Reformation 501: Don’t forget about Jeremiah

John 8:31-36

31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

A Reading from Jeremiah, the 31st chapter (31-34)

31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Today is Reformation 501… not as dramatic as Reformation 500 last year. We haven’t be preparing for this day like we did for Reformation last year. In fact, it has been a pretty quiet year for Reformation after we spent much of 2017 talking about it.

And in some ways, I think that Martin Luther would have mostly hated all the hoopla last year if he was alive to see it. A quiet Reformation might have been more his style, not because he was a quiet and subdued person, but because he wouldn’t want something about him or about our history as Lutherans to get in the way of preaching the gospel.

And in many ways, I think Luther would have been much more excited to celebrate with us here in the Interlake, the thing we are celebrating next week on All Saints. Congregations and people coming together in order ensure that the ministry of gospel goes on in our shared ministry congregations and communities would have been the kind of thing that Luther would have probably been in favour of.

Luther always wanted to defer to the gospel, to turn us back to the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection that saves us from sin and death.

And on this 501st anniversary of the Reformation do we ever need good news. North America is reeling once again from stories of terrorism and violence. Bombs in the mail being sent to the leaders of the Democratic Party and then another mass shooting… and another in a place of worship – this time in a synagogue in Pittsburg with 11 people dead and more wounded. Like the Reformation 501 years, this day does not come without violence.

And so in the midst of darkness, in order to do our best to follow Luther’s desire for gospel clarity, we hear again the same foundational texts of the Reformation. Romans 3, the part of St. Paul’s writings that sparked Luther’s imagination towards God’s radical gift of grace. And John’s declaration that the Son sets us free, the promise of freedom in the gospel. And of course, Psalm 46, the basis for the most famous of Luther’s hymns – A Mighty Fortress.

But what about Jeremiah, the somewhat familiar, but often overlooked reading of the bunch? If is perhaps appropriate to focus on these words from the Old Testament, words read in synagogues all over world that speak about the history of the people of Israel…

Jeremiah’s prophetic words written for the people of Israel during the violent times of Babylonian exile. Words about the covenant… the covenant that goes all the way back to the beginning. To Abraham and Sarah, to the promise of land, descendants and a relationship with God. And while usually a covenant is an agreement that places conditions on both parities, all the people of Israel had to do was not refuse. All the promises were coming from God, none from Abraham and Sarah and their descendants.

And yet the people consistently turned away. It’s not surprising that did turn away, it is hard to believe in God in the midst of violence and oppression.

Yet, most of what comes before this passage in Jeremiah is a lot of God’s ranting and raving about the failings of the people. And eventually God decides that a new course is needed for God’s people. And so God’s makes a promise. A promise that rang true in the Reformation and a promise that rings true for us today.

So no, Jeremiah is the least famous of the Reformation readings, but it is none the less foundational. There is no radical gift of grace in Romans, no freedom in the Son of God in John, no A Mighty Fortress without Jeremiah.

The problem and struggle of the people of Israel and in Martin Luther’s day is the same as it ever was. A problem that stemmed back to the garden of Eden, and problem that we too bear.

As much as God tries and tries with us to draw us back to God, we continue to turn away. For the people of Israel, God promise of land, descendants and relationship first given to Abraham was always too unbelievable and also never enough. Whether it was Abraham’s own fear that God’s promises wouldn’t come true, or the people of Israel longing for Egypt and slavery as they wandered in desert, or the Israelites losing faith during the Babylonian exile.

During the Reformation it was a church that wanted to control God’s promises, to make mercy a commodity rather than a promised gift.

And today? We too struggle with covenant. It is too hard to trust, even in the midst of chaos and change, seeming decline and dying, that God’s promise are indeed for us too. The promised land seems to unreal, descendants to follow us in faith and carry the torch feels laughable. A God who loves sinners like us? Preposterous. A God who is relevant in a world that has mostly forgotten or doesn’t care anymore? Unimaginable.

It’s no wonder that God might be frustrated with us. We just don’t want to get it.

And so God does a different thing.

God starts all over again.

God brings us to the foundation.

God decides that a new covenant is needed. A simpler covenant. A simple relationship.

When in scripture, a prophet – such as Jeremiah – utters the words “Thus says the Lord” biblical scholars call it an oracle. A message of the divine, a direct speech from God. And so it behooves us to listen, to open our ears and hear what God is about say:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

And with that, a new covenant comes into being. One that even the fickle Israelites cannot break. Or the people of 16th century Europe, or 21st century Pittsburg, or in Manitoba on Reformation Sunday in 2018.

A covenant made manifest in incarnation. In the God who becomes flesh, the God in Christ who comes to bring the Kingdom near to us. The God whom we try to put to death, and the God who rises again on the third day.

This new covenant, this new promise is now unbreakable. It is the promise of mercy, the promise of radical grace and forgiveness, the promise of that sin, suffering and death will no longer control us.

Because God is our God… we cannot be God in God’s place.

And we are God’s people, we have no other identity, nothing else lays claim to who we are, not the world, not ourselves, not guns or violence, not sin… not even death.

We are God’s people, we belong to the one who has chosen mercy and love for us.

And God reminds us of this truth each and every day, week after week, season after season.

God reminds us that we are God’s in the mercy and forgiveness that we hear proclaimed.

We are God’s in the Word announced in this assembly and in places of worship all over the world.

We are God’s in the Baptism that washes and renews us for life as God’s children.

We are God’s in the bread and wine, given so that we become the Body of Christ for the world.

Thus says the Lord, I will be your God, and you will be my people.

This is the foundation of the truth proclaimed anew in the Reformation, just as it is became the new covenant with the people of the Israel.

And this is the precisely what God intends for us to hear on the 501st anniversary of the Reformation and on the day after yet another mass shooting, that we 21st Century Jews and Christians, Lutherans (and Anglicans) still belong to the God of Abraham and Sarah and Martin Luther.

That even when we try to turn away, that God’s promise is unbreakable.

Thus says the Lord, I will be your God, and you will be my people.

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Jesus doesn’t decide who sits at the seats of power

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking….” (Read the whole passage)

We have been making our way through the heart of Mark’s gospel for a while now. These central chapters have not been easy on those who have encountered Jesus, or on us. And today it continues, James and John fail to get what Jesus is talking about for the third time. Just before James and John come to Jesus with their request, Jesus predicts his suffering and death for the third time. The first was before Peter’s rebuke, which caused Jesus to call Peter Satan. The second prediction was just before the disciples degenerated into arguing about who is the greatest. And the third prediction is just before James and John’s request today.

It seems that each time Jesus tries to tell the disciples about the true nature and character of God’s mission to the world in the incarnate Messiah, the disciples follow it up by saying something foolish because they have failed to understand what Jesus is talking about. And today is the most colossal failure of all. James and John not only do not see what Jesus’ mission is about, they imagine instead a triumphant warlord. They ask for seats next to Jesus’ throne as he becomes ruler. They imagine having seats next to Jesus at royal banquets. They want to be lieutenants commanding the right hand and left hand of Jesus’ army.

And worse yet, they ask for these positions of power with the intention to cut out the other disciples. They imagine that there is only so much glory to go around, a limited amount that they want to get their hands on. When the ten get angry, it is almost as if they are upset, not because of the audacity of this request, but because they didn’t think to ask first. The disciples look more like the cutthroat characters on Game of Thrones than the disciples of Jesus.

And as we watch this self serving behaviour from afar, there is a certain comfort for us in the persistent failures of these disciples. We can rest comfortable in the fact that there is always someone who understands what is going on with Jesus less than we do. We know that we would never be so presumptuous as to ask Jesus for such glory, to be at Jesus’ right and left hand. At least want to believe that about ourselves, despite the constant and blatant behaviour to that effect by politicians and other people of influence these days.

Of course our world governed by the same attitudes, by the desire to take the seats of power and privilege for ourselves and for our self identified tribes. We live in a world that sees that there is not enough to go around. Not enough power, not enough glory, not enough control. Not enough food, money or things we can own. Not enough jobs, toys, entertainment.

Those who sit atop of the pyramid of power, the most privileged people of our world have all but given up the charade of pretending that their lust for power isn’t the most important thing to them. Politicians who will do anything to get elected, billionaires who will spare no expense to influence governments and elections, celebrities whose fame is measured by social media followings, corporations who make more money than many of the world

We live in a world that tells us to greedily soak up whatever resources we can. Whatever comes along to comfort us, satiate us, make us feel better. And we try to get these things before anyone else can, before we run out.

And of course as people of faith, we too have a hoarding problem. And we try to hoard things that we really have no right to. We try to hoard God’s love. Out of one side of our mouths we say that God’s love is for anyone, for everyone. We say that it is free and abundant. And out of the other side we judge and condemn. We judge those who are different than us. We condemn those fail to be tolerant and accepting of what we find tolerable and acceptable. We cry out against those who don’t agree us, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. We claim, regardless of the issue, that opinions, ideas and perspectives different than our own are a threat to us and to God’s love being proclaimed among us.

And we do this out of fear. Fear that we could be wrong. Fear that God might think differently than we do. Fear that if God accepts and loves people different than us, that we might be the ones who God doesn’t accept and doesn’t love.

When James and John ask for the two seats of honour, Jesus is unable to give them what they want. Jesus doesn’t say no, rather Jesus admits something surprising. The places on Jesus right and left have been reserved for others. And Jesus is not the one who has made these reservations.

Like James and John, we probably quickly run through list of potential candidates. Moses? Elijah? They stood next to Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. Caesar? The Generals of the Roman Army? They ruled the known world at that moment. Herod? Pilate? They control Israel. Donald Trump or Justin Trudeau? They are the most powerful people in our world and our country right now.

We cannot keep from imagining that the places next to Jesus are seats of power. But the spots at Jesus right hand and left hand are not divinely chosen places of honour. It is not God who has prepared these places. It is the mobs. The roman officials. The temple authorities. The spots next to Jesus are not chosen for the powerful, but by the powerful. They are not seats of honour, but places of condemnation.

James and John do not know what they are asking. The throne that has been prepared for Jesus is a cross. And it is has been prepared by us. By humanity at is most fearful. By humanity seeking to be God in God’s place. Humanity seeking to put God to death.

Yet, God has chosen to make our symbol of weakness and shame, a place of glory. God turns our condemnation and judgement into mercy and forgiveness. God meets us at our place of death and turns it into the throne of life.

James and John, the disciples, our hungry and insatiable world, we who presume to know where God’s love begins and ends, we fail to see that God chooses a new way for creation.

But God chooses to give life rather than take it.

But God chooses to be weak and lowly in order to come near and close to us.

But God chooses to give love away for free, for nothing, for those who do not earn it or deserve it.

But God chooses to grant us pardon and grace, where we only seek to hold keep what we have, away from others.

God’s glory is found on the cross, God’s glory is found in Christ who hangs dead at the hands of humanity. God’s glory is finds us at our worst moment, at our grandest attempts to be God, and God’s glory is opposite of what we expect. We expect power to the be the power of life, to choose who live and dies. But God’s glory is death turned into life, God choosing to give life freely to all of us.

And surprised we might be as much as James’ and John’s when Jesus says no, he cannot give us the seats of power because it is not up to him. But what God does is turns the order of our world upside down. God gives when all our world does is take. God forgives and makes right, even as we condemn and destroy.

And finally as we pursue power over and over again yet finding only destruction and death, God shows us true glory, the glory of the cross , the glory of New Life.

Can Jeff Bezos inherit eternal life?

Mark 10:17-31

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Read the whole passage)

We have just come through Thanksgiving, a time to celebrate the end of the harvest, time of abundance before the scarcity of winter. A time of rest following the hard work of keeping and tilling the land and animals through spring and summer. 

Most of us don’t orient our lives according to nature’s seasons. We are far removed from the subsistence lifestyle… we don’t depend on our own hands to grow our own food. 

And it is of course, still important for us to remember where our Canadian society came from and to give thanks that there are those who still do provide our basic needs… yet, how we do that by hosting a fancy meal for ourselves is a good question. 

Thanksgiving is a holiday that survives mostly on tradition, but as we take the time to give thanks each year and to reflect on our own blessings… we might discover an uneasiness with our wealth and possessions much like the rich young ruler in the story we hear today. 

Sometimes we can forget where the famous sayings of our language come from, and today we are reminded. As Jesus speaks with this wealthy young man and challenges him to give up his possessions, we hear familiar sayings. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven” and “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. 

Jesus seems to be coming down hard on the rich today. And this might make us uncomfortable. We know that we are the world’s wealthy. Anyone with an income over 34,000 is in the top 5% of income earners on the planet. And Jesus says that if you are rich, it will not be easy for you to enter the Kingdom of God. That means most of us. Ouch. 

But for those who have been here week after week listening to a difficult year of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus has been uncharacteristically harsh, calling people dogs, or Satan, or telling them they would be better off dead or that they have hard hearts…

Jesus might just be letting us off the hook for our particular wealth today. 

This story about the encounter between the rich young ruler and Jesus is all about absurdities. So let’s put it into modern terms so the point can be made. 

Extremely wealthy folks are often in the news these days. The world’s wealthiest person  Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is in the news for deciding to pay his employees a minimum of $15 an hour, yet also planning to open 3000 cashier-less retail stores because what better way is there to add to 156Billion in personal wealth than owning 3000 stores that don’t need staff… wealth carries power and prestige in our world, just as in Jesus’ world. 

And what do the extremely wealthy have to do with today’s story? Well, when we hear about this young man coming to Jesus, we aren’t meant to think of a nice young middle manager at the bank. We are meant to imagine someone like Jeff Bezos pulling up to Jesus in an expensive sports car with loud base booming in the air long before you can see the car and that neon glow coming from underneath. And then Jeff steps out to ask this wandering, near homeless street preacher named Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It is easy to get bogged down in Jesus’ criticism of the rich… which may be warranted. But the point is not to hear Jesus criticizing us for trying to be faithful citizens, spouses, employees, and parents by providing for our families. 

We are meant to see the absurdity of someone as rich a Jeff Bezos thinking he has fulfilled all the rules of righteousness and done enough to get himself into heaven. 

The point isn’t the problem of heaving a certain amount of money or having possessions. The problem is thinking that being rich is a blessing from God. 

When the rich young man walks away from Jesus unable to give up his possessions in order follow Jesus, the disciples want to know what is up too. 

And that is because like our world, they live in a world that thinks being rich is a blessing from God. They have been taught that being rich and wealthy and healthy is a sign of God’s favour. Just like so many of us have heard on TV or from pulpits or from well meaning friends and relatives. Our world thinks that God is in heaven dolling out the cash to the good people and suffering to the bad. That’s until we see a person who is rich but not a good person. or we see a good person struck by illness or tragedy. And then we wonder what is going on with God. 

Over the past month, I have been humbled to attend the deathbeds of a few people. Some have been people I know, others have been complete strangers. 

Attending to the beside of a person who is dying is moment where all other things in the world stand still. Where all of life and death is contained in small hospital bed with close family and friends. 

In those situations it is my practice to pray the commendation for the dying, or what used to be known as last rites. 

In the commendation, a section of the litany goes like this:

By your holy incarnation,
deliver your servant. 

By your cross and passion, 
deliver your servant. 

By your precious death and burial,
deliver your servant. 

By your glorious resurrection and ascension,
deliver your servant. 

By the coming of the Holy Spirit,
deliver your servant. 

You will notice that we don’t pray:

By all the money he made in this life,
deliver your servant.

By all the good things he did,
deliver your servant. 

By all the rules he followed and commandments he kept,
deliver your servant. 

When all there is is a hospital bed, and a ventilator and tearful loved ones – 

money, rules and good deeds don’t mean a thing. 

And this is what Jesus is trying to make the rich young man understand. A camel could never pass through the eye of a needle. And even a rich man cannot enter heaven by his own effort. 

Rich or poor. 
Healthy or ill. 
Sinner or saint. 

The only way we get into heaven is by God’s mercy. 

The only way the Kingdom of God is opened to us, is because Jesus died on the cross for us. 

The only person who earns our salvation is God. 

God is the one who does the work. 

We do not inherit or earn or achieve eternal life. 

God gives it to us. 

Jesus accomplishes it for us.

And maybe, just maybe that is what Jesus means when he says the first shall be last and the last shall be first. 

Those who are relying on their own righteousness, their own goodness, their own faithfulness, their own achievements, their own riches and health and wealth, those who are relying on those things to get themselves into heaven will be incredibly surprised when they find out none of that stuff mattered. They might go from feeling first to feeling last. 

But those who feel like sinners, like wretches, like unworthy and unloveable people. Those who know that they don’t measure up, that they aren’t good enough, or powerful enough, or important enough, or rich enough, or pious enough for God to show them mercy… won’t they be shocked when they find out that none of that stuff mattered. That God gives grace and mercy even to them. They might feel like they have gone from last to first. 

We might feel like we have gone from last to first… because we have. 

Because, thanks be to God regardless of our blessings, possessions, wealth or lack thereof, God has decided to give us mercy, to show us grace, to grant us eternal life through Jesus.

Adding “Do Not Worry” to the Worry List

Matthew 6:25-33

Jesus said, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? (Read the whole passage)

Sitting down for a fancy meal, is something many of us are about to do, or have done already this weekend. Feasts fit for kings and queens. Thanksgiving dinners, like any celebration, often carry many rituals and traditions. Family and friends travel to be with one another. People dress up to eat in their own homes. There are special roles like turkey carvers, potato mashers, grace prayers and dessert testers. The way dinner is eaten and celebrated will also be passed on to young kids and future generations, so that even when we are long gone, our family dinners won’t be. 

And along with the ritual and formality comes worry. Worry about getting all the details right, worry about making all the food in time. Worry that guests and those sharing in the meal will enjoy themselves. Worry and fear that this Thanksgiving won’t go as planned, that it won’t be perfect. 

There will be several hosts and cooks this weekend who will worry their way right through Thanksgiving, without having a moment of relief to actually enjoy it. There will be many family gatherings wrought by tension because cousin so-and-so and grandpa don’t get along, there will be fear and worry about fights and arguments breaking out, which will only be relieved when the weekend is over. 

It is not without irony that Jesus speaks about worry today. Thanksgiving is supposed to be about giving thanks for the blessings of the year, it is supposed to be about acting out gratefulness. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a celebration of abundance. But Jesus is talking about scarcity. 

Today, we hear a small piece from Jesus’ sermon on the mount. That sermon that begins “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Jesus is teaching the crowds, but out of context and on a weekend like this, the advice “do not worry about your life” probably causes more worry than it solves. 

As human beings we are prone to worry. It all began in the garden of Eden, as Eve worried about the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit. And since then, we have worried. Worried about getting enough food, having enough clothes to cover our bodies, having a shelter over head. And now we worry about money, about jobs, about illness, about family, about marriages, about parents, about children. We worry about being good enough, about being smart enough, about being beautiful enough. 

And as we worry, we seek control. We seek to clamp down on everything and everyone around us. The more we worry, the more firm our grasp becomes. The more we seek to keep our world in check. And our worry always comes from the same place. Fear. Fear that things will not go the way we want. Fear that we won’t know what is to come. Fear that we are not good enough to be liked, to be loved. Fear that we might die, that we are going to die. 

It is the old adam, the old self, it is original sin living with us that worries, that fears, that seeks control. And as we worry, as we fear, as we seek control, we find ourselves unable to let go, unable to release all the things that we work so hard to hold on to. We cannot let go and we are stuck. 

When we are stuck in worry, we lose sight of the bigger picture. Jesus’s encouragement to “not worry” is more than just another task on the to do list. As Jesus speaks to the crowds gathered to hear him, he sees that worry is unavoidable. It is unavoidable when there is not enough food on the table, or warm clothes to wear in the cold, or a place to sleep at night. Worry is unavoidable when there are bills needing to be paid and not enough money for all of them, when the stress of work begins to consume all our waking moments, when the brokenness that exists between families, between spouses needs to be resolved. 

Jesus says, “do not worry” but we are only reminded of all the things that cause us worry, the big details, the little details. The things we know we can do something about but haven’t, and the things for which there is nothing we can do.

Yet Jesus is giving us more than advice or instructions. Jesus is also giving us a promise. Our worries do not just belong to us, they are not something we bear alone. God comes to us precisely in the moment of our worry. God picks up and cares for all those things that we cannot hold on our own, all the things that feel like they weigh us down and make us stuck. 

Jesus says, “do not worry” and reminds us that we do not worry alone. All the worries we carry, all the things that we hold and desperately grasp, all the fears we carry. God is worrying and carrying them with us. Jesus knows that we cannot help but worry, and instead of telling us just to stop, Jesus offers us a place to share their burden. God comes to us in the midst of the worrying, comes to us in our stuckness. God comes to pick us up, and scoop us up as a parent would a child, and God declares that our worry is NOT ours alone to bear. 

And so this weekend, as we worry about creating the perfect thanksgiving and as we worry over all the other worries of life, Jesus comes to share our worries and share our tables, to give us food and shelter, to wrap us in God’s love, to make sure that we are fed with the bread of life, and clothed in mercy and grace. God knows that we cannot help but worry, that we cannot help but wonder how we will deal with all those things that weigh us down. And God reminds us that, we do not worry alone, we worry with God.  

Today, as all the worry surrounds us. God comes to our tables and takes a seat with us, takes a seat and shares in our worry, and shares also in our thanksgiving. God gives us a place to share all that we carry, to give our worries up, to give our selves up. And as God takes up our worries and God gives us a taste of the Kingdom.