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Monday, February 23, 2015

Jesus is totally done with winter

My sermon this week was based on Mark 1:9-15.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

So after shoveling my driveway for the tenth time in half as many days, I am officially done with winter.  I am aching to see leaves on the trees, to open my windows and let fresh air in, to drive on clear roads, to have the days get longer and warmer.  I am ready for a change.

And how like winter is my soul these days.

Like many people, I get some pretty serious "blahs" this time of year.  Whether it's the lack of physical activity or sunlight, I am not sure, but around this time of year, and it pretty predictable that many people will begin to feel a certain restlessness or general malaise as we anxiously await the change of seasons.

The word "lent" comes from "lencten", the Old English word for spring.  Lent, not accidentally, is a season of the Christian calendar when we are invited to reflect on the changes that are going on in the cycles of the seasons, but also to reflect on what is happening (or what we would like to happen) in our own spirits.  It is somehow comforting to me to know that even ancient peoples got the February blahs.

One theme that is often reflected upon during the season of Lent is that of repentance.  This may not immediately sound as though this should help us cope with the winter blues, but I think it can.

The word "repent" has several definitions.  We are probably most familiar with definitions like, "to feel sorry", "to feel regret", and so on.  If these definitions and feelings work and are productive for you, by all means run with them.  I would be the first to admit that acknowledging any wrong we have done is the first step towards making positive changes in our lives.

But my problem is that I totally do NOT buy into the whole "Christian guilt" thing.  Original Sin, feeling to blame for the Crucifixion, feeling forever that I am not good enough for God...yeah, I just don't buy it.  I don't think the purpose of religion and faith is to feel forever bad about oneself.

However, that being said, I do think the purpose of faith and religion is to provide us with a framework for self-evaluation and a process for and community with whom we can make positive life changes.

And that is the definition of "repent" that I would like to focus on.  Another definition of "repent" is "to change one's mind".

The reason why I think this is more the type of repentance Jesus was talking about in today's Gospel passage is that this is exactly the type of repentance that he and John the Baptist before him were preaching.

Look, it is one thing to feel bad about things you have done wrong.  But if that feeling does not motivate you to stop doing those things, what is the point of being conscious in the first place?  If you feel bad for lying to your spouse but keep doing it, why don't you stop wasting the effort of self-reflection?

"Repent" is a verb, and action word.  It is a word which does not just describe a feeling.  The word is incomplete without an accompanying action.

Jesus and John were preaching and living the action principle of repentance.  Not content with having been born into the race of God's chosen people, Jesus and John were aware that it was their actions, thoughts, words and deeds that would define them as good or bad people, not their lineage.

This is what many theologians think is the truly poignant part of Jesus' baptism.  Having been born Jewish, he did not require baptism, which was practiced by the Jews as a rite of initiation for those converting to Judaism.

But he chose baptism.  He chose to make changes in his life (and unfortunately, there is very little information about Jesus' first 30-odd years of life, so we don't know what changes he made specifically).  He chose to dedicate himself to a lifestyle that was more in keeping with what he thought was good and righteous, or that he thought God wanted him to follow.

I am all for feeling good about oneself.  But that being said, one of the best ways of feeling good about oneself is to BE a good person.  It's tough to feel good about yourself when you know you're an ass.  So Lent is the perfect time to reflect on those aspects of your life that are less than ideal, less that you would like them to be, and to commit yourself to making the changes that will lead you to a better and happier life.

I hope this Lent can be time that for you.

A little bit of local history

This week in lieu of a sermon, our resident historian at St. John, David Clifford, prepared a fantastic historical overview of John McLennan, in whose memory St. John's church was erected.  Sadly, the recording did not work, but David has provided the text of his presentation for your enjoyment.
Many thank to David for doing all this work!

