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.

The Parable of the Talents is not a lesson in Stewardship

Matthew 25:14-30

…Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave!…As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (read the whole passage)

We are coming to the end of the church year. And for nearly six months, we have been hearing stories from Matthew’s gospel. For the the past few weeks, it has been parables from Holy Week. During those short few days between riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, being hailed as King and then being arrested and put on trial, Jesus took the opportunity to preach and teach. The parable of the talents is the last parable that Jesus tells before being arrested and put on trial.

The parable of the talents is a familiar parable. As a rich man prepares to go on a long trip, he gives three trusted slaves large sums of money to attend to. 5 talents to one, 2 to the next and 1 to the last. And when the man returns the first two have doubled their share. But the third, being fearful of his harsh master has buried his talent. When the slave returns just the one talent, his master is not pleased, expecting more.

To our profit and productivity obsessed world, the master seems well justified in his anger at this slave. He could have at least earned basic interest if the slave had just put the money in the bank.

And that has often been the message preached by modern Christians, especially when we expand the definition of talents beyond money to the other more common usage of talents. The talents that many preachers talk about with this parable are gifts of time, money and abilities. We all have been told that God gives us these gifts and we should give back to the church.

But is this parable really about an encouragement to use our gifts, and abilities and time for Jesus? Or is that a direction that preachers take because it is too hard to pass up an opportunity to preach about stewardship?

On the surface is sure sounds like the master (or God) is telling the slaves (or us) to make good use to the talents we have been given in this life… and yet when we dig past the surface there just might be something else going on here.

If we slow down and listen, the master does not seem to be very God-like. The third slave names it for us. The master is harsh, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not scatter seed. And then the master confirms the third slave’s assessment. He is outraged and throws the slave into the outer darkness. Simply because the slave returned what had initially belonged to the master.

So is this harsh and greedy Master really a comparison for God? Does the God of stable mangers, the God of nail pierced hands and feet, the God of empty tombs and being known in breaking bread really operate this way? Does God really say “look at all I have given to you… now you owe it back twice over… or at least give me the going interest rate.”

If this harsh and greedy and rage filled master is not an example of God, is this parable really about encouragement to us our “talents” to the fullest?

In strictly economic terms, a biblical talent is no metaphor for gifts and abilities. It is a measure of money. One talent represented about 20 years wages, or the working lifetime of a day labourer. So the master hands out 8 life times worth of money to 3 slaves to manage, and when his 8 talents are turned into only 15 he flies into a rage. Or to put it into modern terms, 20 years of the average annual income in Canada is $1,000,000. So this master is enraged when his 8 million only grows to 15 million instead of 16.

Wow, what a disappointment.

This master sounds not so much like God, but more like that cranky Dragon from the TV show Dragon’s Den who was all about the money. Or that other reality tv star turned blowhard politician whose catchline is “You’re fired!”

But perhaps more troubling is how easily Christians have tried to make this harsh and greedy master virtuous. How deeply have we been enmeshed in the cult of money, power and success that we would compare economic success with faithfulness and salvation.

And rather than some kind of lesson on putting our gifts and talents to their best use, it is this troubling reality that Jesus is more likely pointing to as he tells the parable to the crowds and religious authorities.

If the business of faith and salvation were up to us, up to sinful human beings, we would make it an issue of wealth and power. In fact, in Jesus day it was. Only the rich and powerful could afford to be righteous and pure according to the laws and traditions of ancient Israel. And for 2000 years of Christianity, it has frequently been portrayed in this way – faith tied to the amount of wealth and power that one holds. Salvation has often been something that could be bought.

Jesus is naming this reality. Jesus is naming this reality in just hours before the crowds will turn on him. Before he will be arrested and tried and executed.

Jesus is revealing to those who will crucify him for being God in flesh that the reason is their own desire to be in control of salvation, to dictate the terms of our faith based on money and power. Jesus is the ultimate threat to that desire. If Jesus is indeed the Messiah, God’s Son, than humanity cannot be God. And if we are not God, then no amount of power, or wealth, or self-righteous greed and anger can save us.

And as Jesus prepares teaches the crowds with these parables he does so as he is about to go to the cross.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians fills in the rest of the story. Paul tells us how it is that God is truly enacting salvation. Paul writes, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him”

It is not the wrath of the greedy master than will save or condemn us.

It is not whether we can double the talents we have been given, or whether we bury them in the ground.

It is not an economic transaction that is required for Salvation.

To the Thessalonians, who were feeling like that third slave, fearful and hiding their talents in the ground, Paul declares that it is the Lord Jesus Christ who died for us who obtains our salvation.

And whether we feel like the first slave who doubles his talents, the third who buried his or even the master greedy and filled with rage… is not us and what we do but the Lord Jesus Christ who obtains salvation.

It is Lord Jesus Christ who gives up all god-like power and who comes into human time and space, who breaks into our productivity and profit focused world.

It is our Lord Jesus Christ who reveals to us our sinful nature and our attempts to make wrath and rage and greed into virtues.

And it is only our Lord Jesus Christ who truly saves us from sin and death. Only Jesus who obtains salvation for us. Only Jesus who brings forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation and grace into our world.

