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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.