated explicitly), that we are one, how would that shift our responsibility towards one another?  If we would not abuse our own bodies or would not abuse our friends and family members (and I certainly hope we would not do that), why do we feel that it is acceptable to discriminate, oppress, abuse, exclude, be unjust or intolerant towards other people or peoples?

To download the podcast of my sermon for this Sunday, click here.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Not all ends are bitter

Eschatology (Gr. eschaton meaning "last" and the suffix -ology meaning "study") is quite literally the study of last things or the end of things.

Most often used in a religious context, the concept of eschatology finds equal traction in the sciences and in history.  The environmental sciences speak of an eschatology in terms of events leading up to a large-scale climate change or a critical level of pollution.  History speaks of eschatology in terms of events leading to a drastic shift in political power.

A common misunderstanding about eschatology, both religious and secular, is that it refers to total annihilation.  Eschatology is often confused with apocalypticism (which is also an often misunderstood term, but that is for another post).  It is equated with the end of all things.

In reality, eschatology does refer to the end of something, but what is often an overlooked corollary is that is the end of something giving way to something else.

So while we can confidently say that Jesus was eschatological, that he was referring to destruction, annihilation or cataclysm is less certain.  One could cherry-pick and twist any number of Biblical passages to make a compelling argument either way.

Jesus was definitely talking about a passage from one thing to another, but from the Gospel passage for today (John 14:23-29), he is not talking about anything destructive.  Rather, he seems to be envisioning an end to the way things were at the time: partisan, litigious, corrupt, oppressive, divisive.

And are things that different today?  Jesus replaces these things with love for one another.  He envisions a world where God is not just located in a temple or in a building, but where God is the principle of love, compassion and justice working within us and among us.

Imagine what a new world like that would look like.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Monday, April 29, 2013

So you have what?

I sometimes meet people who seem to be under the impression that faith is a destination, rather than a journey.  Like faith is a finish line rather than an obstacle course.  Like faith is an end rather than a beginning.

And I also meet people who seem to think that faith is an easy way out.  I am not sure what they seem to feel faith is an easy way out of, but nothing could be further from the truth.

To be a person of faith means you are called to a different moral and philosophical path; a path the world does not validate; a path that leads outside ourselves, outside our four walls, into the community of need in the world; a path that is certainly more difficult by times than simply "knowing things".

In today's Gospel passage (John 13:1-35), Christ calls the disciples (and by extension, He also calls us) to "Love one another as I have loved you".  There is, in other words, a consequence to faith.  It is not a free ride.  There is an expectation.

Love, properly understood in the context in which Christ is obviously using it in this passage, is the verb "to love" rather than the noun.  Christ is calling his disciples to action, not to a warm, fuzzy feeling that they are to sit around with and live in.

Christ is calling his disciples to leave the upper room, to go out into the world and to put into action the principle of love which he showed them.  Faith, far from being a comforting illusion, is not the end of that action.  It is, instead, merely the beginning of that action in the world.  It is the principle which first draws our attention to a suffering world, and then sustains us beyond our own selfishness to go out and help.

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

And Morpheus said unto Neo, "There is a difference between knowing the path...and walking the path".

In today's Gospel passage (John 10:22-30), Jesus says to his listeners, "My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me".

Although you and I may not appreciate being compared to sheep, it is nonetheless a comparison which gets made a number of times throughout the Bible, and it was never meant to be pejorative.  Sheep were noble creatures in Christ's time, and it is merely our own North American bias that equates sheep with mindlessness.

But the reality remains: sheep may recognize the voice of their shepherd, but they do not understand his words.

This is where the sheep metaphor falls down: you and I are not sheep.  We are human beings endowed with intellect, thought, critical reflection and so on.  Therefore, we do not (nor ought we) merely follow our calls mindlessly.

Most of us in one way or another respond to a spiritual or religious call at some point in our lives.  Responding to that call is only the first step, the simple recognition of God's voice, if you will.

Then the real work begins: understanding what that voice is saying to us, understanding why we were called, and what we are going to do to respond to it.

In Matrix terms, first we have to know there is a path, then we have to walk it.  Blessings walking yours!

To download the podcast of my sermon on this subject, click here.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Can you smell what The Rock is cooking? It's fish. 153 of them.

Ok, so if you got drawn into reading this by my reference to "The Rock", I am not talking about the wrestler.  I'm talking about the apostle Peter, whose name means "rock".  Peter (whose original name was Simon) was given this name by Jesus when he said he would make Peter the rock upon which he would build his church.

Peter was an interesting character.  Credited with being the first bishop ever, establishing the church at Antioch, authoring 2 epistles and a number of other notable achievements, Peter is best-known in history for being the guy that denied Jesus 3 times.

Much like Thomas, it is the failings and weaknesses of Peter that makes him much easier for me to relate to than Jesus.

The Gospel passage for today, John 21:1-19, tells the story of Jesus cleaning the slate with Peter, leaving the church in his hands.  This in and of itself is monumental: Christ did not entrust his mission to someone who was perfect, someone who had never failed.  He left his church in the hands of someone who was flawed, just as we all are.

If ever we feel that we are unworthy, not good enough, not strong or smart enough, that we just don't measure up, we can perhaps be inspired by the story of Peter.  It reminds us that no one is beyond reprieve in the eyes of God.

Click here to download a podcast of my sermon for this week.