Could decline be a good thing for Christianity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God just may be telling us to stop. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Not THE Transfiguration Story, but A Transfiguration Story

John 9:1-41 *

 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. (read the whole passage)

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Transfiguration Sunday is a day that swings us from the revelation of Epiphany to Lent and preparation. We go up the mountain to find God revealed to us on the mountain top and Jesus carries us down into the valley of Lent. Transfiguration is a moment that allows us to glimpse the way ahead before the journey begins, to see out into the valley of Lent, to landmark Holy Week as our next destination, and remind ourselves that Easter is just over the next hill – even if that hill is Golgatha.

Now today, we didn’t actually hear the familiar transfiguration story. The one where Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain, and then is transformed into dazzling white. Elijah and Moses show up, and Peter wants to build an altar. But then God’s intervenes, just like at Jesus’ baptism, and tells everyone gathered that Jesus is God’s beloved son. And then Jesus is back to normal, tells everyone to keep quiet about what they saw and they all head back down the mountain.

So instead of Transfiguration, we heard a story about Jesus encountering a Blind Man and restoring his sight. A story that follows the stories of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman that we heard in the past couple weeks.

Yet, this story of the Blind man might not be THE Transfiguration story, but you could say it is A story of Transfiguration.

As Jesus and his disciples are walking along, they encounter a blind man, and in order to make a point, Jesus heals blind man’s sight. And then Jesus moves on.

The blind man however, begins an extended encounter with the incredulous community around him. At first people don’t even recognize him, they just cannot wrap their brains around this changed man. Still, once they accept it is the man, they have trouble accepting that this change in him in a good thing. They put him on trial, they want to know who has done this thing that has upset their whole community. They want to know how a sinner like him can now see.

Still not being satisfied with the blind man’s answers, they ask his parents. But they are no help.

So they ask the man who had been blind once again, this time the Pharisees and community leaders are beginning to sound enraged. They simply cannot allows this kind of thing to mess with their community. Everyone has their place, this man was a blind beggar… who will do that now?

The blind man, sensing their rage, pokes fun at his community, asking them if they want to follow Jesus. That’s the last straw and the community drives him out.

The community just cannot see how this sinner among them was healed by some wandering preacher, who were a dime a dozen in those days. They cannot see through the flesh of Jesus, to what just might be a sign of God’s presence among them.

The community is blind.

Blind to God’s presence among them, blind to possibility that God could be close and doing something new.

We get what those people around the blind man feel. We have been there too. It is just as hard for us to dig through the fleshiness we see around us. Like them we can find it so hard to believe that God could be doing things with us.

We look around our community, at each other, at the people we have known for years and years, and those who are new among us… and we just cannot imagine that God could be found in us.

And we look around at this place, these walls and pews, this structure and building where it can feel so mundane and familiar… and we just cannot imagine, we just cannot see God here.

And we look at ourselves. Our own flaws and imperfections, our failings and limits, and we feel so human, so anything but God’s children… and we just cannot imagine, we just cannot see God near and close to us.

And so we can be just like that community around the Blind Man, unable, unwilling to imagine that God could do something among us.

We are blind just as they are. We are blind because we see what we see… which seems to be the absence of God in our very mundane surroundings.

But because the Blind Man doesn’t see what we see, what his community sees just might be why he experiences God.

The blind man is just doing what he always does, beginning at the side of the road, living off the charity and good will of those passing by.

Yet when Jesus and his disciples pass by, the Blind Man does not see what his community sees – another wandering preacher coming to town. Rather the Blind Man hears a voice say,

“I am the light of the world.”

And then the blind man feels hands on his face. Hands and mud. And then follows the simple command,

“Go and was in the pool of Siloam.”

So the Blind Man goes and washes…. and light floods in. The light floods into his eyes and he can now see.

But still, all that he knows of the one who healed him are a voice speaking light into the world. Hands fashioning something new out of the mud, and the command to go and be washed.

The Blind Man’s experience of Jesus follows a story that every Jew would know well, one that we know well. The story of the creation. The story a of voice who said,

“Let there be light.” and “I am the Light of the world.”

The story of hands that shaped the Adam, the first human out of the mud of the earth.

The story of the creator who commanded the creation to live in the good world that God had made.

The Blind Man’s experience was a divine one, the Blind Man had heard God’s voice and felt God’s hands.

But his community could only see another mundane human being, another preacher coming to live off the hospitality of the community.

So sent away because of the story he had to tell and the new life he had been given, Jesus finds the Blind Man again.

And it is there that we find a Transfiguration moment. Jesus meets the Blind Man and tells him that he is finally seeing and speaking with the Son of Man, the Messiah.

With that, Jesus bridges the distance between human and divine. Just like Jesus is Transfigured on the mountain top and then changed back, Jesus show the Blind Man that wrapped in flesh, is the God of the creation, the God who spoke life into the darkness, and who is still the light of the world.

The Blind Man, like the disciples on the mountaintop, finally, truly, sees.

And yet, we still struggle like the community who just couldn’t peer under Jesus’ flesh to see the divine.

But Jesus knows that about us. Jesus knows that we have trouble seeing God.

So here in this place, where we are supposed to encounter God, Jesus meets us in ways that don’t require us to see.

Here, Jesus speaks to us. Jesus speaks words like forgiven, healed, renewed, beloved, washed, raised. Jesus speaks to us with the Word of God proclaimed in this place. And just as God spoke in creation, God speaks to us in our ears.

And here Jesus reaches out to us. Jesus washes our eyes in the waters at the font, the waters of gospel promise, the waters of new life. And just as God commanded the Blind Man to wash, God washes the light into our world too.

And here Jesus presses flesh into our flesh. Bread and Wine, the very body and blood of Christ are pressed into our flesh, and brought to our lips. And just as Jesus reached out to touch the Blind Man, God reaches out and comes as close as God can to us.

So when we look around and only see regular, familiar faces, faces that we cannot seem to imagine God in, Jesus sees in us the Body of Christ, God’s hands and feet in the world.

When we look around and only see the walls and pews and hymnbooks of routine and mundane experience, Jesus sees people gathered in God’s house.

When look at ourselves  and only see flawed and imperfect people who cannot seem to get faith right, Jesus sees in you and me people that God has faith in, people who are God’s beloved children.

And just like the Blind Man, there is A Transfiguration story here too, week after week. A Transfiguration story where God is revealed in human flesh, where the light of creation shines on us, where Jesus comes to us in experiences where we do no see, but instead hear, and feel and taste and touch…  in Word, in Water, and in Bread and Wine.

*The congregations I serve are using the Narrative Lectionary in the first three months of 2018

Washing away social convention at Jacob’s well

John 4:1-42  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jesus knows her.

Then something changes in the woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Child of God.

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

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

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

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

The Living Water of Christ tells us who we are.

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

Asking Jesus Questions in the Dark

John 3:1-21

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (Read the whole passage)

If you could choose, if you could decide how you would know, if you could have any evidence, any sign you wanted that God is real, what would you have? Jesus to beam down from the sky like a character from Star Trek? What about for God to come and end all wars, feed all those who are hungry, heal everyone who is sick? Maybe you want a divine message to be written in the clouds, some clue to the meaning of life.

It is quite the question to ask. To wonder what it would take for us to have strong unwavering faith. To set the criteria for belief. To decide what signs and miracles we would need to see in order to know that Jesus is God.

We have been making our way through John’s Gospel, we began with events surrounding Jesus’ baptism and we have heard stories about the wedding at Cana and the cleansing of the temple. Now we eavesdrop on a nighttime conversation under the cover of darkness.

We are presented with someone who comes to Jesus, precisely asking about the signs and miracles. Nicodemus. A Pharisee, a leader of religion and faith in Israel. He comes to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness. In John’s view, those who are in the Dark, have no faith. Darkness is the Apostle’s way of saying that Nicodemus came to Jesus with a lack of faith. Yet, Nicodemus is not entirely without curiosity, even a faithful curiosity.  He has come with questions.  Nicodemus risks being seen with Jesus, which could lead to ridicule and shame by those who follow him as a teacher and expert in religion.

And here is the thing about Nicodemus the Pharisee, he has seen the signs. He knows what Jesus is up to. But he still cannot believe. Nicodemus’s question is not really a question at all. He makes a statement, “ Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God”. Nicodemus manages to get the lead up to his question out. He still hasn’t asked Jesus anything, yet Jesus interrupts. Jesus says one must be born from above, or again, or anew, to see the Kingdom of God. And Nicodemus has no idea of what Jesus is talking about, and starts imagining how someone can be literally born again. How a man could crawl back into his mother’s womb, and still fit as an adult.

So the conversation continues, and Jesus preaches — lots. He talks about faith and the Spirit, about the son of man being lifted up and about God’s plans for saving the world.

We can see ourselves in the story Nicodemus, in curiously seeking answers, wondering who and what this Jesus guy is all about. Nicodemus saw the signs and miracles, but that wasn’t enough for him, he still was in darkness. Nicodemus even had the opportunity to speak with Jesus himself, in the flesh. And still he doesn’t leave convinced as far as we know. Imagine, if we had the chance to sit down with Jesus for a nice evening conversation, if we could sort out all the questions of faith.

