Tag Archives: Sermon

The Great Multitude and Declining Churches

 

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands… (Read the whole passage)

 

All Saints Sunday is an ancient yet often unfamiliar festival of the church for many of us. It has only been in the past few decades that some Lutheran churches have begun to observe the feast day on the first Sunday in November.

But we all know of a tradition related to All Saints Day, and that is Halloween or All Hallows Eve – Hallowed being another word for saints. In other words, the Eve of All Saints.

All Saints is the tradition of remembering in prayer all those in our community who have died during the past year since last All Saints. In the Roman Catholic version of the festival, the official list of approved saints is recited and prayed on Nov 1st, and then on Nov 2nd, All Souls Day is marked when those who are still in purgatory are prayed for.

As Lutherans, we mash the two together in a sense, praying for all those who have died on the Sunday of All Saints as we dropped the notion of purgatory 500 years ago with the Reformation.

And so, many churches today will be praying for loved ones by name, or lighting candles as a part of worship and as a way to observe All Saints. In that sense, All Saints Sunday can be a bitter sweet day – one where grief is remembered but also one of hope pointing us to the coming end of time when God will gather all the saints into the Kingdom.

As we hear Matthew’s beatitudes and how they speak to the idea of the saints, they certainly speak to the definition of blessedness. In that way they point us to the Reformation idea that we are sinners AND saints… saints not because we have been blessed by good fortune, health and conflict free lives… but because God has declared us holy and blessed, even in the midst of the struggles of life.

And while unpacking the ins and outs of what it means to be a saint and what it means to be blessed is not a bad idea on All Saints Sunday… it is not the beatitudes that truly show us the vision of All Saints. The idea that we are all joined together in faith to the saints who have gone before and who will come after us.

Rather, it is John’s vision in Revelation, and the great multitude coming before the throne of God, that gives us a true glimpse into what All Saints is all about.

The setting of this vision from John found in the book of Revelation was that is was written for an early church community experiencing persecution. Christians in the decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus found themselves clustered in small communities scattered across the Roman Empire. Island of faith in a sea of imperial paganism.

These small churches of sometimes only one or two dozen people lived in a world that didn’t give them too much mind. They were surrounded by a pluralistic society that prioritized the empire and its success beyond any particular religion. Early Christians communities stood out because they insisted, like their Jewish cousins, on worshipping the one true God. Most of the time Christians were largely ignored by this world, but when they were noticed by Roman society, they were oppressed and persecuted. As the first generations of the faithful began to pass by, these early church communities started to wonder about the imminent return of Jesus… Some, as we hear in Paul’s letters began to doubt the point of keeping the faith at all.

As John’s Revelation writings came to these early church communities they would have sounded radical, absurd even. To small communities used to be ignored or forgotten, or remembered only to be used as lion food in the gladiator games, John’s vision promising hope in a God who would correct all things, end oppression, destroy evil and bring the world to right would have sounded crazy.

Imagine being a church of a few dozen people, in some forgotten and ignored part of the world, trying your best to keep the faith. And as the world around you seems to pay little attention, you receive this letter of encouragement. A letter proclaiming a future where the Kingdom and reign of God is dramatically breaking into the world. Where God gathers up the little group of a few dozen into a great and uncountable multitude, robed in white, signifying the fact that they are not alone in following the risen Christ. And there in that crowd they march with joy to worship at the throne of God singing the very same songs that had been sung week after week in the worship of faithful:

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!…

Blessing and glory and wisdom

and thanksgiving and honor

and power and might

be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

It sounds incredible, unbelievable.

It sounds nuts.

And it sounds familiar.

1900 years on from those small church communities hearing the Revelation of the John for the first time, we aren’t in that much of a different space than they were. Things have changed for us, we used to be the biggest show in town and the world used to care about who we were and what we did. But now we are not much more than small islands gathering to keep the faith in a world that has mostly forgotten we exist at all.

