Category Archives: Theology & Culture

On Being a Millennial Pastor – Leaders who don’t remember the glory days

“You give us hope for the future.”

The first time I heard those words, I was 23 years old and in seminary. A group of us had travelled 7 hours, from the prairies to the mountains, to attend a study conference for pastors and other church professionals. We were a group of 20 and 30 somethings, all Masters of Divinity students already having bachelor’s degrees and work experience, but compared to the average age of pastors in the mainline, we may as well have been teenagers. So we probably seemed like a group of disruptive students crashing a conference for older folks.

But instead of being grumpy with us or giving us glares (as church folk can sometimes be guilty of doing with young noise makers), we were heartily welcomed by our future colleagues. Our relative energy and enthusiasm seemed to bring them some life and excitement.

And that is when it started happening. Sometimes one or more elder colleagues would sidle up to us and say things like, “You all give me hope for the church’s future” or “You make me feel better about the future.”

“Millennials” weren’t a thing back then, but our age cohort was perhaps the first to be obviously missing from the church. We weren’t the first generation to stop attending, that was the Boomers, our parents, who led the mass exodus. But rather, we were the first to be noticeably absent. The first generation to have mostly never been there at all. And so when a bunch of Gen Xers and Millennials showed up at seminary together around the same time, it was out of the ordinary. We were a cohort of young leaders who had been the kids in our home churches who were leading youth groups, playing in worship bands, serving on church councils, attending campus ministry while at school, working as bible camp counsellors and even camp directors. Our parents had bucked the trend of the Boomer exodus, and brought us to church where we had been encouraged to lead. We had to lead because we were all there was of our age cohort.

The “You give us hope” comment became a pretty regular occurrence in seminary and after… but I always had the sinking suspicion that the church wasn’t quite ready to hand over the reigns to the next generation.

Whether it was the resistance of boomers to converting the seminary newspaper from a paper publication to an online blog format, or later on to a hesitation let young pastors serve in positions of leadership in the church, a constant comment I heard from seminary classmates in their first few years of ministry was,

“We were trained and prepared to serve in this church, but no one got this church ready for us.”

After ordination, when I began serving in my first call, I couldn’t help but notice something that seemed to be below the surface of wherever I went in the church. Not just my congregation, but the ones of neighbouring colleagues, and larger church ministries, and coming from church leadership. It took me a while to put my finger on it.

And then as I had yet another conversation with colleagues or parishioners or other church folk lamenting the absence of young people, the decline of attendance and giving, and the general sad state of the present church… it dawned on me.

These people are grieving. 

As soon as I could see it, it was like puling back the veil and seeing the weight being carried by nearly everyone around me. Everyone of a certain age that is.

The glory days were gone. The days when pews were full, Sunday Schools bursting at the seams, programs well attended, giving was enough to pay the bills and increasing, when every family had 4.2 kids and a housewife who would devote volunteer time to the church, or keep the house in check while her husband did. Those days were over.

But it wasn’t just that those days were over, it was the intense desire to bring them back. Churches, pastors, leaders who could remember those days seemed to be universally bound and determined to somehow bring that glory back. Get the young people back, get the families back, fill the pews, resurrect the Sunday Schools, meet and exceed the budgets.

My problem, as a young pastor was, I wasn’t grieving the glory days with most people around me. I wasn’t grieving them because I don’t remember them.

Even though now I have almost a decade of experience under my belt, I am still a young pastor by mainline standards.

And it has always been tension the church that most people around me are grieving, and the one that I have always known and loved. The church that God called me to seminary and to be a pastor to serve.

The church has always been filled with grey hair in my memory. Sunday School has always been pretty sparsely attended, youth groups have never been more than a handful of kids, budgets have always been hard to meet, and there are rarely times when it is hard to find an entire pew to yourself in worship.

This is only version of the church I know… and it is the one I am called to serve.

I also suspect it is the church God is calling us to be. 

While it is has been difficult for the congregations I serve to have a leader who isn’t longing for the glory days as they are, it has also been good for me and them. It has been hard and taken time, but eventually we have started looking forward rather than looking back. We have begun to listen to where God is calling us now and where God is calling us to go.

God’s mission hasn’t changed, just the vehicle isn’t as fancy as it once was. The Gospel is is still preached, sacraments still administered, the Body of Christ is still present… even in churches whose glory days are over.

And I think that this is the cross roads that many churches and denominations find themselves at these days. Will the memory of the glory days keep us looking backwards? Will we admit that our desire to bring the young people back, might actually be us saying that we want to be young again?

The synod (read: diocese/jurisdiction/area) in which I serve is about to elect a new Bishop. For the past few months we have been asked to discern what kind of Bishop the synod needs, and to do that discernment in congregations and other synod ministries. This discernment process here has got me thinking about leadership, and about what kind of leaders the church will need going forward. What will a declining Christianity need in order to begin moving faithfully into the future?

And the answer I keep coming back to is that the church in North America will need leaders who can let go of the glory days. Maybe even leaders who don’t remember the glory days. Leaders who can see the church as it is now, rather than what it used to be.

