How the Risen Christ also Busts Sexism

Luke 24:1-12

I don’t know what pastors did before the internet, but this year a colleague asked a group of pastors on Facebook, “What gimmicks do you use to add that little extra something to Easter?”

Most of my life wasn’t spent in the pulpit, but in the pew, like you. So I’m here today to confess that there is something about Easter that makes pastors search for that little extra something. Pastors do the same thing at Christmas. I guess we pastors think those big church days need some help.

Maybe someone being raised from the dead isn’t enough, or maybe it’s the fact that pastors have to stand up at the front and try to explain in a way that makes sense this story of someone being raise from the dead… a story that, if you think about it too hard or too long doesn’t actually make all that much sense.

Now lucky me, I am the one at the front who gets to figure out what to say and how to make sense of all this.

But being uncomfortable with this story and who gets to preach it is not something new. In fact, Luke tells us that discomfort with the resurrection story and the ones telling it is as old as the story itself.

Three women have gone to the tomb early Sunday morning. It was only Friday, three days ago that they watched Jesus die on the cross. And because of the sabbath (on Saturday), his body hadn’t been properly prepared for burial. They were on their way to do this last thing, one final act of love for Jesus.

But they arrive at the tomb, and the stone is rolled away. Jesus’ body is gone. Luke says the women were perplexed, but perplexed hardly seems to describe what these women were probably feeling.

And then a couple of guys in dazzling white clothes show up and tell these “perplexed” women that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

This isn’t an “Aha” moment. This is more of a “Holy (you fill in the blank)” moment.

And in that “holy” moment the women are snapped out of their grief, their perplexity, their terror and are reminded of what Jesus had been telling them the whole time.

And they go racing back to tell the other disciples.

And it is at this point that Luke really starts to get interesting.

The women go back to tell their news to the male disciples. But the men think it is nonsense. Now what the english translation says is that the men think it is an “idle tale.” You know, the kind of inane chit chat of no importance that men think they can just tune out because it’s the womenfolk talking. But that is not what the greek says. The greek says the men hear the story as nonsense or crazy or nuts. The kind of story you hear some one tell and you respond by saying, “No way, that’s not possible, that didn’t happen.”

And then the english translation says the men didn’t believe the women, as if the men considered the content of their story. But the greek says the men didn’t trust the women. The story wasn’t believable because of who was telling it.

And then there’s this last bit about Peter. Peter runs off to check the tomb for himself. Why would he do that if he didn’t trust the women to trust the women and their idle chit-chat in the first place? Well, in most bibles there is a little footnote that comes at the end of this verse about Peter’s “checking” on things at the tomb.

The footnote that explains that verse 12 (this whole bit about Peter verifying what the women had reported) is not included in other ancient manuscripts. Or in other words, the verse is likely an addition to the story.

So here we have this story of the resurrection that is hard enough to make sense of on its own but the real problem with this story seems to be not with the story itself, but with the people who have been chosen to tell it. The disciples think the women’s story is nonsense because they are untrustworthy women. Recent English translators, who still have a problem with the fact that women are the first ones to tell the story, try to turn the nonsensical report into an idle tale – something not even worth being listened to by the men.

And to top it off, the early Christian community added this bit about Peter verifying what the women reported so that somebody credible would be the one telling the story of the resurrection. Because Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Jesus’ own mother Mary weren’t credible witnesses on their own?

Oh how things haven’t changed.

As much as it’s hard to makes sense of somebody being raised from the dead, our real problem is still with who gets to tell the story.

Christians have spent a lot of time and energy in the past 2000 years telling people who can and who cannot tell the story of Jesus. And it’s not just women. Christians at various times have told people of colour, LGBT people, poor people, uneducated people, and even lay people that they are not among God’s chosen story tellers.

For some reason our issue has been less with the content of the resurrection story itself than character of the ones chosen to tell it.

Because it’s hard to believe that of all the people to find the empty tomb, God sends the very people who were considered untrustworthy, and unreliable as witnesses.

But how would this story have been different if the disciples simply trusted the women?

When the women arrive at the tomb, early on that Sunday morning they were expecting to find the body of Jesus. Mary’s son, Mary Magdalene’s and Joanna’s friend and teacher. They expected to be anointing a body with spices and oils. They were expecting to finish the Jesus story for good, one last goodbye to the one they loved.

They most certainly did not expect that all that crazy talk that Jesus had been going on about for 3 years to be true. Betrayal, trial, crucifixion… and now resurrection. They did not expect to find the living among the dead, that Jesus had been raised.

But even more so, they would not have expected that of all the disciples that they would be the ones called upon to deliver this news – Jesus has risen. They weren’t the leaders, the gifted ones, the talented ones, the respected ones. They weren’t even considered trustworthy by the disciples who knew them well. They were just women. They were forgotten, unimportant, unworthy. They were not the kind of people anybody would expect to be called upon to carry out such an important task. They were the wrong people.

But just like everyone else, they forgot that Jesus was going to be raised from the dead… they also forgot that the “wrong” people are exactly the kind of people that God likes to work through. They forgot that God has been constantly using the ill-suited, unexpected, unworthy, wrong people to do God’s work in the world. From cowardly Abraham and laughing Sarah to stuttering Moses and dancing Miriam, from lustful David and foreign Ruth to stubborn Mordecai and vain Esther, from unmarried teen mom Mary and Mary Magdalene to bull headed Peter and self-righteous Paul. Throughout the biblical narrative we have story after story where God calls the wrong person after the wrong person.

And yet, even with all these ill-suited and ill-equipped people God establishes a pattern for how God will act in the world: through unexpected people, doing often unexpected, unpredictable, nonsensical things.

Now these women at the empty tomb were witnesses to God using all the wrong things to completely change the world. Betrayal and angry mobs to usher in salvation. A cross to forgive sins. Death to bring new life into the world.

And these ill-suited and ill-equipped women were being called to tell that crazy, nonsense Jesus-has-been-raised story.

And now we are the people hearing the story and being sent to tell others. And maybe we feel ill-equipped or ill-suited. Maybe we ARE ill-equipped and ill-suited.

Maybe, just like the women at the tomb, we are the “wrong” people being called to tell the story of God.

The story of God that completely changes our world and our reality, the story of death and resurrection that turns everything and everyone upside down. Because this is the story that tells us that God’s love is just as much for the wrong people as it for the right people, just is much for us as it is for anyone. This is a story that isn’t for the right people or the wrong people – it’s for ALL people.

And maybe that is crazy nonsense in a world like ours.

But it is not crazy nonsense for the God of New life.

Amen


 

*This sermon was co-written with my wife, Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker who you can follow on twitter: @ReedmanParker

Advertisements

Good Friday is Not Special – Everyday is Good Friday

John 18:1-19:42

Good Friday is not special nor unique.

What happens on Good Friday is no different than what happens others days.

One falsely convicted man killed by a merciless and cruel government is barely even news-worthy in our world.

Jesus was no Steven Avery. Jesus was only convicted one for crime he didn’t commit. Steven Avery has been convicted twice of crimes he didn’t commit.

Jesus was no Alan Kurdi. Only a few devoted followers wept for Jesus. The whole world wept for Alan, the young boy laying on a turkish beach.

Jesus was no Rinelle Harper or Tina Fontaine or Delaine Copenace. His beating, his death did not spark an inquiry. A nation will start a soul-searching missing and murdered indigenous women inquiry for Rinelle and Tina and Delaine.

There were no headlines for the crucifixion. There were no hashtags like #PrayforJesus. There were no flags to put on profile pictures, no pundits or reporters or commentators who talked and talked and talked.

Good Friday is not special. It is just another day for us. 

Good Friday is everyday in our world.

Just in the past year we have come up with so many new names for Good Friday, so many new names for the violence and death that we simply cannot end:

Brussels, Paris, Ankara, Beirut, Mosul, Nigeria, San Bernadino, Charleston, Toronto, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Somalia, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Israel-Palestine.

ISIS terrorists, soldiers, militants, jihadis, suicide bombers, cell groups, radicalization, mass shootings, racism, sexism, discrimination.

Migrants, refugees, human smugglers, closed boarders, giant walls built along national boarders, residential schools, climate change, inequality.

Our list of new Good Friday words is so long we forget what we were listing off in the first place.

Our list of new Good Friday words is so long that we forget them almost as soon as we create them.

Our list of new Good Friday words makes us numb.

Our list makes violence and death feel normal.

The first Good Friday was not special. One man died on a cross. 

One man who angered those in power, so they go rid of him.

One man who didn’t give the chanting crowds their King, so they started shouting crucify.

One man whose own followers betrayed and abandoned him in his worst hour.

Jesus died like the rest of us. 

Jesus suffered violence and cruelty and hate like the rest of us. 

Jesus was just another person to suffer an unjust and merciless death. 

The cross of Good Friday was not special.

Except that not being special is what makes Good Friday special.

We didn’t think that God would be on that cross.

We didn’t think that God would die at our hands.

The cross of Good Friday was not special, the violence of the death was not special, the ones who condemned were not special.

The one who died was.

The one who died changed everything.

The one who died was God.

Today, God has died. On Good Friday God has died. 

And all those other words for Good Friday, for death and violence in our world. Those words from that list so long that we forget. Those words lose their power. All those days of death and violence and suffering that seem to come at us unrelentingly from the news, from around the world, from our backyards.

All those Good Fridays that seem to happen far too often.

They lose their power.

Because the God who died, died with us.

Because the God who died, lived with us.

Because the God who died, loved with us.

God died on Good Friday.

But death did not destroy God.

And God is not forgotten.

And God is not finished.

Good Friday and all our other words for violence and death are not bigger than God is. 

On Good Friday, God who is bigger than death showed us something new.

On Good Friday God gave us truly new words. Words that change the world.

Words likes:

Mercy

Forgiveness

Compassion

Grace

Love

New words that God uses to change us.

On Good Friday God dies with us.

But what is ended,

What is finished,

What is over is,

the power of death.

On Good Friday death is ended.

On Good Friday death is no more

On Good Friday death will never have the final word.

Today, on Good Friday, God has a new word.

One word that changes everything.

Life. 

Why did Jesus have to die? – Why God didn’t kill Jesus on Good Friday

We are on the doorstep of Holy Week.

Clergy types will soon be setting out to write and preach sermons that somehow make sense of the passion story, from Triumphant Entry, to Last Supper, to Trial and Crucifixion and finally Resurrection.

Along the way, it will be important to say something about how the death of a wandering preacher, teacher and healer on a cross is the means of our salvation… and what exactly we are being saved from.

This is a tricky endeavour because the story of the passion doesn’t explain the reasons. Instead we are left to fill in the gaps, and Christians have been trying to make sense of Christ’s death since St. Paul was writing letters.

And so often on Good Friday, a strange and convoluted theory of the reasons for Christ’s death is presented… one that makes God seem merciless, if not plain incoherent.

Often, God is presented as the ultimate source of Christ’s condemnation, the one who kills Jesus on Good Friday.

And this is absurd.

It is my contention that Good Friday is the day of the most important facet of the Good News and it is not because God killed Jesus.

Satisfaction Atonement

One of the most common ways that Christians tend to explain the atonement is with Bishop Anselm’s satisfaction atonement theory. The cole’s notes version is that the punishment for human sin is our death. And the satisfaction, the making things right is Christ’s death (since he was without sin).

What is rarely stated is that Anselm used medieval legal practice to formulate his theory. In medieval law, a fine was the punishment for most crimes. Anselm saw then that death was the fine for sin. But that wasn’t the end of the matter. In order to compensate the victim, satisfaction was paid. An additional amount that would make things right.

Anselm figured that since death was the most human beings could pay, an additional payment to make satisfaction with God was needed. Christ’s death becomes the satisfaction for our sin.

Now, beyond the fact that his medieval legal system is flawed and very human like any other system, there are a number of problems with Anselm’s theory:

God requires blood in order to show mercy… which is not mercy.

God is bound by human laws… which means God isn’t free.

And finally God and Jesus split apart by the cross… which is trinitarian heresy.

Anselm’s atonement theory is certainly not the only one out there (Christus Victor/ Ransom theory, Moral influence theory, scapegoat theory etc…). But it shows a common problem that most explanations of what was going on on the cross seem to have – they undo the trinity.

The Cross and Trinity

For some reason preacher’s tend to get uncomfortable with God being too close to the cross of Good Friday. When I was a neophyte theology student, still two years from starting seminary I was asked to give a short reflection on Good Friday on one of the 7 last words of the cross. My words were “I thirst.” And I pontificated eloquently on how Jesus experienced the human condition fully on the cross. Sounds lovely. And I then expounded on how Jesus was fully separated from God, just like we were. Almost sounds legitimate… except for that whole trinity thing.

The doctrine of the trinity reminds us that the persons of the trinity are never separate because they are one God. They are distinct, but one. So the experiences of one are shared by all. The Father and the Son could not be separated, even on the cross.

And this the heart of the problem. We don’t like the idea of God suffering, the Father suffering. We would rather make God the killer than the sufferer.

But the Trinity necessitates that God the Father experienced the cross just as much the Son did. God was crucified and died on that cross.

So who killed God?

We did.

Humanity. Our religion. Our government. Our authorities. Our mobs.

Yes, I do think that God knew the cross was in store of Jesus even before that angel visited Mary to tell her she was pregnant.

But it was not because God was perversely and cruelly looking to punish someone for our sin. It is not because God needed blood to be merciful.

God knew the the cross was in store because God knew us. God knew that humanity couldn’t let God come close in the incarnation. God’s coming close threatened our godship. We cannot be god if God is God. We could not be god if Jesus is God.

And here is where the Good News of Good Friday meets us.

Even though God knew the consequence of incarnation – of coming close to creation, of coming in flesh – God followed through to the end. God was born, God lived, God died. God did all the human things. Good Friday was the completion. God declared that God is going to a part of all of created life. There is no part of human existence that would be apart from God.

So why did Jesus have to die? Because we said so.

And why do we get to live? Because God said so.

So this Holy Week, whether you are preaching or hearing the preaching, listen… listen to hear the good news of Good Friday.

Listen and know that it is not that God killed God’s son in order to show us mercy. The good news is never a demand for blood. That is sin.

The good news is that God chooses life. God chose to live. To live all of created life, including death.

And because God lived it all, that whole resurrection thing that happens on Sunday becomes part of our story. Because God chose live and die with us, we get to die and live with God.


What good news do you hear on Good Friday? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Anointing Jesus’ Feet – The Smell of Death

John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

It must have been almost hard to breathe.

The smell of the perfume as it filled the room. It would have overwhelmed the noses of all present at the celebratory meal. We all know someone who wears too much perfume, whether its that strange aunt in the family, or lately it seems to be teenage boys wearing too much body spray cologne. Smells can overpower us like no other sense can. And certain scents can trigger memories like nothing else. They can remind us more powerfully than a picture of past events, places or persons. The smell of chlorine can take you right back to that first time swimming in an indoor pool. Or the smell of pine trees can take you back to beloved Christmas memories.

The smell today, the perfume that anoints Jesus’ feet cannot be taken lightly or be overlooked. A pound of perfume is not a delicate scent, and that seems to be Mary’s point. On this day, Jesus, his good friend Lazarus, and the disciples are being treated to a celebratory meal. Lazarus has been raised from the dead and this is the first time that Mary, Martha and Lazarus have seen Jesus since the miracle. Martha, as usual, is serving the dinner. She is giving thanks in her way. But Mary decides to give thanks in a different way. She wants to express her deep gratitude and her love for Jesus. Its the kind of emotional display that makes most of us uncomfortable, like two lovers passionately kissing in public. As Mary anoints Jesus feet, and then wipes them with her own hair, the rest of the guests at the party were probably feeling awkward. Washing feet was something that servants do. And using one’s hair as the cloth… well, that was just strange. Mary’s act is as extravagant and wild and passionate as it seems. Probably something that should have been saved for a private moment with Jesus.

In the midst of this beautiful moment, this act of love and gratitude that Mary is giving to Jesus, Judas pipes up. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”. The moment is ruined. Judas has re-interpreted this lovely scene to his own ends. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the display of affection, or perhaps as John suggests, he has other intentions for the money. Whatever Judas’ reasons, he wants to disconnect from the intimate and personal moment. He tries to make it about the impersonal and distant and abstract idea of how money should be used. Judas tries to make the moment about practicality and he almost steals away Mary’s extravagant love, diminishing her by rebuking her feelings. Judas tries to dismiss Mary’s love and gratefulness with his distant and impersonal righteous indignation.

________________________________________________

We often attempt to distance ourselves from being too close or invested like Mary is today. Like Judas who seems to be using money or good intentions to create distance between himself and this powerful display of affection. Our fear of getting too close like Mary does, can prevent us from seeing and experiencing the love and beauty of the world.

And at the heart of our distancing, is our self-centred desire for control. We want to be control where we begin and end, to protect our feelings from risk and hurt. And we use whatever power we can. Money, judgement, shame. Mary’s act is not safe, its wild and untamed. Its extravagant and passionate. This is not the way we think the world should work. “Don’t waste the money” we declare because we are uncomfortable with risk. “Don’t be so emotional” we cry out because we know loving so deeply can lead us to getting hurt.

Our fear of being close, our need for control, can get in the way of seeing the beauty of faith. Our discomfort puts practicality or pragmatism before others, before people. Judas only sees dollars being poured on Jesus feet. We often get bogged down by the resources being expended on our family, on our neighbours, on the church, on ourselves. Judas doesn’t see that what Mary is doing for Jesus is worth more than any amount of money. Often we find it hard to see that the families, friends, neighbours and ministries that we give our time and passion to are worth more than any amount of money. It can be hard for us to see that risking being close can bring us the greatest reward, and staying distant will never bring real satisfaction or meaning.

____________________________________________

For five weeks we have been immersed in the season of Lent. Immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells. The feel and smell of Ashes marked our heads. We have kept from singing Alleluias, we have sung Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy, Lord have Mercy instead. And on this final Sunday before Palm Sunday, the smell of death enters into our sanctuary.

There is a pound of pure nard on Jesus feet. This perfume is one meant to keep the smell of death at bay. It is suppose to disguise the smell of a decaying body while it waits to be buried.

Yet, so often the thing meant to distance and disguise, to protect us from reality comes to symbolize the very thing it is trying to hide. The perfume becomes the smell of death.

Jesus does not miss the symbol. Mary has anointed his feet with the smell of Good Friday, the scent that is slowly building in our nostrils as we get closer to Holy Week.

Jesus does not see waste, Jesus doesn’t need to distance himself from Mary. Jesus sees love, lavish, wild and untamed love. Jesus sees the future. “Leave her alone” he says, ”She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”. Mary is not anointing a king, or prophet. Mary is anointing a friend, teacher and son, who will be soon prepared for burial on Friday evening, and Jesus is reminding his disciples and friends one more time of all of this. The ministry, the parables, the miracles, the teaching in synagogues, the traveling the countryside. None of it is about the bottom line, none of it has been about being practical with money, none of it was about God staying distant and safe from creation. This moment is a foretaste of God’s imminent future.

When the time comes for Jesus the corpse to be put in the ground, God will be accomplishing something new, something never seen. Something glimpsed as Lazarus stepped out of his tomb. God is accomplishing something new before the women even have the chance to anoint Jesus’s body on that Easter morning. God is about to turn the world upside, to bring new meaning to creation. Preparing for burial will no longer be preparing for death, but preparing for New Life.

Here in this perfume filled room, where passionate and impulsive Mary has shown her love and given thanks in her way, Jesus gives the whole world a new sign. God’s future is now about us. Jesus burial is about us. On Good Friday Jesus will be anointing the world with New Life. And God is doing it all by coming as close and near as God possibly can.

What a contrast to our attempt to remain distant and safe. We try to protect ourselves by staying far away, by being uncomfortable with love. God risks it all, even death, to come close, to take on and wear our flesh, so that we will know love.

Judas is uncomfortable with the perfume filled house, he wants to step back and distance himself. Make things about money, or poor people, or whatever else that is safe to feel. But Jesus stays present and near for Mary’s gesture of love, and then Jesus tells us that God is only coming closer. Coming in the familiar smells of Holy Week.

Like any powerful perfume, there is no distancing ourselves from God’s love after this. Today God’s Love comes near to us in perfume that anoints Jesus feet, it will come on palms branches next week, come in the bread and wine of Maundy Thursday. And it will comes so close on Good Friday, we will nail it to the cross to distance ourselves from it.

But after three days, God’s love will burst forth, uncontrolled, untamed, wild, passionate, extravagant. And it will be love that we can see, touch, taste and of course, love that we can smell.

Amen.

The Prodigal Son and his Self-Righteous Jerk of a Brother

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So Jesus told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons… (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

The definition of the word prodigal is: a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way. Or someone who is wastefully extravagant.

The story of the prodigal son is a familiar story that most of us could probably retell the if we were we put on the spot. In fact, the term “prodigal son” can be applied to a person or situation, and most people will know the meaning. Even if most Christian images and symbols are being forgotten in culture, the prodigal son and his story endures. There must be something about this story that bears familiarity to our own experience and lives.

But the problem with familiarity is that meaning can be reduced and simplified. The power of the parable can be lost. And the prodigal son, like all good parables that Jesus tells, is not meant to be a simplistic, straight across comparison where the Father equals God, and the sons equal humanity. Instead, good parables demand that we put ourselves in the shoes of all the characters, that we put God in the shoes of all the characters, and even consider that we or God might not be any of the characters.

A few years ago, a good friend who is also a pastor, shared about his experience teaching his confirmation class the parable of the prodigal son. To help the class embody the parable, he had the students act out the story. They found it easy to play the son who goes out to have a party on his father’s dime. And the dutiful yet indignant older son was also easy to play. But when it came time to be the father who ran out to welcome home his lost son, the students would stand and wait with hands on hips, a frown on their face. Or they would scold the returning son for making his father worry. Some even grounded the son when he returned. They just couldn’t imagine a parent who welcomed a delinquent child home without some kind of reprimand. I am not sure what this says about us as parents, but at least says something about the average teenager’s view of their parents.

Yet, this story only goes to show that no matter how well we think we know this parable, it carries far more depth and meaning than at first glance. And it is far more radical than it appears. It is easy to assume that the parable of the Prodigal Son is a moralism about doing the right thing. Older son good, younger son bad. Don’t be a younger son, we think is the moral of this tale. But that judgement is not one the text actually makes and to really hear what the parable is saying, we have to step away from the morals and lessons that we assume from the get go.

As with all the parables of Jesus, we need to consider the audience. There are two very different groups that Jesus is speaking to. The first is tax collectors and sinners. Those who owed debts and those who collected, but both of whom were believed to be excluded from God’s forgiveness and mercy. Contrast them with the second group, the Pharisees and scribes, the virtuous religious authorities and leaders who controlled access to God forgiveness and mercy. An audience who represented two very different experiences of God’s love.

With these two groups in mind, Jesus tells three parables about lost things, the third being about a man with two sons. The younger son asks for his share of his inheritance to strike out on his own in the world. But before we can set to the task of judging this son for his dissolute living, it is important to understand Jewish inheritance practice. In Jesus’ day, it was the norm that the elder son would inherit a double portion of his father’s wealth. The older son in this story would get two thirds of the inheritance, while his younger brother just one third. But not all things were divided this way. As land belonged to families or tribes, the older son would become the one in charge of all the land of his father. He would control not only two thirds of his father’s wealth, but all of his father’s land, his father’s tenants, workers and slaves. And this would include his younger brother. So while we assume that the younger brother is some party animal or that he can’t for his father to die to get his hands on his money, it might actually be the case that the younger brother just doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life working under his self-righteous jerk of an older brother.

And while it might be easy to assume, like his older brother did, that the younger son went and lost his inheritance by immoral living, we don’t really know. It could have been a combination of circumstances, such as poor choices, famine, or being alone in a foreign land.

Yet, to put the weight of the parable’s meaning on the younger son’s repentance and return home is to miss a key feature of good Hebrew story telling. The last part of the story is often the point.

And the last part of the story is all about the older son.

The older son’s refusal to celebrate his brother’s return is more than a mere attitude problem. This older son has fundamentally missed the point. As his father invites him to the banquet, the older son stands in judgement of both his brother and his father. He is indignant. He believes that he is the righteous one. He believes that he has earned his rightful place in his father’s house. He thinks his hard work and obedience entitles him to his father’s wealth and lands, to his father’s position and power. He complains that his father hasn’t recognized his virtue, not even with a modest young goat to enjoy with his friends. Yet, his father has killed the fatted calf for his delinquent brother. The injustice! Never mind that every goat and calf, every robe and ring, every slave and servant (including the younger brother) will one day belong to him.

It is easy to see the parable of the Prodigal Son about one good son and one bad, yet when we set our assumptions aside and unpack the depths of the story, we can see that it is both sons who are equally lost. And we can see it is isn’t about trying to be more like one son over the other. Instead, we see that there are times in our lives where we have felt self-righteous and indignant, like we have earned our place in the world and more. And there might be other times where we have felt unworthy and unloveable, like we couldn’t possibly be shown mercy and compassion.

Still, even with a perspective shift in how we see the sons, we are just as unable as those confirmation students to see the radical love of a parent, who loves without reprimand or condition. Yet, the newly understood lostness of both sons helps to sharpen for us just how loving this father is.

The name western Christians have given this son says much about how we understand this parable: The Prodigal or Wasteful with Money Son. But the Eastern Orthodox church calls this parable the Loving Father.

Whether it is the son who thinks he is unworthy and undeserving of his Father’s love or it is the son who is indignant and believes that he has earned more than he has received, the father seeks out his sons. Both sons. The well-to-do land-owner father runs down the road in a very undignified fashion welcome his lost younger son home. The generous and compassionate father still goes out to plead with his ungrateful and resentful older son, despite his son’s rejection. This father does not judge, this father does not reprimand, this father does not set condition on his generosity.

Even when younger takes advantage of his father and loses all that he has been given. Even when older cannot see that he has not actually earned anything, but that his father has freely given all that he has to his son. Both sons are given love and mercy and grace by their father. If anyone is prodigal, if anyone is wastefully extravagant it is the father who is lavish with his love.

What a radical image of God’s love and forgiveness for Jesus’ audience? A reminder to the Pharisees, Scribes and those of us who think we have earned it, that God’s love cannot be earned because it is already given freely. A reminder to the tax collectors, sinners and those of us who feel unworthy or undeserving, that God’s love is given freely and does not need to be earned.

This Lenten season we have been confronted again and again with the relationship of love and power. Today, we are shown an image of God’s love that is more generous than we can imagine.

Today, our Prodigally loving God shows us just how far God will go to find us.

Amen

* This sermon was co-written with my amazing wife, Courtenay. Follow her on Twitter: @ReedmanParker 

 

Why Pastors Shouldn’t Work More than 40 Hours a Week – And Why Most Do

“If you want to see me on my day off, you will have to die.”

A veteran pastor shared this line with me that he uses to protect his day off. He sets the boundary that the only work he is willing to make exceptions for, on his day off, is imminent death or funerals.

Managing work time and hours as a professional in ministry is a constant struggle. I don’t know many pastors who work less than a 45 hour a week, with many working 50 or 60 hours. Being “busy” and over-worked is the norm for most in ministry (as it is for many in our busy-ness focused society).

After 7 years of being in ordained ministry, I still have difficulty understanding just why so many pastors feel the need to work more than full time. While I have never heard anyone articulate it this way, I suspect many pastors have a sense that the first 40 hours are for the salary, and the rest are for Jesus. I am sure there are a few church folks who may agree, but I think this is a sentiment that originates with pastors themselves.

Many pastors are running around going to every church event, dropping everything for every hospital call or shut-in visit, answering every phone call, arriving before every church meeting and staying for the meeting after the meeting in the parking lot. It seems like many pastors and the churches they serve are completely content with the idea that the pastor is omni-present in body… while never being able to focus well – in mind and soul – on anything in particular.

I once attended a retirement party for a pastor leaving a long time call to institutional ministry. While it was a celebratory event, there was a certain awkwardness about the whole thing. The community he served thanked him for his tremendous service, while his family made jokes about their husband and father that was never home. And when he was home, he was bringing work with him. The community that this pastor served basically thanked this pastor’s family for sacrificing quality time with their husband and father… for Jesus?

I don’t think this is a healthy way to do ministry, nor do I think that Jesus calls pastors to be work-a-holics. 

A few weeks ago, I came across an article by Eugene Peterson called, “The Un-busy Pastor.” It is an article that has resonated with me, even though it was written the year before I was born.

The idea of an “unbusy” pastor seems like a rarity: A pastor who takes the time to contemplatively read scripture so that she is drenched in the word. A pastor who prays often enough and in such a way that she exudes calmness and wisdom. A pastor who is isn’t so busy running around from function to function, that she has time to listen when real listening is needed.

I don’t know what the cultural value of being busy in 1981 was when Euguene Peterson wrote about the unbusy pastor, but certainly being busy in 2016 is sign of importance. Now pastors have no exclusive claim to being busy in today’s world, but like so many other professions and jobs out there, being busy seems to be the way pastors show we are doing our job and worth our keep.

I can’t help but think of the contrast between the omni-present, omni-doing pastor with the idea of the unbusy pastor who, according to Peterson, focuses on prayer, reading scripture, and unhurriedly listening.

Decades ago as the church in North America became heavily prescribed and institutionalized post-WWII, the role of pastor shifted from leader, expert and resident theologian of a community to the chief do-er of ministry for a community. This means the culture now is one where instead of leading communities that do ministry, pastors do ministry on behalf of churches.

However, in the past 10 or years this has started shifting back. As churches contend with the big “change” happening around them (rapid technological advancement changing the way communities organize and interact coupled with decline of institutional christianity), many are realizing that communities need to be a part of ministry again. It can’t all sit on the shoulders of the pastor. As that shift takes place and pastors start doing less so that they can provide leadership and expertise, pastors will have to better understand how to prioritize their time.

In Eugene Peterson’s article the Unbusy Pastor, he suggests that being a busy pastor (as many pastors are) is actually a sign of laziness:

“The other reason I become busy is that I am lazy. I indolently let other people decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. But these people don’t know what a pastor is supposed to do. The pastor is a shadow figure in their minds, a marginal person vaguely connected with matters of God and good will. Anything remotely religious or somehow well-intentioned can be properly assigned to the pastor.”

Taking control of our own schedules and prioritizing is essential as pastors shift from chief do-ers to expert leaders, but so is understanding how a pastor’s time is valuable to a faith community.

To that end, I think there are 3 competing ways in which a pastor’s time is valuable to congregations. Balancing these three will be essential for healthy ministry in the future.

1. Quantity

Society, at least legislatively speaking, thinks that about 40 hours of work a week is enough for most full time jobs. Yet, as pastors became the chief do-ers of ministry decades ago, added responsibilities meant more time. And as pastors worked to prove their value to their congregations, they worked more and more and more.

But when quantity of ministry is the highest value, it necessitates a decline of quality. You cannot write a good sermon if they are all Saturday night specials. You cannot plan for the future, if it takes all your energy to get through the day. You cannot attend to the needs of the community as a whole, if you are running from individual to individual like a nursemaid. You cannot take the time for prayer, reading scripture or to really listen, if your calendar is full of the appointments made by others.

2. Flexibility

Churches tend to hold their functions when most people are not working, which means pastors work when most people are off. Evening and weekends. Standard eight hour work days wouldn’t work for ministry. This means that usually a pastor’s day(s) off are a weekday, and that often pastors might find themselves without something scheduled on a weekday morning or afternoon. This flexibility works well for pastors and is a benefit to congregations, as churches wouldn’t be very good places for community if they operated on bank hours.

But when pastors start to work bank hours AND evenings and weekends, the boundaries around work-life balance disappear. Pastors set an expectation that they can be anywhere, anytime. Congregations then embrace that behaviour. Then when pastors do try to have boundaries, they have to say things like, “If you want to see me on my day off, you have to die.” Flexibility is important for ministry, but not a the cost of a balance of personal time and space. Nor at the cost of a healthy relationship between pastor and congregation, but that is for another blog post.

3. Expertise

Seminary training gives pastors tools and knowledge that simply cannot be found in other ways. The training and education shapes and forms a pastor into a person who should be a scholar of the bible, a competent provider of pastoral care, a theologian and liturgist, an administrator and leader of systems, and an educator and teacher among other things. Of course not all gifts and skills are equal among pastors, but there is a certain expertise that is brought to the table with a pastor. I know that I have studied the bible in ways that my parishioners have not. I know that I have been trained to care for emotional and spiritual needs in ways that most of my parishioners have not. I know that my understanding of theology and liturgy is resource that my congregation wouldn’t have access to without me.

But expertise takes time to keep up and maintain. It takes a sharp, well-rested mind to dig back to readings and lectures buried in the recesses of the brain. It takes time to keep up on current articles and books about ministry or theology or administration. It takes intentionality to leave the mind time to ponder and reflect on the bigger picture of ministry in the parish. The expertise a pastor provides is like a that of a doctor or lawyer or other professional. It should be seen as something that church people cannot receive elsewhere or on their own. Just like Dr. Google is not a substitute for a real doctor, nor is Pastor Google a substitute (says the pastor on his blog).

The balance between quantity, flexibility and expertise has long been weighted towards quantity. The sacrifice has been quality expertise. Too many pastors boast about not reading any books since seminary, nor having the time to do continuing education.

The church for the future needs less of a chief do-er of ministry and more of an expert leader. Pastors need to re-balance. Lots of ministry can happen in 60 hours a week, but good ministry should only take 40. After that you are not likely helping your congregation in their ministry, nor providing the leadership and expertise that the church has been longing for, for some time now.

As congregations and the Church contends with a changing world, Christians need pastors who can help prioritize the mission of the gospel. A pastor cannot help people grow in relationship with Jesus if that pastor is too busy filling his or her days with un-prioritized busy work.

Ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding. Thriving, healthy, mission and Jesus minded congregations will be led and served by unbusy pastors. 


Are you a pastor who works more than 40 hours a week? Why? How much do you think pastors should work and why? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik