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Monday, November 16, 2015

The beginning of the birthpangs

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 13: 1-8.

I cannot add much new to the storm of commentary (both informed and otherwise) about the recent attacks in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut.

I do not want to argue what constitutes a terrorist and what constitutes a terrorist attack.  I don't want to argue about religion.  I don't want to argue about refugees, national security or the fact that the "white world" has hardly heard anything about the terrorist attacks in the last two cities I mentioned.  I don't want to argue about whether or not Canada and the rest of the world should be involved in air and/or ground strikes against targets in the Middle East.

I don't actually want to argue anything.  I am just going to tell you what I am going to do.  It is naive and hopelessly optimistic, but given that I am not a politician or a soldier, I can't seem to do anything else:

I am going to keep hoping.  And that hope is informed by my faith.

Here's the thing: ISIS, ISIL, Al Qaeda and all of its repugnant permutations are nothing new.  Yes, they have new-ish weapons and tools of propaganda, but realistically, certain groups have used terror tactics to achieve their goals for thousands of years.

Take the Gospel passage for today: "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom".

This sort of thing was happening before Christ's time, it was happening during Christ's time, and unless the human race holds on to hope, it stands to happen again and again.

Interestingly, when this passage is placed in context many people, particularly fundamentalist Christians, read this as Christ's prophecy of Armageddon, the end times, etc.

Now, A) I am not a believer in that eschatology and B) I don't think Jesus was either.  The reason being in the last phrase of this passage:

"These are but the beginnings of the birthpangs".

Notice he did not say, "These are but the beginnings of the death throes".

Christianity is a faith of hope and new birth, not of death and destruction.  There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that Jesus was talking about "the end times" in the sense of the destruction of the world.  If he was predicting anything, he was predicting the end of selfishness, greed, hatred and injustice.  What he was talking about was the tumbling down of the "worldly" structures of the world, and a breaking in of the divine aspects of humanity, those aspects of humanity with which God is associated.

If we were all headed towards death and destruction, why would Jesus bother to have preached a Gospel of love and peace, right?  And if we were headed towards that, why would we bother trying to make the world a better place at all?

But Jesus' words imply that disasters and wars are not the final story.  Something comes after.  For example, I have, of course, never given birth, but I understand it hurts like a son-of-a.  But that being said, I am fairly certain that the love every sane mother bears for her child makes the pain worth it.  I am fairly certain that few mothers think the pain was not worth the payoff of bringing a new life into the world.

I am not going to try to ease anyone's pain over the recent terrorist attacks, and I will not tell you to love or forgive those who have committed these sins, but what I will suggest is that we not reach out in hatred and anger.  I cannot name one single ill in the world that was cured by meeting hatred with hatred.

What I will suggest is that we not give up hope.  I am going to suggest that we not think these birthpangs are the end, that we not think these pains are the way things will always be.  I am going to suggest that we continue to hope that human nature can rise above the base impulses of the people who commit these acts, and the base impulses of the people who respond by vilifying entire races or religions.

Human nature is capable of so much more.  We can never stop believing that, and hoping that we can change the world for the better.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

You had one job...

My sermon for today was based on Mark 12:28-34.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

If you google "You had one job", you will be treated to some pretty hysterical examples of people who literally had one job to do and cocked it up magnificently.

In the Gospel passage for today, Jesus tells us what our one job is, and it demoralizing how 2000 years later, we still cock it up with equal magnificence.

The problem is that the "one job" is simple, but not easy.  The job is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love you neighbour as yourself.

The setting is this: a scribe, who for once is looking for Jesus' wisdom rather than trying to trap him asks Jesus, "Which commandment is the first of all?" (meaning which is the most important commandment).

As we are all aware, there are 10 commandments, and the scribe is likely interested in knowing which one Jesus thinks is the most important.  Rather than respond with any of the 10 commandments, Jesus actually states the foundation of the 10 commandments: love God and love your neighbour.

Think about it: if we loved God and loved our neighbour perfectly, we would never have had to be told not to murder them, lie to them or steal from them.  But because we are not perfect, we had to write that down.

Kinda sad, huh?

The reason why I say this commandment is simple but not easy is that the commandment is simple to understand, but difficult to live into.  We need to start by asking the questions: How can I love God?  How can I love my neighbour?

When I worked with addicts, one exercise that was always interesting was to ask what they wanted out of life.  Invariably, the answer was "I just want to be happy".  Well, doesn't everybody?  The problem is that my happiness looks much different from yours.  For some, happiness means being financially independent.  For others, money is not important.  For some it is being surrounded by family and friends.  For others it is solitude and alone time.  For some people it is traveling the world.  For others it is being a homebody.

How we love God and our neighbour is as various as our definition of happiness.

But however we do it, this love should move us to action.  For example, if you love your children, you don't let them play in traffic with a loving look on your face.  No, you protect them and keep them safe.  If you love your spouse, you tell them and you do things to show them.  You don't just keep it to yourself and hope they get the picture.

