Tag Archives: Jesus

A Full Church is not Measured by the Number of People

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.

(Read the whole passage)

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each 4th Sunday in the Season of Easter is reserved to hear about Jesus the Good Shepherd. And here at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, we could consider this Sunday an opportunity to celebrate our congregation. Just as congregations with names like St. Matthew’s, or St. John’s often celebrate on the feast days of their saints.

But this year we get short changed in the shepherd department. We are in the 3rd year of our 3 year cycle of readings for each Sunday. And last year and the year before, Good Shepherd Sunday got the good readings. “I am the Good Shepherd” readings. Today we get a passing reference to sheep and that is it.

In fact, as we encounter Jesus, it is an entirely different celebration. The festival of Dedication. Or more commonly known as Hanukkah – nothing to do with shepherds.

Instead of Shepherds, sheep, meadows and spring, we get the dead of winter. Jesus is walking through the temple, the Portico of Solomon. A space along the East wall where crowds would have gathered to celebrate Hanukkah – a winter festival of lights. It was an 8 day celebration to commemorate how the temple had been liberated 200 years earlier from oppression by the Seleucids – the empire of Alexander the Great. The liberating rebels found the temple defiled and the only undefiled thing was a sealed bowl of olive oil, enough to light a lamp for one day. But the oil lasted 8 days, long enough to complete the ritual cleansing.

Hanukkah, this winter festival of lights was a time for families to gather, to remember how they had been freed from oppression and how the nation of Israel had been restored. But by Jesus’ day, the celebration would have been bitter-sweet. The people now lived under different oppressors – the Roman Empire.

And so the crowds gathered at the temple for Hanukkah see Jesus, and they are looking for liberation again. They want to be saved, restored to former greatness, they want control of their destiny and future. They press in on Jesus wanting answers. They long for the day when their nation would be their own again – they want a Messiah to come and lead them to greatness, just like the rebels had done 200 years before. “Tell us plainly” they demand of Jesus, give us the quick and easy answer to our problems.

Jesus doesn’t give them answer they are looking for, instead he talks about sheep knowing his voice and people being snatched out of his hands. A cryptic non-answer for a crowd wanting a plain and straight forward response.

In many ways, the bitter-sweetness of celebrating liberation while living under oppression is something we know too. No we haven’t needed liberation from anything here in Canada. Nor do we know what it is like to live under oppression.

But we do know what it is like to feel like for our identity and place in the world to be taken away. On a day when we could be celebrating Good Shepherd, it is easy to carry concerns about the future. It is easy to feel like an older, thinner and more tired version of ourselves. It easy to feel like those crowds did, like we are celebrating something that is already gone from us.

This week as the ACTS group met for bible study and considered this gospel lesson, it was Jesus’ answer to the crowds that generated questions. One question in particular stuck with me throughout the week, “If Jesus says he won’t let us be snatched from God’s hand, what does being snatched out look like.”

What I think our group was really asking was, “If Jesus is the Messiah, why does it feel like our church is shrinking and dying. Why does it feel like the world doesn’t care about us anymore? Why do people who were once here, once parts of our family, once parts of our community, no longer come? What about all the people who are gone? Have they not been snatched away?”

The question that the ACTS group asked is most certainly on the minds of Christians all over. And it is one we consider lots here at Good Shepherd too.

And we get frustrated too when we just want a plain answer from Jesus, but he gives us something vague and cryptic. Or at least he gives an answer that doesn’t satisfy our questions.

When the crowds demand to know if Jesus is the Messiah, he rejects the premise of their question. “I have told you, and you do not believe”

The crowds are asking for their temple and nation to be restored. They want a Messiah who will bring back the glory days, who will make Israel great again (as some politicians these days are fond of saying). The crowds are looking to return to the glory of Hanukkah… to relive the story of human triumph in the world. Of one group overcoming and having power over another.

But this is not about God’s work in the world. They are not remembering the covenant with Abraham, God delivering them from Egypt, nor God giving them a King in King David (despite God’s objections). They remembering their own glory.

And Jesus is not talking about a Messiah King, or Messiah warlord or Messiah President. Jesus is talking about a Messiah who has been sent for God’s work in the world.

So what are we asking of the Messiah? What do we want Jesus to tell us plainly? Sometimes we get wrapped up in asking the Messiah to restore our church, to build our membership, to increase our attendance. Sometimes, without thinking, we can equate how we feel about church with how we talk about God. We say that our church is shrinking, dying, getting smaller, becoming tired, a shell of what it once was… we say that God seems to be shrinking, dying, getting smaller, becoming tired, a shall of what God once was in our world. How we feel about church is how we talk about God.

Jesus is reminding us that it is actually the other way around. How God feels and acts towards us is how we should be talking about church.

Who is here and who is not hear is not a measure of whether or not we have been snatched out of God’s hand. How many people keep up weekly attendance is not a measure of the church or the Good Shepherd.

Jesus is telling us today the fullness of the church, that the aliveness of the church is about what God is doing here.

The church is full because the Word of God fills it with the Good News of God’s love for sinners, for the broken, for the forgotten and marginalized. The church is full of God’s love for us.

The church is full because the waters of baptism overflow here with grace and mercy. Just as Jaxson is baptized this morning, so to are we reminded that because we are baptized too, that God’s grace is overflowing here, filling this place. The church is full of God’s hope for us.

The church is full because the bread and wine of new life are in abundance here. Because when the Body of Christ gathers, we become bread for the world and we are send out with good news for the world. The church is full God’s gifts for us.

Like those crowds gather for Hanukkah, we can easily can get wrapped up in wanting to restore former glory, with wondering what God is doing with a seemingly shrinking, dying place, with measuring our fullness by who is here and who is not. We can starting talking about God using the language of how we feel.

But Jesus reminds us of how God feels and acts towards us.  That the Messiah is about doing God’s work. And that God’s work fills this place, not with us, but with God. God fills this place with love and mercy and grace – God’s work done here and done for us.

Amen. 

Advertisements

Why nothing seems to get people back to church – The issue at the core of decline

“People just aren’t committed like they used to be”

This week, I came across this satirical article from the site BabylonBee “After 12 Years Of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked By Daughter’s Lack Of Faith

The article humorously reveals an issue facing many churches today. I can’t tell you how many times (56,819 times) I have had the conversation where someone talks about the fact that young people aren’t as committed as they once were. People aren’t coming to church like they did in decades past, and those left behind have started to notice. Many congregations are feeling older, thinner, and tired out. The future feels bleak. The studies tell us that the church is declining.

And so churches try any number of things to attract people back to church. Youth group programs, revamped and modern music, renovated worship spaces, hip and cool pastors with tattoos and any number of other gimmicks.

But nothing seems to work. At least I haven’t heard of any churches successfully bringing back all the members who drifted away. And yet we keep at it, week after week, year after year worrying about people who were once here. Our grand plans for revitalization is to try and appeal to people who have already chosen to leave. Sure, it works once in a while, but this is probably not a strategy for success.

Yet, while churches fret and worry about those who were once there, we rarely take the time to understand what we are asking people to come back and commit to.

Commitment to church

A lot of sermons, bible studies, meetings, conferences, lectures, consultants, coaches and more have been spent analyzing and communicating the message that the social advantages of church that drove attendance in decades past no longer exist. It just isn’t the case anymore that good citizens born here are expected to become good church members. Schools, work, neighbours, businesses, governments don’t do –  society-at-large doesn’t do – our evangelism for us anymore.

Church isn’t an expected social commitment any longer.

Yet, almost always when we speak of getting people to start coming back to church, we say it just like that – ‘back to church.’ And the issue goes deeper to than that. So often when I ask church members what reason keeps them coming to church, there is almost always one things at to the top of the list: Church feels like family, church is a community.

Churches should be communities where we feel connected to each other in deep ways.  But family and community are still social commitments at the end of the day.

Social Commitment

Most churches are, at their core, institutions formed around a social or societal commitment. The core of churches have been based on the fact that people are expected to attend because of societal pressures. And when society taught us through family, friends, neighbours, schools, workplaces, TV, movies, newspapers, courthouses, and governments that being church attenders was important, churches organized around social commitment worked well.

These churches did good ministry, they reached people with the gospel and they were servant communities.

But now that society is no longer providing the pressure to be church attenders, attracting people to a social commitment doesn’t work.

In fact, it may be the very thing that is driving people away.

Our pitch for church has often become some version of “come to church because you should” or “come to church for your family” or “come to church for the community”

Yet, people are choosing sports or music or clubs or brunch with friends or sleeping in with family because they love those things. People are choosing things that they are passionate about, things that they love. Social pressure doesn’t hold much sway anymore, even if our society did push church on people.

When you love soccer, finding a team to play on is also finding a community with a shared passion. When you love brunch, finding a brunch club means joining a community that shares your love of brunch. When you love lazy Sunday mornings with family, you have a community that also loves sleeping in.

But what is our shared loved at church? Are we just communities to join without a shared passion?

Commitment to Jesus

If I had to guess, the vast majority of people who still might be looking for a church in 2016 are not looking for a social commitment to church.

As a millennial, I never lived in the era of social commitment or social pressure to go to church. While most of my peers growing up weren’t interested in church, nor exposed to it beyond Christmas and Easter, the ones who did express interest did not do it for the social commitment.

My church going peers were interested in following Jesus.

Now, imagine someone is looking for a church. They are looking for a church with a commitment to following Jesus at its core and they show up at a social commitment church. It would be like showing up for a soccer team that stopped playing soccer years ago, and who instead gathers for coffee and donuts with friends and family. But this gathering of people still call themselves a soccer team.

Now imagine members of that “soccer team” wringing their hands week after week over the fact that no one wants to join the team to clean up coffee and pick up the donuts. You can see why soccer players looking for a team wouldn’t join. You can see why many members of the team left a long time ago.

As churches try to understand why all the attempts to attract people back to church haven’t yield better results, I think it is because the core foundation that brings most church communities together is fundamentally at odds with what people who are looking for churches are seeking today.

If I had to guess, that if people are looking for church these days, they are doing it in the same way that someone would look for a soccer team. A soccer player looks for a team because they love soccer. A church seeker is looking for a church community because they love Jesus and want to follow him. They are not looking for a church because they love church.

And it goes deeper than that. If getting people to church is the chief concern, than we will always be looking to draw people in.

But if following Jesus, and letting people know about this gracious, merciful and compassionate God, is at our core, we will reach out. And reaching out to let people know about Jesus, may or may not include more bums in pews. Either way, building the church is not the goal, but at best is a symptom of reaching people with Jesus.

So how can churches address this? How can churches built on the social commitment to church have the conversation about the fact that the very thing that brings them together as a community is their biggest problem?

