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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Reformation 500 – The Next 500 years

This year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous act of nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st.

This act is considered by many as the beginning of the Reformation.

For Lutherans, Martin Luther’s particular witness to the gospel of Christ forms the basis of our confession and understanding of the Christian faith.

So as Reformation 500 approaches this year, Lutherans all over the world are commemorating the anniversary (as opposed to celebrating) and we are trying to include brothers and sisters of other denominations, particularly Roman Catholic, where possible.

As Lutherans look back on the past 500 years, we are also looking forward to what the next 500 years will bring for Lutherans, and all Christians.

This question has been rumbling around in my mind for a long time and in a renewed way this 500th anniversary year.

This is not an easy question to answer. It is deeply related to the biggest struggles of European and North American churches, most notably it relates to our experience of decline. Before getting to what I think the next 500 years will hold for us, the issue of delcine needs to be addressed.

Humans have this habit of thinking that what just happened will continue happening indefinitely. We, in this North American context of Lutheranism and wider Christianity, have been experiencing churches that are dropping in membership and attendance, budgets that are getting bigger while giving is shrinking and the average age of those still in the pews and contributing is getting older. And because this is our most recent experience we assume that the future holds more of the same.

But this is actually a really poor prediction model.

Let me put it in different terms.

50 years ago, when Lutherans gathered they often would have looked like this: The-American-Lutheran-Church-Constituting-Convention_2-18-13

Now imagine going to someone standing in that crowd and telling them that in a mere 50 years they might look like this:

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Thousands reduced to dozens or less.

Those people back in the 50s and 60s would have laughed and laughed and laughed… But this is where we are now. So what would make people today laugh and laugh and laugh… not a prediction of more of the same. But perhaps a predication that churches will be filled once again… filled with a new spirit and new vitality that we would have never dreamed or imagined. It won’t be the 50s again, but it will be something unexpected and new.

You see, we also have to think back 100 years to gain perspective. Much of North American Christianity looked similar to where we are now. There were some large and thriving groups, but lots of small communities barely able too keep up buildings, barely able to pay pastors, barely able to fund seminaries or missionaries or wider church structures. Many church groups were marginal to the larger society and many churches didn’t make it and were lost to history.

But just as now, that society was in a time of great transition. Conflict was the story of global politics (WW1), immigration was high (settling the western part of the continent), new technologies were changing the way people lived (electricity, telephones, automobiles, modern medicine etc…). And it remained messy for nearly the entire first half of the 20th century.

But this chaotic situation eventually led to many, many people seeking a truth greater than themselves, finding solace in the promises of a God who was in control when the world seemed ready to end, finding comfort in faith despite the rapid pace of new technology constantly changing the world.

We don’t have to think about our current world situation very long to see the similarities, to see that our political and economic world which once seemed to provide a stability for people to live their lives on, is turning into an instability that is only going to get worse before it gets better.

Most predications that I hear about the next 500 or 50 or 5 years tell us that decline will simply continue indefinitely and we are just going to have to accept that.

I don’t.

I don’t think that the antidote to decline is to simply be better sales people for church with flashiest and shiniest features to entice largest slice of a shrinking pie of interested people into church.

I think the church is about to be one of the few places of hope that many people will have to turn to in our increasingly chaotic world. I think that some political leader may just push that red button (and no it will not be like an apocalypse movie) or some aspect of climate change will be pushed over the edge, or some hacker will decide that it is time to empty everyone’s bank account… or most likely I think that through difficult struggle and resistance the average people of the world – who are sick of living under systems that privilege a small few – will decide this is not acceptable anymore.

And a paired down church will have to be ready. Ready to welcome the masses who have no where else to turn for hope. The masses who no longer rely on the invisible forces of the world (governments, international organizations, corporations and civil society) to care for them.

Over the coming years and decades, as most church leaders anticipate more decline, the world is going to surprise us. The world is going to surprise us by needing what the church has to offer.

