Tag Archives: parable

Not even a mustard seed worth of faith

Luke 17

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (Read the whole passage)

Today, we continue hearing the stories of Jesus ministry and work from the gospel of Luke. Two weeks ago Jesus told the parable of the dishonest manager and the generous God. Last week it was the familiar story of the rich man and poor Lazarus. But today, it is the disciples who cause the action. They have been following their master for a while now, seeing him teach and preach, watching him heal the sick and lame, being amazed at his miracles and exorcizes. And despite seeing all this, they still want something from Jesus.

The disciples come to Jesus and make only a simple request. “Increase our faith”. It doesn’t seem like much. All they want is maybe a little show of power from Jesus. Maybe some power of their own to heal minor diseases, maybe not lameness and leprosy, but limps, sore backs and bad acne. Maybe Jesus could let them exorcize some minor demons, the ones that make the floor boards squeak or that make single socks disappear.

This hardly seems like an unreasonable request, Jesus is God in flesh after all, he could easily make the disciples better believers, super followers or something. The disciples just want a little more certainty, a little more assurance, a few more benefits for being faithful.

“Increase our faith!” the disciples ask.

Jesus does not take this well.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could make mulberry tree be uprooted and plant itself in the sea. It would obey you!”.

So obviously the disciples don’t even have a mustard seed worth of faith. The tiny barely perceptible mustard seed, the seed that grows into an unwieldy bush and causes gardening headaches. Not even faith the size of a tiny, useless seed.

Jesus sees right through the request, he sees to the heart of the matter. The disciples want some control in this whole God business. They want power, assurance, confidence. They want what we all seek in the darkest places of our hearts, to be like God.

Increase our faith!

We have made that request, issued that demand, prayed that prayer just like the disciples. Increase our attendance, increase our budget, increase our volunteers we have all said as churches. Increase our morals, increase our nation, increase our respect for the past has been a a favourite refrain of politicians.

And privately many of us have probably prayed this prayer. “Increase my faith, give me something to hold on to, let me know that you are real God.”

Jesus scolds the disciples, and sometimes it can feel like God ignores our simple requests. And sometimes all we want is something to hold on to, something that will satisfy our uncertainty and our fears.

Yet, whether it is a selfish request of God, or a demand for control, or an honest prayer in desperate moment, the rebuke that Jesus responds with can hurt.

Jesus says that If we had the smallest amount of faith you could do great things… and yet we cannot do them.

And even more we are reminded that “Increase our faith” is about us. It is about our need to have some kind of say in this God stuff, to make faith a little more “take” than “give”, to have some part in our relationship with God.

And when we dig at that need, it soon becomes clear that it is rooted in the same insecurity that made Eve grab the fruit,

the fear that made Abraham send his wife to be the concubine of a King,

the rage that made Moses kill that Egyptian,

the desire that made David lust for Bathsheba,

the resistance that made Jonah run from God’s call,

the reactiveness that made Peter strike off the ear of the servant,

the pride that made Paul persecute and kills Christians,

the confusion that made all the disciples hide in the upper room even when they knew Jesus was risen from the dead.

We ask, we demand, we pray, Increase our faith, and it comes from the Old Adam, Old Eve within us, the place of pride, fear, control. The place of Original Sin.

And even so, just as Jesus has been reminding us week after week, Jesus reminds us again.

We are not in control. We are not the ones who have the power. We are not God.

Jesus talks about mustard seeds and mulberry trees and then goes on to talk about a master and a servant. And not to tell us that we are slaves or subservient. Jesus isn’t trying to make us feel small. But rather Jesus reminds us that we have a role in this God stuff, and it isn’t to be God.

The greek word (pistuo) that we often translate as faith, is almost better understood as trust.

“Increase our trust” we might say.

And yet we know that increasing trust is not something the truster can do. Trust can only be increased by the one who is trustworthy.

Faith or trust is not a power we wield, or a control we have or even something to hold on to. Faith or trust is what God places in us, it is the wild and untamed relationship that God wants to meet us with,

faith is what God holds us in,

what God grabs us with,

what God places beneath our feet.

Increase our faith.

Jesus reminds us today that faith is not something that we own or control or have power over.

Because God’s faith is in us.

Because God’s trustworthiness is complete.

Because faith is a gift we receive.

A gift bestowed in Baptism.

A gift fed and renewed in the Lord’s supper.

A gift shared in the Body of Christ that is the church.

