We can’t do Gold Star Christianity anymore – Clinging to the Wrong Trappings

This spring, I attended a continuing education event featuring Craig Van Gelder, a professor of missiology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. He told a story about his experience growing up in the 50s and 60s and going to Sunday School. Each year, gold stars were handed out for students with perfect attendance records. Craig recalled receiving several such stars over the years. My first thought was that surely even faithful every Sunday church attenders at least took holidays or travelled on occasion?

Craig continued his story talking about how the gold stars were not just a quirk of the church he grew up in. When his family travelled, they made sure to attend church of the same denomination as his home church. He would attend Sunday School, get a signed form proving his attendance, take it back home and hand it in to make sure he could receive a gold star.

The Sunday School programs across the denomination were set up to promote the Gold Stars. Gold Stars were a denominational industry! Craig said that these gold stars really meant something at the time.

I have been thinking about the Gold Stars for months… The Gold Stars are symbolic of the intangible gap in my experience in church land as I serve as a pastor. The Sunday School that I attended growing up was full of regular, nearly every Sunday attending children and families. But I doubt there would even be one student who would achieve Gold Star status. I don’t understand what the Gold Star means, I never will.

These days regular attenders are measured by those who attend monthly, not weekly, because most churches would not have a statistically relevant group of Gold Star members. That means most kids attending Sunday School these days attending once month during the program year (September thru November, January thru May) might go to Sunday school around 8 times a year.

A Gold Star means 52 times. A regular active Sunday School attendee today is attending 8 times. 52 down to 8.

And while most churches are probably not handing out gold stars, we so often try to keep “doing” church as if the gold star criteria is the ideal.

Another way of putting it, we are holding on to the trappings of church while forgetting what they were created for in the first place.

When Gold Stars were used, it was understood that Sunday School was an effective tool for faith formation. Achieving Gold Stars was a good tool to promote people accessing Sunday School, and thereby being formed in faith.

But is Sunday School an effective tool to form children in faith when it is only accessed 8 times a year?

Last weekend I participated in a panel discussion at a church event with 3 other young leaders in the church. We challenged our older colleagues, parishioners and church members to consider the struggles and opportunities facing the church in North America as we enter deeper and deeper into the 21st Century.

We didn’t plan it, but we all talked about dropping the trappings of the 50s and 60s, so that we can proclaim the Gospel today. We talked about inclusive and transcendent images for God. We talked about how judgemental attitudes have stood in the way of young people connecting with their faith at church. We talked about re-evaluating and putting to bed out of date church programs and structures. We talked about changing modes of communication and how people now access community differently through technology.

And it was a welcome message. People of our generation and people of that 50s and 60s generation, those before and those in between all embraced the need for change that churches face today.

Yet, I could sense that letting go of the trappings was not so easy.

And it is the trappings that are killing the us. Churches are aging, shrinking, and closing because we so often refuse to let go of the trappings of the past.

So what are the trappings?

During the panel I suggested that learning to ask good questions, questions that cannot be answered with yes or no, questions that we don’t already have the answer to are good questions.

Good questions show us where we are clinging to the trappings.

Questions like:

How do we best do faith formation for children?

If Gold Stars and Sunday School for students who only come 8 times a year is the answer, you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best carry out the various ministries of the church?

If the answer is committees and councils full of vacancies or who don’t meet at all and who don’t know why they exist is the answer, you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best express images for God in a diverse and inclusive way?

If your answer is male only language rooted in the bible and hymns published in the 50s is the answer, you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best communicate the activities of our church in our community?

If your answer is phonebook ads, newspaper buys and posters mail outs, you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best proclaim God’s forgiveness and mercy for sinners? If your answer is condemning people for not having the right gender, skin colour, age, religion, vocation, etc… you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best reach our friends and neighbours? If your answer is to wait for the young people to come back and to do their share, you are clinging to a trapping.

The trappings are killing us. The trappings are often why churches are shrinking and closing. Gold Stars have nothing to do with Jesus. At least not in 2015.

Yet, the struggle that churches have giving up the trappings, giving up all those things that we think are so central to being church and to having faith, but are not… The struggle is so often rooted in guilt and a sense of failure. We think if we stop doing Sunday School or having an Evangelism committee, or saying the old version of the Lord’s Prayer or putting an ad in the phonebook or if we welcome people different than us or if we aren’t full of young people like churches were in the 50s… we think we have failed.

Here is the thing about trappings. They worked for a time. Gold Stars worked for a time. And the trapping that replace Gold Stars for Sunday School students that come 8 times a year will eventually be out of date and unhelpful too. But we need to figure out the trappings that are right for today. Just as those other trappings we refuse to let go of, were right in their day too.

We can’t do Gold Star christianity anymore because its day has passed. Just like being an iPhone pastor will sound old fashioned some day in the future… probably in about 6 months.

Because in the end, it isn’t about Gold Stars or iPhones…

It is about Jesus, and grace for sinners and mercy for the marginalized and bread and wine for the hungry, and being God’s church doing God’s work.


What are the trappings that are holding you back? How do we let go of the trappings?Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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Creflo Dollar, Last Rites and the Rich Young Ruler

Mark 10:17-31

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” …

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” … But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Thanksgiving has become an odd holiday for us. And it isn’t just that Thanksgiving isn’t really a Christian holiday… since it isn’t about Christ specifically, because we do practice thankfulness as Christians each time we gather for the Eucharist or Lord’s supper. Eucharist means Thanksgiving in greek.

No, thanksgiving is odd because for most of us it is out of context. Thanksgiving’s origins are becoming distant from our lives. Thanksgiving is a North American holiday meant to celebrate the end of the harvest, time of abundance before the scarcity of winter. A time of rest following the hard work of keeping and tilling the land and animals through spring and summer.

Most of us don’t orient our lives according to nature’s seasons. We are far removed from the subsistence lifestyle… we don’t depend on our own hands to grow our own food.

And it is of course, still important for us to remember where our Canadian society came from and to give thanks that there are those who still do provide our basic needs… yet, how we do that by hosting a fancy meal for ourselves is a good question.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that survives mostly on tradition, but as we take the time to give thanks and to reflect on our own blessings… we might discover an uneasiness with our wealth and possessions much like the rich young ruler in the story we hear today.

Sometimes we can forget where the famous sayings of our language come from, and today we are reminded. As Jesus speaks with this wealthy young man and challenges him to give up his possessions, we hear familiar sayings. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven” and “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”.

Jesus seems to be coming down hard on the rich today. And this might make us uncomfortable. We know that we are the world’s wealthy. Anyone with an income over 34,000 is in the top 5% of income earners on the planet. And Jesus says that if you are rich, it will not be easy for you to enter the Kingdom of God. That means most of us. Ouch.

But for those who have been here week after week listening to a difficult year of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus has been uncharacteristically harsh, calling people dogs, or Satan, or telling them they would be better off dead or that they have hard hearts…

Jesus might just be letting us off the hook for our particular wealth today.

This story about the encounter between the rich young ruler and Jesus is all about absurdities. So let’s put it into modern terms so the point can be made.

If you watch TV preachers and televangelists you might have heard of Creflo Dollar… quite the last name for tv pastor. Anyways, Creflo Dollar recently shared the following gem of wisdom to his hundreds of thousands of twitter followers: “Jesus bled and died for us so that we can lay claim to the promise of financial prosperity.”

Jesus didn’t die for our sins. Or to show us God’s love. Or to conquer death.

But so that we can be rich.

Creflo Dollar also asked each one his church’s 200,000 members for $300 each so that he could buy a 70 million dollar luxury jet in order to bring the gospel to people around the world.

What does Creflo Dollar have to do with today’s story? Well, when we hear about this young man coming to Jesus, we aren’t meant to think of a nice young middle manager at the bank. We are meant to imagine someone like Creflo Dollar pulling up to Jesus in an expensive sports car with loud base booming in the air long before you can see the car and that neon glow coming from underneath. And then Creflo steps out to ask this wandering, near homeless street preacher named Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It is easy to get bogged down in Jesus’ criticism of the rich… which may be warranted. But the point is not to hear Jesus criticizing us for trying to be faithful citizens, spouses, employees, and parents by providing for our families.

We are meant to see the absurdity of someone as rich a Creflo Dollar thinking he has fulfilled all the rules of righteousness and done enough to get himself into heaven.

