God is pruning the Church

John 15:1-8

Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” (Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

Today, Jesus is speaking to his disciples using the image of vines and branches. His words come in the many teachings that Jesus leaves with his disciples on the night of the Last Supper. These words are spoken, knowing that very shortly Jesus will be arrested, tried, and sentenced to the cross.

The disciples have no idea about what is the come, they believed they were simply sharing a passover meal with the friend and teacher. Yet, Jesus is preparing them. Preparing them for what it will mean for him to die.

We know the rest of the story for the disciples. We know that they do not present themselves very well. They protest when Jesus says one of them will betray him. Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about dying. They fall asleep in the garden. One of them cuts off the ear of a servant when Jesus is arrested. Peter denies Jesus 3 times. They all scatter when Jesus is taken away.

The disciples are trying to hold on. Trying to hold on to Jesus, trying to hold on to life. But no matter how hard they protest or misunderstand or try to protect, everything seems to be falling apart around them. And Jesus tried to prepare them for this reality.

We still have the same problem as the disciples. We desperately try to hold on to life at all costs. And we are best at doing it right here, right in the church. Many Christians might find it easier to lose a job, or move out of a family home, or send kids away to university than to imagine closing down their local church. And Jesus is talking about just that today. Jesus is speaking about what it means to be the body of Christ, to be a community that at times needs to be pruned and needs to die.

It is hard for us to imagine letting go. The disciples could not let Jesus go to the cross. The tried in every way they could to keep him from dying, and we are no different. We try to hold on to life at all costs. We search for ways keep alive just a little longer, we want a little more, more time, more people, more resources.

But Jesus is preparing us for what it means to live AND what it means to die as the body of Christ.

The image of the vine and the branches shows us the fullness of life in the church. As the body of Christ we are in a constant state of dying and rising, of life and death. As people of faith we must learn when to let go.

For you see, life in the Church is to practice letting go, not to practice holding on. We know that generations come and go. We know that people and members come and go. We know that pastors come and go. We even know that congregations come and go. And that is why each Sunday we join together and we practice letting go.

We practice letting go through forgiveness. We ask for and receive, we offer and give. We let go of our guilt and sin, we set aside the hurts and grief we carry because of what others have done to us. We ask to be released from the hurt and suffering we have caused to our neighbours and loved ones.

We practice letting go by giving up of self-righteousness. We come to the baptismal font as unclean sinners, and God makes us clean, God declares us forgiven. We come with hands open, as beggars hoping to be fed, and God feeds us with God’s own body and blood. And there is nothing that we bring to earn this gift.

We practice letting go by giving up control. We remind ourselves that there are things that we have done and things we have left undone. We admit that much of what happens to us, to this church, to our community is simply beyond us. And the world marches on with or without us.

This is the life of Church. This is where God meets us. As we let go, as we die to our sin, as we die to our need to control and as we simply die, God meets and gathers, God takes hold of us and makes us alive.

This is how God works in the world. God turns death into life. Like the grape vine that is left out for winter, with branches and rotten grapes still clinging, we hold on to life, any kind of life, even if it is rotten.

But Christ says, “You have already been cleansed , You have been pruned, by the word that I have spoken to you.” Eve while we still hold on, God is doing the work of pruning us, God is making us let go of all the excess, the rotten fruit, the dead leaves, all the things that keep us from dying AND because of that keep us from living. Like a vine-grower that knows how to not only make us alive, but knows how to make us bear good fruit, God knows how to cut away from us all the things that keep us from bearing fruit. God prunes us of our sin, of our self righteousness and God prepares us to die.

And so it is with us. We also die, so that we can become alive again. We live and die as the Body of Christ, as a congregation of believers. We come each week to die to our sin, only to be forgiven with new life. We watch as members go from our community, and generations get older, only to see new members join our community, only to welcome new generations in our midst.

And all the while, even as we do our best to hold on to rotten fruit and the dying memories of the past long gone, God is pruning us and burying us. But God does not put us in the ground in order to end us, but we die and are buried so that we can bear new life once again. New and luscious, green and leafy, fruit filled life.

Amen. 

I am the Good Sheep

John 10:11-18

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”… (read the whole passage)

Sermon

Today, is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each fourth Sunday in the season of Easter, Christians around the world and through time celebrate Jesus as our Shepherd. Good Shepherd Sunday is the middle Sunday of Easter connecting those first resurrection accounts to Jesus preparing his disciples for the beginning of the church. And as such, our focus today shifts from the resurrection accounts that we have been hearing for the past 3 weeks to the Gospel of John and to Jesus’ sayings regarding the Good Shepherd.

A shepherd can be a bit of an odd image for Jesus to use to describe God’s relationship with the community of believers. For us, Shepherds conjure up images of idyllic meadow scenes. We imagine that male model in a robe version Jesus holding a lamb in his arms. You don’t even have to look around here much to find that kind of image.

Yet, for the people hearing Jesus’ speak, shepherds were more complicated image. One the one hand, King David the greatest king of Israel, had been a shepherd and so the image applied, from then on, to the kings of Israel. But being a shepherd in Jesus day was not an ideal career path. Shepherds lived out in the fields with their sheep. They were dirty, smelly, and uncivilized. They were mysterious nomads who only came into towns and villages on occasion. Shepherd were something between beggars and gang members. So it is odd that Jesus would choose that image, and odder still that he wouldn’t immediately tie it to the kingly side of the image.

Instead, Jesus talks about the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, not the shepherd who sends his sheep to war demanding they lay down their lives for king and country.

Yet, along side the Good Shepherd, it is the contrasting figures that Jesus’ hearers would have known. The Good Shepherd who is willing to die for his sheep stands against the bad shepherd, who is willing to sacrifice the weak sheep for the flock. The Good Shepherd stands against the hired man who cuts and runs at the first sign of trouble. The Good Shepherd stands between the sheep and wolves, the wolves who are out to kill the sheep.

Jesus’ audience lived in a world full of bad shepherds, hired men and wolves. Their world was dangerous and threatening. A Good Shepherd, a Good leader, a Good King was a rare blessing to sheep flocks and nations alike.

We too know what it is like to be sheep and to have bad shepherds, hired men and wolves around us. We know it in our families, our workplaces, our communities, our political leaders, our churches. In fact, we know the bad shepherds, hired men and wolves so well, that we find it hard to imagine or to identify Good Shepherds at all. We find it hard to trust that our Shepherds are Good, and often we are waiting for a Good Shepherd to reveal themselves as a bad one.

Good Shepherd Sunday is a certainly a day to talk about the shepherd-like qualities of God. To name the ways in which God cares for, loves and looks after us. Yet, the point of the day may just as much be the sheep as it is the shepherd. But not that solitary sheep safe and comfortable in the arms of the shepherd, like those paintings on the walls of so many churches would suggest. No, it is the flocks, the way that sheep are a group that is truly significant.

While bad shepherds, hired men and wolves are dangers for flocks, often it can be other sheep who might pose just as much risk. Sheep, individually can be intelligent, caring, delightful animals. It is when sheep are in groups that they have problems.

Sheep flocks are poor decisions makers, they are jumpy herd animals, easily tricked by predators. Sheep flocks will stand and let predators hunt them down out of fear. Sheep flocks will run from the one wolf nipping at their heals, into the mouths of the waiting pack in the other direction. Sheep will follow a leader off a cliff because they are taught from an early age to follow no matter what.

Sound familiar? Like how people act in groups.

And so often, because we have experienced the dangers before, because many churches and faithful people have been sacrificed by bad shepherds, abandoned by hired men, eaten up by hungry wolves. Because we know what it is like to stand and do nothing in the face of danger when no sheep wants to be the first to act, because we know what it is like to run from a small problem only to be faced with a much bigger one, because we know what it is like to follow our panic off a cliff… because we know these things — we have real trust issues.

