Tag Archives: lent

Only the Blind Man Could See

John 9:1-41

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (Read the whole passage)

Out of the sun and into the mud.

We have been on journey this lent through various familiar places of Jesus ministry. The wilderness of the desert of temptation. The darkness of Nicodemus’s questions by night. The bright noon day heat of the woman at the well and her isolation. Jesus continues on his journey through the lives of unsuspecting people, moving towards their questions, breaking their walls, and today helping them to see.

This Lenten season has shown us the movement of God towards creation. We have seen that God is beginning a new thing in the identity of Christ, despite the tempter’s wondering if Jesus is the Son of God. We have seen Jesus adjust course and move towards Nicodemus, who needs his deep questions of faith answered. And we saw last week, the persistence of Jesus whose living water broke down the well walls of the Samaritan woman’s dead water.

john-9-healing-blind-man-mosaicThe next instalment in the Lenten journey is the story of the blind man. It is a familiar story, yet, it is hardly just about helping a person without normal sight to see the world around him. As Jesus and his disciples come a cross a blind man in the streets, presumably begging in his community, the disciples want Jesus to help them identify the punishments of God. Disability was considered a divine curse, and the disciples were most likely trying to be sure that they would avoid such a fate. Yet Jesus stops, and spits in the mud, covers the man’s eyes with the mud. Then Jesus tells the man to go and wash in pool of Siloam. Jesus says this man’s blindness has nothing to do with God’s curse.

And then Jesus disappears.

But we stay with the blind man and hear his story. Now, I am pretty sure, if this story was really about a blind person gaining sight were to happen among us, we would be amazed by this person who was blind and now could see. Yet, that is not what happens to the blind man. Once this man can see, and Jesus is long gone, the man’s community reacts badly. They just cannot see the miracle or the transformation. They doubt the identity of the man, they doubt that he is actually healed, they doubt that the miracle is from God.

Instead of rejoicing and celebrating, the community puts the healed man on trial. He is called before the religious leaders to explain what happened. To explain how someone healed him on the sabbath. The Pharisees declare that the blind man has not been healed by God, and instead they summon his parents to see if there has been some kind of trickery. But his parents have no answers, so the formerly blind man is summoned again in front of the pharisees. So incredulous are the Pharisees that they declare no only has the formerly blind man not been given a miracle, but that he is sinner being punished by God. So they drive him away, out of the community and on his own.

And throughout the course of the story, the blind man comes to realize something. We can see it too… it isn’t that the blind man can see, it is that he is the only who can now see. The whole community is blind to the transformation that has taken place. Only the man can see what Jesus has done for him. And no matter how many times, how many ways he tells the story of his own healing, the community around him just cannot understand or accept this new reality.

They remain blind.

Blindness to the effects of Jesus in our world is something we know about. Perhaps we are like the blindman, seemingly alone in the world surrounded by unbelievers. Maybe we now feel like most people simply do not see what we see, or know what we know about Jesus. Maybe we are the only ones who feel as though our eyes have been opened to by Jesus passing through our lives and giving us healing, renewal and life. Friends and neighbours just cannot see the good news, they simply don’t are or won’t accept this story of faith and healing that we share. No matter how we tell it, or no matter how the transformation that we now know is apparent to us… people around us just seem blind to God in the world.

Or perhaps we feel more like the blind community. We know the faith, we know what God is up to, and so the zealous believers who claim that God is doing a new thing in their lives are just too much. We cannot see how God is doing something so unexpected in the world, according to suspicious and obviously self-involved people.

Regardless of who we may identify with, the blind man or his community, identifying the gospel, knowing God’s work in the world is not always straight forward. The community cannot believe that this man would be healed by God. The man himself only has a vague sense of just what his experience with Jesus means. And isn’t this our experience too? Jesus passes in and out of out community, causing just as much confusion about faith and church and God, as helping us figure out what is happening.

As we already know, the blindness of the man is not just about physical blindness, but John’s gospel is hinting at the spiritual blindness of the community that Jesus encounters today. But blindness is not the only metaphor that John is playing with. As Jesus reaches down in the mud today, we cannot help but think all the way back to Genesis and God in creation. As God reached down into the mud of the earth to create Adam, breathing life into him, so we see God breathing life into this blind man. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Let there be light” and the blind man sees, not just with his eyes, but with his whole being.

And, still not quite. The blind man doesn’t see Jesus first, but rather only has an experience of Christ before he sees.

But just when it seems that the man has been left to carry on in faith alone, that he has been left to sort out his new place in the world where he knows that the Messiah has healed his blindness, but the rest of his community doesn’t see what he sees… Just as the man is driven away… Jesus shows up again. And we learn something important about what Jesus has done in healing the man of his blindness.

Just as Jesus told the tempter in the wilderness that God is about to do something new in creation…

Just as Jesus changed course and moved towards Nicodemus so that Nicodemus could hear the gospel that he needed to hear in the safety of darkness…

Just as Jesus kept lapping at the well walls of the samaritan woman until she was broken open by living water…

Jesus comes back to the blindman.

And finally, finally the man who was born blind, whose sight was restored, whose story was not enough for his community to see… the blind man sees the One who has given him this new faith.

The One whom meets us in the wilderness, finds us in the dark, who makes us alive with Living Water…. this One comes back and restores and fills us up with faith.

Like the blindman, we can only last for so long in a world of blindness. We can only tell the story so many times for unseeing eyes before we run out of persistence. And so Jesus comes to us and meets us again, fills us with a word of light and hope.

The blind man’s story is our story. We experience new life and renewal in Jesus who comes to us, creating something new and incredible inside us. And then we go out in the world and into our community with this gospel of life, only to find blindness. Yet, still we are called to tell the story.

And then when we cannot tell it anymore, Jesus shows up again. And Jesus keeps coming back and coming back. Jesus keeps giving words of mercy and forgiveness, the light of God’s word, the renewal of our faith in the Body of Christ.

Our story of faith is one where Jesus keeps coming back to us. Week after week, year after year. And all of sudden, when we all we knew was wilderness, darkness, and isolation… Jesus makes us see for the first-time.

Jesus opens our eyes to faith.

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Dead Water becoming Living Water

John 4:5-42

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

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

Sermon

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

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

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

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

So he asks for a drink.

And the woman is shocked by this request.

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

Yet, Jesus persists.

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

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

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

Yet, Jesus won’t give up.

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

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

“Give me this water,” she says.

And then things get weird.

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

“I have no husband,” she answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*crack*

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

*crack*

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

*crack*

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

*crack*

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

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

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

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

“I am he” Jesus says.

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

And so it is with us.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Temptation to Avoid Lent Altogether

Matthew 4:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet something seems off.

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

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

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

And yes, the tempter understands people quite well.

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

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

But it doesn’t end there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

How Churches Confuse the Method for the Mission

Who remembers Kodak? Who remembers taking photos with Kodak film? Does anyone know what happened to the Kodak company in 2012? Who still takes photos with film cameras?

In a recent blog post, Pastor and Blogger Carey Nieuwhof compares Kodak and the church. He suggests that Kodak made a fundamental mistake in understanding their company’s mission.

In many ways,” He writes, “Kodak sabotaged its future by refusing to respond to the massive changes in culture. 

Kodak bet too much of its future on the past (film photography). It lost.

He goes on:

Imagine what might have happened if someone at Kodak had asked:

Are we in the film business, or the photography business?

If Kodak was in the film business, the future would be dim.

But if Kodak had decided it was in the photography business, the future could have been very different.

Instead, Facebook decided it was in the photography business when it bought Instagram. And Apple decided it was in the photography business when it developed the iPhone.”

“Too many leaders mix up method and mission. That’s one of the things that happened to Kodak [and that’s happening in journalism].

It’s also an epidemic in the church world.

This mistake is so easy to make in leadership.

A method is a current approach that helps you accomplish the mission. It’s how you do what you do.

The mission is why you exist.

The problem in most churches is people (including leaders) get very fond of their methods.

When Carey Nieuwhof talks about METHODS, what kind of things do you think he is talking about in the church? – PAUSE –

I suspect that there are a lot of examples he is thinking about, here are a few:

1. When I was is my first congregation, I had a member who was adamant that we have a Sunday School program – even though there were no Sunday School aged children attending the church.

The method of Sunday School had become more important than the mission to help people grow in faith.

2. This past week as pastors and other leaders gathered with our Bishop  to talk about worship, Carey Nieuwhof’s article came up in terms of the methods of worship over the mission of worship.

Churches will devout tremendous resources to particular methods of worship: contemporary or traditional, organs or praise bands, music before 1950 and music after, what’s considered to be more formal, or liturgical, verses what is more casual in worship styles – the list goes on.

The method – or preferred style – of worship has become more important than mission of proclaiming the gospel in the worshipping assembly.

3. Or the ultimate example, congregations focussing on attendance and budgets in order to keep their doors open – and failing to see that buildings and budgets are just methods.

The mission is – and has always been – helping others grow in their relationship to Jesus.

Churches, along with Kodak, are not immune from mistaking the method for the mission.

So at this point, you might be wondering what does all this method and mission talk have to do with the temptation of Jesus?

The devil, like Kodak and many congregations, has mistaken Jesus’ methods for Jesus’ mission. As the devil happens along Jesus wandering and fasting in the wilderness, he forgets what he has likely just heard and witnessed as Jesus was baptized and what we heard repeated again on Transfiguration Sunday. The devil has forgotten that the Father has just declared Jesus the Son, the devil has forgotten that the Father and Son are one God.

And having forgotten that, the devil tries to tempt Jesus with power and its misuse. The devil mistakes God’s mission to be one of power. The devil sees only the method of the incarnation – God becoming flesh. And the only purpose for God coming into the world that the devil can imagine is power.

Turn rocks into bread the devil urges – show God-like power over creation.

The devil tries again and offers that Jesus could rule over nations and peoples – show God-like power over humanity.

And the most desperate temptation, the devil dares Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple – as if forcing God to act and save Jesus shows God-like power.

With each successive temptation, the devil is trying to get Jesus to use his power, the power of an incarnate God. And the devil gets more desperate with each offer, trying to get Jesus to do something with all that power. The devil has mistaken the method – God coming to creation in flesh – for the mission.

The mission that Jesus reminds the devil, that Jesus reminds us of, each time he responds:

One does not live by bread alone… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.

Do not put the Lord your God to test.

These are not the responses of a noble pious man resisting temptation in front of the devil. Jesus isn’t reciting bible verses for his own benefit.  We cannot split apart the trinity, split apart Father and Son when it feels convenient. When Jesus speaks, it is God speaking.

One does not live by bread alone, Jesus says, for it is I who gives you life.

Worship the Lord your God, Jesus says, for it is I who will gives you a place in this world.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test, Jesus says, for I have not come to show my power, but to show my love for all creation.

The method, God becoming flesh, is only to serve the mission.

And the mission is God’s deep and abiding love for the world. For each and everyone of us. 

And it is not just the devil who needs this reminder. We need it too. As individuals, and as communities. We need to be reminded that we exist in service of God’s mission. That all the things we do are in service of God’s mission. Whether it is Sunday School, or bible study or individual study and prayer, we serve God’s mission of growing in faith. Whether it is with organs or rock bands, old hymns or new songs, formal reverent liturgies or casual intimate gatherings we serve the mission of announcing God’s love.  Whether it is with grand buildings and large staffs, or rented space and volunteers, we serve God’s mission by being the places where forgiveness and mercy are offered. Where sinners are washed with Holy Baths. Where the hungry are fed with bread and wine. Where the dying are given words that breathe into us new, and eternal, life.

God’s mission is front and center today on this first Sunday in Lent, as Jesus refocuses us back to the heart of the issue.  And it’s no mistake that the story of the temptation of Jesus is always told on the first Sunday of Lent. It focuses us on the heart of the issue between God and us. And from now until Easter we are headed towards the core of the conflict, between method and mission, a conflict between power and love. Our desire for power, and God’s desire for love.

And as the devil tries to tempt Jesus, he doesn’t know where Jesus is headed. But we know how the conflict ends. We know the end of the story. Humanity’s desire for power leads to death on a cross on Good Friday. God’s desire for love leads to life and an empty tomb.

And the same story plays out here among us. Our desire might be to control the methods, to make how we do church the most important, but God’s desire is for the mission, to make the “why” the most important. Lest we forget that the mission comes before the method, God has a habit of stripping us of our methods. This Lent, God is calling us to look at whether our focus is on the methods we use, or on God’s mission for the church and us. God is leading us into the wilderness, calling us to leave our attachment to our favourite methods behind, challenging our assumptions  about power and then God is reminding of us what is most important.

Like Kodak who thought they were a film company rather than a photography company, the church too has a habit of mixing up the method for mission.

But unlike Kodak, God does not let us stay mixed up for long. Instead, God comes into our world and reminds us that isn’t about methods, not about the programs we have nor music or worship styles, nor buildings nor budgets.

The mission is God’s love. Everything else comes second. 


(*Thanks to my wife, Courtenay, for co-writing this sermon with me)

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.

The Wilderness is Not what We Think

Mark 1:9-15

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Read the whole passage here.)

Sermon

We have come a long way from the mountain of Transfiguration. Last week, Jesus stood on the mountain with Peter, James and John, and was changed into dazzling white. Moses and Elijah showed up and God spoke to all gathered there. Yet, by Wednesday, we had come down from that mountain, and we were faced with our own sin, our brokenness and our mortality on Ash Wednesday. And as we begin Lent, Jesus is tossed into the wilderness. 

This pattern of Transfiguration to Ashes to Wilderness is one that we repeat each year as we move from the season after Epiphany into Lent. On the first Sunday of Lent of each year we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which sets the tone for our Lenten journey. The story of Jesus’ temptation represents both the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but also is the first step of Jesus’ path to the cross.

Yet, in the year of the Gospel of Mark, the story seems to lack key elements. In fact, the temptation part of the story is obscured by two stories that we have already heard in the past few weeks. In January, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism and we heard the story of Jesus entering Galilee to preach his first sermon, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”

The temptation part of the story is told in only 5 words by Mark, “He was tempted by Satan.”

And that is it.

No stones to bread. No power over all the kingdoms of the earth. No jumping off the temple.

In fact, Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan, but also hanging out with the wild beasts and being waited on by Angels. Where is the fasting and praying? Where is the stoic resolve? Where is our example of resisting temptation? Mark’s version sounds almost like a spa vacation.

However, Mark remembers something that we have largely forgotten over time. The wilderness is not the place of trial and tribulation that we imagine. In fact, before Jesus arrived on the scene, the wilderness was actually the place where God met God’s people. God sent Abraham into the wilderness with the promise of land and descendants. Moses and the Israelites wandered the wilderness for 40 years, while God provided water from the gushing rock, and manna and quail to eat. Elijah was sent out as young man to save the people of Israel, and along the way God provided water at the stream and food delivered by wild ravens.

While the wilderness was a place fraught with danger, it was the place where God’s people met their God. God always showed up in the wilderness, and God’s people were not left to suffer alone.

When we imagine wilderness, we don’t usually think of it in these terms. We think of wilderness as the times and places, the experiences in our lives when God seemed absent. The times of illness or suffering, the times of workplace strife or family conflict. The times of addiction and doubt, of grief and depression. And yet, wilderness is no such thing. Wilderness is where God meets God’s people, while all these other things are simply part of the experiences of human life. They are part of the baggage we carry everyday.

Wilderness, as we hear about it in Mark’s gospel today, is the place where we go to leave our baggage, our troubles behind. Wilderness is where we are stripped of our burdens and our comforts, where day-to-day living, joys and sorrows, are left behind. Wilderness is where God takes us when we need to be renewed and refreshed, where we can let go and be cared for by God.

When the spirit tosses Jesus into the wilderness, it is not really about temptation like we usually hear with this story. In fact, the wilderness is the place where God goes to meet God’s people. And as Jesus waits in the wilderness with Satan, the wild beasts and the angels, there is something, or someone one curiously missing.

Human beings.

Jesus goes out to the wilderness, God goes out to the wilderness, just as God has always done and God waits. God waits for God’s people, and we don’t come. It is just the wild beasts and angels. And if there is any temptation on Satan’s part, perhaps it is tempting God to keep waiting and waiting for us. And just has God has always been, God waits for us in the wilderness. God waits the obligatory 40 days, long enough to be sure we aren’t coming.

And when God’s people don’t show up, Jesus does something new. Jesus breaks the pattern, God recognizes that waiting for us to come out to the wilderness isn’t working. We just can’t drop our baggage, we just can’t let go of life in order to find God.

And so Jesus gets up and leaves Satan, the wild beasts and the angels behind. Jesus goes to Galilee, goes to civilization, goes to where the people are. Goes to the place where they are living, where they are suffering, where their baggage is keeping them in place. God finds the people stuck in lives, stuck in their details and burdens, stuck with their obligations, their work, their family, their relationships. God comes to the place where human life is happening. God goes to where the people are and declares,

“The Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.”

The wilderness is where God meets God’s people, and when the people won’t come to the wilderness, God brings the wilderness to us.

This is what our Lenten journey is about. God coming to us, bringing the wilderness to us. God’s coming and stripping us of our burdens, of our obligations, of our suffering and shame, of our self-centred focus. And God comes to meet us in whatever dark places we are in, whatever dusty, ashy places we exist in.

Jesus comes into our lives and delivers an ashy Lenten promise. 

Jesus promises that wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we do, the Kingdom of God’s love is near to us, and that God’s enduring love will find us as we head toward death and resurrection. Towards crosses and empty tombs. From the first step of Lent, all the way to Easter.

Amen.