That’s not how faith works

*As I am currently on vacation, here is a guest sermon from Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker, whom you can find on Twitter @ReedmanParker and on Instagram: creedmanparker

Gospel: John 17:6-19

[Jesus prayed:] 6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. (Read the whole text)

Here we are, the end of the Easter season. Seven weeks later, many stories and experiences of new life – unexpected life. These stories begin with grief and loss: death, an empty tomb, and no body. They do not begin in a place of joy or jubilation, or even peace. They begin from a place of fear and anxiety. From a place of not knowing what the future will hold.

In this season of Easter, these 50 days between the Resurrection and Pentecost, we spend a lot of time within the setting of that first day of the week. And the starting place for most of the these stories is so far from what the worship committee plans. The faithful women, the disciples, those who followed Jesus, are in a state of shock and disbelief. They can’t see Jesus when he stands before them, they don’t believe the testimony of others – at least not at first.

Like us, the early followers of Jesus, the faithful women, the disciples, have ideas about who God is, and how God acts in the world, how God acts through us. And what they were seeing and hearing didn’t match those expectations. Those ideas. Their long held beliefs.

Like the disciples, the faithful women, the early followers of Jesus, it’s hard for us to see, to understand, to follow Jesus, God, even when God is staring us right in the face!

But these stories don’t stay in a place of disbelief or lack of sight for long. Because God stays with those people – God stays with us – until they see. Until they believe.

Seeing what was previously un-seen. Believing in what previously was un-thinkable, un-heard of, un-imaginable.

Jesus lives. Alleluia!

New life, it turns out, is full of unexpected, unanticipated realities. Ask any new(ish) parent, and they will likely tell you, “this was not what I expected”. New life is hard work. Navigating these new realities, navigating not only the new life, but the new life and role as parent not easy. Not by a long shot.

And for all the planning, all the reading, all the advice and preparations, the most accurate version of what to expect when you’re expecting is to get ready for the unexpected. It would be a short book.

And maybe that’s part of the problem, part of the challenge for us – the un-expected. the un-planned.

Like it or not, we like to know what to expect. We like to know what’s ahead of us. We like to follow the rules. Or at least know what the rules are, so we know what the consequence is of breaking them!

We see this throughout scripture – how rule-bound the Pharisees become, not being able to separate the rule of law from the spirit of the law. Good and faithful people become so rule-bound that they are unable to see how God is at work in and through the ways and means and people that were above or beyond the rule.

Today is no different. In our first reading from Acts, we encounter the disciples taking up the task of choosing who from their community will fill Judas’ spot as a disciple after Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.

This community, and this group of people in particular, has already been through a lot! They want, and probably need, someone who they can trust. Someone they can depend on. Someone who won’t betray them the way Judas betrayed Jesus. They want to ensure that they “get it right”. As though getting it right will somehow ensure that they will not be disappointed again in the future. Or worse, that they will disappoint God in their decision making. That not getting it right, will somehow reflect upon their faithfulness.

But we know that even when we follow all the rules, when we follow the letter of the law, when we attend to every detail – it’s still possible to be disappointed. It’s still possible to not get it right, not all the way anyhow.

And that’s the rub. When we’ve done all the things we’ve been taught to do, and still find ourselves wanting… waiting… hoping for things to turn out in a way we can predict and anticipate. And then disappointed when they don’t.

But here’s the thing: that’s not how faith works. It’s certainly not how God works.

Note how the disciples put so much time and effort into choosing the correct candidate to take Judas’ place. Note the “rules.” Has to be a man, has to be someone there from the beginning, has to be someone who has witnessed the resurrection. [Only] two qualify. We learn their names. Lots are drawn. A man was chosen. And we never hear from him (or the other guy) again….

Because God was busy calling Paul. And Lydia. And the Ethiopian Eunuch. And so many more who weren’t in the narrow subset of ideas about who could be God’s messengers.

This is who God is. And this is who God reveal’s God’s-self to be over and over and over again. When God’s people become so rule bound that they cannot see God’s unconditional love and mercy, God chooses Mary to mother God’s son. Jesus arrives in a lowly stable and leaves the world by a procession on a donkey and hanging on a cross. And in his life, Jesus chooses the least likely candidates to help him proclaim God’s message to the world. He hangs around with the weirdos and the misfits, the outcasts and the strangers no one wanted – or by virtue of following the law – ought to be hanging around to be ritually clean. Jesus does all the things the law, the rules, tell him not to do. Talk about unexpected. This is who God is. Unexpected.

God does the unexpected. That’s what new life is – unexpected. The way God uses us is unexpected. How we get to live out God’s love and mercy in the world usually unexpected.

And so too, for us here gathered at Gimli Lutheran Church, maybe wondering how on earth is God working in and through us? Maybe you are feeling like you’ve followed all the rules and are still coming up short. Maybe you wonder where God is in the midst of this time of transition – between pastoral leadership, as the place and prominence of the church – not just here, but towns and cities, in families and communities changes.

Like the faithful women and the disciples on that first morning of the resurrection, we might feel like we are staring into an empty tomb. Like the disciples after Jesus’ ascension, we too might wonder how to find a leader to help us grow in our faith and equip others to know about Jesus and this great love God has for us.

But God does not wonder about us. God knows us inside and out. God knows our deepest desires and longings. God knows our fears and our dreams. God knows both what we want and what we need. And just like the early disciples, God is already out in the world calling forth new life, new leadership for this community. God is already stirring in us new life, new ideas, new ways of being that we can expect will be completely unexpected to us. This is who God is. Unexpected in the grace extended. Unexpected in the mercy given. Unexpected in the ways God continues to bring about new life in us and throughout the world.

Advertisements

A Millennial Pastor with a Blog

The first church I served out of seminary was a small open country church, literally on a quarter section of farmland just 25 minutes outside of my hometown Edmonton. In my first week, a couple of knowledgeable members of the congregation took me on a tour of the 6 acres of land that the church sat on. The church and parsonage on one end and of course the cemetery on the other. As we walked to the cemetery in order to meet some of the “older” folks of the congregation, one of the members told me about how he remembered when electric lights came to the countryside. [All of sudden it wasn’t just blackness when you looked outside of the farm house at night, you could see your neighbours.] The other member told about how her parents would heat rocks in the wood stove in order to put them under their feet in the horse drawn sleigh, which they rode to church in winter. 

And there I was making notes of all this on my iPhone, of course.

For 3 years this community frozen in time loved this weird kid pastor from the city who liked to be emailed and texted rather than called, even though the same phone line rang in both the church and parsonage. 

But during those years, there was always something of a disconnect that I just couldn’t put my finger on. And it really wasn’t until I started ministry at my 3rd church two provinces away in Manitoba that I started to figure things out.

I like to call my first summer here in 2013, the summer of millennials. The first of us had just turned 30, the world was about to discover we existed. Rachel Held Evans a blogger you may have read, wrote a piece for CNN called, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” And all of a sudden we were everywhere. 

Everywhere but church that is. 

If you look around mainline denominations these days, particularly in Canada it is pretty rare to see millennials in church, let alone as pastors. In fact, here in Manitoba there are only two millennials serving Lutherans churches – my wife and I. 

Yet…getting the youth back seems to be of a chief concern for many churches these days. And by youth, we mean people under the age of 50. 

Being a millennial serving a church desperate for young people to come back has been a weird and mind-boggling experience. 

My wife often likes to say that while we graduated from seminary ready for the church of today, no one got the church ready for us. Churches want millennials in the pews, but aren’t exactly sure of what to do with a millennial in the pulpit. 

Still with the arrival of millennials and the the generational lens it provided, I finally began to understand what wasn’t connecting between me and the people I had been serving. My experience of faith, and in particular church, was fundamentally different than that of the mostly older generation of people in the congregation. I do not remember the glory days of bursting full Sunday Schools, regular potlucks that could feed the 5000, churches being built on every street corner and pews full of families with 4.2 kids and a stay at home mother with time to volunteer. Nor am I grieving the loss of this church… The church that I know and grew up in and love and am called to serve has always been aging, shrinking and struggling to pay the bills. 

The churches that I have served so far in my time in ministry have been primarily ones centred around different generational cultures than my own. The frames through which the world is seen, and the references and images used to make meaning are not mine. So ministry has been a constant exercise in commuting to another culture, often resulting in feeling like an alien in a foreign land. Nadia Bolz-Weber, another blogger and pastor you may know, calls this a cultural commute. 

Every time someone makes reference to leave it to Beaver or Hogan’s Heroes, or Beattlemania or where they were when JFK was assisinated, all I have is a blank stare to offer in return. Still, I have had to go and look up all these references, so that I can speak in the cultural language of the people I serve. But the commute isn’t always a two way street and when in a sermon I reference a meme from twitter or a scene from an episode of The Walking Dead, I can hear the crickets chirping in the background. 

And so to begin thinking through what it means to be a millennial serving different generations, I started a blog. The Millennial Pastor – An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church. I never expected anyone to read it, it was just a place to organize my thoughts and experiences. 4 and half years, and over 500,000 visitors later, I am starting to sense that I may have hit a chord with some people. My experience pastoring declining, grieving churches and doing so as a millennial is resonating with the experience of others out there. I am still regularly surprised when people who aren’t my parishioners or my mom tell me that they are reading my blog. 

That being said, I don’t think my blog is about figuring out the answers or offering solutions to the struggles we face as church. Rather, I think of the exiles in Babylon with the prophet Ezekiel. He preached about the destruction of the temple for 5 years before it finally sank in. And it is taking the church some time to accept where we are now, rather than looking back to where we used to be. 

The thing is, along with the message that we are where we are, is also the reminder that God is with us now as much as before. And in fact, the church we are now just might be the church God is calling us to be. Because it is the church we are now and the church that God is calling us to become, that will be church for the next and future generations.

Now I just need to keep repeating that for 5 years and it might sink in. 

*This is the manuscript of presentation I gave at an ecumenical continuing education event on May 9, 2018 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.