Good News for Who?

Sermon prepared for Wesley United Church Montreal’s Sunday Service of Jan. 27, 2019 based on the Gospel (Luke 4:14-21) and Epistle (1 Cor. 12:12-31) for Year C Epiphany 3.

With the up-coming by-election in the riding of Outremont, I have been watching as colourful party signs appear on lampposts and balconies around my neighbourhood.

I’ve also been receiving some material from candidates, on Facebook, by email, and in our mailbox. And, let me tell you, they seem to have all sorts of Good News to tell me.

They are proclaiming Good News to the underemployed, to the middle class parent, to the business owner, and newcomer. Their promises are filled with hope, and assurances, and an invitation to follow them.

***

Jesus, here in Luke, has just returned from his not-so-relaxing retreat in the desert, and is giving his first public appearance in his hometown. He’s in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. He stands at the front of the assembly to read from the Scroll of Isaiah. He is amongst his neighbours, those who saw him grow up, and he speaks with power and authority.

It’s all very good optics.

And, Jesus reads these words from the prophetic text:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good newsto the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captivesand recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressedgo free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[i]

It’s a solid opening. And when we read this passage we can’t help but think to ourselves, Yes! This is the kind of man whose side I want to be on. This is the kind of teacher I want to follow.

Because, we could all use a little Good News in our lives. It is a New Year, and yet it feels so much like the last, with our newfeeds brining us one hard story after another.

But, this isn’t a unique experience to our time and place. This past week we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and we were reminded of the past and present struggle of the Black community for equality and justice. With the on-going conflict between the RCMP and Wet’suwet’en People, we are reminded of the continued struggle of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. This week is Muslim Awareness Week in Montreal, and we think of the not-so-distant shooting at the Quebec City mosque, and the history of islamophobia in our country.

Is it any wonder that these words of God’s rescue and favour have been echoed throughout history? Throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures? They are a sweet reminder to those who are struggling in a world filled with Bad News.

***

Yet, we’re missing part of the story here in Luke.

Jesus announces that the scriptures are fulfilled as he sits down, and folks say to themselves… “Is this really Joe’s kid? Yeah, the one who was really bad carpentry… Huh. No kidding!”[ii]But the story doesn’t end there.

Next week’s reading will show how Jesus’ first forays into public ministry end up with a furious crowd who want to throw him off a cliff!

The Nazareth Gazette the next day likely read: Hometown boy bombs first townhall of his public career.

***

Jesus’ Good News doesn’t seem so good to this crowd. But, why? What is so startling about Jesus’ message?

He proclaims a great reversal of fortunes, that the bound will be free, the impure will be made pure, and the oppressed liberated![iii]What’s wrong with that?

You see, the thing is: Jesus is not preaching merely to his neighbours, the people in that assembly. In the following section he recalls a story of how Elijah, the great Jewish prophet, was rejected by God’s people and instead went to Sidon, to stay with a non-Jewish widow.[iv]

The Good News is great news if you’re the one God is talking to, but it is a tough pill to swallow if you’re not.

Certainly, the Jewish people in the 1stcentury were oppressed by the Roman Empire, but the rural populace was also weighed down by the administration of the Jerusalem elite—who Jesus criticizes openly in his ministry.

Yet, Luke shows Jesus as stepping even further to the margins. He doesn’t just speak to his neighbours (Jewish men and their families), but he reaches out to children, the disabled, the widowed, and non-Jews in the surrounding region, offering them Good News as well.

The image of a righted world, reconciled with God, is so much bigger than his listeners would like it to be. Throughout his ministry, Jesus begins to break open the text to say God is not just speaking to you and I—the vision of God’s Kingdom is bigger.

***

Luke’s version of what we call the Beatitudes is a bit different than you might recall, because Luke pairs his four declarations of “blessing” with four declarations of “woe”.

Blessed to you who are poor, who hunger, who weep, and who people hate because of the Son of Man.[v]

But woe to those who are rich, who are well fed, who laugh, who are spoken well of.[vi]

The mission Jesus was gifted in his baptism and time in the desert, to proclaim Good News, is a double-edged sword. Yes, he delivers a message of hope, but he also has a hard message for those who hold power and privilege.

The Kingdom of God is not some vending machine of niceties and goodwill—it is a great upheaval, a reversal of a world set too long down the wrong path.

***

When Indigenous Peoples in Canada speak about reconciliation I am often struck by this recurring sentiment: that right-relations will feel wrong to those who are used to holding power. Equality will feel like injustice, because settler people are so unused to a balance of power; we will feel off-kilter as we try to find equilibrium with our Indigenous relations.

***

All this makes me wonder, whether this Good News is truly good news for you and I?

There is a part of me that says, yes! Yes, because there are things in my own life I need liberation from. Things I no longer want to be captive to.

And yet, there is another part of me that is contrite, knowing I am culpable in the oppression of my neighbours.

I am both the someone who Christ would call “blessed”, and the someone to whom he would say “woe”.

And, I can respond in one of two ways: I can choose, like the Nazarenes who hear Jesus’ teachings, to refuse to acknowledge that God’s Kingdom extends beyond the boundaries of my imagination; or, I can choose to allow God to make me new in this great upheaval.