As governments and corporations and other institutions continue to struggle to contend with the big issues that face our world like war and conflict, refugee crisis, economic inequality, climate change, growing nationalistic movements, etc… People will begin to look for places where they kind find real hope. The things that we all believe we could relay on to look after us, like the political leaders we elect and the social institutions that we have created, will not be able to deal with our problems. And so people will begin looking for something bigger than us, someone bigger than us, to deal with our problems. In a dark and a hopeless world (like that of Jesus, like that of Martin Luther), God and the promises of hope and new life that God has given us will begin to pull people to faith.

All that we need to do is let our anxieties about decline die just long enough to see that God was bringing about tangible new life through us. God is using us for real resurrection.

It is in this intersecting place that a declining church meets a world in need of hope.

The decline of North American churches in the past few decades is not a never ending trend. But I do think God is using this time to help us shed our baggage. God is letting us struggle so that we can get all the wrong fixes and solutions to decline out of our system. So that we can try trendy music and flashy tech and hip pastors. So we can try to reincarnate the knitting groups and service clubs and curling bonspiels of the past. So that we can get all the complaining and shaming of our family, friends and neighbours over with. So that we can see that nothing we come up with will be the solution to our problems.

God is letting us experience decline long enough to finally die to our memories and nostalgia of the glory days and realize that the only thing the church ever had was the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. All we ever were at our best are communities grounded in Christ’s new life given for us.

To be honest, I think in many ways the next 500 years for Lutherans and for North American Christianity will look a lot like the last 500. We will continue to be communities where the gospel is preached and where the sacraments are administered. Sometimes we will be strong in number and power. Other times we will be weak and marginalized. But in the end, neither of those realities matter.

What does matter is that God is answering all the sin and death in the world with resurrection and new life proclaimed in churches just like us.

*The original version of this post can be found here*

We cannot give God what is God’s.

Matthew 22:15-22

 Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Read the whole passage)

We have been journeying through a particular section in the Gospel of Matthew for weeks now. It all began with Jesus teaching in the temple, when Pharisees question his authority. And so Jesus has been telling parables in response. He has talked about sons who do not do what their father asks, he has talked about landowner to his sent his son to collect from murderous tenants and who end up killing the son, Jesus has talked about a proud King who destroys the invited guests who will not come to his son’s wedding banquet and who then throws out another guest who had been pulled of the street because he was wearing the wrong robe.

All of it has been part of a plot to trap Jesus into saying something heretical. And all along the way, Jesus has been showing his audience and us, that we are power hungry sinful people. And that God is radically merciful and outrageously gracious.

And finally, we land today with the question taxes and authority. The Pharisees have questioned Jesus own Authority way back at the beginning of this series interchanges, and now they are questioning to what authority Jesus will submit.

Now, before going any further, knowing some history is vital to understanding what is going on. The question of paying taxes to Rome, was more of a question of idolatry, than it was civic responsibility. Most people in Israel were taxed about 85% of their income. Some to Rome, some to the temple, some to pay off tax collectors, some to the Levites, some to the towns and villages in which they lived. People were bled dry for their money, and were often only allowed to just enough to survive. Most had to go into debt in order to make ends meet. Sound familiar?

However, the issues with paying taxes to the Emperor had to do with the coins themselves. Caesars were considered to be Gods, and the Roman coin the denarius was a constant reminder of that. The Israelites were prohibited from having any other God’s but the God of Abraham and Moses… therefore to even touch a coin would be sin. And yet, their Roman occupiers gave them no choice, since they all must pay taxes. This is why there were money changers in the temple, sinful roman money needed to changed into pure temple money.

So in this context, the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus so that they can get rid of him and his enthusiastic followers.

Yet, the trap that the Pharisees have set for Jesus reveals something far worse than any kind of blunder that Jesus can step into. They attempt to get Jesus in trouble my making him either choose heresy by denying the one true God or to risk the wrath of the Roman Empire by undermining Caesar’s divinity. Yet in trying to make Jesus choose between the God of Abraham and the imperial Roman overlord, the Pharisees reveal something else.

The way the Pharisees pose the question, by using God as object to catch Jesus with the Pharisees show how their own faith is broken. Faith to them is nothing more than a tool to be exploited, a means to obtain power and influence. Being a Pharisees meant status and material comfort.

They might not even know or see what they are doing. They might think that they are protecting their faith… they do not see that they are using God and God’s relationship with the chosen people as tool to get Jesus in hot water… and to eliminate his threat to their cushy gigs.

The trap that the Pharisees fall into is one that we all can fall into. Our faith can be broken apart by the same kind of thinking, often when we least realize it. Being part of a faith community can quickly move from being about following the God who reconciles all creation to Christ in the cross and the empty tomb… to spending out efforts protecting our status in the community, to holding on to the comforts of faith, to seeking more control and power.

We too get sucked into thinking that faith is about status and privilege, about budgets and positions, about doing things like grandma and grandpa did, about having a place that is about us rather than about God, about using God is a weapon to condemn and judge others, and on and on and on.

And with that thinking, without even knowing it, our faith can break and crack too. And God can become a tool or an object that we use, rather than the One who is the centre and definition of faith. A way to trap an unsuspecting prophet in the temple, or a way to trick and entice the young people back to church in order to fill the offering plates.

It is a very human thing to try to make into God something we own and control and can use for our purposes. The hardest part is that like the Pharisees, we don’t usually even see it.

And so when Jesus answer the Pharisees, he gives them the thing that they have been wanting. He makes a statement about giving to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

He chooses the route of accepting the wrath of the empire, because to claim that Caesar is not God is to threaten the power of Rome.

But giving Caesar what is Caesar’s is not the point. As much as many preachers have tried to use Jesus’ words as reason to encourage the faithful in doing their civic duty… Jesus’s emphasis is on God.

Give to God what is God’s.

So what belongs to God?

Everything.

All creation.

The entire universe.

Even as the Pharisees are using God as a tool, a weapon and a trap for Jesus, Jesus is point them back to God. Reminding them everything belongs to God.

All things. All of creation. All of life. All power and might. All righteousness and virtue.

And all Grace and forgiveness. All mercy.

All faith.

Even us and our broken faith belongs to God.

But more importantly, giving to God what is God’s is NOT really ours to do.

Because we cannot give anything to God.

And that is thing that Jesus has caught the Pharisees with. As they try to trap him, and contain the threat of this ministry, and they try to protect the true faith of Israel, which just happens to give them a lot of power and privilege and wealth… Jesus reminds them their faith, that God is not a thing to control, nor tool to use to maintain their position.

Rather, God is the one who to whom all things belong.

And the Pharisees and all Jews knows this, even when they don’t remember it. Because they pray it at every sabbath, and they pray the reminder over and over at passover:

Blessed are you, O Lord God, King of the Universe.

And so giving to God what is God’s is truly to be remind of the God to whom we belong,

is the God of Kings and Empires, of beggars and the lame, of regular folks.

And this God to whom we belong is also the God of life.

The God who has sent the Son in flesh to bring the Kingdom near and to point us back to God.

The Lord God, King of the Universe knows already that the faith of Pharisees is broken, and knows that our faith is broken. It has been broken since Adam and Eve ate of the fruit.

And so while the question of the Pharisees reveals just what their faith is in and what they are trying to hold on to… It is no surprise for Jesus.

In fact, our broken faith, our tendency to try to turn God into a tool to use and manipulate is the whole reason God has come. And it is the whole reason that Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem a conquering King and it is the whole reason that soon after the Pharisees ask this question, Jesus will be arrested, put on trial and put to death.

But the blessed Lord God, King of the Universe is the one to whom all things belong, even death.

And in death, God shows us that there is nothing that doesn’t belong to God, no place where God will not seek us out, no brokenness that surprises God… and that there is nothing in all of creation that God does not hold in God’s hands. That even death belongs to God.

And so in pointing the Pharisees and us back to God, Jesus is also pointing us from death to life. Reminding us that the God to whom all creation belongs has promised us, and our broken faith, resurrection and new life as well.

Jesus says, give to God what is God’s…

But it is the Blessed, Lord God, King of the Universe who is giving us mercy and life.

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.

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.