Tag Archives: Sermon

Even in the Ashes, there is life

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Read the whole passage)

Just 3 days ago we stood on the mountain top with Peter, James and John. We watched as Jesus was transfigured to white and shining like the sun. We saw Moses and Elijah appear. It was a holy moment on that mountain top. And it prompted Peter to speak,

“Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three dwellings.”

Peter wanted to stay. We wanted to stay. That was the moment when all the chaos and stress of the world melted away and everything was perfect.

But Jesus had other plans, and he took us down the mountain. Took us down in the valley. Took us into the shadow of death.

Jesus brought us here. Here to the day of Ashes.

And today, is no mountaintop escape. Today, the reality of the world, the reality of our mortality, the reality of death comes crashing down upon us.

On Sunday, the voice of God thundered from the heavens. “This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him.”

And tonight Jesus speaks. Jesus reminds us of our place.

Of our imperfections.

Of our ability forget and flaws and failures.

Jesus warns us not to get too comfortable.

Not to rely on our own righteousness, our own holiness.

Jesus reminds us not to trust in our ability to believe or pray or fast or wash.

Today, Jesus reminds us that we do not measure up, that we are mere mortals.

And once we have been reminded that we are imperfect and flawed, we will we confess our sin.

We will confess, and confess, and confess.

Everything will be on the table tonight.

All our sins, every piece of ourselves that has caused us to be self-centred, to forget others, to forget God.

And then, once we have confessed.

Once we have been laid bare and there is nothing left to say,

the reality of tonight,

of the valley,

of this shadow of death

will be placed on our very bodies.

It will be stamped on the foreheads. The crosses we were first given in baptism, the crosses of Christ that were sealed with water and oil, they will now be marked with Ash.

Ash, which is the sign of death. Ash or dust, like we throw onto caskets as they are lowered to the ground. Ash the only thing that is left behind when everything else is destroyed. When cities are razed by war, when our planet is burned up with carbon, when our bodies come to their end, all that is left is dust and ash.

And with Ashy crosses on our foreheads, signs of our sin, our mortality, signs of death we will pray.

Pray for God’s mercy.

Pray for forgiveness.

We will pray and hope that God still remembers us.

We will pray and hope that God still remembers.

Remembers us, even on this night of Ashes.

And of course.

And of course as God always does.

God will remember us.

God will forget our sin,

forget our mortality,

forget our death.

And God will remember us.

And even though Jesus has warned us not to forget our sinfulness.

And even though we have prayed, begged for mercy knowing that we do not deserve it.

God will re-member us.

God will come to us in bread and wine.

God will re-member, re-join us back to God’s Body in bread and wine.

And God will remind us that even though we are Ash, even though we are in the valley, even though we stand in the shadow of death,

God has been there too.

Christ has been in the valley.

Christ has been turned to ash on a cross.

Christ has been dead and buried in the tomb.

And then God will declare – through our very mouths – the mystery of faith.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

And on this night of Ashes, when we confess our sin, when we receive the sign of death in ashes on our foreheads.

God will remind us again. God will remind us, even tonight.

God will remind us that death is not the end.

Even with our sin.

Even with our mortality.

Even when we are turned to Ash.

Death is not the end.

No, this is no mountaintop. This is not the place where Peter would want to stay. This is not where we would want to stay.

But here, on Ash Wednesday, the first step of our Lenten journey.

God will stay with us.

God will meet us,

God will remind us that even in death,

even in the ashes,

there is life.


Photo credit: http://oqisexud.wink.ws/ash-wednesday-cross-on-your-head.php

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Floating Down the River with Jesus

Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Sermon

Imagine wading knee deep into the water. The water swirls around our feet. It is cool, and refreshing. The movement is gentle and easy. It feels good to be in the water.

We have been floating down the river for a while now. Each year, we hop into the boat together and start the trip all over again in Advent. We float towards Christmas and through Epiphany. It is a journey that is familiar yet also new each time we take it. It is a Journey that begins with end times, that stops to hear John’s sermons and questions. Then it makes its way, with Mary and Joseph to the stable manger. The journey flees with the Holy Family to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous actions, and we also come with the Magi to worship this baby revealed as God.

Today we pick up speed and fast forward 30 years, we float down the river Jordan where Jesus is baptized by John. Jesus’ baptism is an unusual story, an uncomfortable scene for Christians. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? For forgiveness of sins? Repentance? What does it say about John as he baptizes instead of being baptized? In many ways the story of Jesus’ baptism invites more questions as we hear it again.

In Advent, we heard John’s preaching on the river bank. His stiff condemnation of the crowds and his warnings of the Messiah. This time, when Jesus shows up, John seems very different. The confidence and boldness are gone. He is indecisive and questioning. Jesus insists on being baptized. And so John relents, without a fight. This doesn’t sound like the John of a few weeks ago.

