This story is not about hand washing

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

(Read the whole sermon here)

Sermon

This story is not about washing hands.

After a 5 week detour into the Gospel of John to hear the story of the feeding of the 5000 and then 4 more weeks of conversation about the bread of life, we are rudely dumped back into Mark’s gospel.

John has been giving us gentle rolling theological poetry of Jesus, hoping to unravel and expand our understanding of God.

Yet, as we are dumped back into Mark this morning, it is kind of like being woken up by a harsh alarm clock in the middle of a great dream.

Mark is not about expanding and unravelling the story of Jesus. Mark only gives us the minimum of details. He wants us to wonder. If we aren’t wondering what on earth is going on after hearing a passage of Mark’s gospel, we aren’t listening.

So be forewarned, this story is not about washing hands.

(Pause)

A few months ago, when the Bishop moved her office to St. David’s and made it the cathedral, she also made Father Angelo an archdeacon and put some of her duties on his plate, in addition to this role at St. David’s.

During he first week in his new role, Father Angelo received a phone call from a frustrated priest, serving in small rural congregation outside the city.

The priest was upset because her congregation hadn’t been attending the programs she had started in the parish.

(Pause)

Today, Jesus and his disciples are just minding their own business while they eat lunch. Some of the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem had come down to see what Jesus is up to, probably hearing of the crowds he had been drawing.

And when these Pharisees and scribes see that the disciples are eating with unwashed hands, they begin to make a stink about it with Jesus. And Jesus is not impressed.

He berates the accusers of the disciples: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

Then Jesus goes on to name an extensive list of sinful behaviours and concludes with this gem: “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

We left the philosopher poet of John behind last week, and this week we get Mark’s angry lawyer-like Jesus, who is sticking it to the Pharisees and scribes about what it is the really defiles.

But lest we forget, this story is not about washing hands.

(Pause)

While on the phone with this frustrated priest, Father Angelo thought back to his first parish. He recalled being at a congregational meeting where sign up sheets were being passed around for two very different things. The first was from him to see if people were interested in having a weekly bible study. The other was was sent around by one of the property committee members. It was for mowing the cemetery lawn during the summer months.

When his bible study sheet came back to him, three names had been added to the list. But when the lawn mowing sheet passed him by, it was full. And it had only been through half the room.

He recalled how discouraged it had made him at the time.

(Pause)

This story between Jesus and Pharisees is not about hand washing.

The judgemental question -slash- accusation that the Pharisees make about hand washing is what sets Jesus off on his tirade about the things that truly defile human beings. And while his response is to swiftly condemn the things that truly defile, hand washing is only the pretext for the Pharisees, the reason they give for their judgement is not the real reason.

If they really cared about hand washing, they would have stopped the disciples before they started eating. Or at the very least their question to Jesus would have been, “Why are they eating with dirty hands, that can make them sick?”

Instead, the Pharisees and scribes are asking about something that is not really about hand washing.

“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders?”, they ask.

Jesus is upset because first of all the Jews believed that the law had been given to them by God through Moses. The Pharisees are placing their faith in the elders and ancestors.

But not just that. The Pharisees have a confused understanding of faithfulness. They are trying to be faithful by appearing like they follow the rules, by being faithful to their ancestors and they way they practiced their faith. The Pharisees have intermingled their faithfulness and their understanding of being good, righteous and faithful Jews with being faithful children, with being good, righteous and faithful descendants.

They live in a world that values staying the same. They learned their way of life from their parents, who learned from their parents, who learned from their parents. And they learned that it is important to refrain from change. The way of life they know is what worked for generations before them, what right do they have to change it?

And while washing hands among the other rules of ritual cleanliness were first instituted as a way of keeping the people of Israel safe and healthy – the rules were meant to be of service to humans beings – the Pharisees had become servants to the rules.

Faithfulness was no longer about living in right and healthy relationships which each other, with creation and God.

Faithfulness, righteousness, knowing that you were in right standing with God was now about keeping the rules, the rules that made your parents, and grandparents and great grand parents righteous too.

(Pause)

After hearing the frustrations of a priest and her non-participatory congregation, Father Angelo did his best to encourage her.

After he hung up his phone, he thought back to his first parish full of eager lawn mowers. Since the parsonage was just down the road from the cemetery, Father Angelo made a point of heading over to the chat with whomever it was who was mowing. And over the course of the summer, he discovered that the people of his parish didn’t actually love hauling their lawn mowers in pick up trucks and trailers in order to mow the grass. But he did hear family stories and hear about family relationships. He heard the history of the community. He learned which tombstones were for the relatives of those mowing.

And he discovered as misplaced an attempt as it was, mowing the lawn was how his people tried to be faithful. And knowing that, he was able to begin helping his people to be faithful in new, more God-centred ways.

(Pause)

Even while Jesus lectures the Pharisees about what truly defiles them, he is challenging how they understand righteousness, how they understand the way that they are saved, how they understand the ways they are faithful.

The Pharisees think it is following the rules handed down generation after generation is what makes them faithful, is what makes them worthy of being forgiven and loved by God.

It goes without saying that this is something that people of faith, that church communities, that we struggle with too. Ask any couple bringing their child for a baptism why they want their baby baptized? Not one will say it is because through Water and the Word we are made children of God receiving God’s tangible sign of forgiveness, life and salvation. No, they will mostly say they are coming because it is what happens in their family, it is just the right thing to do.

It is very easy for us to lose sight of big picture. We can get stuck in ruts and fear change out of a sense of loyalty to our ancestors, forgetting why they did the things they did in the first place.

And so when Jesus challenges this idea that following the rules of the ancestors is not what earns us forgiveness, life and salvation – that being good rule followers is not why God loves us, we have to wonder… what does make God love us?

God’s love for us is not earn or achieved. God gives us love freely.  Washing our hands or having our babies baptized doesn’t earn it. Mowing cemetery lawns or keeping the faith of our ancestors unchanged doesn’t make us righteous.

In fact God’s love for us has nothing to do with those things. It has to do with who God is and who we are. It has to with God loving us because we belong to God. It is the love of the creator for the created, the love of a parent for a child.

Jesus’ challenges our understanding of faithfulness so that we don’t have to live put to the faithfulness of our ancestors. We don’t have be good Christians because our grandparents were. We are loved by God first and that is what makes us good.

Today’s story is not about washing hands.

Today’s Jesus is telling us that what we do, or don’t do doesn’t earn God’s love. That our faith in the traditions of the ancestors won’t save, nor make us righteous.

Only God can do that.

And clean or unclean, defiled or undefiled, faithful of ancestors or failing them, God chooses to love us no mater what.

Amen

5 Reasons Why Underpaying Pastors is Poor Stewardship for Congregations

The topic of clergy pay is a touchy one at best. Churches, pastors, denominational bodies all have vested interests in how clergy are paid… but sometimes those interests aren’t always aligned.

Determining what is appropriate pay requires that a number of questions be answered: How is professional ministry measured when it comes to compensation? How do you compensate someone who is fulfilling a calling? How do congregations balance shrinking membership and budgets with the need to keep clergy pay increasing, if even with just the cost of living? How do denominational bodies recommend guidelines that congregations can meet and that adequately provide for clergy?

Lately, I have heard a number of troubling comments and stories from colleagues about clergy salaries. Money troubles, like in marriages, can often be the straw that breaks the camel’s back between a congregation and pastor, and result in separation.

Unfortunately, clergy often end being underpaid for a variety of reasons, which ultimately ends up hurting the congregation just as much as it hurts the pastor who is not being adequately compensated. Going by the stories and comments I have heard from friends and colleagues surrounding pay, there are reasons that I see as being problems that will haunt congregations when they choose to underpay their pastor.

Disclaimer: The congregations I have served have always paid me according to the guidelines provided by the Bishop’s office. In my view these are fair and adequate, for the most part. I am grateful to the churches I have served for not making my compensation a big issue. 

The reasons that are often given for keeping clergy underpaid, might sound reasonable on the surface, but dig deeper and they become truly problematic:

1. “Pastors work for God, not for the money.”

It is absolutely true that almost no pastor packs up to attend 4 or more years of seminary in order to hit the jackpot as a parish pastor. Other than the handful of mega church pastors and televangelists who are making millions, most pastors earn modest, if not meagre wages.

But it is a false notion to equate working for God meaning that clergy are fine with working for free. All the clergy I know genuinely want to serve God’s church and God’s people. And they want to serve knowing that they can pay their bills, put food on the table and perhaps enjoy a meal out or a holiday away from home once in a while without breaking the bank.

The work that clergy do is NOT supposed to what earns their salary. The compensation is supposed to allow clergy a comfortable living so that they can attend to their work without having to worry about earning their pay.

2. “Pastor, the denominational guidelines are too high. You can accept less.”

I have heard of congregations negotiating one salary with the Bishop and Pastor in the call process, and the asking a pastor to accept less once they have settled into their new charge.

I cannot express how offensive this is. Clergy salaries are designed to be fair to both pastor and congregation. Asking a pastor to take less is effectively declaring that a pastor is not valued by the congregation, which is basically a non-confidence vote in the ministry.

3. “Oh, pastor ‘so and so’ never asked for raise”

This particular practice of some of my clergy colleagues infuriates me. I have heard of a number of pastors not asking their congregations to keep up with clergy pay guidelines. If this were simply a matter of the effect on one’s own family, then I wouldn’t care so much.

However, not insisting that congregations keep up with guideline salary is bad for your successor, and even worse for the congregation itself.

A congregation told me a story of how one their pastors had accepted a pay freeze during a period of renovations. The agreement was that once the renovations were complete, the congregation would “catch the pastor up” to guideline pay. I was told this was so difficult for the congregation to catch up in the end, that they made a policy never to fall behind guideline minimums again.

When a pastor accepts less than the minimum guidelines set out by a denominational body, it means the congregation becomes accustomed to a lower salary burden. And what happens when that congregation needs to call another pastor? They have to, all of a sudden, come up with thousands of dollars in their budget in order to pay the minimum. And congregations are really good making large year by year increasings in giving, right?

Worse yet, a new pastor might be asked to take a pay cut or accept less than what is supposed to be the minimum. (see point 2).

4. “Pastors get a housing allowance which is like a bonus”

Housing allowances are very misunderstood things. They originated as a means to allow congregations to provide a house that clergy could live in, without paying taxes on the benefit. Another way of looking it at was that the small salary or stipend that clergy earned (sometimes paid in chickens and garden vegetables) would be further taxed if the parish provided housing was considered a taxable benefit.

Once clergy began purchasing their own homes, there needed to be a way to make tax system equitable, regardless of the housing option a parish could provide – a home or an allowance.

In Canada, housing allowances can only be for the fair market rental value of a house up to 1/3 of total compensation.

But really, housing allowances are not benefits to clergy. They are benefits to congregations because they allow congregations to pay clergy less. If housing was taxable, congregation would have to make up the difference in take home pay by raising wages.

So to those who object to clergy receiving this benefit, I would argue that tax free housing is small price to pay in exchange for the virtually free civil services that clergy (and therefore churches) provide to their communities by performing legal marriages, by providing free chaplaincy care to many health care institutions, and by providing inexpensive or free counselling services to the community among other things. Not to mention the fact that studies show that people of faith are also the most likely to volunteer in communities and to donate to non-religious charities.

5. “Pastors should be poor and we are paying them too much already”

Another argument that makes me mad. If pastors should be poor, then so should anyone else who calls themselves a Christian. Really this is about controlling a pastor, where s/he lives, what car s/he drives, what clothes s/he wears, all in an effort to make the pastor the symbol of modesty on behalf of the congregation.

Still, a pastor who cannot afford the necessities of life really isn’t going to be effective in ministry. This argument makes no sense when considering that in many denominations, pastors have graduate degrees and as much education as doctors and lawyers. Pastors are expected to have the skills to administrate like a CEO of a small non-profit, to provide care and counselling like a social worker or secular counsellor, to teach children, teens and adults like a professional teacher, to provide event planner level organization to things like weddings and funerals, to oversee staff like middle managers, and then to provide spiritual leadership, guidance, and formation to a faith community.

The reality is most pastors could earn two times, three times or four times as much in a similar professional field with a similar education. But instead most clergy have chosen to forego that kind compensation in order to serve God and God’s church, to serve the people of God.

Ultimately, finding reasons to underpay pastors is poor stewardship

Underpaying clergy stems from a stewardship ethos that asks one person to bear an unequal share of the burden of providing ministry. It is shortsighted as it puts a congregation into a position where it won’t be able to keep up with minimum required to pay for a pastor when it is time to call a new pastor. And this poor stewardship assumes that pastors aren’t already making a huge sacrifice in order to follow a calling by taking on the burdens of student loans, of reduced pay compared to secular work and by working all overtime for free, most major holidays for free and being ‘on call’ 24/7.

When congregations underpay their pastors, it isn’t about saving money or stretching declining resources. It is about the value that congregations place on pastoral ministry. It is about the value that congregations place on their own work and following God’s mission.

The reality is that finding a way to pay a pastor less is really the first step in choosing to kill a church. Because the things that pastors do need to be done by someone in order for congregational ministry to go on. And as congregations who have been forced to make do without a pastor can attest, it is not an ideal nor a viable long term option.

But perhaps most importantly, adequately paying a pastor recognizes that ministry costs time, resources and money. It recognizes that ministry is worth the time, resources and money that is costs us. It recognizes that God’s mission for us in the world is worth our time, our resources and our money.


Does your congregation adequately pay your pastor? Do you have horror stories of being underpaid? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

On Being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church Part 2: Finding the iPhone Church

Last month, I wrote about Being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church. In particular, I mused on the concept of cultural commute – having to operate in a cultural different than one’s own. As a millennial and as a Lutheran pastor, I find myself often operating in a Baby Boomer culture. And while this doesn’t compare to the struggle of making a language commute, an ethnic commute or even socio-economic class commute, making this generational commute is a struggle. And it is one of the reasons I think millennials find the church frustrating these days.

Since writing that last post, I have been wondering what would an ‘iPhone Church’ look like.

Part of me loves the idea of serving a church full of people who are social media addicts like me. Where the bulk of our community planning and organization could happen on our Facebook page. Where ‘Netflix Binge Night’ with discussion afterwards could be a legitimate study and fellowship activity. Where I could make reference to Grumpy Cat, Walter White, #ThanksObama, Donald Trump memes, Taylor Swift and Apple without explaining memes, hashtags, Ferguson, Netflix, Breaking Bad, Apple Music… basically without having to explain the internet.

But the more I think about the ‘iPhone Church’, simply replacing the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ references with Kanye West “Imma let you finish” references doesn’t really solve the issue of the cultural commute.

One the one hand, the Church absolutely needs to be culturally savvy more than ever before because our society is more up to date and inundated with the latest news than ever before.

Just a few weeks ago, the denomination I serve in – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) – worked hard to bring our denomination up to date on current issues facing our country and our congregations.

At the ELCIC’s National Convention, our church live streamed our gathering and many delegates were using social media to share the very relevant work we were doing:

  • We addressed issues of right relationships with Indigenous Peoples by having a Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner present to us only months after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report with much national media attention.
  • We adopted resolutions on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW), Climate Justice, Restorative Justice in the Canadian Corrections System
  • We talked about decline and adapting to current cultural realities through constitutional and bylaw changes.
  • And we embarked on an ambitious 500th Anniversary of the Reformation Challenge to:  Sponsor 500 refugees to Canada, Provide 500 scholarships for Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land schools, Plant 500,000 trees, Give $500,000 to the Lutheran World Federation Endowment Fund

I have to admit, that at the end of the 4 Day convention, I was feeling like my church was working hard to address issues that are important to me and to my peers (most of whom are not church members but are very socially conscious).

So yes, on the one hand the church absolutely needs to be more culturally savvy and up to date.

On the other hand, ‘Being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church’ really doesn’t fully express just how cultural commuting is inherent to the life of the church.

Really the tag line should be ‘Being an iPhone Pastor to Typewriter members of a Papyrus Church.’

The Church has always been demanding a cultural commute of its people.

500 years ago Martin Luther was a ‘Printing Press Reformer for a Hand Copied Books Church.’

2000 years ago Jesus was a ‘Papyrus Saviour for a Stone Tablet Temple Religion.’

As church people in the 21st century, we have to realize that the good news is constantly being transmitted to us through the cultures of our forebears. Our stories of faith are told in a book that represents a whole swath of Ancient Near Eastern culture and history spanning thousands of years. Our manner and symbols of worship come from Ancient Israelite roots into Roman customs and symbols adapted by medieval culture and readapted through enlightenment, reformation and modern eras.

Our sacred stories and histories have been constantly reframed by political and secular influences. The Church has been coopted by the rise and fall of empires.

The church has been dealing with cultural commutes for 2000 years… maybe longer.

So yes, it seems trivial that the fact that Boomer pop culture references makes it hard for this millennial pastor to sometimes feel understood and at home in the church. But our post-modern world is changing so rapidly with technology that generations living today are taking in the same amount of information in a day that most people would not have access to in a lifetime even just 100 years ago.

The effect, I think, is as significant on church as the Roman Empire coopting the church for its imperial bureaucracy, as significant as printing presses making bibles and other writings widely available, as significant as scientific and scholarly advancements challenging the way people of faith understand the world and their history.

The good news is that the church will survive. It might become an iPhone Church for a while, it might then become something else. But the church knows how to survive cultural commutes.

The challenge is that knowing that the church will adapt. The challenge is knowing that we have to adapt. Boomers will have to speak Millennial. Millennials will have to speak Boomer. Gen Xers, Silent, Builders, Boomers, Millennials, Generation Z, we all have to learn to speak to each other, just as we speak with Ancient Near Easterners, with Medieval Christians, with Reformers, with moderns and more.

As an iPhone pastor, finding an iPhone church won’t really solve my issues of cultural commutes. It will just change my role and experience in the problem. Some version of Typewriter churches and iPhone pastors will always exist. The real issue will be to recognize the ways in which the dominant cultures that exist in our churches keep us from connecting with people from outside of our own experience.

And in the same way that we work to understand the cultures and speak the languages of the bible, of the ancient church, of the reformation and of our forebears in faith, we will need to work to understand the culture and speak the language of a rapidly changing world and the variety of people that make up our church communities and congregations.

Being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church requires a cultural commute… but that is simply being a pastor and being the church.


How does the cultural commute affect you? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

If the 2015 Canadian Federal Election was about doing the dishes

Canada is currently in an official Federal Election. For readers in the United States, that means that our government is dissolved and political parities are campaigning for votes. All in the longest election in decades – 78 days.

With endless media streaming at us for the next three months, I tried to articulate what the parties would be trying to do if the elections was not about security, the economy, the environment, jobs, etc… but instead about doing the dishes.

Please share!

Dirty_dishes2015 Election

Looking for the Bread King

John 6:24-35

Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”… Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (Read the whole thing)

Sermon

Five Loaves and Two fish. They just ate the five loaves and two fish that Jesus turned into such abundance, into so much for the crowd of 5000 that there was still 12 baskets left over. Yet, the crowds that have been following Jesus still want more bread. They want something more for their stomachs, something more for their hunger.

It has only been a week since we heard again the story of the miracle of the five loaves and two fish, and for the crowds wanting more bread today, it has only been moments since this miracle. Following the grand feast on the mountain, Jesus escaped to be by himself. The disciples, tried to cross back over the lake, only to be met by Jesus walking the water. And the whole way, the crowd has been stalking Jesus and the disciples. The crowds are looking for more.

Jesus tries to show the crowd a different way, he tries to show them true bread from heaven, but the crowd wants more bread. Bread that can be eaten, bread that fills their bellies. Last week the crowds were given bread and fish to eat, they were given a sign of God’s work and power right in front of their eyes. Yet today, they want more, they want more miracles, more manna like from Moses, more power to be shown and they want it for themselves. Jesus tries to turn their attention to what he is doing and what he is offering right in front of their eyes but they can only imagine God’s work on their terms. They might not exactly be certain what they want from Jesus, their Bread King, but they know they want something big, flashy, exciting and low risk.

Like the crowds who followed Jesus, we also can get caught up in a particular vision of what God’s work looks like in the world. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” the crowds ask Jesus. We like to ask our own versions of that question. What is God’s plan for my life? How can we attract people to our church? When will my prayers be answered? What can we do to make our church grow? Why is God letting this happen to me?

There are 3 things that the crowds are said to be looking for in this passage:

At first, John says they are looking for a Jesus… for a king. Someone to protect and care for them, someone to provide and entertain them.

And then Jesus accuses the crowds of looking to full their bellies. They are seeking instant gratification, to have some kind of emptiness they carry filled in the short term.

And then the crowds themselves say they are looking to do the works of God. They are looking for God on their terms, they are looking for easy access to God, some sign, some work that shows them they have found the right person to follow. They are looking for assurance.

We know what it is like to look for kings, for instant gratification, for God on our terms. We are about to enter into a election season, and we will be bombarded by political leaders saying all the things they think we want to hear. They will present themselves as benevolent leaders, seeking only what is best for us… or what is the best way to get our vote.

We know what it is like to seek instant gratification. Fast food, the latest gadgets, short line ups, speedy customer service. We want things and we want them now.

And we know what it is like to want God on our terms. As people of faith we genuinely want to be faithful… but only up to the point where it is isn’t too inconvenient, or risky or uncertain. God can ask to be disciples, as long we can do it in a couple hours a week.

As we are standing with those crowds… seeking God on our terms, seeking to have our bellies filled…

We are confronted with Jesus’ words about life. Jesus offers and then gives to us something different than that what we want. We want the Kings who say what we want to hear, the satisfaction of full bellies, we want God who is powerful yet tame.

And we want all of these things with the crowds,  while we haven’t the slightest clue that, Jesus, that God in flesh, that God’s greatest work made visible in the world is standing right there before the crowds, before us.

God is right there, before us, offering himself, and would rather find a God that fits our vision, than see God’s work right before our eyes.

And yet, despite our search God in our image, Christ stands there in our midst, offering himself to us. Offering us grace, love, mercy and compassion.

Its normal and human to want what the crowds want. It is in our nature to want a God that fits our expectations.

The crowds want a king, but we get a saviour nailed to a cross.

The crowds want bread to fill their bellies, but God gives us the Bread of life to fill our souls.

The crowds want God on their terms, but God comes to us and meets us on God terms. God meets in flesh, God meets us in Jesus.

The crowds don’t really know what they are looking for. And we so often, don’t know what to look for when it comes to finding God in our world.

But today, Jesus comes to us and helps us discover that God is right here, standing among us, pointing to the true works of the divine, to the works of God in our midst. God is not found in Kings or politicians, in fast food bread that fills us only for a moment. God is not a God of our invention. God is a God of love and mercy, a God of words of hope and promise. A God of water that quenches our thirst. A God of bread and wine that truly fill that emptiness inside of us.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We want bread, and God satisfies our hunger and thirst with body and blood, bread and wine. We want to do the works of God, and God gives us Jesus the Christ, God with us in the flesh. And despite our efforts to look for God in all the wrong places, God gives us – for free and without condition – the bread of life.

Amen. 

5 Loaves on the Water

John 6:1-21

When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Usually, when preachers come across two stories jammed together into one Gospel reading, it is a disappointment. A disappointment, because you can really only focus on one story in a sermon. And so you have to choose. Today, that choice would be between the Feeding of the 5000 or Jesus walking on the water. A story about abundance in the midst of scarcity. Or a story of a miracle meant to show us who Jesus really is.

6 years ago, this story was the text for the fourth sermon I had preached after becoming a pastor. I chose to focus on the feeding of the 5000, and to tell a story of encouragement… that despite a seeming decline in what we seem to be in as churches, that there is abundance in the midst of scarcity. That God is able to with incredible things with just a little, with 5 loaves and two fish.

And this is most certainly true… and yet, the message of scarcity and abundance feels different today. Six years later, the challenges that churches like ours are facing across the country are much the same. They have been the same for a decade or two even. Yet, the longer we struggle with doing incredible things with 5 loaves and two fish, with doing more with less as churches… maybe we are missing the point.

Maybe that second part of today’s story is more significant than it seems.

 

The story of Jesus walking on the water speaks to us today at little more directly than the feeding of the 5000. Churches probably feel a little more adrift on the rolling and windy waves and less so like we are on the mountain top dealing with the nice problem of having too many people and not enough food.

These stories of ‘Feeding the 5000’ and ‘Jesus Walking on the Water’ are powerful images on their own, but there is something about them, when taken together, that speaks to our current circumstances.

Sure the disciples were afraid of the wind and the waves as they crossed the sea, but as we will hear more during the next 4 weeks, they were also just as confused by what had happened on the mountain with the 5 loaves and two fish.

And think about it. It isn’t just the crowds on the mountain, it isn’t just Jesus appearing on the water… it is the experience of going from mountaintop high to stormy waters threatening to drag us under. If there is any part of the story that we totally get, it’s that one. It is the experience of not knowing why all those people were drawn to the mountain top, and then being tossed into the storm before sorting out what 5 loaves and 2 fish really mean.

We have been talking about decline and change for years now… and still the need for us to face these issues has never seemed more urgent than today. And it will be even more urgent tomorrow.

Yet, most of us, maybe none of us, have really had the chance to understand where we have been. We haven’t had the chance to really reflect on why the crowds came to the mountain top. The story of Lutheran churches in the past 100 years has been one of small faithful, mostly rural communities planting small churches around 100 years ago, and then experiencing incredible growth about 50 years ago and today experiencing decline.

And that is why we understand the disciples’ predicament. We know what it is like to be on the mountain with the hungry but happy crowds. And we know what it is like to be on the stormy waters unsure of where we are going or what God is doing. But we really know what it is like to come tumbling down the hill only to land in a boat set adrift on stormy waters. This is the story of Lutherans in Canada.

 

As the wind blows the disciples across the sea, they were still struggling to understand what happened up on the mountain…  and then Jesus strolls by, walking on the water.

He strolls by and declares, “I AM. Do not be afraid.”

And if the disciples haven’t figured it out yet. And if we haven’t figured it out yet.

Jesus makes it plain.

Whatever miracle was happening on the mountain, it is here in the midst of the wind and the waves that the  real action is happening.

It is here on the water that the spirit of God hovers over creation. And to underscore that point, Jesus uses that name that God gives God-self when he is speaking to Moses in the burning bush. “I AM”.

The water is where the Great I Am, where the creator is bringing about something new. The water is where God created all things and brought life into being. The water is where God delivered Noah and his family, where God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and into freedom. The water is where Jesus was baptized by John.

And as we will be reminded as Deakyn is baptized today, the water is where God first meets us.

So being on the water with the wind of the spirit blowing our boat somewhere new is exactly where God wants us to be. The mountain top is just a pit stop for us, it is not the destination. Yes, the 5 loaves and two fish can feed 5000, but most of the time they are only needed to feed five. The point is that God is feeding us, it is not about how many God can feed. The food is just meant to keep us going on the journey. On our journey where God is leading us from water to water, from bath to bath.

Jesus comes to meet us on the water, because the water is where the action happens. The water is where God is creating something new. And as scary as the water is, as terrifying as the wind can be, as much as we want to go back as figure out the bread, fish and 5000 of the mountain top, God is dragging us down into the water, and God’s spirit is blowing towards something unknown, but something new.

And, it is here on the water, here in baptism, here in the very foundations of creation that God finds us. And it is here in the stormy waters of creation that God is steering us to something new, steering the whole church, the whole body of Christ, into new incredible new life.

Amen. 

Sheep Without a Shepherd

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.(Read the whole passage here)

The crowds are unavoidable today. Throughout the gospel of Mark, Jesus has been growing in popularity with the common people, the crowds. Jesus has debated and argued with the pharisees about the undivided house, he has surprised and terrified the disciples by calming the storm, he has broken down barriers by healing both rich and powerful Jairus’s daughter and the poor outcast woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. But today, it is the crowds who finally get what they want — and they want Jesus.

The crowds are too much. They are chaotic and unrelenting. They are grabbing at Jesus and his disciples. They want more and more and more. There is almost too much to do, too many sick people to heal, too many exorcisms to perform, too many needs and too little time.

The crowds are clamouring for healing… they are demanding something from an exhausted Jesus and his disciples. The disciples have just returned from the mission that Jesus sent them on two weeks ago. They are excited with stories of exorcisms and healing, but they are also tired. And they have gotten into the boat with Jesus to find a quiet place. Yet, the crowds still follow them along the shore.

The crowds have one thing in mind. Miracles.

They are looking for a miracle from Jesus, as if he was a heavenly vending machine.

The vending machine God in the sky is an image for God that still persists today. In TV and movies, people turn to God when they need something. They offer up desperate prayers like quarters being dropped in a slot. Prayers prefaced by some admittance like, “If you are out there God, I don’t pray much, but I really need something now, so if you can just…” (fill in the blank).

This is certainly a prevailing image of God in today’s world. And while as people of faith, we would like to think we are beyond such simplistic and self-centred approaches to God… we can get narrowly focused on God too.

We can get bogged down by our need for healing, for an end to our suffering, for a fix for our brokenness. Our prayers can become self-centred and our relationship with God can become focused on relief and release from our problems. We look to God as individuals and as communities as the great band-aid dispenser in the sky.

As the crowds are desperate for Jesus today, Mark tells us that Jesus has compassion for them.

Compassion.

A word that evokes images of kindness and tender heartedness.

Compassion.

A word that is more then gentleness and caring, but that truly means to suffer with.

Jesus has compassion for them. But not for their woes and hurts and pains. It isn’t their blindness, or lameness, or sickness that moved Jesus.

Jesus has compassion for them, because they are like sheep without a shepherd.

And his response is to teach them many things.

To teach them that same message he has been preaching since first few verses of Mark’s Gospel. The oldest words that we know of that are attributed to Jesus:

The Kingdom of God is near to you. Be transformed in heart and mind and believe.

Jesus does not respond in the way the crowds were hoping. And Jesus doesn’t respond to our cries for healing in the way we hope either.

Instead, Jesus sees our individual sufferings and needs as part of a larger problem. Jesus sees how we are all weighed down by sin and death. How the blindness of one is the same as the lameness of the other. And there simply isn’t enough to heal each one. And healing in itself isn’t enough. Even the ones healed by Jesus are dead now.

Jesus’s compassion for us does not exclude a concern for our pain and suffering… but it is rooted in the fact that we are lost. We are shepherd-less. We need so much more than to be healed.

As Jesus sees the crowds pressing in on him, as tired as he is, he has compassion on them. They are like sheep without a shepherd.

They are focused on coming to God with our specific expectations. Their specific demands. Their need to be healed. Their need to be helped. Their desire to be fixed.

They can’t see Jesus beyond their problems.

And some days we can’t see Jesus beyond our problems. We aren’t just like the crowds. We are the crowds pressing in. We need a shepherd… and Jesus has compassion for us.

And that means Jesus has come to give us what we need and not what we want.

And what we need is a Shepherd who will gather us together. What we need us someone to teach us, to tell us of the Good News of God coming into our world. What we need is the intimacy and love of community. We don’t need our suffering to be taken away… because we know that it can never fully taken away. What we need is to know that we are not alone, that our suffering is shared.

And that is what Jesus’s compassion is all about. It is not a magical cure for our problems, it is a not a televangelist bopping us on the head proclaiming that we are healed.

God’s compassion is the word that cuts through our loneliness to join us to community.

God’s compassion is the water of baptism that washes, cleans and clothes us with Christ. The water that gives us new life, new life found in the community of sheep who also bear the scars and healed over wounds of life.

God’s compassion is the bread and wine of life, the meal that nourishes us for the Kingdom. The food that can only be shared in community, that is served at the Shepherd’s table for hungry sheep.

God’s compassion for the crowds and for us, even as we press in on a tired Jesus, is about reminding us that the Good News is that we are loved. That we are forgiven, reconciled, and made whole in the One Body of Christ.

As we press in on a tired Jesus today, God’s compassion means that we are no longer sheep without a Shepherd.

Amen.

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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