I have told you what to do… so, go do it.

This Week’s Parable: Luke 6:46-491365799150-Jesus-carrying-cross1

Here we are at week 9 of 10 in our study of parables. I chose today’s scripture as our second last parable to encourage us to look back on some of the things we explored this summer. Together, we dug deep as we thought about what Jesus might be trying to teach us. These messages were not always easy and sometimes challenged the way that we have thought about these stories in the past.

Everything that we need to know about the Kingdom of God and how to live towards the reality of “on earth as it is in heaven” is right in front of us. As he told his disciples, Jesus tells us what we need to do. He appears a bit frustrated in this parable and seems to say, “For God’s sake guys, stop asking me what to do, I’ve told you already… so, go do it!”

In the last eight weeks, I think our digging deep was like preparing a sturdy foundation. All of you that have taken the time each week to show up to worship, listen and learn (and/or read these sermons online) have begun the work of building that firm foundation Jesus talked about in today’s parable. We pray that we have explored well and used good theology to lay this groundwork. Let’s have a look at the lessons we have dug into and see what Jesus may be calling us to do:

That first week we began with a Canada day celebration and my sermon honoured a local activist named Phil Pacey. In appreciation of his life, a memorial gift made in his name was given by his wife Betty to the work of restoring the windows in this church. The line “good and faithful servant” had been used by Reverend Trent to describe Phil, so I began with the Parable of the Talents from which that phrase comes. There, we thought about how we become a good and faithful servant of the Kingdom of God instead of good and faithful servants to the Kingdoms of the World? We learned that the cost of being a Good and Faithful servant of God means that those whose measure success on the values of the world might see us as fanatics and troublemakers. If we choose to follow Jesus’ teaching we might find ourselves viewed as disrespecting traditional values, as serious threats to the ways things have always been done or even as political enemies! We could lose our jobs, our freedom, and even our lives, like Jesus did. This was a good place to start and these lessons set our hearts and minds to thinking about what makes the Kingdom of God different than the Kingdom of Heaven. We were called to do what we know is right.

During the second Sunday we told The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Here we heard the importance of prayers of confession and supplication. We learned that EVERYONE is worthy of God’s love and mercy; even those that we think never deserve forgiveness. We learned that it is not up to us to decide who is worthy. This parable taught us that all who come before God with a humble heart in prayer are forgiven every time they do. God is mysteriously unconditionally merciful. This parable taught us that God’s merciful forgiveness is not earned by acting like “a good Christian” or by just going through the motions of worship. God doesn’t see us for what we do in this way, no – God sees us for who we are. God’s blessing and forgiveness is for all who swallow their pride and come before God with a humble and contrite heart and ask for help. We were called to be accountable to who we are before God and humble enough to know we need God’s help.

Week three saw The Parable of the Labourer’s in the Vineyard. This parable spoke to the subversive nature of Jesus’ teachings. It touches on socioeconomic justice, but it doesn’t get there as expected… it is not a parable about wage disparity. Instead, it is about how to ensure that people do not become marginalized in the first place. This parable also calls to question why we do things… it made us question: do we do them for reward or because they are the right thing to do?

When our actions come from a place of living as though every human being is worthy of love and respect, then we can no longer turn our backs when we see things in this world that demonstrate anything less! The work of justice on earth flows from a belief that the Kingdom of God is now, that the Grace of God is already here. It is a call to live abundantly, trusting that God is taking care of everything you need, so you can take care of others in kind. We were called to do God’s work in the world.

During the fourth week we read The Parable of the Mustard Seed. This was a fun one to prepare and I think it challenged the traditional way of looking at that parable. Instead of seeing this parable as a lesson about the Kingdom of Heaven, we read it as a warning against buying into the Kingdom of Earth. This lesson was also about recognizing our abundance. This was a lesson in letting go of things that don’t really serve God, but may only serve greed and fuel jealousy. We spent some time thinking about what we already have in our lives that help keep us grounded in God. We were called to practice gratitude.

At our halfway point, we talked about “Bad Apples” as an analogy for The Parable of the Leaven. We did some serious thinking about how quickly hate and fear spread and recognized that it takes real effort and intention to be different. This is exactly what we are called to do – to be different – to do better.

Where there is gossip we were called to spread the truth. Where there is fear we were called to spread joy. Where there is injustice, we were called to spread compassion. Where there is scarcity, we were called to spread abundance. Where there is hate, we were called to spread love.

We found our lesson in Sunday six in The Parable of the Great Dinner. It recalled earlier lessons: We were called to be good to others without the expectation of return, but more importantly, I think we learned that we were called to go look for those who are not usually invited to be a part of our communities and invite them to come be with us. That also means that we must make them feel welcome and not expect them to fit into our ways of doing things. We may need to adjust how we do things to make room for others. We don’t do this expecting praise for our efforts to serve the “less fortunate”, or receive acknowledgement for our charity. We should not do these things just to improve our reputations or for media attention. If we are being as awesome as Jesus would have us be, we won’t have to worry about getting noticed! We were called to invite the uninvited because everyone is welcome in the eyes of God.

In weeks 7 and 8, we finally came to the most famous of the parables. The first was The Parable of the Prodigal son. We learned that all three characters in this story teach us something different about how God would have us live. Like the tax collector in week two, the younger son taught us what it means to be remorseful. From him we learned that in our brokenness it is possible to swallow our pride and say we are sorry. He taught us what it means to seek reconciliation with those we have wronged by starting with an apology. From the father character we learned what unconditional love really looks like. He taught us that sometimes it is right to let go of what or who is lost because a situation is out of our control. He also taught us to let go of our anger, our shame, and our pain and forgive them when they return! The character of the older son taught us that holding onto resentment, jealousy, and anger will only keep us stuck in bitterness and it will steal our joy. We were called to love unconditionally, to forgive, and to celebrate when the lost return!

Finally, last week, The Parable of the Good Samaritan taught us a thing or two about social justice! I think the clearest call to action came, not from the voice of Jesus himself, but God speaking through the voice of the mother of the murdered woman who helped sum up our lesson for that day. To love our neighbour means that we are always seeking to make the world a better place. We are called to stand up for those that need our help standing up for themselves– every damned time and not just when it “feels” safe!

So, I wonder if the messages are right in front of us then why is putting them into action so hard? In the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus, his followers were struggling with the same issues as you and I with regards to how to follow in his way. The Letter of James in the intro speaks to this exact issue saying, 22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”

Why do we continue to risk building our houses on shaky ground even if we have heard these lessons and even spent a bit of time thinking about them? I think it is because lessons like these are not truly learned until they are practiced. If someone simply told you how to do anything that you had never done before, like changing a tire, giving CPR, or making Pad Thai, but they never showed you how to do it, and you never, ever put into action what they told you, would remember it?

Chances are you would be unlikely to remember what you learned in the case of an emergency in the case of the first two at least. I have yet to have had a Pad Thai “emergency”. You might be able to bumble through it if you were really paying attention and have a learning style that allows you to process it that way. But, most people don’t have the confidence to try something new without at least having an example of what they want to do. This is why youtube and pinterest are so successful I think!