But John and the crowds do not see what is going on. They are hoping for a powerful Messiah. A warrior who will end injustice and who will remove foreign powers from control in Israel, but Jesus is not those things. It is the beginning of the problems that John, the disciples, the crowds, the Pharisees, scribes and temple authorities will have with Jesus. Some will want an ally, some will want a powerful warlord, some will want Jesus to go away. But Jesus simply refuses to fit their categories. Jesus is going to show us God in ways that don’t see.. that we can’t see… that we refuse to see.

Remember the feeling of standing in the water, feeling the cool fresh flow around our legs? Well the further we float, the more the current picks up. The gentleness is replaced by force and weight. The water doesn’t smoothly pass by. It pushes and grabs, it pulls and drags. The cool gentle stream that cooled our feet now pulls us in and drag us along. The power of the river is more than we could have ever imagined.

Like the crowds who gathered along the banks of the Jordan, we gather to wait also. We are waiting for the world to get better. But it doesn’t.

As we tried to pause and rest over Christmas, Life and Death soldiered on in the world. There were still tragedies, shootings, war and illness. The news of violence still bombarded us from our newspapers, radios and TVs.

The world hasn’t changed all that much since John and Jesus met in the river. Sure, we drive cars, live in heated houses and can talk to anyone on the other side of the planet instantly. But, like the crowds who stood listening to John, our world still is filled with violence and death. More shootings in the news, violence in Turkey and Syria, scandal among political leaders.

The weight of all of this threatens to drown us in the inability to care any more. We hear the reports, read the news articles and it is too much to take, too much to grieve for. Not only is it hard to see what is going on as Jesus is baptized by John, it is hard to see where God is at all.

Today, it might feel like the cool refreshing water of the river has pulled us in and dragged us under. The current is churning and spins us about. We bounce in all directions, sputtering for air, aimed over the cliff, over the waterfall.

This is not what the river journey begun in Advent is supposed to be like.

This is not what God is supposed to allow to happen in the world.

We are not supposed to drown in the waters of grief and apathy!

(Pause)

And a voice pierces the chaos.

“You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased”.

Words of promise, words of hope.

As John dunks Jesus down into and then brings him up out of the water, as breath and air flood back into empty lungs, God speaks. God speaks in a way that hasn’t been heard since the beginning of creation. God speaks and the world is transformed.

We tumble over the waterfall, we plunge into the deep pool at the bottom. We are squeezed and crushed under the weight, we can’t tell which direction is up. Death under the waters seems imminent.

And then all of a sudden, while we are tossed about in the churn, not knowing which direction is up or down, we pop up and out of the water. The rushes back into our lungs. This is where God’s action begins. In drowning, in death. This is as strange a place as we can imagine God to be working. And yet, God speaks as Jesus comes out of the water “You are my beloved children and with you I am well pleased”. What a weird and wonderful God who can push us below the surface in order to make us His own. In order to give us new names as child of God, as Christian, as beloved.

This is why John doesn’t know what is going on when Jesus asks to be baptized. This is why we cannot see God working in the world. It is too radical, too unbelievable.

And yet, this is promise that was made to us in the waters of Baptism, and it is the promise that is renewed each day and remembered each time we witness another child being drowned AND raised in these waters of life. It is a promise made that in the place we lease expect it, in death God is showing us something new, something life filled, something surprising. Something that can come only from a God like ours.

A God who comes into the world as baby born to a unwed teenage mother,

a God who lives a poor carpenter in 1st century Israel,

a God who died on a Roman cross as a common criminal,

a God who was raised from the dead and who in turn calls us to be drowned and then raised,

New life can only come from a God who does not act like we believe God should.

The radical God of water and Baptism comes to us in ways that are so unimaginable and so crazy, that we can hardly make them out. The journey that God is promises is not easy or gentle. The results of God’s work in the world is rarely what we imagine or hope for. Yet, as this unexpected God meets us in our world, and on our terms, we cannot help but be drawn in to this unexpected God whose story has become our story. Whose story we tell over and over again.

As we float down the river of Advent and Christmas, as we pass by Jesus and John in the river, we see again and anew the marvel of God’s love for us. We see a God who not only pushes us below the water to die, but who pulls us out again so that we may rise into new life. And today, we hear a God who speaks through chaos

“You are my beloved Children. With you I am well pleased.”

Amen.

Not the Christmas we want but the Christmas we need

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem… (Read the whole Christmas Gospel)

Sermon

You may be expecting a story tonight.

For the past three years, Christmas Eve has been a chance to tell the story of Christmas in a fresh way, with modern versions of the Christmas story. However, tonight will be a bit different. Rather than something that sounds like a Vinyl Cafe story (Lake Wobegon for American readers), we are going to tell and hear the Christmas story with new ears to hear and new eyes to see. As the angels said to the Shepherds:

Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people

Like a lot of the world, 2016 has been a rough year for us. Politics has been messy and ugly. We have been subjected to constant news of war and violence and terror attacks around the world. There are near daily stories about the effects of climate change. Our culture and society is having conflicts around issues of race, gender, religion, and ethnicity. We never know when there will be another mass shooting, another earthquake or hurricane or forest fire. Any moment, another celebrity death will stream across social media feeds when we least need hear it.

