Why people are looking for “Church” in places other than Church

Figuring out what non-churched people are looking for is an agonizing endeavour for most church leaders. Churches everywhere are trying things that will draw in new people. Yet, in some of my more cynical moments, I wonder if churches actually offer anything that most people are looking for.

You have to be pretty deep into the weeds of spiritual exploration to be looking for what a Lutheran church is offering. You have to be interested in a rich tradition, heavy with its history, theology and ritual. You have be interested in the structure, patterns and rhythms of liturgy. You have be interested in a biblical understanding that goes deeper than the Sunday School idea of “good people go to heaven and all the people I don’t like go to hell.”

I have had the sinking feeling for years that in our world of reality TV, streaming music, mindless Facebook scrolling and other intense yet mind numbing forms of media, most people don’t even give a thought to the idea that church, being part of a Christian faith community (especially a declining mainline one), is something that they need in their lives. 

But then the other day I heard something curious on the radio. It was an interview on The Candy Palmater Show on CBC Radio. She was interviewing a superfan of the Tragically Hip (for those that don’t know, the tragically hip is nearing the end of their last tour as lead singer Gord Downie has announced he has terminal brain cancer). Candy asked this superfan what his emotions were going to be like when he attended his last (21st) live concert and he said,

“This is church for me, and this is the last time I get to go.”

I was half listening to the interview at the time and this woke me  up and started my mind racing.

My first thought was, why isn’t church “church” for this man?

But my next more important thought was that maybe people are looking for what church has to offer.

You don’t have to look very far to see that people all around us are flocking to things that bind them together. The Tragically Hip for many Canadians is an exmaple. The Olympics and cheering on athletes from around the world these days are undeniable church-like (not to mention Christ the Reedmer standing above the whole thing). Sports, politics, music fans, etc… people are gathering around shared interests – no, things they believe in – all over the place.

People want to be part of groups that come together around a common belief or common cause. People want to be a part of something bigger than they are, with others who feel and think the same way. People are looking for places to be church all around us.

So why aren’t people finding “church” at church?

American Christians have this expression that I have noticed becoming increasingly common lately. I have seen it on social media, in videos, and while travelling to the US.

When church people experience a group coming together around a common experience (around terrorist attacks or police shootings, for example), and there is an emotional and moving aspect of being together, people will say, “That’s church!” (said with a southern drawl).

This is almost never in reference to actual church.

It is almost as if our desire and need for “church” isn’t found at church.

The world around us (church people) is increasingly not seeing church as a place that does what church is supposed to do. Churches have stopped being places where people can come together under a common cause, a common belief or creed. Churches are less and less places where people are tied together simply because they believe in the same thing.

How did that happen?

Well, I have a theory.

A few months back I wrote about how many churches have become like soccer teams who no longer play soccer, but who simply gather for coffee and donuts. And as members decline, the chief concern has become who is going to make the coffee and buy the donuts. So when people are looking to join a soccer team come to us, and we ask them to be in charge of the coffee and donuts, they don’t stick around.

Being focused on coffee and donuts goes deeper than just not playing soccer anymore (or not having that Jesus guy be the centre of our faith communities).

My theory is that the reason so many un-churched, de-churched and even church people are no longer finding “church” at church is that we have made the focus of church ourselves. 

Worrying about who is going to make the coffee and buy the donuts, is really a worry about ourselves. What we are really worrying about is who is going to take care of us. Who is going to worry about us. How are we going to keep being us when us is declining.

The problem with worrying about us is that there is no room for people who aren’t us.

Put another way, Tragically Hip fans always have room for more Hip fans. There is always room for more people to cheer on athletes or sports teams, to support politicians and political parties, to be fans of something together. There is room for the whole world to gather around the Olympics.

There SHOULD always be room for another person who wants to follow Jesus with us. But so often churches are looking for people to care about the survival of us instead of following Jesus. And  when us is defined by who is already here rather than the common larger-than-us thing that draws people together, there isn’t room for more us. There isn’t room for more church members when our biggest concern the survival of group that is already exists here.

People are looking for “church” all around us. Faith leaders, church leadership and church people should take more notice. People are looking for experiences and communities that are gathering around something in common, whether it be a band, sports team or political party. They are looking for church as it is supposed to be, being tied together by a common belief in something or someone bigger than us.

But people looking for “church” will not find it in communities whose chief concern is the people who are already there. In fact, you will never find “church” in a group that has already decided that you aren’t part of the group before you even arrive.

Perhaps it is time it for congregations and faith communities to do some soul searching and decide, are we going to be church or are going to be “Church?” Are we going to gather around the group of people that we already are, or around Jesus who calls us to make room for more?