Thankfully, Jesus not only told us, but he showed us what he was trying to teach us by the life he led. Now, it is up to us to put those lessons into practice. What we practice daily becomes a part of who we are. For example, I learned to play the piano as a kid, and I practiced, not as much as I should have mind you, so I cannot sit down and pound out a tune, but I can still pick up a sheet of music and play it well enough to learn how to sing the song even though I haven’t had a lesson in almost 20 years.

Sometimes the biggest obstacle to putting our lessons into action is just getting started. Theologian William Barclay suggested in his book “The Parables of Jesus” that this comes from the habit of feeling emotions and not acting on them. We do this when we are entertained by things that shock us or make us cry – so much so that when real things happen that elicit emotion we are so used to not reacting that we just don’t.

We might overthink then to the point of talking ourselves out of what we really know is right. Acting on what we know is right is not instinctual anymore (if it ever was), it is a learned behaviour.

The first step towards this radical change is the hardest. And sometimes the second step is harder still if you trip up on the first. But you must keep taking the steps to move forward. The road to change is not smooth, for if it was then we wouldn’t be so afraid of it. But, it is a road that leads somewhere. As followers of Jesus, the road that we are called to walk is the road to realizing the Kingdom of Heaven to come and the Kingdom of Heaven that is with us now.

Every day we need to ask ourselves, as the mother in our story last week implored us to do, where can I make a difference today? We must understand that making a difference today changes the future. I know it sounds cliché these days, but asking yourself, “What would Jesus do?” and relying on what you have learned from these lessons will help you make good decisions in your life! Like the home builder that places his home on a sturdy foundation, when we practice doing what we know is right, being accountable for our actions, doing good for the sake of doing good, gratitude for our abundance, spreading truth, compassion and love in the face of evil, inviting the uninvited into our communities, letting go of what we cannot control, loving unconditionally, forgiving mercifully, celebrating freedom from resentment, and taking risks to stand up for those who need our help – helps us shore our walls against evil whenever it rears its ugly head. We will even recognize it when it is sneaky, subtle, and systemic! We will know what to do when we are called to fight against the forces of evil like hate, greed, fear, gossip, injustice, and oppression because doing what is right is in our bones. This is non-violent resistance. This is the way to justice. This is a daily proactive fight instead of once-in-awhile reactive one – this is the long road to real change and it starts with each of us taking one step out of the comfort of our thoughts and the discomfort of our emotions. After all, we know now that this is what Jesus calls us to do and be – people of compassionate action – people of positive change!

May we all pray for the courage and the strength to do as we have all been called to do! Amen.

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You Get to Choose

Ally-Enemy

Scripture this week: Luke 10:25-37 (part of a 10-week series on the Parables)

Since last Friday night and Saturday morning, so many of us have been thinking about what we would have done if we lived in Charlottesville. Many of us have also thanked God that we do not. But, we don’t have to live in Charlottesville to think about what we would do in the face of racism, injustice, and terror. Racism is everywhere. It is here too. As I have been thinking about all of this, I have also had the parable of the “Good Samaritan” on my mind as it was the one chosen for this week. With that in mind, I wonder if you will imagine this scenario with me:

It’s sometime a couple weeks ago and you live in Charlottesville, so you have been reading about the “Unite the Right” rally planned for this coming Saturday downtown. It’s going to take place at the statue of Robert E. Lee that the city council voted to take down when they met in April. This usually relaxed college city is buzzing with talk about what will happen. You don’t usually get involved in this type of thing, or politics in general really. As far as this issue goes, you don’t really see what all the fuss is about actually. It’s just a piece of bronze and concrete – it marks a time in history. What’s the big deal? On one side people seem to be saying that taking down the statue is erasing history, while on the other side, they are saying that this statue celebrates slavery. You can see the point of both sides, but you don’t have any real feelings about it either way – you’re sure they’ll work it all out though…

It’s now Friday evening and you are leaving your job at the University Library when you begin to hear chanting from the direction of Nameless Field. As you come around the corner towards your car, you see the Statue of Thomas Jefferson. It has been ciricled by University of Virginia students holding hands… You can’t understand what’s happening because the statue with all the fuss about it is further downtown in Emancipation Park. And besides, all that hullabaloo isn’t scheduled until tomorrow…

Then you hear it… the chanting… you begin to make out the words… “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us! Our Blood, Our Soil! Our Blood, Our Soil!” You turn to the direction of the voices and see what you can only describe as a mob… it’s like a scene out of a movie you saw once where men in white robes and hoods head out looking for the next person to lynch – except this mob holds tiki torches, wears polo shirts, hold Union Jacks and Nazi flags and do not have their faces covered at all… And these guys seem to have a hatred for Jews this time instead of African Americans – like in that movie – none of this makes any sense! Who are these young people??? And how can there be so many of them!? There are voices yelling from all directions. You hear one shouting – “stay in formation! Two by two” – you can’t believe what you are seeing…. you stand back by your car and just watch in complete shock as they go by. As the mob enters the park, they clash with the students who are black, white, and brown and they are all yelling too, but you can’t hear what anyone is saying now…it is utter mayhem… you are terrified, you get in your car and head straight for home. You check Facebook and Twitter as soon as you get there to read about what just happened… and it still doesn’t make sense to you. But, you do know that your heart aches and you are sick to your stomach! You are now bordering on numb and don’t know what to do. This is the kind of thing you have only seen on TV – how can this be happening in your city? How dare they walk your streets and spew such hateful words!? –But these are real people. You saw their angry faces up close. You took them seriously – this was not TV. They seemed to have nothing to hide and you were frightened of them –even though they looked like they could be your brother, or your son. You are beginning to understand what the fuss about the “Unite the Right” rally planned for tomorrow is all about. This feels dangerous. Will it be more of the same – or worse? What will you do?

As I see it, there are at least three options if you lived in Charlottesville last Friday night and something like what I just read happened right in front of you:

  1. You could do nothing – that’s your privilege after all. And it is terrifying to think about standing up to people that are so fueled with hate! Besides you just can’t just put aside your family commitments and chores on a precious Saturday to go face THAT. A lot of this stuff doesn’t make sense to you anyway – can’t we all just live in peace? Or what about these Antifa groups you’ve seen on the internet? What if they are there too? – They seem just as violent as the so-called “alt-right” people. Or what about those people holding signs that say #blacklivesmatter? For heaven’s sake, don’t all lives matter? You know yours does and you aren’t willing to risk it for something that seems so wrong – on both sides! What happened to human decency? Why can’t we all just get along!? You could get seriously hurt or even killed by putting your nose in where it doesn’t belong! ununh!– no way!
  2. You could go down there just to watch. You know, as a sign of support for your black and Jewish friends that you know will be there. But, you won’t hold a sign or commit to any particular side. You’ll just witness what is happening… from the other side of the street… in silence. You want to see for yourself what is happening because it doesn’t seem right. But, you are non-violent and all this yelling and “fight back” business doesn’t seem very Christian to you! This is not your fight. You feel bad that people are saying such awful things about each other, but you also have to work and live in this town. The media will be everywhere tomorrow! What if someone from work sees you protesting on the news! They won’t even know what you are doing there, you’re usually so quiet. And, you’re white so some people will probably just assume you are on the White Nationalist side – won’t they? Or what if your boss thinks you are a member of Antifa or the #blacklivesmatter movement – You know, you never said anything about those racist jokes he always tells – so he probably assumed you were on his side – this will not go well for you! Yes, you’ll go, but you will just watch… in silence.
  3. Or, you look a little harder on Friday night for the counter-protest groups that are organizing and you send them a message on Facebook. You tell them you are terrified, but that you can’t be silent about this anymore. You saw first-hand what was happening tonight on campus and you know in your heart how wrong it was. All those feelings you have had on your soul about the systemic and institutional racism that you see every day at work, the hate that you hear spewed by your president, and the pain in the eyes and in the stories that you have been hearing from your friends and neighbors who are not white – All those feelings stir you to DO SOMETHING. You know you are putting yourself at risk, your family will think you have lost your mind… but you know the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ and you aren’t willing to be the priest or the Levite anymore! You have seriously thought about “what would Jesus do?” if he lived here? You have learned that to be a good neighbor means that you do what you would have others do for you.

If someone were denying you basic human rights, you would want someone to help you speak truth to power. If someone were celebrating someone who hurt your people, you would want help stopping them. If someone were yelling obscenities at you and threatening your life, you would want someone to help you fight back!

This is what Jesus calls us to do when he challenges us to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. In the parable today, the Samaritan is a victim of racism in his every day life. After all there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan in the ears of those early listeners! His people were seen as “less than” others. But, Jesus chooses him to teach us what it means to be a neighbor. The victim in the parable is never racially identified… His race doesn’t matter here, what matters is that his position on the road, where he lays dying, is what puts anyone who stops to help him at risk: Risk of attack by bandits, risk of being ritually impure by touching his blood, or risk of any number of unknown scenarios to those who witness him on the road. Unlike the Priest and the Levite, who worried about themselves first, the Samaritan chooses the needs of the other over his own in that moment and takes the risk. He saw that he could help someone who was suffering, so he did.

On Saturday, people started showing up in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville around 8 am even though the rally wasn’t supposed to start until noon. Many of those there for the “Unite the Right” rally showed up armed with weapons and shields – these included militia members toting semi-automatic rifles and pistols. Some of the counter-protesters were present with sticks and shields of their own. The tension was palpable. The police stood guard, but did nothing to prevent what happened next. They watched, never breaking formation as the rally-goers and counter-protestors collided in a violent flurry of attack. The police finally declared it an unlawful protest just before noon and issued a dispersal order. The rally-goers planned to move the gathering to another park and it seems like a full crisis had been averted – nobody died – yet. Before they could assemble a state of emergency was declared and the rally was shut down completely. This enraged many who had travelled great distances to have their voices heard. Within the hour, one of those people would roar his car directly into the area where the counter-protestors were still gathered killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.

Heather Heyer was a 32-year-old white woman from Charlottesville. She was a paralegal in her day job and helped people through the hard choice of bankruptcy. She was a person who fought for others. Her mother said, “it was important for her to speak up for people she thought were not being heard” and that is what put her in downtown Charlottesville on Saturday in counter-protest to those that chanted, “One people, one nation, end immigration,” “Jews will not replace us,” “White lives matter,” “Blood and soil,” and “F-you F—–s.” Heather was there in solidarity with voices that were fighting against the hate in non-violent protest.

At Heather’s funeral, her mother, Susan Bro, in an act of grace and poise that I don’t think many of us could muster, issued a challenge to people like you and I: People that already try to go the extra mile for others – people that are trying their best to be good people already. She challenged us to do even better. This is what she said to all of us who are asking ourselves right now, “but what can I do?”

She said, “You need to find in your heart that small spark of accountability. What is there that I can do to make the world a better place? What injustice do I see, and want to turn away, I don’t really want to get involved in that, I don’t want to speak up, they’ll be annoyed with me. My boss might think less of me. I don’t care. You poke that finger at yourself, like Heather would have done, and you make it happen. You take that extra step. You find a way to make a difference in the world. So, remember in your heart, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention and I want you to pay attention – find what’s wrong, don’t ignore it, don’t look the other way, You make a point to look at it and say to yourself, ‘what can I do to make a difference?’ and that’s how you are going to make my child’s death worthwhile. I’d rather have my child, but, by golly, if I gotta give her up, we’re gonna make it count!”

There is nothing more to say than that, except maybe, “Go, and do likewise.”

Amen.

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Lost and Found

lost-and-found

This week’s scripture: Luke 15:11-32

Today’s parable is a familiar one to most of you. Chapter 15 begins like this… “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ It’s no secret that Jesus seemed to enjoy and seek the company of people that others thought weren’t worth it –Jesus would attend a dinner with the more elite of his community when he was invited – although, as we saw last week, he used these invitations as opportunities to teach the community about how they were not living according to the will of God. Much to their dismay, he would spend these times talking about of what God required of them. The more time he spent with them the more he pointed out the errors of their ways and this didn’t make him very popular – in fact, it eventually paved the way to his death. So here he is again, in this story, reminding those who would shame him for spending time with “sinners”, that we all of us belong to God.

First, he says that when one sheep goes missing, the shepherd will still look for it and be overcome with great joy when he finds it because he has found what was lost. He doesn’t just say, well, I have 99, I don’t need that one anyway. No, all are valued. He tells them about the woman that lost a coin, she searched high and low for it even though she had other money, because it was valuable to her. Like these first two stories, the parable of the prodigal son points to the value of something or someone who is lost, but there is a third character in this story that adds to our understanding of the nature of God.

“There was a man who had two sons” – like the man with his sheep and the woman with her coins – there is more than one thing of value in this story. The younger of the two sons goes to his father and says, “give me what is mine”. What is really important to understand here is that this man had absolutely no right to anything that he demanded from his father at this time– none of it would actually be his until his father was dead. So he is essentially saying, you are dead to me, give me what I am owed. He is petulant, greedy, heartless, and cruel – yet, the father, who has every right to say “no,” does not refuse. Being that there were just two sons, the literature says that the property would have been divided into thirds. 1/3 for the younger and 2/3 for the elder brother – that being said – the elder does not get his “share” yet, because the father is still alive. So the younger brother takes his share and runs away with it. Prodigal means to spend frivolously.

The scripture doesn’t tell us what he spent all his money on (but the elder brother has some ideas later in the story), but it does say that his life in this new country was immoral/dissolute. When his money has run out he finds himself in the middle of a famine– he went from dissolute to destitute. He was so desperate that he hired himself out as a pig feeder – Jewish law forbid contact with pigs – he was now the lowest of the low, he was penniless, homeless, very alone and at risk of starving to death… he was broken. In his brokenness he remembered his home. He remembered his father. He remembered his generosity. He remembered that those hired by his father were not treated like he was being treated – they were fed and taken care of. He knew what he had to do if he wanted to live. He knew where he could get help. He didn’t expect to be treated like a son again. He was so broken and ashamed that he no longer felt worthy to be called his father’s son, but he hoped, at the very least, that his father wouldn’t turn him away as a worker. He practiced what he would say, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.

Let’s remember that he had completely dishonoured his father, his family, and his culture with his behaviour. He acted as though his father was already dead, he left all the work to his older brother, and he broke the laws of his people. But, when his father saw him in the distance all the rules of culture were set aside. His son, who he thought was gone forever, had come home and he ran to him with open arms. You and I can connect with this idea a little bit better than those who would have heard this story from Jesus. They would not have been so quick to accept that this is what a father would do. Honour and shame were what they understood.

Many of us hope that we would be like this father should we be put in his position, but we also know that sometimes people push their families too far. We are more apt to think about times like when my brother went missing at about age 10 in the city of Victoria – my mother was frantic – this was not our city and he was lost. I clearly remember her saying, “When I find him, I’m going to kill him.” But as the hours passed, her anger turned to sorrow and when he came strolling out of the underwater aquarium pleased as punch about the adventure he’d just had my mother embraced him in her love. But, what about the adult addicted to drugs or suffering from mental illness who blames, hurts, abuses, and even steals from those who love them because of their condition? Sometimes the pain of the loved one’s illness or addiction makes it feel like they are lost even when they are right in front of you and it just becomes too much to bear. Sometimes these friends, families, and spouses have just had enough. They simply can’t do it anymore and for their own well-being they have to let go.

Some of you may have seen a video from Sinead O’Connor, the singer made famous in the 90s for ripping up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. She lives with Bipolar Disorder and this week put a video online that many across the world watched in judgement. She was raw, she was real and she was in the middle of deepest despair. She was crying out to the family that she says has abandoned her. What pushed them over the edge and so far from her we do not know. But, it happens. It happens because we are human and we can understand the need to protect ourselves from this kind of pain.

But the father in this story puts aside his own pain, his own shame, even his own pride to embrace his desperate son in his time of deepest need. He doesn’t even wait to hear an apology. For all he knows his son was coming to ask for more money! In that moment though, he doesn’t care. In his desperation, the son begins to say what he had practiced probably all the way to his father’s land, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son;” but before he can say, “treat me like one of your hired hands,” his father has already embraced him and called for him to be taken care and for the party to begin. There is no shame in his return, just celebration! Just like the man and his sheep and the woman and her coin – what was lost is found and it is time to rejoice!

The final character in this story, the older brother, is less than thrilled with idea! He adds a human layer to this story that we may have missed in the other two stories in this chapter. You don’t hear the other sheep or coins saying, “what about me?” But, this is what he does here. “What about me?” But he dishonours his father by not attending the feast that is happening when he comes back from work – like the invitees to the feast that we heard about last week, he just refuses to go. His father, not one to acknowledge the rules of the honour system, goes to his son and personally asks him to come to the party. His son once again dishonours him saying he worked like a slave – he worked, not out of love or respect of his father, but because he felt he had to, in this moment he reveals how much he resented his position in life.

I think most of us can relate to him. Sometimes life feels so unfair. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes others, who seem to do everything wrong, seem to have the greatest reward. Sometimes it feels like we work and work and work and never get noticed, but that other person does nothing and gets rewarded for it. All we see is what we lack. We might even have thoughts like, “Why should others get anything ‘just because’ when we have had to work so hard to get where we are?” When we do anything because we have to instead of because we want to then we are setting ourselves up for a life of resentment and anger.

We can choose to be any of the characters in this parable, and we can be all of them at different times in our lives. We have all made mistakes and the younger son teaches us how to be remorseful. He reveals that in our lowest moments, in our brokenness we can swallow our pride and say we are sorry. He teaches us what it means to turn our lives around and seek reconciliation for those we have wronged by saying we are sorry.

The father in this story is often allegorized as God, but I think the story really teaches us that we ought to be like the father character in this story, and like the man with the lost sheep, and like the woman with the lost coin. We should always look for the lost and celebrate when they are found. But, I noticed something in this reading. This character doesn’t go looking – he lets his son go. Sometimes, like the father in this story, we can’t leave and go after what leaves us because we have other responsibilities that need our attention. Sometimes we just have to keep our hearts open in hope that whatever or whoever we let go of will find their way back to us when the time is right. And when they do, this character teaches us to let go of our anger, our shame, and our pain and forgive. The father in this story teaches us about unconditional love.

Finally, the older brother, who we either villainize and allegorize as representing the Pharisees, or we empathize with him because we see ourselves. He teaches us that we are all invited to celebrate when the lost are found! When we choose an attitude of scarcity where anger, resentment, and bitterness are always under the surface of everything we do then we focus on what we lack and are easily jealous of others. But, when we decide to accept the invitation to the celebration we move out of scarcity and into abundance. Accepting the reality of the Kingdom of God means that we always remember that we are all invited to the party and there is always enough for everyone that shows up!

This week I read a quote online that said, “Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not a pie.” This spoke so clearly to me as I was thinking about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We never know what the younger son does after the celebration and we never know if the older son decided to come to the party. The point is that there was a celebration! What was lost was found. The work of reconciliation had begun. The work of justice had begun. The love and justice of God is not a pie, there is enough for all. When all of us work within our own lives to be more like what these three characters teach us then we are a little bit closer to realizing the Kingdom. When we learn to be remorseful like the younger son, when we learn to be forgiving like the father, when we learn to be gracious like the father in his invitation to his older son, and when we learn to live abundantly as we hope the older son will choose, then we are learning to live as Jesus tried to teach us to live by his example in the world. For the Love of God, may we learn! Amen.

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The Meal Awaits…

meal

Today’s Scripture: Luke 14:15-24

Have you ever been invited to something, accepted the invitation and then wish like heck that you never agreed to come? I know I have and I have made excuses to get out of going somewhere for sure, but I think I would have a hard time not showing up moments before I was supposed to be somewhere special – where someone had invited me specifically and had literally prepared a place just for me! Unless someone died suddenly or there was an accident on the way, I don’t think there is any excuse to disrespect the host and all the hard work they put into preparing a place for you. This is what happens in this parable though – but, despite the sheer bad manners of doing something similar in this day in age, in biblical Palestine this behavior would dishonour the host. With honour comes power, wealth, and status – invitees such as these would be part of the hosts desired social network and the banquet was an opportunity to show off, to garner favours, and to make business deals. By treating your guests to a grand feast it meant that they were now in your debt until you accepted an invitation to their next event or they repaid you another way! For all the invited guests to have last minute excuses is more than just bad manners – it sends a clear message to the community that this host was not deserving of honour, of their friendship, or of their business relationship… Being dishonoured in this way placed the host at the bottom of the social ladder.

The whole of Luke 14 takes place during a feast occasion. The leader of the Pharisees has invited Jesus among the honoured guests at a feast on the Sabbath. Jesus takes this opportunity to teach his host and fellow guests about what a banquet of God would be like. The Banquet of God was a Jewish idea – the idea being that when the Messiah came there would be a great banquet and all would sit down at the table to celebrate the victory of Israel that the Messiah would bring when he came. This was to be an occasion of great joy! Jesus teaches about the ethic of God. He discusses that one should not assume a seat of privilege when they arrive, but wait for the host to call them to a seat of honour, honour is not assumed based on the same rules as here on earth. He tells them that the list of invitees should only include those that you cannot put in your debt (as is the case on earth), but that you should invite only those that could never pay you back! The beginning of the parable of the feast happens after the people hear that those righteous in the eyes of God are those that invite the marginalized to dine with them. The listeners say, “Blessed are they that eat bread in the kingdom of heaven!” Jesus clarifies just who that might be in this parable…

The listener would expect that the feast table would be filled with the invited, after all who would have an excuse not to attend the banquet of God? But this is not the case here – in Palestine the elite who held these types of banquets would send out the invitation in advance of the feast – a slave would deliver by parchment or verbally invite and take the answers to the invitations back to his master. His master would then prepare for the party based on all who said they would attend. Then when all was ready, the slave would go back out and gather the people to come for “their meal awaits”… but, unbelievably, ALL of these guests had many excuses to not show up.

These excuses point to mistakes that we can all learn from if we are truly seekers of the Kingdom of God. They all point to the fact that they thought there was something more important than honouring their host with their presence at his table.

The first excuse – “I have bought a field and need to see it” points to a life out of balance, when work is more important than anything else – so important that there is no time left for prayer, worship, and devotion.

The second excuse – “I have bought oxen and need to go examine them” considers our commitment to tending to material things – the lawn needs to be cut, the car needs to be washed, or the house must be cleaned – taking care of our stuff takes up a lot of time.

The final excuse – “I have married a wife and therefore I cannot come” speaks to our responsibilities to our homes and families. William Barclay said this, “Our homes should not shut us off from the claims of God and of others, but should strengthen us better to discharge them.”

None of these things, in and of themselves, are intrinsically bad things – it is good to be a hard worker. It is good to take care of things. It is good to love your home and family. These are all good things and can lead to what feels like a really good life – but it may feel that something is missing if life becomes unbalanced with “too much of a good thing!” When life becomes about our reputation as a hard worker, about recognition of our lovely things by others, or even because we want to garner the love of our families, then we are living to impress others somehow and this may prevent us from experiencing the Kingdom of God. Even good things can keep us from Christ as they kept these folks away from the meal that was prepared for them.

They choose all these things over honouring their responsibility to their host and as a result he also loses his honour and is no better than the poor, sick and lame – who were the lowest of the low in their culture.

What he does next is the real surprise! He doesn’t pack it all up and cancel to save face and anonymously slip away – NO – The meal awaits! – instead he shares it with those who he never would have invited before – he is humbled in his dishonour –it stirs him to generosity- he takes a bad situation and he makes it good.

This part of the parable reminds me of those stories you read about modern day weddings when the wedding is called off and instead of losing the money they paid for the reception, they hold the feast anyway and invite the homeless and hungry to come and eat. On the surface, these feel-good stories are just that, but they are also news stories because they are not the social norm. People do not invite the homeless and hungry to their wedding feasts unless the marriage is called off —Unless the bride and groom have been dishonoured and disgraced in front of their family and friends. I think that these modern day stories and this parable serve to remind us that there are still so many people in our communities that are the uninvited and that still deserve to be fed.

This parable reminds us how to serve God– we are called to be good just to be good without the expectation of return. We are called to invite the uninvited. We are called to feed the hungry, just because they are hungry, not so they will come to church or because it makes us look good!

As members of the Kingdom of Heaven, living in the world, each of us is responsible for each other. It’s really that simple. I think about former US President, Jimmy Carter. Some of you may have read the recent story about him in Edmonton, Alberta when he was working building a home for habitat for humanity, a group that builds homes for people in need, and he became dehydrated. President Carter, who is now 92 years old received treatment at the hospital and then went back to work with his hammer and nails. Former presidents are people in places of honour and power, he could have all the luxuries that this world has to offer and be very comfortable in his old age. If he wanted to just look good for helping the marginalized then he could just write a cheque, but he doesn’t just do that – he puts on his jeans and his baseball cap and swings a hammer to make the lives of other people better. This is a man who has accepted the invitation to the table of God and who not only shows up, but he shows up ready to serve everyone at the table!

Serving those who can never pay you back sometimes comes with a reward that you never expected. In our city there are folkd that regularly host free meals for people outside the Margins – Knox United Church in Lower Sackville is just one example. They recently started up a multi-denominational partnership with local churches to host a monthly meal for just that population. Not only have they served meals, but they have bridged ecumenical partnerships in their community.

Recently, I was speaking to someone who talked about her commitment to volunteer at another place in our city that serves daily meals to those affected by poverty. She told me that she feels that what she receives from helping there is something that she can never pay back – A sense of community, of acceptance, of self-worth – I suspect that this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.

This parable also reminds us to pay attention for the invitation to the Kingdom of God. And if you accept that invitation, then for the love of God, show up! It reminds us to be really careful not to miss out because we are too busy for God – even too busy with otherwise good things! The Kingdom of Heaven is like a feast where all that show up are part of the community, all are accepted, and all are worthy to be fed! So get ready, the meal awaits!

When you are invited, and all of us will be invited at some point, or maybe many many times in our lives, then you get to decide if you are ready to accept the invitation. I think that this parable isn’t saying that you have to accept – I believe that God is pretty persistent and will keep on asking until you find it in your heart to say yes! – But be prepared if you do accept, because then you have a responsibility to show upyou are then called to get ready to receive and get ready to serve.

Are you ready? Because the meal awaits…

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“One Bad Apple…”

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAbPAAAAJDNlMzFlM2Q5LTc1MGItNDU3NC1iMTM5LThhMWUyNGVkNmQ3OQToday’s Scriptures: Luke 13:20-21 & 17:20-21 

During the first of these 10 sermons on the parables I introduced the idea that we can look at parables usually from one of two directions. From one direction, a parable may be inspired to teach the listener what the Kingdom of God is like, from the other direction, a parable might be a teaching or even a warning about the Kingdom of Earth. This later direction is the one I take to reach the lesson in today’s parable. Because it is twinned with the parable of the mustard seed, this parable is sometimes considered to point to the idea that the Kingdom of God starts small like a mustard seed or a cell of yeast, and before you know it you have three huge loaves a bread …or a giant tree! Last week, I was reminded to look for the part that doesn’t make sense in the story – that is this piece that points the way. Last week God’s Kingdom was an undesirable weed, and this week it is compared to something that is used as a metaphor for moral corruption every where else in the Bible.

Yeast as a metaphor for moral corruption doesn’t really make sense to our modern, western ear at first– after all, who doesn’t love delicious, fluffy, doughy bread? Unless you suffer from celiac disease or follow a special diet, chances are that leavened bread is a staple in your diet or at least a wonderful treat… mmm… French croissants, Montreal bagels, Jewish Challah, sweet rolls…. my mom’s white bread… these are all wonderful things in my mind as I think about yeast and baking… and this was likely in the minds of so many people who have interpreted this parable. As a result, this parable is often interpreted that the leaven, the yeast, is good, the baker kneads it into the dough – and before long it turns the plain flour into nutritious bread. The lesson then is the Kingdom of God is like a tiny bit of goodness that multiplies and spreads until it transforms people and communities into something better than what it was at the beginning. In this context, this makes sense and it is a lovely idea for sure.

But, here’s the thing: yeast today is not like biblical leaven. Biblical leaven was putrid. According to Bernard Brandon Scott, one of my favorite parable scholars, leaven was made by taking a piece of bread and putting it in a damp, dark place until a thick, ooey, gooey mould formed – the lump of bread literally rots and decays. Modern yeast is so much cleaner and comes to us in those neat, little premeasured packets… we forget its disgusting origins. This disgusting origin is why leaven was used as a metaphor for malice and evil. Unleavened bread was considered pure and holy and some say even sweet. So, why would Jesus say, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” It sound like he says, “the Kingdom of God is like yeast”… but let’s listen a little more carefully… because he doesn’t say that exactly, and words matter.

There is a reason that I chose to also shared the passage from Luke 17 this morning. In answer to the Pharisees question about when Kingdom was coming, Jesus said, “‘the kingdom of God is among you.’” The Kingdom of God is among you… not that it will be among you… but it is already among you. Some translations even say that the Kingdom of God is in you! With this in mind, some scholars suggest that the parable of the leaven is a warning that the Kingdom of God that is in their midst already is like the environment created when the woman hid –and the verb used is “hid” not “kneads” or “works in” – remember words matter. If we think of the leaven as rotten – then the Kingdom in their midst is at risk of being spoiled. Like a rotten apple in the apple barrel that spoils the whole batch. Thinking about it using this comparison means that the Kingdom of God is not like a rotten apple – instead, the Kingdom of God is like the barrel of perfectly nutritious apples at risk because someone had placed a rotten apple somewhere in the barrel. The potential for spoilage has happened!

What does this mean for us? Within our own heart this kind of leaven ferments into attitudes and behaviours like jealousy, insecurity, and self-doubt. There is a little piece of us that can quickly succumb to fear and anger even in the face of goodness, especially if the world has taught us that goodness in can’t be trusted.

In the world we need only look to any workplace where there is an office gossip or a disgruntled employee who creates a toxic environment for everyone else. It is incredible how quickly that kind of poison spreads until the whole place is stirring with unhappiness. This happens in our churches too – it takes just one person to start a rumour or to spread their negative attitude about changes in the church for the whole church to be at odds with one another. The next thing you know the minister is leaving or the church is empty because folks expect church to be less like their workplaces and more like the Kingdom of God! I think this is not an unreasonable expectation, but it is hard to achieve when the church is made up of the same folks that are in the workplaces…

So, what can we do to keep the Kingdom of God in our midst at church, at work, in our relationships, and in our hearts protected from the malice and evil that is all around us? Consider this story from a man named Coach Muller who has this terrific blog called https://goodtimestories.wordpress.com/author/richmullercoach/ where he shares stories he has collected and written about moral issues.

“Two men shared a hospital room. One man propped up every day for an hour to help with his breathing. His bed was next to the window. Due to his condition, the other man had to spend all his time flat on his back. The men talked for hours on end and quickly became friends. They spoke of their wives and families, their homes, their jobs, their involvement in the military service, where they had been on vacation. And every afternoon when the man in the bed by the window could sit up, he would pass the time by describing to his roommate all the things he could see outside the window.

The man on his back lived for those one-hour sessions when his world would be broadened and enlivened by all the activity and color of the world outside. The window overlooked a park with a lovely lake. Ducks and swans played on the water while children sailed their model boats. Young lovers walked arm in arm amidst flowers of every color of the rainbow. Grand old trees graced the landscape, and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen in the distance.

As the man by the window described all this in exquisite detail, the man on the other side of the room would close his eyes and imagine the picturesque scene. One warm afternoon the man by the window described a parade passing by. Although the other man couldn’t hear the band – he could see it in his mind’s eye as the gentleman by the window portrayed it with descriptive words.

Then unexpectedly, he thought, “Why should this guy experience all the pleasures of seeing everything while I never get to see anything?” At first the man was ashamed of this thought. But as the days passed and he missed seeing more sights, his envy eroded into resentment and soon turned him sour. He began to brood and he found himself unable to sleep. He couldn’t help thinking how unfair it was that he didn’t get to look out that window and that thought controlled his mind.

Late one night as he lay staring at the ceiling, his friend began to cough. He was choking on the fluid in his lungs. The other man watched in the dimly lit room as the struggling man by the window groped for the button to call for help. Listening from across the room he never moved, never pushed his own button that would have brought the nurse running in. In less than five minutes the coughing and choking stopped, along with that the sound of breathing. Now there was only deathly silence.

The following morning the day nurse found the lifeless body of the man by the window, she was saddened and called the hospital attendants to take him away. As soon as it seemed appropriate, the other man asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch, and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone. Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look at the world outside. Finally, he would have the joy of seeing it all himself! He strained to slowly turn to look out the window beside the bed. It faced the brick wall across a narrow alley.

The man asked the nurse what could have compelled his friend who had described such wonderful things outside this window. She said, “Perhaps he just wanted to bring you joy.”

Like the man in the story, we are susceptible to envy, resentment, greed and other attitudes of scarcity. We might not go to the same ends as he did to get what we want, but it is hard to resist negative feelings that come over us. I think that if we believe that the Kingdom exists within us and around us already, maybe not completely fulfilled, but still here, then, as followers of Jesus, we are compelled to live in a way that works to fulfill the prayer that “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. These are not just meaningless word- they matter.

Through his parables, Jesus teaches us what the Kingdom of God is like and what our part in it is. To realize the Kingdom we must choose the path that isn’t always easy. The leavening process can be stopped in a number of ways and we can dig the rotten apple out of the barrel, but it takes an awareness that we are at risk of spoiling to encourage us to respond in a way that aligns with the Kingdom where love reigns. This past week, we were reminded once again that love does not reign supreme in the world at large even if we think it should. Hate, fear, and injustice are everywhere.

Jesus calls us to uncover the leaven that is hidden in our midst and spread the goodness of the Kingdom of God instead. Where there is gossip we are called to spread the truth. Where there is fear we are called to spread joy. Where there is injustice, we are called to spread compassion. Where there is scarcity, we are called to spread abundance. Where there is hate, we are called to spread love.

This is not easy work, but it is possible, God being our helper. Because words matter – I invite you to please rise with me and repeat our affirmation of faith (The New Creed) as a reminder of our commitment to the Kingdom of God…..

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The Kingdom of God is like a …weed?

dandelion-bess

This week’s scriptures: Ezekiel 31:1-9 AND Matthew 13:31-32

In less than a week, I will be heading down to Berwick United Church Camp as I have almost annually for the past 33 years. Berwick Camp is located at the end of Commercial Street in the town of Berwick in the Annapolis Valley. It is unique camp in that it is situated inside town limits, but it is also inside a large, old hemlock and pine grove. These trees are incredible – they grow straight and extremely tall. They remind me of the mythical, mighty cedar of Lebanon that we read about in the Bible. Standing among these old, monumental trees can make one feel quite awestruck and very small. When the sun shines through, the way that it does at certain times of the day, it feels like a holy experience just to stand there in their presence.

But here’s the thing about mighty earthly things – when they fall, they fall hard – Berwick camp learned all about this on December 13, 2010 when a storm ripped through the Valley and the camp experienced what has been described as “Unfathomable destruction”. Over 100 trees fell. Many literally crushing cottages in half. Over 30 buildings were destroyed. The camp has mostly been rebuilt, but the spaces left behind where the trees once stood is still an ever-present reminder of loss.

Trees like that take a long time to grow and new trees, hemlocks especially, are difficult to get going because the plants are highly susceptible to pests and deer. They take a lot of work to grow. If they do make it, it takes a very long time for them to reach maturity to the point where nh birds are nesting in their branches.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons that Jesus subverts the idea that the Kingdom of God is a mighty cedar and says that it is like a mustard seed instead. A mustard seed grows to be a plant that is usually a viewed as a weed. This means that it germinates easily and quickly grows and is hard to get rid of. The mustard plant grows to around 4 feet although there are some bushes as high as 8-10 feet. It surely does not grow into a tree despite what the translations might say. So, it would have been surprising to the listener to hear Jesus teach that the kingdom of God was a like weed. Actually he says it is like the seeds of the weed!

There were even rules around planting mustard because it was so intrusive. It was considered lawfully pure to maintain an orderly garden. Vegetables were for the garden proper. Grains were for plots in the field. Only one kind of grain was to be sown in a plot because sowing more than one could make the crops of the field indistinguishable and therefore unclean according to the law.

The man in our story is risking an unclean crop by sowing mustard seeds in his ground! What is Jesus possibly trying to teach us about the Kingdom?

Just the nature of the word “kingdom” conjures up might and power! The kingdom of heaven is surely more like the mighty cedar of Lebanon – well established, widespread and prosperous! This is the human standard of success and this is what we expect of any kingdom worth being a part of! –established, widespread, and prosperous! But no, Jesus says that the Kingdom of heaven is like this little seed that grows wherever it lands. The Kingdom of God is still growing, still reaching, still spreading…

In the Old Testament, particularly in Daniel, the Psalms, and Ezekiel, the mighty cedar represents great power. Sometimes the power was that of God’s and sometimes it was of that of a ruler that thought they were more powerful than God. In our reading today, the poem by the prophet Ezekiel uses the image of the mighty cedar as warning to the king of Egypt that his kingdom –is like the Assyrian one before him – the prophecy is that this tree will fall as it has before. Have you ever seen the destruction when a mighty tree falls? Not only is the tree destroyed, but so is everything around it and that is what was happening in Israel each time a kingdom fell.

To say that God’s kingdom is like a cedar wouldn’t have made sense to Jesus. He understood that God’s power and might were beyond our human understanding. The power and might of the human kingdoms is not what God’s kingdom is like.

Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of God is not a destination or a grand tree to climb to reach the clouds, he doesn’t even say that God’s kingdom is like a Mustard Plant… no, he says it is like the Mustard seed that is sown. It is still full of potential! It has the potential to grow into being shelter and comfort to all who flock to it. The Kingdom of God is like the seed that can grow anywhere. If given the chance, the seeds of the kingdom of heaven will grow among all the other things growing in the garden until it takes over! Unlike mighty cedars, weeds don’t really fall down. Anyone who has had weeds in their garden know that they come back again and again and again. They grow, and they grow, and they grow.

The summer after the great storm at Berwick, I noticed something that I hadn’t before. In the sunlit places left behind where the mighty trees had once shaded, were now full of saplings and sprouts of all kinds plants and grass – and there were dandelions too. Dandelions are another weed that we want to hack out of the ground yet they provide so much goodness for the creatures like honey bees. What if the parable was “The Kingdom of God is like a dandelion…”

In any case, I had never seen so much green on the ground that had always been just brown with pine and hemlock needles. But where the trees had fallen, new life was able to take hold in the soil and grow. I wonder if that is what is like when we let go of our lofty ideas about what life should be like and begin to focus on the simple things. The Mustard Plant provides just as much shelter and protection for the birds as the mighty cedar after all, but unlike the cedar that takes forever to grow and requires just the right conditions, it seems that Jesus might be saying that all the kingdom of God just needs us. That’s it. And, if we let it grow, it will grow and we will start to see it invade all the areas of our lives. The more we let go of the desire for power and wealth and all the things that we think of as mighty then room is made for more heaven in our lives – there is more room for God.

So, how do we reconcile this idea that the Kingdom of God is like a little seed that will turn into a weed which is something that we usually fight against??? Don’t we want the Kingdom of God? I think we do, but we resist it because we think that the riches of the human world are easier to harvest. We have been fooled into thinking that God’s kingdom is beyond our reach in the highest branches of the tallest tree. But it’s not – it’s as close as bending down to pick a dandelion.

Maybe I connect with this idea of a pervasive, weed-like, almost annoying God because it reminds me of how God has worked in my own life. I have never been able to get rid of God… and I can tell you I have tried more than once, but God just kept growing back into my life each time I tried to cut God off. The things that really matter in my life are simple things and I think these are like the mustard seeds that plant the potential for an experience of the Kingdom of God in my life. Things like a roof over my head, clothes on my back, a hand to hold, a friend to hug, tasty food, fresh ocean air, a good book, some sunshine, a good storm, and even dirt between my toes. These things are grounding.

Whenever I have tried to plant the seeds for extra things in my life. You know the things I want, but not the things I need? – particularly things like money, expensive clothes, fancy vacations, or concern about my reputation as a business woman and maybe even now when I seek perfection in my academic work – I experience a profound sense of being out of balance. For me, this experience easily leads to depression and anxiety. And to me, that feels a lot like falling. I think that the higher you get climbing after those things you don’t really need, but that you think you want because the world tells you that is what success is, then the farther you have to fall when you realize those aren’t the things that really matter.

When our lives are out of balance and the ‘extra stuff’ becomes more important than the simple things then we are all at risk of this fall. What each of us need is going to be unique to our journeys as is what it will look and feel like for us to be out of balance. I think all of us experience feeling unbalanced and ungrounded from time to time.

This coming week I invite you to think about this image in your own life. Where are you likely striving to climb a mighty tree, rather than seeking the comfortable nest of a gentle shrub that’s right in front of you. That’s where I think Jesus is calling us in this parable. Out of our lofty towers and trees and a little bit closer to the ground where the seeds of God’s love are sown. What is it that grounds you and reminds you that you belong to God?

Bernard Brandon Scott, one of my favourite writers on parables, suggests that they are “entrances into a mystery”. I invite you to enter into that mystery with me, that mystery of God and let yourself be stirred up to think about what these parables mean to you….there are no easy answers, and often just more questions, but let those questions fill your heart as you leave this place. Let those questions ground you in an experience of God.

