20 November 2017

"Trust, fear, love - what are we to do?" (sermon)


Chetwynd Shared Ministry
November 19, 2017
Scripture:  Matthew 25:14-30
 

Today’s parable makes me think of an episode in one of my favourite TV shows, Rev.  It is a BBC show, and I don’t think that it has been broadcast in Canada, so don’t worry if you haven’t heard about it or seen it.  It is set in a struggling Church of England congregation in inner-city London.  Adam, the minister, is collaborating with the imam of the local mosque to build a playground for all of the neighbouring children – the are each going to fundraise with their congregations, and pool the money together so that the work gets done.

Adam decides to use this parable as the basis of his half of the fundraising.  He reads the parable, and then hands out £10 bills to each member of his congregation, telling them to act like the first or second slaves in this story, finding some way to turn £10 into £20 or more.  And they go on their way after the service.

A few weeks later, one person comes back to Adam and tells him that he has invested his £10 in the very best “emerging markets hedge fund” that has an unheard-of return of 9% in just one month.  So the original £10 is now worth £10.90.  The investors charge a 20% fee on any profit – there goes 18 pence, plus tax of 20% on their fee, and so the original £10 is now worth £10.68.  Not quite the doubling of the investment that the first two slaves are able to produce, plus the show doesn’t tell us how ethical the investing practices of this hedge fund are.

Another character comes back to Adam, and hands him an envelope containing £350.  He was not returning twice as much as he had been given; he was returning 35 times as much.  When questioned about how he had managed this, the character presented a very sound business plan – he had bought £10 worth of drugs, cut it with detergent and sold it to kids in the low-income housing area and made £50.  He then did the same thing twice more, ending up with £500, but kept back some as his cut of the profits.  He claimed that it wasn’t really drug money, but was more like detergent money.

So all of this raises for me the question of how the first two servants in today’s parable managed to double the value of the money that was entrusted to them.  Surely this parable couldn’t be an endorsement of exploitative investment practices or drug dealing.

Where are the teachers here this morning, or retired teachers?  Put up your hands.  Now, everyone who has ever been a student, put up your hands too.  OK – I’ve got another story to share with you.

For the kingdom of God will be like a university classroom.  At the beginning of the semester, the teacher gathered the students around her and reviewed the course syllabus.  She explained to them that there would be a weekly seminar where the students would learn the course material, but at the end of the semester, 100% of the students’ grades would be based on a creative independent study, which they were to prepare using the course material and their own research.

So week-by-week the class met together.  They learned together.  They challenged one another.  The first student grasped onto an idea early in the semester and spent the rest of the semester researching and looking into his topic.  He dug into the historical research and read a variety of scholars, and at the end of the term, he pulled all of his ideas together.  Likewise, the second student had decided on her topic by the middle of the semester, and she did similar research on her independent study.  The third student, however, attended class each week and took copious notes, but did no outside work on his topic.

At the end of the semester, the class gathered together and they presented their work.  The first student stood up and presented a paper that amazed all who listened to it with its brilliance and relevance for daily life.  When he was done, the teacher said to him, “Well done, diligent student.  Put on this cap and gown and prepare for your graduation.  You have entered into the joy of scholarship, and now you can claim your place as a scholar.” 

Likewise, the second student stood up and presented a paper that amazed all who listened to it with its brilliance and relevance for daily life.  The teacher said to her, “Well done, diligent student.  Put on this cap and gown and prepare for your graduation.  You have entered into the joy of scholarship, and now you can claim your place as a scholar.”

But when the third student stood up to speak, he said to the teacher, “I have heard that you are a hard marker, and that you don’t appreciate anyone’s opinions but your own.  Therefore, instead of a paper, I am going to stand here and read your class notes.”  And that is what the third student did.  When he had finished, the teacher said to him, “You timid and lazy student.  You could have at least plagiarized a paper and given us something interesting to listen to.  You have not done what I asked you to do, your grade is an F, and you will need to repeat this course next year.

For those who have done what I asked, they shall be celebrated; but for those who did not do what I asked, even that which they did do shall be counted as nothing.  As for this student, get him out of my sight.

So… I don’t think that Jesus would suggest plagiarism, just like I don’t think that Jesus was recommending unfair and unjust economic investment practices.  I think that the suggestion that the third slave invest the money for the sake of interest was possibly exasperation, or exaggeration in order to make a point.

So if the parable isn’t about how to invest money, what might it be about?

Some people suggest, because of the word “talent,” that this is a parable about how we are to use our skills and abilities.  But that argument falls apart when you realize that our English word for talent actually comes from an interpretation of this parable, not the other way around.  What is meant by a talent here is a very large sum of money.  One talent was equivalent to the wage earned by a day labourer for 6000 days – approximately 20 years – of labour.  In today’s terms, the first slave was entrusted with around 2 ½ million dollars, the second slave was entrusted with just over a million dollars, and the third slave was given just over $500,000 which he promptly hid in a hole in the ground.  It’s not a story about our skills and abilities, it’s a story about how the slaves reacted when they were given something really, really valuable.