For the 194th Birthday of John McLennan, “By the Lake”                    David Clifford
Everything we do here, today, is in the memory of someone or something that happened long long ago.  Take a look around you.  The pews you are sitting on, the books you are holding, the lights, the windows, the roof.  All these things were made by people, who felt a call to create something that would help pave the way for the journey we embark upon from here.  Jesus left us an ingenious monument, when after supper, he lifted up the cup and said, “whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”  Now, whenever I sit down to a meal with my family or step up to the altar here with you, my community, the message engrained in that memorial flows across thousands of years – a message of hope, of suffering, of the knowledge of the God who loves us, of all the lessons Jesus taught us – even of the promise of the eventual coming again in glory of our Lord in the new kingdom!  That’s a lot to swallow, but the simple act of eating and drinking brings it to life for me every time!
Today I would like to invite you share in another sort of memorial – a birthday party, and yes, there is delicious Kellie cake waiting for you in the hall afterwards!  I invite you to celebrate with me, the One Hundred and Ninety-Fourth birthday of one John McLennan, in whose memory this church was erected.  That’s right: Mrs. McLennan and her daughter built this church as a monument to the glory of God and in loving memory of John McLennan.  Well, who was he, and what can we remember about him?  And why should we remember him?    
John McLennan (no middle name) was part of the first generation of ten brothers and sisters born in Canada to a Scots Presbyterian immigrant family.  It seems in this particular family, the firstborn male was always named John, which can lead to a little bit of confusion and requires some careful cross-checking when researching.  He was born in Williamstown, on a cold February 26th in 1821 to the famous ‘Squire’ John McLennan and first wife, Margaret MacKenzie.  Unfortunately, there are no members of the McLennan family with us any longer to tell us about him, so we must depend upon some fairly sparse historical records to find out what John McLennan was all about.
We know that he left his father’s home to seek his fortunes at an early age in what was then the commercial capital of Canada.  He inherited part of the land upon which this church now stands, when his father, Squire John passed away in 1866.  At that time, he was engaged with his brother Hugh, in dominating the rapidly growing export trade in prairie grain from Montreal.  The Crimean war had cut Europe and especially Britain off from traditional supplies of wheat within Russia – leaving Canada (and the McLennan brothers) to fill the gap.  Earlier, while young John was cutting his teeth in the banking industry in Montreal, brother Hugh had been learning the ropes of the river trade, first serving as a purser on canal ships, and then by operating docks and wharves up the St-Lawrence as far as Kingston.  They joined together in 1853 and their partnership, carrying on business as J&H McLennan, eventually owned a large fleet of Great Lakes ships, barges and tugboats.  They also controlled the first facility capable of trans-shipping grain into ocean-going ships during one of the golden industrial ages of Canada – the time of steamships just before the railways were built.  John McLennan rose to become a vice-president of the Merchant’s Bank of Canada, which it just so happens, was Sir John A. MacDonald’s bank at the time of Confederation.  At the pinnacle of John’s business career, he was elected president of the Montreal Board of Trade. 
From census returns, we can learn that he was married in 1855 to Charlotte Adelaide Mair – an Anglican from Brockville and that soon after, they were blessed with a son named Duncan and a daughter named Margaret Julia.  We can even see from the enumerator’s returns, that they lived among the rich and famous of Montreal’s Golden Square Mile – their next-door neighbours were the Peter Redpaths of Redpath Sugar.
In 1873, the Pacific Scandal rocked the government and led to the downfall of Sir John A. MacDonald’s Conservatives.  Sir John A. had a great vision for our infant nation which was in danger of being shattered – many may know that British Columbia had been promised a railway as a condition for Confederation, and without it, our fledgling country might not have succeeded – it may have disintegrated into what John McLennan called “the proverbial bundle of sticks,” ripe for being annexed bit-by-bit by a hungry United States.  All over the country, ridings were scoured for popular candidates who could help Sir John A. re-form the government and carry the Pacific Railway through and implement his protectionist National Policy.  With his native roots here and his prominent business and social contacts – our very own John McLennan was persuaded by Sir John A. himself, to run for the seat in Glengarry County.  John moved back to the front of Lancaster in 1876, and although unsuccessful in his first by-election bid against local Liberal Archibald MacNab, he was returned to Parliament in the 1878 landslide that marked the beginning of Sir John A. and his Conservatives being returned to power again and again over the next four Federal elections. 
In Parliament, Mr. McLennan introduced several private members’ bills and rose on many occasions to enunciate his views on a wide range of topics such as protective tariffs, art, banking, industry, immigration, insolvency, shipping, railways and canals.  He was a member of several standing committees relating to the banking and transportation industries.  On the question of whether or not to give twenty-five million dollars and twenty-five million acres of land to subsidize the railway promised to British Columbia, John McLennan’s speech in Parliament ran to almost six thousand words and was reprinted in full by the Cornwall Reporter for all to read.  Copies of this speech can now be found in many archives around the world from Australia to Great Britain, since it possibly contains the most concise, factual and eloquent justification of a government’s efforts to not only to create a railway, but to build a great nation.  Please permit me to read to you a short excerpt of that speech, in which he poetically rejects assertions that the great quantity of land to be given to the railway could be quantified by any monetary value, but rather that its real worth is to the nation in its settlement, these are his words spoken in Parliament on Tuesday the 21st of December, 1880.  He said,
“Land is not like the food in our larder, or the raiment upon our back, or the creation of our handiwork, that perish with use.  We might as well undertake to put a price upon the light of the sun, upon the rain that falls from the clouds; we might as well undertake to put a price upon the liberty which is our birthright, upon the privilege of using our energies, and our faculties, as freemen.  The value of the land is in its use by the husbandman, and its development and occupation by a free, industrious and well governed and contented people.”

