Waiting to Prepare the Way

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Read the whole passage)

Light two candles to watch for Messiah, let the light banish darkness… or so the song goes.

We are fully half way done the season of Advent with only two weeks to go until Christmas. Just as we begin Advent each year by hearing Jesus’ proclamation about the end of the world, the second Sunday of Advent always introduces us to John the Baptist, and his preaching in the wilderness about the coming of Messiah.

As we begin making our way through Mark’s gospel this church year, it stand in contrast to the other gospels. Unlike the start of Matthew or Luke, Mark’s telling of the incarnation – of Jesus coming into the world – is a little different than what we might expect.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

There are no angels, pregnant virgins, shepherds or mangers. There’s no Christmas pageant using Mark’s account. No shepherds in bathrobes awkwardly delivering Mark’s dialogue.

Mark gets straight to the point. Yet, there is a lot being said in the economy of Mark’s words.

The good news starts now. The good news starts with this guy named Jesus. And this guy named Jesus is the son of God.

Then to explain that statement about the good news and Jesus, Mark quotes from the prophet Isaiah. But Mark expects a lot of his readers, and when he quotes from Isaiah, he expects that the first line is enough for us to fill in the rest and get the picture. Fortunately for those of who haven’t memorized the 66 chapters of the book of Isaiah, we read the passage that Mark quotes just a few moments ago.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to her, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2)

This passage from Isaiah comes at key moment for the people of Israel. The first 39 chapters told of the story of the exile into the Babylon, when the religious and royal class of Israel was forcibly removed from their home and sent to live in Babylon for generations.

Yet we come into the story precisely a the moment that everything changes. The exile has ended, and Isaiah pleads with God to be gentle with God’s weary people. They have endured a lot and need the time to recover. And now begins the story of the return of God’s people to their homeland. God is no longer the wrathful who has angrily sent the exiles away because of their sins, rather God is now the gentle saviour redeeming the tired and weary people of Israel. The exiles’ experience of God is completely transformed from this moment onwards.

And Mark quotes Isaiah expecting that we know this story well, the story of exile and return from exile. Even more so Mark expects that we will see that he is connecting Jesus to this important moment when everything changes for the Israelites.

Mark is saying, “Hey remember that moment when God changed everything by bringing the exile home? Well, this Jesus guy is changing everything too.”

And then Mark takes another left turn, keeping us on our toes only a few lines into the story, by introducing us to John the Baptist.

John, the rough around the edges desert preacher and prophet, who is attracting crowds and gaining the popularity of the people while drawing the ire of those in charge. John is quite the character dressed in camel hair, eating giant desert insects and preaching from a river.

But perhaps most jarring of all in this short passage of Mark’s, is that John is quiet opposite to Isaiah. If Isaiah is pleading to God for comfort, compassion, and tenderness for God’s weary people, John is warning of the swift kick in the pants to come if they don’t repent.

So is anyone confused by all this stuff in Mark? Good, that is the point.

Not unlike the Israelites, we might know a little something about being tired… about being weary… we might know about longing and waiting for God… for Messiah to show up, to transform our lives. It is exhausting trying to keep the faith and have hope for the future.

These days it can feel like the pressures and stresses of the world are pressing in from all sides.

Maybe it is burdens of work and family, trying to juggle more than we know we can handle and watching as things are dropped, promises unkept, people forgotten.

Maybe it is small towns and rural communities struggling to keep up as government funding is being cut, business not being able to make it anymore, schools and hospitals closing.

Maybe it’s waking up every morning wondering if nuclear war broke out overnight because of some blowhard’s tweet.

Maybe it’s the slow and steady decline of churches with aging members, fewer hands to do the work, and searching for ways to provide pastoral ministry.

Take your pick.

The list of burdens on our minds and lived out in our daily lives is long. It’s no wonder we feel weary. It’s no wonder we wait for God to show up in our lives and in the lives of our family, friends and neighbours.

Here’s the thing about Advent: when waiting for Messiah becomes about things deeper than opening the little doors on advent calendars and collecting our chocolate treat, or counting the days until Christmas, it raises questions. Questions about where this Messiah that we are waiting for is in our world. Where Messiah is in our lives.

We long for the God of Isaiah to come and show us weary people some compassion and tenderness.

We know that we need the Messiah of John the Baptist to come and give us swift kick the pants to keeps from atrophy.

But it’s the waiting… the waiting is what we cannot abide.

Because waiting has no answers until its over.

This is what John and and Isaiah have in common. They are both speaking to the waiting of God’s people. Whether they are proclaiming a tender God who brings comfort or a  powerful God who comes preaching repentance… they both are speaking to people who wait. To exiles whose waiting in exile is about to end, to Israelites waiting under oppression for Messiah.

To 21st century Christians waiting for God again this advent.

The promise is and has always been that Messiah is coming soon.

As Isaiah says:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Take you pick of burdens that cause us to wait,
valleys or hills and mountains,
crooked paths and rough ways,

Messiah is coming for all it.

For people who need the tender compassion of God,
for people who need the swift kick in the pants.
For people who carry the burdens of work and family,
of shrinking rural communities,
of the threat of tweet induced nuclear war,
of aging and declining churches.

Messiah is coming for all of that too.

And yes, not knowing when Messiah is coming, and having to wait is the hardest part of all.

Having to do Advent over again and again, with its questions about where God is in our world and in our lives is not easy. We want to know, how, where, when.

But the only answer is a promise, a promise that we hear every Advent again and again.

Messiah is coming.

Messiah is coming for a world in need.
Messiah is coming for people of faith who hate waiting
Messiah is coming for  you and for me.

Messiah is coming…

Soon.


  • Image credit: http://www.swordofthespirit.net/bulwark/dec08p2.htm
  • This sermon was co-written with Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker Twitter: @ReedmanParker
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The Lord Christ is coming – The Messiah has always been here

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Read the whole passage)

 

It would probably be a safe bet that no one attended a rocking new year’s eve party last night.

Advent, and the beginning of a new church year is pretty understated as far as New Years goes. Never the less, we are taking the first step of a new church year today. And as always, we begin with Advent.

Advent is the season of waiting and watching. We drape the sanctuary with blue, a colour representing hopeful anticipation. We light candles to symbolize the light of Christ coming into the world. We hear stories of the waiting of Israel for Messiah, and then Jesus’ own words about the end of the world.

And we do all of these somewhat odd things while the rest of world is frantic with Christmas fever, the lights and decorations having been out long enough to be gathering dust, and the music has gone stale on the radio and over mall speakers.

As is often the case, we find that the church tends to do the opposite of the world.

And so today, we slow down to light our lamps and watch for the signs of the coming Messiah.

As we hear Jesus begin our advent season, the thing he is talking about is the end. He gives us a prophecy, a glimpse of the end of the world. Signs found in darkened celestial bodies, and the coming of the Son of Man in glory.

And Jesus is speaking to an audience that has been waiting for Messiah for generations. The people of Israel had been waiting for a long time for God to send the one who would free them from oppression, release them from their suffering and re-establish a divine rule by one of God’s appointed kings, and not foreign occupiers like the Romans.

The Israelites had been waiting since the time that Isaiah prophesied Messiah’s coming, hundreds of years before Jesus’ day. And during that time life had not been easy. Israel had constantly been surrounded by enemy nations, there had been constant destruction and ruin. But despite this, the promise they clung to was that God was sending a promised Messiah, a saviour who would come to free them.

By Jesus’ day the Israelites were growing restless… but they could also see the signs. King Herod had killed all the children in the holy town of Bethlehem around the time of Jesus’s birth, and John the Baptist decades later had begun preaching in the desert. And now here was the one, the wandering preacher and healer, telling them of the coming Messiah.

The people could feel that it was close, that Messiah was in the air. The signs were there, and here was the one whom many thought to be Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and he was telling them of God’s plans to restore creation and set the world to right.

Finally, Messiah was close at hand.

2000 years down the road, we might not be living with that same kind of imminent sense of Messiah’s coming. While we hear the stories and read of Messiah’s impending coming, we do so year after year, decade after decade, lifetime after lifetime. And the stories written with such urgency take on a different meaning and we hear them in different ways.

And these days, as so many of us wonder about churches and the future of the faith in our part of the world, we feel less like the crowds listening expectantly to Jesus the Messiah in flesh announce God’s plans to restore creation, more like those who had been waiting generations before. We feel more like those who heard Isaiah’s words:

We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Isaiah has us pegged.

The grand visions of Jesus in Mark are not the clear and blinding signs for us that they were for the people of Jesus’ day. For us, they are hazy and hard to make out. The cosmic re-ordering that God is about to undertake feels more abstract and far off, than immediate and close at hand.

We faded leaves know the struggle. We know what it is to be tired and to wait, to feel thinned out and week. It is hard to keep the faith these days. Hard to keep showing up to hand out bulletins and sing God’s praises. Hard to volunteer to vacuum the church and receive forgiveness. Hard to look at budget statements and council reports AND pray without ceasing.

Jesus’ exhortation to ‘Keep Awake’ is hard enough to do during the sermon, let alone to keep vigil day after day, week after week, year after year.

But the Church has known this. Christians have known that waiting for the Messiah is both a long and a short game. Even as Mark was setting down his gospel only 30 years after Jesus rose from the dead, the early church was wondering when Jesus would return. Those first witnesses to the resurrection were getting old and beginning to die off.

And ever since, the church has lived with the sense of the now and not yet. The sense that God’s Kingdom is here NOW among us. And that God’s grand future plans to restore all creation have NOT YET come to fruition.

So we live with this dual reality. The reality that Jesus proclaims, the coming Son of Man and the reality of Isiah, that we are fading leaves waiting to be blown away in the wind.

Each Advent we begin by acknowledging this reality with the words of the collect or prayer of the day. While most begin by praising God, in Advent we begin with a petition, a request. And we direct it not to God the Father, but straight to the long awaited Messiah.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

We pray knowing that we need, ever so desperately the stirring up of Messiah’s power.

And we pray knowing that the Messiah, the one sent to save us is finally now, after our long waiting is stirring up power like a pot boiling over.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

And as the Israelites waited and waited for the coming of Messiah, even as they faded like leaves blowing in the wind.

And as the crowds heard Messiah himself preach the coming of God in power, even as they could feel Messiah in the air.

And as we grow tired waiting for something to happen among us, even as it is hard to keep up the faith.

And as the church of today sits at a moment of tremendous change, even as we don’t want to see it.

The Lord Christ is coming.
The Messiah has always been here.

The Lord Christ is coming, even when we find it hard to believe, even though it feels painfully slow. The Lord Christ is coming to bring an end to suffering, to make our upside down world right, reconcile all creation to God, to restore us all to what God intended us to be. It just has NOT YET come fully.

And the Messiah has always been here, already among us, here NOW, giving us mercy, forgiving our sins, showing us resurrection and new life.

The Messiah has always been here, present in the word of God, made manifest in the words that sound from our lips and in our midsts.

The Lord Christ is always coming to us from the waters of baptism, pulling us into a not yet future, where our sin and selfishness are no more, where we die and rise to new life.

The Messiah Lord Christ is here and yet coming to us in the bread and wine, body and blood, where God meets us, where God binds and joins us to Christ, the now risen and still coming one.

Even as we wait, even as we grow tired. Even as the story is told over and over again from the people of Israel to now…. God is bringing us from the end to the beginning.

From Advent and its promises of the great cosmic plan of God, to the beginning, to the beginning of God’s new creation born within us that first Easter.

Sure, there probably no new year’s eve parties last night.

But that is because God’s great and never ending party, starts here today.

Christ the King and the pearly gates checklist

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father… (Read the whole passage)

The end has finally come.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year. And since last Christ the King, we have waited for Jesus in Advent, sung with the Angels at Christmas, marked ourselves with ash and wandered the wilderness in Lent, walked the way of the cross in Holy Week, and been terrified by the empty tomb with the women on Easter morning. We have heard Jesus preach, and teach, and heal, and exorcize demons. We have commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, remembered the saints and all along the way we have listened for God at work through prophets and parables, psalmists and songs, the voices of young and old.

And so, finally, on this last Sunday of the church year, we celebrate Christ the King. Only Jesus is not the type of king we expect, or anticipate. Jesus does not look, or act, like any king we know. Christ the King rules in a way completely opposite what is known.

Christ the King Sunday points us to the end. To the end of time and all things when Jesus will return in order to reconcile all of creation back to God.

Jesus is wrapping up after spending time teaching the crowds and he finishes with a scene from the end times, something that sounds like the final judgment: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another… the sheep from the goats”.

For Jesus’ audience this would sound like pretty radical stuff. All these texts that we have been listening to these last weeks, in particular the parables Jesus has been telling since the triumphal entry: the parable of the ten bridesmaids, the wicked tenants, the talents, the wedding banquet, have been leading up to this moment. Jesus has been provoking the crowds and the temple authorities, who just a few days ago were shouting “Hosanna, son of David” as he rode into Jerusalem. Today, Jesus gives them the last straw: Jesus preaches this judgment scene which sounds like pretty standard fare to our modern, Christian ears: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and those imprisoned. But to his audience, in particular to the religious authorities, this would not have sounded like the route that they were taught would obtain righteousness and salvation. In fact, Jesus seems to have gotten everything upside down.

According to the laws of Israel, in particular to the temple cult of Jesus’ day, righteousness and salvation were not earned in the way that Jesus describes. Righteousness was obtained by keeping the law, staying ritually clean, and making sacrifice in the temple. Whereas, what Jesus describes does the exact opposite of that.

Food was one of the primary ways you could become unclean. So sharing a drink or food with someone who is thirsty or hungry presumably  poor and unclean, is a quick way to become unclean yourself.

Naked people are unclean.

Strangers, for example foreigners or Gentiles, unclean.

The sick, unclean.

Prisoners (debtors or sinners), unclean.

Getting too involved in the affairs of your neighbours was one of the quickest ways to become unclean and therefore unacceptable to God.

That’s not to say people didn’t look after the poor. Levitical law required the giving of alms, but putting some money in the box for the poor at the temple was a little different than what Jesus was suggesting – getting down and dirty with your neighbour.

So when Jesus describes what it looks like to be righteous, what it looks like to get into heaven, his audience would not have heard it as a list of good works, but as a complete undoing of what they knew and understood about salvation.

Fast forward 2000 years. We are not that different than Jesus’ audience. We might have a different list than the people of ancient Israel, but we still have a list. It just so happens that our list of good works sounds a little but closer to the list Jesus provides.

Our sacrifices might not be animals in the temple, but we give up our Sunday mornings and money into the offering plate.

We might not worry about ritual cleanliness, but we certainly worry about looking like good Christians to the rest of the world.

We might not worry about keeping the law, but we certainly worry about whether our kids and grandkids are keeping the faith.

There is a whole list of things that we have, whether it’s praying enough, reading the bible enough, serving at the soup kitchen or knitting enough mittens for the mitten tree or quilting quilts for CLWR, or mowing the cemetery lawn.  with all of these good works that we spend a lifetime trying to pile up, one of our biggest concerns is the person who lives a fast and loose life before having a deathbed conversion and cheating their way into heaven after we did all this work. Like the people of Jesus’ day, we are still experts at making salvation into some kind of checklist or point system that we can achieve on our own.

Jesus isn’t proposing some kind of bait and switch for “things that get us into heaven” but the thing that Jesus is getting at is who it is that is working out our salvation.

As Jesus describes this scene of the end times, there are a couple of key details that would have jumped out to his audience:  The first is the whole group of people who are gathered before the king: good and bad, sheep and goats. But for Jesus’ audience, righteousness was something that was worked out here on earth, not something that was determined at the pearly gates. The second detail, was that Jesus’ criteria had everything to do with our relationship to our neighbour, but the Israelites knew that righteousness had everything to do with your relationship to God. It’s almost as though Jesus was saying everything they knew about righteousness is upside down, that God is the one working out our salvation.

Jesus’ version of the end of time is a completely new understanding of our relationship to and with God. Because if God is working out our salvation, that means we don’t have to. But it also means it’s not up to us. As freeing as it is for God to be the one doing the work, it is also terrifying that we aren’t.  And that we have no control.

Even though the religious authorities and crowds won’t respond all that well to Jesus’ suggestion that God is the one doing all the saving, God keeps at it anyway. God continues God’s work of reconciliation and redemption.

And it isn’t long after this, that Jesus will end up on the cross. The cross, which is Christ the King’s throne. And the foot of the cross is the place where all people, good and bad, sheep and goats are gathered. The judgment that Christ provides from that throne cross is neither about who’s in and who’s out, but a judgement that declares that we are forgiven and free from our sins, that we are given resurrection and new life.

And despite all of our doing and trying, our checklists and point systems, Christ the King is gathering us up too at the foot of the throne cross.

And for all the sacrifices that we think we make and offer up to God, God is the one offering God’s self to us in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

For all our attempts at keeping the faith in this generation and the next, God’s faithfulness has already been given to us and proclaimed to us in the word from generation to generation.

For all our attempts at looking like good little Christians, God names us and claims us God’s own in the waters of baptism.

Every Sunday, God gathers us at the throne cross, we who are thirsty and hungry, we who are sick and imprisoned, strangers in need of mercy and says to us, “Come and inherit the kingdom”.

This sermon was co-written with Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker

The Parable of the Talents is not a lesson in Stewardship

Matthew 25:14-30

…Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave!…As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (read the whole passage)

We are coming to the end of the church year. And for nearly six months, we have been hearing stories from Matthew’s gospel. For the the past few weeks, it has been parables from Holy Week. During those short few days between riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, being hailed as King and then being arrested and put on trial, Jesus took the opportunity to preach and teach. The parable of the talents is the last parable that Jesus tells before being arrested and put on trial.

The parable of the talents is a familiar parable. As a rich man prepares to go on a long trip, he gives three trusted slaves large sums of money to attend to. 5 talents to one, 2 to the next and 1 to the last. And when the man returns the first two have doubled their share. But the third, being fearful of his harsh master has buried his talent. When the slave returns just the one talent, his master is not pleased, expecting more.

To our profit and productivity obsessed world, the master seems well justified in his anger at this slave. He could have at least earned basic interest if the slave had just put the money in the bank.

And that has often been the message preached by modern Christians, especially when we expand the definition of talents beyond money to the other more common usage of talents. The talents that many preachers talk about with this parable are gifts of time, money and abilities. We all have been told that God gives us these gifts and we should give back to the church.

But is this parable really about an encouragement to use our gifts, and abilities and time for Jesus? Or is that a direction that preachers take because it is too hard to pass up an opportunity to preach about stewardship?

On the surface is sure sounds like the master (or God) is telling the slaves (or us) to make good use to the talents we have been given in this life… and yet when we dig past the surface there just might be something else going on here.

If we slow down and listen, the master does not seem to be very God-like. The third slave names it for us. The master is harsh, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not scatter seed. And then the master confirms the third slave’s assessment. He is outraged and throws the slave into the outer darkness. Simply because the slave returned what had initially belonged to the master.

So is this harsh and greedy Master really a comparison for God? Does the God of stable mangers, the God of nail pierced hands and feet, the God of empty tombs and being known in breaking bread really operate this way? Does God really say “look at all I have given to you… now you owe it back twice over… or at least give me the going interest rate.”

If this harsh and greedy and rage filled master is not an example of God, is this parable really about encouragement to us our “talents” to the fullest?