So if it’s not a story about cheating the investment system, and it’s not a story about using your musical gifts to sing in the church choir or using your mathematical gifts to serve as the church treasurer, what point is Jesus trying to make with this story?

I think that we get a hint if we look at the context of this parable. 
This parable is part of a series of parables that Jesus tells to his disciples to answer their question back in chapter 24, “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”  In other words, how will we know when the world is going to end?

Jesus’ answer is quite clear – he doesn’t need a parable to answer that question.  He tells the disciples directly that nobody knows – only God.  Not the angels, not the Son, but only the Father.  The parable that we read together last week – the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids – told us that the end of the world and the coming kingdom of God is probably further away than we expect, but we shouldn’t give up hope and we should never stop expecting it to come, because it’s going to be like a big party when it does get here.

Last week’s parable of the ten bridesmaids is followed immediately by today’s parable of the three slaves.  Now the idea of slavery doesn’t sit well with our 21st Century understanding, and if I am being honest, stories like this one have been used over the centuries to justify practices of slavery.  I’m not going to say slavery is right – I think that slavery is very, very wrong – but it was a part of the culture in which Jesus lived.  And a slave was obligated to do whatever his or her master demanded.  No questioning, no negotiating – this isn’t a relationship of equals but there is very much a power imbalance in this relationship with the master holding the power and the slave in a vulnerable position.  Maybe a bit like the teacher and the students in my re-write of the parable.  And maybe a bit like the relationship between God and us.  God has the power in the relationship, and we are vulnerable next to God.

But the master in the story doesn’t wield his power arbitrarily – instead he shows a good deal of trust in his slaves.  He trusts them with immense sums of money in his absence; and the first two slaves respect their master enough that they do their best with what has been entrusted to them.

But the third slave doesn’t respond to the master’s trust with respect, he responds with fear.  When his master returns, the third slave says to him, “I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

So like last week’s parable, we’re dealing with a delay.  Last week, the groom was delayed from his own wedding until after midnight; this week, the master returns home from his journey only after a long time.  So if we think of the master in today’s story as being like God – the one with the power in the relationship, but also the one who loves and trusts us – God was with us in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh.

But remember that Jesus is telling this parable in the last week of his life – in a few short days, Jesus is going to be betrayed and crucified.  He is telling this story in a time and a place of increasing tension and conflict.  He likely had a pretty good sense that his death was near – that he, like the master in this parable, was going to be going away on a long journey.

Jesus knew that he would be returning, but remember that he told the disciples that he didn’t know when – not the Son but only the Father knows.  And maybe, with this parable, he is telling them how they should wait.

Jesus has entrusted his disciples – the original group that he was telling this story to, and all of us who have come in the centuries since – Jesus has entrusted us with a valuable treasure.  We have been entrusted with the stories of Jesus – with the stories about how he healed people, how he liberated people, how he welcomed people.  We have been entrusted with the teachings of Jesus – the parables that he told, the sermons that he gave.  And what should we do with this great treasure?

I think, with this parable, Jesus tells us that he wants us to share this treasure with others.  The first two slaves, who are called good and trustworthy, and who are invited to enter into the joy of their master – they don’t hide the treasure that they have been given – they go out and they trade with it – they give it away, in effect – and the treasure is multiplied beyond anything that is possible in the regular market economy.

But that poor third slave.  The third slave was afraid, and he let his fear drive his actions.  He hid the treasure – the good news of the gospel – in a hole in the ground and sat there, waiting for his master to return.

How often do we let fear drive our actions?  Fear is a horrible thing, but it is a very powerful thing.    Think of the increase in terrorist activity in this century.  The ultimate goal of terrorists is not to cause death and destruction, but to incite fear, to incite terror.  If we respond with fear, then those who want to cause that fear will win.

Fear is a tool used by people and groups who want to oppress another.  You see it in politics – be afraid of what the future holds and be afraid of what the other party might do; vote for us and we will protect you.  You see it in advertising – be afraid of the world; give your money to us and we will keep you safe.  You also see fear in our day-to-day world – be afraid of those who look different than us, be afraid of those who speak differently than us, be afraid of those who pray differently than us; and this fear leads to prejudice and hatred and violence.

But Jesus tells us not to be afraid – not to be like the third slave in today’s story – not to let our actions be driven by our fear.  We have been entrusted with the treasure that is the good news of the gospel – that God so loves the world that God became vulnerable in the human flesh of Jesus Christ.  And because of this, we don’t ever have to let our actions be driven by fear – our actions can be driven by this overwhelming love that is God.  Thanks be to God!

