Follow by Email

Sunday, April 27, 2014

"For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible".

I can really relate to today's Gospel passage (John 20:19-31) which centers around the Apostle Thomas.  I guess more accurately, you could say I can relate to Thomas.

I cannot always say the same for Jesus.  I had never thought seriously about this until a seminary class where a female colleague commented that she had trouble relating to Jesus because he was male.  This got me thinking about how I related to Jesus, and I realized that I had very little in common with Jesus, despite sharing his gender.

I am a WASP; he was a Middle Eastern Jew.  I live in North America; a continent he didn't even know existed.  I live 2000 years after he died (give or take).  He performed miracles; I bungle even the simplest card tricks.  He always had the wisest, kindest, Godliest responses to every situation; I certainly do not.

So in reality, what can you or I really have in common with Jesus?

This is where I can really get behind the disciples.  The disciples, compared to Jesus' near-perfection, are glorious examples of human frailty and failure.  From Peter's impulsiveness to Judas' treachery, whether they are named or not, the disciples display the entire spectrum of human dysfunction in a way Jesus simply does not.

Take Thomas: despite bringing the Gospel to India, he is best commemorated instead by an epithet which Christians and non-Christians alike employ: Doubting Thomas.

Is doubt such a bad thing, though?  Some of us may have had negative church experiences where we were told not to question.  To that I say rubbish.  Did Jesus chastise Thomas for his doubt?

Here is the thing: people who are certain about things, whether that be religion, politics, science, philosophy, sports, music or whatever, scare the heck out of me way more than doubt.

Here's why.

Certainty is hard to shift.  Certainty usually goes hand in hand with obstinacy and a certain rigidity of thought: "I know what I know and I will find every possible proof to do what I can to prove myself right, even if I am wrong".

Doubt on the other hand indicates to me a certain flexibility of thought: "I am not convinced I know what I think I know, and I am willing to entertain different viewpoints, even if it means challenging what I think I know".

While doubt has often been equated with insecurity, it is actually the mark of a healthy mind.  A person who doubts is pushing their own personal boundaries, exploring alternatives, considering other opinions and worldviews in a way that a certain person is not.

All things in moderation, of course.  An excess of doubt can paralyze you.

But how many of us in Thomas' place would have responded any differently than him?  How many of us would have turned to the other disciples who had apparently seen the risen Christ and NOT said, "Yeah, pull the other one".

The fact is that Thomas responded in a very human way, and this is why he is so darn relatable.

So I say entertain your doubts.  Question everything.  Don't just believe what you have been told.


Perhaps the most important thing about Thomas in the end is that he had enough faith to reach out an touch Christ's wounds.  He could have just crossed his arms in the face of the proof he was asking for and said, "No, I STILL will not believe", but his didn't.  He reached out in faith and grasped the proofs he was seeking.

Therefore, while we must entertain doubts, we must also make an equal effort to entertain faith.  While asking questions and seeking answers, we must be prepared to accept some mysteries and reach out in faith.

American social economist Stuart Chase wrote, "For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible"

Truer words were never spoken, but I don't think that being at either end of that spectrum is a good thing.  I don't think there is much value in being a believer who asks no questions, on a non-believer who accepts no answer.

This day, I hope you will find a balance.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The most important story ever told

To download a podcast of my Easter message, click here.

The story of the Resurrection is probably the most important story the world could hear, whether or not you are a Christian, regardless of whether or not you are a person of faith.

But first some trivia: the word "Easter" is derived from and Old English/Germanic word, "Eastre".  This was the word for the direction East, and it was also the name of a Germanic pagan goddess of spring and fertility.

In the early centuries of Christianity, many converts were from pagan religions, who brought with them much of their imagery and theology.  This was in turn incorporated and adopted by Christianity, as this imagery and theology spoke equally profoundly to members of the nascent group as they did to pagan converts.

Eastre was represented by eggs and rabbits, images which we still retain today in the form of the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs.  Where the chocolate comes from is beyond me, so if someone knows, please tell me.  Eggs are immobile and seemingly lifeless, but at some point, life comes out of them.  Perfect metaphor for a tomb.

