O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord – Pentecost for Today

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” (Read the whole passage here)

Sermon

Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.

For a significant portion of medieval Christianity, there were 4 major Christian Feast Days that all Christians were obligated to attend. Easter, Christmas, All Saints Day and Whitsun Day.

Whitsun Day is also known as the Day of Pentecost. On the 8 Sunday after Easter Sunday, 50 days afterwards, Christians gathered to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples early in the morning. On that day the disciples spilled out in the streets, with tongues of fire on them, and the preached the Good News in all languages.

It is an incredible story, a miraculous story. Pentecost has more recently become strongly associated with the idea of speaking in tongues. Pentecostals, a movement born in Azuza Street Revival in early 20th century Los Angeles have become strongly associated with Pentecost and speaking in tongues.

As interesting and perplexing the idea of speaking in tongues might be to a bunch of stayed and stoic Lutherans like us, the most interesting part of the Pentecost story comes just after the speaking in tongues part. After Peter finishes his impromptu sermon to the people of Jerusalem, 3000 people are baptized.

And with that Pentecost becomes birthday of the church.

2000 years since that first Pentecost, the church has survived much. 300 years of marginalization in the pluralistic and pagan world of the Roman Empire. The church has kept going despite bing co-opted by that same empire for political reasons. The church has survived schism, crusades and holy wars, upheaval and reformation, renaissance and scientific revolution, World Wars and Great Depressions.

Pentecost shows us the resiliency of the church, or more particularly, the faithfulness of God. This community of faith born in the Good News and nurtured by water, bread and wine is the ongoing sign of God’s great love for world. And while Acts brings us back to the beginning of this community, it is in Ezekiel that we might find more in common.

The idea of 3000 people being baptized today sounds frightening and exciting, but that is not where we are. It is not where the church or where our congregation has been at for a long time – if ever.

The words spoken by the House of Israel in Ezekiel’s vision sound more familiar:

Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.

2000 years after Pentecost, the vision that Ezekiel describes, seems to resonate a little more with us. At least the first part, the valley of dry and dead bones part.

Just this week, Pew Research in the US released a report detailing the decline of church attendance. Nothing that we didn’t know of course. Except, the report contradicts the common narrative that evangelical and conservative churches are still growing or maintaining. Attendance is dropping across the board. Declining for every group except one. The ‘Nones’ or the group the group who describe themselves as belonging to no religion.

Christianity is declining around us – our bones are dried up.  And those who are leaving are leaving for nothing – our hope is lost.

The prophet Ezekiel lived in world much more like ours than the Pentecost moment. He was a young man when Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians, the temple was destroyed and all the elites of Israel carried off into exile in Babylon. And for 5 years Ezekiel started preaching about and re-enacting the destruction of the temple. 5 years.

It took 5 years for the people to believe that the temple was gone. That the world they once knew was gone. It took 5 years to sink in that there was no going back. It wasn’t  enough to see the temple destroyed. It wasn’t enough to be in Babylon. It wasn’t enough to be conquered and forced to worship new gods. They needed to hear the story over and over again for it sink in. For them to accept their new reality.

Sounds familiar yet?

We too tell the same stories. The stories of our decline. The stories of our destruction. We lament and long for a world that is gone. We grieve for a world that we cannot go back to. And it might take us years to admit to this change, for our new world to sink in. Accepting our reality is just as hard.

Our pews will never be full of the people that filled them before. Our Sunday School and Confirmation classes will never have the students they once had. School children will never pray our prayers again. Sports, music and dance will never be banned during our worship again. Shopping hours will never be reduced to accommodate church attendance in our lifetimes. There are fewer Sunday sermons on radios and prayers at town council meetings. We will feel like we are having to make room for other religions and like we are being pushed out of public space for years to come.

Our bones are drying up, and our hope is lost.

And still,  standing with Ezekiel with the valley of dry bones spread before us, God will speak to us too.

“Mortal, can these bones live?”

Ezekiel’s responses is one of powerlessness. It is a sentiment that we understand. It is an utterance of exasperation that we speak often.

