Category Archives: Theology & Culture

The Complications of Belonging to a Church

GOSPEL: John 13:31-35

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Read the Acts text)

We are now into the latter half of the season of Easter. The Alleluias from Easter Sunday, or as it is formally called The feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, are not ringing as loudly as they were a month ago. Yes, it is still Easter but with 4 weeks of resurrection stories behind us we are coming into the questions that the early church community faced. Questions about what it means to be a community, what does it mean to belong, who exactly are we and where do we go from here? Sound familiar?

Even as we consider this new Easter world, John jumps us back to Maundy Thursday… to hours before betrayal, arrested, trial, and execution. Jesus is eating the Last Supper with his disciples, and he gives them a New Commandment – to love one another. On the night before Good Friday, these are the last instructions of a teacher to his followers. Yet, here a month into Easter, they speak of a different reality to a fledgling Easter community being birthed before our eyes.

In some ways we should have read story of Peter from the book of Acts after the gospel reading, because Peter’s dilemma is precisely how to live into the New Commandment that his teacher and master had given him.

In the days, months and years after the resurrection, the community of Jesus’ followers that continued on to become the church, had to begin dealing with a lot of questions. Questions about who belonged and what it took to become a member of the community. As Peter became the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem, the question of who could be a part of the community quickly arose. Particularly, as small Christian communities began to sprout up beyond Jerusalem and into the Greek world, the early church had to contend with what new converts needed to do in order to join.

When Peter meets the community in Jerusalem, they are a Jewish group… all are circumcised. And they have been keeping to the tradition of Judaism not necessarily seeing following Jesus as a departure from the faith of their ancestors. Yet, Peter has been meeting with uncircumcised followers – gentiles. But not just meeting with them, eating with them. Of course, observant Judeans kept Kosher, so eating with gentiles would certainly mean breaking Hebrew purity laws. The circumcised believers question Peter’s actions… so Peter tells them a story. Peter was given a vision, a voice from heaven telling him to eat non-kosher meat. Yet when he dismissed the dream, it kept coming back.

Even then, Peter is not swayed… so the spirit sends him to the home of a gentile, Cornelius. And there Peter’s mind is changed.

Now some twenty centuries later, we don’t generally feel the same way about circumcision and eating non-kosher meat that the early christian community in Jerusalem did… yet there is still something extremely familiar about this debate.

Of course, we know on a technical level that the first step of becoming a Christian is to be baptized. In fact, the Greek word Cristos means anointed one, Messiah is the equivalent in Hebrew. And after being washed in the waters of baptism, we are a marked with cross in oil… we are anointed, we are named as Christians.

And yet, knowing what it means to become a Christian through baptism and anointing compared to belonging to a particular community… well those could very well mean different things.

In the first congregation that I served, an open country church on the corner of a quarter section of farmland, what it meant to belong had a complicated meaning. Belonging happened in a variety of ways: If your family had been farming the land for a few generations, you belonged whether you wanted to or not, whether you were in church every Sunday or once a year. And yet, if you were new to the community, meaning being the first generation to the land, you were always new. Some who had been faithfully attending for decades, were still considered “new members.”

In my second congregation, a very large congregation in a small city, belonging was very much tied to involvement and connections. You could quickly belong within months by joining one of the many groups active in the congregation, like knitters, musical groups, prayer groups, people interested in global mission and so on. Yet, you could remain a new person for years if you kept to yourself and just showed up for worship.

And at my last congregation, belonging was tied to one’s place in the community surrounding the church. Where you worked in town, what street you lived on and who your neighbours were, and how connected you were in town determined your status of belonging.

Of course, here at Sherwood Park, we have unspoken rules about what it means to belong too… they are apart of every church from Peter’s day to ours.

Circumcision and eating non-kosher meats, or having generations to stand on the shoulders of, or sharing a common interest like quilting or music or missionary work, or meeting by chance at the grocery store and again at the PTA meeting and again while shovelling snow… all of these things and so many more make up the complicated definition of belonging to a community, belonging to a church, of a church belonging to a denomination, of a denomination belonging to a religion and so on.

Yet, all of these complications of belonging are about more than checking off boxes and fulfilling requirements. They are ways that we deal with the same fear living within each of us. The circumcised ask Peter about his fraternizing with the uncircumcised because they are worried if they themselves are worthy, if they are acceptable, if they actually belong. All of our ways to defining who is in and out, who checks the right boxes and who doesn’t… they all have to do with our own fear of being good enough, of being worthy and acceptable.

Last week, we heard from Revelation giving good news to Christian communities living on margins of society and how the great multitude worshipping before the throne was God’s way of breaking down walls that divide and separate.

Today, is about God breaking down the same walls within our communities, within ourselves.

Even after being given the same vision three times Peter is not convinced… that is until he comes to the home of Cornelius.

It is when Peter must look Cornelius in the eye, in the flesh, and decide whether the good news of God’s forgiveness and love is also for this Gentile… The Holy Spirit breaks the walls Peter’s heart. The Spirit makes Peter realize something new…

All the complications of belonging… that is our baggage, that is our stuff.

But for God, there are no complications… there is simply belonging.

In Christ, we all belong. We all belong to Christ.

We all belong because of the one who crossed the chasm, who bridged the divide of Creator and creation, who joined what was separated in sin and death together in forgiveness and resurrection. In Christ, the one who is both our flesh and the divine, we are joined to the Trinue God of all.

And this same Christ, likes to keep reminding us of that. Not in the complications, but by meeting us in the flesh. Christ meets in human voices and bodies that read and proclaim God’s word, in prayer and song, in peace shared and praises given.

Christ reminds us that we all belong in the water that washes us and the oil that anoints us, and we are washed and forgiven by God, we are anointed and clothed by God, and we given the same family name – Christian.

And Christ reminds us that we are all one in the same body. As Jesus gathers at the table, as we share in Body and Blood of Christ, God makes us what we eat and drink – Christ’s body given for the sake of the world.

And all those complications, all those other things, all those reasons we find to say someone whether belongs or doesn’t… those things are pushed aside.

And instead Christ proclaims us that belonging isn’t up to us, not based on our worth or the worthiness of the generations that came before, not based on our ability to participate or contribute, not determined by our integration into the fabric of community, the number of connections to others we carry….

But belonging is determined by the One to whom we belong.

Today, Christ declares to Peter, to the early church, and to us… that we no matter who we are, we belong to God.

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Yes, it is still Easter

John 20:19-31

Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

It is still the first day of the week, it is still the day of the resurrection but it can feel like the excitement has already worn off. The drama of an empty tomb, the joy of the story: Christ is Risen! It all seems like a lifetime away.

Although it feels like we might be moving on, the season of Easter is seven weeks or 50 days long. The early church considered the 50 days to be one great day of the resurrection. And in fact each Sunday is understood to be the day of the resurrection, a mini-Easter so to speak. And despite all this, it is often our habit as modern Christians to move on and get back to normal.

This is something we do a lot in our post-modern world… we engage in the big moments for a time, and then we get back to business as usual, we go back to the routines we have always followed because they provide us comfort and certainty.

Our 21st century response to moments of significance is not that unlike the response of first century people. On that first Easter, it didn’t take long for the disciples to begin hiding away in a locked room. They hear that Jesus is alive and still they lock themselves away in fear. They have been told the good news by Mary Magdalene… but as far as they are concerned Jesus is dead.

And what else is there to do? Whether the story is true or not, Jesus isn’t there to keep things going. Dangers are as real as ever, life is now changed, but also must go on. And so quickly all the disciples fall into fear and hiding. The resurrection hasn’t changed anything for them, there is no New Life for this terrified group. Instead, they are packed away in a tomb of their own making, they are closed off to the world.

Like the disciples, we often go about our lives as if Jesus is still dead. We may not hide ourselves away in real locked rooms, but we are surrounded and entombed by apathy, by a world that simply doesn’t care about how the resurrection might change things. In times gone by non-Christians may have tried to make the claim that Jesus wasn’t real, or that he did not rise from the dead. But today, a non-believer might say “Jesus was raised from the dead? So what? Who cares? How does that make a difference in my life?” Jesus is worse than dead, he is ignored and made meaningless… at least that is what it can feel like to those of us who have gathered ourselves together on this second Sunday of Easter.

With the news full of floods and even more acts of terrorism and hockey playoffs and political maneuvers, this second Sunday can feel forgotten. Jesus’s resurrection is left behind by a world getting on with more exciting things. The world lives as though he is still dead and does not matter. And we too begin to move on, we just keep going with life, everything becoming the same after Easter as it was before.

As the disciples hide away and try to figure out what they should do now, something or someone appears in their midst. The words come first. Words that feel like wind.

“Peace be with you”.

Jesus doesn’t just make an appearance at the empty tomb. Jesus shows up right in the middle of his disciples. Right between them. Close enough for them to feel his breath.

“Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, so I send you.”

He breathes on them the spirit.

Until this moment Jesus seemed dead to the disciples. And until this moment, the disciples were acting as though they too were dead in a tomb, hidden away from the world. And yet Jesus walks right into their tomb and finds them. Jesus shows them that he is alive. But this is more than Jesus being alive, this is Jesus breathing life back into them. This is more than Jesus the man who has died and risen. This is God who has conquered death for all.

Jesus speaks like God in creation. Just as God spoke, “Let there be…” in the beginning. Now, Jesus speaks his followers into life. “Peace be with you. God’s Shalom be with you. The wholeness and completeness of God be with you”.

Just as God breathed Life into the Adam, Jesus breathes life into his death-like disciples. Jesus gives them the spirit, the sign that God lives in them and they in God.

Jesus breathes hope into them when the world seems too dangerous. And Jesus keeps coming, even when the disciples are still in the locked room. Jesus will not leave them. Jesus won’t let them keep falling into fear and hiding, into a life where there are dead men walking.

