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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.