11 December 2017

"Between the 'Already' and the 'Not Yet'" (Advent 2 - Sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
December 10, 2017
Scripture:  Mark 1:1-8

So are you ready for Christmas yet?  Have you got your tree up?  Is your house decorated?  I hope that you stayed safe if you put lights on the outside of your house – we’ve had a fair bit of ice these past weeks.  What about your Christmas baking – is it done yet?  Do you send Christmas cards?  Are they in the mail yet?  And what about your Christmas shopping?  Have you got all of your presents, or at least figured out what you are going to buy?  Are you ready for Christmas yet?

The good news is that here in church-land, it isn’t Christmas yet.  This is only the second Sunday of Advent – the season of Christmas doesn’t begin until the evening of December 24 and then lasts for 12 days – the Twelve Days of Christmas.  The season of Advent is followed by the season of Christmas is followed by the season of Epiphany.  We aren’t there yet – this is the season of waiting and preparing.

And in today’s reading we heard about John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

This is the very beginning of Mark’s gospel.  We don’t have any of the details of the story of Jesus’ birth that we find in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels.  We don’t have any background on John the Baptist – it is in Luke’s gospel that we read about how he was a cousin of Jesus; born to Elizabeth and Zechariah who, by all rights, should probably have been too old to have children; who leapt in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came near to Elizabeth.  Mark doesn’t include any of these details about John.  Instead, Mark tells us that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Now John seems to be quite a character.  He was dressed in camel’s hair.  He had a leather rope tied around his waist.  And he certainly didn’t eat what we would consider to be a balanced diet – instead he ate bugs and wild honey.

And he didn’t seem to be a gentle preacher.  He shouted at people, telling them to repent – to turn away from their sins and turn back to God.  And then he shoved them underwater in the river Jordan to symbolize their re-birth to this new way of living.

And yet people were drawn to John.  Despite the lack of comfortable pews or chairs or even a church building; despite the lack of coffee time or potluck after his services; despite the lack of a praise band or flashy powerpoint to accompany his message; despite the harshness of his message, people were drawn to John.  We are told that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

John is very much an in-between character, living in an in-between time, and living in the wilderness which is an in-between place.  If you look closely at the reading, you will find John there in the centre of the text, but the text points backwards to the prophets, and John himself points forwards to Jesus, the one coming after John.  He knows that he isn’t the main character in this unfolding story, but he calls on people to get ready.  It’s coming.  It’s almost here!

John is also out in the wilderness – I don’t know about you, but I find the wilderness to be an in-between place, a threshold place, a place that is outside of our normal time and space and lives.

One of my favourite places to be and one of my favourite things to do in the summer is to go out on a canoe trip – the longer the better.  One of my friends and I like to go out for a week or two at a time.  We carry our food and our tent and our sleeping bags in our backpacks and paddle from lake to lake, down rivers, sometimes carrying our canoe and gear around rapids and waterfalls, or sometimes choosing to run the rapids.

It is not necessarily a comfortable place to be.  Our canoe has capsized a couple of times.  It is hard work, paddling and portaging all day.  At night, we are sleeping on the hard ground, as there isn’t room for fancy air mattresses in our backpacks.  And depending on the time of year, the mosquitoes and blackflies can be something fierce – I’ve been known to come out of the wilderness with mosquito bites layered on top of mosquito bites.

And yet there is something about being away from the internet, away from telephones, away from Facebook, away from other people.  And yet there is something about the repetitive actions of paddle… paddle… repeat; or portaging along a rough trail with a canoe overhead and a heavy pack on your back, one foot in front of the other, one step at a time.  And yet there is something about being in tune with the cycle of the day from sunrise to sunset with no watch or clock to track the hours.

It seems like each time we go on one of these trips, one or both of us is discerning something, working through a major life decision, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously.  Stepping outside of our regular life into the rhythms and surprises of the wilderness gives us the time and the space to work through these things.  There is something special about these in-between places of wilderness.

Now John the Baptist’s wilderness was different than the northern Ontario wilderness, or the northern BC wilderness.  John’s wilderness was a desert wilderness – a dry and rocky place with no trees or grass growing except near the river; brutally hot during the day and freezing cold at night.

