God is not the Maniacal King of the Wedding Banquet Parable

Matthew 22:1-14

… The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city….

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Read the whole passage)

 

This doesn’t really sound like much of a party does it.

As we are coming out of Thanksgiving weekend, most of us having sat down at some point to a feast with family and friends, it is hard to imagine a banquet going so badly as in Jesus’ parable. Even the most chaotic of family dinners don’t usually end up with soldiers burning down the whole city. Thank goodness Jesus waited until after Thanksgiving to give us this apocalyptic banquet scenario.

Today, the parables of Jesus continue as they have all summer and fall. They haven’t always been easy to hear, there have been difficult themes to contend with, racism, violence, death.

But just to make sure we are paying attention, the parables ramp it up a notch and violence continues. Jesus tells us the parable of a wedding banquet where everything goes wrong and not even in a comical kind of way like in the movies… people die and guests are thrown into the outer darkness. Sounds like quite the occasion.

Last week as we heard the parable of the wicked tenants who murdered the slaves and son of the landowner, we noticed that Jesus was telling a parable that had taken an unusually violent turn. Well, this next parable which follows the parable of the wicked tenants, does not drop the violence but rather doubles down on it.

As Jesus continues to talk with the temple priests and pharisees, he tells the story of a King. A King who is throwing a wedding banquet for his son and he invites all the well-to-do guests of his Kingdom. When the party is nigh, he sends his slaves to let the wedding guests know to come to the party. But they don’t… they ignore the invitation. And so the King, expecting that his subjects will come to the banquet, sends his slaves again to announce the beginning of the party. This time the guests take it out on the messengers and put the slaves to death.

This, of course, enrages the King who sends out his soldiers to destroy the murderous wedding invitees and burn the city… the King’s own city.

Yet, lest a little violence, murder and destruction ruin a good party, the King sends out his slaves to round up whomever was left in the streets, the good and the bad, the poor and lowly, probably beggars and homeless folks. And they fill the banquet halls with wedding guests. Guests who have been dragged to the party by force… even as the city the burns.

And then, just in case we haven’t figured out that this King is nuts… as the King goes out to greet his guests, he finds some poor sod wearing the wrong party clothes. I guess he didn’t get the memo, as he was being dragged into the banquet, that he should have been dressed up for the party.

And the King has this unfortunate fellow dragged from the party and thrown into the outer darkness… tossed into oblivion.

The Gospel of the Lord?

If you are wondering what is going on with this King, join the club.

Many commentators and preachers have twisted themselves in knots trying to weld this nutty behaviour of the King in the parable to a moral lessons about God. Come when you are invited they have said. Make sure you are wearing the right robes, or are prepared they have said.

But those kinds weak and limp exhortations to be better followers don’t really communicate the good news. Where is the Jesus who dies on a cross for us? Where is the Jesus who rises on the third day? Where is the God who has come to love all creation and forgiven sins and bring healing and wholeness?

When we let this message of this parable speak on its own, without trying to make it say something about God and faith, we can see that the King is far from being god-like.

In fact, this King seems to be rather human. Just like the rest of us, he is filled with imperfect expectations. He is flawed and self-centred, he wants his banquet to be a certain way and he wants the people around him to meet is expectations.

Perhaps like a Thanksgiving host, he frets about making sure everything is perfect for the wedding banquet. And probably like some we know, when his expectations aren’t met, the anxiety and stress goes up.

Its no wonder the invited guests aren’t interested in attending the wedding banquet, no one wants to go to a party where the host is so full of expectations about how things will go that you don’t know what will cause the big blow up.

This self-centred King is no example of God’s righteousness judgement as much as he is a lesson in what happens when we let our expectations get the better of us. And we are guilty of doing just that, perhaps not to the same destructive level, but we let our expectations rule us just the same. In fact, most of the conflicts we experience – conflicts between spouses, with children and parents, with family or friends, in the workplace, in the community, at church – are the result of our expectations not being met. We are all often guilty of thinking things will go a certain way, that the people around us will be a certain way… and when those things don’t happen the way we like, it can thrown us into a rage also. Put a toddlers food on a blue plate instead of a an orange plate and you will find out what the rage of unmet expectations looks like.

Or host a thanksgiving meal for family that doesn’t go the way it was planned to go…

Or put a lot of time into a task at work only for it not to be appreciated by the boss…

Or develop a new ministry at church only to have a less than enthusiastic response…

Expectations fuel a lot of conflict and tension.

And those same forces are precisely the things lurking behind the parable of the King and his wedding banquet.

As Jesus tells this parable, he has just entered into Jerusalem as a triumphant King-like figure. A King and conqueror that the people were hoping was on his way to oust the Romans, to restore the glory of Israel. Expectations were running high.

But instead of gathering an army, Jesus spent the days after is triumphal entry telling parables. Parables like the one we hear today. Parables that provoked crowd to eventually become a mob… a mob that would arrest Jesus – their King from only a few days earlier  – and take him to the authorities to demand his execution.

Expectations turned to rage and destruction and violence.

The comparison of this maniacal King and his banquet to Jesus is not to show us what is God is like, but to show us how different a kingship Jesus embodies.

Jesus the King is not the conquerer who comes full of expectations.

Jesus the King is the one who invites himself to our tables, who comes to eat with sinners.

Jesus the King is the one who welcomes all wherever he goes… he doesn’t demand that we follow, nor force us to attend… rather Jesus comes to us bearing new life.

And Jesus the King is the one who comes wearing the wrong clothes to the big party…. the one who has a crown of thorns and the purple robe put on him by mocking soldiers.

Jesus the King is the one who defies our expectations, who does not put himself first, but who puts himself last.

And this King, is the one that this parable really should remind us of. The King of the wedding banquet is so absurd in his maniacal rage, his expectation filled rage and violence, that we should be reminded of just how different and opposite a king Jesus is.

But in case we forget, or don’t get the memo… Jesus reminds us here, week after week, that God is constantly defying out expectations.

When we expect condemnation, God gives forgiveness.

When we expect judgement, God gives mercy.

When we expect conflict, God bring us peace.

When we expect force, God gives us love.

We when expect death, God gives New Life.

Here, as we gather as a community filled with human expectations, God strips us of the things we expect week after week.

God washes expectations away in the waters of baptism.

God forgives expectations in the words of absolution.

God overturns expectations in the gospel word.

And God re-forms us anew, without expectation, at the banquet table of bread and wine.

And so, when we heard this parable the first time, we likely expected that it said something about God, about a God who carries many expectations that we better live up to or else…

And Jesus completely defies our expectations by being a King that we could never imagine.

But to be the King who God has sent to us to give us new life.

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How God Responds to Violence – Edmonton, Vegas and the Wicked Tenants

Matthew 21:33-46

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” (Read the whole passage)

Over the past week, we have born witness, once again to violence and tragedy in our world. Last Saturday night, in Edmonton, a police officer was hit by a car, and then stabbed. And then hours later the same attacker hit four people with a u-haul truck. Thankfully no one was killed.

But then the following night, as if on cue, another mass shooting took place in the US, this time in Las Vegas. And again, the scale of the shooting was thought to be previously unimaginable. 59 dead, over 500 hundred wounded.

And these two events, perhaps more than many of the acts of violence in the past few years, have hit closer to home. An attack on Canadian soil makes us feel vulnerable. And despite being far from here, the Las Vegas shooting has reached all the way into our community, with two of the injured victims being from our part of the world.

A because of these events, it is hard to gather around food with family and friends this Thanksgiving. Hard to know that as we eat and spend time with family, our friends and neighbours are on a long road to healing. These events make us feel more thankful and less thankful at the same time. More thankful for our own safety and the safety of our loved ones. But harder to be thankful for a world that seems to be getting more dangerous each day.

As we have worked our way though the stories of Jesus ministry and teaching this summer and fall, it has often felt like the stories we have heard have had something to say about the things happening in our world. We heard the story of Jesus and gentile woman dealing with issues race just as the protests were happening in Charlottesville. We heard a God who searches out the last, lost and least just a hurricanes were ravaging people islands, coasts and cities.

And today, as violence and tragedy is on our minds, we hear Jesus tell us a parable that deals with the topic of violence.

Jesus is still talking to the temple priests and pharisees as he was last week. Following up the conversation about where Jesus’ authority comes from, he tells the priests and pharisees a parable meant to upend their understand of authority and power.

A landowner plants a vineyard and then rents it out, while he goes off to another country. The agreement with the tenants is that they will be free work and live off the land if they send the owner a share the fruits.

But when harvest time comes, nothing is sent to the owner. So he sends some of his slaves to collect… yet when they arrive the tenants decide that they can renege on the agreement. So like a group of mafiosos, they kill one servant, stone another and beat the third to send a message.

But the landowner doesn’t give up. Being landowner in those days wasn’t simply a business opportunity. Owning land came with responsibility. The responsibility to provide for the community and people that lived near and on the land, as they were often the relatives and extended family of the landowner. If these tenants keep the harvest for themselves, a whole community could go without.

So again, the landowner sends his slaves to collect the fruits of the harvest. And again the tenants kill the slaves.

But not willing to give up on his responsibilities as a caretaker of the land and community, the landowner sends his son.

Yet, seeing the opportunity to not just hoard the harvest, but tenants see that killing the son, the heir to the land, is their opportunity to appropriate the land… to take the place of the landowner themselves.

And then Jesus cuts the story off, without finishing it. And instead asks the Pharisees and temple priests what they think the landowner would do.

Their response to Jesus is that the landowner will finally come a set things right… set things right by bringing down his full power and might on those wicked tenants, by putting them to death and renting to new less wicked and more fearful tenants who wouldn’t dare try to take what isn’t theirs.

Almost sounds like the plot to an action movie doesn’t it. A good and virtuous landowner’s son is killed by some bad dudes while the hero is far away in a another country… so now the landowner will spent two hours kicking butt with explosions and car chases to rain down righteous vengeance on these bad renters.

And isn’t that how we imagine power to look like. Power is to be the strongest and most mighty of them all, the one able to demand and take the things that truly belong to heroes, while the bad guys are the ones who just weren’t quite strong enough.

The pharisees and temple priests imagine power and strength in the same way that our world does. The strongest, the most powerful, the most god-like among us, are the ones who can strike the most fear, who are the most violent, who can control the world around them the most.

The tenants see something that they want and can take, so they use violence to do so. While the pharisees and temple priests believe that the landowner, the one who should be the most powerful will exercise that power and squash those wicked tenants like the bugs they are.

