The Wilderness is Not what We Think

Mark 1:9-15

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Read the whole passage here.)

Sermon

We have come a long way from the mountain of Transfiguration. Last week, Jesus stood on the mountain with Peter, James and John, and was changed into dazzling white. Moses and Elijah showed up and God spoke to all gathered there. Yet, by Wednesday, we had come down from that mountain, and we were faced with our own sin, our brokenness and our mortality on Ash Wednesday. And as we begin Lent, Jesus is tossed into the wilderness. 

This pattern of Transfiguration to Ashes to Wilderness is one that we repeat each year as we move from the season after Epiphany into Lent. On the first Sunday of Lent of each year we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which sets the tone for our Lenten journey. The story of Jesus’ temptation represents both the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but also is the first step of Jesus’ path to the cross.

Yet, in the year of the Gospel of Mark, the story seems to lack key elements. In fact, the temptation part of the story is obscured by two stories that we have already heard in the past few weeks. In January, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism and we heard the story of Jesus entering Galilee to preach his first sermon, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”

The temptation part of the story is told in only 5 words by Mark, “He was tempted by Satan.”

And that is it.

No stones to bread. No power over all the kingdoms of the earth. No jumping off the temple.

In fact, Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan, but also hanging out with the wild beasts and being waited on by Angels. Where is the fasting and praying? Where is the stoic resolve? Where is our example of resisting temptation? Mark’s version sounds almost like a spa vacation.

However, Mark remembers something that we have largely forgotten over time. The wilderness is not the place of trial and tribulation that we imagine. In fact, before Jesus arrived on the scene, the wilderness was actually the place where God met God’s people. God sent Abraham into the wilderness with the promise of land and descendants. Moses and the Israelites wandered the wilderness for 40 years, while God provided water from the gushing rock, and manna and quail to eat. Elijah was sent out as young man to save the people of Israel, and along the way God provided water at the stream and food delivered by wild ravens.

While the wilderness was a place fraught with danger, it was the place where God’s people met their God. God always showed up in the wilderness, and God’s people were not left to suffer alone.

When we imagine wilderness, we don’t usually think of it in these terms. We think of wilderness as the times and places, the experiences in our lives when God seemed absent. The times of illness or suffering, the times of workplace strife or family conflict. The times of addiction and doubt, of grief and depression. And yet, wilderness is no such thing. Wilderness is where God meets God’s people, while all these other things are simply part of the experiences of human life. They are part of the baggage we carry everyday.

Wilderness, as we hear about it in Mark’s gospel today, is the place where we go to leave our baggage, our troubles behind. Wilderness is where we are stripped of our burdens and our comforts, where day-to-day living, joys and sorrows, are left behind. Wilderness is where God takes us when we need to be renewed and refreshed, where we can let go and be cared for by God.

When the spirit tosses Jesus into the wilderness, it is not really about temptation like we usually hear with this story. In fact, the wilderness is the place where God goes to meet God’s people. And as Jesus waits in the wilderness with Satan, the wild beasts and the angels, there is something, or someone one curiously missing.

Human beings.

Jesus goes out to the wilderness, God goes out to the wilderness, just as God has always done and God waits. God waits for God’s people, and we don’t come. It is just the wild beasts and angels. And if there is any temptation on Satan’s part, perhaps it is tempting God to keep waiting and waiting for us. And just has God has always been, God waits for us in the wilderness. God waits the obligatory 40 days, long enough to be sure we aren’t coming.

And when God’s people don’t show up, Jesus does something new. Jesus breaks the pattern, God recognizes that waiting for us to come out to the wilderness isn’t working. We just can’t drop our baggage, we just can’t let go of life in order to find God.

And so Jesus gets up and leaves Satan, the wild beasts and the angels behind. Jesus goes to Galilee, goes to civilization, goes to where the people are. Goes to the place where they are living, where they are suffering, where their baggage is keeping them in place. God finds the people stuck in lives, stuck in their details and burdens, stuck with their obligations, their work, their family, their relationships. God comes to the place where human life is happening. God goes to where the people are and declares,

“The Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.”

The wilderness is where God meets God’s people, and when the people won’t come to the wilderness, God brings the wilderness to us.

This is what our Lenten journey is about. God coming to us, bringing the wilderness to us. God’s coming and stripping us of our burdens, of our obligations, of our suffering and shame, of our self-centred focus. And God comes to meet us in whatever dark places we are in, whatever dusty, ashy places we exist in.

Jesus comes into our lives and delivers an ashy Lenten promise. 

Jesus promises that wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we do, the Kingdom of God’s love is near to us, and that God’s enduring love will find us as we head toward death and resurrection. Towards crosses and empty tombs. From the first step of Lent, all the way to Easter.

Amen.

All That is Left is Dust and Ash

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven….For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

Just 3 days ago we stood on the mountain top with Peter, James and John. We watched as Jesus was transfigured to white and shining like the sun. We saw Moses and Elijah appear. It was a holy moment on that mountain top. And it prompted Peter to speak,

“Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three dwellings.”

Peter wanted to stay. We wanted to stay. That was the moment when all the chaos and stress of the world melted away and everything was perfect.

But Jesus had other plans, and he took us down the mountain. Took us down in the valley. Took us into the shadow of death.

Jesus brought us here. Here to the day of Ashes.

And today, is no mountaintop escape. Today, the reality of the world, the reality of our mortality, the reality of death comes crashing down upon us.

On Sunday, the voice of God thundered from the heavens. “This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him.”

And tonight Jesus speaks.
Jesus reminds us of our place.
Of our imperfections.
Of our ability forget and flaws and failures.

Jesus warns us not to get too comfortable.
Not to rely on our own righteousness, our own holiness.
Jesus reminds us not to trust in our ability to believe or pray or fast or wash.

Today, Jesus reminds us that we do not measure up, that we are mere mortals.

And once we have been reminded that we are imperfect and flawed, we will we confess our sin.
We will confess, and confess, and confess.
Everything will be on the table tonight.

All our sins, every piece of ourselves that has caused us to be self-centred, to forget others, to forget God.

And then, once we have confessed.
Once we have been laid bare and there is nothing left to say,
the reality of tonight,
of the valley,
of this shadow of death
will be placed on our very bodies.

It will be stamped on the foreheads. The crosses we were first given in baptism, the crosses of Christ that were sealed with water and oil, they will now be marked with Ash.

Ash, which is the sign of death. Ash or dust, like we throw on to caskets as they are lowered to the ground. Ash the only thing that is left behind when everything else is destroyed. When cities are razed by war, when our planet is burned up with carbon, when our bodies come to their end, all that is left is dust and ash.

And with Ashy crosses on our foreheads, signs of our sin, our mortality, signs of death
we will pray.
Pray for God’s mercy.
Pray for forgiveness.
We will pray and hope that God still remembers us.
We will pray and hope that God still remembers.
Remembers us, even on this night of Ashes.

And of course. And of course as God always does.

God will remember us.

God will forget our sin,
forget our mortality,
forget our death.

And God will remember us.

And even though Jesus has warned us not to forget our sinfulness.
And even though we have prayed, begged for mercy knowing that we do not deserve it.

God will re-member us.
God will come to us in bread and wine.
God will re-member, will re-join us back to God’s Body in bread and wine.

And God will remind us that even though we are Ash, even though we are in the valley, even though we stand in the shadow of death,

God has been there too.
Christ has been in the valley.
Christ has been turned to ash on a cross.
Christ has been dead and buried in the tomb.
And then God will declare – through out very mouths – the mystery of faith.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

And on this night of Ashes, when we confess our sin, when we receive the sign of death in ashes on our foreheads.

God will remind us again. God will remind us, even tonight.
God will remind us that death is not the end.
Even with our sin.
Even with our mortality.
Even when we are turned to Ash.
Death is not the end.

No, this is no mountaintop. This is not the place where Peter would want to stay. This is not where we would want to stay.

But here, on Ash Wednesday, the first step of our Lenten journey.
God will stay with us.
God will meet us,
God will remind us that even in death,
even in the ashes,
there is life.

Amen.

This Ash Wednesday, I can’t do ‘Ashes to Go’ or ‘#Ashtag’

ashtag-selfie-ashwed-churchmojo-squareThis morning a blogger and writer that I like to read and whom I respect, David R Henson, posted an insightful blog post about the problems with #AshTag.

As I prepare for Ash Wednesday, my own thoughts have been swirling around how to approach and understand this first day of Lent. As David considered the problem of Ash Wednesday selfies posted to social media using the hashtag #AshTag, one line in particular caught my attention.

The systemic push within the church for Ash Wednesday selfies is an exercise in whistling past graveyards.

Needless to say, I won’t be posting an Ash Wednesday selfie (one would think that Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras would be the big selfie night).

AshestoGo4But another Ash Wednesday innovation that I have surprised myself by not being terribly interested in is ‘Ashes to Go.’ Ashes to go is where clergy go out to street corners and subway platforms to offer ashes to those passing by. Often clergy do this in full vestments.

I am all for getting out in the world. I totally agree that churches need to look beyond themselves for ways to connect with the world around them (see my last post). And I would never claim that the intentions behind these two practices(?) are not well-intentioned. Nor would I say that Ashes to Go, in particular, doesn’t produce some amazingly powerful encounters between clergy and folks about town.

But there is just something missing for me.

Again David Henson makes the point:

“The whole world saw Christians standing on the virtual street corner praying and making their fasts public spectacles. We did the exact thing the Gospel for the day asked us not to.”

For me, Ash Wednesday has a deeper context.

A few years ago, during a shared Ash Wednesday service with another congregation, I got to watch a good friend and colleague place ashes on the forehead of his six-year-old son. It was a powerful moment for this parent to have to declare to his own son, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This year, I will put ashes on my own infant son’s forehead and speak those words.

And over the past 6 years of ministry, I have scattered ashes and sand on many caskets. I have uttered the words “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” over the bodies of those who have died of painful, fast-acting cancer, over murder victims, over those who have taken their own life, over children, over those who have suffered for years with diseases like Parkinson’s or MS. The ashes are real in these moments, they aren’t just symbolic.

For me, the ashes are not to be taken lightly.

For me, the ashes are a reminder of my own tenuous mortality.

For me, the ashes cannot be separated from confession, from Gospel, from Eucharist.

For me, the ashes are not mine to give, but it is the church’s job, our job to receive them.

This is not to say that I would refuse anyone ashes tomorrow night. I wouldn’t.

But Ash Wednesday is the church’s chance to confess, to admit our failures, to declare that we are dead, that our bodies, blood, sweat and tears – that even our buildings and budgets –  will all be ash one day.

And I cannot deliver that message in 30 seconds on a street corner.

Perhaps, I could stand on a street corner in full vestments make confession to strangers and ask passersby to put ashes on my forehead. Maybe ‘Ashes to Go’ would make sense to me then.

But more importantly, I can’t leave Ash Wednesday at the ashes. I can’t just stop at the part where I am dead. I have to hear the Good News. I have to hear that God makes me alive. That God makes us alive.

And as a preacher, I need to preach that news too. I need to invite the Ashen Assembly to the table of the Lord, to receive the bread and wine that makes our dry bones and ashes come to life.

To me, smiling goofily into my smart phone for an #AshTag selfie, or standing on a street corner in my vestments handing out fast food ashes has missed an important part of Ash Wednesday.

The reality that we are really dead, like body-in-a-casket-being-lowered-into-a-grave dead.

And the reality that only God can make us alive.

The thing is, we need Ash Wednesday, all of it.

And the ashes aren’t really the point.


What is Ash Wednesday for you? Have you received Ashes to Go or have you #AshTag-ed? What was your experience? Share in the comments, or one the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

6 Ways Churches do Ministry like We are Dying Anyways… (or how keeping everyone happy is killing us)

When I talk to colleagues and church members it doesn’t take long to hear stories of congregations and churches fighting over the details of ministry: the style of worship, the number of staff to hire, the colour of the carpet, the need to have a Sunday School (even in churches with few or no kids).

Most of the fighting is about opinion and preference rather than issues of substance. Churches are great at having disagreements over the details and turning the details into insurmountable differences. A good friend of mine (also a pastor) has often said, “Church politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.”

Image source - http://donutchurch.com/tag/comfortable/
Image source – http://donutchurch.com/tag/comfortable/

Church leadership, church boards, staff and pastors wring their hands and tying themselves in knots trying to keep churches happy. I know pastors who run around 7 days a week working themselves to death trying to be everywhere, do everything and make sure everyone gets what they want from church. It is almost comical that so many of us consider this “ministry.”

As I was writing my sermon for last Sunday, it occurred to me that a ministry focused on making people comfortable and happy is doomed. In fact, it sounds eerily like palliative care.

The amount of palliative care ministry that many congregations are doing is incredible.

Now to be clear, true palliative care for those facing the end of life, particularly with illness is very important work – holy work even. However, when the regular ministry of the church starts to look like the holy work of making people comfortable as they face the end of life, we have a problem.

Here are some examples:

1. Trying to keep everyone happy.

Hospitals generally try to treat illnesses and make people better. Schools try to teach and form students. But the only institution that I can think of, whose chief goal is keeping people comfortable, is a hospice or palliative care institution. Churches and Pastors whose primary aim is keeping people happy are basically doing palliative care.

2. Focusing exclusively on people already here.

Churches have become really good at focusing on insiders. Churches worry about what their members will think about new initiatives or programs. They are concerned about losing even a single discontent member and are constantly searching for any hint of displeasure among the rank and file. Churches like this worry about new people showing up and upsetting the established, delicate balance. Palliative care is about focusing on those in the program, not about seeking new patients.

3. Avoiding conflict at all costs.

When there is only a limited amount of time left, why ruin it by fighting? Avoiding conflict is rooted in the hopes that problems will just go away if we ignore them. And the reality ism in palliative care most problems do just go away eventually – you know, that whole death thing. Death is a great problem solver. When churches simply brush conflict under the carpet, they are hoping it will just go away. And yet, the only way conflict goes away in churches is if all those involved die… and even then it can linger.

4. Being comfortable.

Comfort is a big concern for those in palliative care. It is also a big concern in churches. Many churches want members, visitors, seekers, basically anyone who enters to feel comfortable. They say things like, “people shouldn’t have to work to understand what is happening.” “It should feel like you are in the comfort of your own home.” “Church should be casual and welcoming – make people feel comfortable in their own skin.” Last time I checked, comfort was not really on high on Jesus’ priorities. I don’t recall him ever praising anyone saying, “Your faith has made you comfortable.”

5. Everything becomes about preference.

Churches worry a lot of about people liking things. We fight over getting our own way when it comes to worship, programs, facilities, planning. How we worship, the bibles we read, the food we eat, the chairs we sit in, the paint colour on the wall all becomes a matter of preference. Pastors and leadership can start to worry whether they have provided the right mix of preferences for members. We become like a nurse asking if a patient wants more pillows or blankets, chicken or beef for dinner.

6. We talk a lot about decline and dying.

Maybe the biggest resemblance to palliative care is when churches begin talking a lot about decline and dying. Now, I am not saying we should avoid identifying trends and history. But unlike someone with a terminal illness, it takes a certain amount of hubris (conscious or unconscious) to think we are finally the ones who will kill all our churches. But more importantly, churches are not terminal patients. Imagine someone who gets to a certain age, starts getting a few grey hairs or wrinkles, maybe has some aches and pains, and then starts talking all the time about dying imminently. It seems absurd. Because it is absurd. Yet this is what so many churches are doing whenever they meet to discuss and plan their future.

As I said before, true palliative care and palliative care institutions do important work. They provide care and dignity to people who are facing their last days. Please don’t take what I am saying to be a condemnation of that work, but rather a lens through which to see how we as pastors, leaders and church folk are approaching ministry.

When our ministry as churches and congregations takes on the character of palliative care, we have lost the plot. We become insular groups of people, looking after our own and worst of all, waiting to die (even if we don’t know it).

Comfortable-Georgian-Church-Interior-DecorBut the thing is, God doesn’t do palliative care. As far as I can remember, Jesus never helps people die in the gospels. God is about Life. New Life. Abundant life. Life where there should only be death. God doesn’t make us comfortable as we die. God makes us uncomfortable so that we can live.

And I would like to say that I don’t have answers for how to turn self-centred ministry to our dying selves into life-giving God-focused ministry…

But I do know.

We all know.

  • Stop talking about how we are dying all the time. Or at least recognize that our dying is only a part of God’s alive making.
  • Turn our focuses outward, stop worrying so much about people who are in the pews already and think about ministry to those who are not in the pews… yet.
  • Conversation. Dialogue. Talking. Communicating. We need to talk less about the things we like or don’t like about church (maybe forget talking about them at all), and begin talking about what ministry is happening. Talk about what God is doing in our lives and in our communities.
  • Do the hard work of living as a community, instead of dying. Living is uncomfortable, it is conflictual, it makes some unhappy at times, and requires us to live with uncertainty about what is coming next.

Ministry that looks like palliative care is killing us. Or least it us letting us as pastors, churches, and Christian hasten our journey towards communal, institutional death.

And worst/best thing is, we aren’t terminal.


Has ministry become like Palliative care in your context? Should we be focused on making people comfortable? Share in the comments, or one the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Jesus has not come to make us happy

Mark 1:29-39

…When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” … (Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

For the past 3 weeks, we have been setting the stage with Mark’s gospel. Setting the stage for what starts next week. Next week Jesus will go up the mountain of Transfiguration, with Peter, James and John. He will change before their eyes into dazzling white and God will instruct the disciples to listen to him. And then Jesus will go down into the valley of Lent, down into the wilderness of temptation, down the road to Jerusalem and his journey won’t end until he heads up that second mountain, the mountain of Golgotha, the mountain that ends in a cross.

But today we are still laying the ground work. Jesus has been preaching in synagogues, exorcizing demons and today we glimpse Jesus’ healing ministry. Jesus leaves the synagogue of Capernaum and goes to the house of Simon Peter and Andrew. There Simon’s month-in-law is sick and in a bed. Jesus takes pity on the poor woman and heals her… and in an almost comical moment, she gets up and starts serving her guests.

And then everything gets crazy. The whole town hears that Jesus the healer is there, and they all come clamouring for healing. Everyone with a cough or cold, with a limp or back pain, with short sightedness or epileptic seizures, they are all hoping to have their illnesses cured.

Jesus starts the work of helping the needy masses, and yet we get the sense that this is not what Jesus is interested in. He isn’t playing doctor happily, and by early morning, he sneaks away to get some quiet and space. Jesus must have been wondering where all these people were when he was preaching in the synagogue.

And this is the dilemma that Jesus faces all the way through Mark’s gospel, the problem that Jesus faces all the way to the cross. When Jesus is healing people and exorcizing demons, the crowds flock to see him. But when he preaches the Kingdom of God coming near, people get upset. The authorities feel threatened. When Jesus brings his message to the people, the people get uncomfortable and begin to turn on him. They like it when they are getting something from Jesus, but when Jesus proclaims and declares change and transformation on their end, they back away and get upset. It is all well and good to be healed of a chronic condition, but suggest that the way the world works might change and people get antsy.

As Jesus spends the night healing in frustration, we can see a problem that still exists among people of faith today. God is easy to for us to seek out when we need something. When we need help, healing, comfort, God seems like an easy ask. When are in trouble, or have problems for which there seems to be no easy solution, we turn to God with relative ease.

As people of faith, it is all too easy for the ways we experience God to become about us. God becomes something we expect to be doing something for us. When life throws us those curve balls we turn to God to heal our hurts and pains, to solve our broken relationships and strained families. But even in our day to day, week to week, Sunday to Sunday relationship with God we can start to expect God to be doing something for us. We like to experience God on our terms. As people in the pews our terms might include the right music, entertaining sermons, 60 minute services, comforting bible readings and prayers, cushy seats. As pastors we like to deliver God on our terms, with liturgies planned to our liking, in bible texts that make the points we like to make, in prayers and hymns chosen to fit our themes.

When we don’t stop to think about it, it is easy to fall into the pattern of expecting that God is all about satisfying us, that we come to God waiting to be filled up, entertained, healed, set right and made comfortable.

But that is not what Jesus has come to do. Even still, as he spends all night attending to the masses as they demand to be healed, Jesus can only take so much. Jesus declares,

Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.

That is what I came out to do.

Not to spend his time healing and exorcizing demons. But preaching the message.

Jesus has come to preach the message that Kingdom of God has come near, and that is not what the people are clamouring for. The people want their problems solved, they want comfort and healing, the want to be free from demons and evil spirits, they want things to go back to normal, things to be easy, things to be better. And what is the matter with Jesus? Why couldn’t he just stay a couple extra days, or a week and heal everyone? Is that to much to ask?

The issue that we discover today is this convergence of what the people want and what Jesus has come to do. The people want their symptoms treated, and Jesus wants to address the root of the problem.

It is far too easy for us to make God and faith and church about us. It is easy for us to come to God clamouring for healing and comfort, clamouring for God to approve of us and our ways of being in the world.

And that is not to say that Jesus is not the great healer, or that God doesn’t love us deeply just as we are. But God has bigger plans for us than comfortable pews and our favourite music. Jesus does so much more than make our fevers go away, or relieve us of our back pain.

Jesus has a message to preach. “The Kingdom of God has come near.”

And Jesus’ message cuts right to root of our issues. Jesus has come to deal with the source of our hurts and pains, of our griefs and sorrows. Jesus has come to address the reasons we put ourselves first, others second and God last.

Jesus has come to deal with sin and death. To deal with our sin, with our death. Jesus came come to meet sin and death by coming near. By coming near and joining with us in our sin, by taking on our death. And Jesus comes near to show us that sin and death are not the end. We are not here to be on palliative care, to only be comforted and relieved of our pain. Because that is what relieving us of our hurts and pains is. Because that is what comfortable faith is. Palliative care.

But Jesus has come to do the hard work of saving us. Saving us from ourselves, our self-centred, self-interested, deathly ways. And that is what Jesus has come to do.

That is what Jesus is doing.

Saving us from ourselves.

Amen.

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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