With a lot of soul-searching, a lot of questions, a lot of discerning and a lot of prayer. Changing our foundations and cores will not be easy. In fact, many churches will choose to die instead of changing to the core of following Jesus.

Despite the social commitment at the core of our churches, I think that many churches and church members do want to follow Jesus too. And it isn’t that a church has to choose between being a community or following Jesus. One doesn’t exclude the other.

But churches DO have to choose what is at their core. Churches need to choose the foundation that gathers their community.

Is it a social commitment to church?

Or are we followers of Jesus whose shared passion brings us together?


What is the core passion that brings your church together? How can churches change their core? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Two weeks after the empty tomb – What now?

John 21:1-19

Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

My first day of being a pastor was a Sunday. There was a big celebratory service with special music, excited friends and family to cheer me on and a happy congregation. The day before I had been ordained, another big celebratory service with special music and crowds of family and friends. I took Monday as my day off. And then on Tuesday morning, with nothing in my schedule and as the only employee, I wandered over to the church building. I stood in my office wondering, “Okay, now what do I do?”

The third Sunday of Easter is a bit like that moment. Two weeks ago was the big service and celebration with special music and crowds. Last Sunday things died down, but it was still the after-party with Jesus appearing to the disciples and then to Thomas. But today, while resurrection is still heavy on our minds, we are left wondering now what?

John’s gospel tells us about the disciples who were in the same boat… literally. The disciples to whom Jesus has appeared to twice in the span of a week and empowered them for the ministry of the kingdom decide that fishing is the obvious next step. Peter, to be precise decides that now after following Jesus around for 3 years, witnessing miracles and teachings, the triumphal entry, the crucifixion, and the empty tomb that going back to what he knows is best. And few of the others agree, James and John sons of Zebedee, along with of all people scholars Thomas and Nathanael.

On the other hand, in Acts we hear about Saul on the road to Damascus. He is not two week removed from the resurrection, but about 10 years. Yet, the events of Easter have inspired him to zealously and murderously persecute Christians. And Ananias, the fearful follower of the way is hiding in fear, precisely of people like Paul.

All of these disciples, or soon-to-be followers of Jesus, have been affected by the events of Easter differently. They all make different choices in how to react to the resurrection, but they also share a similar experience. They are struggling to make sense of what the Risen Christ means for them and for their world. They have heard the Easter stories, they have lived them in fact, but they are as lost as anyone in how to move on from that world changing moment.

This odd collection of followers of the way of Jesus, are just like any group of people who gather to become the church. They are just like us. Perhaps we are like Peter, bold to risk it all in one moment, and then timidly back to business as usual in the next. Perhaps we are like Paul, concerned that everyone around keep the rules just as we do. Perhaps were are like Ananias, faithful yet fearful of showing that faith. Perhaps we are like James and John, Thomas and Nathanael, interested and engaged, but easy influenced to try the next thing that comes along.

Like those varied disciples, often the only thing that binds us all together as followers of the way, as the body of Christ gathered here, is our common belief in the Christ and the resurrection. Follow by our shared struggled with just what to do with this good news.

The early church called themselves followers of the way rather than Christians. They wanted to emphasize that they followed the way of a living person, which is not always easy or clear. Kind of like following someone in a busy crowd, it easy to get jostled and shoved about, to lose sight of the one we are following.

Today, two weeks out from Easter, the reality of the Risen Christ is a confusing struggle. It was all a big party on that Easter morning, but today we are left to sort out just what happens next. And considering pillars of the faith like Peter and Paul, James and John, Ananias, Thomas and Nathanael struggled to sort it out… what chance do we have? Are we supposed to go knock on doors to ask people if they have heard the good news? Should we all find ten friends to bring to church? Do we need to pray in public more often? Should we be preachy and pious like Christians on TV?

Being followers of the way is not easy two weeks out from Easter.

As Saul marched down the road to Damascus, on his way to enforce the rules he thought were right, Jesus met Saul where he was.  Jesus didn’t just meet Saul, but Jesus blindsided him, blinded him literally. Jesus met him on the way and redirected his path. The encounter with Jesus changed the course of Saul’s life. Saul became Paul.

As Ananias hid away in fear, Jesus met Ananias where he was and encouraged him to go despite his fears. Jesus called Ananias to be the hands and feet of Christ, to help Saul become Paul, to welcome Paul into the body of Christ. Ananias’s life was changed.

As Peter returned to the fishing boat not knowing what to do next after the resurrection, Jesus called to him from the shore. Jesus met Peter where he was.  Jesus asked him to feed my sheep. Jesus reminded Peter what it means to tend to the body of Christ, that Peter couldn’t walk away from it all. Peter’s life was now forever tied to the fortunes of the followers of the way.

As James and John, Thomas and Nathanael shrugged their shoulders and follow Peter to go fishing, Jesus met them where they were. He showed them that he was still the one to follow, still they who knew where to cast their nets for fish, and where to cast their nets in fishing for people.

Jesus meets each of his followers as they struggle with how to proceed, with how to make sense of the Risen Christ. Jesus finds them in their Easter confusion, and gives them what they need. He makes them blind, he encourages, he has hard conversations he shows them abundance. Jesus meets them and points them back to the way. He points them to the way he showed them before Easter and reminds them that they are still followers of the way afterwards.

And in the same way Jesus meets us. Jesus meet us as we struggled with how to proceed, Jesus meets us in our diversity of struggles whether we are like Paul, like Peter, like Ananias, like Thomas and Nathanael, like Jame and John. Whether we are unsure, afraid, bold one moment timid the next, whether we just go along to get along, whether we are confused and struggling. Jesus meets is here.

Jesus meets us in all the other struggling and confused sisters and brothers in faith that gather here week after week.

Jesus meets us in the word of God. In the stories of faith of all those disciples and followers who have struggled before us along the way. In the stories of faith and life that we share with each other, around cups of coffee here, at the water cooler at work, over backyard fences with neighbours, at kitchen tables with family and friends. Jesus meets us in the words we share as the body of Christ.

Jesus meets us in the waters of baptism. In the forgiveness, life and salvation that we hear every time we confesses our sins and receive forgiveness, every time we welcome and new member into the body of Christ, every time we gather on the banks of Red, the banks of the Mississipi, the Amazon, the Nile and anywhere God’s people are together, being washed in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus meets in the water we share as the body of Christ.

Jesus meets us in Bread and Wine. In the meal of life where we gather at God’s table, where we are nourished in faith. Jesus meets in the Body of Christ we are given to eat, Jesus makes the Body of Christ the Church, Jesus sends us to the Body of Christ, food for the world. Jesus meets us in the meal we share as the body of Christ.

Jesus meets us wherever, whenever, whomever we are.

And at this point in the sermon, it would be easy at this point to tell you now that Jesus meets you, go and bring ten people to church, go and convert your neighbour, pray on the street corner, be pious and rule followers, evangelize whenever you get the opportunity.

But that isn’t the good news, and that is not what Jesus is telling the disciples, Peter, Paul and the others.

The Good News is simply that Jesus comes to meet us. That Jesus finds us and meets us and shows us the way. That no matter how much we struggle with what comes next, no matter how fearful, or uncertain, or wishy washy, or ardent we are. The Good News is that Jesus is the one coming to us.

That we are followers of the way, because Jesus shows us the way.

 

 

Anointing Jesus’ Feet – The Smell of Death

John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

It must have been almost hard to breathe.

The smell of the perfume as it filled the room. It would have overwhelmed the noses of all present at the celebratory meal. We all know someone who wears too much perfume, whether its that strange aunt in the family, or lately it seems to be teenage boys wearing too much body spray cologne. Smells can overpower us like no other sense can. And certain scents can trigger memories like nothing else. They can remind us more powerfully than a picture of past events, places or persons. The smell of chlorine can take you right back to that first time swimming in an indoor pool. Or the smell of pine trees can take you back to beloved Christmas memories.

The smell today, the perfume that anoints Jesus’ feet cannot be taken lightly or be overlooked. A pound of perfume is not a delicate scent, and that seems to be Mary’s point. On this day, Jesus, his good friend Lazarus, and the disciples are being treated to a celebratory meal. Lazarus has been raised from the dead and this is the first time that Mary, Martha and Lazarus have seen Jesus since the miracle. Martha, as usual, is serving the dinner. She is giving thanks in her way. But Mary decides to give thanks in a different way. She wants to express her deep gratitude and her love for Jesus. Its the kind of emotional display that makes most of us uncomfortable, like two lovers passionately kissing in public. As Mary anoints Jesus feet, and then wipes them with her own hair, the rest of the guests at the party were probably feeling awkward. Washing feet was something that servants do. And using one’s hair as the cloth… well, that was just strange. Mary’s act is as extravagant and wild and passionate as it seems. Probably something that should have been saved for a private moment with Jesus.

In the midst of this beautiful moment, this act of love and gratitude that Mary is giving to Jesus, Judas pipes up. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”. The moment is ruined. Judas has re-interpreted this lovely scene to his own ends. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the display of affection, or perhaps as John suggests, he has other intentions for the money. Whatever Judas’ reasons, he wants to disconnect from the intimate and personal moment. He tries to make it about the impersonal and distant and abstract idea of how money should be used. Judas tries to make the moment about practicality and he almost steals away Mary’s extravagant love, diminishing her by rebuking her feelings. Judas tries to dismiss Mary’s love and gratefulness with his distant and impersonal righteous indignation.

________________________________________________

We often attempt to distance ourselves from being too close or invested like Mary is today. Like Judas who seems to be using money or good intentions to create distance between himself and this powerful display of affection. Our fear of getting too close like Mary does, can prevent us from seeing and experiencing the love and beauty of the world.

And at the heart of our distancing, is our self-centred desire for control. We want to be control where we begin and end, to protect our feelings from risk and hurt. And we use whatever power we can. Money, judgement, shame. Mary’s act is not safe, its wild and untamed. Its extravagant and passionate. This is not the way we think the world should work. “Don’t waste the money” we declare because we are uncomfortable with risk. “Don’t be so emotional” we cry out because we know loving so deeply can lead us to getting hurt.

Our fear of being close, our need for control, can get in the way of seeing the beauty of faith. Our discomfort puts practicality or pragmatism before others, before people. Judas only sees dollars being poured on Jesus feet. We often get bogged down by the resources being expended on our family, on our neighbours, on the church, on ourselves. Judas doesn’t see that what Mary is doing for Jesus is worth more than any amount of money. Often we find it hard to see that the families, friends, neighbours and ministries that we give our time and passion to are worth more than any amount of money. It can be hard for us to see that risking being close can bring us the greatest reward, and staying distant will never bring real satisfaction or meaning.

____________________________________________

For five weeks we have been immersed in the season of Lent. Immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells. The feel and smell of Ashes marked our heads. We have kept from singing Alleluias, we have sung Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy, Lord have Mercy instead. And on this final Sunday before Palm Sunday, the smell of death enters into our sanctuary.

There is a pound of pure nard on Jesus feet. This perfume is one meant to keep the smell of death at bay. It is suppose to disguise the smell of a decaying body while it waits to be buried.

Yet, so often the thing meant to distance and disguise, to protect us from reality comes to symbolize the very thing it is trying to hide. The perfume becomes the smell of death.

Jesus does not miss the symbol. Mary has anointed his feet with the smell of Good Friday, the scent that is slowly building in our nostrils as we get closer to Holy Week.

Jesus does not see waste, Jesus doesn’t need to distance himself from Mary. Jesus sees love, lavish, wild and untamed love. Jesus sees the future. “Leave her alone” he says, ”She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”. Mary is not anointing a king, or prophet. Mary is anointing a friend, teacher and son, who will be soon prepared for burial on Friday evening, and Jesus is reminding his disciples and friends one more time of all of this. The ministry, the parables, the miracles, the teaching in synagogues, the traveling the countryside. None of it is about the bottom line, none of it has been about being practical with money, none of it was about God staying distant and safe from creation. This moment is a foretaste of God’s imminent future.

When the time comes for Jesus the corpse to be put in the ground, God will be accomplishing something new, something never seen. Something glimpsed as Lazarus stepped out of his tomb. God is accomplishing something new before the women even have the chance to anoint Jesus’s body on that Easter morning. God is about to turn the world upside, to bring new meaning to creation. Preparing for burial will no longer be preparing for death, but preparing for New Life.

Here in this perfume filled room, where passionate and impulsive Mary has shown her love and given thanks in her way, Jesus gives the whole world a new sign. God’s future is now about us. Jesus burial is about us. On Good Friday Jesus will be anointing the world with New Life. And God is doing it all by coming as close and near as God possibly can.

What a contrast to our attempt to remain distant and safe. We try to protect ourselves by staying far away, by being uncomfortable with love. God risks it all, even death, to come close, to take on and wear our flesh, so that we will know love.

Judas is uncomfortable with the perfume filled house, he wants to step back and distance himself. Make things about money, or poor people, or whatever else that is safe to feel. But Jesus stays present and near for Mary’s gesture of love, and then Jesus tells us that God is only coming closer. Coming in the familiar smells of Holy Week.

Like any powerful perfume, there is no distancing ourselves from God’s love after this. Today God’s Love comes near to us in perfume that anoints Jesus feet, it will come on palms branches next week, come in the bread and wine of Maundy Thursday. And it will comes so close on Good Friday, we will nail it to the cross to distance ourselves from it.

But after three days, God’s love will burst forth, uncontrolled, untamed, wild, passionate, extravagant. And it will be love that we can see, touch, taste and of course, love that we can smell.

Amen.

The Prodigal Son and his Self-Righteous Jerk of a Brother

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So Jesus told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons… (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

The definition of the word prodigal is: a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way. Or someone who is wastefully extravagant.

The story of the prodigal son is a familiar story that most of us could probably retell the if we were we put on the spot. In fact, the term “prodigal son” can be applied to a person or situation, and most people will know the meaning. Even if most Christian images and symbols are being forgotten in culture, the prodigal son and his story endures. There must be something about this story that bears familiarity to our own experience and lives.

But the problem with familiarity is that meaning can be reduced and simplified. The power of the parable can be lost. And the prodigal son, like all good parables that Jesus tells, is not meant to be a simplistic, straight across comparison where the Father equals God, and the sons equal humanity. Instead, good parables demand that we put ourselves in the shoes of all the characters, that we put God in the shoes of all the characters, and even consider that we or God might not be any of the characters.

A few years ago, a good friend who is also a pastor, shared about his experience teaching his confirmation class the parable of the prodigal son. To help the class embody the parable, he had the students act out the story. They found it easy to play the son who goes out to have a party on his father’s dime. And the dutiful yet indignant older son was also easy to play. But when it came time to be the father who ran out to welcome home his lost son, the students would stand and wait with hands on hips, a frown on their face. Or they would scold the returning son for making his father worry. Some even grounded the son when he returned. They just couldn’t imagine a parent who welcomed a delinquent child home without some kind of reprimand. I am not sure what this says about us as parents, but at least says something about the average teenager’s view of their parents.

Yet, this story only goes to show that no matter how well we think we know this parable, it carries far more depth and meaning than at first glance. And it is far more radical than it appears. It is easy to assume that the parable of the Prodigal Son is a moralism about doing the right thing. Older son good, younger son bad. Don’t be a younger son, we think is the moral of this tale. But that judgement is not one the text actually makes and to really hear what the parable is saying, we have to step away from the morals and lessons that we assume from the get go.

As with all the parables of Jesus, we need to consider the audience. There are two very different groups that Jesus is speaking to. The first is tax collectors and sinners. Those who owed debts and those who collected, but both of whom were believed to be excluded from God’s forgiveness and mercy. Contrast them with the second group, the Pharisees and scribes, the virtuous religious authorities and leaders who controlled access to God forgiveness and mercy. An audience who represented two very different experiences of God’s love.

With these two groups in mind, Jesus tells three parables about lost things, the third being about a man with two sons. The younger son asks for his share of his inheritance to strike out on his own in the world. But before we can set to the task of judging this son for his dissolute living, it is important to understand Jewish inheritance practice. In Jesus’ day, it was the norm that the elder son would inherit a double portion of his father’s wealth. The older son in this story would get two thirds of the inheritance, while his younger brother just one third. But not all things were divided this way. As land belonged to families or tribes, the older son would become the one in charge of all the land of his father. He would control not only two thirds of his father’s wealth, but all of his father’s land, his father’s tenants, workers and slaves. And this would include his younger brother. So while we assume that the younger brother is some party animal or that he can’t for his father to die to get his hands on his money, it might actually be the case that the younger brother just doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life working under his self-righteous jerk of an older brother.

And while it might be easy to assume, like his older brother did, that the younger son went and lost his inheritance by immoral living, we don’t really know. It could have been a combination of circumstances, such as poor choices, famine, or being alone in a foreign land.

Yet, to put the weight of the parable’s meaning on the younger son’s repentance and return home is to miss a key feature of good Hebrew story telling. The last part of the story is often the point.

And the last part of the story is all about the older son.

The older son’s refusal to celebrate his brother’s return is more than a mere attitude problem. This older son has fundamentally missed the point. As his father invites him to the banquet, the older son stands in judgement of both his brother and his father. He is indignant. He believes that he is the righteous one. He believes that he has earned his rightful place in his father’s house. He thinks his hard work and obedience entitles him to his father’s wealth and lands, to his father’s position and power. He complains that his father hasn’t recognized his virtue, not even with a modest young goat to enjoy with his friends. Yet, his father has killed the fatted calf for his delinquent brother. The injustice! Never mind that every goat and calf, every robe and ring, every slave and servant (including the younger brother) will one day belong to him.

It is easy to see the parable of the Prodigal Son about one good son and one bad, yet when we set our assumptions aside and unpack the depths of the story, we can see that it is both sons who are equally lost. And we can see it is isn’t about trying to be more like one son over the other. Instead, we see that there are times in our lives where we have felt self-righteous and indignant, like we have earned our place in the world and more. And there might be other times where we have felt unworthy and unloveable, like we couldn’t possibly be shown mercy and compassion.

Still, even with a perspective shift in how we see the sons, we are just as unable as those confirmation students to see the radical love of a parent, who loves without reprimand or condition. Yet, the newly understood lostness of both sons helps to sharpen for us just how loving this father is.

The name western Christians have given this son says much about how we understand this parable: The Prodigal or Wasteful with Money Son. But the Eastern Orthodox church calls this parable the Loving Father.

Whether it is the son who thinks he is unworthy and undeserving of his Father’s love or it is the son who is indignant and believes that he has earned more than he has received, the father seeks out his sons. Both sons. The well-to-do land-owner father runs down the road in a very undignified fashion welcome his lost younger son home. The generous and compassionate father still goes out to plead with his ungrateful and resentful older son, despite his son’s rejection. This father does not judge, this father does not reprimand, this father does not set condition on his generosity.

Even when younger takes advantage of his father and loses all that he has been given. Even when older cannot see that he has not actually earned anything, but that his father has freely given all that he has to his son. Both sons are given love and mercy and grace by their father. If anyone is prodigal, if anyone is wastefully extravagant it is the father who is lavish with his love.

What a radical image of God’s love and forgiveness for Jesus’ audience? A reminder to the Pharisees, Scribes and those of us who think we have earned it, that God’s love cannot be earned because it is already given freely. A reminder to the tax collectors, sinners and those of us who feel unworthy or undeserving, that God’s love is given freely and does not need to be earned.

This Lenten season we have been confronted again and again with the relationship of love and power. Today, we are shown an image of God’s love that is more generous than we can imagine.

Today, our Prodigally loving God shows us just how far God will go to find us.

Amen

* This sermon was co-written with my amazing wife, Courtenay. Follow her on Twitter: @ReedmanParker 

 

Growing a Fig By Your Own Bootstraps

Luke 13:1-9

We have all been part of the conversation. Sitting on those plastic chairs bolted to the floor at Tim Hortons. Did you hear who is sick? Did you know who lost their job? Have you heard that they are splitting up? Did you know that they have a drinking problem? Community news like this travels fast because we need something to talk about over coffee, and what better to talk about than the misfortunes of others… the struggles and trials of others. We spread the news as a way or caring, or so we think. But along with the news comes judgement. Along with the news, comes interpretation and explanation. Well, maybe they got sick because they didn’t care for themselves. They lost their job because they were uncommitted. They are splitting up because they didn’t work at it. They have that addiction problem because they just can’t get their life together.

Jesus sounds like he is sitting in a Tim Hortons today having coffee talk. Luke doesn’t tell us who, but some people are telling Jesus about the group of Galilean pilgrims who were arbitrarily murdered by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers in a show of force. And then their blood was mixed with the blood of sacrifices… making these poor people unclean in the eyes of the law, even in death. What sin did they commit to earn this kind of fate, some wonder to Jesus.

This group of some people shows us just what the culture of the time thought about the good things and bad things that happened to people. As it is so easy to do, the group of some believed that an individual was to blame for any calamity, any curse, any tragedy that befell them. They must have done something to deserve what they got. Likewise, an individual was to be lauded for any blessing, any good fortune or any good thing that befell them. Clearly they did something to earn their rewards. It is classic pull yourself up by your bootstraps thinking.

And Jesus doesn’t like it one bit. 

And we get what Jesus is talking about. It seems harsh and uncaring to blame the victim. The Galileans were simple pilgrims… why blame them for what the Roman Governor ordered? We know that this is not a compassionate way to see this kind of violence.

And Jesus gives another example. A tragedy that lived deep in the memories of the people of Jerusalem, like a plane crash or terrorist attack. The tower of Siloam, a good building project ended up collapsing on 18 workers. It would’t make sense to blame the victims for such a thing.

We get what Jesus is railing against. Blaming victims of tragedy is cruel way to see the world… even if it can make some surface level sense of complex and difficult situations.

And yet, yet… our world is full of the same kind of thinking. We might not apply the logic the same way, but our world believes that an individual is mostly responsible for the good things or things that happen to them. In our coffee talk, we can be quick to blame someone for their misfortunes or to applaud someone for their luck.

And a part of us, the old sinner part of us, likes the idea. We like the idea that we are in control of our destiny. We like the idea that our lives our dictated solely by the strength of our actions. Whether is good or bad, we like the idea that we are responsible for what happens to us. We hate the idea that there are forces in the world beyond our control, forces bringing us fortune or misfortune completely outside of anything we have done. We would rather be in control, even if our control leads to tragedy and curse. We would rather tragically be God in God’s place, than admit that there might be forces beyond our control.

Like the ideas of the group of some gathered around Jesus, our ideas about our own power to control our lives doesn’t sit well with Jesus either.

As Jesus hears about the murdered he Galileans, instead of sympathetically nodding along and wringing his hands, he jumps down the throats of the messengers.

He challenges the ideas of the this group of some. He warns them. If you don’t repent of this thinking, you too might perish like the Galileans. If you don’t repent you might find yourself under a collapsing tower too.

Repent or die, Jesus seems to be saying.

Or, wait, that’s not what Jesus means. 

Jesus isn’t reinforcing the idea that we are in control, that we are the masters and commanders of our own fate. Jesus trying to challenge that idea. Repent or die isn’t the message.

Instead, Jesus has a parable for this group of some. Jesus has a parable for coffee talk at Tim Horton’s.

barrenfigtreeA landowner goes out to his vineyard. To his vineyard where he has inexplicably planted a fig tree which would have too big a root system, take too much ground water, produce too much shade for grape eating birds. And this landowner is annoyed that this fig tree doesn’t produce fruit. And with classic group of some thinking, coffee talk at Tim Horton’s thinking, he condemns the tree for its failure. The tree hasn’t seized upon its fate. It hasn’t pulled itself up by its boot straps. It is a poor, scraggly, unfruitful tree deserving of what it gets. In fact, it isn’t really the land owner condemning the tree, the tree is condemning itself.

But wait, says the Gardener.

Wait, there is more to this story.

Give it another year. Give the tree a second chance. The tree is not an individual living in isolation. The Gardener sees the big picture. The Gardener sees that the tree is not solely a product of its own power to control its own fate. The Gardener knows that the soil, the weather, the pruning, the fertilizer… the circumstances that surround the tree have as much to do with its fruit bearing ability as the tree itself.

The judgement of the landowner is all about power, the power of the tree to bear fruit. But the Gardener sees the big picture and the big picture is about love. Love sees that fruit is born not just by the tree, but by the soil, by the fertilizer, by the gardener. Love sees that fruit is born in community.

The gardener offers another year, the gardener offers grace. Instead of judging whether the tree produces by its own power, the gardener wants to see now if the tree will produce by grace. The grace of love and care, the grace of tending to the big picture.

Jesus the gardener knows that it is the same with us. That we cannot blame the victim for tragedy. The good and the bad things, the curses and the rewards, the tragedy and blessings of life do not happen solely by our own power. Instead, love bears the ups and down of life. And the curses and rewards are born by the community. The blessings and tragedy are carried by the same community that gathers around coffee to talk.

Jesus the gardener says, one more year. One more year, one more chance, one more offer of grace because none of us is solely responsible for the good and bad in our lives. Rather we bear these things together, and we bear these things with God.

This is the grace of seeing the big picture. This is the love of gardening Jesus, the love of a gardening God.

Our logic of power would blame the victim for the tragedies we endure. We would hold the individual accountable for the good and bad. But love that sees the big picture offers grace and mercy, the loving gardening God says one more year.

God the gardener says, let me care for you, let me tend to your roots, nourish your soil and help you grow fruit. Don’t worry about producing fruit on your own power, but together we will grow because of love.

This Lenten season, we have seen again and again how in the relationship between love and power, God comes to meet us. And today, despite our coffee talk that says its our power that matters, it is our power that controls our fate, that rewards us or curses us… God steps back to see the big picture. God steps back to shown us that our power is not in control. But rather, love is at work in our lives. God the Gardener says, one more year, because of love the fruit will grow.

How’s that for Tim Horton’s coffee talk.

Amen

Being Threatened by Jesus

Luke 13:31-35

King Herod was not a well liked King.

He was a puppet King for the Romans… who probably didn’t really care about who was King over the backwater province of the empire, Judea. The people of Israel didn’t care for Herod, knowing that he was all about power. But like most people in power, Herod made the right allegiances. With Rome and with the religious authorities.

So when the Pharisees come to Jesus with a Message, he knows they too are puppet authorities, doing the puppet King’s dirty work in order to hold on to their own power and privilege.

Today, on the second Sunday of Lent we continue with Jesus who can’t help but be confronted by people who think they have power. Last week it was the Devil tempting Jesus to misuse the power of incarnation, the power that comes along with being God, and being God in flesh. The Devil’s temptations set the stage for the recurring theme that Luke’s gospel holds up for us this Lenten season. The Devil tries to offer Jesus power. And now the Pharisees come to Jesus with a warning. They sound sympathetic, maybe even concerned for Jesus. Herod is out to get you, they warn. And it just so happens that getting rid of Jesus might also be convenient for them too.

Herod, the unpopular King and the righteous yet conspiring Pharisees, are concerned about their power. They are concerned about Jesus’s impact on their power and privilege. They have worked to build alliances, with their unpalatable overlord Romans, and with each other. Their power is tenuously held and only maintained by fear and division. With soldiers who intimidate, with control over money, over the temple, over the city of Jerusalem.

Yet, no matter their work to maintain their power, they cannot gain the confidence and support of the people. Yet, Jesus who doesn’t seem to be looking for any power, is wandering the countryside, living off the generosity of others. Jesus is popular and therefore powerful in the eyes of Herod and the Pharisees. And while he hasn’t made a play for their power yer, they know it will come. And so they conspire. They will frighten Jesus off. Just as they frighten the people with soldiers or unrighteousness. They only see Jesus as a threat who must be dealt with.

Power in our time looks much different. It is not so much based in the ability to control God’s forgiveness like the Pharisees did, nor is it based in political allegiances with foreign occupiers. Politicians and corporations don’t rule over us, but pander to us. The days of religion holding damnation and judgement over the head of society may be recent enough to remember, but fewer and fewer people seem to care. And even those of us who who still do participate in organized religion, probably feel like religious leaders have little power to dictate the terms of our salvation.

Yet, there is something we do hold in common with Herod and the Pharisees.

Feeling threatened by Jesus.

There is a something inside of all of us that gets anxious and concerned when Jesus starts talking about what God wants for us. For those who have been coming to adult study, you will recognize the language of the tangled, twisted thing inside of us. That thought in the back our minds, that feeling that makes our blood pressure rise. It is the thing inside of us that makes us fearful of our different skinned neighbours. It it the thing that makes us resentful of the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities for being dependant on government welfare. It is the thing that inside of us that closes us off to people who think differently than we do. The twisted tangled thing makes us want to hoard more and more for ourself, makes us fear difference, makes us angry when we think we haven’t received our fair share.

The twisted, tangled thing is what Martin Luther called the Old Adam, the Old Sinner.

It is sin.

And the sinner inside of us bristles when Jesus starts talking about the first being last, and losing our lives to save them. The sinner doesn’t like the idea that God’s forgiveness isn’t earned, but instead given away freely.

The twisted tangled sinner is the part of us that thinks power will save us. That controlling the world around us will keep us from being hurt. That protecting ourselves from anyone different from us is the way to be safe.

And when Jesus starts talking about giving up power, the old sinner feels threatened. And when Jesus starts talking about prophets being stoned and hinting at crucifixion, the old sinner will have none of it. Like the Devil who thought power was the purpose last week, the old sinner thinks power is our salvation.

The pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is willing to kill Jesus for the sake of power.

Herod is worried that his power could be taken by the popular preacher Jesus.

How wrong can Herod and the Pharisees be?

How completely off the mark can the twisted, tangled sinner inside of us get?

Jesus has come in weakness, not power.

Jesus has come to be open, not closed off.

Jesus has come to be vulnerable, not fearful.

Jesus has come to show love.

Love that will change us.

Love that will undo the twisted, tangled thing inside of us.

Love that risks being hurt, being unsafe, being weak in order to come close and near. Love that gathers and holds us together under its wings.

Love that couldn’t care less for power.

Herod and the Pharisees don’t live in a world of love. They don’t know how to let go of the little power that they have. They can’t see that Jesus hasn’t come for power, they cannot see how Jesus is trying to show God’s love to the world.

And Jesus knows this. Jesus knows that the same crowds will chant “Blessed is He who comes in the same of the Lord” on Sunday, will shout crucify by Friday because they want a King of power, not a King of love.

Jesus knows that the Pharisees who are warning him to get away will cry to Pilate to do their dirty work.

Jesus knows that the King Herod will defer to the power of Rome to finally rid his Kingdom of this popular preacher.

Jesus knows that their desire for power will lead to death.

It is the way of the Old Sinner.

Herod and the Pharisees don’t know that Jesus is willingness to die for the sake of love, will save the world.

But we do.

And still this Jesus who saves the world, who endures our greatest power of death to show love, still threatens us.

Because the old sinner within us who pushes us to fear, to resent, to be closed off, to hoard and to control… this old sinner, this twisted and tangled thing knows that the love of Jesus will change us. That love will untwist and untangle. That love will forgive and show grace.

And Jesus knows that love makes us anxious, that old sinner, the twisted and tangled thing doesn’t want to be loved. Jesus knows that loving us will transform us. Jesus knows that loving us will make us care less about ourselves and more about others. Jesus knows that love will make us less afraid, less closed off, hoard less, control less, worry less. Jesus knows love will makes us let go of power…

Herod wasn’t a well-liked King and the Pharisees weren’t well-liked religious rulers. We are people threatened by love.

And Jesus isn’t either of these things either. Not puppet King, nor religious overlord, nor symbol of power and influence.

Jesus is a mother hen with nothing but love to give. Love for sinners who feel threatened. Love for tangled and twisted people who get anxious.

And just like stubborn chicks who need their mother hen, Jesus love will gather and change us too.


 

*Thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber for the “twisted-tangled” language for sin