Let us pray:
God who is love,
            fill us with your love.
Let us be so filled with love
            that there is no room left for fear.
Help our every action,
            our every thought,
            our every words,
                        be driven by the love
                                    that is at the centre of the gospel.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            who came to this world singing love.
Amen.


(Even our third snowfall warning in the past week didn't keep people away on Sunday morning - though a train passing through the middle of town just before the service started slowed some people down!)

12 November 2017

Waiting for the Wedding (sermon)


Chetwynd Shared Ministry
Sunday November 12, 2017
Reading:  Matthew 25:1-13
 

And here we have yet another challenging and disturbing parable from Jesus.  If you’ve been keeping track of our weekly readings, the last two weeks we had a bit of a break from the extra-difficult gospel lessons as we celebrated Reformation Sunday two weeks ago, and All Saints Sunday last week.  But here we are, back in middle of Jesus’ last week before he was crucified.

Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel comes right at the very end of Jesus’ life.  He entered Jerusalem back in chapter 21 in a parade accompanied by waving palm branches.  He went straight to the temple in Jerusalem where he overturned the tables of the money changers and drove out those who were there to conduct business rather than worship God; and then he healed people who came to him.  The next day, he came back to the temple and started arguing with the religious leaders who were there, challenging them that maybe their practices weren’t quite in line with what God wanted for the world.  The parables that Jesus told, and the arguments that Jesus made were quite pointed and harsh; but at the end of two chapters of arguments, Jesus concludes that the greatest commandments of all are to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love you neighbour as yourself.  That’s what was missing from the world that Jesus was living in; and dare I suggest that it is often missing from the world in which we live?

Jesus then turned from the religious leaders to the crowds that were gathered around him, and he continues to preach the same themes – the people who may seem, on the surface, to be most aligned with God are sometimes the people who are furthest from God’s plan for the world.

And after addressing the crowds, Jesus turns to his disciples in chapter 24.  He tells them that the temple in which they are standing is going to be destroyed so that not one stone is left on top of another.

His disciples were amazed.  After all, the temple was the largest structure that they had ever seen or could ever imagine.  The temple was the central point in their religious practices.  Surely the destruction of the temple would signal the end of the world.  So they ask Jesus two questions:  when is this destruction going to happen; and how will we know when the end of the world is coming?

Jesus answers their first question – when is the temple going to be destroyed – with a description of death and disaster and terror, where “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.”  History tells us that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed 30-some-odd years after Jesus says these words, in the middle of a 3-year revolt of the people of Judea against the Roman oppressors.  The temple has never been rebuilt, and if you go to Jerusalem today, you will only be able to see a fragment of a single wall that is left – the western wall, also known as the wailing wall.

Jesus then turns to the disciples’ second question – how will we know when the world is going to end – and he answers it by telling them that no one knows when the end is going to come – not the angels, and not the Son, but only the Father.  He then expands this answer by telling a series of four parables – today’s reading is the second of these parables – come back next Sunday and the week after, and you will get the third and fourth parables.

It’s interesting timing, that we are getting these readings at the end of the church year, October and November, which here in the northern parts of the world corresponds with the time when the world is getting darker with longer nights and shorter days and colder weather.  The heavy readings seem to correspond with a heaviness of this time of year; and will be broken once we reach the season of Advent and we start looking for the coming of the light.

Anyways, back to today’s parable.  I have a whole pile of questions that I want to ask Jesus about this parable.

Why was the bridegroom so late?  He didn’t show up at his own wedding until midnight!  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been to one wedding where the bride arrived before the guests, many weddings where everything happened on schedule, and a couple of weddings where the bride or groom was a little bit late.  I don’t think that I’ve ever been to a wedding where the groom didn’t show up until midnight!  What’s going on here?

Also, how could the bridesmaids forget to bring oil for their lamps?  The lamps that they would have been carrying were probably more like torches than indoor lamps.  They would have only burned for 15 minutes or so before needing to be re-soaked with lamp oil.  Half of the bridesmaids brought this extra oil that they needed, but the other half remembered their torches but forgot the fuel.  What’s up with that?

And then, when they went looking for oil, they were sent out to the shops to buy some more.  Were there actually shops open at midnight for them to go to?  I doubt that there was a 24-hour 7-Eleven down the street that they could pop in to.

They went out, and Jesus doesn’t tell us whether or not they found oil, but they come back to the wedding anyways.  But when they asked to be let back in to the wedding, the bridegroom tells them that he doesn’t know them.  But weren’t they just at the wedding?  And because they were going to be meeting the groom, chances are these bridesmaids were part of the groom’s household.  Why doesn’t he know them?  They weren’t gone that long!

And finally, my question that gives me the most trouble – why didn’t the five so-called “wise” bridesmaids share their oil with the so-called “foolish” bridesmaids?  To me, this is not a very loving action, and nowhere in the story are these “wise” bridesmaids criticized for their lack of generosity.  Remember that not a couple of hours before this, Jesus said that the second greatest commandment was to love your neighbour as yourself; and two parables later, Jesus tells his disciples that we will be judged by our actions, including the famous line, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  And yet it isn’t the ungenerous bridesmaids who are locked out of the feast – it is the forgetful bridesmaids who miss out.

Did Jesus really mean to say that the kingdom of heaven will be like a bunch of girls squabbling over some oil?

Bible scholars tend to take one of two approaches to this story – either they ignore all of these difficulties, or they re-write the ending of it.  The ones who ignore these questions treat it as a straight-forward story telling us to be prepared for the kingdom of heaven, because we don’t know when it is going to happen.  But all of my questions leave me unsatisfied by this straight-forward explanation.  The scholars who re-write the ending of the parable often suggest that either the wise bridesmaids shared their oil so that all of the torches were lit, or that the foolish bridesmaids were allowed into the wedding despite not being prepared.  These re-writes are fun to read – my favourite one is a poem by Thomas Merton where the five scatter-brained bridesmaids show up at the wedding on motorcycles with empty gas tanks, but since they knew how to dance they were invited to stay, and “consequently there were ten virgins at the Wedding of the Lamb.”[1]  They are fun to read, but this isn’t the story that Matthew puts on the lips of Jesus.  In the story in scripture, the five foolish virgins are locked out of the wedding feast.

So what are we to do with this story?  How can we find good news in a story of selfishness and rejection?

The one question that, for me, opens this parable up is when I ask why the five foolish bridesmaids didn’t have oil with them for their torches.  Surely they knew that if they wanted to be able to light their torches later in the evening, then they would need oil as fuel to keep them lit.  So why didn’t they bring that oil?

I think that maybe the reason why they didn’t bring oil with them, is that they didn’t really expect the bridegroom to show up.  They didn’t think that they were going to need to light their torches.  They didn’t expect that there was going to be a party at the end of the evening.

And all of this boils down to hope.  Hope is a funny word because we use it in so many different ways.  The usual way that we use hope is to mean something along the lines of wishful thinking.  I hope to see you soon.  I hope that you are feeling better.  I hope that we get lots of snow this winter.

But Christian hope is more than just wishful thinking.  Christian hope is more along the lines of confident expectation that something good will come in the future.  I have hope that spring will follow winter.  I have hope that lives can be transformed for the better.  I have hope that God’s kingdom of peace and love and justice will come.  A wise friend once told me that because of the resurrection of Jesus, we have an endless source of hope.

So looking at the story of the bridesmaids through the lens of hope, five of the bridesmaids brought oil with them.  They had hope – a confident expectation – that the bridegroom was going to come and that they would need to light their torches.  The other five brought torches but no oil – they didn’t expect that they would have to light them.

When Matthew was writing down the stories of Jesus’ teaching and healing and life and death, almost 40 years had passed since Jesus had died and had been resurrected and had ascended to heaven.  The community had been following the ways of Jesus and passing along his teachings, and they had been continually expecting his return.  But now they had been waiting for almost 40 years – a lifetime – and still no kingdom of God.  They were living in the middle of a war between the people of Palestine and the Roman Empire.  I can imagine that some of them had started to lose hope that this kingdom was ever going to come.  The excitement and anticipation that had followed the resurrection must have started to fade over the years.  Maybe that is why they kept sharing this parable of Jesus – to encourage one another to constantly be prepared.  Even though we don’t know when it is coming, and even though it might be delayed, we can be confident that the kingdom of God is coming.  We can keep our hope.

And here we are, almost 2000 years later, and we are still waiting for the bridegroom to come and the party to begin.  We live in a world that is still full of grief and trauma – where world leaders who hold the nuclear codes are engaging in an ever-escalating dialogue of insults; where climate change is threatening people who are already the most marginalized on our planet; where, in the middle of the tragedy of mass shootings, all of the “thoughts and prayers” that people are offering do nothing to prevent the next tragedy from happening.  How can we live as though we still expect the party, 2000 years later?

We can live, knowing that God is with us no matter what.  We can live, knowing that the Holy Spirit is guiding our lives and calling us to new things.  We can live, following everything that Jesus taught – loving God with our whole hearts and loving our neighbours as ourselves.

The kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet – a feast, a party, a celebration of love, a time of joy.  This is the kingdom that is coming.  This is the kingdom that we keep our hope alive for.  This is the kingdom that we can catch a glimpse of in the resurrection of Jesus.  This is the feast that we anticipate each time we gather around the communion table.

So in the end, I don’t think that the kingdom of God is like a group of girls squabbling over some oil.  Instead, I think that the kingdom of God is like a big party, and everyone who hopes for the party – everyone who expects the party – is going to be welcomed in to it!

