All posts by Rev. Erik Parker

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church. Blogger | Liturgy Geek | High Church Lutheran | Husband | Dad. ENTJ. Musician, gamer, movie-lover, amateur techie.

Only the Blind Man Could See

John 9:1-41

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (Read the whole passage)

Out of the sun and into the mud.

We have been on journey this lent through various familiar places of Jesus ministry. The wilderness of the desert of temptation. The darkness of Nicodemus’s questions by night. The bright noon day heat of the woman at the well and her isolation. Jesus continues on his journey through the lives of unsuspecting people, moving towards their questions, breaking their walls, and today helping them to see.

This Lenten season has shown us the movement of God towards creation. We have seen that God is beginning a new thing in the identity of Christ, despite the tempter’s wondering if Jesus is the Son of God. We have seen Jesus adjust course and move towards Nicodemus, who needs his deep questions of faith answered. And we saw last week, the persistence of Jesus whose living water broke down the well walls of the Samaritan woman’s dead water.

john-9-healing-blind-man-mosaicThe next instalment in the Lenten journey is the story of the blind man. It is a familiar story, yet, it is hardly just about helping a person without normal sight to see the world around him. As Jesus and his disciples come a cross a blind man in the streets, presumably begging in his community, the disciples want Jesus to help them identify the punishments of God. Disability was considered a divine curse, and the disciples were most likely trying to be sure that they would avoid such a fate. Yet Jesus stops, and spits in the mud, covers the man’s eyes with the mud. Then Jesus tells the man to go and wash in pool of Siloam. Jesus says this man’s blindness has nothing to do with God’s curse.

And then Jesus disappears.

But we stay with the blind man and hear his story. Now, I am pretty sure, if this story was really about a blind person gaining sight were to happen among us, we would be amazed by this person who was blind and now could see. Yet, that is not what happens to the blind man. Once this man can see, and Jesus is long gone, the man’s community reacts badly. They just cannot see the miracle or the transformation. They doubt the identity of the man, they doubt that he is actually healed, they doubt that the miracle is from God.

Instead of rejoicing and celebrating, the community puts the healed man on trial. He is called before the religious leaders to explain what happened. To explain how someone healed him on the sabbath. The Pharisees declare that the blind man has not been healed by God, and instead they summon his parents to see if there has been some kind of trickery. But his parents have no answers, so the formerly blind man is summoned again in front of the pharisees. So incredulous are the Pharisees that they declare no only has the formerly blind man not been given a miracle, but that he is sinner being punished by God. So they drive him away, out of the community and on his own.

And throughout the course of the story, the blind man comes to realize something. We can see it too… it isn’t that the blind man can see, it is that he is the only who can now see. The whole community is blind to the transformation that has taken place. Only the man can see what Jesus has done for him. And no matter how many times, how many ways he tells the story of his own healing, the community around him just cannot understand or accept this new reality.

They remain blind.

Blindness to the effects of Jesus in our world is something we know about. Perhaps we are like the blindman, seemingly alone in the world surrounded by unbelievers. Maybe we now feel like most people simply do not see what we see, or know what we know about Jesus. Maybe we are the only ones who feel as though our eyes have been opened to by Jesus passing through our lives and giving us healing, renewal and life. Friends and neighbours just cannot see the good news, they simply don’t are or won’t accept this story of faith and healing that we share. No matter how we tell it, or no matter how the transformation that we now know is apparent to us… people around us just seem blind to God in the world.

Or perhaps we feel more like the blind community. We know the faith, we know what God is up to, and so the zealous believers who claim that God is doing a new thing in their lives are just too much. We cannot see how God is doing something so unexpected in the world, according to suspicious and obviously self-involved people.

Regardless of who we may identify with, the blind man or his community, identifying the gospel, knowing God’s work in the world is not always straight forward. The community cannot believe that this man would be healed by God. The man himself only has a vague sense of just what his experience with Jesus means. And isn’t this our experience too? Jesus passes in and out of out community, causing just as much confusion about faith and church and God, as helping us figure out what is happening.

As we already know, the blindness of the man is not just about physical blindness, but John’s gospel is hinting at the spiritual blindness of the community that Jesus encounters today. But blindness is not the only metaphor that John is playing with. As Jesus reaches down in the mud today, we cannot help but think all the way back to Genesis and God in creation. As God reached down into the mud of the earth to create Adam, breathing life into him, so we see God breathing life into this blind man. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Let there be light” and the blind man sees, not just with his eyes, but with his whole being.

And, still not quite. The blind man doesn’t see Jesus first, but rather only has an experience of Christ before he sees.

But just when it seems that the man has been left to carry on in faith alone, that he has been left to sort out his new place in the world where he knows that the Messiah has healed his blindness, but the rest of his community doesn’t see what he sees… Just as the man is driven away… Jesus shows up again. And we learn something important about what Jesus has done in healing the man of his blindness.

Just as Jesus told the tempter in the wilderness that God is about to do something new in creation…

Just as Jesus changed course and moved towards Nicodemus so that Nicodemus could hear the gospel that he needed to hear in the safety of darkness…

Just as Jesus kept lapping at the well walls of the samaritan woman until she was broken open by living water…

Jesus comes back to the blindman.