***

How remarkable that God offers us grace in this in-between place. How remarkable that we are invited to take part in this great working of love.

Jesus, throughout the Gospels, not only extends us the invitation to be a part of God’s Kingdom, but he also asks for our elbow grease too. Today in our readings the Apostle Paul reminded us that we are each gifted, and called.

We are gifted, and called: from the last, to the least, to the littlest. We are called from the margins of society, and out of its great houses of power. We are made new in this Kingdom of God, as equals.

It is a Kingdom that desires us to be reconciled with our creator, and fellow created. It looks to put back in balance a world so off-kilter.

And, Jesus tells us this isn’t some far off utopia—some distant promise—but that it is fulfilled today, in our hearing.[vii]Wherever God’s people are, proclaiming the Good News and acting in service of the Kingdom, there is God at work. There we find our world, and our own selves, being made new.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[i]Luke 4:18-19 NRSV

[ii]Luke 4:22

[iii]Luke 4:18b

[iv]Luke 4:24-27

[v]Luke 6:20b-22 NIV

[vi]Luke 6:24-26 NIV

[vii]Luke 4:21

Advertisements

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

Not What We Signed Up For

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday service on October 21, 2018. Year B, Proper 22, Mark 10:35-45.

James and his brother John, some of the first disciples Jesus called, came to their teacher and said: “Teacher, we want you to do something for us.”[i]

Jesus, knowing better than to blindly agree with a precocious disciple, says: “What is it you want me to do for you?”[ii]

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”[iii]

Glory.

That’s what this ministry is all about, after all. This obscure teacher who’d roamed the countryside, collecting a following; calling out religious hypocrites and corrupt authorities; performing amazing miracles, demonstrating his power.

The past few Sundays our Gospel readings have shown Jesus on the road to Jerusalem the Holy City, the epicentre of the Jewish world. Those who walked with him were likely expecting a triumphant entrance. They put their hope in him, that he would bring about a new age for Israel.

And, there would be glory.

When Jesus cryptically replies: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”[iv]…the brothers are confused. They’ve shared meals with Jesus, drunk the same wine; they know he was baptized by John in the Jordan, as many people from the countryside were[v]—maybe even these brothers.

So they reply, “We are able.”[vi]

It seems they thought they knew exactly what was to come; exactly what they were getting themselves into. We, however, have the luxury of knowing the ending.

Not often enough, we share the story of a man, a labourer turned teacher, who was seen as enough of a threat by the authorities that he was publically executed. A good man, who had committed no crimes, was killed on a cross, hanging next to criminals—one on his right, and one on his left.

Though the disciples don’t seem to notice, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus spends an awful lot of time trying to tell them what his glory will look like. And, it is not pretty.

Right before the verses we read today, as the teacher and his followers walked towards Jerusalem, Jesus shares how the Son of Man would be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, be condemned to death; and killed.[vii]

The life, that Jesus offers to his followers, is a good one but it… is… hard. And, though his followers answered the call, it’s obvious at this point in the story, that’s not what they signed up for.

In the following part of the story, the other ten hear what the brothers have asked and become agitated.[viii]

When I was a child my dad used to tuck me in at night. This was a special one-on-one time just for me and him, to connect.

One night, and I remember it so clearly tucked under the covers looking up at my dad, I asked him:

“Daddy do you love me more than mom?”

He paused. And said, “Well, I love in different ways.”

 I think I scowled because I didn’t like that at all. I wanted to be loved the most, and I didn’t want to share that love—even with my mom.

Later on in life I was very happy my parents loved one another, but it took a little perspective to get there…

Is it our human nature, that we want to have more than everyone else? Or, do we live in a world that tells us there is so little that we have to hoard—even love?

These two brothers, come to their teacher and ask for more than their friends, their travelling companions, and fellow students. It is a competition. Only a few can come out on top.

But, don’t these men ever listen? Haven’t they heard Jesus’ chorus of “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”?[ix]His teachings are littered with it!

The kinship, that Jesus calls us to turns competition and success on its head. Glory doesn’t look like empire… Leadership is servanthood… The Gospel is about self-sacrifice.

That is at the heart of the cross, for me. Jesus resists the urge to align himself with power and empire; and instead commits himself, even unto death, to faithfulness and justice.

What a cup to drink, and a baptism to be baptized with!

Whenever I feel like the Christian life has become a passive thing, about being nice and singing hymns—the Gospel is here to shake me awake, and remind me that the Kinship of God has a very different perspective.

It is only with God’s help, that we may begin to be transformed by this call to live so differently in a world that tells us to be afraid, to be tight-fisted, to be suspicious. What Good News it is, that there is another way to live.

Amen.

 

ENDNOTES

[i]Mark 10:35 NRSV

[ii]Mark 10:36 NRSV

[iii]Mark 10:37 NRSV

[iv]Mark 10:38 NRSV

[v]Mark 1:5

[vi]Mark 10:39 NRSV

[vii]Mark 10:33-34 NRSV

[viii]Mark 10:41

[ix]Mark 9:35 NRSV