And here at Good Shepherd we have born the weight of more than our share of illness, tragedy and death.

So maybe for you Christmas is just the same old, same old time for family, traditions and memories this year.

But it is probably the case that for most of us, Christmas lacks a little something. It feels a little duller and subdued. The magic just isn’t quite there for all the reasons that 2016 has been so difficult.

And we think that Christmas is supposed to have that special quality, that feeling of being different than the normal and mundane things of every day life. Christmas is supposed to lift our spirits, remind us of better things, be a time for sentimentalism and warm fuzzies. It is like that Christmas Card with Mary gazing lovingly down at newborn Jesus – it should melt our hearts. It should feel like special moment when we all sing silent night to candlelight, – glowing faces all around.

But this year it hasn’t been those things. Maybe tonight was supposed to be the chance to reclaim what Christmas is supposed to be…

So here is the thing.

The Christmas story that we know, the one that goes along with silent night, kids dressed up in cute outfits, family traditions waiting at home and presents under the tree… is not exactly the real version.

At the risk of sounding like the pastor grinch…

All the nostalgia is less about Christmas than we think. In fact, all those things that we listed earlier that made 2016 such a hard year… they speak more to Christmas than we want to think about.

When we hear that familiar story from Luke that we just read… it is easy to imagine the Christmas pageant or TV version.

But the very first line of story takes us to something a little more 2016 than we might be comfortable with.

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

We have political leaders talking about a registering certain kinds of citizens, talking about values tests and ways of sorting us into good and bad.

Mary and Joseph were part of that group that was called upon to register, because of their religion, the colour of their skin, because of where they came from – they were part of a group that those in power wanted to track and monitor.

And so, like so many migrants forced to move their homes, regardless of age, health, ability or even whether or not they were pregnant, Mary and Joseph were forced to pack up their lives and move across country.

Perhaps for the first time in decades, we have a better understanding of what the Emperor was doing by announcing a registration, and it wasn’t good.

Like the millions of refugees around the world or like so many who live in poverty on our planet, Mary and Joseph had no safe place to stay. There was no refugee camp or shanty town to go to. There was no kind soul to take pity of them. All they could find was essentially a place to squat out of necessity.

And so Mary gave birth in a stable… but not the sweet and sanitary stable that we might imagine. But probably a cold and dark cave where the animals were kept. Imagine a refugee family hiding in an abandoned building or out in the woods… none of us would consider this a good place to spend the night, let alone have a baby. But this is where the mother of God was forced to give birth.

Then once the ordeal of child birth is over, a gang of Shepherds show up. Not the cute ones wearing bathrobes that we imagine. But shepherds who were the dregs of society, more like drug dealers and addics, not good and polite neighbours bringing casseroles, not well meaning aunts who stop by the hospital with flowers. But the kind of people that most of us would cross the street to avoid…. these misfits are the ones who show us first to worship this new born child.

But just to top it all off, Jesus is born to a teenage mom with an older man looking after her and her child despite not being the baby’s father. Jesus is born into the kind of situation where would we expect child and family services to intervene and remove the child. Yet, this is the family that God chooses to care for the Messiah.
Once the baby is born and somehow the holy family has survived everything from being forced from their homes to register, travelling across country, giving birth in squalor, being visited by the riffraff of society…. Mary and Joseph are left on their own. Left in a world where they have no home, where soldiers would be looking for them soon in order to kill the baby boy, where foreign powers and corrupt kings controlled their lives, where there was no safe place to live or hide, but the only safety was to keep moving out on the open road…

Hardly sounds like Christmas, does it?

Except this is the Christmas story.

And it is important that this is the Christmas story.

Because the warm fuzzy version is not what our world needs. The traditions and carols and movies and light strung up might make us feel good, they may even bring a certain joy and hope to our dark December…. but the TV version of the Christmas story will not save the world. It will not save us from all the things we need saving from.

In fact, in a world where we can name three major tragedies just this week in the Christmas Market in Germany, the war in Aleppo and fireworks explosion Mexico, the fact that the first century world of Mary and Joseph, the world of Caesar Augustus full of registrations and soldiers and refugees and danger…. that this world of 2000 years ago is very much like our world today…

This fact means that if God can be born to a teen mom and a step dad in 1st century occupied Israel, means that surely God can be born in our world.

That Jesus is found in Christmas markets struck by tragedy.

That Jesus is born in the bombed out rubble of Aleppo.

That the holy family passes through fireworks markets while on the road.

As much as we want the magic of Christmas,

The world needs the Messiah to be born,

The Christ who is willing to go and be found in the real Christmas places.