Rabbits are known for their prolific feats of reproduction, so much so that ancient peoples thought they were hermaphroditic.  All they knew was that a rabbit disappeared down a hole in the ground (like a tomb) and soon, a bunch of little rabbits burst forth.

These poignant symbols of life, fruition and fertility delighted early Christians, as they spoke so loudly to the concept of life coming from seeming death, of fertility coming from seeming barrenness.

But this is not why the Easter story is so important.

In a sense, the Resurrection has much less to do with Jesus, and much more to do with us, both as individuals and as a species.

Let me put it this way: either you believe in the Resurrection or you don't.  Nothing I can say will convince you either way.  I leave it up to your own discretion whether you choose to believe or disbelieve it.

But the Resurrection is not JUST about Jesus, not just about an event which may or may not have happened some 2000 years ago.

I want to sidestep the superficial question of the actual event itself to demonstrate that the Resurrection teaches us lessons which are more urgent than ever for us to absorb, regardless of our faith disposition (or lack thereof, as the case may be).

First of all, let's look at the species issues.  The story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection is a story of systemic injustice.  Pilate and the Romans, the Pharisees, Annas, and Caiaphas are all examples of officialdom run amok.  They are examples of political, religious and social elitism at their worst.  They are examples of fear, anger, hatred, discrimination, bigotry, greed, selfishness and cowardice, not only on a personal level, but also on a systemic level.

I would love to say that society has learned its lesson, but I would be at great pains to name a decade or even a year since Christ's time (or before, for that matter) which was not punctuated by dictatorships or despotism somewhere in the world.  I cannot name a period in history which was not punctuated by an elite living off the sweat of the masses.

But Christ was not just a man.  He was (or has become in the minds of the faithful) a paragon of the best that humanity has to offer, the best of what God represents: patience, charity, forgiveness, mercy, justice, peace, love.

What the Resurrection tells us as a species is that despite the injustice of "the system", despite the injustice of elitism, the virtues that Christ represented cannot die.  There is something in the human spirit which strives for these values, and as long as we strive for them, good will conquer.

This lesson is all the more important as we face global warming, overpopulation, energy crises and diminishing resources, all of which can be attributed either directly or indirectly to greed, consumerism and short-sighted self-interest.  We need to be reminded that those virtues exist, and if we want to leave our planet in manageable condition for our progeny, we would be best to put our vices aside and adopt  those virtues instead.

On a more personal level, however, the Resurrection can touch us individually as well.

Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE in the world can relate to going through hard times.  Everyone of us can relate to feeling that we are dwelling in darkness.  Every single human being has felt utter helplessness and hopelessness at some point.  If you have not, place your index and middle fingers to the hollow of your throat and check for a pulse.

Ever had depression?  Mental illness?  Physical illness?  Money problems?  The death of someone near to you?  Divorce?  Loss of a job?

Then you can relate to feeling like you are trapped in the dank darkness of a tomb.

The question is not whether Jesus was dead and came back to life.  The question is how can we relate to dwelling in darkness, coping with death (literally or figuratively), being trapped by a stone in our own lives?

Pretty easily, I expect.

Maybe we can also relate to that stone rolling away.  Maybe we can relate to that which is oppressing us being lifted.  Maybe we can relate to standing in the light of morning, breathing the fresh air of hope when we never thought we would or could ever again.

Maybe we can relate to coming back to life ourselves.

This Easter, many people are likely still dwelling in darkness, and the hope that the Resurrection represents is as ludicrous and amorphous as the concept of a man coming back from the dead.

In which case, I would urge you to locate the stone that is standing in your way.  Locate and identify it, whether that means seeking a doctor or therapist, whether it means asking friends and family for help.

Roll away your stone and live again.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The most epic systemic fail in history, and how we still let it happen

I want to start with a PSA: although the Bible refers consistently to "the Jews" as being to blame for Christs' crucifixion, this is an increasingly offensive falsehood.  In reality, yes, some of Jewish elite were responsible for condemning him, but Roman officials were equally responsible, and it is absurd to indict a whole people for the actions of a few.  It is furthermore absurd to indict a people today for something that happened over 2000 years ago.  I say this because unfortunately, Christianity has historically been a breeding ground for anti-Semitism, and I for one think it is high time it is put to rest.