“O Lord God… you know”

50 years ago… if you had been sitting in a full and bustling church on Sunday morning, the only show in town, the place where many of your family, friends and neighbours were week after week, and the preacher stood a the pulpit and said,

“In only a few years this place will be a hallow shell of itself”

You might have laughed. It would seem unbelievable. It would sound crazy.

And yet, here we are.

Here we are with Ezekiel standing at the valley of dry bones and we are admitting, we are giving in, we are hopeless. “Only God knows what is next for us”

And God says,

“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Today… as you sit in a church with more empty spots in the pews than occupied ones on Sunday morning, as we are just one Sunday morning activity option among many, where friends, family and neighbours are rarely seen.

And the preachers stands in the pulpit and says,

“In only a few years this place will be full and alive with the spirit again”

You might laugh. It would seem unbelievable. It would sound crazy.

And yet, that is just what God is saying:

Then God said to us, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of [Good Shepherd], the whole house of [Christianity]. [You] say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, [and hear the word of the Lord for you], Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves [I am going to open your doors, open your hearts, open your communities], and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of [Christ]. And you shall know that I am the Lord [you shall know that your church does not live and die by you], when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

Today, a new Pentecost is dawning on us. Today, the spirit is blowing again in our midst. We might feel like our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We might only see a dying church… but God is about to do something new among us.

God is setting to the task of making dry bones walk. God making us ready for what is coming next for the church. And that might begin with years of telling the story of our decline and destruction. But like Ezekiel, once the story has been told enough, God will provide a new vision. Ezekiel saw a vision of the new temple and God is even today giving us glimpses of a new church, a new way to be people of faith in a changing world. It still took 200 years before the exiles returned to Israel to rebuild the temple, and it might just as long for the church. But this is how God works. God is making us ready for what is coming next.

Today the Lord says to us, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy my church, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live”

Amen.

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Everybody Panic! – Why We are All Wrong About Church Decline

Unless you live under a rock or only get your news from the Farmer’s Almanac, you have probably heard about the recent Pew Research report detailing the decline of Christianity in the US, and the rise of the ‘nones’ – those who claim no religious affiliation.

Predictably, people are up in arms. Bloggers are writing doom and gloom pieces. People are trying to explain the decline. Some are saying that the decline is the result of lax theology and drifting away from traditional / conservative beliefs and values. Others are saying that liberal mainliners are providing what the ‘nones’ are really looking for, especially what young disaffected millennials are looking for.

Perhaps the only new, but unsurprising, find of this recent Pew report is that Evangelicals are declining too. This contradicts the often lauded trope of the last few years that decline is a mainline thing.

Well I have to admit, that this all feels like a tired rehash of what we already know. But in particular, as a Canadian, I see the panic happening among US Christians as something we felt about 20 years ago. We are a lot farther along the social secularization path than our dramatic neighbours to the south.

And as I have blogged about before, as a Millennial Christian in Canada, the only church I have known is one in decline. I have only ‘heard’ the stories of everyone in town being in church on Sundays… I haven’t lived it. Being a church-going person was the exception among my peers growing up, not the norm. We used to sing the national anthem on Monday mornings in school but we never prayed the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, the idea of one of my grade school teachers leading the Lord’s Prayer sounds absurd.

Yet, the analysis, panic, fear, and explanations of the past few days is not what we are all getting wrong about this decline thing.

I think there are few things that we miss when we panic about a society and culture that is no longer evangelizing for us. And these things should be the first things we name when talking about church decline in North America.

1. The Golden Era of Church attendance in the 1950s was the abnormality.  

So often our discourse on decline assumes that wide-spread socially motivated church attendance is normative. So many church people are used to a world where the question was which church to attend on Sunday mornings, not whether or not one should attend at all. During the Reformation, many protestant groups were born out of the fact that most people were nominally Christian, and did not attend church or “show their faith” in how they lived. North American society in the 1800s and early 1900s was not one that ubiquitously attended church. I think the big bulge in church attendance, church planting and growth of the 1950s was due to a global experience of PTSD following World War One, the Great Depression and World War Two. The church was convenient place to land for a world looking to make sense of decades of suffering. 60 years on from then, I think decline is a correction, rather than a failure.

