Tag Archives: Jesus

Why Advent Sucks this Year – Why We Need Advent

Advent is normally my favourite season of the church year. I don’t think that is uncommon for pastors.

Christmas and Easter are of course the big celebrations, but Advent and Lent have a certain depth and richness, that allow Christmas and Easter to be what they are. Advent and Lent add the flavour to the meal.

For me, the richness of Advent is found in the images – the way of Lord, valleys filled up, mountains made low, crooked made straight, broods of vipers, winnowing forks and chaff, angels and virgins, and promises and hints of Messiah.

Advent’s beauty is in the blending of hints and promises of Messiah together with real life. With the messiness of people looking for something better. The people in the desert going to John the Baptist, looking for something different than what they knew. The hypocrisy of religious and political leaders, which is a true as death and taxes. A  teen girl dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and the reality of impossible life choices.

Advent speaks to the real circumstances that people – everyday, average people – deal with all the time.

And Advent weaves the coming of Messiah through it all. Christmas tells us of the extraordinary. Advent brings God close to the ordinary.

But this year, Advent has not felt so hopeful.

This year I feel like I am being dragged into Advent, and the hope and anticipation just isn’t there.

Instead, all the messy, crappy, broken stories of God’s people that we hear in Advent are hitting too close to home.

Terrorism, shootings, bombs, political leaders vowing revenge feels all to close to world of the seeking crowds, the oppressive world of tyrant kings, the violent world of occupied Israel.

Violence being condoned towards women and their bodies simply because they bear the child of a man, sounds too much like the possible stoning that Mary could have endured had Joseph chosen to dismiss her. A pregnant and unmarried woman was basically worthless and damage good… a sentiment that too many entitled white men  still feel about women.

Syrian refugees fleeing the exact part of the world that the holy family was forced to flee because of violent rulers being fearful of young boys growing into terrorists just feels eerie. Somehow this year, we became all the innkeepers who turned the holy family away because they were too different and unsafe.

The callous brutality of Herod and the Romans feels like the unwillingness of American politicians to consider the smallest modicum of gun control. Royal death squads sent to murder infant boys are the price Herod paid for power and money. Daily mass shootings are the price to pay for an unregulated gun industry.

Advent stories are coming at us in the news as often as they are coming from the bible this year.

Advent has always beautifully shown us the interweaving of incarnation and reality. But this year, the stories we read, preach and hear in the church are reality in the world. We have become a people waiting for and in need of a Messiah.

Advent is our reality.

We are living out Advent in real time.

And maybe that is why we need Advent more than ever.

Without Advent, our current troubles would make celebrating Christmas a farce.

Without Advent, our current troubles would be all there is in the world.

Without Advent, our current troubles would eclipse any glimpse God at work among us.

Advent is sucking this year because the world is sucking this year. Somewhere between racist political campaigns in Canada, ISIS, Paris, US Gun Violence, Climate Change realities and all the other stuff our world is suffering from… the illusory veneer of the “Christmas season” was stripped from us.

And maybe that is the point.

Maybe the real the world has to be held out in front of us, maybe we need to see the unvarnished, un-white-washed, naked world to really get it.

Maybe Advent needs to be real so that we can get that the incarnation is real too.

To get that Messiah is coming into this Advent world.

Stir up your power Lord Christ and come.


Are you in the Advent spirit this year? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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The Temple has Been Thrown Down – Paris, Beirut, Baghdad

Mark 13:1-8

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”… For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Read the Whole Passage here)

12227205_983847591654638_5852447112899142260_nSermon

Some weeks as a preacher, you plan one thing, and the breaking news comes. The hourly news on the radio, twitter and Facebook alerts, news articles

19 in Bagdad

43 in Beirut

127 in Paris

Explosions and bullets.

Chaos. Fear. Death.

The world prays for Paris and beyond.

The veneer of business as usual is once again shattered.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families today as the long slow process of rebuilding life begins.

But as we sit here, tucked away from the danger, yet still with heavy hearts, we know that there are explosions and shootings everyday. Paris feels closer to home, than Beirut or Baghdad, but the violence happens everyday.

(Pause)

Father Angelo has led a number of tours of holy sites in his ministry at St. David’s. Every few years, he offers a chance for a group from the congregation to travel for a couple weeks and to see historical parts of the world. He has taken groups to the Holy Land a number of times, to Rome, and to England. This year, the group was touring the Cathedrals of central Europe. They were headed to the largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, the Cologne Cathedral.

As the tour bus approached, the group could see the cathedral towering above the city. With the twin towering spires looking like they were reaching for heaven above, Father Angelo led the group into the church. The Cathedral was bustling with life. There were hundreds of people mingling about. There were a dozen tour guides were lecturing groups in different languages.

And then all of a sudden a loud crash could be heard outside, followed by the whole cathedral shaking, dust scattering everywhere.

And then another explosion… all the people inside the church froze for a moment. And then as if on cue, people began running, screaming and shouting. Father Angelo called for his group to stay calm and stay put.

