Tag Archives: Church

Why Can’t Pastors Agree on What a Pastor is?

What DOES a pastor do anyways?

Ask 10 pastors what a pastor is, and you will get ten different definitions. Read 10 different blog articles on what a pastors is and should be doing, and you will get ten different opinions. The job title and ecclesiological office of pastor is one that encompasses a variety of definitions, often confusing and contradictory ones.

This vagueness around the job description and theological concept of being a pastor is one of the most frustrating parts of my vocation. The debate lately seems to be between the pastor as CEO vs. pastor as Shepherd. Just check out the titles of some relatively recent blog posts:

Why you should be thankful if your pastor behaves like a CEO by Carey Nieuwhof
CEO-style pastorates all the rage but offer little to those seeking deeper faith by Jim Brumley
Quit Telling Pastors We Have to Stop Pastoring to Have a Successful Church: Great churches don’t need spiritual enablers or high-achieving CEOs. by Karl Vaters

The current debate raging online, and probably in churches and among colleagues, about what a pastor is and does is nothing new. It is simply a symptom of the church facing the changing world and some dim sense that part of facing that change means pastors and churches updating their understandings of each.

Even in my short millennial life-time, I have seen pastors of different generations try to live up to different and changing ideas of what it means to be a pastor.

A different time, a different pastor

In my first congregation, a small farming community where the church had been the central focus for nearly a century, pastors were understood to be something akin to the “community professional.” In the early part of the 20th century, pastors were often called upon not only to shepherd the flock, but also provided medical knowledge, taught school children, provided legal and mediation services among other things.

In my Grandfather’s generation in the 40s and 50s, pastors were public moral paragons. They were (supposed to be) living examples of moral living who were required to lead the faithful in their own moral living and a disciplined faith full of regular devotion and study. Pastors were expected to be public moral authorities whose credibility was rooted in their character and leadership position. They were called upon to serve on public boards, public offices and positions and were often in the public eye.

And then in the 60s and 70s, Clinical Pastoral Education and a trend towards psychology and therapy transformed again the role of the pastor. No longer was the pastor a voice for morality and divine authority, but now a counsellor, therapist even. Someone to hear your troubles (sometimes on God’s behalf) and direct you to the help you need. And pastors started using as much the language of psychology as theology.

And then 80s and 90s, when, despite the early signs of decline, the trend was for established and growing congregations to program their ministry. This meant large facilities and increased staff positions. Pastors became middle managers, overseeing growing churches that had become corporatized. Business language become the vernacular at board meetings and for church leadership.

And then in the 2000s, pastors were called upon to become entrepreneurial CEOs, revitalizing the unwieldy and declining organizations that had been started by the community professionals and moral paragons, grown by the pastoral care providers, and managed into decline by the middle managers. Pastors were and are expected to be the source of mission and vision renewal for churches longing for a return to the glory days. The glory days of course depend on which of the previous eras felt the most glorious for a given person. And the new glory days also include incorporating all the new technology of a changing digital and online world.

These are, of course, not the only dominant forms of pastor that have risen up recently. There are several of other images and ideas about what the primary role of a pastor is:

There is the social justice warrior, who leads their faith community in striking out to address all the evils of the world. This pastor strives to lead people in activism and to organize communities of resistance beyond congregations who will fight for justice among all the injustices that exist in the world.

And there is the cruise director / country club pro who is the omni-present social glue that holds the many activities and programs and fellowship events that a congregation plans. The pastor will likely make an appearance at everything: every meeting, every breakfast, every golf or curling fundraiser. The pastor is more mascot than spiritual leader.

And there is the coach and cheerleader. The person encouraging the laity in their calling by passing off the bulk of the responsibilities of the pastoral office. A pastor’s job is to put themselves out of a job is mantra of this style.

So which of these is the right style or idea of the core of pastoral ministry is? Should pastors need to choose?

Jack-of-all-trades pastoring?

Picking one version of pastoral ministry over another actually misses the point. Of course all of the responsibilities are, at times, part of what a pastor does. Sometimes you will be the community expert, other times you will inspire your people to faithfulness, sometimes you be called upon to provide counsel and care for people in need, other times you will be the one checking the boiler and booking rentals, sometimes you will be hiring and firing people. And of course in the midst of all these things there is preaching and leading worship / the liturgy, studying and teaching the bible, prayer and helping people grow in faith.

But none of these shifting ideas about what it means to be a pastor are core to pastoral ministry as it has been understood for most of the church’s history. Pastors or priests have always been tasked with preaching the word, administering the sacraments and tending to God’s people. And throughout the millennia, this has put various responsibilities on the shoulders of pastors, managing and tending to groups of people wherever they are is complicated.

Yet, whatever trend or style of ministry is current, and even whatever denomination or part of the world  a pastor serves in… the essential of what is a pastor is the same.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.

Whether it is the through high church smells and bells liturgy or someone standing alone on a staff with just a bible in their hands, whether it is providing expertise, modelling faithfulness, caring for those in distress, managing complicated communities, or revitalizing declining churches pastors are the connection through which a particular faith community (a church) encounters the faithful of all times and places (The Church).