God is the one who creates faith, and we are the ones in whom faith is created.

God is the one who gives faith, and we are the ones who receive it.

God is the one in whom faith rests, and we are the ones who are held and rest in God.

Jesus reminds the disciples and us of our roles in this faith stuff. The disciples want – we want – power, assurance, something to hold on to. Increase our faith, we ask, we demand, we pray. And Jesus steadily reminds us week after week that God is the one doing the work here. We might want some control over our relationship with God, we want some input, but God’s love doesn’t need anything from us. We are simply the ones who are loved. We are the ones who are loved, and in whom God’s love meets the world.

Increase our faith we ask today.

And Jesus says, if you had faith you could do great things. But faith is what God has in you, that is what in you truly need.

Amen.

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The fifth parable of the lost – it is not about rich or poor

Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side…” (Read the whole passage)

The parables keep coming this week. And unlike the parable last week, the parable of the wealthy land owner and the dishonest manager, where the land owner praises his manager for being dishonest, this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus seems very straight forward.

There is a ridiculously rich man who acts selfishly and goes to Hell because of it. The poor Lazarus gets nothing in life, and so goes to Heaven in death. It sounds like a simple formula for us follow.

If we look out of the poor, and make sure not to hoard all of our wealth and, we don’t act like little kings and queens, we should probably be okay. If we aren’t poor like Lazarus, we should probably help those who are… and that should be enough to save ourselves from eternal punishment. Right?

Not so fast. As usual, there is more to this parable than its surface reading.

In fact, throughout history, Christians have had some problems with this parable. One problem being that the rich man doesn’t have a name. If characters in parables are given names, it is almost always the important ones. And this rich man is the focus. He has most of the lines. Lazarus doesn’t even say a word. In order elevate the status of the rich man, Christians have often called him Dives. Rich people aren’t nameless characters in stories, we know that rich folks are more important than that.

And probably there is a part of us that hears this parable and identifies the most with Dives, or at least if we had to choose, we wouldn’t want to be pitiable Lazarus… however this really isn’t a choice between rich and poor.

Dives is not your average rich guy. He is ridiculously rich. He acts like a king. He wears purples robes, clothing reserved for royalty. He has a feast every day, even most monarchs didn’t do that. He is the epitome of self-aggrandizement and entitlement. Dives is the ultimate rich man.

Lazarus on the other hand is the opposite. Unable to even move his own body, he has been laid at the Dive’s gate in the hopes the rich man will have compassion. Lazarus is so pitiful that the street dogs look after him. He is utterly helpless. Lazarus is absolute bottom of society.

Lazarus and Dives are complete opposites… they are caricatures of rich and poor, cartoon-like, beyond reality. Yet, still when Lazarus ends up with Abraham and Dives in Hades something is off, this is not the way things work in 1st century Israel. Lazarus was not only poor, but he was also unworthy and unclean. He would was too poor to make sacrifice at the temple, too unworthy and unclean to even go to synagogue. He wouldn’t have been able to pray, to receive God’s forgiveness, to follow the law. He would have been doomed.

Dives however, could have easily kept the law, easily afforded to make sacrifices, easily maintained his righteousness. Dives should have been set in life and in death.

So when Lazarus and Dives die, what unfolds would be have mind boggling to Jesus’ hearers. For Lazarus to be carried by Angels to Abraham would have been preposterous. Only two people had experienced such an honour, only Moses and Elijah, patriarchs and heroes of faith. A poor man lying a rich man’s gate is no patriarch and no hero.

Dives’ fate is equally absurd. Dives is the one who should have gone to be with Abraham. Rather he goes to hell, but not just any hell, he goes to Hades. Greek Hell, Gentile Hell. Hades is the hell of a different religion entirely, not judaism. Dives is no pagan gentile.

Yet, somehow despite ending up in the complete opposite places of where they should be, somehow Lazarus and Dives maintain their earthly positions. Lazarus still does not speak or act for himself, but instead Abraham speaks and acts for him.

And even in gentile hell, Dives has not understood that his fortunes have been reversed. He calls out to Abraham, but not for mercy. Instead he treats Abraham like the butler of the house, and Dives orders some room service from the bell hop Lazarus to bring some water. And even when Abraham explains, Dives still does not understand and tries to order something else. He wants to send Lazarus the telegram delivery boy to bring a message to his family. Dives cannot stop being self-righteous and entitled. And Lazarus continues to be a silent and helpless character who needs to rely on the care of others.

The rich man and Lazarus are two extremes, polar opposites, they really represent concepts or ideas more than they portray real people. In fact their names say it all. Dives is the Latin word for “Rich”. Lazarus the Greek word for “God has helped”.

When we see Dives and Lazarus in this light, they stop being examples of what we should do or not do.

These two characters represent the extremes of human behaviour. The extremes that exist within each of us.

We are all Dives. We are all Lazarus. We are all both.

We have the capacity within us to be completely self-centered. We have moments when we believe that we are truly in control. We wish, deep down, that we could save ourselves. We think we are righteous when we follow the rules, or receive blessings, or are gifted with wealth.

We also have the capacity within us to feel truly unworthy and totally helpless. We have moments when we believe that we are nothing and undeserving, that we cannot be saved, that we are unclean and cursed, that we are the victims and the guilty of the world.

So often as human beings we trick ourselves into thinking that we are the ones who have earned our success, our status, our blessings. And when it comes to God and heaven we think we can save ourselves.

So often as human beings, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we are to blame for our failures, our downfalls, our curses. And when it comes to God and heaven, we think that we have made ourselves unworthy.

Abraham explains the problem we have to Dives. “Between you and us, a great chasm has been fixed”. Not a rocky canyon or deep hole. But a chasm of self-righteousness. A chasm built by our trust in ourselves, our trust that we have made ourselves worthy or that we have made ourselves unworthy.

And when Dives cannot see why the chasm is there, Abraham explains again. You will not “be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there is the key.

There is the point that Jesus is making.

This is the fifth parable of the lost. The lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son, dishonest manager and now the rich man and Lazarus.

And its both the dives and Lazarus who are lost. Lazarus is found, because he is hopeless. Dives isn’t quiet ready to not be the one saving himself. And yet, there is nothing even the richest man can do to achieve salvation.

For you see, Lazarus doesn’t need to rise from the dead, someone already has. Someone has already gone to the cross. The cross bridges our chasms of self-righteousness and self-doubt. The cross is what God traverses in order to join us in our hells, our pits, our isolation. The cross that connects a dead creation to an alive creator.

Christ is the one who has risen from the dead, and Christ is the one who shows us just who does the saving, the righteous making. Christ reminds us that we cannot make ourselves righteous and we cannot make ourselves unworthy. We simply don’t have the power. Our own chasms are too great for us, but no chasm is too big for God in Christ.

And so we gather to hear this again, to be convinced over and over again.

Christ has risen from the dead.

We repeat this good news, over and over each time we worship, in many and various ways

Christ Jesus who came to save sinners.

God who brings us home from the wilderness of Sin

Your sins are forgiven and you are made free.

Worthy is Christ, the lamb who was slain.

You have the words of eternal life.

On the third day he rose again.

Jesus Christ who on this day overcame death and the grave.

Christ has died.

Christ is risen

Christ will come again.

Save us from the time of trial

Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world.

We repeat this good news, over and over and over, and maybe one day we will believe it, even if it takes a lifetime to sink in. God keeps reminding us. No matter how much we act like rich Dives, no matter how much we feel like poor Lazarus. It is Christ and Christ alone who makes righteous, who makes us worthy.

This parable seems straight forward and seems to give us ideas on how to live. But isn’t life advice at all. It is yet another declaration and another promise.

Only God saves, and because of Jesus being raised from the dead, we too are raised from being dead in sin into alive in Christ.

The Fourth Parable of the Lost – The dishonest manager

Luke 16:1-13

1Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ (Read the whole thing)

As students walked out of classrooms and businesses shut down on Friday and through the weekend, the issue of climate change is being brought before us. The consumption of the planet, the use of resources in pursuit of profit and wealth, the growth of economies is being contrasted with the future of the planet’s well being. Why go to school, if the planet is on a countdown to irreversible change? The students are asking us. A big and heavy question, one that we certainly don’t have a quick and easy answer for.

And so when we hear the story of land manager squandering property there is a real connection to the present. Squandering the planet’s resources is an accusation that today’s youth have the right to level at older generations in power.

We hear the word squandering and many different images come to mind. The person who fails to take advantage of an opportunity, who doesn’t risk a little bit for a big gain. The one who waits and hesitates, rather than moving quickly and decisively. The person who doesn’t understand the potential of what they can do and be. The person who fails to take hold and earn every ounce of profit and reward of a situation. We hear of a squandering manager and we imagine a weak and feeble, hesitant and uncertain person taking the safe and easy path.

Today, we get this interesting parable from the gospel of Luke that follows right after the three parables of the lost. The parable of lost sheep and lost coin which we heard last week, and the parable of the prodigal son which we know so very well.

These parables come just in advance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to the waiting crowds, to the plotting religious authorities, to betrayal, arrest, trial, execution.

And this parable is interesting because we are not quite sure what to do with it. The squandering manager seems to behave in an entirely self interested manner throughout, and yet his master commends his shrewdness.

As the story begins, the manager is accused of squandering his master’s property, yet how he squandered is not mentioned or defined. Remember that.

Regardless, the master fires the manager.

And so the manager does something interesting, he thinks to himself. He doesn’t have other options for work before him, so he will forgive the debts of some of his master’s debtors in order to earn some favours.

Now, as 21st century people living a capitalist individualist society, it is easy for us to get hung up on the fact that the manager uses his masters wealth to earn himself some favours… yet, there is something about this curious situation that is easier for us to miss. Anyone who has lived in a farming community should know that good relationships with neighbours is vital to life on the land. What we really ought to be wondering about is why this land manager doesn’t already have pockets full of favours and good relationships with his community.

In the Hebrew world of 1st century Israel, the land held a central place in life.

The land that the Israelites lived on was literally the promised land, the land promised to Moses and he led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. And the land was not just a resource to be exploited. It was a living thing, a gift from God to be cared for. The land held abundant resources meant to provide for the community. There were laws as to how the land was used to provide for all:

• A certain amount of the harvest was required to be left on the land so that the poor and widows could follow the workers and gather grain for themselves.

• The land did not belong strictly to a single person or family, but rather to the entire tribe.

• Every Jubilee year it was meant to revert to ownership by the tribe.

• The land owner didn’t exploit the produce of the land for his own profit and gain, but cared for and tended in order to feed the community (his extended family).

And yet in this parable, the manager had no favours in his pocket. His master’s debtors received no relief before this manger was fired. Maybe this manager was not the lazy, week, uncertain manager of our imagining, but the cold, hardened, profit focused, entrepreneur that we praise in our world. Someone who exploited the land for every ounce of profit, who squeezed every penny from debtors, who never paid too much and never accepted too little.

So remember that squandering isn’t defined?

Maybe this manager has been squandering the abundance of the land by hoarding it all for his master, by counting every penny away in his master’s store houses instead of caring for this community around him.

Maybe the land manager is the fourth lost thing in this sequence of parables. Lost to himself, lost to hoarding and profiting from an exploited land and community.

And isn’t that our modern problem too?

It’s what the students and their supporters are begging of those in power to do. To see their neighbour, to recognize that the land, the earth is a living thing meant to provide an abundance for us…only if shared and not hoarded, only if cared for and tended to, not exploited and consumed.

To squander in the parable today is to be lost and alone, to put profits before people, to forget that we live in community and what we do affects those around us and those who come after us.

Now, one of the important characteristics of parables is that the subject of a parable is usually the first person mentioned. This parable doesn’t start “There was a land manager.” It begins there was a rich man who had a manager. Just like the prodigal son begins with “There was a man who had two sons.”

It is the rich man who discovers that his manager had lost his way. And it is the rich man who sets out to find him.

When the rich land owner fires his manager, he is pulling the manger out of the store houses and accounting rooms. He is forcing his manager to sit down face to face with his community. And there seeing his neighbour face to face the manager is generous. He forgives debts trusting that he will provided for in return.

Like the shepherd to searches for the lost sheep, the woman who looks for the lost coin, like the father who runs out to meet his lost son on the road… the rich man joins his lost manager back to community. It is not dishonesty that the rich man commends, but connection and relationship, generosity and compassion.

And like the rich man, the teller of this parable is the one who is about to search out humanity in our isolation of sin and death. Jesus is about to find us on the cross… So that we might know the generous abundance of resurrection and new life.

Of course, this is what Jesus has been doing with us all along.

While we are lost and isolated, Jesus does what it takes to joint us back to community, back to the body, back to God.

And Jesus makes us practice being joined every week.

Jesus gathers us here, and plunks us shoulder to shoulder with our siblings in Christ, beside friends and neighbours. Beside those who know our struggles and what it is like to live in this lost world.

And Jesus joins our voices together with the praises of the community of faith, joining us to the choir of saints.

And Jesus forgives us with all these other sinners, restoring the communion of saints to wholeness.

And Jesus speaks in our ears a word of good news for us all, giving us hope in our seemingly hopeless world.

And Jesus washes and feeds at font and table, the gathering places of the faithful.

Shoulder to shoulder, with other washed and fed ones, reminding us that we belong to the Father, and that we belong to each other, no matter how lost we become, no matter how much try to squander the abundant community given to us in creation.

And so today, as we hear the 4th parable of the lost, we discover that we can be lost and not even realize it…

But we also hear of the Christ, who will go to any length, even surprising ones, to find us and join us again, shoulder to shoulder, face to face, to the community we need – the Body of Christ.

Finding those who aren’t lost

Luke 15:1-10

1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? (Read the whole passage)

For parents of small children looking for solidarity one of the places I go to is Fowl Language Comics, fowl spelled “F.O.W.L.” Parenting comics using ducks and chicks. In my favourite comic, a chick with arms in the air and standing in a nearly empty room loudly declaring, “I can’t find it anywhere! It’s just gone!”

The only other thing in the room is a red ball on the floor with an arrow pointing to the ball and the word “It” on the other side of the arrow. The caption below reads, “whenever I send my kid to find something.”

I am sure many of you can relate.

In our house, I am the designated finder.

I am sure most families have one – the person whose job it is to find misplaced and lost things. Other finders out there will know, that there is a certain art to checking all the usual spots, getting into the head of the person who has lost something, retracing steps, scanning rooms and eliminating all the places where something is not followed by almost always finding the lost thing. The TV remote under the couch, a toy in a low kitchen drawer, a phone under a magazine, keys in a coat pocket.

Today, Jesus tells some grumbling Pharisees two parables about lost things. Two familiar parables. The lost sheep and the lost coin.

On the surface, these parables can give us those warm, soft, comfortable feelings. The sense that Jesus has got our back. The Shepherd who goes out to find the one lost sheep, leaving the 99 behind. The woman who tears apart her house looking for a single lost coin. And of course, there is a third story that we don’t hear today but still know very well, the parable of the prodigal son.

Each parable follows the same pattern. Something is lost, something is found and then there is a party to celebrate.

Although… the party to celebrate part is a little weird, isn’t it? A party to celebrate finding one lost sheep out of a hundred? One lost coin out of a ten? A party for a son who squandered his inheritance and returned home, cap in hand?

As a finder, I like finding things, but not that much.

And of course what is truly interesting is that this trio of parables begins with the Pharisees grumbling about the fact that Jesus eats with sinners. And they end with the older brother of the prodigal son grumbling about the party his father is throwing.

And the grumblers might have a point.

That lost sheep is likely the curious one, the one who gets in trouble, the one who wanders instead of staying with the flock. And those coins, they are small and slippery and hard to see. And lets not get started on the prodigal son and his issues.

The Pharisees, they know something about the real world, something that we know too. Sometimes lost things are lost for a reason. Sometimes sinners are sinners for a reason. And why is Jesus spending so much time with sinners? Why leave the 99 sheep to find the one? And can’t 9 coins still buy the things you need? And what about that older brother and what he deserves for his hard work and obedience?

We get what the Pharisees are grumbling about. There are consequences to our actions. People get what they deserve. The Pharisees start off these parables about lost things with a point that is kind of important… at least it feels important to us. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And all know what the unspoken line that should follow – They don’t deserve to eat with Jesus!

We know the world of ‘people get what they deserve’ very well. We live by it every day. It colours our feelings and principles about immigrants, those who are poor, those who are different skin colour or background, about indigenous people, about those with different sexual orientations and gender identities, about those who vote for different political parties…

And Christians have been just as guilty of grumbling as anyone. Grumbling about those who we deem unworthy, those who choose sports, or shopping, or sleeping in Sundays. Grumbling often about those who worship in other ways or choose not to worship any God at all. Grumbling about those who we deem not to be pulling their weight or giving enough of themselves…

And yet, in the past few years our Grumbling has been accompanied by grief. Grief that we aren’t what we once were. Fresh, exciting, vibrant churches of decades past are not aging as well as we had hoped. Decline feels like it is ravaging our communities, our bodies… in a world of “You get what you deserve” decline makes us wonder what it is that we have done to deserve this… why does it feel like God might be letting us die?

These parables of the lost – lost sheep, lost coins, and lost sons – might be saying something to us today that different that what we have always heard. They may not be so much about the lost things as they are about grumblers.

For you see, even as the Pharisees and the elder son grumble about the parties being thrown for the found things… Jesus is still doing something curious and unexpected. This isn’t just a case of things being turn upside down. It is not just that the sinners are welcome, the 1 sheep and the 1 coin are searched for, that there is a party for the prodigal son…

It is that all the rules are being changed. It is that “You get what you deserve” is an idea that doesn’t matter to God. Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with Pharisees. There is a party for lost sheep and lost coins and everyone is invited. The Loving Father runs to meet his lost on the road and goes out to meet his older son in the field to invite him to the party too.

Jesus invites all. All are welcome at the table. Lost things, sinners and the worthy along with the Pharisees, obedient sons and the grumblers.

And yeah… that is something that is hard for us to imagine, hard for us to accept. We would prefer the world where there were some rules…

And yet, welcoming all has been what Jesus has been up to all along.

Here in this community of welcome, in this gathering, we are welcomed. Welcomed by God who washes, names and claims us in the waters of baptism. Welcomed by God who builds us up, gives us hope and shown the coming of God’s Kingdom in the gospel word. And here God feeds us, binds us together and makes us one at the table. And Jesus then reminds us that we just might not be as worthy as our grumbling suggests… and we might not be as lost as we might feel. We are a little bit of both – lost and grumbling. Worthy and unworthy, Sinner and forgiven.

These parables of the lost and grumbling remind us today that Jesus is changing the rules… changing the rule of the world that says you get what you deserve… And Jesus is ushering in a new rule, a new reality – A reality where God is forgiving and welcoming sinners… sinners not just like those whom we think don’t deserve it, but welcoming sinners like us.

And just like the lost things that aren’t as lost as we thought, and worthy things that aren’t as worthy as we thought… these familiar parables aren’t the straightforward stories that we thought.

And yet, in them Jesus keeps finding us. Finding us in unexpected and surprising ways. Finding the lost and the grumblers all the same.

Can Jeff Bezos inherit eternal life?

Mark 10:17-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By your holy incarnation,
deliver your servant. 

By your cross and passion, 
deliver your servant. 

By your precious death and burial,
deliver your servant. 

By your glorious resurrection and ascension,
deliver your servant. 

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

You will notice that we don’t pray:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only person who earns our salvation is God. 

God is the one who does the work. 

We do not inherit or earn or achieve eternal life. 

God gives it to us. 

Jesus accomplishes it for us.

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

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

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

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

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

The Kingdom Growing Like A Weed

Today’s sermon is a guest sermon from Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker, who you can find on twitter @ReedmanParker:

GOSPEL: Mark 4:26-34

  …3[Jesus] also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

 

Parables. Those ever elusive illustrations that Jesus used throughout his ministry to teach people about God and God’s kingdom. These simple stories often begin in the same way: “The kingdom of God is like…” and use a variety of literary devices to get the point across including charm, humour and exaggeration. Jesus liked parables – a lot! There are 40 parables recorded in the bible. Which means there were probably more that were never recorded in the big book of our faith. Jesus’ stories from every day life made what he was saying accessible to his audience. At the same times, parables are also a little like riddles, it takes some time to figure them out!

Today we encounter not one, but two parables about the growing, sprouting, spreading of the Kingdom of God. Living in an agrarian and agricultural culture, it makes sense that Jesus would use illustrations and imagery that would be familiar to his audience: the sower and the seed make sense.

But I’m not convinced that these parables are as accessible as they once were. And it’s possible, if Jesus were here with us, he might not talk about scattering or sowing seeds.

If Jesus were here with us, he might say that the kingdom of God is like a video that goes viral…  

We are all familiar with youtube, and what it means for something to go viral, right?

Whether it is a clip from a famous movie, to a stunt that a group of kids are performing in the back yard, or a recipe video. 

Going viral is when a video that is posted on the internet is widely shared, or spread through internet sites such as youtube, social media like twitter and facebook or over email. 

I’m not talking about malicious viruses that invade our computers or videos that are posted on the internet in order to harm or defame others… What I am talking about is how technology has transformed the ways in which we communicate with one another and how we are able to spread and share information all over the world with the click of a button – actually, we don’t even use buttons anymore now that we have touch screens…

Which brings me back to that little mustard seed… not so unlike that unsuspecting video that makes it way onto youtube and before you know it, it’s being featured on the nightly news, or your inbox is filled with video clips of the awe inspiring and the humorous moments of life.