At the end of just one term in office, John “By the Lake” retired from public life altogether and settled down with his wife and children on his estate here, called “Ridgewood.”  He spent a lot of his time reading, traveling and collecting art, as well as speaking with the old-timers of Glengarry and Lancaster – and in the process, compiling an important history of the Scottish migrations which would be quoted by the great local historian, Judge Pringle in his definitive history of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry.  He died in Montreal after a brief illness in 1893, and was buried in the family plot on Mont Royal, leaving behind an awesome legacy.  His J&H McLennan had been incorporated as the Montreal Transportation Company in 1869 and later would be joined with several other firms to form today’s Canada Steamship Lines.  The Merchant’s Bank of Canada would be one of many that strengthened the Bank of Montreal to form part of the resilient chartered banking system we depend upon today.  The Port of Montreal, which John and his brother Hugh so determinedly laboured to promote, has continued to grow into a world-class facility that now stretches over 16 miles of waterfront and handles annually over 2,000 ships from all over the globe – year-round.  When John McLennan died, he left amongst other things, $20,000 worth of shares in the Bank of Montreal (remember that was par-value in 1893), almost all 200 acres of Lot 30, Concession 1, several substantial houses as well as an important collection of works of art and literature.  His wife and children were able to live on at Ridgewood in style, vacationing annually in Europe until World War One broke out.
When John McLennan passed away, the nearest Anglican presence at that time was in either Cornwall or Montreal, but the rapidly expanding movement of the Church of England led to the establishment of the Diocese of Ottawa in 1896.  Raised as an Anglican, and with several friendly neighbours and estate employees who also were Anglican, Mrs. McLennan petitioned the first Lord Bishop of Ottawa, Charles Hamilton, for a priest.  She sweetened the deal with a promise of $500 to build this church and a further pledge of $300 annually to support the rector and by 1898, her efforts paid off .  The priest arrived, the ground was broken, and on January 29th, 1899 our little church was consecrated in a great ceremony presided over by the Bishop himself. 
Now this was not the case of a fantastically rich person simply writing a cheque and presto! a church rises from the ground.  Mrs. McLennan had to work hard at it – she canvassed all of her friends and relatives and held grand receptions both at the manor house and in Montreal to secure all the furnishings and funds to build this.  The bells, the stained-glass windows, the decorations are all an example of this.  This church is as much a monument to the efforts of Charlotte Adelaide Mair McLennan,  her daughter Margaret Julia, and all who followed them, as it is to the memory of John.
Now I ask you to contemplate – every time you step into this place – what message is she sending us with this monument?  An Anglican Church dedicated to the memory of a Scots Presbyterian?  Is it a house of Light, built by a Lady, to fondly remember the passage of Light through her own life?  Can we find a parallel in the namesake of our waterfront place of worship?  St-John, an ordinary boy who left everything, with his brother to answer a call to a greater good – the brothers who were nicknamed by Jesus the “Sons of Thunder,” and he who living to a great age, wrote the greatest Revelation of all?  Is it a memory of a man who, it can not be found with any certainty to have been a church-goer at all, but who did preach voluminously and at length on the virtues of that great highway of steel to the Pacific coast that would stitch together a nation, and who did his own small part to help build the wonderful country we now know?
I respectfully submit to you, these bare facts of history, and leave it for each and every one of you to decide just what is the meaning of the message on that brass tablet hanging on the south wall, that says: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of John McLennan.”

