An Unlikely Coronation

This sermon was co-written with my partner, The Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker (Twitter @ReedmanParker). It is her family with the collection of royals plates and spoons.


John 18:33-37

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

A couple of weeks ago my mother was visiting from BC. And while she was here she had us watching the documentary series “The Royal House of Windsor” on Netflix. One thing you should know about my, mostly British family, is our fascination with the royals. As far back as I can remember the royals were a thing. A big thing. Growing up, there were books of Prince Charles and Princess Diana that I would thumb through, mostly to look at the magnificent gowns and jewels the princess wore. There were plates and spoons with the faces of her royal majesty the queen among others who adorned my grandparents living room wall. My grandfather even researched how the queen takes her tea so he could perfect the methodology – in my family we truly believed that the queen could, in fact, drop by at anytime and visit. So best be prepared.

Throughout my childhood my understanding of what it meant to be royalty was rooted in these picture perfect images from glossy pages, or screened onto bone china. To be honest, the idea that these were real people, with real problems, didn’t sink in until August 31, 1997, the night Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car accident in France. A week later I watched Prince William and Prince Harry – both the same ages as my younger brother and I – walk behind their mother’s casket. They looked so very human and normal, and powerless, and average.

To be a member of a royal family means to be set apart – there are protocols and procedures, customs and traditions, expectations and entitlements that are reserved for a small group of people. This becomes clearest when watching the archival footage of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. The pomp and circumstance. The regalia. The grandeur. The diamonds! This is how many of us perceive the royals. All glammed up for their royal tours or grand parties and celebrations. Many of the criticisms over the years has been how removed the royals are far removed from day life… from us.

So when we come to this festival day, Christ the King or the Reign of Christ, when we lift Jesus up as our king, as we recall not the kingdoms we create for ourselves, but the kingdom God creates for all of creation, we might anticipate the same kind of pomp and circumstance. The same grandeur. Maybe not the diamonds…

Our Old Testament reading from the book of Daniel as well as our Psalm are coronation readings, they conjure up familiar images of what it means to be royal: “dominion, and glory and kingship” (Daniel 7:14), and “robed in majesty” (Psalm 93:1). And to be honest, it is strange that in this year of Mark, that we would be presented with such images. Mark, who spends the majority of his gospel avoiding talking about Jesus’ kingship. Jesus’ identity is kept secret for the better part of Mark’s gospel. Which is maybe why, on this last day of the church year, of the year of Mark, we don’t hear from Mark’s gospel but instead from John. We find ourselves with Jesus before Pontius Pilate who asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” This is, of course, a loaded question.

Because in the Ancient Near East, the king was the Messiah. They ruled under a theocracy in which the king had the ultimate authority and power, and ruled from the top down. It was the king, and the king alone, who had the power and authority to keep everything and everyone safe and rescue them from harm or danger.

But Jesus doesn’t look or act like a king. Pilate is in the power position, and he knows it.

“My kingdom,” Jesus tells Pilate, “is not from this world”. In other words, what you think and expect of kings and kingdoms is nothing like what I have come to do, or who I have come to be.

Jesus comes into the world and completely redefines what it means to be royalty. And from the very beginning – especially as told through Mark’s gospel that we have heard throughout this last church year – Jesus has been pushing and prodding us to think differently about the kingdom of God. Jesus has been pushing and prodding us to understand God and God’s reign differently than what we think or expect.

There is part of us that like the idea of a royal who is far off, doing royal things with royal people. And it’s easy to depict Jesus as a king – crown him with many crowns, lift high the cross – the hymns we sing, the stained glass windows we commission.

But this is not the Jesus we encounter in the gospels. Certainly not in Mark. Jesus’ king-ship, his reign is one that was played down. Jesus himself who walked alongside the disciples teaching, healing, eating… time and time again we encounter a Jesus who keeps showing up in spite of people not knowing who he is – his own disciples not getting it again, and again, and again. And likely because of this not getting it, Jesus, in Mark’s gospel, is kind of a grump. We’re not any more comfortable with grumpy Jesus than we are with a king who looks and acts nothing like how royalty is expected to look and act. Even when artists depict Jesus on a cross it is often with a regal air, and when its Jesus walking down the road with his disciples, there is the suggestion of a king walking through the royal garden with courtiers. No one is commissioning a stained-glass window of a mug-shot Jesus, or Jesus covered in road grime and old clothes wandering the countryside with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells.

And yet – this is our king. Jesus comes to us not with pomp and circumstance, but in the most unlikely of coronations. Through the humblest of beginnings, in a manger to an unwed mother. The kingdom of God isn’t behind royal gates that remain locked to those outside. The reign of Christ is not filled with protocol and procedure, but rather the dismantling of the very things that keep us from hearing and seeing and experiencing God’s love and mercy in our lives. Jesus spent his life walking with and talking with the opposite types of people that any king would be expected to hang around. Jesus’ rule, Jesus’ reign, is so far from what royalty would look like. Instead, all of the examples we have of Jesus’ reign, of what God’s kingdom looks like, are in the ordinary.

And so today, as Christ the King Sunday with readings of royal coronations follows a year of Mark downplaying the kingly side of Jesus, we are left two sides of Jesus seemingly at odds with one another.

But as these two images blend together, Jesus is showing us a Kingdom of Heaven that is breaking into our everyday, mundane and earthly existence. Jesus is showing us a King of all creation who is walking along side us fashioning, forming and shaping us for the kingdom.

And all of a sudden, Christ the King and the Kingdom begin poking and prodding through the veil… and Jesus shows us that the Kingdom has been all around us the whole time.

The Kingdom of God breaking through in words of mercy and forgiveness

The Kingdom of God being glimpsed in the words of eternal life spoken in our midst.

The Kingdom of God revealed in the peace and reconciliation shared between friends and neighbours.

The Kingdom of God that tears open the the boundary between heaven and earth allowing the body of Christ of all times and places to worship as one.

And all along Jesus has been shaping and transforming us for life in this kingdom, in this kingdom that Jesus has been bringing near to us the entire time.

In our world that still looks for royalty to live up to regal expectations, to hold fast to customs and traditions, protocols and procedures, we celebrate the reign of the One who looks nothing like what the world expects. Who holds fast to the rule of love, who encounters us in bread and wine at the table, in the water and word at the font, in reconciliation with family and friends, freedom through forgiveness of sin to life eternal.

On this Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that Jesus is never the King that we expect, nor the One that we deserve, but always, always the One that we need.

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The Kingdom of God in the Birth-pangs

Mark 13:1-8

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.”

It is coming close to the end of the church year. Next week it will be Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year. And then we will flip the calendar over to Advent, and begin again. Today, we hear from Mark for the final time this year. Mark who has been aggressively pushing the disciples and calling us to let go of all the things that hold us back, our selfish desires, our want of comfort and security, our habit of putting ourselves ahead of others. And Mark has been showing us a Jesus who wants us to see the Kingdom of God, to see the transforming world around us and to witness the work of God in the world.

Of course, it has not been easy and nor have we been all that successful. And Mark seems to get this. From beginning to end, Mark’s gospel recognizes that the disciples never figure it out and neither do we. And yet Jesus sticks with them and sticks with us despite that.

Today, we pick up from last week, from the story of the widow’s mite. After watching the widow give everything she had to the temple, in an act of resignation, Jesus and his disciples leave together. On their way out, the disciples begin remarking on this grandness of the Jerusalem temple. And indeed the temple was a sight to behold. For the people of Israel in that day, the temple was the centre of their world. It was the dwelling place of God, the place from where their history and identity flowed, as well as power and privilege.

Yet, Jesus will have none of it. He grumpily declares that all of it will be thrown down. Which is akin to saying that all of Israel will be thrown down, the power and history and religion of the Israelites will be crushed. Of course, it was only about 40 years later that the Romans did indeed raze the temple to the ground. But for the disciples and the rest of Israel at that moment, it probably seems unimaginable.

Finally, on the Mount of Olives looking down on the temple, after the disciples look around to see that no one is listening and eagerly ask Jesus just when the temple will be destroyed. Presumably the are imagining something even greater coming in its place. If their teacher and master really is the Messiah, he will certainly usher in a new age of prosperity for the people, which includes a new temple. The disciples can only imagine more of what the temple attempts to portray — they can only imagine a greater symbol, a more influential centre of society and culture, an even grander source of meaning and a more potent history for the people of Israel.

The disciples, despite all that they have been through with Jesus are still marvelled at the prospect of power that the temple represents.