(Pause)

Next Sunday will be Christ the King, the New Year’s Eve of the church year. And then we will reset the story of Jesus, and begin again with pregnancy as we wait for the birth of Messiah.

But we are not quite there yet… Instead first we must hear the last portion of Mark’s gospel for this year. And in true Markan fashion, it is yet another conversation between Jesus and the disciples, where they miss the point and Jesus gets annoyed.

Paris is exactly what Jesus is talking about with the disciples. As they marvel at grandness of the temple, Jesus points out how they cling to the illusion of security, safety, comfort, and enduringness. They see the temple as a sign of God’s power. Jesus’ words about the temple are not judgement or condemnation. He isn’t hoping for the temple to fall. He is simply warning of the inevitable. He is telling the disciples that if the stones of the temple are where they place their faith… They will not just be disappointed, but one day they will be fleeing the falling stones as they threaten to come down.

On Friday, we bore witness as Paris was another destruction of the temple. A temple built to our own power, our own security, to faith in our own god-likeness. Because unlike Beirut or Bagdad, Paris is the same stadiums and restaurants and concert halls that we believe are safe for us. We are shaken because Paris could be here. We could be the ones out for dinner, watching the game, at a concert when the bullets start flying, or the suicide bombers decide to press the button.

If our faith is in the large stones and tall buildings and in the idea that violence couldn’t happen here, we will be disappointed.

And at the same time, if our fear is that every refugee is a terrorist and that we can close our doors and boarders to be safe while not also closing off some part of our hearts, we have again put our faith in the wrong thing.

Jesus warns us not to be surprised when the stones begin to fall and when the wars begin. But as we try to understand even more senseless violence and death, it is hard to understand what God is up to.

Jesus does give us a clue. The birth pangs.

As we are about to begin Advent, the church’s season of pregnancy, we know that the birth pangs mean that something new is about to happen. We know that the pain and suffering, the aches and stiffness, the loss of control and uncertainty about what is coming might be signs of impending death and destruction. But with God, we know that these are also the signs of something new, something being born into our world.

(Pause)

In just few minutes, the cathedral was nearly emptied out. Father Angelo and his group found an alcove to take shelter in with a few other tourists. There were sirens and the sound of gun fire coming outside. The world seemed to have flipped from wonderful European holiday to surreal chaos in the blink of an eye.

As the group huddled together, the doors to the cathedral burst open. 3 young, dark skinned men with beards and backpacks came pouring in. The St. David’s tour group looked at each other in abject fear. A few started sobbing, one person cried, “This is the end.”

Father Angelo stood up and left the alcove. He waved the three men over to alcove. They came running, and as he ushered them into the alcove, breathing heavily, they sat down next to the others against the wall.

One looked up to Father Anglo and said, “Thank you, Father.”

Father Angelo nodded.

As the St. David’s group slowly began to relax, the three men checked their phones and caught their breath.

As the noises of chaos and sirens continued outside the church, the group settled in. One of the men, looking as scared and worried as anyone in the St. David’s group, looked again towards Father Angelo and said, “Father, will you lead us in prayer.”

“Yes… we should pray, shouldn’t we.” said Father Angelo.

And together, the 3 young dark skinned men, cathedral stragglers and the group of St. David’s began to pray, “Kyrie Eleison. Lord have mercy.”

(Pause)

In the midst to crashing stones, Jesus could have said that these things mean the end. Instead he says they are the birth pangs. That these things mean something beginning, not something ending. We so often see the struggle and pain, the chaos and uncertainty as symptoms of dying. Yet, these are also symptoms of pregnancy.

And with God, the birth pangs points us to a pregnant teen and her carpenter husband travelling the harsh country side in the midst of foreign occupation and population control. The birth pangs herald a baby born in the most inconspicuous of stables in the back corner of the world far away from large temple and large stones.

God’s work happens in the quiet corners. God’s work happens with normal people, like us.

It is like Mr Rogers who reminds us to “look for the helpers”.

It is the Porte Ouverte, Open Door message that Parisians used to let those who were stuck outside know that there was safety to be found.

It is a musician who drags his grand piano on his bike, to play John Lennon’s imagine outside of the bombed out concert hall.

It is hearts that refuse to be closed off even though every instinct tells us it is not safe to be open to the “other”.

But most of all the birth pangs are signs of God’s promise that death does not have the final say. That tall buildings and large stones, nor explosions and the bullets, are the powers that define us.

Instead in the places where we least expect,

God stands where tall buildings and stones have fallen.

God is thwarting the bullets and explosions.

God is birthing new life.

God has already begun the work of reconciliation and resurrection.

Because reconciliation and resurrection always begin in the broken and tragic places.

Because new life must first begin in death.

Because God works with mangers and crosses, with open doors and prayers prayed by helpless and far away neighbours and friends.

God’s life giving work happens in the small places, because that is all God needs. Because that is where death and darkness are defeated. In mangers, on crosses, in empty tombs, on open doors/ Portes Ouvertes, with prayer vigils reminding us to forgive and to hope. The birth pangs are are not the destruction… The birth pangs are the realization that neither our large stones nor our bullets have real power.

The birth pangs are the sign that God is about transform the world with virgins and shepherds, with fishermen, tax collectors and sinners, with words of faith, water, bread and wine. With a praying Body, a praying community spread all over the world, God is making us the Portes Ouvertes / Open Doors of the Kingdom. God is transforming the world in the Body of the One who was laid in the manger but walked out of the tomb. In the One who is there wherever two or three gather to pray, even when the bombs and bullets are falling.

And so today, as the stones fall, as the news breaks, as the fear of the other threatens… we prepare for the birth pangs. God is about to birth something… someone new into the world. Messiah, the One who will truly save us, the One who is greater than any temple, any bomb, any fear. Messiah is on the way.

Amen.

Colliding with All Saints – Making All Things New

John 11:32-44

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Last night children everywhere wandered the streets in costumes, going from door to door for Halloween. There were ghouls and goblins, superheroes and villains, princes and princesses. Almost everyone takes part, whether it is handing out candy, providing scary decorations or accompanying children on their pilgrimage for the biggest hauls of chocolate bars and sweets. In many ways this mirrors the practice of medieval Christians making pilgrimage for All Saints. Dressing up, lighting candles, journeying on the road was all part of the belief that spirits would often wander the earth until All Saints Day, and the costumes would be to scare away vengeful haunting spirits, and the candles, often lit in each room in a house or door way that would guide good spirits home.

As the end of the middle ages saw the Reformation, our forebears sought to reshape the feast of All Saints. Rather than praying to the Saints on November 1st and then praying for all souls still in purgatory on All Souls Day November 2nd, Lutherans and other protestants have mashed the two together, recognizing that saints are not special or holy people. But that all those who have died in faith are made Saints by God’s Holiness poured out for us.

On All Saints Day, we gather to pray in thanksgiving for those who have gone before us in faith, and we pray to God that we too may join the saints and heavenly hosts in the always ongoing great high feast. We recognize today, that our worship is not something that we create, but rather something we are invited to join with the heavenly hosts. We are like thirsty pilgrims who approach the always flowing river of heavenly worship and we wade into the water again and again, week after week, briefly pulling back the veil between heaven and earth until one day we too will be swept up into the great worship of all the saints and we too will join the heavenly hosts.

And yet today is not all sweet visions of heavenly worship and dreams of joining those beloved saints who have gone before us.

Today, we also face the reality death. Like Jesus on the road to Bethany, we are confronted with the real, messy, emotional and overpowering experience of grief. Our spirits are disturbed like Jesus’ is. We churn and twist deep in our beings with Mary.

As Jesus makes his way to Bethany to mourn the death of his friend Lazarus, we are not meant to see a doctor calling a time of death, nor a pastor leading prayers at a funeral, nor a funeral director guiding a grieving family through grief. Jesus is going to Bethany as a friend, a brother to Lazarus, family to Mary and Martha.

On this grieving journey to Bethany, Jesus meets a desperate Mary. “Lord, if you have been here my brother would not have died” she pleads. And Jesus is disturbed, Jesus is moved. The greek is points to a deep churning passion, even anger within Jesus. He doesn’t just recognize and acknowledge the grief in the Mary like a therapist would. But Jesus feels it too, but Jesus loves Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Even knowing what he is about to do, Jesus feels the depths of grief too.

The kind of grief that we all know. The kind of grief that always comes with death. Whether it is the grief of a community witnessing an overturned boat near Tofino, the grief of world citizens who are watching people choose the risky waters of the Mediterranean because they are safer than home in Syria, the grief of families who keep vigil at hospital bed knowing that death long awaited is soon to arrive, the grief of empty spots at dining rooms tables, vacant passages seats in cars, or beds meant for two with only one to sleep.

The grief that Jesus feels today is the same personal, raw, churning grief that we know in our lives. And while grief makes death feels so personal and lonely, death is also transcendent, cosmic, universal. It is found on the road between two friends grieving a dead brother and it also the great darkness hanging over all creation:

See, the house of God is far from mortals

Death hovers over them as their master;

they will all suffer the same fate

and death will spare not one;

Life will be no more;

there is nothing but mourning and crying and pain,

for the first things reign over all.

This is the old heaven and the old earth, this is what All Saints pilgrims carried with them on their journey, this is the personal grief that we bring today for loved ones.

This is death.

This is death, and Jesus stands in front of the tomb, tears running down his face and defiantly says, “Take away the stone.”

And grief, personal and cosmic says, “But Lord there will be a stench” because death is too strong, too powerful, too overwhelming.

Except for God.

Except for the God who created something from nothing.

Except for the God who is creating a new heaven and a new earth.

And out walks a dead man, out walks Lazarus alive again.

The very last thing that Mary or Martha expects is to see their brother alive. Grief cannot imagine that there is an answer to death. That is why Jesus meets Mary and Martha in their grief. That is why God’s spirit churns with anger, that is why God grieves with us on the road to the tomb, that is why God, even knowing that the stone is about to be rolled away, weeps along with us.

And there walking out of the tomb, the personal and cosmic realities of death collide into the personal and cosmic promises of God. The reality of stinking rotting dead flesh that we know too well suddenly smashes into the loving, heart-pounding, passionate love of God for all creation.

As Jesus stands at the tomb, calling for the stone to be rolled away, beckoning forth believed brother and friend, Mary, Martha and Lazarus finally see the the reality of Jesus promise, of dreams and visions of Revelation made tangible:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Our All Saints pilgrimage this morning is the same mixture of personal and transcendent grief. We acknowledge that death comes for our loved ones and us, death comes for all.

But with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, we discover that in our grief, God in Christ meets us on the road. God in Christ churns with anger and grief, with sorrow and sadness weeping with us just as if death had the last word.

Yet Jesus has also come to meet us with that great Revelation promise,

“See, I am making all things new.”

As Jesus stands there, tears running down his face, disturbed in spirit… He commands the stones be rolled away from all of our tombs. Jesus enacts the cosmic and transcendent promise of resurrection, Jesus declares that God has come to live with mortals. Jesus declares that death is not the end for those whose names we will read today, not the end for those whom light candles for… Jesus declares that death is not the end because,

“See, I am making all things new.”

As we gather on All Saints, with hearts full of both grief and thanks, of joy and sorrow, we discover a God who is deeply and powerfully and intimately involved in the affairs of mortals, who sheds real tears for Mary, Martha and Lazarus out of love.

We discover a God who cannot help but love us. A God who cannot help but love us in our grief and a God who cannot help but make all things new in our world.

Today on All Saints we confront grief and death, we confront the personal and cosmic and we make pilgrimage to tombs and graves, sealed shut forever.  But then we see a passionate and loving God, weeping with us AND calling us out of our graves into new life.  And all of a sudden, those great promises of resurrection, those promises of a new heaven and a new earth collide into us.

They collide and smash into us as the creator of all things stands before us and says,

“See, I am making all things – including you – new”

Amen.

Why Christian? – The difficulty of having a Progressive Faith in a Conservative Tradition

I consider myself an orthodox Christian.

Not Eastern, but orthodox in the sense that I adhere to the essential core doctrines of Christianity, like the Trinity, Original Sin, two natures of Christ, the real resurrection, etc…

I also belong a Lutheran denomination (ELCIC) that allows same-sex marriage, ordains women and LGBT people, teaches its pastors historical-critical methods of biblical scholarship, and does any number of other things that many Christians consider heretical.

There is an inherent difficulty in operating in an orthodox and small “c” conservative faith tradition while adopting socially progressive ethics and post-modern scholarship. This difficulty has been churning in the back of my mind for months, and this week it is about to come to the forefront.

My wife and I are headed to the Why Christian? Conference hosted by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans. In preparation for the conference, Rachel Held Evans asked the question on her Facebook page “why christian?

And the question was asked in light of recent events in news: The hype around Kim Davis’ stand for “Christian values” in refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples contrasted by the photos of a dead three-year-old Syrian refugee washing up on a Turkish beach.

When fellow Christians are rallying behind someone trying to use the government to impose her beliefs on others in the name of religious freedom, how does one stick with this Christianity business?

When ‘Christian nations’ seem so passive about doing anything about the plight of refugees escaping violence because they are muslims, how do you continue to call yourself Christian?

By definition, Christianity is a conservative faith. No, not conservative in the political sense. Christianity is conservative in the practical sense. Christianity seeks to maintain, protect, promote and conserve the teaching, preaching and good news of God in Jesus Christ. Christianity is trying to bring the past forward – a conservative way of being. And yet, along the way Christianity has also conserved things like patriarchy, sexism, systems of power and abuse, bigotry and racism, judgementalism and close-mindedness.

Christianity has a lot of baggage to contend with, and our baggage is frequently getting in our own way. Our baggage is often the thing Christians mistakenly hold up and shout loudly to the world that this is what God – not just Christianity – is all about.

A common refrain among those who struggle with the conservative baggage has been to drop the Christian label in favour of “following Jesus.” And who can blame them? Considering the Christianity that is so frequently presented in the media and practiced so widely, or when Kim Davis or Donald Trump or Fox News is our spokesperson, we should want to say, “I am not with them.”

The Kingdom of God is Near - the Lion of St. Mark
The Kingdom of God is Near – the Lion of St. Mark

Ten days ago, I got a tattoo (insert joke – “a pastor walks into a tattoo shop…”). Getting a tattoo is a very intimate experience. For four hours I had to lay still as someone literally did artwork on my body. And yet, during those four hours I had an extremely familiar experience. My tattoo artist and I talked for hours about all the ways that Christians are judgemental, agenda-filled and often put off and offend unchurched people like her. Yet she didn’t find me that way.

My tattoo artist told me that I was not like any pastor she has ever met (well, not quite, as my wife spent an afternoon with her a couple of  weeks before me). I get told that a lot. When I meet with unchurched couples coming to get married, when unchurched families come to have a child baptized, or when unchurched families come for funerals they often tell me that I am not what they expected. Most unchurched people that I get to spend some time with tell me I don’t sound like the Christians on TV, or like their one friend who can’t stop talking about their megachurch pastor, or like their grandma who looks down on them for having tattoos, piercings, not going to church, living in sin or whatever else. I don’t sound like those other Christians because I am cool with questions, even encouraging of them, I share my doubts, and I even share my own frustrations about the judgemental behaviour of many fellow Christians.

Maybe this should make me wonder if I got Christianity wrong along the way? Is the way I practice it so uncommon?

It isn’t.

I have spent far too long studying history and theology in university and at seminary to not know that the way I practice Christianity is fairly consistent with the way it has been practiced throughout history. And most of the Christians I know approach faith the way I do.

Yet, despite the baggage that Christianity carries these days, despite the undignified death that Christendom is undergoing, despite the pop-culture caricature that Christians have become, I can’t walk away from the religion.

I am a Christian, even if Kim Davis gets to speak for me, or Fox News or even… heaven forbid… Donald Trump. 

And I am Christian because following Jesus means being a Christian. It means hanging out with sinners and other people who struggle with the baggage. With people who want to hold on to the baggage at all costs, or people who have been trying to toss it from the bandwagon since before they can remember.

Because believing in Jesus just doesn’t work outside of community. Because taking up our cross and following means we don’t get to avoid all the crosses in the world, but instead Jesus’ ministry happens right where the crosses are. The crosses of hypocrisy, judgmentalism, abuse, control and power.

Dumping Christianity to follow Jesus doesn’t jive with the God who put our baggage on, who literally became our baggage, who used our baggage as his flesh in order to come and meet us in the incarnation.

And of course our baggage, our flesh, made things much more difficult for Jesus, but that was the only way to reach us.

As much as I shake my head this week every time I see a Kim Davis news story scroll by on Facebook. As much as I get enraged when I read that Christians are rallying behind Donald Trump, or rallying behind Stephen Harper here in Canada. As frustrating as it is that the Christianity that is represented in the media is one I neither recognize nor practice.

But I know that this is not the whole story.

I know that the church I grew up in is full of people just like Kim Davis, and they have sponsored 3 refugee families over the past 15 years. In fact, churches are some of the most frequent sponsors of refugees. I know that the grandmothers who guilt their grandkids into bringing their babies to be baptized also knit quilts for Canada’s northern communities and brought sweaters by the truck-load so that Canadian Lutheran World Relief could send 70,000 sweaters to Syrian Refugees last winter. I know that church people who struggle with how fast world is changing and who long for the golden age of Christendom are also regularly volunteering at the soup kitchen, filling the food bank, visiting people in hospitals and old folks homes and are caring for the world in their own small ways.

But most importantly, I know that Christianity is at its best when it is practiced by sinners. Even when those sinners like to tell everyone outside the church that they are the sinners. Christianity is still for sinners.

Christianity, the religion with all this baggage, is also the means by which God meets our broken world and speaks words of promise, grace, and mercy. The baggage filled traditions of Christianity are the means by which God washes and claims us as God’s own, the means by which God feeds us with God’s very Body.

Christianity is the community where God transforms us from broken and flawed people into forgiven and whole. 

And as filled with baggage as Christianity is these days, I need it. We all need it.

Because we need God

and those promises

and that washing

and that food.

I can’t believe in Jesus alone, I need all these messed up people – Christians – to do it with me.


 

Why are you still a Christian? What are your frustrations with Christianity? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

The Disappointment of Holy Week

Mark 11:1-11

…Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

(Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

The Palms have been waved, and Hosannas sung. Today begins Holy Week, today we join with anticipation as the people of Jerusalem greet Jesus, riding into town like a King. This moment begins as sequence of events that pushthe people of Jerusalem and us from welcoming Jesus as a King to only days from now demanding death. During Holy Week, we re-live and rehearse this movement, this change in attitude towards Jesus, towards God. We rehearse this movement because as much as we would like to believe it belongs only to the people waving palm branches 2000 years ago, it is an experience that we know too well. It is expectation and hope met with disappointment and resentment.

The scene of the Triumphant entry is not easily identified by us for what it truly is. The idea of riding a donkey up a dusty road covered in palm branches, into an ancient city does not trigger memories or images for we modern people. Yet, for the people of Israel the symbol that Jesus represented was far more powerful than we imagine.

For us it would be better to imagine a Head of State stepping down the stairs of a private jet, being met by the welcome of cheering crowds and a band playing presidential music. Or we might be better to think of celebrities and stars walking down the red carpet to screaming fans and the flashes of media cameras. Or a motorcade with little flags on long black limos with motorcycles and big guys in suits with ear pieces and guns under their jackets.

Jesus is not just some guy on a donkey, and the reception he receives from the people is not just an impromptu greeting. Jesus has been headed towards this moment since he first rose out of the waters of the Jordan river and that voice thundered from heaven, “This is my son, my beloved.”

The people of Israel too, have been waiting for this moment. They have been anticipating the arrival of Messiah. They have been waiting for a King.

A King who was to hear the cries of the people.

A warlord who was to oust their Roman oppressors.

A spiritual leader who would re-establish the Kingdom of God on earth, with the Jerusalem temple at its centre.

And so when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a steed, just like the Kings of Israel would have according to the Old Testament, the people believe that their salvation is near. They have high expectations for what is to come. They shout Hosanna, which does not mean Praise the Lord, but means Save Now. They believe that Jesus is One who has finally come to meet their expectations, to deliver on their hope, to save them from their problems.

We know this hope, we know this expectation. We have all longed for the one who will save us. Who will save us  from our problems, from our worries, from our brokenness, from our suffering and pain.

And again, we know the disappointment that will come. We know what it is like to have promises broken. We know that un-met expectations lead to resentment.

Holy Week is a reminder of this experience.

Holy Week is a practice in disappointment.

As much as we long for a saviour to come on our terms. A king from the house of David or a prime minister leading our party of choice. A warlord who will oust our oppressors, or a lottery ticket, romantic partner, job opportunity that will finally make our problems go away. A spiritual leader who will establish God’s Kingdom, or a pastor or program that will bring all the people missing from pews back to church (along with their wallets).

Our expectations for salvation. For our version of salvation will only lead to disappointment, this week more than ever.

This week, more than ever do we try to hold God’s feet to the fire for not being God in our image… and by Friday, Save Now becomes Kill Now.

But the disappointment is necessary. Because none of this has been about what we want. Jesus has reminded us all along the way, that our expectations, that our version of the world is not what he come for.

Jesus has come to do God’s work. Jesus has come riding a donkey, a symbol of peace, rather than the war horse of a conqueror.

And peace is what Jesus delivers. It will not be on our terms. It will not come by Thursday or by Friday morning. It will not happen in the Garden when Judas comes with soldiers. It will not be in Pilate’s court.

No, peace does not come on our terms. Salvation is not according to our version.

Instead, in the place where we have finally given up on peace, On Golgotha, where no one can imagine salvation. On the cross, where there is only death. God will deliver us from evil, and the King will finally sit on his throne.

On Good Friday, salvation will finally be on God’s terms.

We just won’t know it until Sunday.

Amen. 

 

What do churches do with people who want to see Jesus?

John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Lent has been long and hard on us this year. Other years, this 5 week season of preparation for Holy Week is about opening us up to Jesus’ work in the world, helping us to see just where God is doing important work in our world. This year, Lent has not been so much about opening us to new understandings, but instead about peeling back our layers of self-interest and showing us how we get God wrong.

We began Lent as Jesus showed us that wilderness is not the scary place we imagine, but where God meets God’s people. We continued as Peter rebuked Jesus for talking about death, and we were shown how our fears get in the way of seeing God’s work. We then watched as Jesus overturned tables in the temple, accusing people of selling God and we were shown that our own tables have been turned right side up.

And last week, Jesus reminded us that the familiar verse of John 3:16 is not exactly the verse we hope to use to convert those around us, but instead comes in the context of a reminder of how we are condemned already… and it is in our dark world that God shines a light, even if that light stings a little.

As Lent concludes this week, and we prepare for Palm Sunday and Holy Week, the themes of this season continue. We are being shown the ways, that as people of faith, we miss the mark, despite our best efforts to be faithful.

Today, the disciple Philip is milling about the busy religious marketplace of Jerusalem. This scene actually comes after the triumphant entry, where Jesus rides into town on a Donkey.

Unlike Peter, James and John, Philip is not a leader among the disciples. He is more of a background kind of guy. Peter is the one who speaks up as the leader of the group, even if he is putting his foot in his mouth half of the time. James and John are vying to be Jesus’ second in command. The three got to go up the mountain with Jesus. But Philip is behind the scenes. While Jesus is teaching the masses, Philip is finding the boy with 5 small loves and 2 fish to feed the 5000. Today, Philip is away from the action, from the crowds surrounding Jesus.

And this is where some Greek Jews come to him. They are from far away. They have come to the Holy city for passover… perhaps this will be their only chance in a lifetime to be in Jerusalem for the festival. As foreigners, they are unfamiliar with the city, but they have probably heard about this rabbi and teacher who rode into town like a King.”Sir, we wish to see Jesus” they ask.

Philip, uncertain, goes to Andrew. Together, they leave the Greeks behind to go and talk to Jesus, who gives them a long speech.

If Philip were a church member today, he would be an usher or greeter. He would be one of those volunteers who like behind-the-scenes work. Peter, James and John might be up front preaching, reading the lessons, conducting the choir, or on church council. Philip would be in early to make coffee, he would probably have picked up some doughnuts for a snack after church. While others are up front leading or taking charge, Philip was the disciple looking for a place to eat or sleep, he is the one making sure that people are looked after and that everyone has what they need.

