Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Authority of a Servant: A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost


Preached at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto, 27 September, 2020

Readings for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost :   Exodus 17.1-7, Psalm  78.1-4,12-16,  Philippians2.1-13,  Mathew 21.23-32



When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Mt 21.23)


Since Covid started, I haven’t met a single, solitary soul who enjoys wearing a mask in public, including here at All Saints.    On the other hand, I’ve met very very few people who refuse.   Most of us grumble, to be sure, because that’s our prerogative as citizens in a democracy, but at the same time, most of us seem to wear it with a reasonably good grace because we want to do out bit to fight the virus, which says something about our relationship with authority.

 Now there are different types of authority.  The authority of law prevents us from going into a store or a public place without a mask – we can call that compulsory authority.   Many of our actions are not motivated by compulsory authority.   We wear masks outside of our immediate circles – around grandchildren, friends, those at risk – out of a desire to protect them.   We can call that moral authority.  Moral authority arises from a desire to do right.  A few weeks ago, when our church sign out front said “Love wears a mask”, it was talking about moral authority.

Often the two overlap.  For example, compulsory authority slows us down when driving through school zones because we fear heavy fines, though moral authority slows us down because we just naturally don’t want to hurt children.  Most of us I think have a somewhat grudging relationship with compulsory authority because we don’t like to be told what to do, even when we are rightly pulled over for speeding.      

How does religion and authority work?   The bible, particularly the Hebrew Scriptures, speaks a lot of compulsory authority – the Torah, the first five books of the bible, are full of laws, especially the Ten Commandments, which Christians still recognize.   The “chief priests and elders” (Mt 21.23) who come to challenge Jesus in today’s gospel are the hereditary descendants of a priestly ruling class that the Romans kept in power to administer Palestine for them, so in essence a puppet theocratic government.

Today we associate theocracies with countries like Iran, and because Canada guarantees freedom of religion, we see our faith as a voluntary practice, meaning that we don’t think much about religion AND authority.  We choose the churches we like, we follow the bible and preaching if we agree with them, and how we manage our relationship with God is pretty much up to us.  Our church, the Anglican Church, is an organization with little central authority.  I think it fair to say that if Jesus has any authority over our lives, it is moral authority, so that we follow him because we agree with him, and not because he orders us around.   Is that the way it should be?

In actual fact, scripture talks a lot about Jesus’ authority.  The word itself, from the Greek word exousia, meaning power, occurs 88 times in the New Testament.  Usually exousia means power, as when Jesus has power to drive out demons and heal people, but usually it is power that is given to someone, like the power given to a policeman, or what I’ve called compulsory authority.  Today’s gospel reading comes after Jesus has driven out the moneylenders and claimed it as “My house” (Mt 21.13), so when the chief priests come to interrogate Jesus they are asking about his authority in a human sense of who made you the boss of this place?  

In answering the chief priests with another question, about John and whether his baptism came from heaven,   Jesus is claiming that his authority comes from God in heaven, setting up the final challenge between Jesus versus the priests, Herod, and Pilate that leads to the cross.   What Jesus is saying obliquely now in the temple, he says plainly in his final, post-resurrection words to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth as been given to me” (Mt 28.18).  Here, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus merely confirms what others – crowds, demons, cured men and women, have known all along, that Jesus’ authority comes from God (Mt 7.29, 9.6).

If therefore we seriously wish to be followers and disciples of Jesus, we have to admit that as God’s son he has been given authority over us, that Jesus has a claim on how we lead out lives.  For the early Christians, Jesus was kyrios, lord, and no one on earth, not even Caesar, could rival him.  Considering that earthy rules were mostly cruel tyrants, the lordship of Jesus was welcome because if offered a freedom and a dignity that the bulk of society – the poor, women and children, slaves – were never granted by their rulers.  So how do we understand the authority of Jesus?  Do we welcome it?

Our second reading from Philippians tells us that we have no reason to fear Jesus’ authority.   Paul says that Jesus is “highly exalted” by God, that he is above anyone else, so that at his name “every knee should bend” (the Greek is simply kampto, will bend).   Does every knee have to bend?  Paul is saying that Jesus has the authority to compel our obedience, but he voluntarily sets it aside, so in the words of one of the first Christian hymns, “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” and further, “he humbled himself” and obeyed the father’s will.    The cross for Paul is where power and dignity as we understand them in earthly terms go to die.   The power of emperors and presidents is revealed as being petty and hollow and small.    True power, God’s power and authority, are revealed in love and service and sacrifice.