As we prepare to turn our calendars over the Advent and begin telling the story of Jesus again new, we do so knowing that we carry the same struggle as those disciples. We don’t really want imagine all the birthpangs or really any part of the pregnancy. We want the Christmas moment, the angels and shepherds, animals and drummer boys. Whether it is in our personal lives or at work, we dream so often of the time when everything comes around for us. Whether it is in our communities or around the world, dreams of peace and harmony abound (as long everyone buys into our vision of peace). Or whether it is the church, the longing we carry for different circumstances, for the easy abundance of our fond memories.

And just how do we know that we feel just as the disciples did? Just listen to regular church goers on Christmas Eve… when the church is often full, full of friends and family we so often hear or say ourselves, “Wouldn’t it be nice if it could always be like this?”

We like the idea of the birth moment, the time when all the work comes together, when all the waiting is over, when the uncomfortable, achy, growing pregnant body is finally done with being pregnant and the new miracle is birthed (of course we know that pregnant bodies don’t just go back to normal but are forever changed by childbirth).

We love the magic of Christmas, the powerful symbol it represents in our minds and hearts – much like the Jerusalem temple for that disciples.

But we do not like what it takes to get there, we do not like the hard work and messiness that is required for something to be refashioned, to be reclaimed, to be renewed, to be reborn.

Or as Jesus calls it, the wars and conflict and earthquakes and famines.

The birthpangs.

The disciples want to know when things will be accomplished, but Jesus is concerned with what it takes to make the journey.

For you see, at this point in the story, Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem hailed by the crowds as conquering king… and will in hours, be arrested, tried, and executed. All by the great powers of the temple of Jerusalem and by the great powers of Rome.

Jesus knows that despite our desire to skip the messy stuff and go straight to magical moment, the Christmas moment, that we tend to spend a lot of our lives in the mess. We spend much of our lives waiting, wishing for things to be different, wading through imperfect and flawed places of the world, through the chaos of just making it from one day to another.

But Jesus also knows that it is in the birthpangs, in the human mess that God is at work. That even as Jesus is about to enter into the darkest valley of human sinfulness, that God is doing that hard work of refashioning, reclaiming, renewing, rebirthing.

Refashioning sin on a cross.

Reclaiming death as New Life.

Renewing the bond between creator and created.

Rebirthing all of us into Kingdom as beloved and forgiven children of God.

These are the birthpangs.

This is work that God is doing in the messy places, that bottom, common, ungrand, powerless, unremarkable places. In and through people like those nobody disciples out in the far and forgotten corners of the world. And also in and through people like us, in the far and forgotten corners of Manitoba and the Interlake.

While we are waiting for Christmas. Hoping that the end of the struggle comes soon, that everyone is resolved and wrapped neatly in bow. And that the Christmas magic will become our new everyday…

God comes to us in the real places, comes to real human life. Real life that happens in the messiness of families and communities and places of work. Real Life that happens in the never ending, monotonous day to day. Real life happens in all those other Sundays when it seems like there are too few voices for the singing and too few hands to greet and share the peace with.

These are our birthpangs, the places where the Kingdom of God is breaking into our world to refashion, reclaim, renew and rebirth us.

It is not about temples being crushed or conquering Messiahs or making church feel like Christmas every Sunday… Jesus is telling us today that he has come for the real thing… the real and messy parts of life. Because that is where we are and we know it.

Jesus comes in the birthpangs because we are constantly being stretched and pushed by life for what comes next. And in the midst of all that, of real life, Jesus comes to us.

Jesus comes to give us a glimpse of the Kingdom being born right here, right now.

The Widow’s Mite: Resigned to Death

Mark 12:38-44

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

We are coming near to the end. The end of the church year in just a few weeks, the end of the year of Mark. Mark who has been squeezing hard to make us squirm, trying to get us, along with the disciples, to let go of our baggage so that we can just maybe glimpse the Kingdom of God that Jesus is bringing near to us. The last two weeks we got a bit of a reprieve from Mark, as we observed Reformation Sunday and All Saints. Yet, even today, as our nation take times to remember the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, Mark still presses to look forward to the coming Kingdom of God.

In fact, Mark has been making us ready for months. It began last June, and throughout the summer and fall, Mark has been challenging the ways we understand the world by telling us the stories of the disciples’ failures. Peter is called Satan, James and John conspire to sit at the right and left of Jesus, the whole group argues over who is the greatest.

And now in this moment in the days and hours before Jesus is betrayed, put on trial and crucified, he is in the temple teaching. And then Jesus watches as a widow comes and puts her final two coins into the treasury. This is no moment of great faithfulness, rather a moment of tragedy Jesus tells his disciples. While widows are not obligated to give to the temple, but rather receive alms from the temple, this woman puts her last two coins, two nearly worthless pennies into the treasury. Not an act of sacrifice, but of resignation. She is preparing herself for the end, for someone who cannot afford food or shelter is certainly destined soon to die.

It is a story connected deeply to the story of the Widow of Zerephath and Elijah. A story that could have very well been picked out of our nightly news.

Elijah has just been told by God to flee his homeland, and God provides for a starving Elijah with dry creek bed and a raven who brings him food. Finally God sends Elijah to a foreign land, to a widow who will feed him.

Now imagine the widow, already a woman struggling to make ends meet and to feed her family. And here comes a foreigner, a refugee from a war torn country asking for help. Certainly we have heard that story in the news, we have even lived here in Selkirk with the refugees families that we have been a part of sponsoring.

Yet, the widow of Zerephath, a woman who is not a Hebrew, who worships a different God and is of a different people than Elijah, responds curiously to his request. She says that she only has enough grain and oil for one more meal for herself and her son. One last meal before they will go hungry and die. Elijah has barely survived escaping his homeland, only to survive with the minimum provision. And God sends him to a woman in the same predicament.

People who are not just facing scarcity, who have not just experienced decline and loss, who are not longing for what they once had… but people are resigned to the end, who can see death on horizon. There is no perspective change or reimagining of ways to use the resources they have, no pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, no visioning program or stewardship drive that will help. No amount of resumes sent to prospective employers or unpaid internships will turn this around.

For the widow and her son, and for Elijah this is the end. The greatest fear of scarcity has become reality – scarcity has led to death.

And is not that precisely the fear we carry with us, the mindset that pervades our world. Things are tight, resources are scarce, there is not enough to go around. It is the loudest message being told in our world these days. It is the message of advertising, of politicians, struggling institutions, and even often churches. And underneath this warning that there is not enough is the fear that running out will mean death. That caravans will cross borders and take what is ours. That people with different skin, who worship God differently, who speak a differently language will steal our way of life. That technology is taking our jobs, employers are taking our time, sports and Sunday Shopping and a host of other activities are stealing our numbers in the pews. That we are taking the life the planet to drive more cars and make more plastic things. Everything is being taken from us… that is the message of the world. And if we are not careful everything will be taken from us until there is nothing left to give… until we are dead.

Then Elijah responds to the widow. “Do not be afraid.”

Elijah speaks with words usually reserved for divine messengers. Words from Angels, and Arch-Angels, Cherubim and Seraphim.

“Do not be afraid. Go and do as you have said.”

And she does it.

This woman who has nothing, decides to give a refugee her last morsel of food, surely not because of her faith, but because all is lost for anyways, so why not feed someone who has a chance to go on living.

And all of a sudden there is enough. Enough for her, for her son and for this strange Hebrew man who will become the greatest prophet of Israel.

And the widow in the temple does the same, puts her last two morsels in to the treasury in order to maybe feed someone who has a chance to go on living.

And all of sudden there is a cross followed by an empty tomb – and life goes on. Death is no longer the end, but the one who raised Lazarus, lives as well.

“Do not be afraid. Because even where there is never enough in this world, even when all roads lead to death… in Jesus Christ is there more, there is enough, there is life.”

Of course this is what God has been promising to us all along. That when all roads lead to death there is more.

When the world tells us to fear others, people with the wrong language and religion and skin colour who might come and take our way of life, Jesus says to us come and hear my promise of forgiveness, come and be reconciled, come and receive mercy.

When jobs and economies and trade deals makes us wonder how we are going to pay our bills, fill our pension plans, and care for our families Jesus says, come and be washed, come and be named, come and be welcomed into my body.

When the threats of violence and war, catastrophe and danger consume our minds and hearts, and makes us wonder about the future of this planet for our children and grandchildren, Jesus says come and eat, bread and wine, body and blood that never runs out, food that will fill your empty hearts and longing souls.

When we look to the past and long for what once was, when we feel shame as though we have failed those who have gone before us, when there seems to be no future but death for churches and communities of faith Jesus says, you are my body and my body has an abundance that you can never imagine. An abundance of life that overcomes sin and death.

These two widows and Elijah and Mark are all preparing us for this reality about to be glimpsed. The reality that scarcity and death cannot imagine… the reality of God’s Kingdom coming into the world. The reality that in the very moment when we have nothing left but to simply die, God will show up and say,

“Do not be afraid”