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And the Word Became Flesh -A Christmas Story

John 1:1-14

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (Read the Whole Christmas Gospel)

Sermon

And the Word became flesh.

This morning, on this feast of the nativity, we have made a long journey to be here.

Through the dark places, searching for the light. We have journeyed through Advent. We draped our sanctuary and our selves in the deep and rich blues of Advent, we let our eyes adjust to the dark until the distant starlight began to peek through the darkness. Our Advent waiting and wondering led to this moment of celebration at the birth of Christ.

We began 5 weeks ago with Jesus announcing the end of time, imploring us to Keep Awake. To open our eyes to the world around us.

We continued on with John the Baptist, who was preaching in the dark wilderness to “Prepare the way of the Lord,” the Lord who will come to straighten our crooked paths.

We then followed John to prison, to the dark night of the soul, wondering if all these promises of the Messiah were in fact true.

And finally, last week, we heard the announcement. Mary would bear a child named Jesus. And our darkness, the darkness of the entire cosmos was placed in contrast to the tiny baby growing in one young woman’s womb… and we wondered if this indeed was God’s plan to push the darkness back and keep it at bay. To bring light, THE LIGHT of GOD, into the world through a tiny baby born to insignificant people in a forgotten corner of the world.

And then last night, we walked with Joseph and Mary across country, to the town of David called Bethlehem. We submitted to the Emporer’s decree to be registered, we were denied a place to rest our heads, we squatted like refugees in animal barns, we heard the angels with the outcasts and we found out that God was indeed born into our dark world, bringing real light.

We also discovered, that this 2000 year old story is a story for 2016. That if Jesus was born into a world full of darkness back then, one where tyrants ruled, soldiers killed, people lived in fear, that certainly the darkness of our world is not too much for God. That Jesus does come into our darkness too. Messiah is born today, just as 2000 years ago.

But today, the Gospel of John pulls us back from the details of the story. John gives us the Christmas story again, but without shepherds and angels, barns and journeys, without even Mary or Jospeh.

John takes us to the heart, to the meat of the story.

And the word became flesh.

John’s story of incarnation is hardly one we could reproduce with a Sunday School pageant. John expects that we can separate the details of the story from the meaning of the story. What does it mean that the God of all creation has chosen to become incarnate?

Incarnation is one of those churchy words that pastors tend use, but that actually has a very earthy meaning.

The flower with a similar name, carnation, gets its name from its fleshy colour.

Carnivale, the South American Mardi Gras festival is related to incarnation too. The great festival where you eat all the meat in the house before fasting during lent.

And carnivore, the scientific word for meat eater.

Carne means meat.

So that church word incarnation literally means”to take on meat.”

And the Word became flesh.

The birth of Christ is the moment when God puts on the meat of humanity, the flesh of our bodies. If you want to know what God looks like, look at the people around you, look at their skin and eyes and hair. When Mary and Joseph and those Shepherds looked into the eyes, of the christ child, they would have seen there all of humanity contained in flesh.

When the disciples and the crowds heard his voice, they would have heard the voice of the God.

When the lepers and the lame and blind were touched and healed by Jesus, they would have felt the touch of God.

When the soldiers nailed feet and hands to a cross, they would have pierced the Body of Christ.

But putting on our meat isn’t just about our physical bodies.

The incarnation is also how God puts on the flesh of our humanity. The darkness of sin and suffering and death. The flesh of the human condition, of limited, fragile creation. God takes on what it means to be human, to be created, to be us.

John’s Christmas story omits all the details that we tend to think the story is all about in order to bring us to heart or the meat of the matter. God has taken on our flesh in order to bridge the unbridgeable gap between God and a fallen, broken creation. God has become one of us in order to come near to all of us.

Sure, John’s version of the Christmas story might be missing a few of the familiar parts of the story, but fleshiness of the story, of the incarnation reminds us that of all the Christmas traditions we hold this time of year, the most true of them all is the one carry on with week after week. In the Eucharist as we share in bread and wine, we partake in God’s fleshiness. And we are reminded again and again that God takes on our flesh AND we take on God’s. That God’s light and life comes near to us again and again. Given and shed for us.