Where do you find “church” in your life? How can churches do “church” better? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Who said it? Jesus or Donald Trump: Olympics Edition

Luke 12:49-56

Jesus said, “…Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: (Read the whole passage)

Wow… Jesus is on a roll today. We have been making our way through the teachings, parables and ministry of Jesus for a number of weeks now, and so far we have heard familiar stories like Mary and Martha, the Lord’s Prayer, the Good Samaritan.

Last week things took a turn for the less familiar, but at least Jesus seemed much nicer, ‘Have no fear little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.’

But today we get some of the harshest words Jesus has in the gospel of Luke.

And yes, they make us uncomfortable. Jesus isn’t supposed to speak this way, Jesus is about uniting and bringing people together right? Not about setting people against each other. Jesus sounds almost like Donald Trump with all these talk about division and doom. 

And the difficulty with this passage from Luke is that there isn’t some neat trick of context that explains what Jesus means. It isn’t like the verses before or after explain what Jesus is really talking about. This passage on division comes in a chapter where we are given quote after quote strung together will no real details or information connecting them to each other.

I don’t know about you, but when some gun toting christian on some cable news show quotes this passage as justification for hate, violence, intolerance, and yes, division, it makes me want to curl up and hide under a rock. It is one of those passages from the bible that you almost wish wasn’t there. But it is, and it get used as justification for some Christians to be jerks. “Do you think that I have to bring peace? No, but rather division.” And a lot of embarrassing blowhards claiming to speak on behalf of all Christians say this passage shows that Jesus would be an assault rifle carrying bigot were he to come to today.

And so the question becomes, what do we make of this divisive Jesus? Where does he fit with the loving, compassionate, and caring Jesus that we know?

Of all the places and people who could perhaps offer and explanation to these strong words from Jesus today, it was a late night talk show host talking about the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games that provided me some insight.

In HBO’s John Oliver’s recap of the opening ceremonies, he showed a portion of IOC president Thomas Bach’s speech where he said, ‘In this Olympic world, there is one universal law for everybody. In this Olympic world, we are all equal.”

Sounds like the usual lofty speeches that get made at Olympic games.

But John Oliver, who was having none of it, replied,

“Okay, that is simply not true. If that were the case, you wouldn’t need to have an olympics. The whole reason we do this is to find out, who is better than everyone else, so that we can make them stand higher [cue photo of athletes on a medal podium] than the other people who are not as good as them. Because the point of the games is not to celebrate equality, but individual’s excellence.”

(Language warning)

Cheeky, but he isn’t wrong.

As I have been watching my fair share of olympics this week, I haven’t been spending much time cheering on the athletes destined to come in last. It is the ones who win medals, who come in first, who defeat the rest of the competition who are the focus. Everyone knows who Penny Oleksiak is the week, but does anyone know the name of the Canadians who didn’t place in archery, or shooting, or judo, or race walking, or discus or other sports where our country isn’t competitive?

The Olympics in some measure are a safe way for nations to go to war with other nations without dropping bombs or sending soldiers, they are hardly about equality.

And this is where the Olympics and John Oliver gives us insight into what Jesus says today. 

Sometimes our rhetoric, the fancy words and ideals that people throw about in the name of unity and equality don’t really express or name reality.

The reality is that we are human beings are compelled by conflict. We live to fight, it is in our biology – the reptilian parts of our brains are primed to override rational thought in order to Fight, Flight or Freeze when the opportunity aries. And Jesus know this. Jesus knows that sunshine and roses is not what the world is about. Rather that our world is full to conflict and division and sin and suffering and death. And these things are what catch our attention, these are the things that are the foundation of our established orders, these are the things we use to categorize and understand ourselves and our world.

And so when Jesus, God in flesh, comes to meet humanity on our turf, it has to be in the midst of division, because that is where we live as human beings. You will notice that Jesus doesn’t say that he has come to CAUSE division, but simply that he BRINGS it. Division will follow Jesus wherever he goes, because Jesus is going into the human world.

And Jesus is coming into our world, with a message. A message about God, and God’s love for us, and how God is turning our world upside down.

And Jesus represents a threat. A threat to the established orders, to the conflict and division that we love so much, a threat to making people stand higher than those who are not as good as they are. Because in God’s world everyone is equal, and there wouldn’t be an olympics because the medals and podiums would be not be for the first, but for the last. And those in first would be about as interesting to us as those in last are in our world.

And so today Jesus brings division. And yes it sounds terrible and probably makes us uncomfortable… but it is also what we know. And we are uncomfortable because we realize that Jesus really does know us, and knows that conflict and division is where we live.

