Afflicting the Comfortable Nazareth Synagogue

Luke 4:21-30

And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” (Read the whole lesson)

Sermon

We are challenged today, our comfort is afflicted. Good News is meant to comfort the afflicted, but today the comfortable are challenged to change… and this is Good News. It is hard to hear, it unsettling and even rises up our anger, but it is still Good News. As we work and strive to find our place in the world, as well as our place in the pews here… all that is overturned right in front of our eyes.

For us it was last week, but for Jesus and the people of the Nazareth Synagogue, it was only moments ago that he stood before them and boldly proclaimed that the Spirit of God had anointed Jesus to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed and forgiveness of debts in the Jubilee year. And then Jesus sat down and preached that “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. And today, we get to see and hear the response he gets – and its not nice.

After hearing Jesus’ nice sermon, the people are amazed, they are comforted in the midst of their cushy seats in the Nazareth synagogue. They marvel that here, Joseph the carpenter’s son has such beautiful words. They imagine beautiful scenes of their lives being eased, of the burdens laid down and their bumps and bruises soothed. But this is NOT the sermon that Jesus is preaching… he has not come back to his home town to sooth his friends and family. Jesus has come to preach about real suffering, about real change and about real people.

(Pause)

Grace was working her job waitressing job, about to take payment from a customer. The woman was frantically digging through her purse trying to find her wallet and money. Her child was tugging on her sleeve begging to leave. Grace gestured to the side and asked her if she wanted to take a minute while others paid, but the woman didn’t seem to understand and only got more agitated. The scarf that covered nearly all of the woman’s head but her face was beginning to come loose as she looked for something to pay her bill with. The woman looked up at Grace and started explaining, but doesn’t realize she was speaking Arabic.

Behind the woman, Grace could hear other customers complaining,

“These immigrants expect a free handout when they come here”

“Why does she wear that thing on her head? Nobody in this country cares if you see a woman’s head!”

“You should have to learn English to be allowed into Canada!”.

(Pause)

Jesus comes down on the people of the Nazareth Synagogue and he comes down hard. He has come to preach the good news to them also, but they cannot see past the energetic 10 year old running around town playing with the other boys and helping out with his father’s carpentry. They cannot see that Jesus is not Joseph’s son at all. And this is why Jesus comes down hard, Jesus is confronting their complacency, confronting their understanding of the world, and using strong and bold words to do it.

God provides food for Elijah and the widow. God heals Naaman in the Jordan river from his leprosy, just as Elisha said would happen. Jesus reminds the people of their own history, of the prophets who had already come to bring good news and Jesus reminds them of a condemning fact… Elijah was sent to a gentile woman, to a pagan widow and her son. Elisha healed a Syrian with leprosy, a solider and a conqueror. Jesus reminds the comfortable folks of Nazareth that God send prophets to heal outcasts and sinners, gentiles and the unclean… the Messiah is not just coming to make the lives of the righteous and chosen people easier.

Jesus would get us jumping out of our seats too if he were preaching here today. He would remind us that his own body and blood, that the bread and wine we share today, is not just to feed 5th generation prairie German, Icelandic or Norwegian Lutherans, but that Christ has come to feed the poor, the outcast, children, the old, the mentally ill and the sick. He would tell us that healing and reconciliation is also for immigrants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, women, visible minorities.

But when Jesus afflicts the comfortable he doesn’t go halfway. Jesus challenges the people of the Nazareth and challenges us to see where, in our hearing, God is at work. Jesus is saying that God’s work happens with more kinds of people than imagine, AND also happens with us, amongst us, through us. Jesus demands our participation in God’s work. Jesus dares us see how we fit into the work of God right her and now. This pokes us in our comfort zone and makes defensive. We are the ones already here, what more does God want from us? But for Jesus being here is only the first step. Jesus sees the gospel working through us for the poor, the blind, the imprisoned, oppressed and indebted.

But this is not what the people of Nazareth came to hear, Jesus is challenging their comfort and they get enraged and they decide to hurl Jesus off a cliff. But he escapes. Yet, the rage of the people will catch up with him. From today onward, Good Friday is in our horizon as Jesus barely escapes execution by a mob. The rage of the Nazarites is the same rage that will shout “crucify him”, the same rage that will nail his wrists and feet to a cross. But that time is not yet. Resurrection is still coming and the people of Nazareth haven’t seen the fulfillment of God’s promises yet…God’s promises that include more than Ancient Hebrews and Prairie Lutherans. God’s promises that transform us, and we become less comfortable the more we hear them.

But the rage of righteous entitlement, the rage that believes it deserves God’s love and that is willing to put God to death for changing the rules… Today, this rage loses its power, and God’s power to free, to release, to heal, to feed, and to forgive steps out of the shadows and stands in our midst, it defies our attitudes, escapes being hurled into oblivion and continues on with its mission.

(Pause)

As the poor woman standing at the counter, realized that she had forgotten her wallet, the tears began streaming down her face. Voices behind continued to mutter and complain. And then all of a sudden two 20 dollar bills appeared on the counter, and a smiling face was standing next to her. Grace recognized Marlena from church at St.David’s

“Here take this, and pay for your meal.” Marlena said. “You don’t know me, but I have seen your family walking down the street, you are my neighbour”.

With tears still streaming down her cheeks, the grateful muslim woman reached out and took the hand of this kind stranger, thanking her profusely in arabic.

(Pause)

Today, the Good News hurts us, as we see ourselves in the folks of the Nazareth Synagogue. But its still Good News anyways, as we discover again that God’s love is not based in our comfort, in what pew bears the shape of our behind, but rather its based in God’s openness to a world full of imperfect variety. And God’s love is happening right here and now.

Jesus takes two stories of God’s great compassion and uses them in a new way. Jesus reminds the comfortable folks of Nazareth and comfortable Lutherans of the prairies that God’s love is so much broader than we can imagine. Jesus pushes our comfort zones and enrages us. And still despite our attitudes, despite our rage at being challenged, Jesus promises reconciliation and healing, for which we are given front row seats. For today Jesus has proclaimed that along with God’s chosen people, lepers and gentiles, widows and pagans, and immigrants to a foreign land…  we all are the beloved of God. Even if that makes us uncomfortable.

Amen. 

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Annual Meeting Season: What church budgets say about ministry (It’s not good.)

As we begin the new year, most churches are entering Annual Meeting season. Budgets will be proposed and approved. Reports on how the past year’s ministry has gone will be presented. Plans for the year will be laid out.

For a lot of church people, annual meetings are a necessary evil. Boring meetings about boring things. But annual meetings have a significant effect on ministry. If you really want to know what a congregation values, look at the budget. If you want to know what a denomination focuses on, look at the budget.

Churches might put things like “All are Welcome” on signs, but have nothing in the budget for hospitality ministry.

Churches might have mission statements about growing in faith or serving the poor, but have no budget lines for educational resources or funds directed to outreach.

While what churches have failed to budget for or invest in is interesting, what they do put their time, energy and money towards is even more interesting. And so often churches invest in things that simply make no sense and make one wonder what is actually trying to be accomplished. In fact, churches often invest in or put their resources into ventures that have little chance of yielding fruit. 

Let me explain with some examples:

Lutherans in Canada have been primarily rural during our history. Most of our congregations are in rural communities. This made sense as it has been only in the past decade or so that the shift in Canadian society has been from a majority rural to majority urban population.

Generally urban congregations tend to be larger with more resources. Rural congregations tend to be smaller with fewer resources. So seeing struggling rural congregations, church leadership tends to invest in places where the church is struggling. Our seminary has developed an entire institute devoted to rural ministry offering a Doctor of Ministry degree in rural ministry. Multi-point and regional parish ministry is being explored and developed to help a few pastors serve many congregations in a team setting. Rural congregations are often given travel subsidies for church events. Skype and other video conferencing technology is being used to include rural folk.

This is all good and rural congregations deserve good ministry.

Yet, all our efforts are fighting against the demographic realities of shrinking rural communities. There are fewer and fewer people to minister to in rural contexts. We are putting disproportionate resources towards smaller groups of people.

At the same time, because urban congregations are perceived as large and self-sufficient, we leave them be. Yet, they are shrinking too and it is not related to demographics. In fact, there are more people than ever who have no church affiliation living down the street, within blocks, driving by urban churches every day. Shrinking urban churches are the result of changing culture, mission-drift, a lack of evangelism and failed education systems in churches. 

Yet, there is little energy, time, resources or even concern going into helping urban churches understand the people that live next door to them.

Many urban churches are now at a place where they simply cannot communicate or connect with 21st century culture. This isn’t about phones and projector screens in church, but about understanding that most people 70 and under engage community differently – through smart phones and social media. People understand their real life world through an online lens, from scheduling birthday parties, to finding restaurants to eat at, to getting their news, to listening to music or watching TV etc…

And another example:

Churches will bend over backwards to keep nearly comatose Sunday School programs alive. They will long for the youth to come and “get involved.” They want young adults to “come back” to church in order to get take up the jobs that older people want to give up. Precious volunteer energy and resources are spent on doomed to disappoint ministries. Yet, the things that they are asking of kids (to attend regular faith education programs) and youth (to fill most leadership roles in worship), adults are mostly unwilling to do themselves. They expect young people to want to do things that older people want to stop doing… it makes no sense.

But perhaps more importantly, we have hit another demographic tipping point where there are more over 50-year-olds in Canada than under 50-year-olds. That means at best, a church can hope for 1 family of 4 for every 2 empty nest couples in church. If you have 30 couples over 50 in church, you will only have about 15 families. Of course it will seem like the young people aren’t around… but that is because they don’t exist.

Churches long for young adults and young families thinking that they will have the time, energy and money to keep congregations going. Yet increasingly, young adults and young families are under-employed, highly indebted people with precious discretionary time on their hands and who are trying to make it through a high cost time of their lives.

Yet the Baby Boomers, the richest generation in history, are reaching the end of their careers. The largest group of retired people ever is about to have loads of time and money on their hands. Why don’t we have Sunday School for them? Retiree workers instead of youth workers? Why don’t we want 65-year-olds putting on an alb and lighting the candles in worship?

Many churches spend a lot of angst on young people, who (demographically speaking) don’t even exist. But the people who do exist, a glut of boomers, are largely ignored. 

Why do congregations, church bodies and leaders so often see their hope and future in unrealistic visions of church? Why do we invest in ministries and activities that have little chance of yielding fruit for us?

I don’t know if there is one answer. I think it has to do with fear of disappointing those led us into faith in the first place by doing things differently than they did. It has to do with longing for a return to the glory days of the past. It has to do with a fear of change, and our world is full of change these days.

Now, I wish this was the part of the blog post where I explained the magic bullet to turning this poor investment strategy, this poor ministry culture around. But I don’t know the answer.

Well, let me rephrase. I do know the answer… and so do you.

But the answer is hard work.

Churches need to look around ask what faithful ministry looks like in their context. Find out who our neighbours are. Find out what the needs of our communities are. Ask what opportunities is God putting before us. Discern who God is calling us to serve. Be willing to let go our expectations and vision for ourselves, and ask who God is calling us to be.

Strive to be faithful in our investments and ministry planning rather than successful. 

This Annual Meeting season instead of seeing long boring meetings about boring reports and boring talks, consider it an opportunity to discover where God is leading our congregations and communities.

Who knew Annual Meetings could be that?


What does your church invest in? How can you see where your priorities are? Do you love Annual Meetings? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

They Couldn’t Afford the Wine in Cana

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

On the 3rd day of the wedding in Cana, they ran out of wine. It might seem strange to be talking about a party running out of wine today. Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism, God spoke to the crowds and us. It was a big deal. And then between Sundays, the dollar and oil continued to drop in value prompting lots of economic talk in the news. And as if to bring the point closer to home, as we prepare for our Annual Meeting next week, economic talks have been taking place here as a budget is prepared and challenges are contended with much like the rest of the country.

This week also brought what has come to be routine terrorist attacks around the world, politicians behaving badly at home and abroad. Daily life has become serious business, stress filled and difficult business. So talking about a miracle where Jesus turns some water into wine at a wedding sounds almost trivial.

Yet, despite being known mostly for its poor party planning, Cana is a place where life is serious, stress filled and difficult too. Cana knows the dangers of the world. They too worry if there will be enough on the table, worry about bills and taxes, work and family. Cana was a small town in the middle of nowhere. They lived under and paid taxes to the Romans, to Herod, to the Temple, to the Synagogue, to the local authorities and soldiers.

And here they were, trying to have a nice celebration for the community. To set a couple off on the right start for their marriage. To celebrate a bit in an otherwise dark, serious, and difficult world.

But on the 3rd day of the wedding they run out of wine.

Mary and Jesus and the disciples are in Cana for a wedding. They are probably at the wedding of a distant relative, but for Cana this would have been a whole community affair. Like weddings today, the weddings of ancient Israel were big celebrations. It was expected that a fortune would be spent on the party. Wine and food was to flow for a week – literally 7 days – the Bridegroom was meant to be broke by the end of the party. The hospitality and celebration, the extravagance were meant to be sign of blessing. If it was a good party, it would be blessed marriage.

Except it is only day 3 in Cana, and they have no wine.

Mary points this out to Jesus in only the way a mother could. And Jesus responds in only the way a son could, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come”. Jesus has different idea of timing than his mother. But, she doesn’t care. She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you”.

Jesus seems to only to see a party that has been poorly planned. A party that has run out. But Mary sees something different. Mary knows that the wine has run out on day 3, not even half way through. The wine might run out on a poorly planned part on day 6, but not day 3. The family is probably too poor to throw a proper wedding.

Maybe they didn’t know about wedding socials in Cana. Maybe they didn’t come together as people do here, knowing that if everyone contributes a little to everyone else, when the time comes to host your own, the burden won’t be so great. But the people of Cana almost certainly did know this, and probably had all already chipped in to the party.

And Mary sees that this community is too poor, they don’t even have enough reserves to have one party for some newlyweds.

Mary and Jesus embody the moments of scarcity that we face every day. We know what it is like to need for more, to fear running out, to know that the time isn’t right, to hope for something different and to long for change. We know this feeling and how it weighs on us at home, at work, at the grocery store, at school, at church, on the road, in the world. But this is just how our world operates, these are the reasons we toil away, the reasons that keep us up at night and stress us out. We know that we are closer to running out than we like to admit. Running out of time, of energy, of money, of love, of life.

Running out is something we all fret about, and yet it is connected to a much deeper fear. At the core of our being, within all of us is that fearful sense that if there is not enough for us, that if we run out, that we will suffer, we will lose, we will be alone, we will die. We fear not having enough so much that it can make us crazy. It is the fear of running out that makes fight with each other, that makes stubborn and unable to see the needs of those people around us, that makes us hold on with all our might, even when holding on is what is killing us.

So when Mary pushes Jesus to act, even though he resists… it is because she must see that it isn’t really about the wine or the party ending 4 days early. It is about a community without much else to hold on to, a people without hope. If there is not enough wine, than there is not enough to eat or drink. There isn’t enough to live on. The world will have overcome them. There is no future, no hope, only death.

Mary sees this deep connection between running out of wine, and how Cana is not that far away from death. She sees a community that needs some hope, that needs a future. And she knowns the only person who can truly provide.

And so Mary presses the issue, not with Jesus, but with us.

“Do whatever he tells you.”

Easy instructions for the servants… but words that should take our breath away.

As we face our economic news, as we face challenges and struggles making ends meet and just keeping it together day to day. As we wonder if there is any hope for us, if there is a future here… if all we have to look forward to is death. “Do whatever Jesus tells you.” is a word that demands faith from us. Faith that we really don’t know how to give.

But God does.

Even when it doesn’t seem like Jesus’ hour, it is. And it isn’t just an abundance of wine that Jesus provides. Instead, God breaks into the world. God comes to a small community that is forgotten by everyone else. And God blesses the wedding, blesses the whole community.

It is not about the wine. It is about the blessing. About God’s presence there in that moment. Mary seemed to know that with God present at that wedding in Cana, running out of wine was something Jesus needed to do something about.

And all of a sudden on the 3rd day of the wedding, when hope was lost, when there was no future… God breaks into the world and provided wine. God meet that community and gives them hope. God creates a new future.

Today, God breaks into our world here and now. God provides us with hope. God creates us a future.

And it is no mistake that the wine ran out on the 3rd of wedding at Cana. It is no mistake that we meet on Sunday, the 3rd day too. We are meant to be reminded of that other 3rd day miracle when life seemed to have run out of world, God turned it into delicious abundant life. When all hope was lost, God found us at the empty tomb. When we didn’t seem to have a future, God gave all creation new life in the resurrection.

Here on this 3rd day, here in our world, here in our community, it might feel like our wine has run out. It might feel like there is no hope and no future. But God is revealing to us the Christ who brings delicious and abundant wine, who fill the jars of our hope, who makes sure that there is future – because Jesus has saved good wine until now, he has saved it for us.

Amen.  

A Sermon on the Baptism of Our Lord

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Read the Whole Passage)

Sermon

John the Baptist is at it again, preaching about winnowing forks, or rather shovels, that gather grain from the threshing floor. It was only the third Sunday of Advent, less than a month ago that John was preaching this same sermon!

These crowds that gathered on the banks of the River Jordan came because they were searching. They were looking for something, someone to tell them who they were. They are misfits and trouble makers. Soldiers, tax collectors, the lame, sick, blind, deaf and poor. They were considered outcasts, those unloved by God, those without a place in the religious order, they were on the outside. And so when they hear of a Holy Man preaching on the outside, they go to see what he has to say, that maybe he will say something different about God, that maybe he will have a different story. Maybe this John the Baptist will tell them that they are something different from outcasts, misfits and troublemakers.

(Pause)

As Wesley stood on platform, he was terrified. Voices from the water were mocking and teasing him, calling him names like, “Wes the Mess” or “Wesley the Sissy”.   Wesley was standing in the community pool, trying to reach for the rope that hung just a little too far for his reach. The voices from the water were the other kids and they were calling out from the water.

Wesley had always been picked on. He was the smallest kid in the class, the first to wear glasses, he liked reading about baseball more than he liked to play it. Wesley was a smart a whip, except that he hadn’t learned to read until he got glasses and he had been labeled poor student and he just couldn’t shake that identity.

As Wesley reached out to grab hold of the rope, which he couldn’t see very well without his glasses, he slipped. Instead of swinging on the rope, Wesley tumbled head first into the water making a big splash. And then from under the water, Wesley’s swimming suit came floating up to the surface a few seconds before he did. The other kids just laughed and laughed…

(Pause)

Its not too hard to identify with those outcasts standing on the banks of the River Jordan. Like them, we live in a society that makes distinctions, that tells us who we are based on what we do, where we live, how much money we make, what toys we buy and how many people we know.

And while we might not imagine ourselves standing on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to hear some good news, to hear from a wild hermit preacher about God… we do know what it is like to search our world for affirmation. And we are bombarded by messages telling us who we should be… message in the media, messages in our families, messages from our communities.

As we sift through all these messages, we search for ones that might tells us how we are loved, how we are accepted. Yet, most tell how we can be better… which really means that we aren’t good enough.

(Pause)

As  Wesley looked around for his bathing suit, he turned beat red in embarrassment. He couldn’t see his bathing suit without his glasses.

Then someone started shouting from the rope platform. It was a boy about Wesley’s age. The boy was making a big deal of not being able to reach the rope and then the boy slipped and fell into the water making a big scene. The laughing kids turned their attention to the newest loser to fall from the platform.

When boy came to the surface he grabbed Wesley’s bathing suit and quickly swam over to Wesley. Wesley put it back on under the water and the boy said, “Come with me.”

The two boys swam over to another group of kids.

“I’m David” the boy said, “what is your name?”

“Wesley”

They swam up to the other kids.

A tall lanky older teen with hair in his eyes playfully punched David in the arm,

“Nice fall” he said, winking at the same time.

“Thanks Josh” said David.

The group introduced themselves to Wesley. The two oldest were Josh and Grace. David’s sister Lizzie was there too as well as others.

“We are the youth group from St. David’s church.” said Josh. “Why don’t you hang out with us Wesley.”

“You sure you want me?” said Wesley “Most people think I am a loser.”

“Don’t worry about that” said Grace, “A lot of us thought we were losers too before booming part of the group. Some of us still are,” she elbowed Josh.

“Anyone can join our group. We would be happy to have you.” said Josh. “You are always welcome with us”

(Pause)

As Jesus steps down from the crowds and into the water, God prepares to show the crowds, and to show us, precisely what it means to be gathered up, what it means to find an identity in God.

As Jesus is baptized, God declares from the heavens “This is my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”. John’s sermon is about the coming Messiah. Yet today, God preaches with his own voice.  And God’s sermon is short and clear. “This is my son. I love him and he is wonderful”. God’s sermon is preached not just to Jesus, but to each and everyone of us. As we are baptized and as we live each as God’s named and claimed people, these clear yet profound words are spoken about us and spoken by God.

And yes, there is nothing we can do to control God’s love. We cannot make God love us more and we cannot make God love anyone else less. This is the scary part, this is the part that feels dangerous. God’s love for creation us untameable. And its by this untamed love that Jesus is revealed to the crowds on the banks of the Jordan and again this love reveals us as belonging to God.

To each one of us God says,

“You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased. You are always welcome with me”

Amen.