Follow by Email

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What's in a name?

My sermon for this week was based on John 17:6-19.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", wrote Shakespeare.  Arguably, what he meant to imply is that the word we use to refer to a person or thing bears no relation to the nature of that person or thing.  So we could call a rose a "truck" and it would still smell nice.

But unarguably, words and names become loaded with meaning.  For example, most of us know our fair share of Marys and Matthews, but have you ever met someone named Judas?

I have not, and the reason why is that the very name Judas has become a byword for treachery and betrayal, and no one in their right mind would want to invoke those characteristics when naming their child.

In the Gospel for this week, Jesus yet again makes a statement that likely goes unnoticed by many 21st century readers, but which would have been shocking to his listeners.  Addressing God in a prayer he makes on behalf of his disciples, he says, "I have made your name know to those whom you gave me from the world".

Here's the thing about the name of God.  Observant Jews in Jesus time were not supposed to know the name of God, speak the name of God or write the name of God.  This holds to this day.  If you read a book or article written by an observant Jew, you will notice that if they have to refer directly to God, they will spell it "G-d" or refer to God as "hashem" (Hebrew for "the name").

This is because of the Jewish understanding of the 3rd Commandment, traditionally rendered in English as "Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain".

To this day, modern Jews respect the name of God and all words used to refer to God so much that the try to use them as rarely as possible.  They only use these words in the context of prayer or in Scriptural study.

Therefore, Jesus' statement would have been heretical in a way.  He should not have known the name of God as this was only known by the high priests, and even if he did, he should not have been speaking it aloud.

But here is the thing: he wasn't actually referring to the literal name of God (Yahweh).  It is fairly clear that he was speaking figuratively when he says he made known God's name to his disciples.  He was actually referring to the nature of God.  In reality, he was trying to convey "I have made known to my disciples who you are and what your nature is".

Most of us probably know people whose names evoke reactions when spoken in mixed company.  Perhaps they invoke murmurs of approval, perhaps smirks and eye-rolling.  Sidestepping for a moment whether or not Christians ought to engage in the latter, the fact of the matter is that when you and I are gone, the only thing our loved ones will have left is our names and our memories.

What does your name mean to others?  Is your name synonymous with charity, honesty and acceptance?  Or is in associated with greed, dishonesty and discrimination?  Does your name stand for godliness or worldliness?  And what do you really want it to stand for?

Today, make sure your name stands for something good.

10 Commandments are too many

My sermon for today was based on John 15:9-17.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

There is a problem with the way love is spoken of in the Bible, particularly when Jesus talks about it.  The problem is that the type of love the Bible talks about is often impossible for we mere mortals.

Think of 1 Corinthians 13 (Love is patient, love is kind...).  That is an impossible love, because sometimes, love is impatient.  Sometimes love is unkind.  Sometimes love gets angry.  I would risk saying that any loving relationship that has never experienced any conflict or disappointment whatsoever is shallow at best, disingenuous at worst.

That does not mean we should not try as hard as possible to love one another, and there is a very good reason for this that has nothing to do with making God or Jesus or Allah or Vishnu happy.  It actually has to do with making ourselves happy.  More on that later.

Jesus says something in the Gospel passage for today: "A new commandment I give to you: love one another as I have loved you".  This is a statement that fails to impact us as 21st century Christians in the way it would have impacted his listeners because we have been raised with this statement.

His listeners, who consisted almost exclusively of observant Jews, would have been shocked, however.  Remember there are 10 Commandments in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament).  These Commandments were given to Moses by God, and there were 10 and only 10.  Sure, there were a bunch of peripheral rules found mostly in Leviticus, but only 10 Commandments, and these were the foundation, the very bedrock of all Jewish (and Christian) law.

Then Jesus comes along and says quite casually, "Yeah, I have a new one for you".  The gall.  The audacity.

Notice that he does not say, "I give you another one".  He says, "A new commandment I give to you".  He is not giving us number 11.  He is wiping away the other 10 and replacing it with this one: "Love others as I have loved you".

It has been said that it is a sad testament to human nature that we had to write the 10 Commandments down.  "Don't kill".  Really?  We had to write that down?  Don't steal, don't lie.  Yup, had to commit those to paper (or to stone, as the case may be).

The 10 Commandments have been called "The Laws of Common Sense".  Just about every world culture seems to have developed those same laws (with minor variations) independently of one another because in theory they seem to be written on the majority of our hearts by nature.

But of course, there are some people who do not have them written on their hearts, and that is why we had to write them down.