But when the Greeks come looking for Jesus, when that visitor walks in the door of the church, he knows how to pass out a bulletin or a cup of coffee… but he isn’t so sure about taking people to meet Jesus.

If I had to guess, it would seem that many church members are Philips. Faithful people diligently working behind the scenes, caring for each other.

And like Philip, the faithful and diligent behind-the-scenes disciple, we can be uncertain of what to do with people who ask us, “We wish to see Jesus.”

We know how care for each other, to make sure the bulletins gets passed out, the coffee made, the snow cleared, the potlucks served. We are great at signing new members up for mailboxes and getting them on committees. We know how to welcome new faces and familiar faces into our community, we know that the hospitality we extend has something to do with the God who welcomes us in the waters of baptism and saves a place for us at the table for bread and wine.

Yet, sometimes we are uncertain of how to respond to that very direct question asked by the foreigners, by the visitors among us. “We wish to see Jesus.”

Like Philip, we might go to Andrew instead. We might point a visitor asking for Jesus to the bathrooms, show them how to use a hymnal, we might ask the pastor to do the Jesus talk for us. Like Philip, believing in Jesus means serving and caring for those around us, making sure they are happy and comfortable and welcome. But also like Philip, talking about Jesus makes us uncertain, uncomfortable even.

And sometimes Christians and church people forget why people walk through church doors in the first place. We forget why we keep coming back again and again. We forget that the volunteer roles we sign up for, the jobs we agree to do, the relationships that become so important to us, the community we form and become a part of are not the things that make us the church. They are not the most important reasons we show up here on Sundays, or why a visitor would darken our doors.

These things are BECAUSE of the most important reason why anyone would show up in church.

God.

When the always helpful Philip goes to Andrew, and the two go to Jesus not sure what to do with these foreigners…

The Greeks are looking for the King who rode into Jerusalem. And visitors who come into a church may have many reasons that draw them in. And in the midst of being a busy community, we may forget the core reason of why we are here.

Yet, Jesus takes their question and steers it in a new direction.

Jesus says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

God is busy drawing all people. All nations. All kinds, young and old, new and familiar, those leading up front and those behind the scenes… God is drawing all of us to the Christ who is lifted up on the cross. God is the ultimate reason that we are all here regular or visitor, seeking and searching or committed and devoted.

God is gathering us together, and God who is we are ultimately looking for when we show up at church. God is who makes the church the church. God is who finds us, even as we are uncertain at times with what to do with that question, “We wish to see Jesus”

Today, Philip, even though he is not sure how to Answer the Greeks, is still trying to be a faithful disciple and follower of Jesus.

And Jesus recognizes that too.

Jesus knows that our attempts to be faithful are often what get us in the most trouble. And still, God is here among us. God is working with our failing faithfulness and God is drawing us all to the cross. God is drawing us all to place where humanity’s attempts to be faithful ended with the execution of God in flesh.

And yet at the cross and again at the empty tomb, God will show us that it is God’s faithfulness does not fail. That God’s faithfulness is why we are here. And that God’s faithfulness will be on full display when Jesus is lifted up, drawing us all to God’s love.

Amen.

The Day After Jesus Cleared the Temple – The reality of church decline

John 2:13-22

He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (Read the whole passage here). 

Jesus has come a long way from the wilderness to here. We began Lent as Jesus went for 40 days in wilderness to do what God has always done… to search for God’s people in the desert. But this time we weren’t there. So Jesus returned to civilization to begin his preaching and teaching. Last week, Jesus began preparing his disciples for what was to come – death and resurrection. And Peter would have none of it. Peter’s fears got in the way of seeing what God was up to.

Today, Jesus strikes out for a place very opposite of the wilderness. Jesus heads straight to the heart of Jerusalem society – the temple, God’s dwelling place, God’s house. The temple was a bustling place of business. There were pilgrims coming and going from all over Jerusalem. Pharisees debating religious law. Priests performing sacrifices. And lots of people selling things. Selling animals for sacrifice. Kosher food and clothes. Selling whatever a religious person might need in order to access the temple appropriately.

For most Jews the temple was the experience of a lifetime. It was something that took time and money, and was not easily afforded. The temple was a place for rich folks to come and go from, for those in the middle to visit occasionally, and for those on the bottom, the poor had no hope of ever getting the chance to make it into the temple.

But it had not always been so. All the rules about sacrifice and ritual that the temple was based on were not about keeping people out when they were first given to the people of Israel. Instead, they were meant as means to talk about God in a communal and shared way. They were meant to facilitate the communal practices of worship and prayer. They were meant to make it easier for everyone to access God’s love and God’s forgiveness of sins. As people tried harder and harder to follow the letter of the law, to be faithful Jews, they created more and more barriers to God, rather than making access easier.

By the time Jesus comes to the temple, the cost and process for even getting into the temple, an enormous building surrounded by huge imposing walls meant to protect the holy of holies, was so cumbersome that only the rich and privileged had real ease of access.

