Christ the King

Reign of Christ

TEXT: Luke 23:33-43

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)

Every year, when “Christ the King Sunday” comes around, I find it very interesting to read—in publications and on the Internet—what other preachers have said on this day, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Many of them assume that their audience will have no idea at all of what a “king” is. For them, the main difficulty in preaching about “Christ the King” is that they figure nobody knows what royalty is all about.

Now, maybe that’s because—almost without exception—the preachers I read and hear on the Internet and in magazines are Americans. However, the folks in Canadian churches certainly do know about kings and queens, princes and princesses, and about how royal families work. Ignorance about royalty does not seem to be a difficulty that plagues us Canadians. We’ve had kings before. Then, for 70 years and seven months, we had a queen. And now we have a king again.

So, when we come to “Christ the King Sunday,” the concept of royalty is not foreign to us. We understand that the Sovereign is our Head of State—albeit represented in Ottawa by the Governor-General.

We get it. At least, we have a pretty good understanding of what earthly kings and queens are about. They represent a static sense of order—and they represent tradition. Because Charles the Third is our Sovereign, we can see ourselves as being part of a particular order of things. We have a system of government—and law—that is much more akin to the British system than to the American one. Not everybody in Canada likes that, but we all acknowledge that it is the case; and it is one of the distinctive things about being Canadian, which sets us apart from the other nations in the Americas. It is one thing about us which stays the same, which connects us to a centuries-old tradition. We are subjects of the British monarch, rather than the Spanish or Swedish or Danish one.

But here’s where perhaps we do have a problem. This understanding we have can prevent us from realizing what the New Testament means when it refers to Christ as being our “King.” Using the term “king” to describe Jesus can cause us to miss the whole point of the gospel because of the way “king” plays to that static sense of order. The New Testament writers, you see, meant something else. They were trying to convey a dynamic sense of God’s rule on earth.

Let me explain. The “Kingdom of God” (or the “Kingdom of heaven,” in Matthew) is not simply about replacing an earthly ruler with a heavenly one. In heralding the coming Kingdom of God, Jesus was not merely advocating a regime change. No. Jesus was announcing the advent of an entirely different way of being in relationship with each other and with God. It’s not simply the ruler that changes, but the entire realm in which we live.

This makes matters a little more complicated. The earliest Christian confession was, Jesus is Lord.” If that proclamation simply meant giving our allegiance to a different ruler, then most of our lives could remain untouched. We could more or less conduct business as usual and conceive of faith as a largely private affair. But the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims represents a whole new reality where nothing is the same—not our relationships; not our rules; not our view of self or others; not our priorities or principles … nothing! Everything we thought we knew about kings and kingdoms, in fact, gets turned right on its head.

An entirely new reality, of course, is difficult for us to picture. I think that’s why—when Jesus wants to explain what the realm of God will be like—he speaks to us in parables. Parables do not pretend to correspond directly to reality. They are outrageous, exaggerated, humorous, and almost always have a hidden trap door—one that only drops open a little while after the telling. Parables come at reality sideways. They disrupt our sensibilities and overturn our conventions, in order to point to how it will be in the new realm and reign of God.

For example, do you remember the parable of the “labourers in the vineyard,” from chapter 20 of Matthew (20:1-16)? It’s a story about an audaciously generous employer who defies all conceptions of fair play by paying the same total amount to all his workers—those who have been working all day and those who have served just a few hours. That gives us a glimpse of the sort of king Christ is going to be. So does the story about the “prodigal son” in chapter 15 of Luke (15:11-32). Really, it’s a story about a father who humiliates himself again and again by running after both his wayward son and his self-righteous, angry one. And—also in Luke (10:25-37), in the parable of the “good Samaritan”—we get a hint of what will be expected of us in Christ’s kingdom, in this yarn about the wounded man who was ignored by the best and brightest, only to be cared for by the despised foreigner. These are only glimpses, to be sure, but they point out how different everything will be in God’s realm.

But you know, the gospel message is that the realm of God over which Christ is king is not lurking somewhere “out there.” It is already here among us, heralded by Christ’s preaching and demonstrated by his death and resurrection. Yes, some future consummation may await us—yet the new realm is also already here, in our very midst. That means, of course, that we presently live in both realms. We are citizens of this world and citizens of the Kingdom which Jesus has inaugurated.

Now, I don’t think it’s hard to understand why some want to push Jesus’ realm into the future, while others want to retreat from the one we’re in. Either extreme is simpler than trying to live in both worlds at once.

Much of our life is governed by the rules of this world, rules that—while they can be improved—will never fully usher in the justice, the equity, the shalom that God has promised. At the same time, having had a glimpse of the realm Jesus describes, we can never really be satisfied with the way things are.

Little wonder, then, that this understanding of “the Kingdom of God” has not taken hold. If we believe that Christian faith is not simply allegiance to a different sovereign—but, rather, is entrance into an entirely new realm—then, who knows what God will expect from us? No longer can we keep our faith a private affair and ignore the needs of our neighbour. No longer can we sing robust and rousing hymns about God’s glory and majesty and ignore the degradation of God’s good earth. No longer can we pray that “God’s Kingdom come” and yet manage our wealth as if it actually belonged to us—rather than as something entrusted to us. And no longer can we relegate the realm of God to a comfortably distant—or, for that matter, frighteningly near—future. The realm and rule of God is all around us, beckoning us to live by its vision and values—even now!

And this is where today’s reading from Luke comes in. Jesus is on the cross. It’s not exactly the first place you’d look for a king—but then again, with Jesus, nothing is ever quite what you would expect. He’s in between two criminals. One joins the soldiers and religious authorities who jeer at him. The other one, however, intervenes. He protests Jesus’ innocence, and asks that Jesus remember him when he comes into his kingdom.

It’s a humble request, when you think about it. He asks neither to be rescued from his plight nor avenged for his suffering. Rather, he wants only to be remembered—to not be forgotten. And how does Jesus respond? He exceeds the man’s wildest expectations, declaring that today, even now, he will enter with Jesus into paradise.

What sort of king is this, who welcomes a criminal into his realm and promises glory in the midst of agony? It is a king who refuses to conform to the expectations of this world. It is a king who will not be bound by this world’s vision of worthiness or by this world’s understanding of justice. It is a king who is not content to rule from afar, but rather comes to meet us in our weakness and in our need. It is a king who is willing to embrace all, to forgive all, to redeem all. Why? Because that is his deepest and truest nature.

It is, finally, our King, come to usher us into his Kingdom even as he implores us to recognize and make manifest that Kingdom already around us. This is our King, our crucified King—and he calls us to join with Christians of every time and every place in that most simple, yet profound, of prayers: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Today, let’s make that our prayer, too:

Come, Lord Jesus.

Come into our lives, our city, our church.

Come, and bring your kingdom with you.

Amen.

WHEN THE WORLD IS SHAKEN

TEXTS:  Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19

Then [Jesus] said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (Luke 21:10-11)

Each year, towards the end of the liturgical cycle, the lectionary serves up texts that speak to us about the “end times.”

We all know about prophets of doom in our modern age that speak to us about “the end.” Some of them we laugh at:  like the cartoons showing raggedly-dressed men with sandwich boards proclaiming “the end is near.” Some of them we worry about: like the scientists on TV who tell us that global warming will bring about—if not the end of our civilization—then, at least, massive chaos and widespread suffering.

Or maybe we worry about a killer asteroid. Or Vladimir Putin pushing his nuclear button. In any case, there’s no shortage of warnings about how soon the end may come.

In fact, from before the time of Jesus until this very day, predictions of the end of the world as we know it have come fast and furious. Christians, especially, seem to have embraced this kind of speculation. And yet, as our gospel text reminds us, Jesus said that—while we may know the season of the end—only God knows the actual time.

It could be pretty frightening stuff, but—for we sophisticated Christians, living some 2,000 years after the time when Jesus spoke of the end of the world—for us, it’s kind of difficult to really get worked up about prophecies like that. Whether it’s the prophecy of Isaiah—who describes the coming of the new heaven and new earth; or of Jesus—who describes the passing of the old heaven and the old earth—it’s hard to muster anything like genuine concern, isn’t it?

Yet there is an important message contained in all end-time prophecies—or at least, in those prophecies that are biblical in nature. We should pay attention to what Scripture tells us about the end—not just so we can be prepared for that horrendous ending, whenever it might occur—but to be prepared as well for the end-times in our own daily lives.

You know what I mean:  those times when our personal and private worlds are shaken to the core; those times when the walls of the temples in our lives come tumbling down—the temples in which we place our confidence and our hope.

And it will certainly happen. Just as surely as the magnificent temple constructed by King Herod came crashing down 40 years after Jesus said that it would, so the temples in our lives—so most of those human things in which we trust—will also collapse. It happens over and over again throughout our lives.

Those of you who have gone through a divorce—you know what I mean. Those of you who have been bereaved—especially through the loss of a spouse or a child or a parent—you know what I mean. If you’ve ever suddenly found yourself unemployed, or without your health—you know what I mean.

The world as you have known it comes to an end. Those things, those people, those certainties you have relied upon—trusted in, believed in—are either gone, or they have turned against you.

Such times are tests of our faith. Such times are tests of our God. When the temples we have constructed in our lives collapse, we may be tempted to reach in desperation for anyone or anything that promises to bring us deliverance—whether it be the apricot pit cure for cancer down in Mexico; or the medium who promises to get us in touch with a departed loved one; or the latest huckster peddling a “get rich quick” scheme.

But this is a serious mistake! It’s a mistake that we heard Jesus warn us about in the gospel lesson. After he predicts the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the people ask him: “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

And Jesus answers: “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’  Do not go after them.”

Do not go after them! When our world is collapsing, the best thing we can do is stand fast and hold on tight to what we know is sure and true—to our God, the rock of our salvation, the rock which cannot move.

The truth is:  God is for us! Even when we are wondering if our faith is sham—or worse, if our God is a sham; even when we are wondering if we are to blame for what has happened—or worse, that God is against us … even then, God is for us.

The collapse of our personal temples, and the wars and insurrections near and far, and the inquisition which others put us through when we have really blown it—or that we put ourselves through—all these things are to be expected. This is what will happen in the entire world before the new heaven and new earth arrive. And this is what happens within our lives, before the fullness of the new life transforms us.

Do not worry, Jesus says, about these times. Don’t spend a lot of time preparing grand defenses or clever strategies with which to confound your tormentors. No. Rather, trust God! Trust God to give you the answers you need, even when brothers and sisters turn against you.

Rely on God for the words and the wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. Rely on God to bring you safely through the times of testing and tribulation. Rely on the God who promises that not a hair of our heads will perish, but by our endurance, by our faith, we will gain our souls.

In short, when the world is collapsing, take no thought about how to save yourself. Rather, think about what is the right thing to do—minute by minute, day by day—knowing that when you are doing what is right; when you are being as loving as you can be and as honest as you know how; when you are putting your faith in God and being not afraid to testify to his good purpose; then you are serving as a light to lift the darkness that lies around us all. And your life will be saved in that light.

Mortality is all about us. A day of judgment comes to all things. And that judgment comes not simply to destroy, but also to make room for a new world, a world in which heaven and earth are united as one—a world of wholeness, of shalom.

Out of that divorce—when what is right is done as much as it can be—may come a new wholeness, in which family is made stronger. Out of that bereavement, or that illness, may come a new understanding of the meaning of life—a new way of living it with gratitude and thankfulness. Out of that layoff, out of that firing, can come a whole new course of life—one that’s full of hope, just as a new world is rising out of the ashes of the Jerusalem temple.

In the midst of all these things, we are called to bear witness—to testify to God as this world passes. We are called to prepare ourselves—and to help prepare others—for the new and better world which is coming. Even as the darkness of the old world deepens about us, Jesus reminds us that the night becomes darkest just before the new dawn.

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:17-19)

Take heart, my friends! Our God will not only see us through our trials and tribulations, but will give us wisdom and strength and power to shine as guiding lights for others.

This is the good news we proclaim. Blessed be God, day by day. Amen.

PLANTING HOPEFUL SEEDS

Remembrance Day

TEXT: Luke 6:20-31

Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you …  for surely your reward is great in heaven …” (Luke 6:20-23)

So begins Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” from Luke’s Gospel. It is very similar to the perhaps better-known “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew, except that it has fewer “beatitudes”—Matthew has nine, and Luke has only four.

Another big difference between the two is that, in Luke, Jesus includes a set of “woes”—or curses:

“… woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26)

In Luke, Jesus is clearly speaking about human need, proclaiming that when God’s Kingdom comes, there will be change—and it will be good news for people who are poor, hungry, and downtrodden. Some have said that in Luke we hear Jesus speaking to the victims.

Indeed, some have suggested that in Matthew’s version—the one with more blessings and no curses—the focus is less on the needy to whom promises are made, and more on the privileged who need to be challenged to take up new attitudes.

In Matthew, the beatitudes are not promises to the poor and hungry, but challenges to all people to be “poor in spirit” and to “hunger after righteousness.”

The kingdom of heaven will be for people like this, Jesus tells us—and if you want to enter it, these are the attitudes and behaviours you need to develop.

And it’s certainly true: this emphasis on attitude and behaviour is central to Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ message. In Matthew’s Gospel, one’s status—whether as an Israelite or as a Christian—is of no consequence if God’s will is not being done.

But you know, I think Luke’s account puts forward challenges that are every bit as formidable as those in Matthew—and even more explicit.

In Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:9)

But in Luke, to these people who were living in an occupied country, under the cruel oppression of Rome, we hear him say:

“… Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:27b-31)

Now, there’s a challenge for any would-be peacemakers! Because that kind of peacemaking is about planting seeds of hope … but planting them in very poor soil. We might wish them to yield instant results … but that is not likely.

I think the point Jesus wants to make here—when he tells us to “turn the other cheek”—is that peacemaking is really about how we live our lives every day.