Loving God and loving our neighbour means that we are moved to act, that we are moved to do things that demonstrate love to God, God's creation and God's people.  We don't just sit back and watch it all go to hell with a loving look on our face, hoping that everyone gets the picture.

I propose that we each need to find our vocational love.  Vocation is not just for the clergy, we are each and every one of us called to contribute to the betterment of God's creation, and they ways in which we do that are plentiful.  Perhaps we need to look at volunteer work, maybe we need to help organize church events, maybe we need to put on a food or clothing drive, perhaps we need to sponsor a refugee family, maybe we need to start a community garden, maybe we need to form a prayer/meditation/support group...I could go on forever.

The reason I say this is that a number of people have approached me lately complaining about a "blah" phase in their faith.  Let me be the first to say this is totally normal and healthy.  Faith is not nor can it be a 24/7 laugh riot.  A life of faith, like any other, is a serious of peaks and valleys.  There are days when you are into it, and days when you are not.

When it starts to become a concern is when it endures for several weeks or months.  I see faith like any other relationship or endeavour: we have all had jobs we liked, but there are just some days when we wake up and are just not into.  We might be deeply in love with our spouses, but there are days when we would just love to be left alone.  If this goes on for several weeks or months, this might signal the need for change.

Maybe we have gotten so good at our job that the necessary element of challenge is absent.  So we need to try our hand at new challenges.  Maybe we have gotten so comfortable in our romantic relationship that we are taking our partner for granted.  So we need to break new ground somehow.

Faith is like that.  It gets dull.  It gets repetitive.  It gets routine.  But when this happens, this might be the ideal excuse to try something different.  What is that one thing you always wanted your church to do?  Offer to spearhead it?  What is that one ministry you have always wanted to be a part of?  Ask to be on the team.

Faith needs to break new ground, and we need to make the effort in order to show love to God and to our neighbour.

I pray that you can do that today.

You might be the voice in someone's head

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 10:46-52.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

We all have voices in our heads.  Not literal, of course, and if you do, please seek medical help.  But we all have figurative voices.  These voices often consist of things our parents told us since we were a child, things siblings told us as we were growing up, things partners told us while we were together.  Some of these voices might still be alive an present and still speaking.

This can sometimes be good: if our parents were supportive, if our siblings were encouraging, if our partners were kind and loving, we will likely feel pretty confident moving through life.

This can also be bad: if our parents told us we were incapable, if our siblings told us we were stupid, if our partners told us we were worthless, this can create an internal monologue that can be very difficult to overcome.

Here's the point I want to make: you could be the voice in someone else's head.  You could be the monologue in a person's mind that says, "I am worthy/unworthy, I am smart/stupid, I am capable/incapable".

If you are a parent, teacher, friend, boss, partner, or any one of a million other roles that people look up to and look to for guidance, you run the risk of contributing to their overall sense of self.

So.  If you think you might be a voice in someone's head, how do you think that voice is heard?  Do you think that voice is a voice of support and affirmation, or does your voice undermine or discourage?

Jesus makes this point in the Gospel for today.  Those who were ill or crippled or infirm for any reason were reviled in Jesus' time.  Truth be told, they still suffer stigmatization and discrimination today, but in Jesus' time, to be sick was a double whammy: not only were you sick, but you were sick because you or your parents or grandparents had done something to displease God, and you were sick because God was mad at you.

Consequently, no one wanted to hang around with you just in case God found you guilty by association.

Fortunately, our theology is a bit more sophisticated today.

But not so in the time of Jesus and Bartimaeus.  Bartimaeus was blind beggar.  As such, he was not like most of the other people surrounding Jesus who could get up and follow him, or at least see him out if they wanted to meet him.  Bartimaeus would have a pretty limited route.

So when he realizes that Jesus is passing the spot that he is begging, he raises his voice and cries out to him.  Here is the interesting point: the crowd shushes him!

People with disabilities , then as now, were considered to be less important.  Whether this is because they could not contribute to society as much or because people thought there was likely a darn good reason why God had smote them, they were reviled at least to some degree.  This is why some people in the crowd shushed Bartimaeus: he was not important enough (like they were) for Jesus to bother with him.

But Bartimaeus would not be silenced, and this is the touching and powerful thing about this story.  He refused to let the people quiet him.  He recognized his own worth and value, and somehow realized Jesus would see that, despite the fact that he had probably spent much of his life (if not all or it) being told he was unworthy, being mocked and ridiculed.

This is one of several times when Jesus uses the words, "Your faith has made you well".  Every single time Jesus says this, it has to do with a person rising above the voices of those around who tell them they have no right or are not good enough.  It is not so much about the miracle that Jesus ostensibly performs each of these times.  It is about people not listening to their shitty internal monologues, it's about people who recognize their basic human value.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could all do that?

Wouldn't it be even nicer if we were the voices that encouraged others to do that?

Don't be a shitty voice.