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That’s not the way we do things around here Jesus

Mark 2:23-3:6
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Read the whole passage)

Today begins the second half of the church year, the first of Ordinary Time or Sundays after Pentecost. For the first half of the church year, we told the stories of Jesus’ life, beginning with Advent and Christ’ birth at Christmas. Than we continued on through Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism to Lent, and the story of Jesus going to the cross on Good Friday. And then there was the resurrection on Easter and Pentecost, the beginning of the Church. Today, we begin a six month period, 26 Sundays, of telling the stories of Jesus’ ministry, teachings and parables. 

This year we will hear mostly from the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the oldest and first Gospel to be written. And Mark’s Jesus is perhaps the most interesting. Unlike Matthew where Jesus is like a Jewish religious authority, or Luke where Jesus is a kind healer, or John where Jesus is like a philosopher, Mark’s Jesus is a wild and untamed prophet. A cantankerous mystic who has got a mission follow yet keeps getting sidetracked by people looking for help with their issues.

And today, there is no warm up to the story… Mark throws us straight into the deep end of what Jesus is facing. It is only chapter 2 and the Pharisees are already plotting to destroy Jesus. 

The disciples and Jesus are walking along, and as they walk the disciples are plucking some heads of grain from the nearby wheat fields, presumably to munch on. Yet, this almost mindless act catches the ire of Pharisees. For it is the Sabbath and plucking grain seems a lot like work. And working on the sabbath is against the 3rd commandment – Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. 

And so begins the ongoing conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, who find Jesus’ constant flaunting of the rules to be infuriating. 

So then Jesus enters into the local synagogue where the Pharisees are waiting for him. Waiting for him so that they can catch him breaking the rules, doing something truly offensive and awful… hoping that he might heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. How terrible of Jesus!

And Jesus falls for the trap… or does he, as he scolds the Pharisees for their hardness of heart. 

In case it hasn’t become obvious by now, the issue isn’t what Jesus is doing on the Sabbath. Rather, it is a familiar problem to us. 

It is the problem of “That’s not the way we do things around here.”

The summer following my first year of university, I got a job working as a camp counsellor at one of the Lutheran Bible Camps near to my hometown. Now, if you think churches can get stuck in ruts of holding to traditions and rules above all else, Bible Camps have this problem on steroids. Campers, both young and old, come year after year, generation after generation, and they expect everything to stay exactly the same. That they will sing the same songs, eat the same food, play the same games, paddle the same canoes, sleep in the same cabins, make the same crafts and on and on and on. 

My first summer working at camp, most of the staff was new, including the Camp’s Director. Being new meant we didn’t know the old traditions and rules… and there was no way we could even try to keep them and live up to expectations. So every week, when all the campers had arrived and we gathered together for the first time, the Camp Director would begin by having everyone chant three times, “That’s not the way we used to do it.” 

And then he would say, “we have heard you and we know that things are different this year. And things aren’t going to be like they used to be anymore…  but this is still the camp you know and love, even if how we do camp is a little different.”

Whether we are the Pharisees or people going to bible camp or folks who go to church, it can be easy for us to hold on to the traditions and rules of how we think things should go. And sometimes we can get a bit overzealous, holding onto the traditions no matter the cost. 

But usually the rules and the traditions were created in order to help us. The law of Moses and Israel was created so that God’s people could know God and God’s love and mercy. Bible camp brings far flung people together for a week of intentional Christian community, and the traditions help bind them together. Church helps communities of people like us come together and tell the story of Jesus again and again through lifetimes and generations so that it becomes part our bones, part of our families, part of our history and our future. 

But when the traditions and rules and laws and practices become more important than the purpose they were created for… they begin to do the opposite. They deny access to God’s love and mercy, they create tension and divide communities, they tell different stories of community, stories of judgement and conflict, exclusion and isolation. 

“That’s not the way we do things around here.”

The Pharisees think they are protecting God by making sure the rules are followed at all costs.

But then God comes traipsing into their communities in the person of Jesus… and their reaction is to plot to kill God in order to protect the laws and rules.

And likewise, we are guilty of the same, protecting the rules and traditions even as the spirit comes blowing into our midst showing us new ways of being. 

Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t show up expecting something different from us. Jesus knows that we are fallible human beings, prone to clinging to things that ultimately get in our own way. 

And so Jesus reminds the Pharisees that life comes first. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

Or in other words, what are these laws and rules for in the end. They are to help us know God and God’s love and mercy for us. 

And that is what Jesus has come for. 

To show us God’s love and mercy. 

Mercy that sometimes means the rules have to be broken. 

Love that sometimes means the traditions have to be adapted and changed. 

Because here is the thing.

Sometimes we are the rule and law oriented Pharisees. Sometimes we are the protectors of tradition at Bible camp or church. 

But sometimes we are also hungry disciples. We are also the man with the withered hand. We also people coming to camp or to church in need of God’s love and mercy. People who need a sign of God’s promise of life because we do not see it anywhere else in the world.  

And so Jesus comes. 

Jesus comes into our communities that cling to wrong things and try to protect the rules and laws and traditions that get in our own way. 

And Jesus reaches out to us, reaches out to our hungry souls, to our withered bodies, to our tired spirits. To people tired of keeping the rules and to people tired of being crushed by the rules. 

And Jesus reminds us of why we are here in the first place. 

That God has brought us together and given us the tools to share God’s love and mercy to the world – laws and traditions that help us to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Tools that should remind us that God’s mercy is for everyone, and God’s mercy is especially for us. 

And even when we loose sight that, even when we are busy trying to protect the ways we have always done it, Jesus comes to us again and again. 

Jesus comes to us week after week, right in the very places where we try the hardest to hold onto the rules. 

And Jesus comes to us in the waters of Baptism, in the Word we hear proclaimed and in the meal of mercy we shared. Jesus comes and takes our hands and restoring us to wholeness. Jesus grabs hold of us and welcomes us into God’s mercy and love, into God’s promise of new life. 

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The world has been forever changed in the past two weeks

Luke 23:33-43

The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” (Read the whole passage)

So… the world is very different place than it was two weeks ago…

Today, is Chris the King Sunday, the day on which we name and celebrate the fact that Jesus is our King, the one in control over all things, who holds us and all creation in his hands.

Christ the King is also the last Sunday of the church or liturgical year, kind of like New Year’s Eve. In many ways, Christ the King Sunday stands between two worlds. The world of the past and the world of the future. The world of the past that we are leaving behind began last Advent we began a journey that took us from the announcement of the coming of Messiah, to the birth of Christ in a Manger, to the visit of the magi at Epiphany. We kept on moving into Ash Wednesday and the path of Lent, the path to the cross. We were surprised by an empty tomb on Easter morning, and yet again by the coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire at Pentecost. After that we heard the teachings of Jesus again and anew.  Just a few weeks ago we remembered the reformation and how it shapes who we are, and we remembered loved ones who have died on All Saints Sunday. Along side all of that, we baptized new Christians, we confirmed young adults, we witnessed weddings, we celebrated anniversaries and we grieved at grave sides.

The world of the future begins in much the same way that last year began. We will begin the story of Advent, with waiting for Messiah to come.

And yet, Christ the King is not just a flip of the calendar page from one year to the next. Things don’t just continue on in the cycles and patterns of life that we are used to. Christ the King is no ordinary year end. Christ the King also carries with it a view of the end of all things, the big ending that our world is headed towards.

In many ways, the world has been preparing us to glimpse the grand scale of Christ the King. This year our world feels like it is teetering on the edge of chaos, we have seen terror attacks, we have seen mass migrations of people fleeing war and violence. We have seen whole nations grow in discontent, with fear and anxieties rising, with division and strife popping up right on our door steps. We have seen people reject the ruling class in favour of populist leaders and outcomes.

And all of a sudden the part of Christ the King Sunday that harkens to the end of time doesn’t seem so far off. What is coming next for us in our little part of the world and for all peoples of the earth feels uncertain and foggy at best, ominous and terrifying at worst. Our world feels like it is standing in a doorway… we are leaving a way of being that was comfortable and familiar, and we are about to enter a new space, a new more dangerous and unknown world. Christ the King is a doorway of sorts, a space between, neither fully in one space or the other.

And so perhaps oddly or fittingly, we don’t hear a gospel passage that is about the beginning or the end, but a story that is in the middle of Jesus’ story.

Today, we return to the cross.

We turn to a moment when Jesus is named as King, but in the least King-like of circumstances. It is an odd moment from Jesus’ story to choose to remember when we are celebrating Christ as our King. Yes, technically Jesus is talked about as a King, but only in the most mocking and sarcastic way.

(And as an aside: If there is any lesson to those who are our leaders and rulers, it that those who promise great change to devoted legions of followers looking for someone to turn their suffering around, it is that you can be hailed and worshipped as a King on Sunday only to be tried and crucified by the same crowds by Friday).

And so the moment of the cross is not really a Kingly moment, and neither is it the beginning or the end of the story.

But the cross IS a doorway moment.

The cross is moment between two worlds.

A moment where all creation stands between two worlds.

Everything that leads to the cross… from creation, to God’s covenant with the people of Israel, to the birth and ministry of Jesus was all shadowed by the reality of the Garden of Eden. That sin and death had taken hold of humanity and creation, and that no matter how much God had called us and creation to repent and return… we did not.

And so the threshold, the doorway of the cross was that Jesus along with all creation stood between the power of death and the power of the God of life.

And everything that was upside-down about the world was exposed to us. That humanity believed that power comes from the ability to control and to kill. That the one who was our king was who we were putting to death. That we suffered in a world that was more dark than light. The cross exposed all those things to us, while showing us what was to come. That true power is found in love and compassion, in the ability to make alive. That the one we were putting to death is the one who would save us all. That the world was about to be flooded with light that would overcome the darkness.

And this is the moment that we stand at today still.

Christ the King is the same threshold moment of the cross.

Our world feels like is spiralling out of control. Division and conflict seems to have won. Fear and judgement and hate seems to be growing. Terror, violence and war feels nearby and out of control. Our world feels so much different than it did just two weeks ago, just one year ago, just a decade ago.

And yet, precisely at the moment when we feel as though we are about to be swallowed up by all the darkness… Precisely at this doorway moment of Christ the King where we are about to step out of one world into the next…

This is precisely the moment when God will turn our world right side up.

God will turn us around to begin the story of life all over again.

And God will begin quietly in the stories of Advent. In the story of God coming into the world, like a match being lit in a dark room, God will remind us again and again and again that just when the world feels the most lost, the most hopeless, the most dark it can be… that light is being born in the most unexpected places.

Light that comes not from Kings or Presidents, not in bold and brash and loud and overwhelming ways.

But light birthed to teenage mothers and old carpenters, in stables and forgotten places.

Christ the King is a doorway to that world. To a world where the light is being born. Christ our King is the one who comes to us as the light of our dark world, who comes to us again and again each Advent… each time we think the darkness is about to win.

Today, God is pulling us through the threshold, through the doorway found on the cross. Christ the King Sunday is how we end one year and begin another. But Christ our King is the one in whom our God meets us on a cross, in a stable, in the dark of the world.

And today, God takes from cross to empty tomb, from stable to lavish feast around the throne, from darkness into light, from death into life.

See, the world is very different place than it was few weeks ago… because today is the doorway into God’s world.

Amen

The first President my kids will remember and the one they won’t 

My son is only about 6 months older than Donald Trump’s two year campaign for the Oval Office. My daughter a couple weeks older than Trump’s nomination at the Republican National Convention.

For the past few weeks I had been dreaming of how different the world of my children would be. Even as Canadian, the American President is an important symbol of power and authority. The first president I remember was Bill Clinton – a white man. My memory is like every other person who had a memory of a president – white men.

But for the past 8 years, a new generation now will remember a person of colour as their first president. And then my son and daughter had the promise of remembering a woman as president.

That promise is gone for now.

I can only hope that things change by 2020, that the outcome to this election is the blip in the trend and the last eight years did signify true change.

And with the ugliness of this past election cycle bombarding the entire world, I can only pray that Americans of all political stripes will repent of the division that brought them to where they are.

I pray that those politicians and other leaders who left significant portions of the population to fall further and further behind as only a few benefitted from unregulated markets and globalization will see that this greedy behaviour is pushing the world into deep crisis that we haven’t seen since the first half of the 20th century.

I pray that those who feel left behind cease using the poor and marginalized – immigrants, Muslims, uppity women and more – as the targets of their frustrations, fears and anxieties. That they will realize that this fear is creating a reality where violence and bigotry is acceptable public discourse.

There are a million reasons and ways the world is so different today than it was before the election. But I am determined to let my children know, whether a woman or another person of colour or LGBTQ person is elected to the presidency or even to be Prime Minister here in Canada or not, that power and authority is not just for white men. I am determined to help them see a world where gender, race, sexual orientation or religion are nothing but side notes in a person’s fitness for presidency.

If this election taught us anything, it is that there is a lot of work to do. And the problems we face are complex and difficult. But my children teach me everyday that the work is worth doing in order to create a world that I want for them. 

So let’s meet back here in 2020, and tell the story of a president I hope will be the one my children first remember.

The Day After Jesus Cleared the Temple – The reality of church decline

John 2:13-22

He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (Read the whole passage here). 

Jesus has come a long way from the wilderness to here. We began Lent as Jesus went for 40 days in wilderness to do what God has always done… to search for God’s people in the desert. But this time we weren’t there. So Jesus returned to civilization to begin his preaching and teaching. Last week, Jesus began preparing his disciples for what was to come – death and resurrection. And Peter would have none of it. Peter’s fears got in the way of seeing what God was up to.

Today, Jesus strikes out for a place very opposite of the wilderness. Jesus heads straight to the heart of Jerusalem society – the temple, God’s dwelling place, God’s house. The temple was a bustling place of business. There were pilgrims coming and going from all over Jerusalem. Pharisees debating religious law. Priests performing sacrifices. And lots of people selling things. Selling animals for sacrifice. Kosher food and clothes. Selling whatever a religious person might need in order to access the temple appropriately.

For most Jews the temple was the experience of a lifetime. It was something that took time and money, and was not easily afforded. The temple was a place for rich folks to come and go from, for those in the middle to visit occasionally, and for those on the bottom, the poor had no hope of ever getting the chance to make it into the temple.

But it had not always been so. All the rules about sacrifice and ritual that the temple was based on were not about keeping people out when they were first given to the people of Israel. Instead, they were meant as means to talk about God in a communal and shared way. They were meant to facilitate the communal practices of worship and prayer. They were meant to make it easier for everyone to access God’s love and God’s forgiveness of sins. As people tried harder and harder to follow the letter of the law, to be faithful Jews, they created more and more barriers to God, rather than making access easier.

By the time Jesus comes to the temple, the cost and process for even getting into the temple, an enormous building surrounded by huge imposing walls meant to protect the holy of holies, was so cumbersome that only the rich and privileged had real ease of access.

It is not surprising that Jesus seems to lose his cool. Jesus running around with a whip, overturning tables and yelling is not the Jesus we are used to. Jesus declares, “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace”. These words are more profound than we imagine. In greek ,the word for household is oikos and from that comes the word oikonomos or in english: economy. Jesus’s words could be heard this way:

Stop making my father’s economy a marketplace

What had begun as a means for the people of Israel to access God, was now a money making machine. It was a place for entrepreneurship, for making money. And the exclusive product being sold was God.

So now… this is usually the point in the sermon where we would look at the parallels between story and us. And we don’t have to look very far in Christendom to see where God is being bought and sold. We can look to the prosperity preachers on Sunday morning TV, to the Christian book stores that promise to make our spiritual life grow, or places like FOX news who are using quasi-Christian beliefs to boost ratings.

But if we really look around ourselves here, or as Lutherans in Canada and the US, or as mainline Christians over all… I think we can safely say that Jesus wouldn’t have much cause to show up with a whip to overturn our tables.

If we are selling God here… we are not doing it very well.

We look a lot more like the day after Jesus has come through and upset the order of things. Now let’s not kid ourselves, the Jerusalem temple was certainly back to business as usual the day after Jesus overturned those tables. But the Jerusalem temple which had been built and rebuilt over the course of a 1000 years, would be destroyed for good within 40 years by the very same Romans that the Jews would soon be demanding to kill Jesus.

And after the Romans razed the temple for the last time, the Jewish people had to completely change the way they did religion.

Like the Jews after the destruction of the temple, our marketplace moment has come and gone. We were once the only show in town. We were once the centres of communities all over. Our religious leaders could phone prime ministers directly. Governments have mandated holidays on our holy-days. Public schools forced children to pray our prayers and read our holy books. On Sundays everything was closed and people couldn’t do anything but come to us. Lutherans, Anglicans and Catholics, we were planting churches and starting congregations left and right 40, 50, 60 years ago. We were the ones who controlled access to God.