But Jesus’ words also make us uncomfortable because they aren’t plastering over our conflict and division, our olympic battles with lofty rhetoric about equality and unity. Jesus words instead tell us that  God is coming into our world, to find us, and this will cause real division. Because God is going to change everything. God is going to change us. Change us with love and compassion, with true equality and true unity. 

God is coming to change us with the good news of Jesus in our world, division and all.

Amen. 

Do Not Be Afraid… of Discipleship

Luke 12:32-40

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.(Read the rest of the passage)


We are getting into those long summer days now, where finding a nice patio to sit on, or a shady tree to sit under with a cold drink, a good book and lots of sunlight and gentle summer breezes is about as good as life can get. As Canadians know, we like to put life on hold in the summer as much as we can, to enjoy the warm weather. School, sports, work, hobbies, and other activities are suspended as much as possible while we do whatever summery things we can fit in to life.

So when Jesus offers advice about being prepared and on guard… it is hard to get into the spirit. He gives us different images: Give away your possessions. Pull up your sleeves. Attend to your house for the coming of the Son of Man. Keep watch and wait… These aren’t normal summer activities. They don’t really fit our summer schedule of afternoon naps and long evening sunsets.

While we don’t read this today, Peter follows up Jesus’ commands with a question. He says out loud what many of us are thinking,  ‘Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?’ Like a good Canadian in summer, Peter is hoping that these commands to be diligent are not specifically for him, but more of a general warning, a take it or leave it kind of idea.

Peter makes a good point. Are these commands really for us? Is it even possible to do fulfill all of these demands? Giving away all our possessions just isn’t realistic in today’s economy. Waiting up all night for the master to return from a wedding banquet… well that image is outdated because none of us are slaves. And protecting our house from the thief is what locks, guard dogs and alarm systems are for. It is like Peter is saying, “Come on Jesus, the Olympics are on. Can we we just give the discipleship talk a rest for a few days?”

Jesus throws so many images at us that its easy to get lost in them. They are overwhelming and sorting through the meaning of each one may or may not provide answers. To figure this out we need to step back, take a breath and consider what the big picture is.

When it comes to faith and sorting out how all this God stuff applies to us, we are quick to look for the tasks that we think we need to do to make God happy. What do we need to get out of the way, so that we can get on with life, so that we can get to the real business of summer? This is at the root of Peter’s, and our question. If all these demands really do apply to us, what is the fastest and easiest way we can get them finished. How many times do we need to come to church? How many prayers do we need to pray?  How much money should we give? What else do we need to do to make Jesus happy?

We hope that completing the assigned tasks will satisfy Jesus, but that isn’t really what he is getting at today. Its not about the details, is not about breaking down faith into tasks and to do lists. The impossible demands that Jesus lists are just that — impossible. Faith is not something that can be reduced to simple instructions that we follow. Rather, faith is that relationship that finds us and grabs on to us. Faith comes from our gracious God who claims us and marks us in baptism. God pulls out of the details and our need to just complete the tasks that make God happy, and God does it with the first words that Jesus speaks today.

Do not be afraid. Words that echo throughout the bible. Words that always come before the announcement of the good news.

Do not be afraid. And we are standing with Sarah and Abraham as God calls them to be the mother and father of a nation.

Do not be afraid. And we are standing with Daniel as God promises to be with him in a foreign land and even in a den of lions.

Do not be afraid. And we are standing with Mary as she is told that she is pregnant with the Messiah, and that he will be Emmanuel — God with us.

Do not be afraid. And we are standing with the disciples in the upper room hiding in fear, and Jesus appears among us bringing peace, showing the holes in his hands and the mark in his side.

Do not be afraid. And we are standing here, and Jesus is telling St. John, that it is the Father’s pleasure to give us the Kingdom of God.

Its easy to overlook these first few words at the beginning. Its easy to get stuck with the details, stuck with trying to figure what exactly it is that Jesus is telling us to do.

Do not be afraid, these words, always accompany God’s promise. Do not be afraid. They come to us in big moments, important moments of faith. Moments when God is going to change the world. When God turns everything we know on its head. Do not be afraid, God speaks these words to us in moments that are confusing and terrifying, moments that give hope in the darkness. Moments when all seems lost and destroyed. Moments of promise that remind us first and foremost that God is doing something amazing in our world. Do not be afraid.

With these words, Jesus’ impossible demands to give ALL we have to the poor, to be ALWAYS on guard and ALWAYS watching for the return of the master, and to be CONSTANTLY alert for the unexpected coming of the Son of Man… with these words, Do not be afraid, Jesus reminds us that all those instructions coming next have less to do us and more to do with God.

