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There is no more wheat and chaff

GOSPEL: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him…” (Read the Whole passage)

It was just last week that we heard the story of the Magi or Wise Men following the star to find the Christ child in Bethlehem. They looked for him in the royal palace of King Herod but instead found him in the home of Mary and Jospeh… and that experience set them on a new path home, forever changed by encountering the Christ.

Today, we fast forward 30 some years and it is clear that the Christmas / Epiphany narrative is over. We had our chance to take a breath over the holidays, to stop and ponder the wonder of the incarnation, and now we are sent along to continue the story of Jesus. For many of us, the return to work and school and “regular life” mirrors this movement in our biblical texts. Both the bible and our world have this habit of moving us along to the next thing whether we are ready for it or not. The story of Jesus keeps going and our world keeps turning, no matter how much we prefer the slower paced days of Christmas.

Today, the church celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord. It the moment of Jesus’ life story that begins his ministry, that sets him onto a 3 year journey of ministry in the backwaters of Judea which eventually culminate on a cross in Jerusalem. But before we get to voices from heaven and the spirit descending like a dove, we have John the Baptist.

John the Baptist makes a cameo today, reminding us of his central role in Advent. Out of four Sundays in Advent, two are devoted to John every year. To his preaching and ministry on the banks of the river Jordan, proclaiming the coming Messiah and baptizing those who came to him.

And so even as we are shoved 30 years forward in the story of Jesus from last week to this week, Luke’s Gospel reaches back and picks up the thread from before Christmas… reminding of us just who the gathered crowds are, standing on the banks of Jordan.

They are God’s people waiting in darkness, anticipating the coming of Messiah, hoping for hope, searching for salvation of some kind, somewhere. They have come out into the wilderness looking for John the Baptist, hoping that he will give them something to hold onto.

And John does give them something, some good news to hold on to. Yet, John’s message is a little off. It doesn’t quite sound like good news. God’s promised Messiah is coming, says John, he is coming to baptize with fire, to separate the wheat from the chaff. To burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.

That doesn’t sound like good news, but more like a warning. The Messiah is coming to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, the faithful from the faithless, those on the inside from those on the outside…

But isn’t that the problem in the first place? A temple system in Jerusalem that arbitrarily chooses some to be righteous while most are deemed to have fallen short. The problem already is a world where salvation seems to be inaccessible for most. John is only kind of providing good news by telling of yet another who is going to separate the good from the bad.

You see, even John the Baptist, sent by God to proclaim the coming of Messiah, cannot escape the way the world, the way sin and death wants to define things, to define us. John the Baptist preaches both the coming of God’s promised saviour, but still through the flawed lenses and paradigms of our world. A world that thinks the solution to our problems is determining who is good and who is bad, who is in and who is out.

Of course, this continues to be our problem today… Like John and the crowds, we too cannot escape the inclination to see the world, and to see God, in those terms. In the terms of who is good and who is bad, who is right and who is wrong, who is saved and who is unsaved. Human beings cannot help but seeing the world this way, whether it is in our personal lives and families, in the world of politics between nations, in the world of business and economies, even in the world of sports. We are so used to seeing the world in terms of who belongs to our team and who doesn’t (says the Oilers fan in Winnipeg).

And as post-modern 21st Century Christians, we haven’t changed much from those crowds coming to the banks of the Jordan looking for salvation. Sure we are the inheritors of Church’s proclamation of faith, sure God reminds us week after week, time after time of the Gospel given for us, of the good news of God’s love and forgiveness for sinners and resurrection given to those suffering under death. Sure God reminds us that none of us is worthy of being on the inside or righteous or saved on own, but that Christ makes us worthy.

Sure we should know better… yet, Christians are often some of the worst offenders at seeing the world in terms of wheat and chaff, the world of John the Baptist’s preaching. Christians have the bad habit of wanting to condemn those on the outside, of believing that God’s mission is just for us, rather than following God’s call to take the good news with us out into the world.

But what else should we expect… we cannot help ourselves, we cannot help but be wheat and chaff people by nature… our inability to see that God’s love for us is given freely and abundantly, is precisely the reason Christ comes in flesh in the first place.

And our inability overcome our nature is also why the story doesn’t end with the John the Baptist.

It is why the story begins with him.

As the crowds are standing there on the banks of the river listening to John, they go down and wade into the muddy waters, one by one, where John baptizes them.

