The Canaanite Woman and Charlottesville

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Read the whole passage)

The early church had a problem. It didn’t know what to do with the gentiles. Within a just a few decades of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension the small but growing communities of followers of Jesus the Messiah, didn’t know if or how they could include gentiles or non-Jewish people among their ranks. This question of inclusion vs exclusion caused a lot of struggle and conflict for those early faith congregations.

Today, we continue in this long season of ordinary time to hear the stories and episodes of Jesus’ ministry. And while it may seem like the gospel stories have been conveniently arranged in way that allows us to tell the story of Jesus throughout our liturgical year… that is not the case today.

The purpose behind the story of Jesus’ and the Canaanite woman’s encounter was about addressing the gentile problem of the early church more so than our need for a collection of vignettes of Jesus’ ministry to read throughout our summer church services.

And while it isn’t all that often that the stories of gospels have distinct and significant purpose other than telling the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ, today we encounter one of the few texts that is included in the gospels for a particular reason.

As Jesus and the disciples are travelling about the countryside, they enter the district of Tyre and Sidon – Gentile territory near what we know today and Syria and Lebanon. As Jesus and the disciples a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and begins to shout,

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…”

Now it is important to know that 1st century Galilee and the surrounding gentile regions were not pluralistic and multicultural in the way Canada is today. While there were people of different ethnicities, religions, and class, their world was no a tolerant place. Jews, like Jesus and his disciples, were careful not to mix with the gentiles. They did not speak to, eat with, or even touch gentiles unless absolutely necessary. If they did, they would become ritually unclean and need to become ritually clean again.

This practice of avoidance of gentiles led to enthno-centric attitudes… what we would call racist today. Gentiles were often perceived to be less than human. In fact, to call someone a “Canannite” was not a description of their ancestry but derogatory term that Matthew, the gospel writer, uses for the woman (Mark identifies her as Syrophoenician or Syrian). In the OT, God was believed to had commanded the genocide of the Canaanites, and so Canaanite became the slur used for all gentiles, with the connotation that Canaanites weren’t even worthy of being alive.

The Canaanite woman’s problems were of course worsened by the fact that she was a woman… a person not even permitted to be alone in public, let alone speak to a man, let alone a Jewish man. And to top if off, the Canaanite woman had a demon-possessed daughter… and by association would be completely and totally unclean.

And so when Jesus responds to the Canaanite woman who comes to him asking for mercy… his response of calling her a dog, while sounding pretty bad to our ears, would be nearly the maximum amount of compassion that someone could show such an undesirable person under Jewish law.

The Canaanite woman and Jesus are constrained and limited by the cultural systems that existed around them. The woman lived in world where she couldn’t even be considered human by Jesus… and Jesus’ world didn’t allow him to consider this woman, seeking mercy for her sick daughter, as a human being.

And while we would like to have a smug feeling about how backward the world was with their complicated efforts to excludes and dehumanize each other 2000 years ago… we have been witnesses this week to examples of the ways in which not much has changed.
As the events of Charlottesville played out last weekend over the news, we saw the incredible and terrible lengths that human beings can go to just to exclude, denigrate and dehumanize anyone who looks different. As White Nationalists – or really White Supremacists – marched in the streets with weapons and violent intentions for the sake of a statue glorifying the racist history of African American slavery… we saw what a racist culture looks like in action. A culture very similar to what we read about in the gospel today.

Just as the Canaanite woman and Jesus were trapped and constrained by the cultural systems around them… we see how the extraordinary lengths that people go to in order segregation, excludes and dehumanize fellow human beings, trap and constrain them too. Traps them in their hatred, traps them in their intolerance… traps them in cycles of conflict and violence that never seem to end.

As the Canaanite woman comes seeking mercy from Jesus she persists. Even as Jesus insists that she is not one of the ones he has come for, not one of the children of Israel, she continues to ask for mercy.

And in what could have been a White Nationalist quoted in the news this week, Jesus says,

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”

And with that the woman should have got the message, she should have realized that she wasn’t one of the chosen, she was simply not the right colour, or religion, or gender, or clean enough or human enough to receive mercy…

But she persists still…

She persists with Jesus.

Because she has heard that Jesus is the Messiah, the one sent by God, the one who is God’s mercy in flesh, walking the streets of her town.

And if Jesus is the Messiah, than the woman’s identity doesn’t matter. This isn’t about whether or not she is included or excluded, it isn’t about whether she is the right race, wether she worships God in the right way, whether she is the right gender, wether she is clean…

It is about Jesus and what it means for him to be the Messiah.

Because God’s mercy is not based in human cultural systems. God’s mercy isn’t given based on arbitrary categories like skin colour or gender or ritual cleanliness.

God’s mercy is given outside of the systems we live by. God’s mercy transcends race, gender, class and all other divisions of human invention.

The woman persists, asking Jesus for mercy for her daughter, because encountering God’s mercy in flesh has already transformed the Canaanite woman. God’s mercy personified in Christ transforms the world simply by being recognized and known.

And so the woman reminds Jesus that there are enough table scraps for even the dogs. That in Christ, God’s mercy in flesh, there is more than enough. More mercy than the children of Israel need, and enough mercy for even the dogs.

Yet by encountering God’s mercy in flesh, by seeking out the God of Mercy, the Lord, Son of David… the Canaanite woman is no longer less than human. Or rather, Jesus and the woman come into a relationship beyond what the cultural ethnocentric rules say. Jesus and the woman are no longer defined by human categories, but by God’s categories.

As Jesus acknowledges her and finally giving her the mercy and healing she seeks for her daughter, Jesus gives this woman a place in the Kingdom. Jesus acknowledges that this untouchable woman is, indeed, worthy of God’s mercy. Because God has declared her so.

And even though her world says she is less than human, God’s mercy given for her declares that she is, in fact, a child of God.

Just as God’s mercy comes and changes the world from the outside of racist cultural systems for Jesus and the Canaanite woman, this is the same place where God is at work among us. At work in Charlottesville, in Barcelona, at work in the all the places where we try to exclude rather than include. At work in the early church who eventually included gentiles in God’s kingdom.

As White Nationalists waked the streets of Charlottesville, as religious extremists committed acts of violence rooted in the division of race… Christ comes to us. Not proposing alternate systems, not telling us that we can solve this problems of division and hatred simply by “doing better.”

Instead, as the daughter of the Canaanite woman is healed and as the woman is humanized by Jesus’ turn towards compassion… we are reminded that the solution to our problems of race and religion can only be solved the One who comes to us from the outside.

We can only experience true mercy when God’s mercy in flesh walks our streets and frees us from systems and categories and idea that tell us some are more important, more human than others.

God’s mercy in flesh, walking our streets, comes to Charlottesville, comes to Barcelona, comes to all the places where we would try to call others less than human…

And God’s mercy in flesh, walking our streets, declares that God’s mercy is given, for us and for all.

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Why White Supremacy is a Sin

The events of Charlottesville, VA over the weekend were truly tragic and deplorable. One of the things that struck me was just how groundless and arbitrary the reasons were for white nationalists to gather for a rally. How pointless was the violence and death inflicted on people over a statue?

Even here in Canada, this kind of open display of hatred evoked a visceral reaction. To see nazis and klan members taking the streets was surreal. This is something that used to belong only in historical source footage and fictionalized movies. And yet there it was, in my newsfeed along side the regular photos of friends on holidays, recipe videos, cat pics and other news articles.

As a white Christian, I cannot help but feel outraged and shamed by the images and videos of white men who look just like me “rallied” thinking they were standing up for themselves. There is simply no excuse or moral justification for what took place in Charlottesville.

As a pastor, I struggled with how to address the events of the weekend. And I confess, that I did not re-write or change my sermon to address the issue of white nationalism (I did address Charlottesville in the intercessory prayers). But still I agreed with the many calls for pastors – white pastors in particular – to name the sin of white supremacy and racism. This article in particular named the need for pastors to speak out very well.

But one thing I noticed that was largely absent or only briefly address are the reasons why white supremacy is a sin. And while it may seem obvious to many or most people that this kind of hatred is sinful, I don’t think it is understood by or obvious to all.

In fact, I quite honestly doubt that those who espouse white supremacy and Christian faith understand why the two are incompatible. While some may choose to hate knowing that it is ‘wrong,’ I think many simply don’t understand that this hatred is, in fact, wrong and sinful.

So hopefully to add some clarity to the call to name white supremacy as a sin, here is the  why:

Sin

To begin with, we need to understand what is sin. So often we think of sins as “bad things” that we do. This is only a surface and passing understanding. To better understand sin, it needs to be more deeply understood in two ways. First, sin is distortion in our relationship with God. Second, sin is distortion in our relationships with other people and creation.

Sin is when we put ourselves first. When we put ourselves above God, trying to be God in God’s place (Commandments 1-3 in the Lutheran order). It is also when we put ourselves above others and creation, tying to be God over others and creation (Commandments 4-10 in the Lutheran order).

The sin of hierarchy

White supremacy is a sin because it elevates some people above other people for arbitrary reasons. It attempts to claim that some (white people) are more fully human, while others (people of colour) are less human. This is a violation of commandments 4-10 meant to keep our relationships with others and creation in balance. This is also a violation of commandments 1-3 meant to remind us of who is God, and that God alone defines our humanity.

The sin of trying to be like God

White supremacy is also a sin because it also tries to claim who is worthy of God’s love and favour, saying that God has arbitrarily chosen some people (white people) over others (people of colour). God alone chooses who is worthy of God’s love and favour, and God has chosen all peoples and all nations.

The sin of limiting the Gospel

And finally, the most important, white supremacy is a sin a because it tries to constrain and control the gospel, and ultimately to control and constrain God. God in Christ has declared that grace is given for all people. To restrict the Gospel or the Good News is to attempt to confine and control God, to be God in God’s place.

Trying to be God in God’ place is at the root of all sin.

The Gospel overcomes sin and death

God became incarnate in flesh to show us (all humanity) that the New Life given in Christ is given for all people. And there is no ideology based on arbitrary differences (like skin colour) that can constrain that Good News.

And in the face of racism and white supremacy, the Good News is that Christ is not controlled or restricted by white supremacists (not matter what they claim) or any others who would claim to limit Christ’s saving act of dying on the cross and rising to New Life so that New Life may be given for all.

The Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection is something that God has given to all peoples and no one can change that.

So as pastors and other leaders in faith continue on through this week and into next Sunday naming and condemning the sin of white supremacy, my hope is that we also take the time to say why.

Because in saying why white supremacy is sinful, we also remind people that God’s love, mercy and grace is given for all.

The scary thing isn’t sinking, but walking on water.

Matthew 14:22-33

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him… (Read the whole passage)

What a quick turnaround from last week. As we go with the disciples into the stormy waters, we have and they have just been feeding the masses with Jesus. With five loaves and two small fish, Jesus fed the 5000 and there was enough for all.

Yet, within moments of enjoying a feast with the great crowd, Jesus sends the disciples  in a boat to the other side of the lake, while goes by himself to pray. And then follows one of the most famous stories in the bible, where Jesus while walking on the water, invites Peter to walk on water with him.

As the disciples are out on the water in a storm, it is not the first time these experienced fisherman have found themselves in bad weather. The first time in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was with them in the boat. With but a few divine words he calmed the storm and the fears of the disciples.

So this time, as the storm comes upon the hapless group of Jesus’ followers, they are not afraid of the wind and the waves. Instead, it is the apparition of Jesus on the water that brings out their fears. They are not certain of what or who they see. Some think it is a ghost.

Jesus approaches the boat and calms the disciples fears. “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”. Jesus calms the disciples, who are storming within, by speaking words that alleviate their fears. But Jesus’ words to the disciples are reminiscent of words spoken to another disciple. As Moses approached the burning bush, the Lord God told him to not be afraid. And Jesus echoes the name that God gave himself. When Moses asked the burning bush by what name should he call the one who was sending him to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God said, “Tell them, I AM who I AM sent you”.

Jesus invokes the same divine name. Jesus words to the disciples from the side of the boat could have been translated, “Take heart. I AM. Do not be afraid”.

The disciples realize, this is no ghost. This is God at the side of the boat, walking on the water. But Peter still has some questions… is it Jesus? And I can walk with him?

Now I don’t know about you, but getting out to walk on the water does not seem like the obvious thing to do in this situation. The disciples are sailing in the middle of storm, and this is the moment that Peter decides to see if he can also do what Jesus is doing. Maybe Peter would have been smarter to start with multiplying some bread and fish into enough food for thousands…disappointed dinner guests, and not drowning, would be the worst possible outcome.

Yet, Peter steps out. In the hopes of meeting Jesus on top of the water, the hopes of having the power over creation too.

Most of us are probably not as daring or foolish as Peter… but at the same time, there are moments in our lives and in our faith where we are compelled to step out of the boat. To take a risk, to chance losing everything. Whether it is a individuals or as a community of faith, there are moments when we have to stop worrying about the worst possible outcomes and see what happens on the waters, outside the safety of the boat.  We are faced with trying something new, venturing into the unknown, exploring places we wouldn’t have dared go before.

Peter’s question is the question that we all must ask before stepping out of the boat. It is the question of identity. Who will meet me on the other side of this great risk? Who am I to take this risk?

So many of the sermons preached on this text tell us that if we want to know the answer to that question, if we keep our eyes on the one walking on the water, than we will not drown or sink. Just have enough faith, and everything will be alright. Just take the risk with faith, and walking on water should not be a problem.

But the difficult part of stepping out of the boat and stepping into the unknown is that we do not know where we will end up. We do not know what is on the other side.

Peter steps out of the boat… and in a way, he shows us what indeed almost always happens to us in those moments of risking it all.

We sink.

Stepping out of the boat is to sink.

Stepping out of the boat means is to get wet.

Stepping out of the boat means we will need to be saved.

The drama of the story is that when Peter steps out onto the water and he begins to sink. His risky choice seemed like it had potential, and it seemed to be going well at first. But Peter does what we so often do. He self-sabotages. He becomes afraid of the unimportant things, not the water, not sinking, not the lack of a boat under his feet. He is frightened by the wind, by something that should have no impact on his ability to walk on water.

And how often is this what we do too. When trying something new begins to work, we become not afraid of failure but of success. We stop wondering whether we will sink, but what it means to discover that Jesus did actually invite us into something new and different. Something that means we will be forever changed…  Like Peter, we let the inconsequential sink us. The wind, the thing that is a sign that we are on top of the water is what makes us sink.

Yet, just as Peter begins to sink, “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter.”

You see, this is part of the story where we finally find out who we are. Where we finally find out who it is that is calling to us from the other side of boat. Jesus knows very well that Peter will sink, but Jesus still says, “Come”. Before Peter steps out of the boat, he wants to know if it really is Jesus walking on the water. But once he begins to sink, Peter knows exactly who he is calling to, “Lord, Save me”.

Inside the boat, we forget who we are and who Jesus is. But on the outside, with the water rising quickly around us, we know that we need to be saved, we know that only Jesus is the one – the ONLY one – who can do the saving.

Hopping over that edge and onto or into the water is a part of life. As human beings, as communities of faith, as sinners in need of saving, we need to hop over the edge every so often. We need to discover what it is like to be on the outside of the boat, to experience the unknown and to find out where we are going.

But in the end we will always sink. In the end there is always the wind, the thing of little importance that we can blame for our fear of succeeding, our fear of change and newness.

But even as we sink, Jesus is there. Right there, immediately grabbing us by the hand and pulling us from the stormy waters.

Jesus is right there knowing that our problem is not wind, nor the water, not the missing boat. Jesus knows that we are our own problem… but Jesus also knows that we will never save ourselves. And so Jesus pulls us out. He doesn’t make the wind go away, or throw us backwards into the boat, or even tell is to stop waling on the water… Jesus brings us through. Jesus pulls us out of sinking death, into unexpected new life on top of the water. New Life on the other side of risk, on the other side of the safety of the boat. New life on the other side of change and new ways of being.

That is the promise of Jesus walking on the water. That is the promise of God who says, “Tell them I AM who I AM sent you”. That is the promise of our Lord and Saviour. No matter where we are. In the boat, on dry land, or sinking like a stone. Jesus is there, reaching out to us, pulling us from the waters, saving us from ourselves, saving us no matter where we go or where we end up.

Reaching out and pulling us into new Life.

Setting aside our mustard seed dreams for a mustard bush Kingdom

Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (read the whole passage)

To consider the immensity God’s kingdom usually defies our imaginations. For those sorts of people who ponder the mysteries of life, thinking about the Kingdom of God, about heaven, is as attractive as it is frustrating. There are so many possibilities, yet few particulars. Dreaming big comes pretty easy for most of us. We are taught to dream about the future at an early age. “What do you want to be when you grow up? A Hockey Player, an astronaut, a rock star, prime minister or maybe all of the above! But the motivation to dream big doesn’t end in childhood, but rather it is ramped up and stakes are higher as we grow older. Imagine life with that new car, with that new house, with no debt, with a wealthy retirement, with that new and better paying job.

We like our big stuff in this part of the world. And to dream big about the Kingdom of God, about Heaven is fair game. To imagine a lavish wedding banquet, or a cloudy paradise where friends and family greet you, or perhaps dozens of golf courses all empty and waiting to be played on nice sunny days.

There is no shame in dreaming big, and yet there is the inevitable downer of not having these dreams realized, of our hopes and dreams always and only being only hopes and dreams. All too often, our expectation, our anticipation is of something big and exciting happening in our lives. We spend a lot of time waiting for the next mountaintop experience by simply glossing over the rest. Weekdays are for getting us to weekends, school is for getting us jobs, jobs are for making money to spend on weekends and to save for retirement… retirement is about waiting to die? I hope not.

Jesus presents us with a scandal today, but we may have glossed it over waiting to get to the good part. For Jesus, the Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like a treasure small enough to bury in a field, like pearl only worth a lowly merchants wages, like a net that catches fish. For Jesus, the Kingdom of heaven seems to be nothing like we have imagined it. The Kingdom of heaven is more like these mundane and trivial objects, than the great golf course we imagined. We almost should ask, “What are you talking about Jesus?”

But Jesus is the one who has asked us first, “What are you talking about?” Jesus sees through our dreaming, and addresses us at our deepest insecurities, at our fears. Our fears that are hidden by our dreaming. Our fears about what we are capable or incapable of accomplishing in life, our fears about our futures, our fears about death. The Kingdom God is stripped from our dreaming and replaced with something that we don’t like, something that we want to avoid. Jesus names and points to the Kingdom of God, right here in the mundane boringness of everyday life.

Jesus’ examples of the Kingdom of God challenge everything we have been taught. It challenges each incidence where we were asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “What school do you want to go to?” “Where do you want to retire to?” Jesus’ proposal about the Kingdom is not the way we are supposed to imagine things, it challenges our constant future orientation, our glossing over of the present, our displeasure with reality. For to imagine a Kingdom of God in the future is to deny that this world has much meaning and importance, this unsatisfying existence is not what our selfishness nature desires. And for Jesus to see the Kingdom of God in small, inconsequential things is to go against our desire for always something bigger and better.

And yet, when Jesus names the Kingdom right here and right now in the world, it changes and transforms this reality that we are constantly wanting more from. The world becomes something that we do not expect, something that we have never anticipated or dreamed of. It becomes God working among us.

To see this small thing, this small mustard seed is to see the Kingdom of God at work. What Jesus is getting at today, indeed, initially challenges our dreams of bigger and better. But once we those dreams are set aside, we see that what Jesus is describing is a dream much bigger than we can imagine. It is to see God’s Kingdom right here among us, right here among in the unsatisfying and undesirable conditions of life. Right here among us turning the tiny and trivial into life changing and life altering experiences.

God’s Kingdom comes to us in the present, it comes to us where we are. And it comes in forms that we do not expect, in ways that we cannot imagine. It comes to us in the flesh of Christ, in God as a lowly human being. It comes to us in small seeds, hidden treasures, and fishing nets. God’s promise of love and grace for us small and insignificant sinners will be made known the Baptism that we will see this morning. In the Holy Bath that we all share, in simple water that changes who we are and that makes us members of the Body of Christ, of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus says today, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds bringing about the fullness of God.

There is life in the Wheat and Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (read the whole passage)

Most of us know the annoyance that weeds cause in gardens and lawns and even fields. Weeds steal energy, water and resources from the plants that we placed purposefully in our gardens. Weeding is probably one of the more joyless parts of maintaining our plants and gardens. Pulling those prickly, finicky nuisances that seem to do anything they can to stay in the ground is not fun.

And so when we hear Jesus tell the parable of the Wheat and Tares or wheat and the weeds, we can identify with the experience of the servant who wants to get the weeding done.

Yet, as anyone who regularly walks down neighbourhood streets knows keeping and maintaining gardens, in particular the weeds, is an individual approach as anything. On the street that we live on, the gardens, flower beds and lawns of our neighbours vary wildly. There are some lawns and flower beds kept impeccably. Hardly a blade of grass out of place, not a weed to be seen. And then there are others where the weeds and grass seem to be growing in harmony… and growing tall. The contrast is noticeable when there are next door neighbours with these two extremes of garden and lawn styles. A golf green lawn next to a patch of wild grass and weeds.

This tension sits at the heart of the parable of the wheat and weeds. The crops have been planted, the wheat is growing… but so are the weeds. And the servant and the master have very different approaches to deal with this tension. The slaves of the household wants to get down to weeding. They want to purify the fields, get ride of bad and unwanted weeds right away, resolve the tension that they are experiencing… but the master wants to wait. Let the wheat and weeds grow together, for in pulling up one you will destroy the other.

Now of course, when we slow to think about it, this parable is not about wheat and weeds. Jesus isn’t discussing gardening philosophies.

But nor is this parable about the explanation that Matthew puts in Jesus’ mouth either. This isn’t about the weeds being like the evil ones of the world who will be thrown into the fire, or about the good wheat being gathered into heavenly grain bins.

In fact, the explanation to the parable about what the wheat and weeds are seems to have missed the point.

The point just might be the tension.

We are not good at living with tension.

The master says to leave the weeds be, but we are most often more like the slaves who want to get down to weeding. We don’t do well with tension because we would rather get to resolution. Its why most TV shows tell a complete story each episode, and why cliffhangers frustrate us so much. It is why most music is careful to end with resolving notes, a song that ends without sounding finished feels wrong. It is why we want to get the weeding done, instead of letting the weeds grow with the garden… the tension bothers us.

But the tension extends far beyond gardens and into our lives and work, into our relationships and even into our faith. We don’t like it when things we perceive as good and bad, right and wrong, exist at the same time in the same place. We don’t like weedy things infecting our wheat.

As Matthew attempts to unpack this parable by telling us what it means, he puts it in terms of faith, or more specifically faith communities. As faith communities, we know that we need to welcome new people, to try new ways of doing things, to open ourselves up to new life and the places it could grow among us… yet, new people can feel weedy to us, new ideas and new ways of being can feel like they are taking our limited energy and resources… new life can feel like it is choking our life out.

How often do we turn down new ideas because they are too weedy… they seem like they will just take energy and life from us like weeds?

How often are we concerned only about whether we will get a fruitful return, a wheat crop as reward for our efforts? How often do we weed out potential new members to our community because we expect them to be wheat instead of weeds?

How often does new life in our midst need to be a bit weedy… need us to sacrifice some of our own resources, our soil, our water, our energy in order to let the new life take root among us?

We really do struggle with with letting the wheat and the weeds co-exist, especially as people of faith. We struggle with the tension, of living in the grey areas, and not being able to define our world in the terms of good and bad, right and wrong.

And yet the tension, the place in between good and bad, right and wrong, even life and death, is where so much of our faith rests. It is the grey ares where God seems to show up, in the places where wheat and weeds are growing together.

God comes to us a king of creation, yet born as a nobody peasant in the backwater town of Bethlehem.

God comes preaching good news, but to the lost, least and forgotten of the world.

God comes to save us, by dying on a cross.

And so we are sinners yet forgiven and righteous.

And so we find our lives by losing them.

And so we are made alive by dying in Christ.

And so God chooses to love us, even though we should be unloveable.

The master tells his servants to leave the weeds be, leave weeds because pulling them out will uproot the wheat.

The master tells the servants to live in the tension, because that is where life can grow. The weeds will steal from the wheat… but both will grow. The tension is the place where life grows.

It is the same message that God gives to us, that God proclaims in and through God’s church.

Come you who are sinners, to this community of people made righteous. Here your sins are forgiven.

Come you who are suffering, to this community of healing. Here you will be made whole.

Come you who are hungry, to this community of bread and wine. Here you will be fed.

Come you are dirty and unclean, to this community of the washed. Here you will be cleansed.

Come you are who are dead, to this community of life. Here you will be raised.

The tension is the place where life grows.

Here is the thing… just as wheat fields without wheat doesn’t exist in reality, there is no community of people without sinners, without suffering, without hunger, without being unclean, without death.

The Master knows that the weeds are always part of the growing, all part of the fruit producing. The Master knows that the weeds are a part of life.

And God knows that it is in the grey areas that life is found.

God knows sinner meets righteousness in the grey area of forgiveness.

God knows that suffering meetings healing the grey area of mercy.

God knows that death meets life in the grey area of resurrection.

And so the Master says to us, let the weeds be. Let the bad grow with the good because it is in the grey areas that life is found.

The parable of the sower – The soil is not the point

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. (Read the whole passage)

This is one of my favourite readings. For my installation service in my second call, I chose this parable as the gospel lesson. I just love the idea of a sower or farmer planting seed with wild abandon, willing to imagine and see if seeds will grow – even in the unexpected places. The excitement of potential, the willingness to see possibilities seems so hopeful.

And yet, anyone who knows anything about modern farming, knows that this kind of hap hazard seeding is not how things are done. These days GPS plows make for the maximum use of soil, air seeders measure density and plant at the optimum places. Good soil maximized for productivity, seed isn’t wasted and poor soil avoided.

But ancient farming, while a little more low tech, wouldn’t have been much different. In fact, isn’t that the point Jesus is making. A good sower knows where to seed and where to avoid just wasting valuable seeds on soil that won’t produce.

Yet this parable that Jesus tells, describes a sower who is not so efficient and careful with his seeds and soil and planting techniques. This farming style seems crazy to us and to the crowds listening in Jesus time. This haphazard sower who scatters seed anywhere, draws our attention to the different kinds of soil. To the hard packed soil of the paths, not unlike gravel roads or waking paths. We hear about rocky soil with no depth to it. Soil that is in amongst the thorns and thistles. But perhaps the most interesting soil of them all is the soil that gives 30 or 60 or 100 fold return. These kind of returns from good soil are almost unimaginable. In fact, anything that gives even a 30% return is almost unheard of in life. Anyone with a savings account knows that a 30% interest rate is crazy.

And so as soon as we hear Jesus talking about these incredible returns, we want to jump right to part where we figure out how to be good soil. We want to separate those who are bad, hard, inhospitable soils from those who are good soil. We want to see ourselves as the good soil, we like the ability to categorize and label, to judge and condemn. This lens of productivity is one we know well. It is one that all 3 gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, give with their telling of this story. If we want to be productive, we need to be good soil. If we want to be righteous, we need to be good and faithful.

Yet, we know that this kind of productivity just isn’t realistic, we know that this really isn’t the way the world is. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know that life is full of unpredictable, unexplainable, and unknowable outcomes. We know that sometimes the people with strongest faith, those who are gentle and kind, those who are most vulnerable sometimes receive the hardest lot in life. We know that suffering and sin doesn’t really seem to follow a pattern but rather happens to us at random. We know that there are those out there who seem to have an easy and blessed time with life, who get all the legs up without really trying or even when they don’t seem to deserve it.

And when it comes to hearing the word as Jesus says, we know that much of the time we are much more like the hard, or rocky or thorny soil than the good soil. We we all wish we could pray more and pray better. We all wish that we gave more to the church, more time and money. We all wish we could share our faith more easily, that we could tell our friends and neighbours just why this place means so much to us, that is when we ourselves find the time to come.

But we don’t feel like good soil… we can see and feel in ourselves what we know to be failure. We can see and feel the rocks, the thorns and the hardness within us.

In the parable, we get caught up in the business of the seeds and the soil. We like to imagine the details of where we fit. And we are struck by the reality of what it means to be soil, good or otherwise.

But the parable isn’t about seeds or soil. Jesus gives us the clue right at the beginning.

Jesus says, “Hear then the parable of the sower”. This parable is not about soil, it is about the sower.

Not about us.

But about God.

About this sowing God who seems radical, haphazard, and all over the place. God whose seeds end up everywhere.

When Jesus explains this parable, he never encourages or exhorts anyone to be good soil or good seed. He says that the parable is about the sower. It is about the one who owns and works the fields, the one who owns and plants the seeds. This parable is about a God who is willing to see that there is possibility even in the rocky, hard, shallow and thorny soil. Even knowing that the seeds may not grow in poor conditions, God scatters and plants anyways.

This parable is about God who declares that the hard packed soil, the rocky soil, the thorny soil and that dark, nutrient soil… God declares that all these soils are acceptable. All these soils are good enough to sow. Good enough for the Word to be scattered on.

The sower seems to be scattering seed, knowing that it probably will not grow, but seeing the possibility that it might. So are we the soil or the seeds in this parable? That part isn’t clear. And maybe it doesn’t matter if we know where we fit exactly. What this parable does show is a God who has decided to scatter grace, mercy and love in all directions. This parable shows a God who has decided to scatter on the rocky, the shallow, the thorny soil and the good soil. It is a God who is wants the Word of the Kingdom to be heard everywhere and anywhere. It shows a God who is determined to let this creation, these seeds and this soil, to let us know, that we are cherished and loved, imperfections and all.

This sowing God is showing us that the lenses of good and bad soil that we see the world through are not how the sower sees. The productivity of the soil does not determine the whether the sower sows. Whether we are good and holy, whether we are hard, rocky or thorny… these things do not determine whether God loves.

The sower sows because the sower has decided to scatter the seed. God gives God’s word of grace to us because God has decided that we are God’s beloved. And there is no amount of fruit that we can bear or fail to bear, no good works that we can do to earn or sins that we separate us from God’s love and mercy.

“Listen!” Jesus says, “a sower went to sow…” and with those first few words gives us the good news. The good news that God has decided to love us, no matter whether we feel good enough or not. Because God’s love is given because God has declared it is given – for us.

Reformation 500 – The Next 500 years for Lutherans, Protestants and the Church

This year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous act of nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st.

This act is considered by many as the beginning of the Reformation.

For Lutherans, Martin Luther’s particular witness to the gospel of Christ forms the basis of our confession and understanding of the Christian faith.

So as Reformation 500 approaches this year, Lutherans all over the world are commemorating the anniversary (as opposed to celebrating) and we are trying to include brothers and sisters of other denominations, particularly Roman Catholic, where possible.

As I attended the National Convention of the denomination in which I serve, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, we have been asked to consider what the next 500 years will bring for Lutherans, and all Christians.

This question has been rumbling around in my mind for a long time and in a renewed way this 500th anniversary year.

This is not an easy question to answer. It is deeply related to the biggest struggles of European and North American churches, most notably it relates to our experience of decline. Before getting to what I think the next 500 years will hold for us, the issue of delcine needs to be addressed.

Humans have this habit of thinking that what just happened will continue happening indefinitely. We, in this North American context of Lutheranism and wider Christianity, have been experiencing churches that are dropping in membership and attendance, budgets that are getting bigger while giving is shrinking and the average age of those still in the pews and contributing is getting older. And because this is our most recent experience we assume that the future holds more of the same.

But this is actually a really poor prediction model.

Let me put it in different terms.

50 years ago, the same kind of convention that I attended for my denomination would have looked like this: The-American-Lutheran-Church-Constituting-Convention_2-18-13

Now imagine going to someone standing in that crowd and telling them that in a mere 50 years, that the 3 or 4 Lutheran bodies that each look like the above picture will be merged together and look like this when they gather:

19800617_10159029420640541_3990159967040986153_o
Photo Credit – https://www.facebook.com/CanadianLutherans/

Thousands reduced to less than 200.

Those people back in the 50s and 60s would have laughed and laughed and laughed… But this is where we are now. So what would make people today laugh and laugh and laugh… not a prediction of more of the same. But perhaps a predication that churches will be filled once again… filled with a new spirit and new vitality that we would have never dreamed or imagined. It won’t be the 50s again, but it will be something unexpected and new.

You see, we also have to think back 100 years to gain perspective. Much of North American Christianity looked similar to where we are now. There were some large and thriving groups, but lots of small communities barely able too keep up buildings, barely able to pay pastors, barely able to fund seminaries or missionaries or wider church structures. Many church groups were marginal to larger society and many churches didn’t make it and were lost to history.

But think about it, society was in a time of great transition. Conflict was the story of global politics (WW1), immigration was high (settling the western part of the continent), new technologies were changing the way people lived (electricity, telephones, automobiles, modern medicine etc…). And it remained messy for nearly the entire first half of the 20th century.

But this chaotic situation eventually led to many, many people seeking a truth greater than themselves, finding solace in the promises of a God who was in control when the world seemed ready to end, finding comfort in faith despite the rapid pace of new technology constantly changing the world.

We don’t have to think about our current world situation very long to see the similarities, to see that our political and economic world which once seemed to provide a stability for people to live their lives on, is turning into an instability that is only going to get worse before it gets better.

Most predications that I hear about the next 500 or 50 or 5 years tell us that decline will simply continue indefinitely and we are just going to have to accept that.

I don’t.

I don’t think that the antidote to decline is to simply be better sales people for church with flashiest and shiniest features to entice largest slice of a shrinking pie of interested people into church.

I think the church is about to be one of the few places of hope that many people will have to turn to in our increasingly chaotic world. I think that some political leader may just push that red button (and no it will not be like an apocalypse movie) or some aspect of climate change will be pushed over the edge, or some hacker will decide that it is time to empty everyone’s bank account… or most likely I think that through difficult struggle and resistance the average people of the world – who are sick of living under systems that privilege a small few – will decide this is not acceptable anymore.

And a paired down church will have to be ready. Ready to welcome the masses who have no where else to turn for hope. The masses who no longer rely on the invisible forces of the world (governments, international organizations, corporations and civil society) to care for them.

Over the coming years and decades, as most church leaders anticipate more decline, the world is going to surprise us. The world is going to surprise us by needing what the church has to offer.

Let me offer and example.

In 2015,  the National Church Council of the denomination that I serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada wanted to challenge our church body to 4 different ways of commemorating Reformation 500. We were encouraged to raise $500,000 for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), to provide 500 scholarships for students in Jordan and the Holy Land, to plant 500,000 trees and to sponsor 500 refugees.

As the story goes, the intial idea was the above with one fewer zero on each number. But a particular council member said, “let’s slap a zero on these challenges.”

Of course the council did not expect us to meet those goals, but swinging for the upper deck was better than just going for a base hit.

Two years later, we have raised 150,000 for the LWF (3 times the pre “slap a zero on it goal”), we have provided 160 scholarships (3 times the original goal), and we have planted 80,000 trees (almost two times the original goal.

But here is where it gets interesting.

Since 2015, and with several months to go before Oct 31, we have sponsored 540 refugees exceeding the “slap a zero on it” goal and more than 10 times the original goal!

How did we do that?

Well just a couple months after our 2015 national convention, the body of a young Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. A boy who had been denied entrance to Canada. A boy whose tragic death mobilized the world. 

So did we meet our “slap a zero on it goal” because we are a church of expert refugee sponsors? Hardly.

But rather the world needed what we had to offer. Which was communities small enough to care for families who needed help, but large enough to mobilize enough money, furniture, and volunteers to settle newcomers in our commmnities.

All we needed to do was let our anxieties about decline die just long enough to see that God was bringing about tangible new life through us. God is using us for real resurrection.

It is in this intersecting place that a declining church meets a world in need of hope.

The decline of North American churches in the past few decades is not a never ending trend. But I do think God is using this time to help us shed our baggage. God is letting us struggle so that we can get all the wrong fixes and solutions to decline out of our system. So that we can try trendy music and flashy tech and hip pastors. So we can try to reincarnate the knitting groups and service clubs and curling bonspiels of the past. So that we can get all the complaining and shaming of our family, friends and neighbours over with. So that we can see that nothing we come up with will be the solution to our problems.

God is letting us experience decline long enough to finally die to our memories and nostalgia of the glory days and realize that the only thing the church ever had was the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. All we ever were at our best are communities grounded in Christ’s new life given for us.

To be honest, I think in many ways the next 500 years for Lutherans and for North American Christianity will look a lot like the last 500. We will continue to be communities where the gospel is preached and where the sacraments are administered. Sometimes we will be strong in number and power. Other times we will be weak and marginalized. But in the end, neither of those realities matter.

That God is answering all the sin and death in the world with resurrection and new life proclaimed in churches just like us does.

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An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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