And just as Jesus prepares the crowds and temple authorities for salvation given by God in the cross, Jesus prepares us too.

Jesus prepares us with forgiveness instead of wrath.

Jesus prepares us with the word of life rather than the word that casts out into the outer darkness.

Jesus prepares us with the water of baptism that wash us of our greed and desire for power.

Jesus prepares us with the bread and wine of salvation, food that fills us like no amount of profit or return ever could.

As Jesus tells the parable of the talents today, we discover again that it is not about the thing that we thought it was about. And as much as we try to make salvation and faith fit our terms, as much as we try to make greed and productivity a virtue… Jesus is pointing us back to God who comes without power, but instead with love.

Jesus is showing us in the parable, on the cross and here in Word and Bread and Wine that God’s Salvation is given freely. God gives is freely to us and for all.  

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Waiting (for the Bridegroom) ain’t easy…

Today’s sermon is a guest post by Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker. You can find her on Twitter @ReedmanParker *

Matthew 25:1-13

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. (Read the whole passage)

Waiting is not easy.

We know this. And yet, every time, we are caught by surprise by how difficult waiting can be.

In today’s parable we encounter 10 bridesmaids, 5 who are wise for bringing extra oil for their lamps, and 5 who are foolish because they do not. And, wouldn’t you know it, but there is a delay waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. Maybe half of them knew the bridegroom well enough to know he would be running behind, we don’t know.  But they wait, and they wait, and they wait. They wait for long enough that they fall asleep – all of them, the foolish and the wise.

What are the things that we wait for? That we LONG for?

Maybe it’s a better relationship with your kids or your spouse. Maybe it’s a new or better job. Or being free from pain or illness, addiction or abuse, violence or oppression.

Whatever it is, we know what it is to long for something. We know what means to wait. Really wait.

It’s exhausting.

I don’t think it’s any mistake on the part of the lectionary committee, the group that determines the readings we hear week after week in worship, that this particular parable comes just 2 weeks before Advent – the season of longing, waiting, anticipation for God with us.

Or that Matthew, the gospel writer, tells this particular parable to a community that is waiting for Jesus’ return – his imminent return. His hearers are an anxious group. The early Christian community, as we are reminded of in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, did not anticipate that Jesus’ Second Coming would take so long – they didn’t expect him to be delayed, and were becoming drowsy waiting for him. Jesus’ parable of the 10 bridesmaids is told to remind the early Christian community to keep faith that Jesus is coming.

This parable, however, does not leave one with a very confident sense of hope in Jesus’ return. Once the bridesmaids are divided into two groups – the wise and the foolish – the wise get into the banquet while the foolish, having not brought enough oil to keep their lamps burning brightly are locked out while they go to get more – we take it upon ourselves to judge who’s “in” and who’s “out”. In this way the parable becomes more about waiting in fear of Jesus’ return rather than in hopeful anticipation of it.

It would be easy to interpret the parable of the 10 bridesmaids based on the wise and the foolish; to say that those who don’t have enough oil aren’t getting into the eternal banquet. It would be easy to say that we all better get ready and start making a list of what we all need to do to get in. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from Jesus’ teachings – especially in the parables – it’s that the answer is never as easy or as obvious as it seems. God is so much more subtle than we anticipate.

Besides, looking at the parable this way doesn’t accurately represent the God we profess as Lord and Saviour – you know, the one through whom we have been saved by grace through faith, but a God who tests and judges, who condones the idea that to earn favour we must “do” something, and that if we don’t we will be left behind. This is not a God whose return we hopefully anticipate, but one we fear.

It is this kind of thinking that tells us that  bringing guns into churches and schools will keep us safe from potential harm, or victims of abuse that if they had just worn different clothes, less make-up, or had said more – or less – that the abuse wouldn’t have occurred. When we know this simply isn’t true. It is a false logic based in fear and in our own abilities to save ourselves.

Also, the bridegroom does not say “keep your lamps lit and full of oil” but “keep awake” – and if we look at the text we see that ALL of the bridesmaids fall asleep waiting for their delayed bridegroom to arrive. Maybe the bridesmaids have a lot more in common with one another than in opposition: they all hold the same position in the bridal party, they all have lamps and they all fall asleep –  I don’t know enough about ancient wedding practices, but in my mind they are probably all wearing the same thing.

It strikes me that we are not that unlike the bridesmaids or the early Christian community. Two-thousand  years on, we’ve been waiting a long time. Some of us wonder if the bridegroom is EVER coming. The banquet hall is empty, we packed up the banquet hall some time ago. We are anxious. We are tired. No, we are exhausted… All this waiting, and for what?

But when we make this parable about the banquet – about who gets in, and who gets left out – we miss what is actually going on. Because this parable isn’t about the banquet, but it is about waiting and hope.

Hope that transforms us as nothing else can. Hope, which births in us something new, something beyond what we could dream or imagine on our own. And hope of new life must come before new life itself can occur.

