Not even a mustard seed worth of faith

Luke 17

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (Read the whole passage)

Today, we continue hearing the stories of Jesus ministry and work from the gospel of Luke. Two weeks ago Jesus told the parable of the dishonest manager and the generous God. Last week it was the familiar story of the rich man and poor Lazarus. But today, it is the disciples who cause the action. They have been following their master for a while now, seeing him teach and preach, watching him heal the sick and lame, being amazed at his miracles and exorcizes. And despite seeing all this, they still want something from Jesus.

The disciples come to Jesus and make only a simple request. “Increase our faith”. It doesn’t seem like much. All they want is maybe a little show of power from Jesus. Maybe some power of their own to heal minor diseases, maybe not lameness and leprosy, but limps, sore backs and bad acne. Maybe Jesus could let them exorcize some minor demons, the ones that make the floor boards squeak or that make single socks disappear.

This hardly seems like an unreasonable request, Jesus is God in flesh after all, he could easily make the disciples better believers, super followers or something. The disciples just want a little more certainty, a little more assurance, a few more benefits for being faithful.

“Increase our faith!” the disciples ask.

Jesus does not take this well.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could make mulberry tree be uprooted and plant itself in the sea. It would obey you!”.

So obviously the disciples don’t even have a mustard seed worth of faith. The tiny barely perceptible mustard seed, the seed that grows into an unwieldy bush and causes gardening headaches. Not even faith the size of a tiny, useless seed.

Jesus sees right through the request, he sees to the heart of the matter. The disciples want some control in this whole God business. They want power, assurance, confidence. They want what we all seek in the darkest places of our hearts, to be like God.

Increase our faith!

We have made that request, issued that demand, prayed that prayer just like the disciples. Increase our attendance, increase our budget, increase our volunteers we have all said as churches. Increase our morals, increase our nation, increase our respect for the past has been a a favourite refrain of politicians.

And privately many of us have probably prayed this prayer. “Increase my faith, give me something to hold on to, let me know that you are real God.”

Jesus scolds the disciples, and sometimes it can feel like God ignores our simple requests. And sometimes all we want is something to hold on to, something that will satisfy our uncertainty and our fears.

Yet, whether it is a selfish request of God, or a demand for control, or an honest prayer in desperate moment, the rebuke that Jesus responds with can hurt.

Jesus says that If we had the smallest amount of faith you could do great things… and yet we cannot do them.

And even more we are reminded that “Increase our faith” is about us. It is about our need to have some kind of say in this God stuff, to make faith a little more “take” than “give”, to have some part in our relationship with God.

And when we dig at that need, it soon becomes clear that it is rooted in the same insecurity that made Eve grab the fruit,

the fear that made Abraham send his wife to be the concubine of a King,

the rage that made Moses kill that Egyptian,

the desire that made David lust for Bathsheba,

the resistance that made Jonah run from God’s call,

the reactiveness that made Peter strike off the ear of the servant,

the pride that made Paul persecute and kills Christians,

the confusion that made all the disciples hide in the upper room even when they knew Jesus was risen from the dead.

We ask, we demand, we pray, Increase our faith, and it comes from the Old Adam, Old Eve within us, the place of pride, fear, control. The place of Original Sin.

And even so, just as Jesus has been reminding us week after week, Jesus reminds us again.

We are not in control. We are not the ones who have the power. We are not God.

Jesus talks about mustard seeds and mulberry trees and then goes on to talk about a master and a servant. And not to tell us that we are slaves or subservient. Jesus isn’t trying to make us feel small. But rather Jesus reminds us that we have a role in this God stuff, and it isn’t to be God.

The greek word (pistuo) that we often translate as faith, is almost better understood as trust.

“Increase our trust” we might say.

And yet we know that increasing trust is not something the truster can do. Trust can only be increased by the one who is trustworthy.

Faith or trust is not a power we wield, or a control we have or even something to hold on to. Faith or trust is what God places in us, it is the wild and untamed relationship that God wants to meet us with,

faith is what God holds us in,

what God grabs us with,

what God places beneath our feet.

Increase our faith.

Jesus reminds us today that faith is not something that we own or control or have power over.

Because God’s faith is in us.

Because God’s trustworthiness is complete.

Because faith is a gift we receive.

A gift bestowed in Baptism.

A gift fed and renewed in the Lord’s supper.

A gift shared in the Body of Christ that is the church.

God is the one who creates faith, and we are the ones in whom faith is created.

God is the one who gives faith, and we are the ones who receive it.

God is the one in whom faith rests, and we are the ones who are held and rest in God.

Jesus reminds the disciples and us of our roles in this faith stuff. The disciples want – we want – power, assurance, something to hold on to. Increase our faith, we ask, we demand, we pray. And Jesus steadily reminds us week after week that God is the one doing the work here. We might want some control over our relationship with God, we want some input, but God’s love doesn’t need anything from us. We are simply the ones who are loved. We are the ones who are loved, and in whom God’s love meets the world.