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why the wilderness is actually a great place to be

My sermon for this Ash Wednesday was based on Matthew 6:1-21.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

And with these words, the whole tone of Lent is set: "Remember you are ashes, and to ashes you shall return".  Sounds kinda morbid, doesn't it?  That seems to be what many people think of Lent, both inside and outside the church: that Lent is a pretty morbid and somber season.

Which leads me to believe I must be doing something wrong, because I love Lent.  I have been looking forward to Lent for weeks.  Why?  Because I have been feeling overloaded and tired out, and my connection with the divine is always the first thing to go out the window because I, like everybody else in the world, am prone to put things first in my life that have no business being in that position.

It doesn't make me feel good, and I am glad of the opportunity to realign my perceptions over the course of this season.

So Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the period where we as Christians commemorate and reenact in our own lives Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness.  As Jesus deprived himself of a number of comforts (shelter, good food, wine, company) over his wilderness experience, we are also called upon to give up a comfort or two of our own.  Fortunately, we are not called to give up shelter, good food or company.  But we are called upon to make a sacrifice.

The funny thing about most people in their Lenten sacrifice is that they have trouble seeing past the "I have given something up" to what is actually the real point of Lent: that you take something else up.

We are not just supposed to forsake the pleasure of wine, chocolate or whatever for the sole purpose of punishing ourselves (which is the extent of some people's Lenten observance) but we are actually supposed to redirect the time, energy, money and effort we would have otherwise spent on those indulgences to more sublime pursuits.

Instead of watching TV, pray.  Instead of drinking wine or eating chocolate, meditate.  Instead of smoking, spend that money on a charity.

The whole point of Lent is that we draw nearer to God,  We don't do that simply by giving up the little pleasures in life.  We do it by redirecting those energies to something that will actively bring us closer to the divine, however we may experience that in our lives,

Jesus took this to the extreme, and we are not called to follow him to that extent, but we are called into our wilderness, stripped of distractions, in order to draw nearer to God.

The ashes we impose on Ash Wednesday and the phrase clergy speak as they do so are not meant to bum us out, even though the gesture is meant to remind us in part of our own mortality.  It is hard to escape the fact that we say this very same phrase at funerals.

Rather, this phrase is meant to remind us of that fantastic gift of life.  I mean, we once literally were dust and we will all eventually literally return to dust.  Somewhere in between life happens, and this was a great gift that was somehow breathed into us.

Ashes and Lent are actually meant to remind us how blessed we are, and to help us take those first steps back to God, back to a solid connection with him, with ourselves and with our neighbours.  Lent is meant to be our wilderness where we experience the sacred.

I hope it is so for you.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why you can't bottle up the mountaintop

My sermon for this Sunday was based on Mark 9:2-10.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

Transfiguration Sunday is actually one of my favourite events in the Christian calendar, and I think it is a shame it generally gets lets emphasis than it deserves.  It is overshadowed by Lent, and is even eclipsed by the Baptism of Jesus (which I think also gets less emphasis than it deserves).  Let me explain why.

There are a couple of indications that for the gospeller, this is an important event in the life of Christ.

1. God talks.  God doesn't talk much in the New Testament.  In this Gospel, God only talks out loud twice: once at Jesus' baptism, the other at the Transfiguration.  Both times, he conveys a similar message: "This is my son, the beloved".  But at the Transfiguration, he adds, "Listen to him".

2.  Moses and Elijah appear.  The person who brought the Law and the person who brought them back to the Law appear and are seen to confer with Jesus.  That's pretty big.

What happened on that mountaintop?  We don't exactly know.  We know Jesus ascended with three of his disciples, and while they were there, Jesus' appearance changed.  He became luminous, his clothes and face glowing white.  God spoke.  Moses and Elijah appeared.  This event was obviously significant of something, but what?  Did God make this happen?  Did Jesus make it happen?  Did the veil of ignorance that generally seemed to be draped over the disciples suddenly lift?

The sad truth is that like so much of the Bible, we are left wondering exactly what happened, who did it, and just what it should mean to us.  One thing is sure, the disciples saw that Jesus was more than they thought him to be.  They realized in that moment that he was part of something greater, that he should perhaps mean more to them than they had previously assumed.  This must have been a wonderful feeling, to have this spiritual and emotional awakening, and their response to that is very human, but typically wrong: they want to hang on to that moment.

The response of Peter, James and John to the Transfiguration is to suggest they build "dwellings" for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  By "dwellings", they probably mean altars or memorials, but they could very well mean houses for all we know.  The bottom line is that they wanted to contain the experience, they wanted to preserve it, they wanted to dwell within that experience forever.  They wanted to live on the mountaintop for all time.  They wanted to bottle up the mountaintop so they could sip from it at their leisure forever more.

But Jesus had other plans, and it is these plans we should follow.

I think we all gravitate towards great people.  We want to be with them, near them for some reason.  Perhaps they make us laugh, feel safe, feel powerful, feel loved, but we obviously want to be around good people.  But the point that most truly great people is that you and I can be great too.  Their principle message and mission is generally to give us the tools and confidence to go out in the world and be a great person for someone else.  Their raison d'etre is to equip us for that task.  Stuart McLean has a line for it: "I orbited around him until I could develop some gravity of my own".

And I think that is largely the point of the Transfiguration.  Rather than stay up on the mountaintop living in that little bubble of awesomeness that was created by the event, Jesus and the disciples were called down the mountain to share what they had experienced with others.  They were called to share the light they had experienced with those who dwell in darkness.  They were called to share God's love, justice, peace and mercy with those who dwelt in hate, injustice, war or cruelty.

Contrary to what some would have us believe, the path of faith is not one of blissful ignorance or feeling good all the time.  Faith is something that calls us to look on the world with critical eyes, and moves us to go out into that world and change it.  Faith calls us to action.  Faith calls us down off the mountaintop.

Have a nice hike!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why it's time for Christians to stop following Jesus

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 1:29-39.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

Yup.  You heard me right.  It is time for Christians to stop following Jesus.  And the Gospel passage for this morning proves it.

But before you get all bent out of shape, let me clarify that I am not suggesting we abandon Jesus.  What I am suggesting is that we change our mindframe from one in which we follow Jesus to one in which we serve Jesus.

Let me explain.

In the Gospel passage for today, Jesus, having gathered at least his first four disciples, goes on to perform his second miracle, which is healing Peter's mother-in-law from a fever.  What is striking about this passage for me is not the miracle itself, it is the woman's reaction to Jesus' healing: "...and she began to serve them" (italics mine).

In "serving them", the passage is probably indicating that she quite literally recovered from her fever and starting serving them food, but I want you to hold on to that word "serve".  We'll get back to it.  What is important to note is what she did not do: she did not join Team Jesus, she did not ask to be a disciple, she did not drop everything and traipse all over hell's west acre following this itinerant prophet and preacher.  She just served them.

In the second part of the Gospel, Jesus does something which should have us scratching our heads.  He heals a bunch of people over the course of the night, and then in the wee hours of the morning, he leaves the house to try to find some solitude in order to pray and meditate.  So far so good, no problem there.

The disciples come looking for him.  Finding him, they say "Everyone is searching for you".  I'm assuming that by this, they mean all the people who had spent the night being healed by Jesus.  Quite understandably, they want to be near this great man.  They wanted to be in the presence of the man who was the source of their healing and salvation.  They wanted to follow him.  Once again, no problem.

Here comes the problem: knowing what we know about Jesus, one would think that he would have said, "OK, let's go see them".  That seems to be the kind of guy Jesus was.  But instead, he says, "Let us go into the neighbouring towns".

So essentially Jesus' response to "Everyone is looking for you" is "Let's get the hell outta here!"

Why would Jesus have reacted that way?

I have a theory: there is a difference between following and serving.  And we as Christians are called above all else not so much to follow Jesus as to serve him.  And the way in which we serve Christ (and therefore God) most effectively is by serving other people.

Jesus had a message and a mission, one which he repeatedly admonished the people he came into contact with to keep secret.  Theologians often call this "The Messianic Secret".  One of the reasons he probably told people to keep quiet about his miracles was that he knew many people would be captivated by his miracles, and would therefore lose sight of that message and mission.

Peter's mother-in-law, repaid Jesus for his actions by serving him.  Although the text does not dwell upon her feelings and emotions at all, it would be reasonable to assume that the experience marked her, but her reaction to the experience was not to fawn all over Jesus, to be near him, to cling to his coattails and try to live forever in the wake of his awesomeness.  Her reaction was to serve him and others.

In comparison, the people Jesus cured later that night were clamoring for more by morning.  Their reaction to God's grace was to ask for more.  As I said, they can't be blamed.  It is only natural for us to want to be in the company of great men and women, but generally speaking the great men and women of the world throughout history have had one basic message, and it is this:

We are all capable of and called to be great men and women.

What if we all decided to serve others rather than to try to be in the company of those who had served us?  What if we used the helping hands of others to get on our own two feet and begin helping everyone else around us stand on their own two feet?

Today, don't follow.  Lead.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What is your demon?

My sermon for this morning was based on Mark 1:21-28.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

So this is probably an awkward passage for most modern Christians.  The reason being is most Christians I know (myself included) don't believe in literal demonic possession and exorcism.  Jesus and his contemporaries apparently did, but today we recognize most historic cases of "possession" to have likely been instances of misunderstood mental illness.

But I think you and I can still draw a valuable lesson from the Gospel for today, and whether we are aware of it or not, we can probably relate to the concept of possession.  Possession, in essence, is just a description of a will within you acting in opposition to what you would consider to be your own will.

For example, I think most people are actually decent at the core, but have you ever just lost it and said or did something that you regret, or you never would have done under normal circumstances?  Have you ever done something you regret or would love to take back?  Have you ever said, "What possessed me to to that?"

As for me, check, check and check.

I don't think many of us actually feel that "The devil made us do it".  People like that tick me off because they are basically shrugging off any responsibility they have for acting in a crappy way.  The reality is, we all lose control from time to time and act in ways we normally wouldn't.

Part of human nature is living with and denying certain impulses which we know to be wrong and which would get us into trouble.

Of course, some people don't just act badly occasionally.  Some people act badly on a regular basis, giving in to these impulses on a regular basis.  In fact, some people only seem to have that mode of being, and no others.

Maybe the possessed guy in today's Gospel passage was like that.  We don't know exactly what his problem was, or why he was so threatened by Jesus.  All we know is that Jesus' presence in the synagogue really rattled his cage.  "Have you come to destroy us?", he asks.

Several possibilities spring immediately to mind.  Perhaps this man was a scribe, Rabbi, Pharisee or elder, and Jesus threatened his political or social position.  Perhaps he was a strict Jew, and Jesus' teachings threatened the spiritual box in which he was living.  Perhaps he lived a sinful life and Jesus' moral teachings simply threatened his fun.

Either way, he acts out against Jesus, and Jesus "casts out" his demon.  Similar to the calling of the first four disciples last week, this passage is likely a condensation of a longer conversation, but regrettably we do not exactly what Jesus actually said to him.

We don't and cannot know exactly what happened that day, but we can still ask ourselves what our own "unclean spirits" are.  What are our "demons"?

Are we governed by anger, greed, lust, a lack of sympathy, a lack of mercy, apathy, a disregard for the welfare of our neighbour, impatience?  As I said, all of us fall short of our ideal from time to time.

In Christianity, Jesus Christ and God represent the ultimate ideal.  They represent infinite compassion, mercy, love, justice and patience, and of course we are going to fall short of that.  But we keep trying.

Today, I invite you to reflect on what your own demons are.  By "naming" those demons, we can make a start to putting them to rest and leading the life we are called to live: happy, joyous and free.