The American Catholic writer and activist Megan McKenna offers a parable about how peacemaking works. It goes like this:

There was a woman who wanted world peace, and peace in her family and community, and all sorts of good things. But as she read the papers and listened to the news, it just seemed that everything was falling apart, and she got very depressed.
One day she decided to go shopping and picked a store at random. She walked in and was surprised to see Jesus behind the counter. She recognized him from all those pictures she had seen as a child. She shyly looked again and again, and finally got up the courage to ask, “Excuse me, are you Jesus?”
“I am.”
“Do you work here?”
“No,” Jesus said. “I own the place.”
“Oh. What do you sell here?”
“Just about anything.”
“Anything?”
“Yeah, anything you want. What would you like?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Well,” Jesus replied, “just walk up and down the aisles and make a list of what you want and when you’re finished, bring it back here and we’ll see what we can do for you.”
So she walked up and down the aisles and she was astonished. There was a corner display of “peace on earth,” a shelf of “no more war or hunger or poverty.” Piled high on the counters was peace in families, an end to drugs, clean air, and careful use of resources. Everything she longed and dreamed for was right there.
She furiously scribbled her list as though the whole thing would disappear. When she got back to the counter, she had a long list.
Jesus took it, skimmed through, and said, “No problem.” Then he bent down behind the counter and picked up all sorts of little packets, sorted them out and laid them on the counter.
The woman was astonished, and she asked, “What are these?”
“Seed packets,” Jesus said.
“You mean I don’t get the finished product?”
“No, not yet. You come here to see what it’s going to look like—like pictures in a seed catalogue—and I give you the seeds. You go home, plant the seeds and nurture them and help them to grow. Sometimes you get to reap them, sometimes someone else does.”
“Oh,” she said. And she left the store without buying anything.

 

None of us may be in a position to work directly for world peace. But we can all be peacemakers who are planting the seeds of peace where God has placed us. These seeds may sprout and grow immediately, or they may only bear fruit long after we are gone—or perhaps not until God’s Kingdom comes.

When Jesus calls the peacemakers “blessed,” it’s because they follow in his footsteps. It’s not peacemaking that makes us children of God; it’s being children of God that makes us peacemakers.

When we love God, we are drawn into God’s family business. And the family business is shalom—peace, the restoration of all things into the fullness of God’s love.

It seems to me that when we gather on a day like this one to remember and give thanks for the sacrifices that others have made on our behalf, we are in large part honouring the hope which they had.

It was, after all, a hope of shalom—not simply a hope of victory, or hope for the cessation of war, but something much grander and larger: hope for a better world, a freer and more just world. That is what our heroes fought for, and what so many died for. That is what their comrades returned home to build, and what their former enemies returned home to rebuild from the rubble and ashes of war.

And our part, if we would be peacemakers, is to honour their hope by taking up their cause—taking up their quarrel with the foes of freedom and justice and peace. If we would indeed hold high the torch which they have passed to us, we must become planters of the seeds of shalom.

Let us sow the seeds of peace, no matter what the sacrifice, no matter how great the hardship. If we break faith with those who sleep—whose hope for a better future is a legacy of shalom for all humankind—then we are the ones whose souls shall not rest easy.

May God save us from such a fate. Amen.

“YOU CAN’T SEE THE FOREST …”

TEXTS:  Job 19:23-29 and Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow . . . Now, there were seven brothers . . .” (Luke 20:27-29)

And so they ask their question. One by one, seven brothers marry this same woman, and one by one they all die, leaving no children. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?

Given the glorious and comforting promise of a life with God beyond this life on earth, the Sadducees quiz Jesus about marital law in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus might have responded by saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”

Or, if he had my temperament, he might have said, “What do you care? If God cares for you enough to provide for your security through death and on the other side of death, would you not think that God can handle all the details? Come on! Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

But Jesus took their question seriously. He told them: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

And he kindly let them know that their query revealed at least two weaknesses—one in their mentality and one in their spirituality.

First, the questioners failed to recognize that the nature of life beyond the grave differs substantially from life in this present moment; and second, they failed to understand the comprehensive nature of God’s care for all people.

And it’s for these two reasons that I think today’s gospel reading is bang-on perfect for the Sunday before Remembrance Day, when we will pause to remember wars and tragedies and atrocities—past and present.

Because if you’re like me, when you contemplate those kinds of things, you get sad and then you get angry—and then you begin to look either for justice or for vengeance. And maybe you begin to get all tied up in knots about questions like these:

  • Do our enemies go to the same heaven that we do? Our faith tells us that every person who truly repents and turns to God will be saved.
  • If Adolf Hitler—or Osama Bin Laden—asked God for forgiveness, would they go to the same heaven as the people they murdered? Will victims have to endure the presence of perpetrators for all eternity?
  • Do the poor fools who flew jetliners full of innocent people to their deaths because of some misguided interpretation of Islam get punished as severely in the next life as those who put them up to it?
  • Are the mourning relatives loved ones murdered by Russian forces in Ukraine supposed to “turn the other cheek” and “love their enemies?” And what if they can’t? What if they just can’t? Will God judge them for that, on the last day?

Or how about this question: How can the suffering of this life be erased in the next? If someone has been tormented and abused and made to feel worthless in this life; if someone has known nothing but unendurable suffering in this life; how can it be made “all better” in the next life?

How? How can tears like that ever be wiped away—even by God?

When we are faced with such questions, we need to hear stories like today’s gospel passage. Because—as urgent and heart-rending as such queries are—they are like the question the Sadducees posed to Jesus.

And such questions are, in the end, without satisfying answers.

Questions about the hereafter—and especially questions that attempt to make sense of the hereafter—cannot have answers which are satisfying, because they cannot have answers which we can understand.

Life beyond the grave, apparently, differs so completely from life in this present moment that its details are beyond our comprehension.

So we find ourselves stymied, as the Sadducees were.

And faced with Jesus’ assurances, we find ourselves asking the same kind of needless questions they asked. We ask, “How? How is the next life different from this one?”

That question reflects the same kind of “can’t see the forest for the trees” mentality that plagued the people around Jesus.

By the way, my own answer to the “how” enquiry is: “I don’t know. I do not know the details of the future.”

I think I can say with confidence that I am not alone—no one possesses such knowledge.

Too many of us spend too much time asking needless questions. Instead of joyfully affirming that God created the earth, we get caught up in enquiries about the methodology and chronology of creation. Rather than celebrating Christ’s ability to quell the storms that arise within and around us, we argue details of the boundaries of Christ’s sovereignty—seeking explanations of exactly who can realize the calm of Christ, and when and where it can happen.

Akin to the Sadducees interrogating Jesus in today’s gospel text, many people—instead of giving thanks for Christ’s assurance that God will take care of us at the end of time—spend their energy trying to figure out exactly when and how the end will come.

Now, to be sure, curiosity is not incompatible with faith. I’m not saying that questions are bad. Questions can play a major role in the strengthening and maturing of one’s faith. However, in the presence of grand assurances from Jesus Christ, we ought not to ask needless questions—questions that reveal not so much a desire for understanding as a lack of trust.

Even when current events appear to squelch hope for the future, the goodness of God is not in question.

Consider our Hebrew Scripture reading. Not even the blitzkrieg of tragedies in Job’s life could erase his hope in God’s goodness. Sitting on a garbage dump—just as well as lounging in a mansion or praying in a temple—Job could declare his absolute confidence in God’s redeeming, faithful love.

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27a)

The Sadducees should have remembered Job’s testimony. And so should we. Like Job, Jesus understood that faith needs both an appreciation of mystery and a complete trust in the living God.

The nature of the life to come, like the substance of so many other spiritual realities, is a mystery. To a mindset bent on knowing everything about everything, mystery reeks with negative overtones. That is not the case, however, for a person who relates to God in faith.

Mystery held in the hands of a loving God is a source of assurance rather than threat, an instrument of comfort rather than anxiety, a guarantor of security rather than a prompter of questions. An appreciation of mystery rests on the foundation of trust. It is not a blind leap into the darkness, but rather an eyes-wide-open embrace of God’s promises.

Though we may not know the details of how every divine promise will be fulfilled—or of how God’s perfect justice will ultimately play out—we need not doubt God’s ability to make all things right. Through the whole sweep of biblical history, people’s hopes were never large enough to capture God’s fulfillment of those hopes. Even the great prophets’ loftiest expectations of the coming Messiah fell short of the One whom God finally sent.

Thankfully, God’s gift of the Messiah was not limited by people’s knowledge or understanding—or even by people’s dreams.

Jesus was more than anyone ever imagined: a prophet who spoke with unprecedented authority, a leader whose power resided in service, a ruler whose throne was a cross and whose kingdom was not of this world.

The glory of God’s future does not depend upon our understanding of the future. God remains capable of giving us more than we ever can imagine or understand. Such gracious reality calls forth not questions, but praise. Let us rest in the compassionate provisions of our just and loving God. Amen.

 

Good News for the Rich

TEXTS: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 and Luke 19:1-10

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgement comes forth perverted.  (Habakkuk 1:1-4)

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. (Luke 19:1-2)

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.  He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.”

I’m guessing that everyone reading this today will know that children’s hymn.

Some biblical stories suffer a great deal from their overuse in Sunday school picture books. The child-friendly pictures completely inoculate us against the shock of their message. The story of Zacchaeus is one such story. The fact that Zacchaeus was a “wee little man” and that he climbed a tree make it readily appealing to kids; but it was not written as a children’s fable.

If we had not heard the account before—and had been just reading our way through his gospel—we would find that Luke has set us up for shock in this story. He has hammered away at a particular theme for the last 18 chapters, and then—in this story—he turns it on its head and pulls the rug out from under us.

Of the four gospel writers, Luke is the one who has the most to say about the evils of wealth. Luke is the one who paints Jesus as the champion of the poor. Right from the start—even before Jesus is born—his mother is singing the praise of God who “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53)  Luke is the one who says that Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a feed-trough. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, the Christ-child is visited, not by kings, but by poor shepherds. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus does not say “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3a), but “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20b). Full stop. And then for good measure he adds, “… woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24).

Consider the parables which Luke chooses to report. There’s the story of the rich fool who has a bumper year, stores it all up for himself and dies, unable to take anything with him (12:13-21)—a story found only in Luke. Then there’s the story of the rich man who ignored poor Lazarus lying at his gate, and when both died, found himself in hell, tormented by visions of Lazarus in paradise (16:19-31)—another story found only in Luke.

And then, just shortly before today’s anecdote, we have the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking how he might be saved (18:18-25). That one’s found in Matthew and Mark, too—but you can be quite sure that Luke was never going to leave it out!

After establishing that the young man has always been a meticulous keeper of the commandments, Jesus tells him to sell everything he owns, give the money to the poor, and then come and follow him. The rich young man goes away shattered, unable to give up his wealth. And what is Jesus’ comment? “Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (18:25). Story upon story has hammered home this point until we almost feel we can finish Luke’s sentences for him as soon as he has identified the financial status of the characters.

So when the story of Zacchaeus begins, we’ve been well-primed. Luke introduces him with almost staged seriousness.

As Jesus was passing through Jericho, a man was there. A man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector. Read: “despised traitor who was collaborating with the Romans and profiteering from it by cheating ordinary poor people into paying too much tax and then pocketing the difference.” That’s how the system worked.

A man was there. A man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector … and he was filthy rich! We hear that, and we think we know how the story will turn out. He wants to see Jesus, but when he does, Jesus will give him a blast about his money and force him to choose between money and discipleship. Of course.

But no!  Luke has set us up beautifully. And now, out from under us comes the rug! Jesus spots Zacchaeus up his tree and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

Zacchaeus nearly falls out of his tree with excitement. He welcomes Jesus into his home and dinner’s on.

Now, we’ve already heard a few stories where Jesus goes out to dinner with riff-raff from the streets; and each time, we’ve been told that the devout Pharisees and the religious experts grumbled about it. “He’s going to dinner with the religiously impure. It’s a scandal! How can we take him seriously as a prophet?”

And each time, we are given a picture of some stuck up holier-than-thou types grumbling, while everyone else rejoices and is happy to party with Jesus. But is it the “holier-than-thous” grumbling this time? No! This time it says that everyone who saw it began to grumble. When it says that, you are supposed to hear, “all the people who were just like us began to grumble, saying, ‘he has gone to be the guest of some rich, thieving scum.’”

Luke, however, is not yet finished rubbing salt in our wounds. What happens at dinner at Zacchaeus’s place? Zacchaeus stands up during dinner and says to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor.”

And before we can think, “Aha! Jesus will get you now! Half is not enough. It’s the whole lot for you, mister …”  Before we can think that, we hear Jesus saying: “Today salvation has come to this house, because Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham.”

A son of Abraham. One of God’s chosen ones. Just the sort of person Christ came to save.

Some of you may remember that Lorne Calvert—who is a former Premier of Saskatchewan, and an ordained minister—once made the comment that “the NDP is the political arm of the United Church of Canada.” That’s his opinion. But if you think Jesus has come only as a social revolutionary to restructure society so that inequality and injustice are removed … think again! If that was all God wanted to do, I suppose he would have just sent a social-reforming politician.

Now, I’m not saying Jesus didn’t care about injustice. But I am saying that his mission was—and is—much bigger than that. What we are encountering here is the scandalously gratuitous love and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus. In Jesus, we see the one who was poor, and a refugee, and whose country was occupied by a foreign military power, and who had no place to lay his head. In Jesus, we see one who was falsely accused, and betrayed, and the victim of a miscarriage of justice.

In Jesus, we encounter the ultimate victim of the brutality and unfairness of this world—of the system that the world’s wealthy and powerful elites manufacture, and maintain, and profit from. And here, in this story, we see exactly what we encounter now in the risen Christ. We see the ultimate victim, standing risen and free, and utterly without resentment, offering a welcome and a forgiveness that is so outrageously gratuitous as to be incomprehensible to us.

And not only is it incomprehensible, it is scandalous—scandalous to the point of being grossly offensive. Luke has had a great time depicting the religious holier-than-thous being offended by Jesus’ inclusiveness—but now he’s turning his sights on us! Now, he’s drawing pictures of people we don’t like! People whom we regard as filthy scum. People we think the world would be better off without. And he’s telling us that Jesus welcomes them just the same as he welcomes us. The implication is clear: if we want to join the company of Jesus, we’d better be ready to learn to accept these people.

Ain’t that a kick in the pants? It’s one thing to say that Jesus includes the poor victims who have been cast out and victimized—but it is quite another thing to say that Jesus is just as ready to accept and include the wealthy, powerful victimizers.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself wanting to stick with Habbakuk, screaming blue murder at God until he comes and sorts out all the violence and injustice. I’m shocked to discover that—when God does come—he doesn’t just save the downtrodden … he also welcomes and accepts their oppressors. Luke is telling us that the love and grace of Jesus makes absolutely no distinction between rich and poor, strong and weak, mighty and lowly. All are equally lost, and in need of grace. Differently perhaps, but equally.

What happened to: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”?

Well, when you look at it again, Jesus did not actually say that God would have trouble accepting a rich person into the Kingdom. He said that rich people have trouble accepting the invitation.

When you’re used to being able to buy or maneuver your way into things, it can be hard to let go and accept something as a free gift. The poor have had more practice at accepting things they cannot achieve for themselves. But when I find the spotlight turned back on me, I’m having trouble accepting it as a gift, too. As long as I’m thinking that some random billionaire should not be getting the same as me, I’m implying that I’ve earned better! And that puts me right up there with that Pharisee we heard about last week: “Thank you, God, that I’m not like that rich, power-mongering despot over there.”

As galling as it might be, Luke is telling us this: until we are ready to welcome the rich and the powerful to the table—no strings attached, no pre-conditions—we are not yet ready to take our own places at the table. We are saved by nothing other than accepting the free gift of undeserved grace in Jesus Christ. But you know, as long as we are trying to tell God who else is and is not worthy to receive it, we have not actually accepted the gift ourselves. We’re still buying into the idea that salvation is for those who deserve it. When we finally realize that it is sheer gift—freely offered to people we despise as much as it is offered to us—then we will know what it means to accept it or to reject it.

Always remember, Jesus is the One who promised: “anyone who comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37b). Let us pray daily for grace in all its fullness—grace that enables us to accept not only Christ, but everybody he brings with him!

GOD’S GREAT MERCY

TEXT: Luke 18:9-14

“The Pharisee … was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’… But the tax collector  … was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:11-13)

How many of you were alive in the 1960s? Do you remember this brief verse?

I’m Muhammad Ali, I’m Muhammad Ali;

I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

Muhammad Ali, in his prime, continually proclaimed that he was “the greatest.” And he was. Ali was without doubt one of the greatest boxers of the 20th century. Even until his death at age 74 in 2016—even as he battled Parkinson’s Disease, which robbed him of his power of speech—he was still instantly recognizable, even to generations too young to have seen him in the ring.

It’s safe to say that very few of us will ever reach the zenith of recognition in our fields the way Muhammad Ali did in his.

In fact, if any of us were asked how many times we have boasted about our own greatness—or boldly made a prediction about an outcome in which we played a major role—very few of us would admit to having done so.

However, even though we may not have achieved a world-class ranking—and very few of us have ever been the head of our class—most of us at one time or another have wanted to be noticed. We have wanted to be recognized, no matter how small our achievement might be.

Spouses want assurances from their partners that somehow they have made a difference in the other person’s life through the many thankless tasks they accomplish daily. Small children live for praise from their teachers, their parents, their grandparents.

Employees look for recognition from their employers—for a pat on the back, for words of appreciation. And, truth to tell, that is often what strikes are really all about. Recognition, not money. But for some reason, it’s always the money that gets talked about. I suppose that’s because, in our society, money is the ultimate symbol of value—even of personal value, even of our feelings of self-worth.

But the money is ultimately unsatisfying, if the raise in pay is not accompanied by genuine appreciation, by sincere words of praise. Lack of recognition for a job well done cannot be made up for by a bump into a higher tax bracket.

In the same way, material prosperity cannot erase the pain of a loveless marriage. And the hurt inside a child who knows she is not really cared for cannot be bought off by an abundance of expensive gifts. Money really can’t buy you love.

Maybe the need for recognition and approval—and love—is our best-kept secret. It’s a secret that’s connected to our own feelings of inadequacy, to our own belief that we have not measured up to the expectations of others—or of ourselves.

Perhaps that is why we need to hear the words of today’s gospel text. For when all is said and done, we believe we have not lived up to God’s expectations, either. Consider the Pharisee in Jesus’ story. Surprisingly enough, living up to God’s expectations was not a problem for him. He thought he had it made. After all, wasn’t that the purpose of the Law? To help him meet God’s expectations? Rigorously—and religiously—he believed he had done that, and more.

The Pharisees, you understand, were not bad people. They were the good religious folk of their place and time, and they tried to do the best they knew. They attended worship regularly. They contributed to the upkeep of the Temple. They advocated taking care of the poor and the widowed and the fatherless. We would call them “pillars of the community.”

Well, let’s face it—when you’re a pillar of the community, it’s easy to end up with a rather large ego. It can happen to anyone.

If you’ve donated a lot of time and money to the church, maybe it’s natural to start thinking you own the place—that your opinion should carry more weight than anyone else’s. And if you really believe you’ve lived a moral and upright life, maybe you can’t help thinking—even secretly—that God likes to point you out to the angels as a good example.

Well, Jesus knew how people were. He still knows how we are. And so, for the Pharisees in his audience—then and now—he included a tax collector in his story.

A tax collector for the Romans, you see, was a Jew who made his living by ripping off his countrymen—by charging more tax than was required, and then keeping the difference. That was how it worked. But of course, the tax collectors were hated by their fellow Jews. They were considered traitors of the worst kind.

But I digress. Let’s get back to the story.

Picture the scene. The Pharisee is in the front pew, expecting to be noticed. The tax collector is hiding in the back pew, hoping he won’t be noticed.

The Pharisee contrasts his life to the life of the wretched tax collector, and thanks God for making him the wonderful, religious, successful, modest guy that he is!

Now, the tax collector might very well have accumulated as much money as the Pharisee had—or even more! But his wealth hadn’t helped his self-esteem. The tax collector knew his own shortcomings all too well—and they weighed upon his heart. And so he said this simple prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)

Jesus then finished the story by saying: “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)

Now, this story becomes good news for us because it allows us to examine ourselves honestly, and from the perspective of faith. It is true that we are not—nor will we ever be—the people that God would have us be. And yet, that is precisely why God gives us his Child, Jesus Christ.

God gives Jesus to us because, left to our own devices, we could never gain the recognition nor the approval from God that we so desperately desire. The gift of Jesus lifts from our shoulders the burden of our need to please God, to gain God’s favor.

The arrival of Jesus into our lives helps us admit that we are not—nor will we ever be—on the same level as God. Jesus’ presence in our lives makes us humbly aware of the great lengths God will go to in order to rescue us.

Jesus then becomes for us proof positive that God’s compassion is great, God’s mercy is wide, and that God’s covenant love for us is resolute, steadfast, and eternal.

As we hear this good news, we discover that humility is not a quality that we generate from within ourselves. Rather, humility comes about in our lives as we are confronted by the gospel and recognize the enormity of its power at work in our lives.

In fact, when we are faced with the magnitude of such grace, then we respond like the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” For even before the prayer comes from our lips, God has demonstrated his mercy, and we rejoice because the mercy that comes from God never ends.

We should praise our Creator for so great a salvation. Thanks be to God. Amen.

THE VOICE OF THE WIDOW

TEXT: Luke 18:1-8

… In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people [and in] that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice …” (Luke 18:2-3)

I want to begin today by quoting a writer named Luke Veronis. In addition to being a writer, Father Veronis  is a Greek Orthodox priest, lecturer, and writer. Here’s part of an article he wrote in a theological journal called Communion:

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent many years in the prison camps of Siberia. Along with other prisoners, he worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His life appeared to be nothing more than backbreaking labor and slow starvation. The intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair.

On one particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much for him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up.

Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners.

As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead, he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.

As Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.

Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope. [From Luke Veronis, “The Sign of the Cross”; Communion, issue 8, Pascha 1997]

Is that powerful, or what? What that skinny old prisoner did for Solzhenitsyn, Jesus does for us today in when he tells us about the persistent widow and the unjust judge.

Just as Solzhenitsyn desperately needed a renewal of hope, so we need encouragement from time to time—especially if we are to continue in prayer and not lose heart. The skinny old prisoner made lines in the dirt. Jesus does something different: he tells us a story.

There is this judge, Jesus says, who has neither decency nor conscience. He is a corrupt official interested only in his own advantage.

A widow appears in his courtroom. She is poor and powerless, someone to whom the movers and shakers in her town pay no attention. To them, she is a person of no consequence. She has no money to bribe this crooked judge. She cannot afford a lawyer to speak up for her.

So you know what she does? She speaks up for herself. “Grant me justice against my opponent!” she shouts. When this does not bring her immediate results, she remains undaunted. She refuses to be ignored.  She keeps coming back.

She returns to that courtroom again and again and again, ceaselessly imploring the magistrate: “Grant me justice!”

“Grant me justice!”

“Go away.”

“Grant me justice!”

“Go away.”

“Grant me justice!”

You again?”

Eventually, her persistence wears down the judge. To spare himself further annoyance—and embarrassment—the judge decides not simply to hear her case, but to find in her favour. In other words, even before he hears the evidence, he’s made up his mind to give her what she wants—just to shut her up!

Now, is this a portrait of God? I don’t think that’s what Jesus has in mind—although certainly that is how some people consider the practice of prayer. They seem to view the Almighty as an unscrupulous judge or a petty bureaucrat or an abusive parent. With such a conception of God, it’s amazing that they ever pray at all!

But you know, God is not like that. God is the author of all justice and compassion. It may be that, in prayer, we are supposed to imitate the widow’s persistence—but if so, it is not because God is hard-hearted and uncaring.

Let’s take another look at that judge. What do we know about him? We know that he is unscrupulous, without decency or conscience. He doesn’t care about people. There is no fear of God in him. This judge always has it figured out; he leaves no room for the possibility that God may have more creative answers to the questions his life forces upon him.

Do we know anyone who matches this description? Sure we do! Each of us fits that description sometimes—and some of us even make a career out of it.

There are those times, aren’t there, when each of us lives entirely unto ourselves? When we refuse to allow that God may have a better solution to things than we do? When we don’t even consider that God may be offering us greater things than we can ask for, or imagine?

At such times, our decisions about life leave no place for God—and no room for those with needs and wishes different from our own. The universe, as we understand it, becomes very small, and closed; we are its sole inhabitants. To a greater or lesser degree, I think we are all like that—which is why we say a prayer of confession in church each Sunday.

If, then, the judge represents us, who does the loud-mouthed widow represent?

Could it be that this poor and powerless woman—with her tenacious and unlimited determination—is there as a symbol of God?

I think this fits. God is forever attempting to break into our closed universe, to draw us into relationship, to make us recognize what our relationships with God and neighbour demand of us. God is not the unjust judge. God is the widow who wears him down. Where, then, is the unjust judge to be found?

Listen carefully: that judge is inside each of us, and the purpose of our prayer is to wear him down, to wear him out, to force him to do justice. Prayer is the widow’s voice—strident yet sane, insistent and relentless—demanding that things be different.

Many of us have trouble with prayer. Some even give up the practice completely, because they think that praying is an exercise in futility. They think it’s about telling God what God already knows, or persuading God to do what God wouldn’t do otherwise, or somehow changing God in one way or another. Prayer, however—any prayer worthy of the name—is quite the opposite.

The primary effect of prayer is not on God, but on us. God’s love is already unconditional. God’s justice is already perfect. God’s compassion is already boundless. God recognizes our needs even before we do. It’s not God who needs to change, it’s us! We are the ones who need to get in line with God’s program, and prayer is a large part of doing that.

Prayer is our declaration that we do not want to exist in a closed universe, dependent only on ourselves and our own solutions. Prayer represents our desire to be open to God. In our prayers, the Holy Spirit speaks in the voice of the poor widow who demands justice from our inner judge. The miracle of prayer is that the judge’s resistance breaks down! For once, he does what is right—and may even do so again, in the future!

That loud-mouthed widow would not have succeeded had she not been persistent, and confident, and unconcerned about what others thought of her.

She had what is called in Yiddish chutzpah—which is the quality of audacity. Our prayers need chutzpah—not because God is deaf, but because opening our hearts to God is not easy for us.

There are many things in each of us that can keep God out. Sin is not the only obstacle. Attitudes of mind may keep the door shut and bolted. We may doubt that God hears us. We may consider ourselves unworthy. We may think God simply cannot be bothered with our petty problems. But these are the very attitudes which can be driven out by relentless prayer—by the persistent voice of the widow who refuses to take “no” for an answer.

The story is told of a girl who watched a holy nun praying at the lakeside. Once the nun had finished her prayer, the girl approached her and asked, “Will you teach me to pray?” The nun studied the girl’s face, and agreed to her request. Taking her into the shallow water, the nun instructed the girl to kneel, so that her face was close to the surface. The girl did as she was told.

Then the nun pushed the girl’s head under the water, and held her there. Soon the girl struggled to free herself in order to breathe. Once she got her breath back, she gasped, “What did you do that for?”

The holy nun said, “That was your first lesson.”

“What do you mean?” asked the astonished girl.

And the nun answered, “When you long to pray as much as you long to breathe, then I will be able to teach you.”

May each of us long to pray, and learn to pray—and to persist in our prayers—not so that we can change God, but so that God can change us, and show us that fullness of life which he intends for each one of his children.  Amen.

It Could Be a Thanksgiving Sermon

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus  was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’ — Luke 17:11-19 (NRSV)

Our gospel reading is an appropriate one for the occasion of Thanksgiving Sunday, which Canadians will be celebrating this week. It also just happens to be the Revised Common Lectionary reading for Proper 23, Year C—and so it’s a text about which many of our American cousins will be hearing sermons.

In it, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, and they are passing between Samaria and Galilee. Peter, at this point, had already declared that Jesus was “the Messiah of God.” 1  So the disciples knew that Jesus was the Messiah. But I doubt they fully understood what that meant. They also knew that they were going to Jerusalem, but they probably had no idea that Jesus was actually going to die there. Sure, Jesus had warned them that he would be killed and that he would rise on the third day.2 But even Peter, who was the first to acknowledge him as the Messiah, could not accept it.3  So they obediently followed their Master as he made his way to the cross.

At this point in their journey the disciples were likely more worried about where they were at than where they were going. They were probably concerned about which side of the border they were on between Samaria and Galilee. I can imagine that as they entered each village they wanted to know if it was a Samaritan or a Galilean village.

You see, Samaritans and Jews just did not mix. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be the opposite of themselves. The Jews were the chosen people of God. The Samaritans, however … well, they were not just another nation of unchosen people; worse than that, they were heretics who claimed Moses as their guide but refused to worship in Jerusalem.

The disciples may have been so intent on limiting their contact with any Samaritans that they missed the significance of where they were. They knew that the Messiah had come to save the Jewish nation. But what they did not understand was that he had come to save the rest of the world, too.

So there they were, headed for Jerusalem and the cross of Christ. On the one side were the children of Israel, the people of God, who would reject their King. And on the other side were the lost nations of the world who would be offered salvation from God through what a Son of David was about to do.

As Jesus and the disciples traveled this road to the cross, they came to a village. As they approached it, a group of 10 people cried out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 4

They called from a distance, because they were lepers. Now, lepers in the ancient world were required to stay away from towns; they were forbidden to enter lest people come into contact with their uncleanness. They were isolated from society and were required to beg for their food because they could not carry on a trade of their own.

As if the ravages of their awful disease were not bad enough, they were also separated from their family and friends and way of life. They couldn’t earn a living. They couldn’t go home for any reason—not even to attend the funeral of a loved one.

Now, this particular group of 10 lepers included not only Jews, but also at least one Samaritan. In a way, that was remarkable, for—as I said—Samaritans and Jews, as a rule, had nothing to do with one another. But you know, it’s a true statement: misery loves company. This group was excluded from both sides of the border, so they roamed around together, keeping one another company.

Somehow they knew that Jesus was in the area—and they knew that he was a healer. Maybe they had heard how he had healed lepers in the past. They hoped that Jesus could heal them, too. Then they could return to their families, and start their lives over again. So they went to see Jesus and they raised their voices together and cried out for help.

In other instances when Jesus healed lepers, he actually touched them and healed them on the spot. This group obviously didn’t want to impose on the good teacher by coming too close, but they probably did expect him to heal them right then and there. But instead, Jesus told them to go to the temple to be examined by the priests.

They were probably taken aback by that. They must have wondered what Jesus was doing. I imagine they even wondered if Jesus was playing a dirty trick on them. What if they went all the way to the temple just to be told once again that they were unclean? That would he awful. But they left for Jerusalem anyway.

It must have been a surprise to them when it happened. There they were on their way to Jerusalem, and all of a sudden they were healed! Some of the group probably pinched themselves to see if it was a dream. Then most of them started running to Jerusalem—running as fast as they could, so that they could be declared clean by the priests and could return to their families and their lives. But one of them turned around and ran back to Jesus.

The one who turned back was a Samaritan. When Jesus saw this he said, “Weren’t there ten of you who were cleansed? But only one has returned. Where are the other nine? How come none of God’s people wanted to return and give thanks?”

As I said, this makes a good text for a Thanksgiving message.

I believe the picture this story paints is true. Too often, we fail to give credit where credit is due. We are not the authors of our salvation. We are not the creators of our wealth. Yet how many of us remember to give thanks to God, who gave us all these things?

As Canadians, we enjoy freedoms that people in other parts of the world can only dream of. We can choose the people who govern us. If we are sick or injured, we can expect to receive excellent health care without having to worry about how we’ll pay for it. And of course, there is the abundance of the harvest. I’m told it’s still true that we live in a world where enough food is grown to feed the entire planet—and yet millions still go hungry!

We have been greatly blessed, which is why we have a great responsibility to spread those blessings around.

Let us—the Church, the believers in God—let us be the first to give praise to God, instead of the last. And let us be the first to remember the poor and the hungry and the outcasts—and the first to respond to them in love; for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

__________________________________

1 Luke 9:20

2 Luke 9:22

3 See Matthew 16:21-23 and Mark 8:31-33

4 Luke 17:13

 

THAT ALL MAY BE … ONE?

World Communion Sunday

TEXTS: John 17:1-26 and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

… the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:23-25)

On October 2, 2022, with our fellow Christians around the world, this is what we will be doing. On World Communion Sunday, we will remember Jesus. And we will remember that his prayer for us—as we heard in our gospel passage—was that we might be one.

I ask … that they may all be one,” he said. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20a, 21-23)

The Service of the Table is meant to be a symbol of our unity—not only our unity as members of a particular congregation, or as members of a specific denomination—but of our unity as members of Christ’s Body, the Church … the universal church … “the church catholic” (small “c” catholic, as is often said).

On the first Sunday in October, in almost every nation, on every continent (except, perhaps, Antarctica), Christians will gather to share this holy meal. In some places it will be called “The Eucharist.” In others it will be called “Communion.” In others it will be called “The Love Feast.” In still others it will be called, “The Table of the Lord” or “The Lord’s Supper.”

And as varied as the titles are for what we will do, so also will be the ways in which our brothers and sisters come to the table, and the kinds of food and drink offered, and the understanding that people will have of what they are doing.

Some will come forward to receive unleavened bread in the form of a wafer into the palms of their hands. They may or may not then sip from the cup, which may contain wine, or unfermented grape juice—or even some other beverage, in those places where grapes are unknown.

Others will tear a piece of bread from a broken loaf—and then dip it into the common cup.

Still others will remain seated in their chairs—or in their pews—and they will serve one another from individual cups and trays of pre-sliced bread.

Some may do these things as a part of a full meal, seated at a table in a sanctuary of God’s presence … or in a church hall … or a home … or a school building. Others will sit in a circle in a hut, or in a clearing in the midst of a jungle or forest, or in the middle of a place of sand and rock.

Some will regard the bread and the wine as being literally the body and blood of Christ. Others will consider the entire exercise to be an important “memorial” and see Jesus as being spiritually present in a special way—but not physically present in the food and drink.

Yes, there will be differences—some of them quite profound—in the way Christians around the world view this sacred meal.

Some will think that their way of doing what they are doing is the only correct way to do it.

Some traditions will welcome only those adults who have made a public profession of their faith to the table, while others will welcome very young children—even babies—to the table.

Some will insist that each participant must be baptized, or belong to the denomination in which the sacrament is being observed; others will have a table which is open to all.

There will be a tremendous variety of practices and understandings as the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. However, over and above all the differences of opinion and practice, one thing will stand out; and that is … that all of us will consider that what we are doing is vitally important—so important that we might even risk argument with one another about what it means.

So what do we make of that? What is our communion with one another when we have such a wide variety of practices and understandings? What is our communion with one another—and with God?

Another way of putting this is to ask: Where, given our differences, is our “community”?

Someone—I wish I could remember who—once said that what makes a community is not shared values or common understanding so much as the fact that members of a community are engaged in the same argument.

“Members of a community are engaged in the same argument.” Think about that for a minute.

What helps to define us as a community—not only the community that we have in a local church, but also the community that we share with our fellow believers around the world—is the fact that we are all engaged in the same argument. We all see ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ. We are all engaged in working out the best way to order our lives as his people in response to his calling.

What makes us a “worldwide” community is not that we agree with one another in everything, but that we believe that the discussions we have—even the disagreements we have—are of significance.

The fact is, Christians have never been in complete agreement about everything.

In his letter to the Church at Rome, the apostle Paul tried to deal with some issues that were causing friction amongst believers in that first-century community. It had to do with holy days and dietary restrictions.

Some of the Roman Christians had scruples about eating meat, and drinking wine, and not observing the Sabbath. Paul discusses these differences of opinion in chapter 14, where he writes this:

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Rom. 14:5-9)

The important thing that Paul is telling us here is that each of us should be fully convinced in our own minds about what is important. We should do all that we do—or don’t do—with thanks to God and in the realization that Christ is Lord of all who serve him.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently evil about the fact that Christians disagree—not if we treat one another with respect. Yes, we continue to have our differences of opinion about what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is not good, what is true and what is not true. But you know, our common argument helps to define us. It defines us as the people of God, as brothers and sisters of one another—as members of one family.

Think about your own families for a minute, and how they function. Is there perfect agreement among you?

Are there not members who believe—sometimes quite passionately—that the family should do this or that thing, while others in the family hold forth for something else?

And yet—while there are these kinds of disputes—if we are really a family, do we not sit down together at meal-time and share that which has been prepared for us? And as our tastes and inclinations lead us, some of us will take more from a particular dish, while others will prefer a different one. Isn’t that true? I am the only one in my family who loves turnips!

If we have any sense at all of being a family, we gather on special occasions, don’t we? We come together around the table that has been set, and we give thanks to God for providing the food that we eat—even if our diets are slightly different.

That’s what families do, isn’t it? We bless one another and love one another—without demanding that everyone else do exactly what we do, or think exactly the way we think. We don’t all have to love turnips …

The church around the world today is one family. We are the family of God—defined by our common desire to follow Christ Jesus, who is both our brother and our Lord.

We are the ones who trust in Jesus—who strive to follow him faithfully and to keep the special law he gave us: the commandment that we love one another as he has loved us (John 15:12).

Where is our community with God and one another? It is in all the things we share that are of God and are fully agreed about—and also in all those things about which we agree to disagree. It is in Christ Jesus, whom we seek to follow in varied scheme and practice; and it is in God our Father, who sent Jesus to open the way to life for us; and it is in the Holy Spirit, who joins us together in a mystic communion—one that is not limited by time or space.

This comes to us as a gift from God: the God who wills that we love him with our whole heart, mind, strength and soul, and that we love one another as we love ourselves; the God who empowers us to do exactly that when we turn to him, and trust in him, and seek to do his will.

God is with us. Christ is with us. And, by the power of the Spirit, we are made one with all our brothers and sisters who call upon his name. What a magnificent blessing! Thanks be to God for it.

“LISTEN UP!”

TEXT: Luke 16:19-31

“The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” (Luke 16:22b-24)

As someone once remarked, “It’s not what I don’t understand about the Bible that bothers me—it’s what I do understand!” That comment could certainly apply to this morning’s gospel lesson—to the story about the anonymous rich man and the poor beggar named Lazarus. One of them “feasts sumptuously” every day, while the other one starves. The rich man’s life is a party; the poor man’s life is a misery.

As Jesus tells the story, both men die. Then comes the moment of judgment, when the playing field is leveled. The tables are turned. The first is now last, the last is now first. The poor man sits next to father Abraham in paradise; the rich man is in Hades, the place of torment. And there is no way to get from the one place to the other.

The rich man understands; he says to himself, “I blew it.”

But then he thinks: maybe he can salvage something out of his predicament. He says to father Abraham: “Send someone to warn my brothers, so that they don’t end up like me!”

Abraham replies, “They’ve got the law and the prophets, they should listen to them.”

However, the rich man knows his five brothers only too well. He knows they won’t pay any more attention to the Scriptures than he did. So he asks Abraham to send Lazarus—the beggar whom he ignored—to his brothers, to warn them. “Maybe,” he says, “if someone rises from the dead, they’ll listen.”

Abraham’s reply is as harsh-sounding as it is true: “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they listen to someone who rises from the dead.”

Luke tells us (16:14-15) that Jesus aimed this parable at the Pharisees—at the good, religious people of his day. He seems to be telling them: “You don’t get it. You’re not listening.”

And perhaps we—as we hear this gospel passage—want to ask, “Why don’t they get it? Why don’t they listen?”

But maybe we should ask ourselves: are we listening?

Let’s face it: even if we consider ourselves to be near the bottom of the Canadian heap, most of us are wealthy beyond the imagination of the vast majority of this world’s people. And, as much as preachers and theologians like to muddy the waters of the fountain of life, the truth we hear from Jesus is this: how we are judged has a lot to do with how we treat the poor.

There is absolutely no ambiguity about this point in the Bible; it is clear—from Moses to Amos, from Hosea to Micah, from Jesus to Paul. And it is clear in this story: we, the rich, have received our reward.

The poor are the ones who will be blessed from now on. How we will be judged depends in large measure upon how we relate to underprivileged persons. The law and the prophets have prepared us for it, if we will but listen. And in this teaching of Jesus, we are confronted with the matter yet again. Who are “the poor” in our world? And how do we treat them?

In Canada, we are receiving a steady flow of immigrants. And you know, there is some outcry about that, some resistance to that. But is it not true that this settler nation began as a company of immigrants? There has always been wave after wave of desperate persons coming here: first from Ireland and Scotland; then from continental Europe; and now, from China and Korea, from India and Pakistan and Iran and Syria, from Central and South America, from Nigeria and Somalia and Sudan—and, of course, from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Our Scriptures teach us not to harvest everything, but to leave something so that the destitute and the foreigners might eat and be filled. Why? “Because,” God says, “You were aliens in Egypt, and I heard your cries.”

In this parable that Jesus tells, the rich and the poor are bound up together. And the story gives us both a challenge and a choice: to connect with those who are disadvantaged, or to separate from them. For me, the most powerful image in this story is of the “great chasm”—a wide gap that separates the wealthy and the moneyless.

It surely exists in this life, and—according to Jesus—it exists in the next life, too. But here’s the good news: while the gap cannot be bridged in the next life, it can be bridged in this one. Our challenge, it seems to me, is to bridge that gap while we can.

Every time one of us makes sandwiches for a homeless shelter, that gap becomes a little smaller. Every time one of us donates items to the food bank, that gap becomes a little easier to cross. Every time one of us volunteers at an under-resourced school, that gap gets narrower. Every time we donate money to help hurricane victims in the Caribbean; every time we help build a home in Tijuana or a school in Haiti … that gap is bridged.

Again, here is the good news: in this life we can cross the chasm that separates us from the poor. In the life to come we cannot, but in this life we can bridge that gap. If we seek to make that connection, we will discover that many of the poor are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and that they have something to give to us. And, yes, we will also, sometimes, meet the Jesus of Matthew 25, just as he promised: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me …”  (Matt. 25:35)

The fundamental lesson for us is that there are no surprises in this story. Many of the teachings of Jesus do surprise us, it’s true. I mean, think about the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, or about the prodigal son in Luke 15. Remember the dishonest steward we heard about last week? All those passages contain big surprises! But in this story about Lazarus and the rich man, there are no surprises. We have been warned.

In this parable, Jesus’ word to us is: “Listen.” I believe this is a word of God for us. Jesus wants us to listen to the poor.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, once commented: “Oh, that God would stir up the hearts of all those who believe themselves his children, to evidence it by showing mercy to the poor.”

The gap between rich and poor is not only economic and sociological. It is Biblical, and it is spiritual.

At its best, the Church of Jesus Christ understands this. As people, we are at our best when we genuinely care about the less fortunate. Still, it is not all about what we have to give to others—especially to the poor. Surely they have something to give to us, as well … maybe even our salvation! The poor are not only beneficiaries of grace, they are channels of God’s grace toward us.

The rich man is there, in torment, wanting to get this message to his brothers—this message that we are judged by how we relate to the poor, that God wants us to connect with them, to cross that great chasm that exists between rich and poor in this life.

“How can I get this message to them?” he wonders. And then it occurs to him: “What if someone came back from the grave to tell them?” They would listen then, wouldn’t they? If someone rose from the dead, they would listen! Surely, if someone rose from the dead, they would listen then!”

And indeed, if someone rose from the dead to tell us, we would listen … wouldn’t we?

By the grace of God, may each one of us become a builder of bridges, and a crosser of gaps. In Jesus’ name. Amen.