In order to have people walk in our doors, all we had to do was build a building and raise the money to call a pastor. And Sunday Schools were bursting, confirmation classes full, choirs robust, Sunday worship was bustling.

Yet, like the people of the Jerusalem temple we began to lose sight of what our purpose was. In Jerusalem, providing access to God’s love and forgiveness was transformed into making the right sacrifices, being ritually clean and worshipping only in God’s holy temple. Forgiveness became a way to sell sacrificial animals, to earn money for maintaining the temple, to bring people from all over to Jerusalem.

For us, providing a place for the Body of Christ to hear the word and receive the sacraments has been transformed into maintaining structures and budgets. Sermons and worship have become selling features to pay for buildings and to fill offering plates. We have flipped the functions of our building and budgets with gathering for word and sacrament. Instead of buildings and budgets being tools that allow our faith communities to gather to hear God’s word, to be baptized and receive communion;  attractive, flashy worship becomes a tool we use to keep our budgets viable and buildings open.

But somewhere along in the past few years, Jesus showed up and declared,

Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

And like the temple authorities who protest, we have lost sight of what our buildings and budgets are for in the first place.

Yet, Jesus has a curious answer for us.

“Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up”

Jesus is not talking about the physical structure. Jesus is not going to be found in the walls here. Jesus is not hiding in our wallets waiting to be put into offering plates.

Jesus is reminding us who builds this church in the first place. Jesus reminds us whose faithfulness is building the Body of Christ.

Hint: it is not our faithfulness.

God is the one who is providing the means for forgiveness. God is the one who comes to us in word and sacrament. God’s faithfulness is the purpose of our gathering together, week after week. Buildings, temple walls, balanced budgets, ritually purified coins, programs that bring the people in, animal sacrifices… these are not the things that show us where God is.

God is in the person, the flesh of Jesus who comes and meets us in our misguided attempts to be faithful.

God is the One we meet in the Word, in the words of faith proclaimed here, over and over. Words like forgiven, mercy, grace. Like Gospel, baptism, communion. Like peace, love and welcome.

God is the One that we feel and encounter in water, bread and wine. Who we touch as we embrace our brothers and sisters in faith. Who we hear with words of eternal life, with words just for us.

Jesus is reminding that God can raise up the body of Christ without bricks or mortar, without budgets and programs. God can build churches just with people, with a book, with bread and a cup. None of us can do that, no matter how strong our faith. 

As faithful as we try to be by building holy places for people to meet God, as upside down as get things as we try to sell God to pay for our holy buildings, Jesus is coming out of the wilderness to meet us right in the heart of our marketplaces. Jesus is coming right to the middle of our bustling temples.

And Jesus, for a a while now, has been relieving us of the burdens of buildings and budgets. Jesus has been overturning our tables and whipping us back into shape. And it is Jesus that shows us that God’s temple, God’s church is not buildings and budgets, but people, the Body of Christ.

Jesus shows us that our overturned tables have not been turned upside down, but instead Jesus has turned them and us…

Right side up.

What have you to do with us Jesus?

Mark 1:21-28

… 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”… (Read the whole passage here.)

Sermon

Today, we pick up in Mark’s gospel where we left off last week. Jesus has preached his first sermon, “The Kingdom of God has come near” and called Simon and Andrew, James and John to be disciples.

Now the group of them head to Capernaum, which becomes the home-base for Jesus’ ministry. It is the Sabbath, the day of worship, and they go to the synagogue. Jesus begins teaching, as was the right of any circumcised Jewish man. Usually, it was local scribes or rabbis who preached but sometimes travelling preachers like Jesus would come by to teach.

As Jesus begins, the congregation notices something different. Jesus is not teaching like the scribes. The scribes who were like walking encyclopedias of religious knowledge. The scribes were experts in the law, in the teachings and interpretations of the Jewish faith. The scribes didn’t innovate or interpret, they simply memorized what had been interpreted and written down by rabbis and other authorities long ago. New teaching was dangerous and probably heretical. It was important to stick to what they knew to be tried and true.

Yet, Jesus was preaching something new. Something different. Jesus was preaching from his own authority. Preaching like he had some special access to Moses, Elijah and the other prophets. Like he had special access to God.

While most people weren’t sure what to make of this Jesus guy, who he was or where his authority came from, one person did. Or rather an unclean spirit did. While regular humans don’t see who Jesus really is, the supernatural unclean spirit knows. And the spirit knows that Jesus is a threat to the established order. The spirit knows that Jesus has come to turn things upside down. The spirit knows the world that he and the people around him are stuck in is the past. The comfortable systems, traditions and ways of being that they are used to are over. Jesus is going wreck things.

The spirit is the one who speaks.

What have you to do with us? I know who you are!

The man with a spirit might just be a man with an unclean spirit. But for Mark the man might also represent the ways in which that community, that world, was possessed by tradition. Stuck in past. Unable to introduce any change that threatens the status quo.

Sound familiar?

Churches these days often struggle with this issue. We often long for things to be as they once were. We long to have Sunday schools with 100 kids every Sunday, and services that are standing room only. We long for offering plates to beoverflowing, we hope for more baptisms than funerals. We long for the past, or at least the way we remember things to be.

As a faith community or as individuals we can be possessed by our past. We can fear change, block anything new, strive to keep things the same. As the old joke goes,

How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb?

Change!??! That lightbulb was good enough for my grandfather, so it is good enough for us.

When the unclean spirit names the threat that Jesus is not only to the good deal that the spirit has possessing some poor man, but also the threat that Jesus represents the whole world of the people of Capernaum and beyond, Jesus will have none of it.

Be silent and come out of him!

Jesus will not be deterred by the anxiety and fears, or the unwillingness of the spirit or people to let go. Jesus is preaching a new world, Jesus is calling the people around him into the future, into a new way of living. Jesus’ new teaching is astonishing, radical, unheard of. And it comes from a place that people don’t understand, but that the unclean spirit gets. The unclean spirit knows that the old ways, that the established approved way of doing things is safe, is comfortable, it is known. The spirit knows that people would so often rather be possessed by trying to maintain the past than face the unknown future.

Be Jesus knows that God is calling us into something new and unknown. And Jesus knows that we need to be exorcized of our fears and worries if we are going to see God’s future. Because we are often possessed by maintaining our past, by trying to recreate what we once were. We hold onto the traditions, systems, and ways to doing things that were good for our grandparents and so, we believe, are good enough for us.

Now don’t hear Jesus wrongly. Jesus is not saying that the past is wrong or bad. Jesus is not saying that God wasn’t active in the past, or that God wasn’t working through the ways we used to do things. Often when churches and individuals face change, letting go of what we once were is so hard because it feels like we are dishonouring our forebears. It feels like we are saying our parents and grandparents were wrong, that they weren’t being faithful.

That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus knows that God has been present among the people, among us the whole time. Jesus isn’t exorcizing us of our past. Jesus is exorcizing us of our holding on, of our resistance to change, of our need for safety and comfort. Of our fears and anxieties.

It is not the past that keeps us from seeing God’s future, it is our efforts to keep things the same, to recreate what once was, what we once were.  And Jesus’s new teaching is really about showing us that new world. Showing us God’s future. Showing that God is coming to, meeting us in the future. God knows we cannot go backwards.

And that is what is so radical to the people in the synagogue in capernaum, so radical for us today. God is not a God of the past, God is not about keeping things, keeping us the same. God is about resurrection, about turning death and forces that hold us back, into new and abundant life.

Let us pray,

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Gospel According to Downton Abbey

Around New Years, my wife and I jumped on the Downton Abbey bandwagon and binged-watched the whole series in about a week. For those who don’t know, Downton Abbey features an aristocratic household in the early 20th Century, following the lives of the Lords and Ladies who live “upstairs” and the servants who live “downstairs” at Downton Abbey.

Downton’s appeal is that it is like a view into a time that our world can almost remember. My grandfather born in 1919 would have been a baby just around the time the show takes place. It is almost memorable for us but still so very different.

Now, I promise no spoilers.

Downton-Abbey-CastOne of the main themes of the show is change. The early 20th Century was much like the early 21st Century is now. There was a technological revolution taking place, and it is funny to watch the characters of Downton deal with the newness of very old technology. Electricity, phones and automobiles were transforming the way people communicated, traveled and worked. There were new jobs which required new skills, while old skills and jobs were being made obsolete. Communication over long distances was now instant and ubiquitous, with phones being installed in houses. Cars allowed people to travel farther and faster. Medicine was being revolutionized with anti-biotics and surgical procedures. And of course, warfare became more deadly with inventions like machine-guns and tanks.

Alongside this great technological change was social change. The established social orders were unravelling, the servant class looked forward to new opportunities, while the upper class watched as their power and influence eroded. While the show hasn’t made it as far as the Great Depression, this event would become a seminal moment of this era, leading into a very different middle 20th Century. Communication and technology were creating a new democratization of opportunity. The social playing field was levelling.

The technological and societal changes were evolving a world for the young adult generation that was very different than the world of their parents and grandparents, causing generational tensions.

This all sounds somewhat familiar doesn’t it?

I don’t think Downton Abbey would have worked as a show 10 years ago. Yet, today we can equate the experience of a phone in every house with a smart phone in every pocket. We can understand the experience of new ubiquitous instant telephone communication like new social media connectivity. We experience clear class distinctions with our growing economic disparity and inequality. These mirrored experiences with our great-grandparent’s generation make the show appeal to our present.

However, as a pastor, there is one thing that makes my hair stand on end, episode after episode.

Throughout the show, characters often talk about how “everything is changing.” Even though it isn’t always clear what this new technology and these new social attitudes will mean for the world, everyone carries a deep sense of change. Some embrace the change and look forward to this new world. Others grieve it and lament what these changes will mean. In particular, the privileged upper class is generally fearful of what they will lose and often work to prevent or slow the change. The servant / working class generally embraces the change, looking for what they can gain and attempt to hasten the arrival of this new world.

The experience of “change” that the characters are having is uncannily like the experience of change that so many churches are going through today. In fact, there are moments in the show that feel so much like my day to day life in ministry, as those around me have the same deep sense of the “changing” world of our time. The image of our contemporary church that Downton presents is not lost on me for a second.

As these once great aristocratic families wander about this great house, this great mostly empty Abbey (or church), bemoaning the change going on about them; they have no idea how they got to where they are, they do not know how to react or what to prepare for. As it becomes clearer that their traditions and social standing are no longer relevant or guaranteed by society itself, the upper class holds on tighter and tighter to what they once had and long for a return to earlier times.

Just to make sure there is nothing missed, the completion of the mirror image comes in the grief the upper class carries for their loss of privilege.

No, the image that Downton presents of present day Christianity, especially mainline Christianity, is not lost on me at all.

Downton Abbey should become required watching for churches today.

It would serve us well to see just how blind we are to our entrenched societal privilege. It would serve us well to see how our traditions are viewed by those forced to attend to them rather than benefit from them. It would serve us well to see how our privilege is not going to last forever, in fact, it will probably not even last the decade.

As our privileged position of being the state and social religion, of being the dominant culture and moral system, of being able to discriminate for “religious reasons” is coming to an end, it can only be a good thing for us.

This is where the gospel part of Downton Abbey comes in. The privileged class sees only the loss of their position and power in the world, but the under class starts to see the beginning of something new. They see hope for a different world.

As a millennial, I only have the foggiest or vicarious memory of the glory days of Christian privilege. As a pastor, I don’t remember being a well respected authority figure in the larger community. I don’t remember churches having much, if any, influence over society around us. But like the young aristocrats of Downton Abbey who are far more comfortable with this new world, and who are far more comfortable interacting with the lower classes, I am ready to be – and to lead – the Church into this new world.

It is very tempting to lament our loss of privilege, we could just wander about our big empty churches wondering how we got to where we are, but the Good News of Downton Abbey is that our privilege is being stripped from us. It is Good News because the barriers that prevented the under-privileged from integrating with us are falling down. It is Good News because we can now begin to play on a level playing field, a democratized playing field where people can choose us, rather than be forced to adhere to us. It is Good News because, like the aristocrats of Downton Abbey, it is time for the world to stop serving us and for us to start serving the world.

Besides, I think serving the world was kind of big deal for that guy we like to follow… Jeeves was it? Or Juan?

Oh right… Jesus.

So are you a fan of Downton Abbey? Experienced the Church’s struggle with change? Share in the comments, on Twitter: @ParkerErik, or on Facebook

More posts about change:

Why Christians have lost the argument for faith before it started

Old and New: Thanks about the World Differently