We have been hurt as sheep, and we find it hard to trust. We find it hard to risk ourselves. And sometimes we even sabotage our shepherds and our flocks so that the bad thing that we know is bound to come is at least something in our control.

Despite our trust issues, Jesus says a curious thing today about sheep and shepherds.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.“

It is curious, because throughout the gospels it is pretty clear that the disciples, the crowds, the pharisees and scribes, the temple priests, the Romans… none of them really know who Jesus is. None of them really understand what Jesus is doing.

In fact, if the sheep really knew the shepherd… we wouldn’t be celebrating the season of Easter right now. We wouldn’t be celebrating Easter because the sheep wouldn’t have put the shepherd to death on Good Friday.

If Good Shepherd Sunday is really just as much about being a good flock as it is about Jesus being a Good Shepherd, there is a disconnect. Because human beings are not usually good sheep.

But Jesus knows that. That is why when Jesus starts talking about the Good Shepherd he doesn’t begin by saying that the sheep know the shepherd.

Jesus starts by saying this,

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd is not a King to rule over the sheep. The Good Shepherd is not an uninvested caregiver like a hired man. The Good Shepherd is willing to not only stand between the wolves and the sheep… The Good Shepherd is willing to stand between sheep and sheep, even when that leads him to a cross.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is willing to die for his sheep… is willing to die for us. And only a few weeks ago we told that story. We heard that Jesus did in fact die and it wasn’t the wolves that killed him… it was the sheep, it was us.

For us, that just doesn’t add up. A Good Shepherd who dies? Wouldn’t a good shepherd just make the problems go away? Wouldn’t a Good Shepherd keep the sheep away from the dangers?

Well, not if the sheep are the problem.

Jesus’ doesn’t make the problems go away. Jesus faces them head on. Jesus faces us head on.

Jesus faces our sheep problems right along side us. Jesus faces them by becoming a sheep along with us.

Jesus confronts our sheep problems, our trust issues with Shepherds, by becoming part of flocks.

Jesus the Good Sheep has come to lay down his life for the sheep, with the sheep. Jesus the Good Sheep comes to show us a new way to be sheep, a way of trust, forgiveness and grace. Jesus shows us to the other side.

Even in a dangerous world. Even if we are expecting the worst and treat Jesus like a bad shepherd, even if we turn into wolves and want him dead. Even if we have trust issues… Jesus comes to lay down his life for us. Jesus comes to give himself to us. Jesus comes to wash, to forgive us, to feed us, to go out into the dangerous world with us. Jesus comes not take the dangers away, but to face them with us. To show us to the other side. To show us that even when there is a cross, what follows is an empty tomb.

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but the Good Shepherd also rises again on the third day. And the Good Shepherd, the Good Sheep rises so that we will know what is it is like to rise too. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep because he has been through life and death with us, and we will know the Good Shepherd when we rise to new life.

Amen.

Confessions of a High Church Millennial – The Church according to ‘Friends’

As a pastor, I think a lot about group dynamics. I reflect on family systems and congregational systems. I wonder a lot about why groups of people behave in certain ways, sometimes to their own detriment.

My interest in group dynamics or systems thinking might be because I am a millennial. As Baby Boomers were the generation heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement, their focus was on the concerns of the individual, the individual lost in the shuffle of the masses, the person ignored by society, the one on the bottom. However, as Baby Boomers moved into leadership and power roles in the world, this concern for the individual has shifted to those in power and those at the top. Presidents and Prime Ministers are elected for providing individual tax cuts, not for offering society things like education, healthcare and a social safety net.

Millennials grew up differently. Our experience was tremendously focused on the group. Our education was often focused on group work, we were taught to consider others, to share, to be respectful, to work as a team. We are also the social media generation. We often define ourselves by the communities we keep.

28c79aac89f44f2dcf865ab8c03a4201So with all this in mind, let’s turn to Netflix, who made all 10 seasons of Friends available to watch recently.

It only took Courtenay and I a few weeks to binge through all the episodes. Friends became a kind of houseguest, hanging out in the background as we cooked, read, interneted, played with our son, or snuggled up for the evening on the couch.

Friends was a culture defining show during its run. The quirky group of six young adults in New York, getting their footing career and relationship-wise, represented the experience of Generation X. Friends was decidedly un-Baby Boomer-like in how it portrayed its main characters and the world around them. The characters on Friends were not from the dominant generation; there was an undercurrent all along the way that despite personal and professional success, they still lived under the thumb of “The Man” (the Boomer Man).

Friends brought the culture of a disaffected Generation X to the fore. Many of the Gen-Xers I know strongly identified with all things Friends. Yet, Friends was also important for Millennials. Particularly for older Millennials, Friends was a glimpse into the life we were about to live (not really, but it sure seemed like it).

I was in 6th Grade when Friends airing started in 1994. I was in my 3rd year of university degree when Friends faded to black for the last time. For Generation Xers, the cast of Friends was living life along side them. For Millennials, Ross and Rachel, Chandler and Monica, Joey and Phoebe, were like older siblings, or cool older cousins, the hip kids at the back of the bus. They were the people we wanted be when we grew up. They showed us what young adulthood looked like as we lived our teenage years and first years of adulthood.

Re-watching Friends this time around was a completely different experience. Sure, I knew what was going to happen, but I now know so much better what it is like to fall in love, get married, become a parent, look for work, get an education, straddle that time between adolescence and adulthood. I could see myself in the characters, rather than seeing that older sibling.

But as we made our way through the series, I started noticing something more about Friends, something about community and group dynamics, something about relationships and being part of a group. And, I think there is something to learn from Friends. Something that pastors, church leaders and people in the pews would do well to pay attention to.

What made Friends so special was that it was about deeply flawed people. The characters had deep personal flaws and their lives were greatly affected because of them. Sure plot elements were contrived and needed to fit within the elements of a sit-com, but every episode didn’t resolve neatly and nicely at the end. Relationships were affected in the long term. Life decisions had long term effects on the show. Characters started relationships and broke up, got married and then divorced. They lost jobs and started over. They had issues with addiction, mental health, infertility, sexism, racism, education. They had children and complicated relationships with family. They had all kinds of issues to confront – a lot like people in real life do.

The six characters on Friends are not that different from people in churches – people who come with all manner of complex life issues, people who are deeply flawed, people struggling with relationships, work and family.

And again, like a lot of church people these problems always hovered below the surface. Sometimes conversations about the weather, sports, what to eat for dinner, music, or pop-culture easily slipped into issues rising up and taking over. Old fights were always just one wrong comment from being dredged up again.

And still like church people, the characters of Friends struggled along the way. They didn’t always handle each other and their issues well. They weren’t perfect and couldn’t keep their problems from affecting their relationships and their happiness. Things didn’t always work out (as much as a sit-com could allow for that).

Watching all 10 seasons of Friends again, really hit my millennial sensibilities. All that time spent doing team-work and learning how to relate to others as a kid, all the time that I spend thinking about congregational systems and group behaviour, all of my interest in how we interact as people in relationship was piqued by Friends this time around.

The thing that hit me was how those six Friends stayed committed to each other despite each other’s flaws, despite the problems and issues, despite the conflict and hurts and pains. It is where Friends diverges from recent hits like Mad Men, Breaking Bad or The Big Bang Theory (where characters seem especially close to blinking on commitment). Their flaws didn’t consume them. Their commitment to each other was never in question.

And this is where Friends so often diverges from the Church. At least in my experience, church people won’t commit to the flaws in other people. We commit to the good stuff, the easy stuff. But when the painful stuff rises to the surface we don’t stick around. Well, at least we find it hard to stay present.

I think we could use a little more Church according to Friends. And I struggle as a Millennial – who was brow-beaten in school with how to manage group relationships – when church people (especially Boomers) are quick to abandon that commitment to each other when our flaws start to show, and especially when our flaws affect our relationships.

I imagine I am not the only Millennial who struggles with this.

And at the risk of making broad generalizations, I think there truly is a difference between Boomers and Millennials. I think Boomers were raised by a generation who suffered collective PTSD after World War 2. I think Boomers were taught to keep the flaws under the rug, to send the problems away when they come to the surface and to, above all, pretend like everything is okay. They were taught this because this is how their parents, the G.I. Generation survived The Great Depression and World War 2.

But when our group dynamic and congregational systems are focused around pretending that the problems don’t exist, that our flaws are hidden, that conflict should be avoided at all costs, it is really off-putting for Millennials who were taught to work things out. We were taught to let the problems come to the surface, to be laid out on the table.

I am a High Church Millennial. I am a Lutheran Pastor. There are a million reasons that I stay committed to the Church. And the flaws and failings, the hurts and sufferings of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are the last reasons that I would ever consider walking away from the church.

But if there was something that would push me away, it is how church systems and behaviours are built to avoid dealing with or even acknowledging those flaws and failings. It is really hard for me when otherwise intelligent, caring, compassionate individuals let unhealthy group dynamics and systems of behaviour rule. It is unbearable when we let… no, when we demand, that the status quo stomp on communities – on us.

If Friends can teach the Church anything, it is that we can get past our issues, we can love people despite their deep flaws, and most importantly, we can make the most important group dynamic be a commitment to loving each other.

I think Millennials need a church according to Friends, a church willing to commit to people, flaws and all.


Part 2 of Confessions of a High Church Millennial

Part 1 of Confessions of a High Church Millennial


Did you watch Friends? Have noticed unhealthy group dynamics in churches? Is there something we can learn? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

It is Friday – God’s Friday

It is Friday.

Today we live in Darkness. Today we sit and worship in the shadow of cross.

We have heard Christ’s story of passion.

We have heard of humanity’s betrayal.

We have heard of his suffering and death.

But we have not come to kill Jesus again.

We have not come to grieve and mourn his death again.

We are not reliving the crucifixion again,

We are not nailing Jesus to the cross again.

Today we remember.

We remember our part in the story.  Our shame and our pride.

We remember that when faced with God in flesh, when faced with God with us,

we put God to death.

We remember that humanity at its best, humanity’s finest minds, finest scholars, finest religious authorities, finest soldiers…. our best and finest understanding of the divine,

led us to kill God.

This is Good Friday.

It tells us who we are.

It tells us who try to be.

It tells us what happens when we try to be God in God’s place.

We are threatened by anything that would take away

our control

our power

our strength.

We couldn’t stand the idea of being able to see God face to face.

We couldn’t stand the idea of God telling us that we were wrong, that were are not God

We couldn’t stand the idea that we didn’t control what God wanted, what God said, what God did, what God thinks.

How could we not be in control?

We believe we are God,

we know what WE want,

what WE say,

what WE do,

what WE think.

So when we met God face to face,

When Jesus  healed, preached, taught, fed, exorcized demons and raised the dead to life

When Jesus let us see God, and that we are not God.

We plotted, planned, schemed and betrayed.

When we met God face to face,

We said no.

We used our greatest tool. Our strongest statement. Our godlike power.

Death. We put Jesus to death.

When God came to us face to face,

God said yes.

God took our greatest tool, our strongest statement, our godlike power

God accepted our death

And then God did what he had come to do.

And then God said what he had come to say.

And then God gave us his greatest tool, his greatest statement, his real godlike power.

God gave us himself.

God gave us his life.

God gives us New Life.

And the cross which stands so tall,

no longer stands for death.

The cross which stands so tall

now stands for life.

We tried to make the cross say no

But God has made it say yes.

We have tried to be like God

But God has come to be like us.

We tried to control God with death

But God will not be controlled

Life will not be controlled

Love will not be controlled

Forgiveness will not controlled

Grace will not be controlled.

God will not be controlled.