Given that the brightest religious leaders and authorities of Jesus’ believe that greater violence is the answer to violence, that greater power and might the answer to power and might, it is not hard to see 2000 years later, we hold the same idea.

It is easy to see that we too so often see violence and power and might as the solution to our problems. Whether it is gaining the upper hand in argument with a loved one at the expense of their feelings, or hoarding control and power over those we work with, or treating badly those who serve us our food, cut our hair, provide medical care, or plow our streets because we know they have to take it. We often see violence and power as answer to problems, or the easiest way raise ourselves up while pushing others down.

It is even easy to see that regardless of the particular motive of the Edmonton attacker or Vegas shooter, that our desire for power and might and control turned extreme quickly becomes tragic.

It impossible to miss the fact that this all because of original sin, the same desire of Adam and Eve to be God in God’s place.

And so when Jesus tells the Pharisees and temple priests this parable of violence and they suggest that more violence is the answer, it is hard for us to disagree.

But God disagrees.

In fact, this thinly veiled parable shows us that God the Landowner does the opposite of what we would consider god-like and powerful. God comes from the bottom. If violence were the answer, would have never sent his slaves in the first place. He would have sent soldiers from the first moment that the wicked tenants weren’t paying up. But God sends slaves, servants whose job would be to take the fruits to the harvest out of the hungry community. And when first slaves are killed, God sends more. God sends more as a sign that the importance of caring for those whom God is responsible is no joke. And when those slaves are killed, God sends the son.

And even though Jesus ends the parable there, we know the real ending.

We know that even after the son is met by the wicked tenants shouting crucify him, they nail the son to a cross. They use the power that seems the most god-like to us – death.

But God sends the son again.

And the son comes to us from the bottom. From the place that is surely the least god-like in our minds.

God sends the son to come to us from the grave.

From the place of utter weakness.

From the place where power is completely absent.

God sends the son to come up and out from the grave.

And by doing that God completely re-defines the power of violence.

God re-creates the order of the world.

God-like power is no longer the power to decide who dies.

Whether it is cutting words directed to a loved one,

Or bullets cutting down hundreds at a country music concert.

God undoes the place of violence and strength and might in the world.

God makes weakness god-like.

God makes loves god-like.

God makes grace the new reality.

And all of a sudden violence and power and might, they are not so god-like anymore. In fact, they become very human. And the thing that we thought was the solution to our problems turns out to be no solution at all.

Rather, God uses the weak waters of baptism to change us at our core.

Rather, God uses the foolish word of forgiveness and mercy to make us new.

Rather, God uses the love found in the body and blood of Christ to welcome us home.

And once again, Jesus reminds us that the power to decide who dies is a very human power.

But it is God’s power to make the dead… alive again.

The terrible power of the angry mob and the God who stands firm

Matthew 21:23-32

… And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things…. (Read the whole passage)

There is something about an angry crowd that makes the hair on the back of your neck tingle.

If you have ever been near to a group of angry protestors or near a mob you would know that the kind of tension an angry group of people create is unique. Because of this, an angry mob is always something that makes the news. The protests and violence in Charlottesville this summer commanded world wide attention. As did the angry riots in Vancouver a few years ago after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. Tense and sometimes violent groups stick our in a memory. Those protesting violence police violence in Ferguson, Syrian refugees and migrants clamouring to cross European boarders, people gathered outside Trump rallies last year, people marching in the streets of the Arab Spring, and on and on. The reasons that incite a crowd are varied and complex and certainly some are more trivial than others.

Today, both Moses and the chief priest are worried about the crowds. They are worried that the very people that they lead, that they have authority over, that they have been entrusted with caring for, will revolt in anger. The Israelites wandering in the wilderness are complaining again, this time for something to drink… and Moses, fearing the crowds more than the God who appeared in burning bush, sent the 10 plagues and parted the Red Sea asks for God’s help lest he be stoned.

The chief priests know that the crowds are watching the interaction between them and Jesus, and the wrong answer can provoke violence.

It is easy to call the grumbling of the Israelites and the frustrations of the temple crowds mere complaining, but clearly there is something more to it than just a bunch of whining.

Moses is genuinely fearful… and the constant grumbling of the wandering and restless crowds will soon lead Moses up a mountain to meet with God. And God will provide ten commandments to temper the growing tension and discontentment among the Israelites so that their grumbling doesn’t turn into violence.

And yet, hundreds of years later, long after the law had been given, the same leaders of the people – the chief priests – are fearful of what the people might do if they are provoked.

There is something about an angry crowd or mob that puts everyone on edge… that sparks a fear in leaders and authorities.

There is something about an angry crowd or mob that reveals something primal and dangerous within us. The instinct to protect ourselves, to lash out at those who can be easily blamed for our problems, to coalesce around anger and rage… these things reveal and show the dark side of us, that potential for evil that is somehow multiplied when a group of individuals all pull back the veil on sin simultaneously.

An angry crowd or mob reveals what original sin looks like at its clearest. What it looks like when our selfish desires to protect ourselves at all costs, to blame others for our problems, to seek vengeance for the grudges that we carry is put out into the open. When a group of people tries to be God in God’s place, and exercise ultimate power and control over their world you get a terrifying scene.

And of course, we too know about the discontentment of a crowd in the 21st century. Whether it is the violent crowds we see in the news or a lesser discontentment that can brew in any group or community, we know the power of collective rage and grumbling. We know that in our communities, even in our church communities, that when frustration and anger hits a tipping point, blaming particular people or other groups for our problems can brew a toxic storm. And it is a storm that that most leaders fear and avoid, and few others, (like a certain big league president to our south) incite in order to exploit.

And so as the temple authorities and Jesus debate in front of the crowds today, the temple authorities watch their words for fear of the crowds, even though they believe that Jesus is not the one sent by God.

And while the rage might have been directed towards the temple priests today… it is not long after this that the rage of the crowds will be redirected towards Jesus. The shouts of Hosanna for a king riding into Jerusalem will turn to crucify him.

And Jesus knows this. Jesus knows that the questions about his authority will not die down. And that for only a little longer, he will only get away with parables that suggest the temple priests do not know the will of God.

But what Jesus does in the face of the violent crowd, what Jesus comes to say about God and about God’s kingdom, even when the crowds turn into violent mobs hell bent on taking out their anger on someone.

And Jesus does what neither Moses nor the temple priests are able to do. Jesus does what no King or Queen, what no Emperor, what no President or Prime Minister is able to do.

In the face of original sin, in the face of a crowd determined to be God in God’s place and take control of their world, Jesus stands firm.

Jesus doesn’t avoid the anger and nor does he incite the crowd, he doesn’t appease the crowds or try to control them. Jesus doesn’t respond to their violence with violence.

Instead Jesus stands firm, Jesus continues to declare that the Kingdom of God has come near. Jesus continues to bring close the love and mercy and grace of God. Jesus continues to meet a fallen humanity with the intimacy of God come to us in flesh

Even as the anger and rage filled crowds convince Pilate, Herod and the other earthly authorities to bend to their need to violence, even as they drag Jesus to Golgotha, even as they nail him to a cross, even as they put Jesus, God in flesh to death… Jesus stand firms. Jesus continues to bring the love and grace and mercy of God near to us.

And unlike all other responses to Original Sin made manifest in angry crowds, in crowds that shout “Crucify him”, as Jesus stands firm knowing that the crowd will take his life… God’s unwillingness to bend and react to the crowd changes everything.

The crowd’s power, the power of death is overcome… self-righteous anger and rage become impotent. Death is no longer final and instead resurrection and new life are the new reality. Original Sin is no longer a terrible and fear inspiring power, but soft whimper next to God’s love and grace and mercy.

And we know this because we live it. Yes, original sin takes control of us collectively from time to time. We still see it in the news and in our lives.

Yet, as we gather here, and as Christians all over the world gather together…

There is no angry mob that meets God’s word of forgiveness.

There is no rage that can overshadow the life that is given in the waters of baptism.

There is no discontent that the gospel word does not cure.

There is no selfish anger that does not melt away as we come and kneel to receive bread and wine at God’s table.

Because Jesus stood firm in the face of the angry crowd, original sin has no claim in the body of Christ.

Moses and the temple priests are fearful of the crowds today. They are afraid of what the rage of the original sin might to do them if left unchecked… it is a very real fear known by any leader, known by any bystander in front of an angry mob…

But it is in that hair raising fear of the angry crowd where Jesus stands his ground. Where God incarnate, God in flesh insists on preaching God’s love, mercy and grace.

And it is there, standing in front of the mobs of original sin that God’s love prevails…

That God’s grace is present and manifest in the world…

That God’s mercy is given …

There that the Kingdom of God comes near.

And there is no angry crowd that will make Jesus back down… because God has come to stand in front of our sin, and God does not bend or react… but instead insistently shows us new life.

God is not fair

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, `You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, `Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, `You also go into the vineyard.’ 

Fairness.

We know all about what it means to be fair and what it means to be unfair. Whether it is being fair as a parent, or fair as a teacher or fair as an employer. We expect fairness from our political leaders, community organizations, public servants, the businesses we patronize and services we pay for. We want fairness from the place where we buy our milk and where we get heart surgery. And We complain about the lack of fairness whenever we see it… Fairness is an expectation that we try to hold our world to.

And yet, we know that being fair and even handed is as much art as it is science, and that fairness can be perceived very differently by two people. Just ask any siblings if parents are fair, or opposing hockey teams if the refs are fair, men and women working in the same fields if their pay is fair and we discover that fairness is very much about perception.

Jesus is talking about fairness today.

The topic has come up because Jesus has been teaching about the difficulty of the rich when it comes to entering the Kingdom of heaven, and Peter ( it is Peter a lot lately) wants to know what he and the other disciples will get – what is the reward – for giving up everything to follow Jesus.

So Jesus tells the disciples a parable. A landowner goes out throughout the day to hire workers for his vineyard. And every few hours he keeps hiring more… even hiring the last batch only an hour before the end of the workday. Yet, when it comes time to pay the workers, everyone is paid the same. One day’s wage.

Not exactly fair according to the definition.

And so naturally, when the workers who have worked since dawn receive the same pay as the ones who had worked only one hour, they grumble to the landowner. Should not they who worked the longest receive the most pay?

The landowner’s response to the grumbling workers sounds reasonable, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

But is it?

Well, not in the biblical world and nor in ours.

There are certain rules that we all play by in the world, and the long working labourers of the parable know this. And one of the most important rules is the rule of fairness: you get what you deserve. In fact, the biblical world was based on this idea. It wasn’t just about wages for labour.

The notion that you get what you deserve was everywhere. It was the basis for one’s social standing, it was the reason that some got sick and others didn’t, that some were inflicted with suffering and others good health. It was was some could keep and law and be righteous while others could not.

You got what you deserved in that world, and if you were punished or afflicted or poor it was because you were sinner. And if you were blessed, or healthy or rich, it was because you were a good person.

And so when this landowner asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” the answer is no. He is supposed to do what is fair, that is what the rules say, the rules that God gave to the people of Israel. Paying everyone the same is not fair, because people should get what they deserve. The labourers who worked longer should be paid more than the ones who came in at the end.

Now it is easy to think that we are more enlightened and know that things are more complicated. Because certainly we would never be so extreme as to blame the victims of violence or disease or suffering for what has been inflicted upon them, and surely we would never claim that wealth and success has been hard work when they have actually been because of luck and chance, and of course we would never feel entitled to more than we have received because we have judged those around us as undeserving.

In fact, our world is exactly like that biblical world that believes people get what they deserve.

We all too easily think that the workers who begin early in the morning are the hard working ones, rather than the lucky ones. We all to easily think the the workers who come at the end are the lazy ones, the death-bed converts who frittered the day away only to swoop in at the last minute to reap the reward.

We don’t generally see that there is a lot of good luck involved in being chosen first. And lot of bad luck involved in being chosen last or forgotten entirely.

We are much like the first workers. The first workers who thought they would receive more; but were paid the usual daily wage.

In fact, it isn’t until we are the ones waiting and passed over and wondering when our luck will change that we begin to see what might be really going on in this parable. It isn’t until we are the ones who are left idle in the marketplace… we are the ones who waiting in hospital for a diagnosis or treatment, we are the ones whose jobs have been cut, we are the ones who have not been invited to the party or left out by our community, we are the ones considered the death-bed converts that we begin to see.

God isn’t giving any of the workers what they deserve.

The landowner isn’t operating according to fairness.

The landowner is operating by unexpected goodness. Unexpected grace.

The landowner pays the workers and and pays them what they need. One day’s wage.

Just as God provided for the Israelites manna in the desert, God provided what they needed, enough for the day.

Just as Jesus taught the disciples to pray, Give us today our daily bread. Jesus taught them to pray for what they needed.

The labourers needed enough to buy food, to afford shelter, to provide for their families. A Denarii, the coin that represented day’s wage was not like our money. It was not meant to represent an amount of gold bullion, it was not symbolic of a measurement of value. A Denarii was symbolic of daily needs. It was supposed to be enough for anyone to live on, enough to buy food and shelter for one more day.

As the landowner goes back to marketplace again and again, hiring more workers for his vineyard he acts in manner that is completely outside of what it means to be fair.

He is acting based on what it means to be good. What it means to care, what it means to show mercy.

And when he comes at the end of the day, still finding workers he asks them, “Why are you standing here all day?” And they say to him, “Because no one has hired us”.

So the landowner does something that no one did in the biblical word. Something that no one does is our world because it is just not how the world works. The landowner does what is utterly unfair and unexpected. And not unexpected because it is surprising but because it is outside of expectation of what is normal.

The landowner says, “You also go into the vineyard.”

He sends the last and forgotten ones into his kingdom. He welcomes them and makes a place for them. He recognizes that what is good, even if it is not fair or expected, is to make sure that everyone is given what they need.

In a world that constantly tries to tell us that we should be paid what we deserve, it can be easy for us to buy into the same idea. It can be easy for church people like us to think that we deserve more, that we are the ones who have been working all day.

But God’s church operates outside of expectation, outside of what is fair.

Here, in God’s church, in God’s vineyard and Kingdom, the workers are given the usual daily wage. And not because our labour has earned it, but because it is what is Good and it is what we need.

And truly, as we gather week after week we should expect condemnation for our sins… but God gives unexpected forgiveness.

What should be fair is that the wages of our sin would be death… but God gives us the daily wage and the daily bread that is life.

What should be expected is we would be turned away by the stain of our sin… but God unexpectedly washes us in the waters of life.

What should the way things operate is that God’s grace and mercy cost more than we could ever earn… but because of God’s goodness and love, God gives us the grace and mercy that we need.

Our sense of fairness tells us we deserve more. And what is actually fair might mean we deserve much less than we have received.

Yet, God is not fair but God, and God gives us what we need.

Amen.

How many times can we forgive? None.

Matthew 18:21-35

Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Read the whole passage)

We have been hearing the stories of Jesus’ ministry for a while now, we started back in spring and through the whole summer. For the past few weeks, Jesus has been challenging the disciples more than usual. He has put before them the question of who they think he is. Jesus has rebuked Peter for not getting it when Peter tried to stop Jesus from going to his death. And last week, Jesus challenged his disciples and us with the reality of conflict resolution, of how it is that God truly sees us.

But today, it is Peter who puts the hard question to Jesus. “How often should I forgive?” he asks “Seven times?”

And while usually when we hear this story we move on to Jesus’ response, Peter’s question deserves some time to consider… We need to slow down and truly hear what Peter is getting at.

Yet, before even considering how much we ought to forgive, maybe it is worth reflecting on our own experience with forgiveness.

Think back to the last time you had to forgive someone in your life. And not just a small acts of forgiveness like for your spouse getting regular ground beef instead of lean ground beef at the grocery store, or for your neighbour’s leaf blower sending all their leaves onto your lawn, or for that grandchild who spilled juice on the couch.

Rather, try and think of that time you forgave someone for something big. Something that was hurtful and life impacting. Something that was more than an accident or forgetful moment.

It is probably likely that most of us haven’t had to give that kind of forgiveness recently, maybe even at all in our lives. Or if we have, it has been only a few times.

And it is also likely that IF we have forgiven someone for something big that we haven’t forgiven fully. The sin committed against us probably still stings, that a part of us still holds it against the sinner, that maybe we bring up the offense from time to time to make the one we forgave still feel guilty.

Forgiveness is a complicated process. And it can be just as much about letting others off the hook of our judgment, as letting go of the hooks ourselves… freeing ourselves from having to hold others in judgement and condemnation. It is a lot of work to hold a grudge, to hold onto our hurt.

And so is Peter asking about this kind of hard work forgiveness? Probably not.

In fact, Peter doesn’t seem to be asking about forgiveness at all. More something like chances. How many chances do I have to give someone before I can hold their feet to the fire? Seven?

Peter wants a type of forgiveness he can control, a measuring stick that he can wield against even his brothers and sisters in Christ, against the people closest to him.

He is talking about the kind of forgiveness as chance giving that we use daily, the free passes for little offences that we give out depending on our mood and how much coffee we were able to drink in the morning.

So Jesus answers Peter’s question. Jesus tells us how much we are to forgive. 70 times 7 or 490 times. But it is NOT the number that is important. It is how Jesus gets there. Jesus multiplies Peter first guess. In a way Jesus is saying, however much you think is a generous amount of forgiveness, multiply that and then multiply it again… by a lot.

And yet, just to make sure that Peter gets the point and just to make sure that we get the point, Jesus tells a parable. It is a simple parable. A King forgives a slave an enormous amount. The slave then turns around and does not forgive a fellow slave a much smaller amount.

In our modern world, where we deal with big numbers often…  so 10,000 and 100 don’t seem like much. But to really understand the depth of Jesus’ point we need to do some math.

10,000 talents and 100 Denarii are two vastly different amounts. A Denarii was what a day labourer would ear for one day’s work. Whereas a talent was worth 15 years of wages.

10,000 talents was worth about 54 million denarii.

The king forgave a debt that would have taken the slave 3000 lifetimes to work off.

The forgiven slave had a fellow slave thrown in prison for 3 months worth of wages.

The difference between the two is absurd.

But of course, Jesus is making point in using ridiculous numbers.

Forgiveness is NOT about an amount. It is NOT just a measuring stick for how judgemental we can be.

True forgiveness is that hard and complicated process that we might never achieve ourselves in our lifetime.

How often should we forgive? Jesus answer is, “Over and over and over and over and over.”

And even then, Jesus says, even after you have practiced forgiveness for a lifetime… remember that forgiveness is not something that you can do on your own.

What Peter doesn’t realize and what we regularly forget is that true forgiveness, the kind of mercy and forgiveness that Jesus has come to show the world is God’s alone to give.

That when God releases us from God’s judgment we are transformed. That from the moment we are born into this world are we are “on the hook” for our selfishness and self-centredness, we are on the hook for our sin. We are on the hook to die. And we hang from the hook, being held in judgment. Judgment that says we are not enough. We are not good enough, not righteous enough, not holy enough, not perfect enough. We are failures and frauds. We are sinners. And because of that, we will die.

But there, as we are dying on the hook for our sins, we are held in judgment that we can neither let go of ourselves or escape…God comes. God comes to us in the waters of baptism. And God raises us up, God releases us, God frees us. God says that we are no longer held in judgement, we are no longer destined to die. That in baptism we are now held and alive in Christ.

Christ who forgives. Jesus who releases us from judgment. The Son of God who brings God’s mercy near and close.

And then, over and over again, God reminds us that we are forgiven.

As we gather for worship we practice it.

We confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness again.

We hear the word proclaimed, and God shows us grace again.

We sing and pray and confess our faith and share the peace, and God tells us the story of God’s love for us again.

We welcome the newly baptized into our community of faith, and God welcomes us all in the Body of Christ again.

We come and receive bread and wine, and God gives us forgiveness to eat and drink and to live our very bodies again.

Forgiveness as hard as we know it to be, as complicated as we know that it is to give, as difficult as it is to receive…. Forgiveness is not what Peter describes today. And we know that. We know that forgiveness is not the power to hold our brothers and sisters in judgement.

But we need Jesus tell us what forgiveness truly is. And Jesus reminds us tell us again that forgiveness is the work of God in our world and in our lives. It is not something that we can do one our own, but rather forgiveness is what God is doing to us and for us. God is letting go of the judgment we are held by, God is releasing us from being on the hook for sin and death. God is forgiving us completely and wholly… over and over and over and over again.

Conflict Resolution: Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and Tax Collector.

Matthew 18:15-20

If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector… (Read the whole passage)

Human beings are not good at conflict. In fact most of the time, we are quite bad at dealing with conflict in our lives. From arguments in the home to disagreements between nations, we often fall back on the same bad behaviours.

Conflict awakens that part of our brains that takes us from being rational, reasonable people to defensive and irrational reptilian like creatures. Our reptilian brain, the part which governs our fight, flight or freeze responses can take over when we enter into conflict… and fighting, running or hiding are not the ways to solve conflict, they are ways to escape danger like T-Rexes and sabre-tooth tigers.