Jesus comes even though our world doesn’t want to believe that Jesus matters anymore. Jesus speaks words like “Peace be with you” even when we cannot see how they change us. Jesus breathes the spirit into us, even when we cannot feel it. Jesus comes when we cannot see why and cannot understand what this all means. And Jesus keeps coming.

Jesus comes gathering us each day, each week, each Easter, and Jesus comes in between. The faith that Jesus gives is not solid belief or concrete certainty that we can hold on to. The faith that Jesus gives is hope for a future that we cannot see. It is trust in things we cannot understand. Jesus brings us into the relationship of faith, a relationship that goes on, that exists in the in between times, between each day, between Sundays and between Easters. Jesus brings us into a relationship of faith that exists between us, between neighbours, friends and family. Jesus brings us into a relationship of faith that joins us together into One Body — the Body of Christ.

And so, even when we often continue to live our lives like Jesus is still dead. Even when we have heard the Good News, and are still hiding and afraid. Jesus comes into our midst. And Jesus keeps coming. Today, tomorrow, next week and in between.

Resurrection: Looking for the living among the dead

Luke 24:1-12

1On the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? (Read the whole passage)

Just a short while ago, we stood on the mountain. The mountain called Golgotha, with the cross looming high above us, and the crucified God hanging there. That Good Friday moment spoke loudly and clearly about us. About humanity, about our desire to be God in God’s place, to be the ones in control and in charge, because human beings threatened by God in flesh tried to put God to death.

But now, we are once again down into the valley, the valley of death. A literal grave stands before us with the women who have come to tend to the body of their beloved teacher and friend.

This is always an awkward place to begin the Easter celebration. The church is already decorated, breakfast has already been eaten, the songs of praise with Alleluias have already been sung. But the story takes just a few more words to unfold, a little bit more to get there.

And so every Easter, before we can truly announce the good news of the resurrection, we have to begin with the women on their way to a tomb. It is easy overlook and to see this moment as part of the celebration. But going to a cemetery is not the most festive of experiences, especially going to see the freshly covered over grave of a loved one. It is an all together different feeling than coming together to celebrate the resurrection.

And yet, this is always where Easter begins. Just as from from Ash Wednesday with crosses marked on our foreheads, to the Lenten wilderness, and from the Palm Procession one week ago, to the last Supper on Thursday, and mostly clearly from the cross on Good Friday… there is always the promise of Easter peeking through the horizon, calling to us.

And Easter too, never leaves Good Friday completely behind, the path that leads us to the empty tomb always comes from Golgotha and the cross.

And so with these women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James, we begin on our way to the grave. When they get there, they do not find what they were expecting. They do not find the body of Jesus. Instead they find a stone rolled away, divine messengers in white and an empty tomb. Still Easter hasn’t fully landed for these women, they respond first in fear.

Then the Angel asks them this question,

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Seeing resurrection does not come naturally to the women, nor to us. There is always a bunch of other stuff obscuring the view. Even as we just made our way through the story of Holy Week, and the central story of the Three days, Last Supper, Good Friday and Easter Vigil… even though it is preferable to set aside most things and focus on observing this most important time of the Christian calendar, the world kept churning onward.

Along side Holy Week were the end of hometown hockey team’s playoff run and reports about presidential misconduct, there were hate crimes carried out in our own city and even this morning the bombing of churches in Sri Lanka as the faithful worshipped, and of course the great fire that seemed to burn down much of the world famous Notre Dame cathedral in France.

The world reacted in shock to the burning of the 800 year old church. Crowds gathered to sing and pray in the streets of Paris, people lamented online watching the flames in real time. The initial reports were of the worst, that the whole cathedral would be destroyed.

Even during the the most important week of the Christian year, when we strive to most clearly tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, all the other things have a great capacity to obscure our vision. Even at Easter, we cannot not see beyond death.

Resurrection is hard for us see. We are so used to looking among the dead, that we don’t know what the living looks like. Even when resurrection stares us in the face, we cannot help but focus on the dead things. The stories that captivate our attention almost always the stories of the cross, of sin and death… The stories of resurrection, of new life in the most surprising of places almost don’t register at all.

Of course hockey teams will have another chance at things next year, and politicians will continue being politicians, and the community surrounding the victims of hate crime in our city have already begun to rally… and the news of Notre Dame’s total destruction were greatly exaggerated, even as over a billion dollars was donated towards its repair. The artwork, the relics, much of the stained glass and the great organ were all saved.

But the part that is hard for us to see, even during Holy Week, even when we know the end of this story, when we know what happens Easter morning, is that all of that other stuff isn’t the point. The rebuilding of an 800 year old church or putting the donated money to another use isn’t the point.

The point of the the church building in the first place is to enable Christ’s story being told. The point is the story, the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Despite our habit and the habit of the women to look for the living among the dead, the Angel reminds Mary, Joanna, and Mary of what Jesus had told them – that he would be raised from the dead.

The empty tomb isn’t just the absence of a body or empty space… it is the symbol of life, the sign that death is not the end, that the cross on the mountaintop isn’t where human sin wins by putting God to death.

The empty tomb is the birth place of resurrection.

The empty tomb is the making of space for New life to grow and take root.

The empty tomb is the re-membering of the community broken apart on Good Friday.

The women are re-membered, re-connected, re-made into New Creations once they finally see the implication of the empty tomb. It is only then that they run off to tell the new to the other disciples.

And then then story of death and resurrection that we have been telling this week becomes more than just something we are trying to fit in along side all the other things happening in the world.

Cross and Empty Tomb become the new frame of life.

Cross and Empty Tomb become qualifiers to all the other stuff.

Cross and Empty Tomb become the one story the holds all other stories together.

And the Christ who hung on the cross just a while ago, becomes the first born of a new humanity… of a new us.

And this Christ who took all our stories on the cross, all of our failings and frailties, our suffering and sin, our dying…

This Christ finally brings us into God’s story.

And God’s story, our new story, is resurrection. If all we can do is look for the living among the dead, God will come and show us new life from death… God will come to us from empty tombs, and Christ will call to us to to come out of our graves too.

So yes, it is always awkward to begin the story of Easter by making our way to a cemetery with death on our minds… but we cannot help ourselves from always looking towards the dead…

But the Good News is that Christ is always looking for us.

Always finding us, even among the dead.

And from among the dead, The Crucified, Risen and Living Christ brings us too, into the Resurrection and New Life.

The Crucified God is God – and we are not

Gospel: John 18:1—19:42

Seven weeks ago, we gathered on another mountain – the mount of Transfiguration.

On that mountain top, Jesus was flanked by Moses and Elijah, and his disciples gathered at his feet.

From there we descended into the valley of Lent.

Into the wilderness, just as the Israelites were sent into wilderness to be found by God.

The wilderness was not the place of danger we imagine, but the place of renewal.

Rather the danger was found in the return from wilderness, in the journey towards human chaos.

It was on streets of Jerusalem where Jesus found the centre of chaos and struggle.

It is on our our streets and in our communities where Jesus meets human messiness.

And along the journey from down the mountain through the wilderness and chaos of Lent, Jesus kept coming back to God’s people, kept coming back to us.

He came and answered our big questions about life and suffering.

He showed us the prodigal Father, who sought out his lost sons.

He let himself be anointed with perfume like a body being prepared for burial.

And then Jesus rode up into Jerusalem again.

On a donkey, with a crowd waving palms, chanting Hosanna, save now…

filled with expectation that he was their new king,

come to take away their problems with power and might.

But by the end of the week, the crowds had turned.

As Jesus gathered at the family table with his disciples last night, he knew what was coming.

There would be no more rest, no more sleep, no more calm.

There would be betrayal and denial.

There would be sham trials and wrongful convictions.

There would be police brutality followed by summary execution.

And through night into today, the humanity that was so oblivious to him this whole time,

Who clamoured for him to perform like a side show,

to feed the bored and hungry, to satiate the crowds….

Today this humanity has woken up…

This humanity has become aware of just who Jesus is.

The baby born in a manger to peasant parents,

promised by angels, visited by shepherd, worshipped by Magi…

this baby who is God come in flesh, word incarnate.

This baby is now this man.

This man who is God.

This man who is God, which means we are not.

This man who is God, who threatens our claims to power.

This man who is God, who makes us feel small.

Jesus has come to centre, to the core of humanity. To our messy and chaotic existence and reminded us our limitedness, of our ungodliness, of our fallibility and imperfections.

And that just wont do for us.

And so we go back up the mountain to send the God-Man away.

We march up Golgaltha with murderous rage.

And we haul a cross along with us.

We who are the best humanity has to offer.

Religious leaders, political leaders, the educated and prominent.

We pick up the nails too, and desire to be rid of this One.

This One who is God in flesh and who brings God close.

This One who announces the Kingdom coming near.

This One who talks about grace and mercy at inconvenient times.

This One, the Christ, the anointed of God, sent to save…

We will put to death and be done with him.

And then we can go back to being in control.

Back to being in charge.

Back to being God.

Except this mountain was always where Jesus was going.

From the beginning of creation, from the moment God spoke us into being.

From the dirt and clay that formed the Adam, the first born of creation.

There was also a cross.

The cross was always the place where God’s Word in flesh would meet us.

Always the place where the Christ would confront our most God-like power.

The cross was always the place where the God of creation would meet the God we tried to create of ourselves.

The cross was always the place where God was going to bridge the gap to human chaos and messiness…

Where God would rejoin what was split apart in the fall.

Where God would reconcile creator with created, humanity and divinity.

Where God would remember and remind us that we were created in God’s image, in Christ’s image.

Here on this mountain, the skull, the place of humanity’s power of death,

God declares that we are not God once and for all.

And that sin and death are no longer in control.

God declares a new reality by reminding us of the first reality.

God declares that God is God

And God declares that we are God’s creation.

That we belong to the crucified one.

That our chaos and messiness,

Our human failings and fragility

Our questions and vulnerability

Our discomfort and overwhelming feelings

That all of us, including sin and earth

Belongs now to the one who hangs on the cross.

The one in whom all creation began

And whom creation put to death.

That we belong to this One, this Word, this Christ, this Jesus.

That we belong to this One who loves beyond all love.

That we belong to this Word of Life.

That we belong to this Christ who saves

That we belong to Jesus who makes us one.

Who gathers us into God.

Into God, who even though dead on a cross…

Who is life beyond all life.

Who is freely given love and salvation

Who is mercy and forgiveness for us.

This God, who even though dead on a cross…

Has come again to the mountain top

and finally shown us once and for

That we are now a new creation

That there is now

New Life in the crucified Christ.

A Lament for Jerusalem, a Lament for Addis Ababa, Christchurch and the Red River

Luke 13:31-35

31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to [Jesus,] “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

The Lenten wilderness is real today. A couple of weeks ago on the mountain of Transfiguration and then out in the wilderness of temptation, there was an abstract sense to things… not quite connected to our experience. But today the wilderness is very real and familiar. Jesus is in Jerusalem, the holy city… but not in the royal courtyards or temple. He is in amongst the crowds, on the streets, in the centre of human activity. He is where humanity is, where we are. And it is indeed in the middle of humanity’s messiness and chaotic existence, where true wilderness is found.

The thing that we were reminded of this week is that Lent is by no means just a spiritual exercise divorced from the rest of the life. Just when we are close to forgetting how real this struggle of wilderness is, the world brings us back to harsh reminders. This week, we received harsh reminder after harsh reminder.

Another plane crash, another tragedy measured in numbers that we cannot imagine. This is what wilderness is.

Another terrorist attack on mosques, shock and grief and the feeling helplessness. This is what wilderness feels like.

Another report reminding us just how much society failed a young woman missing and murdered in our community. This is the wilderness where we live.

Today, Jesus has moved from mountain to desert to city street. He has come to Jerusalem, the holy city of Israel. We can imagine the scene. Jesus makes his way down a crowded street, bustling with marketplace activity. People jostling and bumping him, as if he isn’t even there. There are beggars on one side, vendors and hawkers on the other. People are bartering and milling about. Some clump together on street corners to listen to religious zealots, while other groups stand together talking and gossiping. As Jesus wanders invisible, a group of Pharisees finally notice and call out to him. “Go away or you’ll be killed” they warn or threaten… it is difficult to know which.

Jesus retorts back telling the Pharisees to run back to Herod the Fox and tell him that Jesus is not afraid.

As Jesus this scene around him, the bustling and oblivious crowd, it can be hard to believe that all of this began as a promise made between God and Abram who became Abraham. As Abraham complained to God that he had no heirs, no offspring, God made a promise: That Abram’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. A promise made out in the same desert that Jesus has just wandered, has now become the chaotic family turned nation centred together in Jerusalem. And this chaotic group in the centre of human activity, human chaos and messiness, the centre of sin and death… they don’t even notice as the very same God who made that covenant with Abram and Sarai, who walked with their ancestors in the desert is now standing in their midst, Word made flesh, Messiah come to save.

And so Jesus laments… Jesus laments for God’s people. Just as God looked up into the starry night sky with Abram and imagined descendants for Abram… Jesus looks around Jerusalem with the same tender compassion and care. Jesus wants to gather these lost and desperate masses together, just like mother hen gathering her chicks.

And yet, God’s people are unwilling. Unwilling to be gathered, unwilling even to see. To see the Word made flesh walking among them.

Unwillingness is central to the human condition, it is central to how we are in the world. Its is perhaps our most powerful tool and trait. Even cats and foxes, dogs, horses and cows can show great unwillingness. Unwillingness to be moved, unwillingness to obey, unwillingness to be distracted. And with all creation, humanity is the best at saying no, the best at choosing ourselves first. The unwillingness of creation towards God is powerful. We are unwilling to have a God other than ourselves, and therefore unwilling to be loved by the true creator of the universe. As God moves to love us, to be close to us, we push back, we say no, we want to be our own God, we want to be in control.

Unwillingness overtakes us in so many forms. Today, the people of Jerusalem are unwilling. They are unwilling to be see God present before them, to see God casting out demons and performing cures in their midst, just as Jesus says. And their unwillingness will eventually lead them to nail Jesus to the cross.

For us, unwillingness my strike us in different ways. Perhaps it is unwillingness to set aside our rage or grief or distraction. Or maybe our unwillingness to care just a little more for those around us. Perhaps it is the unwillingness to be comforted or consoled, to be vulnerable to a community but instead to choose hatred and violence, to place skin colour above human kinship. Perhaps it is unwillingness to see possibilities and hope for the future, but instead only see with fear a future of loss and destruction.

And our unwillingness, either individual or collective, leads us always to wilderness. Always to the harshest realities, that we are imperfect and flawed people, that our unwillingness leads to death.

158 in Addis Ababa, 50 in Christchurch, 1 in the Red River.

And it is for this unwillingness that Jesus laments. Jesus laments over Jerusalem and he sees see where their unwillingness will lead them. It won’t be long until the people of the holy city are getting ready to lay down their coats and palm branches on the highway. They will shout “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”, the blessing shouted for David and Solomon and for every king of Israel. As Jesus rides in on a donkey, being expected as King, the people want a conqueror. They want the Romans ousted and they want to be powerful as they once were. But the shouts of “Blessed is He” will turn to shouts of “crucify him”.

Jesus knows how the unwillingness of humanity will respond to God. Jesus knows that it won’t be until the third day that people might begin to see, and even then it will not come easily to us. And even with this knowledge that our unwillingness will torture and execute God like a criminal, Jesus longs to gather us in, to gather all people in as mother hen gathers in her chicks. Even as a mother hen protects her children in the face of the fox.

Jesus laments over Jerusalem, longing to protect her from harm, to protect us from ourselves. Jesus laments in Addis Ababa, in Christchurch and on the banks of the Red River. And even there, even in the midst of the harshest examples of human unwillingness. God is gathering us up. Gathering us beneath his wings to protect us with tender care, to love us away from sin and death.

And even as our unwillingness will lead Jesus to the cross,

nailing his hands and feet

with the final blows of our rejection of God.

It will be beneath these outstretched arms,

beneath these the wings of Christ that we are gathered.

Gathered as one creation,

gathered as God’s unwilling children.

And beneath this cross, God begins the work of three days.

The work that is completed, that is revealed to the world on that easter morning.

Yes, today Jesus laments our unwillingness, but today God also gathers and protects us.

Today, in the quietness of Lent, in the middle of bustling and obvious human wilderness, God is gathering. God is gathering us into Christ. Gathering us to be protected from the power of sin and death, the power of our own unwillingness. And while soon we will chant, “Blessed is he who comes…” and then “crucify him”, God will be quietly covering us with his love. Quietly working in the world to bring life from death, quietly reminding us what is truly important despite our unwillingness. Jesus the mother hen stands in front of the fox today, stands in front of death, in order that as God’s little chicks we might know what it is to be beneath God’s open arms, beneath the cross of Christ.


Image source: https://www.wikiart.org/en/stanley-spencer/christ-in-the-wilderness-the-hen

Carrying our burdens up the mountain of Transfiguration

GOSPEL: Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray….35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Read the whole passage)

Today, we come to the end of an unusually long season after Epiphany… Nearly two months ago, a lifetime ago, we gathered with the wisemen around the Christ-child to worship this new king sent to save the people. And in the weeks that followed, the divine Christ was revealed to us in different ways, each time pushing us, making us ready for today. For this journey up the mountain of Transfiguration… because on the mountaintop our Epiphany lingering, our time of sitting with Jesus as he is revealed to us in new ways, will come to an end. On this mountain, Jesus charts a course that puts him on a collision course with our efforts to be like God, to be in control of our own fate.

Transfiguration Sunday is a hinge Sunday, a Sunday that swings us from one part of the story into the next. From the dark of Christmas night, into the bright noonday desert sun of Lent. Transfiguration is that moment where the bright lights are too much to take in and our eyes need some time to adjust.

Things begin innocuously enough down in the valley, where Jesus decides to bring a select few with him to climb a mountain. Peter, James and John… oh, and the rest of us… are chosen to follow Jesus up the mountain. If you have ever had the chance to climb a mountain, you will know that it is not as glamorous as it sounds. It is mostly staring at the ground and the feet of the person in front of you as you tiredly trudge uphill. Once in a while there is a stop or pause to admire a view, but then more trudging.

So after Jesus, Peter, James and John have trudged up their mountain, the disciples are understandably tired, sleepy even. And in their tired and sleepy state all of a sudden, Moses and Elijah appear. The two greatest prophets of Israel. And they standing next to Jesus… but not normal Jesus. Jesus in dazzling white, looking suitably prophet-esque himself.

Now before unpacking what happens next, it is important to know about all the clues we missed up until this point. The religious practice of Israel of the day was centred around the Jerusalem temple and laws of Leviticus. Making sacrifices in the temple and keeping the laws to maintain one’s purity and righteousness was how you stayed in God’s good books. The burden of righteousness of salvation rested on the shoulders of people. And the Jerusalem temple and its priests were the chief judges and gatekeepers of righteousness, making sure that only those who could keep the law and make sacrifices were given righteous status.

But before the levitical laws and Jerusalem temple, there were the prophets of Israel. Messengers appointed by and speaking on behalf of God who brought God’s righteousness and mercy and compassion to God’s people. These prophets were the patriarchs of Israel, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But chiefly Moses and Elijah. And these prophets represented God away from the temple, and apart from the following the law. They often came preaching from the wilderness, they met God on holy mountains, they brought the very voice of God to God’s people.

So as Jesus and his disciples trudge up this mountain, the clues are there. Jesus is not aligning himself with the centre of religious authority, with the temple and its laws. But rather with the prophets of old, those appointed directly by God to represent God to the people.

And there on the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus receives his prophetic appointment, just as Moses and Elijah did. Confirmation that God was sending Jesus, the Messiah, to bring God’s righteousness, God’s love and mercy to God’s people.

And even in this moment Peter cannot escape the burden of keeping the law, the sense that he must do that work of saving himself.

“It is good for us to be here, let us make three dwellings.”

Peter wants to preserve this holy moment and make it a holy place, a place where the faithful can go to earn their righteousness. Peter just cannot imagine a faithfulness that doesn’t include his responsibility to earn his salvation.

And we get it.

We totally get the feeling of this burden.

Even as good Lutherans who know that we cannot earn our own salvation, but rather it is given as gift by grace through faith… We too still act as if the burden of faithfulness is ours.

Our world, and often the church too, conditions us to think that it is our good actions, our gifts of generosity, our ability to be moral and of good character, our prayers and worship, our biblical literacy and theological understanding are the things make us faithful. We fret over our families and communities when they start to show a waning interest in church, will they still be saved? We fear God’s punishment when the pews seem a little emptier than they used to and the budget a littler tighter than we like. We wonder how we have failed God when it is clear that world simply doesn’t care about what Christianity has to say anymore. And we often lap up the advice of experts and gurus of church mission and growth who promise to give us the secrets of successful faithfulness for just a small speakers fee.

So yeah, we totally get Peter’s feeling of being burdened. We would almost certainly want to do the same thing if we were standing on that mountain, we would try to capture the moment for a deposit in our faithfulness bank account.

Yet, before Peter gets too far into his plans for righteousness earning,

God interrupts.

Just as God spoke in Jesus’ Baptism, just as God spoke over the waters of creation, God speaks again.

“This is My Son, My Chosen, listen to him!”

And what is that Jesus has said?

Well, he has NOT told his disciples and the crowds that earning their righteousness comes through keeping the law and making sacrifice at the temple.

In fact, the last time that Jesus said anything before going up this mountain was to predict his death. That he will suffer, be rejected and be killed. And on the third day be raised again.

Jesus has just told his confused disciples that he is coming to meet God’s people, to meet them in the midst of their suffering and rejection. And to die just as they die. Jesus has just told his disciples that he has come to bridge the distance between God and creation, and has come to carry their burdens.

Jesus has come to carry their burden of righteousness earning to the cross.

Jesus has come to carry our burden of faithfulness to the grave.

Jesus has come to carry the burdens of God’s people so that we don’t have to.

This Messiah born in the manger, baptized in the Jordan, who turned water into wine in Cana, who filled the fishing nets on the lake, who preached on the plain… this Jesus, transfigured Prophet of the most high God does not stay on the mountain for an important reason.

God’s prophets are not sent to go up mountains

They are sent to go down.

To bring God down to God’s people.

Jesus the Messiah is coming down the mountain with Peter, James and John… and the rest of us… so that we can know that it is not our burden to earn our righteousness, it is not our burden to be faithful… but that God has come to be our righteousness and our faithfulness for us.

God has always been coming down to meet us and to carry our burdens… even if we are trying to be faithful all on our own.

God comes down to meet us every time we gather as community, no matter how many of us there are.

God comes down to us whether we are in church every week, or have forgotten that church entirely.

God comes to down to us despite our morals or character, regardless of our prayers or biblical literacy.

God comes to meet us in this place and in many more places of worship whether they are full or nearly empty, whether the budget is easy to meet or underwater, whether we follow the mission expert’s steps to success or have no idea where to begin.

God comes to meet us because we are God’s people, weighed down with burdens that only God can carry.

And so God comes to carry them and to carry us.

In God’s Word spoken here, in the waters of God’s cleansing grace, in the bread and wine of mercy, Christ’ body and blood – in all these things, God comes down the mountain to us.

And so on this Transfiguration Sunday, as we also go down the mountain with Jesus, we are reminded God is always on the way down to us.

It is not the things that are #blessed anyways

GOSPEL: Luke 6:17-26

17[Jesus] came down with [the twelve] and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people…
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Today, our journey into this long season of Epiphany comes to an unusual place… the 6th Sunday after the Day of Epiphany. Most years, we are already heading into Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday and Lent by this point, Epiphany is being put into the rear view mirror of the journey into the Lenten wilderness. But because of when the first full moon, happens after the spring equinox (yes, that is how the date of Easter is calculated), we are six weeks into this season with still one more Sunday to go.

And so on this unusual Sunday, we hear a familiar story out of place. The Sermon on the Plain from Luke, also known as the Beatitudes. We often hear the Beatitudes on All Saints Sunday or in the summer… at times when they speak to who we are. But this time after Epiphany is about revealing Christ and who Jesus is, as we have heard in the stories of Jesus’ baptism, the wedding of Cana, Jesus preaching in the synagogue, Jesus almost getting hurled off a cliff after preaching in the synagogue, and Jesus almost sinking Peter’s boat with a net full of fish in the middle of the lake last week. And so with different ears to hear Jesus’ familiar sermon on the plain, they reveal to something unexpected about who and where Jesus the Messiah is in the world.

“Blessed are you who are poor” Jesus begins.

And we immediately begin to conjure up ideas of what it means to be blessed. To have, to obtain, to be given things of value and worth. We believe we are blessed with health, wealth, and happiness. “In the world of social media, one of the ways to communicate is through the use of hashtags, also known as the pound symbol, or the number sign. It’s a way of categorizing posts, so one can look up what other people are saying about a particular topic. One might look up #wpgjets or #mbroads or any number of other topics. As you might imagine, #blessed is pretty popular. On instagram, as of the time of this writing, there were 106 million posts featuring #blessed. It was [just] Valentine’s Day, so most of them were love related – feeling blessed for romantic love, family, friends, chocolate! Or to be the blessing to others by providing something as a sign of one’s love: flowers, cards, food… chocolate! But there were literally a million other things people felt #blessed about. And that’s not even counting all the other social media venues. To be #blessed in almost all of these situations is to have [or to own, or to possess] something, or someone.”

And yet, even as the people of Israel may have treated blessings in this way in daily life, the bible and ritual practice Ancient Israel did not. The thing or person most frequently blessed in the prayers of the Israelites was not themselves, but God. “Blessed are you O, Lord our God, King of the Universe” was a common way to begin a prayer.

And in Christian tradition it is the same, in fact the most familiar prayer of our worship begins this way, “Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed (or Blessed) is your name.”

To bless something is to name it holy. To declare that God is present in something or someone. To say a blessing is simply to say, “God is here.”

And so to hear the beatitudes in this way, changes them.

God is with you who are poor…

God is with you are hungry…

God is with you are weeping…

Yet this understanding of blessing does not change the upside down sense of the beatitudes. To think of being poor, or hungry or weeping as being blessed is strange… but maybe it is even harder to imagine just how it is that God is with those who are suffering.

And isn’t that the problem, no matter how we hear the beatitudes or who they are about. The way in which they turn the world upside down is just hard to grasp.

Every other message that we hear in this world tells the opposite story. Those 106 million instagram posts are probably not showing pictures of poor, hungry and grieving people. And who among us really believes that it would woeful to be rich, to be full – even after Christmas dinner, or to be laughing.

We just cannot escape thinking that blessings are things we can have, posses and own. Things that will fix our problems, make our lives easier, bring us happiness. Things that we have and that others don’t. And to be poor, hungry and weeping in our view is to not have the things.

So what is Jesus getting at? What is “Blessed are you – God is with you – who are poor”, really about?

Well, the clue is in who Jesus is talking to today.

In the other version of the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount version from Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom.”

But here on the plain in Luke, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor.”

Blessed are you.

You.

Jesus is speaking directly to his audience. And he is not philosophizing about some abstract poor. But speaking to us.

Blessed are you. God is with you. I am with you.

You are the poor, you are hungry, you are weeping, you are the hated.

And You… you are also the rich, the full, the laughing, the well-liked.

It is a much richer and broader understanding of these blessing and woes than we might first think.

You might NOT be poor in terms of your bank account, but we are all poor in some way. Maybe poor in relationships, in energy, in community, in time, in health. And we are also all rich… maybe rich in relationships, in energy, in community, in time, in health. And maybe we are both at the same time.

These beatitudes seem to go in a circle. They don’t provides categories or PREscriptions, but rather DEscriptions. They describe the complexity of life, the messiness of it all. Because we are never just one thing or another, we are all these things.

And in the midst of all these things. Poverty and riches, hunger and satisfaction, weeping and laughing, hatred and acclaim… Jesus is there. God is with us.

It is not the things that are blessed anyways.

It is you.

You are blessed. Blessed are you, Jesus says.

Standing there on the plain, looking out and the crowds and his disciples, looking out at the masses, full of complicated and messy people, looking out at a group of people not any different than us… And Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are you.”

Blessed are you, when it is God who is most often blessed.

Blessed are you in the messy, complicated parts of life.

Blessed are you in your poverty and riches, hunger and fullness, weeping and laughing. Because in the midst of all that, you are not alone. God is with you, wherever you are, whatever is happening.

Here in this sixth week after Epiphany, these Beatitudes from Luke speak to us in a new way. They bring us before the Messiah, the Christ, standing on the plain, standing right before us, speaking directly to us. And this Messiah, this Christ tells us something completely different than we hear anywhere else… this Messiah reminds us that our neither our poverty nor our riches are signs of God’s absence or presence. In fact, these things get in our way. When we think God has abandoned us in our want, or that we do not need God in our abundance. Jesus declares that it not these things that tell us where God is among us and what God is doing. Rather, Jesus stands before us and tells us, reveals to us just where God is among us.

And of all the radical things that the Beatitudes seem to proclaim about God’s vision of the world… blessings for things that we don’t see as blessed, woes for things that we usually consider blessings… the most radical thing of all is that none of those things are the most important. The radical thing is that God has come into the world in the flesh of the Messiah, the Christ. That the one whom the wisemen sought, the one for whom the a voice from heaven thundered, the one who turned water in wine, the whom Isaiah was speaking of, the one who filled the empty fishing nets… that this one is here, right here with us, calling us blessed.

Jesus says, blessed are you.