And as God comes near, as God becomes incarnate, God begins to reveal the light that has been missing from our world. We begin to see just how pervasive the darkness was. We begin to see that even the smallest bit of real light coming into life through a young woman giving birth in a barn is more light than we can handle. We begin to see that God comes and comes in small space, because even the smallest light pushes the darkness away, but the darkness can never diminish even the smallest amount of light.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

As we began in Advent seeing the dark places of the world, making our way from the end of the world backwards to the beginning, to the announcement of the coming Messiah, to going with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and with angels to shepherds, John tells us that our destination was here. Here with the Word in the beginning. Christmas is where God begins creation anew.

Christmas begins all things new, because the darkness of sin and death will no longer have hold over us. Because the old order of things has ended, and now the Christ born into flesh has come today.

Christmas according to John might not have all the details we think are normally part of the story, but John does take us to the heart, to the meat of the matter. John strips the details back to open ears to hear, our eyes to see, our hearts to know that this story of a babe being born to virgin in a stable in Bethelhem, is the story of God coming into our world, coming in order to be near to us again.

Hear John’s final line in the Christmas story once more:

Today, the Word becomes flesh and lives among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Amen.

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Want Millennials to come to church? Let them lead it. 

Life has been getting busy,  so to my readers, I appreciate your patience this summer as the posts have been fewer and far between. But now onto the meat and potatoes.

alberta-prairies-616Yesterday, as my wife Courtenay and I drove across country, our conversation turned to leadership issues in the church. (Before having our son, as two pastors we talked about church too much. Now church conversations are a welcome relief from poop conversations.)

We are both Millennials serving in a predominantly boomer and older church. Most of our colleagues are boomers and, definitely, our parishioners are boomers or older. This generational and experiential difference often makes for interesting dynamics.

I have had parishioners who remember riding a horse and buggy to church. I had a cell phone in high school. I have worked with colleagues who spent hours making bulletins on Gestetners. I have spent hours formatting bulletins on a MacBook and printing them on an all-in-one fax/copier/scanner. In each of my three parishes, there have been reams of paper files waiting for me in my new offices. I left memory sticks for my successors.

But it isn’t just technological differences. I have often found myself having tea with little old ladies or doing marriage counselling with people old enough to be my parents. I have been at odds with people who have 1950s expectations of pastors, like putting the church ahead of my family or trolling the countryside looking for people to visit. And I am pastor who has 2010s expectations of parishioners, like that we all know  how to read emails or send texts and we all understand that society is not going to make Christians for us with school prayer, legislated Christian holidays and national endorsement of our religion.

image source -http://sharperiron.org/filings/8-1-13/28027
image source -http://sharperiron.org/filings/8-1-13/28027

Being a young pastor means that I regularly hear this statement from my boomer and older parishioners:

Pastor, we need to get the young people back

My cynical mind adds, “so they can give money and serve on council.”

But in my more empathetic moments, I realize that this statement carries a lot of grief. Most of the boomer, silent generation and G.I. generation folks experienced a church where they were surrounded by their peers from cradle onward. They not only want their kids and grandkids to be at church, but they want them to have friends their own age at church.

I am always surprised that while I am told that we need to get the young people back, I am rarely asked why I stayed as young person. In my experience of church, there have hardly ever been other people my age around. I have never really been a pastor to my peers, only to people more like my parents or grandparents.

I struggle with the idea of getting the young people back. What are we getting them back to?

I am an ordained pastor, trained to work in the church and at times it feels like an alien world, an anachronistic place that doesn’t always have room for me.  And no, it isn’t the ancient liturgy or hymns that feel weird, it is the unspoken expectations of the 1950s that hang in the air.

I don’t think many church people realize that my generation has never prayed the Lord’s Prayer in school, we have always heard happy holidays in stores, christianity has never been the majority religion of our age group, the pastor has never dropped in on us for supper, shopping has always been allowed on Sundays, pastors have never preached on the radio, and church attendance has never been a social obligation for us

mad-men-1024x768When I talk to my friends about church, I can explain the ancient ritual, the dogma and doctrine. But I am at loss most times to explain the grieving of so many church goers who are longing for a world was a little more Mad Men and a little less Breaking Bad. We Millennials love both shows (and we would love to dress like Mad Men), but we live in a Breaking Bad world. The 1960s world of Mad Men exists only in fiction to us, it is not part of our experience as it is for older generations.

I don’t have the solution for bridging the Boomer/Silent Generation church with the Millennial world of my peers, but I do have a suspicion.

It will need to start at the top.

Or rather with leadership.

It won’t work to grieve Millennials back into the church, which seems to be one predominant strategy. Nor will it work to lure us back with advertising and flashy worship or hip programs.

If the church wants Millennials to engage, the church needs to invite Millennials to lead. The reason that 1950s expectations still exist is because the church back then was built by the young G.I. generation. That generation had learned to lead through World War II, and went on to built nations together in the 50s. At my age, my grandfather was a pastor planting churches, serving on leadership committees and stepping to a leadership role in the greater church. His generation was permitted to shape the church as young people. The G.I. generation also held onto leadership for nearly 40 years, in society as well as the church. They held onto the US presidency from JFK to the first George Bush. Boomers were kept out of leadership, and so they were truly the first generation to begin leaving the church.

Now that Boomers have finally entered into leadership positions near the end of their careers, Gen Xers and Millennials have been left on the sidelines when it comes to shaping the world and shaping the church.

So how do we begin opening up leadership to include younger generations? Well, first off I know what involving young people doesn’t look like.

Often church people have a habit of mistaking leadership for being put on display. Leadership is not asking that young pastor to “speak” to the youth, or serve on a larger church youth or campus ministry committee, or preach a sermon at a convention. And leadership is not tokenism. Having a 20 or 30 something on the national governing board of the church is not leadership either.

Leadership is forming and shaping the way we do things. It is presenting a vision for a community. It is articulating our communal identity. Millennials cannot be tokens held up as examples of young people still in the church. Beaming with pride for the nice sermon by the young pastor at a church conference is the same as clapping for the 4 year old dressed like a sheep in the Christmas pageant.

shutterstock_92015645Inviting Millennials to engage will mean church people must be prepared  to be shaped and formed by the young people they so desperately want back. It means allowing the dreams of the younger generation to become reality, instead of being something they have sit on until later in life.

Getting Millennials to come (back) to church will mean allowing the church to belong to us and the 21st Century. The Church cannot continue grieving for the lost 1950s.

So next time I hear someone say to me,

“Pastor, we need the young people to come back to church”

I think I will respond,

“Are you ready to let the young people be in charge?”

We will see how this goes…


 

Is the church ready for Millennials in leadership? Will Millennials step up? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t get prayer

20130716-215908.jpgThat may be an odd thing for a pastor to say.

In a couple weeks, the lectionary appointed Gospel lesson will be Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, and it has got me thinking about prayer. Now, maybe I should be more specific when I say, “I don’t get prayer”. Because I am am a pastor and I do pray a lot. And I get prayer in worship, at meal times, to open meetings, prayer with the sick and dying, with those who grieving, with those who are celebrating.

So what was my problem again?

Well, my problem is with a specific kind of prayer.

I don’t get prayer as practiced by most Christians these days, especially evangelicals. The kind of prayer that is extemporaneous, rambling, telling God to do things, prayer that all about emotion and experience, preferably euphoria. Something like this:

The prayer that so many are trying to practice is the prayer of results. There seems to be this sense in North American Christianity, that prayer can get you stuff. And yes, Jesus does say something to that effect, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

Yet, Jesus was speaking to 1st Century Jews who were fearful of God, and for whom prayer was very prescribed and formal. Jesus encouraging a very restricted audience to broaden their prayer horizon. He was NOT speaking to North Americans who are accustomed to getting everything and having what they want. He was not providing prayer as means to get the things, the outcomes, the results that we want.

So I don’t get prayer as so many of us do it today.

To me prayer is a space set aside to be mindful of the divine. It is an experience of the sacred. It is a chance let go of those things that we cannot control, instead of demanding God provide the outcomes that we want for things that are out of our control.

Prayer is acknowledging that God holds all of creation in God’s self, that God holds on all of my stuff, my issues, my problems. Yet, I don’t get to tell God what to do with them.

So… maybe I do get prayer… just not North American Christianity.

Writing Again

writing again Writing seems to be such a finicky exercise. I haven’t felt the “need” to put thoughts down, like I have been lately, for quite some time. Years you might even say. I haven’t stopped preaching, or writing reports, or newsletter articles or other things. I just haven’t blogged in a serious way for quite some time.
This blog was initially started a place to post my sermons, but I think I will start adding other things I write. We will see how it goes.