26 November 2017

"Christ the King?" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
November 26, 2017
Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-46

So you may have already guessed, from the white-and-gold banners that we have hanging today, and the hymns we are singing, and from the bulletin – today is Christ the King Sunday, also known as the Reign of Christ Sunday.  This week, we get to pull out all of the stops and celebrate the majesty of Christ.  If we had someone in the congregation who plays the trumpet, we could have fanfares.  For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been reading parables about how we wait for the coming kingdom of God, but today we get to celebrate this kingdom, when Jesus Christ will rule over the whole universe and everything in it.

And the reading from Matthew assigned for today – this is one of the classic Christ the King readings.  Jesus is talking about the end of time when he, the Son of Man, will come in his glory, surrounded by angels, and sit on the throne as a king in order to judge all of the people of every time and every place.

This is probably one of the better-known passages of scripture – the separation of the sheep and the goats.  It is often referred to as a parable, but if you look closely, it is more like a simile or metaphor – the king separates the people like a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats.  From that point forward, the judgement refers to people, not sheep!

Can you imagine acting out this judgement in church one day?  Everyone who self-identifies as a sheep – head over to this side of the room; and everyone who self-identifies as a goat – head over to the other side.  Which side would you choose?  But in Jesus’ description, the people on both sides are surprised to find themselves where they are.  Both sides ask Jesus, “Lord, when was it that I did or didn’t take care of you?”

So maybe instead, I should choose what side everyone goes to.  After all, the sheep and the goats don’t get to choose – the king sitting on the throne of judgement is the one who separates them.  So you, over to that side; you, over to that side; you, head on over there.

Actually, it’s a bit of a relief that I don’t have to do that.  I wouldn’t want the responsibility of deciding who gets to inherit the kingdom of God prepared for you from the foundation of the world; versus those who need to go to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  I’m relieved that we are told not just that we don’t have to judge others, but that we aren’t allowed to judge others.

So Jesus the King is on his throne, clothed in glory, judging everyone who comes before him – inherit the kingdom, go to the eternal fire, inherit the kingdom, go to the eternal fire.  A very awe-filled image.

I have to confess though; giving Jesus the title of King gives me some difficulties. 

First of all, there is the word King.  Think of what you know about kings from history class.  The history of countries that are governed by a monarchy is usually peppered with intrigue and violence and treachery, in a quest to rule.  Think of the popularity of the Game of Thrones books and TV series – the violence and backstabbing (literal and figurative) that the characters go through in order to win the ultimate prize – the throne of Westeros.  Or when I think about the British royal family today, I think most of all about tabloids and scandals.  With all of this baggage attached to the word “King,” how can we dare to call Christ our king?

Things weren’t that different in the time when Jesus was living.  The word King was closely associated with the Roman Empire, with the Emperor in Rome having control over all lands under Roman control.  There was intrigue and murder in the succession of Emperors, scrambling for the absolute power that the position gave.  And the Emperor ruled through oppression and force.  If you tow the party line, you will be fine; but if you dare to speak or act against the empire, you will be nailed to a cross.

There were kings in the history of the people of Israel as well.  Most immediately, there were the Persian, Babylonian, and Assyrian kings, whose armies had taken turns controlling the land that the people had been given by God.  Before that, there were the royal family trees of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel stretching right back to King David, the first king.  Of the 43 kings, the bible tells us that 7 of them were good in the eyes of God.  Which leaves 36 who did evil; which usually meant worshiping other gods and neglecting the needs of the poor.  With all of this history attached to kings in the land of Israel, how can we dare call Christ our king?

Are we supposed to imagine a triumphant Jesus, wearing a golden crown, sitting on the throne of heaven ruling over the world with absolute power, the way our earthly kings do?  That is certainly how many generations of the church have imagined it.  If you do a Google Images search for pictures of Christ the King, you will come up with icons and stained glass windows that try to out-do one another in portraying Jesus with a crown of gold or jewels, robed in crimson or purple, the colours of royalty, arms outstretched, holding a sceptre of power.  Our king Jesus is more powerful than your king, and he will blast you all to smithereens, the same way that the powerful kings of history have done.  Is this the way we imagine Christ the King?  One more despot sitting on the throne, but this one more powerful than the ones that came before; and more importantly, this one is on our side?  This one is bringing us into the inner circle of power so that we can have a say in how the world is run?  Is this Christ our King?

So as well-loved as this passage is, how can we celebrate Christ the King without ending with the violence and intrigue associated with the word “king”?