We don’t know why the delays occur. But we live in faith that God is with us in the midst of our waiting. God’s promise of new life, of forgiveness of sins, resurrection from the dead aren’t just for some of us but for all of us. God’s promise that we are known by God – that we were created in God’s image, knit in our mother’s womb, and are marked with sign of the cross in baptism to mark God’s promise that we are God’s children. God knows us more intimately than anyone else in this entire world, even ourselves.  More than that, we trust as people of faith that God is already changing and transforming us even while we are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. This is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Thessalonians, “encourage one another “. Encourage one another to hope in what God is doing in and through us here and now, even as we wait for the bridegroom to arrive.

The Great Multitude and Declining Churches

 

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands… (Read the whole passage)

 

All Saints Sunday is an ancient yet often unfamiliar festival of the church for many of us. It has only been in the past few decades that some Lutheran churches have begun to observe the feast day on the first Sunday in November.

But we all know of a tradition related to All Saints Day, and that is Halloween or All Hallows Eve – Hallowed being another word for saints. In other words, the Eve of All Saints.

All Saints is the tradition of remembering in prayer all those in our community who have died during the past year since last All Saints. In the Roman Catholic version of the festival, the official list of approved saints is recited and prayed on Nov 1st, and then on Nov 2nd, All Souls Day is marked when those who are still in purgatory are prayed for.

As Lutherans, we mash the two together in a sense, praying for all those who have died on the Sunday of All Saints as we dropped the notion of purgatory 500 years ago with the Reformation.

And so, many churches today will be praying for loved ones by name, or lighting candles as a part of worship and as a way to observe All Saints. In that sense, All Saints Sunday can be a bitter sweet day – one where grief is remembered but also one of hope pointing us to the coming end of time when God will gather all the saints into the Kingdom.

As we hear Matthew’s beatitudes and how they speak to the idea of the saints, they certainly speak to the definition of blessedness. In that way they point us to the Reformation idea that we are sinners AND saints… saints not because we have been blessed by good fortune, health and conflict free lives… but because God has declared us holy and blessed, even in the midst of the struggles of life.

And while unpacking the ins and outs of what it means to be a saint and what it means to be blessed is not a bad idea on All Saints Sunday… it is not the beatitudes that truly show us the vision of All Saints. The idea that we are all joined together in faith to the saints who have gone before and who will come after us.

Rather, it is John’s vision in Revelation, and the great multitude coming before the throne of God, that gives us a true glimpse into what All Saints is all about.

The setting of this vision from John found in the book of Revelation was that is was written for an early church community experiencing persecution. Christians in the decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus found themselves clustered in small communities scattered across the Roman Empire. Island of faith in a sea of imperial paganism.

These small churches of sometimes only one or two dozen people lived in a world that didn’t give them too much mind. They were surrounded by a pluralistic society that prioritized the empire and its success beyond any particular religion. Early Christians communities stood out because they insisted, like their Jewish cousins, on worshipping the one true God. Most of the time Christians were largely ignored by this world, but when they were noticed by Roman society, they were oppressed and persecuted. As the first generations of the faithful began to pass by, these early church communities started to wonder about the imminent return of Jesus… Some, as we hear in Paul’s letters began to doubt the point of keeping the faith at all.

As John’s Revelation writings came to these early church communities they would have sounded radical, absurd even. To small communities used to be ignored or forgotten, or remembered only to be used as lion food in the gladiator games, John’s vision promising hope in a God who would correct all things, end oppression, destroy evil and bring the world to right would have sounded crazy.

Imagine being a church of a few dozen people, in some forgotten and ignored part of the world, trying your best to keep the faith. And as the world around you seems to pay little attention, you receive this letter of encouragement. A letter proclaiming a future where the Kingdom and reign of God is dramatically breaking into the world. Where God gathers up the little group of a few dozen into a great and uncountable multitude, robed in white, signifying the fact that they are not alone in following the risen Christ. And there in that crowd they march with joy to worship at the throne of God singing the very same songs that had been sung week after week in the worship of faithful:

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!…

Blessing and glory and wisdom

and thanksgiving and honor

and power and might

be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

It sounds incredible, unbelievable.

It sounds nuts.

And it sounds familiar.

1900 years on from those small church communities hearing the Revelation of the John for the first time, we aren’t in that much of a different space than they were. Things have changed for us, we used to be the biggest show in town and the world used to care about who we were and what we did. But now we are not much more than small islands gathering to keep the faith in a world that has mostly forgotten we exist at all.

No group of Christians is immune to this reality today. Churches are declining across board, we are no longer the big deals that we once thought we were.

And we wonder how the great multitudes will ever come back, how the grand worship before the throne can ever be a thing again. Especially on a day like All Saints Sunday when we remember all those who have gone before us faith, it is hard to imagine who will come after us.

It is almost like the vision itself plays out the same conversation that we are regularly having. As John stands there with the elder watching the great multitude of the saints go by, he asks,

“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

And along with John we have no idea. We cannot imagine or understand this world where God is bringing all creation to worship before the throne.

And so we too shrug our shoulders…. we don’t know. We only know small gatherings of hopeless peoples… or so we think.

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

This is the great uncountable multitude, from all tribes and all nations, worshipping God and the lamb.

