Category Archives: Theology & Culture

Waiting with lamps lit – has Jesus forgotten us?

Luke 12:32-40

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them…(Read the whole passage)

Jesus is still talking to his disciples and the gathered crowds from last week. Last week Jesus told the parable of the absurd rich man who, despite his inherited land, worked by others, and blessed with abundance by God, believed it was his own doing that made himself rich. The rich man who stored up all his wealth only to have his life demanded of him, and all his hoarding be for nothing. Jesus warned his listeners against the dangers of greed and thinking that stuff will save us.

Today, Jesus is continuing the conversation. And while the instructions start out seemingly normal, they get odder and odder as Jesus goes along. He begins by telling his audience not to rely on material possessions, but to give their wealth away. Trust in heavenly riches, in the grace and mercy of God. Sounds good so far.

But then Jesus instructs the disciples and crowds to be prepared. Be ready and on guard. Wait for the return of the master. Stay awake because the master can return at any moment, day or night.

This advice sounds odd to us. And in fact, probably sounded a bit odd to Jesus’ listeners. The people of Israel were waiting for a Messiah, but he wasn’t going to sneak up on them. There would be signs and advance warning.

For us 2000 years later, the hyper vigilance that Jesus was suggesting seems out of place. We have been waiting for a long time, and we are more accustomed to the long view…

So what is Jesus getting at with all this being awake, dressed and ready?

In the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Christian community waited with great anticipation for Jesus’ return. Some didn’t even bother working to feed or clothe themselves because they thought Jesus was about to return any day. Yet 50 years later, as Luke sets out to gather the first hand accounts for his gospel, the Christian community was beginning to wonder what was going on. Was Jesus actually going to come back? They were 2nd and 3rd generation believers, how long were they to wait? How could they keep the community going? What were they supposed to do?

In many ways, we are not that different from that community who would have first read Luke’s gospel. We might not be waiting for Jesus to return in the same way, but often churches today wonder what we are supposed to do now? Those of us who can remember the church 30, 40, 50 years ago, remember worship services with people packed to the rafters. Sunday schools had more kids than could be counted. Pastors sermons were broadcast on the radio. Churches were so so full that you could almost feel Jesus ready to pop the roofs off and say hello.

We look around now, and we feel like Luke’s audience. We have watched as members drift away, as attendance and budgets have shrunk. We have lamented the loss of our young people (which we might have to admit is actually the loss of our own youth as we age). We have searched for the next new thing to make us exciting again. And we have been left asking,

“Has God forgotten about us? What do we do now?”.

The Christian community of Luke’s day struggled with how to go forward, not entirely certain what they were supposed to do. We are in the same boat.

And so we hear Jesus’ words today, and they add insult to injury. Be dressed for action. Stay awake, the master is returning, at any hour. As we dream of our bursting congregations coming back. We think being prepared means becoming again the churches we once were. We will know God has come back when we look like that again.

How wrong we are.

Without even thinking we make things about ourselves. Even in how we read Jesus’ words. Today, Jesus seems to be telling us, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet”.

Yet, the greek says something quite different.

Instead Jesus could be translated this way, “Let your waist be girded about, and the lamps burning.” Let someone else dress you, let the light around you illuminate your world.

The disciples, the crowds… us. We are not the doers of the action. We aren’t doing the verbs. We are the recipients of the action. We are not the ones who get ready, or who prepare the way for Christ’s return. It is the Master who is preparing us. It is Jesus who makes us ready.

Even still, when the master comes it is not the servants who will do the serving, but the Master. Jesus says, “truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them”.

The Master is the one serving, and the servants are being served. Jesus comes back to turn our expectations upside down. Jesus is coming at an unexpected hour and we won’t have made ourselves ready. Jesus is the one making us ready, and still when Jesus comes, he does the serving. Not us. We are the ones being prepared. Being prepared to be served.

Like the first readers of Luke’s gospel, we hear Jesus words today and we imagine that it is our faith that will make Jesus return. We think it was our faithfulness that filled our churches in the past. It wasn’t us.

Today, Jesus tell us that he is making us ready. Jesus is the one doing the serving. And God’s presence is not measured in attendance and offerings. God has always been here, doing the things that God has always done for us.

God shows us the signs each week. God clothes us in baptism with Christ. God feeds us with Christ’s Body and Blood. God makes us into new creations with Christ the Word. God gives us new identities as members of the Body of Christ.

Our preparations have not made God come, and nor has our shrinking made God leave. Rather, God has always been here. Making us ready in Water, Meal and Word. Serving us with the Word and the Bread of everlasting life.

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Prayer is the starting line, not the finish.

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

For every prayer that is offered around the world today, there must be an equal amount of opinions and ideas, rules of thumb and conventions, that tell us how prayer works. As, seek, knock. Ask and keep asking. Seek and keep seeking. Knock and keep knocking. Pray boldly and you will receive. You need more faith to pray. You need to pray more. You need to pray for God’s will. You didn’t pray enough and you were punished with illness, suffering or death. Prayer brings us closer to God. Prayer doesn’t do anything. Prayer is for us, so that we know our needs. God hears the prayers of holy people more, especially pastors. God hears all prayers. God only gives us what we need. God will give you what you ask for. There are three answers to prayer, yes, no and maybe later. Prayer is like meditation. God speaks to us in prayer. You have to pray from the heart, you need to pray with words that have been prayed by the faithful for centuries.

Lost and confused yet?

Prayer is a key aspect of Christian life. We pray together each Sunday, we pray alone. We pray for many things here: for rain and sunshine. For Justice and peace. For those who are ill, who are grieving and in distress.

And still prayer can be a very frustrating aspect of Christian life. We want to know the hows, and the whens and the whys. Prayer carries with such expectation that it has the power to make things happen, and yet… we have prayed for and with those for whom prayers have not been answered. We have all had prayers that are not answered. And it begs us to wonder what use is prayer, and perhaps more painfully, why God does not hear us.

The disciples ask Jesus how to pray. And he gives them a mouthful.

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

It sounds familiar, but not quite. Of course it’s the Lord’s prayer, but not quite the one we remember. There is no earthly will of God mentioned in Luke’s version, but it is an earthy prayer that gives us a foundation. The Lord’s Prayer has grounded Christians for 2000 years. Daily bread, forgiveness of sins and salvation from trial and temptation.

This prayer is so engrained in us that we pray it without needing to think… like breathing. It becomes part of the most basic aspects of our living. It is a prayer that goes with us through life from beginning to end. A prayer prayed at baptisms and prayed at on death beds. A prayer prayed before meals and to end meetings, and each time right before we gather together at God’s table for the meal of bread and wine.

Yet, the disciples surely were not hoping for a prayer like this. They maybe wanted one of the cool ones like Jesus would pray. When Jesus would look to heaven and bread and fish would multiply, or dead children would be raised, or demons would scatter, or the sick, blind and lame would be healed, or when a man who had been a corpse for four days would rise up from a sealed tomb. The disciples, 70 of them, had been just sent out and had been healing and casting out demons in Jesus name. Yet, like us, they probably wanted to control such power, not for it just to happen without really knowing why. They want to know the trick, the formula to prayer.

We want prayer to be the same as rubbing a magic lantern. We hope that prayer can gives us wealth and happiness. We hope that it will save us from harm and heal everyone who is sick. Or at the very least, we all wish that prayer and its effects would be something we can measure simply and easily. But it isn’t… Jesus doesn’t do simple and easy.

(Pause)

With every new tragedy to scroll through facebook feeds and across the tickers on 24 hours news channels, we hear politicians and other leaders stand up and offer ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ for victims and families. Thoughts and prayers are offered so often, that these words feel like an empty phrase. Every time there is yet another horrendous act of violence, thoughts and prayers abound, but nothing seems to change. It makes us wonder, if all this praying is doing anything at all. It makes us wonder if there is a point to praying at all.

When the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, it may seem like they are looking for some angle on power, on the ability to get stuff from God. They might be looking for what so many TV prosperity gospel preachers are offering.

But they might also be more like us and how we feel about prayer. They might be asking Jesus how to pray, because for them, prayer feels empty and powerless.

And so Jesus offers them a place to start, a beginning. Jesus give the disciples instructions on how to achieve great things in prayer, but how to start and begin.

Daily Bread, Forgiveness, Salvation from Trial.

God’s Kingdom come.

Jesus shows them that prayer doesn’t achieve the results but begins the process.

Praying for Daily Bread doesn’t feed all who are hungry.

Praying for Forgiveness doesn’t reconcile all peoples.

