Afflicting the Comfortable Nazareth Synagogue

Luke 4:21-30

And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” (Read the whole lesson)

Sermon

We are challenged today, our comfort is afflicted. Good News is meant to comfort the afflicted, but today the comfortable are challenged to change… and this is Good News. It is hard to hear, it unsettling and even rises up our anger, but it is still Good News. As we work and strive to find our place in the world, as well as our place in the pews here… all that is overturned right in front of our eyes.

For us it was last week, but for Jesus and the people of the Nazareth Synagogue, it was only moments ago that he stood before them and boldly proclaimed that the Spirit of God had anointed Jesus to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed and forgiveness of debts in the Jubilee year. And then Jesus sat down and preached that “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. And today, we get to see and hear the response he gets – and its not nice.

After hearing Jesus’ nice sermon, the people are amazed, they are comforted in the midst of their cushy seats in the Nazareth synagogue. They marvel that here, Joseph the carpenter’s son has such beautiful words. They imagine beautiful scenes of their lives being eased, of the burdens laid down and their bumps and bruises soothed. But this is NOT the sermon that Jesus is preaching… he has not come back to his home town to sooth his friends and family. Jesus has come to preach about real suffering, about real change and about real people.

(Pause)

Grace was working her job waitressing job, about to take payment from a customer. The woman was frantically digging through her purse trying to find her wallet and money. Her child was tugging on her sleeve begging to leave. Grace gestured to the side and asked her if she wanted to take a minute while others paid, but the woman didn’t seem to understand and only got more agitated. The scarf that covered nearly all of the woman’s head but her face was beginning to come loose as she looked for something to pay her bill with. The woman looked up at Grace and started explaining, but doesn’t realize she was speaking Arabic.

Behind the woman, Grace could hear other customers complaining,

“These immigrants expect a free handout when they come here”

“Why does she wear that thing on her head? Nobody in this country cares if you see a woman’s head!”

“You should have to learn English to be allowed into Canada!”.

(Pause)

Jesus comes down on the people of the Nazareth Synagogue and he comes down hard. He has come to preach the good news to them also, but they cannot see past the energetic 10 year old running around town playing with the other boys and helping out with his father’s carpentry. They cannot see that Jesus is not Joseph’s son at all. And this is why Jesus comes down hard, Jesus is confronting their complacency, confronting their understanding of the world, and using strong and bold words to do it.

God provides food for Elijah and the widow. God heals Naaman in the Jordan river from his leprosy, just as Elisha said would happen. Jesus reminds the people of their own history, of the prophets who had already come to bring good news and Jesus reminds them of a condemning fact… Elijah was sent to a gentile woman, to a pagan widow and her son. Elisha healed a Syrian with leprosy, a solider and a conqueror. Jesus reminds the comfortable folks of Nazareth that God send prophets to heal outcasts and sinners, gentiles and the unclean… the Messiah is not just coming to make the lives of the righteous and chosen people easier.

Jesus would get us jumping out of our seats too if he were preaching here today. He would remind us that his own body and blood, that the bread and wine we share today, is not just to feed 5th generation prairie German, Icelandic or Norwegian Lutherans, but that Christ has come to feed the poor, the outcast, children, the old, the mentally ill and the sick. He would tell us that healing and reconciliation is also for immigrants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, women, visible minorities.

But when Jesus afflicts the comfortable he doesn’t go halfway. Jesus challenges the people of the Nazareth and challenges us to see where, in our hearing, God is at work. Jesus is saying that God’s work happens with more kinds of people than imagine, AND also happens with us, amongst us, through us. Jesus demands our participation in God’s work. Jesus dares us see how we fit into the work of God right her and now. This pokes us in our comfort zone and makes defensive. We are the ones already here, what more does God want from us? But for Jesus being here is only the first step. Jesus sees the gospel working through us for the poor, the blind, the imprisoned, oppressed and indebted.

But this is not what the people of Nazareth came to hear, Jesus is challenging their comfort and they get enraged and they decide to hurl Jesus off a cliff. But he escapes. Yet, the rage of the people will catch up with him. From today onward, Good Friday is in our horizon as Jesus barely escapes execution by a mob. The rage of the Nazarites is the same rage that will shout “crucify him”, the same rage that will nail his wrists and feet to a cross. But that time is not yet. Resurrection is still coming and the people of Nazareth haven’t seen the fulfillment of God’s promises yet…God’s promises that include more than Ancient Hebrews and Prairie Lutherans. God’s promises that transform us, and we become less comfortable the more we hear them.

But the rage of righteous entitlement, the rage that believes it deserves God’s love and that is willing to put God to death for changing the rules… Today, this rage loses its power, and God’s power to free, to release, to heal, to feed, and to forgive steps out of the shadows and stands in our midst, it defies our attitudes, escapes being hurled into oblivion and continues on with its mission.

(Pause)

As the poor woman standing at the counter, realized that she had forgotten her wallet, the tears began streaming down her face. Voices behind continued to mutter and complain. And then all of a sudden two 20 dollar bills appeared on the counter, and a smiling face was standing next to her. Grace recognized Marlena from church at St.David’s

“Here take this, and pay for your meal.” Marlena said. “You don’t know me, but I have seen your family walking down the street, you are my neighbour”.

With tears still streaming down her cheeks, the grateful muslim woman reached out and took the hand of this kind stranger, thanking her profusely in arabic.

(Pause)

Today, the Good News hurts us, as we see ourselves in the folks of the Nazareth Synagogue. But its still Good News anyways, as we discover again that God’s love is not based in our comfort, in what pew bears the shape of our behind, but rather its based in God’s openness to a world full of imperfect variety. And God’s love is happening right here and now.

Jesus takes two stories of God’s great compassion and uses them in a new way. Jesus reminds the comfortable folks of Nazareth and comfortable Lutherans of the prairies that God’s love is so much broader than we can imagine. Jesus pushes our comfort zones and enrages us. And still despite our attitudes, despite our rage at being challenged, Jesus promises reconciliation and healing, for which we are given front row seats. For today Jesus has proclaimed that along with God’s chosen people, lepers and gentiles, widows and pagans, and immigrants to a foreign land…  we all are the beloved of God. Even if that makes us uncomfortable.

Amen. 

Annual Meeting Season: What church budgets say about ministry (It’s not good.)

As we begin the new year, most churches are entering Annual Meeting season. Budgets will be proposed and approved. Reports on how the past year’s ministry has gone will be presented. Plans for the year will be laid out.

For a lot of church people, annual meetings are a necessary evil. Boring meetings about boring things. But annual meetings have a significant effect on ministry. If you really want to know what a congregation values, look at the budget. If you want to know what a denomination focuses on, look at the budget.

Churches might put things like “All are Welcome” on signs, but have nothing in the budget for hospitality ministry.

Churches might have mission statements about growing in faith or serving the poor, but have no budget lines for educational resources or funds directed to outreach.

While what churches have failed to budget for or invest in is interesting, what they do put their time, energy and money towards is even more interesting. And so often churches invest in things that simply make no sense and make one wonder what is actually trying to be accomplished. In fact, churches often invest in or put their resources into ventures that have little chance of yielding fruit. 

Let me explain with some examples:

Lutherans in Canada have been primarily rural during our history. Most of our congregations are in rural communities. This made sense as it has been only in the past decade or so that the shift in Canadian society has been from a majority rural to majority urban population.

Generally urban congregations tend to be larger with more resources. Rural congregations tend to be smaller with fewer resources. So seeing struggling rural congregations, church leadership tends to invest in places where the church is struggling. Our seminary has developed an entire institute devoted to rural ministry offering a Doctor of Ministry degree in rural ministry. Multi-point and regional parish ministry is being explored and developed to help a few pastors serve many congregations in a team setting. Rural congregations are often given travel subsidies for church events. Skype and other video conferencing technology is being used to include rural folk.

This is all good and rural congregations deserve good ministry.

Yet, all our efforts are fighting against the demographic realities of shrinking rural communities. There are fewer and fewer people to minister to in rural contexts. We are putting disproportionate resources towards smaller groups of people.

At the same time, because urban congregations are perceived as large and self-sufficient, we leave them be. Yet, they are shrinking too and it is not related to demographics. In fact, there are more people than ever who have no church affiliation living down the street, within blocks, driving by urban churches every day. Shrinking urban churches are the result of changing culture, mission-drift, a lack of evangelism and failed education systems in churches. 

Yet, there is little energy, time, resources or even concern going into helping urban churches understand the people that live next door to them.

Many urban churches are now at a place where they simply cannot communicate or connect with 21st century culture. This isn’t about phones and projector screens in church, but about understanding that most people 70 and under engage community differently – through smart phones and social media. People understand their real life world through an online lens, from scheduling birthday parties, to finding restaurants to eat at, to getting their news, to listening to music or watching TV etc…

And another example:

Churches will bend over backwards to keep nearly comatose Sunday School programs alive. They will long for the youth to come and “get involved.” They want young adults to “come back” to church in order to get take up the jobs that older people want to give up. Precious volunteer energy and resources are spent on doomed to disappoint ministries. Yet, the things that they are asking of kids (to attend regular faith education programs) and youth (to fill most leadership roles in worship), adults are mostly unwilling to do themselves. They expect young people to want to do things that older people want to stop doing… it makes no sense.

But perhaps more importantly, we have hit another demographic tipping point where there are more over 50-year-olds in Canada than under 50-year-olds. That means at best, a church can hope for 1 family of 4 for every 2 empty nest couples in church. If you have 30 couples over 50 in church, you will only have about 15 families. Of course it will seem like the young people aren’t around… but that is because they don’t exist.

Churches long for young adults and young families thinking that they will have the time, energy and money to keep congregations going. Yet increasingly, young adults and young families are under-employed, highly indebted people with precious discretionary time on their hands and who are trying to make it through a high cost time of their lives.

Yet the Baby Boomers, the richest generation in history, are reaching the end of their careers. The largest group of retired people ever is about to have loads of time and money on their hands. Why don’t we have Sunday School for them? Retiree workers instead of youth workers? Why don’t we want 65-year-olds putting on an alb and lighting the candles in worship?

Many churches spend a lot of angst on young people, who (demographically speaking) don’t even exist. But the people who do exist, a glut of boomers, are largely ignored. 

Why do congregations, church bodies and leaders so often see their hope and future in unrealistic visions of church? Why do we invest in ministries and activities that have little chance of yielding fruit for us?

I don’t know if there is one answer. I think it has to do with fear of disappointing those led us into faith in the first place by doing things differently than they did. It has to do with longing for a return to the glory days of the past. It has to do with a fear of change, and our world is full of change these days.