As my generation, Gen X and Millennial pastors and clergy, steps into more and more leadership positions in the church, letting go of the glory days becomes inevitable. We simply don’t remember them.

Because we are the ones who showed up to seminary full of energy, called to serve a church in decline.

The church for us has always been full of grey haired faithful and committed people.
The church has always been small close-knit Sunday Schools and youth groups.
The church has always been struggling to meet budgets by searching for creative solutions.
And the church has always had room in the pews for more people to come.

It will not be easy to get over the grief that is lingering below the surface, and it will be easy to see the solutions to what the church is currently lacking by going back to a time when we remember abundance.

But the church cannot go backwards. And God doesn’t call us into the past, God calls us into the future.

So perhaps it is time for the church to let leaders who cannot remember the glory days, but who only know the present, guide the way into the future.

Perhaps “You give us hope for the future” needs to become:

“You give us hope now.”


Into the Lenten Wilderness

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”(Read the whole passage)

Last week we witnessed a Transfiguration moment, the Blind man having his sight restored. It was like the revelation on the mountaintop, eyes were opened to see the world, and see God, in a new way.

But by Wednesday, the euphoria of transfiguration was over. And we descended to the ashes, to the signs of decay and death around us, the evidence that sin and suffering still hold much sway in our world.

And now we begin Lent.

Lent always begins with wilderness. Usually we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation. After Jesus’ baptism, the spirit takes Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted. This begins Jesus’ ministry in Matthew, Mark and Luke. But as we explore John this year, through the narrative lectionary, we hear a story that normally comes at the end of Lent, a story that foreshadows Holy Week, a story of death and resurrection.

But with all of Lent still laying before us, there is still a long way until we are ready for Holy Week. We are just entering the wilderness.

So we hear this familiar story of Lazarus with different ears.

The wilderness experiences throughout this story are varied and different, yet they are all about the experience of being vulnerable and exposed. The wilderness is a place where safety and comfort is taken away, it is a place of wandering, a place of isolation.

The wilderness begins with news of Lazarus illness. He is in a wilderness that we all know, the wilderness of suffering. Suffering which leads to death. We have all seen this story before, whether it is a friend or family member. A life threatening illness strikes, yet there is hope for a cure. But the treatments don’t work, the prayers seem to be unheard and death is inevitable. A common wilderness experience.

Mary and Martha are helpless care givers for their brother, and his death brings them into a wilderness of grief. Martha’s a frantic and searching grief, Mary’s an overwhelming and debilitating grief.

Martha meets Jesus on road, she wants answers, she wants to point the finger, she is lashing out. Her grief is a wild and untamed wilderness experience, a roller coaster of emotion.

Mary also meets Jesus on the road, but her grief is different. She collapses at Jesus feet. She is crushed and falling, falling deeper and deeper into despair.

The disciples are also in a wilderness of sorts… they are lost and confused about Jesus’ actions. They have seen Jesus heal and care for strangers, yet here he is delaying to care for a beloved friend.

And finally Jesus, just like the stories of his temptation, is also in the wilderness. This time the temptation is again there, the temptation to rush in and save the day, to use his power to avoid all the pain and suffering of his friends and disciples.

As we enter in Lent, this year bouncing from vignette to vignette, hearing these examples of different wilderness journeys, we can recognize ourselves. We have been there too, we have all been tossed out into the wilderness in just the same ways.

We have been in the wilderness of grief and loss. We have been there in the midst of broken relationships, in the midst of addiction, in the midst of job loss or difficult times making ends meet. We have been through wildernesses of illness and disease.

And we all know that our world and society creates wildernesses of suffering and isolation because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, and whatever other arbitrary divisions and categories for people we create.

And it isn’t just individuals who wander in the wilderness.

This week an entire nation is once again wandering in a wilderness of gun violence, after 17 people were killed in a Florida high school.

And of course, many churches find themselves in wildernesses of decline, wondering about the future, wondering how to keep on with fewer resources and few people to carry the load.

With all these wilderness experiences around us, it may seems strange to practice one as the church… to create one that begins Ash Wednesday and ends on Good Friday.

Yet, we rehearse this Lenten wilderness journey year after year because avoiding the realities of life will not help… we can only pretend everything is okay for so long.

Rather, as the body of Christ, we practice going through the wildness year after year so that we learn how to navigate them when we encounter them in life. We practice so that we know how to make it through. We practice so that we can see the other side…

But even then, there is a deeper message that the Lenten wilderness gives us…

In the wilderness, God finds and gathers us.

As Jesus waits to go to his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, he does so knowing that his purpose is not to heal people and make them feel better. Jesus has come to announcing the Kingdom of God coming near… and that rushing to make any suffering just go away does not really deal with the true issues of our world.

And so when Jesus finally goes to Bethany, he brings his confused disciples with him. He brings them so that they see that aren’t just wandering around with a gifted healer. Jesus has called them to follow a deeper purpose… to take up their crosses and find new life.

On the way, Jesus stops to collect Martha. He promises her even in her frantic grief that he is the resurrection and the life.

And then he collects Mary, and with her, he simply weeps, he comes along side her in her despair to let her know that she is not alone.

And finally, he comes to Lazarus. Lazarus who has entered into the last wilderness waiting for us all… the wilderness of death.

And here standing in front of the tomb, is not the end of wilderness, not the escape. But rather the farthest out, most vulnerable, most isolating moment of any wilderness journey.

Jesus has gathered Mary, Martha, Lazarus and his disciples as the moment when all hope is lost, when nothing makes sense, when safety, security and healing cannot be imagine.

Surely, the disciples couldn’t have been more confused than when Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away.

Surely, Mary couldn’t have been born the thought of seeing the body of her dead brother once again.

Surely, Martha couldn’t be expected to believe that Jesus was the resurrection and the life in this moment.

Surely, Lazarus couldn’t have been anything but dead, since it had been four days.

Surely, Jesus couldn’t have waited this long to heal Lazarus.

“Lazarus, come out!” Jesus commands.

Who but Jesus could know that the wilderness leads to this place?

It is not the escape or exit from a wilderness journey. Rather, this moment, this Lenten moment at the tomb is the revelation that all the things we think give us safety and security, the things that may protect us and prevent us harm are all but illusory.

We practice Lent year after year because the wilderness is life. It is where we always are.

And it is where Jesus gathers us up. Lost and alone and vulnerable to a world of sin and suffering, Jesus comes and gathers us up.

Jesus comes and gathers up and brings us to the cross and to the grave, to the very places where sin, suffering and death seem to have won and Jesus declares their power over. Jesus declares that the Kingdom of God has come near to us, here and now.

Because in the face of confusion, suffering, grief and death, in the face of human sin, brokenness, failures and faults, in the face of more mass shootings and the inexorable power of decline…. what else is there but to be gathered around Word, Water, Bread and Wine.

When there is nothing else for us,

Jesus gathers us around Wilderness words like, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Jesus gathers us around water that washes our dead bodies, heals us of our suffering, and unbinds from our sin.

Jesus gathers us around a table of bread and wine, a table that sits next to an empty tomb and has room for all.

Jesus gathers in the wilderness because the wilderness is where we are, and so the wilderness is where God will give live to the world.

The wilderness is where God gathers us around new life.

Could decline be a good thing for Christianity?

You might have figured this out already, but I write a fair bit about the decline of Christianity in North American. And by decline I mean the aging and shrinking membership of churches as people drift away from church membership and attendance.

I talk about it, preach about it, and I blog about it here.

I have been a pastor for nearly a decade, but I am still just young enough to be considered a millennial. Millennials, of course, being the generation much lamented as the ones who stopped going to church (here is a secret: it was our parents who started the exodus).

As churches and denominations experience the effects of decline, both in terms of fewer members and smaller budgets, there has been a lot of hand-wringing and lamenting and finger-pointing and worrying. There has been conflict about who is to blame, experts are brought in to teach churches how to “bring people back.”

Often the habit of those still committed to upholding congregations and denominations is to try to diagnose the reasons that people have stopped coming and churches are shrinking. The Lord’s Prayer no longer being said in public schools, Sunday shopping, sports on Sundays, etc… As if just changing one of those things send people back into church in droves. We long for the magic bullet fix that will turn the church back into what we remember it being… something that was never as great in actuality as it was in memory.

Decline is very scary for churches today. It is the thing that makes us wonder where all the young people went, that makes us tired and want to pass on responsibilities to someone else, it can quite frankly make us feel depressed every time we walk into big mostly empty sanctuaries with just a few bodies dotting the pews for worship.

Yet, I wonder if we have ever considered whether or not decline is actually a bad thing for us.

Could the decline of Christianity in North America even be a good thing?

We often imagine, describe and speak about decline in unhelpful ways. We buy into the notion that more is always better. We think of churches like companies who if they aren’t growing, taking in more people and more revenue, are dying.

But churches aren’t companies trying to survive in a downturned market. Churches are more like living creatures. And when living creatures only take in more and more and more it is not healthy. In fact, we know that never-ending growth for a living creature will lead to death.

Instead, living creatures need moderation and balance. When we have too much of something we need to cut back in order to be healthy.

The decline that we have been experiencing lately just might be God putting us on a diet. God is calling us to cut back, in order to be healthy, in order that we might live.

Just step back for moment and consider all that the things that need to be true about the church if decline is truly bad and limitless growth is good.

It means that the Gospel is nothing more than a numbers game, a tool to increase attendance and revenue.

It means that the Kingdom of God is retreating from the world as we shrink, and that God can only do as much as we are able to provide the money and people to do.

It means that real ministry is about attraction, sales, and consumerism because the goal is to get more people through the doors, rather than sending more disciples out.

It means that if we could reverse the decline we lament, the church would become a virus growing until everything is consumed by it, all people and all resources.

If these things are not true, is it possible that decline might be a good thing? 

If decline is a call to give up the excess, the things that don’t help us live but weigh us down… what is it that we are being called to give up?

The churches in the area I serve in are dealing with this question in concrete ways by working towards 5 congregations being served by 1.5 pastors.

But to get there we had to sort out the difference between important things and essentials. There are a lot of important things that we had to let go of. We had to let go of the hurts and failures of the past, the much beloved traditions and expectations that feel so central to our identity as churches. We had to sacrifice comfort and security for the sake of ministry, and for the sake of our brothers and sisters in faith.

And in coming to what was essential, we had to ask what were the things that God called us to do that made us church… things that we had to do no matter how big or small, rich or poor we are. Surprise, surprise, it turned out the be the same stuff that Martin Luther and the reformers said was essential to being church. The same stuff that Jesus commanded us to do – Word and Sacrament ministry. And while we would not be able to do a lot of the important things that churches are used to doing (programs, events, committees, traditions, expectations), we discovered that we could make sure that everyone had the essentials.

As we have taken the first steps towards a paired down focus on the essentials, on Word and Sacrament ministry, it has been surprising how good it is for us. It is like eating healthy food and doing exercises for a church, focusing on the stuff that we need to keep doing in order to still be Church.

And we are still figuring out what to do with this new smaller, leaner Body (of Christ) it clear that a lot of churches and denominations in North America just might benefit from decline as much be hurt by it. 

No, we will not be the churches we once were. Not everyone will come back, not every fall supper, craft sale, dinner theatre production, scout troupe, curling bonspiel can be resurrection. Maybe not even every Sunday School or women’s group or men’s breakfast. We cannot go backwards, we cannot return to what we once were.

Because it was unsustainable. Memories of full churches with lots going on, and more people and finances than we knew what to do with could be described in others ways. Full and growing can also mean bloated and gaining weight. Filled to the brim can also mean burdened.

God just may be calling us to let go and cut back on the stuff that no longer works, stuff that we struggled to find volunteers for, that we tire ourselves trying to maintain, that we wish there were others to take over for us.

God just may be telling us to stop. 

To stop relying on social pressure or favourable shopping hours to bring people to church, but instead let the Holy Spirit call people to faith.

To stop seeing church membership as an act of citizenship, but instead a practice of faith.

To stop focusing our energy and time on maintaining budgets, facilities, membership roles, committees, programs and local traditions, but instead let the disciplines of Word and Sacrament ministry govern our communities. To let the rhythms and patterns of the liturgy and church year show us where to spend our time and energy.

To stop trying to do everything for all people, but instead refocus ourselves on the Gospel – the story of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.

The longer church declines and more we try to go backwards… the clearer it becomes that God is getting us ready for the future. But first God is shedding us of our old selves, cutting back on the things that once worked for us, but now weigh us down and keep us from moving forward.

Decline isn’t a bad thing. It is a diet, a diet so that the church can be healthy again. 

Washing away social convention at Jacob’s well

John 4:1-42  

6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”  (Read the whole passage)

You may remember this story from the season of Lent last year. Nicodemus too, the story we heard last week was also from the season of Lent. And the story of blind man next, also from Lent last year. Yet, as we continue our journey through the Narrative Lectionary this year, we are hearing this stories with different ears. Ears that are listening for revelation rather than preparing for crucifixion. We hear this stories with an eye to how Christ is revealed among us, as God’s son.

So last week as Nicodemus came by night, Jesus told him to be be born again or anew. Today, Jesus offers a Samaritan woman Living Water. Water that will keep her from ever being thirsty again.

The contrast between Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are striking. It was Nicodemus who sought Jesus in the darkness of night, with questions to ask. But today, it is high noon in the desert and Jesus is the one coming to the woman with questions of his own. The scandal of this scene is lost to us. We only see a thirsty man asking a woman for a drink. But when Jesus approaches this solitary woman to ask for water, he is breaking rules and overstepping his place in the the culture of the day.

For a man to speak to a woman in public was unthinkable. Women belonged to their husbands like property, and for another man to even give the appearance of tampering with that property invited scorn and suspicion. Jesus’ request of this poor woman could have endangered her life should she be accused of adultery. But it is not only the issue of gender that makes this scene scandalous.

For a Jew to interact with a Samaritan was unthinkable. Samaritans were also people of Israel, but they chose to worship differently… not at the temple. This theological difference, meant that for Jews, Samaritans were unclean. For Jesus to be close to a Samaritan, to drink from her bucket, would have meant he would become unclean. But this is not all, there is still more scandal to come.

Unlike the obvious cultural boundaries of gender and religion, Jesus creates a personal scandal. The woman has come to the well at noon. The hottest and least ideal time of day to fetch water. All the other women would have come to the well early in the morning and then again late at night. But this woman, for whatever reason, has chosen to come in the middle of the day, probably in order to be a alone. And it is scandalous for the woman, that Jesus interrupts her quest for solitude.

And so when Jesus meets the woman at the well and asks for a drink, it is all the things, these social conventions, that prevent the woman from hearing what Jesus has to say. Just like Nicodemus last week, this woman isn’t hearing what Jesus is getting at because of all the other noise, all the social conventions, the categories she is put in and identities she had been given by the world around her.

As human beings we are good at finding reasons to build walls, to categorize and judge one another. The arbitrary and abstract social conventions of  religion, gender, or race keep us form hearing one another, they keep us divided, they give us reason to be cut off from the rest of the world.

We put up walls because we think they are going to protect us, walls that we hope will keep us safe, and we build them to keep the bad folks out. But our walls only end up hurting us. They isolate us, the turn us away from our neighbour and from our communities. The walls and boundaries can become oppressive structures, that keep always in the dark, always alone and always wary of others.

From Lutheran and Catholics, to Christians and Muslims and Jews, to conservatives and liberals, men and women, indigenous and non-indigenous, there are all sorts arbitrary reasons why we hold back from each other.

Whether it is the town we grew up in, or the job we work at, or the church we attend, or the hockey team we cheer for… we are just as adept as the Samaritan woman at giving reasons as to why we should’t give a glass of water to people like Jesus, who show up at our wells thirsty for a drink.

As poeple of faith, we know just how powerful those social conventions and inherited identities can be. We live with the the fruits of them every day. We long for our congregations and communities to be full and vibrant as they once were, but we are wary of those who aren’t like us, those who don’t fit in before the arrive, those who don’t know how things work around here. We live with this tension, of wanting our communities of grow again, while clinging to the arbitrary identities and societal rules that give us reasons to stay divided.

When Nicodemus, despite his curiosity, couldn’t get past his identity and the rules that came with it, he asked Jesus how a person who re-enter their mother’s womb and be born again? Jesus’ response is the sermons that contains John 3:16.

Yet when the Samaritan woman does the same, she asks for a literal drink of the spiritual living water than Jesus offers… and perhaps knowing that the sermon lecture didn’t turn out so well last week Jesus does something different.

He doesn’t berate the woman as he does Nicodemus, nor does he preach or pontificate. Instead he cuts through all the noise and conventions that would say talking to this woman is wrong because she is a Samaritan, a woman and alone in the heat of the day.

He cuts through it all and shows the woman that he knows her.

Jesus knows her story, her life, her pain and suffering, her isolation and alienation.

Jesus knows her. She isn’t just a woman, and a samaritan, and someone isolated from her community. She isn’t just abstract social conventions, but a real person.

And Jesus knows her.

Then something changes in the woman.

The abstract and arbitrary social conventions and identities don’t matter anymore. All the reasons that seemed to stand in the way of even talking to Jesus don’t matter anymore.

Jesus becomes more than a man at the well, a jew and an interrupting stranger.

Jesus becomes a real, tangible person standing at the well, water bucket in hand, meeting this woman face to face in the heat of the sun.

And unlike Nicodemus who left Jesus still uncertain and confused about who Jesus is, this woman recognizes just who has offered her living water.

The One who is found in the Living Water of the Life, the Messiah come to save, the Christ who breaks through all the other things that try to define us – the Christ who knows us.

It is here too, at the water that we gather round in this place that Jesus becomes a real tangible person, offering us living water.

And like the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus breaks through all the identities that we bear, arbitrary names that we carry that would make us think we shouldn’t even talk to one another or to God.

In the waters of baptism we are washed of that other noise in our lives. All the identities that separate us, all the social conventions that dictate who we are allowed to interact with, all the things that seem so real and concrete and immovable.

Standing at the font, when flesh and water meet, when the screams of an unimpressed baby or the tears of a moved adult are mixed together with the promises that the Word of God speaks in our midst, all that other stuff is washed away.

And the only identity that matters is the one that Jesus gives us.

Child of God.

And as children of God, we are reminded of our identity every time someone is washed in the waters, we are given the Living Water of Christ.

The Living Water of Christ that connects us rather than divides, the living water that satisfies our thirst, the living water that brings us to new life.

The Living Water that Christ offers us is the water that changes who we are at the core of our being, the sign that we belong to God.

The Living Water that swirls around the font is where God binds us together into one Body with no social conventions between us, with no identities that keep us from knowing each other.

The Living Water of Christ tells us who we are.

And so like woman who is given this Living Water, this woman who Jesus knows, we are given the same. Jesus gives us that waters of life and in our dying and rising to Christ in those waters we – each of us and all of us – are made Children of God.

Differentiated Jesus in Toxic System

*This is guest sermon from Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker who is preaching on the RCL while I am preaching from the Narrative Lectionary

Mark 1:21-28

21[Jesus and his disciples] went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, (Read the whole passage)


We are well into the season after Epiphany, seeing and hearing the stories of Jesus being revealed. And we are learning, like those first disciples and people encountering him, that Jesus is unlike anyone we have encountered before.

Today, we encounter Jesus’ first healing, his first miracle. And not just any healing, but an exorcism. Talk about a way to reveal yourself. There’s a lot of baggage caught up in the word exorcism. Maybe rightly so. Casting out a demon isn’t nothing. But it’s also not like a seen from a horror movie either. Being demon-possessed, being unclean isn’t the same as being disabled or different, it’s being toxic, or unhealthy to a system… a community. Likely, this man looked the same as anyone else in the synagogue that day. But something gave him away, that identified him as one who was possessed, unhealthy, toxic.

The gospel of Mark is carefully constructed. As we have learned through the seasons Advent, Christmas and these first few weeks after Epiphany, Mark is not one to embellish. He provides the necessary information to impart the good news of Jesus. So the way that Jesus finds out about this man is not insignificant. This is a small detail, but an important one. One that could easily be missed if not looking closely at what is happening and how the story it being told.

[Those gathered] were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then [as this was taking place] there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. But in a new way, a different way than what they are used to – it’s not like that of the scribes. The people hearing his teaching are astounded – they are interested and intrigued by what he has to say. He has their attention. And seeing all this take place causes this man to feel uncomfortable… anxious… threatened. Jesus comes along, and this man recognizes him immediately.

What this man says to Jesus is important too because it tells us a lot about the man:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” – who do you think you are?

His behaviour is classic toxic behaviour – when there is a threat, or a perceived threat to the toxic person their anxiety increases.

“Have you come to destroy us?”

But he’s not finished:

“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

This man is the only one who sees who Jesus is, and even after he clearly identifies who Jesus is, the people are still confused. But what is just as interesting is that no one else in the community seems to recognize that this man is possessed by a demon. Because no one who was considered “unclean” would be allowed into the synagogue in the first place. It’s more likely, then, that the community has adapted to his behaviour.

The boundaries, the norms of a system, a community set in place what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in that particular system. These are frequently not healthy but what become considered normal.

That’s the thing about unhealthy people and unhealthy systems. We often don’t recognize how unhealthy and toxic they are until someone new, someone different comes along and points it out to us, someone who shows us a different way. We adapt to the dis-ease and unhealthy behaviour until it becomes normal, like allowing a demon-possessed man to go unnoticed in a community.

So when a new person enters the system, the community, and presents new, healthy, different behaviours, systems, boundaries and expectations the whole system is threatened. Because the established norms are questioned, and the possibility of change is introduced. And most people, given the choice, would prefer to stay in an unhealthy system that is known and comfortable, than risk discomfort in a new and healthy but uncomfortable one.

Today, Jesus’ power and authority is revealed by crossing boundaries – Jesus calls out toxic and unhealthy behaviour in the midst of the community – and in doing so reveals that Jesus… God… is willing to go to places no one else wants to go. God in Jesus is willing to dismantle unhealthy systems that keep people from knowing

Of all the things Jesus said in the synagogue that day, Mark chooses to record only what Jesus says in response to this man: “Be silent, and come out of him!”

Jesus’ statement is one of differentiation, it sets him apart from the man and the unhealthy and toxic system he represents and wants to maintain.

Jesus heals a man, a man whose unhealthy behaviour has become toxic in the midst of his community. And in doing so, Jesus frees not only the man, but the community as well. They are amazed – not just that he commands unclean spirits, but that they OBEY him. The demons, the unclean and unhealthy behaviours and systems that had a hold on the entire community had no power over Jesus.

This is the power Jesus holds – the power to identify that which is unhealthy and toxic and exorcize it from the people and communities it has taken hold of.

This is the power of the Gospel. The power to free us from the toxic systems of sin and death.

To free us for a life that draws us into new relationships… new realities where the burden of maintaining unhealthy and toxic systems are lifted, the burden of sin and death lifted. Our unclean, unhealthy, toxic selves gone. Attachments to unhealthy and toxic systems, gone.

And in their place, new and eternal life. This is the promise we receive in baptism: new life in Jesus.

When we enter into a baptismal service, we begin with a profession of faith – when we renounce, we give up our unhealthy, toxic ways:

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?


I renounce them.

Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?


I renounce them.

Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?


I renounce them.

Washed in the waters of baptism, marked with the sign of the cross by God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. This is how Jesus is revealed. This is who Jesus is revealed to be: the one who frees us for new and eternal life with God. God casts out our old selves, our old ways. God frees us so that we no longer belong to our unhealthy behaviour or systems. God frees us so that we no longer belong to the people or places that hold us back. We no longer belong to our shame, our anxiety, our disappointments, our unclean spirits that demonize us and our communities.

In their place we are named and claimed: You belong to Christ, in whom you have been baptized. Alleluia.

Confessions of a High Church Millennial – 10 Ways I am grounded by Ritual, Liturgy and Tradition

I haven’t confessed this to you in a while, but I am still a High Church Millennial. Just because I often wear jeans on office days, have tattoos and an apple music subscription on my iPhone… doesn’t mean I don’t love old things. And not looms, vinyl played by a gramophone and artisanal vegetables as the caricature of a millennial hipster goes.  I love ancients things like ritual, liturgy and the traditions of Christianity.

So recently, as I went about my normal perusal of social media, I came across the post of a pastor friend. The Rev. Steven Sabin serves in San Francisco, and he thoughtfully wrote the post pictured below:

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 11.27.18

I love the way Pastor Sabin describes his experience of a high church faith. I can see my own experience in his post. And as many churches search for ways to get “the young people back” with the newest and flashiest toys, gadgets, fads and entertainment…. let me tell the story of why this millennial would rather have the old things and the deeper meaning.

*Note: I skipped a few of Pastor Sabin’s points.

1 Tradition was taught to me as a loving mentor, not as a censorious schoolmarm.

I grew up in a world where tradition was shunned and Lutheran liturgy was like eating vegetables… you did it but no one liked it. Our worship was often treated as if it was a list chores to do every Sunday morning. And then our church hired some musicians to help plan our liturgy and music. And for the most part, the congregation continued to feel the same way about liturgy. But as a teenager, I noticed that suddenly worship became a more cohesive experience. The list of chores transformed into the script and stage directions of a beautiful play. There was movement, there was purpose to our worship, the music connected to the prayers, the prayers connected to scripture, the biblical texts connected to the eucharist and so on and so on.

When I went to seminary, I was finally taught the finer and detailed points of the ritual I had been enraptured by. Liturgy for me now is not a burdensome set of rules to follow and chores to do, but a ground to stand on in worship, guiding the assembly into deeper meaning and a deeper experience of the divine… proclaiming the gospel and inviting us into the body of Christ in a way that no other worship form can do.

2 Hallmark makes a fortune because we don’t always know how to say it.

One of the things I cling to as a preacher and presider is that when the words of my sermon fail, then the words of the liturgy say what needs to be said. And knowing that Christians around the world and through the centuries have used these same words gives them a sense holiness and authority that spontaneous and unprepared words lack.

3 I’m usually more moved by a poem than by a tweet.

There are such things as twitter poets, yet even they recognize the limitations of the medium.

A tweet is an ephemeral abstract thing. Most tweets rarely have a long life, they come at us quickly and in high volume. Great for breaking news, but lacking the deliberately slow and considered words of a good poem. Poetry is intentional and reflective. Poetry is an economy of words not because there are only 140 (or 280) characters, but because every word matters. The same goes for the liturgy.

4 It’s easier to learn a new dance step when I already know how to dance.

I recently moved from leading worship in 1 congregation to 5. While each congregation has its own particularities, it is the commonality of the liturgy that makes it possible smoothly step in to preach and preside each week. The order, the movement, the rhythm is all familiar, even if a few steps are different.

6 Technology changes rapidly; people, not so much.

There are a lot of things that are rapidly changing in my millennial world. Social media flies by rapidly each day. The way people communicate with me has changed dramatically over the years. 65 year olds used to phone my landline but now text me when planning a funeral for the parents, 30 something colleagues let me know about job opportunities in facebook groups, even my 96 year old grandmother talks to my kids on FaceTime now and then.

But worship, the familiar words, patterns, seasons, texts and emphasis is one of the grounding forces of my life. I more easily associate significant memories with the liturgical season they occurred in rather than with date and month. Each week, I find my grounding and footing again in the familiar and stabilizing experience of the liturgy in the assembly.

7 I probably didn’t get the Faith right last week, so there’s no harm (or shame) in giving it another go this week.

I am coming on 9 years of ordained ministry. I probably surpassed 500 times presiding in worship recently, and I still feel like I am just starting to scratch the surface or the depth of the faith. Maybe 40 more years and I will feel like I got it right… but I doubt it.

10 Boring liturgy is like boring Shakespeare, the adjective is probably misplaced.

Being bored is usually a sign of not understanding what is going on. I grant that the church and pastors have not always been very good a teaching the liturgy and tradition of the church. But the best way to learn is to experience. We live in a world that says we are all experts before we begin… or should be. The liturgy is rich and deep and complex and beautiful. And it can be confusing if it is unfamiliar. But what form of unfamiliar worship wouldn’t be confusing? The best way to learn is through repetition. Try worshipping in a liturgical church every week for a year, and then how liturgy feels. If you find yourself bored, perhaps it is because there is learning that needs to happen. Talk to your pastor, they might be able to help.

Now, make no mistake Liturgy, ritual and tradition are not the newest (or oldest) gimmicks to get millennials back to church. Rather they are just servants of the gospel, the vehicles through which we regularly encounter God as people of faith. And it is meeting and following Jesus that is the most important thing – the most important thing that we do, and that worship helps us to do, as people of faith.

So as I said, I am still a High Church millennial. And it is these ancient things of liturgy, ritual and tradition – and how they so clearly proclaim Christ crucified and risen – that are the reasons I am still in the church.

*Thanks again to The Rev. Steven Sabin for allowing me to annotate his great post.

The Lord Christ is coming – The Messiah has always been here

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Read the whole passage)


It would probably be a safe bet that no one attended a rocking new year’s eve party last night.

Advent, and the beginning of a new church year is pretty understated as far as New Years goes. Never the less, we are taking the first step of a new church year today. And as always, we begin with Advent.

Advent is the season of waiting and watching. We drape the sanctuary with blue, a colour representing hopeful anticipation. We light candles to symbolize the light of Christ coming into the world. We hear stories of the waiting of Israel for Messiah, and then Jesus’ own words about the end of the world.

And we do all of these somewhat odd things while the rest of world is frantic with Christmas fever, the lights and decorations having been out long enough to be gathering dust, and the music has gone stale on the radio and over mall speakers.

As is often the case, we find that the church tends to do the opposite of the world.

And so today, we slow down to light our lamps and watch for the signs of the coming Messiah.

As we hear Jesus begin our advent season, the thing he is talking about is the end. He gives us a prophecy, a glimpse of the end of the world. Signs found in darkened celestial bodies, and the coming of the Son of Man in glory.

And Jesus is speaking to an audience that has been waiting for Messiah for generations. The people of Israel had been waiting for a long time for God to send the one who would free them from oppression, release them from their suffering and re-establish a divine rule by one of God’s appointed kings, and not foreign occupiers like the Romans.

The Israelites had been waiting since the time that Isaiah prophesied Messiah’s coming, hundreds of years before Jesus’ day. And during that time life had not been easy. Israel had constantly been surrounded by enemy nations, there had been constant destruction and ruin. But despite this, the promise they clung to was that God was sending a promised Messiah, a saviour who would come to free them.

By Jesus’ day the Israelites were growing restless… but they could also see the signs. King Herod had killed all the children in the holy town of Bethlehem around the time of Jesus’s birth, and John the Baptist decades later had begun preaching in the desert. And now here was the one, the wandering preacher and healer, telling them of the coming Messiah.

The people could feel that it was close, that Messiah was in the air. The signs were there, and here was the one whom many thought to be Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and he was telling them of God’s plans to restore creation and set the world to right.

Finally, Messiah was close at hand.

2000 years down the road, we might not be living with that same kind of imminent sense of Messiah’s coming. While we hear the stories and read of Messiah’s impending coming, we do so year after year, decade after decade, lifetime after lifetime. And the stories written with such urgency take on a different meaning and we hear them in different ways.

And these days, as so many of us wonder about churches and the future of the faith in our part of the world, we feel less like the crowds listening expectantly to Jesus the Messiah in flesh announce God’s plans to restore creation, more like those who had been waiting generations before. We feel more like those who heard Isaiah’s words:

We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Isaiah has us pegged.

The grand visions of Jesus in Mark are not the clear and blinding signs for us that they were for the people of Jesus’ day. For us, they are hazy and hard to make out. The cosmic re-ordering that God is about to undertake feels more abstract and far off, than immediate and close at hand.

We faded leaves know the struggle. We know what it is to be tired and to wait, to feel thinned out and week. It is hard to keep the faith these days. Hard to keep showing up to hand out bulletins and sing God’s praises. Hard to volunteer to vacuum the church and receive forgiveness. Hard to look at budget statements and council reports AND pray without ceasing.

Jesus’ exhortation to ‘Keep Awake’ is hard enough to do during the sermon, let alone to keep vigil day after day, week after week, year after year.

But the Church has known this. Christians have known that waiting for the Messiah is both a long and a short game. Even as Mark was setting down his gospel only 30 years after Jesus rose from the dead, the early church was wondering when Jesus would return. Those first witnesses to the resurrection were getting old and beginning to die off.

And ever since, the church has lived with the sense of the now and not yet. The sense that God’s Kingdom is here NOW among us. And that God’s grand future plans to restore all creation have NOT YET come to fruition.

So we live with this dual reality. The reality that Jesus proclaims, the coming Son of Man and the reality of Isiah, that we are fading leaves waiting to be blown away in the wind.

Each Advent we begin by acknowledging this reality with the words of the collect or prayer of the day. While most begin by praising God, in Advent we begin with a petition, a request. And we direct it not to God the Father, but straight to the long awaited Messiah.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

We pray knowing that we need, ever so desperately the stirring up of Messiah’s power.

And we pray knowing that the Messiah, the one sent to save us is finally now, after our long waiting is stirring up power like a pot boiling over.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

And as the Israelites waited and waited for the coming of Messiah, even as they faded like leaves blowing in the wind.

And as the crowds heard Messiah himself preach the coming of God in power, even as they could feel Messiah in the air.

And as we grow tired waiting for something to happen among us, even as it is hard to keep up the faith.

And as the church of today sits at a moment of tremendous change, even as we don’t want to see it.

The Lord Christ is coming.
The Messiah has always been here.

The Lord Christ is coming, even when we find it hard to believe, even though it feels painfully slow. The Lord Christ is coming to bring an end to suffering, to make our upside down world right, reconcile all creation to God, to restore us all to what God intended us to be. It just has NOT YET come fully.

And the Messiah has always been here, already among us, here NOW, giving us mercy, forgiving our sins, showing us resurrection and new life.

The Messiah has always been here, present in the word of God, made manifest in the words that sound from our lips and in our midsts.

The Lord Christ is always coming to us from the waters of baptism, pulling us into a not yet future, where our sin and selfishness are no more, where we die and rise to new life.

The Messiah Lord Christ is here and yet coming to us in the bread and wine, body and blood, where God meets us, where God binds and joins us to Christ, the now risen and still coming one.

Even as we wait, even as we grow tired. Even as the story is told over and over again from the people of Israel to now…. God is bringing us from the end to the beginning.

From Advent and its promises of the great cosmic plan of God, to the beginning, to the beginning of God’s new creation born within us that first Easter.

Sure, there probably no new year’s eve parties last night.

But that is because God’s great and never ending party, starts here today.