Tag Archives: Church

How many times can we forgive? None.

Matthew 18:21-35

Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Read the whole passage)

We have been hearing the stories of Jesus’ ministry for a while now, we started back in spring and through the whole summer. For the past few weeks, Jesus has been challenging the disciples more than usual. He has put before them the question of who they think he is. Jesus has rebuked Peter for not getting it when Peter tried to stop Jesus from going to his death. And last week, Jesus challenged his disciples and us with the reality of conflict resolution, of how it is that God truly sees us.

But today, it is Peter who puts the hard question to Jesus. “How often should I forgive?” he asks “Seven times?”

And while usually when we hear this story we move on to Jesus’ response, Peter’s question deserves some time to consider… We need to slow down and truly hear what Peter is getting at.

Yet, before even considering how much we ought to forgive, maybe it is worth reflecting on our own experience with forgiveness.

Think back to the last time you had to forgive someone in your life. And not just a small acts of forgiveness like for your spouse getting regular ground beef instead of lean ground beef at the grocery store, or for your neighbour’s leaf blower sending all their leaves onto your lawn, or for that grandchild who spilled juice on the couch.

Rather, try and think of that time you forgave someone for something big. Something that was hurtful and life impacting. Something that was more than an accident or forgetful moment.

It is probably likely that most of us haven’t had to give that kind of forgiveness recently, maybe even at all in our lives. Or if we have, it has been only a few times.

And it is also likely that IF we have forgiven someone for something big that we haven’t forgiven fully. The sin committed against us probably still stings, that a part of us still holds it against the sinner, that maybe we bring up the offense from time to time to make the one we forgave still feel guilty.

Forgiveness is a complicated process. And it can be just as much about letting others off the hook of our judgment, as letting go of the hooks ourselves… freeing ourselves from having to hold others in judgement and condemnation. It is a lot of work to hold a grudge, to hold onto our hurt.

And so is Peter asking about this kind of hard work forgiveness? Probably not.

In fact, Peter doesn’t seem to be asking about forgiveness at all. More something like chances. How many chances do I have to give someone before I can hold their feet to the fire? Seven?

Peter wants a type of forgiveness he can control, a measuring stick that he can wield against even his brothers and sisters in Christ, against the people closest to him.

He is talking about the kind of forgiveness as chance giving that we use daily, the free passes for little offences that we give out depending on our mood and how much coffee we were able to drink in the morning.

So Jesus answers Peter’s question. Jesus tells us how much we are to forgive. 70 times 7 or 490 times. But it is NOT the number that is important. It is how Jesus gets there. Jesus multiplies Peter first guess. In a way Jesus is saying, however much you think is a generous amount of forgiveness, multiply that and then multiply it again… by a lot.

And yet, just to make sure that Peter gets the point and just to make sure that we get the point, Jesus tells a parable. It is a simple parable. A King forgives a slave an enormous amount. The slave then turns around and does not forgive a fellow slave a much smaller amount.

In our modern world, where we deal with big numbers often…  so 10,000 and 100 don’t seem like much. But to really understand the depth of Jesus’ point we need to do some math.

10,000 talents and 100 Denarii are two vastly different amounts. A Denarii was what a day labourer would ear for one day’s work. Whereas a talent was worth 15 years of wages.

10,000 talents was worth about 54 million denarii.

The king forgave a debt that would have taken the slave 3000 lifetimes to work off.

The forgiven slave had a fellow slave thrown in prison for 3 months worth of wages.

The difference between the two is absurd.

But of course, Jesus is making point in using ridiculous numbers.

Forgiveness is NOT about an amount. It is NOT just a measuring stick for how judgemental we can be.

True forgiveness is that hard and complicated process that we might never achieve ourselves in our lifetime.

How often should we forgive? Jesus answer is, “Over and over and over and over and over.”

And even then, Jesus says, even after you have practiced forgiveness for a lifetime… remember that forgiveness is not something that you can do on your own.

What Peter doesn’t realize and what we regularly forget is that true forgiveness, the kind of mercy and forgiveness that Jesus has come to show the world is God’s alone to give.

That when God releases us from God’s judgment we are transformed. That from the moment we are born into this world are we are “on the hook” for our selfishness and self-centredness, we are on the hook for our sin. We are on the hook to die. And we hang from the hook, being held in judgment. Judgment that says we are not enough. We are not good enough, not righteous enough, not holy enough, not perfect enough. We are failures and frauds. We are sinners. And because of that, we will die.

But there, as we are dying on the hook for our sins, we are held in judgment that we can neither let go of ourselves or escape…God comes. God comes to us in the waters of baptism. And God raises us up, God releases us, God frees us. God says that we are no longer held in judgement, we are no longer destined to die. That in baptism we are now held and alive in Christ.

Christ who forgives. Jesus who releases us from judgment. The Son of God who brings God’s mercy near and close.

And then, over and over again, God reminds us that we are forgiven.

As we gather for worship we practice it.

We confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness again.

We hear the word proclaimed, and God shows us grace again.

We sing and pray and confess our faith and share the peace, and God tells us the story of God’s love for us again.

We welcome the newly baptized into our community of faith, and God welcomes us all in the Body of Christ again.

We come and receive bread and wine, and God gives us forgiveness to eat and drink and to live our very bodies again.

Forgiveness as hard as we know it to be, as complicated as we know that it is to give, as difficult as it is to receive…. Forgiveness is not what Peter describes today. And we know that. We know that forgiveness is not the power to hold our brothers and sisters in judgement.

But we need Jesus tell us what forgiveness truly is. And Jesus reminds us tell us again that forgiveness is the work of God in our world and in our lives. It is not something that we can do one our own, but rather forgiveness is what God is doing to us and for us. God is letting go of the judgment we are held by, God is releasing us from being on the hook for sin and death. God is forgiving us completely and wholly… over and over and over and over again.

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Turning Cornerstones into Stumbling Blocks

Matthew 16:21-28

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Read the whole passage)

We would all like to believe that we would have been smart enough. That we would seen what the others missed. We hope that had we been the ones those following Jesus around the backwoods of Galilee, that when he would speak of his impending suffering, we would have been able to keep our mouths shut, or even agree with him. If we had been standing in Peter’s shoes, maybe we wouldn’t have tried to stop Jesus from coming to harm and instead we would have known that Jesus’ life on earth necessitated the cross.

To hear Jesus speak to us today, means we must take a moment  to imagine Peter’s humiliation in front of his friends. Jesus calls him a stumbling block. A stumbling block simply because Peter showed concern for his teacher and his friend. Jesus seems to be a little a hard on Peter. Jesus is hard on this poor guy that just moments before he had been praising. Praising Peter for his faith and his sight.

You see, just before the conversation we hear today, Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. And Jesus responds by changing Peter’s name, which was Simon, to Peter. Petros. Rock. “On this rock, I will build my church”. This is what Jesus has just proclaimed to Peter, and then Jesus turns that rock and foundation, into a stumbling block. How quickly Jesus turns things on their head.

But why is Peter rebuked so? What is so wrong with having concern for one’s friend and teacher. It is not as if Peter was acting maliciously. It is not as if Peter was trying to trip Jesus up. He was simply showing concern. He was trying to be the good guy. Poor Peter, always speaking first and only later thinking through was he has said and done, seems to be the victim of a moody Jesus. Or at least that is the way it may seem. But with Jesus there is always something else going on.

We all hope that we would see the world more clearly than Peter did, yet we know that we are not much different. Most of us know that we would have responded in the same way to Jesus when he spoke of his coming suffering. Most of us have spoken to loved ones that way, we have warned those we care about of impending danger and we have warned against taking dangerous risks.

And how can we help it? We live in a world that desires above all else, safety and security. We are bombarded by media that tells us to buy more insurance, to invest more for our retirement, to drive safer cars, to lock our doors and install home security systems. We drive our kids to school, even its only a few blocks. We do not go out alone at night. We strive to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. And why shouldn’t we. Are we not caring for those we love when we keep them safe?

Certainly it is because we care that we strive for safety and security. We care for our loved ones, and we do not wish them to come to harm. Most of us would give our own lives to save the life of someone we cared about.

And yet, somewhere in the desire to care for our own, there is also the desire to be in control. At the root of our search for safety and security is the selfish desire to control the world around us, to shape things in our vision. To make the world according to our own image. Because deep down, we know that the only way to be truly safe and secure… is to be in control. If we can be in control, there are no surprises, nothing unexpected, no one will get hurt… and no one will be free.

When Jesus rebukes Peter and calls him a stumbling block, you can imagine there must have been sadness in his voice. A sadness about Peter’s inability to understand, a sadness for the people for whom Jesus would suffer. Peter doesn’t see the bigger picture, the divine picture. Instead, Peter is looking to control the situation, to control Jesus, and Jesus is frustrated with him because of it. Jesus is trying to get at something bigger, something more important than what Peter is worried about. Jesus is pointing to the end of the story.

When Jesus tells his disciples to take up their cross it is not a command or an order. Taking up the cross to follow Jesus is not about following a noble cause, or a sign of our great faith. Rather, Jesus’ words are an invitation to see the world anew, to set aside our fears about being unsafe and not in control, and to see a world where God is at work. Where God is doing things, where God is creating life, where God is loving God’s creation.

Jesus’ invitation to take up our crosses and follow are also a promise. A promise that is staked in the ground, a promise on which Jesus hangs. The promise that the violence and death found on the cross is not the end of life. Suffering and death do not define our existence, they are not the powerful entities out there. Death is not the end of our story. Rather with God there is the promise resurrection, there is the promise of New Life and a New Creation.

We are often stumbling blocks like Peter, stumbling blocks that hinder ourselves more than anyone else. And again like Peter and the disciples, we usually don’t get what Jesus means when he says, “take up your cross and follow me”. But when we do get the point, its is when we remember that we do know the end of the story, that we do know what happens on Easter Sunday.

Jesus’ invitation shows us that we cannot take up our cross on our own. For us, the cross is insurmountable, death is insurmountable. But for God the cross is transformed. It is transformed from the greatest tool of control and power than humanity has ever wielded, into God’s greatest sign of love, grace and mercy. God proclaims loudly in Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, that death shall be no more and that is God is the end of the story. To take up the cross, is to live at its foot knowing what God has made of the cross’s power. To follow Jesus, is to be loved by God and to be given New Life in God’s New Creation. To live by the Holy Spirit is to be the stumbling blocks that God uses to build His church.

Today, Jesus speaks to Peter, Jesus speaks to us and says, “Let go, give control. I have got this. It will be okay.”

And because of this, we are set free, set free to live in the world in which God is in control.

Set free because Jesus carries our cross, our cross on which death no longer hangs, but instead New Life in Christ.

Why White Supremacy is a Sin

The events of Charlottesville, VA over the weekend were truly tragic and deplorable. One of the things that struck me was just how groundless and arbitrary the reasons were for white nationalists to gather for a rally. How pointless was the violence and death inflicted on people over a statue?

Even here in Canada, this kind of open display of hatred evoked a visceral reaction. To see nazis and klan members taking the streets was surreal. This is something that used to belong only in historical source footage and fictionalized movies. And yet there it was, in my newsfeed along side the regular photos of friends on holidays, recipe videos, cat pics and other news articles.

As a white Christian, I cannot help but feel outraged and shamed by the images and videos of white men who look just like me “rallied” thinking they were standing up for themselves. There is simply no excuse or moral justification for what took place in Charlottesville.

As a pastor, I struggled with how to address the events of the weekend. And I confess, that I did not re-write or change my sermon to address the issue of white nationalism (I did address Charlottesville in the intercessory prayers). But still I agreed with the many calls for pastors – white pastors in particular – to name the sin of white supremacy and racism. This article in particular named the need for pastors to speak out very well.

But one thing I noticed that was largely absent or only briefly address are the reasons why white supremacy is a sin. And while it may seem obvious to many or most people that this kind of hatred is sinful, I don’t think it is understood by or obvious to all.

In fact, I quite honestly doubt that those who espouse white supremacy and Christian faith understand why the two are incompatible. While some may choose to hate knowing that it is ‘wrong,’ I think many simply don’t understand that this hatred is, in fact, wrong and sinful.

So hopefully to add some clarity to the call to name white supremacy as a sin, here is the  why:

Sin

To begin with, we need to understand what is sin. So often we think of sins as “bad things” that we do. This is only a surface and passing understanding. To better understand sin, it needs to be more deeply understood in two ways. First, sin is distortion in our relationship with God. Second, sin is distortion in our relationships with other people and creation.

Sin is when we put ourselves first. When we put ourselves above God, trying to be God in God’s place (Commandments 1-3 in the Lutheran order). It is also when we put ourselves above others and creation, tying to be God over others and creation (Commandments 4-10 in the Lutheran order).

The sin of hierarchy

White supremacy is a sin because it elevates some people above other people for arbitrary reasons. It attempts to claim that some (white people) are more fully human, while others (people of colour) are less human. This is a violation of commandments 4-10 meant to keep our relationships with others and creation in balance. This is also a violation of commandments 1-3 meant to remind us of who is God, and that God alone defines our humanity.

The sin of trying to be like God

White supremacy is also a sin because it also tries to claim who is worthy of God’s love and favour, saying that God has arbitrarily chosen some people (white people) over others (people of colour). God alone chooses who is worthy of God’s love and favour, and God has chosen all peoples and all nations.

The sin of limiting the Gospel

And finally, the most important, white supremacy is a sin a because it tries to constrain and control the gospel, and ultimately to control and constrain God. God in Christ has declared that grace is given for all people. To restrict the Gospel or the Good News is to attempt to confine and control God, to be God in God’s place.

Trying to be God in God’ place is at the root of all sin.

The Gospel overcomes sin and death

God became incarnate in flesh to show us (all humanity) that the New Life given in Christ is given for all people. And there is no ideology based on arbitrary differences (like skin colour) that can constrain that Good News.

And in the face of racism and white supremacy, the Good News is that Christ is not controlled or restricted by white supremacists (not matter what they claim) or any others who would claim to limit Christ’s saving act of dying on the cross and rising to New Life so that New Life may be given for all.

The Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection is something that God has given to all peoples and no one can change that.

So as pastors and other leaders in faith continue on through this week and into next Sunday naming and condemning the sin of white supremacy, my hope is that we also take the time to say why.

Because in saying why white supremacy is sinful, we also remind people that God’s love, mercy and grace is given for all.

Setting aside our mustard seed dreams for a mustard bush Kingdom

Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (read the whole passage)

To consider the immensity God’s kingdom usually defies our imaginations. For those sorts of people who ponder the mysteries of life, thinking about the Kingdom of God, about heaven, is as attractive as it is frustrating. There are so many possibilities, yet few particulars. Dreaming big comes pretty easy for most of us. We are taught to dream about the future at an early age. “What do you want to be when you grow up? A Hockey Player, an astronaut, a rock star, prime minister or maybe all of the above! But the motivation to dream big doesn’t end in childhood, but rather it is ramped up and stakes are higher as we grow older. Imagine life with that new car, with that new house, with no debt, with a wealthy retirement, with that new and better paying job.

We like our big stuff in this part of the world. And to dream big about the Kingdom of God, about Heaven is fair game. To imagine a lavish wedding banquet, or a cloudy paradise where friends and family greet you, or perhaps dozens of golf courses all empty and waiting to be played on nice sunny days.

There is no shame in dreaming big, and yet there is the inevitable downer of not having these dreams realized, of our hopes and dreams always and only being only hopes and dreams. All too often, our expectation, our anticipation is of something big and exciting happening in our lives. We spend a lot of time waiting for the next mountaintop experience by simply glossing over the rest. Weekdays are for getting us to weekends, school is for getting us jobs, jobs are for making money to spend on weekends and to save for retirement… retirement is about waiting to die? I hope not.

Jesus presents us with a scandal today, but we may have glossed it over waiting to get to the good part. For Jesus, the Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like a treasure small enough to bury in a field, like pearl only worth a lowly merchants wages, like a net that catches fish. For Jesus, the Kingdom of heaven seems to be nothing like we have imagined it. The Kingdom of heaven is more like these mundane and trivial objects, than the great golf course we imagined. We almost should ask, “What are you talking about Jesus?”

But Jesus is the one who has asked us first, “What are you talking about?” Jesus sees through our dreaming, and addresses us at our deepest insecurities, at our fears. Our fears that are hidden by our dreaming. Our fears about what we are capable or incapable of accomplishing in life, our fears about our futures, our fears about death. The Kingdom God is stripped from our dreaming and replaced with something that we don’t like, something that we want to avoid. Jesus names and points to the Kingdom of God, right here in the mundane boringness of everyday life.

Jesus’ examples of the Kingdom of God challenge everything we have been taught. It challenges each incidence where we were asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “What school do you want to go to?” “Where do you want to retire to?” Jesus’ proposal about the Kingdom is not the way we are supposed to imagine things, it challenges our constant future orientation, our glossing over of the present, our displeasure with reality. For to imagine a Kingdom of God in the future is to deny that this world has much meaning and importance, this unsatisfying existence is not what our selfishness nature desires. And for Jesus to see the Kingdom of God in small, inconsequential things is to go against our desire for always something bigger and better.

And yet, when Jesus names the Kingdom right here and right now in the world, it changes and transforms this reality that we are constantly wanting more from. The world becomes something that we do not expect, something that we have never anticipated or dreamed of. It becomes God working among us.

To see this small thing, this small mustard seed is to see the Kingdom of God at work. What Jesus is getting at today, indeed, initially challenges our dreams of bigger and better. But once we those dreams are set aside, we see that what Jesus is describing is a dream much bigger than we can imagine. It is to see God’s Kingdom right here among us, right here among in the unsatisfying and undesirable conditions of life. Right here among us turning the tiny and trivial into life changing and life altering experiences.

God’s Kingdom comes to us in the present, it comes to us where we are. And it comes in forms that we do not expect, in ways that we cannot imagine. It comes to us in the flesh of Christ, in God as a lowly human being. It comes to us in small seeds, hidden treasures, and fishing nets. God’s promise of love and grace for us small and insignificant sinners will be made known the Baptism that we will see this morning. In the Holy Bath that we all share, in simple water that changes who we are and that makes us members of the Body of Christ, of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus says today, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds bringing about the fullness of God.

Reformation 500 – The Next 500 years for Lutherans, Protestants and the Church

This year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous act of nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st.

This act is considered by many as the beginning of the Reformation.

For Lutherans, Martin Luther’s particular witness to the gospel of Christ forms the basis of our confession and understanding of the Christian faith.

So as Reformation 500 approaches this year, Lutherans all over the world are commemorating the anniversary (as opposed to celebrating) and we are trying to include brothers and sisters of other denominations, particularly Roman Catholic, where possible.

As I attended the National Convention of the denomination in which I serve, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, we have been asked to consider what the next 500 years will bring for Lutherans, and all Christians.

This question has been rumbling around in my mind for a long time and in a renewed way this 500th anniversary year.

This is not an easy question to answer. It is deeply related to the biggest struggles of European and North American churches, most notably it relates to our experience of decline. Before getting to what I think the next 500 years will hold for us, the issue of delcine needs to be addressed.

Humans have this habit of thinking that what just happened will continue happening indefinitely. We, in this North American context of Lutheranism and wider Christianity, have been experiencing churches that are dropping in membership and attendance, budgets that are getting bigger while giving is shrinking and the average age of those still in the pews and contributing is getting older. And because this is our most recent experience we assume that the future holds more of the same.

But this is actually a really poor prediction model.

Let me put it in different terms.

50 years ago, the same kind of convention that I attended for my denomination would have looked like this: The-American-Lutheran-Church-Constituting-Convention_2-18-13

Now imagine going to someone standing in that crowd and telling them that in a mere 50 years, that the 3 or 4 Lutheran bodies that each look like the above picture will be merged together and look like this when they gather:

19800617_10159029420640541_3990159967040986153_o
Photo Credit – https://www.facebook.com/CanadianLutherans/

Thousands reduced to less than 200.

Those people back in the 50s and 60s would have laughed and laughed and laughed… But this is where we are now. So what would make people today laugh and laugh and laugh… not a prediction of more of the same. But perhaps a predication that churches will be filled once again… filled with a new spirit and new vitality that we would have never dreamed or imagined. It won’t be the 50s again, but it will be something unexpected and new.

You see, we also have to think back 100 years to gain perspective. Much of North American Christianity looked similar to where we are now. There were some large and thriving groups, but lots of small communities barely able too keep up buildings, barely able to pay pastors, barely able to fund seminaries or missionaries or wider church structures. Many church groups were marginal to larger society and many churches didn’t make it and were lost to history.

But think about it, society was in a time of great transition. Conflict was the story of global politics (WW1), immigration was high (settling the western part of the continent), new technologies were changing the way people lived (electricity, telephones, automobiles, modern medicine etc…). And it remained messy for nearly the entire first half of the 20th century.

But this chaotic situation eventually led to many, many people seeking a truth greater than themselves, finding solace in the promises of a God who was in control when the world seemed ready to end, finding comfort in faith despite the rapid pace of new technology constantly changing the world.

We don’t have to think about our current world situation very long to see the similarities, to see that our political and economic world which once seemed to provide a stability for people to live their lives on, is turning into an instability that is only going to get worse before it gets better.

Most predications that I hear about the next 500 or 50 or 5 years tell us that decline will simply continue indefinitely and we are just going to have to accept that.

I don’t.

I don’t think that the antidote to decline is to simply be better sales people for church with flashiest and shiniest features to entice largest slice of a shrinking pie of interested people into church.

I think the church is about to be one of the few places of hope that many people will have to turn to in our increasingly chaotic world. I think that some political leader may just push that red button (and no it will not be like an apocalypse movie) or some aspect of climate change will be pushed over the edge, or some hacker will decide that it is time to empty everyone’s bank account… or most likely I think that through difficult struggle and resistance the average people of the world – who are sick of living under systems that privilege a small few – will decide this is not acceptable anymore.

And a paired down church will have to be ready. Ready to welcome the masses who have no where else to turn for hope. The masses who no longer rely on the invisible forces of the world (governments, international organizations, corporations and civil society) to care for them.

Over the coming years and decades, as most church leaders anticipate more decline, the world is going to surprise us. The world is going to surprise us by needing what the church has to offer.

Let me offer and example.

In 2015,  the National Church Council of the denomination that I serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada wanted to challenge our church body to 4 different ways of commemorating Reformation 500. We were encouraged to raise $500,000 for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), to provide 500 scholarships for students in Jordan and the Holy Land, to plant 500,000 trees and to sponsor 500 refugees.

As the story goes, the intial idea was the above with one fewer zero on each number. But a particular council member said, “let’s slap a zero on these challenges.”

Of course the council did not expect us to meet those goals, but swinging for the upper deck was better than just going for a base hit.

Two years later, we have raised 150,000 for the LWF (3 times the pre “slap a zero on it goal”), we have provided 160 scholarships (3 times the original goal), and we have planted 80,000 trees (almost two times the original goal.

But here is where it gets interesting.

Since 2015, and with several months to go before Oct 31, we have sponsored 540 refugees exceeding the “slap a zero on it” goal and more than 10 times the original goal!

How did we do that?

Well just a couple months after our 2015 national convention, the body of a young Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. A boy who had been denied entrance to Canada. A boy whose tragic death mobilized the world. 

So did we meet our “slap a zero on it goal” because we are a church of expert refugee sponsors? Hardly.

But rather the world needed what we had to offer. Which was communities small enough to care for families who needed help, but large enough to mobilize enough money, furniture, and volunteers to settle newcomers in our commmnities.

All we needed to do was let our anxieties about decline die just long enough to see that God was bringing about tangible new life through us. God is using us for real resurrection.

It is in this intersecting place that a declining church meets a world in need of hope.

The decline of North American churches in the past few decades is not a never ending trend. But I do think God is using this time to help us shed our baggage. God is letting us struggle so that we can get all the wrong fixes and solutions to decline out of our system. So that we can try trendy music and flashy tech and hip pastors. So we can try to reincarnate the knitting groups and service clubs and curling bonspiels of the past. So that we can get all the complaining and shaming of our family, friends and neighbours over with. So that we can see that nothing we come up with will be the solution to our problems.

God is letting us experience decline long enough to finally die to our memories and nostalgia of the glory days and realize that the only thing the church ever had was the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. All we ever were at our best are communities grounded in Christ’s new life given for us.

To be honest, I think in many ways the next 500 years for Lutherans and for North American Christianity will look a lot like the last 500. We will continue to be communities where the gospel is preached and where the sacraments are administered. Sometimes we will be strong in number and power. Other times we will be weak and marginalized. But in the end, neither of those realities matter.

That God is answering all the sin and death in the world with resurrection and new life proclaimed in churches just like us does.

Abraham failed the test… and so did God

Genesis 22:1-14

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. (Read the whole text)

Here we are back into the long season of green, the chance to explore the various stories the bible. The Gospel readings of this season tell about Jesus’s teachings and ministry. The Epistle readings take us through the various letters of the New Testament to explore what was happening in the early church. And the Old Testament readings give us the stories of God’s people.

Today, the story of Abraham and Isaac is simply too tempting to avoid exploring.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one we know well. It is a story that is not only familiar when we hear it, it is one whose themes are used over and over in literature, movies  and TV. How often is the hero in a movie faced with an impossible choice involving the sacrifice of someone that they love?

The reason that Christians know this story of Abraham so well is that it is often used as an example of faithfulness. Abraham is an example of unwavering faith, so the idea goes. And on the surface it is an idea that makes sense.

In order that Abraham demonstrate his faith, God orders Abraham to put his faith before everything. Before the love he has for Sarah and their only son. Before  the love that Abraham has for Isaac, the son who will be person who carries Abraham’s legacy into the future. Without Isaac, Abraham and Sarah are simply people who will be forgotten to the sands of time.

And Abraham delivers. He shows us what it means to be faithful. Abraham’s faith is so powerful an example that even the authors of the New Testament point to it as a model to follow.

Abraham is willing to sacrifice his own son if God asks. Unwavering faith.

Or perhaps blind faith.

Or perhaps radical faith.

Radical fanaticism even.

Because we don’t usually call people willing to kill for their faith great examples… we have other words for those people don’t we?

And what about God? In this story, God asks his chosen disciples and follower to sacrifice his son, the very son that is the fulfillment of the covenant.

Have we read this story right? Christians have been using Abraham as an example of faith for hundreds of years, and the Hebrew people for thousands before that.

But blind faith or radical fanaticism is not normally the kind of faith that we are trying to help grow in people, in ourselves.

And a God who toys with us simply to “test” our faith doesn’t seem very loving or caring.

So what is going on in this story?

Well, to understand how Abraham and Isaac arrive at this moment, we need to go back to the beginning.

The oldest part of the bible is not found in the stories of creation or the garden of Eden or in Noah’s flood. Rather Abraham’s is the oldest. And ten chapters before Abraham and Isaac, the story begins. Back when Abraham was Abram, and Sarah was Sarai, God called these two to take up everything they had to go to the land that God would show them.

Abraham’s story begins with a 3 part covenant made with God. God promises Abraham land, descendants and a relationship. And this 3 fold promise becomes the focus of the rest of the book of Genesis, and to some degree the rest of the Old Testament.

So Abraham and Sarah pack up everything and go. And when God says, “Go” Abraham is really good at going. He is always willing to go when God calls.

But it is this other part of the promise… the descendants one that Abraham has trouble with. Going is easy… when God commands it, Abraham does it either out of faithfulness or perhaps fear. But the promise of descendants is tougher. Faith in this promise cannot be rooted in obedience out of fearfulness. Believing that God will provide this barren couple with children takes hope, it takes faith in the future, and faith in the third promise, that Abraham and Sarah are indeed God’s chosen.

And so Abraham goes, but as soon as he encounters the powerful Pharaoh of Egypt he gives Sarah away to be a part of Pharaoh’s harem, claiming Sarah is his sister, not his wife. So God has to intervene to save the day.

And then Sarah, fearing that she will not provide a son, tells Abraham to have a child with the servant Hagar, who gives birth to Ishmael… but he is not the son that God promised.

Next God tells Abraham directly that Sarah will bear a son, and all Abraham can do is fall to the ground in laughter.

And two weeks ago we heard the story of God showing up again to tell Abraham and Sarah that she will bear a son and this time Sarah laughs.

And after all this, Abraham gives Sarah to King Abimelech for his harem, again requiring God to intervene.

So finally, after 9 chapters of Abraham’s struggle to believe the promise of children, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.

And the long awaited, hard to believe promise has come to fruition.

Yet still Abraham still struggles to believe in the promise, in hope for a future. Even with Isaac in his arms now.

Some Rabbis suggest that the test that God gives Abraham is not one of obedience. That it isn’t a game of chicken that God is playing. In fact, God knows that Abraham will follow the commands, he has always been willing to go when called.

But does Abraham have faith in God’s future? Does he believe that God will make him the father of God’s chosen people?

So just one chapter after Isaac’s birth, God gives the command to sacrifice Isaac.

So Abraham goes and for three days – without a word of protest – walks to the mountain with Isaac. And when they arrive, Isaac asks where the lamb to be sacrificed is… and Abraham says something about God providing it, knowing full well that there isn’t a lamb. Abraham then leaves his servants and pack animals behind, and goes to the ritual place with Isaac. There he ties up his son, binds his son like lamb to be slaughtered and places him on the altar.

And without hesitation raises the knife.

In that moment, when you take into account everything that has happened in the ten chapters before this… Abraham has not passed the test.

He has failed.

And so has God.

For ten chapters, through rescuing Abraham from himself, from proving wrong Abraham’s laughter at what he and Sarah thought was impossible, God must have thought that Abraham would finally believe that promise, the promise of descendants, the promise of hope and a future.

And yet for 3 days Abraham marched to mountain without a word of protest. Abraham looked his son in the eye and lied about what or who would be sacrificed. Abraham tied up his son and placed him on an altar of sacrifice. God must have expected that Abraham would protest or bargain, just as he had for the people of Sodom. God must have thought that Abraham would demand that God live up to the covenant, that God certainly wouldn’t just arbitrarily take away Abraham’s future. God waited for the protest. But nothing.

And so Abraham fails the test… but so does God, for a good test is one a student can pass.

And yet there on mountain, standing above Isaac with his knife in hand… just maybe it is Abraham who teaches God something, maybe it is Abraham who tests God.

Perhaps after 10 chapters of trying to get Abraham to believe in the covenant, in the promise of hope and future that God makes with Abraham, God realizes that Abraham cannot have faith… only fear. Fear that drives him to go when God commands, but fear that prevents him from having hope.

So God intervenes.

God caries the hope for the future that Abraham cannot.

God upholds God’s part of the covenant… even if Abraham cannot have faith in the promise…

God will have hope in Abraham, even when all the signs say that God shouldn’t.

God sends a ram.

God sends a ram who is a sign that God will not give up on us.

God sends a lamb who will be not a sign of death on an altar, but life on a cross.

A lamb whose coming into our world will signify God’s unwavering faith in us.

A lamb who is God’s promise of hope and future in the flesh.

For you see, we are just like Abraham.

In fact we are Abraham.

We too find the promises of God laughable, we find the threats to our future too much to confront, we too have difficulty seeing our hope and our future… even when God plunks signs right in our arms.

And so God sends us the lamb who will save us.

The Christ who is found in the thicket of the church.

The Christ who is mercy and reprieve from the knives that we threaten our hope with.

The Christ who is life, when there is surely and only death in store for us.

The Christ who is God’s promise in flesh.

Abraham’s faithfulness is nothing to be marvelled at, he isn’t a model to aspire to…

Abraham is a model of the faith we already have.

As too is Abraham’s fear the same fear that we carry. Fear that is dispelled each and every time we gather around God’s word of promise and hope for us.

Abraham reminds us that God knows we cannot be faithful on our own… and so God is faithful for us. God knows that the promise of Christ is our hope and our future.

God is one the passes the test for us.

Two Sparrows for a Penny

Matthew 10:24-39
Jesus said to the twelve disciples…,

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

“For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household… (Read the whole passage) 
As we begin this long season of green in the church, we start with some bold words from Jesus as told to us by the Gospel of Matthew. You would think that we could start this season of Jesus’ parables, preaching, and ministry with something a little more tame. But that is not Matthew’s style.

The 4 gospels, and their four authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, but in very different ways. Just like 4 pastors might preach very different sermons on the same topic. If we were to imagine what kind of people the gospel writers were, John might remind us of an academic, a professor type passionately using lots of words to describe his topic of study. Luke would be the compassionate care-giver, always thinking of the less fortunate. Mark should remind us of a mystic, a wise spiritual advisor who never says more than he has to.

And then comes Matthew. Matthew is like the TV evangelist, the mega church preacher preaching to a stadium of people. Matthew is the type who has all the answers. Matthew can spitfire verse after verse of scripture without hardly taking a breath. Matthew knows what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad.

And so, as we hear Matthew collect some of the sayings of Jesus, he gives them to us in spitfire fashion, one after another. 

Together, they almost sound like a warning. Warnings about being in the right allegiance, about following Jesus in the right way, about being a disciple and the dangers of what will happen if we choose the wrong side:
“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”
“rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”
“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
“For I have come to set a man against his father,”
“whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me”

Wow… harsh stuff.

The Gospel of Matthew has been the most popular gospel of Christian history. For nearly 1000 years, it was the only Gospel that christians used. And when we hear what Matthew offers us today, as harsh as Jesus sounds, Matthew’s popularity makes sense. Matthew offers us what we want to hear. Easy answers. Right and wrong answers. Matthew offers us a legalistic path to the truth. Do this, this and this, and you will be okay. Do that, that and that, and you will go to hell.

Matthew’s approach to Jesus’s words appeals to our fears. Matthew frightens us into feeling secure. Matthew warns us of the danger in the world, and then tells how we can avoid it. Just like a good salesmen or TV evangelist.

And we lap it up.

We love the binary, right/wrong, us/them answers. We love the categories of us and them. We like knowing what to be afraid of in the world, and how we can protect ourselves. We like it all because it is easy, it feels safe, we feel like we are in control.
And that need for control comes from a place deep within us. It is from Original Sin, the Old Adam, the Old Sinner that wants to be like God that drives to easy answers that Matthew and so many others try to give us. And it this original sin that what we are washed of in Baptism. 

In Baptism, God begins the hard work of stripping away our need for control, our desire to be like God. And it is hard for us too. It is hard to deal with questions. Answers are easy. It is hard work to live with the ambiguities, the grey in life. Binary, right/wrong is easy. But it is hard to be uncertain, to be vulnerable. It is easy to know who and what to be afraid of so we can stay safe.

We don’t want to deal with questions or uncertainty or ambiguity. We like it when someone gives us the answers we want to hear.

But that is not Jesus’s way.
Even while Matthew is trying to give us the harsh Jesus, the one who warns, one with easy answers and ways to protect oneself from all the dangers, Matthew cannot help but let Jesus break through with the Gospel. In the midst of swords, devils, fighting families, choosing sids, taking up our cross, denying Jesus… It almost passes us by.
Two sparrows for a penny. Jesus says, do not two sparrows cost a penny. Two things so invaluable and worthless that you can’t even sell one for a penny, you have to offer two. Even these do not live or die apart from God. God is interested in everything or everyone. God is not choosing sides, God is not about right/wrong binaries, God is not out there offering easy answers. Jesus is showing us a God who is found even with the worthless sparrows. Nothing is too small, too inconsequential for God. In a world that wants Jesus to tell us what we want to hear… this is not it.
And even St. Matthew, the author of the most famous and often used of the Gospels, cannot keep Jesus breaking through to us, breaking through our desire for easy  answers. Matthew cannot help but show us God. 
So often the answers we long to hear are not the ones that God gives to us. Even as Matthew strives to give us a Jesus who is out separating good from bad, right from wrong, and while we lap it up. No matter how much we want the easy, safe, secure, certain answers, Jesus is giving us something else.

Jesus is giving us questions, Jesus is giving us ambiguity, Jesus is telling us that God’s concern for the world is so much bigger than we can imagine. Two sparrows for a penny. Something that isn’t even worth the smallest coin imaginable… even this sparrow does not live or die apart from God. God is working in ways and in places that we would never think to look. It is not flashy or showy or easy. It isn’t a list of requirements or steps to follow. It is hard, yet life giving work.

And what God is up to begins in baptism, begins in the waters of new life. God uses baptismal waters to introduce new questions into our world, questions of mercy, forgiveness, and life. God shows us that God’s world is so much deeper and wider than we could ever imagine.

Matthew’s harsh words like sword, Beelzebub, denial, against, unworthy – they are designed to scare us, scare us into binary right-wrong thinking and easy answers. But today, Jesus is all about the sparrow. The thing that seems worthless, even this is important to God. God breaks through our desire for an easy to categorize world. God breaks through with questions and ambiguity, but God also breaks through in the baptismal waters with grace, mercy and new life.