The point isn’t the problem of heaving a certain amount of money or having possessions. The problem is thinking that being rich is a blessing from God.

When the rich young man walks away from Jesus unable to give up his possessions in order follow Jesus, the disciples want to know what is up too.

And that is because like our world, they live in a world that thinks being rich is a blessing from God. They have been taught that being rich and wealthy and healthy is a sign of God’s favour. Just like so many of us have heard on TV or from pulpits or from well meaning friends and relatives. Our world thinks that God is in heaven dolling out the cash to the good people and suffering to the bad. That’s until we see a person who is rich but not a good person. Or we see a good person struck by illness or tragedy. And then we wonder what is going on with God.

An odd thing happened to me this week as I was leading a service at a personal care home. Right in the middle of my sermon, a staff member gave me urgent message that I was needed at the hospital for an emergency. Even though I was certain I was not the pastor who the message was intended for, I quickly concluded the service and left for the hospital.

There I found a family sitting by the death bed of a loved one. I also found out that I wasn’t the intended recipient of the urgent message. Never the less, I offered to pray with the family anyways… as this is part of the calling of a pastor and something I have done many times.

And so there was I was with a dying stranger and his family praying the commendation for the dying, or what used to be known as last rites.

In the commendation, a section of the litany goes like this:

By your holy incarnation,

deliver your servant. 

By your cross and passion, 

deliver your servant. 

By your precious death and burial,

deliver your servant. 

By your glorious resurrection and ascension,

deliver your servant. 

By the coming of the Holy Spirit,

deliver your servant. 

You will notice that we don’t pray:

By all the money he made in this life,

deliver your servant.

By all the good things he did,

deliver your servant. 

By all the rules he followed and commandments he kept,

deliver your servant. 

When all there is is a hospital bed, and a ventilator and tearful loved ones –

money, rules and good deeds don’t mean a thing.

And this is what Jesus is trying to make the rich young man understand. A camel could never pass through the eye of a needle. And even a rich man cannot enter heaven by his own effort.

Rich or poor.

Healthy or ill.

Sinner or saint.

The only way we get into heaven is by God’s mercy.

The only way the Kingdom of God is opened to us, is because Jesus died on the cross for us.

The only person who earns our salvation is God.

God is the one who does the work.

We do not inherit or earn or achieve eternal life.

God gives it to us.

Jesus accomplishes it for us.

And maybe, just maybe that is what Jesus means when he says the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Those who are relying on their own righteousness, their own goodness, their own faithfulness, their own achievements, their own 70 million dollar jets, their own riches and health and wealth, those who are relying on those things to get themselves into heaven will be incredibly surprised when they find out none of that stuff mattered. They might go from feeling first to feeling last.

But those who feel like sinners, like wretches, like unworthy and unloveable people. Those who know that they don’t measure up, that they aren’t good enough, or powerful enough, or important enough, or rich enough, or pious enough for God to show them mercy… won’t they be shocked when they find out that none of that stuff mattered. That God gives grace and mercy even to them. They might feel like they have gone from last to first.

We might feel like we have gone from last to first… because we have.

Because, thanks be to God regardless of our blessings, possessions, wealth or lack thereof, God has decided to give us mercy, to show us grace, to grant us eternal life through Jesus.

Amen. 

Syrian Refugees: This 9-Year-Old Girl is doing what Stephen Harper refuses to do

I am sorry for the Buzzfeed style headline, but this is an important topic.

For Canadian readers, you may or may not know that it was reported today that Stephen Harper and the Prime Minister’s Office directed Canada’s immigration officials to stop processing application for Syrian Refugees this spring. (Read the Globe and Mail article here)

I read this article this morning, and then later today came across this video:

Isn’t it unbelievable that Canada’s Prime Minister is willing to let more Alan Kurdi’s drown trying to make it to a better life. Why is  a 9-year-old girl doing more to save children than our government?

For readers in other countries, investigate to see what your political leaders are doing. Unless you live in Germany, the answer is not much. So why are we our leaving  it to our children to save the vulnerable children of the world? Maybe we need to elect leaders based on what they will do for our neighbour and for the most vulnerable among us, rather than voting for tax breaks and trade deals.

I hope Selina’s efforts remind us that we can all do more and that we should expect more from our political leaders.