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Not Fair

Matthew20v01to16_2011

Todays Parable: Matthew 20:1-16

I have two daughters who are three years apart in age. During the school year, we take some time on the weekends to do weekly chores. My eldest daughter has more chores than my youngest and I have more to do than she does, but all of us have to finish our work before we get to relax with a movie or take off on an adventure. My eldest child has more than once said to me, “That’s not fair, I have so much more to do than her! How comes she gets off so easy?” I remind her that when she was smaller she had less to do too, and if each of us does what we can, according to our ability, then we all get to have fun when the work is over. This appears to be similar to the lesson in the parable today. Division of work for the same reward kind of makes sense in this context, even if it seems unfair at first. For my girls and I, the little one seems to have it the easiest, and the eldest, me, seems to have the hardest – the last shall be first and the first shall be last and all that, and at the end of the day we all get to go to the zoo!

It seems simple enough to grasp doesn’t it? This is how the parable is often interpreted –As a lesson about the fair division of labour and economic justice. Unfortunately, when we interpret it this way it means that we have tried to make the kingdom of heaven make sense according to our ideas around what is fair and just. As we often do, we have attempted make sense of the mystery of God by forgetting that although we may be made in the image of God —God is not like us!

The parable begins,“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard.” This parable is about the kingdom of heaven, it is not about the way things work in our world. If it was then the message might be easier to understand – it’s kind of like the lesson I taught my kids about their chores.

If we have learned anything about parables in these past two weeks it is that they are not meant to be easy. If the parable is about socioeconomic justice then it is about what we earn for what we do…period. Unlike the story about my kids and their varying capacity for work, this parable doesn’t tell us what the quality of the work was or who did a good job etc. It just lets us know that they were all paid the same wage regardless of what time they were hired.

Too often we infer things about the kingdom of heaven according to our narrow understanding of how things ought to work. We live under the absurd assumption that the person who works the hardest and does the best job deserves the greatest pay. This is clearly not the way things really are in the world, but we still claim that when that doesn’t happen the system is not “fair”. But inequity is exactly what capitalism relies on. The people making the most money are not the people doing the most work or working the longest hours. We know this. The people that make the most money are the ones that own the companies that employ the folks that do all of the labour. There is great injustice in our system and it is ingrained in us. According to statistics Canada, women make 87 cents to every dollar a man makes in this country. And that is just one example: Migrant workers make significantly less and international factory workers make almost nothing! When we read a parable like this one, we make sense of it through this very clouded context.

When we assume that the Householder in this story is God, we either see God as a generous boss – making sure that everyone gets paid the daily wage regardless of the time they worked – so that it is “fair” for everyone. This means that the guy that complained is just a greedy whiner. Or maybe we see God’s actions as unfair as the system we live in, but maybe just not as unfair because all still make a living wage – just some don’t have to work as hard. In the real world we’d probably file a grievance with the union about that, but in this story we might justify it by thinking “well at least it works out in God’s kingdom.” Yet, a sense of injustice will still lingers in our psyche because the model of work equals reward is so much a part of who we are.

Here’s the thing about thinking about parables and the kingdom of heaven though– we ought to be watching for where the story turns everything upside down and changes the way we have always looked at things. Look to the riddle at the end for example, “so the last will be first and the first will be last.” Sure, the workers at the end of the day got their wage first, and those at the first of the day got theirs last, but did that really matter if they all got the same thing? It seems like a very clever thing to say, and that line is often quoted, but it is just stating the obvious really.

So, what if this is not a story about socioeconomic justice at all? As I mentioned, if we try to make sense of it that way then it means that its all about what we earn and we better just get used to the idea that no matter how hard you work for God we will all earn the same reward. God will either be fair and just to those who are good and faithful servants all their lives or God will be really generous to those who didn’t seem to work as hard to get to the kingdom of heaven. But, I don’t think that the lesson in this parable is about our world where what we earn depends on what we do. This parable is about the kingdom of heaven, so I think that this is a lesson about Grace.

With that in mind, the good news is that God’s Grace is not earned. The kingdom of heaven is not a reward for a life well lived. That might be a hard pill to swallow if we are only think in terms of what is fair and just – I might subconsciously believe that “I work hard, I do good things… so I deserve this or that…” But, in that light – I don’t do good things for the sake of being good – I do them with the expectation that good will come to me. We know that that is not how life really works even here on earth. If that was the case then nothing bad would ever happen to good people and we all know that that is not true. That is how we want things to work, but they just don’t. Human life on earth is not “fair”, but I thank God that the kingdom of heaven is not about what you or I think is “fair”!

God’s grace, by it’s very definition has nothing to do with fairness. Think about it like this – what if acceptance into the kingdom of heaven was only for those who always lived a life committed to loving and serving God? What does that mean for those of us that turn to God later in life or feel that we are unworthy because of the things we’ve done until now? What about folks that don’t receive God into their hearts until they become sick or are near death? Does God deny them access to the kingdom of heaven? Does God deny them Grace? No, because God’s grace is unmerited and freely given simply because we are loved beyond a measure that we can ever comprehend.

I saw this cute cartoon (above) when I was researching this parable. There were two sheep standing talking and one says,

“This parable bugs me! That first guy gets totally ripped off”

The second sheep responds, “Well, if you think about all the people Jesus called before you and I, we are coming into this a little late in the game too don’t you think?”

The first sheep goes, “I LOVE this parable”.

Thank God our worthiness is not determined by any human standard of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’. If that were actually the case then nobody would ever be deserving of the kingdom of heaven because none of us would be judged good enough! Jesus taught us that in God there is no judgement. There is only unconditional love and mercy for all. To receive it we must accept God’s invitation. According to this parable, anyone that answers the call to “go into the vineyard” receives God’s Grace. That grace is not just reserved for those who show up early in the day or from the beginning and work all their lives as good and faithful servants. God’s grace is freely given to anyone open to hearing and accepting the invitation to leave the life they’re living and enter into a new way of being that follows the way of Jesus.

Jesus came into the world to shake us up from seeing the world with our often-narrow view of what is fair and invites to see the world and ourselves as God does. God see us all as beloved, all as worthy, and all as deserving of love and acceptance. I believe that is how God’s kingdom will come and God’s Will will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, like we prayed just a moment ago.

In the end, this parable may not be about socioeconomic justice, but when we live in a way that we see every human being as being worthy of love and acceptance then we can no longer turn our backs when we see things in this world that demonstrate apathy and exclusion. The work of justice on earth flows from Grace. For those of us that believe, the kingdom of God is possible now. The Grace of God is here. Christ is continually inviting us to go into this world to serve and love one another, as God would have us do. As you go from here today, I ask you to think about what that means to you to be invited to “go into the vineyard”? … Do you expect a reward at the end of all this living? Or do you trust that God’s grace will be freely given not earned?

May you go from here trusting that you are worthy of God’s love and acceptance just as you are. When we trust in God’s unconditional love and acceptance, then we have learned to be that to one another.

May it be so… Amen.

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