No group of Christians is immune to this reality today. Churches are declining across board, we are no longer the big deals that we once thought we were.

And we wonder how the great multitudes will ever come back, how the grand worship before the throne can ever be a thing again. Especially on a day like All Saints Sunday when we remember all those who have gone before us faith, it is hard to imagine who will come after us.

It is almost like the vision itself plays out the same conversation that we are regularly having. As John stands there with the elder watching the great multitude of the saints go by, he asks,

“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

And along with John we have no idea. We cannot imagine or understand this world where God is bringing all creation to worship before the throne.

And so we too shrug our shoulders…. we don’t know. We only know small gatherings of hopeless peoples… or so we think.

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

This is the great uncountable multitude, from all tribes and all nations, worshipping God and the lamb.

And in case we missed the memo, this great uncountable multitude is us.

You and me and all those gathered here… we are part of that multitude.

When the name of the triune God and the communion of the Holy Spirit is invoked, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When sins are confessed and forgiveness received in the body of Christ, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When the word is proclaimed, and the good news is heard, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When the faith is confessed, prayers are offered up for the world, the church and those in need, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When body of Christ is placed in our open empty hands and when we take in the blood of Christ swirling with the cloud of witnesses, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

You see, this scene from the vision of John is not just a vision of the end of world… it was a vision of those tiny churches without hope scattered across the Roman empire, it was reminder of who God was forming them to be.

And John’s vision is a reminder to us, of who God is making us. Each time we gather, even though we may feel small and forgotten…

God is making us into the great multitude of the saints, past, present and future.

God is reminding us that we are not alone in carrying the faith.

God is showing us that here in this moment, in this community, as we worship…

That the great multitude is gathering here, before the throne, singing the praises of Christ the lamb,

And here we will hunger no more, and thirst no more;

the sun will not strike us,

nor any scorching heat;

for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be Our shepherd,

and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”

Amen.

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Reformation 500 – Telling the Right Story

John 8:31–36

Reformation 500

October 31st, 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the day that a young Roman Catholic monk and university professor nailed a list of 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. His list of 95 pointed and succinct grievances became the flashpoint for the beginning of a period of upheaval and change in western Christianity which would later be named “the Reformation” by historians.

And so each year on the Sunday on or before October 31st, we, along with Lutherans around the world, take the opportunity to commemorate this occasion.

This 500th anniversary year, in particular, has been a busy one for Lutherans everywhere. It began in Lund, Sweden (the birthplace of the Lutheran World Federation) last year as the President of the LWF, the General Secretary of the LWF and the Pope led a shared worship service as a sign of reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics. This past summer, the ELCIC hosted its National Reformation Commemoration during our National Church Convention in Winnipeg at St. Gianna’s Roman Catholic Church with ecumenical leaders from a variety of denominations from across Canada.

Along the way churches and communities all over have been marking this 500th anniversary year with special bible studies, community events, concerts, and even in this part of the world a Manitoba Reformation Social.

And so even though today may feel like a fairly typical Sunday morning, we gather for worship with our Lutheran sisters and brothers in Christ from around the world to mark this significant occasion.

As we commemorate, and remember, and celebrate, and mark, and observe this Reformation moment 500 years on, things in 1517 were not nearly as festive. (There were definitely no socials).

Martin Luther’s intention in nailing his list of 95 theses articulating what he believed to be errors and failures of the Pope and institution of the Roman Church was perhaps to inspire some lively debate among his colleagues at the university. But the relatively new invention of the printing press changed all of that, and Martin’s writings were copied and spread throughout all of Europe. Today, we might say Luther went viral.

Luther’s main concern had to do with the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. Essentially papers issued by the pope (and sold by the church) giving people time off of purgatory. And not just for yourself, but also for your dead loved ones! Basically the church’s version of monopoly’s get out of jail free card. The selling of indulgences was Rome’s way of fundraising for the construction of St. Peter’s basilica.

What resulted was a showdown between Martin Luther and the arrayed political and religious powers of his day. Luther’s insistence that salvation was entirely a gift from God in faith threatened the church’s main source of income. Popes had been using the Vatican treasury to play politics, assemble armies for war and fund large building projects and art commissions. Indulgences kept the Vatican afloat, and needless to say, church leaders were not impressed with this nobody monk from the sticks and his growing popularity.

Now, nothing that Luther advocated for was new to Christianity. He certainly did not discover grace, that originated with that Jesus guy 1500 years earlier. Nor was Luther the first since Jesus to re-articulate the centrality of grace as a free gift from God, as we just heard that from St. Paul in Romans. And there was St. Augustine and others  were also very clear about salvation being a free gift from God.

The thing that Luther identified in his day was how the church was turned in on itself and obsessed with its own history and power. For hundreds of years, the church had been very cozy to political power, crowning emperors and declaring empires to be holy. By Luther’s day, power and influence were the centrally important things for most Popes and other leaders. Rome’s identity was deeply wrapped up in being an institution of influence and power, and not in being the body carrying out God’s mission to the world.

And so when Luther showed up declaring that perhaps God and God’s mission to save a sinful world was more important than big cathedrals and military forces, it did not go over well with those in power.

The ensuing conflicts between Rome and Luther resulted in a split in the Roman church and the birth of numerous protestant denominations over the past 500 years.

500 years on from Luther’s moment at the church door in Wittenberg, things have a changed a fair bit. Those of us who bear his name as Lutherans no longer carry the same clarity of the gospel that Luther did, and we often fall into the same temptation that the 16th Roman church did of loving our past, the power and influence that we used to have, a little too much.

As we commemorate 500 years of our history, it is easy to forget that one of Luther’s key points was that our history is not the point. God’s story is.

God’s story of love, and mercy;

God’s story of reconciliation, and grace.

God’s story of redemption for a fallen humanity.

This story is not one that is told in past tense only, but in the present and in the future.

Martin Luther’s insistence on grace through faith had to do with a simple but radical idea that salvation is not something that we could achieve. We cannot save ourselves, we cannot save others, we cannot save the church, we cannot save the world.

Salvation is God’s alone to do. God is the actor, the one who gives the gift, the subject of the sentence, the one whose deeds of power achieve the goal.

A simple but radical idea.

Simple because it sounds like it should be obvious.

Radical because it challenges our notion that we are in control, that our power and influence matters, that our story and history is somehow significant when it comes to salvation.

And if any Reformation commemoration is going to tell the story of the Reformation faithfully, it is not going to just be about Martin Luther, or just about the Lutheran church. But it will remind us again of God’s story. Of God’s story where sinners are forgiven freely, and the dead are raised to new life.

This central focus of Reformation on God and God’s action is also the hardest part of Reformation. It is easy to get lost in our own story, to make our past the thing that defines us, to believe that the way things were are how they are supposed to be in the future. It is hard to set aside our own past and continually orient ourselves back to God’s story and God’s future…

In fact, as Martin Luther would remind us, it is impossible not to make things about us, it is impossible not to put ourselves into God’s place, whether we are the church of 1517 or 2017.

But what is impossible for us, is not impossible for God.

God who continues to form us into God’s image.

God who continues to make things about forgiveness and mercy; grace and reconciliation.

God who continues to shed us of our own stories and pasts.

God who continues to transform us with the story of resurrection and new life.

God who continues to reform us 500 years on from a church door in Wittenberg.

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

We cannot give God what is God’s.

Matthew 22:15-22

 Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Read the whole passage)

We have been journeying through a particular section in the Gospel of Matthew for weeks now. It all began with Jesus teaching in the temple, when Pharisees question his authority. And so Jesus has been telling parables in response. He has talked about sons who do not do what their father asks, he has talked about landowner to his sent his son to collect from murderous tenants and who end up killing the son, Jesus has talked about a proud King who destroys the invited guests who will not come to his son’s wedding banquet and who then throws out another guest who had been pulled of the street because he was wearing the wrong robe.

All of it has been part of a plot to trap Jesus into saying something heretical. And all along the way, Jesus has been showing his audience and us, that we are power hungry sinful people. And that God is radically merciful and outrageously gracious.

And finally, we land today with the question taxes and authority. The Pharisees have questioned Jesus own Authority way back at the beginning of this series interchanges, and now they are questioning to what authority Jesus will submit.

Now, before going any further, knowing some history is vital to understanding what is going on. The question of paying taxes to Rome, was more of a question of idolatry, than it was civic responsibility. Most people in Israel were taxed about 85% of their income. Some to Rome, some to the temple, some to pay off tax collectors, some to the Levites, some to the towns and villages in which they lived. People were bled dry for their money, and were often only allowed to just enough to survive. Most had to go into debt in order to make ends meet. Sound familiar?

However, the issues with paying taxes to the Emperor had to do with the coins themselves. Caesars were considered to be Gods, and the Roman coin the denarius was a constant reminder of that. The Israelites were prohibited from having any other God’s but the God of Abraham and Moses… therefore to even touch a coin would be sin. And yet, their Roman occupiers gave them no choice, since they all must pay taxes. This is why there were money changers in the temple, sinful roman money needed to changed into pure temple money.

So in this context, the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus so that they can get rid of him and his enthusiastic followers.

Yet, the trap that the Pharisees have set for Jesus reveals something far worse than any kind of blunder that Jesus can step into. They attempt to get Jesus in trouble my making him either choose heresy by denying the one true God or to risk the wrath of the Roman Empire by undermining Caesar’s divinity. Yet in trying to make Jesus choose between the God of Abraham and the imperial Roman overlord, the Pharisees reveal something else.

The way the Pharisees pose the question, by using God as object to catch Jesus with the Pharisees show how their own faith is broken. Faith to them is nothing more than a tool to be exploited, a means to obtain power and influence. Being a Pharisees meant status and material comfort.

They might not even know or see what they are doing. They might think that they are protecting their faith… they do not see that they are using God and God’s relationship with the chosen people as tool to get Jesus in hot water… and to eliminate his threat to their cushy gigs.

The trap that the Pharisees fall into is one that we all can fall into. Our faith can be broken apart by the same kind of thinking, often when we least realize it. Being part of a faith community can quickly move from being about following the God who reconciles all creation to Christ in the cross and the empty tomb… to spending out efforts protecting our status in the community, to holding on to the comforts of faith, to seeking more control and power.

We too get sucked into thinking that faith is about status and privilege, about budgets and positions, about doing things like grandma and grandpa did, about having a place that is about us rather than about God, about using God is a weapon to condemn and judge others, and on and on and on.

And with that thinking, without even knowing it, our faith can break and crack too. And God can become a tool or an object that we use, rather than the One who is the centre and definition of faith. A way to trap an unsuspecting prophet in the temple, or a way to trick and entice the young people back to church in order to fill the offering plates.

It is a very human thing to try to make into God something we own and control and can use for our purposes. The hardest part is that like the Pharisees, we don’t usually even see it.

And so when Jesus answer the Pharisees, he gives them the thing that they have been wanting. He makes a statement about giving to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

He chooses the route of accepting the wrath of the empire, because to claim that Caesar is not God is to threaten the power of Rome.

But giving Caesar what is Caesar’s is not the point. As much as many preachers have tried to use Jesus’ words as reason to encourage the faithful in doing their civic duty… Jesus’s emphasis is on God.

Give to God what is God’s.

So what belongs to God?

Everything.

All creation.

The entire universe.

Even as the Pharisees are using God as a tool, a weapon and a trap for Jesus, Jesus is point them back to God. Reminding them everything belongs to God.

