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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

If you're happy and you know it, shut your face

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 20:1-16.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here

There is a creepy twist of human nature that never ceases to disappointment me, not least when it occurs in me, which I admit it occasionally does.

That twist is this: people who are safe, comfortable, secure and having their needs met (if not grossly exceeded) criticizing others for getting their needs met.

Let me give you a few examples: this week I was listening to the CBC, and there was a call-in show to discuss the Canadian government's decision to deny refugee status and deport a Pakistani woman back to her home country where she faces the death penalty...for adultery, of all the stupid things.

Now, once I had overcome the shock over our government's appalling lack of judgement and mercy, I waited for the phone calls to flood in supporting this woman.

But most of the people who called in complained that "If you come to our country, you follow our laws or go home", and some such other similar bullshit.

(Let's ignore the fact that these people totally seemed to miss the point that this woman did NOT commit a crime in Canada.  She was employed at a diner, payed her taxes and was a contributing member of Canadian society)

Let's get to the other point: it is easy to pontificate when the justice system is working comfortably in your favour.  This is an easy statement to make when the justice system is not condemning you to death.

I have friends who occasionally make glib comments or post pithy little memes on Facebook to the effect of "If I have to get a drug test for my job, welfare recipients should have to get a drug test to receive welfare".

This is an easy statement to make when you have a full-time job, when you are paying the bills, and when you are not suffering the ravages of addiction.

I hear people complain that gay marriage means that gay people now have access to the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples.

An easy complaint to make when you get the tax breaks, the baby bonuses and societal, legal, emotional, and spiritual affirmation and benefits of your relationship on a daily basis.

So to recap: if we are being treated fairly, if our needs are being met, if we are doing ok, why do we feel we have any reason to complain about the needs of others being met?

This gospel passage should be a slap in the face to us.  It tells the story of a landowner who goes out and hires some labourers in the market first thing in the morning.  Later in the day, he hires more.  Several more times throughout the day, he does this, until 5 pm rolls around, one hour before the end of the working day, and he hires a few more.

At the end of the day, he calls them all in, and he pays the men he hired at the literal eleventh hour a full days' wage.

The workers who were there first thing in the morning must have thought their ship had come in, reasoning that if he payed people who worked only one hour a full days' wage, they would be getting a HUGE pay.

But he pays them a days wage, what they had contracted for in the first place.  And they complain.

The landowner says, "Look, I have treated you fairly, haven't I?  I gave you a fair days' wage for a fair days' work.  If I chose to give these other guys a full wage, that is none of your business".

Are our needs being met?  Are we doing ok?  Did we eat breakfast this morning?  Did we get in a car and drive to a job?  Did we come home to a house, apartment or condo?  Do we have a few dollars left over at the end of the week to play around with?

Then we are already head and shoulders above a huge swath of the world's population.  There are people out there who do not and will never have any of those things.  And do we yet complain?

If we are being treated fairly and our needs are being met, the reality is that we may have every right to complain, but we have very little reason to complain.  Furthermore, most people don't want to hear us complain either.  They have their own problems.

And people being deported, living on welfare and facing discrimination (to cite just several examples) do not need our resentment and derision added on top of their burdens.

Perhaps the world would be better served if we cultivated the virtues of mercy, forgiveness, tolerance and justice for those in the world who are not as blessed as we are, rather than crapping on people who just need a little help and understanding.

Perhaps we would better serve ourselves and each other by cultivating gratitude for all the gifts we so often take for granted.

Perhaps we would be better off if we could just learn and decide to be happy.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Astronomical forgiveness

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 18:21-35.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

In today's Gospel, Peter asks Jesus how many time we should forgive someone.  He suggest 7 times.  Chances are, Peter was trying to suck up to Jesus here, because it was apparently pretty clear in Jewish Law that the maximum number of times you should forgive someone was 3.  After that, all bets were off.

Now Peter was probably expecting to get a gold star from Jesus for suggesting that he forgive someone 7 times, which is double the prerequisite, plus one.  But Jesus ups the game by saying, "No, you should forgive someone 70 times 7 times".

I'll save you the trouble, that's 490 times.

Now, the most obvious question to me is what kind of moron would allow someone to sin against them 490 times and still forgive them?  No one, that's who, and I don't even think Jesus is really suggesting that number.

Rather, I expect he is using hyperbole to make the point that we should adopt a permanent and constant attitude of forgiveness.  I do not think Jesus would advocate us being good-natured doormats!

The reason I expect he is using hyperbole is that he unquestionably uses it in the parable he tells to illustrate his point, but that hyperbole is lost on most of us because we do not know the exchange rate of talents to denarii.

Jesus tells the story of a king whose slave owes him 10 000 talents.  A talent was a monetary unit that could be divided into denarii.  There were 6000 denarii to a talent, and one denarius was considered a day's wage.

So let's put this into modern perspective: Ontario minimum wage is $11 per hour.  An average work day is 8 hours, so therefore, an average day's wage would be $88.

So, multiply that by 6000 (the amount of day's wages in a talent) and multiply that again by 10 000 (the amount of talents the slave owed) and what do you get in modern terms?

$5 280 000 000.

That's not a mistake.  This slave owed the king in excess of 5 billion dollars.

So there are a couple of things which lead me to believe Jesus was exaggerating.  First, no "slave" would ever have had that much money at his disposal.  Second, no king would ever forgive that much debt.  This is an impossible sum of money when you consider that according to one source, the average GDP of the Galilee in Jesus' time was estimated to be about 300 talents.

But Jesus is trying to make a point here.  The king clearly represents God, and the first point Jesus tries to make is that God's forgiveness knows no bounds.

Except to those who are not forgiving, apparently.

This slave, who should be in the best mood ever recorded by man, goes out and gets stingy with his fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii.  Using the same math I used above, he is owed $8800, which is not an insignificant sum, but compared to 5 billion dollars?  Come on...

Clearly, something was wrong with this guy that he was not able to show the same forgiveness he was shown.  Clearly, he had failed to absorb any gratitude or any lesson whatsoever.

Here is the thing about forgiveness: it is essentially selfish.  When I forgive someone, I don't do it to make them feel better.  I do it to make me feel better.  Yes, the other person probably feels better, and that is great (I have certainly felt relieved when I have been forgiven by others for things I have done), but the truth of the matter is that I do it principally so I don't have to walk around carrying a grudge.

My shoulders are not that broad that I could go around carrying every petty grudge I have against someone, and so call it lax if you must, call it selfish, but I try as much as possible to let things go.

Like I said, we are not called or expected to be door-mats, but neither are we called to be dumping ground.  Just because someone dumps on us doesn't mean we have to take, and it doesn't mean we have to hang on to it.

Try to imagine someone in your life against whom you bear a grudge.  Now try to imagine waking up tomorrow and that grudge is gone.  See how much headspace and heartspace you have just opened up?

Yeah, it's simple.  Why would it need to be any more complicated?

And if God can forgive the sins of an entire world, if Christ could forgive those who betrayed, mocked, scorned, beat, scourged and ultimately executed him...can we not forgive others for their transgressions against us?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

How to kill a church

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 18:15-20.

To hear my sermon, click here.

I'll let you in on a little secret.  I know a sure-fire way to kill any church, stone dead.  For that matter, I also know how to kill any marriage, friendship and working relationship.  The secret is simple.

Avoid conflict.

It sounds counter-intuitive, because like most sane people, I am hard-wired to avoid conflict.  I don't like it.  I don't like the way it makes me feel.  I don't like how vulnerable it makes me.  I don't like facing the possibility I may be in the wrong.  I don't like being the person telling another person they are in the wrong.

But the fact remains that just about every lesson worth learning I have learned in this life, just about every new and rewarding level I have attained in all my personal and professional relationships have come as the result of successfully negotiating conflict.

Conflict is not the terrible thing we as a society make it out to be.  It can and often is extraordinarily positive and life giving, as long as it is addressed in the appropriate manner.

Jesus gives us some hints as to how we should approach conflict in today's gospel.

Now, there are a couple of things in this passage that don't quite ring true.  First of all, the author refers to "the church", when in reality the Christian movement would only start referring to itself as a church several decades after Jesus' death.  Second, Jesus advises his followers to treat unrepentant "conflicters" like "Gentiles and tax collectors", meaning that they should be ostracized.  In truth, Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors pretty well, and I don't think he would have advised anyone to ostracize anyone else.  Ever.

So we can be sure that Jesus did not actually utter those very words.  However, we can be equally sure that he uttered something like it, important enough to be recorded in Matthew's gospel.

You will notice when it comes to conflict that he says we should address the person we are in conflict with in person, face to face.

Notice what he does NOT say:

"You should complain about each other behind each others' back"

"You should sow dissent amongst each other around the water cooler"

"You should triangulate one another, gather recruits, and stab each other in the back"

"You should let conflict fester and go unacknowledged"

I have a colleague whose office is right next to the church kitchen, and he is fond of saying that he had been assassinated more times in that kitchen than he can count.  Clearly, some people in his church are not aware that sound travels in their church, so if anyone is unhappy about something he has done, he has little choice but to hear about it, because that seems to be where people air their complaints about him.

And his question is, "Why don't they come next door and tell me to my face?"

As a priest, I am often privy to person A complaining about person B, and my response is usually to suggest they stop telling me, and they go to the person in question.

Jesus advocates an immediate, face to face resolution to the conflict.  Should that fail, others may be involved to act as mediators.

The fact of the matter is that very few people like to rock the boat, but as the saying goes, real boats rock.  That is how boats establish their equilibrium upon an unpredictable surface, and that is how boats actually stay afloat.

Relationships, whether they be church, family, romantic or professional are much the same.  They stay afloat not by failing to rock, but by successfully negotiating the rocking.

The fact is that in any organization, particularly one as large and eclectic as a church, people will disagree.  They will disagree on trivialities such as what pattern of paper plates to use at the church picnic, and they will disagree on crucial church matter such as how to disburse donations or what mission projects to engage in.

But in the end, we are called to do God's will, to help the world wherever we can.  That sometimes means disagreeing, but committing anyway.

Ideally, a church can be a unified body.  In my experience, that has NEVER happened, at least to my knowledge.  But if we can put our egos aside and keep our eyes on the prize (which is DOING God's will, helping our brothers and sisters, supporting each other through the rocking of life), we will doing much better.  We are here for a greater purpose that ourselves, and we are meant to be saving our energies for greater conflicts out there in the world.

If our boat must rock, let us all at least be rowing in generally the same direction.