And even more we hear today in this place that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom… whether we are ready or not. God gives us a treasure more valuable than any and all possessions: Grace and forgiveness… whether we are diligent or not. God comes from the heavenly banquet to bless and serve us with water, with bread and wine… whether we are watchful or not. As the Son of Man, God is breaking into our world, into our lives… whether we are waiting or not.

God pulls us out from all these impossible details. And in the midst of sunny days and olympics, Jesus says yes, these words are for you. Do not be afraid, for it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom!

Amen. 

Bigger Barns, Rich Fools and Refugees

Luke 12:13-21

And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Read the whole passage)

We have been hitting a highlight reel of the gospel of Luke lately. We have heard very well known and familiar stories like the story of the Geresene Demoniac and Jesus exorcizing the demon called legion. We have heard the parable of the Good Samaritan. We stopped in for dinner at Mary and Martha’s. We learned the Lord’s Prayer along with the disciples who wanted to know how to pray.

But today, we step off the highlight reel to touch on a much more taboo topic. No, not sex. Not even politics, despite all the news about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Today, Luke has laid upon us the issue of money and how we value it. The way we understand money and wealth in the Church has a varied history. Some have said that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Others would say wealth that is not used to help the poor is one of the greatest sins imaginable. Either way, money and its place in our lives and world elicits strong feelings for all of us. We know that money holds power over us, and we also know that putting money in its place is something we struggle with.

Jesus is standing in a crowd teaching his disciples when two brothers come forward and ask Jesus the teacher to settle a dispute over inheritance. Inheritance was a complicated issue in the ancient world, like it is now. The eldest son of the family received a double portion of the wealth, compared to other sons. And the assets, the land, the buildings, the servants would belong more the clan or tribe than the particular  landowner.

But what passes us by quickly, is that most people wouldn’t be landowners in Jesus’ day. Most people were day labourers, or might have been lucky enough to have the skill to make something to sell. Landowners were wealthy, and often they were the economic drivers of a community. Their land produced food, jobs, provided places to live. They were responsible for their communities.

So when these two brothers are seeking to divide their inheritance, it is possible that they will be dividing a whole community. The estate that they look after together might not be able to adequately provide for their community once divided. But the two brothers, aren’t thinking about that. They are probably thinking about controlling their wealth themselves.

And so Jesus will have none of it. He refuses to arbitrate their dispute as a respected teacher.

Instead, he offers a scathing parable about greed.

Often in Biblical parables, the rich are portrayed as having acquired their wealth in unethical, even illegal ways. But the farmer in today’s parable has done nothing wrong. He does not steal, or cheat, or break the law. He simply is the owner of land that produces abundantly.

In fact, the farmer’s wealth is not at issue in the parable. It is what the farmer says that seems to be the problem. Listen to his words: “I do, I have, my crops, I will do, I will pull down, my barns, my grain, my goods, I will say, my soul, Soul you have ample”. In the short 3 sentences that this farmer speaks, he makes reference to himself 10 times. It is easy to see that this farmer is rather self-centered, and that he sees the land and grain as belonging to him.

Yet, the land would truly belong to his family. His wealth would then belong to his community and all of his relatives that would be working the fields along with him. But our farmer only considers storing his grain — his wealth. He does not consider other options like providing for the poor, giving his workers a bonus or sharing with relatives whose land did produce as well.

The farmer in this parable is a caricature. He is the extreme version of our human instinct to create security for ourselves.

We know very well the thought process that is being outlined in this parable. In times where there is even a small amount of extra, saving it for when there is not enough is important. Today’s farmers could use some harvests with extra, some years when next year’s crop wasn’t already being used to pay this year’s.

It isn’t the actions of the farmer in this parable that are brought into question. Rather, as God demands the life of this wealthy farmer today, the issue is about the proper place of money in the world. It isn’t just that those big grain barns won’t do this farmer any good once he is dead. But more importantly, that storing all this grain, all this wealth hasn’t done anyone any good.

Who is remembered at a funeral for the size of their grain bins? Or house? Or wardrobe? Or bank account? Or car collection?

Jesus is making a point not just about the next life, but about this one. This absurd farmer and all his wealth has missed an opportunity to build something far more valuable than money and wealth. The farmer has missed what it means to build relationships with people.

People are more valuable than any amount money. Full grain bins mean nothing when there are people starving next door. And yet our world routinely chooses wealth ahead of people. Our world is full of overflowing grain bins and starving people.

This week, our church and our community was blessed with a powerful reminder of how easily people can be forgotten in our world, and how the economic systems, and political systems around us often put money and the things money represents – power, influence, security, – ahead of people.

On Wednesday night, the Red River Churches Refugee Team welcomed 7 people to our community. 7 people whose earthy possessions and wealth could fit into one small suitcase, not each, but for all 7. Even my daughter who not even a month old, has more stuff than can fit in one suitcase.

And yet, these 7 sudanese refugees represent more than a reminder of how people are easily forgotten for the sake of money and wealth. They also show us what it looks like when we do put people first. They remind us that bigger bins for our grain, for our stuff is not what we need or the world needs. They remind us instead of how God sees us.

When Jesus scolds these two brothers for wanting to divide their inheritance, it is because when he looks arounds his world is full of people just like our new refugee family. People whom have been left behind by the world in our struggle to have more money and wealth. People who are forgotten by those with riches. People who could benefit from some of that extra and abundant grain.

But it isn’t just that Jesus reminds these brothers and us that those with more than enough can afford to share with those with not enough. But Jesus reminds us that ultimately, on the night when our life is demanded of us, that we too are refugees with nothing. All the wealth and money and power and security in the world means nothing in the face of death.

And how lucky are we, when we forget the proper place of money and the value of people, that God does not. That God places people above money, wealth, power and security. That God is willing to give up all those things for our sake. How lucky are we that God is into refugee sponsorship in a big way? That God welcomes and provides for us, for us with nothing to offer, with nothing of true value to our names. God gives us the most valuable name of all – beloved child.

And if we were to retell the parable that Jesus tells today, but with God as the main character instead of an absurdly rich landowner, it would sound very different:

Then [Jesus] told them a parable: “The land of God produced abundantly. And God thought to Godself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then God said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and instead of building larger ones, I will give my grain and my goods to those who are hungry, to those who are in need. And [then] I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods to feed all who are hungry and all who are thirsty; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But then sinful humanity said to God, `You fool! This very night you will be betrayed’ And God said, “Then take my life, take my body broken for you. Take my blood shed for you.”

And then Jesus explaining this new parable said, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God, for God does not store up treasures for Godself, but has been poured out for you, and is rich towards all.

Amen.

Why ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Don’t seem to Work

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”(read the whole passage)

Sermon

For every prayer that is offered around the world today, there must be an equal amount of opinions and ideas, rules of thumb and conventions, that tell us how prayer works. Ask, seek, knock. Ask and keep asking. Seek and keep seeking. Knock and keep knocking. Pray boldly and you will receive. You need more faith to pray. You need to pray more. You need to pray for God’s will. You didn’t pray enough and you were punished with illness, suffering or death. Prayer brings us closer to God. Prayer doesn’t do anything. Prayer is for us, so that we know our needs. God hears the prayers of holy people more, especially pastors. God hears all prayers. God only gives us what we need. God will give you what you ask for. There are three answers to pray, yes, no and maybe later. Prayer is like meditation. God speaks to us in prayer. You have to pray from the heart, you need to pray with words that have been prayed by the faithful for centuries.

Lost and confused yet?

Prayer is a key aspect of Christian life. We pray together each Sunday, we pray alone.  We pray for many things here: for rain and sunshine. For Justice and peace. For those who are ill, who are grieving and in distress.

And still prayer can be a very frustrating aspect of Christian life. We want to know the hows, and the whens and the whys. Prayer carries with such expectation that it has the power to make things happen, and yet… we have prayed for and with those for whom prayers have not been answered. We have all had prayers that are not answered. And it begs us to wonder what use is prayer, and perhaps more painfully, why God does not hear us.

The disciples ask Jesus how to pray. And he gives them a mouthful.

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

It sounds familiar, but not quite. Of course it’s the Lord’s prayer, but not quite the one we remember. There is no earthly will of God mentioned in Luke’s version, but it is an earthy prayer that gives us a foundation. The Lord’s Prayer has grounded Christians for 2000 years. Daily bread, forgiveness of sins and salvation from trial and temptation.

This prayer is so engrained in us that we pray it without needing to think… like breathing. It becomes part of the most basic aspects of our living. Its a prayer that goes with us through life from beginning to end. A prayer prayed at baptisms and prayed at funerals.

Yet, the disciples surely were not hoping for a prayer like this. They maybe wanted one of the cool ones like Jesus would pray. When Jesus would look to heaven and bread and fish would multiply, or dead children would be raised, or demons would scatter, or the sick, blind and lame would be healed, or when a man who had been a corpse for four days would rise up from a sealed tomb. The disciples, 70 of them, had been just sent out and had been healing and casting out demons in Jesus name. Yet, like us, they probably wanted to control such power, not for it just to happen without really knowing why. They want to know the trick, the formula to prayer.

We want prayer to be the same as rubbing a magic lantern. We hope that prayer can gives us wealth and happiness. We hope that it will save us from harm and heal everyone who is sick. Or at the very least, we all wish that prayer and its effects would be something we can measure simply and easily. But it isn’t… Jesus doesn’t do simple and easy.

With yet more shootings in Baton Rouge, Miami and Munich this week, we have heard politicians and other leaders stand up and offer ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ for victims and families. It is starting to feel like an empty phrase. Every time there is yet another horrendous act of violence, thoughts and prayers abound, but nothing seems to change. It makes us wonder, if all this praying is doing anything at all. It makes us wonder if there is a point to praying at all.

When the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, it may seem like they are looking for some angle on power, on the ability to get stuff from God. They might be looking for what so many TV prosperity gospel preachers are offering.

But they might also be more like us and how we feel about prayer. They might be asking Jesus how to pray, because for them, prayer feels empty and powerless.

And so Jesus offers them a place to start, a beginning. Jesus give the disciples instructions on how to achieve great things in prayer, but how to start and begin.

Daily Bread, Forgiveness, Salvation from Trial.

God’s Kingdom come.

Jesus shows them that prayer doesn’t achieve the results but begins the process.

Praying for Daily Bread doesn’t feed all who are hungry.

Praying for Forgiveness doesn’t reconcile all peoples.

Praying for salvation from times of trial, doesn’t alleviate all suffering and pain.

Praying begins those things. Prayer is the starting place.

To put it another away, what would it look like if we didn’t pray the church, the world and those in need.

How many refugees would find new homes if we didn’t pray for displaced persons week after week? None. Yet ELCIC congregations, including ours, have helped to sponsor over 250 refugees just in the past year.

How many congregations would run food banks, serve at soup kitchens or offer meal programs if we didn’t pray for the hungry week after week? None! Yet, churches and people of faith have been the primary feet on the ground for feeding the hungry for years, decades, centuries!

Would we will be able to offer forgiveness if we didn’t pray that God would help us forgive? No we wouldn’t. Yet, as we ask for forgiveness, God shows us how to give forgiveness.

Where would we turn in times of trial, if we didn’t pray that God would save us week after week? We don’t know. Yet, as we pray that God would deliver us, God reminds us that we do not face the trials of our world on our own, but together as the Body of Christ.

Prayer is the beginning. In Prayer God reveals to us all the places where God’s Kingdom comes into world. In prayer, when we pray for daily bread, for forgiveness, for salvation from time of trial, we see that God’s Kingdom is breaking into the world with food for the hungry, with mercy and forgiveness for sinners like us, with salvation for those suffering under the shadow of death.

But even more than that, God gives a way to speak about the needs of the world in prayer. God gives us words in prayer to speak about the hungry, the poor, the suffering, the dying without it sound like a depressing new report. Instead, prayer allows us to see where God is already at work meeting the needs of the world, and God gives us words to express this reality in prayer.

Prayer is a starting place, when we so often treat it like the end point. Prayer helps us to see where God is at work in the world, where God’s Kingdom is coming.  Prayer helps give us the language to talk about the needs of the world without being overwhelmed and depressed like we are watching the news.

And so when we wonder with the disciples about whether prayer has any meaning or purpose, Jesus shows us that prayer is the starting place. The starting place to see God in our world. When another politician or leader or Facebook post offers “Thoughts and prayers” for something and we wonder if that does anything to help… Jesus shows us how to begin in prayer, how to begin with daily bread, with forignvess and salvation from trial.

Jesus shows us that in prayer God’s Kingdom begins to come.

Amen.

The Gospel of Avoiding Triangulation

Luke 10:38-42

But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” (Read the whole passage)

As we continue through the summer, we are rolling through the scenes from Jesus’ ministry. Healings, exorcisms, forgiveness, parables and more. Last week Jesus challenged the young lawyer’s views on what it means to be saved and who our neighbours are, by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan whom we found out is not someone we are supposed to be, but who God is. The one who comes to find us and rescue us from the ditch.

Today, we take a break from ministry and work. Instead, Jesus goes to dinner. Dinner with his friends, Mary and Martha. These two sisters have have become icons and symbols of hardwork, effort and busyness on the one hand and reflection, attentiveness and faithfulness on the other.

Jesus is waiting for the meal to prepared, something we have all done in the living room of someone else’s house. Presumably Martha is not just cooking for Jesus, but for his disciples, and maybe even Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother too. This is probably a big job to get the meal ready. And Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he has to say. Martha is annoyed that her sister is not helping cook the meal (we will just leave the fact that she isn’t mad at her brother aside). So Martha comes to Jesus and tells him to set her sister straight and send her into the kitchen. And then we get this famous line from Jesus: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Mary and Martha can become two of the ways we categorize and label each other in the church. This week, church members from congregations across the interlake gathered together in Arborg to talk about ways that we can work together in the midst of declining membership and resources. The leader of the meeting began with a short bible study on Mary and Martha. We were asked to self identify as either one or the other. Martha was understood to the be do-ers of the congregation. The ones ushering, folding bulletins, pounding in loose nails, planting flowers, making coffee, keeping things neat, tidy and clean.