God in Christ is willing to be born among us in order that we can see that God has come near. Near to us in the ways and places that we need most. God comes near, God joins in creation, taking on our flesh to show us that we are not left alone to sort out this crazy world. That we go into the night with God along side us, that God is facing the dangers with us, that surviving our world, that confronting sin and death is precisely where God comes to meet us.

The good news of great joy at Christmas is that the God of light and life has not left us on our own, but comes into our world to live life with us, to give the small but enduring hope found in a baby that changes the world.

2016 might not feel much like Christmas as we know it, but it just might be the closest to the first Christmas we have ever been.

The story that we tell tonight is so much bigger and so much deeper than the feelings we try to recreate time of year. The real Christmas story, the real story of Jesus’s birth in our world is about all the feelings that we don’t want to have this time of year. It is about the fact that God comes to into a world that needs joy and hope and light.

So just as those Angels proclaimed: Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid if Christmas doesn’t feel like we think if should this year…. because it is precisely into this world of ours full of difficulty, hardship and struggle that Jesus is born. Born in the city of David, born here among us

Amen.

 

John the Baptist, Rejecting Society and Honest Preaching

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him… (Read the whole passage)

As we journey deeper into the Advent season we hear from John the Baptist. John gets to make his appearance each year on the second Sunday in Advent, preaching to us from the wilderness about the coming to the Messiah.

John’s place in the arc of Advent comes after we started with the end of time last week, as Jesus implored the disciples to Keep Awake, as the Son of Man was near. While John the Baptist appears at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we tell his story as the prelude to the story of Jesus’ birth. And that John always comes after warnings about the end of time isn’t coincidence. John’s preaching serves to re-orient us from the end times talk to the new thing about to happen with Messiah’s coming.

John is framing the beginning of the story. John is setting the stage for us. John helps us to see the world as it is and our need for Messiah to come.

The figure that John strikes is definitely that of a unique character. John is a hermit living in wilderness, living and eating off the land. The details of his clothing and food might sound funny or interesting, but they tell us something deeper about John and what he is about. John is a hermit certainly, but why? Probably because he has walked from society and the problems he sees with it. John was not always a hermit preaching in the desert, rather he was born into the priestly cast, his father Zechariah being a priest in the temple. If John had followed the plan as he was born into, he would have served in the temple making sacrifice and administrating God’s righteousness to the masses. The temple was the centre of Israel’s power and influence, the priests who served were people in positions of power. John was born into power.

But instead John walks away from all of that. And John doesn’t reject the power he inherited in birth. John could have chosen a route like his cousin Jesus who choose to hang out with the poor, sinners and tax collectors over the rich and powerful. But John walks away from it all, from rich and poor, from righteous and sinner.

John chooses the great empty wilderness instead.

And yet in a twist of irony, as John tries to leave the centres of power and privilege behind, he goes into the wilderness and finds the very people he is trying to avoid. John finds himself preaching to the masses looking for salvation, and to the religious authorities watching his every move. Despite walking away from his priestly duties in the temple, John finds himself filling the same role in the wilderness. He is leading rituals that help make people righteous – baptisms. And he is preaching from the law the prophets.

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’

Despite John’s best efforts to avoid the world of his day, the structures of power, the inequality and unfairness around him, the powerless and powerful… John finds himself addressing and naming the realities of his world. The crowds have come to him hoping for change, hoping for fixes to their difficult and suffering lives. The religious authorities have come to watch him and make sure he doesn’t cause trouble or threaten their power.

Instead, John preaches what no one wants to hear. He names the dark places of the world. He points to the brokenness and struggles of the world. He preaches that a Messiah is coming to straighten things out… which means that things are crooked. He preaches the need for repentance and forgiveness of sins… which means that people are broken. He preaches that it is not enough to rely on being Children of Abraham or Lutherans, or members of a church… which means that who we think we are will not save us.

And yet John does something unusual for someone in his position. He admits that he is not  the solution. In a turn to honest and authentic preaching and prophetic words, John says that someone else, a Messiah, is coming to straighten the world out… which means that John himself is not the one the crowds are waiting for. What an unusual thing for a popular person to admit in front of a crowd of eager people wanting to throw their devotion to a possible saviour.

John might be preaching to the problems of his day, but he could be just as well be speaking today. Much like John’s world, our world is full of desperate people who are suffering and need a change. People who are looking for the next strong man to show up and smash all the problems and make things the way they are supposed to be. Or like the religious authorities, there are those in the world who are very invested in keeping things as they are, because they are benefitting greatly at the expense of most others.

But John is naming the reality that none of us really wants to admit. And that is that the world is dark and broken and suffering. That there is so much crookedness and self-centredness and injustice that there is no way that we can fix it on our own. And John’s assessment is not a judgmental one, but a realistic one. A statement about how things just aren’t right in the world, that no matter how hard we try, something is off. We know this is not the way the world should be… but we don’t know how to do anything about it.

