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Sunday, November 23, 2014

How to reign from below

My sermon for this week is based on Matthew 25:31-46.

Sorry, no audio this week:)

When I was a child, I used to love to play "King of the Mountain".  The concept of this game was pretty simple: claw your way to the top of a big pile of snow, throw off whoever was on top, and proclaim loudly that you were now the King of the Mountain.

Victory was always short-lived, mind you.  It never took long for someone else to dethrone you unceremoniously.  Even if a sixth-grader got up there and held the mountain for a few minutes, a group of third-graders would form an impromptu alliance, and several of them would mob the sixth-grader off the mountain.

No sooner would their task be completed than this alliance would promptly dissolve, and the third-graders would fall immediately upon one another to try to gain supremacy.

Although loads of fun, this was essentially a game of domination, superiority and power.  The goal was simple, there were no rules, and it was, ultimately, every one for him/herself.

I suspect just about every kid has played some version of this game.  I don't know when or why we stopped playing it, but I am fairly sure that in a very real way, we never really outgrew it.  We just set our sights on other mountains.

The reason I say that is that you cannot tell me we are not still playing one big game of King of the Mountain.  Whether you become king by education, money, power, property, position or brute strength, we are all still trying to claw our way to the summit.

Enter the Reign of Christ Sunday, a day in which we call to mind the kingship, the kingdom and the rule of Christ.

"But wait", you say.  "Jesus was never a king, he never ruled anything".

Quite true, but that is because we are judging kingship in human terms.  In truth, Christ's only crown was thorns, the closest thing he had to a throne was a crucifix and the closest thing he had to a victory march was the long walk to Golgotha carrying the instrument of his death.

Not very regal, is it?

You and I an just about every other person in the world throughout history judge or have judged the success of kings or kingdoms (and by extension our own success) in very real-world terms: do you have a great army?  Do you have luxurious palace?  Do you have lots of land or money in your coffers?  Basically, are you rich and powerful?

How, therefore, can we be audacious enough to claim that Christ was a king?  He was never in a battle, never claimed a country, usurped a throne or sacked a city.  He did not sit high upon a throne and rule from above.

We are audacious enough to claim it because he reigned from below, using different values than the ones the world uses.  Rather than rule through military might, financial, military or political prowess, he ruled through mercy, love, peace, justice, humility and service.

And that is why he is a king.

There are fridge magnets and FB memes out there that I generally cringe at, but which nonetheless ring true.  They run along the lines of "When you die, it will not matter how much money you had in the bank, what kind of car you drive, how nice your house is.  What will matter is who you helped along the way".

Cliche, perhaps, but all too true.  So how do we do what matters?  Are we not entirely inconsequential?  How can one person make a difference in the face of so much need in the world?

The great thing is that the world does not need us to be great generals, politicians, philanthropists or missionaries.  It just needs us to help in our cities and towns, in our neighbourhoods, on our blocks.  The world needs us to reach out to our neighbour.

Remember that the Divine is in everyone you see, and the Divine is within you.  Everyone deserves therefore to be treated as a child of God.

"Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do also to me".

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why isn't the Bible a living document?

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 25:14-30.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

I have always thought it a little odd that the Bible, of all documents, is not considered to be a "living document".

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term (as it is buzzwordy), a living document is a document which is updated and edited on an ongoing basis to reflect changes in the organization/topic it addresses.  So for example, a mission statement, constitution, scientific or legal document may be considered "living" as it can be changed to reflect new findings or situations.

The Bible, on the other hand, is a "dead" document, like a novel.  No changes are needed, required or welcome.

But this is what Jesus indicts the Pharisees for in today's Gospel passage.  The slave who buries the money his master entrusted to him is supposed to be the Pharisees.  Rather than trade, invest and grow the money he was entrusted with like the other slaves did, he played it safe.  By burying the money, he protected it, but it did not grow to the benefit of others and of God (the erstwhile landowner).

The Pharisees wanted to freeze the law.  They wanted to conserve it, bury it, strangle it so that it never changed.  They could not accept new thoughts or directions.  And for this, they are rebuked by the landowner.

The proof that Scripture and faith must be allowed to move, grow and change, and indeed are supposed to, is contained in the Gospel for today.

No one could disagree that Martin Luther King Jr. was a man inspired by God.  No one could disagree that the Civil Rights movement was good and Godly.  No one could disagree that the abolition of slavery, and the elevation of all men and women to a state of equal rights is perfectly in line with Christian principles.

And yet Jesus mentions slaves very casually in today's parable.

He mentions them in other parables very casually,  They are messengers, couriers and stewards, which was perfectly in line with Jesus' culture, which is why he did not speak out against them.  That was the culture he was raised in.

Are we to reason that simply because Jesus did not thunder against slavery from the mountaintop that he A) endorsed slavery or that B) we should endorse slavery?

Surely not.

The abolition of slavery, the equality of women, the right to same-sex marriage are all products of our ever-increasing and expanding consciousness, of our growing ethics, faith and morality.

Our faith, like Scripture should be allowed to breathe.  That requires a little bit of risk on our part.  It is a risk to share, to give, to sacrifice.

Last week I recommended we all do something a little foolish.  This week, I recommend we all take a risk.  We might lose something in the gamble, but we have so much to gain, and so many ways to grow.  If we do not take that risk, we will always get what we have always gotten.

Monday, November 10, 2014

In praise of foolish virgins

My sermon for this week is based on Mark 25:1-13.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

This week we observe Remembrance Day, and I can't speak for anyone but myself, but the observance of this day always leaves me in a bit of a quandary.  I had family who service in WWII, some of whom made it home, some of whom did not.  I knew someone in high school who died in the Gulf War.  I respect and honour their courage, but I do not respect and honour war.  I want to hold up the fact that they fought without holding up the fighting.