The thing with this story though, is that it plays with the time-space continuum.  While Jesus Christ is found on the throne of judgement, that isn’t the only place that he is found in the story.  Jesus Christ is also found in all who are hungry, all who are thirsty, all who are strangers, all who have no possessions, all who are sick, and all who are in prison.  Jesus identifies with the poorest and the least in this world; and Jesus tells his disciples that the way in which they treat the poorest and the least is the way that they treat Jesus Christ himself.

So we have Jesus identified with the king who sits in judgement, as well as with everyone who is trampled by society.  This is a more complicated image of a king than we normally see.  And if you look even more closely, Jesus takes on a third identity in this reading.

In the very first line of this story, Jesus calls himself the Son of Man.  This reminds us that Jesus, the story-teller, is the one who will be tortured and who will die on the cross, and who will be resurrected on the third day.  This is a very different kind of king.  This is a king who doesn’t sit on the throne of glory, but who is enthroned on a cross.  This is a king who doesn’t wear a golden crown, but who wears a crown of thorns.  This is a king who chooses the power of silence when he is brought before the earthly powers of this world, rather than repaying violence with violence; and by doing so, he breaks the cycles of violence that rule this world.  This is a king who chooses to empty himself of all of his godly powers, and who chooses to die on the cross rather than blasting his enemies and leaping down from the cross.

Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, is Jesus Christ, the judge on the throne of glory, is Jesus Christ who is one with the hungry and thirsty and stranger and homeless and sick and prisoner.

And all of this has some very profound implications to us today.  I would contend that proclaiming that Christ is our king is the most powerful and dangerous claim that we can make.  When we declare our allegiance to Christ the King, we are saying that we don’t owe our allegiance to anything in this world.  Christ the King has an absolute claim on everything in our lives.  When we proclaim that Christ is our king, we are saying that no earthly ruler can be our king.  When we proclaim that Christ is our king, we are saying that we don’t live by the violent systems of this world.  When we proclaim that Christ is our king, we are saying that we will not repay violence with violence.  When we proclaim that Jesus is king, we are saying that we won’t be ruled by a thirst for money or a thirst for power, or a thirst for celebrity.  When we proclaim that Jesus is our king, we are saying that we belong to a kingdom that is free from fear.

And when we as a community declare our allegiance to Christ the king, when we tell the world that we are on the side of God through Jesus Christ, then God’s coming kingdom can bubble up into our little corner of the world here in Chetwynd, and the whole world can see that we have been changed by this one whom we call king.

We follow a king who chose the power of weakness instead of the power of violence, and who broke the cycles of violence in our world.  By calling ourselves followers of Christ, we are committing ourselves to this kingdom too.

And so I ask the same question that I asked early on – do you self-identify as a sheep on the right hand of the judge, or as a goat on the left hand?  Do you stand in awe before Jesus Christ the king who is sitting on that throne of glory?  Do you see the face of Jesus Christ in the face of everyone you meet who is hungry or homeless or sick, or in prison?  Do you proclaim your allegiance to a kingdom of peace that runs contrary to every value that our world seems to hold?

So yes, let us celebrate Christ the King as we look forward to the reign of Christ.  But let’s not forget what this kingdom really means.

Let us pray:
Holy God,
Blow your Holy Spirit through us,
            uniting us, and making us one with Christ.
Help us to be a place
            where your kingdom can come.
Help us to show the world
            that there is a different way to be.
We pray this in the name of Christ our King.

(Christ the King?)

20 November 2017

"Trust, fear, love - what are we to do?" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
November 19, 2017
Scripture:  Matthew 25:14-30

Today’s parable makes me think of an episode in one of my favourite TV shows, Rev.  It is a BBC show, and I don’t think that it has been broadcast in Canada, so don’t worry if you haven’t heard about it or seen it.  It is set in a struggling Church of England congregation in inner-city London.  Adam, the minister, is collaborating with the imam of the local mosque to build a playground for all of the neighbouring children – the are each going to fundraise with their congregations, and pool the money together so that the work gets done.

Adam decides to use this parable as the basis of his half of the fundraising.  He reads the parable, and then hands out £10 bills to each member of his congregation, telling them to act like the first or second slaves in this story, finding some way to turn £10 into £20 or more.  And they go on their way after the service.

A few weeks later, one person comes back to Adam and tells him that he has invested his £10 in the very best “emerging markets hedge fund” that has an unheard-of return of 9% in just one month.  So the original £10 is now worth £10.90.  The investors charge a 20% fee on any profit – there goes 18 pence, plus tax of 20% on their fee, and so the original £10 is now worth £10.68.  Not quite the doubling of the investment that the first two slaves are able to produce, plus the show doesn’t tell us how ethical the investing practices of this hedge fund are.

Another character comes back to Adam, and hands him an envelope containing £350.  He was not returning twice as much as he had been given; he was returning 35 times as much.  When questioned about how he had managed this, the character presented a very sound business plan – he had bought £10 worth of drugs, cut it with detergent and sold it to kids in the low-income housing area and made £50.  He then did the same thing twice more, ending up with £500, but kept back some as his cut of the profits.  He claimed that it wasn’t really drug money, but was more like detergent money.

So all of this raises for me the question of how the first two servants in today’s parable managed to double the value of the money that was entrusted to them.  Surely this parable couldn’t be an endorsement of exploitative investment practices or drug dealing.

Where are the teachers here this morning, or retired teachers?  Put up your hands.  Now, everyone who has ever been a student, put up your hands too.  OK – I’ve got another story to share with you.

For the kingdom of God will be like a university classroom.  At the beginning of the semester, the teacher gathered the students around her and reviewed the course syllabus.  She explained to them that there would be a weekly seminar where the students would learn the course material, but at the end of the semester, 100% of the students’ grades would be based on a creative independent study, which they were to prepare using the course material and their own research.

So week-by-week the class met together.  They learned together.  They challenged one another.  The first student grasped onto an idea early in the semester and spent the rest of the semester researching and looking into his topic.  He dug into the historical research and read a variety of scholars, and at the end of the term, he pulled all of his ideas together.  Likewise, the second student had decided on her topic by the middle of the semester, and she did similar research on her independent study.  The third student, however, attended class each week and took copious notes, but did no outside work on his topic.

At the end of the semester, the class gathered together and they presented their work.  The first student stood up and presented a paper that amazed all who listened to it with its brilliance and relevance for daily life.  When he was done, the teacher said to him, “Well done, diligent student.  Put on this cap and gown and prepare for your graduation.  You have entered into the joy of scholarship, and now you can claim your place as a scholar.” 

Likewise, the second student stood up and presented a paper that amazed all who listened to it with its brilliance and relevance for daily life.  The teacher said to her, “Well done, diligent student.  Put on this cap and gown and prepare for your graduation.  You have entered into the joy of scholarship, and now you can claim your place as a scholar.”

But when the third student stood up to speak, he said to the teacher, “I have heard that you are a hard marker, and that you don’t appreciate anyone’s opinions but your own.  Therefore, instead of a paper, I am going to stand here and read your class notes.”  And that is what the third student did.  When he had finished, the teacher said to him, “You timid and lazy student.  You could have at least plagiarized a paper and given us something interesting to listen to.  You have not done what I asked you to do, your grade is an F, and you will need to repeat this course next year.

For those who have done what I asked, they shall be celebrated; but for those who did not do what I asked, even that which they did do shall be counted as nothing.  As for this student, get him out of my sight.

So… I don’t think that Jesus would suggest plagiarism, just like I don’t think that Jesus was recommending unfair and unjust economic investment practices.  I think that the suggestion that the third slave invest the money for the sake of interest was possibly exasperation, or exaggeration in order to make a point.

So if the parable isn’t about how to invest money, what might it be about?

Some people suggest, because of the word “talent,” that this is a parable about how we are to use our skills and abilities.  But that argument falls apart when you realize that our English word for talent actually comes from an interpretation of this parable, not the other way around.  What is meant by a talent here is a very large sum of money.  One talent was equivalent to the wage earned by a day labourer for 6000 days – approximately 20 years – of labour.  In today’s terms, the first slave was entrusted with around 2 ½ million dollars, the second slave was entrusted with just over a million dollars, and the third slave was given just over $500,000 which he promptly hid in a hole in the ground.  It’s not a story about our skills and abilities, it’s a story about how the slaves reacted when they were given something really, really valuable.

So if it’s not a story about cheating the investment system, and it’s not a story about using your musical gifts to sing in the church choir or using your mathematical gifts to serve as the church treasurer, what point is Jesus trying to make with this story?

I think that we get a hint if we look at the context of this parable. 
This parable is part of a series of parables that Jesus tells to his disciples to answer their question back in chapter 24, “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”  In other words, how will we know when the world is going to end?

Jesus’ answer is quite clear – he doesn’t need a parable to answer that question.  He tells the disciples directly that nobody knows – only God.  Not the angels, not the Son, but only the Father.  The parable that we read together last week – the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids – told us that the end of the world and the coming kingdom of God is probably further away than we expect, but we shouldn’t give up hope and we should never stop expecting it to come, because it’s going to be like a big party when it does get here.

Last week’s parable of the ten bridesmaids is followed immediately by today’s parable of the three slaves.  Now the idea of slavery doesn’t sit well with our 21st Century understanding, and if I am being honest, stories like this one have been used over the centuries to justify practices of slavery.  I’m not going to say slavery is right – I think that slavery is very, very wrong – but it was a part of the culture in which Jesus lived.  And a slave was obligated to do whatever his or her master demanded.  No questioning, no negotiating – this isn’t a relationship of equals but there is very much a power imbalance in this relationship with the master holding the power and the slave in a vulnerable position.  Maybe a bit like the teacher and the students in my re-write of the parable.  And maybe a bit like the relationship between God and us.  God has the power in the relationship, and we are vulnerable next to God.

But the master in the story doesn’t wield his power arbitrarily – instead he shows a good deal of trust in his slaves.  He trusts them with immense sums of money in his absence; and the first two slaves respect their master enough that they do their best with what has been entrusted to them.

But the third slave doesn’t respond to the master’s trust with respect, he responds with fear.  When his master returns, the third slave says to him, “I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

So like last week’s parable, we’re dealing with a delay.  Last week, the groom was delayed from his own wedding until after midnight; this week, the master returns home from his journey only after a long time.  So if we think of the master in today’s story as being like God – the one with the power in the relationship, but also the one who loves and trusts us – God was with us in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh.

But remember that Jesus is telling this parable in the last week of his life – in a few short days, Jesus is going to be betrayed and crucified.  He is telling this story in a time and a place of increasing tension and conflict.  He likely had a pretty good sense that his death was near – that he, like the master in this parable, was going to be going away on a long journey.

Jesus knew that he would be returning, but remember that he told the disciples that he didn’t know when – not the Son but only the Father knows.  And maybe, with this parable, he is telling them how they should wait.

Jesus has entrusted his disciples – the original group that he was telling this story to, and all of us who have come in the centuries since – Jesus has entrusted us with a valuable treasure.  We have been entrusted with the stories of Jesus – with the stories about how he healed people, how he liberated people, how he welcomed people.  We have been entrusted with the teachings of Jesus – the parables that he told, the sermons that he gave.  And what should we do with this great treasure?

I think, with this parable, Jesus tells us that he wants us to share this treasure with others.  The first two slaves, who are called good and trustworthy, and who are invited to enter into the joy of their master – they don’t hide the treasure that they have been given – they go out and they trade with it – they give it away, in effect – and the treasure is multiplied beyond anything that is possible in the regular market economy.

But that poor third slave.  The third slave was afraid, and he let his fear drive his actions.  He hid the treasure – the good news of the gospel – in a hole in the ground and sat there, waiting for his master to return.

How often do we let fear drive our actions?  Fear is a horrible thing, but it is a very powerful thing.    Think of the increase in terrorist activity in this century.  The ultimate goal of terrorists is not to cause death and destruction, but to incite fear, to incite terror.  If we respond with fear, then those who want to cause that fear will win.

Fear is a tool used by people and groups who want to oppress another.  You see it in politics – be afraid of what the future holds and be afraid of what the other party might do; vote for us and we will protect you.  You see it in advertising – be afraid of the world; give your money to us and we will keep you safe.  You also see fear in our day-to-day world – be afraid of those who look different than us, be afraid of those who speak differently than us, be afraid of those who pray differently than us; and this fear leads to prejudice and hatred and violence.

But Jesus tells us not to be afraid – not to be like the third slave in today’s story – not to let our actions be driven by our fear.  We have been entrusted with the treasure that is the good news of the gospel – that God so loves the world that God became vulnerable in the human flesh of Jesus Christ.  And because of this, we don’t ever have to let our actions be driven by fear – our actions can be driven by this overwhelming love that is God.  Thanks be to God!

Let us pray:
God who is love,
            fill us with your love.
Let us be so filled with love
            that there is no room left for fear.
Help our every action,
            our every thought,
            our every words,
                        be driven by the love
                                    that is at the centre of the gospel.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            who came to this world singing love.

(Even our third snowfall warning in the past week didn't keep people away on Sunday morning - though a train passing through the middle of town just before the service started slowed some people down!)

12 November 2017

Waiting for the Wedding (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
Sunday November 12, 2017
Reading:  Matthew 25:1-13

And here we have yet another challenging and disturbing parable from Jesus.  If you’ve been keeping track of our weekly readings, the last two weeks we had a bit of a break from the extra-difficult gospel lessons as we celebrated Reformation Sunday two weeks ago, and All Saints Sunday last week.  But here we are, back in middle of Jesus’ last week before he was crucified.

Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel comes right at the very end of Jesus’ life.  He entered Jerusalem back in chapter 21 in a parade accompanied by waving palm branches.  He went straight to the temple in Jerusalem where he overturned the tables of the money changers and drove out those who were there to conduct business rather than worship God; and then he healed people who came to him.  The next day, he came back to the temple and started arguing with the religious leaders who were there, challenging them that maybe their practices weren’t quite in line with what God wanted for the world.  The parables that Jesus told, and the arguments that Jesus made were quite pointed and harsh; but at the end of two chapters of arguments, Jesus concludes that the greatest commandments of all are to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love you neighbour as yourself.  That’s what was missing from the world that Jesus was living in; and dare I suggest that it is often missing from the world in which we live?

Jesus then turned from the religious leaders to the crowds that were gathered around him, and he continues to preach the same themes – the people who may seem, on the surface, to be most aligned with God are sometimes the people who are furthest from God’s plan for the world.

And after addressing the crowds, Jesus turns to his disciples in chapter 24.  He tells them that the temple in which they are standing is going to be destroyed so that not one stone is left on top of another.

His disciples were amazed.  After all, the temple was the largest structure that they had ever seen or could ever imagine.  The temple was the central point in their religious practices.  Surely the destruction of the temple would signal the end of the world.  So they ask Jesus two questions:  when is this destruction going to happen; and how will we know when the end of the world is coming?

Jesus answers their first question – when is the temple going to be destroyed – with a description of death and disaster and terror, where “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.”  History tells us that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed 30-some-odd years after Jesus says these words, in the middle of a 3-year revolt of the people of Judea against the Roman oppressors.  The temple has never been rebuilt, and if you go to Jerusalem today, you will only be able to see a fragment of a single wall that is left – the western wall, also known as the wailing wall.

Jesus then turns to the disciples’ second question – how will we know when the world is going to end – and he answers it by telling them that no one knows when the end is going to come – not the angels, and not the Son, but only the Father.  He then expands this answer by telling a series of four parables – today’s reading is the second of these parables – come back next Sunday and the week after, and you will get the third and fourth parables.

It’s interesting timing, that we are getting these readings at the end of the church year, October and November, which here in the northern parts of the world corresponds with the time when the world is getting darker with longer nights and shorter days and colder weather.  The heavy readings seem to correspond with a heaviness of this time of year; and will be broken once we reach the season of Advent and we start looking for the coming of the light.

Anyways, back to today’s parable.  I have a whole pile of questions that I want to ask Jesus about this parable.

Why was the bridegroom so late?  He didn’t show up at his own wedding until midnight!  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been to one wedding where the bride arrived before the guests, many weddings where everything happened on schedule, and a couple of weddings where the bride or groom was a little bit late.  I don’t think that I’ve ever been to a wedding where the groom didn’t show up until midnight!  What’s going on here?

Also, how could the bridesmaids forget to bring oil for their lamps?  The lamps that they would have been carrying were probably more like torches than indoor lamps.  They would have only burned for 15 minutes or so before needing to be re-soaked with lamp oil.  Half of the bridesmaids brought this extra oil that they needed, but the other half remembered their torches but forgot the fuel.  What’s up with that?

And then, when they went looking for oil, they were sent out to the shops to buy some more.  Were there actually shops open at midnight for them to go to?  I doubt that there was a 24-hour 7-Eleven down the street that they could pop in to.

They went out, and Jesus doesn’t tell us whether or not they found oil, but they come back to the wedding anyways.  But when they asked to be let back in to the wedding, the bridegroom tells them that he doesn’t know them.  But weren’t they just at the wedding?  And because they were going to be meeting the groom, chances are these bridesmaids were part of the groom’s household.  Why doesn’t he know them?  They weren’t gone that long!

And finally, my question that gives me the most trouble – why didn’t the five so-called “wise” bridesmaids share their oil with the so-called “foolish” bridesmaids?  To me, this is not a very loving action, and nowhere in the story are these “wise” bridesmaids criticized for their lack of generosity.  Remember that not a couple of hours before this, Jesus said that the second greatest commandment was to love your neighbour as yourself; and two parables later, Jesus tells his disciples that we will be judged by our actions, including the famous line, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  And yet it isn’t the ungenerous bridesmaids who are locked out of the feast – it is the forgetful bridesmaids who miss out.

Did Jesus really mean to say that the kingdom of heaven will be like a bunch of girls squabbling over some oil?

Bible scholars tend to take one of two approaches to this story – either they ignore all of these difficulties, or they re-write the ending of it.  The ones who ignore these questions treat it as a straight-forward story telling us to be prepared for the kingdom of heaven, because we don’t know when it is going to happen.  But all of my questions leave me unsatisfied by this straight-forward explanation.  The scholars who re-write the ending of the parable often suggest that either the wise bridesmaids shared their oil so that all of the torches were lit, or that the foolish bridesmaids were allowed into the wedding despite not being prepared.  These re-writes are fun to read – my favourite one is a poem by Thomas Merton where the five scatter-brained bridesmaids show up at the wedding on motorcycles with empty gas tanks, but since they knew how to dance they were invited to stay, and “consequently there were ten virgins at the Wedding of the Lamb.”[1]  They are fun to read, but this isn’t the story that Matthew puts on the lips of Jesus.  In the story in scripture, the five foolish virgins are locked out of the wedding feast.

So what are we to do with this story?  How can we find good news in a story of selfishness and rejection?

The one question that, for me, opens this parable up is when I ask why the five foolish bridesmaids didn’t have oil with them for their torches.  Surely they knew that if they wanted to be able to light their torches later in the evening, then they would need oil as fuel to keep them lit.  So why didn’t they bring that oil?

I think that maybe the reason why they didn’t bring oil with them, is that they didn’t really expect the bridegroom to show up.  They didn’t think that they were going to need to light their torches.  They didn’t expect that there was going to be a party at the end of the evening.

And all of this boils down to hope.  Hope is a funny word because we use it in so many different ways.  The usual way that we use hope is to mean something along the lines of wishful thinking.  I hope to see you soon.  I hope that you are feeling better.  I hope that we get lots of snow this winter.

But Christian hope is more than just wishful thinking.  Christian hope is more along the lines of confident expectation that something good will come in the future.  I have hope that spring will follow winter.  I have hope that lives can be transformed for the better.  I have hope that God’s kingdom of peace and love and justice will come.  A wise friend once told me that because of the resurrection of Jesus, we have an endless source of hope.

So looking at the story of the bridesmaids through the lens of hope, five of the bridesmaids brought oil with them.  They had hope – a confident expectation – that the bridegroom was going to come and that they would need to light their torches.  The other five brought torches but no oil – they didn’t expect that they would have to light them.

When Matthew was writing down the stories of Jesus’ teaching and healing and life and death, almost 40 years had passed since Jesus had died and had been resurrected and had ascended to heaven.  The community had been following the ways of Jesus and passing along his teachings, and they had been continually expecting his return.  But now they had been waiting for almost 40 years – a lifetime – and still no kingdom of God.  They were living in the middle of a war between the people of Palestine and the Roman Empire.  I can imagine that some of them had started to lose hope that this kingdom was ever going to come.  The excitement and anticipation that had followed the resurrection must have started to fade over the years.  Maybe that is why they kept sharing this parable of Jesus – to encourage one another to constantly be prepared.  Even though we don’t know when it is coming, and even though it might be delayed, we can be confident that the kingdom of God is coming.  We can keep our hope.

And here we are, almost 2000 years later, and we are still waiting for the bridegroom to come and the party to begin.  We live in a world that is still full of grief and trauma – where world leaders who hold the nuclear codes are engaging in an ever-escalating dialogue of insults; where climate change is threatening people who are already the most marginalized on our planet; where, in the middle of the tragedy of mass shootings, all of the “thoughts and prayers” that people are offering do nothing to prevent the next tragedy from happening.  How can we live as though we still expect the party, 2000 years later?

We can live, knowing that God is with us no matter what.  We can live, knowing that the Holy Spirit is guiding our lives and calling us to new things.  We can live, following everything that Jesus taught – loving God with our whole hearts and loving our neighbours as ourselves.

The kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet – a feast, a party, a celebration of love, a time of joy.  This is the kingdom that is coming.  This is the kingdom that we keep our hope alive for.  This is the kingdom that we can catch a glimpse of in the resurrection of Jesus.  This is the feast that we anticipate each time we gather around the communion table.

