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Waiting (for the Bridegroom) ain’t easy…

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

Matthew 25:1-13

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

Waiting is not easy.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s exhausting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

Matthew 18:15-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A straightforward and clear process for conflict resolution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ones like little children to whom the Kingdom belongs.

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

The lost sheep whom the Shepherd searches out and rescues.

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

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

Come for to eat with like beloved guests and equals.

Come for to heal and restore to wholeness.

Come for to bring God’s Kingdom near.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus has come to heal us and eat with us.

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

Amen.

Peter wanted a private club – Jesus gave us the Church

Matthew 16:13-20

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…(Read the whole passage)

Last week, I had a brush with fame. If you happened to be listening to the local Christian music station on Thursday after around 5pm, you would have heard me do a brief two part interview. Yes, I know, I know… for anyone that is wondering I will sign autographs in addition to shaking hands on the way of out church… and no, this hasn’t gone to my head.

In all seriousness, the reason that I was interviewed was for an article that I had written and that was published by Christian Week magazine…a locally founded but national/ecumenical publication in Canada.

The article was about something that I mentioned in my sermon last week, Why White Supremacy is a Sin. After the events of Charlottesville two weeks ago, the article was my attempt at articulating why the ideology White Supremacy is sinful.

At its foundation, Christian White Supremacy takes the idea that faith and church confer a special status and power to us to extreme ends. That being a follower of Jesus or a Christian makes a special group, a special in-crowd, that the church is only about who is on the inside, rather than reaching those outside. For White Supremacists, only white skinned people are those special ones.

Now, what does that have to do with the Jesus and Peter today?… well in a way, Jesus is naming that same attitude among the disciples – the idea that being a follower of Jesus confers special status and special power.

Jesus and the disciples are out in gentile lands again. Last week they were in the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon, where Jesus encountered and eventually healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter… but only after she convinced him that she, a gentile and a woman, was worthy of his compassion.

Today, Jesus has travelled inland to the region of Caesarea Philippi where he takes the opportunity to ask the disciples a question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This gets a few different answers, mostly comparisons to the prophets of old. But Jesus isn’t satisfied and takes it a step further. “But who do you say that I am?”

When none of the other disciples have an answer, Simon offers a guess. “You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” Not a dead prophet but son of the living God.

And for that Jesus gives Simon a new name – Peter. Peter which means rock, the rock on which Jesus will build his church, giving the church the power loose and bind sins.

That is a quite the journey from “Who do you say that I am?”

This story of this encounter between Jesus and his disciples that we hear today, is a passage we tend to place a lot of meaning on.

The Roman Catholic church reads this story as Jesus’ choosing Peter to be the first among the disciples… the first Bishop of the church, the Bishop’s office whose has become the office of Popes through the centuries. The Pope, they say, is the successor to Peter. The Papal symbol is two keys.

Others find in this passage an important question, one that is more relevant today than ever. Who do we say that Jesus is? Many church leaders today would contend that this question is at the core of what it means to follow Jesus and how we answer this question in a world of suffering, violence, hatred, division, conflict, war and death determines the character of our faith.

And perhaps for us here at Good Shepherd, our answer to the question of who Jesus is would impact significantly how we minister to the community around us.

But perhaps neither of these concerns are truly what this passage is about.

As usual, there seems to be something else going on.

And getting at that involves asking the question why.

Why does Jesus ask his disciples, far from home and in gentile territory who people say that he is. And why does Jesus give Simon a new name with new responsibilities.

On regular occasion, the disciples get caught up in the perks of being disciples, rather than the reality. They want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands. They want power to heal and power over demons. They get jealous of others who do works of power in Jesus’ name. They get impatient with people who come to Jesus for healing, much like the Canaanite woman last week.

And so when Jesus asks the disciples, who they think he is… it isn’t because Jesus is wondering what people think of him. It is because he wants the disciples to connect with reality.

They are followers of Jesus. Jesus who is the Messiah. Jesus who is then son of the Living God. The Messiah who has come to save the whole world, sent by the Living God, the God of all creation. The forgiveness that they proclaim is not a power they hold over others, but a responsibility they now carry. The New Life that they preach is not privilege bestowed to a few, but a gift given to all.

Like the disciples, the church, including us, has fallen into the same trap again and again. And while it isn’t usually as extreme or destructive as White Supremacy… it is something we struggle with.

For many churches and communities of faith in North America these days it has been the norm to see ourselves firstly as centres of community. Faith families who love and care for each other. Groups who exist for the benefit of our members. Clubs with special privileges.

And yes, in some ways those definitions do apply to us. But they do not define us. They are not the why. They are not our first and primary purpose for existing. The Church is not a community of the privileged, but a community of the burdened. A community given responsibility. A body tasked to preach and proclaim the story of the one whose name we bear – to tell the world about Christ.

When Jesus gives Simon a new name today… it is first a reminder of who Jesus is. In the Old Testament the only person who ever changed someone’s name was God.

When Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock on whom he will build his church, it is a reminder that this community of faith is the Messiah’s. It is a community rooted in the forgiveness of sins for sinners, mercy for the suffering, and resurrection of the dead.

When Jesus tells Peter that he will be given the keys to kingdom and that what he binds on earth is bound in heaven, and what he looses on earth is loosed in heaven… it is a re-orientation of the privileged and self centred attitudes of the disciples.

The power to forgive, the power to grant mercy, the power of resurrection and new life… these are powers NOT to be used as Peter, the disciples and the church desires. But rather responsibilities and tasks to be undertaken. Forgiveness is not to withheld, but given. Mercy is not to be given with discretion but with wild abandon. And new life… well God’s answer to all death is resurrection and new life.

When Jesus re-names Simon, and makes him the rock of the church, and gives him the keys to the Kingdom… it is not a moment of granting privilege or benefits… It is a moment of reminding Peter, the disciples and us of the responsibility we bear.

That we are firstly a community of faith. Faith is not a by-product of our community, but rather community and our love and care for one another is a by-product of our faith. Forgiveness is not a power the church wields over people, but rather something we are not to withhold. We are to forgive sinners. Period. And new life… well resurrection and new life is the story that we tell… or rather that Jesus tells through us, week after week, year after year.

Through Peter, through the disciples, through us, Christ proclaims again and again that death does not have the final word. Christ proclaims through us New Life given for all and for us.

Today, Jesus asks a pretty simple question to the disciples and to us. But the result is a reminder, again, of just how Christ is re-naming and transforming Peter and us, into the his body. Into the Body of Christ giving forgiveness, mercy and new life to the world.

The scary thing isn’t sinking, but walking on water.

Matthew 14:22-33

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him… (Read the whole passage)

What a quick turnaround from last week. As we go with the disciples into the stormy waters, we have and they have just been feeding the masses with Jesus. With five loaves and two small fish, Jesus fed the 5000 and there was enough for all.

Yet, within moments of enjoying a feast with the great crowd, Jesus sends the disciples  in a boat to the other side of the lake, while goes by himself to pray. And then follows one of the most famous stories in the bible, where Jesus while walking on the water, invites Peter to walk on water with him.

As the disciples are out on the water in a storm, it is not the first time these experienced fisherman have found themselves in bad weather. The first time in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was with them in the boat. With but a few divine words he calmed the storm and the fears of the disciples.

So this time, as the storm comes upon the hapless group of Jesus’ followers, they are not afraid of the wind and the waves. Instead, it is the apparition of Jesus on the water that brings out their fears. They are not certain of what or who they see. Some think it is a ghost.

Jesus approaches the boat and calms the disciples fears. “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”. Jesus calms the disciples, who are storming within, by speaking words that alleviate their fears. But Jesus’ words to the disciples are reminiscent of words spoken to another disciple. As Moses approached the burning bush, the Lord God told him to not be afraid. And Jesus echoes the name that God gave himself. When Moses asked the burning bush by what name should he call the one who was sending him to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God said, “Tell them, I AM who I AM sent you”.

Jesus invokes the same divine name. Jesus words to the disciples from the side of the boat could have been translated, “Take heart. I AM. Do not be afraid”.

The disciples realize, this is no ghost. This is God at the side of the boat, walking on the water. But Peter still has some questions… is it Jesus? And I can walk with him?

Now I don’t know about you, but getting out to walk on the water does not seem like the obvious thing to do in this situation. The disciples are sailing in the middle of storm, and this is the moment that Peter decides to see if he can also do what Jesus is doing. Maybe Peter would have been smarter to start with multiplying some bread and fish into enough food for thousands…disappointed dinner guests, and not drowning, would be the worst possible outcome.

Yet, Peter steps out. In the hopes of meeting Jesus on top of the water, the hopes of having the power over creation too.

Most of us are probably not as daring or foolish as Peter… but at the same time, there are moments in our lives and in our faith where we are compelled to step out of the boat. To take a risk, to chance losing everything. Whether it is a individuals or as a community of faith, there are moments when we have to stop worrying about the worst possible outcomes and see what happens on the waters, outside the safety of the boat.  We are faced with trying something new, venturing into the unknown, exploring places we wouldn’t have dared go before.

Peter’s question is the question that we all must ask before stepping out of the boat. It is the question of identity. Who will meet me on the other side of this great risk? Who am I to take this risk?

So many of the sermons preached on this text tell us that if we want to know the answer to that question, if we keep our eyes on the one walking on the water, than we will not drown or sink. Just have enough faith, and everything will be alright. Just take the risk with faith, and walking on water should not be a problem.

But the difficult part of stepping out of the boat and stepping into the unknown is that we do not know where we will end up. We do not know what is on the other side.

Peter steps out of the boat… and in a way, he shows us what indeed almost always happens to us in those moments of risking it all.

We sink.

Stepping out of the boat is to sink.

Stepping out of the boat means is to get wet.

Stepping out of the boat means we will need to be saved.

The drama of the story is that when Peter steps out onto the water and he begins to sink. His risky choice seemed like it had potential, and it seemed to be going well at first. But Peter does what we so often do. He self-sabotages. He becomes afraid of the unimportant things, not the water, not sinking, not the lack of a boat under his feet. He is frightened by the wind, by something that should have no impact on his ability to walk on water.

And how often is this what we do too. When trying something new begins to work, we become not afraid of failure but of success. We stop wondering whether we will sink, but what it means to discover that Jesus did actually invite us into something new and different. Something that means we will be forever changed…  Like Peter, we let the inconsequential sink us. The wind, the thing that is a sign that we are on top of the water is what makes us sink.

Yet, just as Peter begins to sink, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter.”

You see, this is part of the story where we finally find out who we are. Where we finally find out who it is that is calling to us from the other side of boat. Jesus knows very well that Peter will sink, but Jesus still says, “Come”. Before Peter steps out of the boat, he wants to know if it really is Jesus walking on the water. But once he begins to sink, Peter knows exactly who he is calling to, “Lord, Save me”.

Inside the boat, we forget who we are and who Jesus is. But on the outside, with the water rising quickly around us, we know that we need to be saved, we know that only Jesus is the one – the ONLY one – who can do the saving.

Hopping over that edge and onto or into the water is a part of life. As human beings, as communities of faith, as sinners in need of saving, we need to hop over the edge every so often. We need to discover what it is like to be on the outside of the boat, to experience the unknown and to find out where we are going.

But in the end we will always sink. In the end there is always the wind, the thing of little importance that we can blame for our fear of succeeding, our fear of change and newness.

But even as we sink, Jesus is there. Right there, immediately grabbing us by the hand and pulling us from the stormy waters.

Jesus is right there knowing that our problem is not wind, nor the water, not the missing boat. Jesus knows that we are our own problem… but Jesus also knows that we will never save ourselves. And so Jesus pulls us out. He doesn’t make the wind go away, or throw us backwards into the boat, or even tell is to stop waling on the water… Jesus brings us through. Jesus pulls us out of sinking death, into unexpected new life on top of the water. New Life on the other side of risk, on the other side of the safety of the boat. New life on the other side of change and new ways of being.

That is the promise of Jesus walking on the water. That is the promise of God who says, “Tell them I AM who I AM sent you”. That is the promise of our Lord and Saviour. No matter where we are. In the boat, on dry land, or sinking like a stone. Jesus is there, reaching out to us, pulling us from the waters, saving us from ourselves, saving us no matter where we go or where we end up.

Reaching out and pulling us into new Life.

There is life in the Wheat and Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (read the whole passage)

Most of us know the annoyance that weeds cause in gardens and lawns and even fields. Weeds steal energy, water and resources from the plants that we placed purposefully in our gardens. Weeding is probably one of the more joyless parts of maintaining our plants and gardens. Pulling those prickly, finicky nuisances that seem to do anything they can to stay in the ground is not fun.

And so when we hear Jesus tell the parable of the Wheat and Tares or wheat and the weeds, we can identify with the experience of the servant who wants to get the weeding done.

Yet, as anyone who regularly walks down neighbourhood streets knows keeping and maintaining gardens, in particular the weeds, is an individual approach as anything. On the street that we live on, the gardens, flower beds and lawns of our neighbours vary wildly. There are some lawns and flower beds kept impeccably. Hardly a blade of grass out of place, not a weed to be seen. And then there are others where the weeds and grass seem to be growing in harmony… and growing tall. The contrast is noticeable when there are next door neighbours with these two extremes of garden and lawn styles. A golf green lawn next to a patch of wild grass and weeds.

This tension sits at the heart of the parable of the wheat and weeds. The crops have been planted, the wheat is growing… but so are the weeds. And the servant and the master have very different approaches to deal with this tension. The slaves of the household wants to get down to weeding. They want to purify the fields, get ride of bad and unwanted weeds right away, resolve the tension that they are experiencing… but the master wants to wait. Let the wheat and weeds grow together, for in pulling up one you will destroy the other.

Now of course, when we slow to think about it, this parable is not about wheat and weeds. Jesus isn’t discussing gardening philosophies.

But nor is this parable about the explanation that Matthew puts in Jesus’ mouth either. This isn’t about the weeds being like the evil ones of the world who will be thrown into the fire, or about the good wheat being gathered into heavenly grain bins.

In fact, the explanation to the parable about what the wheat and weeds are seems to have missed the point.

The point just might be the tension.

We are not good at living with tension.

The master says to leave the weeds be, but we are most often more like the slaves who want to get down to weeding. We don’t do well with tension because we would rather get to resolution. Its why most TV shows tell a complete story each episode, and why cliffhangers frustrate us so much. It is why most music is careful to end with resolving notes, a song that ends without sounding finished feels wrong. It is why we want to get the weeding done, instead of letting the weeds grow with the garden… the tension bothers us.

But the tension extends far beyond gardens and into our lives and work, into our relationships and even into our faith. We don’t like it when things we perceive as good and bad, right and wrong, exist at the same time in the same place. We don’t like weedy things infecting our wheat.

As Matthew attempts to unpack this parable by telling us what it means, he puts it in terms of faith, or more specifically faith communities. As faith communities, we know that we need to welcome new people, to try new ways of doing things, to open ourselves up to new life and the places it could grow among us… yet, new people can feel weedy to us, new ideas and new ways of being can feel like they are taking our limited energy and resources… new life can feel like it is choking our life out.

How often do we turn down new ideas because they are too weedy… they seem like they will just take energy and life from us like weeds?

How often are we concerned only about whether we will get a fruitful return, a wheat crop as reward for our efforts? How often do we weed out potential new members to our community because we expect them to be wheat instead of weeds?

How often does new life in our midst need to be a bit weedy… need us to sacrifice some of our own resources, our soil, our water, our energy in order to let the new life take root among us?

We really do struggle with with letting the wheat and the weeds co-exist, especially as people of faith. We struggle with the tension, of living in the grey areas, and not being able to define our world in the terms of good and bad, right and wrong.

And yet the tension, the place in between good and bad, right and wrong, even life and death, is where so much of our faith rests. It is the grey ares where God seems to show up, in the places where wheat and weeds are growing together.

God comes to us a king of creation, yet born as a nobody peasant in the backwater town of Bethlehem.

God comes preaching good news, but to the lost, least and forgotten of the world.

God comes to save us, by dying on a cross.

And so we are sinners yet forgiven and righteous.

And so we find our lives by losing them.

And so we are made alive by dying in Christ.

And so God chooses to love us, even though we should be unloveable.

The master tells his servants to leave the weeds be, leave weeds because pulling them out will uproot the wheat.

The master tells the servants to live in the tension, because that is where life can grow. The weeds will steal from the wheat… but both will grow. The tension is the place where life grows.

It is the same message that God gives to us, that God proclaims in and through God’s church.

Come you who are sinners, to this community of people made righteous. Here your sins are forgiven.

Come you who are suffering, to this community of healing. Here you will be made whole.

Come you who are hungry, to this community of bread and wine. Here you will be fed.

Come you are dirty and unclean, to this community of the washed. Here you will be cleansed.

Come you are who are dead, to this community of life. Here you will be raised.

The tension is the place where life grows.

Here is the thing… just as wheat fields without wheat doesn’t exist in reality, there is no community of people without sinners, without suffering, without hunger, without being unclean, without death.

The Master knows that the weeds are always part of the growing, all part of the fruit producing. The Master knows that the weeds are a part of life.

And God knows that it is in the grey areas that life is found.

God knows sinner meets righteousness in the grey area of forgiveness.

God knows that suffering meetings healing the grey area of mercy.

God knows that death meets life in the grey area of resurrection.

And so the Master says to us, let the weeds be. Let the bad grow with the good because it is in the grey areas that life is found.