So to help us with conflict, we have this handy passage from Matthew, a simple yet effective process that allows us to deal with and get through disagreements and conflict in our communities of faith. It is one that Christians have been using for a long time, one enshrined in our church constitution. And as far as conflict management goes, it is on point.

If someone wrongs you, take your concern to them directly. Or in other words, don’t talk about your problem with everyone but the person who has wronged you. Simple yet difficult, as we almost always would much rather gossip than face those who have wronged us directly.

This first step is the hardest, it is the step that actives our reptilian brain. We feel that addressing a perceived wrong is not likely to end in an apology, but for the wrongdoer to tell us that we are actually the ones who are wrong. An argument with a family member or friend feels like the danger posed by a sabre-tooth tiger to our reptilian brain.

And so to mitigate our reptilian defensiveness when two people simply cannot come to an understanding, we are to take 1 or 2 trustworthy persons with us. A neutral third party, who will  be witness to the conflict and someone who might gently bring objectivity to conflict. Someone to remind us that our reptilian brain might be overblowing things.

But then, if conflict cannot be resolved will one or two neutral witness, we are to bring the issue before the community. Let the whole body of our brothers and sisters in faith address the conflict. And usually the idea of having a fight out in the open is good perspective giver, a motivator to come to resolution rather than show the world the worst parts of ourselves. And yet, if even this kind of radical transparency cannot solve conflict, than Jesus says is one solution:

“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.”

Over the years Christians have called this step by different names. Shunning, banishment, excommunication, being cut off. A drastic last step when relationships are broken by conflict.

A straightforward and clear process for conflict resolution.

And yet, this process demands more of us than we might think. It is simple, but not easy.

For the disciples hearing Jesus’ words today, this process was very different than the way their world worked. In their world, everyone knew their place. The authorities, those with power, those who were righteous… they knew that they controlled society. They knew that they were the judges of the world. They were ones who chose the winners and losers in any conflict.

And the ones on the bottom, the unclean, tax collectors, fishermen, gentiles, beggars, labourers, the sick and ill… they knew that they had no power, no one on their side. The outcomes of conflict was in the hands of those more powerful than they.

The disciples and others listening to Jesus, lived in a world so carefully categorized that you knew who you could talk to, who you could eat with, where you were allowed to sit in the synagogue, which door you could use when going to the temple and so on. This hierarchical world carefully laid out who had power and who didn’t. And Jesus’ followers didn’t. They were bottom dwellers, low on the social ladder.

And so this kind of process would have sounded great to Jesus’ followers. A process where they could be the ones with power, the ones who could judge the sins committed against them. It could turn their whole world upside down. Those in power could be thrown down to the bottom, those on the bottom could finally rise up and take control. The powerful are no longer the judges of all things. The authorities don’t get to decide who is right and who is wrong for everyone, rather those who have been sinned against, like those on the bottom… they can judge for themselves. They can judge sin directly.

Or at least, that is what is this iconic passage from Matthew 18 sounds like.

Until Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

For you see, there wasn’t a day that went by that the Pharisees and Scribes, the temple authorities and priests didn’t remind Jesus and his followers that they were spending time with the wrong crowd. Jesus liked to eat with tax collectors, unclean sinners who worked for the terrible Romans collecting their unclean money. Jesus liked to interact with Gentiles, unclean sinners who worshipped incorrectly, like the Canaanite woman who Jesus called a dog. Jesus like be around those on the bottom, people like fishermen, people like his disciples.

How easily has the church forgotten this. How quickly have we gone back to thinking that Gentiles and tax collectors are those we should shun and banish and excommunicate and cut off. How easy is it for us to think that when we cannot resolve conflicts we should just end the relationship and cut people out of our communities and our lives.

And if this passage from Matthew 18 were just a standalone piece of advice, it might sound like something from a self-help book. But it isn’t. It comes right after Jesus has been telling his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the one who is like a child, the least important of the world. That to be a stumbling block to the least of these little ones is to be avoided at all costs. That Jesus is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek out the one lost sheep.

And so when Jesus says let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector…

The Gentiles and tax collectors were the one that Jesus came to seek and find.

The ones like little children to whom the Kingdom belongs.

The little who believed in Christ and should not be caused to stumble.

The lost sheep whom the Shepherd searches out and rescues.

Gentiles and tax collectors are those that Jesus has come for.

Come for to show God’s love and mercy and grace.

Come for to eat with like beloved guests and equals.

Come for to heal and restore to wholeness.

Come for to bring God’s Kingdom near.

Gentiles and tax collectors are the lost and least that Jesus has come to minister to.

Jesus’ words on resolving conflict were not a way for his disciples to move from the bottom off their world to the top. And they are not a way for us to stand in judgment of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Rather, they are a reminder of whom God has come for, who God’s love and mercy and grace are given to. They are a reminder about how God sees us.

They are a reminder that for God, we are all Gentiles and tax collectors.

That in the confession and forgiveness we hear week after week, God seeks us out like the one lost sheep.

That in the Word of God spoken in our midst, God welcomes the little ones who stumble.

That in the bread and wine of Christ’s body, God makes us God’s children and gives us the Kingdom.

The word that Jesus gives us today is so much more than a simple process for conflict resolution. Jesus reminds the disciples and us just who we are. That even with the process for solving conflict we will not be able reconcile with our brothers and sisters on our own. But that we are all instead ones such as Gentiles and Tax collectors to God. And that when we would cut each other off from relationship, that Jesus has come instead to find and reconcile us.

Jesus has come to heal us and eat with us.

To show us God’s love and mercy and grace.

Amen.

Turning Cornerstones into Stumbling Blocks

Matthew 16:21-28

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Read the whole passage)

We would all like to believe that we would have been smart enough. That we would seen what the others missed. We hope that had we been the ones those following Jesus around the backwoods of Galilee, that when he would speak of his impending suffering, we would have been able to keep our mouths shut, or even agree with him. If we had been standing in Peter’s shoes, maybe we wouldn’t have tried to stop Jesus from coming to harm and instead we would have known that Jesus’ life on earth necessitated the cross.

To hear Jesus speak to us today, means we must take a moment  to imagine Peter’s humiliation in front of his friends. Jesus calls him a stumbling block. A stumbling block simply because Peter showed concern for his teacher and his friend. Jesus seems to be a little a hard on Peter. Jesus is hard on this poor guy that just moments before he had been praising. Praising Peter for his faith and his sight.

You see, just before the conversation we hear today, Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. And Jesus responds by changing Peter’s name, which was Simon, to Peter. Petros. Rock. “On this rock, I will build my church”. This is what Jesus has just proclaimed to Peter, and then Jesus turns that rock and foundation, into a stumbling block. How quickly Jesus turns things on their head.

But why is Peter rebuked so? What is so wrong with having concern for one’s friend and teacher. It is not as if Peter was acting maliciously. It is not as if Peter was trying to trip Jesus up. He was simply showing concern. He was trying to be the good guy. Poor Peter, always speaking first and only later thinking through was he has said and done, seems to be the victim of a moody Jesus. Or at least that is the way it may seem. But with Jesus there is always something else going on.

We all hope that we would see the world more clearly than Peter did, yet we know that we are not much different. Most of us know that we would have responded in the same way to Jesus when he spoke of his coming suffering. Most of us have spoken to loved ones that way, we have warned those we care about of impending danger and we have warned against taking dangerous risks.

And how can we help it? We live in a world that desires above all else, safety and security. We are bombarded by media that tells us to buy more insurance, to invest more for our retirement, to drive safer cars, to lock our doors and install home security systems. We drive our kids to school, even its only a few blocks. We do not go out alone at night. We strive to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. And why shouldn’t we. Are we not caring for those we love when we keep them safe?

Certainly it is because we care that we strive for safety and security. We care for our loved ones, and we do not wish them to come to harm. Most of us would give our own lives to save the life of someone we cared about.

And yet, somewhere in the desire to care for our own, there is also the desire to be in control. At the root of our search for safety and security is the selfish desire to control the world around us, to shape things in our vision. To make the world according to our own image. Because deep down, we know that the only way to be truly safe and secure… is to be in control. If we can be in control, there are no surprises, nothing unexpected, no one will get hurt… and no one will be free.

When Jesus rebukes Peter and calls him a stumbling block, you can imagine there must have been sadness in his voice. A sadness about Peter’s inability to understand, a sadness for the people for whom Jesus would suffer. Peter doesn’t see the bigger picture, the divine picture. Instead, Peter is looking to control the situation, to control Jesus, and Jesus is frustrated with him because of it. Jesus is trying to get at something bigger, something more important than what Peter is worried about. Jesus is pointing to the end of the story.

When Jesus tells his disciples to take up their cross it is not a command or an order. Taking up the cross to follow Jesus is not about following a noble cause, or a sign of our great faith. Rather, Jesus’ words are an invitation to see the world anew, to set aside our fears about being unsafe and not in control, and to see a world where God is at work. Where God is doing things, where God is creating life, where God is loving God’s creation.

Jesus’ invitation to take up our crosses and follow are also a promise. A promise that is staked in the ground, a promise on which Jesus hangs. The promise that the violence and death found on the cross is not the end of life. Suffering and death do not define our existence, they are not the powerful entities out there. Death is not the end of our story. Rather with God there is the promise resurrection, there is the promise of New Life and a New Creation.

We are often stumbling blocks like Peter, stumbling blocks that hinder ourselves more than anyone else. And again like Peter and the disciples, we usually don’t get what Jesus means when he says, “take up your cross and follow me”. But when we do get the point, its is when we remember that we do know the end of the story, that we do know what happens on Easter Sunday.

Jesus’ invitation shows us that we cannot take up our cross on our own. For us, the cross is insurmountable, death is insurmountable. But for God the cross is transformed. It is transformed from the greatest tool of control and power than humanity has ever wielded, into God’s greatest sign of love, grace and mercy. God proclaims loudly in Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, that death shall be no more and that is God is the end of the story. To take up the cross, is to live at its foot knowing what God has made of the cross’s power. To follow Jesus, is to be loved by God and to be given New Life in God’s New Creation. To live by the Holy Spirit is to be the stumbling blocks that God uses to build His church.

Today, Jesus speaks to Peter, Jesus speaks to us and says, “Let go, give control. I have got this. It will be okay.”

And because of this, we are set free, set free to live in the world in which God is in control.

Set free because Jesus carries our cross, our cross on which death no longer hangs, but instead New Life in Christ.

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An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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