An unusual king and an “otherworldly” kingdom

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United Montreal’s Sunday Service for November 25, 2018 (Proper 29, based on John 18:33-37).

Jesus was brought before Pilate, and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”[i]

And Jesus replied: […] No, I am a CEO. My company is vast and I have amassed great wealth. There are tens of thousands under my employ, and I pay taxes in 17 different countries!

Jesus was brought before Pilate, and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus replied: […] No, I am a Prime Minister! My cabinet is filled with important men and women. I decide on policies that will benefit my donors. And, my legacy will go down in the history books.

Jesus was brought before Pilate, and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus replied: […] No, I am a Self-Help Guru! Millions hang on my every word, buy my books, and follow my diet plans. They will do anything I say.

[…] Jesus was brought before Pilate, […] and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus asked him where he got that idea from.

***

When Pilate asks the question, “Are you King of the Jews?”, he is assessing the threat that Jesus poses to the occupying Roman Empire.

Pilate wouldn’t very well care if Jesus is a religious figure. Roman rule was invested in allowing Judaism to exist in Israel—it was a political and military strategy to maintain control. But, if Jesus was a revolutionary figure, one who might want to rebel against the occupation? That would be a real problem.

When Pilate asks his question Jesus responds, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”[ii]Though Pilate might not care if Jesus is a religious figure, who broke no Roman laws, there are others who do.

The Gospel of John says it is Caiaphas, the high priest, and his men, who arrest Jesus and bring him before Pilate to be condemned to the cross.

This whole play is about power.

Pilate is unthreatened by Jesus; and, the Gospel even shows the governor as reluctant to condemn the man. It is the religious authorities who feel their power is most directly threatened by Jesus; they are the ones who push Pilate to finalize the execution.

***

But, what power does this man, Jesus, hold?

Jesus is not a king in any sense Pilate is used to—with borders, an army, and a treasury. Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom is not based on nation-states and the conquering of enemies—it is “otherworldly”.[iii]

I wonder what ran through Pilate’s head when he heard that. Did he think Jesus was just another roving Holy Man shouting bizarre things in the desert? Did he see it as a rhetorical ploy to avoid incriminating himself?

What does an “otherworldly” kingdom look like?

***

Personally, I find it hard to grapple with the term “kingdom”, because I can’t separate it in my mind from human institutions, power, and greed.

I like to think of it in terms of “kinship” like Paul uses, he calls the budding Church the “children of God”.

How would you describe this kingdom of God? What image has captured your imagination? Is it a table? A dance? A song? […]

In some of his parables, Jesus refers to it as a feast,[iv]seeds scattered on the ground,[v]and a mustard seed.[vi]

Surely, this is not the image Pilate had in mind when he questioned Jesus!

***

Now, Jesus is very coy when asked if he is a king—he seems to say yes, but he also seems to say no. At the very least, he is no kind of king that Pilate would recognize.

But, he does do kingly things: He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, like a king returning to the city at a time of peace.[vii]

And then, he turns around and does something wholly un-king-like

“He ate and drank with outcasts and sinners”, that’s a line from a communion prayer in the Anglican’s Book of Alternative Services. And, I used to hear that said every Sunday before I came to the Table.

“He ate and drank with outcasts and sinners.”

This is the kind of kingship that would feel so alien to Pilate.

Someone preoccupied with consolidating his own power, surrounding himself with powerful people he could trust, and those he didn’t dare turn his back on. He was the kind of “king” who put himself first.

But, Jesus. […]

Jesus continually puts others first…and not just any others but the last, the least and the littlest.

Jesus refused to align himself with other figures of power and authority; he rejected wealth and status.

Jesus is no kind of king that Pilate would recognize.

***

It is interesting, that Pilate has no idea what a threat this kingdom is to the empire. That’s where the religious authorities get it right.

Jesus is no kind of threat that Pilate is used to.

And, do we sometimes think that we know who Jesus is? Like Pilate, do we mistakenly perceive him as something he isn’t?

[…] Someone safe, docile. […] Someone always allied with our own self-interests. […] Someone to be followed when it’s convenient.

Friends, the Gospel that Jesus preached was a radical one. A few months ago when Heather preached on the Rich Young Ruler she challenged us to think about whether Jesus meant what he said when he asked us to give sacrificially.