2. What we are seeing is the death of Christendom… not the Church. 

Conversations about church decline are almost always accompanied by the lament of the loss of cultural Christianity. There is talk of prayer in schools and town council meetings, the 10 commandments on display at courthouses, sports, music and dance happening during Sunday morning worship, the church as community centre and neighbourhood gathering place. And yet, if we took a minute to really consider what that means, we are actually demanding a church that is dependant on empire, that is served by kingdoms and governments. We want a church that needs to have all other activities banned during its worship. We long for a church that needs its prayers taught in schools and that seeks power by influencing political leaders.

Is it really such a bad thing to see the decline of that church?

3. We like to think that we are the ones who can finally do the church in.

As if the church lives and dies by us. Christ’s church has been around for 2000 years. It began by spending 300 years on the margins of a religiously plural world. It was subsumed into being the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire. It has been nearly blown by up schism. Almost over-run by the empires of other faiths. It has crusaded and begun terrible holy wars. It has been cracked and splintered by reformation. It has been challenged to its core by renaissance and scientific revolution. The church has survived all of that, against all odds.

But now our social angst and apathy, and our institutional intractability is going to finally put the church out of its misery? Because we cannot be the church of empire or let social structures do our evangelism for us, the church will just fade away?

Sometimes I think that we tie our attendance to God’s faithfulness. We believe that God approved of the church more when it was full 50 years ago. And now God is frowning at us because we couldn’t freeze time, because the world changed around us and we weren’t sure how to deal with it.

This Pew Research report is nothing new. It is full of things we already know. But maybe decline, the more it gets thrown in our face, is telling us something important about the church – about God’s work in the world.

A declining church does not equal a declining God.

Nor does a full and rich church equal an increasing God.

Maybe God’s work in the world has nothing to do with numbers.

Maybe God’s mission through the church cannot be measured quantitatively.

Maybe what God is doing can only be experienced qualitatively. The Good News is not about winning souls by filling pews. The Good News is that Christ’s death and resurrection is our death and resurrection too – and this fact transforms who we are.

So maybe, just maybe, this declining stuff… this dying stuff that the church is doing… is just what always comes right before empty tombs and being known in breaking bread.

What we get wrong about decline is that we rarely consider that it just might how God is doing God’s work, in and through us – God’s church.


How did you respond to the Pew Research report? Can the church survive decline? Is the best thing to happen to Christianity in a while? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

The (lack of) moral authority of being a white male

The past few weeks have been hard to find motivation to write. This post was supposed to be about ‘being spiritual but not religious’ (that will come later), but it seemed like a trivial topic when considering events in Baltimore, events here in Winnipeg – the city where I live – and other issues of systematic oppression of non-white people in North America.

I will be honest, I don’t think it actually helps for white, male bloggers like myself to weigh in much on these issues. As a couple of other bloggers I respect, Mark Sandlin and David R Henson, point out in their Moonshine Jesus podcast, that there is a certain irony and hypocrisy in white males talking about race issues.

Baltimore is just another in a string of incidents (Ferguson, Staten Island etc…) that has brought to public attention the systematic discrimination of African-American people at the hands of the police, the judicial system and by legislators. And while it would be easy to wag my finger from Canada at these American issues, Desmond Cole recently published a scathing editorial recounting how he has been stopped by the police in Toronto more than 50 times, simply for being black. Not too long before that, a national magazine named the city I live in – Winnipeg, Manitoba – as the most racist city in Canada. Winnipeg is at heart of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement, we have recently had a serial killer (seriously!) arrested for murdering vulnerable indigenous homeless men and we have a number of incidents involving the violent assaults and deaths of young indigenous girls, some in the care of the government.

As all these issues swirl about the news cycle and water cooler, I cannot help but have the sense to let those closest to the issues (not this middle class white guy) speak to them.

And sure, it is uncomfortable because listening and learning can feel a lot like doing nothing at times.  But I also know just how important it is to refrain from speaking authoritatively about these realities (I am hoping that statement doesn’t make this whole post ironic) and instead listen and model listening for other white people like me.

It also uncomfortable to go against my social conditioning as a white male to contribute to the conversation, to make my voice heard, to speak out because my voice “counts”.

So with all my hesitation and discomfort around the issues that concern my white male privilege (ironic to say that this causes me discomfort, I get it), there have recently been a couple of things in my professional life that have forced me to operate in these systems of privilege despite my discomfort.

Now, it is has taken me a while to get to my point of writing this post, but here it is: As much as I try to escape or downplay my privilege, I cannot avoid it.

David Henson said in the Moonshine Jesus podcast that when he is asked to comment on the protests in Baltimore and the morality of “rioting”, his response is that “as a white guy who has done precious little to combat racism,” he doesn’t have the moral authority to pass judgement. I could feel the weight of that comment land on my chest as I listened to the podcast.

I couldn’t agree more – I do not have the moral authority to be the arbiter of these kinds of issues. Especially because I am a white male!

And yet, in a completely messed up way, because of the systems we live in, I am placed in that position regardless.

In the past few weeks, despite my hesitancy to comment as an “expert” or to judge as some kind of “moral authority”, our social systems push white males into these roles.

Recently, I was asked to give presentations, on two occasions, to concerned church groups about Islam and ISIS. I am no expert on the topic, other than a few religious studies classes in undergrad and a little research. Yet, for a group of concerned Christians, attempting to faithfully wrestle with these issues of the “other”, I offered the safety of being a “trustworthy” expert. Now obviously being a pastor made me trustworthy to these groups, but I am also certain being a white male contributed to my “expert” status. People are just used to trusting, following and listening to me. Yet, a muslim person would have been far better choice to speak to these issues.

And again, I was recently forced to face my complicity in systems of white middle class Christian privilege. I cannot give many details, other than to say I was responding pastoral request from someone on the margins, someone who was ethnically and religiously different from the privileged class – from me.

In that moment sitting at my desk across from the person making the request, I became incredibly aware of what it was to be put in a position of power simply because of my race and gender. I was being asked to make a moral judgement, that had little bearing on my life, but that held the balance of wellbeing for the “other”, for people on the margins, people with little social capital, people whose livelihood depended on the arbitrary decision of an un-invested white male authority figure.

To say that it was beyond uncomfortable for me misses the point. The reality is that I simply do not and cannot fully know what it is like to have to be subject to anther person’s authority simply based on their gender, and race. I cannot imagine the indignity, the sense of powerlessness, the unfairness, the frustration and rage, the resentment. I cannot know what it is like to feel that way.

As these issues of race and privilege play out in American and Canadian society, I now realize that there is something more than standing in solidarity, more than re-broadcasting the voices of the marginalized, more than listening and learning and leaving room for others to be heard that white people – white males – need to do.

We need to admit our complicity in these systems. We need to see how easily we slip into positions of power and authority without evening knowing. No, I didn’t create the system.

But I participate in it. Despite my best efforts to the contrary. 

These problems of racial, financial, religious and gender inequality will not change until those of us in the privileged class admit that we perpetuate the inequality. Changing the system will need hard work, it will require us to see the moments and acknowledge when become slip into the role of benevolent (or not) white overlords to the marginalized masses. We need to be willing to give up the part of our status that exists only through inequality. We need to admit that white  and male privilege exists even when we feel hard done by, when are struggling, when don’t “feel” privileged. We must contribute to change by being willing to admit that we do in fact participate in these unfair systems that mostly benefit us.

As Disney tells their employees about customer service,

“It is not my fault, but it is my problem.”

Racial, religious, financial and gender inequality is not my fault, but it is my problem,


Post Script:

The other day on Twitter,  Christian Blogger Jayson Bradley tweeted his frustration with another example of a white person not getting issues of race:

To which I responded:

I think the phrase some commonly used by white people “I am not a racist but…” needs to be banned from use.

Maybe we could instead start these ill-conceived ideas on issues of race with:

“Racism is not my fault, but it is my problem, so…”

I think the ending to that statement would be much different.


Have found yourself uncomfortable because of white privilege? How do you participate in systems of privilege and oppression? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

God is pruning the Church

John 15:1-8

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

Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.