We can look around and see that the world isn’t as it should be. We see people we know and love being diagnosed with unfair illnesses and disease. We see our children or grandchildren being bullied at school. We see our neighbours getting laid off, or families torn apart in relationship breakups. We see that we just cannot help fighting and misunderstanding and judging and fearing each other. We turn on the news and hear about violence, corruption and tragedy.

We see all of this, and we know that this is not how the world is supposed to be. This isn’t right.  And so we get why John has just left everything behind to go live in the wilderness, a place of emptiness that might be missing the comforts of life, but hopefully is also devoid of the tragedies and suffering and conflict.
But there is something else that John tells us without words or preaching. Something about what God is up to in the dark and empty places.

John, with all his flaws and contradictions and weirdness, is doing God’s work of announcing the Good News. God is using John of all people, to tell crowds who are looking for someone else, and religious authorities who don’t want to listen, that the Messiah is on the way. God is bringing Messiah’s light to the world through John, one of the most unexpected people imaginable.

The fact that God is working in surprising and unexpected ways cannot be understated.

That God chooses flawed and contradiction filled and weird people to announce that the good news is something that we need to be reminded of.

That God is heralding the Messiah’s coming with someone like John the Baptist shows us that God is willing to use people that we might never consider for God’s mission.

That God is sending Messiah to straighten out our crooked places, to Baptize us with the Holy Spirit, to transform us and our world… and that this is happening now is the Good News.

And with this news, that the Messiah is coming to make straight paths, all the dark things that we see in our world, the sick loved ones, the struggle neighbours, the vulnerable children, the conflict and fear…. all these dark things start to have a little less weight. They are pushed back in favour of a new world, in favour of Messiah’s world. A world that we practice bringing about here, just like John in the wilderness. Look around and you will see fellow strange, weird and unique preachers and prophets to the good news. People who confess and forgiven sins. Who sing and praise God, pray and speak the word. People who baptize and are baptized, people who share in the bread and wine of life. People who bring about the Kingdom of Heaven simply by being together. Unlikely people who are God’s hands and feet in the world.

On the second Sunday in Advent, the arc of the advent story takes us from the end of time to the beginning of God’s making all things new. And Messiah cannot come sooner into our dark world. Yet, the way that God draws our eyes and our attention to this new light coming alive in world, is through John the Baptist. John the Baptist who is at one time one of the most important figures of faith and also the least likely prophet and preacher of the good news. In so many ways John the Baptist is very much like us, or we like him. Because we too are the flawed and unlikely preachers and prophets that God is using to announce the coming of the light.

God is using John and using us to speak from the wilderness, from unlikely places, to unlikely listeners, about the light that is coming into the darkness, the Messiah that is to come.

It is no wonder that we began worship today by praying:

Stir up our hearts, Lord, to prepare the way.

Adjusting to the darkness of Advent

Matthew 24:36-44

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Read the whole passage)

It is time to begin again. Advent is here. The wreath is set out, the colour blue adorns the sanctuary, we are dusting off the advent portion of the hymnbook and we are settling in for 4 weeks of waiting and watching, of “keeping awake” as Jesus would say, for the coming of Messiah. But Advent is not an annoying countdown for Christmas invented by pastors to keep people from singing Christmas Carols in December (although we might be tired of Joy to the World and Silent Night by Christmas Eve if we did).

Advent is a complete idea or season unto itself. Advent reminds us of where we began as Christians, as God’s people waiting for salvation in a dark world. And it is not about what comes at the end of the waiting, but about what waiting means for us. About how waiting for that which is not here, waiting for justice and peace in the world compels us to strive for those things. Advent is about how we wait for God to come to rescue us, and it is about how God is waiting for our eyes adjust to the darkness so that we can see that God is, in fact, bringing light and hope into our world.

Today, we are reseting the church’s cycle of telling the story of Jesus. A cycle that has been continuing in some form or another for nearly 2000 years. And in the 3 year cycle of readings that we follow Sunday after Sunday, today is beginning of year A, the first year of the cycle. Which means, that today we have heard the first 4 readings of the first Sunday of the first year of the cycle.

And isn’t it strange that the first words chosen for us to hear from the bible are passages about the end of time?

Last week on Christ the King Sunday, we ended the church year by going to the middle of the story, the crucifixion. And today, on the first Sunday of the New Year, we start by going to end. Sometimes the church can do things a little backwards.

But there is a reason to start at the end… or at least, as Jesus tells his disciples that no one knows the day nor the hour when the Son of Man will come but the Father, Jesus is trying to get us to see something important. Jesus is trying to tell us something about what it means to be ready for the end of all things.

Now, given that we are in the season of Advent, the season of preparation, the notion that no one knows the day or hour of coming of the son Man has always seemed more of technicality to me. Sure we don’t have the moment marked down in the calendar, but we are ready just the same. Jesus wants us to be prepared, right? The issue here seems to be one about knowing and not knowing the time.

Well, not so fast.

