A Full Church is not Measured by the Number of People

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.

(Read the whole passage)

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each 4th Sunday in the Season of Easter is reserved to hear about Jesus the Good Shepherd. And here at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, we could consider this Sunday an opportunity to celebrate our congregation. Just as congregations with names like St. Matthew’s, or St. John’s often celebrate on the feast days of their saints.

But this year we get short changed in the shepherd department. We are in the 3rd year of our 3 year cycle of readings for each Sunday. And last year and the year before, Good Shepherd Sunday got the good readings. “I am the Good Shepherd” readings. Today we get a passing reference to sheep and that is it.

In fact, as we encounter Jesus, it is an entirely different celebration. The festival of Dedication. Or more commonly known as Hanukkah – nothing to do with shepherds.

Instead of Shepherds, sheep, meadows and spring, we get the dead of winter. Jesus is walking through the temple, the Portico of Solomon. A space along the East wall where crowds would have gathered to celebrate Hanukkah – a winter festival of lights. It was an 8 day celebration to commemorate how the temple had been liberated 200 years earlier from oppression by the Seleucids – the empire of Alexander the Great. The liberating rebels found the temple defiled and the only undefiled thing was a sealed bowl of olive oil, enough to light a lamp for one day. But the oil lasted 8 days, long enough to complete the ritual cleansing.

Hanukkah, this winter festival of lights was a time for families to gather, to remember how they had been freed from oppression and how the nation of Israel had been restored. But by Jesus’ day, the celebration would have been bitter-sweet. The people now lived under different oppressors – the Roman Empire.

And so the crowds gathered at the temple for Hanukkah see Jesus, and they are looking for liberation again. They want to be saved, restored to former greatness, they want control of their destiny and future. They press in on Jesus wanting answers. They long for the day when their nation would be their own again – they want a Messiah to come and lead them to greatness, just like the rebels had done 200 years before. “Tell us plainly” they demand of Jesus, give us the quick and easy answer to our problems.

Jesus doesn’t give them answer they are looking for, instead he talks about sheep knowing his voice and people being snatched out of his hands. A cryptic non-answer for a crowd wanting a plain and straight forward response.

In many ways, the bitter-sweetness of celebrating liberation while living under oppression is something we know too. No we haven’t needed liberation from anything here in Canada. Nor do we know what it is like to live under oppression.

But we do know what it is like to feel like for our identity and place in the world to be taken away. On a day when we could be celebrating Good Shepherd, it is easy to carry concerns about the future. It is easy to feel like an older, thinner and more tired version of ourselves. It easy to feel like those crowds did, like we are celebrating something that is already gone from us.

This week as the ACTS group met for bible study and considered this gospel lesson, it was Jesus’ answer to the crowds that generated questions. One question in particular stuck with me throughout the week, “If Jesus says he won’t let us be snatched from God’s hand, what does being snatched out look like.”

What I think our group was really asking was, “If Jesus is the Messiah, why does it feel like our church is shrinking and dying. Why does it feel like the world doesn’t care about us anymore? Why do people who were once here, once parts of our family, once parts of our community, no longer come? What about all the people who are gone? Have they not been snatched away?”

The question that the ACTS group asked is most certainly on the minds of Christians all over. And it is one we consider lots here at Good Shepherd too.

And we get frustrated too when we just want a plain answer from Jesus, but he gives us something vague and cryptic. Or at least he gives an answer that doesn’t satisfy our questions.

When the crowds demand to know if Jesus is the Messiah, he rejects the premise of their question. “I have told you, and you do not believe”

The crowds are asking for their temple and nation to be restored. They want a Messiah who will bring back the glory days, who will make Israel great again (as some politicians these days are fond of saying). The crowds are looking to return to the glory of Hanukkah… to relive the story of human triumph in the world. Of one group overcoming and having power over another.

But this is not about God’s work in the world. They are not remembering the covenant with Abraham, God delivering them from Egypt, nor God giving them a King in King David (despite God’s objections). They remembering their own glory.

And Jesus is not talking about a Messiah King, or Messiah warlord or Messiah President. Jesus is talking about a Messiah who has been sent for God’s work in the world.