And out of this ordinary action of being made clean in the water, something extraordinary is about to happen. One particular, seemingly unremarkable, man is dunked in the waters… And something happens. As he comes up and out of the water, the heavens break open. The veil between heaven and earth is lifted, and the distance between God and creation is closed. And the spirit of God comes down and rests on this man.

And then, just as it rang out over the waters of creation in the beginning, God’s voice rings out again. And this time, the people of God are there to hear.

“This is my Son, the beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

Now here is something, someone new.

The Messiah that John has been foretelling and heralding is not just on the way, but is now here. Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the anointed one, has been revealed to God’s people.

Here is the hope, here is the salvation, here is the one that they all have been waiting for.

Just as God began the creation of all things by thundering God’s voice over the waters, God the Father begins the salvation, the new creation of all things by thundering again over the water.

And all of sudden, the wheat and chaff, righteous and unrighteous are not the point anymore.

The good news come in flesh is now the point.

The good news being close enough to touch and feel and see and hear is now what matters.

The good news who can look us in eye, who can pick us up and carry us, who can reach out to touch and feel and see and hear us is the new reality.

The crowds have been given not just the hope they were looking for, but more than they could ever imagine being given.

And it is the same for us. Even as pervasive is the old way of seeing the world, even as we try to keep up the pretense of determining who is in and who is out… God is breaking through to us.

As we gather around the water found here, God breaks open the heavens for us too. God’s voice is heard in our midst and God’s salvation comes for us. As the water is poured over our heads the first time, and each time as a new member is joined to the Body, God is declaring that we too are God’s beloved. That we too are God’s beloved children.

And those other labels, good and bad, right and wrong, in and out, wheat and chaff… those labels, those judgments don’t matter anymore.

There is only God’s judgment of us, and there is only one thing that God judges us.

Beloved.

By God’s voice speaking forgiveness in this place, by the water that washes us anew in this assembly, by the bread and wine that joins us to this Body… God is declaring us Beloved… over and over and over again.

From Magi and stars, to Water and the Voice of God… today is quite the trip… but it is all to remind us again, that God the good news has come and that God has declared us God’s own children. God’s own beloved.


Image: Wikimedia commons https://goo.gl/images/VeZWdo

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Advent is surely coming, says the Lord

Luke 21:25-36

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Read the whole passage)

The days are surely coming, says the Lord.

The first words of the season of Advent begin with Jeremiah, speaking words from the mouth of God to the people of Israel facing destruction by Babylon. An oracle that begins us immediately with the promise of God to a people who feels as though they are surrounded by oppression, suffering and darkness.

We have flipped the calendar today, and are about to begin a new season of the church year. Advent might be the only time the church is ahead of the rest of the world… and even then, we don’t really do this time of year the way most do. We begin by talking about the end, we begin by pausing and stopping and waiting for what comes next. In Advent, as in the Church, beginnings and endings often go hand-in-hand.

Advent is a peculiar season. The church decorates with blue or purples, we generally hold off on singing Christmas Carols (although it is sometimes hard to resist), we patiently and almost quietly count down the days until Advent ends on Dec 24th… all while wondering about what all these stories of John the Baptist and a pregnant virgin actually mean for us.

But on the first Sunday of Advent, we don’t quite get into those stories just yet. We begin instead with the end. On this first Sunday of the church year we begin with visions and promises of the end, the great reconciling of all creation that God promises to God’s people.

For the people of Jeremiahs’ day, their world was surrounded by war and destruction, the Babylonians were threatening to conquer much of the Middle East. And Jeremiah prophesied the coming destruction, the people of Israel awaiting what was to come next for them as warring nations around them sought control of the region.

And for the people of Thessaloniki, St. Paul writes to them hoping they are well in the midst of trials and tribulations because the Romans around this small fledgling Christian community are blaming them for upsetting the social order.

Two communities who are wondering what comes next for them, what will happen to them in the midst of tension, chaos and uncertainty in the world.

And then we hear from Jesus as he preaches to his disciples about the end. Visions and signs of the coming Son of Man. Words from Jesus spoken to his disciples in the middle of Jerusalem during a time of great tension and uncertainty – during the days between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.

The tension and the uncertainty sounds oh so familiar to us doesn’t it?

Whether it is closing GM factories, new trade agreements that don’t end suffocating steel tariffs, or climate change warnings that again weigh us down with a problem seemingly too big to handle.

Or perhaps it is things closer to home… the death of those who seemed too young die, families struggling with job loss or illness or conflict.