Increase our faith we ask today.

And Jesus says, if you had faith you could do great things. But faith is what God has in you, that is what in you truly need.

Amen.

The One Off – What Commitment looks like for the 21st Century Church

If you follow the liturgical calendar, you will know that the the first half of the church year is made up of diverse seasons that tell the story of Jesus – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter. And then comes a long season of counting Sundays called Ordinary Time.

Towards the end of that second half of the church year, there are a bunch of “one-off” Sundays that mark an occasion for a single Sunday, rather than a season. Thanksgiving (it is in October in Canada ), Reformation Sunday (for Lutherans), Halloween/All Saints, Reign of Christ, the Christmas Pageant and then Christmas Eve.

I find it interesting that for most churches out there October through Christmas is often the busiest, most active time of the year. It probably has to do with the beginning of school and the lingering fall weather that keeps us looking for opportunities to get outside before winter.

But I often wonder if it says something about the changing nature of commitment of active church goers. In decades past, active church members were defined as those who attend every Sunday or nearly every Sunday. I have seen the old buttons, pins and stickers of the 60s and 70s for people to collect from the churches they attended while on vacation. These were for those going for perfect Sunday school attendance records, and probably to ward off nosy pastors inquiring as to why you missed a Sunday.

In the last decade or two, active church membership has been counted by those who attend once a month or more. There simply isn’t a statistically relevant number of people who show up every Sunday. There are still some who can be counted on to be in their pew every week, but often the active members of a congregation attend 1 to 2 times a month. These are people who are leaders in churches, serving on council, leading music, teaching bible studies, chairing committees etc…

There are lots of factors to this of course, and no, it is not Sunday shopping and sports. I think it has more to do with most households shifting from 1 income earner to 2. Longer work weeks – 50 or 60 hours – being demanded of many. The snow bird schedules of those who have the chance to travel in retirement. And our changing tolerance as a society for long term obligations and duties. We simply have less time and energy because we work more and earn less – so our personal/family/recreation time comes at a premium.

So when the church has a bunch of one-off Sundays like Thanksgiving, Confirmation Sunday, Reformation, All Saints, Reign of Christ, the Christmas Pageant in Advent and the most one off Church events of them all – Christmas Eve – people start showing up. We are now a society that can handle committing to show up once… but not usually more than that.

This change is the reason why Sunday Schools struggle to keep going. Church councils and committees struggle to find bodies. Choirs, men’s and women’s groups, and bible studies are falling out of the commonplace in the life of congregations. It isn’t that people don’t want to do these things, it is that there isn’t time and energy for many weekly or even monthly obligations anymore – there is barely time to go to church at all more than one or two times a month.

And one of the one of common concerns you hear from church leaders, from tired out folks wanting to give up their long held commitments, is how to get “those other people” to come and take on more. How can we get people to come back?

The thing is, we all know that this is the wrong question, we just don’t know who to frame it differently. It just isn’t going to happen, we haven’t turned the clock back before and we won’t figure out how to do it now. People aren’t going to just come out of the woodwork to volunteer in droves for 3 year committee commitments and 25 year Sunday School teacher terms.

I think we also know what the right question is too.

I think most church leaders and members know that the real question lies in how the church shifts from being a social obligation to a place where we practice our faith in community. And more importantly, shifting our own understanding of what this means.

It isn’t actually bad thing for churches to differentiate ourselves from the local cultural club or community centre or YMCA or arts community or PTA or soup kitchen. We might have aspects of those things, but those thing are not core to our identity as churches.

Churches are primarily places to practice our faith – to gather with other believers and hear again the good news of Christ given for us.

Churches are places to follow Jesus, to experience God’s commitment to us, rather than be burdened by our commitment to God.

Churches are places where we are a community of people brought together by Jesus, by a common faith that we want to share with others. Not a group of friends who also sometimes pray.

The transformation from place of social and culture obligation to place where faith is practiced is pretty damn scary. In fact, it so scary to imagine that we would rather just complain about “those other poeple” who aren’t taking our jobs from us so that we don’t have to do them anymore.

It is scary to imagine what a church full of people who actually wants to follow Jesus together and to see where Jesus leads will look like… because it will be very different than what we look like now.

It is scary to ask how we get there too – even if we know that this is the question we need to ask and the one being asked of us.

And it might mean allowing for a world full of poeple who cannot give more than a day or two a month to commit to something… but is also means preaching the gospel to a world full of people carrying heavy burdens, who need communities of faith to share those burdens with, and who need to hear about a God who is deeply committed to them, no matter what.

It might mean reimagining what commitment to church looks like, or rather imagining how churches can be places that give people grace, hope, mercy and meaning… instead of slave labour in the form “volunteer jobs…”

Oh, and it might also mean giving people that new life thing that Jesus likes to talk about too.

The fifth parable of the lost – it is not about rich or poor

Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side…” (Read the whole passage)

The parables keep coming this week. And unlike the parable last week, the parable of the wealthy land owner and the dishonest manager, where the land owner praises his manager for being dishonest, this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus seems very straight forward.

There is a ridiculously rich man who acts selfishly and goes to Hell because of it. The poor Lazarus gets nothing in life, and so goes to Heaven in death. It sounds like a simple formula for us follow.

If we look out of the poor, and make sure not to hoard all of our wealth and, we don’t act like little kings and queens, we should probably be okay. If we aren’t poor like Lazarus, we should probably help those who are… and that should be enough to save ourselves from eternal punishment. Right?

Not so fast. As usual, there is more to this parable than its surface reading.

In fact, throughout history, Christians have had some problems with this parable. One problem being that the rich man doesn’t have a name. If characters in parables are given names, it is almost always the important ones. And this rich man is the focus. He has most of the lines. Lazarus doesn’t even say a word. In order elevate the status of the rich man, Christians have often called him Dives. Rich people aren’t nameless characters in stories, we know that rich folks are more important than that.

And probably there is a part of us that hears this parable and identifies the most with Dives, or at least if we had to choose, we wouldn’t want to be pitiable Lazarus… however this really isn’t a choice between rich and poor.

Dives is not your average rich guy. He is ridiculously rich. He acts like a king. He wears purples robes, clothing reserved for royalty. He has a feast every day, even most monarchs didn’t do that. He is the epitome of self-aggrandizement and entitlement. Dives is the ultimate rich man.

Lazarus on the other hand is the opposite. Unable to even move his own body, he has been laid at the Dive’s gate in the hopes the rich man will have compassion. Lazarus is so pitiful that the street dogs look after him. He is utterly helpless. Lazarus is absolute bottom of society.

Lazarus and Dives are complete opposites… they are caricatures of rich and poor, cartoon-like, beyond reality. Yet, still when Lazarus ends up with Abraham and Dives in Hades something is off, this is not the way things work in 1st century Israel. Lazarus was not only poor, but he was also unworthy and unclean. He would was too poor to make sacrifice at the temple, too unworthy and unclean to even go to synagogue. He wouldn’t have been able to pray, to receive God’s forgiveness, to follow the law. He would have been doomed.

Dives however, could have easily kept the law, easily afforded to make sacrifices, easily maintained his righteousness. Dives should have been set in life and in death.

So when Lazarus and Dives die, what unfolds would be have mind boggling to Jesus’ hearers. For Lazarus to be carried by Angels to Abraham would have been preposterous. Only two people had experienced such an honour, only Moses and Elijah, patriarchs and heroes of faith. A poor man lying a rich man’s gate is no patriarch and no hero.

Dives’ fate is equally absurd. Dives is the one who should have gone to be with Abraham. Rather he goes to hell, but not just any hell, he goes to Hades. Greek Hell, Gentile Hell. Hades is the hell of a different religion entirely, not judaism. Dives is no pagan gentile.

Yet, somehow despite ending up in the complete opposite places of where they should be, somehow Lazarus and Dives maintain their earthly positions. Lazarus still does not speak or act for himself, but instead Abraham speaks and acts for him.

And even in gentile hell, Dives has not understood that his fortunes have been reversed. He calls out to Abraham, but not for mercy. Instead he treats Abraham like the butler of the house, and Dives orders some room service from the bell hop Lazarus to bring some water. And even when Abraham explains, Dives still does not understand and tries to order something else. He wants to send Lazarus the telegram delivery boy to bring a message to his family. Dives cannot stop being self-righteous and entitled. And Lazarus continues to be a silent and helpless character who needs to rely on the care of others.

The rich man and Lazarus are two extremes, polar opposites, they really represent concepts or ideas more than they portray real people. In fact their names say it all. Dives is the Latin word for “Rich”. Lazarus the Greek word for “God has helped”.

When we see Dives and Lazarus in this light, they stop being examples of what we should do or not do.

These two characters represent the extremes of human behaviour. The extremes that exist within each of us.

We are all Dives. We are all Lazarus. We are all both.

We have the capacity within us to be completely self-centered. We have moments when we believe that we are truly in control. We wish, deep down, that we could save ourselves. We think we are righteous when we follow the rules, or receive blessings, or are gifted with wealth.

We also have the capacity within us to feel truly unworthy and totally helpless. We have moments when we believe that we are nothing and undeserving, that we cannot be saved, that we are unclean and cursed, that we are the victims and the guilty of the world.

So often as human beings we trick ourselves into thinking that we are the ones who have earned our success, our status, our blessings. And when it comes to God and heaven we think we can save ourselves.

So often as human beings, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we are to blame for our failures, our downfalls, our curses. And when it comes to God and heaven, we think that we have made ourselves unworthy.