God has come to love us

God has come to forgive us

God has come to show us grace

God has come to give us life.

It is Friday.

It is Good Friday.

It is God’s Friday.

The Disappointment of Holy Week

Mark 11:1-11

…Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

(Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

The Palms have been waved, and Hosannas sung. Today begins Holy Week, today we join with anticipation as the people of Jerusalem greet Jesus, riding into town like a King. This moment begins as sequence of events that pushthe people of Jerusalem and us from welcoming Jesus as a King to only days from now demanding death. During Holy Week, we re-live and rehearse this movement, this change in attitude towards Jesus, towards God. We rehearse this movement because as much as we would like to believe it belongs only to the people waving palm branches 2000 years ago, it is an experience that we know too well. It is expectation and hope met with disappointment and resentment.

The scene of the Triumphant entry is not easily identified by us for what it truly is. The idea of riding a donkey up a dusty road covered in palm branches, into an ancient city does not trigger memories or images for we modern people. Yet, for the people of Israel the symbol that Jesus represented was far more powerful than we imagine.

For us it would be better to imagine a Head of State stepping down the stairs of a private jet, being met by the welcome of cheering crowds and a band playing presidential music. Or we might be better to think of celebrities and stars walking down the red carpet to screaming fans and the flashes of media cameras. Or a motorcade with little flags on long black limos with motorcycles and big guys in suits with ear pieces and guns under their jackets.

Jesus is not just some guy on a donkey, and the reception he receives from the people is not just an impromptu greeting. Jesus has been headed towards this moment since he first rose out of the waters of the Jordan river and that voice thundered from heaven, “This is my son, my beloved.”

The people of Israel too, have been waiting for this moment. They have been anticipating the arrival of Messiah. They have been waiting for a King.

A King who was to hear the cries of the people.

A warlord who was to oust their Roman oppressors.

A spiritual leader who would re-establish the Kingdom of God on earth, with the Jerusalem temple at its centre.

And so when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a steed, just like the Kings of Israel would have according to the Old Testament, the people believe that their salvation is near. They have high expectations for what is to come. They shout Hosanna, which does not mean Praise the Lord, but means Save Now. They believe that Jesus is One who has finally come to meet their expectations, to deliver on their hope, to save them from their problems.

We know this hope, we know this expectation. We have all longed for the one who will save us. Who will save us  from our problems, from our worries, from our brokenness, from our suffering and pain.

And again, we know the disappointment that will come. We know what it is like to have promises broken. We know that un-met expectations lead to resentment.

Holy Week is a reminder of this experience.

Holy Week is a practice in disappointment.

As much as we long for a saviour to come on our terms. A king from the house of David or a prime minister leading our party of choice. A warlord who will oust our oppressors, or a lottery ticket, romantic partner, job opportunity that will finally make our problems go away. A spiritual leader who will establish God’s Kingdom, or a pastor or program that will bring all the people missing from pews back to church (along with their wallets).

Our expectations for salvation. For our version of salvation will only lead to disappointment, this week more than ever.

This week, more than ever do we try to hold God’s feet to the fire for not being God in our image… and by Friday, Save Now becomes Kill Now.

But the disappointment is necessary. Because none of this has been about what we want. Jesus has reminded us all along the way, that our expectations, that our version of the world is not what he come for.

Jesus has come to do God’s work. Jesus has come riding a donkey, a symbol of peace, rather than the war horse of a conqueror.

And peace is what Jesus delivers. It will not be on our terms. It will not come by Thursday or by Friday morning. It will not happen in the Garden when Judas comes with soldiers. It will not be in Pilate’s court.

No, peace does not come on our terms. Salvation is not according to our version.

Instead, in the place where we have finally given up on peace, On Golgotha, where no one can imagine salvation. On the cross, where there is only death. God will deliver us from evil, and the King will finally sit on his throne.

On Good Friday, salvation will finally be on God’s terms.

We just won’t know it until Sunday.

Amen. 

 

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,441 other followers

%d bloggers like this: