Tag Archives: Church

The Great Multitude and Declining Churches

 

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands… (Read the whole passage)

 

All Saints Sunday is an ancient yet often unfamiliar festival of the church for many of us. It has only been in the past few decades that some Lutheran churches have begun to observe the feast day on the first Sunday in November.

But we all know of a tradition related to All Saints Day, and that is Halloween or All Hallows Eve – Hallowed being another word for saints. In other words, the Eve of All Saints.

All Saints is the tradition of remembering in prayer all those in our community who have died during the past year since last All Saints. In the Roman Catholic version of the festival, the official list of approved saints is recited and prayed on Nov 1st, and then on Nov 2nd, All Souls Day is marked when those who are still in purgatory are prayed for.

As Lutherans, we mash the two together in a sense, praying for all those who have died on the Sunday of All Saints as we dropped the notion of purgatory 500 years ago with the Reformation.

And so, many churches today will be praying for loved ones by name, or lighting candles as a part of worship and as a way to observe All Saints. In that sense, All Saints Sunday can be a bitter sweet day – one where grief is remembered but also one of hope pointing us to the coming end of time when God will gather all the saints into the Kingdom.

As we hear Matthew’s beatitudes and how they speak to the idea of the saints, they certainly speak to the definition of blessedness. In that way they point us to the Reformation idea that we are sinners AND saints… saints not because we have been blessed by good fortune, health and conflict free lives… but because God has declared us holy and blessed, even in the midst of the struggles of life.

And while unpacking the ins and outs of what it means to be a saint and what it means to be blessed is not a bad idea on All Saints Sunday… it is not the beatitudes that truly show us the vision of All Saints. The idea that we are all joined together in faith to the saints who have gone before and who will come after us.

Rather, it is John’s vision in Revelation, and the great multitude coming before the throne of God, that gives us a true glimpse into what All Saints is all about.

The setting of this vision from John found in the book of Revelation was that is was written for an early church community experiencing persecution. Christians in the decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus found themselves clustered in small communities scattered across the Roman Empire. Island of faith in a sea of imperial paganism.

These small churches of sometimes only one or two dozen people lived in a world that didn’t give them too much mind. They were surrounded by a pluralistic society that prioritized the empire and its success beyond any particular religion. Early Christians communities stood out because they insisted, like their Jewish cousins, on worshipping the one true God. Most of the time Christians were largely ignored by this world, but when they were noticed by Roman society, they were oppressed and persecuted. As the first generations of the faithful began to pass by, these early church communities started to wonder about the imminent return of Jesus… Some, as we hear in Paul’s letters began to doubt the point of keeping the faith at all.

As John’s Revelation writings came to these early church communities they would have sounded radical, absurd even. To small communities used to be ignored or forgotten, or remembered only to be used as lion food in the gladiator games, John’s vision promising hope in a God who would correct all things, end oppression, destroy evil and bring the world to right would have sounded crazy.

Imagine being a church of a few dozen people, in some forgotten and ignored part of the world, trying your best to keep the faith. And as the world around you seems to pay little attention, you receive this letter of encouragement. A letter proclaiming a future where the Kingdom and reign of God is dramatically breaking into the world. Where God gathers up the little group of a few dozen into a great and uncountable multitude, robed in white, signifying the fact that they are not alone in following the risen Christ. And there in that crowd they march with joy to worship at the throne of God singing the very same songs that had been sung week after week in the worship of faithful:

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!…

Blessing and glory and wisdom

and thanksgiving and honor

and power and might

be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

It sounds incredible, unbelievable.

It sounds nuts.

And it sounds familiar.

1900 years on from those small church communities hearing the Revelation of the John for the first time, we aren’t in that much of a different space than they were. Things have changed for us, we used to be the biggest show in town and the world used to care about who we were and what we did. But now we are not much more than small islands gathering to keep the faith in a world that has mostly forgotten we exist at all.

No group of Christians is immune to this reality today. Churches are declining across board, we are no longer the big deals that we once thought we were.

And we wonder how the great multitudes will ever come back, how the grand worship before the throne can ever be a thing again. Especially on a day like All Saints Sunday when we remember all those who have gone before us faith, it is hard to imagine who will come after us.