And finally, finally the man who was born blind, whose sight was restored, whose story was not enough for his community to see… the blind man sees the One who has given him this new faith.

The One whom meets us in the wilderness, finds us in the dark, who makes us alive with Living Water…. this One comes back and restores and fills us up with faith.

Like the blindman, we can only last for so long in a world of blindness. We can only tell the story so many times for unseeing eyes before we run out of persistence. And so Jesus comes to us and meets us again, fills us with a word of light and hope.

The blind man’s story is our story. We experience new life and renewal in Jesus who comes to us, creating something new and incredible inside us. And then we go out in the world and into our community with this gospel of life, only to find blindness. Yet, still we are called to tell the story.

And then when we cannot tell it anymore, Jesus shows up again. And Jesus keeps coming back and coming back. Jesus keeps giving words of mercy and forgiveness, the light of God’s word, the renewal of our faith in the Body of Christ.

Our story of faith is one where Jesus keeps coming back to us. Week after week, year after year. And all of sudden, when we all we knew was wilderness, darkness, and isolation… Jesus makes us see for the first-time.

Jesus opens our eyes to faith.

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Why Can’t Pastors Agree on What a Pastor is?

What DOES a pastor do anyways?

Ask 10 pastors what a pastor is, and you will get ten different definitions. Read 10 different blog articles on what a pastors is and should be doing, and you will get ten different opinions. The job title and ecclesiological office of pastor is one that encompasses a variety of definitions, often confusing and contradictory ones.

This vagueness around the job description and theological concept of being a pastor is one of the most frustrating parts of my vocation. The debate lately seems to be between the pastor as CEO vs. pastor as Shepherd. Just check out the titles of some relatively recent blog posts:

Why you should be thankful if your pastor behaves like a CEO by Carey Nieuwhof
CEO-style pastorates all the rage but offer little to those seeking deeper faith by Jim Brumley
Quit Telling Pastors We Have to Stop Pastoring to Have a Successful Church: Great churches don’t need spiritual enablers or high-achieving CEOs. by Karl Vaters

The current debate raging online, and probably in churches and among colleagues, about what a pastor is and does is nothing new. It is simply a symptom of the church facing the changing world and some dim sense that part of facing that change means pastors and churches updating their understandings of each.

Even in my short millennial life-time, I have seen pastors of different generations try to live up to different and changing ideas of what it means to be a pastor.

A different time, a different pastor

In my first congregation, a small farming community where the church had been the central focus for nearly a century, pastors were understood to be something akin to the “community professional.” In the early part of the 20th century, pastors were often called upon not only to shepherd the flock, but also provided medical knowledge, taught school children, provided legal and mediation services among other things.

In my Grandfather’s generation in the 40s and 50s, pastors were public moral paragons. They were (supposed to be) living examples of moral living who were required to lead the faithful in their own moral living and a disciplined faith full of regular devotion and study. Pastors were expected to be public moral authorities whose credibility was rooted in their character and leadership position. They were called upon to serve on public boards, public offices and positions and were often in the public eye.

And then in the 60s and 70s, Clinical Pastoral Education and a trend towards psychology and therapy transformed again the role of the pastor. No longer was the pastor a voice for morality and divine authority, but now a counsellor, therapist even. Someone to hear your troubles (sometimes on God’s behalf) and direct you to the help you need. And pastors started using as much the language of psychology as theology.

And then 80s and 90s, when, despite the early signs of decline, the trend was for established and growing congregations to program their ministry. This meant large facilities and increased staff positions. Pastors became middle managers, overseeing growing churches that had become corporatized. Business language become the vernacular at board meetings and for church leadership.

And then in the 2000s, pastors were called upon to become entrepreneurial CEOs, revitalizing the unwieldy and declining organizations that had been started by the community professionals and moral paragons, grown by the pastoral care providers, and managed into decline by the middle managers. Pastors were and are expected to be the source of mission and vision renewal for churches longing for a return to the glory days. The glory days of course depend on which of the previous eras felt the most glorious for a given person. And the new glory days also include incorporating all the new technology of a changing digital and online world.

These are, of course, not the only dominant forms of pastor that have risen up recently. There are several of other images and ideas about what the primary role of a pastor is:

There is the social justice warrior, who leads their faith community in striking out to address all the evils of the world. This pastor strives to lead people in activism and to organize communities of resistance beyond congregations who will fight for justice among all the injustices that exist in the world.

And there is the cruise director / country club pro who is the omni-present social glue that holds the many activities and programs and fellowship events that a congregation plans. The pastor will likely make an appearance at everything: every meeting, every breakfast, every golf or curling fundraiser. The pastor is more mascot than spiritual leader.

And there is the coach and cheerleader. The person encouraging the laity in their calling by passing off the bulk of the responsibilities of the pastoral office. A pastor’s job is to put themselves out of a job is mantra of this style.

So which of these is the right style or idea of the core of pastoral ministry is? Should pastors need to choose?

Jack-of-all-trades pastoring?

Picking one version of pastoral ministry over another actually misses the point. Of course all of the responsibilities are, at times, part of what a pastor does. Sometimes you will be the community expert, other times you will inspire your people to faithfulness, sometimes you be called upon to provide counsel and care for people in need, other times you will be the one checking the boiler and booking rentals, sometimes you will be hiring and firing people. And of course in the midst of all these things there is preaching and leading worship / the liturgy, studying and teaching the bible, prayer and helping people grow in faith.

But none of these shifting ideas about what it means to be a pastor are core to pastoral ministry as it has been understood for most of the church’s history. Pastors or priests have always been tasked with preaching the word, administering the sacraments and tending to God’s people. And throughout the millennia, this has put various responsibilities on the shoulders of pastors, managing and tending to groups of people wherever they are is complicated.

Yet, whatever trend or style of ministry is current, and even whatever denomination or part of the world  a pastor serves in… the essential of what is a pastor is the same.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.

Whether it is the through high church smells and bells liturgy or someone standing alone on a staff with just a bible in their hands, whether it is providing expertise, modelling faithfulness, caring for those in distress, managing complicated communities, or revitalizing declining churches pastors are the connection through which a particular faith community (a church) encounters the faithful of all times and places (The Church).

The Office of Ministry is how The Church enters into the life a church or congregation. In all those things that the debates suggest that pastors should be spending their time on, the underlying purpose of doing any of those things is to help local and particular communities be connected to the body of Christ. To help local congregations participate in the mission of the whole Church, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. And we don’t do this in vacuums, rather we serve this mission in consort with all the congregations and communities doing the same around us and around the world.

When pastors, or lay people, or the church as a whole debates what a pastor is or does, the reality is that in some sense there is still agreement. The different ideas or styles still fit within the scope of a pastor.  And yet, all the debates fail to return and remind us of the core.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.


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Dead Water becoming Living Water

John 4:5-42

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Out of the darkness and into the furnace. Through the season of Lent so far we have gone with Jesus into the wilderness of temptation. We have come with Nicodemus in the darkness to ask our questions of faith that we wouldn’t dare ask in the light. And now we walk with the Samaritan woman to the well in the noonday heat.

This story from the John gospel isn’t quite as famous as John 3:16 was last week, but this season of Lent is not about hearing the obscure stories of scripture. It is about stories that we know and remember, stories we have heard many times in our lives… stories that make it into our literature and language.

Jesus is travelling today, outside the safety of Jewish lands, into Samaria. Not quite gentile territory, as Samaritans were also descended from the line of Abraham – like cousins to the Jews. But Samaritans worshipped differently than their Jewish cousins and therefore were found to be unclean by Jewish law.

Jesus and the disciples arrive in Sychar around noon, in the hottest and brightest time of the day. While the disciples go to find food, Jesus stops at the famous well of Jacob (the grandson of Abraham). As he sits, tired from his journey a Samaritan woman arrives to draw water. Now proper protocol would have been for the two to pretend like each other didn’t exist, but since when has Jesus cared about what is proper.

So he asks for a drink.

And the woman is shocked by this request.

She has come to the well to draw water alone, and likely never expected to encounter a Jew… and almost certainly would never think that this Jew would talk to her, a samaritan and a woman… Jesus would be forbidden by law to strike up a conversation. You might almost imagine the woman laughing with shock and nervousness.

Yet, Jesus persists.

“You really should be asking me for a drink. And I will give you living water,” he says.

And now the woman knows that this strange man at the well is nuts.

“This is Jacob’s well buddy, and you are just a strange guy lurking about,” she responds.

Yet, Jesus won’t give up.

“I will give you water that gushes up to eternal life.”

At this, this woman starts to know that something really is up with Jesus.

“Give me this water,” she says.

And then things get weird.

“Go and tell your husband and I will give you both water”, Jesus says.

“I have no husband,” she answers.

And then somehow Jesus knows that this woman has had five husbands. And the one she is now with is not her husband.

Now, in case we begin making assumptions about the virtue of this woman… let’s not forget that women in Jesus’ day were no different than property like land or animals. And so this woman likely was either widowed by her first husband or tossed to the curb. And her “husbands” after that were probably his brothers or cousins who were obliged by religious law to care for her. However, adding another mouth to feed is not simple. And she is passed into the care of one family after another. The last might be a very distant relative or even a wealthy gentile willing to care for this woman.

And these circumstances are not this woman’s fault, she has no control over these things. But despite this, being five time married still carries a stigma of being damaged goods. So this Samaritan woman comes to the well in the heat of the day, while all the other women come in the early morning and late evening when it is cool. And she comes alone, to avoid the gossip. She is living in open isolation.

This woman is probably not exactly someone we can identify with. While we have all had moments in life, where we have felt powerless in the face of the circumstances of our lives, where we have wanted to avoid everyone around us and their comments, or their whispers and stares… we probably are not quite as extreme in our life story as the Samaritan woman that Jesus speaks with at the well.

Yet, together as a community this woman’s story feels a little more like ours. As a church, either as Lutherans across Canada or our community right here, we may feel like half of ourselves is missing or gone. It might feel like we have been kicked to the curb, in favour of something better. And all those who were supposed to care about us, or care for us next, are turning their backs. And now we too are living in open isolation, it might feel like we go to the well in the middle of the day. Maybe the church is out in the light, but going to the water on our own while everyone else is busy at home.

When Jesus offers the Samaritan woman living water, it is meant as a contrast to the well water. Living water was understood by the ancients to be moving water, like streams or rivers or bubbling springs. And the movement was a sign of power, often of divine power. Yet, well water doesn’t move, it is dead water. The dead water of the well, in many ways symbolizes the woman. She is alive, but her life story and isolation could hardly be called living.

Yet, Jesus reaches out to this woman. First by asking for a drink, but then offering her Living Water. Living Water that begins to crack open the walls of this woman’s dead water.

“…the water that I will give them will never be thirsty”

*crack*

“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”

*crack*

“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands”

*crack*

“…for the Father seeks such as these to worship him”

*crack*

And now this woman who was just on her way to get water at her ancestor Jacob’s well, whom Jesus has been talking to despite the fact that she is woman and a Samaritan, whom Jesus has been offering living water, the mercy of God, whom Jesus has accepted and not condemned despite the stigma of her life story, whom Jesus has said is exactly who God is seeking…

This woman whose water has been dead like well water, says,

“I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

“I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

“I am he” Jesus says.

And the well walls burst open and life rushes back into this woman. She immediately runs back to her village, she runs back to the very people she has been trying to avoid…she runs to tell them her story, the one she has been trying to hide… she runs to bring them to Messiah. Her life is so broken open, so transformed by simply talking to Jesus at the well.

And so it is with us.

When we feel that we have been kicked to the curb, left by the people who were supposed to care for us next, ignored by a world too busy to see even see us out in the open daylight…

Jesus is reaching out to us. Reaching out into our lives when we feel like the Samaritan woman, and reaching out to a church that feels like our water is dead. And the living water of Jesus laps against our walls, forming cracks, weakening our supports, threatening to break us open.

And just at the moment when we will be certain that we are only alive but not living, just when all we think there is left is to go to the dead water well in isolation… Jesus will meet us and break us open.

Jesus will return us to community. In fact, Jesus is already doing this. Jesus is restoring us to a world that all that ignores us. And after a conversation with Jesus, we too, will find ourselves running out into the world, proclaiming that we have met the Messiah, telling our story, bringing our community to meet the Messiah

Jesus is doing all of this, with simple living water.

Amen.

Questions in the Dark – Our Nicodemus Moment

John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (read the whole passage)

Out of the wilderness and into the darkness. As Lent began last week, as it always does, with Jesus going into the wilderness to fast and be tempted… we come out of the wilderness this week only to come to Jesus by the cover of night. We leave the Gospel of Matthew behind of until the season of Easter, and we continue our Lenten journey with John’s gospel.

And John who is rich with words and images, where Jesus loves to talk and teach and preach, gives us the most famous of bible passages, John 3:16. Yet, in context, this famous passage comes in a long line of familiar images. The image of being born again in the spirit. The image of the spirit as the wind, blowing where it chooses. The image of the son of man being lifted up just as Moses lifted the serpent. And finally, “For God so loved the world…”

But when we pull back again, we meet Nicodemus. Nicodemus the curious pharisee. And while the rich and familiar images of this story stand out… it is perhaps the setting by which Nicodemus comes to have this conversation with Jesus that really helps us to understand where we are going on the 2nd Sunday in Lent.

So take a moment, and put all the familiar words and famous bible verses out of your mind and imagine this image.

It is the dead of night. Dim lamps burn here and there among stone walls and buildings. A lone figure, cloaked in darkness makes his way down deserted streets and alleys. The cicadas and crickets are chirping in the hot, dry nighttime air. Finally, the lone figure finds who he is a looking for. Jesus is appears in the darkness, standing among the trees and plants of a garden.

Nicodemus pulls back his hood and looks around to be sure that no one else is lurking nearby. “Rabbi” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”

The story comes to life when we can imagine the background of this conversation. Nicodemus has come to Jesus at night to ask his questions. Nicodemus, a religious leader, needs the darkness to feel safe. He has much to lose in coming to Jesus: his standing in the community, his authority as a leader, his relationships with friends and neighbours.

Yet, here Nicodemus is, seeking out Jesus in the cover of darkness, to ask honest and real questions of the Rabbi… Nicodemus wants to know who Jesus is, what he means for all the things that Nicodemus believes about God and religion.

And curiously, Jesus begins by dodging Nicodemus’s question. He has been asked these questions before. The scribes and Pharisees and temple priest love to probe Jesus, they love to put him on the spot and see if he will withstand the pressure. How is Jesus supposed to know what Nicodemus’s intentions are? Even at night, even with no crowds to rile up, Nicodemus is still a Pharisee. Nicodemus is still part of a group that is suspicious of Jesus.

So Jesus answers vaguely about being born from above, prompting a follow up from Nicodemus. And Jesus goes on about being born of water and spirit, about the wind blowing where is chooses.

But still Nicodemus wonders, “How can these things be?”

Nicodemus and his questions are not unfamiliar to us. They are not the wonderings of children, nor the questions of someone new to faith. Nicodemus has old questions, question that come from a life time of sitting in the pew and weeks upon weeks, months upon months, years upon years of hearing the bible stories. Nicodemus knows the doctrine and theology. Nicodemus doesn’t need religion explained to him.

Nicodemus needs the answers for his doubts. He wants to know if all of this is real and what it all means. He wants to know if Jesus is the real thing. Are the thing Nicodemus has believed about God really true?

Our Nicodemus moments come from the same place. They are questions we are too afraid to ask in the light, the doubts we are afraid to share in public, the feelings of being silly for believing in a God that the world often laughs at.

I remember once sitting in on a bible study with a group at a bible camp. A group of volunteers: of retired men who came to fix the plumbing, to drive the tractor that mowed the fields, to chop enough firewood for a whole summer. Retired women who came to scrub kitchens, to sew drapes and to wash windows. People who were faithfully in church every Sunday and then faithfully volunteering at camp during their weekdays.

And as the group talked about prayer and how they could pray about anything to God and God would hear them, one of the men, a life long and faithful Lutheran, a gruff retired contractor asked the bible study leader a question. With tears in eyes he said, “But how can God hear my prayers? I am nobody to God.”

It was a Nicodemus moment. A moment for the deep questions of faith. A moment that we all come to know sooner or later. A moment when we wonder if Jesus the real thing, or when we wonder if Jesus will remember to include us in his Kingdom, or a moment when we realize that believing in Jesus is much riskier than we imagined. Believing in Jesus might mean risking our place in our community, it might mean accepting people we don’t want to accept, it might mean making room in our lives for new things like prayer, and bible study, and acts of service and worshipping God with a sense the world is transformed by that worship.

In Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus, there is moment where something curious happens. As Jesus first doges Nicodemus’s question with vague and confusing talk of being born from above and the spirit doing as the spirit wishes…. Nicodemus asks Jesus a second followup question, “How can these things be?” And again, the question is not unlike questions often asked of Jesus by the religious authorities. But this time, Jesus seems taken aback, “Where not you, a religious leader, taught these things?”

There must have been something in the way that Nicodemus asked the question that stopped Jesus in his tracks. There must have been something honest and searching, maybe even something desperate in the way Nicodemus asks.

And so Jesus changes and adjusts.

Jesus moves towards to Nicodemus.

Jesus drops the confusing speech that he normally saves for pesky religious leaders questioning him in public.

And Jesus gives Nicodemus what he is looking for.

Jesus gives the assurance that Nicodemus is seeking. Yes, Jesus says, the son of man is following in the footsteps of Moses. And no, this is not an easy thing to accept or believe.

Yet, Jesus declares boldly, for God so loves the world that he gave his only Son…

Jesus gives Nicodemus the gospel in the clearest of terms.

This move towards Nicodemus is just a smaller version of what God has been doing all along. After calling the people to repentance, and the people always fall back into the sin, God decides to make the move. And so God move towards the people. Beginning with an announcement made to a young virgin that she will bear a child. And then with a voice Thundering over the waters of baptism in the river Jordan. And then a dazzling transformation on a mountain top. And then last week, as the tempter tried to get Jesus to return to the old pattern of falling into sin…

The movement of God became clear. God has moved towards creation and there is no going back. Jesus moves to Nicodemus, giving him the assurance and good news he needs to hear.

And Jesus makes the same move towards us.

Jesus assures us in our Nicodemus moments, that he is indeed the real thing.

That when we are worried about looking foolish to the world, that Jesus will accept our foolishness without hesitation.

That when we are worried that believing in Jesus may mean we have to accept people we don’t want to love, Jesus will love us and forgive us regardless.

That when we are worried that this whole faith business may mean changes in our lives in how we live, what we do, who we serve and what we value, that Jesus will keep moving to us, making up the difference in our half heartedness.

Nicodemus moments are something we cannot avoid. We will as people of faith have our questions, our doubts, our fears that would only dare ask in the darkness. But Nicodemus moments are also the moments when Jesus changes course and makes a move towards us. Jesus moves toward us in our darkness, in our confusion, in our hesitation.

And Jesus gives us what we need…. the Good News that God so loved the world, so loved us, that God gave his only Son.

The Temptation to Avoid Lent Altogether

Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Read the whole passage)

Last week, the story of Transfiguration concluded with Jesus, Peter, James and John, leaving the spectacular experience of the mountain behind to go back down. And by Wednesday, we were surely in the valley… the valley of the shadow of death. We confessed our sin, we were marked with ash and reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

And now, one week from the transfiguration mountain top and 4 days from the ashes, we go out into the Lenten wilderness with Jesus. Like Jesus, we are about to spend 40 days in a wilderness of sorts, and like Jesus it is a wilderness about temptation. During the season of Lent, the tradition is to give something up, like meat, or chocolate or coffee, or TV, or Facebook. Sometimes people take something on, like daily bible readings, prayer or devotion.

But our Lenten journey is not all that different from Jesus’, in that during the next 40 days, the temptation will be to hold our ground and not to the lenten stories into our lives. The reason people give things up in Lent is only a little bit about disciplining oneself, and so much more about making room in our hearts and lives for the story of Jesus. To make room so that Jesus’ story starts getting air time in our minds and hearts, not just on Sunday morning, but each day. We practice making space for 40 days throughout Lent, so that when the story of Christ’s passion and resurrection finally come during Holy Week, there is room for us to hear it, to take it in, to be transformed by it as people of faith.

So, the 40 days of the Lenten season are about making space for the story of Jesus in our lives, and the temptation will be to hold our ground, keep our lives full with the other stuff. Perhaps some years we do better than others, but each Lent begins with this story of Jesus in the wilderness to remind us of just what our own wilderness experience is about.

The story of Jesus temptation is an interesting yet uncomfortable one for us. It is one of the few instances in scripture where people are not part of the story. There are no crowds or disciples, no pharisees or scribes or temple priests. Just Jesus in the wilderness fasting and praying. And then a figure who is called three different names appears in order to tempt Jesus. The devil, the tempter and Satan. And while we might imagine some kind of demonic presence, or half goat-man with red skin… the accuser or the Ha Satan is much different in scripture. The accuser is a figure who represents the prosecutor of God’s heavenly courtroom.

So after Jesus has been in the wilderness 40 days, the tempter arrives thinking that he can get Jesus to abandon the identity given him just before his wilderness excursion, the identity that God voice thundered from the heavens as Jesus is baptized, “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased.”

And so the tempter begins, “If you are the son of God…”

And yet something seems off.

The temptations aren’t quite right. Stones into bread, leaping from the pinnacle of the temple, power in exchange for worship. Jesus seems hardly phased. In fact, he almost seems annoyed with each passing attempt the accuser makes.

The tempter has misread his target, he has made assumptions that don’t hold with Jesus. The tempter thinks that Jesus will be just like all those people of faith who have gone before. The Old Testament is full of stories of the people of God falling from their identities, back into a pattern of sin and failure. Like Abraham and Sarah who doesn’t believe in God’s promises, the Israelites who complained to Moses to take them back to the better life as slaves in Egypt, like King David who couldn’t resist a beautiful woman… God’s people have the habit of falling off the bandwagon into sin and then crying to God for help. God tells the people to repent and then re-establishes their identity.

The tempter thinks Jesus will fall into sin just like the rest, when he is in his wilderness, he will turn from the identity given him in baptism and turn to consumption, spectacle and power.

And yes, the tempter understands people quite well.

These temptations aren’t temptations for us as well, but not in the same way they aren’t for Jesus.

They aren’t temptations because you can’t be tempted to do something you are already doing. We are happy and voracious consumers of the world around us. Perhaps not stones into bread, but minerals and glass into phones, we line up with our money. Fossil fuels into energy for cars, homes, batteries and we defend our right to oil like it is free speech. Sweat labour into cheep products that we buy, use and throw away – the parking lots of the discount retailers are rarely empty.

But it doesn’t end there.

We love a good spectacle. It might not be jumping off a temple, but funny impersonations of floundering presidents, envelope gaffs at the Oscars, sports championships with great comebacks… or even the local gossip about our neighbours whose marriage is on the rocks, that family member with the addiction or that co-workers who doesn’t know they are about lose their job. We love a good spectacle… we might not jump from the temple, but if someone was and there would be angels to catch them, we would be setting up chairs and selling popcorn to watch.

And of course there is power and worship. We have always known that power and its misuse makes our world go round… striving for power is not so much a temptation but a sport in our world.

And so if Jesus was like the rest of us, the tempter would have succeeded. The pattern of God’s people falling away into sin from the identity given to them by God would have continued as it always had.

But Jesus is different and the tempter doesn’t see it yet.

And so when the tempter tries to push Jesus into old patterns, Jesus won’t have it. His identity was announced and declared in his baptism, and there is no going back.

So when the tempter offers bread, Jesus reminds him that bread alone does not nourish, but instead the word of God.

And when the tempter offers a spectacle, Jesus counters with a refusal to be tested.

And then when the tempter just offers power, plain and simple, Jesus has had enough and shoos the tempter away.

Jesus knows who he is… and that this new baptismal identity cannot be left behind or forgotten. There is no turning away this time, God’s plan is the redemption of all creation. God is not leaving it up to the people, up to us to repent and turn back to God. God has come in flesh to go with us wherever we go, whether we fall or whether we repent, God will be there.

The tempter has no clue that Jesus is about to establish a new pattern for God’s people. A new way for us to be in relationship with God.

A pattern that is not about falling to sin, repentance and return.

But instead a pattern that begins with forgiveness and mercy. And that continues with this word of God that is better than bread, that fills us with hope and life. A pattern that isn’t a spectacle but that is a ritual. Not something that we gawk at individually, but that we practice and experience collectively and in community. A liturgy that takes us out of ourselves, and closer to God.

It is a new pattern that isn’t about us and our ability to get it or figure it out. God realized that humanity will never stop falling away into sin. So in Christ and in the Church, God established a new pattern for us. One that forgives us of our sin, that fills us with real food and real life, one that takes out of ourselves and away from our own hype and spectacle, so that we can make room for God and God’s story of good news in our lives.

The temptation of Lent is to not really experience it at all. The temptations of the tempter is to keep being what we always have been and to stay in the same patterns we know well.

But Jesus takes us into the wilderness to break our old ways and establish new ones. Jesus strips our old patterns and habits away in order to make room. To make room for God’s story, to make us ready for the passion and resurrection story to come, to transform us in ways that we can barely see and know, but that alter us right at the core of our being.

Jesus is helping us to give-up our old selves this Lenten season, to make room for new identities which we cannot leave behind as God declares us “Beloved Children of God.”


Photo credit: http://klskorner.blogspot.ca/2015/02/things-i-suck-at-lent-2015-version.html

Even in the Ashes, there is life

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Read the whole passage)

Just 3 days ago we stood on the mountain top with Peter, James and John. We watched as Jesus was transfigured to white and shining like the sun. We saw Moses and Elijah appear. It was a holy moment on that mountain top. And it prompted Peter to speak,

“Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three dwellings.”

Peter wanted to stay. We wanted to stay. That was the moment when all the chaos and stress of the world melted away and everything was perfect.

But Jesus had other plans, and he took us down the mountain. Took us down in the valley. Took us into the shadow of death.

Jesus brought us here. Here to the day of Ashes.

And today, is no mountaintop escape. Today, the reality of the world, the reality of our mortality, the reality of death comes crashing down upon us.

On Sunday, the voice of God thundered from the heavens. “This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him.”

And tonight Jesus speaks. Jesus reminds us of our place.

Of our imperfections.

Of our ability forget and flaws and failures.

Jesus warns us not to get too comfortable.

Not to rely on our own righteousness, our own holiness.

Jesus reminds us not to trust in our ability to believe or pray or fast or wash.

Today, Jesus reminds us that we do not measure up, that we are mere mortals.

And once we have been reminded that we are imperfect and flawed, we will we confess our sin.

We will confess, and confess, and confess.

Everything will be on the table tonight.

All our sins, every piece of ourselves that has caused us to be self-centred, to forget others, to forget God.

And then, once we have confessed.

Once we have been laid bare and there is nothing left to say,

the reality of tonight,

of the valley,

of this shadow of death

will be placed on our very bodies.

It will be stamped on the foreheads. The crosses we were first given in baptism, the crosses of Christ that were sealed with water and oil, they will now be marked with Ash.

Ash, which is the sign of death. Ash or dust, like we throw onto caskets as they are lowered to the ground. Ash the only thing that is left behind when everything else is destroyed. When cities are razed by war, when our planet is burned up with carbon, when our bodies come to their end, all that is left is dust and ash.

And with Ashy crosses on our foreheads, signs of our sin, our mortality, signs of death we will pray.

Pray for God’s mercy.

Pray for forgiveness.

We will pray and hope that God still remembers us.

We will pray and hope that God still remembers.

Remembers us, even on this night of Ashes.

And of course.

And of course as God always does.

God will remember us.

God will forget our sin,

forget our mortality,

forget our death.

And God will remember us.

And even though Jesus has warned us not to forget our sinfulness.

And even though we have prayed, begged for mercy knowing that we do not deserve it.

God will re-member us.

God will come to us in bread and wine.

God will re-member, re-join us back to God’s Body in bread and wine.

And God will remind us that even though we are Ash, even though we are in the valley, even though we stand in the shadow of death,

God has been there too.

Christ has been in the valley.

Christ has been turned to ash on a cross.

Christ has been dead and buried in the tomb.

And then God will declare – through our very mouths – the mystery of faith.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

And on this night of Ashes, when we confess our sin, when we receive the sign of death in ashes on our foreheads.

God will remind us again. God will remind us, even tonight.

God will remind us that death is not the end.

Even with our sin.

Even with our mortality.

Even when we are turned to Ash.

Death is not the end.

No, this is no mountaintop. This is not the place where Peter would want to stay. This is not where we would want to stay.

But here, on Ash Wednesday, the first step of our Lenten journey.

God will stay with us.

God will meet us,

God will remind us that even in death,

even in the ashes,

there is life.


Photo credit: http://oqisexud.wink.ws/ash-wednesday-cross-on-your-head.php

Why Christians are Uncomfortable with Transcendence

Matthew 17:1-9

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (read the whole passage)

When I was 17, I had the privilege of going to Germany with my High-school’s concert band program. In addition to concerts and staying with host families, we had the chance to visit historical sites, including cathedrals and churches.

If you have ever been to any of the great cathedrals of Europe, you will know that very few Canadian churches compare to the grandness of a great gothic cathedral. In Cologne Germany, we toured the cathedral. Before cell phones and digital cameras, I had to stand down the street from the cathedral to fit the church into 3 frames stacked on top of each other to take a picture of the cathedral with my film camera.

And when you walk inside, everything draws your eyes up. The arches and fresco paintings, the very high ceilings and domes. There is a pipe organ hanging from the ceiling that is itself nearly as big as a tour bus, not to mention all the pipes that would easily fill our church. There are half a dozen tours available in different languages, and despite there being hundreds of tourists milling about, the church felt very empty when I stood inside the vast space.

The cathedral’s size and design, the towering spires and gothic arches, are meant to convey one simple message. God is big. Very Big. And you are small. Very small.

The fancy word for this is transcendence. God’s transcendence was the message of the cathedral. God filled the world from the ground to the sky, and from nearly any point in the city, the cathedral’s towers could be seen. God seemed to fill every mountain and valley, every nook and cranny of creation. It was human beings who intruded humbly into a world that is God’s and not the other way around.

Today, Jesus and the disciples go up the mountain of transfiguration, and while there Jesus is transformed into dazzling white. Elijah and Moses (two pillars of Hebrew faith) show up, just to make it clear that Jesus and this moment is a big deal. If there is any word to describe what the disciples are experiencing, it would be transcendence. God is filling their world from ground to sky, in every direction and in every nook and cranny.

Yet, the transcendence is not a comfortable feeling… and who can blame the disciples? Wouldn’t we be equally confused to see a transfigured Jesus on a mountain top with Moses and Elijah?

Yet, Peter thinks he has figured things out. He suggested building a dwelling place, or a church or temple on the mountain top. A place where he can put transcendent Jesus and his buddies Moses and Elijah into boxes. Boxes where they can be easily contained and managed.

Peter has the same instinct with God that we so often do. Peter wants to change the transcendent experience of the divine into a imminent one.

Now, what is the imminence of God you ask?

Well, the opposite of transcendent. Imminence is the closeness and nearness of God. The comfortable and the intimate. It is having coffee and reading the morning paper on a lazy weekend morning. It is a snuggling in a nice warm blanket to watch a movie on a snowy day.

Imminence is manageable. And Peter is trying to turn the Transcendence of the Transfiguration into the imminence of God in a comfortable and manageable box.

Peter’s instinct is the same as one we often share. We too get uncomfortable with the bigness of God, with a God who fills the ground to the sky, who is in every nook and cranny in creation. We prefer a cozy and comfortable God, who makes us feel nice and warm, who is manageable.

An imminent God doesn’t challenge us or threaten us. The cozy faith that is only about feeling the warmth of family and friends and coffee and passive entertainment of church and worship is one that we can unconsciously strive for. In fact, Christians in North America often think that the solution to our decline is to make God even more imminent, even more cozy and comfortable, more entertaining and non-threatening.

Yet, the God that our world seems to be longing for is a God who is bigger than the troubles of the world, not a warm blanket that makes us feel nice. The world longs for a God that is bigger than war and violence, than poverty and injustice, than discrimination and inequality. The world needs a God who transcends those things in the world which we no power against, a God who is greater than evil, bigger than suffering, stronger than death. Because we all know that these things are lurking around us, and that even this week we know in our community that we have no power over when tragedy steps out of the shadows.

And so despite Peter’s desire to build literal secure boxes to keep Jesus, Moses and Elijah in, God interrupts it all. As if the Transfiguration couldn’t get more transcendent, God breaks open the heavens and fills the world with God’s voice, and speaks directly to the disciples. And with the same message from the moment of Jesus’ baptism “This is my son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.” But this time God adds, “Listen to him.”

And with this, the disciples finally realize what this moment is. And they fall to their faces in fear. The transcendence of this mountaintop has finally hit them. They have been struck by the message: God is big, very big. And you are small, very small. But not in terms of significance, but relationally. God’s bigness, God’s transcendence fills our world. God cannot be contained in a box and restricted to a mountain top. God is filling the world, God is filling the disciples world and our world. And God the Father has sent Jesus the Son to do the filling so the disciples ought to pay attention to their friend and teacher.

And all of a sudden, everything is back to normal Jesus isn’t in dazzling white, Moses and Elijah are gone. It is just the same four who walked hiked up the mountain are left to go back down.

But Jesus has done what Peter and what we cannot. Peter tired to turn the transcendent into the immienent, to fit a Big God into a small and cozy box, just we often try to do in our churches and communites, in our boxes of faith.

But Jesus turns to the imminent into the transcendent. Jesus take the imminent experience of being a teacher and friend of the disciples, of being close and near and intimate, of being comfortable and manageable and Jesus bridges us to the transcendence of God. For you see, even though the white closes and the pillars of faith are gone, the voice of God is no longer speaking from the heavens… the transcedence is still there.

Jesus and disciples go back down the mountain, yet the bridge to the heavens remains. And ir remains through Jesus himself. Jesus is bringing the heavens down to with him to the people. Through Jesus God is about to fill creation with God’s grace and mercy again.

Through the Jesus who will go to the cross, to the next mountain of Golgatha where the heavens will be opened again, this time as the powers of death are defeated.

And it is the same bridge to the heavens, to the transcendence of God that Jesus brings to us. No matter how comfortable and cozy we want our faith to be, Jesus bridges the imminence with the transcendent.

With intimate words of confession and forgiveness, Jesus opens us up to the mercy of God.

With water that drenches our head and hands, Jesus proclaims our identity in the Kingdom of God.

With words of eternal life spoken on our lips and in our ears, Jesus declares that God’s love for all creation is also for each and everyone one of us.

With bread and wine served with our hands and eaten with our mouths, Jesus joins us to one another and to the Body of Christ across time and space.

It was not the mountain top or the bricks and mortar of the cathedral that permitted the transcendent to exist in our midst. Rather, God is bridging us to the divine each time we gather as the body of Christ. And then Jesus brings that bigness into our small places of our lives.

On Transfiguration Sunday, in these transcendent places, Jesus opens up the heavens and connects us to the Kingdom of God. Because no matter how much we want a warm blanket God, we need a God who is bigger than all the great powers of our world. We need a God who transcends sin, suffering and death…. A God who brings heaven down into the valleys of life and who shows us that God is bigger than it all.