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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Gomeshi-gate will be gone next week...and why that is dangerous

I woke up this morning and rolled my eyes at yet another 8000 Facebook feeds about Jian Gomeshi.  I mean, go away already, will ya?

And then I realized how terrible a thing that was.

It got me thinking about the power of mass/social media, and how despite the enormous good it can and does often do in terms, it also has a corollary effect that may actually be dangerous.

It turns news into pop music.

We are all aware of the phenomenon: a song comes out, we hear it on the radio, in the shopping center, in the elevator, and although we might find it kind of catchy at first, within a few days, we become so saturated by it that we would rather gouge our ears than hear it again and we curse the day that "artist" was ever born.

Except when considered as a larger cultural phenomenon, pop music is by definition disposable and inconsequential.  Some news pieces fall into the same category.  We live in an age where any moron can have a YouTube channel, pen op-ed pieces or author a blog (case in point).

The vast majority of these pieces of news/information/opinion are not worth absorbing or dwelling upon.  But some are.

Several weeks ago, Jennifer Lawrence's privacy was violated as someone hacked her computer and stole intimate photos of her.  What followed was a week or so of coverage, and then we grew tired of it.  No one mentions that injustice any more.  Or at least if they are, no one seems to be listening.

Now it's Jian Gomeshi.  I am already sick of it, and I note on Facebook that many people are feeling the same way.  The sad fact is that it will all be gone next week, and his name and the names of his victims will not be mentioned again until whatever court cases come out of it take place.

We must not let that happen.

Thanks to the speed and force of information to which we are all subjected, the injustices that are done in the world fade that much quicker into the background, because compared to our ancestors, we have so much more background to filter through.  We absorb more information over breakfast than our grandparents did in a week.

Jian Gomeshi himself can go away, but the issues this situation brings up cannot.  Issues of equality, issues of sexual consent, issues of male and celebrity abuse of power, issues of respect, issues of violation, boundaries, safety.

We can't let this conversation go away.  It is too important.  The fact that this still needs to be a conversation in this day and age is already an affront to our dignity as a race.  But it is obviously a conversation which still needs to be had.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Why we don't blame a gun for a murder

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 22: 34-36.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Like everyone else, I have been deeply shocked and saddened by the events in Quebec and Ottawa this past week.

Like everyone else, I am left with one resounding and unanswered question: why?

Why did these men commit these heinous acts?  What led them violence, to take innocent lives, to cast aside all semblance of human decency?

If you spent more than 5 seconds combing the internet in the days following these events, you will perhaps have been as disappointed as I was to see how willing people are to find an answer to that question, no matter how distasteful.

In the days following, people have blamed the fact that he was Muslim (even though this seems to be a recent conversion), that he was an immigrant (even though he was born in Canada), that he had a history of drug use, that he came from a broken home, etc, etc.

In the end, I don't think we will ever find an answer as to why these men abandoned their humanity, and I would certainly caution us from trying to find answers that are too easy.

In an interview on CNN, Reza Aslan, author of "Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" responds to the question, "Does Islam promote violence?".  He answers that Islam, like Christianity, like Hinduism, does not promote violence.  They do not promote peace, either.  It depends on what you bring to the table.  If you are inherently peaceful, your Islam, Christianity, etc. will be peaceful.  If you are inherently violent, your Islam, Christianity, etc. will be violent.

The fact is that most ideologies, whether religious, secular, political or philosophical are no inherently violent or peaceful.  It is how people wield those philosophies that will determine whether are violent or peaceful.

In the same sense, a hammer is not inherently violent or peaceful.  It can be used to build a shelter, or to hit someone over the head.  A gun can be used to procure food, or to cause harm to another human being.

These objects have no sense of good or evil.  They are inanimate objects, and it is in how they are wielded that determines their nature.

In the Gospel passage for today, Jesus calls upon us to have certain words written on our hearts.  When asked what is the most important commandment, he could have chosen from the 10 biggies, or one of the several hundred lesser ones scattered throughout mostly the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Instead of naming any of those laws, he quotes instead a passage in the Book of Deuteronomy, which bears repeating in its entirety: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates".