So Christians call it "Good Friday" because we know how the story ends, but in reality, on the day itself some 2000 years ago, there would have been nothing good about it at all.  That is perhaps the most obvious point I can make today.

This does not just apply to the disciples.  This applies to everyone in the Gospel passage for Good Friday, which consists of the Passion Narrative (John 18:1-19:42).

I was once told, "Read the Bible as though it was a story about you".  I could go one step further and say that about any book.  But why do we like certain books or movies?  Because we see ourselves in one or more of the characters.  It is no more complicated than that.  Ask of yourself in any Bible story, fable, legend, work of history or fiction, "Who am I in this story?  How would I have reacted?  How SHOULD that character have reacted?", and I guarantee you will have learned the lesson it was meant to convey.

Unfortunately, in the Passion Narrative, there is no good character to be.  Everybody but Jesus fails on an epic level in the Passion, and I certainly would not want to have been Jesus on that day.

Let's go over the cast: Judas.  Obviously a fail.  He failed to uphold the basic precepts of friendship and fidelity.  He sold out his friend, his teacher for cold, hard cash.

Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas: failure on a systemic level.  All three were in positions of power and prestige, and wanting to protect their positions, they cast aside basic precepts of morality, human dignity and mercy to keep riding the gravy train.

Sure, one could say that at least Pilate TRIED to defend Jesus, but in the end, he failed to grow a spine.  He found no guilt in Jesus, but caved in to the people calling for his blood.

Then there are the people who were calling for his blood, some of the Pharisees, elders and scribes.  Jesus' simple message of Gods' love threatened their carefully-constructed religious monolith, and therefore their positions of prestige, and so they called for his death.  Stop and imagine that: being so angry and scared that you need someone killed?  Screaming for someone's blood to be spilled because they don't think as you do?  Time to re-evaluate your entire life.

Then there were the disciples, Peter in particular.  They all scattered and denied any association with Jesus when they perhaps could have testified in his defense.  Yes, they likely would have bought themselves a cross as well, but they failed to protect someone they claimed to love.

There are bit players: the soldiers and people who mocked him, but I think it is easy to see where they failed.

From start to finish, the Passion Narrative is story of the failure to humankind.  The failure to adhere to the basic concepts of values and virtues, of morals, of decency, mercy, compassion, kindness and understanding.

But it gets worse.  It is also the story of systemic corruption and violence.  Particularly, Pilate, Annas, Caiaphas, the Pharisee, elders and scribes were part of a corrupt system that tried Jesus and executed him for no discernible crime.

I would like to say that things have changed in 2000 years, but they have not.  One look at a newspaper should be sufficient to show us that many of the political, religious, social and economic systems in which we live are ultimately corrupt.  They abuse the already underprivileged and benefit the elite.

Although I am not into needless guilt, the reality is that you and I are complicit in these systems.  Every time we purchase something from a company that does not pay a living wage, we have failed.  Every time we turn a blind eye to a miscarriage of justice, we have failed.  Every time we contribute to the wanton destruction of the Creation we have been made stewards of, we have failed.

Every time we mock the innocent, we have failed.  Every time we don't stand up for our convictions and for what is right and just, we have failed.  Every time we pull the disciples' fairweather-friend routine on our own loved ones, we have failed.

Don't get me wrong, we all fail.  I have failed a few times this morning alone.  But we need to be aware of it.  We need to look on the tragedy of the cross and realize that it could have been prevented at so many points.

We need to know that real people are figuratively being crucified daily.  And we need to know that we take part in it.

And then we need to change.

The joy of washing peoples' feet

Sounds creepy, right?  Right.

I am one of those people who is not overly fond of feet, but when it comes to the footwashing which is traditional on Maundy Thursday, all I can say is if you have never participated in it, you probably can't understand.

On Maundy Thursday (Maundy being derived from the Latin phrase mandatum novum, literally "new mandate" from Jesus' words "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you from John 13:1-35), we do a number of things.  We observe the Last Supper, the institution of what has become the principal sacrament for many Christians, the Eucharist.

I should perhaps go on a tangent here and note that the word Eucharist means thanksgiving, and the word Communion (which is often used interchangeably with Eucharist) comes from the Latin root from which we derive the words common and community.  The point of communion is not that we are committing an act of cannibalism.  It is that we are expressing gratitude for the gifts of the earth, of which we are an integral part.

Sharing a meal was and is perhaps still one of the most intimate activities human beings can engage in.  Today, I am grateful my family did not eat while watching TV.  We are at a round table where we shared our days with each other.  Sometimes there were fights, but many of my cherished childhood memories are around the dinner table.

Even if we assume Jesus had not divine powers of prognostication, we know he wasn't an idiot.  He knew exactly what was coming to him in Jerusalem.  He had poked the hornet's nest of political, religious and social privilege, and that NEVER goes over well for the little guy.

So try to imagine being Jesus, knowing what is likely to happen to you.  Wouldn't you want to spend some quality time with your loved ones?  That is what the Last Supper is about.

In part.

The other part involves Jesus washing the disciples' feet.  This would have been an amazing gesture to the disciples.  Foot washing was common in the ancient Middle East.  The hot dry climate and the lack of modern transportation meant that if you were hosting a dinner, your guests had likely had to walk a fair distance over hot earth, wearing sandals to boot.  So it was customary for a host to provide water to refresh their guests' feet.

But here is the important point: this was such a humble (and dare I say humiliating) task that it was strictly the purview of the lowliest servant in the house.  The host himself would never debase himself like that, and apparently in wealthy households that had a number of servants, the pecking order meant that this task was even beneath most servants.

And yet Jesus, whom the disciples call Lord and Master and Rabbi and Teacher and Friend debased himself before them in order to wash all their feet.  This is so scandalous that Peter protests, misunderstanding what Jesus is doing.  Peter says, "If you are going to wash my feet, then wash my hands and head also".

But in typical Peter fashion, he has misunderstood what is happening.  Peter thinks Jesus is literally washing him, when in reality his actions have much less to do with Peter and the disciples than they have to do with him.

Jesus explains that he is not washing them.  He is giving them an example of what they should do to one another.

Now obviously, that does not that every Christian should be a chiropodist or podiatrist.  He is not even talking about foot washing specifically per se.

He is talking about reaching out to serve one another in humility.

This is increasingly difficult in our "serve-yourself" culture, and many people rail at the very concept that we should be humble.  But I issue you a challenge, and I would love to hear how it turns out.

Try love.

Try reaching out in kindness when your natural impulse is to snap and give the other person a piece of your mind.

The mind-blowing thing is that according to this Gospel passage, Jesus even washed Judas' feet, knowing full well that Judas had already betrayed him.  Maybe it was his last attempt to sway Judas back, but either way, Jesus chose kindness, integrity, humility and love when most of us would have been livid with rage and pain.

Try reaching out with integrity and love today.  Then tell me how you feel.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Unleashing the donkeys of peace

To download a podcast of my sermon for Palm Sunday, click here.

Palm/Passion Sunday is a bit of a mixed observance for Christians.  Ostensibly, it is actually supposed to be a celebration of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11).

Jesus is welcomed with palm fronds, an ancient tradition used to welcome conquering kings back to their own kingdom. Palms were symbols of royalty, longevity and strength.

Jesus comes riding on a donkey, and animal synonymous with humility and peace.  If a king was making war on a place, he would ride a horse.  If his intentions were peaceful, he would ride a donkey.

So that is tension number one: the people welcome him as a conqueror as evinced by the palm fronds, while he chooses an emblem of peace.  The people obviously had expectations of him he was not intending to fulfill.

But even if we did not read the entire Passion Narrative (Matthew 26:14-27:66) on Palm Sunday (which of course races us across some 5 days in the life of Jesus), we all know how the story ends.  We know his entry into Jerusalem led to his betrayal, capture, torture and execution.  Of course, we also know it leads to his resurrection, but the Passion Narrative ends with his death.

So to an extent, we have to pretend we don't know about the Resurrection in order to experience the tragedy of the crucifixion, and we similarly have to ignore the Passion in order to feel the celebration of Palm Sunday.

The crowds were overjoyed to see Jesus.  We are told they lined the roads, laying palm fronds and even their own clothing on the road for Jesus and his donkey to tread upon, just as they would have to welcome a great king or a victorious army returning home.

They also shouted a word: "hosanna".  In our modern context, I think when most Christians say that word, we think we are saying pretty much the same thing as "hallelujah", basically an expression of deep religious joy.  But this is not what the people thronging the road to Jerusalem would have meant by that word.

Translated directly, "hosanna" means "save now".  It is a cry for salvation, a cry for rescue.  It is not so much an expression of joy as it is an expression of hope.  Hope that the person to whom they are crying it to will be able to liberate them.

It is more or less obvious why the people lining the road to Jerusalem would have been crying that word.  They were living under the heel of the Roman occupation.  Salvation for them meant the defeat and expulsion of the Romans from their homeland.  That's looking at it from a crowd perspective.

You and I were not part of that crowd, though.  You and are not living under the rule of Rome.  The Roman Empire hasn't even existed for centuries, so you and I could not easily relate to the joy and hope for salvation that the crowd felt.

But on a personal level, we have probably all felt oppression.  We have all felt oppressed by fear, anger, despair, depression, sadness, grief, addiction, compulsion, etc, etc.  We have all had things we need to be "rescued" from.

I hear some elements of Christianity claim that they have "been saved", and I not quite sure what they mean by that.  I personally don't feel that "being saved" is a once-and-for-all thing, as though coming to faith with immunized us from the vicissitudes of life.  A life of faith certainly doesn't do that.

However I do think a life of faith gives us hope, and gives us a community to support us when we cannot find hope for ourselves.

I hope that as we come to the culmination of our Lenten journey, we find that which have been hoping for most over this season.

Friday, April 11, 2014

What it's like to come back to life

To download a copy of my sermon, click here.

So through a combination of vacation and inept internet providers, it has a been a while since my last blog.  But I am back online, so here it goes!

I hope you are enjoying spring as much as I am.  I suffer from depression, SAD, GAD and other things that makes this last push towards spring pretty tough at times.  Over the years, I have developed some pretty solid coping mechanisms around it, but nonetheless, when it gets sunny and I can finally open my windows again, I feel like my soul can begin breathing again...if that makes any sense.

This past weekend we heard the story of Lazarus (Matthew 11:1-45), surely one of the most poignant and vivid episodes in the Bible.

We all know the story, and it is pretty clear that we are meant to take this story literally: Lazarus literally was dead, and Jesus literally resurrected him...for real.  As with all Biblical miracles, you either take them literally or you don't.  I leave that decision to your own discretion.

Regardless, I hasten to make the point which I think can be made about most if not all Biblical miracles: they don't end there.  They are not just events which took place in time and space (or did not take place, depending on your disposition), but they are timeless stories which tell us about ourselves, which describe steps along our spiritual journeys.

Take Lazarus, for example.  I have never literally died.  I know people who have been clinically dead for a number of seconds or minutes, but I am not personally one of them, so I cannot relate to Lazarus entirely.

But having been through depression, I can relate to feeling spiritually dead.  I can relate to feeling like I was trapped in the cold darkness of a tomb.  I can also relate to feeling that bit by bit I was coming back to life, until finally I cast of my funeral wrappings and stumbled out of the tomb to feel the sun on my face again.

I only hope I didn't smell as bad as Lazarus apparently did.

Maybe you have been through dark times (duh, who hasn't?).  Maybe you have recovered from mental or physical illness; maybe you have come through depression, addiction; maybe you have lost a loved one, felt that you would never be able to enjoy life again, and have made peace.

Can you relate to coming back to life?

Another interesting point, as spring is this slow coming back to life: when Lazarus was resurrected, do you think he ever stopped being amazed with life?  Do you think he ever took his senses for granted, having been deprived of all of them?  Do you think he ever again took for granted the ability to walk, to talk, to live?

I like to think not.  Maybe we can stop this spring and renew our gratitude for the new life growing back into the earth and in our own lives.