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Monday, July 7, 2014

No good deed goes unpunished

Do download a podcast of my sermon for this Sunday, click here.

My sermon is based on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

If you have ever lived or traveled extensively on the East Coast of Canada, you are likely familiar with the term "contrary".  That word is used to refer to people who cannot be pleased, no matter what.  They complain about a free lunch, look a gift horse in the mouth and are just generally unpleasant to be around.

Despite being one of the most enlightened, loving and patient human beings to have ever existed, there must have been days when he was seriously tempted to run away and join the circus after having to deal with contrary people.

Witness the Gospel passage for today.  In this passage, Jesus is responding to people who are criticizing him.  Incidentally, these are the same people who criticized John the Baptist, but for opposite reasons.

John was a ascetic hermit, meaning that he had deliberately forsaken all the luxuries and pleasures of life.  He had even forsaken the company of other people.  He lived alone in the desert, wore a shirt of camel hair, and ate locusts and wild honey.

People looked at him and thought he must be insane or possessed.  No one in their right mind, so it was said, would eschew all the comforts of life and actually choose a lifestyle that was so difficult.

But then along comes Jesus.  Although I don't think you could call Jesus a party animal, he drank wine, ate good food and broke a lot of rules.  He also enjoyed the company of others.  In fact, he sought out the company of the "undesirable" elements of society: prostitutes, tax collectors, Gentiles and other "sinners".

And people criticized him for it, of course.

How do you win with people like that?

The answer is that you can't.  Don't bother.

At a church which shall remain nameless, there was a young man whom I will call Michael.  Michael was born with severe intellectual deficiencies and learning delays.  Due to his condition, his speech was very slurred and difficult to follow.  He expressed a desire to do a reading at church on a Sunday, and the pastor at the time was pleased to let him do it.

When the time came, he stood up and read.  And not a single word of it was intelligible.  His speech combined with his anxiety of reading in public made the reading completely incomprehensible.

But at the end of the reading, he raised his hands in a gesture of triumph and said something that everyone heard and understood.

He exclaimed happily, "I did it!"

There was not a dry eye in the house and the entire church erupted into applause.

It didn't matter to him or to anyone else that day that his reading could not be understood.  He was thrilled that he had had the courage to read in public, and everyone was thrilled for him.

What kind of person would have missed his pride and success?

The hideous irony is that Jesus' message was so simple, you have to deliberately decide to get it wrong.  All he said was love God, love your neighbour, don't judge others, forgive others, God loves you.

How did we screw that up?  How did Jesus' detractors miss his message?

Because they focused on what was "wrong" with him.

If Jesus walked into the room today, what would be our reaction?  Would we focus on his long hair?  His beard?  His robe?  His sandals?  His probably lack of personal hygiene?  The fact that he is Middle Eastern?  That he is Jewish?

Chances are, many Christians would be deeply unimpressed with Jesus and would discard him based on superficial aspects of his personal appearance and demeanor, rather than on his heart and message.

More to the point, is that what we do to other people?  Do we focus inordinately on their "shortcomings" and "failings"?  Because that is pretty easy to do.  In fact, that is plucking at the lowest-hanging fruit possible.

We are called to be better than that.  We are called to be wiser, more tolerant, more loving, more forgiving than that.

The point of faith, of religion is to lift ourselves and others up.  If you are putting people down, if your church is a place of judgement, you are doing it wrong.

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