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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Mary's choice

My sermon for Advent 4 was based on Luke 1:26-38.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

This Advent has brought back to the surface questions about choice for me, specifically Mary's choice to bear the Christ child, and how it relates to my choice to follow my vocation.

I got my call to ministry when I was a teenager, and I said no.  I was overcome one night out of nowhere with a feeling of absolute certainty that this is what I was made for...and I said, "Not interested, thanks".

Wouldn't it make a funny Pythonesque sketch if Gabriel has had to ask a few other women first, and Mary was just the first to accept.

Here is what sadly often gets dropped to the wayside when we talk of the Annunciation, and which has been made all the more poignant given the backdrop of the #metoo campaign in recent months: Mary made the choice to bear the Christ child.  She was not forced, convinced or coerced in any way.  Gabriel and therefore God gave her the option, and after some polite and prudent questions on her part ("How can this be?"), she answers, "I am the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to his word".

Mary made an educated and informed decision, despite the uncertainty of the future, despite the responsibility it brought on her (raising a child is a heck of a responsibility, much less God's child), despite the sure knowledge that it would lift her from what would otherwise be a life of obscurity.

But she chose to follow that path, and far from being a passive thing she did, it was a act of defiance in the context of a society that did not give women too many choices.

Sometimes, I think the world hasn't changed that much since the time of the Nativity: women still have to fight for control of their bodies, refugees are still poorly treated, tyrants still reign, and the poor and marginalized still struggle to fulfill their basic needs.

Over this Advent and Christmas season, I invite you reflect on how giving someone a choice, giving someone a voice is equally a sacred gesture, and an act of defiance.

Why John calling FROM the wilderness is significant

My sermon for this week was based on John 1:6-28.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

What did John the Baptist have that anyone wanted?

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 1:1-8.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

What to do while you are waiting

My sermon this week was based on Mark 13: 24-37.

I've said it before: I am not apocalyptic.  Was Jesus?  Maybe.  Are we both eschatological?  Yes indeed.

Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing, and of course they are in and of themselves loaded terms that are open to a fair degree of interpretation.

Apocalypticism referred originally to the gradual and ongoing revelation of God's will in the world, hence the reason why the Book of Revelation (singular!  Not "Revelations"!) is sometimes called John's Apocalypse...because God gave him a revelation.

The concept of the apocalypse has of course been shanghaied by certain religious elements, Hollywood and really bad authors, and that is easy enough to understand: the Book of Revelation is pretty vivid.

I personally belong to the camp that believes the Book of Revelation is not meant to be read literally, but this "Lake of Fire" concept of the apocalypse persists.

Eschatology, on the other hand, refers to the contemplation of the ultimate destiny of the human soul and of all mankind, culminating in our ultimate reunion with God.

You can see where there is an overlap, but I still think the two are distinct, at least in how they are lived out in the world.  Moreover, I think Jesus was the latter, and not necessarily the former.

Here's the thing: the world is going to end one way or another, either through the human inability to get along or we will get hit by an asteroid or swallowed by a black hole or our sun will eventually burn out.  This is simply a statistical inevitability.

I am not trying to be grim here.  I am merely pointing out that our time is limited.  In the back of all our heads, we are all aware that our individual lives are finite, and yet I think we all live like we are going to live forever, if not as individuals, then as a species.

A bleaker philosopher would state that we are all just waiting for an end of some kind.

Far from being grim, I think this actually a wonderful thing.  One of my favourite movies is Fight Club, and in one scene, Brad Pitt holds a gun on a store clerk and tells him to go back to school or he will hunt him down and kill him.  When asked why he did that, Pitt says, "Tomorrow his breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted".

How succulent life would be if we only lived like it was going to end!  And yet we get wrapped up in our own greed, selfishness and short-sightedness.  We pile grudges on our shoulders, we refuse to forgive others, we draw lines in the sand.

That's just bad for your soul, and bad for the souls of those around you, and that's what eschatology is all about.

We spend a lot of our time waiting: waiting in line, waiting for that special someone, waiting for an answer, waiting in traffic, and yes, some of us are waiting for the end of the world and/or the end of our lives.

I know some religious folks who believe that only they are holy, only they have the answers, and so far from going and reaching out to those very people that Jesus made it his vocation to bring God's love to (prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, widows, orphans), they seal themselves away from them in fear that they may be "infected".  They hunker down in fear, waiting for the bomb to drop.

But our lives are defined by what we do while we wait.  Do we strike out with courage and love in our hearts every day, or do we strike out with fear and hatred?  Make the time you are waiting count.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The punch line of the Bible

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 22:34-46.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

Like most people my age, I am in a hurry. All the time.  I don't have a lot of time to read the newspaper or long articles on the internet.  I get impatient if a video on Youtube is longer than 3 minutes. In other words, I (and many other people, I am sure) want straight, to the point information, no beating around the bush.  We want to know the hook, the nutshell, the point, the punch line.

The Bible is not a short book (actually, it is a collection of books, but that is perhaps for another sermon), so it is no wonder even so few Christians have read it from cover to cover.  You might ask what the point of the Bible is, what is the hook, what is the punch line?

I won't claim to have THE answer, but I can claim to have MY answer, and it is one phrase contained in today's Gospel passage:

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; love your neighbour as yourself".

My New Testament professor in seminary said that this was the beating heart and soul of what the Bible has to say; everything else is just commentary.  I tend to agree.