In strictly economic terms, a biblical talent is no metaphor for gifts and abilities. It is a measure of money. One talent represented about 20 years wages, or the working lifetime of a day labourer. So the master hands out 8 life times worth of money to 3 slaves to manage, and when his 8 talents are turned into only 15 he flies into a rage. Or to put it into modern terms, 20 years of the average annual income in Canada is $1,000,000. So this master is enraged when his 8 million only grows to 15 million instead of 16.

Wow, what a disappointment.

This master sounds not so much like God, but more like that cranky Dragon from the TV show Dragon’s Den who was all about the money. Or that other reality tv star turned blowhard politician whose catchline is “You’re fired!”

But perhaps more troubling is how easily Christians have tried to make this harsh and greedy master virtuous. How deeply have we been enmeshed in the cult of money, power and success that we would compare economic success with faithfulness and salvation.

And rather than some kind of lesson on putting our gifts and talents to their best use, it is this troubling reality that Jesus is more likely pointing to as he tells the parable to the crowds and religious authorities.

If the business of faith and salvation were up to us, up to sinful human beings, we would make it an issue of wealth and power. In fact, in Jesus day it was. Only the rich and powerful could afford to be righteous and pure according to the laws and traditions of ancient Israel. And for 2000 years of Christianity, it has frequently been portrayed in this way – faith tied to the amount of wealth and power that one holds. Salvation has often been something that could be bought.

Jesus is naming this reality. Jesus is naming this reality in just hours before the crowds will turn on him. Before he will be arrested and tried and executed.

Jesus is revealing to those who will crucify him for being God in flesh that the reason is their own desire to be in control of salvation, to dictate the terms of our faith based on money and power. Jesus is the ultimate threat to that desire. If Jesus is indeed the Messiah, God’s Son, than humanity cannot be God. And if we are not God, then no amount of power, or wealth, or self-righteous greed and anger can save us.

And as Jesus prepares teaches the crowds with these parables he does so as he is about to go to the cross.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians fills in the rest of the story. Paul tells us how it is that God is truly enacting salvation. Paul writes, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him”

It is not the wrath of the greedy master than will save or condemn us.

It is not whether we can double the talents we have been given, or whether we bury them in the ground.

It is not an economic transaction that is required for Salvation.

To the Thessalonians, who were feeling like that third slave, fearful and hiding their talents in the ground, Paul declares that it is the Lord Jesus Christ who died for us who obtains our salvation.

And whether we feel like the first slave who doubles his talents, the third who buried his or even the master greedy and filled with rage… is not us and what we do but the Lord Jesus Christ who obtains salvation.

It is Lord Jesus Christ who gives up all god-like power and who comes into human time and space, who breaks into our productivity and profit focused world.

It is our Lord Jesus Christ who reveals to us our sinful nature and our attempts to make wrath and rage and greed into virtues.

And it is only our Lord Jesus Christ who truly saves us from sin and death. Only Jesus who obtains salvation for us. Only Jesus who brings forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation and grace into our world.

And just as Jesus prepares the crowds and temple authorities for salvation given by God in the cross, Jesus prepares us too.

Jesus prepares us with forgiveness instead of wrath.

Jesus prepares us with the word of life rather than the word that casts out into the outer darkness.

Jesus prepares us with the water of baptism that wash us of our greed and desire for power.

Jesus prepares us with the bread and wine of salvation, food that fills us like no amount of profit or return ever could.

As Jesus tells the parable of the talents today, we discover again that it is not about the thing that we thought it was about. And as much as we try to make salvation and faith fit our terms, as much as we try to make greed and productivity a virtue… Jesus is pointing us back to God who comes without power, but instead with love.

Jesus is showing us in the parable, on the cross and here in Word and Bread and Wine that God’s Salvation is given freely. God gives is freely to us and for all.  

Waiting (for the Bridegroom) ain’t easy…

Today’s sermon is a guest post by Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker. You can find her on Twitter @ReedmanParker *

Matthew 25:1-13

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. (Read the whole passage)

Waiting is not easy.

We know this. And yet, every time, we are caught by surprise by how difficult waiting can be.

In today’s parable we encounter 10 bridesmaids, 5 who are wise for bringing extra oil for their lamps, and 5 who are foolish because they do not. And, wouldn’t you know it, but there is a delay waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. Maybe half of them knew the bridegroom well enough to know he would be running behind, we don’t know.  But they wait, and they wait, and they wait. They wait for long enough that they fall asleep – all of them, the foolish and the wise.

What are the things that we wait for? That we LONG for?

Maybe it’s a better relationship with your kids or your spouse. Maybe it’s a new or better job. Or being free from pain or illness, addiction or abuse, violence or oppression.

Whatever it is, we know what it is to long for something. We know what means to wait. Really wait.

It’s exhausting.

I don’t think it’s any mistake on the part of the lectionary committee, the group that determines the readings we hear week after week in worship, that this particular parable comes just 2 weeks before Advent – the season of longing, waiting, anticipation for God with us.

Or that Matthew, the gospel writer, tells this particular parable to a community that is waiting for Jesus’ return – his imminent return. His hearers are an anxious group. The early Christian community, as we are reminded of in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, did not anticipate that Jesus’ Second Coming would take so long – they didn’t expect him to be delayed, and were becoming drowsy waiting for him. Jesus’ parable of the 10 bridesmaids is told to remind the early Christian community to keep faith that Jesus is coming.

This parable, however, does not leave one with a very confident sense of hope in Jesus’ return. Once the bridesmaids are divided into two groups – the wise and the foolish – the wise get into the banquet while the foolish, having not brought enough oil to keep their lamps burning brightly are locked out while they go to get more – we take it upon ourselves to judge who’s “in” and who’s “out”. In this way the parable becomes more about waiting in fear of Jesus’ return rather than in hopeful anticipation of it.

It would be easy to interpret the parable of the 10 bridesmaids based on the wise and the foolish; to say that those who don’t have enough oil aren’t getting into the eternal banquet. It would be easy to say that we all better get ready and start making a list of what we all need to do to get in. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from Jesus’ teachings – especially in the parables – it’s that the answer is never as easy or as obvious as it seems. God is so much more subtle than we anticipate.

Besides, looking at the parable this way doesn’t accurately represent the God we profess as Lord and Saviour – you know, the one through whom we have been saved by grace through faith, but a God who tests and judges, who condones the idea that to earn favour we must “do” something, and that if we don’t we will be left behind. This is not a God whose return we hopefully anticipate, but one we fear.

It is this kind of thinking that tells us that  bringing guns into churches and schools will keep us safe from potential harm, or victims of abuse that if they had just worn different clothes, less make-up, or had said more – or less – that the abuse wouldn’t have occurred. When we know this simply isn’t true. It is a false logic based in fear and in our own abilities to save ourselves.

Also, the bridegroom does not say “keep your lamps lit and full of oil” but “keep awake” – and if we look at the text we see that ALL of the bridesmaids fall asleep waiting for their delayed bridegroom to arrive. Maybe the bridesmaids have a lot more in common with one another than in opposition: they all hold the same position in the bridal party, they all have lamps and they all fall asleep –  I don’t know enough about ancient wedding practices, but in my mind they are probably all wearing the same thing.

It strikes me that we are not that unlike the bridesmaids or the early Christian community. Two-thousand  years on, we’ve been waiting a long time. Some of us wonder if the bridegroom is EVER coming. The banquet hall is empty, we packed up the banquet hall some time ago. We are anxious. We are tired. No, we are exhausted… All this waiting, and for what?

But when we make this parable about the banquet – about who gets in, and who gets left out – we miss what is actually going on. Because this parable isn’t about the banquet, but it is about waiting and hope.

Hope that transforms us as nothing else can. Hope, which births in us something new, something beyond what we could dream or imagine on our own. And hope of new life must come before new life itself can occur.

We don’t know why the delays occur. But we live in faith that God is with us in the midst of our waiting. God’s promise of new life, of forgiveness of sins, resurrection from the dead aren’t just for some of us but for all of us. God’s promise that we are known by God – that we were created in God’s image, knit in our mother’s womb, and are marked with sign of the cross in baptism to mark God’s promise that we are God’s children. God knows us more intimately than anyone else in this entire world, even ourselves.  More than that, we trust as people of faith that God is already changing and transforming us even while we are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. This is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Thessalonians, “encourage one another “. Encourage one another to hope in what God is doing in and through us here and now, even as we wait for the bridegroom to arrive.

The Great Multitude and Declining Churches

 

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands… (Read the whole passage)

 

All Saints Sunday is an ancient yet often unfamiliar festival of the church for many of us. It has only been in the past few decades that some Lutheran churches have begun to observe the feast day on the first Sunday in November.

But we all know of a tradition related to All Saints Day, and that is Halloween or All Hallows Eve – Hallowed being another word for saints. In other words, the Eve of All Saints.

All Saints is the tradition of remembering in prayer all those in our community who have died during the past year since last All Saints. In the Roman Catholic version of the festival, the official list of approved saints is recited and prayed on Nov 1st, and then on Nov 2nd, All Souls Day is marked when those who are still in purgatory are prayed for.

As Lutherans, we mash the two together in a sense, praying for all those who have died on the Sunday of All Saints as we dropped the notion of purgatory 500 years ago with the Reformation.

And so, many churches today will be praying for loved ones by name, or lighting candles as a part of worship and as a way to observe All Saints. In that sense, All Saints Sunday can be a bitter sweet day – one where grief is remembered but also one of hope pointing us to the coming end of time when God will gather all the saints into the Kingdom.

As we hear Matthew’s beatitudes and how they speak to the idea of the saints, they certainly speak to the definition of blessedness. In that way they point us to the Reformation idea that we are sinners AND saints… saints not because we have been blessed by good fortune, health and conflict free lives… but because God has declared us holy and blessed, even in the midst of the struggles of life.

And while unpacking the ins and outs of what it means to be a saint and what it means to be blessed is not a bad idea on All Saints Sunday… it is not the beatitudes that truly show us the vision of All Saints. The idea that we are all joined together in faith to the saints who have gone before and who will come after us.

Rather, it is John’s vision in Revelation, and the great multitude coming before the throne of God, that gives us a true glimpse into what All Saints is all about.

The setting of this vision from John found in the book of Revelation was that is was written for an early church community experiencing persecution. Christians in the decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus found themselves clustered in small communities scattered across the Roman Empire. Island of faith in a sea of imperial paganism.

These small churches of sometimes only one or two dozen people lived in a world that didn’t give them too much mind. They were surrounded by a pluralistic society that prioritized the empire and its success beyond any particular religion. Early Christians communities stood out because they insisted, like their Jewish cousins, on worshipping the one true God. Most of the time Christians were largely ignored by this world, but when they were noticed by Roman society, they were oppressed and persecuted. As the first generations of the faithful began to pass by, these early church communities started to wonder about the imminent return of Jesus… Some, as we hear in Paul’s letters began to doubt the point of keeping the faith at all.

As John’s Revelation writings came to these early church communities they would have sounded radical, absurd even. To small communities used to be ignored or forgotten, or remembered only to be used as lion food in the gladiator games, John’s vision promising hope in a God who would correct all things, end oppression, destroy evil and bring the world to right would have sounded crazy.

Imagine being a church of a few dozen people, in some forgotten and ignored part of the world, trying your best to keep the faith. And as the world around you seems to pay little attention, you receive this letter of encouragement. A letter proclaiming a future where the Kingdom and reign of God is dramatically breaking into the world. Where God gathers up the little group of a few dozen into a great and uncountable multitude, robed in white, signifying the fact that they are not alone in following the risen Christ. And there in that crowd they march with joy to worship at the throne of God singing the very same songs that had been sung week after week in the worship of faithful:

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!…

Blessing and glory and wisdom

and thanksgiving and honor

and power and might

be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

It sounds incredible, unbelievable.

It sounds nuts.

And it sounds familiar.

1900 years on from those small church communities hearing the Revelation of the John for the first time, we aren’t in that much of a different space than they were. Things have changed for us, we used to be the biggest show in town and the world used to care about who we were and what we did. But now we are not much more than small islands gathering to keep the faith in a world that has mostly forgotten we exist at all.

No group of Christians is immune to this reality today. Churches are declining across board, we are no longer the big deals that we once thought we were.

And we wonder how the great multitudes will ever come back, how the grand worship before the throne can ever be a thing again. Especially on a day like All Saints Sunday when we remember all those who have gone before us faith, it is hard to imagine who will come after us.

It is almost like the vision itself plays out the same conversation that we are regularly having. As John stands there with the elder watching the great multitude of the saints go by, he asks,

“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

And along with John we have no idea. We cannot imagine or understand this world where God is bringing all creation to worship before the throne.

And so we too shrug our shoulders…. we don’t know. We only know small gatherings of hopeless peoples… or so we think.

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

This is the great uncountable multitude, from all tribes and all nations, worshipping God and the lamb.

And in case we missed the memo, this great uncountable multitude is us.

You and me and all those gathered here… we are part of that multitude.

When the name of the triune God and the communion of the Holy Spirit is invoked, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When sins are confessed and forgiveness received in the body of Christ, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When the word is proclaimed, and the good news is heard, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When the faith is confessed, prayers are offered up for the world, the church and those in need, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When body of Christ is placed in our open empty hands and when we take in the blood of Christ swirling with the cloud of witnesses, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

You see, this scene from the vision of John is not just a vision of the end of world… it was a vision of those tiny churches without hope scattered across the Roman empire, it was reminder of who God was forming them to be.

And John’s vision is a reminder to us, of who God is making us. Each time we gather, even though we may feel small and forgotten…

God is making us into the great multitude of the saints, past, present and future.

God is reminding us that we are not alone in carrying the faith.

God is showing us that here in this moment, in this community, as we worship…

That the great multitude is gathering here, before the throne, singing the praises of Christ the lamb,

And here we will hunger no more, and thirst no more;

the sun will not strike us,

nor any scorching heat;

for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be Our shepherd,

and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”

Amen.

Reformation 500 – Telling the Right Story

John 8:31–36

Reformation 500

October 31st, 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the day that a young Roman Catholic monk and university professor nailed a list of 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. His list of 95 pointed and succinct grievances became the flashpoint for the beginning of a period of upheaval and change in western Christianity which would later be named “the Reformation” by historians.

And so each year on the Sunday on or before October 31st, we, along with Lutherans around the world, take the opportunity to commemorate this occasion.

This 500th anniversary year, in particular, has been a busy one for Lutherans everywhere. It began in Lund, Sweden (the birthplace of the Lutheran World Federation) last year as the President of the LWF, the General Secretary of the LWF and the Pope led a shared worship service as a sign of reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics. This past summer, the ELCIC hosted its National Reformation Commemoration during our National Church Convention in Winnipeg at St. Gianna’s Roman Catholic Church with ecumenical leaders from a variety of denominations from across Canada.

Along the way churches and communities all over have been marking this 500th anniversary year with special bible studies, community events, concerts, and even in this part of the world a Manitoba Reformation Social.

And so even though today may feel like a fairly typical Sunday morning, we gather for worship with our Lutheran sisters and brothers in Christ from around the world to mark this significant occasion.

As we commemorate, and remember, and celebrate, and mark, and observe this Reformation moment 500 years on, things in 1517 were not nearly as festive. (There were definitely no socials).

Martin Luther’s intention in nailing his list of 95 theses articulating what he believed to be errors and failures of the Pope and institution of the Roman Church was perhaps to inspire some lively debate among his colleagues at the university. But the relatively new invention of the printing press changed all of that, and Martin’s writings were copied and spread throughout all of Europe. Today, we might say Luther went viral.

Luther’s main concern had to do with the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. Essentially papers issued by the pope (and sold by the church) giving people time off of purgatory. And not just for yourself, but also for your dead loved ones! Basically the church’s version of monopoly’s get out of jail free card. The selling of indulgences was Rome’s way of fundraising for the construction of St. Peter’s basilica.

What resulted was a showdown between Martin Luther and the arrayed political and religious powers of his day. Luther’s insistence that salvation was entirely a gift from God in faith threatened the church’s main source of income. Popes had been using the Vatican treasury to play politics, assemble armies for war and fund large building projects and art commissions. Indulgences kept the Vatican afloat, and needless to say, church leaders were not impressed with this nobody monk from the sticks and his growing popularity.

Now, nothing that Luther advocated for was new to Christianity. He certainly did not discover grace, that originated with that Jesus guy 1500 years earlier. Nor was Luther the first since Jesus to re-articulate the centrality of grace as a free gift from God, as we just heard that from St. Paul in Romans. And there was St. Augustine and others  were also very clear about salvation being a free gift from God.

The thing that Luther identified in his day was how the church was turned in on itself and obsessed with its own history and power. For hundreds of years, the church had been very cozy to political power, crowning emperors and declaring empires to be holy. By Luther’s day, power and influence were the centrally important things for most Popes and other leaders. Rome’s identity was deeply wrapped up in being an institution of influence and power, and not in being the body carrying out God’s mission to the world.

And so when Luther showed up declaring that perhaps God and God’s mission to save a sinful world was more important than big cathedrals and military forces, it did not go over well with those in power.

The ensuing conflicts between Rome and Luther resulted in a split in the Roman church and the birth of numerous protestant denominations over the past 500 years.

500 years on from Luther’s moment at the church door in Wittenberg, things have a changed a fair bit. Those of us who bear his name as Lutherans no longer carry the same clarity of the gospel that Luther did, and we often fall into the same temptation that the 16th Roman church did of loving our past, the power and influence that we used to have, a little too much.

As we commemorate 500 years of our history, it is easy to forget that one of Luther’s key points was that our history is not the point. God’s story is.

God’s story of love, and mercy;

God’s story of reconciliation, and grace.

God’s story of redemption for a fallen humanity.

This story is not one that is told in past tense only, but in the present and in the future.

Martin Luther’s insistence on grace through faith had to do with a simple but radical idea that salvation is not something that we could achieve. We cannot save ourselves, we cannot save others, we cannot save the church, we cannot save the world.

Salvation is God’s alone to do. God is the actor, the one who gives the gift, the subject of the sentence, the one whose deeds of power achieve the goal.

A simple but radical idea.

Simple because it sounds like it should be obvious.

Radical because it challenges our notion that we are in control, that our power and influence matters, that our story and history is somehow significant when it comes to salvation.

And if any Reformation commemoration is going to tell the story of the Reformation faithfully, it is not going to just be about Martin Luther, or just about the Lutheran church. But it will remind us again of God’s story. Of God’s story where sinners are forgiven freely, and the dead are raised to new life.

This central focus of Reformation on God and God’s action is also the hardest part of Reformation. It is easy to get lost in our own story, to make our past the thing that defines us, to believe that the way things were are how they are supposed to be in the future. It is hard to set aside our own past and continually orient ourselves back to God’s story and God’s future…

In fact, as Martin Luther would remind us, it is impossible not to make things about us, it is impossible not to put ourselves into God’s place, whether we are the church of 1517 or 2017.

But what is impossible for us, is not impossible for God.

God who continues to form us into God’s image.

God who continues to make things about forgiveness and mercy; grace and reconciliation.

God who continues to shed us of our own stories and pasts.

God who continues to transform us with the story of resurrection and new life.

God who continues to reform us 500 years on from a church door in Wittenberg.

*This sermon was co-written with Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker*

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