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Monday, December 28, 2015

Loud night, profane night...

My sermon for Christmas Eve was based on Luke 2: 1-20.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

I always feel guilty around Christmas.  The reason is that I don't like Christmas as much as I think I should.

As a priest, I deliver sermons on hope, love, kindness, patience, etc, etc, and I have to admit that sometimes, even while delivering one of those sermons, I feel anything BUT any of those things I just mentioned.

Let's be realistic: we know the reason for the season, but the reality of the season is that most of us are stressed out buying gifts, finishing up work projects, booking vacations, making plans to visit family (some of whom we may not get along with), herding children, cooking for Christmas parties, attending special church functions, and so on and so forth.

So while Christmas is supposed to be about peace, it is often utter chaos.

But this year I got to thinking about what the first Christmas must have been like and suddenly I didn't feel so bad.

Let's go over the story:

Mary and Joseph have to go from Nazareth to Bethelem, some 100+ km (I mistakenly said 200 miles in my audio...mea culpa for not fact checking) in order to be registered by Emperor Augustus.  It should be mentioned that they had to get registered in order to pay taxes to the Roman Empire.  The Roman Empire had conquered the area.  Imagine if you will having to travel that distance in order to pay taxes to the people who had conquered your country...not a good recipe for happy thoughts to begin with.

Second, they have to travel at the coldest time of year, which is still pretty mild compared to Canada, but still pretty cold at night.

Third, they have to travel by donkey.  If you have ever ridden a horse or a donkey, you are aware that this is not the most comfortable way to travel, particularly (I would imagine) if you are super pregnant as Mary was.

Fourth, when they arrive in Bethlehem, they are told there is no room at the inn.  Have you ever pulled in to a strange city in the dead of night and not been able to find a hotel room?  Did you feel remotely hopeful, peaceful or calm at that point?

Fifth, Mary has to give birth in a barn.  No sanitary hospital with bright lighting, no doctor, nurse or midwife, no epidural, no hot water, no towels, no nothing.  Surrounded by animals who make animal sounds and animal smells, she has to go through what I have been told is the most excruciating pain a person can go through.  I am not certain of Jewish purity laws surrounding birth, but I am reasonable confident that the circumstances must have broken a few dozen laws which would have been important to observant Jews like Mary and Joseph.

Sixth, once she gives birth, three shepherds, complete strangers wander in and announce that angels had told them they should come and find Mary and Joseph.  Hot on their heels, three "Kings" from foreign countries (and remember how observant Jews felt about foreigners) show up and say they followed a star to find them.

Does anything about that night sound remotely silent, holy, peaceful or calm?  Far from it, that sounds like the most chaotic and insane night you can possible imagine.  The only thing missing is getting in a fight with a bouncer and stealing a traffic cone for your frat house.

But in the midst of all this chaos, a child is born.  The birth of any child is, as far as I am concerned, a miracle in and of itself.  But this child in particular was the Christ: the wisest, most compassionate, most loving, tolerant and patient being the world has ever known.  The closest example of God in the world that humans have ever known.

Despite the pain of birth, I have never heard a woman say after having their child laid upon their breast, "That was totally not worth it".  Far from it, every woman I know would do it over again, and many have.

This child was laid on the bosom of the world to lead us, to teach us, to show us how we should treat one another and to show us how we should live our faith.  This is the peace in the midst of chaos that we have been looking for.

I hope over the course of the holidays this year you have been able to carve out some time to be peaceful, to be hopeful, to find time to love and to be loved.  Sometimes you literally have to carve it out and claim it, but hopefully you have been able to find that peace in the midst of chaos and insanity that Mary and Joseph found.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Why religion is rebellion

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 1: 39-56.

Karl Marx famously said, "Religion is the opiate of the masses".  This is, of course, not a compliment.  Opiates numb you, dull you, make you more passive, pliable and easy to control.

I wish I could say that Marx was wrong about religion, but he was not.  Historically, just about every organized religion I can think of has indeed served as a system of control, a system to disseminate ignorance and a system to perpetuate the stratification of society.  This is particularly true and evident of my own religion, Christianity.

This is hideously ironic to me given that when Christianity (and indeed most religious movements) started out, it was profoundly rebellious, revolutionary and counter-cultural.

Don't believe me?  Well, check out Mary's song of celebration, now known as The Magnificat, in today's Gospel passage.  Click here to hear her song as we know it today.

Before I even address the text of her song, let's pause to realize first of all that the first true prophets of the New Testament are women.  This in and of itself is seditious.  In Biblical times, the status of women was abysmal compared to our own time.  Women were only a notch above being slaves.  They could be bought, sold, bartered, divorced and left destitute on a whim, they could not own property, earn money, etc, etc.

Briefly: compared to men, they were inferior at best, subhuman at worst.

And yet the first people with whom God shares his message in the NT are women.  Mary and Elizabeth learn they are to bear the Messiah and his prophet respectively.

Another thing we have to remember about Mary is that she was a case of unwed teenage pregnancy, at least in the eyes of society.  Whatever you believe about the Immaculate Conception, you have to realize that the majority of their friends and neighbours were probably didn't buy her story of having been visited by an angel.

The point is that above and beyond being reviled for being a woman, Mary would have also been reviled for being an adulteress.

When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, they share a moment when Jesus and John seem to recognize one another in utero.  This moves Mary to sing a song, and far from being the holy, peaceful, reflective and meditative song that we are familiar with today, it was a rock song.  It was punk.  It was a protest song.  It was an anthem of rebellion: "He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty".

These are profoundly seditious statements, right up there with John Lennon's Imagine and Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changing.

Her song describes a dramatic upheaval of society, a fight-the-power, f***-the-man, power-to-the-people vision that flew then and still flies today in the face of everything our culture and society tells us: you need money, you need power, you need to be important, you need to be king of the mountain to feel good about yourself.

Her song would have resonated deeply with the underprivileged, the poor, the needy and the hopeless.  It spoke of a frustrated awareness of the way things were and a new vision of the way things should be.

Religion in general and Christianity in particular were always meant to help us hold a mirror up to ourselves and in society, to discover what was immoral, unjust and unethical there and to motivate us to do something about it.  It was meant to shake things up and stir up some s***.

Sadly, the fundamentally rebellious, revolutionary and counter-cultural roots of Christianity are often forgotten against the backdrop of the monolithic status and miserable human rights record the Christian religion has amassed.

Christmas, which should be a celebration of brotherly and sisterly love, kindness and generosity has become a farcical parade of consumerism and materialism.  It is fair to say that Christianity and Christmas have largely become those very things that they set out to overturn.

Even more sadly, the majority of Christians forget the rebellious call of fundamental Biblical texts like The Magnificat and The Beatitudes.

Please understand I am not talking about armed rebellion, violence or anything like that.  Mary and her son after her were calling for a revolution within our own hearts.  They were calling us to rebel against materialism and selfishness that keep us from loving ourselves, living our neighbour, loving God and living a full life.  They were calling for us to revolt peacefully against war, justly against injustice, lovingly against hatred.

This Christmas, I hope that we all have the courage to join that rebellion.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Repent, the beginning is nigh

My sermon this week was based on Luke 3:7-18.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

You are probably familiar with the concept of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.  I remember debating morality and ethics in Philosophy 101 about whether doing the right thing for the wrong reason was a good thing or a bad thing.

John the Baptist had no such debate.  For him, doing the right thing for the wrong reason was wrong, plain and simple.

One thing in particular about this Gospel passage baffled me for the longest time, and most people I know are similarly baffled.  The scenario is familiar: John is preaching fire and brimstone out in the wilderness and calling people to a baptism of repentance.  A bunch of people present themselves to him, and his reaction is to chastise them with his now-famous "you brood of vipers" line.

Why would he react that way?  It seems to me he was getting just what he wanted.

I think John knew a thing or two about human nature and he suspected (quite rightly, it would seem) that some people presenting themselves for baptism were doing so out of fear, and for John this was not the appropriate motivation.

When I was a child, it seemed to me that the church was telling me I needed to fear God.  I instinctively disagreed with this, which led to me departing church and spurning organized religion for many years.  I felt that in all good conscience if I was ever to be a person of faith that fear could not, should not and must not be the motivation for my faith.  I felt that if I was to have any relationship with a god, it would have to be one of love, not fear.

However, it must be said that fear is a powerful motivator, and has been the stock-in-trade of organized religion for centuries.  But fear will only motivate you to do the bare minimum to get by.  It can only foster resentment and hatred of the object of fear, and it is simply not a valid or productive basis upon which to build a spirituality.

Why?  Because fear cannot produce a change of heart.

John was all about a change of heart.  He was aware that many people presenting themselves for baptism had heard his apocalyptic message, were frightened by it and were presenting themselves for baptism quite literally to "flee from the wrath to come".  They were not interested in changing their lives, mending relationships, loving God or their neighbour, or even trying to be better people.  They were hedging their bets, hoping that John's baptism would be another notch in their belts of piety and that this would somehow convince God to spare them from his imminent wrath.

John was apocalyptic, and although it may seem counter-intuitive to believe in apocalypticism AND and loving God at the same time, this is indeed what John believed in.  He believed, as Christ did, that the greatest thing you could do was not to fear God, but to love God.

Think about it: we are prepared to do so much more, to go to greater lengths, to risk so much more for love that for fear.

John was not preaching salvation.  That was Jesus' thing.  John was preaching repentance.  The English definition of this word is tepid: "[to feel] sincere regret or remorse".  However, a brief etymological study of the word gives the dreary word new life.  That study demonstrates that repentance involves a change of heart, a commitment to change one's life, to steer clear from negative pathways in our lives.

In reality, who doesn't want a more positive lifestyle, one that forgives, that loves, that is less critical of ourselves or others, that is more generous, less judgmental?

That is what John was trying to encourage.  See, repentance isn't a feeling.  It is a lifestyle, and not a negative one.  Far from it, it is a commitment to pursue paths that are positive for us and for our world.

John didn't want people to treat baptism as a ward or talisman against the apocalypse.  He didn't want people to feel guilty or ashamed.

He wanted people to change their lives for the better.  He wanted to them to love God, not fear Him.

We can perhaps argue his apparently conflicting message, and I am sure that must have crossed the minds of many people who came for baptism or who at least witnessed this event, but in the end, John was a herald who was informing us of something.  He was informing people that God was about to do a new thing and our hearts, minds and spirits should be prepared to receive it.

That is what Advent is about: preparing ourselves for this new thing that God did through Jesus Christ.  May we all make his pathways into our lives straight, not out of fear of what might happen if we don't, but out of love and hope for what will happen if we do.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

How a crazy guy found balance

My sermon for this week on Luke 3:1-6.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

The concept of balance has been much on my mind lately, largely because I have none in my life these days.  Maybe you can relate.

For the Christian, Advent is supposed to a time of peaceful, prayerful reflection in anticipation for Christmas.  Even for the non-Christian and non-religious, the month of December is a time for renewing and reinforcing bonds between family and friends, sharing the messages of joy and peace that the birth of Christ ultimately represents, and joyful anticipation of vacation time.

But despite all these joyful things, the month of December finds many of struggling to maintain balance in our lives: a balance between work, family, friends and leisure.  Many of us have to triage special events that we attend: office parties, family gatherings, dinners with friends.  For those of us who are active in church, we have a number of additional responsibilities: special services, special events, turkey suppers.  The list goes on.

So while the reason for the season is peace, love, joy and hope, many of us (present company included) are stressed to the limit, short-fused and very tired.

Talk about a lack of balance.

The Gospel passage for today has always fascinated me, not only for its content but for its form as well.  What's funny is that the passage starts off with a list of really important people at the time: Roman prefects, governors, tetrarchs, high priests.  It takes up nearly half the passage.

Then you get sucker-punched: during the period when all these super-important people were doing their super-important things in their super-important places, "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness".

On other words, "the word of God came to a nobody who was a son of a nobody and who was living nowhere".

Furthermore, the word of God came to a nobody who was (and would still be today) deemed crazy because he eschewed the comforts of a home, a bed, good food and comfortable clothing for a a cave in a desert, bugs and honey, and a camel hair shirt.

For the life of me, whenever I read this passage, I think of God setting the scales right.  As the list of governors and prefects goes on, I always picture a balance that is tipping more and more to one side.  These people have positions, power, money, education, respect.  One would have expected the word of God to come to them, right?  Because God would surely only bother talking to important people, right?  Because surely only people with all those things are worth talking to or listening to, right?

Cue sad trombone.

Christ, and John who announced his coming, had this way of turning everything his contemporaries thought was true one its head.  Thought at the time (and sadly still today) was that some people were more important than others, and that importance was a result of them being more beloved by God.  Quite literally, the logic was "I am more powerful/rich/important because God loves me more than other people.

But here is the message that God brought through Jesus and John: I love you all equally, regardless of your circumstances, and your circumstances are not a reflection of how much or how little I love you because I am love.

At least in the New Testament, wealth and power are not celebrated, and Jesus spends a great deal of time warning his listeners against wealth.  I will reiterate that I don't think Jesus thought being wealthy in an of itself was evil, but he seems to have been keenly aware that wealth has a tendency of distracting us from what is really important in life, namely the aforementioned things like spirituality, family, friendship and community.

These are some of the hills and mountains that I think the author of Luke had in mind when he associated his quote from Isaiah and applied it to John and Jesus.  Wealth, power and self-importance has a way of puffing us up and placing us on mountains where we feel above it all and too cool to care.

Jesus and John would see these hills made low.  But the flip side of this Gospel passage, and the one that is least focused on when this Gospel is preached on, is also that John and Jesus would also see the valleys filled.

There is a darker side to the holidays.  Perhaps due to the short days or the increased responsibilities, December reports of depression, anxiety, stress and even suicide are higher than other months.  Many people don't have enough money to put food on their own table, much less take part in the artificially instilled consumerism that pervades this season.  Many people can't afford to heat their homes.  Many of us are spending our first Christmas without a loved one.  Many of us have living friends and relatives with whom relationships are fractured, and the spirit of this season leads us to reflect on that.

In other words, some of us know precisely what it is to be down in a valley at this time of year, struggling to get up to level ground.

This, just as much as wealth, can distract us from the things that really matter, and John and Jesus would see those things leveled as well.  Those who are up to high for their own good need to be brought down, and those who are too low for their own good need to be brought up.  We need to be on level ground, both individually and communally for things to be right in our lives and in our world.

This Advent a Christmas, we need to reflect on those obstacles that may be in our lives, whether they be ego or a lack thereof, whether we feel above our fellow people or below them, whether we feel we are too important to care or not important enough to make a difference.  These are obstacles we can do without, and God would have us live without them,

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The good news of the end

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 21:25-36.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Apocalypticism is not something that is current theology in most Catholic and Protestant churches.  For most of us, the Apocalypse, the Rapture and/or Armageddon is simply not something that falls on our radar.

Why this is, I don't know.  Judaism in Jesus' time was apocalyptic, early Christianity certainly was and Jesus himself was arguably apocalyptic.

But part of the problem is that the concept of the Apocalypse is largely misunderstood, maybe because a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation makes for great movies, and fear can be a great motivation to adhere to a religion.

The Apocalypse has largely been portrayed as a terrible event in which God's wrath is unleashed upon the entire world, and one part of the human race is spared because they are righteous, and the other part suffers because they are wicked.  The righteous get whisked away to live with God, the story goes, and the wicked are left on earth to burn.  That doesn't sound like Gospel at all, except if you are among the righteous, and I think most clear and humble thinkers realize how exceptionally rare true righteousness truly is.

My own opinion is that this is a travesty of what Christ's message was all about.  Any way you try to cut it, the Apocalypse as it is so often represented by popular entertainment and fundamentalist Christianity represents a wholesale pouring out of all God's anger, hatred and wrath upon the earth.

Any sane reading of the word of Christ would have to come to the conclusion that it is actually a wholesale pouring out of God's love, compassion and peace upon the whole world.

We all put our emphasis on different places when we read Scripture or reflect on the Christian story.  That can be a great thing, but it can also be bad because some people focus morbidly on the Crucifixion rather than the Resurrection message, and some people focus morbidly on the the burning of the wicked, rather than the world that is to come after.

Of course there is no way to be sure, but even though Jesus seems to have been apocalyptic, I don't think this was his was the burning kind of apocalypse, and I think I have Scripture to back me up.  I think the Bible tells us where we ought to be putting the emphasis of our apocalypse.

For example, if most of us were to hear of a coming apocalypse, I think our natural reaction would be to run and hide, to find shelter from the coming whatever.  But when Jesus speaks of the trials that will beset his followers, he says "stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near".

He goes on to tell a parable of a fig tree, saying that "as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near".

Coming redemption, summer and the kingdom of God are very positive images, don't you think?  These are images of verdancy, of fruitfulness, of joy.  If the apocalypse was something to be feared, don't you think Jesus would have used images of winter, desolation or destruction?

Here's the thing: I am not a believer in a Biblical apocalypse, but I have certainly been through a few personal apocalypses in my lifetime, and I'm sure you have too.  Whether it is the breakup of a marriage, the loss of a job or the death of a loved one, most of us have probably felt the bottom fall out of our worlds at one point or another.

I don't want to sound flip or dismiss anyone's pain, least of all my own, but hindsight demonstrates to us that there is in fact life on the other side of these apocalypses.  As I delivered this sermon last Sunday, we were all fed, clothed and seated in a nice warm church.  We were likely all headed to comfortable homes afterwards.  That day, we were doing ok.  There is light to be had on the other side of darkness.  There is joy to be had on the other side of sadness.

Put another way, natural disaster occur in the world.  I do not think for one second that God causes any of these things to happen, but I do think God can be situated in how we react to these situation.  For example, every time there is a flood or earthquake or tsunami, there are people who loot, steal and hoard and there are others who take in strangers, share food and provisions.  My belief is that God is present in the latter and absent in the former.  When an apocalypse occurs, we have the choice to be overwhelmed by it and to seek only our own salvation from it, or we have the choice to work within it, to come together and to overcome it.

Christians are (or at least ought to be IMHO) a people of life and hope, not a people of death and sadness.  The Christian story is one overcoming adversity, supporting each other and reaching out to try to heal the broken in this world.

If you are going through a time of pain or your own personal apocalypse, please remember that there is always hope and support out there, and that sometimes you are the hope and support for others.