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Friday, December 23, 2016

Joseph: the bass player of the Nativity Story

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 1:18-25.

If you have ever been in a band, you will understand why I say Joseph is the bass player of the Nativity Story.  Although nobody pays attention to them, bass players provide a solid backbone to any tune, and although you would notice something was off if they weren't there, most people would be hard pressed to point out their contribution.

And then there is Joseph.  According to the story, he is not really Jesus' father, and although he does have a feast day and hymns dedicated to him, I actually had to look that information up, as, I suspect, most Christians would.  He doesn't have a very active role in the Nativity, he is just sort of there.

In reality, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, when we contemplate the theme of love, we discover that Joseph actually does some pretty monumental things that often get glossed over.

When Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant and that he is not the father, he decides to send her away quietly and "divorce her" (although they were only engaged, engagement in that time and place was as binding as a marriage).  This does not immediately sound very loving until we consider the punishment for women who committed adultery: death by stoning.

Whatever you may personally believe about the Immaculate Conception (some believe Joseph must have been Jesus' father, some believe it was another unnamed man), the point is that from an outside perspective, Mary was pregnant out of wedlock and as such would be seen as having committed adultery, end of story.  Joseph would have been entirely in his right (in that time and place) to turn Mary over to the authorities to have her put to death.

But here is the thing: he didn't.  The passage says he was "a righteous man", a man who clearly loved Mary enough to not seek vengeance against her, who wanted to save her life be sending her quietly away so she could start over in another city or country.

Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him to go ahead and marry Mary, and Joseph assents, nd here is where Joseph shows the plucky backbone of the bass player: by actually going through with the marriage, Joseph was opening himself up to all sorts of shame, mockery and ridicule.  No matter what the true story was, most people would likely not have swallowed the angel story.  Most people would likely have assumed that either Mary had an affair or simply that Joseph and Mary couldn't wait.  At best, Joseph would be a cuckold.  At worst, he would also be an adulterer.  Either way, from an outside perspective, he had joined himself to a "shameful woman", and he would be an object of shame by association.

But Joseph chose to live with that shame and ignominy.  That takes some courage and some humility.  Most of all, it takes love.

Love is a word we toss around, and we have been mulling it over as a species for thousands of years.  I am no great philosopher, so I am not able to add any great revelation to the concept, but I do know that all love has its challenges: it sometimes takes effort to love our spouses, our children, our parents.  This becomes a little more obvious over holidays live Christmas where families get together and are often reminded why we moved out in the first place.  Love is not effortless much of the time.  It takes work, it takes sacrifice.

These are things Joseph was able to do, and although he is often an afterthought, I think there is much to admire in him.  May we take all that is admirable in him and in all the characters of the Nativity Story and practice that this Christmas.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A sure and certain hope

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 24:36-44.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

Happy New Year!  Liturgically speaking, of course.  We have now entered into the Advent season, and as such we move into a new liturgical year and start the great story of Judeo-Christianity all over again.

Each Sunday of Advent explores a different theme, and the theme for the First Sunday of Advent is Hope.  I would like to explore this theme a little.  Hope comes from Old English roots that mean "trust", so when we talk about a hope for the future, our hope in God, we are not talking about a wish: we wish the future would be like this or that, we wish God would do this for us.  We are talking about trust in the future will be good, trust that God is working in us and the world.

The passage that we have been given to explore hope is a little odd, and certainly difficult for most modern Christians because it is apocalyptic.  It deals quite clearly with the Second Coming of Christ, something in which the people to whom the author of Matthew was writing most certainly believed in, but something in which most modern Christians do not.  If they do, it is certainly not thought to be as immediate or imminent as in Matthew's time.

The Gospel of Matthew was written around 80-90 AD, ten or twenty years after the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans.  The destruction of the Temple was synonymous with the end of the world, such that "When the Temple falls" was used much in the same way you or I might say "When Hell freezes over".  The fall of the Temple was seen as impossible, but if it happened, it signaled the end of everything.

So these proto-Christians (at the time of Matthew's writing, the differentiation between Judaism and Christianity was by no means clear) were traumatized by the fall of the Temple.  They needed hope.

They also needed hope because not only were they being persecuted by the Romans who could not distinguish between them and Jews, but they were also being persecuted by their fellow Jews who felt that their movement was heretical.

They were alone and hopeless.  It was into this situation that Matthew wrote his Gospel.  It is a Gospel that foretells Christ coming back, and soon, to make things right: to overthrow the powers of oppression, to unify Judaism, to rebuild the Temple and the nation.

But there was a problem: he didn't come back.  He's still not back.  Despite the immediacy of Matthew's advice ("Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming"), life had to continue as normal, people had to get back to the real world, and people had to find a new way to frame the Second Coming.

What does this mean for us as modern-day Christians?  I for one certainly don't live with the expectation that Jesus will come back tomorrow.

But what if I did?  What if we all did?

There is a phenomenon in psychology referred to as reactivity.  Broadly, this describes the fact that most people tend to act differently when they think they are being observed.  So while people can commit unspeakable acts when they think no one is watching, we also tend to act a little better when we think someone is keeping an eye on us.

Around Christmas, the lyrics to Santa Claus is Coming to Town go "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows when you've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake".  Perhaps this was a way to keep children behaving around Christmas!

Let's be honest: if we knew Jesus was keeping track, if we knew Jesus would be back tomorrow or later on this afternoon, wouldn't we all act a little differently?  Wouldn't we all make an extra effort to be kind, loving, considerate and generous?  Wouldn't we all make an effort to mend fences with family and friends so we wouldn't have to report to Jesus that we can't get along with so-and-so?

So the question then becomes: why don't we act that way all the time?

Maybe Jesus will come back, literally, bodily, in person and in the flesh.  Maybe he won't.  But I don't believe that really matters.  Jesus said repeatedly, in one way or another, "The Kingdom of God is within you".

I have hope for this Kingdom, meaning I trust in this Kingdom.  I hope and trust that the kingdom of God, which the returned Christ would ostensibly bring about, is actually possible without him bodily returning, because the Kingdom is that state which could exist on earth if only a critical mass of people would stop being such jerks to each other.

The kingdom of God is marked by all the things Jesus was: kind, loving, caring, compassionate, merciful, forgiving.  If we could all be like that, the Kingdom would literally be here.

Over the course of this Advent season, as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ as we relate the Nativity story, let us all redouble our efforts, to do our part to hope and trust in that Kingdom in which all are loved, all are accepted, and all are welcome.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Business as usual: yet another Christian response to Donald Trump

My sermon this week was based on world events.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

So, Donald Trump, huh?

Since the election, a few parishioners, friends and colleagues have asked "What do we as Christians do now?"

My answer is, "Business as usual".

Let me explain.

If you have met me or read any of my other blogs, you can probably figure out what my political leanings are.  But I have a problem: I firmly believe in the separation of church and state, which is essentially the separation of religion and politics, but it is difficult, nay, impossible for me to divide my politics and my religion into two neat little piles.

For better or worse, my religion and my politics feed into and inform one another, and how and why that works is something I hope to make clear over the course of this missive.

Funnily enough, religion and politics are both things that were meant to unify.  A religion or a political philosophy are what Yuval Noah Harari calls "collective fictions" (read his book Sapiens, it will blow your mind).  That does not imply that they are not true, but that they are collective narratives that we tell one another and gravitate towards in order to unify and work together with a common set of terms and assumptions.  They are vital to human society.

But (and here's the funny part), they just as often divide.  Take the recent American election, and even our own Canadian Federal election not that long ago.  People were divided.  You had families and friends not talking, people unfriending each other on Facebook hand over fist, arguments, debates, strained tempers.  I had no idea until this American election just how divided people were along political lines.

In Canada, we can be Liberal or Conservative (our equivalent of Democrat and Republican, roughly speaking) and generally still get along, but in the States, "Democrat" and "Republican", "left" and "right" can be and are hurled as insults, which is something that baffles the Canadian mind.

Either way, Canada and the rest of the world watched the American election like it was a spectator sport.  For all its intellect, wit and sophistication, I felt like I was watching a monster truck show or that American football league where women play in their underwear.

Don't get me wrong, there are some things worth getting upset about, and perhaps Donald Trump is one of them.  I don't know yet.  I know he said some things that ought to offend just about everyone, but I don't wish him ill.  I wish him well, because he has just moved in next door to us, and the fates of Canada and the United States are so intimately related that it is simply in my best interest that he does well.  Nuclear fallout tends to drift, and hostile ideologies tend to permeate borders.  For the sake of America and the world, I really hope he proves to be a wise and humble leader.

I'll be honest.  I doubt he will, though.

Like many people, I am worried.  I am worried that this man who demonstrated so many character flaws is now at the helm of what is still a reasonably powerful country, that a man who cannot seem to control his tongue, his temper, his sexual impulses is now in charge of an advanced military that has a huge nuclear arsenal at its disposal.

Yes, I know, checks and balances, blah blah, but it is still the principle of the thing.  He's at the big table now, and I suspect totally out of his depth, and not emotionally equipped to deal with it.

So what do we do?  What should be our response as Christians?

Business as usual.

I don't want to sound like a downer here, but fact is the world is always falling apart.

In any given second of any given day, somewhere in the world, something is falling apart.  Whether it be a culture, a city, a country, a civilization, a group of people or just one individual person, things are always falling apart, and they always will.  There will always be someone objectionable in power  doing objectionable things somewhere.

But fortunately, there are also always people who are willing to stand up to the forces of evil and put the world back together again.  That's what Christ calls Christians to do.  That is what we are.

So someone you object to is now Prime Minister?  Someone you object to is now President?

Nothing has changed, it has just hit closer to home.  Our marching orders are as clear as they have always been, and I can say it no more clearly than St. Francis did:

Make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

If Christianity has any business on this earth, this is it.  So like I said, business as usual.

My faith informs my politics.  When I see any politician or religious figure sowing anything from the first column of that prayer, I have to reject it, cry foul and resist.  I am compelled to try to bring things from the second column into the situation and the world.  I firmly believe this is what Christ calls us to do, regardless of who our leaders are, and indeed sometimes in spite of them.

I sincerely hope Donald Trump is a better man than he appears to be.  All I know is sometimes we are called to be better than our leaders.  Let's always strive to be that.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The slow burn of faith

My sermon this week was based on Luke 18:1-8.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

In my sermon last week, I proposed that we should consider gratitude as a spiritual discipline.  Most of us consider prayer, volunteering, giving to charity or church attendance a spiritual discipline.  These are all, it could be argued, external expressions that have very little to do with what is going on inside us.

One could, for example, assume the position of prayer, but be thinking about other things entirely.  One could volunteer or give to charity grudgingly, and we could attend church resentfully.

Being grateful, though...that's hard to get wrong and it's hard to fake.

This week I would like to suggest that perseverance is also a spiritual virtue that we should practice.

So here's the thing: being perseverant is easy when everything is going your way.  It's a lot harder when things go wrong.  Many of us can probably relate to the frustration of trying to learn a new skill, solve a problem, overcome hardship in our relationships or careers, or in just trying to get closer to God an figure out what he is all about.

Jesus tells a story in this week's Gospel passage about perseverance, and I think it is a message we can all learn from: the story of the Unjust Judge.

Personally, I don't think this is a good name for the Gospel passage because the story is not about the judge, but about the widow.  It is pretty obvious the judge in the story is supposed to be God and we are supposed to be the widow, and it must be said that the story does not paint a very appealing picture of God.  It rather makes God sound like a being who only gives us good things simply because we annoy him with our prayers.  I can only speak for myself, but I just don't think that is what God is like and how he works.

But the widow, whose cause is never explained, is said to have presented herself to the judge repeatedly, and eventually she gets what she was asking for.

The thing about faith and spirituality is that it's a slow burn.  It's not a get-rich-quick scheme and it does not provide instant gratification.  That's one of the reasons why fewer and fewer people are into it these days.  It's hard.  It takes perseverance.

What we have to realize is that whatever our spiritual path, whether it is yoga, Christianity, transcendental meditation, etc, we are entering into a relationship.  We are entering into a relationship with the divine.  And like any relationship, like a marriage, like parenthood, like working with colleagues, like even owning a pet, it takes patience, it takes work, it takes persistence.

We need to learn to be persistent because the payoffs of pursuing any of those relationships is well worth it.

Today, I hope we can all have the persistence to be in relationship with the divine, and the patience to stay in that relationship when things don't go exactly as we hope.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Even the mustard seed needed help

My sermon this week was based on Luke 17:5-10.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

So this week I have to go ahead and disagree with Jesus.  I totally get the point he is trying to make in this Gospel passage, and there are times when it is absolutely true, but there are also times when it is not.

I want to first address the question "Can we increase someone else's faith?"  The Gospel begins with the brief Lukan version of the Parable of the Mustard Seed where the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, to which Jesus' response ("If you had faith the size of a mustard seed...").  This response implies to me that Jesus thinks his disciples have no faith at all.

How could Jesus possibly increase something that does not exist?  Zero times any other number is still zero.

Jesus then adds a parable that seems like a non sequitur (and it may well be as many commentators believe this whole chapter of Luke is a series of more or less random reminiscences about Jesus on the part of the author rather than a coherent narrative), the Parable of the Master and the Servant.

The short and dirty interpretation of this Parable is this: don't expect to be thanked simply for doing your job.

This Parable frames what it was like to be a servant.  Servants were expected to do their duties around the property, whether that was gardening, harvesting, tending sheep, etc.  In the evenings, it was their job to come in from the fields and cook supper for their master, THEN they could eat and enjoy some leisure time.

What master, Jesus asks, would ask their servants to sit down after a day in the fields and cook supper for them before he himself had eaten?  In other words, what master would thank his servants simply for doing what was expected of them?

None, that's who.

Jesus uses this Parable to make the point that his disciples and we as people of faith ought not expect thanks or rewards for doing what is expected of us.  And what is expected of us?  Simply to lead a good, moral and upright life.

We shouldn't expect thanks from the cops for following the speed limit or thanks from the government for paying our taxes, because that is what we are supposed to do.  We should not expect thanks from our employer for doing our job because that is our job.

But here is where I have to disagree with Jesus.  Yes, he's right, we should not expect thanks for simply doing our job, but with so much negativity in the world and with so little affirmation, with so many people lashing out at people under the guise of "constructive criticism" and with so few people letting others know that their efforts are appreciated, perhaps we ought to rethink this lesson.

Here is where the question that I opened with comes in: can we increase someone else's faith?  I would say no, BUT we can create an atmosphere where someone's faith can grow.

For example, many of us who are in paid or volunteer positions in the church only hear feedback when we screw up or make a mistake.  Very rarely do we hear random thanks or affirmations.  No, we don't do what we do to receive thanks, but it is nice to hear that every once in while.

Let me give you a fictional scenario stitched together from actual comments I have heard in churches:

It is your first time at a new church.  As you walk in the door, you overhear the greeters complaining that someone has worn jeans to church.  The greeter hands you a bulletin and says, "There's usually a lot of mistakes, but you should be able to follow along".  You take a pew and someone comes up and says, "That's actually Mr. and Mrs. X's seat, you should sit somewhere else, they go crazy if someone sits in the their seat".  This person goes on to explain, "If you sit at the back, you won't hear the sour notes the choir hits, but you won't be able to understand the priest because he has a terrible accent".

Does this sound like the sort of place you would want to plant the root of your faith?  Does that sound like a safe, positive, affirming environment in which to explore your faith?  Does this sound like a place that is living the love and joy of God?

Obviously not.  No faith could grow in such soil.

However, an environment that practices affirmation, positive feedback, that shows forth love, charity, forgiveness, peace and reconciliation is a place in which faith can actually be planted, be fed and watered, and that is the responsibility of the church.

Don't get me wrong, church is important and it deserves our best, even if we are just volunteers, however we should always remember that we are volunteers for the most part, and that what we do is an act of love and dedication to both our community and to God, and perhaps a little support would go further than criticism.

Today, I invite you to see the best that people have to offer, to see the effort that people are making and not the mistakes they make.  See Christ and them and let them see Christ in you.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The currency of the Kingdom

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 16:1-13.

So some people know that I restore antique cars as a hobby.  I recently put on up for sale on Kijiji, and almost immediately got a reply that set off some alarm bells for me.  It went something like this: "I love the car, and want to buy it.  I am out of town but I will send you the money via Paypal with a hold on it until my friend comes to pick it up, and then I will release the money".

Now I may be born again, but I was not born again yesterday.  Nobody, but I mean nobody buys any car without seeing it in person and kicking the tires.

I farmed this out to my FB community, and the scam was explained to me this way: they pick up the car and basically never release the money, so you are out a car and whatever money you thought you were getting.

At first I thought, "What a low-down dirty thing to pull", but my second thought was, "That's brilliant!"  I got to thinking about what kind of person would do something like that.  Poor moral choices aside, this person has to be pretty diligent (they must be scanning the internet waiting for suckers), has to be pretty good with people (we had a very nice conversation as they pumped me for more details and reeled me in), has to be a self-starter, have good computer skill, think on their feet, be inventive and knowledgeable about cars.

In short, this person has some pretty marketable skills!

I can't help but thinking what the ostensible scammer could accomplish in life if only they turned their energies towards good or at least legitimate things.  I think they could do really well for themselves and for others, if only they weren't a criminal, if only they turned those energies towards helping people rather than ripping them off.

The Gospel passage for today touches on a similar theme.  It's a tough one, no question, so if you are having trouble with it, don't feel bad, so do I.

A merchant finds out he has a dishonest manager who has been skimming off the top  for a while, so he says, "Call in all your bills because you are fired!"  Understandably, the manager is panicked: he is too old to do manual labour and too proud to beg, so he hatches a scheme.  He decides he will fudge the bills that are owed to his master to endear himself to them.  He takes a bill for 100 jars of olive oil and makes it 50.  He takes a bill for 100 bushels of wheat and makes it 80.  What he hopes is that when he is out on the street, the debtors will remember his generosity and take him in to their homes.

So basically, he screws the merchant twice: first he has been stealing from him, and then he cheats him out of what he is owed.  Whereas I think most of us would be reasonably angry all over again, astonishingly, the merchant commends the manager for his shrewdness.

This is a challenging passage, and like so many passages in the Bible, there are a number of possible interpretations.  What the passage is asking me to reflect on today is: what do I do with the resources at my disposal?  Am I using my gifts, talents and energies for the betterment of my family, church, community, workplace, etc, or am I using it for my own interests?

One could rightly argue that the manager is certainly acting in his own best interests, but the corollary is that the debtors get cut a pretty big break.  They are helped by his actions.

We all have gifts, talents and gifts, and we all have a choice as to whether we apply those things to good ends or evil ends.  Imagine, for example, what Europe and the rest of the world would be like today if Hitler had been a humanitarian.  Imagine what the Middle East would be like if al qaeda, isis, daesh or any of their many splinters were good people.  Imagine what Walmart could accomplish in their communities if they actually paid their employees a living wage (please note I am not placing these three examples on the same level of severity).

None of us are fascist dictators, religious zealots or owners of multi-billion dollar corporations, but we have our own power, perhaps more than we know or are willing to acknowledge.  We have the power to wield enormous influence in our homes, communities, churches and workplaces.  We have the power with our words and deeds to lift people up or grind them down, to support or undercut, to affirm or shame.

Sadly, some of the most energetic people I have met are habitually negative or critical.  They hurt people, put them down, undermine them, and just generally suck all the air out every room they are in.  I cannot help wonder what they could accomplish if  they would only turn those prodigious energies towards more constructive activities.

I hope that today, you and I can take stock of our talents, gifts and abilities, and that we can redouble our efforts to make sure that those gifts are dedicated to performing acts of goodness, kindness, mercy, justice and peace.  These things are the currency of the Kingdom, and the only currency a Christian should ever carry or trade in.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The hatred in my heart

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 15:1-31.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

The best advice I have ever received about how to read the Bible was: "Read the Bible as though it is a story about you".

The stories of the Bible are not meant to just be idle chatter or gossip.  We are actually supposed to locate ourselves in the stories of the Bible, to identify with a character and to learn the lessons they learn.

In just about every Bible story, we can probably identify at least one character that want to be, and more to the point of my sermon, at least one character we don't want to be.

My favourite example of how to do this is the story of the Prodigal Son.  There are three main characters in the Prodigal Son: the Prodigal Son himself, his father and his older brother.  I can list in numerical order the person I most want to be in that story to the person I least want to be:

1. The father: he was tender, loving, merciful and forgiving, and he welcomed his son back despite the injury he caused him.

2. The Prodigal Son himself: despite his failure, he had the humility and the wisdom to realize he was unable to cope on his own.  As humiliating as it must have been, he went back home.

3.  The older brother: I actually don't want to be this guy.  He was unable to join in the celebration when his brother came back,  He was selfish and resentful,

Of course, we all read the Bible through our own "lenses", through the experiences of our own lives.  I spoke to someone who thought the father was actually an idiot and the Prodigal Son was a manipulator.  Her son was a chronic drug addict who would steal from her, disappear for a few months, turn up on her doorstep apologizing, she would let him back in, and the cycle would continue.

I knew someone else who felt that the older brother was the only sane one in the bunch.  She had always felt that her parents loved her sister more, and that despite her many accomplishments, she could never quite live up to her.  She had always felt that she had never been celebrated, and so resonated with the experience of the older brother.

Regardless, when we read a story like the Prodigal Son, we can all identify the characters we would like to be and the people we would not like to be.

This week was the 15th anniversary of 9/11, and I have spoken with a number of people over the years about this incident, where we were and what we felt when it happened.  I was doing my MA at Laval in Quebec City, and I had slept in that day.  I woke up, made a cup of coffee and checked the phone messages.  There was one from my roommate who said, "Turn on the TV, someone has flown an airplane into the World Trade Center".

I have to admit, I didn't even know what the World Trade Center was or where it was, and I thought someone had flown a pleasure craft into it by accident, so I didn't turn on the TV for another little while.  Once I did, it did not take me long to understand that what had happened was far more serious.

By the time I turned on the TV, pictures of a man named Osama Bin Laden were being shown.  I had never heard of him.  He was linked to an organization called Al Qaeda, which I had also never heard of.  This man and this organization were being linked to Islam.

I had heard of Islam.  I had a number of Muslim friends when I was doing my undergrad at Ottawa U, and we are still in contact today.  We didn't really talk religion.  We drank, played cards and just generally did what university students do.  All that to say, even though I knew they were Muslim, I didn't really know what Islam was all about, what it stood for, what it represented or what it preached.

I am not proud to say this, but as I watched TV, I felt hatred growing in my heart.  I saw Bin Laden and I hated him.  I heard about Al Qaeda and I hated them.  I saw Muslims and I hated them too.

In retrospect, I think this was only natural.  A terrible thing had been done to innocent people.  I was angry, I was grief-stricken and I hated the people that did this.  I was not thinking rationally (because hate is not rational) and I threw the net of my hatred far too wide, because briefly I even hated people who had nothing to do with it.  I was apparently not the only one because in the hours that followed, there was a rash of anti-Muslim hate crimes: mosques were desecrated and Muslims were being attacked on the streets.  Sikhs and Hindus (who are not Muslim, by the way) were also being persecuted, just for having skin that was not white, just because people with hatred in their hearts fail to distinguish between the guilty and people who resemble them.

As I witnessed these acts of misguided recrimination against people who I realized had absolutely nothing to do with the atrocities of 9/11, I was brought up short and this made me reign in my hatred.

I thought, "I don't want to be that guy.  That's not the person I want to be".

John 3:15 tells us that if we have hate in our heart, we have already committed murder.  Whether someone uses a gun, knife, car or airplane, it is actually hatred that kills, and this is why I don't want to be that guy.  I don't want hatred to even be planted or take root in my heart because of where that could go.

There was a line from the Jeremiah reading for this week that stuck out to me: "My people...are skilled at doing evil , but do not know how to do good".  This is an interesting concept: good and evil are skills, and like any skill, good and evil require practice.  If we practice something, it becomes more natural, easier to do and we get better at it.  If we fail to practice something, we lose that skill, it becomes more difficult, and we don't get any better at it.

I don't want to be the guy with hatred in my heart, because I don't want to get any better at it.  I want to be the guy with love in my heart because that is what I want to get better at.  Love is what I want to plant, take root and grow in my heart, and I just don't think I can do that if hatred is in my heart.

How much hate, how little love must have been in the hearts of the men who perpetrated 9/11?  How far from grace and anything Godly must they have fallen to take it upon themselves to do that?  I can't even begin to contemplate it.  I don't want to contemplate it.

I want to contemplate how I can treat people better, how I can help heal people, how I can make the world a better place, how I can show God's love to his creation and its inhabitants.

Today, I hope that we are all able to decide who we want to be like and who we don't want to be like.  I hope we are able to make room for love in our hearts so that there is no room for hatred.  I hope we can hone our skills of goodness, and let our skills of evil atrophy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Things which matter most

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 14:25-33.

This week, I opened my sermon by asking people to raise their hands if their spirituality was one of their top 5 priorities.

I then asked for a show of hands if they would say that spirituality was their number 1 priority.

I stopped them before anybody raised their hands and explained that for your spirituality to be your number 1 priority would mean that it is your first thought when you wake up in the morning and your last thought before you go to sleep at night; it would mean you spend more time contemplating the state of your soul than you spend contemplating your finances, your career, your human relationships; basically, that your spirituality is the aspect of your life which informs all your other decisions, and from which all other considerations flowed.

Nobody raised their hands, not even me.

The problem is that even as a priest, my own faith and spirituality is expendable, disposable or at least a secondary consideration to the "busy-ness" of my daily life.  I worry as much as the next person about finances, my marriage, my career, my skills and abilities as an expectant parent, and so on.  I work at improving or balancing all those things, but my faith end up neglected and sometimes forgotten almost entirely.

I prioritize food, sleep, water, exercise, free time and quality time with my spouse, friends and family, but at the end of the day, that does not leave a whole heck of a lot of time and energy for prayer, meditation and spiritual well-being.

I think many of us have the equation backwards, and I know I certainly often do: we think that if all these other things are going well in our lives, then our spirits will be well.  But in my experience, the reverse is actually true: if all is well with my spirit, THEN all these other facets of my life tend to go better, more smoothly, or at least I have greater strength, patience or wisdom with which to approach them.

Jesus uses some pretty harsh words in the Gospel passage for today to make this very point.  He says, for example, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple".

Now, if you have actually read ANYTHING else Jesus ever said, it would be pretty obvious that Jesus did not actually want anyone to hate anyone.  Jesus even calls his listeners to forgive someone 7 X 70 times, and to pray for our enemies.

Rather, I think what Jesus was trying to convey is that our relationship with God should be our first priority, before even our relationship with our parents, spouse or children, to the extent that compared to our relationship with God, all other relationships should pale.  You know how some people say, "You have to love yourself before you can love someone else"?  For a person of faith, that could quite accurately be changed to "You have to love God before you can love someone else".

The reason is this: Christ, God, the Divine, whatever it is you call the source of your spirituality, is for the Christian the source of all love, justice, mercy, forgiveness, tolerance and peace.  If God is at the top of your priority list, then all your personal relationships, how you go about your job, how you approach your finances, how you deal with your problems, frustrations and worries will be informed and guided by these principles.  Otherwise, we tend to just be taking stabs in the dark and reacting out of our baser impulses.  I don't know about you, but when I act out my baser impulses, I usually end up having to make apologies.

But how do we go about prioritizing our faith and spirituality?  I will share with you some simple steps that often help me get back on track and get my head straight.  Try this for a few weeks: 

1. When you wake up, set just 5 minutes aside and sit quietly contemplating the day to come.  Ask for guidance, wisdom, strength, humility, patience, whatever it is you think you need to get through the day.

2. As many times as you need to throughout the day, take a mental time-out before, after or during certain events, and ask for these things all over again.  Ask yourself in all things what the most graceful and productive way to respond to your daily challenges would be and act accordingly.

3. Upon retiring at night, take a "grace inventory" of your day: go over it again and note the things you are grateful for, felt good about or are proud of yourself for.

This is perhaps the simplest and most foolproof way to keep your faith at the top of your priority list, and to live your life according to spiritual principles.  It will take practice, it does not solve everything and it does not make everything in your life ok, but it is something that helped me.

I could also add one more step:

4. Contemplate your cross.

Jesus says one other thing in this Gospel passage that really sticks out for me: "Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple".  What does it mean to  carry the cross?

Well, although this incident happened well before Jesus was crucified, we know that people who were convicted of crimes and sentenced to death by crucifixion were forced to carry their own crosses to the place of execution.  The cross was seen as emblematic or their crime, and those carrying their crosses were thought to be dragging the weight of their crime in the form of a cross.

But what does that mean for us?  What is our crime, what is our sin, why would we need or want to pick it up, and to where should we drag it?

This is where I think you and I need to contemplate our own crosses.  I am from a Protestant tradition, and you may have noticed that most Protestant churches do not portray Christ crucified.  Only Catholic churches have that.  I am simplifying the issue here, but that is because Catholic theology traditionally has placed the emphasis on the sacrifice and suffering of Christ, while Protestant theology has emphasized the resurrection and conquering of Christ.  For Catholics, the cross is, as the old hymn goes, "an emblem of suff'ring and shame".  For Protestants, Christ is no longer in the tomb, much less nailed to the cross, and so the cross becomes a symbol of life, resurrection and redemption.

So when Jesus asks us to take up our cross, what is he, in fact, asking us to do?  Is he asking us to shoulder our burdens of sin, shame and regret?  Doesn't sound too Jesus-y to me, and I don't think those are the things Jesus would see us yoked to.  Rather, I think he is asking us to cast of those burdens and take up the "burden" of the cross which represents love, joy, forgiveness, life and freedom.  I think he is asking us to take up the cross as our new yoke, a yoke which he promises is easy and light.

I hope that today we would be able to pick up our crosses, and to let the virtues that the cross represents inform our thoughts, words and deeds.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The best seat in the house

My sermon this week was based on Luke 14:1-14.

Dinnertime at my house is usually pretty casual.  Although we have vowed to sit at the table when we have children, my wife and I usually eat in front of the TV.

When I was a kid, dinnertime was a little more formal: no TV, no radio, and we all sat at the table and usually talked about our day.  Our table was round, all the chairs were the same, and the table was in the kitchen.

My grandparents house was much different.  They had a small table in the kitchen that they ate at on a daily basis, but when family visited, dinner was served in the dining room.  The table was long and rectangular.  My grandmother sat at the end nearest the kitchen so she could shuttle food and dishes back and forth, and my grandfather sat at the far end.  His chair was the only one that had arms on it.

In perhaps a mild way, my grandparents' house was reflective of a certain cultural protocol when it comes to seating arrangement: the host (my grandfather) sat at the head of the table, which was recognized as the most important seat in the house, although no one actually ever said that out loud.

We don't have the same kind of protocol in our culture, but we do have seating arrangements: have you ever come into church and found someone sitting in "your pew"?

Seating arrangements in Jesus' time were much more formal.  The host would still sit at the head of the table, but the most important guests were seated closest to the host, and the least important were seated further away.

In today's Gospel passage Jesus is invited for dinner to the house of a Pharisee, and he notices how people are following that traditional seating pattern.  He warns them against assuming their seat without invitation: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you."

He issues this warning because "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

When we have a formal dinner in our culture, it can be pretty clear who the most important people are.  At a wedding, for example, we usually have a head table that consists of the couple, their parents, the honour party, and so on.

But if we were to sit down at God's table, who would be the most important?  Who would be, metaphorically speaking, invited to sit closer to God?  Would the rich, powerful and famous be seated closer to God?

Jesus would say no.  According to the Gospel for today, the people who would be invited to sit at God's table should and would be "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind", and these should be the very people we invite to our table.

There are several possible explanations for this.  Maybe Jesus is trying to encourage people to be humble.  Maybe he is trying to convince us to sit with people we wouldn't normally associate with.

I think he is trying to make a point about inclusiveness.  Society still has a way of dividing us: haves and have-nots, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, black and white, sick and well, etc, etc.  The dinner table in Jesus' time acted almost as a microcosm for this: those most important to the host sat near him, and the least important were seated further away.  The table perpetuated divisiveness.

Outside the dining room, society is divisive, and it was certainly so in Jesus' time as well.  The poor, crippled, lame and blind were sidelined and excluded, as they still are today.

But here's the thing: if we are to be Christians, these are the exact people we should make an effort to include, and what Jesus revealed to us about God is that these are the very people God would invite to sit closer to him.

Think of it this way: the wealthy, healthy and whole are already doing ok.  They already have so many advantages and things working in their favour.  They don't necessarily need constant reminders of God's love and presence because evidence of that should be all around them.

Don't get me wrong, I do not believe for one second that God "blesses" or "curses".  I don't think that because you are wealthy, that means God prefers you to a poor person, and just because you are poor that God dislikes you.

But those who suffer poverty, physical or mental illness, addiction, injustice or isolation already have the deck stacked against them.  They are precisely those who need to be shown love, acceptance and hospitality, and that is what we are called to do as Christians.

It is only natural to want to be around those who are like us: those who think like us, look like us, act like us.  This is not in and of itself a bad thing.  It only makes sense, and I think it is pretty endemic to the human race.

Where this becomes an issue is when we reject, isolate or sideline others as a result of our actions.  We have all seen cliques when we were in school, in our workplaces, at church or even in our own families.

Christ would call us to deliberately override this tendency.  Christ would call us to be inclusive, and in fact to show a preference to those people who routinely don't get a seat at the big table.

This week, I hope we can all have the courage to step out of the comfort zone of our friendship circle, that we take the time to talk to someone we wouldn't normally talk to, to show them God's love and to invite them to his table.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Physician, heal thyself: the story of Super-Christian Patrick

My sermon this week was based on Luke 13:10-17.

Do download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Many of us can probably relate to feeling like we have a weight on our shoulders.  Whether it is the weight of worry, depression, hatred, sorrow, anger or illness, most of us can probably relate to feeling like there is something in our lives weighing us down, and we can also likely relate to feeling light and free when that situation is resolved.

Today's Gospel passage has to do with Jesus healing a woman who is bent over double, and the image I get in my head is of someone who is literally and figuratively bent over by her problems, and of someone who can finally stand up straight again and enjoy life when that weight is lifted off her shoulders.

Now this woman was physically ill, so despite the ancient belief that physical illness was the result of sin, I don't think any reasonable person can indict her or anyone who has a physical illness.

But it seems to me like there is someone else in this Gospel who is carrying a weight that is quite literally of his own making, and he fails utterly to shrug it off, and that is the Synagogue leader.

When I was a teen, I worked at a Christian summer camp.  I would not have called myself a Christian then: I did not go to church, I was not asking the big questions, I was not interested in God, and in fact I considered myself an atheist.  But I had no objection to the religion of others, I needed a summer job, and several of my friends worked at the camp.

Part of what we did every day was Chapel.  This happened right after breakfast, and it consisted of a little morality story and some energetic songs to get the kids pumped for morning activities.  I played guitar, so I was one of several people who led the music for chapel.

Super-Christian Patrick was another music leader.  He was about my age and was as faithful a person as I have ever met, hence the reason I called him Super-Christian Patrick.

Although I liked Patrick as a person, there was something that bugged me about him.  At chapel, I would glance over at him as we were playing guitar, and although I was having fun, Patrick was LOVING it.  His eyes were closed and he was smiling and blissed out as we sang these songs about God.  He was loving God and God was loving him.

The thought in my head was, "You idiot".  I thought he was thoroughly naive and brainwashed, and at first I thought I pitied him for this.

As the summer went on, I came to realize that I was actually jealous and angry at him.  I was jealous and angry because he was happy.  He knew that God existed and loved him, and he loved him back.  I didn't have those things, and I have to admit, I wanted them.

My self-absorption robbed me of the ability to rejoice with Patrick.  My own feelings of anger and jealousy prevented me from being happy for Patrick that he was so easily able to bask in God's light.

What a weight I was carrying!  And what weight must the Synagogue leader have been carrying!  Rather than stand in awe of God's power, rather than sit down and learn at the feet of the man who had performed a miracle, rather than rejoice along with the woman who had been freed from her ailment, he instead rains on everyone's parade, accusing Jesus of breaking the law by healing on the Sabbath.

Maybe the leader was jealous because Jesus was able to do something he couldn't.  Maybe he was angry because God seemed to be working through someone other than him.  Maybe he just didn't like sharing the limelight.

Either way, one of the truths about human nature is that sometimes we resent the successes and joys of others.  We feel somehow that their success or joy takes away from our own.  We feel like if we are not happy, no one else has a right to be either.  We feel like there is a limited amount of joy and recognition to go around, that God has only a finite amount of love to divide up between all of humanity.

Nothing could actually be further from the truth.  Love, joy, success and recognition are not finite quantities, and I think we would actually find that we can derive great joy from celebrating with others in their own joys and successes.

The weights we carry prevent us from enjoying our own lives and from celebrating the joys of those we love.  Much of the time, these weights are of our own making, and can just as easily be unmade.

I hope and pray that whatever weight we are carrying around on our shoulder, whether it is sadness, depression, fear, anxiety, jealousy, a fractured relationship, that we can make a decision and take steps to come out from under that weight.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Bridges, not walls

My sermon for today was based on Luke 12:49-56.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

Before I was ordained a priest, I worked in a drug and alcohol rehab for teens and young adults.  I am not proud to admit this, but every once in a while, a kid would come into the program that I just didn't like.   There was one kid in particular, let's call him Chris.

Chris was just weird.  He dressed weird, he did weird things and said weird things.  He had a weird sense of humour and he interests were weird.  I could find nothing in common with which to connect to this kid, and I am usually pretty good at that.

At one point, I was talking to the boss about how I felt about this kid, and I expected him to agree wholeheartedly with me.  What he actually said brought me up short.  He said, "Sound like you are the one with the problem".

"What do you mean?", I said, not really appreciating his tone.

"Well, he's just being who he is.  If you have a problem with that, it's YOUR problem, not his".

He recommended I make an effort to get to know him, so I took him out fishing for a couple of hours, and as it turns out, he was actually a pretty neat, smart kid.  But had I been left to my own devices, I would have left that wall between us and missed out on the opportunity to get to know him.

The Gospel passage for today speaks of walls, of how we connect and divide ourselves from one another.

I have trouble with the Jesus in today's Gospel passage, incidentally.  I have an image in my head of Jesus, tender, meek and mild, the Prince of Peace who suffers the little children to come unto him and so on.

The Jesus in today's Gospel passage speaks of dividing families and bringing fire.  In have trouble putting the two images together.

The reality is that we can't catch inflection and tone of voice in the written word.  I don't think Jesus is saying these things gleefully while rubbing his hands together like a mad scientist.  Rather, I think he is saying it in a tone of weary resignation, with the realization that no matter how much peace and love he preached, human being would find a way to screw it up, that even families would be divided over how to show love.

And how religion has divided us over the years!  How did we do this?  How did we take the fundamental message of most religions, that we are all one, and turn it into an excuse to judge, condemn and divide?

Do we really think that God cannot tolerate a little difference?  Do we really conceive of a God who is so small and so petty that he cannot handle different viewpoints, different worship styles, different interpretations of Scripture?

I think Jesus came to help us embrace and celebrate our differences, but he was aware that doing so takes a fair amount of courage, far more than many people seem to have.

The problem is that it is so easy to build walls and say, "You are not of me, you are not of us".  We do it all the time.  We do it to women, LGBTQ+, immigrants, refugees, other religions, other ages.  I did it to Chris.

I suspect the real reason we build walls is not that we really have an objection to other people, but because we lack the courage to embrace their differences.

When we stop and think about it, how much reason is there really to build walls between other people?  People may have different skin colours, recite difference creeds, have different political views or sexual preferences, but in reality, we all love our children and our parents, we are all afraid of the future, we all laugh at pretty much the same things and cry for pretty much the same reasons.

In reality I would say that are more things that make us similar than make us different.  I am pretty sure if we could just get past the walls we build around ourselves and others, we would find great gifts in other people.

The bricks we use to make walls can also be used to make bridges.  I pray that today we would all have the courage to tear down walls and build bridges with them instead.

How do we live our lives when we think no one is watching?

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 12:32-48.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

I saw a t-shirt a few years ago that I regret not buying.  It said, "Jesus is coming!  Look busy!"

This was a joke about the the Second Coming, of course, and although the Second Coming is not current theology in most of Christianity, this shirt did put its proverbial finger on what I think are nonetheless poignant questions:

How and why do we live our faith?  How much room do we make in our lives for our faith?  What are we doing to make room for God?

Like many people, I drifted away from the church when I was younger, partially because I felt I had to fear God.  It seemed to me like the only reason to be a person of faith was to avoid eternal damnation, and consequently the main reason for being a person of faith was fear: fear of God and fear of Hell.  There was something that just struck me as wrong about that.

Not that those things do not deserve to be feared, but I felt deep within me that if I was ever to come to God, it should be out of love and not fear.

I was once told that love was something you had to make room for, and that really resonated with me.  My wife and I are expecting a baby, and I realize as we get ready for his/her arrival that a baby is something that you have to make room for.  Babies are small, but they are prop-heavy, so our basement currently looks like a maternity garage sale.

I think part of the problem is that we expect God or Christ to just pop into our lives, or we pick them up and put them down when it is convenient for us.  We seem to think that religion and/or faith are things that only happen for an hour or so on a Sunday.  We expect God make his own space in our lives, when in reality we are the ones who have to make room for him.

If Jesus was to walk into our church on a Sunday morning, sit next to us and ask, "So.  What do you do around hereto honour God?", what would our answer be?

I think for a number of churchgoers, that answer might be easy: we are wardens, we are in the choir, we cook for the bake sale, and so on.

I think, however, that the answer to that question might be much less evident if Jesus was to show up at our house or place of work and ask the same question.  What do we do from Monday to Saturday to honour God?  What do we do to preach the Gospel?

I am not suggesting that we all invest in a soapbox and head for Rideau Street, but what I am suggesting is that we follow the advice attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.

Honouring God is less about outward displays of piety or being able to regurgitate Scripture passages like parrots.  It is about how we live our lives when we think no one is watching.

Our daily lives are the best testament to our faith, or the worst as the case may be.  The integrity of our Christianity is demonstrated in how we treat complete strangers in our daily lives.

It has been said that we should be vigilant in our words and behaviour because we might be the only Bible someone reads, the only Gospel someone ever hears.

The Gospel passage for today speaks of good and bad servants: the good ones remain vigilant while the master is away from the house, doing their duties and taking care of the master's property and possessions; the bad servant slack off in their duties and are not ready to receive their master when he returns home.

If we believe (as I firmly do) that we are stewards of God's creation, that we are responsible for taking care of God's people and his "stuff", that means we need to be vigilant all the time.  We need to be engage in acts of justice, mercy, truth, love and forgiveness 24/7, not just for an hour on Sunday.

Today, I hope we can all remain vigilant and that we can all live our lives with integrity, courage and honesty.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The collateral damage of sin

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 12:13-21.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

Ok, we need to talk about sin.  I know, it's not popular, it sounds Catholic or at least Baptist, but we have to talk about it.  We have to talk about it, not for your own good but for the good of those around you.

When most people talk or think about sin, they tend to think about "those things that make God angry at me".  They think of sin as something that is only between them and God, and as something that only impacts them personally.

Take the Seven Deadly Sins, for example: pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth and greed.

If we look at each of those sins, superficially they would seem to only affect the person committing them.  If I am prideful, nobody gets hurt, its my problem.  If I am gluttonous, I get fat and have health problems, but they are my problems.  If I am wrathful, I am the one who is angry, my problem.  If I am slothful, I am the one who is lazy, nobody else should care.

What often goes unnoticed with each of these sins and others, is that there is most often collateral damage to sin, a cost to others for our own sin.

Most people who are prideful, for example, buy their pride at the expense of shaming someone else: "Look at my nice car.  I don't know how you can drive that little thing.  Look at my nice house.  I don't know how you can live in an apartment".

If I am gluttonous, for every meal or snack I have that I don't need, mathematically there is less food available for those who don't have enough to live on.

If I am a slothful employee, my employer suffers, our clients suffer, as does the business for which I work.

My wife is occasionally wrathful.  I suffer.

All this to say, we are not the only one who suffers when we sin.  There are other people who are caught in the blast zone, and even if we don't much care what God think of our sin, we should at least care about the impact we have on other people's lives, especially about those we claim to love.

The Gospel passage for today has to do with an inheritance and greed.  Jesus is talking to a crowd, and someone says, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me".

We know a few things about inheritances in those days.  First of all, it was a matter of law.  Sons had every right to expect an inheritance if there was one, and fathers were obligated to divide their estates among their sons when they died.

Second, the eldest son was typically the 'executor' responsible for dividing of the inheritance along some pretty strict guidelines:  the eldest son got a double portion, either because they had less time to enjoy it it, or because the older son typically took over the family farm/plantation/business.

What we can infer from this situation is that the eldest brother is a holdout.  He has control of the family estate and he is not following the law.  He is not giving what his younger brother what he deserves.

I have preached on this passage a number of times, and I always assumed that Jesus was addressing the Parable of the Rich Fool to the man who asked Jesus to intercede for him.  Now I am not so sure.  Chances are, the older brother was also in the crowd, perhaps standing right beside him, which is why the younger brother made his request in the first place: they are treating Jesus like a lawyer or a judge.  I now think Jesus is probably addressing the parable particularly to the older brother, warning him of the collateral damage of his greed.

Here's the thing: yes there is law, there is what is right and what is wrong, but in the end, what must the relationship have been like between these two brothers in the first place?  How fractured and ruptured must their relationship have been for the eldest to withhold the birthright of the younger, and for the younger to feel compelled to drag out the dirty laundry in front of a crowd?

Law is all well and good.  I am a big fan, we need it, I don't want to abolish law at all and neither did Jesus.  But Jesus was not about law, he was about love.  We write laws down, like "Don't kill", "Don't steal", "Don't lie".  If we could, as Jesus admonishes us to do, love God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and love our neighbours as ourselves, we would have no need for law because love for one another would already have us acting in a way which would make law irrelevant.

Law is needed simply because we can't, as a species, quite seem to do that.

I think Jesus would tell us to follow the law if and when we could not find it in our hearts to love one another, but I really think what Jesus is trying to get these brothers to do is look at and fix the problems in their relationship that got them to this point in the first place.

Loved ones should not have to quarrel over money or possessions.  We do occasionally, and that is why it is good to have laws in place, but the tragedy of this Gospel situation is that the sin of greed generates casualties.  It likely did not end with the two brothers and their relationship either.  There were likely wives, children, aunts, uncles and cousins embroiled in this battle as well.

Sin is not something that stops and starts at our doorways.  It is something with far-reaching consequences in our families, churches, communities and the world.

Today, let us follow the law of love.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Same as it ever was: reflections on General Synod

As you may have heard, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada recently passed a pretty momentous vote.  We voted in favour of changing our canons to allow for same-sex marriage.

Ok, you could accuse us of being a few years behind the time, but given the relative speed with which the most religions embrace change (which borders on inertia), this is actually not a bad lapse of time for the church to catch up with.

I should explain a couple of things about this whole process, because it was actually a pretty exciting Synod.  For those of you who have ever attended a Synod or the equivalent of your church or workplace, I realize this isn't much, but this was actually a nail-biter with some pretty profound implications for the Anglican Church in the future.

Briefly, Synod is like the annual general meeting for the church.  Synods are held yearly on a Diocesan level (a diocese is kind of like provincial politics), but every 3 years, we have what is called General Synod, and that is a meeting on a national level (kind of like federal politics).  In other words, at GS we discuss things that affect the entire Canadian church.

Arguable the most important topic of discussion at this Synod was one which has been festering literally for decades: whether or not to change our canons (church laws) to allow for same-sex marriage in our churches.

I will spare you the details, but suffice to say the motion was at first defeated by a narrow margin, then it was found after a recount to have passed by an equally narrow margin.

I should add that this does not mean that the Canadian Anglican Church is immediately going to start doing same-sex marriages.  This vote bought a second reading at our next GS in 2019, where it still runs a chance of being defeated.  If it passes a second time, THEN we will have to look at making some changes.

Almost immediately after the vote, myself and many of my colleagues had to respond to a number of concerns from our parishioners: What does this mean for our church?  What happens now?  Will our church be different?  What is going to change?

The short answer is: absolutely nothing.

Come to church next Sunday.  The building will still be the same.  The liturgy will still be the same.  The hymns will still be the same.  The prayers will still be the same.  Your neighbour next to you in the pew will probably be the same.  The sacraments will still be the same.  God will still be the same.  Christ will still be the same.  The Holy Spirit will still be the same.

We worship communally: we get together, we pray together, we sing songs of praise, we share the sacraments and fellowship, and in that sense, absolutely nothing has changed.  But we also have personal and individual relationships with God and Christ, and I honestly don't think these relationships have changed because of this vote, either.

Don't get me wrong, the vote is momentous, and I'll be honest, I am happy about the vote.  I think this is a victory for human rights and for the church.  Although I would never claim to know the thoughts and will of God, I also personally think that this decision that is in keeping with the will of the Holy Spirit moving in the world today.

I am aware that not everyone agrees with me, and that is OK.

We don't actually have to agree, and that is something that some church folk seem to forget.  We don't have to have the same thoughts, share the same heart or mind on every single topic.  I would argue that conflict and the successful navigation thereof is actually the only place we as people and Christians can possibly experience growth.

We have actually disagreed on a lot of stuff in the past few decades: women's ordination and the new prayer book spring immediately to mind.  And if we look back, we survived that.  We felt the Holy Spirit was leading us down those paths, and we learned and changed and grew together.  We did not give up on each other, God or the church.

Let us learn and change and grow together still.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Why the world needs Christianity

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 10: 25-37.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

Yup, you read that title right.

Even as a priest, I sometimes get bummed out and I start wondering, "Why do I do this?  What is the point of faith, religion, Christianity?  What does Christianity have to contribute to the world?"

The last few weeks have been particularly difficult ones in terms of the news.  The shooting in Orlando, cops shot in Dallas, yet two more examples of police brutality leading to the deaths of black men, bombs in sacred places during holy festivals in the Middle East, and those are just the atrocities that have managed to make it onto Facebook's newsfeed.

I can't speak for anyone else, but sometimes I am just overcome with so much grief for the state of the world and it's peoples.

And then I read the story of the Good Samaritan, and I am reminded that Christianity has stories that I need to hear, and that the world needs to hear and know.

The Good Samaritan is familiar to most people, churchgoer or not, but few of us understand all the implications of the story.

Jesus is preaching and teaching, and a lawyer asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life.  In other words, what must he do to lead a good, moral and virtuous life.  Jesus asks him what is written in the Law.  The lawyer responds with what is the beating heart and soul of Christianity, THE Great Commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself".

Jesus affirms that this is correct, but perhaps wanting to appear clever, the lawyer asks, "But who is my neighbour", to which Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan.

What we have to understand is that Jesus' audience was 100% Jewish, and Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  Sparing you the details, both groups felt that they were the true religion and the other were heretics, such that violence was common between the two groups, and they were forbidden from fraternizing with one another by their respective religious leaders.

So for a Jew to be told that there could be such a thing as a "good Samaritan" would have been as shocking as if someone told us a story of "The Good Nazi" or "The Good KKK Member" or "The Good Westboro Baptist Church-goer".

The story is pretty well-known, as I mentioned.  A Jew going from Jerusalem to Jericho is set upon by bandits who beat him, strip him, rob him and leave him near death on the side of the road.  What rarely gets mentioned is that these bandits are likely Jewish as well, and were probably beating on a fellow countryman, but thieves know no honour, so that is often glossed over by the preacher.

The first person to come across the man is a Jewish priest, a person one would think and hope would be inclined by his vocation alone to be merciful, but he crosses to the other side of the street and passes him by.

I have heard it suggested that perhaps the man was ritually unclean, and that the priest was fearful of becoming ritually unclean himself, but either way, this does nothing to exonerate him.  I think we can all agree he should have stopped to help.

The second person is identified as a Levite, one of the 12 Tribes of Judaism.  The theory is that in describing the man as traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, Jesus is trying to indicate that the man who was beaten is himself a Levite, and a fellow countryman, perhaps even a distant or not-so-distant relation.

Either way, the man passes him by on the other side of the street.

The one person who stops and helps, and who bends over backwards to help by the way, is a Samaritan: the one person who by rights should have actually passed the man by, perhaps even spitting on him as he went.

The man disinfects and bandages his wounds, puts the man on his own animal, ventures into enemy territory to take the man to an inn, pays the innkeep to tend to the man, and promises to return with more money to pay for his treatment.

Look, I am not proud of this, but when I hear stories of Muslim bombers both here and abroad, my first impulse is to be angry at and afraid of Muslims.  When I hear about mass shooters, my impulse is to be afraid of and be angry at gun owners.  When I hear about yet another example of police brutality, my impulse is to be afraid of and angry at cops.

And this is exactly why I need Christ and the story of the Good Samaritan.

Because when I check my reality, I have to confess I have never met a bad Muslim, a bad gun owner or a bad cop in my life.  Sure, I am sure they exist, but I have never personally met one, so I have no actual reason to be angry at or afraid of them.  When I get overcome with the fear, anger and paranoia that actions like those mentioned above are designed to create, I need to be reminded there is good in the world, and in fact more good than bad.

I need to be reminded that as a Christian, hearing the story of the Good Samaritan, I am actually called to a higher moral standard than other people, not a lower one.  I am called to overcome my own personal prejudices and preconceived notions to see the suffering of all of God's children, not just the ones who think and do as I do.

That means gay or straight, black or white or any other skin colour, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic, whatever, I am bound by my faith to love you.  That is what the story of the Good Samaritan is about.

I would like to end with one of my favourite prayers by St. Francis, who may have been inspired by the story of the Good Samaritan:

"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy."

Let these words penetrate our hearts, and let all our thoughts, words and deeds be informed by them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Orlando gives me hope

Like all of us, the shooting in Orlando has left me heartbroken.

I am not gay, I am not Muslim.  I am white, male, Christian, and heterosexual.  My family which is of mixed Scottish and Irish ancestry has been in the country so long that people have forgotten we were also once immigrants ouselves, and no one questions my right to be in this country and life my life as I see fit.  All this is to say that in all honesty, I have absolutely no idea what it feels like to be personally marginalized, oppressed or abused for who and what I am.

But nonetheless, I am heartbroken and I grieve for the dead and wounded, and I grieve for and with the gay and Muslim communities who must now and will continue to live with consequences of this event, and the consequences of events like it that happen all too often to marginalized groups all over the world.

The internet can be a terribly place when something like this happens, simply because it seems like most people are out to tear off scabs, point fingers or say "I told you so".

Those who are already against Islam take it as an opportunity to pillory Muslims.

Those who are already against religion pillory all religions and all religious folks.

Those who are already anti-gun pillory gun laws and gun owners.

People pillory the justice system for not keeping better tabs.

People blame our medical system for failing to identify and treat mental illness.

People post that they are praying, others criticize prayer as useless.

We are all left grasping at threads, trying to make sense of a tragedy that is by definition senseless.  We are left trying to find the root cause, trying to find something or someone to blame, and so we blame Muslims, religion, guns, etc.  This is human.  We are a species of problem solvers, gifted with intellect, and for many of us, finding "a solution" or "a reason" distracts us and drives the overwhelming pain we actually feel deeper down inside us.

I am not a sociologist, but I suspect that the problem is more complex than any one of the issues listed above.  I have heard all the arguments, and my intention is not to engage with them because I really don't think there is any point.

Yes, you could eliminate guns, but hatred will still find a way to do damage.  Yes, you could eliminate religion, but people have and will continue to find reasons to hate other people.  Yes, you could tighten up surveillance, but that would be at the cost of personal freedom and liberty.  Yes, you could stop people from praying, but sometimes that is all someone has at a time like this.

But in the end, "the solution" or "the reason" does not seem to be forthcoming, and we are left with pain.

I am not the most hopeful or optimistic of people at the best of times.  It is hard for me to look at the frequency and barbarity of this and other acts like it around the world and feel like there is reason to hope.

And yet there is.

I have seen footage of people lined up around the block in Orlando, waiting to donate blood, and those people were quite obviously from many races, creeds and colours.

I have seen footage and still photos of vigils around the world.

I have seen world monuments lit up with rainbows.

I have seen people posting messages of brotherly and sisterly love addressed to the LGBTQ and Muslim communities.  I have seen both of those communities posting messages of love to one another.

I have seen people refusing to hate, refusing to isolate, refusing the seek vengeance, refusing to demonize.

I have seen people ask and be informed how they can help or be of service.

I see people reaching out to people, regardless of who they are or what demographic they correspond to.

Don't get me wrong, there is most certainly evil and hatred in the world.  But there is also great love and great hope.

I have hope.  I have hope that we will someday be able to put away hatred in every form. I have hope that people will dance again at Pulse.  I have hope that people are already dancing elsewhere.  I have hope that people are coming home to their partners and letting them know how much they are loved. I have hope that more people are learning to love than to hate because more people are teaching their kids to love than to hate.  I have hope that every group or individual who sees hatred and violence as an appropriate response to anything will see that love is and will always be more powerful and will always win.

I have hope.

The liberation of sin

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 7:36-8:3.

Like many of you I am sure, I went through a period where I didn't just drift away from the church, I rowed HARD in the opposite direction.  This started when I was a pre-teen, and there were a number of factors that contributed to this, but prominent among them being a resentment I developed to being called a "sinner".

Although I cannot remember being called a sinner to my face by anyone in particular, the gist I got from the Bible, from sermons and from Sunday School was that I was supposed to feel pretty wretched and guilty about who and what I was, and that somehow belief in God made everything ok.

I remember thinking, "You know what, screw that, I'm only 10, I haven't even had time to DO anything yet!"  And I remember thinking that my friends had done far worse things than I had ever done at that point.  OK, I may have lied to my parents a little here and there, but I knew kids who stole money off their parents dressers and filched their beer every once in a while.

So I consoled myself by looking to people who had committed worse sins than I had, thereby, some weird how, absolving myself from my own sins.

Pretty childish, huh?

I realized some time ago that this is actually a behaviour I have carried into adulthood.  The other day, my wife and I had a "discussion" because I didn't do the dishes.  I responded by accusing her of not changing the empty roll of toilet paper.  Her response stopped me dead in my tracks.  She said, "And we can talk about me after, but right now we are talking about you".

Drat.  She's smart.

I sometimes think that many of us have brought that attitude forward from childhood, particularly when it comes to the concept of sin.  Sin is not something we like to talk about in Anglican circles.  It is too Catholic or it belongs to the evangelical/pentecostal set.  It belongs to the pathologically guilt-ridden, and has no place in our "I'm ok, you're ok" generation.

I would argue that the concept of sin does belong to all of us, and that, strangely, it is a liberating concept, and I hope to clarify that here.

The Gospel passage for this week is all about sin.  It is about degrees and severity of sin, and it is about our ability or inability to acknowledge and therefore for liberated from sin.

The story focuses around a sinful woman who is reputed to have been a prostitute.  She is often named as Mary Magdalene, but recent scholarship debates that association, and this gospel passage does not name her as a prostitute or as Mary Magdalene, merely that she was "a sinner".

We can only imagine that her sins must have been great, however, because she throws herself at Jesus' feet, washed them with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints his feet with fragrant ointment.

Jesus' host, Simon the Pharisee, is skeptical of this display and derisive towards the woman.  He thinks to himself that Jesus cannot be a prophet because if he was, he would never allow this woman to touch her.  We need to understand that prostitution or any kind of sin made you ritually impure, and an observant Jew in Jesus' time was not supposed to be in contact with anyone who was obviously ritually impure.  This was partially because it was simply not in good taste to associate with sinners, but may also be because ritual impurity was considered to be almost contagious in that if you touched something or someone impure, you yourself because impure.

But Jesus turns the tables on him by telling him the parable of a moneylender who was owed money by two men.  One owed him 500 denarii, the other 50.  The moneylender forgives both debts.  "Now which of them will love him more?", Jesus asks.

"The one for whom the greater debt was canceled", answers the Pharisee.  Jesus affirms that this is the correct answer, and goes on to explain why.

This is where we need to know a little bit about ancient Jewish hospitality laws.  When someone comes to your house, what is the first thing you do?  Offer them a drink, of course.  If you forget, your guest might gossip about you at the next dinner party or around the water cooler, but that is the worst that will happen.

Hospitality was actually part of Jewish law, and failing to follow it was a sin.  After a long journey on foot in sandals in a hot, dusty climate, the first thing a host was supposed to offer his guest was water to wash his feet and a cloth to dry them.  He was also supposed to greet his guest with a kiss of peace.  In a time before deodorant, a host was also supposed to offer fragrant oil or ointment for a guest to refresh himself with.

Simon did none of these things, and Jesus points that out.  The woman, on the other hand, has done all of these things.

The point is that Simon broke the law and therefore sinned, but rather than acknowledge his own sin, he preferred to point a finger at the woman's sin, perhaps because in his mind it was more severe and glaring.

We have all heard the saying, "Clean your own side of the street".  I think this applies here.

Look, everybody does bad stuff, but if our goal is to become better and happier human beings, zeroing in on the sins of others is not the path you want to follow.  We need to look to our own sin in order to free of it, not because it makes God angry or makes him not love us, not because we are beholden to God for forgiveness, but because our own sins weigh on our consciences.  When I do something bad, I FEEL bad.  God is not even required for that.

This is why I say sin is liberating.  Not the actual act of sinning, mind you (although most of us have had our fun breaking a few rules), but the concept itself.  Because once you acknowledge it and identify the situations or the character defects (ie sins) that are preventing you from enjoying life, you can take the appropriate steps to resolve the situation or get rid of the defects.  Being free from sin is, in my opinion, less about being right with God, and more about being right with ourselves.

This is a point I think Jesus makes in this passage.  "Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.   But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little".

I had to reread that passage several times, because there was something that didn't make sense to me.  Read it again.  Doesn't it sound like Jesus got it backwards?  Doesn't it sound like it should read, "She has shown great love, hence her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.  But to him who loves little, little is forgiven"?  Doesn't make more sense to say, "The more we love, the more our sins are forgiven" as opposed to "The more our sins are forgiven, the more we love"?

It sounds almost as though Jesus is saying that those who have sinned greatly and repented of those sins are capable of loving more deeply, more profoundly than those who have not sinned and repented.  And I think in many cases this is true.

Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting we all go out and sin like mad just so we can feel more love, that's not the way it works.  I can also not be sure exactly what Jesus Christ meant when he made that statement, but I certainly can attest to the liberating feeling of coming out from under the immense weight of great sin.  In my own life and in my pastoral interaction, I have seen lives changed by the admission of problems with adultery, drugs, gambling, violence, hatred and resentment.  I have seen lives changed by a commitment to stop doing those things that profane and disrespect our very spirit, our very being.

In my experience, the deeper someone has been into the chasm of sin, the greater their love for themselves, others, life and God becomes.  This is not to say that those of us who have sinned "just a little" cannot feel this love, but if nothing else, Jesus is striking a chord of hope in this passage: no matter how far down you have gone, you can still grasp for the light.  You can still be whole and happy, joyous and free again.

But the first step, as they say, is admitting you have a problem.

I personally don't buy the concept of Original Sin, not even for a minute, but let's face it, every single one of us has done something wrong in our own lives.  We have lied, stolen, cheated, hurt others, maybe even brought violence or death upon another being.  None of us is without scar, and every single one of us has scarred another, either emotionally of physically, through our action or lack thereof.

In other words, all of are with sin.

But this is not meant to be and indictment.  Whereas there are some religious folk who will acknowledge that they are sinners and just sit around moping about it, flagellating themselves figuratively (or literally, if you are into that), the whole point is that the acknowledgment of sin is supposed to be a call to action.  A call to be free.  A call to go forth and sin no more and enjoy life free from the burden of the things that destroy and enslave us.

May we all do that today.