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This is not the end of the story

Mark 6:14-29

…Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
(Read the whole passage)

They came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. 

Familiar isn’t it?

We have heard that story before. We heard it just in April… Jesus died on the cross, and one of his disciples Joseph of Aramathea came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Except today, it is not Jesus but John the Baptizer. It is not crucifixion but beheading. It is not Pilate but Herod. And John will be not raised from the dead in three days. 

This story comes in the middle of Mark’s gospel. A brief departure from the things we have been hearing about, from the parables, healings, exorcisms and miracles. We stop for a moment to hear a dark and disturbing, story. Political intrigue – a King who lives lavishly, takes what he wants, and yet is perplexed by the preaching of a wilderness prophet and hermit. Pride and incest – A queen who will not stand to be shamed for leaving her husband for his brother, the King, and especially not by this lowly Hebrew religious hermit and religious nut. Murder — A young girl who is used by her parents as a pawn in a political game. A prophet is murdered so that a drunken tyrant can save face. 

No happy ending. No drama to come. Simply power, greed, lust, and pride getting what they all want. Mark doesn’t leave out any of the dirty details. This is not a feel good story. This is too much like real life, too much like the world around us. This is not enough like a Hollywood feel good ending and too much like a bad night for news.

John the Baptist, the wild Advent preacher of the Messiah’s coming to make paths straight has an ignominious end of to life… a public execution simply to satisfy the political and prideful wrangling of the ruling elite. And then his disciples come and take away his body… and thats it. 

Sometimes the story just doesn’t end well. Sometimes life doesn’t figure itself out. Sometimes there is no happy Hollywood ending. 

This strange story, today, sets itself apart from the rest of the Mark’s gospel. It feels like it doesn’t’ fit. It is selfish motivations and actions, pure and simple. And yet, it can feel so familiar. It is the story of the world at its’ worst. It is our story at our worst. We don’t need to have the drunken parties, the incestuous relationships, the desire to show power and control, or pointless death to know what it feels like. This story of Herod, Herodias, Salome and John is just as much about us. It is the story of the dirty details of life. The story of broken families and marriages, the story of job loss and bankruptcy, the story of political games and corruption, the story of money and greed, the story of poverty and powerlessness, the story of disease and illness, the story of grief and death.  

And it is missing something… or rather it is missing someone. Someone who is hinted at at best and completely absent at worst. 

This is the only part of the Gospel of Mark where Jesus isn’t front and centre… in fact, Jesus isn’t in the story at all. It makes us wonder why Mark would include this terrible event, why tell us the details? Why lay out the whole thing for us?

This story is there because it is not the end. 

Not the end of Jesus’ story. 

Not the end of our story.  

If these dirty details was all there was to story, we wouldn’t need to hear about victory of evil and sin because we live it all too often. We hear about it on the news too much. We know that this happens in the world. 

But Mark has chosen to tell us this story. To boldly include all the dirty details of power, control, pride, lust, greed and evil. Mark has chosen to include this in the story of Jesus. To include the dirty details in the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

They came and took his body and laid it in a tomb is not the end of the story of God. And it is not the end of our story. It is not the end of our stories of suffering and sin, of evil and death. God includes all our dirty details. Includes them in the story of Jesus born in flesh. Included in the story of God’s great love for us. And they are not only included, but as our stories become God’s, God’s story becomes ours. God makes the ending that we know, the empty tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the news of the risen Christ, God makes this the new ending of our stories. God makes us the new end, the new point, the new purpose of God’s love.

The Good News of Christ is that in the midst of all the evil, all the sin, all the death that exists in our world, in our lives, in relationships, in our stories, God is joining our story, our world, our lives. God joins us by coming in flesh and dwelling among us. God joins us to the Body of Christ. The dirty details, they are not what make the story any more. Rather the new plot twist, the surprising new reality is New Life. New Life in Christ, New life in the ongoing story of God. 

Sometimes life just seems full of the dirty details. Sometimes Jesus is nowhere to be seen. Sometimes all there is pointless evil, rampant sin, and needless death. 

And sometimes when our stories feel too terrible to be anything like God’s, God reminds us that we haven’t reached the end yet. There are still chapters to be written, still details to be added. God reminds us that in Christ, that because of Christ, there is only one ending possible to our story. 

God reminds us today, that our ending is life and our ending belongs to God. 

Amen. 

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Jesus Crossing all the Boundaries

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” He went with him.

 …But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”…

…He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about… (Read the whole passage)

Last week, Jesus crossed the sea of Galilee with his disciples. As a storm blew upon them, the frightened disciples worried about a sleeping Jesus in the boat. But Jesus woke up, calmed the storm and wondered what the fuss was all about. 

Before returning across the lake to the point in the story we heard today, Jesus went to gentile territory. There Jesus found a demon possessed man loving with the pigs. Jesus conversed with the demon called Legion and Jesus exorcized the demon from the man. In the short trip Jesus crossed the boundaries of Gentile and Jew by crossing into Gentile territory, clean and unclean remembering that pigs are unclean animals to Jews, and of the normal and supernatural world by talking to a demon. 

In just that quick trip across the lake, Jesus showed that the boundaries most people observe, don’t scare him. 

And today, when Jesus lands back on the Jewish side of the sea of Galilee, the boundaries have been crossed and the rules broken. There is no going back now. 

Today, it is first Jairus who eschews social norms to throw himself at the feet of Jesus to beg for healing. Jairus, an upstanding leader in the synagogue, begging a wandering preacher for mercy for his sick daughter. 

And then the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years breaks nearly every rule imaginable to get access to Jesus. 

As Jesus responds to these two very different requests for healing, it can feel like one story jammed into another. Jairus and his dying daughter, and the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. It can even feel disjointed and a bit like an interruption… in fact, Jesus starts to seem like a traveling medi-clinic. A place for the sick to go for healing, a source of power for those in need. But as we heard earlier in Mark, Jesus has not come to be miracle healer, but to preach the kingdom of God coming near. 

So what are these two stories of healing all about, if Jesus claims to be in the business of preaching the kingdom? Well, this story inside a story is not really about healing. Or rather, the healings are only the first details of what Jesus is up to. 

When Jesus arrives on the shore of Galilee, Jairus, a leader in the synagogue throws himself at Jesus’ feet and begs for help for his sick daughter. Jairus an important community leader, who would usually have a servant for errands like this, comes to Jesus directly. Jairus who should have considered Jesus an equal, if not subordinate, throws himself at Jesus’ feet. Jairus who should have requested, commanded, or ordered Jesus to help, begs. He begs immediately and without shame. In desperation, Jairus breaks the rules of what a man in his position should behave like. 

And then there is the bleeding woman. The woman who had been poked and prodded by doctors to no avail. The woman who had been suffering for 12 years in an unclean and impure state. The woman who is not allowed to be in public, or to touch others, especially men. The woman who has no voice and no advocate. The woman who pushes into the crowd and the who steals a healing without even asking Jesus. In her desperation, this woman crosses the boundaries of what polite and proper people should be and do.  

It is easy to gloss over these images of Jairus and the bleeding woman. It is easy to see no problem with a persons of prominence and authority throwing themselves at Jesus feet. No problem with the weak and powerless reaching for the fringe of Jesus cloak. 

But would it seem normal for the pastor or council members to throw themselves at the feet of the next motivational Christian speaker to come through town? Would we think it was alright for a street person, dirty, smelly and covered in sores and oozing wounds to push her way through the communion line to receive a blessing first?

No, we would not be okay with these things. They don’t follow the right order of things. We live a world with rules and boundaries, we define ourselves by those boundaries. 

We define each other by where we work, by what we drive, by the houses and homes we live in, by the clothes we wear, by the committees we serve on and the ways we involve ourselves in the community. We even know which pews belong to whom and where we like to sit week after week. 

Our worlds make sense when we can define the boundaries, when we follow the rules. We like knowing where others belong, so that we can know where we belong. We like defining the order of our families, and of our communities. We know who is first and who is last, and we like that knowing this gives us security, power and control. Our world is much easier to manage when there are rules and boundaries to keep things orderly.

And yet we also know that the rules and boundaries don’t always serve us. We know that sometimes people end up places where the rules push them down and grind them into the ground. We know that the boundaries can become walls, keeping people out and in the darkness, isolated and alone. 