And still people were leaving their homes and the cities to head into this harsh wilderness, and when they returned home they were changed.  They had confessed, they had repented, they had turned back to God, and they were preparing for the one who was to follow John.

Just as the wilderness is an in-between place, this season of Advent is an in-between time.  We are in the middle of this season of not-yet-Christmas, yet we are called to prepare ourselves.  The world around us is also telling us to prepare – prepare your homes, prepare your food, prepare your gifts, make this the most perfect Christmas ever.  Here in the church, we have brought out our Christmas decorations; we are lighting our Advent candles one-by-one preparing ourselves to light the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve; we are having special events like the Ladies’ Christmas Dinner this week.  Like John the Baptist, we are looking forward to the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s Word-Made-Flesh.

But if we step outside of the story of Mark’s Gospel, and if we step outside of the rhythm of the seasons of the church year, if we place ourselves here in Chetwynd in 2017, we can also look backward to the birth of the Christ Child more than 2000 years ago.  Jesus is already born!  We don’t have to wait until Christmas to celebrate – we can celebrate in the here and now.

Just as the wilderness is an in-between place and Advent is an in-between season, we are living today in in-between times.  We are caught between the “already” and the “not yet.”  God has already been born in the person of Jesus Christ.  God’s kingdom has already broken into our world through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  The time of God’s kingdom is now.  But God’s kingdom has not yet reached its completion.  We aren’t quite there yet.  God’s kingdom is now; and God’s kingdom is not yet.

And in this season of Advent, we can rest in this tension, and celebrate it.  We can allow ourselves to be pulled backwards into the story that began centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  We can allow ourselves to be pulled backwards into the world of John the Baptist, preaching a baptism of repentance.  We can allow ourselves to be drawn backwards into the story of the birth of a baby who changed the world.

But at the same time, we can allow ourselves to be pulled forward as we prepare for the celebration that is Christmas.  We can allow ourselves to be pulled forward as we imagine and dream into being the sort of world that John and Jesus proclaimed.  We can allow ourselves to be pulled forward as we prepare ourselves for the coming fullness of the kingdom of God.

The word “gospel” means “good news” and the opening words of Mark’s Gospel proclaim that the story that it tells is only “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  The good news of Jesus Christ continues beyond the words printed in the Gospel.  The good news of Jesus Christ continues right through to today and beyond.

I’m going to spend some time in the Advent wilderness in the next couple of weeks, sitting in this tension of the “now” and the “not yet.”  Won’t you join me there?  We lit the candle of peace this morning, and my prayer is that as we sit in this tension, we all might be filled with the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.

Let us pray:
God of the wilderness,
In this time of busy-ness,
            help us to make space in our lives
                        to slow down,
                        to listen for your voice,
                        to wait and anticipate,
                        to prepare.
And into that quietness,
            help us to look back
                        and remember all of the stories that came before;
            and help us to look forward
                        and prepare ourselves for your coming kingdom.
We pray this by the power of the Holy Spirit,
            through Jesus Christ, your Word made Flesh.

("My" Wilderness - a portage beside the Bloodvein River, Atikaki Provincial Park, MB)
(Photo Credit:  Laura Marie Piotrowicz)

3 December 2017

"Hope Grows in the Waiting" (Advent 1 - Sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
December 3, 2017
Scripture:  Isaiah 64:1-9

Who remembers what it felt like to be a kid in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas?

In our family, the tree would be brought inside the weekend before Christmas – any earlier and there would be needles tracked all over the house!  My father would anchor it with wires to the ceiling so that the cats couldn’t knock it over.  The decorations would be brought out and the tree would be decorated with ornaments we had made at school, ornaments inherited from generations gone before – those ones usually went at the top of the tree, out of reach of children and pets – and always the brightly coloured lights and a star on top.

And then over the next week, carefully wrapped presents would be brought out of hiding and placed under the tree.  And as kids, that’s where the fun began.  We would poke the boxes through the wrapping paper, and shake them, all in an effort to figure out what was underneath the wrapping paper.  My youngest sister was “that child” – you know, the one who counts all of the parcels to make sure that everyone is receiving the same number of presents.

And oh, the agony of waiting.  The regular refrain around our house was “how many more days until Christmas?” or, in the family vernacular, “how many more sleeps 'til HoHo comes?!”

And finally it would be Christmas Eve.  Our family tradition was that no presents were opened until Christmas morning, but on Christmas Eve we would hang our stockings by the fireplace in the living room, and then go upstairs to try to sleep.

And then finally it would be Christmas morning.  We were allowed to get out of bed at 6am, but we weren’t allowed in to the living room until 7am.  Sometimes that last hour of waiting felt like it took as long as the whole week leading up to Christmas.  Usually our aunt would keep us company in the kitchen and make us hot chocolate as we waited for the magic hour of 7am.

And then finally, finally after all of those hours and days and weeks of waiting, and waiting, and growing excitement, and anticipation, we were able to go in to the living room.  Christmas was here!

Never once did it cross our minds that Christmas wouldn’t come.  Never, in all of the waiting, did we think that we were going to be stuck waiting forever.  Never did we worry that Santa might forget to visit our stockings that year.  Despite our cries of “how much longer?” in all of our waiting, we never gave up hope.

The ancient Israelite people were also waiting – they were waiting for God.  At the time that the passage that Gloria read from Isaiah was written, the people had been through a lot.  Their land had been taken over by the armies of a couple of empires, one after another – first the Assyrian army had taken over the northern part of the land, and then the Babylonian army had swooped in and had taken over the whole land, destroyed the city of Jerusalem including the temple that was God’s home, and had carted off many of the people into exile in Babylon.  For more than 60 years, the people lived in exile in Babylon having lost their homes, their temple, their land, and many of them believed that God had abandoned them as well.

More than a full generation passed in exile, but then the political and military forces shifted, the Persian empire conquered the Babylonian empire, and the Persian king allowed the Israelite people to return home.

But things weren’t all rosy when they got there.  There was tension between the people and families who had gone into exile and had returned, and the people and families who had been allowed to stay in the land.  The beautiful temple that had been constructed under the reign of King Solomon, God’s dwelling place, had been destroyed.  And God who had spoken to Moses out of a burning bush, who had led the people out of slavery in Egypt, who had given them their land, who had been so visible in past times, this God seemed to be absent and silent.

And the prophet Isaiah cried out,
            “O that you would tear open the heavens
                        and come down!
            From ages past no one has heard,
                        no ear has perceived,
                        no eye has seen any God besides you!
            There is no one who calls on your name,
                        or attempts to take hold of you;
                                    for you have hidden your face from us.”

How much longer, O God?  How much longer do we need to wait for you to appear to us?

And yet the people never lost their faith.  They never gave up their hope.  In the waiting, they cried out for God, but they knew that God would hear them, and that God would eventually come from them.  Our hope grows in the waiting.

When we look around our world today, it is easy to feel the same way as the ancient Israelite people.  It is sometimes easy to think that God has abandoned the world.  You only have to turn on your TV or open a news website to see calamity and disaster at every turn.

“North Korea’s missile capabilities may be closer than once thought.”
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!  How much longer, O God?  How much longer do we need to wait?

“Gun Violence Survivors press government for stronger laws.”
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!  How much longer, O God?  How much longer do we need to wait?

“Is there a path to redemption for any of the high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct?”
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!  How much longer, O God?  How much longer do we need to wait?

“New institute is bankrolled by billionaires steeped in scandal.”
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!  How much longer, O God?  How much longer do we need to wait?

“Penalties when workers die on the job don’t go far enough, say labour groups and families.”
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!  How much longer, O God?  How much longer do we need to wait?

“Families share more stories of loss, violence, and discrimination as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Hearing continues.”[1]
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!  How much longer, O God?  How much longer do we need to wait?

There is so much grief and pain and suffering in our world today.  It would be so easy to fall into despair if you stop at the headlines.  But we cling to hope.  We cling to hope, because sometimes it seems as though hope is all that we have.  We know that the God who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, the God who led the Israelite people out of slavery to freedom, the God who heard Isaiah’s plea and who saw that the temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt – we know that this same God hears our cries and our pleas even today.  We know that this same God hears us and comforts us and is always with us.

We can be confident that the God who has always been faithful in the past will always be faithful in the future.  We can never know or never understand God’s timing.  All we can do is wait.  And while we wait, we can cry out – “How long, O God?”  And while we wait, we can pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  And while we wait, we can be the body of Christ, the hands and feet and eyes and ears and heart of Christ, spreading God’s love and justice in our world.  And while we wait, hope grows.

I spent three years living on the equator.  When I moved there, I thought that I was going to miss the changing of the seasons – I love how we have the four seasons here in Canada and how autumn gives way to winter which gives way to spring which grows into summer.  But I didn’t miss the changing of the seasons – there were still four seasons but they were defined by rainfall instead of temperature.  What I did miss though was the changing length of day.  We had 12 hours of daylight, 365 days of the year.  There were no long summer evenings to sit outside in.  There were no dark winter mornings to curl up with a cup of tea.  The sun always rose at 6:30am and set at 6:30pm.  Without the long hours of daylight, it was hard to know what month it was.  And without the long nights of December, it was hard to long for the light.

At this time, our nights are still getting longer and the darkness is increasing.  But we cling to our hope.  We cling to the confidence that in a few short weeks, the days are going to start getting longer again, and the daylight in this corner of the world is going to start to increase.  We have this hope – we have this confidence.

Like my sisters and I, when we were children, in this season of Advent, we are waiting for Christmas.  It may be already-Christmas in the stores and on the radio stations, but here in the church, Advent is a season of not-yet-Christmas.  We are waiting for the birth of the Christ-child.  We are waiting to celebrate the time of God-with-us, God’s Word-Made-Flesh.  We are waiting for the time when the God who makes mountains quake just by being present became vulnerable as a human baby.

And at the same time, we are waiting for the work that began in the person of Jesus Christ to reach its fulfillment.  We are waiting for and longing for the time when God’s kingdom will be fully present and pain and suffering will be no more, and we will be fully and forever in the presence of the God who is love.  And while we wait, this hope grows.

Let me finish with one more story of waiting…

Once upon a time, somewhere in Canada, a young couple was expecting their first baby.  They were overjoyed and amazed at the news, and filled with awe as they tracked the baby’s growth in the womb.  They didn’t want to find out if it was a boy or a girl – they wanted to be surprised.

As the months passed, they started getting ready.  They prepared the room that was going to be a nursery.  Friends threw them a baby shower and gave them some of the things that they would need for the baby – a crib, a car seat, receiving blankets, tiny baby clothes.  Family members let them borrow other things that they would need – a stroller, a change table, a high chair, toys, more tiny baby clothes.  The couple also spent several weekends together preparing meals to put in the freezer for the days when they knew that they wouldn’t have the energy to cook.  They gathered all of these things together in anticipation of their new baby.

But their preparations went further than just the physical preparations.  They spent hours talking about possible names – boys’ names, girls’ names, names that could work for either a girl or a boy.  They talked about the type of parents they wanted to be – how they wanted to raise this child.  They talked about how they wanted to arrange childcare once their parental leaves were over.

And they also made spiritual plans.  They talked about how they wanted their faith to be a part of their family life.  They talked about the values that they wanted their child to grow up with.  They talked about the kind of world that they wanted their child to live in.  They looked around their world and saw hurricanes and wildfires destroying communities and whole countries.  They saw nuclear arms races.  They saw wars and refugees.  They saw political unrest and hatred being stirred up in different parts of the world.  But even though they felt sad because of what they saw, their faith gave them hope that God’s world was coming.  They talked about what they could do to make the world a better place for their child to grow up in.

And when the months had passed, and the preparations were done, they welcomed their new baby into the world.  Their world had changed together.


Won’t you join me, as we prepare for the birth of a baby?  Won’t you join me in this time of waiting and hoping and preparing?  Won’t you join me, as we get ready to take the promises of God into our hearts?

Let us pray:
God of waiting,
            be with us in this time of Advent.
Be with us as we wait,
            as we prepare,
            as we pray.
Give us the gift of your hope as we wait,
            so that we can remain confident in your promises
                        that a better world is not only possible,
                                    but is coming.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the one for whom we wait.

[1] All headlines taken from cbc.ca on November 30, 2017.

(We lit our first Advent Candle today - the candle of hope)

26 November 2017

"Christ the King?" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
November 26, 2017
Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-46

So you may have already guessed, from the white-and-gold banners that we have hanging today, and the hymns we are singing, and from the bulletin – today is Christ the King Sunday, also known as the Reign of Christ Sunday.  This week, we get to pull out all of the stops and celebrate the majesty of Christ.  If we had someone in the congregation who plays the trumpet, we could have fanfares.  For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been reading parables about how we wait for the coming kingdom of God, but today we get to celebrate this kingdom, when Jesus Christ will rule over the whole universe and everything in it.

And the reading from Matthew assigned for today – this is one of the classic Christ the King readings.  Jesus is talking about the end of time when he, the Son of Man, will come in his glory, surrounded by angels, and sit on the throne as a king in order to judge all of the people of every time and every place.

This is probably one of the better-known passages of scripture – the separation of the sheep and the goats.  It is often referred to as a parable, but if you look closely, it is more like a simile or metaphor – the king separates the people like a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats.  From that point forward, the judgement refers to people, not sheep!

Can you imagine acting out this judgement in church one day?  Everyone who self-identifies as a sheep – head over to this side of the room; and everyone who self-identifies as a goat – head over to the other side.  Which side would you choose?  But in Jesus’ description, the people on both sides are surprised to find themselves where they are.  Both sides ask Jesus, “Lord, when was it that I did or didn’t take care of you?”

So maybe instead, I should choose what side everyone goes to.  After all, the sheep and the goats don’t get to choose – the king sitting on the throne of judgement is the one who separates them.  So you, over to that side; you, over to that side; you, head on over there.

Actually, it’s a bit of a relief that I don’t have to do that.  I wouldn’t want the responsibility of deciding who gets to inherit the kingdom of God prepared for you from the foundation of the world; versus those who need to go to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  I’m relieved that we are told not just that we don’t have to judge others, but that we aren’t allowed to judge others.

So Jesus the King is on his throne, clothed in glory, judging everyone who comes before him – inherit the kingdom, go to the eternal fire, inherit the kingdom, go to the eternal fire.  A very awe-filled image.

I have to confess though; giving Jesus the title of King gives me some difficulties. 

First of all, there is the word King.  Think of what you know about kings from history class.  The history of countries that are governed by a monarchy is usually peppered with intrigue and violence and treachery, in a quest to rule.  Think of the popularity of the Game of Thrones books and TV series – the violence and backstabbing (literal and figurative) that the characters go through in order to win the ultimate prize – the throne of Westeros.  Or when I think about the British royal family today, I think most of all about tabloids and scandals.  With all of this baggage attached to the word “King,” how can we dare to call Christ our king?

Things weren’t that different in the time when Jesus was living.  The word King was closely associated with the Roman Empire, with the Emperor in Rome having control over all lands under Roman control.  There was intrigue and murder in the succession of Emperors, scrambling for the absolute power that the position gave.  And the Emperor ruled through oppression and force.  If you tow the party line, you will be fine; but if you dare to speak or act against the empire, you will be nailed to a cross.

There were kings in the history of the people of Israel as well.  Most immediately, there were the Persian, Babylonian, and Assyrian kings, whose armies had taken turns controlling the land that the people had been given by God.  Before that, there were the royal family trees of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel stretching right back to King David, the first king.  Of the 43 kings, the bible tells us that 7 of them were good in the eyes of God.  Which leaves 36 who did evil; which usually meant worshiping other gods and neglecting the needs of the poor.  With all of this history attached to kings in the land of Israel, how can we dare call Christ our king?

