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Do you not care Jesus?

Mark 4:35-41

 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” (Read the whole passage)

For the past few weeks, Mark has been taking us on an intense ride through the beginning parts of his gospel. The pharisees began by plotting to kill Jesus for healing a man with a withered hand on the sabbath, Jesus’ family believed he has crazy and wanted to take him away, and last week Jesus told parables about the Kingdom of God being like the mustard bush, the worst weed in the garden. 

Yet still, with our own news is full of extremes… world cup upsets, legalization of another kind of weed, and of course children being ripped from families at the US border… it isn’t like these intense scenes from Mark are that different from what is going on around us.

Today, of course, is no different. The disciples find themselves on an ill fated boat ride with Jesus. As they cross the sea of Galilee, a violent storm comes upon them. As fisherman, they shouldn’t have been surprised as violent storms have the habit of coming on suddenly on Galilee. But even as experienced fisherman, they wake Jesus because they are afraid of drowning. 

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

It is a rather loaded question. It is not a direct request for help. It is not the usual cry to God that we might expect. It is not a “Help me God or Save me Jesus”. 

It is almost as if the disciples are saying, 

“Wake up Jesus! Wake up so that you can drown with us!”, 

And Jesus does wake. Jesus wakes up and rebukes the wind. He literally muzzles it. He tells the waves to stop and be still. And then Jesus chastises the disciples. 

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no trust” or more accurately, “Why are you cowardly? Do you still not trust?”

And then something interesting happens. The wind and the waves were calm. But the disciples become fearful. More than fearful. They fear a great fear. They are Terrified upon terrified. Frightened upon frightened. 

And instead of looking to Jesus, they look to one another. 

“Who is this in the boat with us? Who is this guy that even the wind and the waves obey him?”

We know these fears of the disciples well. We have been through the storms of life too. 

Our storms might not be found in boats, but they rock us just the same. They are the accusations that so many throw about, “Do you not care about children being ripped rom their parents?” They are the fears of trade tariffs and economic hardships. They are broken relationships and hurting families, illness and disease. Our wind and waves are change and upheaval. In our congregations, our cries to Jesus and asking if he cares are about the future, about declining numbers, about uncertainty and conflict. And sometimes it can feel as if these storms hit us, one after another. 

But all of these fear and worries sit on above a greater fear buried deep within us.  fear that comes from a more primal place. Fear rooted in sin, in self centeredness. Fear rooted in our wanting to be God in God’s place. Fear that shows itself when we are faced with the reality that God is in control and we are not. Fear that makes us wonder, who is this Jesus. Who is this Jesus that is in the boat with us, in our homes with us, in the church with us?

Whether we admit it or not, we like to think that Jesus is only around when we bother to pray or read the bible, but probably goes home when we are busy. We like to think God is an ever available problem solver, always waiting but never intruding. And as congregations, we act as if were we ever to close up shop, God would close up shop too. 

And so on days like today, when the storm is calmed and we cannot help but see God in the world and in our midst, we are left with the disciples asking, “Who is this Jesus?”

Who is this Jesus?

The storm is the least of the disciples’ problems. In fact, the disciples ask the question that is at the core of their being. “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

Do you not care? 

We long to know that we are cared about, that someone, something out there believes that we matter. 

And does this Jesus actually care?

Does Jesus care about us, about me?

Deep within us is the fear that no one cares, that God does not care about us. That we don’t mean anything, that we are of no value. When the dispels ask Jesus, “Do you not care that we we are perishing?” It wasn’t about the storm, it was the fear that Jesus might not actually care about them after all.

Do you not care Jesus?

And yet, it is precisely because God cares has come to be ride with us in our boats. Because God cares about sin and death that God has been born in flesh. 

God has come to live life among us, and God come to die with us. 

It is isn’t the storm of wind and waves that Jesus has come to still. 

It is the storm of death. 

Jesus has come to muzzle death. 

Jesus has come to die on the cross in order to silence death.

As the disciples wonder at who is this Jesus that is in the boat with them, their wonder is not truly about this one among them who even the wind and wave obey. It is a wonder about whether this God in flesh actually cares about them, about creation, about all of us. 

And for us who know the end of the story, the wonder is no different. The wonder and fear of the one who can muzzle and silence death from cross still doesn’t make us certain that we are cared about.

But that is our stuff.  