So what are we asking of the Messiah? What do we want Jesus to tell us plainly? Sometimes we get wrapped up in asking the Messiah to restore our church, to build our membership, to increase our attendance. Sometimes, without thinking, we can equate how we feel about church with how we talk about God. We say that our church is shrinking, dying, getting smaller, becoming tired, a shell of what it once was… we say that God seems to be shrinking, dying, getting smaller, becoming tired, a shall of what God once was in our world. How we feel about church is how we talk about God.

Jesus is reminding us that it is actually the other way around. How God feels and acts towards us is how we should be talking about church.

Who is here and who is not hear is not a measure of whether or not we have been snatched out of God’s hand. How many people keep up weekly attendance is not a measure of the church or the Good Shepherd.

Jesus is telling us today the fullness of the church, that the aliveness of the church is about what God is doing here.

The church is full because the Word of God fills it with the Good News of God’s love for sinners, for the broken, for the forgotten and marginalized. The church is full of God’s love for us.

The church is full because the waters of baptism overflow here with grace and mercy. Just as Jaxson is baptized this morning, so to are we reminded that because we are baptized too, that God’s grace is overflowing here, filling this place. The church is full of God’s hope for us.

The church is full because the bread and wine of new life are in abundance here. Because when the Body of Christ gathers, we become bread for the world and we are send out with good news for the world. The church is full God’s gifts for us.

Like those crowds gather for Hanukkah, we can easily can get wrapped up in wanting to restore former glory, with wondering what God is doing with a seemingly shrinking, dying place, with measuring our fullness by who is here and who is not. We can starting talking about God using the language of how we feel.

But Jesus reminds us of how God feels and acts towards us.  That the Messiah is about doing God’s work. And that God’s work fills this place, not with us, but with God. God fills this place with love and mercy and grace – God’s work done here and done for us.

Amen. 

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Why nothing seems to get people back to church – The issue at the core of decline

“People just aren’t committed like they used to be”

This week, I came across this satirical article from the site BabylonBee “After 12 Years Of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked By Daughter’s Lack Of Faith

The article humorously reveals an issue facing many churches today. I can’t tell you how many times (56,819 times) I have had the conversation where someone talks about the fact that young people aren’t as committed as they once were. People aren’t coming to church like they did in decades past, and those left behind have started to notice. Many congregations are feeling older, thinner, and tired out. The future feels bleak. The studies tell us that the church is declining.

And so churches try any number of things to attract people back to church. Youth group programs, revamped and modern music, renovated worship spaces, hip and cool pastors with tattoos and any number of other gimmicks.

But nothing seems to work. At least I haven’t heard of any churches successfully bringing back all the members who drifted away. And yet we keep at it, week after week, year after year worrying about people who were once here. Our grand plans for revitalization is to try and appeal to people who have already chosen to leave. Sure, it works once in a while, but this is probably not a strategy for success.

Yet, while churches fret and worry about those who were once there, we rarely take the time to understand what we are asking people to come back and commit to.

Commitment to church

A lot of sermons, bible studies, meetings, conferences, lectures, consultants, coaches and more have been spent analyzing and communicating the message that the social advantages of church that drove attendance in decades past no longer exist. It just isn’t the case anymore that good citizens born here are expected to become good church members. Schools, work, neighbours, businesses, governments don’t do –  society-at-large doesn’t do – our evangelism for us anymore.

Church isn’t an expected social commitment any longer.

Yet, almost always when we speak of getting people to start coming back to church, we say it just like that – ‘back to church.’ And the issue goes deeper to than that. So often when I ask church members what reason keeps them coming to church, there is almost always one things at to the top of the list: Church feels like family, church is a community.

Churches should be communities where we feel connected to each other in deep ways.  But family and community are still social commitments at the end of the day.

Social Commitment

Most churches are, at their core, institutions formed around a social or societal commitment. The core of churches have been based on the fact that people are expected to attend because of societal pressures. And when society taught us through family, friends, neighbours, schools, workplaces, TV, movies, newspapers, courthouses, and governments that being church attenders was important, churches organized around social commitment worked well.