So often, our faith can feel like it is a nighttime faith. Unsure, and questioning. Unsure that God is real. Unsure that a real God can love imperfect us.

There is something about the night that leaves us open to questions and reflections. In the day, we are busy and full of life. There are people to see, things to do, work to be done, entertainment to be had. But at night, when life slows, when there is opportunity to think and reflect, that is when the questions come. The worries and fear begin. How many of us have laid awake at night wondering about life.

As Christians, our normal experience of worship together is during the day, or in the light so to speak. But we do have traditions of worship and prayer at night. Monks and nuns would observe the daily services of evening and nighttime prayer, not unlike the Lenten Services that we are held over the years.

In evening worship services the feel is quite different than on Sunday mornings. Rather than the cross being the primary symbol, in an evening service the Christ Candle becomes central. And even though the darkness is close and all around, the light of the single candle shines in the darkness and the darkness does not over come it. Space and time are given to listen to God as God listens to us. Silence and reflection are the essence of Nighttime prayer.

In one part of the service we sing:

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit

You have redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

Into your hands, I commend my spirit.

We sing those words each night because we are practicing. Each night we practice dying as an act of faith. We practice for when those words will be said over our bodies when we die.

They are at the same time profound words of faith and profound words of doubt. By speaking them we practice trust and faith, by speaking them we also admit that we do not know the future, by speaking them we do not even truly know that the sun will rise tomorrow, except by God’s grace.

These words only really fit at night, in the darkness of faith.

As Nicodemus comes with his questions and doubts something interesting happens. Jesus receives him. Jesus does not send Nicodemus away, nor does Jesus judge the Pharisee for having doubts. He receives him and teaches him. Nicodemus comes in the darkness, but Jesus provides light. Not overwhelming light like the sun, but light like the gentleness of one candle in dark room.

And yet, Nicodemus does not go away convinced. But throughout the Gospel of John, Nicodemus appears again. The second time he defends, somewhat hesitantly, Jesus’s teaching. And the third time, Nicodemus is the one who comes with Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body after being crucified.

For Nicodemus, faith is not immediate. Yet, Jesus is patient enough to allow Nicodemus to have his struggles and stays with the Pharisee throughout his ministry.

And that is how Jesus is with us too. Whether it takes time and practice, or whether it seems to be natural and easy. God’s way with us is not to overwhelm us, but to meet us in our darkness. Jesus meets us in our night time questions and shines a light in the darkness of faith.

In our questions, in our doubts, in out late night wonderings, Jesus reminds us that faith is not a simple or easy thing. In fact, a strong faith is not a certain faith. Because certainty is knowing, and faith is not knowing. Certainty and faith are opposites. Faith is much more like doubt. Being unsure is a sign of faith.

Just like the wind that blows and makes a candle dance in the darkness, the Spirit blows and dances within us too. The Holy Spirit blows questions and wonderings, it stirs within us a desire to know God, and this is where God meets us. Not in our certainty, but in our doubt and faith.

The signs, the miracles, those are about knowing that God is real. Those are about knowing that the real God loves imperfect us. The nighttime questions are where faith happens, where Jesus hears our questions, receives doubts, and takes our wonderings.

Into your hands, O Lord, we commend our faith. Into your hands, we commend our spirits.  

Differentiated Jesus in Toxic System

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

Mark 1:21-28

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you come to destroy us?”

But he’s not finished:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I renounce them.

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


I renounce them.

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


I renounce them.

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 11.27.18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Technology changes rapidly; people, not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Overturned Household of God

John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. (read the whole passage)

“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

There is an irony when it comes money and determining the value of something. As soon as we try to sell something, we cheapen it. Sellers will ask, “How much can I make from selling this thing”. Buyers will say, “How little can I pay to obtain the thing I want”. And maybe that is why money can be such a touchy subject, maybe that is why when we as human beings talk about money we talk about it more seriously than anything else.

You can watch the nightly news and a story about war or disease or crime or death can be reported with great gravity and then followed by a lighter story about celebrity, or charity or human interest which is reported with a smile and a laugh. But watch the business news, and every story is treated seriously and like it is important.

All the seriousness almost seems like an attempt to mask the shame and guilt that money invariably brings into our lives. We know that we like money and that makes us greedy, and we know that greed is a shameful thing to be or to feel.

Did the money changers and animal sellers feel that shame when Jesus came barging into the temple?

In our churches today, we do not really know the situation that Jesus was walking into. Imagine if when you arrived at church this morning, you had to pay to park, and then pay again to get through the doors. And then once inside there were some police officers milling about, some county employees and some church council members selling things. In order to worship you would have to rent your hymn book, pay a ticket to sit in a pew, buy the water if you needed baptism, buy the bread and wine if you wanted communion.

And then if you wanted to give 100 dollars to the church, you had to pay 115 to change your money into church money.

This is what the temple in Jerusalem looked like. More like a busy shopping mall than a place of worship. Anyone who was poor had no chance of making it in. Those who had a little money had to save up for years, and the rich would come and go as they please.

The temple priests were skimming off the top all the purchases made. The Romans were taxing all the profits. And the people selling the doves, sheep and cows for sacrifice weren’t even jewish.

You could imagine why Jesus would be upset with what was going on in the temple. The whole point of the temple sacrifice system was to make God’s forgiveness more accessible. The job of the priests was to preside of sacrifices and show people a visible sign of God’s invisible promise of forgiveness. Yet, what had been designed to be accessible had become inaccessible. Worse yet, what was supposed to be a way of freely giving God to the people had become a way of selling God for an exorbitant rate.

Martin Luther had the same problem with the Roman Catholic Church, who was selling God’s forgiveness and early exit from purgatory in the form of indulgences.

Now, today as you came into church, you probably didn’t worry that you would have to buy your way in. We might feel like we can look back and say we have figured it out, we aren’t so foolish as to sell God.

Granted, there are still TV evangelists selling little green cloths and the promise of healing. But in a way this is more honest than what most North American Christians have been doing for a long time.

Jesus was upset with people for trying to make a profit off of God. To sell God’s love for price. To sell something that is priceless and more valuable than we could ever afford, for a few coins.

But like most things, North American Christianity has taken the marketplace of the church to a whole new level.

We aren’t so crass as to sell God. We have found a much more slick and devious way to make a profit off of God. Most churches today will preach that God’s love is free gift, but then they will go on to say that if you are good enough God’s love and blessing will make you rich. Forget trying to earn and pay for a little piece of God, instead let’s put God to work for us! All we have to do is pray hard enough, believe sincerely enough, act pious enough. And then God will bless you with health, wealth and happiness.

If Jesus were to come and over turn over our marketplaces he would have to come into our homes and work places, he wouldn’t tell us to “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace” instead he would say, “Stop making my father’s love a way to get rich!”.

So…does anyone know what the word “economy” means?

In modern terms, it is the resources and wealth of a country or region. But Jesus actually uses the root word for economy as he speaks today. “Stop making my Father’s house a market place”.

Oikos in Greek. House in english. The greek word of economy is oikonomos, which means to manage one’s household.

The economy is caring for the household and all that is within. The people, the resources and the wealth. Our economy is our household wealth. The word economy is related to other words we know.

Ecology, the care of the household of the earth, or the environment.

Eccumenism, which is relationships between Christians, Lutheran Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostals etc… The care of the household of faith.

“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace”.

Jesus is suggesting a different economy. Jesus is declaring a new way to manage God’s house. In our economies we buy and sell, we make money and lose money.

But in God’s house, everything is free. God’s forgiveness is freely given. And Jesus’ promise is for everyone. God’s new management system is on its way.

But the priest and temple authorities challenge Jesus’ declaration of a new economy. We challenge Jesus’ declaration of a new way to manage our households. We know that nothing is free, everything costs. We like knowing this because it gives us control, we know what we need to do to earn God’s love. We know that we have to be good, follow the ten commandments, pray hard enough, read the bible enough. As Lutherans we know that we need to attend worship once a year, take communion and give some amount of money to the church.

But Jesus doesn’t care what we know. Jesus is making it all free. Jesus is making it all priceless. And Jesus knows that this radical new system will only lead him to death, he is on his way to the cross. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days”.

The temple is God’s dwelling place, it is God’s house. And yet Jesus is speaking about himself, he is pointing to what we will do on Good Friday “Destroy this temple”. And he is promising what God’s response will be, “I will raise it up in three days”.

We dislike the idea of God being free so much that we will treat Jesus like a criminal, kill God in flesh, and destroy his temple, his house.

Yet, God’s new economy, where forgiveness, grace and love cannot be sold or bought is on the way. God’s new economy that responds to power and fear with weakness and intimacy is on the way. God’s new economy that encounters death with new life is on the way and is promised to us.

Today, Jesus tells us that everything we thought had value is worthless. Power, money, death.

And everything we thought that was of no value, weakness, poverty, life. These things are the new way God is going manage our economy, our households. God is giving away love, mercy and forgiveness for free. And that is turning our world upside down.

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

%d bloggers like this: