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Monday, March 30, 2015

Wave the donkey of peace

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 11:1-11.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

There is a story that is told about a British army officer in the First World War who transmitted a message to headquarters that said, "Send reinforcements, we are going to advance".  As the story goes, by the time the message reached headquarters, it had passed through several hands, and it read, "Send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance".

Almost certainly apocryphal, this story nonetheless illustrates a well-known problem with communication: sometimes people just don't end up getting the message as it was meant to be transmitted.

Almost comedically at times, this seems to have been the problem with the Disciples and most of Jesus' followers, and the symbols presented in the Biblical account of the first Palm Sunday is a perfect example of this.

Judaism had been predicting and waiting for the Messiah for generations.  But the Messiah they were expecting was to be a great warrior-king who would lead an armed uprising which would cast off once and for all the forces that oppressed the People of God.

Then along comes Jesus with his "Love God and love your neighbour", "forgive others", "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" and "pray for your enemies"...not exactly the words of a fighter.

Throughout Lent, we have been reflecting on readings that demonstrate that Jesus' followers largely adhered to the beliefs of their forefathers, and they were occasionally dismayed at the philosophy Jesus was espousing, or at the very least they simply did not catch on.

Witness Palm Sunday: as Jesus enters Jerusalem riding a donkey, he is welcomed by crowds waving palm fronds and laying their cloaks in the street for him to walk over.  There are two clashing metaphors at work here.  First, palm fronds were a symbol of royalty, and they were used to welcome kings who were returning home from a successful military campaign.  This makes it fairly clear that the crowds believed and hoped that Jesus was going to be that great warrior-king who was going to go mustang on the Romans and liberate the Holy Land.

But the second metaphor is the fact that Jesus came riding a donkey and not a horse.  If you have ever met a donkey, you realize that they are not animals of war, and not even really a great beast of burden or form of transport.  Due to this reality, envoys from kings chose their steeds deliberately: if an envoy was coming to announce war on a city, he would come riding a horse.  It he was coming to ask for peace, he would come riding a donkey.

So in brief, the people are waving the palms of war, Jesus is waving the donkey of peace.

Conflict, much?

So why do we wave palm fronds on Palm Sunday?  Well, it's not practical for us to wave donkeys, but the donkey should be the symbol we have in our hearts as we enter Holy Week.

I think we need to be careful not to make the same mistake the people did as we enter into Holy Week,  Jesus preached peace, love, compassion, justice, equality, forgiveness...all of those virtues I mentioned in several of my Lenten sermons that separate us from beasts.

But time and time again, Jesus and the philosophy he expounded is appropriated, distorted, perverted and warped to serve the needs of the wielder.  The same is true of just about every religion and political philosophy.

As we approach Easter, we need to be reminded that the judgment, mockery and violence of the Crucifixion is not the end of the story, and it is not even the most important message that we should be drawing from the cycle of Holy Week.

The message we ought to draw is the message of the Resurrection.  The message is that despite our human failings, despite the human impulses that drive us toward greed, selfishness and cowardice, the principles that Jesus embodied, the principles that God embodies cannot be destroyed.

As we approach the Resurrection, I hope we all have the courage to stick to the morals, values and ethics Jesus espoused, and to not use him for our own agendas.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Animal Philosopher

My sermon for this week was based on John 12:20-33.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

There is a name applied to Jesus in several places in the New Testament that always used to baffle me: the Son of Man.  Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God, so what is this whole "Son of Man" thing all about?

The term "Son of Man" as used by Jesus and/or the New Testament authors likely hearkens back to the book of Daniel, who in turn was probably borrowing imagery from the Book of Jeremiah.

In Jeremiah, the prophet says ""Behold, the days are coming", says the Lord, "when I will sow the house of of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast" (31:27).  Needless to say, the seed of men behave like human beings, and the seed of beasts behave like beasts.  Jeremiah is attempting to explain why some people behave rationally and morally, and why others seem to have lost their moral compass and behave like wild beasts.

Daniel picks up on this imagery a couple hundred years later.  He has a dream in which he sees four fantastic beasts rising up out of the waters: a lion with wings like an eagle, a ravenous bear with three ribs clamped in its jaws, a leopard with four heads and four wings, and an undisclosed beast with ten horns and teeth of iron.

Opinions vary, but it is generally accepted that these four beasts represent four conquering kingdoms: Assyria, Babylon, Media and Persia, the first three of which had already risen and fallen, the fourth of which was yet to come.

