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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.