These churches did good ministry, they reached people with the gospel and they were servant communities.

But now that society is no longer providing the pressure to be church attenders, attracting people to a social commitment doesn’t work.

In fact, it may be the very thing that is driving people away.

Our pitch for church has often become some version of “come to church because you should” or “come to church for your family” or “come to church for the community”

Yet, people are choosing sports or music or clubs or brunch with friends or sleeping in with family because they love those things. People are choosing things that they are passionate about, things that they love. Social pressure doesn’t hold much sway anymore, even if our society did push church on people.

When you love soccer, finding a team to play on is also finding a community with a shared passion. When you love brunch, finding a brunch club means joining a community that shares your love of brunch. When you love lazy Sunday mornings with family, you have a community that also loves sleeping in.

But what is our shared loved at church? Are we just communities to join without a shared passion?

Commitment to Jesus

If I had to guess, the vast majority of people who still might be looking for a church in 2016 are not looking for a social commitment to church.

As a millennial, I never lived in the era of social commitment or social pressure to go to church. While most of my peers growing up weren’t interested in church, nor exposed to it beyond Christmas and Easter, the ones who did express interest did not do it for the social commitment.

My church going peers were interested in following Jesus.

Now, imagine someone is looking for a church. They are looking for a church with a commitment to following Jesus at its core and they show up at a social commitment church. It would be like showing up for a soccer team that stopped playing soccer years ago, and who instead gathers for coffee and donuts with friends and family. But this gathering of people still call themselves a soccer team.

Now imagine members of that “soccer team” wringing their hands week after week over the fact that no one wants to join the team to clean up coffee and pick up the donuts. You can see why soccer players looking for a team wouldn’t join. You can see why many members of the team left a long time ago.

As churches try to understand why all the attempts to attract people back to church haven’t yield better results, I think it is because the core foundation that brings most church communities together is fundamentally at odds with what people who are looking for churches are seeking today.

If I had to guess, that if people are looking for church these days, they are doing it in the same way that someone would look for a soccer team. A soccer player looks for a team because they love soccer. A church seeker is looking for a church community because they love Jesus and want to follow him. They are not looking for a church because they love church.

And it goes deeper than that. If getting people to church is the chief concern, than we will always be looking to draw people in.

But if following Jesus, and letting people know about this gracious, merciful and compassionate God, is at our core, we will reach out. And reaching out to let people know about Jesus, may or may not include more bums in pews. Either way, building the church is not the goal, but at best is a symptom of reaching people with Jesus.

So how can churches address this? How can churches built on the social commitment to church have the conversation about the fact that the very thing that brings them together as a community is their biggest problem?

With a lot of soul-searching, a lot of questions, a lot of discerning and a lot of prayer. Changing our foundations and cores will not be easy. In fact, many churches will choose to die instead of changing to the core of following Jesus.

Despite the social commitment at the core of our churches, I think that many churches and church members do want to follow Jesus too. And it isn’t that a church has to choose between being a community or following Jesus. One doesn’t exclude the other.

But churches DO have to choose what is at their core. Churches need to choose the foundation that gathers their community.

Is it a social commitment to church?

Or are we followers of Jesus whose shared passion brings us together?


What is the core passion that brings your church together? How can churches change their core? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Two weeks after the empty tomb – What now?

John 21:1-19

Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

My first day of being a pastor was a Sunday. There was a big celebratory service with special music, excited friends and family to cheer me on and a happy congregation. The day before I had been ordained, another big celebratory service with special music and crowds of family and friends. I took Monday as my day off. And then on Tuesday morning, with nothing in my schedule and as the only employee, I wandered over to the church building. I stood in my office wondering, “Okay, now what do I do?”

The third Sunday of Easter is a bit like that moment. Two weeks ago was the big service and celebration with special music and crowds. Last Sunday things died down, but it was still the after-party with Jesus appearing to the disciples and then to Thomas. But today, while resurrection is still heavy on our minds, we are left wondering now what?

John’s gospel tells us about the disciples who were in the same boat… literally. The disciples to whom Jesus has appeared to twice in the span of a week and empowered them for the ministry of the kingdom decide that fishing is the obvious next step. Peter, to be precise decides that now after following Jesus around for 3 years, witnessing miracles and teachings, the triumphal entry, the crucifixion, and the empty tomb that going back to what he knows is best. And few of the others agree, James and John sons of Zebedee, along with of all people scholars Thomas and Nathanael.

On the other hand, in Acts we hear about Saul on the road to Damascus. He is not two week removed from the resurrection, but about 10 years. Yet, the events of Easter have inspired him to zealously and murderously persecute Christians. And Ananias, the fearful follower of the way is hiding in fear, precisely of people like Paul.

All of these disciples, or soon-to-be followers of Jesus, have been affected by the events of Easter differently. They all make different choices in how to react to the resurrection, but they also share a similar experience. They are struggling to make sense of what the Risen Christ means for them and for their world. They have heard the Easter stories, they have lived them in fact, but they are as lost as anyone in how to move on from that world changing moment.

This odd collection of followers of the way of Jesus, are just like any group of people who gather to become the church. They are just like us. Perhaps we are like Peter, bold to risk it all in one moment, and then timidly back to business as usual in the next. Perhaps we are like Paul, concerned that everyone around keep the rules just as we do. Perhaps were are like Ananias, faithful yet fearful of showing that faith. Perhaps we are like James and John, Thomas and Nathanael, interested and engaged, but easy influenced to try the next thing that comes along.

Like those varied disciples, often the only thing that binds us all together as followers of the way, as the body of Christ gathered here, is our common belief in the Christ and the resurrection. Follow by our shared struggled with just what to do with this good news.

The early church called themselves followers of the way rather than Christians. They wanted to emphasize that they followed the way of a living person, which is not always easy or clear. Kind of like following someone in a busy crowd, it easy to get jostled and shoved about, to lose sight of the one we are following.

Today, two weeks out from Easter, the reality of the Risen Christ is a confusing struggle. It was all a big party on that Easter morning, but today we are left to sort out just what happens next. And considering pillars of the faith like Peter and Paul, James and John, Ananias, Thomas and Nathanael struggled to sort it out… what chance do we have? Are we supposed to go knock on doors to ask people if they have heard the good news? Should we all find ten friends to bring to church? Do we need to pray in public more often? Should we be preachy and pious like Christians on TV?

Being followers of the way is not easy two weeks out from Easter.

As Saul marched down the road to Damascus, on his way to enforce the rules he thought were right, Jesus met Saul where he was.  Jesus didn’t just meet Saul, but Jesus blindsided him, blinded him literally. Jesus met him on the way and redirected his path. The encounter with Jesus changed the course of Saul’s life. Saul became Paul.

As Ananias hid away in fear, Jesus met Ananias where he was and encouraged him to go despite his fears. Jesus called Ananias to be the hands and feet of Christ, to help Saul become Paul, to welcome Paul into the body of Christ. Ananias’s life was changed.

As Peter returned to the fishing boat not knowing what to do next after the resurrection, Jesus called to him from the shore. Jesus met Peter where he was.  Jesus asked him to feed my sheep. Jesus reminded Peter what it means to tend to the body of Christ, that Peter couldn’t walk away from it all. Peter’s life was now forever tied to the fortunes of the followers of the way.

As James and John, Thomas and Nathanael shrugged their shoulders and follow Peter to go fishing, Jesus met them where they were. He showed them that he was still the one to follow, still they who knew where to cast their nets for fish, and where to cast their nets in fishing for people.

Jesus meets each of his followers as they struggle with how to proceed, with how to make sense of the Risen Christ. Jesus finds them in their Easter confusion, and gives them what they need. He makes them blind, he encourages, he has hard conversations he shows them abundance. Jesus meets them and points them back to the way. He points them to the way he showed them before Easter and reminds them that they are still followers of the way afterwards.

And in the same way Jesus meets us. Jesus meet us as we struggled with how to proceed, Jesus meets us in our diversity of struggles whether we are like Paul, like Peter, like Ananias, like Thomas and Nathanael, like Jame and John. Whether we are unsure, afraid, bold one moment timid the next, whether we just go along to get along, whether we are confused and struggling. Jesus meets is here.