Please scroll to the bottom of this post and share it on social media and if you want to participate in Selina’s project, here is more information about Selina and what she is doing, written by her parents:

Many of you likely know the story of Alan Kurdi, the 3 year old refugee whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach after he and his family attempted to flee from the conflict in their home country of Syria. http://www.macleans.ca/news/world/his-name-was-alan-kurdi

When my daughter Selina saw his picture and learned of the crisis, she was deeply affected and immediately wanted to take action. She is initiating a child-focused project to raise awareness of the conflict, especially among her peers, and to motivate the world to take action. We are sending this message to request your child’s involvement in the project. Selina explains it best. Please take a short minute to view the following video of Selina explaining her vision.  
One way to support the refugees is through donations, so a focus of the video – and the project in general – is to encourage people who view it to donate to one of the humanitarian organizations that are assisting with aid in the area. 

It doesn’t matter if you are a boy or a girl, or what age or grade you’re in – Selina is hoping to reach children and youth from all walks of life to support this project.

If you are able and willing to support this initiative, please create a simple poster with a message of support for the refugees. A few examples include – “save the refugees”, “care for others in need”, “remember their suffering”, etc. (These are just a few examples, feel free to use your own words of support). It doesn’t need to be fancy – it can be as simple as pen on white paper, or as complicated as you wish to decorate it. The message of compassion is the important element. 

When taking the picture, please have your child cover their face with the poster. As Selina explains it, most of these children are invisible to us on this side of the world, and by covering our faces, the Canadian children stand in solidarity with the refugee children. In addition, this is also a safety net for our children involved in the project in that they will not be identified on the video. 

Selina is hoping to collect between 25-50 pictures to create the final project. We are asking that all pictures be sent to the following email address canadiankidsforrefugees@gmail.com by Saturday, October 24th. After we have compiled it, the final product will be put up on youtube. 

Thank you so much for your time and attention to this important cause. 
Shirley & Gavin 

With love and thanks from,
Selina


And if you would like to donate to help Syrian Refugees Canadian Lutheran World Relief is an excellent place to go.

When Jesus talks about divorce, he is not talking about divorce

Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

When I was 7 or 8 years old, I remember the first one of my friends telling us that his parents were getting a divorce. It was a strange and complicated situation. Over the following weeks and months, he began living one week with his mom and one with his dad. And while there were two birthday parties, two thanksgivings, two Christmases, I could tell that having parents who didn’t live with each other anymore and having to move your whole life back and forth every Saturday was not something I would ever want.

And then when I was 19 years old working as a camp counsellor, we got a panicked call from the camp director to our group of counsellors during our hour off. We were needed to come and settle a group of unruly campers. The old pastor who was doing bible study with the group of high school aged campers, had gotten into a heated discussion with one teenaged girl over whether or not it was a good thing for her parents to divorce. He was insisting it was a sin. She was insisting that the fighting, and anger and frustration that was tearing apart her family had finally gone away once her parents separated and that this was a good thing.

Despite being relatively common and something that many couples experience these days, divorce is still a word that carries stigma and shame. The wounds of divorce can be deep and slow to heal.

So, when we hear Jesus offer some pretty strong words about divorce, it can sound like condemnation. “Because of the hardness of your heart.” he says… and yet ask anyone going through a divorce what their heart feels like and they will probably tell you the story of a heart being ripped to shreds, a wounded and broken heart. Not a hard one.

So what is the deal? Doesn’t Jesus get how messy and complicated this is? Doesn’t God have compassion and mercy for two flawed people who don’t know how to find their way back to each other? Can’t Jesus see that sometimes a marriage needs to die for the individuals in it to live?

We can’t forget which Gospel we are reading today. This is the Jesus who has called the Syrophoenician woman a dog, who has called Peter Satan, who has told John that it would  be better if he were dead than get in the way of Jesus’ mission.

Jesus in Mark’s gospel does not suffer fools and he doesn’t have time for people who don’t get it.

So what are we not getting?

For a long time the church has used this passage to clobber anyone considering divorce. Pastors have told abused women that it would be a sin to leave their husband. We have told incompatible couples that they must continue to suffer together. The church has forbid divorce on any grounds, just like Jesus seems to be doing here.

So again, what we are not getting that Jesus gets? The clue is in the in the question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Not is it lawful for a couple to get divorced, but for a MAN to do the divorcing.

The Pharisees and Jesus are not talking about marriage as we know it. This is not about two people who enter into a loving covenant to share a life of love together.

This is about the contract between a man and a woman’s father. This is about men buying women just like they would buy a cow or a sack of grain or a piece of land.

In the world of the Pharisees, women were not people. They were property. Property whose function was to serve and provide pleasure for the man, and ultimately provide a male heir. And if these things were not provided whenever the man wanted them, this was grounds for divorce. In fact, pretty much any dissatisfaction was grounds for divorce.

All man had to do was say, “I divorce you.” and his wife was cast out of the marriage and onto the street, where her only two options were prostitution or begging for survival.

So when Jesus calls the Pharisees hard of heart, he is speaking of a power imbalance in a contractual and economic relationship. Not hardness of heart between a modern husband and wife.

Jesus is calling out the Pharisees for being selective in their reading of the law of Moses. They say that the legal procedure of divorce is simple. But they know that the law of Moses is full of concern for widows and destitute women. It was the duty of a widower’s brother to marry a widow. It was the duty of a widower’s kin to provide a widow with children if she didn’t have any. And if re-marrying was not possible for a widow, it was the duty of the community to care for her. The men harvesting fields were to leave a portion of the harvest behind to be gleaned and collected by the widows. It was a law that a portion of the offering collected in the synagogues and temple be given to the widows and poor.

For a set of laws to be so concerned with the care of husbandless women on a community to make it so easy for a man to divorce his wife doesn’t make any sense… it is a deliberate misreading of the rules.

And Jesus knows it. The Pharisees know it. The disciples know it. Mark knows it.

It is why the passage about people bringing children to Jesus is tacked onto this passage about divorce.

Jesus is calling the people around him to care for the weak and vulnerable among them. He is telling men that it is wrong to dump their wives onto the community to care for. He is telling those in power that they don’t get to abdicate their responsibility to care for the powerless. Jesus is calling out and condemning those who would tell the weak and vulnerable to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. He is telling those in authority that their power comes with the obligation to use it for good.

If Jesus were to have this conversation with us today, it would not be about divorce at all.

If Jesus were talking about our hardness of heart he would be calling us out for very different reasons.

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you condemn women in niqab’s at citizenship ceremonies.

Let those are who taught to believe to hide their face in this world come to me because the Kingdom of God belongs to them.

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you will not call for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

Let those who are lost and forgotten by the world come to me, for the Kingdom of god belongs to them.

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you are afraid of refugees.

Let those who, because of persecution and strife, have to flee their homes come to me, for the Kingdom of God belongs to them.

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you let vulnerable children fall through the cracks of underfunded child welfare systems.

Let the children who are forcibly taken from their homes, who do not have the care and support they need come to me, for the Kingdom of God belongs to them.

Jesus would say, because of your hardness of heart you have told married couples on the ropes that their need to divorce is a sin.

Let those who dying to separate in order to live come to me.

Yeah… it is hard to hear Jesus challenge the hard places in our hearts.

Yeah… it has been rough to listen to Jesus call us out week after week.

Yeah… this might not feel like good news.

And just when it feels like Jesus has just come to stomp all over us for having hard hearts, Jesus reminds us that we easily forget who we are, and we easily forget what Jesus is doing for us, to us.

Today, Kinsley will be brought forward to the baptismal font. She will be held by her parents. The pastor’s voice and hands will say the words and hold the water. We will all make promises.

But Jesus will be the one blessing her. For hers is the Kingdom of God.

And just as Kinsley is the little one brought to Jesus, so also are we. We are all the little ones who have been brought to Jesus to be touched and blessed. To be washed and forgiven. To be named and claimed as children of God.

And because it is Jesus doing the blessing, baptized is now not something we were, but something we become. Washed once, children of God forever.

Yes we have hard hearts. No we have not lived up to the power and responsibility we have been entrusted with.

Jesus names that and it is hard to hear.

But Jesus names us the little children too.

Despite our hard hearts. Despite what we have failed to do for the weak and vulnerable, Jesus says, come to me. All of you. Because you too are the weak and vulnerable. For because I have named you my children and the Kingdom of God belongs to you.

Amen.