I have looked deep in the heart of me on a number of occasions, and I have to confess that I do not have what it takes to be a soldier, or to be a police officer or a firefighter.  I do not have what it takes to embrace a vocation where my life is on the line on a regular basis.

The fact of the matter is that it scares me.  Every fiber of my being calls me to keep myself safe, to not risk my life, to stay out of harm's way.  This is our inborn instinct of survival.

Military service is a vocation that seems like folly to me.  Don't misunderstand me, I am not calling our men and women who serve foolish.  I am merely pointing out that to deliberately and knowingly place yourself in harm's way for the good of other people is, by definition, folly, as in the opposite of wisdom.

I would like to speak out in praise of folly.

Today's Gospel passage describes an ancient Jewish wedding custom.  To simplify, the groom was to show up at the bride's house in the middle of the night, but the exact hour of his arrival was always uncertain.  So the bridesmaids were to wait with the bride at her house on the night of the big event.  When the announcement was made that the groom was approaching, they were to light their lamps and accompany the wedding party through the darkness to the feast.

In the Parable for today, five bridesmaids (or virgins in some translations) were wise, in that they had ample oil to keep their lamps lit, while five were foolish in that they did not.

It would have been folly for the wise virgins to give some of their oil to the foolish virgins,  It would have been folly for them to give something for which they had paid, something which they required to discharge their duty.

We are supposed to side with the "Wise Virgins", but I just can't.  I know I am supposed to be impressed and influenced by their wisdom and foresight, but I am not.

The problem is that I actually think they were greedy, stingy and self-serving.  I suspect that if they had shared their oil with the their "foolish" counterparts, all could have enjoyed the wedding feast.

What if, for example, all the members of the armed services sat down and said, "I have what is mine and that is all I need.  Screw you and your need, I am ok"?

What if all the members of the law enforcement services and firefighters said the same?

What if doctors, nurses and EMT said the same?

What if volunteers and people who worked for charities said the same?

What if every Christian said the same?

Well, you get the picture I am trying to paint.

The fact of the matter is that there is something present in the spirit of most human beings.  Something that tells us to give to those who have less that us, to protect those who cannot protect themselves, to uplift those who cannot lift themselves up.

But this is, by definition, folly.

If you buy a homeless person a meal, chances are he or she will never buy you a meal in return.  It is a losing proposition from you standpoint.  The transaction only works one way, so from an economic standpoint, the gesture is folly as far as you are concerned.

But as Christians, we are called to live a life of folly.

Perhaps we are not all called to go to war, but we are called to practice the same selflessness that our men and women in the armed services practice on a daily basis.

Today, do something foolish.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Re-writing the Beatitudes

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 5:1-12.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Ancient peoples laboured under a fairly straightforward equation: if you do good things, God will love you and He will give you good things.  You would be blessed.  The corollary was also true: if you do bad things, God will hate you and give you bad things.  You would be cursed..

We've come a long way, though, right?  Surely, we no longer make such a rigid distinction between who is affirmed and who is not in our society, right?

Haha, I just made myself laugh.

The fact of the matter is that the difference between the haves and have-nots are more pronounced than ever.  We glorify movie and rock stars, athletes, we affirm the wealthy, the powerful, the educated.  Conversely, we negate the poor, the homeless, the sick, the powerless.  We line up to buy the latest iPhone while others line up for a bowl of soup.

Why, in 6000 odd years of recorded history have we not gotten better at this whole humanity thing?

The Sermon on the Mount, and particularly the Beatitudes we read today have been rightly called the most revolutionary speech of all times.

The reason being is that Jesus' listeners brought the expectations of their time and culture with them when they sat down with Jesus on the Mount.  And when Jesus started talking about who was blessed, they were undoubtedly expecting him to say exactly what they already thought: blessed were the rich, healthy and powerful.  The evidence was that they were rich, healthy and successful.  Clearly, God loved and blessed them and had showered them with good things.  Obviously.

But Jesus didn't say that.  He said blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are outcast.

This would have stood his listeners on their heads because it would have run counter to their expectations, as it runs counter to ours.

We look at movie stars and say they are lucky (another way of saying blessed, really).  We look at athletes and say the same thing.  We look at the rich and envy them.

Perhaps we don't envy the poor, hungry or sick, but how revolutionary is it to think that their lack is in no way reflective of how much or how little God loves them, or that they are worthy of love, period?

The word "beatitude" means "supreme blessedness".  It has the same root as the term "beatific vision".  We celebrate All Saints Day today, and what distinguishes the Saints from the rest of us is that they had received a "beatific vision".  In simple terms, they had caught a glimpse of God that was clearer, more lucid and more accurate than your average person.  They understood God and his will more coherently, and that is what made them special.

So why do we call the Beatitudes the Beatitudes?  And why should people we normally associate with hard luck be the recipients of God's supreme blessedness?  I certainly don't feel that way when I am one of the people listed in them.

I think what it comes down to is wealth, comfort, power, prestige and constant health risks making us blasé.  There is nothing wrong with considering them "blessings", but the key is to be consciously grateful for them.  And so many of us take our blessings for granted.

The poor, the hungry, the sick, the homeless are those who actually constantly seek God and his compassion.  We, on the other hand, often feel we don't need it because we are just doing so darn well on our own, thanks.  The downtrodden know God and his mercy in way that you and I often forget or deliberately ignore.

The other key is to realize that even though someone may be poor, ill, homeless or mentally ill, that does not mean they are any less loved by God.

More importantly, they are no less worthy of our love and respect.