Because Jesus still comes into our boats. Just as Jesus road in the boat with disciples, Jesus rides with us into our storms, our places of fear and uncertainty. The places where we fear that no one cares about us, we fear that we will die and becoming nothing.

Just like the disciples whose fear was only multiplied by not knowing who this Jesus is, we too fail to see Jesus in the storms and in the calm. And yet, Jesus gets into our boats anyways. Jesus comes into our world, lives among us and goes to the cross anyways. Because there in the boat and in the storms, there on the waters of creation where the distance between creation and creator is shortened… Jesus claims us. Jesus names us as God’s own. In the waters of baptism, Jesus reminds us that whether we live or we die, we belong to God. 

God is in control whether we like it or not. God is saving us from sin and death whether we see it or not. God is loving us, whether we like it or not. 

“Do you not care that we are perishing? “

“Do you not care God?”

And there in our boats, in our storms, in the midst of our accusations and fears, Jesus reminds of just how much God cares for us. That no matter the wind and the waves, we belong to God. That no matter how many jobs might be lost because of one man’s pride, or how many families might be separated because of cruelty and fear, or no matter what dangers that might cause us to believe we are dying we encounter, 

Jesus is with us, in our boats, in our cages, in our fears and in our anxiety… reminding us that we are not alone, and wether we live or wether we die, we belong to God. 

And even when we still have no faith, 

God has faith in us and for us,

because God cares for us, 

and for all. 

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The Lord Christ is coming – The Messiah has always been here

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Read the whole passage)

 

It would probably be a safe bet that no one attended a rocking new year’s eve party last night.

Advent, and the beginning of a new church year is pretty understated as far as New Years goes. Never the less, we are taking the first step of a new church year today. And as always, we begin with Advent.

Advent is the season of waiting and watching. We drape the sanctuary with blue, a colour representing hopeful anticipation. We light candles to symbolize the light of Christ coming into the world. We hear stories of the waiting of Israel for Messiah, and then Jesus’ own words about the end of the world.

And we do all of these somewhat odd things while the rest of world is frantic with Christmas fever, the lights and decorations having been out long enough to be gathering dust, and the music has gone stale on the radio and over mall speakers.

As is often the case, we find that the church tends to do the opposite of the world.

And so today, we slow down to light our lamps and watch for the signs of the coming Messiah.

As we hear Jesus begin our advent season, the thing he is talking about is the end. He gives us a prophecy, a glimpse of the end of the world. Signs found in darkened celestial bodies, and the coming of the Son of Man in glory.

And Jesus is speaking to an audience that has been waiting for Messiah for generations. The people of Israel had been waiting for a long time for God to send the one who would free them from oppression, release them from their suffering and re-establish a divine rule by one of God’s appointed kings, and not foreign occupiers like the Romans.

The Israelites had been waiting since the time that Isaiah prophesied Messiah’s coming, hundreds of years before Jesus’ day. And during that time life had not been easy. Israel had constantly been surrounded by enemy nations, there had been constant destruction and ruin. But despite this, the promise they clung to was that God was sending a promised Messiah, a saviour who would come to free them.

By Jesus’ day the Israelites were growing restless… but they could also see the signs. King Herod had killed all the children in the holy town of Bethlehem around the time of Jesus’s birth, and John the Baptist decades later had begun preaching in the desert. And now here was the one, the wandering preacher and healer, telling them of the coming Messiah.

The people could feel that it was close, that Messiah was in the air. The signs were there, and here was the one whom many thought to be Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and he was telling them of God’s plans to restore creation and set the world to right.

Finally, Messiah was close at hand.

2000 years down the road, we might not be living with that same kind of imminent sense of Messiah’s coming. While we hear the stories and read of Messiah’s impending coming, we do so year after year, decade after decade, lifetime after lifetime. And the stories written with such urgency take on a different meaning and we hear them in different ways.

And these days, as so many of us wonder about churches and the future of the faith in our part of the world, we feel less like the crowds listening expectantly to Jesus the Messiah in flesh announce God’s plans to restore creation, more like those who had been waiting generations before. We feel more like those who heard Isaiah’s words:

We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Isaiah has us pegged.

The grand visions of Jesus in Mark are not the clear and blinding signs for us that they were for the people of Jesus’ day. For us, they are hazy and hard to make out. The cosmic re-ordering that God is about to undertake feels more abstract and far off, than immediate and close at hand.

We faded leaves know the struggle. We know what it is to be tired and to wait, to feel thinned out and week. It is hard to keep the faith these days. Hard to keep showing up to hand out bulletins and sing God’s praises. Hard to volunteer to vacuum the church and receive forgiveness. Hard to look at budget statements and council reports AND pray without ceasing.

Jesus’ exhortation to ‘Keep Awake’ is hard enough to do during the sermon, let alone to keep vigil day after day, week after week, year after year.

But the Church has known this. Christians have known that waiting for the Messiah is both a long and a short game. Even as Mark was setting down his gospel only 30 years after Jesus rose from the dead, the early church was wondering when Jesus would return. Those first witnesses to the resurrection were getting old and beginning to die off.

And ever since, the church has lived with the sense of the now and not yet. The sense that God’s Kingdom is here NOW among us. And that God’s grand future plans to restore all creation have NOT YET come to fruition.

So we live with this dual reality. The reality that Jesus proclaims, the coming Son of Man and the reality of Isiah, that we are fading leaves waiting to be blown away in the wind.

Each Advent we begin by acknowledging this reality with the words of the collect or prayer of the day. While most begin by praising God, in Advent we begin with a petition, a request. And we direct it not to God the Father, but straight to the long awaited Messiah.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

We pray knowing that we need, ever so desperately the stirring up of Messiah’s power.

And we pray knowing that the Messiah, the one sent to save us is finally now, after our long waiting is stirring up power like a pot boiling over.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

And as the Israelites waited and waited for the coming of Messiah, even as they faded like leaves blowing in the wind.

And as the crowds heard Messiah himself preach the coming of God in power, even as they could feel Messiah in the air.

And as we grow tired waiting for something to happen among us, even as it is hard to keep up the faith.

And as the church of today sits at a moment of tremendous change, even as we don’t want to see it.

The Lord Christ is coming.
The Messiah has always been here.

The Lord Christ is coming, even when we find it hard to believe, even though it feels painfully slow. The Lord Christ is coming to bring an end to suffering, to make our upside down world right, reconcile all creation to God, to restore us all to what God intended us to be. It just has NOT YET come fully.

And the Messiah has always been here, already among us, here NOW, giving us mercy, forgiving our sins, showing us resurrection and new life.

The Messiah has always been here, present in the word of God, made manifest in the words that sound from our lips and in our midsts.

The Lord Christ is always coming to us from the waters of baptism, pulling us into a not yet future, where our sin and selfishness are no more, where we die and rise to new life.

The Messiah Lord Christ is here and yet coming to us in the bread and wine, body and blood, where God meets us, where God binds and joins us to Christ, the now risen and still coming one.

Even as we wait, even as we grow tired. Even as the story is told over and over again from the people of Israel to now…. God is bringing us from the end to the beginning.

From Advent and its promises of the great cosmic plan of God, to the beginning, to the beginning of God’s new creation born within us that first Easter.

Sure, there probably no new year’s eve parties last night.

But that is because God’s great and never ending party, starts here today.

Christ the King and the pearly gates checklist

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father… (Read the whole passage)

The end has finally come.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year. And since last Christ the King, we have waited for Jesus in Advent, sung with the Angels at Christmas, marked ourselves with ash and wandered the wilderness in Lent, walked the way of the cross in Holy Week, and been terrified by the empty tomb with the women on Easter morning. We have heard Jesus preach, and teach, and heal, and exorcize demons. We have commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, remembered the saints and all along the way we have listened for God at work through prophets and parables, psalmists and songs, the voices of young and old.

And so, finally, on this last Sunday of the church year, we celebrate Christ the King. Only Jesus is not the type of king we expect, or anticipate. Jesus does not look, or act, like any king we know. Christ the King rules in a way completely opposite what is known.

Christ the King Sunday points us to the end. To the end of time and all things when Jesus will return in order to reconcile all of creation back to God.

Jesus is wrapping up after spending time teaching the crowds and he finishes with a scene from the end times, something that sounds like the final judgment: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another… the sheep from the goats”.

For Jesus’ audience this would sound like pretty radical stuff. All these texts that we have been listening to these last weeks, in particular the parables Jesus has been telling since the triumphal entry: the parable of the ten bridesmaids, the wicked tenants, the talents, the wedding banquet, have been leading up to this moment. Jesus has been provoking the crowds and the temple authorities, who just a few days ago were shouting “Hosanna, son of David” as he rode into Jerusalem. Today, Jesus gives them the last straw: Jesus preaches this judgment scene which sounds like pretty standard fare to our modern, Christian ears: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and those imprisoned. But to his audience, in particular to the religious authorities, this would not have sounded like the route that they were taught would obtain righteousness and salvation. In fact, Jesus seems to have gotten everything upside down.

According to the laws of Israel, in particular to the temple cult of Jesus’ day, righteousness and salvation were not earned in the way that Jesus describes. Righteousness was obtained by keeping the law, staying ritually clean, and making sacrifice in the temple. Whereas, what Jesus describes does the exact opposite of that.

Food was one of the primary ways you could become unclean. So sharing a drink or food with someone who is thirsty or hungry presumably  poor and unclean, is a quick way to become unclean yourself.

Naked people are unclean.

Strangers, for example foreigners or Gentiles, unclean.

The sick, unclean.

Prisoners (debtors or sinners), unclean.

Getting too involved in the affairs of your neighbours was one of the quickest ways to become unclean and therefore unacceptable to God.

That’s not to say people didn’t look after the poor. Levitical law required the giving of alms, but putting some money in the box for the poor at the temple was a little different than what Jesus was suggesting – getting down and dirty with your neighbour.

So when Jesus describes what it looks like to be righteous, what it looks like to get into heaven, his audience would not have heard it as a list of good works, but as a complete undoing of what they knew and understood about salvation.

Fast forward 2000 years. We are not that different than Jesus’ audience. We might have a different list than the people of ancient Israel, but we still have a list. It just so happens that our list of good works sounds a little but closer to the list Jesus provides.

Our sacrifices might not be animals in the temple, but we give up our Sunday mornings and money into the offering plate.

We might not worry about ritual cleanliness, but we certainly worry about looking like good Christians to the rest of the world.

We might not worry about keeping the law, but we certainly worry about whether our kids and grandkids are keeping the faith.

There is a whole list of things that we have, whether it’s praying enough, reading the bible enough, serving at the soup kitchen or knitting enough mittens for the mitten tree or quilting quilts for CLWR, or mowing the cemetery lawn.  with all of these good works that we spend a lifetime trying to pile up, one of our biggest concerns is the person who lives a fast and loose life before having a deathbed conversion and cheating their way into heaven after we did all this work. Like the people of Jesus’ day, we are still experts at making salvation into some kind of checklist or point system that we can achieve on our own.

Jesus isn’t proposing some kind of bait and switch for “things that get us into heaven” but the thing that Jesus is getting at is who it is that is working out our salvation.

As Jesus describes this scene of the end times, there are a couple of key details that would have jumped out to his audience:  The first is the whole group of people who are gathered before the king: good and bad, sheep and goats. But for Jesus’ audience, righteousness was something that was worked out here on earth, not something that was determined at the pearly gates. The second detail, was that Jesus’ criteria had everything to do with our relationship to our neighbour, but the Israelites knew that righteousness had everything to do with your relationship to God. It’s almost as though Jesus was saying everything they knew about righteousness is upside down, that God is the one working out our salvation.

Jesus’ version of the end of time is a completely new understanding of our relationship to and with God. Because if God is working out our salvation, that means we don’t have to. But it also means it’s not up to us. As freeing as it is for God to be the one doing the work, it is also terrifying that we aren’t.  And that we have no control.

Even though the religious authorities and crowds won’t respond all that well to Jesus’ suggestion that God is the one doing all the saving, God keeps at it anyway. God continues God’s work of reconciliation and redemption.

And it isn’t long after this, that Jesus will end up on the cross. The cross, which is Christ the King’s throne. And the foot of the cross is the place where all people, good and bad, sheep and goats are gathered. The judgment that Christ provides from that throne cross is neither about who’s in and who’s out, but a judgement that declares that we are forgiven and free from our sins, that we are given resurrection and new life.

And despite all of our doing and trying, our checklists and point systems, Christ the King is gathering us up too at the foot of the throne cross.

And for all the sacrifices that we think we make and offer up to God, God is the one offering God’s self to us in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

For all our attempts at keeping the faith in this generation and the next, God’s faithfulness has already been given to us and proclaimed to us in the word from generation to generation.

For all our attempts at looking like good little Christians, God names us and claims us God’s own in the waters of baptism.

Every Sunday, God gathers us at the throne cross, we who are thirsty and hungry, we who are sick and imprisoned, strangers in need of mercy and says to us, “Come and inherit the kingdom”.

This sermon was co-written with Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker

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.

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.