Sunday, November 26, 2017

Christ the King - 2017

Matthew 25:31-46

Well, are you a sheep or are you a goat? When Jesus, the great shepherd, the great King, comes to carefully study your life, will he decide that you belong on the right, with those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited those in prison? Will you be one of the inheritors of the kingdom of heaven? Or will the Son of Man decide that you belong on the left, with those who didn’t? Will you be sent off into eternal punishment?

I ask because, according to the Gospel of Matthew, it’s not obvious. In the parable I just read, there is a lot of uncertainty about who will end up with the righteous, and who will end up with the unrighteous. You may be struck that those whom Jesus calls “accursed,” and sends off to the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” are shocked. They have no idea that they missed the boat: “When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” I don’t think these are awful people. I think they probably think of themselves as pretty decent folk. Very few people actually intend to live a life of pure evil; even the harshest dictators like to think they’re doing what’s best. The unrighteous in Jesus’ parable don’t know they missed opportunities––their surprise is genuine.

Interestingly, those who do take care of those in need are also shocked. The ones who get welcomed in the kingdom of heaven also ask, “Lord, when was it” that we did all these things? Just as the unrighteous have no idea they missed the boat, the righteous have no idea that they were on it. They have no idea that they actually belong on the sheep side. They, too, go about living their lives the best way they can, and it is a complete surprise to them that Jesus says they are deserving of eternal life.

(And, just as an aside, because this isn’t where I’m going with my sermon today: I do think it’s interesting that when Jesus splits the people up into sheep and goats, he does it completely on the basis of the good they’ve done in the world and not at all on whether they call themselves followers of Jesus. This isn’t like the Gospel of John, where only those who follow Christ and recognize his voice are the ones who are saved by the Shepherd. With Matthew, we could go so far as to say that everyone who cares for the least among us will be welcomed by Jesus into the kingdom of heaven, even if they’re atheists, while those who call themselves Christian but walk by the poor or even abuse them will not be.)
In any case, having heard Matthew tell us that we have no idea whether we’re going to be sent to the sheep side or the goat side, I have to ask, how do you feel about that? How do you feel about not knowing if what you’re doing in the world is good enough to get you assigned to the sheep side?

It makes me feel anxious. I mean, I try to do the right thing. I tithe 10% of my income every month to the food bank, and the women’s shelter, and SOS Children’s Villages, and PFLAG. When there is some major crisis in the world, I give to that, too. I never have cash in my wallet because I keep giving it away to the increasing number of people standing at the stop lights needing money. But, I know it’s not enough. I eat dessert even though I know there are people starving in the world, I have more than one pair of winter boots even though I know there are children who have no shoes at all, I stay at home in the evening and watch TV even though I know the hospitals and prisons are full of people who are alone and in need of company. I live quite securely with all my clothes and books and belongings in my nice, warm house, even though I know that in Calgary, 10% of the population, including 10% of the children, live below the poverty line, and 1/3 of us worry about not having enough money for housing. I’m not out there feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting them. I’m not out there taking care of the least among us. What I am doing is not enough. And so I’m anxious that Jesus, the great Shepherd, my King and my Lord, has good reason to send me off to the eternal fire, to suffer the way those around me are suffering on earth right now.

So, I’m feeling kind of depressed now, and the children have been sitting here so nicely, so I am going to take a break and go talk to them for a minute. Children, can you come forward up here? 

[So I have here a picture of someone who looks like they would be a great king. He is tall, and strong, and powerful. And here is a picture of someone who doesn’t look very much like a king. He is old, and he doesn’t look very strong, and he looks like he doesn’t even have anywhere to rest his head and sleep at night. Which one do you choose to be the king? The powerful and strong one? But if you had done something bad, and you knew you had to go and tell the truth about the bad thing you did, which one would you choose? Our King, whom we call Jesus, was actually not very strong and powerful. He was not at all like the first king. Our King actually died. And when people went to him to tell him the bad things he had done, he forgave them. And I bet he gave them a hug too. Our King, Jesus, is much more like this second person than the first. That’s what makes him a very special King, not like any of the others, and that’s why we love him and follow him and try to do what he does. Because he died for us and he forgives us and he loves us, and we are so glad to belong to him. Let us pray: Dear God, thank you for loving us and forgiving us and dying for us. Thank you for being a different kind of King. Help us to be like you. Amen.]

Our King, the one who will come to judge the living and the dead, does not want us to end up on the side of the goats. Our shepherd has no desire for us to end up in eternal fire. Our king would rather take care of us, and nurture us. In our reading from the Old Testament this morning, from Ezekiel, God says, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed (the Hebrew says cast out), and I will bind up the injured; and I will strengthen the weak. ... I will feed them with justice.” In fact, just a bit earlier in Ezekiel, in the chapter before our reading, God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” Our shepherd-King, our God, is not all excited about sending anybody “away into eternal punishment.”

And so, our shepherd-King, our God, takes steps to ensure that that doesn’t happen. Rather than crushing us for mistakes we make out of weakness, God strengthens us. Not by threatening us, but by loving us. Rather than punishing us when we fall, God lifts us up and sets us back on our feet. Rather than thundering over us with proclamations that we are unjust, God feeds us with justice. Rather than putting us to death for our role in the deaths of others, as we so rightly deserve, God dies for us. 

Our King dies for us. And in his death, our efforts become enough. Because our King dies for us, rather than demanding we die for him, we are brought from the side of the goats over to the side of the sheep. We are carried from eternal punishment to eternal life. We are made righteous. In dying, our King sends us God’s own Spirit, so that we, too, might seek the lost, and bring back the cast out, and bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. We, too, might feed the least among us with justice. We, too, might die for others. And where our work is not enough, God’s Spirit strengthens it, and makes it enough.

When I hear our Gospel reading from Matthew, I tend to imagine in my head that Jesus ends up dividing the nations roughly in two, with half going to the righteous side and half going to the unrighteous. But you know, it doesn’t actually say that anywhere in the reading. It doesn’t say anywhere how many inherit the kingdom and how many go to the fire. And when I read Ezekiel, and when I think about what it means that Christ is our King-who-dies-for-us, I begin to think that maybe, just maybe, the kingdom of heaven is full and the place of eternal fire is empty. Maybe the answer to the question of whether you are a sheep or a goat is actually obvious after all. The shepherd-King of the nations died for the nations, so that all may have life, and have it abundantly, and that includes you. Keep on doing the best you can in feeding the hungry, and welcoming the stranger, and clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and those in prison. Through the Holy Spirit within you, the very Spirit of Jesus Christ the King, you will end up caring for the least, and you will end up caring for Jesus. And the King who cares enough for you to give up even his life to make you righteous will welcome you with open arms into his kingdom and into eternal life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Pentecost 23 - Entitled Bridesmaids

Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13

So, I’m kind of the family organizer when we pack to take a trip somewhere. I make up a list of how many sets of clothes each kid needs, and me too, and I figure out what kinds of shoes we should bring, and how many hair elastics, and socks and shirts, and don’t forget your toothbrush. I write each child a list, and me too, and we all check them off as we pack. I hate it when we’re in the middle of a trip and it turns out that someone forgot their toothbrush and we have to detour to get one. I think it’s important to be prepared.

Except that, if you ask my husband, he will tell you that I never pack toothpaste. I don’t know why I don’t pack toothpaste. Actually, I do know why, and it’s because I assume that he will always pack toothpaste. Somewhere along the way, we just got into the habit, or rather I got into the habit, of using his toothpaste when we travel, and assuming that it was okay. Why shouldn’t it be? We use the same toothpaste at home. I know he’s going to bring some, so why should I bring my own? I’ve arranged everything else - I should be allowed to use his toothpaste. He should be happy to share!

And I think this is why I get kind of annoyed at the wise bridesmaids in our parable today. They couldn’t share their oil? Really? Not even a little bit? Isn’t that what Jesus is always saying? Share your cloak, go the second mile, give your food to the hungry, that kind of thing. At the very least, couldn’t they even let the bridegroom know that, hey–half the bridesmaids had to get some oil so hold the door for them? Or even remind the bridegroom that actually, yes, he does know those bridesmaids outside the door? Why is Jesus saying that the ones who don’t share are the ones who get into the kingdom of heaven? What’s going on here?

Well, like so many stories in the Bible, this is one of those passages when there is much more going on than meets the eye. You see, the Gospel of Matthew was written just a little bit after the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. In the year 70, the Roman Empire, who had occupied Palestine from before Jesus’ birth, completely leveled the city of Jerusalem. They destroyed everything, and they set fire to the Temple, the central place of worship for the Jewish people, including Jesus and his first followers. The fire was so intense that the stones that the Temple were built out of cracked and the gold in the Temple melted into rivers, and the Temple collapsed. And this was devastating for the Jewish people. They believed that God’s Spirit was present to them in the Temple and that when the Temple was gone, God’s Spirit had left them. Imagine going through not only the complete devastation of your city but then feeling completely bereft of God’s presence.

And to make matters worse, Rome then levied a religious tax on all Jews living in the Roman Empire, and only on Jews. And that tax was used to build and maintain the Temple to Jupiter that was in Rome. Rome destroyed the Jewish Temple, and then taxed the Jews to build a Temple to an idol. It was a deliberate maneuver by Rome to keep the Jewish people humiliated.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Roman Empire took control of who would be appointed the religious leaders of the Jewish people. The Empire had in fact started that before they destroyed the Temple - the Romans were the ones who appointed Herod to be King, and appointed Caiaphas and Annas and all the other priests in the Temple - and this Roman-controlled leadership continued even after it fell.

This is the background of the Gospel of Matthew, our gospel for today and in fact this whole past year. The Gospel was written by a Jew who followed Jesus Christ’s way of being Jewish. The Gospel was written by a Jew who had been the victim of Rome’s extreme abuse of power, and who was still expected to “share” his resources in order to build a foreign Temple.

And so we come to the ten bridesmaids. To the five wise ones who had brought oil, a religious symbol of righteousness, to the wedding feast, a religious symbol of worshipping God, and we come to the five foolish ones, who had no oil, or righteousness, of their own, and yet who still expect to be let in to the presence of God.

And the key here, at least for us this morning, lies in what the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil.” Give us. They’re not asking for oil. They’re not acknowledging that they failed to prepare. They are demanding oil. “Give us some of your oil.”

So, my husband will tell you, and has given me permission to tell you, that when we’re traveling and I don’t pack my own toothpaste, and I just assume I can use his, that he gets really annoyed. He does. And I don’t blame him. It’s annoying when someone acts entitled to what’s yours. There’s no question about that. In fact, it’s more than annoying. It’s unfair. It’s unjust. Moving beyond the issue of me feeling entitled to his toothpaste, we are, as a society, currently at the beginning of a long-overdue conversation about what it means to act out of entitlement and what it means to be the one on the receiving end of those acts. The Truth and Reconciliation movement, and the #metoo campaign are both lifting the veil on the ways in which people in power feel entitled to the property and to the bodies of those under their control. Our eyes are opening to the ways in which the “foolish” ones in power say, “Give us.”

And God is not okay with this. In our parable, we see that those who act out entitlement and demand things from others are not welcome in the kingdom of heaven. Even in our first reading from Amos, God is angry at those who try to enter God’s presence through offerings and songs and at the same time, as it says just before our reading from Amos, “push aside the needy at the gate [to the Temple],” “trample on the poor” and tax them to build their own majestic houses, and “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” God condemns those who assume that their positions of power make them entitled to neglect and abuse and exploit others. “Let justice roll down like waters,” says God. A flood to sweep away any culture of entitlement.

As someone who feels entitled to toothpaste, this makes me kind of uncomfortable. As someone who puts on this collar and will soon be installed as the pastor of this congregation, “entitled” to the rights and privileges therein, this makes me really uncomfortable. I admit that, because of my professional position, I sometimes act out of a sense of entitlement. I expect that when I stand up here and give a sermon, that I am entitled to speak without interruption. I expect that when I say something in Bible Study or Confirmation or even meetings or when I stand at the front of a seminary class to teach, that I am entitled to a quiet and attentive audience. And maybe you agree that I am. I hope so. But there are times when my entitlement leads me to talk over people, or to dismiss what others are saying, or to minimize their contribution. When I demand that people be quiet when I talk, I am acting like the foolish bridesmaids who say, “Give us some of your oil.”

And I think that if we are honest, we will all find that there are situations in our lives where we do the same. Whether it is as parents, or grandparents, or as bosses, or in any number of situations where we are accustomed to having a say, we can act out of entitlement. We might feel entitled to having the final word, to putting our arm around someone else, to deciding when the conversation is over, to using something that belongs to someone else without asking. And when we do, we need to remember that Jesus is watching us, to see if he needs to say that he doesn’t know us or to keep us away from others.

Luther said that the proclamation of the Gospel, the speaking of the Good News, should afflict the comfortable. And I think this parable afflicts us when we get too comfortable. But Luther also said that the Gospel should comfort the afflicted. And I think that just as much as we have all acted out of entitlement, we also have had those times when we ourselves have suffered from the entitlement of others. When people have talked over us, or felt entitled to what we have, or to our bodies. I’m sure that there have been times in your life, when people have said to you, “Give me...” Give me your undivided attention, give me your unqualified support, give me your immediate obedience, give me the use of your body. In my professional life, people have talked over me, silenced me, dismissed me. People have felt entitled to make comments about my body, I’ve hashtagged #metoo.

And in those situations, God’s words are a comfort. To know that God does not support or encourage entitled behaviour, to know that God will send justice to wipe away “Give me” behaviour, to know that God will establish a kingdom where power is used to protect and to provide, and not to exploit or abuse, to know that we can, like the wise bridesmaids, say “No!” and Jesus will invite us in and close the door behind us. This is a comfort. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is offering what is essentially a zero-tolerance policy towards entitlement and abuse, welcoming us in and keeping those who abuse their power out.

The Gospel of Matthew presents the world in a very black-and-white way. There are wise bridesmaids and foolish bridesmaids. You’re either one or the other; you’re either inside at the wedding banquet or you’re outside with the weeping and gnashing of teeth. But life is more complicated than that. Sometimes we’re wise and sometimes we’re foolish. But our hope lies not in our own wisdom, but in the wisdom of God, in Jesus Christ, who opens our eyes to our own entitled behaviors so we can leave it behind and take part in the feast that purifies us of our tendencies towards exploitation and entitlement and “give us” behaviours. Our hope comes from trusting that Christ will know us and welcome us as his own, whatever the day or hour. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

All Saints Sunday - When We Mourn Relationships

Revelation 7:9-17;
1 John 3:1-3;
Matthew 4:1-12

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Of all the beatitudes - blessings - we hear today, it’s this one that seems particular for All Saints’ Sunday. This day in the liturgical calendar has a mix of histories. It includes All Saint’s Day on November 1st, when the church celebrated the saints and martyrs of the church who have died. It also includes All Soul’s Day on November 2nd, when the church would pray for the souls of all the departed. In the last number of years, it has become a merging of the two in our current All Saint’s Day, when we remember and give thanks for the saints who have gone before us, by which we mean all baptized Christians. This morning, our readings direct us to honour All Saints’ Sunday by focusing on those who mourn.

This morning, the candles that we will light and the names that we will hear during our prayers point us to a particular church ritual that helps us to grieve for those who have died. Whether they died recently or a long time ago, the lighting of the candles and speaking their names is a sign that they are never truly gone, but live on in our memories of them. Even more, when we participate in Holy Communion on this Sunday, we hear reminders that when we gather around God’s table, we are gathering with the living and the dead: “With all the saints, with the choirs of angels and all the hosts of heaven, we praise [God’s] holy name.” And we ask God to “join our prayers with those of your servants of every time and every place.” We believe that in the sacred moment of Holy Communion, God transcends the limitations of time and space and brings us together with everyone who has ever, or will ever, participate in this feast, united in one single kairos moment, one single moment in holy time, so that around this table we are not separate from those have died.

But I’ve been wondering this week, what about those situations where it seems as if someone we love has died, but they actually haven’t? What about those people who we sometimes say are “dead to us,” but aren’t actually dead? Or those who might say about us that we’re “dead to them?” What about those situations where the person isn’t dead, but the relationship is? Because that’s a kind of death that we don’t really talk about in church. We don’t include the names of those with whom we’re estranged on our prayer list, or light candles for them.

But maybe we should. Because the loss of relationship with someone who’s still alive can be painful in ways that are similar to actually losing someone. In both cases, particularly if the end came suddenly, there’s a lack of closure, there are questions but no answers, hurt but no apologies, gestures of love but no one to receive them. When people leave our lives too suddenly, it grieves us, regardless of how it happened. We are familiar with the pain that happens when someone has died unexpectedly, and we didn’t get a chance to make amends, or to confess regrets, or to profess our love one last time. But there is also pain and grieving when the person is still alive but they’ve cut off contact, and again, those chances to say what needs to be said, or to bring closure to what is lingering, don’t happen. Even when we end the relationship, to protect ourselves or those we love, the lack of resolution haunts and pains us. And then there is the particular kind of grieving that happens when people leave our lives, slowly but surely, as they slip into physical illness or dementia––when they can no longer remember us, and they are no longer whom we remember. In all of these cases, and I am in sure in others that you have experienced, we experience the loss of these relationships as a kind of death. And we mourn. We mourn what was, we mourn what could have been.

The difference between mourning a person and a relationship, of course, is that when the person is still alive, we can always hope for reconciliation in our lifetime. There is always a chance for things to get better. Yet along with that hopes comes fear. A fear that maybe we will not reconcile in this life. A fear that they, or we, will actually die before that chance comes. This fear can be completely based in reality, and I don’t want to suggest that all we need to do is keep hoping. So how can we accept that we may never find closure or reconciliation in this life time? How can we accept that the relationships we long to renew might actually be truly dead?

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Our Scriptures for this morning are clear about two things. The first is simply that resolution may not come today, in this life. We may currently mourn, but the Bible speaks of comfort in the future tense. They “will be” comforted. God “will wipe” away every tear. Even the first letter from John is oriented towards the future. We will be like Christ, but we are not quite yet. So that’s the first thing, as difficult to accept as it may be. Resolution may not come in this life.

But the second thing is just as clear, and even just as simple. It will happen. Those who mourn will be comforted, God will wipe away ever tear, and Christ will guide us to the springs of the water of life. We will receive new life after death, and this includes new life for our relationships.

This is the compelling message of our faith. That God gives us new life. That death, though it always comes, is not the end. This is our Easter faith, what we celebrate every single Sunday of the church year, even when it’s not Easter. This is what we are saying when we profess, in the Apostle’s Creed, I believe in the resurrection of the body. We are saying that whatever it is that makes us who we are, and in the days the Apostles’ Creed was created, the focus was on the body, but today it includes our minds and our personalities, and our relationships. All of these things are resurrected––brought to new life after we die.

And this all happens in God, through Christ. Our new life occurs in God, whether that is new life for us personally, new life for those who have died, or new life to those relationships that feel dead. The one who is on the throne reunites us and shelters us. The Lord hears the cries of our poor souls and will comfort us with resurrection. Christ was raised from the dead and given new life, and that new life will be shared with all of us, the “life of the world to come,” in every arena in which we experience death and grief and mourning.

Today, as we light candles for those who have died, you are welcome also to light candles also for those relationships in your lives that you mourn, whether the person has actually died or not. When we have a moment of silence after listing the names of the dead in our prayers, you are also welcome to name in your hearts those people with whom you are estranged, those people who are dead to you or who consider you dead to them. Commend them, and your relationship with them, to God. Our God is the God of both the living and the dead, because our God brings life to what is dead. In God we receive new life and are reunited with all whom we have lost. This is what Christ has accomplished for us. Holding those relationships and people in your hearts, entrust them to the God of life, who will comfort you in all your loss, and who promises you new life. Thanks be to God. Amen.