But what is telling is that as the vision continues, Daniel sees "one like a son of man, coming with the clouds out of heaven".  This being is "given authority, glory and and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him" (7:13-14).

It is interesting to note what Daniel does NOT say.  He does not say that this "son of man" threw the beasts down, slit their throats, cut off their heads, or anything violent.  This "son of man" merely appears and the beasts are subdued.

So this "son of man" was a person who was governed by logic, reason, intellect and rationality.  This "son of man" was a being who acted in accordance with mercy, justice, compassion, forgiveness and love.  In short, this being acted like a human being, and not an animal.

Why is this relevant?  Well, it gives us an indication of the type of kingdom Christ envisioned.

Throughout the Gospels, we have every indication that the disciples and the followers of Jesus failed pretty consistently to understand the message Jesus was trying to convey.  They were very much rooted in the Jewish apocalyptic messianic hope: that a man would come who would be a great warrior-king, who would overthrow the powers of oppression by military force, and reestablish the foremost position of the chosen people of God.

But then along comes Jesus with his "love your neighbour" and his "pray for your enemies" and his "let he who is without sin cast the first stone"...not exactly the fearsome champion one would hope for.

But here is the thing: kingdoms come and go.  Empires rise and fall.  Nations wax and wane.  That is because kingdoms, empires and nations are without exception based on power.  Name one kingdom that has not fallen, I dare you.  Even the US is on the decline.  That is because all kingdoms and nations throughout history have been based on military might, political power and economic muscle.  They are essentially selfish endeavours.  They are, in other words, characteristic of animals, among whom "might makes right" is the only rule.

What Jesus was proposing was a kingdom based on the exact opposite of those things.  He was proposing a kingdom based on those things that elevate us above the animals (side note: I believe in animal rights and I believe that human beings are merely a part of nature, you'd have to be an idiot not to acknowledge that there are a few things that separate us from the other animals).

Jesus was proposing a kingdom based on ethics, values and morality; a kingdom based on compassion, justice, mercy, forgiveness, acceptance, tolerance, inclusion...all those things most other animals have such difficulty mastering.

Yeah, it would be a different kind of kingdom, and I hasten to add that I don't think Jesus was envisioning a "Christian" kingdom.  I personally feel that Christ would be shocked an appalled at what has been done in his name, but I think that the virtues and values he embodied in his life are solid.  I believe that his self-sacrifice was unfortunately necessary as a cautionary tale to warn us of the dangers of letting our animal impulses get the best of us.

We are human beings, capable of such feats of intellect, but we are also capable of such great atrocities.

Choose your nature wisely.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The curse of a moral compass

My sermon for this week was based on John 3:14-21.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

When I was a kid, I used to love watching nature shows like Wild Kingdom and New Wilderness...most of the time.  There was one event in nature that always upset me: animals killing other animals.  I was even more upset when it dawned on me that there was a cameraman behind the lens filming all this who could have stopped these atrocities.

In my naive, childlike logic, animals should all get along, and if they didn't, the cameraman should put down his gear and save the animal who was being oppressed.  My parents patiently tried to explain to me that that was how animals lived.  They didn't have fridges and cupboards full of food, they had to run it down on the Serengeti.

This was when it first dawned on me that one of the things that separated humans from the other animals is that we have these things called "morals", "ethics" and "values".

Some philosophers will claim that these things are all man-made and therefore to be ignored: we should look out for number one, live a more or less self-centered and selfish existence, and to hell with the rest.

While I cannot disagree that morality and ethics are man-made, I also cannot deny that I have them.  While it might be alright for animals to eat their young, it is not so for us.  While it might be alright for animals to kill their competition, it is not so for us.  While it may be alright for an alpha male to force himself on his harem, it is not so for us.

Like it or not, we are shackled with a moral compass.  It is simultaneously our greatest gift and our greatest curse.  And I think this is the point that John is trying to make in his Gospel for today.

John (in the voice of Jesus) draws on an obscure little passage from the Book of Numbers (21:4-9) that likely would have sunk into Scriptural obscurity had it not been for John's mentioning it.

In this passage, God is so upset with the Israelites' complaining (bear in mind, he had just recently freed them from Egyptian captivity) that he sends a plague of poisonous snakes on them.  They beg Moses for help, so he fashions a serpent of bronze which he places atop a staff.  He then instructs those who have been bitten to gaze upon the bronze snake and they will be cured.

So this is kind of ironic (in the Alanis sense of the word): the people have to look at their problem in order to solve it.

The crucifixion is exactly the same.  Let me explain.  The crucifixion represents, if nothing else, a failure of human morals, values and ethics on every single level.  From Judas and the Disciples' respective betrayal and abandonment of Christ; from Pilate and Herod's cowardice and apathy at not defending Christ; from the fear, anger and jealousy of the Pharisees who did not want their political, religious and social superiority threatened.

Fail, fail, fail.

Despite our highfalutin morals, values and ethics, a man was put to death who preached only that God loves us, and that we should love one another; that we should forgive; that we should attend to the needs of those who are less fortunate.

The problem, like the snakes afflicting Israel, is human nature.  It is, it seems, human nature to be greedy, to be selfish, to be self-interested, to be jealous, fearful and to betray.  This is not a judgement: this is just minimally observant.

When we contemplate the crucifixion, whether or not you believe in it, we are contemplating the failures of humanity, both on a global scale and on an individual scale.  We are forced to contemplate how our systems fail us and how we are complicit in them.  We are forced to contemplate how we fail ourselves and each other.

We are, in short, forced to contemplate how and why we allow innocents to suffer, and how and why we do so little about it.  Not only that, we are forced to contemplate how we actively perpetrate these crimes.

But that is not the end of the story.  Most people outside the church (and many inside the church) misread the Resurrection, which is, of course, the actual conclusion of the Crucifixion.  Most people think the story ends with the Crucifixion and that Christians worldwide celebrate a guy being killed.  Not so.

We celebrate the "life" principle of the Resurrection.  That principle which states that no matter what the forces of evil, the morals, ethics and values that Jesus (and not necessarily his followers) represents: peace, love, justice, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance.

Like Moses and the snake, we are being asked to gaze upon that which plagues us: our own human weakness and failings.  We are being asked to gaze on that in order that we can overcome it.

This Lent and Easter, I hope and pray that we may all overcome.

Monday, March 9, 2015

WWJD? Jesus would freak out and flip over tables, that's what

My sermon for this week was based on John 2: 13-22.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

This is a great Gospel passage because it totally breaks any mold we had Jesus in before.  Rather than always being nicey-nice and patient and kind, there were actually some things that were worth Jesus losing his shit over.  And what was happening in the Temple was one of them.

We are all pretty familiar with the story: Jesus enters the Temple, sees the money-changers and livestock merchants, grabs a whip and starts throwing down.  But few people actually know why he was so angry.

Let's back up: every Jew within a 15-mile radius of the Temple HAD to come to Jerusalem to every Passover.  It was mandated by Law.  Furthermore, if you lived outside that radius, you were expected to make it as often as you could.  Indeed, even though it was Law, it was the dream of every Jew to make it to the Temple at Passover at least once in their lifetime, if not multiple times.

When you go to the Temple, you HAD to do two things: pay your Temple tax and make a sacrifice.

Although it was acceptable for Jews to trade with any currency, even Gentile money, the Temple tax had to be paid  in shekels.  The tax was one half shekel, equivalent in those days to about 2 days' wages.

The money-changers were there to change your money from whatever currency you had into shekels.  This is not what Jesus was mad at.  They were performing a necessary function that he did not necessarily disagree with.

What upset him was that they were charging exorbitant fees to make the exchanges, sometimes charging one half-shekel for the transaction.  For a labourer, this meant forking over 4 days' wages.  For people living hand-to-mouth, this was insurmountable.

The other thing you had to do was make a sacrifice.  In theory, you could haul your own animal with you, but the animals were supposed to be without blemish, and Temple authorities would stop everyone at the gate and inspect their animal.  Without fail, they would find something wrong with your sacrifice, and compel you to buy one of their own.

Not a bad racket, eh?

Jesus is upset at these guys gouging pilgrims on what is supposed to be a spiritually enlightening experience.

The last thing he was pissed at was that the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost court of the Temple grounds, were supposed to be a place for non-Jews to come, meditate, pray, and take part in the Passover even though they were not Jewish.  The Court of the Gentiles was supposed to be a meeting place for all nations, but instead it had become a marketplace.  And a crooked one, at that!

So maybe we can see now why Jesus was angry.  With all these obstacles placed before the pilgrim, how could he/she ever hope to find solace or spiritual growth?

I makes me think of what we are all going through this Lent.  We all have something going on: a fight with a friend or family member, a grudge we are holding, a secret fear, depression, anxiety, grief, hopelessness.  On the other side of the coin, we might have too much money, too many toys, too many distractions.  All of these things can be obstacles.  Some of these problems are fresh; some of us have been grappling with these same problems for years

As material beings, we have a problem: we are always bogged down with the material.  I am not saying we should all live in la-la land, reality is a great place to be, but throughout the ages, the sages and wise men and women of the world have all had pretty much one clear lesson: you can't fill the hole in your spirit with stuff.

So when will you and I get as mad as Jesus?  When will you and I say, "Enough of this.  I have no room for this in my Temple, I am tired of it being there, and I am kicking it to the curb!"?

Yeah, I know it is not as simple as that.  Saying you are sick of being depressed, for example, does not cure you.  You have to go out and seek professional help.  But deciding that your Temple is no place for that crap is the first step to cleansing the Temple.

I hope that this Lent is a time when you are finding the sacred in your life, and that you are finding the courage to overturn the obstacles we put in our own way or the ones that have been forced upon us.

I hope this Lent, you are courageous and angry enough to cleanse your own Temple.

Monday, March 2, 2015

How not to be seen

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 8:27-38.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

I think many of us are confused as to what we are supposed to do during Lent and what the season is supposed to signify or accomplish in us.  Most people outside the church (and even quite a few inside it for that matter) still labour under the misapprehension that Lent is a season in which we deprive ourselves of something we enjoy in order to repent for our sins, for which Jesus Christ blah blah blah.

For most of us, Lent means we give up chocolate or hard liquor for six weeks and then it's Easter.  No one has bothered to explain why we do or what it is supposed to do for us.

I would like to take a stab at what I think one of the principal goals of Lent ought to be.

Much talk has been spared on Lent being a time when we retreat into the wilderness, a metaphorical foray for us into the wilderness Jesus literally went into in order to pray, meditate and commune with God in order to better understand himself, his mission and his purpose.

Although I believe this to be actually be a true and important part of Lent, there is a next step:

Come back out of the wilderness.

Let me tell you about Telemachus.  Telemachus was a 4th century ascetic Christian hermit who is single-handedly credited with bringing the gladiatorial games in Rome to an end.  After spending years alone with God in the wilderness, Telemachus ultimately came to the conclusion that the hermetic lifestyle was actually profoundly selfish.  He decided that God's word was too big and too important to live forever in the isolation of the wilderness.  He decided that it was selfish for him to try to stay in his little bubble of communion with God, and so he decided to come back to civilization.

Telemachus made his way to Rome, and reasoning that he wanted to be where people were, he made his way into the Colosseum.  He was horrified to see what was happening there.

Prior to Constantine legalizing Christianity in 325, professing Christians were tossed to the lions as entertainment in the Colosseum.  However, in an astounding turnabout, the Gladiators were now professing Christians, as were the crowds and the Emperor Honorius who were patronizing the games.

Those who were once the victims of the games were now the players.

Telemachus leaped into the arena to try to separate the gladiators, and at this point, reports vary.  Some claim that he was run through by a gladiator, and others claim he was stoned to death by the crowd for ruining there fun.  Either way, when the deed was done, the crowd was horrified when they realized what had happened and they fell silent.  That very day, so the story goes, Emperor Honorius signed a decree that ended the games which had existed for a thousand years.

Telemachus, like Jesus, came out of the wilderness with a mission and something to say.  Like Telemachus, he died for that message, which was one of peace and fellowship.  The key point is that they came out of the wilderness.  They didn't have to, you know.  And this is the key point about the wilderness:

While it is a great place to meet God, it is also a great place to hide.

Having spent time in the wilderness, Telemachus and Jesus both came to the conclusion that God's message was way to important to remain hidden out there.  It was something that needed to be shared, no matter what the cost.

And that is the fact about God's message: love, peace, justice , mercy and compassion cannot exist in isolation.  They cannot be exercised in the wilderness, and so Telemachus and Jesus had to come out of the wilderness.

Whatever you are doing with your Lenten observance, bear in mind that it is not an end in and of itself.  It is a means to an end, and that end is that we have to come out of the wilderness at the end of it.

It is similar to the Transfiguration: Jesus and some disciples go to the top of a mountain to pray, and there they have a great spiritual experience.  Moses and Elijah appear to them,  The disciples want to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah so that they can live in the moment forever.  And who wouldn't want to live there forever, right?

But Jesus calls them down off the mountain, just as God called him out of the wilderness.  And that is where we must go.

The wilderness is a great place to recharge, to re-create, and I hope you make time to do that.  But at the end of it, I hope you come back our of the wilderness to share the strength, courage and wisdom you gain out there.