Category Archives: Theology & Culture

Reformation 502 – You will be made free?

GOSPEL: John 8:31-36

31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

400 years ago not too far from the shores of Church Hill, Manitoba, the first Lutheran pastor in North America presided over the first Lutheran communion service on this continent. Rasmus Jensen, was a Danish Lutheran Pastor sailing with Danish explorers who were searching for the Northwest Passage.

Of course, that is somewhat relevant to us here a Sherwood Park because nearly a hundred years ago, the original incarnation of this congregation was started by Danish Lutherans in the north end of Winnipeg, and they called it First Danish Lutheran Church.

It is strange to imagine that just about 100 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 these to the door of the church in Wittenberg sparking the beginning of the Reformation, that a Lutheran pastor to whom this congregation could trace a common lineage, was presiding at communion on Manitoban soil.

400 years of history for us to stand on is a pretty big deal.

And they said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

I hadn’t been in my first call long before people started asking me if I was of German descent. The congregation I served was part of a cluster of the oldest Lutheran churches in Alberta, a community of descendants of German immigrants that had been farming the land for over 100 years.

“No” I would respond. “I come from Norwegian Lutherans.”

A response that often made made eyes glaze over.

The first few times I tried to explain… my grandfather was a pastor, who had served congregations in Saskatchewan and Alberta. His brother was also a pastor who had served in Alberta. My grandfather’s brother in law, my great-uncle had been president or national bishop of the church. People all across the country knew my family, we had relatives and family friends in every synod, connections all over the place. When I started seminary, all the professors knew who I was because we had a scholarship named after our family.

Just because I wasn’t German, didn’t mean I wasn’t important! It was a sentiment that didn’t seem to matter much to anyone but me.

And they said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

As Jesus speaks to his followers, he declares that if they follow him, they will know the truth. And the truth will set them free.

Yet they balk at the idea. Not at the idea of following Jesus, the one whom they think is the promised Messiah. And not at the idea that Jesus will reveal to them truth. No, they balk at that idea that they aren’t free.

“We are descendants of Abraham,” they protest. They are part of the chosen in-group, part of inheritors of God’s covenant of blessing for the Israelites. They have never been slaves… well other than that time in Egypt and God used Moses to recuse them, and that time they were carted off to captivity by the Babylonians, oh and the Romans who were currently occupying Israel and taxing the place the death… other than those times they have always been free. Oh, and also when the Philistines, Persians and Assyrians conquered Israel… other, than those times they have never been in captivity or slavery to anyone!

Jesus promises truth and freedom, yet even his own followers are too proud to imagine that they needed to be set free.

And whether we like to admit it or not, we kind know this indignant attitude well. We are taught often by our world to assert our noble independence, our freedom from the burden of obligation anyone or anything. Whether it is political leaders who will say anything for a vote or a contribution regardless of the facts. Or people commenting on social media about whatever the rage inducing issue of the day is. Or media and marketing that tell us we are in charge of our own destiny, as long as we buy the right products. Or social divisions based on nationality, language, skin colour, religious belief, political partisanship, sexual orientation, occupation, age or any other number of arbitrary categories where being part of the in-groups means finding fault and blame with “those people,” or “others.”

And of course the church is guilty of promoting this attitude too. Christians have been all too good at believing that we are part of the in crowd, and that the problems we face are to be blamed on people outside of our in-group, on the world around us. Non-believers, people who have fallen away from church, people of other faiths… they are the ones who are the problem. Why do we need to be set free?

And [we] said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

Today, on this Reformation Day, it might be hard to imagine the desperation that the average person felt in 1517. Desperation to avoid sin and death, to avoid eternal punishment and hell. Part of what drove Martin Luther to speak out against the church was seeing how the Pope and the Church were exploiting this desperation, rather than giving people the truth. The truth that God’s grace and mercy were freely given.

Like those first followers of Jesus, we don’t know that fear of hell and condemnation. Rather we hold onto what we perceive as our birthright as though it is the sign of our salvation. “We are descendants of Abraham. I was baptized, or confirmed, or married in this church. I have been attending here my whole life. I was born and raised in this country. I am a well respected member of my community.”

Jesus offers the truth. Jesus offers freedom. And we are loathe to accept it because it might mean that we weren’t free in the first place.

And [we] said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

It is a hard truth to accept. That being descendants of Abraham, that being the home of the first Lutherans in Manitoba, that coming from big Lutheran families… that being a noble, independent 21st century master of our own fate and future… that none of these things are what matters about us to God.

Jesus gives us the unvarnished truth. We are sinners. Sinners in need of saving.

But the truth of Christ doesn’t end there.

We are sinners who are forgiven

Sinners who are shown mercy.

Sinners who are given grace and love.

And it is Christ who forgives. Christ who shows mercy. Christ who gives grace and love.

And that is Good News indeed. Because deep down, we know that all those other things that we get indignant about don’t truly matter. Because being a descendant of Abraham won’t save us in times of trouble. That who we are related to, the name of the church that we were baptized at, the job title on our business cards, the party that we vote for, the team that we cheer for… that none of those things will save us when we are broken down by sin, when we are facing death and the grave.

There is but one thing, there is but one person who saves.

And they said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

On this reformation Sunday, as we remember our heritage and history, as we give thanks for those who have gone before us… we are also reminded about the truth of the matter. The truth that Martin Luther rekindled among the faithful, the truth that Jesus came to preach good news to God’s people.

The truth that we declare every time we gather, the truth revealed in holy baths and holy meals.

That God’s grace is given for us, not because we of who we are, but because of who God is.

And that it is the God of grace and mercy who has come for those who are enslave to sin and death.

And even when we think we don’t need saving, that the God of New Life who has come to save us.

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The Persistence of Jesus – A Sermon for the Confirmation Class of 2019

GOSPEL: Luke 18:1-8

1Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused;… (Read the whole passage)

So confirmands… the scariest part of today is over. You have stood before us and shared with us a glimpse of your thoughts and experiences of faith. Of what all this God stuff means in your life. And that is not easy. Being vulnerable enough to talk about your faith is something that many adults would rather get a root canal than do what you have done today. So job well done.

Now some *hashtag* real talk… even though we asked you to figure out something to say about God and your faith, the reality is you haven’t got it figured it out yet. God and faith and what this all means for us is something we don’t ever truly figure out. As soon as it feels like we have got a hold of something, it all slips through our grasp. That is the weird thing about faith… it is not easy to make sense of.

In fact, even here on confirmation Sunday, you might not be fully sure what is going on. Confirmation is often a vague and hazy thing to describe. Your parents told you had to go, confirmation teachers and pastors spent a lot of time talking about how important the bible, church, and God are… and yet parents, teacher and pastors don’t always clearly explain just what is actually happening as you are confirmed. But don’t worry because most people who have been confirmed for decades might not be totally sure yet either.

So here is a little secret… you are, in fact, already confirmed. You were confirmed the day you were baptized. After the pastor washed you water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he or she laid hands on your head and prayed that you would be blessed with the sprit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, the spirit knowledge and fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence.

That is confirmation. Laying hands on your head and praying that short blessing.

Today, we are going to repeat that very same laying on of hands and blessing, with the hands of your mentors and family blessing you. And the hope is that today it will become a blessing imprinted in your memory and that you can take with you into the rest of your lives.

Now, of course that action of laying on hands and blessing is rooted deeply in 2000 years of tradition, and it is a public symbol and sign that you have been welcomed and blessed into the faith of the Church. Something that the church has been doing in various ways for millions, if not billions of people.

But there is also all this other stuff that we have been doing during confirmation. Learning and growing in faith together through weekly confirmation classes. Because today is also about this new stage of faith in your lives.

Yet the end of classes isn’t a graduation from church. And nor is this you taking ownership of your faith. Faith is not something we own… if anything it owns, or holds onto us.

Rather today, we are welcoming you into the practice of your faith. That’s right practice, kind of like how you practice hockey, or math times tables or piano. Today you are being entrusted with the practice of your faith.

And it is that word practice that connects us to this strange story about a widow and an unjust judge that we heard earlier. This weird story that seems to be about the uncaring and self-important judge (think warrior king in this context) who is hounded by a lowly widow demanding justice. She makes herself such a nuisance that the judge gives her what she wants. It sounds like a story about how to get what you want out of God, but it is not that.

It is a story about practice… about coming back again and again to something. Kind of like here at church. We do the same thing over and over again, week after week… not because we are unimaginative and boring, but because we are practicing. We practice our faith on Sundays, so that we can live out faith the rest of the week.

But the story is also a reminder of who God is, by telling us who God is not. God is not the uncaring and merciless judge. God is a loving parent, the merciful Messiah who is constantly seeking us out. The Christ who names and claims us in the waters of baptism.

Jesus is the one who meets us in this strange story of widow and judge, meets us week after week in the words of confession and forgiveness, and then again in the Words of God that inspire faith in us. Jesus meets us in song and prayer, in the faces of our siblings in Christ sitting here in the pews with us, and in the Bread and Wine, the Body of Christ for the Body of Christ.

And Jesus comes week after week to our practice of faith, meeting us again in those things. Jesus keeps coming kind of like that widow who persists. Jesus keeps coming after us, keeps seeking us out in faith.

And the judge who isn’t like God… well, there is someone who he is like. Us.

This why we need to practice. We need to be constantly reminded of who we are and who God is.

Martin Luther once said about the practice of faith, “Every week I preach justification by faith to my people, because every week they forget it.”

Our inclination is to forget, to think we know it all, to believe we don’t need reminding… And yet Jesus reminds us again and again, that we are named and claimed in baptism and again in confirmation, that we are forgiven in confession, that the good news of the God’s Word is for us, and that we need to be fed with the Body so that we can become the Body of Christ.

So remember how I said the hard and scary part is finished… well that wasn’t exactly true. Confirmation classes and now sharing your faith, that was the easy part… the hard part is just beginning. The hard part is finding out today that Jesus is going to persistently seek you out for the rest of your lives like that persistent widow. And like that judge, we are annoyed by it… we might even try to walk away or hide… but Jesus will keep coming to us, no matter how much we dislike it.

Jesus is persistently here, ready to meet you week after week. Jesus knows we need the constant reminder of what faith is. A reminder that the promises of forgiveness, life and salvation of baptism, and repeated again today are the real deal. And that the hands placed on you in blessing are the hands of 2000 year of practicing this faith in community, in the church.

Jesus reminds you and us again that this blessing and these hands are the Body of Christ welcoming you home, again and again and agin and again.

The One Off – What Commitment looks like for the 21st Century Church

If you follow the liturgical calendar, you will know that the the first half of the church year is made up of diverse seasons that tell the story of Jesus – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter. And then comes a long season of counting Sundays called Ordinary Time.

Towards the end of that second half of the church year, there are a bunch of “one-off” Sundays that mark an occasion for a single Sunday, rather than a season. Thanksgiving (it is in October in Canada ), Reformation Sunday (for Lutherans), Halloween/All Saints, Reign of Christ, the Christmas Pageant and then Christmas Eve.

I find it interesting that for most churches out there October through Christmas is often the busiest, most active time of the year. It probably has to do with the beginning of school and the lingering fall weather that keeps us looking for opportunities to get outside before winter.

But I often wonder if it says something about the changing nature of commitment of active church goers. In decades past, active church members were defined as those who attend every Sunday or nearly every Sunday. I have seen the old buttons, pins and stickers of the 60s and 70s for people to collect from the churches they attended while on vacation. These were for those going for perfect Sunday school attendance records, and probably to ward off nosy pastors inquiring as to why you missed a Sunday.

In the last decade or two, active church membership has been counted by those who attend once a month or more. There simply isn’t a statistically relevant number of people who show up every Sunday. There are still some who can be counted on to be in their pew every week, but often the active members of a congregation attend 1 to 2 times a month. These are people who are leaders in churches, serving on council, leading music, teaching bible studies, chairing committees etc…

There are lots of factors to this of course, and no, it is not Sunday shopping and sports. I think it has more to do with most households shifting from 1 income earner to 2. Longer work weeks – 50 or 60 hours – being demanded of many. The snow bird schedules of those who have the chance to travel in retirement. And our changing tolerance as a society for long term obligations and duties. We simply have less time and energy because we work more and earn less – so our personal/family/recreation time comes at a premium.

So when the church has a bunch of one-off Sundays like Thanksgiving, Confirmation Sunday, Reformation, All Saints, Reign of Christ, the Christmas Pageant in Advent and the most one off Church events of them all – Christmas Eve – people start showing up. We are now a society that can handle committing to show up once… but not usually more than that.

This change is the reason why Sunday Schools struggle to keep going. Church councils and committees struggle to find bodies. Choirs, men’s and women’s groups, and bible studies are falling out of the commonplace in the life of congregations. It isn’t that people don’t want to do these things, it is that there isn’t time and energy for many weekly or even monthly obligations anymore – there is barely time to go to church at all more than one or two times a month.

And one of the one of common concerns you hear from church leaders, from tired out folks wanting to give up their long held commitments, is how to get “those other people” to come and take on more. How can we get people to come back?

The thing is, we all know that this is the wrong question, we just don’t know who to frame it differently. It just isn’t going to happen, we haven’t turned the clock back before and we won’t figure out how to do it now. People aren’t going to just come out of the woodwork to volunteer in droves for 3 year committee commitments and 25 year Sunday School teacher terms.

I think we also know what the right question is too.

I think most church leaders and members know that the real question lies in how the church shifts from being a social obligation to a place where we practice our faith in community. And more importantly, shifting our own understanding of what this means.

It isn’t actually bad thing for churches to differentiate ourselves from the local cultural club or community centre or YMCA or arts community or PTA or soup kitchen. We might have aspects of those things, but those thing are not core to our identity as churches.

Churches are primarily places to practice our faith – to gather with other believers and hear again the good news of Christ given for us.

Churches are places to follow Jesus, to experience God’s commitment to us, rather than be burdened by our commitment to God.

Churches are places where we are a community of people brought together by Jesus, by a common faith that we want to share with others. Not a group of friends who also sometimes pray.

The transformation from place of social and culture obligation to place where faith is practiced is pretty damn scary. In fact, it so scary to imagine that we would rather just complain about “those other poeple” who aren’t taking our jobs from us so that we don’t have to do them anymore.

It is scary to imagine what a church full of people who actually wants to follow Jesus together and to see where Jesus leads will look like… because it will be very different than what we look like now.

It is scary to ask how we get there too – even if we know that this is the question we need to ask and the one being asked of us.

And it might mean allowing for a world full of poeple who cannot give more than a day or two a month to commit to something… but is also means preaching the gospel to a world full of people carrying heavy burdens, who need communities of faith to share those burdens with, and who need to hear about a God who is deeply committed to them, no matter what.

It might mean reimagining what commitment to church looks like, or rather imagining how churches can be places that give people grace, hope, mercy and meaning… instead of slave labour in the form “volunteer jobs…”

Oh, and it might also mean giving people that new life thing that Jesus likes to talk about too.

The fifth parable of the lost – it is not about rich or poor

Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side…” (Read the whole passage)

The parables keep coming this week. And unlike the parable last week, the parable of the wealthy land owner and the dishonest manager, where the land owner praises his manager for being dishonest, this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus seems very straight forward.

There is a ridiculously rich man who acts selfishly and goes to Hell because of it. The poor Lazarus gets nothing in life, and so goes to Heaven in death. It sounds like a simple formula for us follow.

If we look out of the poor, and make sure not to hoard all of our wealth and, we don’t act like little kings and queens, we should probably be okay. If we aren’t poor like Lazarus, we should probably help those who are… and that should be enough to save ourselves from eternal punishment. Right?

Not so fast. As usual, there is more to this parable than its surface reading.

In fact, throughout history, Christians have had some problems with this parable. One problem being that the rich man doesn’t have a name. If characters in parables are given names, it is almost always the important ones. And this rich man is the focus. He has most of the lines. Lazarus doesn’t even say a word. In order elevate the status of the rich man, Christians have often called him Dives. Rich people aren’t nameless characters in stories, we know that rich folks are more important than that.

And probably there is a part of us that hears this parable and identifies the most with Dives, or at least if we had to choose, we wouldn’t want to be pitiable Lazarus… however this really isn’t a choice between rich and poor.

Dives is not your average rich guy. He is ridiculously rich. He acts like a king. He wears purples robes, clothing reserved for royalty. He has a feast every day, even most monarchs didn’t do that. He is the epitome of self-aggrandizement and entitlement. Dives is the ultimate rich man.

Lazarus on the other hand is the opposite. Unable to even move his own body, he has been laid at the Dive’s gate in the hopes the rich man will have compassion. Lazarus is so pitiful that the street dogs look after him. He is utterly helpless. Lazarus is absolute bottom of society.

Lazarus and Dives are complete opposites… they are caricatures of rich and poor, cartoon-like, beyond reality. Yet, still when Lazarus ends up with Abraham and Dives in Hades something is off, this is not the way things work in 1st century Israel. Lazarus was not only poor, but he was also unworthy and unclean. He would was too poor to make sacrifice at the temple, too unworthy and unclean to even go to synagogue. He wouldn’t have been able to pray, to receive God’s forgiveness, to follow the law. He would have been doomed.

Dives however, could have easily kept the law, easily afforded to make sacrifices, easily maintained his righteousness. Dives should have been set in life and in death.

So when Lazarus and Dives die, what unfolds would be have mind boggling to Jesus’ hearers. For Lazarus to be carried by Angels to Abraham would have been preposterous. Only two people had experienced such an honour, only Moses and Elijah, patriarchs and heroes of faith. A poor man lying a rich man’s gate is no patriarch and no hero.

Dives’ fate is equally absurd. Dives is the one who should have gone to be with Abraham. Rather he goes to hell, but not just any hell, he goes to Hades. Greek Hell, Gentile Hell. Hades is the hell of a different religion entirely, not judaism. Dives is no pagan gentile.

Yet, somehow despite ending up in the complete opposite places of where they should be, somehow Lazarus and Dives maintain their earthly positions. Lazarus still does not speak or act for himself, but instead Abraham speaks and acts for him.

And even in gentile hell, Dives has not understood that his fortunes have been reversed. He calls out to Abraham, but not for mercy. Instead he treats Abraham like the butler of the house, and Dives orders some room service from the bell hop Lazarus to bring some water. And even when Abraham explains, Dives still does not understand and tries to order something else. He wants to send Lazarus the telegram delivery boy to bring a message to his family. Dives cannot stop being self-righteous and entitled. And Lazarus continues to be a silent and helpless character who needs to rely on the care of others.

The rich man and Lazarus are two extremes, polar opposites, they really represent concepts or ideas more than they portray real people. In fact their names say it all. Dives is the Latin word for “Rich”. Lazarus the Greek word for “God has helped”.

When we see Dives and Lazarus in this light, they stop being examples of what we should do or not do.

These two characters represent the extremes of human behaviour. The extremes that exist within each of us.

We are all Dives. We are all Lazarus. We are all both.

We have the capacity within us to be completely self-centered. We have moments when we believe that we are truly in control. We wish, deep down, that we could save ourselves. We think we are righteous when we follow the rules, or receive blessings, or are gifted with wealth.

We also have the capacity within us to feel truly unworthy and totally helpless. We have moments when we believe that we are nothing and undeserving, that we cannot be saved, that we are unclean and cursed, that we are the victims and the guilty of the world.

So often as human beings we trick ourselves into thinking that we are the ones who have earned our success, our status, our blessings. And when it comes to God and heaven we think we can save ourselves.

So often as human beings, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we are to blame for our failures, our downfalls, our curses. And when it comes to God and heaven, we think that we have made ourselves unworthy.

Abraham explains the problem we have to Dives. “Between you and us, a great chasm has been fixed”. Not a rocky canyon or deep hole. But a chasm of self-righteousness. A chasm built by our trust in ourselves, our trust that we have made ourselves worthy or that we have made ourselves unworthy.

And when Dives cannot see why the chasm is there, Abraham explains again. You will not “be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there is the key.

There is the point that Jesus is making.

This is the fifth parable of the lost. The lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son, dishonest manager and now the rich man and Lazarus.

And its both the dives and Lazarus who are lost. Lazarus is found, because he is hopeless. Dives isn’t quiet ready to not be the one saving himself. And yet, there is nothing even the richest man can do to achieve salvation.

For you see, Lazarus doesn’t need to rise from the dead, someone already has. Someone has already gone to the cross. The cross bridges our chasms of self-righteousness and self-doubt. The cross is what God traverses in order to join us in our hells, our pits, our isolation. The cross that connects a dead creation to an alive creator.

Christ is the one who has risen from the dead, and Christ is the one who shows us just who does the saving, the righteous making. Christ reminds us that we cannot make ourselves righteous and we cannot make ourselves unworthy. We simply don’t have the power. Our own chasms are too great for us, but no chasm is too big for God in Christ.

And so we gather to hear this again, to be convinced over and over again.

Christ has risen from the dead.

We repeat this good news, over and over each time we worship, in many and various ways

Christ Jesus who came to save sinners.

God who brings us home from the wilderness of Sin

Your sins are forgiven and you are made free.

Worthy is Christ, the lamb who was slain.

You have the words of eternal life.

On the third day he rose again.

Jesus Christ who on this day overcame death and the grave.

Christ has died.

Christ is risen

Christ will come again.

Save us from the time of trial

Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world.

We repeat this good news, over and over and over, and maybe one day we will believe it, even if it takes a lifetime to sink in. God keeps reminding us. No matter how much we act like rich Dives, no matter how much we feel like poor Lazarus. It is Christ and Christ alone who makes righteous, who makes us worthy.

This parable seems straight forward and seems to give us ideas on how to live. But isn’t life advice at all. It is yet another declaration and another promise.

Only God saves, and because of Jesus being raised from the dead, we too are raised from being dead in sin into alive in Christ.

The Fourth Parable of the Lost – The dishonest manager

Luke 16:1-13

1Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ (Read the whole thing)

As students walked out of classrooms and businesses shut down on Friday and through the weekend, the issue of climate change is being brought before us. The consumption of the planet, the use of resources in pursuit of profit and wealth, the growth of economies is being contrasted with the future of the planet’s well being. Why go to school, if the planet is on a countdown to irreversible change? The students are asking us. A big and heavy question, one that we certainly don’t have a quick and easy answer for.

And so when we hear the story of land manager squandering property there is a real connection to the present. Squandering the planet’s resources is an accusation that today’s youth have the right to level at older generations in power.

We hear the word squandering and many different images come to mind. The person who fails to take advantage of an opportunity, who doesn’t risk a little bit for a big gain. The one who waits and hesitates, rather than moving quickly and decisively. The person who doesn’t understand the potential of what they can do and be. The person who fails to take hold and earn every ounce of profit and reward of a situation. We hear of a squandering manager and we imagine a weak and feeble, hesitant and uncertain person taking the safe and easy path.

Today, we get this interesting parable from the gospel of Luke that follows right after the three parables of the lost. The parable of lost sheep and lost coin which we heard last week, and the parable of the prodigal son which we know so very well.

These parables come just in advance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to the waiting crowds, to the plotting religious authorities, to betrayal, arrest, trial, execution.

And this parable is interesting because we are not quite sure what to do with it. The squandering manager seems to behave in an entirely self interested manner throughout, and yet his master commends his shrewdness.

As the story begins, the manager is accused of squandering his master’s property, yet how he squandered is not mentioned or defined. Remember that.

Regardless, the master fires the manager.

And so the manager does something interesting, he thinks to himself. He doesn’t have other options for work before him, so he will forgive the debts of some of his master’s debtors in order to earn some favours.

Now, as 21st century people living a capitalist individualist society, it is easy for us to get hung up on the fact that the manager uses his masters wealth to earn himself some favours… yet, there is something about this curious situation that is easier for us to miss. Anyone who has lived in a farming community should know that good relationships with neighbours is vital to life on the land. What we really ought to be wondering about is why this land manager doesn’t already have pockets full of favours and good relationships with his community.

In the Hebrew world of 1st century Israel, the land held a central place in life.

The land that the Israelites lived on was literally the promised land, the land promised to Moses and he led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. And the land was not just a resource to be exploited. It was a living thing, a gift from God to be cared for. The land held abundant resources meant to provide for the community. There were laws as to how the land was used to provide for all:

• A certain amount of the harvest was required to be left on the land so that the poor and widows could follow the workers and gather grain for themselves.

• The land did not belong strictly to a single person or family, but rather to the entire tribe.

• Every Jubilee year it was meant to revert to ownership by the tribe.

• The land owner didn’t exploit the produce of the land for his own profit and gain, but cared for and tended in order to feed the community (his extended family).

And yet in this parable, the manager had no favours in his pocket. His master’s debtors received no relief before this manger was fired. Maybe this manager was not the lazy, week, uncertain manager of our imagining, but the cold, hardened, profit focused, entrepreneur that we praise in our world. Someone who exploited the land for every ounce of profit, who squeezed every penny from debtors, who never paid too much and never accepted too little.

So remember that squandering isn’t defined?

Maybe this manager has been squandering the abundance of the land by hoarding it all for his master, by counting every penny away in his master’s store houses instead of caring for this community around him.

Maybe the land manager is the fourth lost thing in this sequence of parables. Lost to himself, lost to hoarding and profiting from an exploited land and community.

And isn’t that our modern problem too?

It’s what the students and their supporters are begging of those in power to do. To see their neighbour, to recognize that the land, the earth is a living thing meant to provide an abundance for us…only if shared and not hoarded, only if cared for and tended to, not exploited and consumed.

To squander in the parable today is to be lost and alone, to put profits before people, to forget that we live in community and what we do affects those around us and those who come after us.

Now, one of the important characteristics of parables is that the subject of a parable is usually the first person mentioned. This parable doesn’t start “There was a land manager.” It begins there was a rich man who had a manager. Just like the prodigal son begins with “There was a man who had two sons.”

It is the rich man who discovers that his manager had lost his way. And it is the rich man who sets out to find him.

When the rich land owner fires his manager, he is pulling the manger out of the store houses and accounting rooms. He is forcing his manager to sit down face to face with his community. And there seeing his neighbour face to face the manager is generous. He forgives debts trusting that he will provided for in return.

Like the shepherd to searches for the lost sheep, the woman who looks for the lost coin, like the father who runs out to meet his lost son on the road… the rich man joins his lost manager back to community. It is not dishonesty that the rich man commends, but connection and relationship, generosity and compassion.

And like the rich man, the teller of this parable is the one who is about to search out humanity in our isolation of sin and death. Jesus is about to find us on the cross… So that we might know the generous abundance of resurrection and new life.

Of course, this is what Jesus has been doing with us all along.

While we are lost and isolated, Jesus does what it takes to joint us back to community, back to the body, back to God.

And Jesus makes us practice being joined every week.

Jesus gathers us here, and plunks us shoulder to shoulder with our siblings in Christ, beside friends and neighbours. Beside those who know our struggles and what it is like to live in this lost world.

And Jesus joins our voices together with the praises of the community of faith, joining us to the choir of saints.

And Jesus forgives us with all these other sinners, restoring the communion of saints to wholeness.

And Jesus speaks in our ears a word of good news for us all, giving us hope in our seemingly hopeless world.

And Jesus washes and feeds at font and table, the gathering places of the faithful.

Shoulder to shoulder, with other washed and fed ones, reminding us that we belong to the Father, and that we belong to each other, no matter how lost we become, no matter how much try to squander the abundant community given to us in creation.

And so today, as we hear the 4th parable of the lost, we discover that we can be lost and not even realize it…

But we also hear of the Christ, who will go to any length, even surprising ones, to find us and join us again, shoulder to shoulder, face to face, to the community we need – the Body of Christ.

Finding those who aren’t lost

Luke 15:1-10

1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? (Read the whole passage)

For parents of small children looking for solidarity one of the places I go to is Fowl Language Comics, fowl spelled “F.O.W.L.” Parenting comics using ducks and chicks. In my favourite comic, a chick with arms in the air and standing in a nearly empty room loudly declaring, “I can’t find it anywhere! It’s just gone!”

The only other thing in the room is a red ball on the floor with an arrow pointing to the ball and the word “It” on the other side of the arrow. The caption below reads, “whenever I send my kid to find something.”

I am sure many of you can relate.

In our house, I am the designated finder.

I am sure most families have one – the person whose job it is to find misplaced and lost things. Other finders out there will know, that there is a certain art to checking all the usual spots, getting into the head of the person who has lost something, retracing steps, scanning rooms and eliminating all the places where something is not followed by almost always finding the lost thing. The TV remote under the couch, a toy in a low kitchen drawer, a phone under a magazine, keys in a coat pocket.

Today, Jesus tells some grumbling Pharisees two parables about lost things. Two familiar parables. The lost sheep and the lost coin.

On the surface, these parables can give us those warm, soft, comfortable feelings. The sense that Jesus has got our back. The Shepherd who goes out to find the one lost sheep, leaving the 99 behind. The woman who tears apart her house looking for a single lost coin. And of course, there is a third story that we don’t hear today but still know very well, the parable of the prodigal son.

Each parable follows the same pattern. Something is lost, something is found and then there is a party to celebrate.

Although… the party to celebrate part is a little weird, isn’t it? A party to celebrate finding one lost sheep out of a hundred? One lost coin out of a ten? A party for a son who squandered his inheritance and returned home, cap in hand?

As a finder, I like finding things, but not that much.

And of course what is truly interesting is that this trio of parables begins with the Pharisees grumbling about the fact that Jesus eats with sinners. And they end with the older brother of the prodigal son grumbling about the party his father is throwing.

And the grumblers might have a point.

That lost sheep is likely the curious one, the one who gets in trouble, the one who wanders instead of staying with the flock. And those coins, they are small and slippery and hard to see. And lets not get started on the prodigal son and his issues.

The Pharisees, they know something about the real world, something that we know too. Sometimes lost things are lost for a reason. Sometimes sinners are sinners for a reason. And why is Jesus spending so much time with sinners? Why leave the 99 sheep to find the one? And can’t 9 coins still buy the things you need? And what about that older brother and what he deserves for his hard work and obedience?

We get what the Pharisees are grumbling about. There are consequences to our actions. People get what they deserve. The Pharisees start off these parables about lost things with a point that is kind of important… at least it feels important to us. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And all know what the unspoken line that should follow – They don’t deserve to eat with Jesus!

We know the world of ‘people get what they deserve’ very well. We live by it every day. It colours our feelings and principles about immigrants, those who are poor, those who are different skin colour or background, about indigenous people, about those with different sexual orientations and gender identities, about those who vote for different political parties…

And Christians have been just as guilty of grumbling as anyone. Grumbling about those who we deem unworthy, those who choose sports, or shopping, or sleeping in Sundays. Grumbling often about those who worship in other ways or choose not to worship any God at all. Grumbling about those who we deem not to be pulling their weight or giving enough of themselves…

And yet, in the past few years our Grumbling has been accompanied by grief. Grief that we aren’t what we once were. Fresh, exciting, vibrant churches of decades past are not aging as well as we had hoped. Decline feels like it is ravaging our communities, our bodies… in a world of “You get what you deserve” decline makes us wonder what it is that we have done to deserve this… why does it feel like God might be letting us die?

These parables of the lost – lost sheep, lost coins, and lost sons – might be saying something to us today that different that what we have always heard. They may not be so much about the lost things as they are about grumblers.

For you see, even as the Pharisees and the elder son grumble about the parties being thrown for the found things… Jesus is still doing something curious and unexpected. This isn’t just a case of things being turn upside down. It is not just that the sinners are welcome, the 1 sheep and the 1 coin are searched for, that there is a party for the prodigal son…

It is that all the rules are being changed. It is that “You get what you deserve” is an idea that doesn’t matter to God. Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with Pharisees. There is a party for lost sheep and lost coins and everyone is invited. The Loving Father runs to meet his lost on the road and goes out to meet his older son in the field to invite him to the party too.

Jesus invites all. All are welcome at the table. Lost things, sinners and the worthy along with the Pharisees, obedient sons and the grumblers.

And yeah… that is something that is hard for us to imagine, hard for us to accept. We would prefer the world where there were some rules…

And yet, welcoming all has been what Jesus has been up to all along.

Here in this community of welcome, in this gathering, we are welcomed. Welcomed by God who washes, names and claims us in the waters of baptism. Welcomed by God who builds us up, gives us hope and shown the coming of God’s Kingdom in the gospel word. And here God feeds us, binds us together and makes us one at the table. And Jesus then reminds us that we just might not be as worthy as our grumbling suggests… and we might not be as lost as we might feel. We are a little bit of both – lost and grumbling. Worthy and unworthy, Sinner and forgiven.

These parables of the lost and grumbling remind us today that Jesus is changing the rules… changing the rule of the world that says you get what you deserve… And Jesus is ushering in a new rule, a new reality – A reality where God is forgiving and welcoming sinners… sinners not just like those whom we think don’t deserve it, but welcoming sinners like us.

And just like the lost things that aren’t as lost as we thought, and worthy things that aren’t as worthy as we thought… these familiar parables aren’t the straightforward stories that we thought.

And yet, in them Jesus keeps finding us. Finding us in unexpected and surprising ways. Finding the lost and the grumblers all the same.

Discipleship doesn’t fit on a to-do list

Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? (Read the whole thing)

Does anyone else feel like summer shouldn’t be over yet? But here we are a week after labour day, the first few days of school under the belt. All those work and volunteer and church commitments that took a little hiatus for a few months, are now back in our calendars. The summer road trips and weekends at the cabin on the lake are coming to an end or over with seemingly too soon.

So of course, as fall seems to be fully here, even if not technically arriving until the end of the month, Jesus throws us right back into the busy pace of modern 21st Century life. And he does it all the way back from the 1st century Israel.

Jesus starts talking about discipleship. Whoever comes to me does not hate their family cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not give up all their possessions cannot be my disciple.

Okay… hate family, carry cross, give up possessions.

Add them to the to-do list, hopefully we can get to those things by the end of the month, if we are lucky. As long as the frost doesn’t come, the rain stops long enough to mow the lawn, the baking for that school fundraiser gets done, there isn’t too much extra work for that committee that just started back up… we should be able to get the discipleship jobs done.

But I don’t think that is what Jesus had in mind.

Discipleship, following Jesus, practicing our faith… these are pretty big questions that come at us in a pretty busy and task filled life. I read a few months ago about the idea of the bottom half of the to-do list. The half of the list that most of us never have time to get to. And if we are honest about the way discipleship is often practiced in church, it is usually a bottom half of the to-do list thing.

Of course, Jesus would probably take issue with the idea of discipleship being something on a to-do list, but we live in a busy world where things that aren’t on lists and in calendars don’t get done at all.

And yet here we are in the midst of the some of busiest times of our calendars and year, and Jesus is talking about Discipleship. And not just about to-do list items, but about giving all that stuff up, jobs, family, possessions, in order to follow him.

It almost doesn’t compute with us on a week like this.

And then Jesus gives us a couple other examples of what discipleship is like, and things get even more confusing.

As Jesus speaks to the crowds that he was walking down the road with, he asks,

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?”

And then he asks the same question again in a different way.

“Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?”

I wonder if anyone raised their hand or laughed…

Because if we don’t think about it much, of course everyone makes plans before a building project, and certainly before going to war. And yet, how often does a project not go over budget or time. And how many of the remembered stories of history are about battles between opponents facing overwhelming odds… like the Spartan 300 or the Alamo.

Recently, in Winnipeg, it was big news that the new Waverly St underpass came under budget and year of ahead of schedule. Things going according to plan is big news.

If we do think about Jesus’ questions about discipleship and we answer honestly, we need to admit that almost every one sets out on big projects not knowing the true cost or time for certain. Kings and armies and nations go to war all the time against the odds. Human beings are, in fact, really bad at predicting the future and really bad at imagining the implication or consequences for our choices.

And so what is Jesus really getting at today when he talks to the crowds and to us about discipleship?

Well, he is not talking about items for our to-do list. He is not talking about a faith that is crammed in between work and volunteering and caring for family and hobbies and leisure and summer relaxing and fall busy-ness.

Jesus is not giving instructions for or prescribing the steps to a fuller discipleship.

Jesus is telling us what will and what is happening because God has caught us up in a story that we could never imagine or plan for or make a to-do list for in our wildest dreams.

Jesus is telling the crowds and us that following him will mean we end up in places we never saw coming. For the crowds the next place was Jesus riding into Jerusalem a King and being nailed to the cross a criminal.

And for us who know the end of the story, we still cannot predict what following Jesus to the cross will truly mean for us. And we certainly cannot imagine how Jesus’ resurrected new life given for us will change us.

And that is the point that Jesus is making.

We cannot imagine giving up our family, even as God welcomes us into a new family, the family of the Body of Christ.

We cannot carry the cross, even as Jesus goes to the cross for our sake, dying to sin and death and rising to new life.

We cannot imagine giving giving up all our possessions, all that we cling to in this life and that clings to us, even as God gives up all power and might, in order to join us in creation, to take on flesh to show us love and mercy and grace.

We cannot imagine discipleship as Jesus talks about it today, because it doesn’t fit on a to-do list and cannot be squeezed into the empty slots on calendar. And because as human beings we are bound to sin and death, we are stuck in an imperfect and limited world of our making. We cannot predict the future very well, whether it is building a tower, going to war, electing a government, building an underpass, planning a career, growing a family or ensuring a faith community like this one carries on for our children and grandchildren.

And yet our ability to plan, to know and understand what following Jesus will mean for us is not what matters.

Rather, it is Jesus who does discipleship for us. It is Jesus who sets us on the path of following him to new places. Jesus who shows us the way out of sin and death, out of limits and imperfection. Jesus shows to us to the cross, to resurrection and new life. Jesus transforms us, even while we don’t know what the end result will be.

Discipleship isn’t a task that Jesus is handing on to us, following Jesus isn’t really something we can do at all.

Because Jesus the one following us, the one coming to us, the one giving up his father, the one carrying our cross, the one giving away all he possessed, in order to hold on to us. In order to carry us from sin and death, to the new life the resurrection… to new life that we could never predict or imagine or plan for.

For Jesus, discipleship has never been about what we are doing but about God transforming us from sinners to forgiven, from suffering to wholeness, from death to new and resurrected life.