And in case we missed the memo, this great uncountable multitude is us.

You and me and all those gathered here… we are part of that multitude.

When the name of the triune God and the communion of the Holy Spirit is invoked, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When sins are confessed and forgiveness received in the body of Christ, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When the word is proclaimed, and the good news is heard, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When the faith is confessed, prayers are offered up for the world, the church and those in need, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When body of Christ is placed in our open empty hands and when we take in the blood of Christ swirling with the cloud of witnesses, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

You see, this scene from the vision of John is not just a vision of the end of world… it was a vision of those tiny churches without hope scattered across the Roman empire, it was reminder of who God was forming them to be.

And John’s vision is a reminder to us, of who God is making us. Each time we gather, even though we may feel small and forgotten…

God is making us into the great multitude of the saints, past, present and future.

God is reminding us that we are not alone in carrying the faith.

God is showing us that here in this moment, in this community, as we worship…

That the great multitude is gathering here, before the throne, singing the praises of Christ the lamb,

And here we will hunger no more, and thirst no more;

the sun will not strike us,

nor any scorching heat;

for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be Our shepherd,

and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”

Amen.

Reformation 500 – Telling the Right Story

John 8:31–36

Reformation 500

October 31st, 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the day that a young Roman Catholic monk and university professor nailed a list of 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. His list of 95 pointed and succinct grievances became the flashpoint for the beginning of a period of upheaval and change in western Christianity which would later be named “the Reformation” by historians.

And so each year on the Sunday on or before October 31st, we, along with Lutherans around the world, take the opportunity to commemorate this occasion.

This 500th anniversary year, in particular, has been a busy one for Lutherans everywhere. It began in Lund, Sweden (the birthplace of the Lutheran World Federation) last year as the President of the LWF, the General Secretary of the LWF and the Pope led a shared worship service as a sign of reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics. This past summer, the ELCIC hosted its National Reformation Commemoration during our National Church Convention in Winnipeg at St. Gianna’s Roman Catholic Church with ecumenical leaders from a variety of denominations from across Canada.

Along the way churches and communities all over have been marking this 500th anniversary year with special bible studies, community events, concerts, and even in this part of the world a Manitoba Reformation Social.

And so even though today may feel like a fairly typical Sunday morning, we gather for worship with our Lutheran sisters and brothers in Christ from around the world to mark this significant occasion.

As we commemorate, and remember, and celebrate, and mark, and observe this Reformation moment 500 years on, things in 1517 were not nearly as festive. (There were definitely no socials).

Martin Luther’s intention in nailing his list of 95 theses articulating what he believed to be errors and failures of the Pope and institution of the Roman Church was perhaps to inspire some lively debate among his colleagues at the university. But the relatively new invention of the printing press changed all of that, and Martin’s writings were copied and spread throughout all of Europe. Today, we might say Luther went viral.

Luther’s main concern had to do with the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. Essentially papers issued by the pope (and sold by the church) giving people time off of purgatory. And not just for yourself, but also for your dead loved ones! Basically the church’s version of monopoly’s get out of jail free card. The selling of indulgences was Rome’s way of fundraising for the construction of St. Peter’s basilica.

What resulted was a showdown between Martin Luther and the arrayed political and religious powers of his day. Luther’s insistence that salvation was entirely a gift from God in faith threatened the church’s main source of income. Popes had been using the Vatican treasury to play politics, assemble armies for war and fund large building projects and art commissions. Indulgences kept the Vatican afloat, and needless to say, church leaders were not impressed with this nobody monk from the sticks and his growing popularity.

Now, nothing that Luther advocated for was new to Christianity. He certainly did not discover grace, that originated with that Jesus guy 1500 years earlier. Nor was Luther the first since Jesus to re-articulate the centrality of grace as a free gift from God, as we just heard that from St. Paul in Romans. And there was St. Augustine and others  were also very clear about salvation being a free gift from God.

The thing that Luther identified in his day was how the church was turned in on itself and obsessed with its own history and power. For hundreds of years, the church had been very cozy to political power, crowning emperors and declaring empires to be holy. By Luther’s day, power and influence were the centrally important things for most Popes and other leaders. Rome’s identity was deeply wrapped up in being an institution of influence and power, and not in being the body carrying out God’s mission to the world.

And so when Luther showed up declaring that perhaps God and God’s mission to save a sinful world was more important than big cathedrals and military forces, it did not go over well with those in power.

The ensuing conflicts between Rome and Luther resulted in a split in the Roman church and the birth of numerous protestant denominations over the past 500 years.

500 years on from Luther’s moment at the church door in Wittenberg, things have a changed a fair bit. Those of us who bear his name as Lutherans no longer carry the same clarity of the gospel that Luther did, and we often fall into the same temptation that the 16th Roman church did of loving our past, the power and influence that we used to have, a little too much.

As we commemorate 500 years of our history, it is easy to forget that one of Luther’s key points was that our history is not the point. God’s story is.

God’s story of love, and mercy;

God’s story of reconciliation, and grace.

God’s story of redemption for a fallen humanity.

This story is not one that is told in past tense only, but in the present and in the future.

Martin Luther’s insistence on grace through faith had to do with a simple but radical idea that salvation is not something that we could achieve. We cannot save ourselves, we cannot save others, we cannot save the church, we cannot save the world.

Salvation is God’s alone to do. God is the actor, the one who gives the gift, the subject of the sentence, the one whose deeds of power achieve the goal.

A simple but radical idea.

Simple because it sounds like it should be obvious.

Radical because it challenges our notion that we are in control, that our power and influence matters, that our story and history is somehow significant when it comes to salvation.

And if any Reformation commemoration is going to tell the story of the Reformation faithfully, it is not going to just be about Martin Luther, or just about the Lutheran church. But it will remind us again of God’s story. Of God’s story where sinners are forgiven freely, and the dead are raised to new life.

This central focus of Reformation on God and God’s action is also the hardest part of Reformation. It is easy to get lost in our own story, to make our past the thing that defines us, to believe that the way things were are how they are supposed to be in the future. It is hard to set aside our own past and continually orient ourselves back to God’s story and God’s future…

In fact, as Martin Luther would remind us, it is impossible not to make things about us, it is impossible not to put ourselves into God’s place, whether we are the church of 1517 or 2017.

But what is impossible for us, is not impossible for God.

God who continues to form us into God’s image.

God who continues to make things about forgiveness and mercy; grace and reconciliation.

God who continues to shed us of our own stories and pasts.

God who continues to transform us with the story of resurrection and new life.

God who continues to reform us 500 years on from a church door in Wittenberg.

*This sermon was co-written with Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker*

Reformation 500 – The Next 500 years

This year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous act of nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st.

This act is considered by many as the beginning of the Reformation.

For Lutherans, Martin Luther’s particular witness to the gospel of Christ forms the basis of our confession and understanding of the Christian faith.

So as Reformation 500 approaches this year, Lutherans all over the world are commemorating the anniversary (as opposed to celebrating) and we are trying to include brothers and sisters of other denominations, particularly Roman Catholic, where possible.

As Lutherans look back on the past 500 years, we are also looking forward to what the next 500 years will bring for Lutherans, and all Christians.

This question has been rumbling around in my mind for a long time and in a renewed way this 500th anniversary year.

This is not an easy question to answer. It is deeply related to the biggest struggles of European and North American churches, most notably it relates to our experience of decline. Before getting to what I think the next 500 years will hold for us, the issue of delcine needs to be addressed.

Humans have this habit of thinking that what just happened will continue happening indefinitely. We, in this North American context of Lutheranism and wider Christianity, have been experiencing churches that are dropping in membership and attendance, budgets that are getting bigger while giving is shrinking and the average age of those still in the pews and contributing is getting older. And because this is our most recent experience we assume that the future holds more of the same.

But this is actually a really poor prediction model.

Let me put it in different terms.

50 years ago, when Lutherans gathered they often would have looked like this: The-American-Lutheran-Church-Constituting-Convention_2-18-13

Now imagine going to someone standing in that crowd and telling them that in a mere 50 years they might look like this:

p6245412.jpg

Thousands reduced to dozens or less.

Those people back in the 50s and 60s would have laughed and laughed and laughed… But this is where we are now. So what would make people today laugh and laugh and laugh… not a prediction of more of the same. But perhaps a predication that churches will be filled once again… filled with a new spirit and new vitality that we would have never dreamed or imagined. It won’t be the 50s again, but it will be something unexpected and new.

You see, we also have to think back 100 years to gain perspective. Much of North American Christianity looked similar to where we are now. There were some large and thriving groups, but lots of small communities barely able too keep up buildings, barely able to pay pastors, barely able to fund seminaries or missionaries or wider church structures. Many church groups were marginal to the larger society and many churches didn’t make it and were lost to history.

But just as now, that society was in a time of great transition. Conflict was the story of global politics (WW1), immigration was high (settling the western part of the continent), new technologies were changing the way people lived (electricity, telephones, automobiles, modern medicine etc…). And it remained messy for nearly the entire first half of the 20th century.

But this chaotic situation eventually led to many, many people seeking a truth greater than themselves, finding solace in the promises of a God who was in control when the world seemed ready to end, finding comfort in faith despite the rapid pace of new technology constantly changing the world.

We don’t have to think about our current world situation very long to see the similarities, to see that our political and economic world which once seemed to provide a stability for people to live their lives on, is turning into an instability that is only going to get worse before it gets better.

Most predications that I hear about the next 500 or 50 or 5 years tell us that decline will simply continue indefinitely and we are just going to have to accept that.

I don’t.

I don’t think that the antidote to decline is to simply be better sales people for church with flashiest and shiniest features to entice largest slice of a shrinking pie of interested people into church.

I think the church is about to be one of the few places of hope that many people will have to turn to in our increasingly chaotic world. I think that some political leader may just push that red button (and no it will not be like an apocalypse movie) or some aspect of climate change will be pushed over the edge, or some hacker will decide that it is time to empty everyone’s bank account… or most likely I think that through difficult struggle and resistance the average people of the world – who are sick of living under systems that privilege a small few – will decide this is not acceptable anymore.