[…] The kingdom of God is demanding. Because being part of a kingdom where all are welcomed, loved as children of God, requires a change in our behaviours and our priorities.

When we follow Christ’s example we find our own voice, raised with him, crying out against injustice, condemning those in power who abuse and extort the powerless.

We cannot remain silent while our human family suffers; we cannot remain silent in the face of human greed and hatred. This “otherworldly” kingdom will not accept the status quo of our world.

So you see: Jesus is no kind of threat that Pilate is used to, he is so much more.

***

And, how do we come to this Table today, hosted by this king?

A table where the last to arrive will be treated as the most honoured, and the first arrivals are called to help in serving. It is a table where the roles of host and guest are inversed—modelled by a man who washed his disciples’ feet.[viii]

What a table to sit at—to be invited to.

***

“God SO LOVED the world, he sent his only begotten son”.[ix]The son who would usher in this new idea of what kingdom could mean so that we might know it.

In a while we’ll come to this Table, to gather and break bread. And, I want you to think about what that means… to accept the offer of this unusual king, to be a part of God’s “otherworldly” kingdom; a kingdom that surprises us by turning our expectations on their head.

***

Friends, I pray that God would continue to show you the kingdom in a way you’ve never quite seen it before. What a joy, to continue to discover the depths of our God, and of our greatest example, Jesus. Amen.

 

[i]John 18:33

[ii]18:34 NRSV

[iii]John 18:36

[iv]Luke 14:15

[v]Mark 4:26

[vi]Luke 13:18

[vii]John 12:12-18

[viii]John 13:1-20

[ix]John 3:16

Jesus, a good Jewish boy

Prepared for Wesley United, Montreal Sunday Service of November 4, 2018 (based on Mark 12:28-34 for Proper 26).

For the past three weeks we’ve read consecutive sections of Mark’s Gospel, we saw how three sets of men approached Jesus to ask him a question. These texts are so wonderfully crafted; we can miss so much with our short readings on Sunday mornings so it was nice to have a continuous reading for a while.

However, having jumped a few chapters ahead this week, we’ve missed the first part of our story today!

After Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, a series of religious authorities come to question him.

  • The Chief priest and elders of the Temple ask him… with what authority is he teaching and performing miracles?[i]
  • Some Pharisees, Jewish reformers, ask him… should we pay taxes to the Roman Emperor who is oppressing the Jewish people?[ii](That one sounded a lot like entrapment, to me! Is this radical guy going to say don’t pay, which is illegal, or is he going to align himself with the occupation? Which wouldn’t look good either. But Jesus comes up with a pretty good answer.)
  • Then, some Sadducees, the religious conservatives, ask him… whether he believes in bodily resurrection, providing an especially complicated example of whether a remarried woman would have two husbands in heaven![iii]
  • And then, one of the Scribes comes to him and asks… “Which commandment is the first of all?”[iv]

This is not a hard question. Now, there are some preachers who’d like you to believe that Jesus is just so much smarter than all the other Jewish religious leaders of his day, that he figured it out when they didn’t! But, as we heard from the Book of Deuteronomy earlier, the greatest commandment had been established—by God, no less. And ancient Jews recited its words as liturgical practice, similar to how we recite The Prayer Jesus Taught His Followers.[v]

Jesus is a good Jewish man, he knows the answer because he knows the teachings of the Torah. He says:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ … This is a passage from Deuteronomy, which we heard earlier [Deut. 6:4-9].

Then he says:

“The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[vi]… A passage from Leviticus 19.

As a young boy, Jesus would have been taught the pillars of the faith, just as we try to instil the basics of our Christian faith through kid’s time, Sunday school, storybooks and conversation at home.

If you grew up in a faith community as a child, do you have memories of certain stories, verses, or prayers you were taught? If you didn’t grow up in a faith community, do you have other memories of adults trying to instil their values in you?

My parents really liked mottos and recited them often: “To know and not to do is not to know!” was a favourite. And, they said it often enough it likes to pop-into my head occasionally.

***

What’s interesting about this particular story is that Jesus enters into a theological conversation with this Scribe. It’s not a test, like with the other religious leaders.

The Scribe reiterates what Jesus said, and then continues by adding, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”![vii]

He says this, in Jerusalem, the city that existed to house the Temple complex; the people who lived there year-round were all part of its functioning: priests, animal herders, temple scribes…. It is a very big deal to say something like that in Jerusalem.

And, maybe this Scribe had heard of Jesus, heard how the day before Jesus had walked into the Temple and told the people working and worshipping there that they had turned it into a “den of robbers”![viii]This is the story where Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables and herded the animals outside.

Maybe the Scribe saw Jesus had something in common with him because Jesus criticizes the Temple system just as the Scribe does.

Now, Christianity has a dangerous history of interpreting these texts as anti-Jewish, and considering the events of these past few weeks, I think it is incredibly important to clarify a few things here.

  1. Jesus was a Jewish man, born of a Jewish mother; someone who went to synagogue, memorized Torah, discussed scripture with his companions and visited the Temple regularly.
  2. An internal debate around the authenticity of religious practices had existed within Judaism for centuries.

Both Isaiah and Hosea criticized God’s People and their religiosity. Amos delivered an especially pointed prophetic message to the House of Israel:

I hate, I despise your festivals,

    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,

    I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

    I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,

    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[ix]

Wow! That is not an easy message to hear.

So, though it would be easy to say Judaism was all about rules, rules, rules, and Jesus brought authentic worship based in love, that is a misrepresentation of a rich faith history, and Jesus as a faithful man of the Jewish faith.

Prophets had been providing course correction for the Jewish people since before they started writing it all down.

How human, we all are, that we need those corrections.

A good translation of the word “to sin”, or hamartia in Greek, is to say you’ve “missed the mark”. Humans beings continue to miss the mark and get things wrong, God knows that and provides us with lots of help along the way.

***

Each of these passages shows us that humanity has known about God’s desires authentic, robust love for millennia. It is a love that engages all of who we are—our feelings, our understanding, and our actions.

Amos teaches us that worship without acts of justice is just noise. God requires more than words and posturing from us.

Each of these texts invites us to begin to look inward, at our own communities of faith, to ask whether we’re living out these two commandments in the work that we do.

Are we using love of God, love of self, and love of the other, as our lens when we make decisions about the work we do?

Is it influencing our committees? Our practice of hospitality?

Is our worship integrated alongside our justice work?

When Jesus said to the Scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,”[x]he is giving us a framework we can look to as we hope to further God’s kingdom here and now.

Are there people or places that make you want to say, “Wow, you’re not far from the kingdom of God!” What is about the way they put their faith into practice you find encouraging?

***

It is remarkable that we have inherited a faith tradition that encourages dialogue and thoughtful reflection on the scriptures and our purpose in this world.

We’re fortunate to have inherited a faith tradition that believes in educating children, asking them questions, and inviting them into the conversation. This work is the building blocks of the coming kingdom.

And, how remarkable that God had the foresight to send us those people, like the prophets and this scribe, to help us on our faith journey. Providing the course correction, we so often need, to love God more fully with our whole selves—with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.

Friends, this week may you find new ways to act out this call more fully: loving God, your neighbour, and yourself; since there is no greater commandment than these.[xi]

 Amen.


[i]Mark 11:28 NRSV

[ii]Mark 12:13-17

[iii]Mark 12:18-27

[iv]Mark 12:28b NRSV

[v]Based on Matt. 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4

[vi]Mark 12:29-31 NRSV

[vii]Mark 12:33b NRSV

[viii]Mark 11:15-19

[ix]Amos 5:21-24 NRSV

[x]Mark 12:34 NRSV

[xi]Mark 12:31b

Stories of hope and expectancy

Prepared for Wesley United Church’s Sunday Service of Oct. 28, 2018 (Year B, Proper 23, Mark 10:46-52).

Imagine a man, sitting on the side of a busy dirt road, people coming and going. Then, a large crowd begins to pass by. Can he hear the crowd talking? Or, does someone lean down and whisper in his ear, It’s him, the teacher they’ve been talking about!

When he learns it’s Jesus, Bartimaeus cries out demanding to be heard: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”[i]

The crowd grumbles: Don’t bother the Teacher… You’re not worth his time… Be quiet, you’re making a fool of yourself.

But, Jesus stands still.

Like the Woman with the Issue of Blood, the one who reached out to grab his cloak,[ii]Jesus stops for the people no one else wants to see.

Stopping for Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, our story today reminds us that Jesus stops for the people no one else wants to hear.

Who are the people in our community we don’t want to see?

Who are the people in our community we don’t want to hear?

***

“Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

“Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

How we long to hear these words. To be picked out of the crowd, to be seen, and asked: “What do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher, let me see again.”

The past three Sundays we’ve heard stories of men asking Jesus for something: The rich young man wanted eternal life.[iii]James and John wanted glory.[iv]Bartimaeus wanted mercy.

Who made the wiser request?

***

A theme in Mark’s Gospels is the connection between faith and healing.

The man with leprosy is healed when he comes and begs Jesus, saying “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”[v]

The paralytic man is healed when his friends go out on a limb and lower him through the roof to reach Jesus in the crowded house.[vi]

Jesus heals the woman who reaches for his cloak, knowing he has what she needs.[vii]

And here, he heals Bartimaeus who refuses to let him pass by, knowing that this Jesus is capable of giving him the mercy he is so desperate for.

These healings take two: both Jesus who meets the seeker intimately, and the one who believes enough to come seeking in the first place.

***

The problem with these stories is that is so easy to think that this is about how “hard” we believe

Have you heard someone say before: You just didn’t pray enough? You just didn’t have enough faith?

Or, have you stop believing altogether that the Living God moves in our world? That God desires to transform us?

Jesus says, “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”[viii]But, when we hear those words we may begin to ask ourselves…

Why didn’t it turn out the way I wanted? Why haven’t I received what I asked for?

But, Jesus isn’t pointing us to a “vending machine God” we can demand miracles from…

Jesus makes a direct connection between our belief or trust, that God can change things and real change in our lives. These are stories about hope and expectancy.

These people who received healing came to Jesus with the hope that he could offer them something no one else could. And it is hope that makes space in our lives for transformation.

When we come to God expectant that she lives and moves in our world, we open ourselves up to her wonderful mysterious ways. When we are open, transformation becomes possible.

But, that means letting go of our preconceptions of what transformation looks like.

***

I’m reminded of the children’s story “The Velveteen Rabbit”. The stuffed toy wants so desperately to become a real rabbit and is frustrated when it seems impossible. But, through the love of the boy who owns and cherishes him, the velveteen rabbit becomes real to the child. That’s what leads to the rabbit’s transformation: both love, and an acceptance that what we desire most doesn’t always take the form we expect.

And I wonder, do youcome to Christ believing that transformation is possible?

***

One of the greatest lies the world tells us is that we’re stuck, that nothing can change. When we’re paralyzed by hopelessness that can feel so true; it can feel like every effort to do and be different is totally useless. We’re swimming against the current.

The world starts to fill our heads with a chorus of: Don’t even bother trying… You’re not worth it… Be quiet.

If that’s the place you’re in today, then I’m sorry. That is a hard to place to be in. It’s an even harder place to escape from.

But, we believe in a God that sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, and justice to the oppressed.[ix]We believe in a merciful God, whose stories of goodness were captured by our ancestors in the faith, to remind us when we begin to forget—to forget that something else is possible for us.

We need those reminders, just as Bartimaeus needed someone to tell him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

Throwing off his cloak and stepping forward, Bartimaeus reached out, in vulnerability and courage, for what he wanted. But, he didn’t stop there.

After Jesus heals him and releases him to go back to his community, back to the life he must have been dreaming of—Bartimaeus refuses. Instead, he does what the rich young man could not, and he gives up everything he has (though it is so little) to follow Jesus.

Our transformation will come in unexpected ways, riding the coattails of hope, but it is not without consequences. When God moves in our lives, we can’t expect to go back to the ways things were before, with small alterations. Transformational change is an irreversible life-altering thing, that tells us we must live differently now.

Do you have a memory of learning something or experiencing something that led you to say, I’m not the same now.

*****

Friends, the Living God offers mercy and transformation to all of us, but it is rarely how we’ll expect it to be. With courage and hopefulness, we can invite her to stir us, to stir our lives with newness. She offers only good gifts to her children.[x]

But, I caution you: As Bartimaeus shows us, we cannot expect to live as we did afterwards.

Amen.


[i]All quotes from Mark 10:46-52 are from the NRSV, denoted by use of “”.

[ii]Mark 5:25-34

[iii]Mark 10:17-31

[iv]Mark 10:34-45

[v]Mark 1:40-45, NRSV

[vi]Mark 2:1-12

[vii]Mark 5:25-34

[viii]Mark 11:24

[ix]Luke 4:18

[x]Luke 11:13