Abraham explains the problem we have to Dives. “Between you and us, a great chasm has been fixed”. Not a rocky canyon or deep hole. But a chasm of self-righteousness. A chasm built by our trust in ourselves, our trust that we have made ourselves worthy or that we have made ourselves unworthy.

And when Dives cannot see why the chasm is there, Abraham explains again. You will not “be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there is the key.

There is the point that Jesus is making.

This is the fifth parable of the lost. The lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son, dishonest manager and now the rich man and Lazarus.

And its both the dives and Lazarus who are lost. Lazarus is found, because he is hopeless. Dives isn’t quiet ready to not be the one saving himself. And yet, there is nothing even the richest man can do to achieve salvation.

For you see, Lazarus doesn’t need to rise from the dead, someone already has. Someone has already gone to the cross. The cross bridges our chasms of self-righteousness and self-doubt. The cross is what God traverses in order to join us in our hells, our pits, our isolation. The cross that connects a dead creation to an alive creator.

Christ is the one who has risen from the dead, and Christ is the one who shows us just who does the saving, the righteous making. Christ reminds us that we cannot make ourselves righteous and we cannot make ourselves unworthy. We simply don’t have the power. Our own chasms are too great for us, but no chasm is too big for God in Christ.

And so we gather to hear this again, to be convinced over and over again.

Christ has risen from the dead.

We repeat this good news, over and over each time we worship, in many and various ways

Christ Jesus who came to save sinners.

God who brings us home from the wilderness of Sin

Your sins are forgiven and you are made free.

Worthy is Christ, the lamb who was slain.

You have the words of eternal life.

On the third day he rose again.

Jesus Christ who on this day overcame death and the grave.

Christ has died.

Christ is risen

Christ will come again.

Save us from the time of trial

Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world.

We repeat this good news, over and over and over, and maybe one day we will believe it, even if it takes a lifetime to sink in. God keeps reminding us. No matter how much we act like rich Dives, no matter how much we feel like poor Lazarus. It is Christ and Christ alone who makes righteous, who makes us worthy.

This parable seems straight forward and seems to give us ideas on how to live. But isn’t life advice at all. It is yet another declaration and another promise.

Only God saves, and because of Jesus being raised from the dead, we too are raised from being dead in sin into alive in Christ.

The Fourth Parable of the Lost – The dishonest manager

Luke 16:1-13

1Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ (Read the whole thing)

As students walked out of classrooms and businesses shut down on Friday and through the weekend, the issue of climate change is being brought before us. The consumption of the planet, the use of resources in pursuit of profit and wealth, the growth of economies is being contrasted with the future of the planet’s well being. Why go to school, if the planet is on a countdown to irreversible change? The students are asking us. A big and heavy question, one that we certainly don’t have a quick and easy answer for.

And so when we hear the story of land manager squandering property there is a real connection to the present. Squandering the planet’s resources is an accusation that today’s youth have the right to level at older generations in power.

We hear the word squandering and many different images come to mind. The person who fails to take advantage of an opportunity, who doesn’t risk a little bit for a big gain. The one who waits and hesitates, rather than moving quickly and decisively. The person who doesn’t understand the potential of what they can do and be. The person who fails to take hold and earn every ounce of profit and reward of a situation. We hear of a squandering manager and we imagine a weak and feeble, hesitant and uncertain person taking the safe and easy path.

Today, we get this interesting parable from the gospel of Luke that follows right after the three parables of the lost. The parable of lost sheep and lost coin which we heard last week, and the parable of the prodigal son which we know so very well.

These parables come just in advance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to the waiting crowds, to the plotting religious authorities, to betrayal, arrest, trial, execution.

And this parable is interesting because we are not quite sure what to do with it. The squandering manager seems to behave in an entirely self interested manner throughout, and yet his master commends his shrewdness.

As the story begins, the manager is accused of squandering his master’s property, yet how he squandered is not mentioned or defined. Remember that.

Regardless, the master fires the manager.

And so the manager does something interesting, he thinks to himself. He doesn’t have other options for work before him, so he will forgive the debts of some of his master’s debtors in order to earn some favours.

Now, as 21st century people living a capitalist individualist society, it is easy for us to get hung up on the fact that the manager uses his masters wealth to earn himself some favours… yet, there is something about this curious situation that is easier for us to miss. Anyone who has lived in a farming community should know that good relationships with neighbours is vital to life on the land. What we really ought to be wondering about is why this land manager doesn’t already have pockets full of favours and good relationships with his community.

In the Hebrew world of 1st century Israel, the land held a central place in life.

The land that the Israelites lived on was literally the promised land, the land promised to Moses and he led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. And the land was not just a resource to be exploited. It was a living thing, a gift from God to be cared for. The land held abundant resources meant to provide for the community. There were laws as to how the land was used to provide for all:

• A certain amount of the harvest was required to be left on the land so that the poor and widows could follow the workers and gather grain for themselves.

• The land did not belong strictly to a single person or family, but rather to the entire tribe.