All things. All of creation. All of life. All power and might. All righteousness and virtue.

And all Grace and forgiveness. All mercy.

All faith.

Even us and our broken faith belongs to God.

But more importantly, giving to God what is God’s is NOT really ours to do.

Because we cannot give anything to God.

And that is thing that Jesus has caught the Pharisees with. As they try to trap him, and contain the threat of this ministry, and they try to protect the true faith of Israel, which just happens to give them a lot of power and privilege and wealth… Jesus reminds them their faith, that God is not a thing to control, nor tool to use to maintain their position.

Rather, God is the one who to whom all things belong.

And the Pharisees and all Jews knows this, even when they don’t remember it. Because they pray it at every sabbath, and they pray the reminder over and over at passover:

Blessed are you, O Lord God, King of the Universe.

And so giving to God what is God’s is truly to be remind of the God to whom we belong,

is the God of Kings and Empires, of beggars and the lame, of regular folks.

And this God to whom we belong is also the God of life.

The God who has sent the Son in flesh to bring the Kingdom near and to point us back to God.

The Lord God, King of the Universe knows already that the faith of Pharisees is broken, and knows that our faith is broken. It has been broken since Adam and Eve ate of the fruit.

And so while the question of the Pharisees reveals just what their faith is in and what they are trying to hold on to… It is no surprise for Jesus.

In fact, our broken faith, our tendency to try to turn God into a tool to use and manipulate is the whole reason God has come. And it is the whole reason that Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem a conquering King and it is the whole reason that soon after the Pharisees ask this question, Jesus will be arrested, put on trial and put to death.

But the blessed Lord God, King of the Universe is the one to whom all things belong, even death.

And in death, God shows us that there is nothing that doesn’t belong to God, no place where God will not seek us out, no brokenness that surprises God… and that there is nothing in all of creation that God does not hold in God’s hands. That even death belongs to God.

And so in pointing the Pharisees and us back to God, Jesus is also pointing us from death to life. Reminding us that the God to whom all creation belongs has promised us, and our broken faith, resurrection and new life as well.

Jesus says, give to God what is God’s…

But it is the Blessed, Lord God, King of the Universe who is giving us mercy and life.

God is not the Maniacal King of the Wedding Banquet Parable

Matthew 22:1-14

… The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city….

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Read the whole passage)

 

This doesn’t really sound like much of a party does it.

As we are coming out of Thanksgiving weekend, most of us having sat down at some point to a feast with family and friends, it is hard to imagine a banquet going so badly as in Jesus’ parable. Even the most chaotic of family dinners don’t usually end up with soldiers burning down the whole city. Thank goodness Jesus waited until after Thanksgiving to give us this apocalyptic banquet scenario.

Today, the parables of Jesus continue as they have all summer and fall. They haven’t always been easy to hear, there have been difficult themes to contend with, racism, violence, death.

But just to make sure we are paying attention, the parables ramp it up a notch and violence continues. Jesus tells us the parable of a wedding banquet where everything goes wrong and not even in a comical kind of way like in the movies… people die and guests are thrown into the outer darkness. Sounds like quite the occasion.

Last week as we heard the parable of the wicked tenants who murdered the slaves and son of the landowner, we noticed that Jesus was telling a parable that had taken an unusually violent turn. Well, this next parable which follows the parable of the wicked tenants, does not drop the violence but rather doubles down on it.

As Jesus continues to talk with the temple priests and pharisees, he tells the story of a King. A King who is throwing a wedding banquet for his son and he invites all the well-to-do guests of his Kingdom. When the party is nigh, he sends his slaves to let the wedding guests know to come to the party. But they don’t… they ignore the invitation. And so the King, expecting that his subjects will come to the banquet, sends his slaves again to announce the beginning of the party. This time the guests take it out on the messengers and put the slaves to death.

This, of course, enrages the King who sends out his soldiers to destroy the murderous wedding invitees and burn the city… the King’s own city.

Yet, lest a little violence, murder and destruction ruin a good party, the King sends out his slaves to round up whomever was left in the streets, the good and the bad, the poor and lowly, probably beggars and homeless folks. And they fill the banquet halls with wedding guests. Guests who have been dragged to the party by force… even as the city the burns.

And then, just in case we haven’t figured out that this King is nuts… as the King goes out to greet his guests, he finds some poor sod wearing the wrong party clothes. I guess he didn’t get the memo, as he was being dragged into the banquet, that he should have been dressed up for the party.

And the King has this unfortunate fellow dragged from the party and thrown into the outer darkness… tossed into oblivion.

The Gospel of the Lord?

If you are wondering what is going on with this King, join the club.

Many commentators and preachers have twisted themselves in knots trying to weld this nutty behaviour of the King in the parable to a moral lessons about God. Come when you are invited they have said. Make sure you are wearing the right robes, or are prepared they have said.

But those kinds weak and limp exhortations to be better followers don’t really communicate the good news. Where is the Jesus who dies on a cross for us? Where is the Jesus who rises on the third day? Where is the God who has come to love all creation and forgiven sins and bring healing and wholeness?

When we let this message of this parable speak on its own, without trying to make it say something about God and faith, we can see that the King is far from being god-like.

In fact, this King seems to be rather human. Just like the rest of us, he is filled with imperfect expectations. He is flawed and self-centred, he wants his banquet to be a certain way and he wants the people around him to meet is expectations.

Perhaps like a Thanksgiving host, he frets about making sure everything is perfect for the wedding banquet. And probably like some we know, when his expectations aren’t met, the anxiety and stress goes up.

Its no wonder the invited guests aren’t interested in attending the wedding banquet, no one wants to go to a party where the host is so full of expectations about how things will go that you don’t know what will cause the big blow up.

This self-centred King is no example of God’s righteousness judgement as much as he is a lesson in what happens when we let our expectations get the better of us. And we are guilty of doing just that, perhaps not to the same destructive level, but we let our expectations rule us just the same. In fact, most of the conflicts we experience – conflicts between spouses, with children and parents, with family or friends, in the workplace, in the community, at church – are the result of our expectations not being met. We are all often guilty of thinking things will go a certain way, that the people around us will be a certain way… and when those things don’t happen the way we like, it can thrown us into a rage also. Put a toddlers food on a blue plate instead of a an orange plate and you will find out what the rage of unmet expectations looks like.

Or host a thanksgiving meal for family that doesn’t go the way it was planned to go…

Or put a lot of time into a task at work only for it not to be appreciated by the boss…

Or develop a new ministry at church only to have a less than enthusiastic response…

Expectations fuel a lot of conflict and tension.

And those same forces are precisely the things lurking behind the parable of the King and his wedding banquet.

As Jesus tells this parable, he has just entered into Jerusalem as a triumphant King-like figure. A King and conqueror that the people were hoping was on his way to oust the Romans, to restore the glory of Israel. Expectations were running high.

But instead of gathering an army, Jesus spent the days after is triumphal entry telling parables. Parables like the one we hear today. Parables that provoked crowd to eventually become a mob… a mob that would arrest Jesus – their King from only a few days earlier  – and take him to the authorities to demand his execution.

Expectations turned to rage and destruction and violence.

The comparison of this maniacal King and his banquet to Jesus is not to show us what is God is like, but to show us how different a kingship Jesus embodies.

Jesus the King is not the conquerer who comes full of expectations.

Jesus the King is the one who invites himself to our tables, who comes to eat with sinners.

Jesus the King is the one who welcomes all wherever he goes… he doesn’t demand that we follow, nor force us to attend… rather Jesus comes to us bearing new life.