In other words, love God ALL THE TIME.  Combined with an admonition in Leviticus to love your neighbour as yourself, this "Great Commandment" that Jesus issues in the Gospel for today calls us to love God and love your neighbour ALL THE TIME.

He is not merely calling us to act loving or to commit loving acts, but to actually love God and neighbour.

He is asking us to write the words of love, peace, justice, mercy and compassion on our hearts, where other words can so easily be written.

For example, if you really hated someone and wanted to kill them, but the only thing preventing you from doing so was fear of punishment if you were caught, does that actually make you a good person?  Are you really comfortable with the very slender difference between wanting to commit an act and actually committing it?  Because if you were otherwise willing and able to commit such an act, that means that hatred and murder are written on your heart.

Jesus is advising us to not even approach that precipice where hatred and murder can become written on our heart.  He is advising us to write words of love on our heart instead.

In the end, the men that committed these acts simply had violence written on their hearts, and that is what they acted on.

Let us look on our own hearts to ensure better words are written there.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What Martin Luther King Jr. and Hitler have in common

My sermon for today was based on Matthew 22: 15-22.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Ok, so granted, MLK Jr. and Hitler rarely, if ever, get mentioned in the same sentence, but the reality is that both of them were very charismatic individuals, gifted orators and inspired thousands.

But there is, of course, one reeeeally big difference: one was good, the other was evil.

One used his words and his gifts to liberate, to empower, to build other people up.  The other used his gifts to enslave, to coerce, to crush an entire race and serve his own insane ego.

Each was gifted, but their motivations differed greatly.

And isn't that true about all of us?

We are all gifted, whether we are aware of it or not.  We all have talents and skills, whether they be artistic, intellectual, wealth, time, or what have you.

The relevant question is what do we do with those gifts?  What should we do with those gifts?

Today's Gospel is a perfect example of gifts gone wrong.  The Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus with perhaps one of the most loaded questions ever asked.

It should first of all strike us as funny that the Pharisees and the Herodians should even be in the same room together.  The former were the ultra-orthodox of Judaism, while the latter were from Herod's entourage, the same Herod who called himself the "King of the Jews", a big no-no according to orthodox Judaism.  But nonetheless, Jesus is enough of a threat to both groups that these enemies are willing and able to hop into bed together to put a stop to him.

They ask Jesus whether it is lawful to pay the tribute tax to Caesar.  This was a bone of contention within Judaism because it amounted to acknowledging the Caesar's claim that he was their king and that he was their God.  Neither sat well with a monotheistic people.

The problem is this: if he says yes, the Pharisees will hang him because he is speaking blasphemously against Jewish law.  If he says no, the Herodians will hang him because he speaking seditiously against Roman law.

Typical Jesus, he skirts the question by asking them to produce the coins that were used to pay the tax.  We don't know whether it is a Pharisee or a Herodian, but someone has one, and they are thus incriminated because according to Jewish law (which even the Herodians claimed to follow), they are not supposed to carry that currency because it bears the likeness and the title of the Caesar.

But Scripture makes nothing of that point.

It makes much of Jesus' response: "Give unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar", meaning if it has his face on it, it belongs to him, so you might as well give it back.

He follows it up by saying, "Give unto God that which is God's".

What is striking to me about this passage is not so much Jesus's answer, but it's that it is obviously a well-arranged set-up.

The Pharisees and the Herodians quite obviously got together and hatched this scheme together to entrap Jesus.  And is is a pretty brilliant scheme which Jesus only just manages to slip out of.  A pretty brilliant scheme which took some pretty brilliant minds to come up with.

I can't help but wonder what the Pharisees and Herodians could have accomplished if they had sat down and bent their significant intellects and resources towards bettering themselves, their fellow men and women, and their society.

But instead, they followed their own selfish drives and collaborated to eliminate a man who tried to free us all from bondage to self, the oppression of elitist religion and politics.

That's pretty sad.  Imagine what all of the evil in the world could accomplish if they just turned to good instead.

Imagine what we could accomplish.

Always come dressed for the occasion

My sermon for today was based on Matthew 22:1-14.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Most of us spend at least a few minutes every morning deciding what to wear.  We want to dress appropriately, depending on the situation(s) we will face throughout the day.  I for one don't feel there is necessarily anything wrong with this, but there is a corollary to this which often goes unconsidered.