Are we supposed to imagine a triumphant Jesus, wearing a golden crown, sitting on the throne of heaven ruling over the world with absolute power, the way our earthly kings do?  That is certainly how many generations of the church have imagined it.  If you do a Google Images search for pictures of Christ the King, you will come up with icons and stained glass windows that try to out-do one another in portraying Jesus with a crown of gold or jewels, robed in crimson or purple, the colours of royalty, arms outstretched, holding a sceptre of power.  Our king Jesus is more powerful than your king, and he will blast you all to smithereens, the same way that the powerful kings of history have done.  Is this the way we imagine Christ the King?  One more despot sitting on the throne, but this one more powerful than the ones that came before; and more importantly, this one is on our side?  This one is bringing us into the inner circle of power so that we can have a say in how the world is run?  Is this Christ our King?

So as well-loved as this passage is, how can we celebrate Christ the King without ending with the violence and intrigue associated with the word “king”?

The thing with this story though, is that it plays with the time-space continuum.  While Jesus Christ is found on the throne of judgement, that isn’t the only place that he is found in the story.  Jesus Christ is also found in all who are hungry, all who are thirsty, all who are strangers, all who have no possessions, all who are sick, and all who are in prison.  Jesus identifies with the poorest and the least in this world; and Jesus tells his disciples that the way in which they treat the poorest and the least is the way that they treat Jesus Christ himself.

So we have Jesus identified with the king who sits in judgement, as well as with everyone who is trampled by society.  This is a more complicated image of a king than we normally see.  And if you look even more closely, Jesus takes on a third identity in this reading.

In the very first line of this story, Jesus calls himself the Son of Man.  This reminds us that Jesus, the story-teller, is the one who will be tortured and who will die on the cross, and who will be resurrected on the third day.  This is a very different kind of king.  This is a king who doesn’t sit on the throne of glory, but who is enthroned on a cross.  This is a king who doesn’t wear a golden crown, but who wears a crown of thorns.  This is a king who chooses the power of silence when he is brought before the earthly powers of this world, rather than repaying violence with violence; and by doing so, he breaks the cycles of violence that rule this world.  This is a king who chooses to empty himself of all of his godly powers, and who chooses to die on the cross rather than blasting his enemies and leaping down from the cross.

Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, is Jesus Christ, the judge on the throne of glory, is Jesus Christ who is one with the hungry and thirsty and stranger and homeless and sick and prisoner.

And all of this has some very profound implications to us today.  I would contend that proclaiming that Christ is our king is the most powerful and dangerous claim that we can make.  When we declare our allegiance to Christ the King, we are saying that we don’t owe our allegiance to anything in this world.  Christ the King has an absolute claim on everything in our lives.  When we proclaim that Christ is our king, we are saying that no earthly ruler can be our king.  When we proclaim that Christ is our king, we are saying that we don’t live by the violent systems of this world.  When we proclaim that Christ is our king, we are saying that we will not repay violence with violence.  When we proclaim that Jesus is king, we are saying that we won’t be ruled by a thirst for money or a thirst for power, or a thirst for celebrity.  When we proclaim that Jesus is our king, we are saying that we belong to a kingdom that is free from fear.

And when we as a community declare our allegiance to Christ the king, when we tell the world that we are on the side of God through Jesus Christ, then God’s coming kingdom can bubble up into our little corner of the world here in Chetwynd, and the whole world can see that we have been changed by this one whom we call king.

We follow a king who chose the power of weakness instead of the power of violence, and who broke the cycles of violence in our world.  By calling ourselves followers of Christ, we are committing ourselves to this kingdom too.

And so I ask the same question that I asked early on – do you self-identify as a sheep on the right hand of the judge, or as a goat on the left hand?  Do you stand in awe before Jesus Christ the king who is sitting on that throne of glory?  Do you see the face of Jesus Christ in the face of everyone you meet who is hungry or homeless or sick, or in prison?  Do you proclaim your allegiance to a kingdom of peace that runs contrary to every value that our world seems to hold?

So yes, let us celebrate Christ the King as we look forward to the reign of Christ.  But let’s not forget what this kingdom really means.

Let us pray:
Holy God,
Blow your Holy Spirit through us,
            uniting us, and making us one with Christ.
Help us to be a place
            where your kingdom can come.
Help us to show the world
            that there is a different way to be.
We pray this in the name of Christ our King.

(Christ the King?)

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.

(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,
            And while we wait,
                        help us to sustain our hope.
            We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,

[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)