(Or perhaps it is the thing that we are contending with today. What comes next for Good Shepherd and Interlake Regional Shared Ministry at the end of this chapter of ministry together as pastor and congregation? )

We know what it means to live under a cloud of uncertainty and to wonder what comes next for us… even if most of the time we would rather not think about it. And yet, as the rest of world tries to ignore all the tensions and uncertainties with Black Friday shopping lists, baking and decorating and all the other things that come with the holiday season… here we are as the church, starting a new church year and forcing ourselves to pause and sit with this hard question of what comes next for us.

And here is the thing about Advent, here is the thing about Jesus and all his talk of signs and visions of the end… there is no answer for what comes for us. That is not the answer we get to today, nor really any day in Advent.

Instead, Advent arrives with an answer to a different question. And it answers it with the very first words of the season.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord.

Advent’s answer for us is not to tell us what comes next, but who.

Messiah.

Messiah is coming.

The righteous branch of Jesse to save all of Judah.

The one sent by our God and Father, the Lord Jesus

The Son of Man coming in a could.

The Messiah.

And no, the promise of the Messiah’s coming did not stop the Babylonians coming to destroy the Jerusalem and exiling its most important citizens.

And no, the promise of Messiah’s coming did not stop the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.

And no, the promise of Messiah did not prevent the ugly ending of Holy Week with a public execution on a cross…

But God’s promise of the Messiah was that none of these thing would not be end. Not the end of people of Israel and nor the people of Thessaloniki.

And the cross… well the cross was no ending at all, but rather the beginning. The beginning of God’s new reality for creation, the beginning of God’s new promise of Resurrection and New Life come to fruition for us all.

And then after the cross, that Son of Man coming in the clouds also walked out of the tomb. But that story is not for Advent to tell.

Instead Advent points us again to the promise of Messiah coming also for us. This Messiah whose coming means that all the things of our world which bring tension and uncertainty, conflict and suffering, sin and death… they will not be the end of us. Rather the Messiah’s coming means that we are not alone, not forgotten, not abandoned to the present nor to the future. Messiah’s promised coming means that our world is already transformed now, because a world with the Messiah on the way is a world designed for salvation, rather than a world destined for destruction. And that changes everything.

And as the Messiah is coming, the Messiah also walks along side us. No matter the outcomes of all those things that cause us tension and uncertainty, no matter the outcomes of things that feel too big to control and too much to bare. No matter the uncertainty of trade deals and closing car part factories, no matter the chaos of that we may encounter in our families and community… Advent points us to the Messiah who shows us that God’s new world is right around the corner, coming into view, breaking through into our world right before our eyes.

Breaking through to us in the things that have always been before us, that have always been the signs of God’s love and mercy for us here in this place.

And so even as pastors come and go, even as the world continues to be a place full of tension and uncertainty, Messiah is coming to us bringing God’s new world.

Coming to us in word, water, bread and wine.

Coming to us in the gathering of this community, a sign of the Body of Christ.

Coming to us with the promises of God, made and fulfilled.

Messiah is coming and Messiah is here. This is the story of Advent, the story that begins today, even the in the midst of all of uncertainty and endings about what comes next.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord.

An Unlikely Coronation

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


John 18:33-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kingdom of God in the Birth-pangs

Mark 13:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The birthpangs.

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

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

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

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

Refashioning sin on a cross.

Reclaiming death as New Life.

Renewing the bond between creator and created.

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

These are the birthpangs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 10:35-45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But God chooses to give life rather than take it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adding “Do Not Worry” to the Worry List

Matthew 6:25-33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no greatest nor least

Mark 9:30-37

Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Read the whole passage)

We are well into this second part of the the long season of green… We have been winding our way through Mark’s gospel since May and the deeper we get, the more frustrating the disciples become. Today, they come off looking rather petty, like kids in the school yard at recess fighting over who is the king of the playground castle.

Of course we know that this isn’t just a play ground debate, we also recognize this debate about who is the greatest from the nightly news… especially as election season is upon us and one particular unavoidable politician who cannot help but tell us how tremendously great he is, unbelievably great.

But for people of faith, the scene between Jesus and the disciples today is about deeper things than self-aggrandizement and we know it. We know that this uncomfortable exchange between the disciples and Jesus has something to say about us too and about what it means for us to follow Jesus… or at least we are going to find that out.