Let us pray:
            Holy God,
                        we wait for your kingdom,
                        we long for your kingdom,
                        we hope for your kingdom.
            Bring your reign of peace,
                                                of love,
                                                of justice,
                                                            soon.
            And while we wait,
                        help us to sustain our hope.
            We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            Amen.



[1] Thomas Merton, “The Five Virgins,” in The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1977), 826-827.


 (A Foretaste of the Wedding Feast)

5 November 2017

"For all the Saints" (sermon)


Chetwynd Shared Ministry
November 5, 2017 (All Saints Sunday)
Scripture:  Matthew 5:1-12


Blessed are the rich, for they will become richer.
Blessed are the emotionally numb, for nothing will disturb them.
Blessed are those with bombs and nuclear codes, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those with enough food, for they can afford to give away the crumbs from their tables.
Blessed are those with privilege, for they will decide what is right and what is wrong.
Blessed are those in the comfortable pews, for they can feel smug about their virtue.
Blessed are the bullies, for they can control the actions of others.

(pause)

OK – so maybe Jesus didn’t say it quite like this.  But if you look at the way that our world works, what Jesus is saying in today’s reading from Matthew doesn’t make any sense.  If you look at the way that our world works, it usually isn’t the meek person who is given power, who inherits the earth.  If you look at the way that our world works, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness usually don’t get to see the fulfillment of their hunger.  If you look at the way that our world works, the poor in spirit, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers aren’t usually the people who are exalted, the people who are respected, the people who are celebrated.  In fact it’s often the opposite.  Usually it is the people who hold the power, the people who are rich, the people who are beautiful, the people who come from the “right family” – these are the people that our world celebrates.

So what does Jesus mean when he calls the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – what does Jesus mean when he calls them blessed?

Think about what the world means when it says blessed.  Someone brings supper over to you – “blessed.”  There is good weather for walking your dog – “blessed.”  You get to sleep in for an extra hour in the morning (though not in this region!) – “blessed.”

This is how we normally understand the word “blessed”.  It describes good things happening in life.  Any sports fans here this morning?  I hear that there’s going to be a big football game in three weeks.  I wonder which players are going to call themselves “blessed” in the post-game interviews.  I’m guessing that it’s not going to be the losing team.

And yet Jesus isn’t saying, “blessed are the winners of football games.”  Jesus isn’t saying, “blessed are the materially fortunate.”  Jesus isn’t saying, “blessed are those with an abundance of food.”

Thinking about all of this, I wonder what was actually meant by that word, “blessed.”  Last winter, I did a bit of work on this passage from Matthew’s gospel – what we sometimes call The Beatitudes.  I wanted to look up what was meant by the original Greek word used in Matthew’s gospel – surely it didn’t have the same meaning as what we think of as “blessed.”  In the school library we had a great big 12-volume “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” – the volumes are so huge that this dictionary has a table to itself in the library.  I looked up this word, “makarioi,” that Matthew uses to see what else it might mean besides blessed.

When I found the right volume and opened it up, it fell open right to the word I was looking for – telling me that I wasn’t the first person at the school to wonder what Jesus meant by “blessed.”

At first it wasn’t too helpful.  It told me that “makarioi” meant blessed or happy.  It told me that it meant, and I quote here, “the transcendent happiness of a life beyond care, labour, and death.”  It told me, not very helpfully, that in the New Testament, it was a word usually used to express a beatitude.  But then it started to get more interesting.  To be blessed, in this sense, is to see the present in light of the future.  To see the present in light of the future.  It implies tension between the state of the present and the state of the future.  The dictionary called it a “sacred paradox.”  (Wednesday night bible study folks – you might recognize this concept from our conversation last Wednesday.)

And I think that this is the key to understanding the blessings of the beatitudes.  Even though the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake – even though they don’t appear to be very blessed in Jesus’ time or in our time, in God’s coming kingdom they will be blessed.  They will receive the joy, the blessing, the transcendent happiness that comes from being fully present with God.

These beatitudes, the opening verses of chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel, are the opening words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  In Matthew’s gospel, this is Jesus’ first public discourse, his first public teaching that is recorded by Matthew.  Essentially, we are hearing the opening words to Jesus’ first sermon.

And Jesus uses the opening words of his first sermon to proclaim a vision for the world that is radically different than the world that we see around us.  Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God where the power structures aren’t just re-arranged but are completely turned upside down.  Jesus is proclaiming a world where the poor in spirit are blessed; a world where those who mourn are blessed; a world where the meek are blessed; a world where the pure in heart are blessed; a world where the peacemakers are blessed.

So what does this mean for us?  After all, we are living in a world that blesses the rich, the powerful, the privileged.  (quiet voice)  But the thing is, we are an Easter people.  We know that the world doesn’t get the final word.  We know that even when God dies on a cross and it seems as though the world has won, we know that the story doesn’t end on Friday.  We know that two days later, we will be celebrating the empty tomb, and God’s final word of joy and hope.

And because we know this, we can trust in the beatitudes.  We can trust that God’s kingdom will have the final word over the powers and principalities of this world.

Today, we are recognizing All Saints Day, which falls on November 1 each year.  On this day, we remember all of God’s saints who came before us in the world.  This includes saints whose names might be well known to us, like St. Theresa of Avila, St. Augustine, St. Peter, or Mother Theresa.  But it also includes all of God’s people in all generations – everyone who walked this road of faith before us.  People whose names may have only been known to those who loved them, and people whose names have been lost to the passage of time.

These are all of the saints who have gone ahead of us, who trusted the Easter message, who have caught glimpses of God’s coming kingdom.

The letter to the Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” and that we don’t travel this journey of faith alone.  There have been thousands and millions of saints who have made this journey before us.  There are thousands and millions of saints around the world who are making this journey with us.  We never need to be discouraged because we are never alone.  Not only has God been our constant companion since before we took our first breath; but our fellow saints are also always with us.

When I think about All Saints Day, I think about my Grandma.  She was born on a farm in south-western Ontario.  She was born in 1916 in a Methodist family, and when the United Church of Canada was formed and her family joined, she was 9 years old.  Church was always an important part of Grandma’s life, right up until she died.  She also loved school and studying, and dreamed of going to university; but never had an opportunity to do so.  She married a farmer and raised three children, and imparted a love of reading and learning in all of them.  She had 8 grandchildren who all inherited her love of reading, and all of us had the opportunity to go to university.  If she were alive today, she would now have 17 ½ great grandchildren.

She loved her family and she loved reading and learning.  But towards the end of her life, she became blind, as well as paralyzed from, as she described it, her “armpits down.”  She lived the last year of her life in the long term care wing of her local hospital.  But she never lost her gentleness and her love and her sense of humour.  Her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would visit her at the hospital; and if one of the nurses was having a bad day, they would go spend a bit of time in Grandma’s room, and leave there ready to face whatever else their day might hold.

When I think of God’s saints, and the great cloud of witness who surround us, I think first of my Grandma.  To me, she embodied the beatitudes that Jesus talked about.  She didn’t always have an easy life, and from the perspective of the world, she wasn’t showered with material blessings.  But even when times were difficult, she lived out these upside-down blessings of Jesus.  She saw the world, not through the hardships that she faced; but instead, like that definition I mentioned earlier, she saw the present in light of the future.  She was blessed.  I pray that I might be able to live my life with just a fraction of the grace with which my Grandma lived.

I want to take a minute, this All Saints Sunday, to remember the saints who have been important in each of our lives.  All of us have had mentors in our faith – people who have taught us, people who have inspired us, people who have influenced us, people who have led us.  This might include people who we have met and known well, or it might be people who have inspired us through their words or their actions or their writings.  We give thanks for all the saints.

At this time, I invite you to take the red heart from your bulletin and write on it the names of God’s saints that you want to remember and give thanks for today.  These might include the names of people you knew well or the names of people you never met.  These might include the names of people who have died, or the names of people who are still living.  I invite you to write the names of the saints for whom you give thanks, and when you are ready, I invite you to come forwards and place the names in this basket, and offer your thanksgiving here at the alter.

(people write and bring forward names)

Let us pray:
God of all times and all places,
today, we offer thanks for all the saints,
            for the saints who have been named here this morning,
            for the saints who have mentored us in our faith,
            for the saints who are well known,
            and for the saints whose names are known only to you.
We give thanks for women and men of faith
            who have gone before us,
            who have led us,
            who have walked with us on our journey.
We give thanks that we are part of the Communion of Saints,
            and surrounded by a great cloud of witness
            who have walked this road before us.
Help us to always travel this path of faith,
            trusting in your promise of blessing,
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the author and perfecter of our faith.
Amen.


(Grandma with three of her grandchildren, circa 2001)

29 October 2017

Our Reformation Family Tree (sermon)


Chetwynd Shared Ministry
(A congregation made up of 4 denominations:  Anglican Church of Canada, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Presbyterian Church in Canada, United Church of Canada)

October 29, 2017 - Reformation Sunday

Scripture:  Romans 3:19-28


In 1517, Martin Luther was living in Wittenberg, Germany.  He was an Augustinian Monk, a priest, and the head of the theology department at the University of Wittenberg.  He had started out his education to become a lawyer – his parents thought that law would be a good secure profession for him – but he had switched to theology after a near-death experience involving a lightning strike.

He loved the church.  And because he loved the church, he was disturbed when he saw occasions when he thought that the church wasn’t keeping to God’s ways.