And a paired down church will have to be ready. Ready to welcome the masses who have no where else to turn for hope. The masses who no longer rely on the invisible forces of the world (governments, international organizations, corporations and civil society) to care for them.

Over the coming years and decades, as most church leaders anticipate more decline, the world is going to surprise us. The world is going to surprise us by needing what the church has to offer.

As governments and corporations and other institutions continue to struggle to contend with the big issues that face our world like war and conflict, refugee crisis, economic inequality, climate change, growing nationalistic movements, etc… People will begin to look for places where they kind find real hope. The things that we all believe we could relay on to look after us, like the political leaders we elect and the social institutions that we have created, will not be able to deal with our problems. And so people will begin looking for something bigger than us, someone bigger than us, to deal with our problems. In a dark and a hopeless world (like that of Jesus, like that of Martin Luther), God and the promises of hope and new life that God has given us will begin to pull people to faith.

All that we need to do is let our anxieties about decline die just long enough to see that God was bringing about tangible new life through us. God is using us for real resurrection.

It is in this intersecting place that a declining church meets a world in need of hope.

The decline of North American churches in the past few decades is not a never ending trend. But I do think God is using this time to help us shed our baggage. God is letting us struggle so that we can get all the wrong fixes and solutions to decline out of our system. So that we can try trendy music and flashy tech and hip pastors. So we can try to reincarnate the knitting groups and service clubs and curling bonspiels of the past. So that we can get all the complaining and shaming of our family, friends and neighbours over with. So that we can see that nothing we come up with will be the solution to our problems.

God is letting us experience decline long enough to finally die to our memories and nostalgia of the glory days and realize that the only thing the church ever had was the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. All we ever were at our best are communities grounded in Christ’s new life given for us.

To be honest, I think in many ways the next 500 years for Lutherans and for North American Christianity will look a lot like the last 500. We will continue to be communities where the gospel is preached and where the sacraments are administered. Sometimes we will be strong in number and power. Other times we will be weak and marginalized. But in the end, neither of those realities matter.

What does matter is that God is answering all the sin and death in the world with resurrection and new life proclaimed in churches just like us.

*The original version of this post can be found here*

We cannot give God what is God’s.

Matthew 22:15-22

 Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Read the whole passage)

We have been journeying through a particular section in the Gospel of Matthew for weeks now. It all began with Jesus teaching in the temple, when Pharisees question his authority. And so Jesus has been telling parables in response. He has talked about sons who do not do what their father asks, he has talked about landowner to his sent his son to collect from murderous tenants and who end up killing the son, Jesus has talked about a proud King who destroys the invited guests who will not come to his son’s wedding banquet and who then throws out another guest who had been pulled of the street because he was wearing the wrong robe.

All of it has been part of a plot to trap Jesus into saying something heretical. And all along the way, Jesus has been showing his audience and us, that we are power hungry sinful people. And that God is radically merciful and outrageously gracious.

And finally, we land today with the question taxes and authority. The Pharisees have questioned Jesus own Authority way back at the beginning of this series interchanges, and now they are questioning to what authority Jesus will submit.

Now, before going any further, knowing some history is vital to understanding what is going on. The question of paying taxes to Rome, was more of a question of idolatry, than it was civic responsibility. Most people in Israel were taxed about 85% of their income. Some to Rome, some to the temple, some to pay off tax collectors, some to the Levites, some to the towns and villages in which they lived. People were bled dry for their money, and were often only allowed to just enough to survive. Most had to go into debt in order to make ends meet. Sound familiar?

However, the issues with paying taxes to the Emperor had to do with the coins themselves. Caesars were considered to be Gods, and the Roman coin the denarius was a constant reminder of that. The Israelites were prohibited from having any other God’s but the God of Abraham and Moses… therefore to even touch a coin would be sin. And yet, their Roman occupiers gave them no choice, since they all must pay taxes. This is why there were money changers in the temple, sinful roman money needed to changed into pure temple money.

So in this context, the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus so that they can get rid of him and his enthusiastic followers.

Yet, the trap that the Pharisees have set for Jesus reveals something far worse than any kind of blunder that Jesus can step into. They attempt to get Jesus in trouble my making him either choose heresy by denying the one true God or to risk the wrath of the Roman Empire by undermining Caesar’s divinity. Yet in trying to make Jesus choose between the God of Abraham and the imperial Roman overlord, the Pharisees reveal something else.

The way the Pharisees pose the question, by using God as object to catch Jesus with the Pharisees show how their own faith is broken. Faith to them is nothing more than a tool to be exploited, a means to obtain power and influence. Being a Pharisees meant status and material comfort.

They might not even know or see what they are doing. They might think that they are protecting their faith… they do not see that they are using God and God’s relationship with the chosen people as tool to get Jesus in hot water… and to eliminate his threat to their cushy gigs.

The trap that the Pharisees fall into is one that we all can fall into. Our faith can be broken apart by the same kind of thinking, often when we least realize it. Being part of a faith community can quickly move from being about following the God who reconciles all creation to Christ in the cross and the empty tomb… to spending out efforts protecting our status in the community, to holding on to the comforts of faith, to seeking more control and power.

We too get sucked into thinking that faith is about status and privilege, about budgets and positions, about doing things like grandma and grandpa did, about having a place that is about us rather than about God, about using God is a weapon to condemn and judge others, and on and on and on.

And with that thinking, without even knowing it, our faith can break and crack too. And God can become a tool or an object that we use, rather than the One who is the centre and definition of faith. A way to trap an unsuspecting prophet in the temple, or a way to trick and entice the young people back to church in order to fill the offering plates.

It is a very human thing to try to make into God something we own and control and can use for our purposes. The hardest part is that like the Pharisees, we don’t usually even see it.

And so when Jesus answer the Pharisees, he gives them the thing that they have been wanting. He makes a statement about giving to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

He chooses the route of accepting the wrath of the empire, because to claim that Caesar is not God is to threaten the power of Rome.

But giving Caesar what is Caesar’s is not the point. As much as many preachers have tried to use Jesus’ words as reason to encourage the faithful in doing their civic duty… Jesus’s emphasis is on God.

Give to God what is God’s.

So what belongs to God?

Everything.

All creation.

The entire universe.

Even as the Pharisees are using God as a tool, a weapon and a trap for Jesus, Jesus is point them back to God. Reminding them everything belongs to God.

All things. All of creation. All of life. All power and might. All righteousness and virtue.

And all Grace and forgiveness. All mercy.

All faith.

Even us and our broken faith belongs to God.

But more importantly, giving to God what is God’s is NOT really ours to do.

Because we cannot give anything to God.

And that is thing that Jesus has caught the Pharisees with. As they try to trap him, and contain the threat of this ministry, and they try to protect the true faith of Israel, which just happens to give them a lot of power and privilege and wealth… Jesus reminds them their faith, that God is not a thing to control, nor tool to use to maintain their position.

Rather, God is the one who to whom all things belong.

And the Pharisees and all Jews knows this, even when they don’t remember it. Because they pray it at every sabbath, and they pray the reminder over and over at passover:

Blessed are you, O Lord God, King of the Universe.

And so giving to God what is God’s is truly to be remind of the God to whom we belong,

is the God of Kings and Empires, of beggars and the lame, of regular folks.

And this God to whom we belong is also the God of life.

The God who has sent the Son in flesh to bring the Kingdom near and to point us back to God.

The Lord God, King of the Universe knows already that the faith of Pharisees is broken, and knows that our faith is broken. It has been broken since Adam and Eve ate of the fruit.

And so while the question of the Pharisees reveals just what their faith is in and what they are trying to hold on to… It is no surprise for Jesus.

In fact, our broken faith, our tendency to try to turn God into a tool to use and manipulate is the whole reason God has come. And it is the whole reason that Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem a conquering King and it is the whole reason that soon after the Pharisees ask this question, Jesus will be arrested, put on trial and put to death.

But the blessed Lord God, King of the Universe is the one to whom all things belong, even death.

And in death, God shows us that there is nothing that doesn’t belong to God, no place where God will not seek us out, no brokenness that surprises God… and that there is nothing in all of creation that God does not hold in God’s hands. That even death belongs to God.

And so in pointing the Pharisees and us back to God, Jesus is also pointing us from death to life. Reminding us that the God to whom all creation belongs has promised us, and our broken faith, resurrection and new life as well.

Jesus says, give to God what is God’s…

But it is the Blessed, Lord God, King of the Universe who is giving us mercy and life.

God is not the Maniacal King of the Wedding Banquet Parable

Matthew 22:1-14

… The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city….

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Read the whole passage)

 

This doesn’t really sound like much of a party does it.

As we are coming out of Thanksgiving weekend, most of us having sat down at some point to a feast with family and friends, it is hard to imagine a banquet going so badly as in Jesus’ parable. Even the most chaotic of family dinners don’t usually end up with soldiers burning down the whole city. Thank goodness Jesus waited until after Thanksgiving to give us this apocalyptic banquet scenario.

Today, the parables of Jesus continue as they have all summer and fall. They haven’t always been easy to hear, there have been difficult themes to contend with, racism, violence, death.

But just to make sure we are paying attention, the parables ramp it up a notch and violence continues. Jesus tells us the parable of a wedding banquet where everything goes wrong and not even in a comical kind of way like in the movies… people die and guests are thrown into the outer darkness. Sounds like quite the occasion.

Last week as we heard the parable of the wicked tenants who murdered the slaves and son of the landowner, we noticed that Jesus was telling a parable that had taken an unusually violent turn. Well, this next parable which follows the parable of the wicked tenants, does not drop the violence but rather doubles down on it.

As Jesus continues to talk with the temple priests and pharisees, he tells the story of a King. A King who is throwing a wedding banquet for his son and he invites all the well-to-do guests of his Kingdom. When the party is nigh, he sends his slaves to let the wedding guests know to come to the party. But they don’t… they ignore the invitation. And so the King, expecting that his subjects will come to the banquet, sends his slaves again to announce the beginning of the party. This time the guests take it out on the messengers and put the slaves to death.

This, of course, enrages the King who sends out his soldiers to destroy the murderous wedding invitees and burn the city… the King’s own city.

Yet, lest a little violence, murder and destruction ruin a good party, the King sends out his slaves to round up whomever was left in the streets, the good and the bad, the poor and lowly, probably beggars and homeless folks. And they fill the banquet halls with wedding guests. Guests who have been dragged to the party by force… even as the city the burns.

And then, just in case we haven’t figured out that this King is nuts… as the King goes out to greet his guests, he finds some poor sod wearing the wrong party clothes. I guess he didn’t get the memo, as he was being dragged into the banquet, that he should have been dressed up for the party.

And the King has this unfortunate fellow dragged from the party and thrown into the outer darkness… tossed into oblivion.

The Gospel of the Lord?

If you are wondering what is going on with this King, join the club.

Many commentators and preachers have twisted themselves in knots trying to weld this nutty behaviour of the King in the parable to a moral lessons about God. Come when you are invited they have said. Make sure you are wearing the right robes, or are prepared they have said.

But those kinds weak and limp exhortations to be better followers don’t really communicate the good news. Where is the Jesus who dies on a cross for us? Where is the Jesus who rises on the third day? Where is the God who has come to love all creation and forgiven sins and bring healing and wholeness?

When we let this message of this parable speak on its own, without trying to make it say something about God and faith, we can see that the King is far from being god-like.

In fact, this King seems to be rather human. Just like the rest of us, he is filled with imperfect expectations. He is flawed and self-centred, he wants his banquet to be a certain way and he wants the people around him to meet is expectations.

Perhaps like a Thanksgiving host, he frets about making sure everything is perfect for the wedding banquet. And probably like some we know, when his expectations aren’t met, the anxiety and stress goes up.

Its no wonder the invited guests aren’t interested in attending the wedding banquet, no one wants to go to a party where the host is so full of expectations about how things will go that you don’t know what will cause the big blow up.

This self-centred King is no example of God’s righteousness judgement as much as he is a lesson in what happens when we let our expectations get the better of us. And we are guilty of doing just that, perhaps not to the same destructive level, but we let our expectations rule us just the same. In fact, most of the conflicts we experience – conflicts between spouses, with children and parents, with family or friends, in the workplace, in the community, at church – are the result of our expectations not being met. We are all often guilty of thinking things will go a certain way, that the people around us will be a certain way… and when those things don’t happen the way we like, it can thrown us into a rage also. Put a toddlers food on a blue plate instead of a an orange plate and you will find out what the rage of unmet expectations looks like.

Or host a thanksgiving meal for family that doesn’t go the way it was planned to go…

Or put a lot of time into a task at work only for it not to be appreciated by the boss…

Or develop a new ministry at church only to have a less than enthusiastic response…

Expectations fuel a lot of conflict and tension.

And those same forces are precisely the things lurking behind the parable of the King and his wedding banquet.

As Jesus tells this parable, he has just entered into Jerusalem as a triumphant King-like figure. A King and conqueror that the people were hoping was on his way to oust the Romans, to restore the glory of Israel. Expectations were running high.

But instead of gathering an army, Jesus spent the days after is triumphal entry telling parables. Parables like the one we hear today. Parables that provoked crowd to eventually become a mob… a mob that would arrest Jesus – their King from only a few days earlier  – and take him to the authorities to demand his execution.

Expectations turned to rage and destruction and violence.

The comparison of this maniacal King and his banquet to Jesus is not to show us what is God is like, but to show us how different a kingship Jesus embodies.

Jesus the King is not the conquerer who comes full of expectations.

Jesus the King is the one who invites himself to our tables, who comes to eat with sinners.

Jesus the King is the one who welcomes all wherever he goes… he doesn’t demand that we follow, nor force us to attend… rather Jesus comes to us bearing new life.

And Jesus the King is the one who comes wearing the wrong clothes to the big party…. the one who has a crown of thorns and the purple robe put on him by mocking soldiers.

Jesus the King is the one who defies our expectations, who does not put himself first, but who puts himself last.

And this King, is the one that this parable really should remind us of. The King of the wedding banquet is so absurd in his maniacal rage, his expectation filled rage and violence, that we should be reminded of just how different and opposite a king Jesus is.

But in case we forget, or don’t get the memo… Jesus reminds us here, week after week, that God is constantly defying out expectations.

When we expect condemnation, God gives forgiveness.

When we expect judgement, God gives mercy.

When we expect conflict, God bring us peace.

When we expect force, God gives us love.

We when expect death, God gives New Life.

Here, as we gather as a community filled with human expectations, God strips us of the things we expect week after week.

God washes expectations away in the waters of baptism.

God forgives expectations in the words of absolution.

God overturns expectations in the gospel word.

And God re-forms us anew, without expectation, at the banquet table of bread and wine.

And so, when we heard this parable the first time, we likely expected that it said something about God, about a God who carries many expectations that we better live up to or else…

And Jesus completely defies our expectations by being a King that we could never imagine.

But to be the King who God has sent to us to give us new life.