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.