• Every Jubilee year it was meant to revert to ownership by the tribe.

• The land owner didn’t exploit the produce of the land for his own profit and gain, but cared for and tended in order to feed the community (his extended family).

And yet in this parable, the manager had no favours in his pocket. His master’s debtors received no relief before this manger was fired. Maybe this manager was not the lazy, week, uncertain manager of our imagining, but the cold, hardened, profit focused, entrepreneur that we praise in our world. Someone who exploited the land for every ounce of profit, who squeezed every penny from debtors, who never paid too much and never accepted too little.

So remember that squandering isn’t defined?

Maybe this manager has been squandering the abundance of the land by hoarding it all for his master, by counting every penny away in his master’s store houses instead of caring for this community around him.

Maybe the land manager is the fourth lost thing in this sequence of parables. Lost to himself, lost to hoarding and profiting from an exploited land and community.

And isn’t that our modern problem too?

It’s what the students and their supporters are begging of those in power to do. To see their neighbour, to recognize that the land, the earth is a living thing meant to provide an abundance for us…only if shared and not hoarded, only if cared for and tended to, not exploited and consumed.

To squander in the parable today is to be lost and alone, to put profits before people, to forget that we live in community and what we do affects those around us and those who come after us.

Now, one of the important characteristics of parables is that the subject of a parable is usually the first person mentioned. This parable doesn’t start “There was a land manager.” It begins there was a rich man who had a manager. Just like the prodigal son begins with “There was a man who had two sons.”

It is the rich man who discovers that his manager had lost his way. And it is the rich man who sets out to find him.

When the rich land owner fires his manager, he is pulling the manger out of the store houses and accounting rooms. He is forcing his manager to sit down face to face with his community. And there seeing his neighbour face to face the manager is generous. He forgives debts trusting that he will provided for in return.

Like the shepherd to searches for the lost sheep, the woman who looks for the lost coin, like the father who runs out to meet his lost son on the road… the rich man joins his lost manager back to community. It is not dishonesty that the rich man commends, but connection and relationship, generosity and compassion.

And like the rich man, the teller of this parable is the one who is about to search out humanity in our isolation of sin and death. Jesus is about to find us on the cross… So that we might know the generous abundance of resurrection and new life.

Of course, this is what Jesus has been doing with us all along.

While we are lost and isolated, Jesus does what it takes to joint us back to community, back to the body, back to God.

And Jesus makes us practice being joined every week.

Jesus gathers us here, and plunks us shoulder to shoulder with our siblings in Christ, beside friends and neighbours. Beside those who know our struggles and what it is like to live in this lost world.

And Jesus joins our voices together with the praises of the community of faith, joining us to the choir of saints.

And Jesus forgives us with all these other sinners, restoring the communion of saints to wholeness.

And Jesus speaks in our ears a word of good news for us all, giving us hope in our seemingly hopeless world.

And Jesus washes and feeds at font and table, the gathering places of the faithful.

Shoulder to shoulder, with other washed and fed ones, reminding us that we belong to the Father, and that we belong to each other, no matter how lost we become, no matter how much try to squander the abundant community given to us in creation.

And so today, as we hear the 4th parable of the lost, we discover that we can be lost and not even realize it…

But we also hear of the Christ, who will go to any length, even surprising ones, to find us and join us again, shoulder to shoulder, face to face, to the community we need – the Body of Christ.

Finding those who aren’t lost

Luke 15:1-10

1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? (Read the whole passage)

For parents of small children looking for solidarity one of the places I go to is Fowl Language Comics, fowl spelled “F.O.W.L.” Parenting comics using ducks and chicks. In my favourite comic, a chick with arms in the air and standing in a nearly empty room loudly declaring, “I can’t find it anywhere! It’s just gone!”

The only other thing in the room is a red ball on the floor with an arrow pointing to the ball and the word “It” on the other side of the arrow. The caption below reads, “whenever I send my kid to find something.”

I am sure many of you can relate.

In our house, I am the designated finder.

I am sure most families have one – the person whose job it is to find misplaced and lost things. Other finders out there will know, that there is a certain art to checking all the usual spots, getting into the head of the person who has lost something, retracing steps, scanning rooms and eliminating all the places where something is not followed by almost always finding the lost thing. The TV remote under the couch, a toy in a low kitchen drawer, a phone under a magazine, keys in a coat pocket.

Today, Jesus tells some grumbling Pharisees two parables about lost things. Two familiar parables. The lost sheep and the lost coin.

On the surface, these parables can give us those warm, soft, comfortable feelings. The sense that Jesus has got our back. The Shepherd who goes out to find the one lost sheep, leaving the 99 behind. The woman who tears apart her house looking for a single lost coin. And of course, there is a third story that we don’t hear today but still know very well, the parable of the prodigal son.

Each parable follows the same pattern. Something is lost, something is found and then there is a party to celebrate.

Although… the party to celebrate part is a little weird, isn’t it? A party to celebrate finding one lost sheep out of a hundred? One lost coin out of a ten? A party for a son who squandered his inheritance and returned home, cap in hand?

As a finder, I like finding things, but not that much.

And of course what is truly interesting is that this trio of parables begins with the Pharisees grumbling about the fact that Jesus eats with sinners. And they end with the older brother of the prodigal son grumbling about the party his father is throwing.

And the grumblers might have a point.

That lost sheep is likely the curious one, the one who gets in trouble, the one who wanders instead of staying with the flock. And those coins, they are small and slippery and hard to see. And lets not get started on the prodigal son and his issues.

The Pharisees, they know something about the real world, something that we know too. Sometimes lost things are lost for a reason. Sometimes sinners are sinners for a reason. And why is Jesus spending so much time with sinners? Why leave the 99 sheep to find the one? And can’t 9 coins still buy the things you need? And what about that older brother and what he deserves for his hard work and obedience?

We get what the Pharisees are grumbling about. There are consequences to our actions. People get what they deserve. The Pharisees start off these parables about lost things with a point that is kind of important… at least it feels important to us. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And all know what the unspoken line that should follow – They don’t deserve to eat with Jesus!

We know the world of ‘people get what they deserve’ very well. We live by it every day. It colours our feelings and principles about immigrants, those who are poor, those who are different skin colour or background, about indigenous people, about those with different sexual orientations and gender identities, about those who vote for different political parties…

And Christians have been just as guilty of grumbling as anyone. Grumbling about those who we deem unworthy, those who choose sports, or shopping, or sleeping in Sundays. Grumbling often about those who worship in other ways or choose not to worship any God at all. Grumbling about those who we deem not to be pulling their weight or giving enough of themselves…

And yet, in the past few years our Grumbling has been accompanied by grief. Grief that we aren’t what we once were. Fresh, exciting, vibrant churches of decades past are not aging as well as we had hoped. Decline feels like it is ravaging our communities, our bodies… in a world of “You get what you deserve” decline makes us wonder what it is that we have done to deserve this… why does it feel like God might be letting us die?

These parables of the lost – lost sheep, lost coins, and lost sons – might be saying something to us today that different that what we have always heard. They may not be so much about the lost things as they are about grumblers.

For you see, even as the Pharisees and the elder son grumble about the parties being thrown for the found things… Jesus is still doing something curious and unexpected. This isn’t just a case of things being turn upside down. It is not just that the sinners are welcome, the 1 sheep and the 1 coin are searched for, that there is a party for the prodigal son…

It is that all the rules are being changed. It is that “You get what you deserve” is an idea that doesn’t matter to God. Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with Pharisees. There is a party for lost sheep and lost coins and everyone is invited. The Loving Father runs to meet his lost on the road and goes out to meet his older son in the field to invite him to the party too.

Jesus invites all. All are welcome at the table. Lost things, sinners and the worthy along with the Pharisees, obedient sons and the grumblers.

And yeah… that is something that is hard for us to imagine, hard for us to accept. We would prefer the world where there were some rules…

And yet, welcoming all has been what Jesus has been up to all along.

Here in this community of welcome, in this gathering, we are welcomed. Welcomed by God who washes, names and claims us in the waters of baptism. Welcomed by God who builds us up, gives us hope and shown the coming of God’s Kingdom in the gospel word. And here God feeds us, binds us together and makes us one at the table. And Jesus then reminds us that we just might not be as worthy as our grumbling suggests… and we might not be as lost as we might feel. We are a little bit of both – lost and grumbling. Worthy and unworthy, Sinner and forgiven.

These parables of the lost and grumbling remind us today that Jesus is changing the rules… changing the rule of the world that says you get what you deserve… And Jesus is ushering in a new rule, a new reality – A reality where God is forgiving and welcoming sinners… sinners not just like those whom we think don’t deserve it, but welcoming sinners like us.

And just like the lost things that aren’t as lost as we thought, and worthy things that aren’t as worthy as we thought… these familiar parables aren’t the straightforward stories that we thought.

And yet, in them Jesus keeps finding us. Finding us in unexpected and surprising ways. Finding the lost and the grumblers all the same.

Discipleship doesn’t fit on a to-do list

Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? (Read the whole thing)

Does anyone else feel like summer shouldn’t be over yet? But here we are a week after labour day, the first few days of school under the belt. All those work and volunteer and church commitments that took a little hiatus for a few months, are now back in our calendars. The summer road trips and weekends at the cabin on the lake are coming to an end or over with seemingly too soon.

So of course, as fall seems to be fully here, even if not technically arriving until the end of the month, Jesus throws us right back into the busy pace of modern 21st Century life. And he does it all the way back from the 1st century Israel.

Jesus starts talking about discipleship. Whoever comes to me does not hate their family cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not give up all their possessions cannot be my disciple.

Okay… hate family, carry cross, give up possessions.

Add them to the to-do list, hopefully we can get to those things by the end of the month, if we are lucky. As long as the frost doesn’t come, the rain stops long enough to mow the lawn, the baking for that school fundraiser gets done, there isn’t too much extra work for that committee that just started back up… we should be able to get the discipleship jobs done.

But I don’t think that is what Jesus had in mind.

Discipleship, following Jesus, practicing our faith… these are pretty big questions that come at us in a pretty busy and task filled life. I read a few months ago about the idea of the bottom half of the to-do list. The half of the list that most of us never have time to get to. And if we are honest about the way discipleship is often practiced in church, it is usually a bottom half of the to-do list thing.

Of course, Jesus would probably take issue with the idea of discipleship being something on a to-do list, but we live in a busy world where things that aren’t on lists and in calendars don’t get done at all.

And yet here we are in the midst of the some of busiest times of our calendars and year, and Jesus is talking about Discipleship. And not just about to-do list items, but about giving all that stuff up, jobs, family, possessions, in order to follow him.

It almost doesn’t compute with us on a week like this.

And then Jesus gives us a couple other examples of what discipleship is like, and things get even more confusing.

As Jesus speaks to the crowds that he was walking down the road with, he asks,

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?”

And then he asks the same question again in a different way.

“Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?”

I wonder if anyone raised their hand or laughed…

Because if we don’t think about it much, of course everyone makes plans before a building project, and certainly before going to war. And yet, how often does a project not go over budget or time. And how many of the remembered stories of history are about battles between opponents facing overwhelming odds… like the Spartan 300 or the Alamo.

Recently, in Winnipeg, it was big news that the new Waverly St underpass came under budget and year of ahead of schedule. Things going according to plan is big news.

If we do think about Jesus’ questions about discipleship and we answer honestly, we need to admit that almost every one sets out on big projects not knowing the true cost or time for certain. Kings and armies and nations go to war all the time against the odds. Human beings are, in fact, really bad at predicting the future and really bad at imagining the implication or consequences for our choices.

And so what is Jesus really getting at today when he talks to the crowds and to us about discipleship?

Well, he is not talking about items for our to-do list. He is not talking about a faith that is crammed in between work and volunteering and caring for family and hobbies and leisure and summer relaxing and fall busy-ness.

Jesus is not giving instructions for or prescribing the steps to a fuller discipleship.

Jesus is telling us what will and what is happening because God has caught us up in a story that we could never imagine or plan for or make a to-do list for in our wildest dreams.

Jesus is telling the crowds and us that following him will mean we end up in places we never saw coming. For the crowds the next place was Jesus riding into Jerusalem a King and being nailed to the cross a criminal.

And for us who know the end of the story, we still cannot predict what following Jesus to the cross will truly mean for us. And we certainly cannot imagine how Jesus’ resurrected new life given for us will change us.

And that is the point that Jesus is making.

We cannot imagine giving up our family, even as God welcomes us into a new family, the family of the Body of Christ.

We cannot carry the cross, even as Jesus goes to the cross for our sake, dying to sin and death and rising to new life.

We cannot imagine giving giving up all our possessions, all that we cling to in this life and that clings to us, even as God gives up all power and might, in order to join us in creation, to take on flesh to show us love and mercy and grace.

We cannot imagine discipleship as Jesus talks about it today, because it doesn’t fit on a to-do list and cannot be squeezed into the empty slots on calendar. And because as human beings we are bound to sin and death, we are stuck in an imperfect and limited world of our making. We cannot predict the future very well, whether it is building a tower, going to war, electing a government, building an underpass, planning a career, growing a family or ensuring a faith community like this one carries on for our children and grandchildren.

And yet our ability to plan, to know and understand what following Jesus will mean for us is not what matters.

Rather, it is Jesus who does discipleship for us. It is Jesus who sets us on the path of following him to new places. Jesus who shows us the way out of sin and death, out of limits and imperfection. Jesus shows to us to the cross, to resurrection and new life. Jesus transforms us, even while we don’t know what the end result will be.

Discipleship isn’t a task that Jesus is handing on to us, following Jesus isn’t really something we can do at all.

Because Jesus the one following us, the one coming to us, the one giving up his father, the one carrying our cross, the one giving away all he possessed, in order to hold on to us. In order to carry us from sin and death, to the new life the resurrection… to new life that we could never predict or imagine or plan for.

For Jesus, discipleship has never been about what we are doing but about God transforming us from sinners to forgiven, from suffering to wholeness, from death to new and resurrected life.

Jesus and breaking the rules for the right reasons

Luke 13:10-17

When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” (Read the whole passage)

I know a pastor who tells his congregation the following about his day off: “if you want to see me on Monday, you have to die.” A dramatic statement, with some humour, to make the point. There is only one exception for which he will give up his personal time, imminent death.