Now, I wish this was the part of the blog post where I explained the magic bullet to turning this poor investment strategy, this poor ministry culture around. But I don’t know the answer.

Well, let me rephrase. I do know the answer… and so do you.

But the answer is hard work.

Churches need to look around ask what faithful ministry looks like in their context. Find out who our neighbours are. Find out what the needs of our communities are. Ask what opportunities is God putting before us. Discern who God is calling us to serve. Be willing to let go our expectations and vision for ourselves, and ask who God is calling us to be.

Strive to be faithful in our investments and ministry planning rather than successful. 

This Annual Meeting season instead of seeing long boring meetings about boring reports and boring talks, consider it an opportunity to discover where God is leading our congregations and communities.

Who knew Annual Meetings could be that?


What does your church invest in? How can you see where your priorities are? Do you love Annual Meetings? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

They Couldn’t Afford the Wine in Cana

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

On the 3rd day of the wedding in Cana, they ran out of wine. It might seem strange to be talking about a party running out of wine today. Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism, God spoke to the crowds and us. It was a big deal. And then between Sundays, the dollar and oil continued to drop in value prompting lots of economic talk in the news. And as if to bring the point closer to home, as we prepare for our Annual Meeting next week, economic talks have been taking place here as a budget is prepared and challenges are contended with much like the rest of the country.

This week also brought what has come to be routine terrorist attacks around the world, politicians behaving badly at home and abroad. Daily life has become serious business, stress filled and difficult business. So talking about a miracle where Jesus turns some water into wine at a wedding sounds almost trivial.

Yet, despite being known mostly for its poor party planning, Cana is a place where life is serious, stress filled and difficult too. Cana knows the dangers of the world. They too worry if there will be enough on the table, worry about bills and taxes, work and family. Cana was a small town in the middle of nowhere. They lived under and paid taxes to the Romans, to Herod, to the Temple, to the Synagogue, to the local authorities and soldiers.

And here they were, trying to have a nice celebration for the community. To set a couple off on the right start for their marriage. To celebrate a bit in an otherwise dark, serious, and difficult world.

But on the 3rd day of the wedding they run out of wine.

Mary and Jesus and the disciples are in Cana for a wedding. They are probably at the wedding of a distant relative, but for Cana this would have been a whole community affair. Like weddings today, the weddings of ancient Israel were big celebrations. It was expected that a fortune would be spent on the party. Wine and food was to flow for a week – literally 7 days – the Bridegroom was meant to be broke by the end of the party. The hospitality and celebration, the extravagance were meant to be sign of blessing. If it was a good party, it would be blessed marriage.

Except it is only day 3 in Cana, and they have no wine.

Mary points this out to Jesus in only the way a mother could. And Jesus responds in only the way a son could, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come”. Jesus has different idea of timing than his mother. But, she doesn’t care. She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you”.

Jesus seems to only to see a party that has been poorly planned. A party that has run out. But Mary sees something different. Mary knows that the wine has run out on day 3, not even half way through. The wine might run out on a poorly planned part on day 6, but not day 3. The family is probably too poor to throw a proper wedding.

Maybe they didn’t know about wedding socials in Cana. Maybe they didn’t come together as people do here, knowing that if everyone contributes a little to everyone else, when the time comes to host your own, the burden won’t be so great. But the people of Cana almost certainly did know this, and probably had all already chipped in to the party.

And Mary sees that this community is too poor, they don’t even have enough reserves to have one party for some newlyweds.

Mary and Jesus embody the moments of scarcity that we face every day. We know what it is like to need for more, to fear running out, to know that the time isn’t right, to hope for something different and to long for change. We know this feeling and how it weighs on us at home, at work, at the grocery store, at school, at church, on the road, in the world. But this is just how our world operates, these are the reasons we toil away, the reasons that keep us up at night and stress us out. We know that we are closer to running out than we like to admit. Running out of time, of energy, of money, of love, of life.

Running out is something we all fret about, and yet it is connected to a much deeper fear. At the core of our being, within all of us is that fearful sense that if there is not enough for us, that if we run out, that we will suffer, we will lose, we will be alone, we will die. We fear not having enough so much that it can make us crazy. It is the fear of running out that makes fight with each other, that makes stubborn and unable to see the needs of those people around us, that makes us hold on with all our might, even when holding on is what is killing us.

So when Mary pushes Jesus to act, even though he resists… it is because she must see that it isn’t really about the wine or the party ending 4 days early. It is about a community without much else to hold on to, a people without hope. If there is not enough wine, than there is not enough to eat or drink. There isn’t enough to live on. The world will have overcome them. There is no future, no hope, only death.

Mary sees this deep connection between running out of wine, and how Cana is not that far away from death. She sees a community that needs some hope, that needs a future. And she knowns the only person who can truly provide.

And so Mary presses the issue, not with Jesus, but with us.

“Do whatever he tells you.”

Easy instructions for the servants… but words that should take our breath away.

As we face our economic news, as we face challenges and struggles making ends meet and just keeping it together day to day. As we wonder if there is any hope for us, if there is a future here… if all we have to look forward to is death. “Do whatever Jesus tells you.” is a word that demands faith from us. Faith that we really don’t know how to give.

But God does.

Even when it doesn’t seem like Jesus’ hour, it is. And it isn’t just an abundance of wine that Jesus provides. Instead, God breaks into the world. God comes to a small community that is forgotten by everyone else. And God blesses the wedding, blesses the whole community.

It is not about the wine. It is about the blessing. About God’s presence there in that moment. Mary seemed to know that with God present at that wedding in Cana, running out of wine was something Jesus needed to do something about.

And all of a sudden on the 3rd day of the wedding, when hope was lost, when there was no future… God breaks into the world and provided wine. God meet that community and gives them hope. God creates a new future.

Today, God breaks into our world here and now. God provides us with hope. God creates us a future.

And it is no mistake that the wine ran out on the 3rd of wedding at Cana. It is no mistake that we meet on Sunday, the 3rd day too. We are meant to be reminded of that other 3rd day miracle when life seemed to have run out of world, God turned it into delicious abundant life. When all hope was lost, God found us at the empty tomb. When we didn’t seem to have a future, God gave all creation new life in the resurrection.

Here on this 3rd day, here in our world, here in our community, it might feel like our wine has run out. It might feel like there is no hope and no future. But God is revealing to us the Christ who brings delicious and abundant wine, who fill the jars of our hope, who makes sure that there is future – because Jesus has saved good wine until now, he has saved it for us.

Amen.  

A Sermon on the Baptism of Our Lord

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Read the Whole Passage)

Sermon

John the Baptist is at it again, preaching about winnowing forks, or rather shovels, that gather grain from the threshing floor. It was only the third Sunday of Advent, less than a month ago that John was preaching this same sermon!

These crowds that gathered on the banks of the River Jordan came because they were searching. They were looking for something, someone to tell them who they were. They are misfits and trouble makers. Soldiers, tax collectors, the lame, sick, blind, deaf and poor. They were considered outcasts, those unloved by God, those without a place in the religious order, they were on the outside. And so when they hear of a Holy Man preaching on the outside, they go to see what he has to say, that maybe he will say something different about God, that maybe he will have a different story. Maybe this John the Baptist will tell them that they are something different from outcasts, misfits and troublemakers.

(Pause)

As Wesley stood on platform, he was terrified. Voices from the water were mocking and teasing him, calling him names like, “Wes the Mess” or “Wesley the Sissy”.   Wesley was standing in the community pool, trying to reach for the rope that hung just a little too far for his reach. The voices from the water were the other kids and they were calling out from the water.

Wesley had always been picked on. He was the smallest kid in the class, the first to wear glasses, he liked reading about baseball more than he liked to play it. Wesley was a smart a whip, except that he hadn’t learned to read until he got glasses and he had been labeled poor student and he just couldn’t shake that identity.

As Wesley reached out to grab hold of the rope, which he couldn’t see very well without his glasses, he slipped. Instead of swinging on the rope, Wesley tumbled head first into the water making a big splash. And then from under the water, Wesley’s swimming suit came floating up to the surface a few seconds before he did. The other kids just laughed and laughed…

(Pause)

Its not too hard to identify with those outcasts standing on the banks of the River Jordan. Like them, we live in a society that makes distinctions, that tells us who we are based on what we do, where we live, how much money we make, what toys we buy and how many people we know.

And while we might not imagine ourselves standing on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to hear some good news, to hear from a wild hermit preacher about God… we do know what it is like to search our world for affirmation. And we are bombarded by messages telling us who we should be… message in the media, messages in our families, messages from our communities.

As we sift through all these messages, we search for ones that might tells us how we are loved, how we are accepted. Yet, most tell how we can be better… which really means that we aren’t good enough.

(Pause)

As  Wesley looked around for his bathing suit, he turned beat red in embarrassment. He couldn’t see his bathing suit without his glasses.

Then someone started shouting from the rope platform. It was a boy about Wesley’s age. The boy was making a big deal of not being able to reach the rope and then the boy slipped and fell into the water making a big scene. The laughing kids turned their attention to the newest loser to fall from the platform.

When boy came to the surface he grabbed Wesley’s bathing suit and quickly swam over to Wesley. Wesley put it back on under the water and the boy said, “Come with me.”

The two boys swam over to another group of kids.

“I’m David” the boy said, “what is your name?”

“Wesley”

They swam up to the other kids.

A tall lanky older teen with hair in his eyes playfully punched David in the arm,

“Nice fall” he said, winking at the same time.

“Thanks Josh” said David.

The group introduced themselves to Wesley. The two oldest were Josh and Grace. David’s sister Lizzie was there too as well as others.

“We are the youth group from St. David’s church.” said Josh. “Why don’t you hang out with us Wesley.”

“You sure you want me?” said Wesley “Most people think I am a loser.”

“Don’t worry about that” said Grace, “A lot of us thought we were losers too before booming part of the group. Some of us still are,” she elbowed Josh.

“Anyone can join our group. We would be happy to have you.” said Josh. “You are always welcome with us”

(Pause)

As Jesus steps down from the crowds and into the water, God prepares to show the crowds, and to show us, precisely what it means to be gathered up, what it means to find an identity in God.

As Jesus is baptized, God declares from the heavens “This is my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”. John’s sermon is about the coming Messiah. Yet today, God preaches with his own voice.  And God’s sermon is short and clear. “This is my son. I love him and he is wonderful”. God’s sermon is preached not just to Jesus, but to each and everyone of us. As we are baptized and as we live each as God’s named and claimed people, these clear yet profound words are spoken about us and spoken by God.

And yes, there is nothing we can do to control God’s love. We cannot make God love us more and we cannot make God love anyone else less. This is the scary part, this is the part that feels dangerous. God’s love for creation us untameable. And its by this untamed love that Jesus is revealed to the crowds on the banks of the Jordan and again this love reveals us as belonging to God.

To each one of us God says,

“You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased. You are always welcome with me”

Amen. 

Refugees Welcome – God sent YOU to us

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (Read the whole passage)

 

Sermon

As the plane descended, it broke through the orange grey cloud cover. As Mara looked out her window, she could see the lights of the city sprawling off in all directions. There were little cars and trucks moving along streets and highways. Buildings rose up tall in some places, and in other areas fields and parks broke up rows and rows of houses. All of it was covered in white… like a great sandstorm had covered the city, but not quite.

Soon the airport and runway came into view. This was a the 4th and final landing that she, her husband Yusef and her two year old son Isa would be making on their long journey. 72 hours before, that had left the Zataari Refugee camp for Amman Jordan.  In Amman they boarded a plane destined for Canada. They had been chosen for resettlement. They had been interviewed, screened, and interviewed some more. When the news came that they has been chosen to go to Canada, they couldn’t believe the news.

The plane touched down and began taxi-ing into the terminal. The plane was nearly empty with only a few dozen others. It was dark outside and the family was tired. They gathered their belongings to exit the plane. However, as Mara and Yusuf made their way up the gangway and through the airport, their anticipation was beginning to build. They were about to finally arrive at a new life, in a safe country. Mara noticed right away that there were no soldiers or guards, nor police officers to be seen Late at night the airport was nearly empty, except for the friendly airline staff waving them on towards the baggage claim with smiles and greetings. The government officials who had been with them the whole way were leading the group as they walked.

Through a final set of security doors, the group spilled into the escalators leadings down to the baggage area. The quiet airport all of sudden was filled with noise. There were people shouting and cheering, clapping. As Mara, Yusuf and Isa stood at the top of the escalators she could now see crowds of people. Hundreds – waiting just for them. Many were holding signs. In English and Arabic,

“Welcome Refugees. You are home”

As the group rode down the escalator it was thrilling. The gathered crowd began singing (Mara would later discover that they were singing O Canada). People were handing out coffee cups that looked like Christmas sweaters. And little sugar-coated balls of dough to eat.

The government officials were helping the refugees to find their sponsors, but Mara had already spotted hers. There was a group holding a sign in Arabic with their names on it. Underneath their sign it said, St. David’s church. Mara noticed it because Yusuf’s family had always said they were related to the great King of Israel – David.

There were about 20 church members. An older priest, surrounded by all kinds of people. A woman stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Mara – Marlena the woman said pointing to herself.

“My name is Mara” Mara said practicing the English she had been learning for the past two years in the Zataari Camp.

After many more hugs and introductions, Isa was off playing with boy and girl around 11 or 12 years old. Yusuf was trying on a number of winter coats the group had brought. Mara couldn’t believe all these people were there for her family.

Soon the three were packed up in a big SUV and on their way to their new home. Marlena and her husband Jim with their children David and Lizzie took the family to their new apartment. Mara was exhausted but exhilarated. She didn’t know how relieved she would feel to finally be safe, for the first time in years. For the first time since she and Yusuf had left Damascus with only what they could carry and walked to Jordan. She had been quite pregnant at the time and she had given birth to Isa their first night in Jordan. During the past 2 years they had lived in a Refugee camp wondering if they would ever go home again, wondering if they would ever have a home again. Isa had been a Refugee, a stateless person, a homeless person his entire life. He didn’t have a home until now. But now he was, with his parents, a Canadian.

Marlena’s family said goodbye and promised to be back the next day. They would be going to church for Christmas Day. Yusuf put Isa to bed while Mara explored their new home. It was full of furniture, food and more. Finally late into the night, Mara and Yusuf, happy and content, drifted off to sleep…

In the morning, the doorbell rang. Mara went to the door. It was Marlena.

“Are you ready to head… Where did you get that sweater?” she asked surprised.

“They gave to us in camp” said Mara.

“What? How?” said Marlena.

“C-L-W-R” Mara said trying to remember the letters.

“I gave that sweater to the Lutheran church across from our church to years ago, that is incredible that YOU have it.”

Mara was wearing a St. Francis Xavier University shirt. It said Volleyball on the back. Marlena pointed to the arm. Stitched onto the arm it said Marlena – 1994.

“Amazing” said Marlena. “Just amazing.”

The two families arrived at St. David’s about 5 minutes before church was to start… they were greeted by too many people to remember. Finally, the two families found their pew on the right side of the sanctuary.

Father Angelo processed into the sanctuary to begin worship and the congregation began singing, “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Two years in the refugee camp and now two days in Canada had been full of unfamiliar things, this church was more like home than either Mara or Yusuf expected. They were Syrian coptic. The liturgy at St. David’s was very familiar to how they worshipped back in Syria. Even though they couldn’t always keep up with the English, the familiar pattern of standing and praying and singing reminded them of life back in Damascus. They listened to the sermon, they joined in the prayers when they could, and they went forward to receive communion. Father Angelo smiled as he put some bread in Isa’s hands.

At the end of the service, Father Angelo made a few announcements. And then he slowed down and said very clearly,

“As-salamu alaykum” which means Peace Be with you in Arabic.

