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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.