The debate over who is the greatest is the memorable moment of the story today, but it is something that is repeated from last week which sets everything off. Jesus is talking about dying again. Last week Peter couldn’t abide it and took Jesus aside to rebuke him. This angered Jesus who the called Peter ‘Satan.’ This week, Jesus is talking about dying again but the disciples do not understand and are afraid to ask.

This point is important to keep in mind during the rest of the story. Because the disciples cannot understand what Jesus means when he says he will die and be raised three days later, they begin to focus on something trivial and manageable… they start arguing over who is the greatest. They are arguing over something they feel can control, something that seems to be quantifiable, a topic they think they can contribute to… all to distract from the fact that they didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about before and they were afraid to ask – remember what happened to Peter last week when he spoke up.

The question of who is the greatest among them is an idea they can manage… unlike the notion that Jesus has come into this world to be betrayed and die, only to rise again in 3 days. The little trivial matter is easier to talk about when the big issue, the big question makes them feel scared and powerless and insignificant.

And so they argue, they debate, they make passionate cases for who among them is the greatest… and probably they feel like they are achieving something as they travelled down the road to Capernaum. That is until Jesus hears them and sits them down for a talking to.

The disciples are doing something that we know well as human beings and especially as church folk. We know how to focus on the small trivial matters in order to avoid the big questions and bigger issues just like the disciples do.

Many of us have been to that church council meeting where the minute details of fixing a leaky sink or buying hot dog buns for the church barbecue or haggling over $10 item lines in a budget of 10s of thousands take up the bulk of time and energy….while questions of what it means to be disciples or how to follow Jesus in our community or how to encourage members growing in faith are met with silence and blank stares.

We naturally grab onto the small things, the things that feel manageable, the things that we can argue and debate and discuss… because the big questions of faith and mission and life… they sit like weights on our chests making our heats beat with anxiety when we think about them too much, let alone when we talk about them.

And so we end up sounding like the disciples, we end up arguing about who is the greatest because we are too afraid to ask about what it means for us that Jesus is betrayed, killed and raised three days later.

And we end up debating the little things like the annoyance of Sunday sports and shopping, grumbling about those who have drifted away and left us with the work, arguing over who is the blame for the decline of congregational resources and attendance… because we are too afraid to ask what it means for us that we are in this state, and what is God saying to us about being the church in this time of struggle.

So as we grumble along the way, on the road from where we were to where we are going… Jesus finally overhears us, stops us and sits us down – just as he did with the disciples.

To the disciples he says, whoever wants to be first must be last. Or in other words, all this stuff you are arguing about doesn’t mean a thing…it doesn’t mean a thing in the Kingdom of God.

And then as Jesus picks up a child and sets them in his lap, he says, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

But it isn’t some kind of moral lesson to the disciples… Jesus is in fact making a point about all that stuff he first said about dying and rising.

Because who is doing the welcoming? Who is holding the child in his lap? And who is it in baptism that declares to be children of God.

We aren’t the welcomers. We are the children.

God is the one welcoming us.

Jesus is reminding the disciples that they don’t need to be the greatest to understand what Jesus is up to in the world. Because in the Kingdom of God there is no first and last, no greatest and no least. We are all God’s children, and for us Jesus has come into the world. Jesus has come to die with us, to die with a dying creation. Yet, three days later Jesus shows us that death is not the end. And because Jesus rises from the tomb, we rise with the God of New Life on the third day.

The disciples don’t need to understand what it all means for Jesus to be betrayed, to die and to rise again… that isn’t their job. Rather Jesus tells them that he has come to bring them into the Kingdom, he comes to walk along side them, to let them see, hear and feel the Word of God among them… the Word made flesh.

And for all the things that we grab hold of to distract from the bigger issues of faith and life… they don’t matter in the Kingdom either. Because God will continue doing what God has always done for us. Whether it be when we thought we knew what God was up to with full churches and strong attendance and budgets we could meet or whether it is now when none of those things seem to be the case.

God continues to give us the Word of forgiveness and mercy week after week.

God continues to welcome us as God’s own as we are washed and renamed beloved.

God continues to gives us bread to eat and fill our hearts, so that we might become the bread that God uses to feed the world.

It has never been up to us to understand how the Kingdom works, or to have all the answers or to be saviours.

It is up to God.

And God is coming to us, coming to little ones such as these,

in the person of Jesus who dies and rises again,

coming to us again and again in Word and Sacrament,

signs of God welcome for us, signs that remind us that we are neither the greatest nor the least in the Kingdom, we are God’s beloved children.