But Mary… well, Mary was a little harder to define. But we assumed Mary was understood to the be the ones interested in faith, in learning, thinking, praying. The ones at bible study, looking for books on spirituality, asking questions about faith.

Once all the hands had been raised, there were a lot more self-identified Marthas than Marys.

I wonder why that is in the church?

 

There is something universal about these two women aren’t there? It is easy to see ourselves in either or even both. Yet, the way this story is told, there are two opposing approaches to hospitality, to faith, to being in community.

But two things about the story of Mary and Martha has always bothered me. 

The first is that Martha seems to get an unnecessarily bum rap from Jesus. Sure she is frantic and whining when she could take it a bit easier. But Jesus seems to have no sympathy.

The second is that despite Jesus’ emphasis on the value of Mary’s choice to slow down and listen, we tend to value Martha’s work ethic above Mary’s desire to learn and grow.

And I will confess, for a long time, I didn’t know what to do with this story… particularly, Jesus’ apparent scolding of Martha.

But then just a few weeks ago, I read something that put this story in a new light.

Jesus’ issue with Martha is not her work ethic or busyness. While he does say that Mary’s desire to learn and grow in faith is good and important and something to value. Jesus is setting a boundary with Martha. A boundary about being drawn into her conflict with her sister. When Jesus’s pushes back against Martha’s request, is not because he is judging her choice of activity. Jesus is refusing to be drawn into a conflict between two others. If Martha has a problem with her sister Mary, she should take it to Mary directly. Jesus is refusing to be triangulated. 

Usually, the good news sounds like Jesus healing, forgiving, exorcizing demons, raising to life, rescuing us from the ditch of sin and death. Yet, while it may sound odd, Jesus setting a boundary is good news too. Jesus refusing to be triangulated is good news too.

When Jesus sets a boundary refusing to be drawn into our drama, it means that God is free from the burdens our of conflict, the burdens of our sins, the burdens of our suffering. God is free to let go and forgive. God can act to take hold of us and care for us. God can respond in a way that we need, rather than the one we want.

When Jesus refuses to be triangulated, it means that God will not be distant from us, that God makes no obstacles for our salvation, that God does not operate through intermediaries. Rather God deals directly with us. God does not talk about our salvation with someone else, but deals directly with us.

When Jesus refuses to get involved with Martha and Mary’s issue today, Jesus is showing us something much more important about how God deals with us. And that is directly.

God speaks to us directly through God’s word.

God washes us directly in the waters of baptism.

God feeds us directly in the bread and wine of the Lord’s supper.

God saves us directly, not through works or laws or prayers or righteousness.

When God saves us, God just saves us. 

Today, we might wonder if we are Marys or Marthas, we might feel like both.

But there is no question about how Jesus deals with us. Directly.

Amen

The Good Samaritan vs. #AllLivesMatter

Luke 10:25-37

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

To begin with a moment of honest confession: with baby number 2 two arriving on Wednesday, I had planned to lessen my preparation load this past week by preaching a sermon that I wrote 6 years ago on this passage of the Good Samaritan. It was a good sermon that challenged the ways in which we look at just what the story of the Good Samaritan is about.

It was a good plan and a good sermon.

But then guns, and racism, and violence and death broke out.

Then Cyril Weenusk, a visitor to Winnipeg coming to bring his father to the hospital, was beaten to death in downtown Winnipeg for no apparent reason.

Then Alton Sterling, an unarmed black man was pinned to the ground under two police officers and then shot and killed in Louisiana.

Then another black man, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a cop in front of his girlfriend and her 4 year old daughter, during a routine traffic stop.

And then 5 police officers were shot and killed in Dallas during a protest of the violence, by a troubled man upset by the state of race relations in the United States.

And then all of a sudden, it was impossible to hear this parable of the Good Samaritan, a parable about violence, about race relations, about the debate between #SamaritanLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter, about what it means to truly be a good neighbour, and not to think about the events of this week.

In fact, the parable of the Good Samaritan has already been told to us in many different ways this week, and the questions it raised in Jesus’ day, continue to be raised in our world.

A young man, a religious lawyer or expert in religious law is having a conversation with Jesus about what it means to be saved, and when Jesus tells him to love his neighbour as himself, the man wants to confuse and blur the lines of the issue, “Who is my neighbour?” he asks.

Jesus responds with a parable about a man taking the dangerous journey from Jericho to Jerusalem – a rocky, downhill road that requires a traveller to leave the safety of Jewish territory. It is an ideal place for bandits, and along the way, the man is beaten, robbed and left half-dead.

And then a temple priest passes by the man. The priest is not heartless, but rather makes a considered ethical choice. He chooses the good of the many over the good of one. If he defiles himself to save this one half-dead man, he will be unclean for 7 days an unable to help scores of people obtain forgives in the temple.

And then a Levite passed by the man. He too is not heartless, but rather makes the same considered ethical choice, as he too is a servant of the greater good.

But then a Samaritan comes along. The Samaritan is a heretical jew, because he worships God in the wrong place. And he would not be concerned with ritual purity, because Samaritans were considered unclean anyways. Yet, despite the bad blood between Samaritans and Jews, the Samaritan stops to help. He goes the extra mile and makes sure the half-dead man is taken care of by an innkeeper.

The story is meant to challenge ideas around who is our neighbour, but also the systems that lay at the foundation of our society. This parable isn’t about telling us to be Good Samaritans, and telling us not to be priests and levites. The parable questions the assumptions and ethics that are buried deep within our society.

As police officers encountered Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, it wasn’t a heartless merciless instinct that led them to shoot these two men. Rather it was something worse. It was an ethical framework that told them it was not even worth ten seconds of second thought before shooting. It is the ingrained belief that allowing for even the question to hang in the air about whether a black man may or may not be dangerous is simply not worth it. The police officers made the same decision that the priest and levite made. It is better for the half-person before them to die, than to risk their ability to serve.

As a gunman in Dallas decided that he wanted white people and police officers to die, he was suffering from the same ethical framework embedded in our world. He was suffering under the idea that somehow some lives were more valuable than his, that it was okay for him to try and inflict as much damage as possible to even some kind of score. That his half-personhood was worth a certain and violent end in order to get as many full persons a possible.

The tragic reality of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that it is not the moral lesson we usually think it to be. Instead, it is a mirror that we can hold up to see the broken state of the world. There are bandits who would rob and beat a traveller on the road to Jericho, there are bandits who would kill a traveler on his way with his father to a hospital in Winnipeg. There are important privileged people who are compelled to walk by the suffering of others for the sake of the greater good, those who under a banner that says all lives matter, easily impose a hierarchy valuing some lives more than others in the name of good social order. And in the world of police shooter and vengeful snipers, being a Good Samaritan is maintaining the status quo and systems that oppress some and privilege others.

But the grace-filled reality of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that it is not the moral lesson that we usually think it to be. Instead, it is a lens that we can hold up to see God’s action in the world. There is God who comes along to rescue and save a half-dead traveller in the ditch, there is God who says that random, senseless violence does not define us. There is the God of all power and might, who gives it up to come and find us in the ditch, and who doesn’t make distinctions between greater and lesser good. The Good Samaritan is not who we should aspire to be, but who God is.

We can never be the Good Samaritan. God is always the Good Samaritan.

Back at the beginning of the story, before Jesus tells the parable, a young lawyer stands to ask Jesus what he must to do inherit eternal life. And this question points us back to the heart of what this parable is about. The parable tells us about God’s response to sin and death in our world. And when we listen closely, the parable sounds more like this:

“Humanity” was going down from “The Holy City” into “the night”, and fell into the hands of robbers or racist cops or vengeful gunmen, “into the hands of Sin and Death” who stripped “Humanity”, beat humanity, and went away, leaving humanity half dead. Now by chance “Power” was going down that road; and when he saw “Humanity, “Power” passed by on the other side. So likewise “Privilege”, when he came to the place and saw “Humanity” passed by on the other side. But “the Grace and Mercy of God” while traveling came near “to Humanity”; and when “Grace and Mercy” saw humanity, “she” was moved with pity. “Grace and Mercy” went to humanity and bandaged humanity’s wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then “Grace and Mercy” put  humanity on “her” own animal, brought humanity to an inn, and took care of humankind. The next day “she” took out two denarii (silver coins), gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of “humanity”; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is not a moral lesson on good works, but a description of the injustice, suffering, sin and death that seem to control our world, that seem to control us.  When the news tells us of sense violence and death, of the sins of racism and injustice, of revenge and tragedy, we can see ourselves in the man beaten and left to die.

But ultimately, the parable shows us how God comes into our broken world, with mercy and grace. And what God does in our world, only God can. God rescues us from the tragedy of random violence and suffering. God meets us where power and privilege can never go. And God finds us in the ditches of sin and death to bring us into healing, and new life.

Amen. 

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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