Jesus meets us in all the other struggling and confused sisters and brothers in faith that gather here week after week.

Jesus meets us in the word of God. In the stories of faith of all those disciples and followers who have struggled before us along the way. In the stories of faith and life that we share with each other, around cups of coffee here, at the water cooler at work, over backyard fences with neighbours, at kitchen tables with family and friends. Jesus meets us in the words we share as the body of Christ.

Jesus meets us in the waters of baptism. In the forgiveness, life and salvation that we hear every time we confesses our sins and receive forgiveness, every time we welcome and new member into the body of Christ, every time we gather on the banks of Red, the banks of the Mississipi, the Amazon, the Nile and anywhere God’s people are together, being washed in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus meets in the water we share as the body of Christ.

Jesus meets us in Bread and Wine. In the meal of life where we gather at God’s table, where we are nourished in faith. Jesus meets in the Body of Christ we are given to eat, Jesus makes the Body of Christ the Church, Jesus sends us to the Body of Christ, food for the world. Jesus meets us in the meal we share as the body of Christ.

Jesus meets us wherever, whenever, whomever we are.

And at this point in the sermon, it would be easy at this point to tell you now that Jesus meets you, go and bring ten people to church, go and convert your neighbour, pray on the street corner, be pious and rule followers, evangelize whenever you get the opportunity.

But that isn’t the good news, and that is not what Jesus is telling the disciples, Peter, Paul and the others.

The Good News is simply that Jesus comes to meet us. That Jesus finds us and meets us and shows us the way. That no matter how much we struggle with what comes next, no matter how fearful, or uncertain, or wishy washy, or ardent we are. The Good News is that Jesus is the one coming to us.

That we are followers of the way, because Jesus shows us the way.

 

 

Why tattoos are like clerical collars  – On being a Pastor with Tattoos

Tattoos are everywhere these days. According to pew research in 2010, nearly 4 in 10 millennials had tattoos. And half of those have 2 to 5. Generation X isn’t far behind with 32% having been inked.

So it hardly makes me unusual to be a millennial with tattoos.

I am also a Lutheran pastor, but I am by no means the only pastor with tattoos out there. In fact, if I had to guess about the pastors that I hang with, we might be more tattooed than average. And there is of course that famous tattooed Lutheran pastor, who has also written a few best selling books and even been interviewed on national radio here in Canada.

Tattoo #1 

IMG_0831
ICTHUS- Jesus Christ God’s Son Saviour

I went under the needle for the first time in the summer of 2006. Part of me is hopeful that I was ahead of the mainstream 10 years ago but I am sure I wasn’t. I was working at a bible camp at the time, and I remember having long talks about the implication of being tattooed. It would need to be a christian image, but not a cross. Every rapper had a cross tattoo by then (and rappers are a bad thing to the kind of young adults who work at bible camps). It would need to be in a place I could cover with clothes on a regular basis so that I could be a proper pastor (I was already a seminary student by then). But I also wanted the opportunity to show it off now and then. An original artwork Jesus fish on the back of my calf seemed like the best option.

That first tattoo made me feel cool. The comments of my co-workers, the kids at the camp, and my seminary classmates that I returned to that September made me feel ‘edgy’. Don’t laugh, it was 2006.

In 2009, I was ready to be ordained, and I hadn’t really thought about my Jesus fish much for a while. Then a church called me to be their pastor. My family told me to make sure I wore pants whenever I was working (as opposed to?), which I laughed at. But I was worried about what my new congregation would think if they ever saw my “edgy” tattoo.

And then the very first council meeting I was to attend, was also the day the uHaul was available for me to move into the parsonage. I drove up to the house only a few minutes before the meeting and sure enough I was wearing shorts on a hot summer day with my clothes still in boxes. What would these pious church folk think?

No one seemed to notice enough to say anything. So nothing?

That church had called me despite the fact that I looked like Hagrid from Harry Potter, or a giant dwarf from Lord of the Rings. My proportions are of someone with short legs and a squat body, except I am 6’2. And I had long hair and a beard at the time. A little calf tattoo was the least to get past when it came to my appearance.

After that I didn’t ever worry about my “edgy” tattoo.

But then unusual things started happening. I played slo-pitch in a Lutheran league, to which I usually wore shorts. Often players from other teams would comment on my Jesus fish. A number of times when other players found out that I was a pastor, they would think it was cool. They had never met a pastor with a tattoo (one they had seen).

For years after, I always wanted another tattoo, but I got my first on a lark at the one tattoo shop open on a Saturday in the small town near the bible camp. Going about getting tattooed in a serious way seemed like a lot of work.

Then life put another tattoo on the back burner. New calls to new churches, marriage and a baby.

Tattoo #2

For our 3rd wedding anniversary, my wife and I started talking about tattoos – yes, a bit of a stretch for the “leather” anniversary. And we wanted them to be seen. Somewhere that would regularly visible.

IMG_3971
Great Colours

Forearms.
Courtenay got a peacock feather (we had a peacock feather themed wedding), and I got a lion of St. Mark with a greek bible verse (I am a pietist at heart and a church nerd).

So for the last 7 months I have had a tattoo that is visible the majority of time (I a

IMG_3956
The Kingdom of God is Near

m almost always in short sleeves or rolled up sleeves). And as Justin Trudeau says, “Because it is 2015” I really didn’t think much of getting a tattoo, even as a pastor. My congregation largely didn’t notice either – bless them. A few said they thought I always had it, after I used it as an object lesson in a children’s sermon. Others have asked about and admired my lion.

Yet, outside of my usual group of church people, unusual things have started happening again.

Most of the baptisms I do are for families who are seldom active in the church, but have returned for whatever reason to get their child baptized. For this reason, I have opportunity to invite myself into the homes of unchurched or de-churched people in order to talk about Jesus. I have been doing this for 7 years and I always thought it was going well. But something changed once I had this big lion tattoo on my arm. People started relaxing more quickly, I didn’t have to make 10 jokes just to put people at ease. These poor young families with a pastor intruding in their home to talk about Jesus started to sense that I am a real person. All it took was a tattoo to break the image of christian judgement robot that pastors often have on TV.

My second tattoo is a wedding anniversary gift and it makes me think of my wife every time look at it (the greek bible verse says “the Kingdom of God is near”, and my wife and kids make me feel as close to paradise as I have ever felt).

But I never expected that my tattoo would also be a tool for ministry. I never thought it would humanize my clerical collar… that it would make the person in the shirt a person and not a caricature.

I never thought that when I rolled up my sleeves halfway through a conversation about baptism with a young unchurched mother who was getting her baby baptized for her mother-in-law that she would say,

“You have a tattoo! Is that okay for pastors to have?”

And then we would get to have a great conversation that makes Jesus, christians and the church seem reasonable.

Tattoo #3

IMG_4544
Pete

A few weeks ago, I got my 3rd tattoo on my other forearm. A birthday present from my wife. An elephant for my son, whose constant companion day and night is a little stuffed elephant named Pete.

The day after I got it, I presided at a funeral. Funerals can be awkward for pastors as there are usually a lot of people and you become a momentary figure of importance on a small scale. Since they watch you lead worship, people feel like they know you, but you don’t know them. Some are friendly, but many people avert their eyes when you come strolling into the lunch. Either way, when you are the one in the collar, people react to you with different levels of comfort. Some see you as a friendly and safe person, others are wary or unsure.

As I was mingling before lunch, a women passed me, averting her eyes … which landed on my tattoo. This stopped her and she began asking about it. We then shared a brief conversation about where I got it, which opened the door to more conversation about the funeral itself. My guess is that this woman have likely avoided me, but the tattoos were an opening. Still, for those whom the collar is safe and friendly, that hasn’t changed. I am still a safe person to approach.

A few weeks later, I met a de-churched young couple coming for pre-baptismal preparation before worship. I was wearing my vestments, which cover my arms. They seemed nervous to greet me. But following worship, with my vestments off and my arms uncovered, I could see the tension and nervousness leave the couple. My tattoos made me seem more human and relatable.

Tattoos and Collars

When I made the decision to get inked with permanent body art, I did so because I wanted to. It wasn’t about ministry at all.

IMG_1360But in some ways tattoos are like clerical collars.

Becoming an ordained pastor or getting a tattoo is a deeply personal decision. When you put on a collar you are displaying publicly an important and personal part of yourself. Everyone who sees you knows important and personal details about your job and  about your religious beliefs.

Tattoos function in much the same way. Tattoos are personal symbols and images on public display too. Everyone who sees your tattoos is given an image of something that is likely personal and meaningful to you.

When I wear a collar I embody a symbol that carries a variety of meanings to the people I meet. Symbols that range from spiritual caregiver to pedophile.

When I am just a guy in street clothes with tattoos, I embody an entirely different symbol to people. Symbols that range from millennial hipster to Hell’s Angel.

When I wear both, two symbols that have traditionally not mixed before come together.

And the thing I never expected about wearing both – a collar and tattoos – was that they would would humanize and tame each other,  and they would together open doors that neither could on their own.


 

What do you think about tattoos? What do you think about Pastors? Do you have stories involving both? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

If you are in the Winnipeg area and looking for a fantastic tattoo artist, check out Tattoos by Coral.

Doubting Thomas is not a scientist looking for evidence

John 20:19-31

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Every year we get Thomas. Every year, on the 2nd Sunday in the season of Easter we hear his story. And it can be a little tiresome, especially as the preacher. It can be tiresome to think of something new to say about this skeptic and his disbelief. And maybe for you hearing about Thomas year after year is boring or frustrating, hearing a message about believing despite evidence, or about having faith in the witness of those who tell you the story.

But this year the Thomas story seems different. In fact, this year the whole story, the story of Jesus from beginning to end, feels different. Maybe it started last fall with the Paris attacks and the shadow they cast over Advent and Christmas. Perhaps it is the shooting and violence we hear about non-stop, or maybe it is the racism and sexism that seems to hit the airwaves daily with people like Donald Trump and Jian Ghomeshi making the headlines.

The Thomas story seems different because it feels harder to care about the evidence like he seems to. We are used to doubting everything these days, including the evidence. There was a time before the World Trade Centre Towers fell on 9/11, back when Jean Chretien was Prime Minister, only one Bush had been president, the internet was only for computer nerds and Canadian teams had recently won the Stanley cup. Back then the world was relaxed enough and people had enough time to question whether or not Jesus even existed, Thomas’ question seemed like a legitimate challenge to faith and the church.

But not so these days. It is hard these days to worry about such frivolous objections to Christianity, when much bigger ones are out there, like politicians who use faith for political gain, along with racism and sexism. When the church has endured sex scandals, the fallout from residential schools, discriminatory policies about LGBT people and so on.

So it is hard to make the energy to be invested in Thomas’ desire for evidence, for evidence that the risen Christ was actually risen. Or least, it is hard to make the energy for this story in the way that we have become used to telling it.

But as usual, just because we are used to a story being told in one way, doesn’t mean we have it right.

On this second Sunday of Easter, we are transported back to the first Easter evening. That morning, the women had gone and reported that the tomb was empty (just as we heard last week). The disciples didn’t believe the reports, because they never believed what women had to say. And instead they are hiding away. Hiding because they are frightened of those in power and the authorities. Those same authorities, the temple priests, King Herod, Pontius Pilate… the ones that killed Jesus and who might be coming for his followers next.

And then Jesus appears among them. He offers them his peace, and breathes on them the holy spirit and goes on his merry way. But Thomas misses the whole thing. And when he does re-join the others, he will have none of their story. He wants to see Jesus himself, to touch his hands and side. Thomas seems to want evidence.

Or at least we think.

The world that Thomas lives in is less like the world of 20 years ago and more like our world today. We used to have trust for those in power and authority. We used to feel safe and protected, we use to trust that politicians had our best interests at heart, that our employers wanted to see use succeed, that our neighbours were trustworthy, that churches were places that proclaimed truth.

For Thomas, the powers and authorities of his world were dangerous, the governors and rulers were not only untrustworthy but likely wouldn’t hesitate to kill any one they found inconvenient. The market places were full of cheaters and jobs were hard to come by. People living under oppression wouldn’t hesitate to get in good with the Romans by betraying this silly band of Jesus followers. And religious rulers – well they orchestrated Jesus’ death in the first place.

Like Thomas, we feel less and less sure of our political leaders – especially with the Donald Trumps of the world vying for power. We know employers are trying to make the most profit, which means cutting costs at every corner. We don’t trust our neighbours because they are too different, they speak different languages, worship in different ways, they don’t seem to hold our values. And of course even though we are attending a church and seeking truth today, we know that churches and religious leaders often have agendas.

And so living in a world much more like Thomas’s than we ever have before, maybe we can see Thomas’ objection in a new way.

Maybe Thomas isn’t asking about the evidence, about scientific proof.

When Thomas says that he need to put his hands on Jesus’ hands, in Jesus’ side, in order to believe – ‘believe’ isn’t the best word to use for the greek. The best word would be trust.

And having problems with trust is something we know well.

Thomas wants to know who he can trust. In his world full of dangerous powers and authorities, full of people he isn’t sure care for him…. Thomas wants to know if he can trust Jesus.

And isn’t that what we want to know too. Not whether can we believe that someone was raised from the dead. But is Jesus someone we can trust? Is this message of the Kingdom of God coming near, of the call to go preach the good news, of resurrection and new life being given to us… are these things we can trust? Things we can stake our life and well being on? Are they safe?

We are coming to know what an unsafe world feels like more and more, and so maybe we now understand Thomas’s real objection better than we ever have before.

And so Thomas wants to know who he can trust in a world were there isn’t much trustworthiness to be found.

Yet in a world severely lacking in trust, Jesus shows up.

Jesus shows up to show God’s trustworthiness.

Jesus shows up and offers Thomas the very things that Thomas needs in order to trust.

Jesus shows up and offers the holes in the hands and in his side.

These wounds and scars are important details. It isn’t that just that Jesus has shown up. The wounds and scars tell the story of where Jesus has come from.

For Thomas the wounds and scars tell him that Jesus has encountered the dangerous powers and authorities. Jesus has been betrayed and killed.

But Jesus hasn’t been destroyed. The dangerous powers and the authorities did not overcome.

Jesus is trustworthy because all the untrustworthy things of the world did not have the final say.

Jesus is trustworthy because not only did he overcome the dangerous powers and authorities, but he came back for the disciples. He came back so that they, so that Thomas, so that all of us would be shown the way through – they way through the danger and peril. They way that is worth the risk and uncertainty. The way through that is not safe, but that ends with life.

Jesus shows that he is trustworthy, that all those things that he said about dying and rising on the third day, about the Kingdom of God coming near, about God’s love and forgiveness for sinners are worth the risk, worth trusting in a world where there is precious little to trust in.

And when he sees Jesus, when Jesus offers his hands and side, Thomas has his answer. Not the evidence we tend to think this story is about, but his answer to his fears and worries, to his uncertainty and insecurity.

Because Jesus shows that he knows the way to the other side of this messy and terrifying world we live in.

And today, when our world is so much like Thomas’s and our fears and questions and worries are like Thomas’s Jesus gives us our answer.

We too are shown the wounds and scars of the body of Christ. Jesus gives us a body, a community that has lived with the dangerous powers and authorities. The Body of Christ has been living its way through a world with precious little to trust for 2000 years. And the risen Christ comes to us again and again, week after week, year after year to show us that the wounds and scars of crucifixion, did not destroy us. That the Kingdom of God is always near to us, that God’s love and forgiveness are for given for us, that death will not be the end of our stories, but that Jesus’ resurrection is our resurrection too.

Every year we get Thomas, and it can feel a bit tiresome… until the world changes and we change… and all of sudden it is like hearing it again for the fist time… it is like being there with Thomas, as Jesus comes showing us hand and side, reminding us of God’s trustworthiness.

Amen.