Philippians tells us that while God’s compulsory authority is absolute, God makes himself known to us in moral authority, in the Son who lives and dies to save us. To live the Christian life, we follow this moral authority – as Paul says, we imitate the humility of Jesus on the cross, we don’t think of our own needs before we first think of the way of others.   In the kingdom of heaven, there are no emperors or presidents, there are only servants, who serve one another.      We don’t follow Jesus because we must.  We follow because we are convinced that we should.

Living as a subject of the kingdom of God means that we learn to see authority differently.   There are lots of things that the world sees as authoritative – raw power, the will to win at all costs, wealth, privilege, institutionalized racism and inequality – that, if we see them through God’s eyes, look pitiful and empty.   In the kingdom of God, authority lies in surprising places. Authority is giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty.  Authority is loving a neighbour who is not like us but still seeing God’s image in them.   Authority is the dignity of the worker.  Authority is care of the sick, authority is teaching, authority is patience, authority is love.    All authority in the kingdom of God is moral because it flows from the heart of God’s goodness and love.   We obey Jesus, not because we must, but because we find the freedom God intended for us in his service.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

God's Boarding Call: A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Preached at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto

Readings for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost: Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 145.1-8, Philippians 1.21-30, Matthew 20:1-16


“…they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” (Mt 20.11-12)


Back before Covid, when we could fly to wherever we wanted to go (weren’t those the days), there was always that moment of boarding the plane where we were reminded of how society works.   There was a pecking order of boarding, depending on whether passengers were Super Elite, Elite, First Class but Still Better than You, and then Everyone Else.   If you boarded last, you had to make your way through the luxury section where the various Elites were sipping their first champagne, through the curtain and to the back where Everyone Else were crammed together.   That’s just how boarding works because airlines reflect society and its levels of status and wealth.  

Imagine though what would happen if one of the Elites looked behind the curtain and saw that everyone else on the airplane also had hot towels, and super comfy seats, and champagne, because the CEO of the airline wanted to give them the same comforts, even though the Economy passengers couldn’t afford them?   And what if, when the Elite passenger complained that he’d worked hard to be able to afford his Elite ticket, the CEO smiled and said, “Sir, you got your comforts, as per the agreed fare, but it’s my airline, and I can do what I want with it.”   Would that passenger have a right to complain, and even sue the airline?  Perhaps, according to the rules of the world, he might have a good case, but probably not according to the laws of the kingdom of heaven.    

When Jesus begins a parable with “the kingdom of heaven is like”, he’s alerting us to a story that reflects how God sees things as God wants them to be, rather than how things actually are on earth.    The parables offer us a vision of what we might call the Economy of Heaven, God’s value system.  Just as my parable of the airplane does not match how airlines actually work in the economy of human society with its tiers of wealth and privilege, the Parable of the Vineyard does not match with how work and its rewards are distributed in the Economy of Earth according to how humans rationalize inequality.  Just as the Elite passengers might think that they have earned and fairly paid for their luxury flight,  , the workers in Jesus’ parable, think that their hard work entitles them to more wages than those hired at the last hour.   Are the workers entitled to grumble to the Landowner? Do they have a case?

Yes, according to the Economy of Earth, which teaches that hard work should have rewards while ignoring scarcities of work.   The Landowner brings in people that no one else has hired, because there’s not enough work to go around, but for the workers who grumble, the unemployment of others is not their problem.  Their point of view only encompasses their own interests within a limited view of fairness as what’s right for them.  The Landowner’s point of view encompasses the unemployed labourers in the market and sees them as having equal value

We can see how the Economy of Heaven plays out not just in the seemingly perverse incentive of the landowner’s pay scale, but also in his almost manic activity in hiring workers.  After the workday starts, he makes four additional hiring trips.  Why?  We aren’t told anything about need, that the job was too big for the original workers.   His determination to hire as many workers as possible reminds me of another Matthean parable, of the king who insists that his wedding banquet be filled with guests (Mt 22.1-13).  Other parables, like the lost sheep (Mt 18.12-14) or the lost coin (Lk 15.8-10) convey the same idea that the kingdom of God doesn’t leave anything behind if it can be found or rescued.

