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Monday, April 27, 2015

When a tool becomes a weapon

My sermon for this week was based on John 10:11-18.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

In my vocation, I read a lot by authors who disagree with me: Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, the "New Atheists", as they are called.  Realistically, they are not atheists, they are anti-theists, but that is perhaps for another blog.  I read them because I want to make sure I have an informed opinion on what I do and why I do it.

One of the more irresponsible arguments they make is that religion is a force for evil, which they "back up" by pointing out all of the terrible things that have been done in the name of religion.  That's it.  That's the argument.

The reason I call this argument irresponsible is that:

A: it ignores all the acts of kindness, mercy, justice and compassion which have also been done in the name of religion, and

B: it removes all responsibility from the individual for his or her actions.

Let me put it another way: do we put a gun on trial for a murder?  Do we put a hammer on trial for a clubbing death?  Do we put a car on trial for vehicular manslaughter?  We don't, because we acknowledge that the person wielding the gun, hammer, car, etc. is actually to blame for the action, and so we put them on trial.

Religion, like a gun, like a hammer, like a car, like a political ideology, like a philosophy, has no will or consciousness.  It has no life on its own.  It has no knowledge of good and evil.  It merely sits there, waiting to be picked up and wielded.  And we choose how it is wielded.

Do you wield your religion, faith, spirituality, whatever you may call it, as a tool or as a weapon?  Is it something you use to build or to destroy?  Is it something you use to draw people near or to push them away?  Is it something you use to level the playing field or to put yourself up on a pedestal?

Because how you wield your faith matters greatly, and this is made clear by Jesus in today's Gospel passage.  In this passage, Jesus levels yet another damning indictment against the Pharisees, using language and imagery that he probably lifted from the Book of Ezekiel, particularly Chapter 34.

Remember of course that Jesus was Jewish.  He was observant and was obviously very knowledgeable of Hebrew Scripture.  He could and did quote it at length.  So when he talks about the difference between good and bad shepherds, it is likely that he is recapturing Ezekiel's indictment against the religious leaders of his time to make his point.

Jesus rails in this Gospel passage against the Pharisees, who used their religion to deepen the chasm between the "righteous" (IE, them) and the "unrighteous" (IE everybody else).  They used their religion to inflate their own importance, to impress others, to judge others.  They were hypocritical and unkind, and their religion gave them the impetus to do so.  Yeah, not the way you should wield that, and Jesus lets them know.

In this passage, he criticizes the Pharisees for not doing their job: they are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel.  They are supposed to care for and nourish and nurture the people, but instead they were living off their backs and taking advantage of their stature.

Comparatively, Jesus makes a couple of statements that are examples of faith done right. He says "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd". Now this is not a call to mass conversion. This signifies Jesus opening his mission to the Gentiles. For the Pharisees in particular, this thought would have been anathema. For the Pharisees, Israel was Yahweh's one and only chosen people. Everyone else was out of luck. But Jesus, contrary to his earlier statements that he has come for Israel and Israel alone seems now to have actually changed his mind and opened his message, ministry and gifts up to anybody and everybody who needs them.

The other statement he makes that would have shocked is that "I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep".  Now, I know a lot of farmers and their animals are important to them.  They are their livelihood, of course, and they take care of them to the best of their ability...but only up to a certain point.  Would they lay their lives down for a cow or sheep or chicken.  No, not likely.

I have two dogs and two cats that I am very fond of, and I would pay a pretty substantial vet bill to save their lives.  But would I give up my life for them?  No.  They are not my children, for crying out loud.

But this is where Jesus goes one step further.  He says he would do that.  Of course, the flock he is talking about actually consists of people, so the metaphor is a bit mixed, but he calls himself and other to acts of selflessness.  In this statement, he is of course foreshadowing the Crucifixion.  Jesus did, in fact, die for his ideals on behalf of others.  

Here in Canada where I write this, the likelihood of having to literally give up my life for my ideals is unlikely, but Jesus nonetheless calls us to great acts of self-sacrifice.  We are called to go out of our way for those in need.  We are called to make an effort to bring healing where there is hurt, to shine light where there is darkness, to bring hope where there is none.

These are examples of faith being wielded well.

Today and every day, we must face the same choice: will our faith be a tool or a weapon?

Wield yours well.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The invisible gorilla

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 24:13-49.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

I am not sure where and when organized religion became infected with the erroneous belief that doubt was a bad thing: doubting Scripture, doubting the miracles, doubting the Resurrection.  I think this is totally wrong.  I think doubt is a fantastic thing, and far from being the enemy of faith, it is in fact necessary if you want to deepen your faith.

First, let's get the obvious out of the way: if you have actually read the Bible from cover to cover and had no questions whatsoever, no doubts, not so much as a raised eyebrow, you should check yourself for a pulse right now.

Found one?  Good.  Read on.

The Bible is an enormously complex book that  uses a sometime subtle blend of history, legend, myth and metaphor to illuminate some of the most complex philosophical, moral and ethical dilemmas ever dreamed up by humankind, and if you think you got it all on the first pass, you are either deluding yourself or you are far too bright to be living on the same plane of reality as the rest of us.

Doubt to me is closely akin to curiosity: these are the aspects of human nature that drive us to explore, to learn, to move forward intellectually and spiritually.  They are essential to faith.

Faith is different than knowledge.  With knowledge, you know something and no further exploration is necessary.  End of story.

Faith comes from the Latin fide for trust.  It is this trust that allows us to move out of what we know now to new understandings, new experiences, new ways of doing things.

The flip side is that doubt without trust can slide in skepticism, and then we lock ourselves off from learning more.  We stagnate and cease to move forward.  We fail to see new learnings and experiences that may be waiting for us because we are fine with the way things are.

In other words, we must always expect the unexpected, as the cliche goes.

In this week's Gospel passage, Cleopas and an unnamed companion, both of whom were devotees of Jesus, are visited by the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus.  We are told that although Jesus walked and talked with them for some time, they did not recognize him.  I have heard all sorts of bizarre explanations for this: they were walking into the sun and couldn't see his face; they were blinded by tears of sadness over the loss of their friend and mentor, etc.

I suspect the answer is quite a bit simpler: they refused to recognize him because they knew he was dead.

Have you ever hear of an experiment called "The Invisible Gorilla"?  You can check it out here.  In it, researchers asked subjects to watch a video of people passing a basketball around.  They were instructed to count how many passes were made.  A couple of minutes into the video, a man in a gorilla suit walks into the frame, waves, does a little jig and then walks offscreen.

When asked if they noticed the gorilla, a full 50% of respondents claimed there was no gorilla.  They did not expect one, were not looking for one, and therefore they never noticed it.

Never underestimate the power of the human mind to select what it wants to see and what it does not.

The point is that Cleopas and his companion did not expect Jesus, and so they did not see him.

This is what happens when you lose a sense of doubt: you think you know something, and therefore you stop learning.

Questions and doubts are essential to faith.  They are not, as many people seem to believe, indications of a lack of faith.  The are indications of a mature. healthy individual who is seeking to broaden and deepen their faith.

Today I encourage you to doubt, to question, to challenge.  Be willing to have your mind changed.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The beauty of scars

My sermon for this week was based on John 20:19-31.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

There is something I have always found moving about Thomas, and for that matter all the Disciples that were gathered in the upper room after Jesus' crucifixion, and before they came to believe in the resurrection.

I should pause for a moment for a PSA and say that I and every other Christian should always bristle at the Biblical use of the term "the Jews" in this Gospel passage.  I think if the discipline of Biblical Studies has taught us anything, "the Jews" actually refers to a zealous and vocal minority of people who were agitators leading to Jesus' execution.  It is not fair or just to indict an entire race of people in perpetuity for the actions of these people, who did not represent the vast majority of their countrymen and women 2000 years ago.  I say this simply because despite its Jewish roots, many quarters of Christianity has harboured an anti-Semitic bias that realistically has no place in the church and in civilized culture.

PSA over.

OK, so back to Thomas and the Disciples.  Try to imagine, if you will, the mood in the room that day.  Try to imagine the cocktail of emotions that must have been brewing.  First of all, deep sadness at the loss of their best friend and teacher, deep confusion at the loss of their Messianic hope, deep shame at the fact they all bailed on him at the 11th hour, and deep fear at the fact that they might be captured any moment and suffer the same fate as him.

In short, whereas several days earlier they had been celebrating the Passover, it must have seemed to them that Yahweh utterly failed to pass over them.

And into the midst of this sorrow, shame, misery and fear, Jesus somehow appears to them in a room that was supposed to be locked.

How that happened, no one knows.  Personally, I don't think it much matters.  What is important, I think, is what the Disciples do.  They look at his scars, the marks he still bore from the nails and the spear that pierced his side.

Now, here is a useless and academic question: why did Jesus have these marks?  Notice that they are not called scars, flesh which has healed.  If we think about the physics of the Resurrection, if Jesus could pass from a state of death (non-alive tissue) BACK to life (alive tissue), then why couldn't and why weren't his marks healed in the process?  If he could do something or have something done to him that was so wonderful and miraculous, why couldn't and why would he still bear the unhealed marks of his crucifixion?

Like I said, a useless question.  We are dealing with the miraculous here, and no laws therefore apply.

But to me it is telling that Jesus, who probably could have returned in a state of physical perfection and beauty returned instead bearing the marks of his experience.

And the Disciples saw (and Thomas even touched) them.

Jesus showed his marks to Thomas and the Disciples to prove his identity.  Thomas and the Disciples looked to the marks as a way to confirm that Jesus was who he said he was.  His face, hair, clothing, voice, not any other characteristic of Jesus identified him.  But his marks did.

This is very moving to me, because once again I think it is a call to accept one another for who we are.

It goes without saying that every single human being has experienced pain, physical, emotional or psychological.  Each and every one of us bears the marks of those experiences in some way.  Some of these marks are clear for all to see, and others are not.  But we bear them either way.

The funny thing about human nature is that many of us are awkward and uncomfortable about those marks, even though we all bear them.  We are uncomfortable about our own marks, and those of others.

Despite the ubiquity of this experience, we still have trouble accepting ourselves for our marks and scars.  This is why I am so touched by the reaction of the Disciples.  Rather than turn away from those marks, the marks that realistically they must have felt at least somewhat responsible for, they gazed on them, accepted them, Thomas even touched them, and they loved Jesus for them.

Can we not try to love ourselves and one another not only despite our marks and scars, but because of them?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Why Judas and Pilate matter

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

So we have once again come full circle in the great story of Christ, and if you are anything like me you are left asking the question, "Why does it matter?"  We tell the same story year after year, but have we really absorbed it?  Have we really internalized it?  Is it actually something by which we can steer our lives?  I think it is, but not necessarily in the way we are used to thinking of it.

Let's back up a bit.  I have a confession to make: sometimes I find Jesus hard to relate to.

The reason is that he is reported to have performed miracles, healed people, kept his cool in the most trying of situations, forgave those who betrayed his, and rose from the dead.

I have never done any of those things.  So Jesus is therefore hard for me to relate to at times.

Do you want to know who I can relate to?  Judas, Pilate, Peter, the other disciples, the Pharisees...basically all the people who put Jesus on the Cross in the first place, or at the very least did nothing to prevent him from getting there.

Now don't get me wrong, I am not endorsing an inflated sense of Catholic guilt.  I do not think I am a bad guy, nor do I think the vast majority of people are essentially evil.  Far from it, I do believe that most people are fundamentally good.

But the fact of the matter is that I can relate more to the failures of the disciples and the other "characters" around the Crucifixion than I can to Jesus' unflappability.

That's why I thought it was important to give these people voices throughout my Holy Week sermons.  We are used to them being background boogeymen, and all the emphasis gets placed on Jesus' resurrection.

I wanted them to not be in the background this year, because they were/are important actors in the story.  Their actions (or lack thereof) were instrumental in bringing about a catastrophe of human right, mercy and justice.

The reason is that you and I are also actors in this story, 2000-some years later.

Are we aware of this?  Do we take this seriously?  That you and I are part of this great drama is, I think, one of the most fundamental thing any human being must grasp.  We do not exist in vacuums.

I think most of us go to church and treat it like a spectator sport: "The organist hit a few sour notes", "The church was drafty", "The sermon was boring", "The coffee was weak", rather than treating it as something in which we are actively involved, and our actions or lack of actions can and will have a profound effect not only on our faith experience, but also on the future of our church communities and Christianity as a whole.

Easter always feels like a new year for many Christians, and after this Easter I invite you to take seriously your role in the great story.  Take seriously the fact that you play an important character in your family, your church and your community.

And act out that role to the best of your ability.

Friday, April 3, 2015

My name is Pilate

My sermon for today was based on John 18:1-19:42.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

My name is Pilate, and I just didn’t want to get involved.

I had good reason not to get involved, though.  I am the prefect of Judea.  Judea is not really that important to Rome, and if I am being honest with myself, I am therefore not a very important person, so I don’t know why I always find myself in this kind of situation.  The population of Judea is only half a million people, the city of Jerusalem a fraction of that.  What that means is that I am essentially a little cog in a big machine, a Roman magistrate who works under the rule of Emperor Tiberius.

I don’t know if you have met Tiberius, but let’s just say he is a man you do NOT want to disappoint.  He has the tendency of executing people who disappoint him.  I am already not in Tiberius’ good books.  A few years ago, I erected a few statues of Caesar in Jerusalem.  Well, it’s our city now, why shouldn’t I?  But these Jews don’t like seeing carved images of Caesar because they know we believe him to be our God, and we require them to acknowledge that as subjects of Rome.  But apparently they have a rule against that.

They might have let that go, but I also seized funds from their Temple to assist in building the aqueduct, and they went ballistic.  I personally can’t believe they have lived in this city for so long without proper infrastructure.  And I don’t think it is too much to ask that they pay for the improvements we are making to their backwoods town.

Anyway, this caused some civil unrest because it went against their religion, so they reported to me to Tiberius.  Luckily, he didn’t call me back to Rome for punishment, but if I mess up one more time with these people, I will be in trouble.  That’s why I had to do what I did with this Jesus of Nazareth.
I don’t know if you have heard of this guy, but apparently the Jewish religion has predicted the coming of someone they call “the Messiah”.  So the story goes, the Messiah is going to lead their people to victory over their oppressors and bring them into a glorious new age.

Well, of course, these days we are those oppressors.  I’d like to see them try to overthrow the might of the Imperial Army.  And I really don’t think this Jesus is the man to lead them to it anyway.  I had never met him or heard of him before today, but apparently he has been causing quite a stir with the high priests and scribes and Pharisees.  Apparently he was teaching a few things that they regarded as heretical, and he was undermining their position with the people by doing so.  I’m not entirely sure why this is such a big deal, but they sure are mad at him.

Which is funny, because no one seems to be willing to anything about him.  No one seems to want to take responsibility.  They just keep passing the buck.

Perfect example: last night, the high priests captured him.  They set up kangaroo courts with their officials, and still couldn’t pin a crime on him.  They brought him before Annas, father of the high priest and former high priest himself.  Annas couldn’t really find any indict him on, so he shuffled him off to Caiaphas, the current high priest.  Same thing: Caiaphas couldn’t find anything worth accusing him of, so he shuffled him off…to me.

And now I’m stuck with him.

Look, I didn’t want to get involved.  I tried, I really did, not to get involved.  Realistically, I did everything I could to try to save him.  I went back and forth between Jesus and the crowd several times.  I tried to get Jesus to defend himself, I gave him every opportunity, but he just sat there and would not defend himself.  Why wouldn’t a man defend himself?  I told him clearly if he didn’t defend himself, I’d have to have him crucified.  Isn’t that human instinct, to try to save yourself, to try to stay alive as long as possible?

I went to the crowd a few times as well.  I tried to get them to explain what he had done to make them so angry.  They just gave me some anemic answer about him breaking their laws.  I’m not a Jew, I really don’t understand their ways or what he did to offend them so much.

I gave them the opportunity to release him.  They have this custom that keeps the people happy.  At their festival, the Passover, which happens last night and today, I release one of their people we have in prison.  I offered to let Jesus go, or a guy named Barrabas who is convicted of banditry and murder.  They chose Barrabas!  A murderer, can you believe that?  I really don’t know what this Jesus has done, but having talked with him, I can’t believe it was worse than murder.  On the contrary, I actually quite liked this Jesus.  He was calm, poised, dignified and gentle, and I really cannot understand what he did.

But I had to do something.  They don’t pay me enough to ask too many questions, and that crowd was sure worked up.  I asked them point-blank to tell me what he had done.  Several times.  They never really gave me what I would consider a satisfactory answer.  I tried to get them to take responsibility and judge him by their own law, but they wouldn’t.

I even had him flogged for these imaginary crimes, hoping that would be enough, but it was not.
Finally, I said I couldn’t execute him because I found no cause against him.  That’s when they pulled a pretty dirty trick.  They shouted at me, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of the Emperor.  Any man who claims to be a king sets himself against the Emperor”.  Yeah, it was pretty clear what they meant by that: if I don’t do what they want, they squeal to the Tiberius again, and that will be the end of me, for sure.

So I did what I had to do.  I turned Jesus over to be crucified.  What else could I do?  The mob was insistent.  Maybe if my position and even my very life weren’t at stake, I would have stuck to my guns and smuggled Jesus out of the city, but I couldn’t risk it.  Like I said, I don’t think this Jesus has done anything to merit execution, but I have look out for my own interests.  Just because he won’t stand up for himself doesn’t mean I have to do the same thing.  If I didn’t do something, there would have been a riot, and does the life of one man outweigh the good of the many?

I don’t know if history will remember me, but if it does, I hope it will remember me as someone who did their duty and who followed orders.  I hope it will remember me as someone who tried to keep the people happy.  That’s what bureaucrats do.  I hope I will be remembered as someone who did his job.

My name is Pilate, and I just didn’t want to get involved.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

My name is Judas

My sermon for this Maundy Thursday was based on John 13:1-35.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

My name is Judas, and I think I have made a terrible mistake.

For the last three years or I have been a follower of this Jesus of Nazareth, maybe you have heard of him.  Before I started following him, I was a member of the Sicarii, a group much like the Zealots.  These groups are both dedicated to expelling Rome from the Holy Land.

You see, for us, the Roman rule in our country is the greatest offense we can possibly imagine.  They desecrate our places of worship, they profane our markets with their unclean wares, they force us to pay homage and taxes to their magistrates and Emperors, and they rule the land that is rightfully ours.  It was given to us by God, who are they to occupy it and tell us how to live?

But I digress.  The Zealots (of whom another Apostle of Jesus, Simon, is one) are dedicated to expelling Rome from the Holy Land, and they figure the best way to do this is to incite the people to armed rebellion.  Force seems to be the only thing the Romans understand.

The group I was a part of, the Sicarii, are willing to take things a step further than the Zealots.  Sicarii actually means “murderer” or “assassin”, because we even killed fellow Jews if they were caught collaborating with the Romans or if we thought they were sympathetic to them.

We call ourselves freedom fighters and patriots.  Others, I suppose, call us terrorists.

Either way, we, like everybody else groaning under the weight of foreign oppression have been waiting for the Messiah to come and lead us to glorious victory!  We have been waiting for that man to take up arms, rally our people and to finally drive out the occupying Romans.

I thought I had found that person in Jesus of Nazareth.  When I first met him, he was so powerful, so charismatic, so enigmatic, calm, poised, articulate.  Well, I just had to follow him.  I felt certain that he was the Messiah our people had long hoped for.  I wasn’t the only one!  Wherever he goes, crowds of people flock to him.  Oh my, the things he can do, the miracles, the stories he tells…they are just so insightful, they cut to the very heart of me.

But some time ago, I began to feel that Jesus had gone off the rails a bit.  It must be said, he never really was very warlike, which I feel the Messiah should be.  He never really tried to incite the people towards taking up arms, but I just thought he was trying to earn their trust, and then he was going to start gently introducing the message.  I even tried to steer him a bit, you know, help him get to that point a little sooner, but he was either obtuse or he just wasn’t interested.  I mean, how else are we going to get them out of here?  God gave us this land, not to anybody else, and that gives us the right to defend it.

But I guess the first thing that happened to really shake my faith in him was that he started opening up our movement to the Gentiles.  The Gentiles!  I mean, they’re almost as bad as the Romans!  There is no question Jesus is a gifted man, but I just can’t see the point of him offering his gifts to those who are not “of us”, not part of our group, our race or our movement.

Anyway, just a few days ago, we all came into Jerusalem together, and we had crowds of people lining the road leading up to the city gates.  They were shouting “Hosanna” (which in our language means saviour), waving palm fronds to welcome him as a king.  You see? The people know and understand he is the man who can rescue us, but he insisted on riding a donkey in.  A donkey!  What kind of king comes riding to make war on a donkey?

Anyway, that may not have been such a big deal, but while we were eating dinner at a friend’s house a few nights ago, this woman came in with a big alabaster jar of oil and began anointing Jesus with it and washing his feet.  And he let it happen!  First of all, this woman was unaccompanied and who knows where she’s been, but the nerve of a woman anointing a man!  A: you don’t touch a man that is not your husband, and B: anointing is the job of a prophet, and it is supposed to be done  respectfully and ceremonially.  That’s what makes a man a king, and if Jesus is going to king, he can’t go around having just anybody anointing him with oil.  It flies in the face of our deepest-held beliefs and customs.  He’s Jewish, he should know this!

But he last straw for me was earlier tonight.  It is the Passover, and so the core group, we were all gathered together with Jesus to celebrate.  Jesus had sat me at his right hand side, the seat of honour, and I thought, “Right on, he is finally giving me the respect I deserve”.  I thought he was finally beginning to come to way of thinking, to see the need for him to get on with the mission.

But do you know what he did?  He got a bowl of water and started washing our feet!  Just like that woman had done to him!  That is something slaves do, not kings!  What kind of king debases himself in that way?

Some of us tried to tell him.  Peter spoke right up and said Jesus would never wash his feet, but he insisted.  I just could not bear to see the man I thought was the Messiah debase himself in that manner.

So I left.  I had one strategy left.  I went to the Sanhedrin, the chief priest and scribes, and I made a deal with them.  I said I would tell them where Jesus was going to be later tonight, and I would identify him for them.  Most of them have never seen him before and would have no idea what he looks like.

They offered me 30 pieces of silver.  It’s not about the money, that’s only about 2 weeks’ wages for a working man.  But I have a secret hope.  I hope that when the authorities come to take Jesus into custody, his back will be against a wall, and he will have no choice but to fight!  He will have no choice but to take up arms, because if they arrest him, they are going to kill him, and he knows it.  That is going to be the spark that ignites the fire I have been waiting for.  And with the following Jesus has amassed, he is the man to do it.

You see, I still think Jesus is the Messiah, I really do.  If anyone can lead us to victory over the Romans, it is he.  But the problem is that he is going about it all wrong.  This message of peace won’t stick.  What great nation has ever been founded on peace?  What war has ever been won by the more peaceful side?  What foe has ever been vanquished through humility?  What conquest through love?

Jesus would probably say I am not getting it, but I say he is the one who is not getting it.  I mean, I agree with his message of peace.  Wouldn't it be nice if we could all get along, huh?  And maybe in a different time and a different place, that message may have been appropriate.  Maybe sometime in the future.  But we have been held captive for so long!  We just want to be free, and you have to fight for freedom, don’t you?  No one is just going to hand it to you.  You have to take up arms to establish peace, right?  Right?

God, I hope I am right, because if I am wrong, I will have personally delivered the Messiah, the greatest hope for peace over to certain death.  I will have given up my best friend and teacher to the very forces I am trying to overthrow.

My name is Judas, and I think I have made a terrible mistake.