26 November 2018

"What Sort of King? What Sort of Kingdom?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
November 25, 2018
Scripture:  John 18:33-37

It feels a bit strange, perched on the threshold of Advent as we move towards Christmas, to have a reading taken straight from our Good Friday story.  In the context of our Sunday-morning readings it makes sense.  Ever since the middle of September, we have been moving with Jesus towards Jerusalem, and for the past couple of weeks we have been there in the city, hearing about the events of the last week of Jesus’ life.  And now, even though we’ve skipped from Mark’s gospel over to John’s, we still have some continuity.  We are there with Jesus standing before Pilate as the judge.  Christ is on trial.

The church year doesn’t quite follow the calendar year.  It starts with Advent and cycles through until today, which is known as the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday.  We begin in Advent which is a season of waiting and preparing, then we move through the events of Jesus’ life – his birth, his teachings, his actions, his death, and his resurrection – and then we come to today which is also a time of waiting.  We are waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled, for a time when God will fully rule or reign over all of creation.

But what does God’s reign look like?  We talk about Christ the King, but do we really want a King ruling over us?  What sorts of models of king-ship to we have in our world?

In the world that Jesus was living in, the rule was by the Roman Emperors, who were not known for their loving-kindness and generosity.  The ancient Israelite people had had their kings too, beginning with King David and stretching on for several centuries until they were defeated and sent into exile in Babylon.  But if you look at scripture, you will see that of the 43 kings, only 7 of them did good in the eyes of God, which leaves 36 of them who did evil from God’s perspective.

And then what about our examples of kingship that we have in our world today?  We have the British royal family, who gives us weddings that we can wake up at 4am to watch, and baby bumps that we can follow on social media; but aside from supporting various charities, they are a pretty benign force in the big picture of things.

And so when we call Christ our King, or when we long for the reign or rule of Christ to come, what are we really longing for?  Do we want Christ to be a king in the way that the Roman Emperors ruled?  Do we want a benign and harmless king like the British monarchy?

I’m fascinated by the contrast between Jesus and Pilate in today’s reading.  Here we have Jesus, who has been arrested like any other criminal.  His followers have left him.  Peter has just denied knowing him.  He’s stood before the High Priest, and now he’s standing before the governor of the region.  Almost immediately following the passage that we read today, he’s going to be beaten and nailed to a cross.

 We used this image in our "Story for All Ages" contrasting Pilate and Jesus
"'What is Truth?' Christ and Pilate" by N. N. Ge
Public Domain
And then we have Pilate.  Pilate was the prefect, or governor of the province of Judea.  He represented the Emperor in the region; he ruled on behalf of the Emperor; he was the ultimate political authority in the region.  He was probably dressed in fancy robes representing his status.  He was probably surrounded by servants and slaves and soldiers, ready to do his every bidding.

So when we look at these two standing together – Pilate and Jesus – which one of them appears to have the power?

And yet we dare to call Jesus our king.  We are choosing to follow a king who rode in to Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a warhorse.  We are choosing to follow a king who wears a crown of thorns rather than a crown of gold.  We are choosing to follow a king who is raised up on a cross rather than on a throne.  We are choosing to follow a king who rules by love rather than by retaliatory violence.

The feminist in me wishes that we had a good gender-inclusive word that would convey that sense of absolute authority that “king” or “lord” carries; but we are constrained by the English language here.  And the thing is, if we call Christ our King or our Lord, we are actually making a very powerful statement; because if we are subjects of Jesus Christ – if we give Christ the ultimate authority over our lives – then we can’t give that authority to anyone else.

If God-in-Jesus is Lord over our lives, then our possessions can’t be Lord.
If God-in-Jesus is Lord over our lives, then our political affiliation can’t be Lord.
If God-in-Jesus is Lord over our lives, then we ourselves can’t be Lord.
If God-in-Jesus is Lord over our lives, then celebrity and social media culture can’t be Lord.
If God-in-Jesus is Lord over our lives, then violence and anger can’t be Lord.

When we recognize and celebrate this Sunday as the Reign of Christ Sunday, we are proclaiming that we celebrate God’s topsy-turvy, upside-down kingdom where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  We are proclaiming that we have confidence that the time is coming when this topsy-turvy, upside down kingdom will be the only kingdom across the whole earth and throughout all of creation.  We are proclaiming that we aren’t satisfied with the world as it is, because we know that something better is coming; and we are proclaiming our intention to live by the rules of God’s kingdom rather than the rules of the world around us.  We are proclaiming that we intend to live in celebration of abundance rather than fear of scarcity.  We are proclaiming that we intend to live by love and peace rather than by fear and violence.  We are proclaiming that we intend to live in community with all of creation rather than in self-centered isolation.

I mentioned at the beginning that this Sunday is the last one in the church year, and that a new church year will begin next week with the season of Advent.  Which makes today a little bit like New Year’s Eve.  And so as we sit on the threshold of a new year, I would like to invite you to take part in the time-honoured tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions.  How can we, as a church, resolve to be a community where this alternative, counter-cultural kingdom can bubble up into existence?  How can we live our allegiance to Christ the King in the world that we live in?

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

19 November 2018

"Hope, Instead of Fear" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Dec. 18, 2018
Scripture:  Mark 13:1-8

When I say “apocalypse” what do you think of?  If you are anything like me, I know that my brain tends to jump straight to movies featuring zombies with blank stares, post-nuclear wastelands, and warring factions; or to books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or just about anything written by Margaret Atwood.  What seems to tie them together is a sense of pervading fear and violence, and a plot that features one person or a small group fighting against the rest of the world.

Post-apocalyptic dystopias in fiction and movies seem to have been increasing in popularity in the past decade and a half, and many people have linked this trend to what’s going on in the world around us.  Wars leading to unfathomable numbers of refugees.  Climate change leading to changing weather patterns with more powerful storms than we have known in the past.  Rapid changes in technology that is almost impossible to keep up with.  Just this week, we have been flooded with images of fires in California leaving behind landscapes that are almost impossible to imagine in their total devastation.  Is it any wonder that this apocalyptic genre resonates with us and has been gaining popularity in books and movies?

But apocalyptic literature isn’t a new genre to this century.  We find it as far back as parts of the Old and New Testament.  The best-known examples are probably the books of Daniel and Revelation; but we also find shorter passages scattered throughout, including the one that we read this morning from Mark’s gospel.

On the surface, this biblical apocalyptic literature contains some scary images.  In today’s reading from Mark, we have mention of earthquakes and famines and wars, and a prediction that the temple, the heart of the culture in which Jesus lived, was going to be destroyed.

But the origins of the word apocalypse don’t have anything to do with fear, or even with the end of the world.  It means something more like an unveiling, revealing something that has been hidden.

We see a bit of that unveiling in today’s reading.  Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple, and one of his disciples pauses, in awe, at the sight of the temple.  And the temple was surely an awe-inspiring sight – each stone that made the walls was 12m long, 4m high, and 5½m deep.  It was by far the biggest building in Jerusalem, the biggest building that anyone had ever seen, almost impossible to fathom and as solid a building as you could imagine.  And the disciple, lost in awe, wants to share that awe with Jesus.  “What large stones, and what large buildings!”  But Jesus, looking with unveiled eyes, doesn’t see something to be in awe of.  Jesus sees a building that is built with human hands, and that will eventually crumble just as everything that humans build crumbles.  With Jesus’ unveiled eyes, the only thing that can inspire awe is God.

And I think that this is the key to reading the apocalyptic books in the bible.  We need to keep God at the centre of our reading.  We need to have our eyes unveiled so that we can keep them fixed on God.

I think that one of the things that the apocalyptic books and passages in the bible tell us is that scary things happen in every generation.  When Jesus and his disciples were standing outside the temple, they were living under the rule of the Roman Empire – a rule that didn’t allow for any questioning or opposition, or else you might end up nailed to a cross.  30 or 40 years later when the Gospel of Mark was being written down, the community that recorded these stories of Jesus’ life was still living under Roman oppression, but now they were in the middle of a full-blown war that eventually caused the destruction of Jerusalem including the temple that the disciple was in awe of.  And today?  Well, today we still have scary things in our world.  We still have wars, we have people displaced from their homes, we are destroying the world that God created.

But the thing that the apocalyptic stories in the bible give us that we don’t usually find in popular culture apocalyptic stories is the reassurance, the confidence that God is with us.  Bad things are going to happen in every generation, but God is with us.  We might be tempted to feel fear in the moment, but God is with us and so we don’t need to feel afraid.

Baptism is given to us as a sign that God is with us always.  We baptized Jack this morning, and while common sense tells us that life won’t always be smooth sailing and rainbows and unicorns for Jack and his parents; we can be assured that God is with them.  We can be confident that God is with them when things are good, and we can be confident that God is with them even when things are tough and scary.

Today’s passage from Mark’s gospel hints at this re-assurance.  As Jesus is describing wars and famines and earthquakes, Jesus tells us that this isn’t the end of the story – the end is yet to come – the end where God is fully present and all of these bad and scary things will end.  Jesus goes on to use a childbirth image.  While I have never given birth myself, I’m told that it is a painful and sometimes scary thing to go through, but at the end, a new life has begun.  And with God as midwife, what a birthing it will be as God’s vision for the world is revealed!

And this is the source of our hope.  God is with us in every generation when things are good and when things are bad; God is with us in the here and now; and God will be with us in the future when this unveiling, this revelation, this apocalypse is complete and God’s dream for the world is fully realized.

I want to end with a quote from Adrienne Maree Brown, an author and Black activist.  Two and a half years ago, in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement, days after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had been killed, she tweeted the following:  “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.  we must hold each other tight & continue to pull back the veil.”

And so when we are tempted to fear, instead let us hold each other close, and let us work together to pull back the veil so that God’s vision for the world can be revealed.

May it be so.

What popular culture associates with "apocalypse"

14 November 2018

"Who's Got the Power?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Nov. 10/11 2018
Scripture:  Mark 12:38-44

So today we have one of the well-known stories of Jesus’ ministry.  The story of a poor widow who puts all of her money – two copper coins – we might say two pennies if we still used pennies here in Canada – she put all of the money she had into the collection plate at the temple.

Now I could probably make the Stewardship committee and the Treasurers happy if I stood up here and preached a sermon on increasing our offerings to the church each week.  Just look at the widow – she was so faithful that she gave not just some but all of her money to the church of her day!  Look at how Jesus points out what she is doing!  After all, this is how this story has been interpreted so often over the centuries.

But sorry, Stewards and Treasurers.  I’m going to save my sermon about how we should all give everything that we have to the church for another day.  Instead, I’m going to invite you to look a bit more closely at this story of the widow.  If you want to flip open a bible in your pew, go for it.  If you have a close look at this story, you will see that nowhere does Jesus commend the widow for her actions.  We don’t have Jesus saying to her, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  We don’t have Jesus saying to his disciples, “Now go and do likewise.”  If you look closely at this passage, all that we have is Jesus noticing her actions and pointing it out to his disciples.

So if Jesus didn’t want to praise her for her actions, what else might be going on here?

We might jump to the opposite extreme.  Maybe, instead of commending the widow for her faithfulness and devotion and sacrifice, maybe Jesus was condemning the economic system that forced her to live in poverty and give away all of her money.

This story of the widow is found right after a powerful condemnation of those who are the opposite of humble, those who like to be the centre of attention.  Jesus tells us to beware of those who walk around in fancy clothing, those who like to be greeted with respect, those who like to have the best seats when they gather to worship where they could influence worship, those who liked to be seated at the head table at banquets, those who say long and empty prayers.  And in the middle of this list, we encounter the curious phrase, “they devour widows’ houses.”  Scholars have written pages and volumes trying to figure out what that phrase means.  It might mean that the wealthy took advantage of those who couldn’t say no; or it might mean, as some scholars have suggested, that since widows weren’t considered capable of managing their own finances, their property and possessions were managed by the Scribes which led to a system of exploitation.[1]

So coming after this powerful condemnation of the group of people who sought honour and power, what if we saw the story of the widow as a continuation of this?  What if, by pointing out that she was forced to give away all of the money she had, Jesus was continuing to condemn the systems that led to some people being rich and powerful and others being poor and hungry?  The Jesus that we see elsewhere in the gospels never supports systems and actions that make poor people even poorer, more vulnerable, and even dead by starvation if she had no money left to live on.

But what if there’s a third way?  What if this isn’t a story about money at all?  What if this isn’t about Jesus praising the woman for her generosity; and what if this isn’t a story about condemning economic systems that lead to poverty?

What if we look at this story as a story about power?  Who has more power, and who has less power?

If we take both halves of the reading together, we start with the Scribes.  They have the power in the world where they lived.  They were authorities in the Temple, like a cathedral in their culture.  They wielded religious and political influence.  They were greeted with respect in the marketplaces and they were given the seat of honour, seated at the head table at banquets.  Everyone wanted to be close to the Scribes in case some of their power and influence and prestige rubbed of.  Power by association.

And then we have the widow.  She has no power.  In a patriarchal society, a true widow had no male relative to represent her in the public sphere.  She had no voice, even by proxy.  She can’t even wield influence through her wealth, as we’re told that her entire income was 2 cents.  Even by giving away all of her money, she wouldn’t have been noticed by anyone.  She is at the very opposite end of the power spectrum from the scribes.

Now, let’s take Jesus.  Jesus had some power in the world in which he lived.  He was male, to begin with, and he was Jewish which put him as part of the dominant culture and religion.  His power was decreased somewhat because he came from the backwater of Galilee, and he came from a background of poverty rather than wealth.  But he did have the power of a voice.  He had a group of followers that would hang on to his every word.  And if we step outside of the story for a moment, from a Christian perspective, Jesus had all of the power of God.

So how did Jesus use his power?  He could have used his power to dress himself in fine robes, and get himself invited to the best banquets.  But we don’t see that happening very often in the gospels.  Instead, in todays story, we have Jesus using his power to draw attention to someone with no power.  We have Jesus noticing someone who had probably not been noticed in quite some time.  We have Jesus truly seeing her – seeing her for who she was.  We have Jesus pointing her out to his followers so that they can see her too.  Jesus used the power that he had in order to give power to another – the power of being seen.

I witnessed an example of power being used to create space for those with less power this past summer.  The General Council of the United Church of Canada meets every 3 years, and there was a meeting last summer in Ontario.  I couldn’t be there, but since they live-stream the proceedings, I was able to watch a lot of it that week.  The meeting ran from Sunday through Friday, and so late Friday afternoon the meeting was finishing up with any outstanding business before the closing worship after supper.

Throughout the week, the meeting had paused several times to allow one of the Intercultural Observers to make a short presentation.  These were people attending the meeting who brought a slightly different perspective because of their personal background.  Anyways, late on Friday afternoon, one of these Intercultural Observers, Paul Walfall, a United Church of Canada minister of Caribbean origin, was invited to share one final observation.  He stood up, and said in very clear language that he hadn’t seen himself or his background reflected in any of the meetings or any of the worship.  When he was done speaking, the room, in good United Church fashion applauded, and then the meeting resumed.

Paul Walfall addressing General Council 43
Picture from The United Church of Canada Facebook page
About 15 minutes later, two delegates at the meeting came to the microphone and said that there had been a very powerful opportunity missed in which the church could have listened to those who were marginalized.  And after a few minutes of discussion, the moderator, Jordan Cantwell, invited people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds to share their stories.  And nothing happened at first.  She then asked the white people lined up and waiting at the microphones to please step away to make space.  When they only moved back a step or two, she became more blunt and told all white people to sit down and shut up.  And what followed was 2 hours of very powerful story-sharing.  People who hadn’t felt welcomed or safe at the microphone came forward and shared their stories and experiences of racism in the church.  People from every corner of the world who are now a part of our United Church came forward – some people shared positive experiences, but many of the stories were very painful.  And the rest of the meeting sat and listened.

One person, Moderator Jordan Cantwell, used her power to create a space where people who were vulnerable, people who were marginalized, people who didn’t feel safe to speak and were often overlooked were able to come forward, were able to share their stories, were able to be seen and heard.  One person used her power to empower the powerless.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to grow in our Christ-like-ness.  We open ourselves to the Holy Spirit so that we can be transformed into the image of Christ.  And so the question that I want to ask is how can we use our power to give power to those who don’t have any?  Because I would suggest that if you woke up this morning in a bed in a warm house or apartment, and if you know where your next meal is going to come from, then you have more power than many people in our world.  Who in our communities is overlooked, unseen like the widow in today’s story?  How are we called to create a space so that those who are vulnerable can be seen, and those who are powerless can be heard?

How will you use your power?

[1] See, for example, Ched Myers, “Say to This Mountain” Mark’s Story of Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 165.

5 November 2018

"Love God, Love Your Neighbour" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
November 4, 2018
Scripture Reading:  Mark 12:28-34

You know how when you watch a TV show, sometimes the episodes begin with a quick recap of what happened on last week’s episode?  I almost feel like this weeks reading from Mark’s gospel needs to be prefaced with, “Here’s what you missed last week on The Bible.”

The church year begins with Advent and moves through Christmas, Epiphany, on to Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost; and then we have a great long stretch of time until we get to the last Sunday of the church year when we look forward to the Reign of Christ.  Our readings from Mark’s gospel from Christmas, through Easter and Pentecost, and on until about the middle of September were all focused on Jesus’ ministry close to home, in the region of Galilee.  We had stories about Jesus calling his disciples, and healing people, and teaching people.  And then around the middle of September, we reached the first big pivot-point in the story.  Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and then told them that he was going to die, but then would be raised back to life.

After that moment, Jesus and his disciples began their journey from Galilee, south towards Jerusalem, and Jesus’ teaching began to take on an increased urgency.

Now if you have been following our readings from week-to-week, you might have noticed that between last week and this week, we have skipped over a chapter and a half of Mark’s gospel.  In that chapter, Jesus and his followers entered the city of Jerusalem, which marks the next big pivot-point in Mark’s gospel.

We are now into the last couple of days of Jesus’ life, and his teachings are taking on an even greater sense of urgency and importance.

And here we have a scribe, one of the temple officials, asking Jesus, what is the greatest commandment of all.  Here is Jesus’ opportunity to leave his listeners with one final message.  Here is Jesus’ opportunity to sum up his entire teaching into a quick soundbite.  Maybe you want to compare it to a lawyer’s closing argument at a trial; maybe you want to compare it to a politician’s final speech before retiring; maybe you want to compare it to the last page on a book – the words that are left in your ear and in your mind once you are done.

And Jesus chooses to quote from Deuteronomy and Leviticus – two of the books of the Torah, the 5 books that are the books of the law or the teachings for all Jewish people.  These are books that the Scribe as a devout Jewish person would have been intimately familiar with; and they are books that Jesus as a devout Jewish person would have grown up hearing, and then spent his ministry teaching from.

And Jesus begins by quoting from Deuteronomy, the words of the Shema, the words of the prayer that is prayed every day by every Jewish person.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

And then he goes on to quote from Leviticus, which, on the surface, might appear to be a book of lists of things that you are supposed to do and not do.  But there, in the middle of chapter 19 of Leviticus, comes this summary statement:  “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  All of the dos and do-nots in the verses leading up to this one are about doing the decent thing by your neighbour; about treating your neighbour as you would want to be treated yourself.

That’s it.  Jesus’ summary of God’s commandments; Jesus’ summary of everything that he has been teaching and doing; it all comes down to this:  Love God.  Love your neighbour.  This is the core, the centre of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  Love God.  Love your neighbour.

Now some of you might be thinking, and I know that I sometimes think this, but some people are so much easier to love than others.  How can I love someone that I don’t particularly like?

Believe me, we aren’t the first ones to struggle with this!  A couple of my favourite authors have addressed this very question.

Madeline L’Engle is maybe best known these days for her book A Wrinkle in Time which was made in to a movie earlier this year.  In the sequel to this book, A Wind in the Door, one of the characters, Meg, is struggling to love a character that she doesn’t really like – namely the principal at her school, Mr. Jenkins.  Meg asks, “how can I do the impossible? … How can I feel love for Mr. Jenkins?” and she is told, “Love isn’t how you feel.  It’s what you do.”[1]  Love isn’t how you feel – it’s what you do.

C. S. Lewis, well known for writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, along with the rest of the Narnia books, also wrote many theology books.  In his book Mere Christianity he suggests that the way to find love for our neighbours that aren’t particularly likeable is not “to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings… Do not waste time bothering whether you love your neighbour; act as if you did.”[2]  He goes on to suggest that the same rule applies to loving God – that we should ask ourselves, “If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?  [and] when you have found the answer, go and do it.”[3]

So loving our neighbour or loving God comes down to how we live, and how we act towards them.  Our love is more than something that we feel – it is something that we do, something that we live.

This week, for All Saints Day, we have been remembering all of the saints of the church – all of the women and men of faith who have come before us, who have led the way in faith, who have mentored us, who have taught us, who have inspired us.  These are women and men of faith who have modeled for us how to live this love – how to live life loving God and loving neighbour.

And so we give thanks for the saints we have known, and for the saints we have heard or read about.  We give thanks for their lives and for their faith; and we pray that we too might be inspired by the Holy Spirit to live out this love that comes from God.  And we can be confident that God isn’t done with us yet – that the Holy Spirit is always transforming us more and more into the image of Christ so that we too can be drawn into the eternal dance of love that is God.

May it be so.

The "Great Cloud of Witnesses" for All Saints Day
Triptych from the chapel of the Atlantic School of Theology
Photo Credit:  Falen McNulty

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1973), 117-118.
[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 1952), 130-131.
[3] Ibid., 132.