It is not surprising that Jesus seems to lose his cool. Jesus running around with a whip, overturning tables and yelling is not the Jesus we are used to. Jesus declares, “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace”. These words are more profound than we imagine. In greek ,the word for household is oikos and from that comes the word oikonomos or in english: economy. Jesus’s words could be heard this way:

Stop making my father’s economy a marketplace

What had begun as a means for the people of Israel to access God, was now a money making machine. It was a place for entrepreneurship, for making money. And the exclusive product being sold was God.

So now… this is usually the point in the sermon where we would look at the parallels between story and us. And we don’t have to look very far in Christendom to see where God is being bought and sold. We can look to the prosperity preachers on Sunday morning TV, to the Christian book stores that promise to make our spiritual life grow, or places like FOX news who are using quasi-Christian beliefs to boost ratings.

But if we really look around ourselves here, or as Lutherans in Canada and the US, or as mainline Christians over all… I think we can safely say that Jesus wouldn’t have much cause to show up with a whip to overturn our tables.

If we are selling God here… we are not doing it very well.

We look a lot more like the day after Jesus has come through and upset the order of things. Now let’s not kid ourselves, the Jerusalem temple was certainly back to business as usual the day after Jesus overturned those tables. But the Jerusalem temple which had been built and rebuilt over the course of a 1000 years, would be destroyed for good within 40 years by the very same Romans that the Jews would soon be demanding to kill Jesus.

And after the Romans razed the temple for the last time, the Jewish people had to completely change the way they did religion.

Like the Jews after the destruction of the temple, our marketplace moment has come and gone. We were once the only show in town. We were once the centres of communities all over. Our religious leaders could phone prime ministers directly. Governments have mandated holidays on our holy-days. Public schools forced children to pray our prayers and read our holy books. On Sundays everything was closed and people couldn’t do anything but come to us. Lutherans, Anglicans and Catholics, we were planting churches and starting congregations left and right 40, 50, 60 years ago. We were the ones who controlled access to God.

In order to have people walk in our doors, all we had to do was build a building and raise the money to call a pastor. And Sunday Schools were bursting, confirmation classes full, choirs robust, Sunday worship was bustling.

Yet, like the people of the Jerusalem temple we began to lose sight of what our purpose was. In Jerusalem, providing access to God’s love and forgiveness was transformed into making the right sacrifices, being ritually clean and worshipping only in God’s holy temple. Forgiveness became a way to sell sacrificial animals, to earn money for maintaining the temple, to bring people from all over to Jerusalem.

For us, providing a place for the Body of Christ to hear the word and receive the sacraments has been transformed into maintaining structures and budgets. Sermons and worship have become selling features to pay for buildings and to fill offering plates. We have flipped the functions of our building and budgets with gathering for word and sacrament. Instead of buildings and budgets being tools that allow our faith communities to gather to hear God’s word, to be baptized and receive communion;  attractive, flashy worship becomes a tool we use to keep our budgets viable and buildings open.

But somewhere along in the past few years, Jesus showed up and declared,

Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

And like the temple authorities who protest, we have lost sight of what our buildings and budgets are for in the first place.

Yet, Jesus has a curious answer for us.

“Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up”

Jesus is not talking about the physical structure. Jesus is not going to be found in the walls here. Jesus is not hiding in our wallets waiting to be put into offering plates.

Jesus is reminding us who builds this church in the first place. Jesus reminds us whose faithfulness is building the Body of Christ.

Hint: it is not our faithfulness.

God is the one who is providing the means for forgiveness. God is the one who comes to us in word and sacrament. God’s faithfulness is the purpose of our gathering together, week after week. Buildings, temple walls, balanced budgets, ritually purified coins, programs that bring the people in, animal sacrifices… these are not the things that show us where God is.

God is in the person, the flesh of Jesus who comes and meets us in our misguided attempts to be faithful.

God is the One we meet in the Word, in the words of faith proclaimed here, over and over. Words like forgiven, mercy, grace. Like Gospel, baptism, communion. Like peace, love and welcome.

God is the One that we feel and encounter in water, bread and wine. Who we touch as we embrace our brothers and sisters in faith. Who we hear with words of eternal life, with words just for us.

Jesus is reminding that God can raise up the body of Christ without bricks or mortar, without budgets and programs. God can build churches just with people, with a book, with bread and a cup. None of us can do that, no matter how strong our faith. 

As faithful as we try to be by building holy places for people to meet God, as upside down as get things as we try to sell God to pay for our holy buildings, Jesus is coming out of the wilderness to meet us right in the heart of our marketplaces. Jesus is coming right to the middle of our bustling temples.

And Jesus, for a a while now, has been relieving us of the burdens of buildings and budgets. Jesus has been overturning our tables and whipping us back into shape. And it is Jesus that shows us that God’s temple, God’s church is not buildings and budgets, but people, the Body of Christ.

Jesus shows us that our overturned tables have not been turned upside down, but instead Jesus has turned them and us…

Right side up.