It is almost like the vision itself plays out the same conversation that we are regularly having. As John stands there with the elder watching the great multitude of the saints go by, he asks,

“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

And along with John we have no idea. We cannot imagine or understand this world where God is bringing all creation to worship before the throne.

And so we too shrug our shoulders…. we don’t know. We only know small gatherings of hopeless peoples… or so we think.

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

This is the great uncountable multitude, from all tribes and all nations, worshipping God and the lamb.

And in case we missed the memo, this great uncountable multitude is us.

You and me and all those gathered here… we are part of that multitude.

When the name of the triune God and the communion of the Holy Spirit is invoked, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When sins are confessed and forgiveness received in the body of Christ, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When the word is proclaimed, and the good news is heard, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When the faith is confessed, prayers are offered up for the world, the church and those in need, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When body of Christ is placed in our open empty hands and when we take in the blood of Christ swirling with the cloud of witnesses, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

You see, this scene from the vision of John is not just a vision of the end of world… it was a vision of those tiny churches without hope scattered across the Roman empire, it was reminder of who God was forming them to be.

And John’s vision is a reminder to us, of who God is making us. Each time we gather, even though we may feel small and forgotten…

God is making us into the great multitude of the saints, past, present and future.

God is reminding us that we are not alone in carrying the faith.

God is showing us that here in this moment, in this community, as we worship…

That the great multitude is gathering here, before the throne, singing the praises of Christ the lamb,

And here we will hunger no more, and thirst no more;

the sun will not strike us,

nor any scorching heat;

for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be Our shepherd,

and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”

Amen.

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Reformation 500 – Telling the Right Story

John 8:31–36

Reformation 500

October 31st, 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the day that a young Roman Catholic monk and university professor nailed a list of 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. His list of 95 pointed and succinct grievances became the flashpoint for the beginning of a period of upheaval and change in western Christianity which would later be named “the Reformation” by historians.

And so each year on the Sunday on or before October 31st, we, along with Lutherans around the world, take the opportunity to commemorate this occasion.

This 500th anniversary year, in particular, has been a busy one for Lutherans everywhere. It began in Lund, Sweden (the birthplace of the Lutheran World Federation) last year as the President of the LWF, the General Secretary of the LWF and the Pope led a shared worship service as a sign of reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics. This past summer, the ELCIC hosted its National Reformation Commemoration during our National Church Convention in Winnipeg at St. Gianna’s Roman Catholic Church with ecumenical leaders from a variety of denominations from across Canada.

Along the way churches and communities all over have been marking this 500th anniversary year with special bible studies, community events, concerts, and even in this part of the world a Manitoba Reformation Social.

And so even though today may feel like a fairly typical Sunday morning, we gather for worship with our Lutheran sisters and brothers in Christ from around the world to mark this significant occasion.

As we commemorate, and remember, and celebrate, and mark, and observe this Reformation moment 500 years on, things in 1517 were not nearly as festive. (There were definitely no socials).

Martin Luther’s intention in nailing his list of 95 theses articulating what he believed to be errors and failures of the Pope and institution of the Roman Church was perhaps to inspire some lively debate among his colleagues at the university. But the relatively new invention of the printing press changed all of that, and Martin’s writings were copied and spread throughout all of Europe. Today, we might say Luther went viral.

Luther’s main concern had to do with the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. Essentially papers issued by the pope (and sold by the church) giving people time off of purgatory. And not just for yourself, but also for your dead loved ones! Basically the church’s version of monopoly’s get out of jail free card. The selling of indulgences was Rome’s way of fundraising for the construction of St. Peter’s basilica.

What resulted was a showdown between Martin Luther and the arrayed political and religious powers of his day. Luther’s insistence that salvation was entirely a gift from God in faith threatened the church’s main source of income. Popes had been using the Vatican treasury to play politics, assemble armies for war and fund large building projects and art commissions. Indulgences kept the Vatican afloat, and needless to say, church leaders were not impressed with this nobody monk from the sticks and his growing popularity.

Now, nothing that Luther advocated for was new to Christianity. He certainly did not discover grace, that originated with that Jesus guy 1500 years earlier. Nor was Luther the first since Jesus to re-articulate the centrality of grace as a free gift from God, as we just heard that from St. Paul in Romans. And there was St. Augustine and others  were also very clear about salvation being a free gift from God.

The thing that Luther identified in his day was how the church was turned in on itself and obsessed with its own history and power. For hundreds of years, the church had been very cozy to political power, crowning emperors and declaring empires to be holy. By Luther’s day, power and influence were the centrally important things for most Popes and other leaders. Rome’s identity was deeply wrapped up in being an institution of influence and power, and not in being the body carrying out God’s mission to the world.

And so when Luther showed up declaring that perhaps God and God’s mission to save a sinful world was more important than big cathedrals and military forces, it did not go over well with those in power.

The ensuing conflicts between Rome and Luther resulted in a split in the Roman church and the birth of numerous protestant denominations over the past 500 years.

500 years on from Luther’s moment at the church door in Wittenberg, things have a changed a fair bit. Those of us who bear his name as Lutherans no longer carry the same clarity of the gospel that Luther did, and we often fall into the same temptation that the 16th Roman church did of loving our past, the power and influence that we used to have, a little too much.

As we commemorate 500 years of our history, it is easy to forget that one of Luther’s key points was that our history is not the point. God’s story is.

God’s story of love, and mercy;

God’s story of reconciliation, and grace.

God’s story of redemption for a fallen humanity.

This story is not one that is told in past tense only, but in the present and in the future.

Martin Luther’s insistence on grace through faith had to do with a simple but radical idea that salvation is not something that we could achieve. We cannot save ourselves, we cannot save others, we cannot save the church, we cannot save the world.

Salvation is God’s alone to do. God is the actor, the one who gives the gift, the subject of the sentence, the one whose deeds of power achieve the goal.

A simple but radical idea.

Simple because it sounds like it should be obvious.

Radical because it challenges our notion that we are in control, that our power and influence matters, that our story and history is somehow significant when it comes to salvation.

And if any Reformation commemoration is going to tell the story of the Reformation faithfully, it is not going to just be about Martin Luther, or just about the Lutheran church. But it will remind us again of God’s story. Of God’s story where sinners are forgiven freely, and the dead are raised to new life.

This central focus of Reformation on God and God’s action is also the hardest part of Reformation. It is easy to get lost in our own story, to make our past the thing that defines us, to believe that the way things were are how they are supposed to be in the future. It is hard to set aside our own past and continually orient ourselves back to God’s story and God’s future…

In fact, as Martin Luther would remind us, it is impossible not to make things about us, it is impossible not to put ourselves into God’s place, whether we are the church of 1517 or 2017.

But what is impossible for us, is not impossible for God.

God who continues to form us into God’s image.

God who continues to make things about forgiveness and mercy; grace and reconciliation.

God who continues to shed us of our own stories and pasts.

God who continues to transform us with the story of resurrection and new life.

God who continues to reform us 500 years on from a church door in Wittenberg.

*This sermon was co-written with Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker*

Reformation 500 – The Next 500 years

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

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

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

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

As Lutherans look back on the past 500 years, we are also looking forward to what the next 500 years will bring for Lutherans, and all Christians.

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

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

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

But this is actually a really poor prediction model.

Let me put it in different terms.

50 years ago, when Lutherans gathered they often would have looked like this: The-American-Lutheran-Church-Constituting-Convention_2-18-13

Now imagine going to someone standing in that crowd and telling them that in a mere 50 years they might look like this:

p6245412.jpg

Thousands reduced to dozens or less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t.

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

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

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

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

As governments and corporations and other institutions continue to struggle to contend with the big issues that face our world like war and conflict, refugee crisis, economic inequality, climate change, growing nationalistic movements, etc… People will begin to look for places where they kind find real hope. The things that we all believe we could relay on to look after us, like the political leaders we elect and the social institutions that we have created, will not be able to deal with our problems. And so people will begin looking for something bigger than us, someone bigger than us, to deal with our problems. In a dark and a hopeless world (like that of Jesus, like that of Martin Luther), God and the promises of hope and new life that God has given us will begin to pull people to faith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*The original version of this post can be found here*

How God Responds to Violence – Edmonton, Vegas and the Wicked Tenants

Matthew 21:33-46

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” (Read the whole passage)

Over the past week, we have born witness, once again to violence and tragedy in our world. Last Saturday night, in Edmonton, a police officer was hit by a car, and then stabbed. And then hours later the same attacker hit four people with a u-haul truck. Thankfully no one was killed.

But then the following night, as if on cue, another mass shooting took place in the US, this time in Las Vegas. And again, the scale of the shooting was thought to be previously unimaginable. 59 dead, over 500 hundred wounded.

And these two events, perhaps more than many of the acts of violence in the past few years, have hit closer to home. An attack on Canadian soil makes us feel vulnerable. And despite being far from here, the Las Vegas shooting has reached all the way into our community, with two of the injured victims being from our part of the world.

A because of these events, it is hard to gather around food with family and friends this Thanksgiving. Hard to know that as we eat and spend time with family, our friends and neighbours are on a long road to healing. These events make us feel more thankful and less thankful at the same time. More thankful for our own safety and the safety of our loved ones. But harder to be thankful for a world that seems to be getting more dangerous each day.

As we have worked our way though the stories of Jesus ministry and teaching this summer and fall, it has often felt like the stories we have heard have had something to say about the things happening in our world. We heard the story of Jesus and gentile woman dealing with issues race just as the protests were happening in Charlottesville. We heard a God who searches out the last, lost and least just a hurricanes were ravaging people islands, coasts and cities.

And today, as violence and tragedy is on our minds, we hear Jesus tell us a parable that deals with the topic of violence.

Jesus is still talking to the temple priests and pharisees as he was last week. Following up the conversation about where Jesus’ authority comes from, he tells the priests and pharisees a parable meant to upend their understand of authority and power.

A landowner plants a vineyard and then rents it out, while he goes off to another country. The agreement with the tenants is that they will be free work and live off the land if they send the owner a share the fruits.

But when harvest time comes, nothing is sent to the owner. So he sends some of his slaves to collect… yet when they arrive the tenants decide that they can renege on the agreement. So like a group of mafiosos, they kill one servant, stone another and beat the third to send a message.

But the landowner doesn’t give up. Being landowner in those days wasn’t simply a business opportunity. Owning land came with responsibility. The responsibility to provide for the community and people that lived near and on the land, as they were often the relatives and extended family of the landowner. If these tenants keep the harvest for themselves, a whole community could go without.

So again, the landowner sends his slaves to collect the fruits of the harvest. And again the tenants kill the slaves.

But not willing to give up on his responsibilities as a caretaker of the land and community, the landowner sends his son.

Yet, seeing the opportunity to not just hoard the harvest, but tenants see that killing the son, the heir to the land, is their opportunity to appropriate the land… to take the place of the landowner themselves.

And then Jesus cuts the story off, without finishing it. And instead asks the Pharisees and temple priests what they think the landowner would do.

Their response to Jesus is that the landowner will finally come a set things right… set things right by bringing down his full power and might on those wicked tenants, by putting them to death and renting to new less wicked and more fearful tenants who wouldn’t dare try to take what isn’t theirs.

Almost sounds like the plot to an action movie doesn’t it. A good and virtuous landowner’s son is killed by some bad dudes while the hero is far away in a another country… so now the landowner will spent two hours kicking butt with explosions and car chases to rain down righteous vengeance on these bad renters.

And isn’t that how we imagine power to look like. Power is to be the strongest and most mighty of them all, the one able to demand and take the things that truly belong to heroes, while the bad guys are the ones who just weren’t quite strong enough.

The pharisees and temple priests imagine power and strength in the same way that our world does. The strongest, the most powerful, the most god-like among us, are the ones who can strike the most fear, who are the most violent, who can control the world around them the most.

The tenants see something that they want and can take, so they use violence to do so. While the pharisees and temple priests believe that the landowner, the one who should be the most powerful will exercise that power and squash those wicked tenants like the bugs they are.

Given that the brightest religious leaders and authorities of Jesus’ believe that greater violence is the answer to violence, that greater power and might the answer to power and might, it is not hard to see 2000 years later, we hold the same idea.

It is easy to see that we too so often see violence and power and might as the solution to our problems. Whether it is gaining the upper hand in argument with a loved one at the expense of their feelings, or hoarding control and power over those we work with, or treating badly those who serve us our food, cut our hair, provide medical care, or plow our streets because we know they have to take it. We often see violence and power as answer to problems, or the easiest way raise ourselves up while pushing others down.

It is even easy to see that regardless of the particular motive of the Edmonton attacker or Vegas shooter, that our desire for power and might and control turned extreme quickly becomes tragic.

It impossible to miss the fact that this all because of original sin, the same desire of Adam and Eve to be God in God’s place.

And so when Jesus tells the Pharisees and temple priests this parable of violence and they suggest that more violence is the answer, it is hard for us to disagree.

But God disagrees.

In fact, this thinly veiled parable shows us that God the Landowner does the opposite of what we would consider god-like and powerful. God comes from the bottom. If violence were the answer, would have never sent his slaves in the first place. He would have sent soldiers from the first moment that the wicked tenants weren’t paying up. But God sends slaves, servants whose job would be to take the fruits to the harvest out of the hungry community. And when first slaves are killed, God sends more. God sends more as a sign that the importance of caring for those whom God is responsible is no joke. And when those slaves are killed, God sends the son.

And even though Jesus ends the parable there, we know the real ending.

We know that even after the son is met by the wicked tenants shouting crucify him, they nail the son to a cross. They use the power that seems the most god-like to us – death.

But God sends the son again.

And the son comes to us from the bottom. From the place that is surely the least god-like in our minds.

God sends the son to come to us from the grave.

From the place of utter weakness.

From the place where power is completely absent.

God sends the son to come up and out from the grave.

And by doing that God completely re-defines the power of violence.

God re-creates the order of the world.

God-like power is no longer the power to decide who dies.

Whether it is cutting words directed to a loved one,

Or bullets cutting down hundreds at a country music concert.

God undoes the place of violence and strength and might in the world.

God makes weakness god-like.

God makes loves god-like.

God makes grace the new reality.

And all of a sudden violence and power and might, they are not so god-like anymore. In fact, they become very human. And the thing that we thought was the solution to our problems turns out to be no solution at all.

Rather, God uses the weak waters of baptism to change us at our core.

Rather, God uses the foolish word of forgiveness and mercy to make us new.

Rather, God uses the love found in the body and blood of Christ to welcome us home.

And once again, Jesus reminds us that the power to decide who dies is a very human power.

But it is God’s power to make the dead… alive again.

The terrible power of the angry mob and the God who stands firm

Matthew 21:23-32

… And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things…. (Read the whole passage)

There is something about an angry crowd that makes the hair on the back of your neck tingle.

If you have ever been near to a group of angry protestors or near a mob you would know that the kind of tension an angry group of people create is unique. Because of this, an angry mob is always something that makes the news. The protests and violence in Charlottesville this summer commanded world wide attention. As did the angry riots in Vancouver a few years ago after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. Tense and sometimes violent groups stick our in a memory. Those protesting violence police violence in Ferguson, Syrian refugees and migrants clamouring to cross European boarders, people gathered outside Trump rallies last year, people marching in the streets of the Arab Spring, and on and on. The reasons that incite a crowd are varied and complex and certainly some are more trivial than others.

Today, both Moses and the chief priest are worried about the crowds. They are worried that the very people that they lead, that they have authority over, that they have been entrusted with caring for, will revolt in anger. The Israelites wandering in the wilderness are complaining again, this time for something to drink… and Moses, fearing the crowds more than the God who appeared in burning bush, sent the 10 plagues and parted the Red Sea asks for God’s help lest he be stoned.

The chief priests know that the crowds are watching the interaction between them and Jesus, and the wrong answer can provoke violence.

It is easy to call the grumbling of the Israelites and the frustrations of the temple crowds mere complaining, but clearly there is something more to it than just a bunch of whining.

Moses is genuinely fearful… and the constant grumbling of the wandering and restless crowds will soon lead Moses up a mountain to meet with God. And God will provide ten commandments to temper the growing tension and discontentment among the Israelites so that their grumbling doesn’t turn into violence.

And yet, hundreds of years later, long after the law had been given, the same leaders of the people – the chief priests – are fearful of what the people might do if they are provoked.

There is something about an angry crowd or mob that puts everyone on edge… that sparks a fear in leaders and authorities.

There is something about an angry crowd or mob that reveals something primal and dangerous within us. The instinct to protect ourselves, to lash out at those who can be easily blamed for our problems, to coalesce around anger and rage… these things reveal and show the dark side of us, that potential for evil that is somehow multiplied when a group of individuals all pull back the veil on sin simultaneously.

An angry crowd or mob reveals what original sin looks like at its clearest. What it looks like when our selfish desires to protect ourselves at all costs, to blame others for our problems, to seek vengeance for the grudges that we carry is put out into the open. When a group of people tries to be God in God’s place, and exercise ultimate power and control over their world you get a terrifying scene.

And of course, we too know about the discontentment of a crowd in the 21st century. Whether it is the violent crowds we see in the news or a lesser discontentment that can brew in any group or community, we know the power of collective rage and grumbling. We know that in our communities, even in our church communities, that when frustration and anger hits a tipping point, blaming particular people or other groups for our problems can brew a toxic storm. And it is a storm that that most leaders fear and avoid, and few others, (like a certain big league president to our south) incite in order to exploit.

And so as the temple authorities and Jesus debate in front of the crowds today, the temple authorities watch their words for fear of the crowds, even though they believe that Jesus is not the one sent by God.

And while the rage might have been directed towards the temple priests today… it is not long after this that the rage of the crowds will be redirected towards Jesus. The shouts of Hosanna for a king riding into Jerusalem will turn to crucify him.

And Jesus knows this. Jesus knows that the questions about his authority will not die down. And that for only a little longer, he will only get away with parables that suggest the temple priests do not know the will of God.

But what Jesus does in the face of the violent crowd, what Jesus comes to say about God and about God’s kingdom, even when the crowds turn into violent mobs hell bent on taking out their anger on someone.

And Jesus does what neither Moses nor the temple priests are able to do. Jesus does what no King or Queen, what no Emperor, what no President or Prime Minister is able to do.

In the face of original sin, in the face of a crowd determined to be God in God’s place and take control of their world, Jesus stands firm.

Jesus doesn’t avoid the anger and nor does he incite the crowd, he doesn’t appease the crowds or try to control them. Jesus doesn’t respond to their violence with violence.

Instead Jesus stands firm, Jesus continues to declare that the Kingdom of God has come near. Jesus continues to bring close the love and mercy and grace of God. Jesus continues to meet a fallen humanity with the intimacy of God come to us in flesh

Even as the anger and rage filled crowds convince Pilate, Herod and the other earthly authorities to bend to their need to violence, even as they drag Jesus to Golgotha, even as they nail him to a cross, even as they put Jesus, God in flesh to death… Jesus stand firms. Jesus continues to bring the love and grace and mercy of God near to us.

And unlike all other responses to Original Sin made manifest in angry crowds, in crowds that shout “Crucify him”, as Jesus stands firm knowing that the crowd will take his life… God’s unwillingness to bend and react to the crowd changes everything.

The crowd’s power, the power of death is overcome… self-righteous anger and rage become impotent. Death is no longer final and instead resurrection and new life are the new reality. Original Sin is no longer a terrible and fear inspiring power, but soft whimper next to God’s love and grace and mercy.

And we know this because we live it. Yes, original sin takes control of us collectively from time to time. We still see it in the news and in our lives.

Yet, as we gather here, and as Christians all over the world gather together…

There is no angry mob that meets God’s word of forgiveness.

There is no rage that can overshadow the life that is given in the waters of baptism.

There is no discontent that the gospel word does not cure.

There is no selfish anger that does not melt away as we come and kneel to receive bread and wine at God’s table.

Because Jesus stood firm in the face of the angry crowd, original sin has no claim in the body of Christ.

Moses and the temple priests are fearful of the crowds today. They are afraid of what the rage of the original sin might to do them if left unchecked… it is a very real fear known by any leader, known by any bystander in front of an angry mob…

But it is in that hair raising fear of the angry crowd where Jesus stands his ground. Where God incarnate, God in flesh insists on preaching God’s love, mercy and grace.

And it is there, standing in front of the mobs of original sin that God’s love prevails…

That God’s grace is present and manifest in the world…

That God’s mercy is given …

There that the Kingdom of God comes near.

And there is no angry crowd that will make Jesus back down… because God has come to stand in front of our sin, and God does not bend or react… but instead insistently shows us new life.

How many times can we forgive? None.

Matthew 18:21-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10,000 talents was worth about 54 million denarii.

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

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

The difference between the two is absurd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we gather for worship we practice it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Cornerstones into Stumbling Blocks

Matthew 16:21-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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