Category Archives: Sermon

‘Course Jesus isn’t safe. But he’s good.

It has been a while since my last post, but I am hoping to get back into posting after a few weeks of holidays. Welcome to 2015 on The Millennial Pastor. In the meantime, here is my sermon from today. See you around. 

Mark1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”… (read the whole reading here).

Sermon

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe.

Today, we pick up the story just 14 verses into the Gospel of Mark. In the last two weeks we have heard the story of Jesus’ Baptism, and last week Jesus called Philip and Nathaniel. Today, he continues the call to Andrew and Simon, to James and John sons of Zebedee.

As this story comes 3 weeks after Epiphany, it seems to continue with the Epiphany theme. Epiphany tells the second half of the Christmas story. At Christmas, Christ is revealed to us as the child born in a manger – Christ revealed in flesh. On Epiphany Jesus is revealed to the Wisemen come to meet the Messiah born in Bethlehem – Christ revealed as the Son of God. Today, as Jesus calls these new disciples, he seems to be continuing his Epiphany journey, revealing himself as the Son of God.

But before Jesus calls these fishermen to follow him, he does something else interesting. He preaches his first sermon. The first words that Jesus speaks in the gospel of Mark are:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The Kingdom of God has come near.

That sounds simple enough to our modern Christian ear.

But for the Jews that Jesus was preaching to, it was radical. And it was radical because the Kingdom of God was something that didn’t feel near. God was NOT close by. God was far away. God was too righteous, too holy, too big and powerful, to come near to sinful human beings. That was the whole point of the temple of Jerusalem. God lived in the centre, in the holy of holies, and people needed to be purified in order to come near to, to access God. God was dangerous, unsafe. Being in the presence of God would make anyone of us drop dead. The annual tradition of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, was based on this idea. Some poor priest was send to the Ark of the Covenant at the centre of the temple to purify it of the sin of the people that had accumulated over the year. The priest was sent with a rope tied around his foot, in case he dropped dead being in God’s presence, so that his body could be pulled out.

This holy and righteous God was unsafe and dangerous, being near to God was not necessarily something to be sought out.

And yet Jesus comes preaching, “The Kingdom of God has come near.”

Jesus preaches a radical and dangerous message. One that upset the way the people understood their world, one that made their world unsafe. One with God near by.

eye-of-aslan“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”

“ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe.”

Most of don’t worry about dropping dead when we come forward for communion, or when we walk behind the Altar. Yet, like the Ancient Hebrews, we too feel far away from God in our own way.

For the Ancient Hebrews, it was that God was too big, too righteous, too holy for human beings.

But for us, it is that we are too unrighteous, too small, too unholy for God.

As a pastor, one of the most common concerns that pastors hear from church people and non-church people alike is about not being good enough. We might not think that God is too good, but we often think we are too bad, too sinful, too flawed for God. So many of us sit in the pews and wonder if God would listen to our prayers. We wonder if God cares about someone like us and all the things we have done in our life. We believe that we have done things that are unforgiveable.

For many Lutherans, it is why we prefer pastors to pray, just incase God ignores a sinner like me. It part of why we hesitate to have communion more than 4 times a year, just incase it becomes corrupt by having regular contact with us. It is why we wait for children to be confirmed before they commune, in case they aren’t good enough.

But most of all, we worry that the selves we present to the world, the selves that we hide – our flaws and imperfections, our history and our baggage, the selves that cover up our shame and weakness… we worry that God sees our true selves. The naked, vulnerable, shameful versions of our selves.

And so while we might not be frightened of dropping dead in front of God, God is just as unsafe for us. For us it is not dropping dead, but dying of shame. Of being vulnerable and exposed in front of God.

This God. This God who is bringing the Kingdom near in a wild and untamed kind of way, is unsafe.

And still Jesus preaches his message.

“The Kingdom of God is near to you.”

And for the people of Ancient Israel, the wild, untamed, unsafe Jesus of Mark, declaring that the Kingdom is near is also declaring a world changing, life altering message. The Kingdom of God is near, not hidden away in the holy of holies of the temple. The King is near, the King who is too holy, too righteous for sinful humanity is coming near anyway. The King doesn’t care about holy or unholy, clean or unclean, this King wants to be with the people.

And so while the Kingdom coming near might have been unsafe, it might have resulted in death, it was also radical, transformational, it was incredible. The great king wanted to be near to humans, to you, to me. This is a King who cares about and is concerned with people. One who breaks the rules of clean and unclean, breaks the rules of lawful and unlawful, of righteous and unrighteous.

It is no wonder the disciples just drop their nets and follow. They were experiencing the presence of God like never before. Maybe they didn’t know in their heads just who Jesus really was, but in their hearts they must have been seized by nearness of God.

6a00d8341ec10c53ef00e54f60744f8834-800wi“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”

“ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Course he isn’t safe. 

But he’s good. 

He’s the King, I tell you. 

Here is the thing about being safe. It is safe to God stay in the holy of holies, to keep God at distance. And it is safe to keep God contained in neat and cozy Sunday morning church services.

But this morning, God isn’t safe.

Jesus is not preaching a safe sermon. Jesus is preaching a dangerous sermon.

The Kingdom of God has come near.

The Kingdom is near and we are left exposed, sins and all.

The Kingdom is near and God can see our shame and weakness.

The Kingdom is near and we cannot hide our true selves.

And so we come together, come to this place to meet the King who has come near to us. And we confess our sins, we reveal our need for love and forgiveness. We openly admit that we do not have life figured out, that we need God’s Word of eternal life. We declare that we are the hungry masses, that we need to fed by God’s body and blood.

And Jesus comes near to us.

Untamed, wild, unsafe, lion-like Jesus comes near.

And our lives, our worlds are changed.

Jesus comes near and changes us. Transforms us.

Jesus comes near and forgives us.

Jesus comes near and speaks a word of life to us.

Jesus comes near and feeds us with the Body of Christ.

Today, we hear Jesus’ first sermon. We hear Jesus revealed again and again to us. Revealed in flesh, revealed as the son of god, revealed as coming near. Today, we hear an unsafe sermon, one that threatens to knock us dead, or least to make us die of shame.

‘Course he isn’t safe.

But Jesus is Good.

Jesus is the King I tell you.

And this unsafe, untamed God might just make us die, but also shows us untamed and wild New Life.

Amen. 

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Advent Waiting: Ferguson, Sexism and Black Friday

I have been hesitant to add my own privileged commentary to issues surrounding Ferguson and sexual violence against women. I normally try to share and retweet the voices of the oppressed. But as a preacher, I can’t keep silent. Here is the text of the sermon preached to my congregation this morning. 

Mark 13:24-37

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near…

Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Read the whole lesson here)

Sermon

Keep Awake. The world is waiting. 

The world is waiting for justice. Waiting for peace. Waiting for healing.

Keep awake. This week we watched as the people of Ferguson waited for answers, waited for justice… and then we saw a system stacked against justice rule to protect the privileged. And we saw the results. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, “Rioting is the language of the unheard.”

The world is waiting for Justice.

Keep Awake. This week we witnessed hoards of people flock to malls and stores in order to get Black Friday deals. In order to engage in retail therapy, the attempt to fill empty hearts by emptying full wallets.

The world is waiting for healing.

Keep Awake. This week heard news and reminders that violence against women, misogyny and sexism are not things of the past. We heard the charges laid against CBC radio host and celebrity Jian Ghomeshi, the allegations made by elected MPs of harassment. We have heard that two men have been charged in the case of Rinelle Harper, a 16-year-old girl left for dead on the banks of the Assiniboine left after being assaulted and violated.

The world is waiting for peace. 

Today, is the first Sunday of Advent. And we know it is Advent, not just because of the calendar, but because we are no longer surprised by the Christmas music playing in the malls, or the Christmas lights that light up night-time streets and highways, or the fact that the Santa Claus parade was already two weeks ago.

Last Sunday, we concluded the church year, and today we turn the page onto a new one. As Christians, we observe a calendar slightly offset from the secular one. Our church year begins with Advent in late November, a good month or so ahead of January 1st. And like regular New Year’s, Advent is partly about a chance to start over, to leave behind the baggage of the previous year, and make a fresh beginning.

But Advent is no so much about resolutions, as it is about preparation. Preparation and waiting. Advent is the 4 weeks before Christmas, and is centered around hearing the stories that prepare us for the birth of Messiah. And like the season of Lent before Easter, Advent is season that is toned down, a season for reflection and thoughtfulness. But Advent is not about penitence or preparing ourselves to hear about Christ’s death is like Lent is. Instead, Advent is hopeful and full of anticipation. If Lent is the church season of waiting on Death Row or in Palliative Care, Advent is the season of pregnancy.

And each Advent season, we start on week 1, Sunday 1 hearing about the end. Hearing about the coming of the Son of Man. Advent waiting begins with waiting for Jesus. Waiting for the Messiah to come with the people of Israel, waiting for child to be born in a manger, and waiting for the second coming, for Jesus to return for that big cosmic ending.

And so today, before we get to John the Baptist, or before we get to angels making announcements to virgins, we hear Jesus’ words about the end of time. Keep Awake, he says, because no one knows the day nor the hour.

What an odd place to begin the church year. What an odd place to start Advent. December should start with digging boxes of Christmas lights out of storage, and checking off lists for Christmas shopping. This end of the world stuff doesn’t seem to fit.

As Jesus tells his disciples to Keep Awake, it becomes abundantly clear, that as modern people, we have no idea what waiting really is. The people of ancient Israel lived in a world of waiting so different from ours.

The world of the disciples was full of waiting… as Jesus reminds them of the lesson of the fig tree, we too can learn something. The people of Ancient Israel lived by a lunar calendar. This means that they organized their months by cycles of the moon rather than by the earth moving around the sun. More concretely, their months were all either 29 or 30 days long. Any month could be 29 or 30 days. Their years were either 12 months or 13 months long. Any year could be 12 or 13 months. So how did they know?

Well, when at least couple of people observed the new moon at end of the month, they would tell the temple authorities (the church council) who would then send out messengers to let the people know that the month had changed. And then at the end of the year (which was usually around our February or March), if spring still seemed far off, the temple authorities would just add another month to the end of the year.

Take a moment and think about that. Imagine if we had to read the papers or watch the news to find out which day our months ended on. And imagine if a couple of weeks before the end of the year, we found out there would be another December.

The is why the Ancient Israelites had to watch the leaves of the Fig tree to know when summer began, their calendars couldn’t be trusted. Instead, they had to trust the signs around them, they had to trust their community to keep awake together, trust their leaders to make sure good decisions were made.

We wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves in a world like that. We don’t know how to wait in that way. We don’t live our lives with an openness to things happening sooner than we expect, or not happening when we want them to. We live with set schedules, with fixed time limits, with predictable dates. In fact, you can tell just how bad we are at waiting by the question we love to torture kids with this time of year, “How many sleeps until Christmas?”

And while we are not good at waiting in the same way the people of ancient Israel were used to, we do wait. We wait just like they did. Maybe not for extra days or extra months but we wait for salvation like they did. We wait for Justice like them, we wait for peace, we wait for healing.

And in Advent, we wait for Messiah too.

They waited for Messiah in Jerusalem, on the banks of the Jordan and Bethlehem. They waited to be freed from oppression from Empire, they waited for God’s mercy and love to make them clean, they waited to be lifted up from their suffering.

And we wait for Messiah in Ferguson, in Ottawa, on the banks of the Assiniboine, and here right now among us. And whether we are good at it or not, our waiting is not measured by the number of sleeps until Christmas, nor on calendars, schedules or to do lists.

Like the ancient Israelites, our waiting for Messiah is measured in small glimpses of Hope.

Messiah came to Ancient Israel in the form of a carpenter turned preacher telling of the coming of the son man to expectant crowds. Messiah comes to us as people of faith speak out about the injustices of Ferguson and stand with a community grieving and oppressed.

Messiah was preached by a hermit crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Messiah is preached today, as we refuse to consume and spend as if it were therapy, as we proclaim a counter-cultural message of waiting and anticipation, instead of immediate gratification.

Messiah was promised and announced to young woman, not yet married. And it was an unremarkable girl, overlooked by the world around her who bore God’s promise into the world with a man who should have stoned her instead of staying faithful.

And Messiah is promised and announced here as a community rallies around a young girl left for dead on the river banks, declaring violence against women and minorities is unacceptable.

Our hopeful waiting is for a Messiah who comes in small unexpected places, who comes no matter how good we are waiting, who comes to bring justice, peace and healing.

Keep Awake, says Messiah. The world is waiting.

Keep awake and see that Advent is not a countdown to Christmas, but a chance to see that the signs of Messiah’s coming, Messiah who may come tomorrow or in a lifetime.

But Jesus also says something else.

Today Jesus declares that no matter how dark the world seems,

The Son of Man is coming.

No matter whether we wait with patience or with anxiousness,

The Messiah is entering our world. 

Regardless the powers of injustice, violence and suffering,

Salvation promised, will come to us. 

Our waiting will not be in vain, our longing for a better world does not go unnoticed by God.

Keep Awake Jesus says, not as command to keep vigilante. But Keep Awake is a promise. A promise that in our Advent waiting, there will ever growing light in our darkness, that our hope is in Messiah and the signs say Messiah is on the way.

Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

The Crime of the Parable of the Talents

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!… (Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

This parable of the talents is a familiar stewardship parable for us. It has been preached that talents are gifts of time, money and abilities that we are to give to the Church. We all have been told that God gives us gifts that we should return to the church, and not just return to the church, but return twice fold. This is stewardship we are told, stewardship at its best. God has given us all that we have and so as good little Christians we should give back twice as much. We should give back twice the amount that God gives us. We limited, finite, terminal creatures of creation must give back to the Almighty creator, twice what we have been given. Surely some of us must be wondering how on earth this will work.

Perhaps it is that preachers seem to like this parable too much. Maybe the chance to use Jesus’ words to scold the poor folks in the pew for not giving enough simply cannot be resisted. Maybe the chance to say something that sounds like good pastoral care advice for those who come asking how they can participate in the life of the church is an opportunity that this parable provides, and an opportunity that should never be wasted. Maybe the chance to guilt those who only take and take from congregations, into giving a little back, is just too tasty to let be.

But, is this parable really about a God who guilts us into giving? 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 with guilt trips? Does this God really say “look at all I have given to you… and now you owe it back twice over… or at least give me the going interest rate”. Is God really like this harsh master who steals from his neighbours, who makes threats like: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

The reality of this parable is that it is about real money and not so much about talents  like playing the organ, or hammering nails, knitting sweaters, or public speaking. And making this parable about our gifts and skills is a disservice to the meaning of this parable. The Greek word, “Talonton” can only be understood as a large sum of money. Its measured in gold or silver, its 10 to 15 years wages, one talent can be anywhere from one thousand to a million dollars…  And the rich man who gives talents to his servants seems to be so rich that he is able to play around with millions of dollars. It is estimated that the 5 talents given to the 1st servant could have been worth anywhere from 1.2 million to 5 million dollars today. The rich man is so rich that money has become a toy for him, not to mention the lives of his servants.

Sounds a lot like how God treats us?

No, not really.

This rich landowner can only be passed off as God-like when we make greed and power true God-like qualities. We can only call this money a gift when we imagine money to be more important than anything else in our world. We can only see this parable as having something to do with stewardship when making money is something noble and divine, no matter how we make it.

Like last week’s parable of the 10 Bridesmaids, the parable of the talents cannot be reduced to straight forward comparisons. God is not the rich man, and we are not the servants of varying financial ability. In fact, if we really think about where God is in this parable it is not so easy to see. To demand profit, to make money on the backs of others, to worship greed and power and the almighty dollar are such human qualities.

And yet, when we consider the 3rd servant. The one who buries the 1 talent in the ground in fear… there is more to his story when we take the time to consider it. The 3rd servant is portrayed as a coward, yet he is the only one who refuses to participate in the system of greed, wealth and power. He is the only one who speaks honestly and boldly to the rich man. He is the only one who names the truth, that the rich man is harsh, that he steals and he is judgemental. And what does all this get the 3rd servant? It is gets him cast into the outer darkness with nothing.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

In fact, it is the story of the chapter of Matthew that follows this parable. It is the story of Good Friday. The story of another servant we know, one who speaks truth to human power, and who is killed and then buried in the ground, in the tomb, just like that 1 talent.

The parable of the talents when preached as if it were lesson in stewardship is a crime against the people sitting in the pews. Preaching that talents are something we ought to return to two-fold to God does not do justice to the story of God among us, the story of the creator come down to creation.

Earning money or interest has nothing to do with the story of God who entered into our grieving, to grieve with us, to share his own broken body and shed blood, but also to proclaim the unearthing to come. To proclaim that the true things of great value that we bury in ground shall be raised up, with New Life and with New Joy.

The idea of doubling our money for God makes no sense to the God who proclaims us, proclaims all of creation to be of the greatest value and worth. Today, instead of telling us to give our talents, gifts and time to God, God is declaring that the unearthing Christ, the one buried and then raised from the dead is not interested in wealth and power, but instead interested in us. Christ is interested in showing a nothing, failing dead humanity, that even when we are dead and buried, there is New Life unearthed for us.

Amen. 

A Reformation Sermon for Canada and the Ottawa Shooting

John 8:31–36

36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (Read the whole passage here)

Sermon

This week our nation has endured great tragedy.

On Monday two soldiers were run down with a car, and one of the them, Patrice Vincent died of his injuries. And then on Wednesday we all heard the news come over the radio, tv or internet. There had been a shooting on Parliament hill, a solider had been killed at the National War Memorial, and then there were shots fired inside Parliament. Security officials and police locked down Ottawa for hours as the rest of us waited to hear if there was going to be more… more gunmen, more bullets, more violence, more chaos.

In the days following, we learned just how dangerous this situation was. We learned that shots were fired just outside of the rooms where many of the members of our federal government were meeting. We learned that the gunman had passed by dozens of bystanders and had easily gained access to heart of Canadian democracy and government.

And since then, all Canadians have been shaken to some degree. And we have already seen the beginnings of over-reaction to this incident. We have heard our political leaders declare that our enemies will be punished and that our resolve to defend our freedoms will not be shaken. We have seen increased security measures across the country. We have even seen vandalism of a mosque in Cold Lake, Alberta.

As we are left to sort out what to make of these events, it is perhaps appropriate that today we gather on Reformation Sunday. Reformation Sunday is the day we set aside each year as Lutherans to remembers our 500 year history, and where we came from. We remember the catholic monk Martin Luther, whom we are named after, standing up against the injustices of the pope and the church – the selling of salvation, the abuses by church leaders, the exploration of the faithful. We remember that our faith and our beliefs are important. Important enough to die for, important enough to defend.

But on Reformation Sunday we also remember the division that change caused. We remember that people did die because of Martin Luther’s actions. We remember the between 125,000 to 250,000 people that died in the peasants war that resulted. We remember that after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door the church in Wittenberg, Christianity was split from 2 denominations (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) into as many as 25,000 today. And these divisions have been caused violence, chaos, oppression, abuse, suffering and death for 500 years.

Reformation Sunday is day of two realities. Of promise, hope and freedom, contrasted by division, conflict and oppression.

Today, you might notice the red parents that adorn the chancel area. Red is one of the 5 liturgical colours, but it is only used a handful of Sundays each year. Red is the colour we use to symbolize the Holy Spirit. The changing, transforming, reforming work of the holy spirit among us. Red is used on Pentecost when we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples, and today Red is for Reformation. However, as Canadians, we might take some liturgical and theological license and think that Red reminds us of our national colour and of the the reality of tragedy, fear and death in our midst. And lastly, Red is used to remember martyrs in the church.

And while the gunman may or may not have considered himself a martyr, we have discovered that Cpl. Nathan Cirillo is in fact the martyr this week, the one who died for principles and for a cause.

Even still, as we are left to make sense of tragedy, Canadians have discovered signs of courage and honour this week. Even as the events of Wednesday unfolded, we saw our news broadcasters deliver calm, respectful, accurate reports of the events, rather than sensationalism. And then the courage of Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers was revealed, recounting his dramatic actions that ended the danger and prevented more violence. Then there are the residents of Cold Lake who showed up to clean, repair and show support for the mosque that was vandalized only hours earlier. Then there was the political cartoon from Halifax that captured the emotions of a nation, as it depicted one of the bronze world war one statues on top the of the tomb of the unknown soldier stepping down to Nathan Cirilo below, where only the recognizable feet and argyle socks of his uniform could be seen. It was as if those soldiers from a hundred years ago was saying, “You belong here with us.”

And overwhelmingly, the rhetoric since Wednesday has been for Canadians to remember who we are. To remind us not to lose ourselves to grief and fear, to remember that we are a nation of peace and openness, that our values are about tolerance and freedom.

It was been a week of mixed emotions, of conflicting experiences, of hard-to-make- sense of events. And fittingly, Reformation Sunday is about that too. About the conflicting experiences of division, conflict and war that accompanied the Reformation, as well as the striving for justice, the proclamation of grace and mercy, the hope we have in God’s promises.

God’s promises like we hear Jesus utter today, promises like,

“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

And if there is anything to remember today it is that.

Even as Canada struggles with tragedy and celebrates the heroism born out of it. Even as Reformation Sunday demands that we recall the both the gospel proclamation of Martin Luther and the reformers, the bold declaration of grace through faith alone, that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love and that this belief is important enough to stand up for contrasted with the division, conflict, violence and suffering caused by the reformation. Even as these realities both this week and 500 years old sit with us, ultimately today is not about those things. Today is about what each Sunday is about for Christians.

Today is firstly about Christ. Today is about God and God’s mighty deeds among God’s people. Today is a reminder we simply cannot save ourselves on our own.

Just as in today’s Gospel readings the Jews said that as descendants of Abraham they were slaves to no one (even though they had been slaves to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and now Romans). Just as Martin Luther declared that he and we we were not slaves to law and freed by God’s grace (even though he was threatened by the Pope and others). Just as Canadians declare that we will not loose ourselves to fear, to revenge, and hate.

We are still slaves to all of those things. We are slaves to enemiy nations. We are slaves to the law. We are slaves to fear, fear of the other, fear for our safety, fear of losing power.

No matter what our leaders declare, no matter the bravery we display, the sacrifices we make, the peace we try to uphold. We simply cannot save ourselves. We simply cannot free ourselves.

We are slaves to sin, slaves to suffering, slaves to death, and there is nothing we can do about it.

And that is why today is ultimately about Christ.

Today is about the promise that God gives to slaves. To those enslaved by sin, those enslaved by suffering, to those enslaved by death. Today, is about the promise that God gives to us. The promise that despite our condition, despite our slavery, that God is showing us mercy, God is giving us grace, God is making us free. Free in the son.

And this promise of freedom comes to us first in baptism. In baptism where we drown and die to sin, and where we rise to new life in Christ.

So perhaps it is fitting today, that we are going to extra lengths to celebrate those promises of baptism, because confirmation is really about baptism, about these young people in our midst recognizing their baptism, recognizing the promises made to them in water and word, made by God.

And just perhaps it is a powerful act of defiance against violence, against oppression, against fear for us to bless and support our confirmands. Perhaps it is beautiful act of hope that not only do we welcome again these young people into the Body of Christ, but we pass on this church, this faith, these promises to them. Even while we are slaves to sin, to suffering and most of all to death, we pass on our hope for the future to these young confirmands. A future promised by God in the midst of slavery. A future given by grace and mercy, even though we are dead. A future found with New Life in Christ.

Amen.

A Sermon for a Confirmation Class that isn’t Coming Back to Church

Matthew 22:15-22

…Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 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.”… (Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

This morning, after hearing 10 faith statements from our confirmands, we hear Jesus and the Pharisees having a discussion. They are debating how to be someone who has faith in God, and someone who lives in a world full of political and economic powers that divide our attention and allegiances. Do we ally ourselves with God, or Caesar, the symbol of world power. It is all part of our journey through the Gospel of Matthew that began last year, but particularly through the summer we have been hearing Jesus’ teaching along side of our human desire for control, power, easy answers, black and white categories and so on.

And it would seem natural at this point to tie confirmation or affirmation baptism that we will celebrate next week with some kind of choice to stand up for faith, for you confirmands to become “adult Christians.” Kind of like the choice between God and Caesar that Jesus is talking about today. And yes, confirmation has that aspect to it. There is something distinctly adult about standing in front of the church and sharing out loud what Jesus means to you. And some think that confirmation is about making the adult choice to stand up for Jesus.

So confirmands, I think it is important to recognize what you have just done. You have been bold and brave to share your faith and to do it in front of the whole church. But not only have you done that, but you have shared your faith statements after more than two years of study and learning, of classes and community, of coming to this strange place with these strange people while most if your peers and friends were sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

Now your bravery this morning is certainly an example to the rest of us, and we are all proud to see you, our young people, standing among us sharing your faith. But some honesty in this moment is called for as well.

This may be difficult to hear, but bear with me. After the last two years of classes and studying and learning about faith, a lot of you, maybe even most of you will not come back to church very often after next Sunday. A few of you might become regular and active church members, but likely not many. And after today, there will be a lot of things, a lot of other options that will pull you, and that pull all of us away from church and away from faith.

But the options and other things to do on Sunday mornings are not the only thing that will pull you away. And again bear with me.

The things that we talked about in confirmation God, faith, church and the bible, are probably not things that your parents talked much about with you. And studies show that if faith is not talked about in the home, the chance of youth staying involved in church is very low. But this is not about blame. Your parents didn’t talk about faith to you, because their parents didn’t talk to them about faith. And your grandparent’s parents didn’t talk to them about faith.

And even though the small catechism that we used in confirmation to help us learn about the ten commandments, lord’s prayer, apostle’s creed, baptism and communion was written by Martin Luther for parents, particularly fathers to use to teach their children about faith… the church for hundreds of years has been making people think that God and the bible can only be talked about and learned about at church. And that is our fault – pastors and church leaders fault – we are to blame for why parents are not teaching the faith to their children.

So confirmands, (and families), you have now heard me say that most of you will probably not be back to church after next Sunday. But I want to be clear that this is not to make you feel bad. In fact, if the reason you and your families come to church is because you feel like you should… then I don’t want you to come. Church is not a should. Faith is not a should. God is not a should. But back to that in a second.

Remember the debate that Jesus has today about the Emperor on the coin, giving to God what is God’s and giving to Caesar what is Caesars. This is not an easy task. If we feel like we should come to church, but we want to sleep in, or do homework, or go shopping, or play sports, or dance, or whatever… we might try to go to church like good little girls and boys should… but that will last only a while until what we want to do seems much more interesting.

Giving to God what is God’s sounds nice, but let me tell you, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s is a lot more fun.

And here is the thing about church.

If you are looking for great music, the radio will always have something that sounds better. If you are looking for an entertaining sermon, tv and movies will always be more appealing. If you are looking for food that tastes better than bread and wine, any restaurant has better. If you are looking for fun youth events, family programming, or seniors groups, the YMCA, the mall or and most community groups can do more than we can.

The church is just not as cool as the world, as cool as Caesar’s stuff and so the church won’t be entertaining enough to make you come. Guilt won’t be enough to get you out of bed on Sunday mornings. Becoming regular church attenders after next Sunday is something you will have to want to do. And our responsibility is to make this place somewhere that you would want to be.

And so what does the church have offer? What would make you want to come instead of feel like you should?

Remember Jesus talking about Caesar and God. When the Pharisees asked Jesus about paying taxes with Roman coins, he asked for a coin because it has the picture of the Caesar, the emperor on it. And next to emperor’s picture two words were printed – “Caesar God”. The romans thought that their Emperor was God, and so when Jesus said, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s, he wasn’t really talking about this choice between God and the world. Caesar and his image on the coin represented humanity’s desire for control, our desire to be powerful, our desire to define God and Godly power. Jesus is reminding us that this is not true. Jesus is saying that we don’t always get to decide who we are, nor do we get to say who God is.

The world, things like school, sports, shopping, tv, dance. Things like power, money, security, control, black and white answers etc… these things are trying to tell us that we get to decide who we are. That we can be anything we want. A rock star, an NHL hockey player, a marine biologist, a doctor, that we can be rich, young, never sick, famous and powerful.

So what does the church, what does God tell us? Here at church God doesn’t let  us decide who we are, but tells us who we are. God tells is in Baptism that we belong to God. That we are children of God and that is the most important identity we have. In communion, God tells us what we are members of the Body of Christ, of this family of faith that gathers here at Good Shepherd and that gathers as Christians all over the world. God tell us who our family is, God gives us brothers and sisters in faith, who are there for us when we struggle, there for us when we celebrate, there for us in daily life.

In God’s church, we are welcome no matter what. We don’t have to be anyone special, we don’t have to be achieve anything, or commit to anything. In God’s church, we are not told us that we should do anything. In church we hear what God has done for us, we hear how Jesus is working in our lives, and we are promised that when we fail, when we are broken and suffering, and when we die, that God is there putting us back together, giving us new life.

So confirmands, today you have given us your faith statements in front of family, friends and the congregation. You have been brave and bold to speak, and we are proud. And while I reminded you that confirmation is not graduation from church, meaning after next Sunday you are not done church, but invited to engage church more. Don’t hear the message today that you should come to church. Faith, church and God are not things you should do.

Instead, hear today that in this place, with these people, with this God you are welcome no matter what, that you are a part of this family and that you belong here and belong to God. And when all those Caesar things, those world things fail to turn you into the things you want to be, here you will always belong, always be family, always be loved. Here, God will always tell you who you are.

Amen. 


Have thoughts on should go to church vs. want to come to church? Share in the comments, on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

A Sermon on Ferguson, Robin Williams and the Canaanite Woman

As a blogger, it can be hard to know where to begin with all the things happening in the world. But as a pastor, I can’t help but preach about where God is in the midst of this mess…

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord… (Read the whole passage here)

Sermon

Have mercy on me Lord. 

These are familiar words. In fact, we just sang them this morning. Given the times and places where we usually say these words, it can feel strange to sing them while we are safe and sound at church. Normally it is in moment of distress, moments of trial and hardship, moments when there is nothing else but to ask for God’s help.

Have mercy on me Lord. 

A news alert flashes across the televisions, computer or smart phone. The top story of the evening news. The front page of the newspaper. They all declare the same thing:

Robin Williams is dead.

Mork is dead, Adrian Cronauer is dead. John Keating is dead. Garp, Peter Pan, Mrs. Doubtfire, Sean Maguire, the Genie from Alladin, Patch Adams and so many more beloved characters from our favourites movies. They are all dead.

And the world mourns, the world cries out for healing, the world begs for more understanding and help for those suffering from depression.

This news is a shock and yet it isn’t. Another star whose personal struggles and demons meant that we all share in the tragic results. We all grieve when a famous star dies.

Have Mercy on me, Lord.

The canaanite woman that approached Jesus must have been desperate. She must have been willing to risk any humiliation for her daughter. She also must have known that God in flesh would hear her plea. The woman who calls on Jesus does so knowing that she is repeating the language of worship, the language that Jesus and all Jews would have used in worship. Words that are spoken to God, this woman speaks to Jesus. A sign that she knows just who this Jesus fellow is.

And yet the disciples try to send her away.

They send her away because she is a gentile, because she is a woman, because she is a beggar. They send her away because she is different. She isn’t one of them, and as open minded to the poor, to the marginalized, to the downtrodden they think they are, this woman is too different and therefore undeserving of their mercy.

Even Jesus doesn’t have time for the woman. She begs him to help her daughter and Jesus says some pretty offensive word to her: It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

This is not the Jesus we know. This is a cruel, uncaring Jesus who doesn’t even see this woman as human, but more like a street dog.

Have mercy on me, Lord. 

In Ferguson, Missouri an 18 year old black teenager was walking down the street, and was stopped by a white police officer. The two got into a scuffle and the police officer shot the teen 8 times, killing him. The boy had his hands in the air, and was saying, “Don’t shoot” as he was killed.

The small suburb of St. Louis is shocked and outraged that a white police officer can kill a black teen without repercussion. Neighbourhood vigils and protests turn into a national movement calling for justice and for acknowledgement of the systemic racism that led to this incident.

Have mercy on me, Lord. 

The canaanite woman who has asked for mercy does not let up. She has a sick daughter, a child suffering from a demon, from an unknown illness. She asking for Jesus’ help not her own behalf, but as a parent. And she is willing to risk rejection, and to keep asking, even if he says no at first.

And Jesus gives a resounding no. He hasn’t come for gentiles, he has only come for the people of Israel. Jesus has come for God’s chosen people… yet this woman, this unclean gentile woman challenges Jesus… challenges Jesus to change his mind.

Have mercy on me, Lord.

Wars continue in Syria, Iraq and Gaza. People are dying in Africa from the deadly Ebola virus. The need for mercy in our dark world feels overwhelming these days as the news is a constant flow violence, sadness and shock.

Have Mercy on me, Lord.

These words are familiar to us. They are words that we pray, words of desperation and words that we practice week after week when we gather for worship. Words that are handed on to us and that we are entrusted to use faithfully.

And so when we don’t have the words and when we don’t know what to say, those familiar words like Have mercy on me Lord, or Peace be with you, or Thanks be to God, they spring to our lips without needing to think of them first. These are the words of the community of faith, they are the words of our forebears in the faith. These are the words that we teach each new generation as they come to worship.

And most importantly, maybe most surprisingly. These are words that change the mind of God.

To imagine words with such power is hard for us. Words that change the mind of God seem like too good to be true. And yet, that is exactly what happens each week, each moment we worship. The words that we hear in this place and the words that we share remind us over and over again, that God’s mind has been changed about us.

We have chosen condemnation, we have chosen death for ourselves. We are sinners who can only choose to die over and over again. Yet with mercy and love, God comes and speaks to us, with forgiveness and grace, God choses life and love for us. As Jesus changes his mind today, he doesn’t just change it about one woman. In Gospel of Matthew, from that moment on, Jesus’ mission was not just for the Jews, but all creation, for Jews and Gentiles alike. We are the ones asking Jesus for mercy and we are the Gentile members of the body of Christ who have received it.

Today, the Good News is that God changes God’s mind to include us. To include Gentiles, to include 21st century Canadians, to include the people of The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. God in Christ has come into our world, to be born, live and die for us. God in Christ has come to give us so much more than scraps from the table, but to give us a place at the table, to welcome us and feed us with God’s own body and blood. To make us into One Body. To hear our cries for Mercy.

And despite the horrible news that we have encountered this week there has been mercy. Since the death of Robin Williams there has been renewed awareness for those who suffer from mental illness and increased giving towards charity.

Mercy given.

In Ferguson, as tensions grew between police protestors, faith leaders and community leaders joined the call for justice but also the call for peace.

Mercy given.

In Africa there is help being sent, including new medicine with the hopes of helping.

Mercy given.

There are calls for peace and an end of violence in Gaza, Syria and Iraq, but most of all people of faith are standing together in solidarity promising to pray for innocent victims of conflict.

Mercy given.

Mercy isn’t about taking the problems away, but mercy is the promise that God walks with us in the midst of the darkness. God promises to be our light in a dark world, to be our healing balm for our suffering, to be the compassion that we so desperately need.

Have mercy on me Lord. These words will cross our lips over and over again. They will be ingrained into our bodies and into our souls, they are the words that change God’s mind, they are words that change us from dead sinners into members of of the body of Christ – forgiven and alive. Mercy is what we need these days.

We cry out,

Have Mercy on us Lord.

And Mercy is what God gives.

Amen.

St. Paul and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Acts 17:22-31

Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, `To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you… (Read the rest).

Sermon

image019It would serve us well to listen carefully to Paul today. Paul is telling us about a radical God that we don’t get to hear about very often. His words might have originated in Athens, from the place where Greek philosophers would gather to argue and debate ideas. But make no mistake, Paul is speaking directly to us. And there is a sadness in his sermon and there is a certain joy. The joy is the proclaiming the living God in whom we live – we move- and have our being. The sadness is in realizing that God is essentially unknown to most North Americans.

The place and people to whom Paul was speaking was not much different than our world today. The Athenians were careful folks who liked to hedge their bets when it came to religion. Scattered throughout the city would have been statues and temples to numerous Gods. To Greek Gods, Romans Gods, Persian Gods, and many more. Newborns would often be dedicated at each temple, just to make sure that all the bases were covered. Zeus, Athena, Mithras, Poseidon were all honoured just to be sure.

And just in case any gods had been overlooked, there was the statue to the unknown God. A coverall, so as not to offend any other gods out there that didn’t have specific statues or temples.

When Paul was in Athens, his purpose wasn’t to preach or evangelize. He was just visiting, waiting for his friends to re-join him while they preached in a neighbouring city. Paul, was more like a tourist than a traveling preacher. Yet, when he saw this statue to the unknown God, he must have seen an opportunity. An opportunity to address a culture that was quite concerned with covering their religious bases by doing the right rituals and keeping the right rules. The Athenian philosophy of religion was, make the gods happy and they won’t bother you,

The pluralistic religious system of the Athenians is not all that far off from our modern version of religion that is practiced today. In fact, sociologists have come up with a term for the most widely “practiced” religion in North America, and it is probably not the familiar name of a denomination. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This term was born out of study North American Teens and their views on religion. There was a surprisingly high level of agreement on what teens thought about God and the faith. There was no difference in views between those who were regular church attenders their whole lives to those with no church background at all.

monkimage

 

 

 

 

These are the core statements of their faith:

1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

5. Good people go to heaven when they die

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is basically the belief that God sets out some ground rules for behaviour which is the moralistic part. The Therapeutic part is that God is a being who exists to make us feel good and solve our problems. Deism is belief in a God who just created the world and left it to its own devices, God does not have much bearing on the rest of our lives and doesn’t really engage us personally.

The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the God of Oprah, Hollywood and financial gain. It is the God of inspirational greeting cards, reality tv, music videos and consumerism.  Making money, being self-centered and ignoring the big issues of life are also encouraged, because God wants to send us to heaven as long we are good people, which most of us are.

This distanced, self centered approach to religion is precisely what Paul’s words address today. And this kind of religion is exactly what our sinful selves wish religion to be. The pluarism of the ancient greeks and modern day Moralistic Therapeutic Deism appeal to us at our basic levels. They are religions were we get to be in control, and God gets to be a divine therapist and butler. They don’t demand anything of us, and they don’t intrude on our daily lives in any kind of real way. They are the perfect religion for a curved in on itself humanity.

As Paul walked around the Aeropagus, looking at the variety of statues he must have been asking himself,

What about sin?

What about evil?

What about death?

What about hope?

What about grace?

What about love?

Grace_wordle

 

 

 

 

For Paul, all of the greek Gods would have been unknown. His are the questions that none of the unknown Gods could begin to answer. These are the questions that sit below the surface when life is going well, but that rise up and force us to consider them when things go wrong, when life begins to hurt, to be painful. The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems pretty empty in the face of addiction, disease, divorce and separation, in the face of death. It seems pretty empty in the face love, beauty, sacrifice and wonder too.

In fact, the unknown gods of the ancient greeks and of our modern world are not really gods at all when compared to the God who washes, names, dies with us and raises us to new  life all in the one baptism. These gods not compare to the One who feeds, forgives, joins and loves in communion. The god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism does not compare to the God who was born, who lived with us, who died on the cross and rose on the third day in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Paul sees the opportunity with the statue of the unknown God, to show his audience that God is known. And even more so, that God knows us. As Paul preaches to the Athenians:

What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. God is known.

What a radical difference from what the Athenians knew. Paul does not just re-interpret the unknown God, but re-interprets the whole religious system. The God that Paul knows is the one who created all things. The God that Paul knows is the one who gives us life and movement and being — and does not require petty sacrifices in order to show mercy. The God that Paul knows, know us — knows what it is like to be born, to live, and die as one of us.

The God knows us sees us — all of us. Sees our faults and failures, our imperfections and loses. Our confusion and blindness. Our intolerance and bigotedness. Our despair and frailty. Our successes and hopes. Our dreams and desires. Our joys and our loves. All of these God sees.

The God who knows us hears us — our pleas for help. Our anger and frustration. Our sadness and sorrow. Our celebrations and thanksgivings. Our happiness and our wonder. Our normal and everyday words. All of these God hears.

This God who know us loves us — all of us. God loves all of us as a whole. All of us as individuals. All of us personally, intimately, completely. This God loves us despite our sinfulness and despite our faithfulness. This God who knows us simply loves us without condition.

The unknown Gods of ancient and modern times promise heaven for good behaviour.

But the God who knows us promises New Life to those that are dead. New Life for all creation. New Life for each one of us.

In a world that is often looking to cover its bases and for people whose best vision of what God could be is a divine therapist and butler, God offers so much more.

As Paul preaches to the Athenians and to us, the unknown distant gods that we try to make happy are not gods at all. The God of all creation, of all life, of all that moves of all that is. This God is known. This God is known because this God first knew us. As Paul preaches:

What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. This God knows us. 

Amen.