The Upside-down Kingdom

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday service on November 19, 2017. The church has pushed Advent ahead by one week, so the readings for the day were for The Reign of Christ the King (Year A Proper 29, Matthew 25:31-46, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23).

Let me start off by saying—wow. The Gospel of Matthew, once again, delivers us a hard-to-swallow image of the end of time, and eternal punishment.

A lens I use when reading texts like this is to remember that this genre of the writing, is meant to be encouraging.

How? You might ask me. Because it doesn’t feel encouraging!

Well, it’s an image meant to encourage the early Christian community—a community that was experiencing persecution, and struggling to find its identity in the midst of the polytheistic Roman Empire. It’s also a community who believed Jesus was going to return soon—in their lifetime soon. So, this style of writing focuses on that… telling the reader that the bad guys will get what they deserve and the small community will be vindicated in the end.

But what about you and me, in 2017? Well, today we celebrate the king of an upside-down kingdom. Before the beginning of Advent, we take a moment to close our church year by celebrating “The Reign of Christ the King”. And this is the lectionary reading we’re given to do that.

It’s a funny celebration too, because in a world where we hold-up the strong, the powerful, and the ambitious, it’s counter-cultural to follow a man like Jesus.

Someone who didn’t exalt himself, but made himself low.

Someone who didn’t demand sacrifice, but invited it by modelling it even to his own death.

Someone who didn’t tell you what to believe, but instead invited you to come and see.

Today, we celebrate the undereducated, blue-collar, nomadic, brown, king of an upside-down kingdom.

And, when we come together, as Christian community, we gather as citizens of this upside-down kingdom. We talk about God’s vision for our world, we sing songs, read prayers, and share ideas about how God calls us to live this ideal out in the world.

But, we’re also citizens of other communities: NDG, Montréal, Québec, Canada. We’re members of companies, organizations, groups and movements. We give our loyalty to many causes, to different leaders, and to diverse ideologies.

Because, we no longer live in a world that is anxious for the imminent return of Christ. The author of Matthew, and the community he writes to was sitting on pins and needles waiting for the return of Jesus and the breaking in of his kingdom. The Ephesian Christian community too was anticipating Jesus’ return—the Apostle Paul genuinely believed Christ would come back within his lifetime.

But he didn’t.

Christianity, as it has continued throughout history, needed to begin asking questions about what it means to live the urgency and power of the gospel message—a countercultural call to justice and reconciliation—while living in our world, as it is.

We have moved from a future-focused vision of the kingdom to something already present and not yet.

We no longer live with the kind of abandon that Christian martyrs in antiquity lived with. Some of our Christian siblings in areas where they experience fierce persecution do. But life, in North America, is pretty comfortable—we’re ok to wait around for a while longer. Jesus can take his time.

But… what would it look like for you to live a life of urgency, with the kinship of God as your focus?

Not everyone can live a life of wild abandon—I’m not encouraging you to go out tomorrow and sell all your possessions to give to the poor (albeit I know someone who might). But, I do think we can still cultivate a kind of urgency here, now. A sense that, the instructions Jesus gave us are important (not because we think he’s going to descend down from heaven any moment) … but because he taught us that every life matters to God—to see his face in the face of those around us.

Those who are hungry… those who are thirsty… those who are lonely… those who don’t have enough… they all matter deeply to God.

There should be a sense of urgency to the way we embody the Gospel because our work brings people closer to God because we are God’s hands and feet in this world. The kinship of God is revealed only in so much as we feel called and are willing to reveal it.

The kinship of God is revealed only in so much as we feel called and are willing to reveal it.

A kinship where the marginalized are given the best we have to offer, where the privileged take a back seat. A kinship where children are highly regarded and have so much to teach us about our own faith journeys. A kinship where caring for the immediate needs of another takes precedence over whether they’ll listen to us first.

And, we’re part of a long tradition of people, trying to figure out the best way to go about it—a community of messy, normal, imperfect people trying to figure out what living as part of the kinship of God means in our context.

If we profess that Jesus is king, albeit in a way completely unlike any other monarch in history, what does it look like to live that out as you, or me, today?

I want to invite you to take a moment, to think about the ways you see the kingdom of God being built in our community, right now. We need to remember and celebrate these moments, because, kingdom-building is hard work.

Take a moment to think of a person, a program, a group, that is doing the work you see Jesus calling us to—it could be in these walls, at your workplace, or in our city.

Now, let’s think about what else God might be calling us to do. Is there a particular group, activity or idea that God has been percolating in you? Do you feel like, as a community, there is a need we’re overlooking? Is there a way we can better live out our citizenship in the world and in the kingdom of God? Where do you see urgency?

Now, think of one thing you can do to make a start, right now. Is there a conversation you think you should have? An organization you want to support? A story you might need to hear?

My hope, and prayer, is that as we go out into the world this week, God will begin stirring us anew and equipping us to continue the work that has already been started, to strength us and refresh our vision for the kinship of God in our homes, our schools, workplaces and communities; revealing it a little more, each day through our lives.

Amen.

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Silly virgins, late grooms, and the end of time as we know it

This sermon was prepared for the United Theological College’s Wednesday Worship, November 8, 2018 (using the coming Sunday’s readings for Year A, Proper 27, Matthew 25:1-13)

Ten young women. I imagine them walking arm in arm—chatting—teasing one another—on their way to meet the bridegroom.

They all go prepared: bringing lamps (in case it gets dark). Because they all know they’ll have to wait.

But, five of them have the foresight to bring extra oil. I don’t know if you know this, but bridegrooms can get delayed.

I’ve heard this text countless time throughout my life, preached from a variety of angles. So, is this text about exclusion? Or “I told you so’s”? Is it about youthful stupidity? … I don’t think so.

I think it’s about ten equal women, with ten equal lamps, who ALL fall asleep. … But half wondered, and planned, in case there was a delay.

So, the kingdom of God is like …what? The women? The lamps? Or, the bridegroom. The bridegroom who hasn’t come yet, not when some were expecting him to. He’s delayed, and all have fallen asleep.

Le royaume des cieux est comme un marié qui ne sait pas … ni le jour, ni l’heure de sa venue.

How often, in the United Church, do we think about the end days? La fin des temps?

The Second Coming? La retour du Christ?

How often do we contemplate our own deaths? Notre mort?

Are we living as if we’re ready for the end of the world …or the end of our lives? As if we’re ready for Jesus’ return to earth …or our return to the dust?

Maybe? …when was the last time you thought about it? I know I find it easier to gloss over all of this. I also laugh at Christians who say they have it all figured out—they know exactly what’s going to happen. And what do I do? I avoid putting serious thought into what I believe about it all.

But, then it’s disconcerting coming face-to-face with a Biblical text that talks about it so directly. And, I can’t avoid thinking about it.

Je ne suis pas comfortable avec la discussion de la fin des jours, ou de celle de la seconde venue du Christ. C’est plus simple d’ignorer ce texte ou, de dire que l’auteur avait une conception metaphorique du retrour du Christ.

I suppose that all this makes me a “foolish virgin”? Not preparing myself for…whatever is to come.

Susan Hylen writes that “If we were to contemplate ourselves in relation to the end time, it might be easier to imagine ourselves as the slaves who work diligently while the master is away than as the bridesmaids whose primary job is to await the groom’s return. This is not necessarily something for which modern Christians should be chastised — after the passage of two millennia, we have grown accustomed to the master’s absence. It’s a long time to wait expectantly.”

Lucky us that the author of Matthew, ever an encourager, gives us a parable to raise our spirits. He doesn’t question whether we will fall asleep, he knows we have—all of us. Yet, he tells us about the wedding banquet that is coming—echoing the promises of the prophets, like Hosea.

And, when it happens—maybe the sky will part and Jesus will descend down. We could spend a lifetime guessing. What’s undeniable, even by lefty United Church theologians, is that the kinship of God stirring—we see the glimpses of new creation on its way.

Comment vivez-vous? Comme si Dieu l’Éternel etait en train de renverser ce monde? Comme si son royaume etait en train de se construire ici sur la terre?

How do we live: present here, and yet watchful?

In a culture that is not particularly big on waiting, how do we join with the two-millennia of other Jesus followers and…be? Be here, on earth, in this time and place; not too worldly and not too focused on things to come.

How do we prepare ourselves, for a kinship that’s revealing itself now and not yet? How do we confront our own finite-ness?