The rules and the boundaries that we live by, that we hold onto so that we can feel safe and secure… can also hurt and exclude and we know it, because sometimes we are the ones being pushed down and we are the one stuck on the outside. 

But Jesus has this habit of doing things and going places that we cannot. Calming storms and talking to demons.  

Jesus crosses the boundaries and breaks the rules. 

Jesus crosses the boundaries and breaks the rules because Jesus wants to bring God close, the Kingdom of God near. 

As the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years crosses every social boundary imaginable and steals a miracle from Jesus, and as Jesus himself is not quite sure what has happened, Jesus’ demands to know who has touched him. We would expect that Jesus would have condemned and scolded this woman, but instead he stops to hear her story. And then he joins her. Joins her on the other side of the crossed boundary. She isn’t supposed to be out in public or touching people as a an unclean sinner… no one but family that is. And so Jesus steps out of the public space and into a familiar one… “Daughter” he calls the woman. Jesus makes her a member of his family, a person whom he can be close to even if she is unclean. “Your faith has made you well.” And then blesses her. By crossing the boundary, and breaking the rules, Jesus gives this woman the first bit of care and compassion, of healing and wholeness she has known in 12 years. And it wasn’t by healing her of her bleeding, but by joining her in her isolation. 

And then Jesus continues on to Jairus’s home, and he enters despite the news of the little girl’s death. The waiting crowds tell him not to enter… they know the boundary that has come to this place.

And yet having just crossed boundaries to heal the woman bleeding for 12 years, perhaps Jesus is inspired to keep going. To keep crossing boundaries. He comes near to a sick person, a possibly dead person, and intrudes on a grieving family. 

But Jesus knows that the little girl will rise. 

Because Jesus is going to cross another boundary to join this little girl, this second daughter that he meets today. 

Jesus crosses the uncrossable. 

Jesus reaches across death and brings the little girl back to life. 

Jesus crosses the boundary of death. 

Jesus also crosses the boundary of resurrection and new life. 

And we saw it coming all along, because we know that story already. We tell it every week. 

For you see, for all of our rules as human beings, we keep telling the story of God in Christ who breaks the rules. 

Christ who gives forgiveness even though it is undeserved. 

Christ who washes in the waters of baptism even though we are unclean. 

Christ who brings peace even though there is conflict. 

Christ who makes us one even though we are many. 

For you see, for all of the boundaries that hem us in, we keep telling the story of God in Christ who crosses the boundaries and joins us where we thought God should NOT come. 

Christ joins us as the incarnate God, born into creation. 

Christ comes to us in the Word of God, spoken through human voices and heard with human ears. 

Christ becomes us in the bread and wine, and we become Christ in Body and Blood. 

Christ gathers us together from every nation and tribe and corner of the earth. 

Crossing boundaries and breaking the rules shouldn’t be a new or surprising thing for us, because almost from the very moment we gather until we are sent out, God is doing just that in, through and with us. 

God is crossing boundaries and breaking rules in order to name us as daughters and sons, making us part of God’s family, bringing the kingdom near to us. 

No matter how much we love rules and cling to boundaries, God will always be willing to break and cross them, in order to love us more. 

A Divided House Broken and Shed for the World

Mark 3:20-35

” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. (Read the whole passage)

 

It is only the second week into this long season of green, and Mark is giving us some unusual stuff. We don’t often remind each other of that story from the gospel when Jesus’ family thought he was nuts and tried to drag him away.

Now, of course, last week we heard the story of Jesus’ healing a mean with a withered hand on the sabbath. An action which enraged the pharisees so much that they began plotting to destroy him. 

And so as we explore this next interaction between Jesus and the people around him, it is probably helpful to remember that Mark might be intending us to see the extreme behaviour or reactions… the Pharisees who plot to destroy Jesus followed by family who think Jesus is crazy. 

Mark invites us to reconsider again and again just what Jesus is up to in the world, and who Jesus is, often by acknowledging our own extreme responses to God’s call to follow. 

Mark uses the structure of the story to make a point. We begin and end with the crowds. The unwashed, poor, unclean and desperate crowds are pushing in on Jesus and his disciples. They are looking for something, someone to give them good news.  And by the end, Jesus names those same crowds as his brothers, sisters and mothers. 

Inside of the bookends of the crowds, Jesus’ family comes to take him away because he is out of his mind. And just before the last mention of the crowds, we are reminded that Jesus family is desperate to get him away, to end their shame and embarrassment at what Jesus is doing. 

And finally the scribes sit in the inner sections of the story. They claim that Jesus has a demon. And Jesus rebukes the scribes for trying to control the actions of the spirit. 

So the order of the story goes: Crowds>family> scribes. Scribes<family<crowds. And right in the middle, Jesus gives us this strange image of Satan’s house. A house divided cannot stand. Satan’s house divided cannot stand. Satan’s house is not divided. Satan’s house, the strongman’s house, IS the undivided house.

A house divided cannot stand.

As Jesus’ family attempts to restrain him and as the scribes declare that Jesus is acting with a possessed spirit, Jesus speaks about the human search for normalcy and conformity. Conformity is often touted as unity, and yet when we consider what it often takes to achieve a unified community with no outward divisions, it is not a healthy community. Unity often required totalitarian leadership, speaking with one mind and voice requires that most people bend and twist themselves into the vision and view of another.  It is the house of the strong man that cannot stand if divided, therefore the strong man’s standing house is not divided. 

Yet, Jesus is here to tie up the strong man and plunder his house.

Jesus speaks to the crowds, his family and the scribes who all believe that they have the world figured out and that they have God figured out. 

The crowds know that they are on the outside of God’s love, unclean and inadmissible to the temple. Unable to make sacrifice in order to received God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus’ family knows that family unity is essential to the Hebrew faith. They know that Jesus’ actions will not only reflect badly on him, but will bring shame to the whole family. They will lose standing in the community. 

The scribes know they are part of the religious authority. They know that because they have kept the law that they are permitted to make judgements about who is clean and unclean, who us righteous and who is unrighteous.

Jesus speaks to these groups who believe they have it all figured out and turns their whole world, their whole understanding of God on its head. 

Jesus tells all of them that they are wrong. 

Like the crowds, Jesus’ family and scribes, we so often think we have things figured out.  Whether we think like the scribes, that we can determine where God begins and ends and make judgements about who is outside of God, or like Jesus’ family that we need to keep from being shamed and embarrassed or like the crowds that we are too sinful for God to possibly love us. 

Jesus hears all of that and turns it on his it head. Jesus challenges our assumptions, challenges our claim to be the arbitrators of God’s love and declares a completely different reality. 

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”

Whatever we think we have figured out, whatever understanding of God’s activity in the world we claim to have Jesus tells the crowds, tells his family, tells the scribes and tells us that it is opposite of what we think. God is usually doing things very differently than we imagine. 

A house divided cannot stand. 

Yet God’s house, divided for 2000 years, continues to stand. 

It has stood despite our inability to agree. It has stood because the Church has been full of people who thought differently. 

God’s house stands divided because it is able to hold within it the differences that we bear as the Body of Christ. God’s house stands because even when we cannot hold our differences between us, God can. 

God’s house stands because it stands on Christ. 

Satan’s house is the undivided house. 

But Christ, who ties up the strong man and plunders Satan’s house, is our foundation. 

God’s house stands divided between the many members of the body, the many members who serve and live in different ways, the many members whose different gifts are used in different ways, the many members who are each chosen and loved by God. 

God’s house stands divided, as the Body of Christ broken and given for the world, as the Blood of christ shed and poured out for a world in need of forgiveness. 

Just as we are all guilty of same eternal sin, of the same original sin, of wanting to be God in God’s place, of standing in judgement of others. Just as we are guilty, like the crowds, family and scribes of standing in Judgement of Christ. Jesus is declaring a new reality. 

A reality where people will be forgiven for their sins. 

The Body of Christ, the House of God, stands broken and divided in the world. And today, Jesus reminds us, that it is not by agreeing or finding unity that we stand. In fact, Jesus reminds us that it is Satan’s house that stands undivided.  

Rather, Jesus declares today that God’s house divided and broken house stands only by God’s forgiveness. God’s house stands only by God’s stubborn insistence that we are all brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. God’s house stands only by the turning of our world upside down.

A house divided cannot stand. 

Yet, God’s house, broken and divided stands here. 

God’s church stands because of the many members gathered together in the waters of Baptism, waters that erode and split away our unity with sin and death. 

God’s people stand because of the the Gospel Word proclaimed in our midst that divides us from all the things that we cling to that are not of God. 

God’s Body gathered in Christ kneels together in order to be broken and shed for the world, so that grace and mercy can be seen and known by a divided and scattered world. 

God’s house is the divided and broken house, the house with cracks and rifts because of the light and mercy of God bursting out in as a sign of God’s promise of new life given for us. 

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. 

Better than investigating the mysteries of the Trinity

John 3:1-17
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”…
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Read the whole passage)

We last heard the story of Nicodemus back in January. As part of our trial through the Narrative Lectionary we heard his story in the lead up Lent, and his confusion was one we resonated with. Jesus is being especially confusing in his conversation with Nicodemus. And today is no different, but we hear this story again for a different reason. We hear it for its connection to the feast day that we celebrate today, and the way this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus speaks about God. 

Holy Trinity Sunday is a celebration a thousand years old… as the church tried to reign in the heresies taught by earlier missionaries to newly conquered peoples in Northern Europe, bishops of these northern kingdoms ordered the celebration of Trinity Sunday in order spread right belief.

And since then, the practice has stuck. So once a year, on the Sunday after Pentecost, just before we begin six months of green Sundays in order to hear the teachings and parables of Jesus, we remind ourselves what good and proper Christians believe. 

And we believe in the Trinity – God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Co-equal, co-eternal, all of one being, yet distinct persons. But not divided by identity or purpose, instead all of the same essence, all of the same God. Three in one, one in three – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  

Simple right? 

Now you can all explain the proper, orthodox understanding of the Trinity?

Maybe you aren’t ready to teach a Sunday School class on the Trinity just yet? Well in fact, most of the things we teach about the Trinity are wrong, especially those children’s sermons where the pastor pulls out water in 3 states, or a pie or an apple in order to explain how God is one yet three. Usually what ends up being taught it one of the many heresies of the early church. 

In fact, the only thing that might be completely reliable about Trinitarian doctrine is as soon as you try to teach it, you are likely to become a heretic. 

And so you might wonder, why does the church set aside one Sunday each year to talk about this doctrine describing God rather than tell the stories of God and God’s people and God in Christ like we do all the other Sundays. Why do we have a day that is supposed to be for making us believe the right things, where we so often we end up teaching the wrong things? Why observe this Sunday at all and not stick to the regular program that we know and trust?

Trinity Sunday feels like it leaves us with this murky, mysterious, hard to explain doctrine of the church. The one God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

And yet, some of the haziness and fogginess of our understanding of the Trinity just maybe says more about what it means to live out this Trinitarian faith – this Christian Faith, than a solid definition of the Trinity. Because the challenge in understanding Trinity feels a lot like the challenge of trying to make sense of what it means to be a part of this mysterious and confusing family we call the Church. Just like we know that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all of the same God, we might not be very clear on just how it is that these three pieces come together into one God. And in the same way we know that we are are brothers and sisters in faith, and that our little community at Good Shepherd is just one part of a larger Body of Christ, we might not be clear on just how it is that we all come together into one Church.

In fact, most days we probably wonder just what is God doing with us… and why is the business of faith so rife with uncertainty.

Perhaps it is fitting here (at Good Shepherd), one part of the Interlake Regional Shared Ministry, that we observe and celebrate Trinity Sunday today. Perhaps our understating and clarity around Trinity feels pretty similar to our understanding and clarity about our future… in particular about the announcement (your pastor) made last week regarding the call to serve the shared ministry. Already we have been journeying towards something we that we do not fully understand and that we are not sure of. Coming together with 4 other congregations to share pastors and how all of that is going to work between 5 points, one full time pastor, one half time pastor and one supply pastor for the time being. 

As if that wasn’t enough, my announcement that I am not taking the call to serve the shared ministry and rather beginning a search for another call actually means that I am going to technically remain the pastor of Good Shepherd a little longer than we thought. Yet… I am still in the end going to be serving as the regional pastor… but in an interim capacity. And all of that is compounded by a new search for a candidate whom God is calling to this new ministry, while I search for what God is calling me to next. 

If we thought Trinity was confusing… just try understanding the Interlake Regional Shared Ministry for a few minutes.

So maybe struggling to understand Trinity for 2000 years has really just been practice for trying to understand just what God is up to with us at any given moment. 

Or maybe… just maybe, understanding isn’t what this is all about. Nicodemus didn’t leave the conversation with Jesus today seeming to understand any more than when he first showed up. 

Yet, Jesus reminded him of something important… and in the midst of all the confusion of Trinity and the Interlake Regional Shared Ministry, the reminder is the same for us. 

Here in this place, the things that we do understand and know and trust will remain the same.

God still continues to gather us as the Body of Christ – the Church. 
God continues to hear our confessions while offering us mercy and forgiveness. 
God continues to open our hearts and minds to hear the word, the Good News of Jesus Christ. 
God continues to stir our hearts to faith because of that same good news. 
God continues to bind us together in prayer and peace.
God continues to welcome us to the table of the Lord – the communion of the saints where we share in the feast of heaven. 
God continues to offer us Christ’s very Body in order that we might become that which we eat –  bread for the life of the world. 
And God continues to send us out transformed and renewed to be workers in the Kingdom. 

And all of that happens because of the God who has named and claimed us in Baptism, the risen Christ who has shown us the way to new life, Jesus who meets us here week after week. 

Whether or not we understand the Trinity and whether or not we know just what is going to happen to us as a congregation and fledgling new ministry in the Interlake, God’s promise to us remains… ‘how’ it all works is not really for us to worry about. God is assuring us that here, among this community and family of faith, that the things we need are still given – that Jesus continues to meet us here in Word and Sacrament. 

As Martin Luther’s right hand, Philip Melanchthon wrote about the Trinity, 

“We adore the mysteries of the Godhead. That is better than to investigate them.”

Or in other words, better than understanding the Trinity and how it all works, is to gather together in worship and communion as the Body of Christ. 

And the Mysterious Triune God who calls and gathers us together will do there rest. The Trinity will continue to bring us into New Life, found in Christ. 

That’s not how faith works

*As I am currently on vacation, here is a guest sermon from Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker, whom you can find on Twitter @ReedmanParker and on Instagram: creedmanparker

Gospel: John 17:6-19

[Jesus prayed:] 6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. (Read the whole text)

Here we are, the end of the Easter season. Seven weeks later, many stories and experiences of new life – unexpected life. These stories begin with grief and loss: death, an empty tomb, and no body. They do not begin in a place of joy or jubilation, or even peace. They begin from a place of fear and anxiety. From a place of not knowing what the future will hold.

In this season of Easter, these 50 days between the Resurrection and Pentecost, we spend a lot of time within the setting of that first day of the week. And the starting place for most of the these stories is so far from what the worship committee plans. The faithful women, the disciples, those who followed Jesus, are in a state of shock and disbelief. They can’t see Jesus when he stands before them, they don’t believe the testimony of others – at least not at first.

Like us, the early followers of Jesus, the faithful women, the disciples, have ideas about who God is, and how God acts in the world, how God acts through us. And what they were seeing and hearing didn’t match those expectations. Those ideas. Their long held beliefs.

Like the disciples, the faithful women, the early followers of Jesus, it’s hard for us to see, to understand, to follow Jesus, God, even when God is staring us right in the face!

But these stories don’t stay in a place of disbelief or lack of sight for long. Because God stays with those people – God stays with us – until they see. Until they believe.

Seeing what was previously un-seen. Believing in what previously was un-thinkable, un-heard of, un-imaginable.

Jesus lives. Alleluia!

New life, it turns out, is full of unexpected, unanticipated realities. Ask any new(ish) parent, and they will likely tell you, “this was not what I expected”. New life is hard work. Navigating these new realities, navigating not only the new life, but the new life and role as parent not easy. Not by a long shot.

And for all the planning, all the reading, all the advice and preparations, the most accurate version of what to expect when you’re expecting is to get ready for the unexpected. It would be a short book.

And maybe that’s part of the problem, part of the challenge for us – the un-expected. the un-planned.

Like it or not, we like to know what to expect. We like to know what’s ahead of us. We like to follow the rules. Or at least know what the rules are, so we know what the consequence is of breaking them!

We see this throughout scripture – how rule-bound the Pharisees become, not being able to separate the rule of law from the spirit of the law. Good and faithful people become so rule-bound that they are unable to see how God is at work in and through the ways and means and people that were above or beyond the rule.

Today is no different. In our first reading from Acts, we encounter the disciples taking up the task of choosing who from their community will fill Judas’ spot as a disciple after Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.

This community, and this group of people in particular, has already been through a lot! They want, and probably need, someone who they can trust. Someone they can depend on. Someone who won’t betray them the way Judas betrayed Jesus. They want to ensure that they “get it right”. As though getting it right will somehow ensure that they will not be disappointed again in the future. Or worse, that they will disappoint God in their decision making. That not getting it right, will somehow reflect upon their faithfulness.

But we know that even when we follow all the rules, when we follow the letter of the law, when we attend to every detail – it’s still possible to be disappointed. It’s still possible to not get it right, not all the way anyhow.

And that’s the rub. When we’ve done all the things we’ve been taught to do, and still find ourselves wanting… waiting… hoping for things to turn out in a way we can predict and anticipate. And then disappointed when they don’t.

But here’s the thing: that’s not how faith works. It’s certainly not how God works.

Note how the disciples put so much time and effort into choosing the correct candidate to take Judas’ place. Note the “rules.” Has to be a man, has to be someone there from the beginning, has to be someone who has witnessed the resurrection. [Only] two qualify. We learn their names. Lots are drawn. A man was chosen. And we never hear from him (or the other guy) again….

Because God was busy calling Paul. And Lydia. And the Ethiopian Eunuch. And so many more who weren’t in the narrow subset of ideas about who could be God’s messengers.

This is who God is. And this is who God reveal’s God’s-self to be over and over and over again. When God’s people become so rule bound that they cannot see God’s unconditional love and mercy, God chooses Mary to mother God’s son. Jesus arrives in a lowly stable and leaves the world by a procession on a donkey and hanging on a cross. And in his life, Jesus chooses the least likely candidates to help him proclaim God’s message to the world. He hangs around with the weirdos and the misfits, the outcasts and the strangers no one wanted – or by virtue of following the law – ought to be hanging around to be ritually clean. Jesus does all the things the law, the rules, tell him not to do. Talk about unexpected. This is who God is. Unexpected.

God does the unexpected. That’s what new life is – unexpected. The way God uses us is unexpected. How we get to live out God’s love and mercy in the world usually unexpected.

And so too, for us here gathered at Gimli Lutheran Church, maybe wondering how on earth is God working in and through us? Maybe you are feeling like you’ve followed all the rules and are still coming up short. Maybe you wonder where God is in the midst of this time of transition – between pastoral leadership, as the place and prominence of the church – not just here, but towns and cities, in families and communities changes.

Like the faithful women and the disciples on that first morning of the resurrection, we might feel like we are staring into an empty tomb. Like the disciples after Jesus’ ascension, we too might wonder how to find a leader to help us grow in our faith and equip others to know about Jesus and this great love God has for us.

But God does not wonder about us. God knows us inside and out. God knows our deepest desires and longings. God knows our fears and our dreams. God knows both what we want and what we need. And just like the early disciples, God is already out in the world calling forth new life, new leadership for this community. God is already stirring in us new life, new ideas, new ways of being that we can expect will be completely unexpected to us. This is who God is. Unexpected in the grace extended. Unexpected in the mercy given. Unexpected in the ways God continues to bring about new life in us and throughout the world.

A Millennial Pastor with a Blog

The first church I served out of seminary was a small open country church, literally on a quarter section of farmland just 25 minutes outside of my hometown Edmonton. In my first week, a couple of knowledgeable members of the congregation took me on a tour of the 6 acres of land that the church sat on. The church and parsonage on one end and of course the cemetery on the other. As we walked to the cemetery in order to meet some of the “older” folks of the congregation, one of the members told me about how he remembered when electric lights came to the countryside. [All of sudden it wasn’t just blackness when you looked outside of the farm house at night, you could see your neighbours.] The other member told about how her parents would heat rocks in the wood stove in order to put them under their feet in the horse drawn sleigh, which they rode to church in winter. 

And there I was making notes of all this on my iPhone, of course.

For 3 years this community frozen in time loved this weird kid pastor from the city who liked to be emailed and texted rather than called, even though the same phone line rang in both the church and parsonage. 

But during those years, there was always something of a disconnect that I just couldn’t put my finger on. And it really wasn’t until I started ministry at my 3rd church two provinces away in Manitoba that I started to figure things out.

I like to call my first summer here in 2013, the summer of millennials. The first of us had just turned 30, the world was about to discover we existed. Rachel Held Evans a blogger you may have read, wrote a piece for CNN called, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” And all of a sudden we were everywhere. 

Everywhere but church that is. 

If you look around mainline denominations these days, particularly in Canada it is pretty rare to see millennials in church, let alone as pastors. In fact, here in Manitoba there are only two millennials serving Lutherans churches – my wife and I. 

Yet…getting the youth back seems to be of a chief concern for many churches these days. And by youth, we mean people under the age of 50. 

Being a millennial serving a church desperate for young people to come back has been a weird and mind-boggling experience. 

My wife often likes to say that while we graduated from seminary ready for the church of today, no one got the church ready for us. Churches want millennials in the pews, but aren’t exactly sure of what to do with a millennial in the pulpit. 

Still with the arrival of millennials and the the generational lens it provided, I finally began to understand what wasn’t connecting between me and the people I had been serving. My experience of faith, and in particular church, was fundamentally different than that of the mostly older generation of people in the congregation. I do not remember the glory days of bursting full Sunday Schools, regular potlucks that could feed the 5000, churches being built on every street corner and pews full of families with 4.2 kids and a stay at home mother with time to volunteer. Nor am I grieving the loss of this church… The church that I know and grew up in and love and am called to serve has always been aging, shrinking and struggling to pay the bills. 

The churches that I have served so far in my time in ministry have been primarily ones centred around different generational cultures than my own. The frames through which the world is seen, and the references and images used to make meaning are not mine. So ministry has been a constant exercise in commuting to another culture, often resulting in feeling like an alien in a foreign land. Nadia Bolz-Weber, another blogger and pastor you may know, calls this a cultural commute. 

Every time someone makes reference to leave it to Beaver or Hogan’s Heroes, or Beattlemania or where they were when JFK was assisinated, all I have is a blank stare to offer in return. Still, I have had to go and look up all these references, so that I can speak in the cultural language of the people I serve. But the commute isn’t always a two way street and when in a sermon I reference a meme from twitter or a scene from an episode of The Walking Dead, I can hear the crickets chirping in the background. 

And so to begin thinking through what it means to be a millennial serving different generations, I started a blog. The Millennial Pastor – An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church. I never expected anyone to read it, it was just a place to organize my thoughts and experiences. 4 and half years, and over 500,000 visitors later, I am starting to sense that I may have hit a chord with some people. My experience pastoring declining, grieving churches and doing so as a millennial is resonating with the experience of others out there. I am still regularly surprised when people who aren’t my parishioners or my mom tell me that they are reading my blog. 

That being said, I don’t think my blog is about figuring out the answers or offering solutions to the struggles we face as church. Rather, I think of the exiles in Babylon with the prophet Ezekiel. He preached about the destruction of the temple for 5 years before it finally sank in. And it is taking the church some time to accept where we are now, rather than looking back to where we used to be. 

The thing is, along with the message that we are where we are, is also the reminder that God is with us now as much as before. And in fact, the church we are now just might be the church God is calling us to be. Because it is the church we are now and the church that God is calling us to become, that will be church for the next and future generations.

Now I just need to keep repeating that for 5 years and it might sink in. 

*This is the manuscript of presentation I gave at an ecumenical continuing education event on May 9, 2018 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.