So in the end, I don’t think that the kingdom of God is like a group of girls squabbling over some oil.  Instead, I think that the kingdom of God is like a big party, and everyone who hopes for the party – everyone who expects the party – is going to be welcomed in to it!

Let us pray:
            Holy God,
                        we wait for your kingdom,
                        we long for your kingdom,
                        we hope for your kingdom.
            Bring your reign of peace,
                                                of love,
                                                of justice,
            And while we wait,
                        help us to sustain our hope.
            We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,

[1] Thomas Merton, “The Five Virgins,” in The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1977), 826-827.

 (A Foretaste of the Wedding Feast)

5 November 2017

"For all the Saints" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
November 5, 2017 (All Saints Sunday)
Scripture:  Matthew 5:1-12

Blessed are the rich, for they will become richer.
Blessed are the emotionally numb, for nothing will disturb them.
Blessed are those with bombs and nuclear codes, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those with enough food, for they can afford to give away the crumbs from their tables.
Blessed are those with privilege, for they will decide what is right and what is wrong.
Blessed are those in the comfortable pews, for they can feel smug about their virtue.
Blessed are the bullies, for they can control the actions of others.


OK – so maybe Jesus didn’t say it quite like this.  But if you look at the way that our world works, what Jesus is saying in today’s reading from Matthew doesn’t make any sense.  If you look at the way that our world works, it usually isn’t the meek person who is given power, who inherits the earth.  If you look at the way that our world works, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness usually don’t get to see the fulfillment of their hunger.  If you look at the way that our world works, the poor in spirit, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers aren’t usually the people who are exalted, the people who are respected, the people who are celebrated.  In fact it’s often the opposite.  Usually it is the people who hold the power, the people who are rich, the people who are beautiful, the people who come from the “right family” – these are the people that our world celebrates.

So what does Jesus mean when he calls the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – what does Jesus mean when he calls them blessed?

Think about what the world means when it says blessed.  Someone brings supper over to you – “blessed.”  There is good weather for walking your dog – “blessed.”  You get to sleep in for an extra hour in the morning (though not in this region!) – “blessed.”

This is how we normally understand the word “blessed”.  It describes good things happening in life.  Any sports fans here this morning?  I hear that there’s going to be a big football game in three weeks.  I wonder which players are going to call themselves “blessed” in the post-game interviews.  I’m guessing that it’s not going to be the losing team.

And yet Jesus isn’t saying, “blessed are the winners of football games.”  Jesus isn’t saying, “blessed are the materially fortunate.”  Jesus isn’t saying, “blessed are those with an abundance of food.”

Thinking about all of this, I wonder what was actually meant by that word, “blessed.”  Last winter, I did a bit of work on this passage from Matthew’s gospel – what we sometimes call The Beatitudes.  I wanted to look up what was meant by the original Greek word used in Matthew’s gospel – surely it didn’t have the same meaning as what we think of as “blessed.”  In the school library we had a great big 12-volume “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” – the volumes are so huge that this dictionary has a table to itself in the library.  I looked up this word, “makarioi,” that Matthew uses to see what else it might mean besides blessed.

When I found the right volume and opened it up, it fell open right to the word I was looking for – telling me that I wasn’t the first person at the school to wonder what Jesus meant by “blessed.”

At first it wasn’t too helpful.  It told me that “makarioi” meant blessed or happy.  It told me that it meant, and I quote here, “the transcendent happiness of a life beyond care, labour, and death.”  It told me, not very helpfully, that in the New Testament, it was a word usually used to express a beatitude.  But then it started to get more interesting.  To be blessed, in this sense, is to see the present in light of the future.  To see the present in light of the future.  It implies tension between the state of the present and the state of the future.  The dictionary called it a “sacred paradox.”  (Wednesday night bible study folks – you might recognize this concept from our conversation last Wednesday.)

And I think that this is the key to understanding the blessings of the beatitudes.  Even though the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake – even though they don’t appear to be very blessed in Jesus’ time or in our time, in God’s coming kingdom they will be blessed.  They will receive the joy, the blessing, the transcendent happiness that comes from being fully present with God.

These beatitudes, the opening verses of chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel, are the opening words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  In Matthew’s gospel, this is Jesus’ first public discourse, his first public teaching that is recorded by Matthew.  Essentially, we are hearing the opening words to Jesus’ first sermon.

And Jesus uses the opening words of his first sermon to proclaim a vision for the world that is radically different than the world that we see around us.  Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God where the power structures aren’t just re-arranged but are completely turned upside down.  Jesus is proclaiming a world where the poor in spirit are blessed; a world where those who mourn are blessed; a world where the meek are blessed; a world where the pure in heart are blessed; a world where the peacemakers are blessed.

So what does this mean for us?  After all, we are living in a world that blesses the rich, the powerful, the privileged.  (quiet voice)  But the thing is, we are an Easter people.  We know that the world doesn’t get the final word.  We know that even when God dies on a cross and it seems as though the world has won, we know that the story doesn’t end on Friday.  We know that two days later, we will be celebrating the empty tomb, and God’s final word of joy and hope.

And because we know this, we can trust in the beatitudes.  We can trust that God’s kingdom will have the final word over the powers and principalities of this world.

Today, we are recognizing All Saints Day, which falls on November 1 each year.  On this day, we remember all of God’s saints who came before us in the world.  This includes saints whose names might be well known to us, like St. Theresa of Avila, St. Augustine, St. Peter, or Mother Theresa.  But it also includes all of God’s people in all generations – everyone who walked this road of faith before us.  People whose names may have only been known to those who loved them, and people whose names have been lost to the passage of time.

These are all of the saints who have gone ahead of us, who trusted the Easter message, who have caught glimpses of God’s coming kingdom.

The letter to the Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” and that we don’t travel this journey of faith alone.  There have been thousands and millions of saints who have made this journey before us.  There are thousands and millions of saints around the world who are making this journey with us.  We never need to be discouraged because we are never alone.  Not only has God been our constant companion since before we took our first breath; but our fellow saints are also always with us.

When I think about All Saints Day, I think about my Grandma.  She was born on a farm in south-western Ontario.  She was born in 1916 in a Methodist family, and when the United Church of Canada was formed and her family joined, she was 9 years old.  Church was always an important part of Grandma’s life, right up until she died.  She also loved school and studying, and dreamed of going to university; but never had an opportunity to do so.  She married a farmer and raised three children, and imparted a love of reading and learning in all of them.  She had 8 grandchildren who all inherited her love of reading, and all of us had the opportunity to go to university.  If she were alive today, she would now have 17 ½ great grandchildren.

She loved her family and she loved reading and learning.  But towards the end of her life, she became blind, as well as paralyzed from, as she described it, her “armpits down.”  She lived the last year of her life in the long term care wing of her local hospital.  But she never lost her gentleness and her love and her sense of humour.  Her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would visit her at the hospital; and if one of the nurses was having a bad day, they would go spend a bit of time in Grandma’s room, and leave there ready to face whatever else their day might hold.

When I think of God’s saints, and the great cloud of witness who surround us, I think first of my Grandma.  To me, she embodied the beatitudes that Jesus talked about.  She didn’t always have an easy life, and from the perspective of the world, she wasn’t showered with material blessings.  But even when times were difficult, she lived out these upside-down blessings of Jesus.  She saw the world, not through the hardships that she faced; but instead, like that definition I mentioned earlier, she saw the present in light of the future.  She was blessed.  I pray that I might be able to live my life with just a fraction of the grace with which my Grandma lived.

I want to take a minute, this All Saints Sunday, to remember the saints who have been important in each of our lives.  All of us have had mentors in our faith – people who have taught us, people who have inspired us, people who have influenced us, people who have led us.  This might include people who we have met and known well, or it might be people who have inspired us through their words or their actions or their writings.  We give thanks for all the saints.

At this time, I invite you to take the red heart from your bulletin and write on it the names of God’s saints that you want to remember and give thanks for today.  These might include the names of people you knew well or the names of people you never met.  These might include the names of people who have died, or the names of people who are still living.  I invite you to write the names of the saints for whom you give thanks, and when you are ready, I invite you to come forwards and place the names in this basket, and offer your thanksgiving here at the alter.

(people write and bring forward names)

Let us pray:
God of all times and all places,
today, we offer thanks for all the saints,
            for the saints who have been named here this morning,
            for the saints who have mentored us in our faith,
            for the saints who are well known,
            and for the saints whose names are known only to you.
We give thanks for women and men of faith
            who have gone before us,
            who have led us,
            who have walked with us on our journey.
We give thanks that we are part of the Communion of Saints,
            and surrounded by a great cloud of witness
            who have walked this road before us.
Help us to always travel this path of faith,
            trusting in your promise of blessing,
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the author and perfecter of our faith.

(Grandma with three of her grandchildren, circa 2001)