I suppose it could all start with asking ourselves these questions. But, I’d to see us start a little differently—so let’s start with a song. …

The Reformation, Gospel, and Good Works

This sermon was prepared for the Wesley United Church, Montréal, for Sunday, October 29th, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (Year A, Proper 25). 

Continuing our conversation on 1 Thessalonians from last week, we read of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy’s care for this early community. As disciplers, we see them leading by example, reaffirming the values of the movement.

Last week we spoke of the call to discipleship, and this week we continue that reflection as a call to a communal ethic.

Stanley Hauerwaus claimed, that whenever we talk about the church we’re talking about ethics, and vice versa. Whenever we talk about ethics we’re talking about the church. Because, the gospel message is an embodied message—embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, embodied in the lives of his disciples, and in his church.

What does the oldest piece of Christian writing tell us about the ethics of this early movement?

Well, we that it was brought to Thessalonica, as a God-centered gospel, which we could also call an “other-centred” or “self-less” gospel. We read that is not built on pride or greed.

And, we read that is a gospel that doesn’t rely on manipulative messaging, instead on a truthful representation of the character of God.

It is a gospel of tenderness which includes this image, I love so dearly: The image of middle-aged grumpy Paul and his friends, describing themselves as “wet-nurses” whose concern for their own children is so markedly different. A more modern analogy might be that of a daycare worker, whose compassion and tenderness is different with their own children than the kids they work with—it is more intimate. Intimacy is a quality we talked about last week—the intimacy between disciplee and discipler.

Continuing in that vein, there is also a sense of the vulnerability of this gospel, where people share this embodied message by revealing their very selves. A gospel of intimacy and vulnerability.

Paul teaches us that you cannot share the gospel without sharing yourself; it then follows that we cannot be the church, we cannot embody the message, without sharing how it has transformed us—as individuals and a collective.

This summer, the theme at the Rendez-Vous (national youth) gathering was, from our New Creed, to “Be the Church”.

How do we embody the gospel message, as people and together as a church?

We have a complicated history, where more often than not it seems like we have proclaimed a message of exclusion, of colonization, of selectivity, of damnation, and shame. We have definitely been on the wrong side of history, as a community.

Bonhoeffer wrote that “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Bonhoeffer was writing in a time when the church was complicit, or at the very least apathetic, about the atrocities taking place in Germany and across Europe through national socialism. He spoke of a gospel message, a message of grace, that demanded its adherents profess its truth in actions as well as words. His theology, which started in grace, demanded the church get political, get involved in conversations about ethics, and hold one another accountable for their actions—he saw the embodiment of the Gospel in, what he called, the Confessing Church.

How do we embody the gospel message, as people and together as a church?

Before The Enlightenment, religiosity had very little to do with what you believed, and a whole lot to do with how you acted. Faith was based on your piety or right-living—it was demonstrative instead of conceptual.

Today is Reformation Sunday, the Sunday we’ve chosen to mark the 500th year since the Reformation that split the Catholic church into the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. One of the big things that caused the split was the issue of salvation through faith alone. Protestantism rejected the idea that it was faith and good works that ensure our salvation, opting instead for “simple grace”.

However, Pew Forum has surveyed protestants across North America and discovered that, after 500 years, these two parts of our church are more similar than different. Pew Forum reports that 52% of American Protestants agreed that “Both good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven.”

Now, I’m not saying that salvation through faith alone isn’t true or an important Protestant concept, I’ll leave that up to your own reflection, but I think as a community we’ve discovered that faith that isn’t demonstrated is hollow.

James 2:14-17 says: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

How do we embody the gospel message, as people and together as a church?

How do we demonstrate that we are followers of Jesus, our perfect example? A man who called us to care, to clothe, to speak up, and to seek justice?

How do we proclaim the grace that God has extended to us, and show the incredible ways in which God has transformed us? Last we spoke of a message of liberation, so what does it mean to live a liberated life?

Well, if you’re looking for answers, don’t ask me. I can only tell you the ways I feel called to embody the message that was handed down to me. So, I want you to turn to your neighbour, and share for a few minutes.

Get a little vulnerable, and ask one another…

How do we embody the gospel message, as people and together as a church?

The community shared in discussion for five minutes, and then we concluded by singing “What Does the Lord Require of You”.