The Office of Ministry is how The Church enters into the life a church or congregation. In all those things that the debates suggest that pastors should be spending their time on, the underlying purpose of doing any of those things is to help local and particular communities be connected to the body of Christ. To help local congregations participate in the mission of the whole Church, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. And we don’t do this in vacuums, rather we serve this mission in consort with all the congregations and communities doing the same around us and around the world.

When pastors, or lay people, or the church as a whole debates what a pastor is or does, the reality is that in some sense there is still agreement. The different ideas or styles still fit within the scope of a pastor.  And yet, all the debates fail to return and remind us of the core.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.


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Dead Water becoming Living Water

John 4:5-42

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Out of the darkness and into the furnace. Through the season of Lent so far we have gone with Jesus into the wilderness of temptation. We have come with Nicodemus in the darkness to ask our questions of faith that we wouldn’t dare ask in the light. And now we walk with the Samaritan woman to the well in the noonday heat.

This story from the John gospel isn’t quite as famous as John 3:16 was last week, but this season of Lent is not about hearing the obscure stories of scripture. It is about stories that we know and remember, stories we have heard many times in our lives… stories that make it into our literature and language.

Jesus is travelling today, outside the safety of Jewish lands, into Samaria. Not quite gentile territory, as Samaritans were also descended from the line of Abraham – like cousins to the Jews. But Samaritans worshipped differently than their Jewish cousins and therefore were found to be unclean by Jewish law.

Jesus and the disciples arrive in Sychar around noon, in the hottest and brightest time of the day. While the disciples go to find food, Jesus stops at the famous well of Jacob (the grandson of Abraham). As he sits, tired from his journey a Samaritan woman arrives to draw water. Now proper protocol would have been for the two to pretend like each other didn’t exist, but since when has Jesus cared about what is proper.

So he asks for a drink.

And the woman is shocked by this request.

She has come to the well to draw water alone, and likely never expected to encounter a Jew… and almost certainly would never think that this Jew would talk to her, a samaritan and a woman… Jesus would be forbidden by law to strike up a conversation. You might almost imagine the woman laughing with shock and nervousness.

Yet, Jesus persists.

“You really should be asking me for a drink. And I will give you living water,” he says.

And now the woman knows that this strange man at the well is nuts.

“This is Jacob’s well buddy, and you are just a strange guy lurking about,” she responds.

Yet, Jesus won’t give up.

“I will give you water that gushes up to eternal life.”

At this, this woman starts to know that something really is up with Jesus.

“Give me this water,” she says.

And then things get weird.

“Go and tell your husband and I will give you both water”, Jesus says.

“I have no husband,” she answers.

And then somehow Jesus knows that this woman has had five husbands. And the one she is now with is not her husband.

Now, in case we begin making assumptions about the virtue of this woman… let’s not forget that women in Jesus’ day were no different than property like land or animals. And so this woman likely was either widowed by her first husband or tossed to the curb. And her “husbands” after that were probably his brothers or cousins who were obliged by religious law to care for her. However, adding another mouth to feed is not simple. And she is passed into the care of one family after another. The last might be a very distant relative or even a wealthy gentile willing to care for this woman.

And these circumstances are not this woman’s fault, she has no control over these things. But despite this, being five time married still carries a stigma of being damaged goods. So this Samaritan woman comes to the well in the heat of the day, while all the other women come in the early morning and late evening when it is cool. And she comes alone, to avoid the gossip. She is living in open isolation.

This woman is probably not exactly someone we can identify with. While we have all had moments in life, where we have felt powerless in the face of the circumstances of our lives, where we have wanted to avoid everyone around us and their comments, or their whispers and stares… we probably are not quite as extreme in our life story as the Samaritan woman that Jesus speaks with at the well.

Yet, together as a community this woman’s story feels a little more like ours. As a church, either as Lutherans across Canada or our community right here, we may feel like half of ourselves is missing or gone. It might feel like we have been kicked to the curb, in favour of something better. And all those who were supposed to care about us, or care for us next, are turning their backs. And now we too are living in open isolation, it might feel like we go to the well in the middle of the day. Maybe the church is out in the light, but going to the water on our own while everyone else is busy at home.

When Jesus offers the Samaritan woman living water, it is meant as a contrast to the well water. Living water was understood by the ancients to be moving water, like streams or rivers or bubbling springs. And the movement was a sign of power, often of divine power. Yet, well water doesn’t move, it is dead water. The dead water of the well, in many ways symbolizes the woman. She is alive, but her life story and isolation could hardly be called living.

Yet, Jesus reaches out to this woman. First by asking for a drink, but then offering her Living Water. Living Water that begins to crack open the walls of this woman’s dead water.

“…the water that I will give them will never be thirsty”

*crack*

“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”

*crack*

“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands”

*crack*

“…for the Father seeks such as these to worship him”

*crack*

And now this woman who was just on her way to get water at her ancestor Jacob’s well, whom Jesus has been talking to despite the fact that she is woman and a Samaritan, whom Jesus has been offering living water, the mercy of God, whom Jesus has accepted and not condemned despite the stigma of her life story, whom Jesus has said is exactly who God is seeking…

This woman whose water has been dead like well water, says,

“I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

“I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

“I am he” Jesus says.

And the well walls burst open and life rushes back into this woman. She immediately runs back to her village, she runs back to the very people she has been trying to avoid…she runs to tell them her story, the one she has been trying to hide… she runs to bring them to Messiah. Her life is so broken open, so transformed by simply talking to Jesus at the well.

And so it is with us.

When we feel that we have been kicked to the curb, left by the people who were supposed to care for us next, ignored by a world too busy to see even see us out in the open daylight…

Jesus is reaching out to us. Reaching out into our lives when we feel like the Samaritan woman, and reaching out to a church that feels like our water is dead. And the living water of Jesus laps against our walls, forming cracks, weakening our supports, threatening to break us open.

And just at the moment when we will be certain that we are only alive but not living, just when all we think there is left is to go to the dead water well in isolation… Jesus will meet us and break us open.

Jesus will return us to community. In fact, Jesus is already doing this. Jesus is restoring us to a world that all that ignores us. And after a conversation with Jesus, we too, will find ourselves running out into the world, proclaiming that we have met the Messiah, telling our story, bringing our community to meet the Messiah

Jesus is doing all of this, with simple living water.

Amen.

The Temptation to Avoid Lent Altogether

Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Read the whole passage)

Last week, the story of Transfiguration concluded with Jesus, Peter, James and John, leaving the spectacular experience of the mountain behind to go back down. And by Wednesday, we were surely in the valley… the valley of the shadow of death. We confessed our sin, we were marked with ash and reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

And now, one week from the transfiguration mountain top and 4 days from the ashes, we go out into the Lenten wilderness with Jesus. Like Jesus, we are about to spend 40 days in a wilderness of sorts, and like Jesus it is a wilderness about temptation. During the season of Lent, the tradition is to give something up, like meat, or chocolate or coffee, or TV, or Facebook. Sometimes people take something on, like daily bible readings, prayer or devotion.

But our Lenten journey is not all that different from Jesus’, in that during the next 40 days, the temptation will be to hold our ground and not to the lenten stories into our lives. The reason people give things up in Lent is only a little bit about disciplining oneself, and so much more about making room in our hearts and lives for the story of Jesus. To make room so that Jesus’ story starts getting air time in our minds and hearts, not just on Sunday morning, but each day. We practice making space for 40 days throughout Lent, so that when the story of Christ’s passion and resurrection finally come during Holy Week, there is room for us to hear it, to take it in, to be transformed by it as people of faith.

So, the 40 days of the Lenten season are about making space for the story of Jesus in our lives, and the temptation will be to hold our ground, keep our lives full with the other stuff. Perhaps some years we do better than others, but each Lent begins with this story of Jesus in the wilderness to remind us of just what our own wilderness experience is about.

The story of Jesus temptation is an interesting yet uncomfortable one for us. It is one of the few instances in scripture where people are not part of the story. There are no crowds or disciples, no pharisees or scribes or temple priests. Just Jesus in the wilderness fasting and praying. And then a figure who is called three different names appears in order to tempt Jesus. The devil, the tempter and Satan. And while we might imagine some kind of demonic presence, or half goat-man with red skin… the accuser or the Ha Satan is much different in scripture. The accuser is a figure who represents the prosecutor of God’s heavenly courtroom.

So after Jesus has been in the wilderness 40 days, the tempter arrives thinking that he can get Jesus to abandon the identity given him just before his wilderness excursion, the identity that God voice thundered from the heavens as Jesus is baptized, “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased.”

And so the tempter begins, “If you are the son of God…”

And yet something seems off.

The temptations aren’t quite right. Stones into bread, leaping from the pinnacle of the temple, power in exchange for worship. Jesus seems hardly phased. In fact, he almost seems annoyed with each passing attempt the accuser makes.

The tempter has misread his target, he has made assumptions that don’t hold with Jesus. The tempter thinks that Jesus will be just like all those people of faith who have gone before. The Old Testament is full of stories of the people of God falling from their identities, back into a pattern of sin and failure. Like Abraham and Sarah who doesn’t believe in God’s promises, the Israelites who complained to Moses to take them back to the better life as slaves in Egypt, like King David who couldn’t resist a beautiful woman… God’s people have the habit of falling off the bandwagon into sin and then crying to God for help. God tells the people to repent and then re-establishes their identity.

The tempter thinks Jesus will fall into sin just like the rest, when he is in his wilderness, he will turn from the identity given him in baptism and turn to consumption, spectacle and power.

And yes, the tempter understands people quite well.

These temptations aren’t temptations for us as well, but not in the same way they aren’t for Jesus.

They aren’t temptations because you can’t be tempted to do something you are already doing. We are happy and voracious consumers of the world around us. Perhaps not stones into bread, but minerals and glass into phones, we line up with our money. Fossil fuels into energy for cars, homes, batteries and we defend our right to oil like it is free speech. Sweat labour into cheep products that we buy, use and throw away – the parking lots of the discount retailers are rarely empty.

But it doesn’t end there.

We love a good spectacle. It might not be jumping off a temple, but funny impersonations of floundering presidents, envelope gaffs at the Oscars, sports championships with great comebacks… or even the local gossip about our neighbours whose marriage is on the rocks, that family member with the addiction or that co-workers who doesn’t know they are about lose their job. We love a good spectacle… we might not jump from the temple, but if someone was and there would be angels to catch them, we would be setting up chairs and selling popcorn to watch.

And of course there is power and worship. We have always known that power and its misuse makes our world go round… striving for power is not so much a temptation but a sport in our world.

And so if Jesus was like the rest of us, the tempter would have succeeded. The pattern of God’s people falling away into sin from the identity given to them by God would have continued as it always had.

But Jesus is different and the tempter doesn’t see it yet.

And so when the tempter tries to push Jesus into old patterns, Jesus won’t have it. His identity was announced and declared in his baptism, and there is no going back.

So when the tempter offers bread, Jesus reminds him that bread alone does not nourish, but instead the word of God.

And when the tempter offers a spectacle, Jesus counters with a refusal to be tested.

And then when the tempter just offers power, plain and simple, Jesus has had enough and shoos the tempter away.

Jesus knows who he is… and that this new baptismal identity cannot be left behind or forgotten. There is no turning away this time, God’s plan is the redemption of all creation. God is not leaving it up to the people, up to us to repent and turn back to God. God has come in flesh to go with us wherever we go, whether we fall or whether we repent, God will be there.

The tempter has no clue that Jesus is about to establish a new pattern for God’s people. A new way for us to be in relationship with God.

A pattern that is not about falling to sin, repentance and return.

But instead a pattern that begins with forgiveness and mercy. And that continues with this word of God that is better than bread, that fills us with hope and life. A pattern that isn’t a spectacle but that is a ritual. Not something that we gawk at individually, but that we practice and experience collectively and in community. A liturgy that takes us out of ourselves, and closer to God.

It is a new pattern that isn’t about us and our ability to get it or figure it out. God realized that humanity will never stop falling away into sin. So in Christ and in the Church, God established a new pattern for us. One that forgives us of our sin, that fills us with real food and real life, one that takes out of ourselves and away from our own hype and spectacle, so that we can make room for God and God’s story of good news in our lives.

The temptation of Lent is to not really experience it at all. The temptations of the tempter is to keep being what we always have been and to stay in the same patterns we know well.

But Jesus takes us into the wilderness to break our old ways and establish new ones. Jesus strips our old patterns and habits away in order to make room. To make room for God’s story, to make us ready for the passion and resurrection story to come, to transform us in ways that we can barely see and know, but that alter us right at the core of our being.

Jesus is helping us to give-up our old selves this Lenten season, to make room for new identities which we cannot leave behind as God declares us “Beloved Children of God.”


Photo credit: http://klskorner.blogspot.ca/2015/02/things-i-suck-at-lent-2015-version.html

Why Christians are Uncomfortable with Transcendence

Matthew 17:1-9

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (read the whole passage)

When I was 17, I had the privilege of going to Germany with my High-school’s concert band program. In addition to concerts and staying with host families, we had the chance to visit historical sites, including cathedrals and churches.

If you have ever been to any of the great cathedrals of Europe, you will know that very few Canadian churches compare to the grandness of a great gothic cathedral. In Cologne Germany, we toured the cathedral. Before cell phones and digital cameras, I had to stand down the street from the cathedral to fit the church into 3 frames stacked on top of each other to take a picture of the cathedral with my film camera.

And when you walk inside, everything draws your eyes up. The arches and fresco paintings, the very high ceilings and domes. There is a pipe organ hanging from the ceiling that is itself nearly as big as a tour bus, not to mention all the pipes that would easily fill our church. There are half a dozen tours available in different languages, and despite there being hundreds of tourists milling about, the church felt very empty when I stood inside the vast space.

The cathedral’s size and design, the towering spires and gothic arches, are meant to convey one simple message. God is big. Very Big. And you are small. Very small.

The fancy word for this is transcendence. God’s transcendence was the message of the cathedral. God filled the world from the ground to the sky, and from nearly any point in the city, the cathedral’s towers could be seen. God seemed to fill every mountain and valley, every nook and cranny of creation. It was human beings who intruded humbly into a world that is God’s and not the other way around.

Today, Jesus and the disciples go up the mountain of transfiguration, and while there Jesus is transformed into dazzling white. Elijah and Moses (two pillars of Hebrew faith) show up, just to make it clear that Jesus and this moment is a big deal. If there is any word to describe what the disciples are experiencing, it would be transcendence. God is filling their world from ground to sky, in every direction and in every nook and cranny.

Yet, the transcendence is not a comfortable feeling… and who can blame the disciples? Wouldn’t we be equally confused to see a transfigured Jesus on a mountain top with Moses and Elijah?

Yet, Peter thinks he has figured things out. He suggested building a dwelling place, or a church or temple on the mountain top. A place where he can put transcendent Jesus and his buddies Moses and Elijah into boxes. Boxes where they can be easily contained and managed.

Peter has the same instinct with God that we so often do. Peter wants to change the transcendent experience of the divine into a imminent one.

Now, what is the imminence of God you ask?

Well, the opposite of transcendent. Imminence is the closeness and nearness of God. The comfortable and the intimate. It is having coffee and reading the morning paper on a lazy weekend morning. It is a snuggling in a nice warm blanket to watch a movie on a snowy day.

Imminence is manageable. And Peter is trying to turn the Transcendence of the Transfiguration into the imminence of God in a comfortable and manageable box.

Peter’s instinct is the same as one we often share. We too get uncomfortable with the bigness of God, with a God who fills the ground to the sky, who is in every nook and cranny in creation. We prefer a cozy and comfortable God, who makes us feel nice and warm, who is manageable.

An imminent God doesn’t challenge us or threaten us. The cozy faith that is only about feeling the warmth of family and friends and coffee and passive entertainment of church and worship is one that we can unconsciously strive for. In fact, Christians in North America often think that the solution to our decline is to make God even more imminent, even more cozy and comfortable, more entertaining and non-threatening.

Yet, the God that our world seems to be longing for is a God who is bigger than the troubles of the world, not a warm blanket that makes us feel nice. The world longs for a God that is bigger than war and violence, than poverty and injustice, than discrimination and inequality. The world needs a God who transcends those things in the world which we no power against, a God who is greater than evil, bigger than suffering, stronger than death. Because we all know that these things are lurking around us, and that even this week we know in our community that we have no power over when tragedy steps out of the shadows.

And so despite Peter’s desire to build literal secure boxes to keep Jesus, Moses and Elijah in, God interrupts it all. As if the Transfiguration couldn’t get more transcendent, God breaks open the heavens and fills the world with God’s voice, and speaks directly to the disciples. And with the same message from the moment of Jesus’ baptism “This is my son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.” But this time God adds, “Listen to him.”

And with this, the disciples finally realize what this moment is. And they fall to their faces in fear. The transcendence of this mountaintop has finally hit them. They have been struck by the message: God is big, very big. And you are small, very small. But not in terms of significance, but relationally. God’s bigness, God’s transcendence fills our world. God cannot be contained in a box and restricted to a mountain top. God is filling the world, God is filling the disciples world and our world. And God the Father has sent Jesus the Son to do the filling so the disciples ought to pay attention to their friend and teacher.

And all of a sudden, everything is back to normal Jesus isn’t in dazzling white, Moses and Elijah are gone. It is just the same four who walked hiked up the mountain are left to go back down.

But Jesus has done what Peter and what we cannot. Peter tired to turn the transcendent into the immienent, to fit a Big God into a small and cozy box, just we often try to do in our churches and communites, in our boxes of faith.

But Jesus turns to the imminent into the transcendent. Jesus take the imminent experience of being a teacher and friend of the disciples, of being close and near and intimate, of being comfortable and manageable and Jesus bridges us to the transcendence of God. For you see, even though the white closes and the pillars of faith are gone, the voice of God is no longer speaking from the heavens… the transcedence is still there.

Jesus and disciples go back down the mountain, yet the bridge to the heavens remains. And ir remains through Jesus himself. Jesus is bringing the heavens down to with him to the people. Through Jesus God is about to fill creation with God’s grace and mercy again.

Through the Jesus who will go to the cross, to the next mountain of Golgatha where the heavens will be opened again, this time as the powers of death are defeated.

And it is the same bridge to the heavens, to the transcendence of God that Jesus brings to us. No matter how comfortable and cozy we want our faith to be, Jesus bridges the imminence with the transcendent.

With intimate words of confession and forgiveness, Jesus opens us up to the mercy of God.

With water that drenches our head and hands, Jesus proclaims our identity in the Kingdom of God.

With words of eternal life spoken on our lips and in our ears, Jesus declares that God’s love for all creation is also for each and everyone one of us.

With bread and wine served with our hands and eaten with our mouths, Jesus joins us to one another and to the Body of Christ across time and space.

It was not the mountain top or the bricks and mortar of the cathedral that permitted the transcendent to exist in our midst. Rather, God is bridging us to the divine each time we gather as the body of Christ. And then Jesus brings that bigness into our small places of our lives.

On Transfiguration Sunday, in these transcendent places, Jesus opens up the heavens and connects us to the Kingdom of God. Because no matter how much we want a warm blanket God, we need a God who is bigger than all the great powers of our world. We need a God who transcends sin, suffering and death…. A God who brings heaven down into the valleys of life and who shows us that God is bigger than it all.

Holding on to Truth in a Post-Truth World

 

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (Read the whole passage)

Have you ever been asked by a curious family member or friend, or even skeptical  or non-believing co-worker or neighbour why you show up here on Sunday morning? Have you ever been challenged to explain by a person who simply cannot and will not understand why you believe the outrageous claims about God that we Christians make? Maybe they were inviting you away for the weekend, or to play golf on Sunday morning, or out for Sunday brunch and you had to explain that you could not come along or it would have be later on in the day because you go to church. Maybe you were talking to some friends having a conversation over coffee when the topic of religion came up and you simply said nothing, because nothing seemed better than embarrassing yourself.

Most of us have probably experienced, at some point in our lives, that sheepish feeling of not knowing what to say or do when confronted with the challenge to explain why we believe in these things that we cannot explain or prove. Maybe you tried to give faith an explanation that you thought made sense or that seemed reasonable, but in the end all that came out is something like, “I can’t explain it, but I just know that its true somehow”. Reasons and explanations seem to only fall flat in the face of unflinching skepticism…At least this foolishness of faith can be somewhat justified because it is only a couple hours each week on Sunday mornings when the rest of the world is sleeping in anyways. Yet, at the same time the power of coming to this place is something that wish we could share, instead of humming and hawing when someone asks us what we do on Sunday mornings.

Unfortunately, the problem and the foolishness of the Gospel is that it does not jive with all the competing truths out there. It doesn’t make sense that God who created the universe would come to live with us as a peasant carpenter in the backwater of the known world two thousand years ago. It doesn’t make any more sense that God would willingly die at the hands of the people God created. And the thing that makes the least sense of all is that once creation had clearly done its best to finally get rid of Jesus by crucifying him on the cross, he comes back three days later.

Believing in the truth of God found in Jesus Christ is a minority opinion these days. Today in Canada there are more people sleeping in on Sunday morning than are showing up to church. This is not of course surprising in our post-truth world with alternative facts. We at one time are free to believe any crazy story we come across, while being skeptical of everything we hear. Evidence and facts are easily changed. Holding to truth to like the truth of Jesus’ work of saving dead sinners by making us alive is a fools endeavour.  There are many other truths that could portray us in a better light and give us a whole lot more power and importance.

And yet here in the foolish Church we have been proclaiming for weeks now the second coming of God in Christ during Advent, the birth of the divine Christ over Christmas, the revelation of Christ the Savior on Epiphany and soon we will proclaim the death of Christ the King on Good Friday. We have been singing about how Jesus is God, and we have been reading about how God has come in flesh and we have been praying about God working in ways that we cannot understand…. Yet, with all the ways we tell the story, it seems the Church doesn’t take the time to stop and ask, “Does this make sense?”

In perhaps one of the few places in scripture that might be considered an attempt to answer the skeptical question of “Does this make sense?” Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. Paul seems to be saying that this whole faith thing does not make any sense… except by faith. Only by experiencing of the power of God is our willingness to believe in this foolish proposition of the cross possible.

Look no further than what Jesus does today. As if Jesus is trying to show us the foolishness in action he preaches a sermon on a mountain to his disciples and crowds arounds, saying that things we would call curses are actually blessings.

And Paul takes the foolishness of faith even further. He says that we, the ones who are called by this foolish God to spread the gospel… he says that we are not wise, we are not powerful and we are not noble. We not only believe in a foolish God, but this foolish God has chosen us to be followers… a ridiculous choice.

But it is this ridiculousness that catches our attention. Its maybe even this ridiculousness that makes us show up to church on Sunday morning when most others are getting an extra sleep in day each week. This ridiculousness draws us here despite everything so that at least for a couple hours we can hear again the foolish story of God’s love for us.

In our world where truth is whatever we decide we want it to be… as people of faith we hold to a truth that roots us in a God who is not made in our image but we in God’s. And this God continues holding to the same story, even when it sounds foolish and silly. And because of that, we come here and we share with each other this ridiculous story about a peasant carpenter turned wandering homeless preacher. This story that tells us of a God who does everything backwards to the way we are told to do it. And the more we hear God’s story, the more it starts to break down and strip away all the fake truths and alternative truths of our world. And this foolish truth at odds with all the other truths start to root and ground us in our post-truth world. The Gospel gives us something to hold on to, when there doesn’t seem to be anything else. This story of radical grace and radical love from God that begins with the call to follow of a wandering preacher tells us that God is doing things that don’t make sense to rest of the world. Instead of offering proof, God offers love. Instead of offering explanation, God offers freedom. Instead of answering our questions, God invites us to follow.

Jesus calls us not only to set aside wisdom and power, but to set aside our mistrust, our cynicism, and reluctance to believe any so-called truth. And Jesus does it by simply saying, as we heard two weeks ago, “Come and See” and last week by saying “Follow Me, I will make you fishers of men”. This is the power of the Gospel that Paul was talking about. The power to turn our worlds inside out with a few simple words. This power allows us to trust in possibilities and opportunities of God’s working in the world in ways we cannot know. This power challenges our desire to be our own God while at the same allowing us to let of go of the burden trying to be God.

And so when we keep coming back here on Sunday morning, where we foolishly gather to hear the call of God to a new way of being in the world. Except that the more we come to hear this story about a God who comes to be born, to live, to die and to show us new life in resurrection, the more this story starts to be the only thing that makes sense during the rest week. Yet still our answer to those skeptics who ask us, “Why do you bother with that faith thing?” is the same. “We don’t know why, it just makes sense somehow”. And maybe this is why Paul doesn’t explain it to us but reminds us that the Gospel will only ever sound like foolishness. And maybe this is why God doesn’t offer any spin or alternative facts, because it is an unchanging foolishness of the call to “Come and see”, to “Follow me”, its in the foolishness of God’s unexplainable love, that truth is found.

Floating Down the River with Jesus

Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Sermon

Imagine wading knee deep into the water. The water swirls around our feet. It is cool, and refreshing. The movement is gentle and easy. It feels good to be in the water.

We have been floating down the river for a while now. Each year, we hop into the boat together and start the trip all over again in Advent. We float towards Christmas and through Epiphany. It is a journey that is familiar yet also new each time we take it. It is a Journey that begins with end times, that stops to hear John’s sermons and questions. Then it makes its way, with Mary and Joseph to the stable manger. The journey flees with the Holy Family to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous actions, and we also come with the Magi to worship this baby revealed as God.

Today we pick up speed and fast forward 30 years, we float down the river Jordan where Jesus is baptized by John. Jesus’ baptism is an unusual story, an uncomfortable scene for Christians. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? For forgiveness of sins? Repentance? What does it say about John as he baptizes instead of being baptized? In many ways the story of Jesus’ baptism invites more questions as we hear it again.

In Advent, we heard John’s preaching on the river bank. His stiff condemnation of the crowds and his warnings of the Messiah. This time, when Jesus shows up, John seems very different. The confidence and boldness are gone. He is indecisive and questioning. Jesus insists on being baptized. And so John relents, without a fight. This doesn’t sound like the John of a few weeks ago.

But John and the crowds do not see what is going on. They are hoping for a powerful Messiah. A warrior who will end injustice and who will remove foreign powers from control in Israel, but Jesus is not those things. It is the beginning of the problems that John, the disciples, the crowds, the Pharisees, scribes and temple authorities will have with Jesus. Some will want an ally, some will want a powerful warlord, some will want Jesus to go away. But Jesus simply refuses to fit their categories. Jesus is going to show us God in ways that don’t see.. that we can’t see… that we refuse to see.

Remember the feeling of standing in the water, feeling the cool fresh flow around our legs? Well the further we float, the more the current picks up. The gentleness is replaced by force and weight. The water doesn’t smoothly pass by. It pushes and grabs, it pulls and drags. The cool gentle stream that cooled our feet now pulls us in and drag us along. The power of the river is more than we could have ever imagined.

Like the crowds who gathered along the banks of the Jordan, we gather to wait also. We are waiting for the world to get better. But it doesn’t.

As we tried to pause and rest over Christmas, Life and Death soldiered on in the world. There were still tragedies, shootings, war and illness. The news of violence still bombarded us from our newspapers, radios and TVs.

The world hasn’t changed all that much since John and Jesus met in the river. Sure, we drive cars, live in heated houses and can talk to anyone on the other side of the planet instantly. But, like the crowds who stood listening to John, our world still is filled with violence and death. More shootings in the news, violence in Turkey and Syria, scandal among political leaders.

The weight of all of this threatens to drown us in the inability to care any more. We hear the reports, read the news articles and it is too much to take, too much to grieve for. Not only is it hard to see what is going on as Jesus is baptized by John, it is hard to see where God is at all.

Today, it might feel like the cool refreshing water of the river has pulled us in and dragged us under. The current is churning and spins us about. We bounce in all directions, sputtering for air, aimed over the cliff, over the waterfall.

This is not what the river journey begun in Advent is supposed to be like.

This is not what God is supposed to allow to happen in the world.

We are not supposed to drown in the waters of grief and apathy!

(Pause)

And a voice pierces the chaos.

“You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased”.

Words of promise, words of hope.

As John dunks Jesus down into and then brings him up out of the water, as breath and air flood back into empty lungs, God speaks. God speaks in a way that hasn’t been heard since the beginning of creation. God speaks and the world is transformed.

We tumble over the waterfall, we plunge into the deep pool at the bottom. We are squeezed and crushed under the weight, we can’t tell which direction is up. Death under the waters seems imminent.

And then all of a sudden, while we are tossed about in the churn, not knowing which direction is up or down, we pop up and out of the water. The rushes back into our lungs. This is where God’s action begins. In drowning, in death. This is as strange a place as we can imagine God to be working. And yet, God speaks as Jesus comes out of the water “You are my beloved children and with you I am well pleased”. What a weird and wonderful God who can push us below the surface in order to make us His own. In order to give us new names as child of God, as Christian, as beloved.

This is why John doesn’t know what is going on when Jesus asks to be baptized. This is why we cannot see God working in the world. It is too radical, too unbelievable.

And yet, this is promise that was made to us in the waters of Baptism, and it is the promise that is renewed each day and remembered each time we witness another child being drowned AND raised in these waters of life. It is a promise made that in the place we lease expect it, in death God is showing us something new, something life filled, something surprising. Something that can come only from a God like ours.

A God who comes into the world as baby born to a unwed teenage mother,

a God who lives a poor carpenter in 1st century Israel,

a God who died on a Roman cross as a common criminal,

a God who was raised from the dead and who in turn calls us to be drowned and then raised,

New life can only come from a God who does not act like we believe God should.

The radical God of water and Baptism comes to us in ways that are so unimaginable and so crazy, that we can hardly make them out. The journey that God is promises is not easy or gentle. The results of God’s work in the world is rarely what we imagine or hope for. Yet, as this unexpected God meets us in our world, and on our terms, we cannot help but be drawn in to this unexpected God whose story has become our story. Whose story we tell over and over again.

As we float down the river of Advent and Christmas, as we pass by Jesus and John in the river, we see again and anew the marvel of God’s love for us. We see a God who not only pushes us below the water to die, but who pulls us out again so that we may rise into new life. And today, we hear a God who speaks through chaos

“You are my beloved Children. With you I am well pleased.”

Amen.

A lament for 2016 and hope for 2017

Matthew 2:13–23

16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

(read the whole passage)

It’s still Christmas, the 8th day. Yet, the magic of the season that we normally carry with us through New Year’s never really landed for us this year. The tragic stories of this past year kept coming at us, even on Christmas Day. More celebrity deaths, more conflict around the globe, more political messes. A fragile ceasefire is finally holding in Syria on the eve of 2017.

And so with the hopes that this year might be different, that a new and different number on the end of our dates will bring something different to the world.

So it can feel like an ominous sign when Matthew gives us the darkest of Christmas stories today, the commemoration of the Holy Innocents.

The story of the massacre of the Holy Innocents, of all the toddlers and babies in Bethlehem, is not an easy story to hear. Our hearts can ache simply hearing about the death of children, we just know, somewhere deep inside of us, that this is unbearably sad. There is no need to compare it to the tragedies of human history that have followed since. We know what the slaughter of children was like for that town of Bethlehem, because it has not stopped. Children die each day, all over the world, of hunger, war, disease and poverty. This is not just an entire community in grief and mourning, it is a whole world. A world now even more desperate for a Messiah.

Today, on the 8th Day of Christmas, Jeremiah speaks for us all:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

Jeremiah’s words first expressed the grief of the people, the mothers of Israel, as they wept for their children who had been taken away to exile in Babylon. They are words that the people of Bethlehem would have known. But they now carry new meaning as they are stamped again to the hearts of the mothers of Bethlehem. Tragedy upon tragedy. Heartbreak upon Heartbreak.

The words that have been stamped upon the heats of parents again and again through time. Last year it was the parents of Aleppo, the mothers whose babies suffer from Zika, mothers whose grief is too much to bear even when their daughter is 60 years old and has lived a life in the Hollywood spotlight.

The darkness is still lingering in our world.

Yet….

Yet….

Yet… Jeremiah’s words do not go unheard. The weeping of Rachel and of all the mothers of Israel is not ignored. God speaks to this suffering. God speaks to the people that Jeremiah first wrote to, God speaks to the mothers of Behtlehem and God speaks to all who know tragedy, pain and loss.

Thus says the Lord:

Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.

17 there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
   your children shall come back to their own country.

God has not forgotten the cries of his people, and God’s messiah, Christ has come into the world for a purpose.

The newborn Messiah does not escape to Egypt. Instead, the Messiah travels the path of his people. The Messiah goes down the roads they have traveled and gathers his people along the way.

Just as the nation of Israel fled from Pharaoh in the Exodus, so too will the Messiah follow their path to Egypt and back to the promised land.

And just as the exiles of Jeremiah’s day returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, to the holy city, the Messiah is also on his way to Jerusalem.  Egypt and Babylon are just the beginning of the Messiah’s journey and the Messiah becomes Israel’s journey.

As the Messiah escapes to Egypt it is truly only a delay of King Herod’s order for death.  The destination of Messiah, from the moment he laid in the manger, and was worshipped by shepherds and magi, is the cross. Christ the Messiah is going to the land of the dead.

This is the hope, this is the promise that the Lord speaks to the people of Israel. This is the promise that is beneath the star, that is born into the stable, that is in the little baby in Mary’s arms. The promise is not just a baby, but a baby that will die. But not just die, but that will rise again. But that will not just rise again, but who will bring us back from the land of the enemy, who will call us to rise from our graves too.

Today is the first day of a new year, hopefully a different year after the difficulties of the last one. Matthew’s Christmas story is an ominous beginning. And while we may have hope for 2017, things look bleak. The world seems to be headed into a period of darkness, or put another away, the relative stability of past decades may be something we are leaving behind.

And still, it in to this troubled world that God comes to us… God comes to us as a baby shining light into our darkness. 

17 there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
   your children shall come back to their own country.

Christ, the Baby Messiah, born in a stable manger, has come into our world, to bring us out of the land of the enemy. To pull us from the chaos from the despair of grief and loss, from tombs where we do not belong. And Christ shall bring us back to our home, back to the love God.

This is is the promise of Christ’s coming. This is the Hope that the Angels proclaimed. This is the Good News of Great Joy that was given to the Shepherds, and that has been passed on to us this day.