“Today, we are also welcoming very special new members. Yusuf, Mara and Isa are joining us from Syria.” before he could finish people started clapping.

Overtop of the clapping Father Angelo asked the family to stand.

Marlena leaned over to Mara and Yusuf and gestured to stand. Uncertainly Mara stood up, Yusuf picked up Isa and joined her. As they stood the clapping almost immediately died out. People were gasping and some were even pointing. Mara became very self conscious. Trying to formulate the English words, she said, “Thank you. God has blessed us and given you to us. We are so happy.”

Still people were staring and pointing, until Mara realized they were pointing behind her. Behind Mara, Yusuf and Isa hanging on the wall was a Christmas Banner. It was a dark navy blue starry sky above a brown desert. Walking across the desert were two figures, one holding a child. Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt. Mara looked strikingly like Mary, with her white headscarf, blue sweater and blue dress matching Mary’s look exactly. Yusuf’s shaggy hair and beard, with his brown corduroy sport jacket and brown pants matching Joseph’s brown tunic. Even Isa’s red shirt and white pants mimicking the infant Jesus’ white and red clothes.

Father Angelo finally broke the moment.

“No” he said. “No, God did not give us to you. Here you are in our church, a family from the house of David who had fled across the same sands as the holy family, who has known fear and danger, who has sought refuge in a foreign land.”

Father Angelo took a breath.

“No, God did not give us to you. God has sent YOU to us. We are blessed because you have been given you us. You are the ones that we have been waiting for. The ones that we needed to receive here. You are the ones who have reminded us that we have not saved you. But you have saved us. Your little family has travelled across the world to remind us that we are the ones who needed the saving. That God is the one coming into our world in order to bring light into our darkness.”

Father Angelo took another breath and then said,

“The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Amen

*This is part 3 in the series. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

Mary and Joseph in Al Zataari

*Part 1 of this series is found here.

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Read the whole passage here)

 

Sermon

As he walked along the rough and sandy road, Yusuf looked up to see his fiancée. She was sitting in the back of a cart being pulled by a horse. She gave him a gentle smile and then closed her eyes once again to try and sleep. Every time the cart hit a bump in the road, the whole thing bounced and shook. Undoubtedly, Mara was not getting much rest. Rest that she, and the child within her womb, needed.

Mara and Yusuf had joined with the caravan of people walking south to Jordan. Mara was sitting in the cart with few elderly people, some children and another pregnant woman. The two had left everything behind, their home, their jobs, their family, their lives. Yusuf was angry at himself for having to make Mara embark on this long journey while she was pregnant. He had hoped that they could have stayed a little longer in their homes. He wanted the baby to be born in Damascus, but the bombs were dropping and the government troops had ordered everyone out. Anyone who was suspected of being a rebel was being thrown in prison or worse, and people were turning on each other, accusing friends and neighbours of rebellion in order to stay in the government’s good books.

Yusuf had told Mara that he would find them a place to hide out, where she could have the baby safely in Damascus. They would only have to stay a few weeks. But Mara had insisted they leave. She didn’t want their baby to be born into such a dangerous and chaotic world. And so here they were, traveling in winter on a hard and rocky road, from Damascus, Syria to Al Zataari, Jordan so that they could make a new life, one free from bombs and guns and soldiers. Yusuf was not happy about it, but every time Mara gave him that small smile of hers, he was relieved that she had insisted on leaving.

______________________________

Zataari was bustling full of people. There were NGO workers, peacekeepers, kids running around in packs, adults visiting, people working. Zataari was the same distance from Nazareth that Bethlehem was, the home of King David. Yusuf was a coptic Christian, and the family legend was that he was a descendant of King David, not that this was something to advertise back home.

Yusuf and Mara were hoping to find some of Yusuf’s relatives already in Jordan. He  heard that his cousins had already fled Syria. But as he asked around, no one seemed to know his family, it was a long shot in a town of 80,000 refugees. Yusuf was worried that they might have to make camp on the outskirts. He only considered this as his last option, for the threat of thieves and bandits was too great, especially with Mara being almost ready to have her baby.

Finally someone who seemed to be a distant cousin offered Mara and Yusuf a room to themselves…. Well kind of… it was a tattered tent with a faded UNHCR logo on it… it looked like goats and sheep had been living there before they came. Mara and Yusuf would have to make due.

 

Yusuf led Mara to their temporary dwelling and they settled in. Mara didn’t seem mind, she was just grateful to sit somewhere that wasn’t bouncing down a road. Yusuf’s distant cousin had given them some food and blankets and sweaters. Not long after they had sat down to eat, Mara dropped her food and grabbed her belly. Yusuf knew what this meant, the baby was coming.

Throughout the day and well into the night, Yusuf stayed by Mara’s side. Helping her as best he could through the labour. Finally, through gritted teeth, Mara told him,

“The Baby is going to come now”. Yusuf got into position as she gave her final pushes and then all of a sudden into his hands slithered a slimy and wailing bundle of legs and arms, hands and feet. Yusuf gave the baby to Mara, it was cold and there was nothing to wrap the child in. So, Yusuf took one of the sweaters his cousin has given to him and tore it into strips. Some he dipped in water and helped Mara to clean the child and with the rest they wrapped up the baby warm and tight.

Once the baby had been cleaned and fed, Mara and the boy slept. A short time later, while it was still dark, Mara woke up and called for Yusuf to take the baby. She wanted to clean herself up from the birth. She couldn’t quite stand on her own, so Yusuf put the baby down in the nearest convenient place — a long metal bucket or trough full of straw, probably for the goats. Yusuf was so proud of Mara, she had come all this way and now given birth, he was all of a sudden overjoyed that he had not left her when he had found out that she was pregnant, and he was overjoyed that she had made them escape the dangers of home.

______________________________

As Yusuf pulled Mara to her feet, they heard voices coming near their tent. At first Yusuf thought it might be his cousin coming to check in on them in the early morning, but there were several voices… several men. Yusuf peered out of the tent into the darkness and coming towards him was a group of men with weapons, with sticks and staffs, and rods and slingshots.They were boisterous, loud men… Yusuf’s anxiety grew and his heart began to pound. These men must be a gang of thieves.

“Stay in here” he told Mara and he pulled out one of the few personal items he had brought with him from Damascus, his carpenter’s hammer. He was ready to die for wife-to-be and child.

As the men got closer they quieted themselves, Yusuf was ready to fight. He put himself between the tent and the men, blocking their way. He raised his hammer above his head to signal that he would not allow anyone to come in. But the men stopped and only one came forward.

“Is he here?” the man asked excitedly. “The one the messengers told us about? The Messiah? The child in the manger? We were watching our sheep not to far from here, and were told by messengers – Angels  –  that we would find the great prophet here”. Yusuf’s jaw dropped, along with his hammer, in shock. How could anyone know that Mara had given birth already? Angels? Messiah? He turned and looked back to the tent. Mara was standing at the door, nodding her head and beckoning the young men to come forward. One by one the men came and knelt before the baby, saying prayers of thanksgiving as Mara watched on, looking totally unsurprised that these rough men had arrived. Yusuf’s head was spinning.

Finally, when the men had finished looking at the child, NO when they had finished worshipping the child, Yusuf looked to Mara who was holding a squirming Isa in her arms.

“Angels, Messiah, a baby in a manger! Our son is special isn’t he?”

Mara looked at Yusuf for a long moment. She thought about all that she had been through in the last 9 months. The visit from the angel and surprise pregnancy, the shame of being unmarried followed by Yusuf’s continued willingness to marry her, the time she had with her cousin Eliza while she gave birth to her miracle child in her old age and now the journey to Zataari. Mara was amazed at how her life had been so dramatically changed, how this baby had come into her world and changed everything. This tiny baby that could not lift his own head, who could not survive unless she kept him warm with her own body heat, who could not be fed unless it was she who gave him food, who could not be alive unless she worked to keep him so. This little child had come into her life and nothing was the same as it was.

Yet before tonight, the message from that first Angel had not seemed so real and grand. For certain she had been pregnant, but for her child to be the Messiah… well that was something she could not imagine. Yet the Shepherds had come, they told them of messenger Angels coming to the fields, telling them about the birth of her child, of this tiny little baby boy, so vulnerable to the world, of how he would be their saviour!

Returning to Yusuf’s question, was their son special?

“Come and look into his eyes Yusuf, see for yourself”, Mara finally said.

And together as they looked at this little child, so new to world, wiggling and gurgling like newborns do, they saw skin and hair; ears, eyes and a nose. And yet as they looked longer, they saw something more, something so much more. As they looked into this child’s eyes they could see themselves, they could see everyone that they loved, they could see the whole world. In this little helpless child, they could see the divine, they could see a great passion for all creation, they could see God in flesh — Emmanuel. Looking at this little miracle in their arms, Mara and Yusuf saw the whole world differently than it was just a moment before. A miracle bigger than they could hold. A world with God in it.

As the first wisps of light began to breach the horizon with the sunrise, the little family stood at the door of their tent, watching this new light come into the world. As starlight and sunlight danced with each other across the sky, Mara could almost hear voices singing from above and she listened to the heavens.

Yusuf whispered to his son,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Amen.

Our version of Christmas is NOT God’s

Luke 1:39-45(46-55)

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit…

[And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

(Read the whole passage)

 

Sermon

We have come to the end of Advent. Advent has been rough this year. We have endured talk of the end times and John the Baptist’s fiery preaching from the river banks.

Finally today, on this last Sunday of Advent things start to sound a little more Christmasy. Elizabeth, a woman thought to be too old to conceive and barren, is pregnant with John. Mary, a virgin still only engaged to be married, is pregnant with the Messiah.

Today’s story sounds beautiful and picturesque. It is easy for us to imagine two delightfully pregnant women greeting one another lovingly; a scene that makes us smile.

But we forget to consider the struggles these two women are facing. Elizabeth is older than a pregnant woman should be. She and Zechariah will be raising a child in their old age, more like grandparents who have unexpectedly found themselves raising children again. While Mary is a young unmarried teen girl, and her fiancé is not the father of her child. Joseph could call the marriage off at best… maybe forcing Mary to a life of begging on streets, with a child to care for. At worst, both she and her unborn child could be stoned for adultery. For both women in their day, child birth was dangerous and all too often women would not survive the birth experience without some luck. There is probably more relief than joy while the women greet one another, as Mary has gone with haste to see her cousin, to avoid the judgement of her hometown family and friends.

The story of Mary and Elizabeth is not one of those Christmas movies. Rather it is story full of fear and danger, one that stands in contrast to the Christmas image we generally try to present. Mary and Elizabeth challenge the notion that Christmas is about shopping, baking, decorating and hosting. Mary and Elizabeth introduce things we don’t want to talk about this time of year. Fear, danger, shame and uncertainty.

(Pause)

In the middle of Advent, St. David’s church was having an extraordinary congregational meeting. It was a busy time of year. The actors for the annual pageant were having regular rehearsals. Father Angelo and Father Michael were frantic with preparations, sermon writing, and pre-Christmas visits. Everyone was busy with all the usual Christmas stuff at home – office parties, school concerts, family visits – it was not a good time for a congregational meeting.

Yet, the basement of the church was packed full of people.

The meeting was extraordinary because it had not been called by the parish board or the priests. It had been called by special petition. Simon, the building committee chair, had gotten the 35 signatures required to call a special meeting of the congregation.

The president of the congregation stood up to the mic and called the meeting to order. She asked Father Angelo to lead the congregation in prayer. Then the president asked Simon to read the one motion that the congregation was to vote on.

Simon came to the mic, “I move that our congregation cancel our plans to sponsor the refugees. Bill seconds the motion.”

When Simon finished, people began to murmur and talk.

The president had to ask for quiet. She then open the floor to debate, with Simon getting to speak first as the mover of the motion.

“Our parish board went ahead a decided to sponsor those people without asking us. Because they know what we would have said. They know that Father Angelo and the tour group was over there when it happened. They stuck in that church only a few blocks from the bombs. We don’t think bringing people who could be terrorists to our church is right. We need to vote no, before they get here next week.”

(Pause)

The real story of Mary discovering that she is pregnant unravels and upsets our vision of the Christmas story. We don’t want Christmas to be like real life, it supposed to something different, or least that is what we hope to create. The perfect and ideal vision of the perfect family preparing for a new baby. This is the Christmas we try to tirelessly create each year, a diversion from the messiness and struggle of real life. We want to imagine Mary and Elizabeth as calm and peaceful expectant mothers, as if they this is the way the planned to have children all along.

But our version of Christmas is NOT God’s.

God is telling a different story at this time of year. God is telling a real story, about real people. About people who have big problems, and no easy way out. It is about poverty, about unmarried parents, about unwanted babies, about couples too old to raise a child, about judgment and the threat of death. And it is about how God’s people respond to fear and danger.

(Pause)

After Simon’s speech, people started shouting, some in support, others against Simon’s motion. The president had to call for order again.

June stood up to the mic, June was like everyone’s favourite surrogate grandma at St. David’s. “Now Simon, you are just being silly. Syrian Refugees need our help. We have to welcome them.”

Again people started shouting, again the president called for order.

This time Nelly, the director of the Christmas Pageant was at the mic. “I don’t know what to think. I watch the news and all these people are leaving their homes, but then it feels like every week some new act of terrorism happens. I don’t know what the answer is.”

The debate went on like this for 30 minutes. People speaking passionately for one side or the other, with many stuck in the middle.

Jim was standing in line at the mic behind 5 people. His 11 year old daughter Lizzie beside him. Finally it was his turn to speak.

“I don’t actually have anything to say” he said. “Lizzie does. Can she speak Mme. President.” There was more murmuring from the crowd. The president nodded.

(Pause)

Sometimes the real world can get in the way of Christmas. While we try to create perfect memories with seemingly perfect families, God is discarding the rules about pregnancy before marriage in order to send us a messiah. As we stress and worry and prepare for the perfect Christmas, God is sending divine messengers to an old woman and unwed teen mom living in poverty.

God does not wait for the everything to be perfect or to fall into place in order to begin the work of the incarnation. God does not come only when it is safe and there is nothing to fear. God’s activity of taking on our flesh and becoming like us starts now. God comes to us, whether we want God to or not.

Mary’s and Elizabeth’s real life shoves aside our idyllic nativity scenes, visions of perfect Christmases. Mary and Elizabeth show us a real story about real people. A story about shame, and danger and betrayal. But also a story about mercy, and compassion and grace.

(pause)

Jim lowered the mic for his daughter.  Lizzie stepped up, she looked around the room, pulled out a piece of paper to read.

“I am not afraid” she said. “I am not afraid because I would want a church like this to let my family come if we had to run from home or war. The refugees might be terrorists but they might be kids too. Kids like the boy on the beach. Kids like me. Kids who need homes and schools and safe places to live. St. David’s is a safe place. I know that because my parents always tell me that if I am lost, I can come here and people will take care of me. Father Angelo, Father Michael, June, Nelly, Simon. They tell me that you are safe people and you can take care of me. They tell that I am safe here because this is God’s house, and God makes it safe.”

Lizzie stepped back from the mic and grabbed for father’s hand. The two went and sat down together.

(pause)

For when Mary gets past the shame of pregnancy before marriage, when she get past the fear of death for adultery, she with her husband to be Joseph, with her elderly cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah, they all become guardians of God’s promise, bearers of the Good News made flesh.

And it is the same for us, when our fears and worries get out in the way, when we can’t see what God is up to. God comes anyways.  And God bears grace and mercy for the world in us. God makes us the messengers of the Good News of God’s love and compassion for all. God sends Messiah to frightened world.

And because of what God is doing, with Mary, we can sing:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Amen. 

*Part 2 of this series is found here.

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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