The examples that Jesus gives of unreadiness are more than just about failing to live up to the boy scout motto. It isn’t just that people didn’t know the exact moment of the return of the son of man. The people of Noah’s day had no idea what was coming. The two working in the field were oblivious, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have been working in the fields. The same for the women grinding meal. The owner of the house is robbed because he wasn’t awake.

Jesus doesn’t say be ready because you don’t know the day or hour.

Jesus says keep awake

Or in other words, maybe all of our Advent preparations are not actually not what Jesus is talking about. Maybe as we are about to put a lot of our attention and focus into trips to the mall for gift buying, putting up lights and baking Christmas cookies, filling our calendars with Christmas parties and concerts, getting ready for Messiah by getting ready for the holidays… maybe Jesus is talking about something different.

Keeping awake.

Keeping awake to the world around us is more than a matter of not knowing the exact moment. It is about awareness, about being attentive to the world around us. Letting our eyes adjust to dark places, to the people and circumstances around us who really need light and hope and salvation. Because keeping awake might mean paying attention to the hard stuff, to the suffering of our neighbours. Keeping awake might be opening our eyes to the crisis of fentanyl overdoses that has landed in our province this fall. Keeping awake to the plight of Indigenous people protesting for their water rights at Standing Rock. Keeping awake to the increase in racism, sexism and bigotry and accompanying violence that has erupted in the US and Canada since the election. Keeping awake to the plight of the Syrians living with daily bullets and bombs, children and families with no safe place to go. The more we open our eyes, the farther out into the world we see more suffering.

Keeping awake is hard and painful. We would much rather watch Christmas movies and drink egg nog. It is much easier to be distracted and on auto-pilot with Christmas preparations than it is to sit, rest and be awake in Advent.

Still as Jesus implores us to be awake, the examples he uses are ones where people are still sleeping. The people around Noah did not see the flood coming. The ones working in the field, the ones grinding meal did not know the time was coming. The owner of the house wasn’t expecting to be robbed. They were not awake. They were sleeping at the wheel.

And each time, the Son of Man came anyways.

For you see, Jesus might tell us to keep awake with the disciples and to watch for the coming of Messiah into our world, but Messiah’s coming doesn’t depend on our wakefulness.

In fact, Jesus knows that we will almost certainly be asleep when Messiah comes.

Yet,

Messiah comes because the world needs Messiah.
Messiah comes because we are waiting for salvation.
Messiah comes because we need hope.

Keeping awake isn’t about making Messiah come, but about seeing where Messiah already is.
Keeping awake isn’t just about seeing the bad stuff, but letting us see the light.
Keeping awake is letting our eyes adjust to the dark, so that we begin to see that there is light.

Messiah’s light is appearing as communities rally together to support those affected by addictions.
Messiah’s light grows as people all over the world begin standing with Standing Rock.
Messiah’s light multiplies as friends and neighbours stand up and speak out against racism, sexism, violence and hate.
Messiah’s light shows up wearing white hats in Syria, running to the danger and working to recuse and save victims wherever possible.

And Messiah’s light is born here among us, as we gather to tell the story of Jesus, to pray and sing, to share a meal and to fellowship. As we strive for justice and peace in our communities and the world around us.

The end is coming, the son of man arrives at an unexpected day and hour.

And Jesus says, Keep Awake.

Keep awake for Advent.
Keep awake in a dark world.
Keep awake even though it is hard.

And even though we are sleeping, Messiah comes.

And here in our dark world,

Messiah’s light is born.
Messiah’s light grows.
Messiah’s light is here.

Messiah is the story of Advent, the story that we are beginning over again today. Messiah is the one who is that small light in a dark world, the light that is hard to see until our eyes adjust, but that is there, pushing back the darkness, allowing us to see a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

Keep Awake, Jesus says,

because you do not know on what day your Lord is coming,
but you do know that Messiah in on the way.

The Church is no longer invited to the Party

Luke 14:1, 7-14

But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Read the Whole Passage)

Sermon

For most of the summer, we have been hearing the stories of Jesus ministry, dropping in on scenes from his travels, hearing parables and other teachings. Stories like Mary and Martha, the Lord’s Prayer and the Good Samaritan. Last week we heard about the women who was bent over or stopped for 18 years. All Jesus had to do was reach out to touch her and she stood up straight, she was liberated from her condition by Jesus’ compassion.

Today, Jesus in invited by some big whig pharisees to a dinner party. An invite that only important people get. And with all eyes on him, Jesus is sounding a lot like Martha Stewart. Jesus is giving dinner party advice. About where to sit and how to avoid giving offense or being embarrassed. Don’t sit too high so that you aren’t asked to move to a lesser seat. Imagine that drunken and sleazy wedding guest trying to cozy up to the one of the bridesmaids at the head table of a wedding banquet. Not cool, Jesus says. Instead sit below your station. Find a table at the back of the banquet hall, and the bride’s father will come and move you closer to the front, and everyone will see how important you are! You can almost see the headline across a house and home magazine: “Where should you sit at the party?” find out pg. 23.

The only problem with this kind of dinner party advice is that it sounds opportunistic or faux humble coming from Jesus. And isn’t Jesus supposed to promote authentic humility? Sitting low to move high is not humble. Shouldn’t Jesus tell us to sit low and stay low?

These days, proper dinner party etiquette is mostly a niche interest, a vanity for the kind of people who worry about centrepieces, dinnerware settings and chair covers. But 2000 years ago in Hebrew culture, social standing was extremely important and it came to play anytime people gathered together. Each guest would sit according to the station in the community and knowing where you sat at a dinner party was about knowing how to rank yourself in society. And everyone knew where they belonged, on top, on the bottom or in between. And where you stood was a sign how important you were, how much respect you commanded, how you stood in the eyes of the powerful, and even where you stood with God. In fact, your social standing had a lot to do with where you stood with God. The more important you were socially, the more you had earned God’s favour. But perhaps most crucially to today’s story is the effect of honour and shame in Jesus’ world. To be moved down to a lesser place would bring shame upon yourself, and shame would lessen your social standing, and therefore lessen your favour with God. But for a host to seat you below your standing would be shame for the host, so it would be essential for the host to make sure that each guest was given the proper respect and honour due their standing. To be moved into the place of honour, was like being ushered a little closer to the gates of heaven.

The world that Jesus lived in was a little more Downton Abbey than we are used to… We just aren’t as hyper attentive to who are most and least important people in the room.

Still, in many ways our world is full of the same kind of concern for where we stand, and the same ranking of who is in and who is out, who is on the top and who is on the bottom.

Last week, Pastor Stan spoke to us of how the image of this woman bent over, unable to see anyone’s face but only their feet, that this was an image for the church. We are feeling bent over and burdened like this woman. It is a surprising turn for us, for the church. We used to occupying a place a of power and privilege in the world, we used to be seated at the places of honour. We used to host the influential and the powerful in our buildings and communities. Yet, these days we feel like we have been left off the guest-list by the world, or if we are invited to the party, it is to be the court jester. And when it comes to our table, we feel like there are more than enough places, that the few guests who are here, can choose any seat because you can’t offend an empty chair. Our tables feel empty.

However, there is more to Jesus’ dinner party advice than just knowing where to sit. We should realize that we have been guilty of exactly the things he names. When we had the power, we were often guilty of sending people down the table. We made sure that people knew they weren’t good enough for the seats of honour, and we saved the best spots for ourselves. And when people stopped coming to fill the cheap seats, we blamed them for not knowing their place and fulfilling their duty.

And now… now, we have been sent down the table. The world has told the church that we were sitting too high for our station. People are choosing sports, shopping, recreation, or sleeping in, rather than being at church on Sunday mornings. It has been happening for decades. And now as the baby boomers enter retirement, they would rather golf or go the cabin or travel than be in church. Generation Xers don’t trust institutions like us, and would rather build their own communities and their own families. Millennials are tired of the church trying to attract them in with loud music and flashy services, they want a church that wants to honestly deal with their doubts instead of shushing their questions.

Jesus’ advice to us about dinner parties is a lot more than it seems indeed.

But it is Jesus’ next piece of advice that should really get our attention. Dont’ invite those who can repay the favour… instead invite those who cannot.

For as much as the church is guilty of sending people up and down the table, we have also  been generous, we have welcomed strangers like the refugee family that arrived this summer. We have fed the hungry, cared for the sick, and opened our doors to our community. We have been a curious mix of generous and concerned with status, we have helped those in need even as we let them know their place was down the table.

But with Jesus’ last piece of advice, he names the thing that we have forgotten. Jesus reminds us that the table is not ours. The food, the chairs, the drinks, the invitations. They were never ours to control.

The table is God’s. And God has invited us to it. God has not invited friends and brothers and relative and rich neighbours. God has invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. God has invited us. We are the ones who cannot repay the invitation, we have no table, no place, no welcome good enough for God… and yet God’s table, Jesus’ table is always open to us.

And at God’s table each place is the place of honour. There is no moving up or moving down. There is no sitting higher with the risk of being sent down. There is no sitting lower to work our way up. All the places are the same, all are the best, all are open for us. With God, there is simply a place at God’s table. A place for us, each and every one of us.

Jesus’ dinner party advice is more than it seems. And even though the church has not always been the best guest or host, we have a God who is the ultimate host. God is the one who always has a place for us. God is the one who welcomes us to the place of honour. God is the one to whom the table belongs.

So when it seemed like we as a church sat at the place of honour in the glory days, or now when it feels like have been left off the guest list… neither has been the truth. For we have always had a spot at God’s able, a spot no better, and no worse than anyone else.

God’s table has always been open, set and ready for all. Ready for us.

Who said it? Jesus or Donald Trump: Olympics Edition

Luke 12:49-56

Jesus said, “…Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: (Read the whole passage)

Wow… Jesus is on a roll today. We have been making our way through the teachings, parables and ministry of Jesus for a number of weeks now, and so far we have heard familiar stories like Mary and Martha, the Lord’s Prayer, the Good Samaritan.

Last week things took a turn for the less familiar, but at least Jesus seemed much nicer, ‘Have no fear little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.’

But today we get some of the harshest words Jesus has in the gospel of Luke.

And yes, they make us uncomfortable. Jesus isn’t supposed to speak this way, Jesus is about uniting and bringing people together right? Not about setting people against each other. Jesus sounds almost like Donald Trump with all these talk about division and doom. 

And the difficulty with this passage from Luke is that there isn’t some neat trick of context that explains what Jesus means. It isn’t like the verses before or after explain what Jesus is really talking about. This passage on division comes in a chapter where we are given quote after quote strung together will no real details or information connecting them to each other.

I don’t know about you, but when some gun toting christian on some cable news show quotes this passage as justification for hate, violence, intolerance, and yes, division, it makes me want to curl up and hide under a rock. It is one of those passages from the bible that you almost wish wasn’t there. But it is, and it get used as justification for some Christians to be jerks. “Do you think that I have to bring peace? No, but rather division.” And a lot of embarrassing blowhards claiming to speak on behalf of all Christians say this passage shows that Jesus would be an assault rifle carrying bigot were he to come to today.

And so the question becomes, what do we make of this divisive Jesus? Where does he fit with the loving, compassionate, and caring Jesus that we know?

Of all the places and people who could perhaps offer and explanation to these strong words from Jesus today, it was a late night talk show host talking about the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games that provided me some insight.

In HBO’s John Oliver’s recap of the opening ceremonies, he showed a portion of IOC president Thomas Bach’s speech where he said, ‘In this Olympic world, there is one universal law for everybody. In this Olympic world, we are all equal.”

Sounds like the usual lofty speeches that get made at Olympic games.

But John Oliver, who was having none of it, replied,

“Okay, that is simply not true. If that were the case, you wouldn’t need to have an olympics. The whole reason we do this is to find out, who is better than everyone else, so that we can make them stand higher [cue photo of athletes on a medal podium] than the other people who are not as good as them. Because the point of the games is not to celebrate equality, but individual’s excellence.”

(Language warning)

Cheeky, but he isn’t wrong.

As I have been watching my fair share of olympics this week, I haven’t been spending much time cheering on the athletes destined to come in last. It is the ones who win medals, who come in first, who defeat the rest of the competition who are the focus. Everyone knows who Penny Oleksiak is the week, but does anyone know the name of the Canadians who didn’t place in archery, or shooting, or judo, or race walking, or discus or other sports where our country isn’t competitive?

The Olympics in some measure are a safe way for nations to go to war with other nations without dropping bombs or sending soldiers, they are hardly about equality.

And this is where the Olympics and John Oliver gives us insight into what Jesus says today. 

Sometimes our rhetoric, the fancy words and ideals that people throw about in the name of unity and equality don’t really express or name reality.

The reality is that we are human beings are compelled by conflict. We live to fight, it is in our biology – the reptilian parts of our brains are primed to override rational thought in order to Fight, Flight or Freeze when the opportunity aries. And Jesus know this. Jesus knows that sunshine and roses is not what the world is about. Rather that our world is full to conflict and division and sin and suffering and death. And these things are what catch our attention, these are the things that are the foundation of our established orders, these are the things we use to categorize and understand ourselves and our world.

And so when Jesus, God in flesh, comes to meet humanity on our turf, it has to be in the midst of division, because that is where we live as human beings. You will notice that Jesus doesn’t say that he has come to CAUSE division, but simply that he BRINGS it. Division will follow Jesus wherever he goes, because Jesus is going into the human world.

And Jesus is coming into our world, with a message. A message about God, and God’s love for us, and how God is turning our world upside down.

And Jesus represents a threat. A threat to the established orders, to the conflict and division that we love so much, a threat to making people stand higher than those who are not as good as they are. Because in God’s world everyone is equal, and there wouldn’t be an olympics because the medals and podiums would be not be for the first, but for the last. And those in first would be about as interesting to us as those in last are in our world.

And so today Jesus brings division. And yes it sounds terrible and probably makes us uncomfortable… but it is also what we know. And we are uncomfortable because we realize that Jesus really does know us, and knows that conflict and division is where we live.

But Jesus’ words also make us uncomfortable because they aren’t plastering over our conflict and division, our olympic battles with lofty rhetoric about equality and unity. Jesus words instead tell us that  God is coming into our world, to find us, and this will cause real division. Because God is going to change everything. God is going to change us. Change us with love and compassion, with true equality and true unity. 

God is coming to change us with the good news of Jesus in our world, division and all.

Amen.