And Jesus the King is the one who comes wearing the wrong clothes to the big party…. the one who has a crown of thorns and the purple robe put on him by mocking soldiers.

Jesus the King is the one who defies our expectations, who does not put himself first, but who puts himself last.

And this King, is the one that this parable really should remind us of. The King of the wedding banquet is so absurd in his maniacal rage, his expectation filled rage and violence, that we should be reminded of just how different and opposite a king Jesus is.

But in case we forget, or don’t get the memo… Jesus reminds us here, week after week, that God is constantly defying out expectations.

When we expect condemnation, God gives forgiveness.

When we expect judgement, God gives mercy.

When we expect conflict, God bring us peace.

When we expect force, God gives us love.

We when expect death, God gives New Life.

Here, as we gather as a community filled with human expectations, God strips us of the things we expect week after week.

God washes expectations away in the waters of baptism.

God forgives expectations in the words of absolution.

God overturns expectations in the gospel word.

And God re-forms us anew, without expectation, at the banquet table of bread and wine.

And so, when we heard this parable the first time, we likely expected that it said something about God, about a God who carries many expectations that we better live up to or else…

And Jesus completely defies our expectations by being a King that we could never imagine.

But to be the King who God has sent to us to give us new life.

The terrible power of the angry mob and the God who stands firm

Matthew 21:23-32

… And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things…. (Read the whole passage)

There is something about an angry crowd that makes the hair on the back of your neck tingle.

If you have ever been near to a group of angry protestors or near a mob you would know that the kind of tension an angry group of people create is unique. Because of this, an angry mob is always something that makes the news. The protests and violence in Charlottesville this summer commanded world wide attention. As did the angry riots in Vancouver a few years ago after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. Tense and sometimes violent groups stick our in a memory. Those protesting violence police violence in Ferguson, Syrian refugees and migrants clamouring to cross European boarders, people gathered outside Trump rallies last year, people marching in the streets of the Arab Spring, and on and on. The reasons that incite a crowd are varied and complex and certainly some are more trivial than others.

Today, both Moses and the chief priest are worried about the crowds. They are worried that the very people that they lead, that they have authority over, that they have been entrusted with caring for, will revolt in anger. The Israelites wandering in the wilderness are complaining again, this time for something to drink… and Moses, fearing the crowds more than the God who appeared in burning bush, sent the 10 plagues and parted the Red Sea asks for God’s help lest he be stoned.

The chief priests know that the crowds are watching the interaction between them and Jesus, and the wrong answer can provoke violence.

It is easy to call the grumbling of the Israelites and the frustrations of the temple crowds mere complaining, but clearly there is something more to it than just a bunch of whining.

Moses is genuinely fearful… and the constant grumbling of the wandering and restless crowds will soon lead Moses up a mountain to meet with God. And God will provide ten commandments to temper the growing tension and discontentment among the Israelites so that their grumbling doesn’t turn into violence.

And yet, hundreds of years later, long after the law had been given, the same leaders of the people – the chief priests – are fearful of what the people might do if they are provoked.

There is something about an angry crowd or mob that puts everyone on edge… that sparks a fear in leaders and authorities.

There is something about an angry crowd or mob that reveals something primal and dangerous within us. The instinct to protect ourselves, to lash out at those who can be easily blamed for our problems, to coalesce around anger and rage… these things reveal and show the dark side of us, that potential for evil that is somehow multiplied when a group of individuals all pull back the veil on sin simultaneously.

An angry crowd or mob reveals what original sin looks like at its clearest. What it looks like when our selfish desires to protect ourselves at all costs, to blame others for our problems, to seek vengeance for the grudges that we carry is put out into the open. When a group of people tries to be God in God’s place, and exercise ultimate power and control over their world you get a terrifying scene.

And of course, we too know about the discontentment of a crowd in the 21st century. Whether it is the violent crowds we see in the news or a lesser discontentment that can brew in any group or community, we know the power of collective rage and grumbling. We know that in our communities, even in our church communities, that when frustration and anger hits a tipping point, blaming particular people or other groups for our problems can brew a toxic storm. And it is a storm that that most leaders fear and avoid, and few others, (like a certain big league president to our south) incite in order to exploit.

And so as the temple authorities and Jesus debate in front of the crowds today, the temple authorities watch their words for fear of the crowds, even though they believe that Jesus is not the one sent by God.

And while the rage might have been directed towards the temple priests today… it is not long after this that the rage of the crowds will be redirected towards Jesus. The shouts of Hosanna for a king riding into Jerusalem will turn to crucify him.

And Jesus knows this. Jesus knows that the questions about his authority will not die down. And that for only a little longer, he will only get away with parables that suggest the temple priests do not know the will of God.

But what Jesus does in the face of the violent crowd, what Jesus comes to say about God and about God’s kingdom, even when the crowds turn into violent mobs hell bent on taking out their anger on someone.

And Jesus does what neither Moses nor the temple priests are able to do. Jesus does what no King or Queen, what no Emperor, what no President or Prime Minister is able to do.

In the face of original sin, in the face of a crowd determined to be God in God’s place and take control of their world, Jesus stands firm.

Jesus doesn’t avoid the anger and nor does he incite the crowd, he doesn’t appease the crowds or try to control them. Jesus doesn’t respond to their violence with violence.

Instead Jesus stands firm, Jesus continues to declare that the Kingdom of God has come near. Jesus continues to bring close the love and mercy and grace of God. Jesus continues to meet a fallen humanity with the intimacy of God come to us in flesh

Even as the anger and rage filled crowds convince Pilate, Herod and the other earthly authorities to bend to their need to violence, even as they drag Jesus to Golgotha, even as they nail him to a cross, even as they put Jesus, God in flesh to death… Jesus stand firms. Jesus continues to bring the love and grace and mercy of God near to us.

And unlike all other responses to Original Sin made manifest in angry crowds, in crowds that shout “Crucify him”, as Jesus stands firm knowing that the crowd will take his life… God’s unwillingness to bend and react to the crowd changes everything.

The crowd’s power, the power of death is overcome… self-righteous anger and rage become impotent. Death is no longer final and instead resurrection and new life are the new reality. Original Sin is no longer a terrible and fear inspiring power, but soft whimper next to God’s love and grace and mercy.

And we know this because we live it. Yes, original sin takes control of us collectively from time to time. We still see it in the news and in our lives.

Yet, as we gather here, and as Christians all over the world gather together…

There is no angry mob that meets God’s word of forgiveness.

There is no rage that can overshadow the life that is given in the waters of baptism.

There is no discontent that the gospel word does not cure.

There is no selfish anger that does not melt away as we come and kneel to receive bread and wine at God’s table.

Because Jesus stood firm in the face of the angry crowd, original sin has no claim in the body of Christ.

Moses and the temple priests are fearful of the crowds today. They are afraid of what the rage of the original sin might to do them if left unchecked… it is a very real fear known by any leader, known by any bystander in front of an angry mob…

But it is in that hair raising fear of the angry crowd where Jesus stands his ground. Where God incarnate, God in flesh insists on preaching God’s love, mercy and grace.

And it is there, standing in front of the mobs of original sin that God’s love prevails…

That God’s grace is present and manifest in the world…

That God’s mercy is given …

There that the Kingdom of God comes near.

And there is no angry crowd that will make Jesus back down… because God has come to stand in front of our sin, and God does not bend or react… but instead insistently shows us new life.

Peter wanted a private club – Jesus gave us the Church

Matthew 16:13-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And getting at that involves asking the question why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is life in the Wheat and Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The point just might be the tension.

We are not good at living with tension.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so we are sinners yet forgiven and righteous.

And so we find our lives by losing them.

And so we are made alive by dying in Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tension is the place where life grows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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