Boundaries around time, work and family, leisure and hobbies are sometimes hard to navigate. We live in a world that is always challenging boundaries. The boundaries of national borders, the boundaries of science and technology, the boundaries of social convention, of workers personal and private time, of online privacy and security.

And so to leave our time and place to listen in on a scene from Jesus’ time and place, we have to understand that boundaries were not so easily pushed and broken. Boundaries and rules and limits were hard and fast, exceptions were rare.

Yet, like that pastor I know who makes a joke about having to die if you want to see him on a Monday, Jesus outlines a similar exception today. He encounters a bent and crippled woman in the synagogue, and without hesitation offers her healing. As the community of faith gathers in God’s house, the place of healing, nourishment and renewal, this crippled woman is touched by God and granted new life. Now she can look her friends and neighbours in the eye, instead of the feet. It is not only healing of a crooked back, but a healing of community. Jesus’ compassion seems to make perfect sense.

Yet, before there can be any celebration, the leader of the synagogue scolds Jesus in front of the crowds. Healing and curing illness is work, and it is the Sabbath day. A day for rest and relaxation. Surely one more day would not make a difference after 18 years. The leader is worried that this exception will lead to other exceptions, and then the day set apart for no-work will be just like any other day of the week.

Jesus’ exception to the no-work rule on the Sabbath seems pretty obvious to us. The healing only took a moment, so why not heal the crippled woman? To the people of Israel, working on the Sabbath was a much bigger deal that it is to us. The Israelites had left slavery and 7 day work weeks in Egypt. In the wilderness, Yahweh then gave them the 10 commandments, including the one to rest on the Sabbath. No work for one day a week was very good news. Keeping the sabbath for rest was very important for the Israelites. The leader of the synagogue’s objection to Jesus doing work was an honest attempt at reminding the people of this good news. Taking Sabbath time was one of the most import things the Israelites did.

For us, the importance of a day of rest is… well not that important. We hear the story about Jesus today and say the healing only took moment, but we also answer those extra emails at midnight, answer those after hours phone calls, stay that one extra hour of work even though we should go home. We find it much more acceptable to give up rest time for extra work, and we celebrate those who work too much. We live in a culture of busy… rest is simply not a priority for us. And because we relax on our own boundaries, we often feel comfortable to infringe on the boundaries of others. How often have we slipped into a store minutes before it closed? Made a phone call or sent a text later than we should have? Parked in a parking spot for people with disabilities?

Of course the problem is not about measuring out how much work is okay on the Sabbath day, but how we live with the rules that govern our lives as community. How many exceptions do we make to a rule before it stops being a rule? In the Church, we have had to deal with rules and exceptions for a long time. It used to be that women and members of the LGBTQ2SIA couldn’t be pastors or serve in other leadership roles. Divorces were not permitted except in cases of infidelity. Children were not communed until confirmed. Marriages, baptisms and funerals were not performed for non-members. Sometimes those who weren’t of a certain ethnicity or skin colour were not welcome to worship.

Both keeping the rules and allowing exceptions has always been a difficult process to navigate for us. And today Jesus doesn’t actually make it easier. Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath in a 1st century synagogue. Today, Jesus might be inviting his drug addict friends to church, or tweeting with non-church goers during the sermon, or playing soccer in the sanctuary with the youth, or hosting Islamic prayer on Friday nights, or serving meals to homeless during communion.

Jesus bends the rules wherever he can, and if Jesus were busy doing all these things we would certainly protest like the leader of the synagogue, and with good reason. Yet, despite our protests, Jesus often seems to find the exceptions that we cannot see. Jesus is often more concerned with the 1 than the 99.

Still, sometimes our rules and exceptions have no obvious way around them. We can see that our rules are hurting some, but breaking them would hurt others. It feels like our only alternative is to choose the lesser of two evils. One more day of suffering for one person is the best we can do without giving up everyone else’s day off. Or so it seems. But for God, the exception is where mercy and compassion are given. And God is all about the exception:

God is giving up godly power to be intimate with powerless creation.

God is giving forgiveness to sinners who deserve condemnation.

God is preaching Good News to those who are too poor, too sick, too unclean earn it. God is going to the cross and dying when God shouldn’t die.

God is coming back to life when death should be the end.

We struggle with the rules, yet God holds all the exceptions within Godself. We cannot see the way to compassion and mercy, but God does. And God sees people before God sees rules. God values us more than the rules. We are judged and found imperfect under the rules, under the Law, but God loves us perfectly as we are.

The rules are supposed to help us live together peacefully, but eventually they serve only to condemn. And God finds the exceptions, when the rules push us down, God finds us and lifts us up. Lifts us up with mercy and compassion.

When the rules lay us low, and we are weighed down with the burden of keeping the law, when we cannot imagine exceptions without chaos, God find us in the rule bending Christ.

Christ who touches us with mercy and compassion,

Christ who holds all the exceptions in God,

Christ who is God’s exception, sent to be with us.

Christ who sets us free.

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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