But if we loved one another perfectly, as Christ calls us to do, there would be no need for the other 10.  If we loved one another, we would not want to lie to, steal from or kill one another.

At a stroke, Jesus wipes away all the other Commandments and gets to the heart of what the Commandments seek to preserve: love for one another.  He invites us to push the Law deep into our hearts rather than just meet them on the surface.

But why should we?  Certainly, if you look around at the wealthy, the powerful, the famous, the people that seem to be most worth idolizing, we are being told that we should just have as good and fun a ride as possible, and screw our neighbour, future generations, the sick and the needy.  We are being told that we should look after ourselves first, foremost and only.

There is no other species in nature that shares food with old or sick animals.  There is no other species that gives to charity.  Why should we?  Are we not simply animals?

No, we are not.  Yes, we are part of nature, but as far as we know, we are the only animal that has developed a sense of charity, responsibility and morality with regards to other members of our species who are not our own offspring.

We give to charity, feel a desire to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, even though we reap no reward and even though is does not benefit us at all in the hunter-gatherer sense of the term,

So why?  Jesus tells us the reason why: "So that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete".

The fact of the matter is that we feel good when we do something for other people and we feel bad when we abuse or neglect other people.  It is no more complicated than that.  It is not about pleasing God or Jesus or getting into Heaven.  The simple fact is that it is a source of joy for us to be of service.

I gave my parish a piece of homework this week: go out and commit a random act of service, but keep it between you and God.  Don't tell anyone.  Just note to yourself how you feel.

I think you will find that Christ's words do indeed ring true.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The un-forbidden fruit

My sermon for this week was based on John 15:1-8.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Apple trees grow apples.  Orange trees grow oranges.  Grapevines grow grapes.  I think this is all pretty obvious.  Suffice to say, a tree, vine or bush must grow what it is in its nature to grow, and it cannot grow anything else.

In the Gospel passage for today, Jesus employs the metaphor of the grapevine, and this metaphor calls us to reflect not only on how abundant our fruit is, but by extension, what kind of fruit we grow.

He is not talking about actual fruit, obviously.  He is talking about the fruits of the Spirit, the fruits of our labours, the fruits of our faith and life.

Let's back up: Jesus was not the first person to employ the metaphor of the vine.  The people of Israel are referred to as "the vine" a number of times in the OT.  As an observant Jew, Jesus was well familiar with Hebrew Scripture.

But it is important to note that wherever the analogy of the vine is used in the OT, it is used in a negative sense.  Without fail.  The authors who refer to it (Ezekiel, Hosea, Jeremiah, the Psalmist) use the vine to refer to degeneration, wildness and uselessness.

If you have ever planted a grapevine, you might be able to relate.  It is pretty for a while, but then it begins to run rampant.  Grapevines grow like crazy, pull down trellises, eat away at brick and wood walls, and they take hours of trimming and pruning to make them bear fruit.

Which is, of course, what you want a grapevine to do.  And that's what Jesus is getting at in this Gospel passage.  He wants the grapevine to bear fruit, and he makes a direct connection between himself and the people: "I am the vine, you are the branches.  Abide in me as I abide in you".

There is a tender note here: we are all connected, we all rely on each other, we all require support from others.  This is true of any plant: alone, a root, trunk, branch, vine, leaf or shoot will die.  Together, their activities and functions lend themselves to the good of the whole.  In short, we all feed from one another as much as we feed one another, and it is in this way that we bear fruit.

But there is also a stern warning: bear fruit or you will be pruned.  Do something useful or you will be deemed useless and treated accordingly.

But I would actually like to push Jesus' analogy one step further and say that the kind of fruit we bear is just as important as being fruitful to begin with.

But while it is pretty obvious that love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and acceptance bear their own fruit, it ought to also be equally obvious that hatred, anger, intolerance, hypocrisy and greed also bear their own fruit.  Some of these fruits will help us, those around us and the world at large.  Some will not.

So bearing fruit is not enough: we must bear the right fruit.

As spring deepens into summer, most of us have been turning towards our gardens and flower beds.  We have been considering what we want to plant, what we want to eat, and what we want to embellish our yards and windows.  We have been spending time thinking about what we want to grow and produce in a physical sense.

But when was the last we stopped to consider what we wanted to grow in a spiritual sense?  When was the last time we stopped to consider that spirituality is actually a slow process wherein we actually have to deliberately plant what we want to grow, and what we eventually want to harvest?

Today, I invite you to reflect on what is at the very heart of you, what is at your "root".  If love and generosity are at your root, good fruit will have to proceed.

But remember that if hatred or greed are at your root, the harvest will be just as predictable.