For Jesus to compare the kingdom of God to a mustard seed seems a little strange, who’s ever heard of anyone wanting a mustard tree? – PAUSE – after some research on the topic, it turns out, not too many people.  In the ancient near east very few people would go out of their way to plant mustard because it is very hard to control. You know the saying, it grows like a weed? That sums up mustard. Once it gets into the ground, its spreads and takes over entire plots of land. Jesus’ comparison would be akin to saying the kingdom of God is like a dandelion. Not too many people like dandelions precisely because they are incredibly difficult to control. We try to contain them… get rid of them… but they keep coming back: growing and spreading and showing up in the most unexpected and unwanted of places. Who wants that?

As it turns out, God does. 

The message and meaning of the parable is this: There is an incredible growth of God’s reign in the world. We can talk about the incredible growth of God’s reign in a person’s life, in our own lives. The focus of the parable is growth, explosive growth, enormous growth. Each parable has a unique contribution to make to our understanding of the reign of God, and this parable focuses on the incredible growth that is part of the reign of God. *

God’s love… God’s reign in the world is growing like a weed. 

God wants our lives and our faith to grow and spread in much the same way: uncontrolled, unruly and unaffected by any limits or controls we might be tempted to place on it. – And we do get tempted! We don’t like weeds. For starters, they are not very pretty. Not to mention, they are impossible to tame and grow when and where we want!

In the church, we tend to confuse God’s kingdom with the church, which can quickly become our kingdom. And we tend to see growth only from a numeric point of view. How much, how many, how often? 

That’s NOT what Jesus is talking about. In this parable, Jesus is pointing out that the way God’s kingdom… God’s Word… God’s will grows in our hearts and souls and minds… in our whole beings. 

Jesus is describing that the way God’s kingdom will grow, will not be in the ways we expect. In fact, it will be in the most unexpected and even undesired ways that the seed is planted, grows and spreads to far reaches that on our own we never could have imagined. 

Most of the time, when something is posted, the person who has posted it has no idea whether or not it will get 5 hits – you know, from your parents and grandparents and your best friend – or 5 million hits. But what you do know, is that it is scattered out there in the world, waiting to sprout and grow in ways we do not yet know.

And the key to growth? Scattering seed with wild abandon. The key to growth is a willingness to risk failure. That’s right, in order to risk growth of any kind, we must first be willing to fail. 

One thing we know from the scriptures about the Kingdom of God, is that it is not dependant on our getting it right – or even getting it at all – even the 12 disciples get extra help when they don’t understand.

In God’s kingdom seeds are sown… faith grows out of those seeds… those small, seemingly insignificant seeds that are scattered in the richest soil and within the rockiest and seemingly inhospitable ground and left to grow. Somehow, those seeds, our faith, sprouts, grows –  not because of anything we do, but through what God in Jesus is doing through us.


http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_seed_growing_automatically_GA.htm Accessed June 16, 2012. 

 

A Divided House Broken and Shed for the World

Mark 3:20-35

” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. (Read the whole passage)

 

It is only the second week into this long season of green, and Mark is giving us some unusual stuff. We don’t often remind each other of that story from the gospel when Jesus’ family thought he was nuts and tried to drag him away.

Now, of course, last week we heard the story of Jesus’ healing a mean with a withered hand on the sabbath. An action which enraged the pharisees so much that they began plotting to destroy him. 

And so as we explore this next interaction between Jesus and the people around him, it is probably helpful to remember that Mark might be intending us to see the extreme behaviour or reactions… the Pharisees who plot to destroy Jesus followed by family who think Jesus is crazy. 

Mark invites us to reconsider again and again just what Jesus is up to in the world, and who Jesus is, often by acknowledging our own extreme responses to God’s call to follow. 

Mark uses the structure of the story to make a point. We begin and end with the crowds. The unwashed, poor, unclean and desperate crowds are pushing in on Jesus and his disciples. They are looking for something, someone to give them good news.  And by the end, Jesus names those same crowds as his brothers, sisters and mothers. 

Inside of the bookends of the crowds, Jesus’ family comes to take him away because he is out of his mind. And just before the last mention of the crowds, we are reminded that Jesus family is desperate to get him away, to end their shame and embarrassment at what Jesus is doing. 

And finally the scribes sit in the inner sections of the story. They claim that Jesus has a demon. And Jesus rebukes the scribes for trying to control the actions of the spirit. 

So the order of the story goes: Crowds>family> scribes. Scribes<family<crowds. And right in the middle, Jesus gives us this strange image of Satan’s house. A house divided cannot stand. Satan’s house divided cannot stand. Satan’s house is not divided. Satan’s house, the strongman’s house, IS the undivided house.

A house divided cannot stand.

As Jesus’ family attempts to restrain him and as the scribes declare that Jesus is acting with a possessed spirit, Jesus speaks about the human search for normalcy and conformity. Conformity is often touted as unity, and yet when we consider what it often takes to achieve a unified community with no outward divisions, it is not a healthy community. Unity often required totalitarian leadership, speaking with one mind and voice requires that most people bend and twist themselves into the vision and view of another.  It is the house of the strong man that cannot stand if divided, therefore the strong man’s standing house is not divided. 

Yet, Jesus is here to tie up the strong man and plunder his house.

Jesus speaks to the crowds, his family and the scribes who all believe that they have the world figured out and that they have God figured out. 

The crowds know that they are on the outside of God’s love, unclean and inadmissible to the temple. Unable to make sacrifice in order to received God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus’ family knows that family unity is essential to the Hebrew faith. They know that Jesus’ actions will not only reflect badly on him, but will bring shame to the whole family. They will lose standing in the community. 

The scribes know they are part of the religious authority. They know that because they have kept the law that they are permitted to make judgements about who is clean and unclean, who us righteous and who is unrighteous.

Jesus speaks to these groups who believe they have it all figured out and turns their whole world, their whole understanding of God on its head. 

Jesus tells all of them that they are wrong. 

Like the crowds, Jesus’ family and scribes, we so often think we have things figured out.  Whether we think like the scribes, that we can determine where God begins and ends and make judgements about who is outside of God, or like Jesus’ family that we need to keep from being shamed and embarrassed or like the crowds that we are too sinful for God to possibly love us. 

Jesus hears all of that and turns it on his it head. Jesus challenges our assumptions, challenges our claim to be the arbitrators of God’s love and declares a completely different reality. 

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”

Whatever we think we have figured out, whatever understanding of God’s activity in the world we claim to have Jesus tells the crowds, tells his family, tells the scribes and tells us that it is opposite of what we think. God is usually doing things very differently than we imagine. 

A house divided cannot stand. 

Yet God’s house, divided for 2000 years, continues to stand. 

It has stood despite our inability to agree. It has stood because the Church has been full of people who thought differently. 

God’s house stands divided because it is able to hold within it the differences that we bear as the Body of Christ. God’s house stands because even when we cannot hold our differences between us, God can. 

God’s house stands because it stands on Christ. 

Satan’s house is the undivided house. 

But Christ, who ties up the strong man and plunders Satan’s house, is our foundation. 

God’s house stands divided between the many members of the body, the many members who serve and live in different ways, the many members whose different gifts are used in different ways, the many members who are each chosen and loved by God. 

God’s house stands divided, as the Body of Christ broken and given for the world, as the Blood of christ shed and poured out for a world in need of forgiveness. 

Just as we are all guilty of same eternal sin, of the same original sin, of wanting to be God in God’s place, of standing in judgement of others. Just as we are guilty, like the crowds, family and scribes of standing in Judgement of Christ. Jesus is declaring a new reality. 

A reality where people will be forgiven for their sins. 

The Body of Christ, the House of God, stands broken and divided in the world. And today, Jesus reminds us, that it is not by agreeing or finding unity that we stand. In fact, Jesus reminds us that it is Satan’s house that stands undivided.  

Rather, Jesus declares today that God’s house divided and broken house stands only by God’s forgiveness. God’s house stands only by God’s stubborn insistence that we are all brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. God’s house stands only by the turning of our world upside down.

A house divided cannot stand. 

Yet, God’s house, broken and divided stands here. 

God’s church stands because of the many members gathered together in the waters of Baptism, waters that erode and split away our unity with sin and death. 

God’s people stand because of the the Gospel Word proclaimed in our midst that divides us from all the things that we cling to that are not of God. 

God’s Body gathered in Christ kneels together in order to be broken and shed for the world, so that grace and mercy can be seen and known by a divided and scattered world. 

God’s house is the divided and broken house, the house with cracks and rifts because of the light and mercy of God bursting out in as a sign of God’s promise of new life given for us.