I you ever have read the Bible from cover to cover, you will note that there are a lot of rules, particularly in the book of Leviticus.  Lots of laws and regulation that you are probably not familiar with, but some of them you likely are.  The Ten Commandments, for example.  Most of us can recite at least 4 or 5 of them: don't kill, don't steal, don't lie, and so on.

In today's Gospel, Jesus is asked by a lawyer which Commandment is the most important.  This was and is still a great debate in religious and philosophical circles.  I think most of us would probably default to "Thou shalt not kill", but the problem is that when you do that, you necessarily de-prioritize the others, and that can get tricky.  They are not called "The Ten Suggestions" for a reason.

But this essentially what Jesus is being asked to do.  In other Gospel accounts of this event, the intent of the question is less hostile: the lawyer actually seems to be asking a genuine question so that he can be a wiser person.  Not the case in this Gospel.  The lawyer is trying to set Jesus up, hoping he will say something contentious so that the Pharisees and Sadducees can finally trap him.

In typical Jesus fashion, he doesn't chose any of the Ten.  Some people say that he invented an Eleventh, but this is not strictly accurate.  What he actually does is name the very foundation, the framework, the underpinning upon which all the Ten Commandments and all the other rules are actually based on:

Love for God and love for neighbour.

I would go so far as to say that the two are one and the same.

Think about it: if you really loved God and/or your neighbour, would you really have to be told not to kill them?  Not to lie to them?  Not to steal from them?  No.  That lesson would already be written on your heart.

We had to write these laws down and codify them because we are so bad at loving God and loving people sometimes.  I have said that good acid test for whether or not what you are about to do is right is to ask yourself, "Does this show love to God and/or my neighbour?"

If not, reevaluate.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Why it is actually OK to pray in the face of tragedy

So it has been an awfully long time since I have posted a blog entry.  What can I say, being the father of an 8-month old has challenged my schedule, and sadly some things have had to go by the wayside.

In the time since my last post, I have been appointed to a new church in the city of Ottawa, and I am currently learning the ropes of this community which I am blessed to be a part of.

Although I have preached and recorded a few sermons at the new place which I will eventually get around to posting, I wanted to address something that has been on my mind for quite some time, and that is the reaction we have to tragedy, whether that be a human-made tragedy or a natural disaster.

One of the blessings/curses of social media is that we know almost instantly when tragedy strikes, and we can broadcast our reactions almost instantly.  Like most people of faith, I turn, at least in part, to prayer as a coping strategy.  Some people chose to post on Facebook or Twitter than they are praying about the event in question.

Here is the thing: nobody actually knows what prayer accomplishes exactly.  There are those who would (and often do) say that prayer accomplishes absolutely nothing.  There are those at the other end of the spectrum who believe that prayer can and will accomplish all things.

Both extremes (as extremes so often are) are simply not helpful.  One is obstructively cynical, the other hopelessly naive.

So where does that leave prayer?  The best I can do is offer what prayer accomplishes for me.

Like everyone else, I react to things.  When I am struck, my automatic reaction is to strike back.  When I am wounded, my automatic reaction is to deal a wound in return.

When I see a tragedy in the world, I am filled with anger, rage, even hatred for the person/people who perpetrated it, or in the case of natural disaster I am filled with an overwhelming sense of helplessness and hopelessness because I simply feel powerless to do anything about it.

While I think these are all common and natural reactions, I think you would agree when I say these are simply not useful or productive emotions to feel.  This is where prayer comes in for me.

For people who do not pray or meditate (the two terms are synonymous for me), I think the assumption is that folks who do pray say something like this: "Please dear (insert deity here), let the dead get into heaven and please kill all the bad people, feed all the hungry people and clothe all the naked people", and then they dust off their hands and feel that they have done their good deed for the day.

Sadly, there are probably people whose prayers and meditations go no deeper than this, and perhaps it is right to chastise them.

But few non-praying people ever bother to ask us praying people what it is we are praying about, and so snide memes which replace actual thought and reflection abound.

So here is why I pray and what I pray for:

- I pray so that I do not fall victim to the same feelings of hatred, anger, rage, fear and sadness that motivate so much human-made tragedy, because I so often feel them automatically well up within me when I hear about tragedy.

- I pray so that I do not give myself over to the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that threaten to paralyze me in the face of tragedy.

- I pray to reflect on how I can best go out and actually do something to alleviate the suffering brought on by tragedy.

- And finally sometimes I pray because there is really nothing I can do about because the tragedy is on the other side of the world, or it is happening to someone I love, and grief and anger are the only things on my soul, and prayer is the only thing I've got.

In short, I don't think that prayer affects anything outside me.  I don't think it brings rain or sunshine, I don't think it affects the outcome of hockey games, or how well I do on a test.  By prayer has a profound effect within me.  Prayer prevents me from going off half-cocked, from reacting from the baser elements of my nature, from doing or saying something I might regret.  The best secular prayer there is is simply counting to ten when you are upset.  That's what prayer does: force me to pause so that I can respond to tragedy thoughtfully and deliberately, rather than in a reactive manner.

The whole point about prayer is that you are supposed to pray THEN go out and do something about it if you can and the fact is that many people do just that.  I know that some people hate seeing "Praying for..." on their feed because they think it is cheap.  They think it is a form of slacktivism, and that the posters are not actually doing anything useful, and so they post acerbic memes in response like "Or you could actually do something useful".

Newsflash: those memes are equally useless, and unless you are actually going out and doing something more useful than praying, you should probably think twice before posting them.

Here is the thing: when tragedy occurs, we are all affected.  We are all impacted in some way, and we all react in different ways.  Some people post "Praying for...".  Some people decorate their profile pic with a flag, slogan, or what have you in order to express solidarity with those who are suffering.  Some people hug their children a little tighter before going to bed, or tell their spouse they love them a little more seriously.  Some people give money, donate relief items, get on a plane and go to the affected areas.

Bottom line, these are all valid responses, including posting "Praying for..." on your Facebook feed.  I would much rather see FB light up with "Praying for..." instead of "Kill all...", because it means that other people out there are reaching out from a place of sympathy, empathy and solidarity, rather than a place of indifference, animosity and divisiveness.  They are trying to act or react from a better place that the people who perpetrate tragedy.

Who am I to take that away?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

An uncomfortable question

My sermon this week was based on Luke 24: 13-49.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

What are some adjectives you would use to describe a Christian?  Rather, knowing what some people who claim to be Christian can be like, what are some adjectives you would use to describe what a Christian is supposed to act like?

I think the answer is pretty obvious.  A Christian is supposed to act in loving, patient, tolerant, kind, generous and forgiving ways.

More on that later.

Today we read about the incident on the road to Emmaus, where two disciples who do not believe in the Resurrection actually meet, walk and talk with the resurrected Jesus for some time, yet they do not recognize him.  Theories abound as to why this might have been: maybe they had the sun in their eyes, maybe they were all teary-eyed at the death of their friend, but that is immaterial.  The point is, they didn't recognize him.  Even though Jesus unfolds to them the entirety of Scripture, illuminating the prophecies about himself, something which must have taken several hours at least, they still don't recognize him.

When do they recognize him?  When he breaks bread with them when they stop to rest for the evening.

Now while these two were disciples, they were not among the Twelve and as such were not at the Last Supper.  So how would they recognize this gesture of breaking bread?  It has been theorized that perhaps they were in attendance at the Feeding of the Multitude where Jesus divided up the fishes and loaves.  If this was the case,  they recognized Jesus in that moment, when he did something they recognize as Jesus-like.  That's how and when they knew they were in the presence of the Christ.

Here's the uncomfortable question: how would anyone know you are a Christian?

Sure, some of us wear crosses or have cross tattoos, but I hate to say it, the cross has become a watered-down symbol in popular culture.  Sure, we might be able to quote Scripture, but so can parrots.  I was in traffic the other day and had someone with a Jesus fish on the back of his car cut me off and flip me the bird.

The fact is, we can say we are one thing and wear all the symbols and trappings thereof, use all the codified language of the group, but we can act like the complete opposite.  Surely, the only proof that someone is actually a Christian is in the way they act.

Make no mistake, Christians are called to be better than other people.  Not that we are superior, mind you, but we are called to be more loving, more kind, more tolerant, more forgiving than your average person, but all too often, people who call themselves Christians act in the exact opposite way: they preach hate, they judge, they are intolerant, they hold on to grudges as though they were life preservers.

It's not too complicated: read the Gospels, note how Jesus acted, note how Jesus didn't act, and try to do that.  I am not giving you license to flip over tables in the Temple, just use your common sense.

The fact is that the disciples finally recognized Jesus when they saw him do something that reminded them of him.  If we are to call ourselves Christians, that means we should be out there doing things that remind us and others of Jesus.

If you are not out there acting in kind, loving, compassionate, forgiving ways and you call yourself a Christian, you're doing it wrong.

Do it right.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When did doubt become a bad thing?

My sermon this week was based on John 20:19-31.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

I LOVE preaching about Thomas.

When I was in seminary, a female colleague noted that it was difficult for her to relate to Jesus sometimes because he was male and she was female.  This opened up a really interesting discussion about how easy or difficult it was to relate to Jesus, and as it turns out, even though Jesus and I share a gender, we really don't have that much in common.

I am white, he was of Middle-Eastern descent.  I am Christian, he was Jewish.  He lived in the Middle East, I've never been further East that Germany.  He lived 2000 years ago, never saw a car, a cellphone, read a blog, used a microwave, and all these things are daily events in my life.

All this to say, I really don't have much in common with him either.

Perhaps the thing that most makes Jesus difficult to relate to, at least for me, is his divinity.  He performed miracles, was perfect in every way.  I go to the corner store to buy 3 things and forget what 2 of them are by the time I get there.

But the Apostles...those are guys I can relate to.  From impulsive Peter to traitorous Judas, I can relate to their all-too human impulses, thoughts, words and deeds.

Thomas is perhaps my favourite Apostle.  History remembers him as "Doubting Thomas", and this epithet seems to be construed my many people as an insult or a criticism.

When did doubt become such a bad thing?

We are curious, questioning beings gifted with the skills of reason and critical thinking.  Do we really think that God did not mean for us to use them?

But the problem is that we often get deeply entrenched in our ideas: if we decide on something, we naturally gravitate towards people, institutions, thinkers and writers who espouse what we believe to be true.  It can often be next to impossible to change our minds, even in the face of empirical, incontrovertible, overwhelming evidence.

And this is what I find so redeeming about Thomas.  When told about the Resurrection (something which is, by its very nature, nearly impossible to believe), Thomas says, "I will not believe until I see and touch the holes in his hands".

Lo and behold, some time later he gets the opportunity to do just that, and he changes his mind.

Thomas didn't want to be foolish.  He didn't want to believe in something without a purpose.  He wanted proof.

Doubt prevents us from being taken advantage of.  Doubt is actually something that pushes us to greater wisdom and knowledge.  Doubt is that which allows us to sift through the flood of information we now as human beings receive daily, to find the nugget of truth, to find that which really matters.  Without doubt, trust would be meaningless.

Today, I invite you to doubt everything.

Why it's actually not that difficult to believe in the Resurrection

I recently read an article that stated that a full 25% of Christians don't believe in the Resurrection of Christ.

I'll be honest with you: I do believe in the Resurrection, as it is reported in the Bible, 100%, no metaphor, no simile, no hyperbole.

In other words, I believe Jesus was dead, was in a tomb for 3 days, and then came back to life.  Literally.  I kid you not.

I don't blame you if you don't, it's pretty unbelievable.  I mean, that's what a miracle is after all, right?  If it wasn't hard to believe, it would just be a thing that happens every day.

I don't actually find it that hard to believe in the Resurrection, and the reason is that by my estimation, we are daily awash with things that would be considered miraculous to people who lived 100 years ago, and which we would consider to be miraculous if only we weren't so jaded.

Let me tell you about my Easter morning.  I got up and popped a muffin in the microwave.  In 30 seconds, invisible radiowaves agitated water molecules in my muffin, and it came out hot.  I didn't see it happen, but it did.

Then I got in my car, which is powered by fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels which are essentially liquefied dinosaur bones and prehistoric biological material.  Somehow, these fuels catch fire in my car's engine, and this controlled explosion propels me forward, somehow managing to not blow me up with it.

As I drove, I popped in my bluetooth headset which communicates invisibly with my cellphone, and my cell phone communicates invisibly with my parents' cellphone, and we wished each other a happy Easter, even though we are separated by several hundred kilometers.

Have you ever flown in an airplane?  You are sitting in a chair in machine that weighs several hundred tons and travels at several hundred kilometers an hour, and somehow manages to not fall out of the sky.

Now all of the foregoing examples have very solid science behind them, but they would have been inconceivable and incomprehensible to someone who lived 100 years ago.  And this brings me back to the Resurrection: I believe it happened, I am just waiting for the science to catch up.

The problem with this modern-day miracles is that we fail to see them.  We get annoyed when there is a cold spot in our muffin.  We pine for a nicer looking car.  We are irritated when we travel through a dead zone.  We positively bark with rage when our plane is delayed or if the person next to us touches our elbow mid-flight.

We should be wandering around in a constant state of amazement and gratitude.

The Resurrection is the greatest message any God has ever sent any species on any planet we know of, and when we contemplate it, we have only two possible reactions: either we believe in it or we don't.

If you don't, read no further.  Go outside and play, get on with your life, do whatever you want because it literally can't possibly matter to you.

If you do, however, believe in the Resurrection, then that should be something that guides your behaviour and the way you live your life.

If you believe in the Resurrection, that means you believe that through Christ, God send the most important message he ever sent to humanity.  It means we should be wandering around with a profound sense of gratitude, humility and a profound sense of responsibility.

Most churchgoers have head the Resurrection story every year their whole lives.  None of us gasped on Easter morning when we heard about the Resurrection.  We all saw it coming.

But maybe that has made us a little blase about the Resurrection.  Familiarity breeds contempt, you could say.  Sometimes, when you spend enough time in a system, whether it be a workplace or a family or a church, you forget how cool your job can be, how neat your spouse is, how interesting some fellow churchgoers can be.

If we really consider ourselves to be children of the Resurrection, how dare we take each other for granted?  How dare we mistreat one another?  How dare we abuse other people?  How dare we sell our own selves short?

For me, the Resurrection is a story of the fragility and beauty and goodness of life itself, and I have been reminded of that this Easter as I watch my new baby grow.  I am reminded that I live in the shadow of the Resurrection, and no longer the shadow of the tomb.

This Easter and this coming year, I hope we can all feel the new life we have.  I hope we can all remember that we are all fearfully and wonderfully wrought, and that we can treat each other with the same wonder and love with which God treats us.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Lazarus unchained

My sermon this week was based on John 11:1-45.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

I have heard the story of Lazarus my whole life, and yet there is a point which is so obvious in this reading that I simply never noticed before preparing my sermon this week.  We are told that Jesus stood outside the tomb and beckoned Lazarus to come out, and we are then told that "The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth" (John 11:44).

If he was bound hand and foot and also effectively blindfolded, how could he possibly come out of the tomb?

Maybe I'm being pedantic, like the people who argue how many people were actually in attendance when Jesus divided up the fishes and loaves (Gospel accounts differ), but for some reason this image of a bound Lazarus captivated me, and it got me to thinking.

As we approach Holy Week and Easter, we are asked to contemplate the resurrection of Christ, and I always have the same problem when it comes to the Biblical miracles: whether or not I believe in them, what am I supposed to do with them as a modern Christian?

The thing is that resurrection is God's business.  But we do have a part to play.  We need to decide how to respond to this resurrection.

I don't know anybody who has been dead for three days and has been brought back to life, and likely neither do you.

But I do know people who have been handed terminal diagnoses and who have recovered.  I do know people who have had to face depression and mental illness, and who are able to live today with joy and peace.  I know people who have recovered from addiction, lived through the death of a spouse or child.

I know people who have felt dead or wanted to die, and who live fully and joyously today.  I know people, myself included through my struggles with depression and addiction, who can relate very viscerally to resurrection.

I suspect if you stop to think about your own life and what you have lived through, so can you.

I have never sat down with someone who has been through such a situation and heard them say, " I really need to buy a Ferrari" or "I really need a bigger house".  I have heard them say, "I need to spend more time with my family" or "I need to give back to my community".

This is the whole point about resurrection: it is about change.  Not a change from life to death and back to life again, but a change in our hearts and minds an spirits that realigns our priorities and our perceptions of the world around us and our place in it.  Resurrection in that sense is new life indeed, and when you are resurrected, you have to live your life differently.

What we need to understand is that we are already a resurrected people, you and I.  Through Christ, as Christians, we have been brought to life and Christ has beckoned us from the door of the tomb.

But few of us act like it.  Too often, we forget or ignore this superlative aspect of our faith.  Why?

I think like Lazarus, we are bound.  God resurrects, brings us back from the brink, helps us to overcome, but He does not do the work for us.  Like Christ, God beckons us from the door of the tomb, inviting us to cast off the things that bind us and to stagger blinking into the sunshine of new life.

What are the things that bind us?  What are the things that prevent us from exiting our tomb and grasping that new life?  Greed, selfishness, anger, fear, laziness, hopelessness...these are just a few of the things that could bind us and keep us in our tombs.

I had a mentor who used to say, "Whoever or whatever keeps you up in the middle of the night is what binds you".

Certainly we have all lain awake at night pondering a situation or person, rolling over anger, worry or regret.

Don't get me wrong, some things are worth getting angry about, some things are genuinely worrisome and I am not inviting people to a life of cavalier recklessness.  But I am inviting us all to cast of the things that bind us and prevent us from living happy, joyous and free.

Whatever binds you this Lenten season, whatever your tomb is made of, I hope you can walk out of it and live the resurrected life.

Monday, February 20, 2017

I'll see you in hell

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 5:21-37.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

So that may be an alarming title for a sermon, but bear with me.  Jesus tells us that if we have hatred in our heart, we have already committed murder and if we have lust in our heart, we have already committed adultery, and we are liable to the fire of hell.

See you there.

I think it is fairly obvious that Jesus is speaking hyperbolically in this passage.  If we all followed his direction to start hacking off limbs if they caused us to sin, I think we would all be stumps at this point.  Sin, whether it be anger, lust, greed or whatever is simply part of the human condition, and we all have felt their pull, but it is actually what we do with and about that sin that defines us as people and as Christians.

Oddly enough, I think this passage has everything to do with community, even though Jesus doesn't mention in explicitly, once again bear with me.

When you ask a person in my age bracket (50 and under or so) what their religion is, how they practice their faith, their response is most likely something that has now become something of a cliche: "I'm more spiritual than religious".

More often than not, what this actually means is, "I like sleeping in on a Sunday", or "I don't want the responsibility that comes with being a member of a community".

My generation is extremely selfish.  We are not joiners, we don't like to commit, we don't like strings attached.  We are taught, although perhaps not in so many words, to be self-reliant, self-supporting, to stand on our own two feet.  The problem with this attitude is that it does very little to foster a sense of community, and it is to our detriment, because it is only within the context of a community that we really become human beings.

Let me put it this way: if you were born and raised in a box and never had any contact with any other human being, you would most likely never have to learn how to cope with anger or lust because you would never have felt them.  Other people are often the cause of or at least the sounding board for our own emotions.  If we were raised in a box and somehow managed to have emotions of some kind, we would have no idea how to regulate them.  Our communities, whether they be our families, our friends, our churches or our workplaces are therefore quite literally a training or proving ground in which we are able to practice, exercise and regulate our emotion.  Our communities teach us what is appropriate and inappropriate in terms of our emotional reactions.

When you join a community, there are always expectations: dues to pay, volunteer positions to fill, schedules to keep, behavioural norms to adhere to, etc.  I can't think of a single group or community that has no expectations whatsoever.  Churches are no different.  Many people, particularly in my age range, balk at those expectations, and fail to adhere to a community because they don't want to take on those expectations.

The other thing about my generation is that we are consumers.  If we don't like the minister or the yogi or the soccer coach or the painting instructor, we just find one we do like.  If we get into a disagreement with someone at our church, our yoga studio, our sports complex or our art class, we just leave.

The problem with this is that if we leave without resolving these problems, we deny ourselves of one of the greatest gifts of community, and that is reconciliation and forgiveness.

It has been said that anyone who thinks forgiveness is for the weak hasn't tried it.  It takes enormous strength to forgive someone, to be forgiven, to forgive oneself.  How could one do this without a community?  True, without a community there would likely be no sin to begin with, but then in what sense could be possibly embrace the fullness of our humanity?  Life in a box would be awfully boring.

I think the gifts of being in community far outweigh the drawbacks.  I think that anyone who deprives themselves of community is robbing themselves of the full bounty of what it means to be human, with all our strengths and weaknesses, all our failures and triumphs, all our joy and sorrow.  I for one am glad of the community that surrounds me and all the blessings and trials that brings.

Just be perfect, that's all

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 5:38-48.

In today's Gospel passage we are told to be perfect.  Oh, is that all?

Here's the thing about perfection: it is impossible to achieve, but if you set the bar low, you are going to come in low.  Set the bar high, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

How many of us could actually do what Jesus asks us to do today, though?  How many of us could, when struck, offer the other cheek as well?  How many of us could, when sued for our coat, toss in our cloak as well?

Not me most days, I can tell you that.  Our human impulse when struck is to strike back, whether this be literally or figuratively.  At best, Jesus Christ is asking us to be good-natured doormats.  At worst, he is asking us to be perfect, which is simply impossible.

And yet I think he is on to something.  I think Jesus said these words knowing they were impossible, knowing that we knew they would be impossible, but Jesus was and is always trying to show us a new way, new territories of the human spirit, ways of acting that are contrary to our human impulses because sometimes our human impulses are simply not good for us.

Ever gotten into a fight?  Someone hits you, you hit back.  Has the other person ever said, "Well, that was fair, now we're even, fight over"?  No.  Generally, you hit back, they grab a pool cue, you grab a bottle, they grab a chair, you grab a table, they pull a knife, you pull a gun, and the whole thing escalates until someone really gets hurt.

That, I think I am fair in saying, is what our human nature tells us to do.

While we cannot take this Gospel passage 100% literally because it sets the bar so high that we would constantly be failing, it does make it clear that Jesus is trying to show us a different way, a way that could make things better and change the world.

This passage is actually part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus speaks at great length about what the kingdom of God is actually like, who is actually blessed, and what it means to be a Godly person.  To cut a long story short, it is, respectively, nothing like what we think it is like, not the people we think and not what we have been doing.

I preached on this passage on the same Sunday as our annual Vestry meeting, and it was particularly apropos: our church, like so many others in North America, is experiencing difficulty, mostly of a financial nature.  The future is uncertain, and what we look like in a year from now will probably be very different that what we look like today.  It will need to be in order to continue providing ministry in our area.

This is why I issued a challenge to our incoming council: if you want, need or expect church to go on being the same thing it is, please reconsider your seat at the table.  If however you feel courageous enough to try new things, to listen hard to our communities and to the movement of the Spirit, then please pull up a chair.

Look, it would be scary as hell I think to turn the other cheek and risk the hammer falling a second time, but if the way you are is not working, well, it would be madness to keep doing that.  That goes for people, families, workplaces, churches, etc.

Jesus was and is always trying to draw us forward to new things, and new things are always uncertain.  But I have said it before and I will say it again, trying new things, taking risks, doing something different is how we find the life abundant that God wants us to live.

I hope and pray that we can all find that life this year.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Always get out of the boat

My sermon for this week was based on Matthew 4:12-23.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

One of my favourite movies is Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.  Loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, it tells the story of an American army captain named during the Vietnam War named Willard, played my Martin Sheen.  Willard is called upon to journey by boat up a river to eliminate Kurtz, a colonel who has apparently gone insane.

Without giving you a whole synopsis, the further Willard travels geographically, the further he descends into the darkness of the human heart and soul.

There is a scene in this movie where Willard and another of his boat-mates (Chef) pull the boat ashore to forage for mangoes and are attacked by a tiger.  Narrowly escaping, they make it back to the boat and as they set out again, Chef breaks down and starts screaming, "Never get out of the ****ing boat!"

In a voice-over, Willard says, "Never get out of the boat.  Absolutely ***damn right.  Unless you were willing to go all the way".

Today I would like to challenge you to get out of the boat.

The boat, of course, represents safety, security, the things we know, the things we can count on, rely on and control.  It marks the boundary of a comparatively small space where we are master and commander.

The water (or the shore) is an undiscovered country, the unknown, the places we have never been before and the things we have never done before, both literally and metaphorically.

I have a phobia of deep water.  I am a great swimmer and I am fine in a boat, but if I can't see the bottom, forget about it.  I am not getting out of the boat.  My mother tells me she watched Jaws while she was pregnant with me, maybe that's why, I don't know.  But I have friend who jump off the boat in the middle of the lake to go swimming and even though I know there is nothing bigger than a carp down there, I'm like "Are you insane!?  You have no idea what's down there!"

And that's the thing about the water.  It doesn't just contain the unknown, it is the unknown.  And yet that is often where we are called to be, where we need to be.

There is a fair amount of boat-leaving in today's Gospel.  Andrew and John literally leave their boat to follow Jesus, chucking in solid careers as fishermen.  Sure, they were never going to get famous or rich fishing, but it was an honourable profession.

But what often goes unnoticed is that Jesus steps out of a metaphorical boat.  We are told that he moved from Nazareth to Galilee, a distance of 40 kilometers.  Now that might not seem huge by today's standards, but bear in mind this would have to walked.  That would take about 7 hours at a good clip.  This was also before the dawn of our modern communication devices and even of a reliable postal service, so he would be out of contact with friends, family and loved ones.

Jesus, John and Andrew totally tossed their lives up in the air and said, "Ok God, take care of us".  How many of us would do the same?  I for one don't much like change.  I don't even like sleeping away from my house.  These were big changes, big risks, big adventures.

The problem is that we don't often grow by remaining the same.  In order to grow, we must always be learning, moving, trying new things, gathering new experiences.  We must constantly be getting out of boats.

If you want a comfortable religion, don't choose Christianity.  Contrary to what many seem to believe, the purpose of Christ was to make us comfortable, but to make us deeply uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable with our own faults, hypocrisy and mediocrity.  Uncomfortable with the abuses of elected and religious officials.  Uncomfortable with greed and consumerism.  Uncomfortable with injustice.

I say this because I suspect with recent political developments to the south, there is about the be a lot more injustice in the world, and I am aware that I am a white, heterosexual male.  To quote Louis CK, you can't even hurt my feelings.  I have never wanted for justice or opportunity, I have always been at the top of the pile.

In other words, I have always been in the boat.  Not everybody has that luxury, and Christ calls us to do something about that.  Christ calls us to rock the boat, because as the saying goes, real boats rock.  That's what they do.

The world needs people who have the courage to take those risks, rock those boats.  Whether it is something personal like you are thinking of starting a new job, moving to a new country, asking that person out on a date, or whether it is something wider like fighting for the rights of women or trying to assist refugees, the world needs people who are willing to get out of the boat and brave that unknown.

Today, rock the boat.  Get out of the boat and into the great unknown where life abundant lies waiting for you.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Reclaiming the middleman

My sermon this week was based on John 1:29-42.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

The middleman in our society gets a bad rap.  Any business model will attempt to "cut out the middleman" as he is largely superfluous to the process, ends up driving up costs and complicating the system, but I would like to argue that in many cases, the middleman is actually an honourable and humble thing to be.

Today's Gospel is deceptively busy, and tells us the story of a couple of people who were quite happy to be middlemen.  They did not want the spotlight, they were able to recognize that they were not the main event, and they went about the very important task of bringing people to the main event, as it were.

I am speaking of course of John the Baptist and Andrew.

John the Baptist had gathered a fairly large crowd of people, and we are even told that he had disciples of his own.  One might suspect that John would give in to the very human tendency to revel in the attention he was getting, but he was always adamant that he was not the Messiah.  When he met Jesus and recognized him as the Messiah, he directed the people and his disciples (of whom Andrew was one) towards Jesus and encouraged them to follow him.

Later in the Gospel, we are told that Andrew was content to bring his brother Simon to Jesus.  Jesus renames him Peter, and most of us can name a few things Peter did to secure his place in history: he failed to walk on water, he lopped off the slave's ear, he denied Jesus three times, and he later became the first Bishop of the Christian Church.

Andrew, on the other hand, is somewhat more obsequious, and consequently history remembers very little about him.  What history does remember is that he brought his brother to Christ, and set something of a precedent in so doing.

I think we would all like to be lights to other people, but within a religious framework at least, we must remember that we are not lights in and of ourselves.  Like John, what light we have within us merely points to something greater: it points to God.  We must always remember that in order to remain humble and to not take on responsibilities that we realistically have no right or business taking on.

There is another aspect of this Gospel passage that hearkens to the role of middleman, and it is somewhat darker.  It has to do with the phrase, "Lamb of God", which John utters several times in the Gospel.  I used to think that this phrase meant that Jesus was like a lamb: gentle, meek and mild.

However, it must be remembered that within the system of animal sacrifice which ancient Judaism practiced, the lamb was the preferred sacrificial animal, and so another way of rendering this phrase would be to call Jesus the "sacrifice of God".

Now, soteriology (salvation theology) is not my strong suit, but as an anthropologist I know that sacrifices were seen as mediating the relationship between man and God.  Sacrifices were seen not only as a way of appeasing God, but of expressing gratitude to God for health, wealth, prosperity and so on.

In reality, when we put money in the collection plate, we are doing exactly the same thing, except with little or no bloodshed.  Money has become our modern sacrifice.

So what would that mean for Jesus?  Why call him the Lamb of God?  Perhaps it was to foreshadow his own death, in which he became a sacrifice to mediate all of humanity back to God.  Perhaps the phrase means that Jesus was God's sacrifice to us and to the world.  Perhaps the phrase refers to the sacrifice that Jesus made of his own welfare, desires, dreams, goals and ultimately of his very life in the service of God.

As I said, I leave soteriology to wiser people.

But there is a compelling question that Jesus asks in today's Gospel.  It is the first phrase he utters in this Gospel, and it is perhaps one of the most poignant questions anybody has every asked.  When Andrew and another of John's disciples start following Jesus down the road, he becomes aware of them, turns to them and asks, "What are you looking for"?

What other question is there, really?  I feel pretty confident saying that every human being has or will at some point ask, "What am I looking for?"  What is going to give us meaning and fulfill us?  What is going to fill the vacancy that just about every human being has felt?

Perhaps what we are looking for is be the middleman like Andrew was, to be that person that points other people towards the light, towards what they are looking for, towards wellness and wholeness.  Perhaps it is not always about accolades and being in the spotlight.  Sometimes it is about being behind the scenes, playing a support role.  These roles come perhaps with fewer accolades, but they are no less critical.

Today I invite you to reflect on the humility and glory of the middleman.

Am I an adult yet?

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 3:13-17.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

As far as I know, I am an adult, but the funny thing is I don't when that happened.

I have Jewish friends who had Bar and Bat Mitzvah's where they were told explicitly that they were no longer children.  They had become adults, were responsible for their own actions, and they were to leave childish things behind.  This is concerted, purposeful ritual that draws a clear line between childhood and adulthood.  It propels the child from one psychological or spiritual state into another.

I never had that, and I suspect that many people reading this might not have had that either.  Although I suspect I am an adult, no one has ever told me so, and I have had no ritual or rite of passage to propel me from one stage of life to the next.

When did I become an adult?  Was it when I was Confirmed?  When I graduated high school or got a degree?  Was it when I lost my virginity, got my driver's license, got my first car, my first job, my first apartment?  Was it when I got married?  Bought a house?  My wife and I are expecting our first child in a matter of weeks, will I be an adult then?

Many people bemoan the immaturity of my generation, and although I am not trying to blame society, perhaps it is because of this lack of ritual in my culture.  Never underestimate the power of ritual, is what I am trying to say.  Ritual can fulfill us, prepare us, empower us, ground us, root us.

Jesus takes part in a ritual in today's Gospel passage, a ritual he had no need or no business taking part in, but that I think he saw the need to take part in: he was baptized.

Christianity did not invent baptism, of course.  We adopted it from our Jewish ancestors.  If you were born Jewish, no rite of initiation was necessary, you were part of the People, but if you converted to Judaism from another faith, baptism was necessary to cleanse you literally and figuratively from the impurity of your past lifestyle, and to welcome you into the People.

We know Jesus was Jewish: he was born of Jewish parents, he was circumcised, he followed the Law.  The question then is why would Jesus present himself for baptism?

I think it is because Jesus understood and valued ritual.

Ritual marks the end of one stage of our lives and the beginning of the next.  It draws a line between who we were and who we are becoming.  It is a sending off, in a way.  I think Jesus felt a deep need to be baptized.  We know that both he and John preached a baptism of repentance, warning people not rely on their lineage or their religion to save them.

In my interpretation of Scripture, Jesus and John were both advocating that you had to be a good person, that fulfilling all the Laws and remaining ritually pure was simply not enough if you had no love for God or for your neighbour.  I think Jesus saw this ritual of baptism which he submitted to as an act of humility, a pledge between him and God that he was going to embark upon and follow the path that had been set before him.  I think he saw it as a necessary step, a preparation and starting point for the great journey was about to undertake.

We all have our rituals, whether they are religious or whether you just have a "morning ritual".  They help get our day or week started, they are things we turn to for nourishment and directions.  They are touchstones, they are a footpath, but the downside is that they can also be hollow cyphers, devoid of meaning perhaps because we don't put the proper emphasis on them (like baptism and confirmation) or because we do them so regularly (like communion).

I invite you to reflect on the rituals in your own life, whether they be religious or not.  Why do you do the things you do?  What do they mean to you?  What do you get out of them?  How do they prepare you?  How do they propel you from one state to the next?

Far from being stifling and empty, ritual can be rich and dynamic.  I invite you to reflect as Jesus did on the value of ritual, and let ritual nourish your life.

The things we fear the most

My sermon this week was based on Matthew 2:13-23.

To download an audio of my sermon, click here.

I want to ask you to do something this new year that will sound counterintuitive.  I want to ask you to do something that scares you.

Before I go on, I want to explain that here is such a thing as good fear.  I love horror movies and roller coasters, for example.  I actively seek those fears out and I enjoy them.  There are fears that are instinctive and are there to keep us alive, such as the fear of getting hit by a car that reminds us to look both ways before crossing the street.  I would argue that from a survival standpoint, those fears are also good.  But I also suffer from anxiety and depression, and those are decidedly fears I would rather do without.

Most of us would do just about anything to avoid most situations that scare us, but I would argue that it is those very situations into which God is constantly calling us, and from which we can expect to grow the most.  I cannot think of any new lesson or any new growth I have made in this life by remaining in my comfort zones, and I suspect neither have you.

Joseph did something that must have scared him a great deal in today's Gospel passage, something that likely goes unseen by our modern eyes.  He discovers that Herod is killing all the first-born males under the age of two in an effort to eliminate this "King of Kings" that has been prophesied.  So he takes his wife and newborn son and flees to Egypt.

This should sound somewhat familiar as a very similar situation transpired in the opposite direction some 1500 years earlier when Moses led the enslaved Jewish people out of Egypt after the slaying of the first-born.

Imagine, if you will, being forced or compelled to return to a land that had historically enslaved, exploited and abused your people?  I have no idea what relations were like between Egypt and Judaism at the time of Christ's birth, but even if they were harmonious, it would have to take a fair amount of courage just to uproot yourself and your family and flee to a whole different country.  Most of us get stressed just moving house!

But God is always calling us towards something new, into new and sometimes frightening territory.  I would argue that this is positive sign.  When you are afraid, you know you are being challenged, you know you are going to grow.

Think of anything you have done that caused you fear: asked out that boy or girl out who later became your husband or wife; moved to that new house that then became your home; started that new job that then became your career.

Fear tells us we have something to overcome, and most of the time, there is a payoff to pushing through it.  Fear tells us that we are about to embark on the unknown, and our lives are quite likely going to change as a result.

Generally speaking, we can respond to our fears in one of two ways, exemplified by Joseph's reaction in today's Gospel passage, and by Herod's reaction.

Joseph is no doubt fearful of giving up everything he knows and moving to another country to escape persecution, and so he and his family become refugees.  But through it all, he trusts that as God has directed him to this place, he and his family will be safe.

Conversely, Herod responds to the birth of Christ, the birth of the King of Kings, by going mustang.  He locks down the whole country and commands every first-born male to be killed.  He did so because he was afraid of losing his power and position.

But the kingdom of God is not based on power and position.  Herod was afraid of losing it all and so he reacted with violence, but Joseph was ready to lose it all, and that's how the Kingdom works.

This year, if you are in the habit of making resolutions, I would invite you to resolve to do something that scares you: ask that person out, apply for that job you've always wanted, go back to school, try to cook a souffle, whatever.  Do something that intimidates you.  Try something you have never tried before.  Go out on a limb.

God is always calling us to abundant life, and that life is out there, beyond the boundaries we set for ourselves.