The economy of the Kingdom of Heaven is also revealed in the spendthrift quality of the landowner’s wage policy (“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Mt 18.15).   If we ask why the landowner chooses to throw his money away, we might as well also ask why the king in last Sunday’s parable forgave a debt of ten thousand talents (Mt 18.27) or why the Prodigal’s Father in Luke throws a lavish party to welcome home his ne’er do well son (Lk 15).   The gospels teach us that it pleases God to give, and that when it comes to grace, love and forgiveness, here is no scarcity or austerity in the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

As we better understand the Economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, it becomes harder to understand the human systems of rewards and incentives, of merit and equity, that I tried to illustrate in my parable of the airplane.  Those systems of thinking only lead to reward for some and scarcity for many others, as seen yesterday when the United Nations food chief called on the world’s two thousand billionaires, with a net worth of eight trillion dollars, to help save thirty million people worldwide from starvation.    The fact that such imbalances exist in our world show how far removed God’s economics are from human values.  We, as baptized citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, should be scandalized that such injustices exist.

At the same time, we need to take care that we are not scandalized by God’s extravagant love and grace in our own faith lives.  Human ideas about fairness and rewards can easily migrate into our systems of religious belief, especially if when we allegorize today’s parable we put ourselves into the shoes of those who laboured all day in the vineyard.  Like them, or like the virtuous brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son,  we might turn to God and say, you’re forgiving THEM when WE’VE worked so hard for you?  

There has always been a school of thought that the economy of heaven should reward good behaviour, strong faith, keeping the commandments, good church attendance, and so on.  In the gospels, the Pharisees, who clearly saw themselves at the top of the spiritual economy, condemned Jesus for hanging out with sinners.  The Reformation was fought, in part, over the question of whether we could buy our way into heaven with good works and donations.   Today’s prosperity gospel is a new take on an old idea that the righteous can be recognized by their above average lifestyles.   The idea that God might also love sinners, hypocrites, backsliders, and atheists is always a potential scandal to the faithful.

I talked earlier of the Landowner’s perverse wage and incentive system.  If God is determined to rescue and reward as many of us as possible, then is there still an incentive for us to live a godly life?  St. Paul answered this question in Romans when he wrote “Why, when God has rescued us, would we spend another minute in our old lives?”. (Rom 6.1-4).  In other words, we don’t live a godly life in expectation of reward, but rather because the godly life is the reward.

In our second lesson, Paul encourages the Christians in Philippi to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”, but he doesn’t tell them to live a life of toil and misery so that someday God will reward them.  Instead he tells them that they already have their reward, which is “joy in faith” (Phil 1.25).   If “joy in faith” means knowing that we are loved by God, and that our lives have design and purpose, why would we not want to share that blessing with anyone who walks through our doors and wants to join us, however late in the day it is?   Why would we, who have been forgiven so much and welcomed so warmly, begrudge others their own place in God’s banquet hall?

The fact is that when God looks at us, God does not think of us as Super Elite, Elite, First Class, Economy, or worse.  God only sees God’s children, all loved, all valued, and desperately wanted.  On God’s airplane, we all fly Super Elite.  Which leaves us with the question – if all are valued in the kingdom of heaven, why is it not so on earth as well?  



Saturday, September 12, 2020

Why Forgive? A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Preacher at All Saints’ Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto.  Readings for this Sunday:   Exodus 14.19-31, Psalm 103:8-13, Romans 14.1-12, Matthew 18.21-35.



21 Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,-. (Matthew 18.21-22)


Forgiveness is a social skill.   If we lived entirely solitary lives as desert hermits we wouldn’t have much call to forgive or to ask forgiveness, but we are social creatures.   We start our lives in families, we go to school, we join workplaces, all because we are social beings, designed to live in communities.   When we break up some squabble between children or grandchildren, our intervention usually includes the words “Say you’re sorry” because we have to teach the young that living in community entails the responsibility to ask and to give forgiveness.  

Teaching forgiveness in the young is an investment in our future, because otherwise the alternatives to forgiveness – conflict, grudge keeping, and vengeance – poison our families, poison our workplaces, poison our politics and  our communities, and threaten the very possibility of life together.   Forgiveness is future oriented – it enables us to hope, to reconcile, and to pursue a better future.   

Without forgiveness we can become mired in the past – stuck in the memory of wrongs and abuses, trapped in cycles of anger and bad behaviour, even risking our mental and physical health by trying to survive in broken communities.  Forgiveness requires that we set aside the past, that we make what peace we can with the memories of the wrongs committed against us, in order that the past does not control our future.  Forgiveness is difficult, costly work, especially when we have been badly wronged.  Few of us, left to our own devices, have much appetite for this work.

Notice that Peter asks Jesus “if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”   That question is vital, because without forgiveness, there is no church.    I said earlier that humans are social creatures, and as Christians, we say this theologically.  We believe that we are social because we humans are specifically created for life together as God’s people, as church.

Without forgiveness, there is no church, no community.  Church is about the future, about God’s calling us to be new creations, to be transformed by the love of Christ, to bear good fruit.  Without forgiveness we are stuck in our histories, unable to answer God’s call to move forward.   The centrality of forgiveness to being church is why Jesus builds forgiveness into the Lord’s Prayer and why he teaches that prayer during the Sermon on the Mount:  “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you” (Mt 6.14-15).

Without forgiveness, there is no church, because in church, as in our family and work lives, forgiveness is an ongoing process.    One of the problems of being social beings is that we have sharp elbows.   In a myriad of ways, we regularly bump into each other, give offence, hurt each other.   That’s a part of our human condition.   It’s true of husbands and wives, parents and children, even churchgoers and priests.   Our relationships require continuous repair, healing, and reconciliation.  Without forgiveness, our relationships suffer and eventually fail.

How hard should we work at forgiveness?  Is there an upper limit, as Peter seems to ask Jesus?   Do we stop after the eighth offence against us?  At the heart of Peter’s question is an idea of accountability, that there might be a limit to our ability to forgive depending on the scale of the offence, or the persistence of the offender.  Should a spouse continue to forgive a serial adulterer?   How often do we forgive a loved one with an addiction who refuses to seek treatment and whose actions are destructive?  

Jesus’ answer to Peter, that we should forgive “seventy-seven’ times, seems to defy human capacity.   How do we even measure that?  What does that sort of forgiveness look like?   In the context of the parable that follows, that sort of forgiveness seems to be illustrated by the king forgiving his servant of “ten thousand talents” (18.24), an impossibly large sum in biblical times.    Given that the parable is designed to say something about how the kingdom of heaven works, we have to conclude that the king stands for God, and that God’s forgiveness is extravagant and excessive, which is a good thing for us, given that, as we’ve noted, we humans have a talent for hurting one another.

The king in the parable is not interested in the servant’s ability to repay, or even how he racked up the debt in the first place.   The king is only motivated by pity 18.27).   Forgiving the debt is an act of pure grace.   There is only the expectation of accountability, that the servant will forgive others in his own limited way, which brings us back to Jesus’ words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you”.  

But let us not think that we can forgive as the King forgives us.     Our forgiveness at best will be a paltry thing, a mere handful of coins and wads of bills against the inexhaustible sums of grace in the King’s coffers, because the King’s forgiveness is love itself, poured out for all.   Jesus is the source of all true forgiveness.  As the Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman writes, “forgiveness is of a piece with bearing the Cross itself.   It is of paramount importance that the one act of general forgiveness offered by Christ is found in words spoken from the Cross.  They could have been spoken from nowhere else” .

It may well be than that Jesus words, “seven times seventy”, do not indicate the extravagance of our forgiveness, poured out all at once in one self-emptying act, so much as they indicate the duration of our forgiveness, which must be a continual action, part of our lives as disciples.  This may be especially true for those of us who have suffered great wrongs and betrayals from others, and whose scars are deep.   We may be called to forgive a wrong against us every day for seventy-seven days, or months, or years. 

The forgiveness that Jesus calls us to is then a daily discipline, something that we can perform briefly in a heartfelt saying of the Lord’s Prayer, or in a deeper way, focusing on particular people that we need to forgive. Inspired by the great love spoken from the cross, we can say each day as we rise, “Help me, Christ, this day to forgive others as best I can, in imitation of you, who have forgiven me so much”.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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