Praying for salvation in times of trial, doesn’t alleviate all suffering and pain.

Praying begins those things. Prayer is the starting place.

To put it another away, what would it look like if we didn’t pray for the world, the church and those in need.

How many refugees or migrants would ever find welcome if we didn’t pray for displaced persons week after week? None. Yet as pray for those without homes and displaced week after week, it is often people and communities of faith leading the way in sponsoring refugees, welcoming displaced persons at borders, offering shelter and compassion.

How many congregations would run food banks, serve at soup kitchens or offer meal programs if we didn’t pray for the hungry week after week? None! Yet, as we pray for daily bread, churches and people of faith have been the primary feet on the ground for feeding the hungry for years, decades, centuries!

Would we will be able to offer forgiveness if we didn’t pray that God would help us forgive? No we wouldn’t. Yet, as we ask for forgiveness, God shows us how to give forgiveness.

Where would we turn in times of trial, if we didn’t pray that God would save us week after week? We don’t know. Yet, as we pray that God would deliver us, God reminds us that we do not face the trials of our world on our own, but together as the Body of Christ.

Prayer is the beginning. In Prayer God reveals to us all the places where God’s Kingdom comes into world. In prayer, when we pray for daily bread, for forgiveness, for salvation from time of trial, we see that God’s Kingdom is breaking into the world with food for the hungry, with mercy and forgiveness for sinners like us, with salvation for those suffering under the shadow of death.

But even more than that, God gives us a way to speak about the needs of the world in prayer. God gives us words in prayer to speak about the hungry, the poor, the suffering, the dying without it sound like a depressing news report. Instead, prayer allows us to see where God is already at work meeting the needs of the world, and God gives us words to express this reality in prayer.

Prayer is a starting place, when we so often treat it like the end point. Prayer helps us to see where God is at work in the world, where God’s Kingdom is coming. Prayer helps give us the language to talk about the needs of the world without being overwhelmed and depressed by the brokenness of it all.

And so when we wonder with the disciples about whether prayer has any meaning or purpose, Jesus shows us that prayer is the starting place. The starting place to see God in our world. When another politician or leader or Facebook post offers “Thoughts and prayers” for something and we wonder if that does anything to help… Jesus shows us how to begin in prayer, how to begin with daily bread, with forgiveness and salvation from trial.

Jesus shows us that in prayer God’s Kingdom begins to come.

Amen.

A Pentecost Moment for an Easter Community

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Read the whole passage)

After seven weeks of celebrating the season of Resurrection, seven weeks since we gathered with the women at the empty tomb on Easter morning, we have come to the next climactic moment of the church year – Pentecost Sunday. Today, the spirit comes unexpectedly and surprisingly into the gathering of disciples, and sets them on fire with the gospel in dramatic fashion. Tongues of fire, impromptu sermons, intrigued crowds and many baptisms. The Pentecost story is one that we would love to see and experience more often in our congregations and worship services.

Yet, Pentecost is a day to which we have an odd relationship as modern Christians – as Lutherans gathering together for a Barbecue on the plains of Manitoba in 2019.

Pentecost comes from Greek meaning the 50th. The 50th day from Passover, seven weeks after Easter. Pentecost is one of the major church festivals, along with Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and All Saints.

However, Pentecost usually comes and goes without the same in of fanfare are Christmas or Easter, instead it is maybe a convenient day for confirmations or recognitions of graduates… a Sunday that moves us from Easter in spring to green summer Sundays.

There is something about the Pentecost story though, something that resonates deep within us. There is something about the excitement and drama that also makes us want to look back with feelings of nostalgia, with feelings of loss and grief even.

This small little group of disciples that are one day thrust out into the public square, out of hiding into plain sight. And all of sudden the wind of the spirit blows through, igniting the interest of the entire city of Jerusalem. And the crowds just come – effortlessly. Residents of Jerusalem from all over the world. Peter begins preaching, catching the attention of all. The becomes an unplanned worship service. 3000 people are baptized. It is chaotic, but it is exciting. The crowds have come to church. Our shared ministry service here is almost like a recreation of that Pentecost story, a way for us come together with worship and some BBQ fire to recreate the drama.

But here is the rub, if we are honest, the crowds aren’t showing up most Sundays no matter what we do to recapture the moment… it isn’t easy and normal for people to just show up to church anymore. And it is a lot of work to keep the folks we have, a lot of work to keep coming ourselves. Church today is not effortless like it seemed to be on Pentecost.

But it feels like church once that effortless, or our memories of it are. We can look around most Sundays and remember the faces that once sat in empty spots. We can remember the days when many hands made for light work, when it was easy to put on a potluck or Sunday School picnic or congregational event. We can remember the hoards of kid running around church basements or playing outside during congregational meetings.

And maybe most of all we remember the Pentecost energy. We long for that energy, that Pentecost fire to come and wake our communities up. If only we could find that again.

Because we can see still that the world can get caught up in Pentecost-like moments. We can see it in Jets or Raptors playoff games. We saw it in the spontaneous crowds gathering to sing and pray even as Notre Dame cathedral was burning. We see it in the youth walking out of school and striking for climate change. We can see it in the parades for Pride month, in the crowds that will descend on Birds Hill Park for folk fest, in the spontaneous vigil crowds that seem to come with each new mass shooting, in the crowds protesting politicians and greeting royal babies. We can glimpse what seems like Pentecost energy and drama in the news, on social media, in our communities… often seemingly out of the reach of faith communities and churches.

And we also see how fleeting it all is, how interest and drama comes and goes in the blink of an eye.

And so we wonder how to find it again… if we will ever experience it again in our congregations, in our communities of faith. Will church ever have that effortless energy again?

Of course, as usual, there is more to the story.

It easy to think of the crowds and excitement.

But Pentecost was scary and confusing. It was dangerous and momentary.

It easy to forget just how terrifying those 50 days leading up to Pentecost were for the followers of Jesus. The women had come back from the empty tomb on Easter. Jesus had appeared in the locked room twice. And Jesus served breakfast on the beach only to point that Peter was unable to answer Jesus’ questions with the self-giving love that Jesus hoped for. The disciples were hiding, and fearful and confused about what came next for them. Nothing seemed to be in their control.

But then all of a sudden they were thrust into the streets, out from hiding into public view, from the closed circle of Jesus’ friends to being revealed to Jews and Gentiles alike. And even though it was chaotic, they somehow managed to gab hold of some control. Some how they managed to get organized enough to baptize 3000 people.

It is easy for us to forget how fleeting it was. St. Paul wrote to small churches. To communities of 15 or 25 people. To small groups of disciples wondering how to become the church of Jesus’ followers, waiting for Jesus to return and save them from the struggle.

And in fact, the church over the course of the past 2000 years has more often than not looked like those first disciples hiding away not sure of what to do next after the resurrection. The church has been those small communities of the faithful navigating the day to day of minisry and life in amongst the strange and chaotic world around them.

The drama and excitement, the crowds of Pentecost did not become the norm. It was only momentary. Pentecost is not the model for being church in the world.

The model has always been Easter.

The spirit’s coming was for an Easter community. The tongues of fire and the crowds and baptisms were all for the sake of the gospel, all to help the disciples tell again the Easter story. To tell the world around them the good news of resurrection, of New Life coming into the world of sin and death.

And yes, Easter is confusing. It is about empty tombs, and unbelievable stories, and Jesus showing up where we least expect him and messing with us in ways we cannot comprehend. Easter is about recognizing that we have no control over what God is up to in the world, that Jesus is ushering in new life and we are along for the ride.

The disciples, the faithful, the Church is an Easter church given a Pentecost moment. We are not a Pentecost community given an Easter moment.

Easter defines us, Easter claims us, death and resurrection creates us anew.

It is the Easter story that we tell every week, every time we gather, every time we confess our faith, we hear the Word, we gather at font and table.

And Pentecost is the Spirit’s way of pointing us back there again, of reminding us that new life comes in surprising and unexpected ways.

Pentecost is God’s way of breathing life into the Church and giving us glimpse of the new life the Gospel brings.

And yet, we remain Easter people. Even as most of the time it isn’t Pentecost, and life and ministry isn’t full of the dramatic and unexpected. Even if the crowds and energy are fleeting. Even if we feel more like those little churches of 15 or 25 that Paul was writing to instead of the 3000 that Peter was preaching to.

Even when it isn’t Pentecost, it is still Easter.

Because with Easter there is always forgiveness of sins, healing and hope for the suffering, life for the dying, resurrection for the dead. There is always the Word and Water, Bread and Wine that tie us again to the mystery of faith that Christ has died, Christ has Risen, Christ will come again.

And so this Pentecost Sunday is not the destination of we have been headed to for the past 50 days, but a reminder of who God has made us to be – Easter People brought to New Life in Christ.

Doing ministry when the plan doesn’t come together

GOSPEL: John 17:20-26

Jesus prayed:] 20“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. …

25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (Read the whole passage)

Today is the last Sunday in the season of Easter. Seven weeks of celebrating and hearing of the Alleluias of the Resurrection. Yet, we do not leave Easter behind today. Rather, each Sunday is like a new mini-Easter, a new extension of God’s future given to us in the resurrection of Christ.

Therefore, as we prepare to move on to Pentecost next week, and into the long season of green after that, we go with our forebears in faith as a community shaped and formed by the seven week long, great day of the resurrection.

Throughout this season of Easter, we have been moved from the immediacy of the resurrection to the shaping and forming of the disciples into the early christian community. We have heard again how they were and we are being prepared to the body of Christ in the world. And with all of it coming to a head on Pentecost next week, as we mark the birth of the church.

But before we get there, we are left with two seemingly contrasting stories about where the early followers of Jesus were headed.

In one, we are silent eavesdroppers on a conversation, a prayer between God the Father and Christ the Son. In it Jesus commends this little band of misfits, outsiders and the least likely leaders to his father. And what comes from this handing over is a promise that this community of Christ’s followers are not left alone, and that those who belong to Christ are brought into the life of the Trinity, into the mission and activity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And then in the other story, we see the unfolding and surprising ministry of Paul and Silas as they go about the Greek world. As the two make their way to Phillipi with the intention of ministering to the fledging community there, they are interrupted by a slave girl who has been given the gift of divination.

The slave girl and her interruptions soon become an annoyance to Paul… and so he decides to cast out the spirit possessing her. This gets Paul into trouble, and the slave girl’s owners set to Paul and Silas to beat them and have them thrown in prison because they have just lost their lucrative source of income.

Once in prison Paul and Silas set about a new ministry to the prisoners only to have that interrupted by an earthquake and then a fearful guard contemplating taking his own life, whom Paul must again change course and do something about.

While maybe not obvious at first, the contrast between the two stories is striking. In one Jesus promises divine providence for the community of his followers. In the other, every plan for ministry that Paul has goes off the rails because of interruptions rooted in tragedy and suffering.

Somewhere between the promise that God will always go with us as the Church, as God’s hands and feet for mission, and the reality of how ministry is experienced in practice seem to diverge quite a bit.

On some level we know what Paul and Silas were experiencing. We too tend to have certain visions for ministry. We bear expectations for what church, for what our community faith, should look like. And yet, we also know what it is like when those expectations and visions aren’t realized. We know what it is to have our visions for church interrupted by the wrong kind of people, to have suffering and tragedy interrupt our plans.

It may be forest fires or the new of another mass shooting or governments unable to make trade deals that affect the daily lives of citizens or the crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women happening right on our door steps being labeled a genocide that keep us from being focused on the particular mission and formation of our community of the faithful.

It may be the struggles of balancing work, family life, young children, aging parents, retirement planning, declining health or other things of life that keep us from putting the time, energy and effort into practicing our faith that thought we would.

It might be the realities of tight budgets, tired volunteers, and a past that seems better than the future, expenses that keep going up and dollars that didn’t go as far as they used to that keep us from looking forward with hope and believing that God has good things in mind for us.

It might be a world that changes and moves on from one thing to the next so fast that our heads keep spinning, societal values and norms that seem to shift every day, new people with new identities that we aren’t sure how to navigate showing up and being part of the world in ways we struggle to understand.

Our visions and expectations for ministry are so easily interrupted these days, and along with brothers and sisters in faith here in the pews, across Winnipeg and Manitoba, across Canada and North America we don’t know what to do about it.

Paul didn’t know what do either… and maybe that is the point.

There is of course an interesting thing about the story of Paul and Silas: while they were being interrupted by the slave girl, she was telling everyone that these two men knew about salvation. And while Paul acted out of annoyance, he freed a suffering girl from possession. And while Paul was busy trying to minister to the other prisoners while in prison, it was the jailer who needed to hear the good news.

Even in the midst of some of the worst things imaginable, some of the worst suffering – slavery, exploitation, violence and false imprisonment – the gospel found a way through. Even though it was not what Paul was expecting, even though it wasn’t even according to plan B or C or D… the gospel broke into the world precisely in the midst of the interruptions of human suffering.

It is not say that the good news only comes when there is bad stuff happening, but rather than in the midst of the mess and chaos of human life, the gospel has no problem breaking in. And the gospel doesn’t need our plans to be realized to be preached and to be heard.

In fact, our plans seem to have relatively little to do with where the good news of Jesus who died and rose again for us is made known.

Paul had one idea for Philippi, but God had another.

And just maybe that is the promise that Jesus is talking about with the Father. Not a promise that our visions and expectations will be realized, but a promise that in the midst of the real messiness and chaos of the world, the gospel will break through and break in.

It all fits of course, with a God who chose to be born in a manger in forgotten Bethlehem in order come into human life. With a god who chose to wander around the backwoods of the Roman Empire with a bunch of fishermen and tax collector in order preach the news of God’s love and mercy for all people. With a God who made execution on a cross at the hands of the best religious and political leaders that humanity had to offer the moment of our redemption along all creation.

The good news of this upside down, unexpected God found in Jesus wouldn’t make sense if it could only be preached when all the plans come together, when all the visions are realized, when all the expectations are met. The good news of this Jesus makes perfect sense preached in the midst of our plans gone wrong addressing the realty of our suffering world.

Jesus’s promise that suffering and death isn’t the end makes sense when it comes to us in the midst of fires and shootings and community crisis and economic struggle.

God’s naming and claiming as God’s own in the waters of baptism reminds us of who we are as we navigate the struggles of daily life, of family, work, community, health, retirement and on and on.

Christ’s presence among us in the Body of Christ remains the same even as congregations struggle to keep up with this shifting and changing world.

The forgiveness and mercy of God help us to change and grow, even as we don’t always understand the people and things around us and how to adapt to them.

The good news of this Jesus makes perfect sense preached in the midst of this community of misfits and outsiders called the body of Christ, it makes prefect sense that it comes to us in Word, Water, Bread and Wine shared here in our imperfect, messy, and chaotic community of faith.

And so, on this last Sunday of Easter, we hear two seemingly contradictory stories that fit perfectly together. That remind us that God always comes in our imperfections and plan Fs and struggling messy moments of suffering and surprise… because that is where we are.

Because where we are is where God in Christ breaks through in order to find us, in order to tell us again of God’s promise of New life for us.

Closing 9000 churches in Canada – Why decline might still be a good thing in 2019

I have been writing about decline for a good while now… as a Millennial and a Pastor, the entirety of my life has been in a “declining” church. Church buildings that greatly outsize worship attendance, mostly grey-haired people sitting in the pews, budgets that are strained and a whole lot of grief about what we once were and anxiety about the future.

And yet, the deeper we get into this era of decline the more complicated the situation becomes. Or perhaps better said, the more aware of how complicated this situation is we become.

Still, the narrative we often tell is that the people have drifted away from church for a number of shallow reasons like laziness, sports, shopping, and a general lack of commitment.

Just this week, there was a CBC news article about the impending closure of 9000 church buildings in Canada over the coming decade.

Sounds very ominous.

The article interviews a representative of Faith and Common Good, a group working to preserve historic buildings in general. At one point the interviewee says,

“If you follow the statscan data you can see that since the late 1970s, early 1980s less and less Canadians attended faith services. I think, to some extent, that also has to do with the way families have changed. They’re off at hockey and soccer and this and that and it’s harder to have a set Sunday date to go somewhere. So, that happened slowly and then suddenly the congregation, there were very few of them and they were quite elderly and the amount of money they could contribute to the plate couldn’t keep up these often very large and historic spaces.”

I think that this situation is a lot more complex than this interviewee describes.

And honestly, I think this is a shallow and misleading narrative. Hockey and soccer are not responsible for keeping people away from church. Church attendance did decline in the 80s and 90s as immigration from European countries dropped. However it has since stabilized in the 2000s according to Reginald Bibby, Canada’s sociologist of religion.

It is also true that as the bulk of Canada’s current immigration from Asia and Africa is bolstering mainly Catholic and Pentecostal groups. The mainline in many cases continues to slowly decline, more or less depending on which denomination you look at.

But a significant piece of this “decline” that is rarely mentioned by anyone but Bibby is that it wasn’t until the 90s that the census allowed people to choose ‘no affiliation’ in the religion section. So lots of people were filling out censuses and checking off a box of religious membership despite rarely or never having been to church. The precipitous decline of the 90s was mostly about more accurate information.

The accompanying narrative about decline is usually that churches are mostly older members now, which implies young people not coming. And yes, it is true that attendance has declined through successive generations. But there are some real demographic realities in Canada that need to be acknowledged when it comes to current church demographics. In the 60s, families had 4.2 kids. Today the average Canadian family has 1.6 kids. And Canada has gotten older. In the 60s, the first baby boomers where leaving childhood for adolescence. Today, 50% of us are over 50 with all the baby boomers falling into that category.

So what does this mean for churches?

For every young family of four (2 adults, 2 kids) like mine, there will be two empty-nester households (4 older adults). Two grey-haired families for every young family. Expand that to the whole congregation, it means the best demographic you can hope for is 2/3 of your congregation will be “grey haired” households. The congregation that I serve is pretty close to that demographic spread. Of course, some churches out there are indeed trending towards mostly grey haired folks and that is problematic.

But the point is, all the young people that we often imagine not coming to church anymore are not who we think they are. In fact, all those young people we remember that used to come to church are actually the grey-haired family units coming now, and the new young people to replace them were never born – they literally don’t exist.

And the last demographic reality faced by churches these days, and the one that probably most accounts for the prospect of closing 9000 churches in the next few years, is the rural to urban demographic shift. Canada’s population has been shifting from the rural setting to the Urban one for decades. Churches in rural communities are closing at an alarming rate, but so are schools, hospitals, banks, grocery stores and on and on. Rural communities are losing people to support most of their local institutions, not just their churches. Rural depopulation is also coupled with people being as mobile as ever — many rural people are shopping, seeing doctors, going to school and to church by driving into urban settings.

Okay… so that is a lot of factors and complications added to the picture of the institutional decline of Christianity in Canada and by extension the United States. Clearly this is NOT about hockey and soccer being more appealing activities on Sunday mornings.

So what is it about?

Well, I think there are a few things that those of us who are trying to understand decline and continue to be church in the 21st century need to keep in mind.

1.We need to stop seeing the exception as the norm.

The current “shrunken” state of the church is far closer to the norm of Christianity over time than the bursting full churches of the middle 20th century. Rather than asking how we got here, we need to be asking what happened that caused such widespread church attendance in 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

2. We need to admit that the full pews did not translate in to widespread discipleship and faithfulness.

There was (and still is for many older people) a significant social and cultural aspect to attending church 50 years ago. Many societal norms simply slotted people into church during the golden age of attendance. Being a citizen of Canada or the United States also made one a Christian during that time. You had to be a good church going person to do business, to have a community, to get married and have a family, to navigate many day-to-day interactions in most communities. People came to church because of social advantages and social pressure.

But did they come to church because believing in Jesus and being a disciple was important? The answer has to be that for many the faith and discipleship aspect of going to church was not a significant factor.

3. We need to admit that before we can be healthy again, we need to shed our attachment to cultural and social Christianity.

While there is a lot of grief about decline and a sense of loss of what churches once were, there are also important truths to hold on to. By now, most people consistently showing up to church on Sunday morning are there because faithfulness and discipleship is important. Following Jesus and hearing again the Good News of God’s love, mercy forgiveness and promise of new life is why people are there. Sure some are stubbornly holding onto social/cultural Christianity, but I think most people in the pews most Sundays are present because the Holy Spirit has brought them in faith. We are becoming communities gathered around faith, rather than around societal expectation.

Decline is still all the rage in 2019, as evidenced by secular news articles about closing church buildings that emphasize their importance to secular communities. Yet, I am not sure decline is such a bad thing for Christianity. It is a common state of existence over our 2000 year history. It is a difficult adjustment but also a call to change, to find news ways to preach the gospel and encouraged faith in a 21st century world.

Decline is shedding baggage that we need to rid ourselves of… because cultural-social Christianity is not about the gospel nor about helping people grow in faith and discipleship. Yet a Church free from adherence to the norms and expectations around it is a Church free to proclaim the radical grace and mercy of God, free to proclaim the God of New Life and Resurrection to a world hellbent on dying.

And isn’t that not just a good thing, but the most important thing?

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.

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.