In particular, Martin Luther had been studying Paul’s letter to the Romans.  We heard a bit of this letter this morning.  Paul wrote that, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift”; and then a bit later on, “for we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”

These two concepts would prove to be most important to Martin Luther – the idea that we are saved only by our faith and not by anything that we do or that we don’t do; and the idea that this salvation, this faith, is a free gift from God, otherwise known as grace, and our salvation is not something that we could ever earn or deserve.

As I said, Martin Luther loved the church, and he was concerned that the church had lost the importance of grace and faith.  And so he wanted to do something to grab their attention.  He wrote a document – 95 statements or theses – outlining his concerns with the church practice as well as his understanding that humans are saved by faith alone and by grace alone.

Then on October 31, 1517 – 500 years ago this Tuesday – Martin Luther walked up to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, and nailed these 95 theses to the door.

The word Reformation doesn’t mean starting a new religion or denomination.  Martin Luther didn’t set out to start the Lutheran Church – instead he wanted to re-form or re-shape the church that he was a part of.  Unfortunately, the church wasn’t yet ready to be re-formed – that would come a century or so later with what we now call the counter-reformation within the Roman Catholic Church.  Prophets – those who point people back to God’s ways – usually aren’t appreciated by the powers that be, and so within a few years of nailing his theses to the door, Martin Luther had been excommunicated.  But he was passionate about his faith, and this passion was contagious, and others joined him, eventually forming the Lutheran Church.

Next door to Germany, in France, John Calvin was a few years younger than Martin Luther.  He was a precocious and devout child, but gradually drifted away from the church as he grew up, and he became a lawyer in the humanist tradition.  In 1533, he experienced a sudden revival of his faith, not triggered by an external event like Martin Luther, but by interior conflict and turmoil – a deep sense of his own unworthiness next to God.  He realized that we could only be saved by Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was accessible only through the scriptures.  Jesus Christ was the one true head of the church, and not any person.

The Roman Catholic Church having become suspicious of people looking to reform the church in the wake of Martin Luther and the other early reformers, was not very tolerant of dissent at that point in time, and John Calvin’s awakening in faith was followed almost immediately by his break with the church and flight from France to Switzerland which was more open to reformers.

John Calvin’s theological work fit well in some ways with the theological work of Luther.  Both of them believed that it was only by faith and by the grace of God, and not by anything that we did or didn’t do, that we could be saved.  But for Luther, the salvation of each person was the primary emphasis, while for Calvin, the important thing was that God was glorified through this salvation.

Both Luther and Calvin emphasized the importance of making the scriptures accessible to every person – Luther was responsible for the first German translation of the scriptures; and Calvin believed that our salvation came through knowing Jesus Christ through the scriptures.

The two reformers disagreed though, on the relationship between the church and the government.  Luther saw no problem with the church being run by the government – in Germany at the time, each state was governed by a local prince, and having the prince involved in the church would ensure that the faith was spread within the borders of that state.  Calvin on the other hand argued that the church should be separate from the government – by having this separation, the church could be critical of how the government was run, and could be an independent voice for transforming civil society.

One of Calvin’s students was named John Knox.  John Knox was Scottish – a priest who had become involved in politics around the English reformation who had managed to get himself banned from both England and France, and who eventually found himself in Switzerland.  After studying with Calvin, Knox brought Calvin’s theology back with him to Scotland and founded the Presbyterian Church.  Remembering that Jesus Christ is the one true head of the Church, and not any person, the Presbyterian Church was to be governed by a system of councils, or presbyteries.

Now, if we jump from Germany and Switzerland, across the English channel, there was a reformation of the church going on in England around the same time.  The English reformation started as more of a political rather than religious reformation.  The primary question was:  where should the authority of the church lie?  In a city and country on the other side of Europe or here at home in England?

The church split happened fairly quickly but it didn’t stick.  Under the reign of Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI, the authority of the church was local, but then when Henry’s daughter Mary became queen, she turned the authority back to Rome.  When Mary died and Elizabeth became queen, authority shifted back to England and stayed there.

Now there were some theological implications of this political flip-flopping.  When the authority shifted from Rome to England, it was important that the scriptures be made available in English rather than Latin; and so like the European Protestant churches, the Anglican Church also made sure that the bible was available to everyone in the language that they understood.  The prayers also had to be accessible in the language of the people, and this led to the development of the Book of Common Prayer, the first English-language prayer book.  But while the form and order of worship services was kept the same, the prayers weren’t simply translated from Latin into English; and in writing these new English prayers, the theology of the European Reformation – of Luther and Calvin and others – crept in.

It is sometimes said that the Church of England, the Anglican Church, is a middle way between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches.  In many ways it is similar to the Roman Catholic Church with priests and bishops and liturgy, but it is also a church of the Reformation which allows itself to be questioned and re-formed.

And then we come to the fourth denomination here at Chetwynd Shared Ministry – the United Church of Canada.  This is, by far, the youngest of the four denominations, being not quite a hundred years old and so, arising 400 years after the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches.

Really – one of the important factors in the history of the United Church of Canada is the geography of Canada.  Settlers from Europe brought their religions with them, but with small communities and long distances between communities, in the 1800s it was difficult for churches to grow and to do the work of the church in their communities.

And so in the late 1800s, a merger was proposed.  What if the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregationalist churches were to amalgamate?  Then the church could have more resources – people and finances – in order to do God’s work in these small and isolated communities.

Let me take a quick detour here before continuing the story.  Presbyterians are part of the family of churches descended from Calvin, but where do the Methodists and Congregationalists come from?

The Congregationalist churches were a loosely organized group of churches, mostly in the US but with some in Canada.  They were firmly grounded in the Reformation ideas that Christ is the only head of the church, and that the church should always be questioning and testing what it believes.  Because of this, Congregational churches placed all authority at the local level – the congregational level – to make decisions about what they believed and how they would be governed.

The Methodists, on the other hand, were a result of a later reformation within the Anglican Church.  In the 1700s, brothers John and Charles Wesley were Anglican clergy who experienced a conversion or renewal of faith.  They remained Anglican until their death, but preached of the need for faith to be lived out – to experience the love and grace of God, and to live a life of ever-increasing holiness in response to this.  Because of this “method” that they prescribed, their later followers called themselves Methodists.

So – back to Canada in the early 20th century.  The Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists looked at joining together into one United Church in order to be more effective in carrying out God’s mission in Canada.  While the Methodists and Congregationalists all joined, the Presbyterian Church allowed each congregation and each minister to decide for themselves whether they would join or remain Presbyterian.  While the majority voted to join the new United Church, one third or so of churches decided to remain Presbyterian which is why there is still a Presbyterian Church in Canada today.

And so all of these reformation traditions are part of our Protestant Family Tree here at Chetwynd Shared Ministry.  The Lutheran Church going back to Martin Luther nailing his theses to the door 500 years ago; the Presbyterian Church descended from John Calvin; the Anglican church with the need for a uniquely English church in England; and the United Church of Canada with roots in three different Reformation traditions.  We really are a church of the Reformation!  This isn’t a complete look at the Reformation – we haven’t been able to look at our Anabaptist siblings on the family tree which include not only the Baptist Church but also the Mennonite and Hutterite churches; and we haven’t looked at the Pentecostal branches either.

So how does all of this history play out today?  I think that Chetwynd Shared Ministry is a fabulous example for the churches around the world of focusing on what we have in common rather than on what separates us.  Because there really is a lot that our different denominational branches have in common.  Jesus Christ is the head of the church and is known through scripture, therefore it is important for scripture to be available in the languages that people understand.  We are saved only by God’s grace and not by anything that we do or don’t do.  Our actions flow out of our faith, and as the Wesley brothers who founded the Methodist church pointed out, if our faith is growing, then how we live our lives should reflect that.  Or in Calvin’s theology, our faith should cause us to question how the world is run, and that should lead us to work for justice so that the world is lined up with God’s vision for the world.  But the most important thing for all of the reformers is grace, and that can only come from God.

And what happened on a small scale here in Chetwynd is happening on a larger scale around the world.  Churches and denominations are figuring out what beliefs and practices we hold in common, and looking at how we can work together.  In 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.  In it, they began the work of reconciliation following the split that began 500 years ago, by discussing what beliefs they hold in common, specifically that “justification comes by God’s grace through faith in Christ.”  In 2006, the World Methodist Council signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, and this past July, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, which includes all of the churches descended from Calvin, also signed.  And this week coming up, the worldwide Anglican Communion is going to begin the process of joining into this declaration.

And the other important thing to note is that the Reformation was not a once-and-over event.  When we celebrate Reformation Sunday today, we aren’t just celebrating an event that happened 500 years ago this Tuesday.  The Reformed Churches are not just reformed, but they are always reforming.  Society changes, culture changes, and the church needs to always be questioning itself and figuring out how it can speak into the context in which it is located.  We can never sit back and say to ourselves, “We’ve always done it that way, so that is the way we should continue to do it.”  If we were ever to do that, the reformation is over.

And so what is God calling Chetwynd Shared Ministry to be and to do in Chetwynd in 2017?  How can we relate to and interact with the context in which we find ourselves?  How are we being called by the reformation – reformed and always reforming – to be the church here and now?

Let us pray:
Holy God,
            who calls us to re-formation;
we thank you that we are saved by grace –
            that we don’t have to depend on ourselves,
                        but can look always to you;
we thank you for the gift of faith in Jesus Christ –
            for the scriptures through which we can know Christ,
            and for the church through which we can live Christ.
Help us to always continue to question our faith,
            and by this questioning, strengthen our faith.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the head of your church.
Amen.


 (Playmobil Martin Luther moved from my office out to the pulpit to help me preach this morning)