While we dedicate time every day deciding how to clothe our bodies, do we also dedicate time to deciding how to clothe our souls?

To phrase it somewhat less esoterically, we decide every day how we will look to people.  Do we also take the time to decide how we will treat people?

Do we, for example, "clothe" ourselves every day with justice, peace, mercy, compassion, all the virtues we consider good and Godly?

Part of this Gospel passage deals with the metaphor of clothing, and I would like to focus on that aspect of the passage.

This Gospel passage is actually a mash-up of two pieces of Rabbinical wisdom with which Jesus' listeners would have been well familiar, but which are generally lost on the modern reader, or at least so deeply buried in metaphor and hyperbole that the wisdom contained therein is often lost.

The first has to do with being prepared (the king calling his guests for the feast), the second has to do with being appropriately "attired" for the event.

I want to focus on the second lesson.  Even in this day and age, we are expected to be appropriately attired for certain events.  We are expected to not wear pyjamas to a job interview.  We don't wear miniskirts to a funeral.  We don't wear shorts and sandals to a wedding (unless it's that kind of wedding).  But in ancient Judaism, that cultural imperative was much more serious.

So when this guy shows up for a special event and he is not appropriately attired, he is dealt with quite severely by the king.  The king's reaction in Jesus' parable is well over the top.  Jesus is trying to make a point.

The point is that we should be appropriately "attired" for special events.  But Jesus was not shallow: he most certainly was not talking about clothing or physical appearance.  Jesus always stressed spiritual values over material ones.

Jesus, I think, is talking about being spiritually attired for the outside world, demonstrating virtue in the world.

Are we more concerned with how we look rather than how we act?

Let's be properly dressed for the occasion.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Sometimes the sermon is about you

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 21:33-46.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Like most preachers, I try to craft my sermons to make them relevant to things that are relevant to the congregation, obviously without  mentioning names.  So a few years ago, I had a very impatient parishioner to whom I will assign the pseudonym "Jim".  Many members of the parish were finding it difficult to work with him, but he had somehow become involved with just about every committee at the church.

So when a Gospel passage came up that spoke of the virtues of patience and tolerance, I took the opportunity to extol those very same virtues in the hopes that Jim, among others in the parish, would seriously consider how they were treating their fellow brothers and sisters.

As I preached, I noticed Jim smiling and nodding sagely, and I thought, "Great!  He is getting the point!"

At the end of the service, as I said goodbye to everyone, Jim came up to me and shook my hand.  He said, "That was a terrific sermon.  Boy, do I wish my wife had been here to hear that!"

Sometimes, the sermon is about you, not about the person sitting in the other pew.

Similarly, sometimes Jesus' parables are about us.

Actually, they are ALWAYS about us.

The Parable of the Landowner has often been promoted by Christianity as proof positive that God no longer favours Judaism, but favours Christianity instead.  The idea being that God is the Landowner, the vineyard represents the Kingdom, and the tenants are the Jews.

But this is not even close to what Jesus meant.  Jesus is issuing an indictment, but it is not against "the Jews"...after all, he was one.

He is issuing an indictment against the chief priests and scribes, though, because they had failed to take care of the greatest fruit of the Kingdom.

In the OT, a "vineyard" is often used a a metaphor for the people of Israel.  Not for land, not for the Kingdom of God, but for people.

This should alter our perception and understanding of the parable.  If the vineyard is a metaphor for people, then the indictment against the chief priests and scribes is not that they have squandered the wealth of God's Kingdom, the fruits of God's generosity, but that they had failed to care for that wealth and those fruits, and that wealth is people.

We are called to care for each other, to defend one another, to love, support, cherish and encourage one another.

The problem with the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees was that they were asked to tend to the people, and they failed to do that.  They did not use their knowledge of the Law and their positions to elevate anyone but themselves.

The problem is that many of us are in positions of power and knowledge, whether we like it or not.  Whether we are parents of children who need us, grown children with elderly parents who need  us, whether we are in positions at work that place people under our supervision, whether we volunteer, are members of a church or support group, whether we have a friend in need, we have power and influence.

Do we use this to care for the vineyard, or to hoard the fruit for ourselves and trample the vines?