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There is no greatest nor least

Mark 9:30-37

Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Read the whole passage)

We are well into this second part of the the long season of green… We have been winding our way through Mark’s gospel since May and the deeper we get, the more frustrating the disciples become. Today, they come off looking rather petty, like kids in the school yard at recess fighting over who is the king of the playground castle.

Of course we know that this isn’t just a play ground debate, we also recognize this debate about who is the greatest from the nightly news… especially as election season is upon us and one particular unavoidable politician who cannot help but tell us how tremendously great he is, unbelievably great.

But for people of faith, the scene between Jesus and the disciples today is about deeper things than self-aggrandizement and we know it. We know that this uncomfortable exchange between the disciples and Jesus has something to say about us too and about what it means for us to follow Jesus… or at least we are going to find that out.

The debate over who is the greatest is the memorable moment of the story today, but it is something that is repeated from last week which sets everything off. Jesus is talking about dying again. Last week Peter couldn’t abide it and took Jesus aside to rebuke him. This angered Jesus who the called Peter ‘Satan.’ This week, Jesus is talking about dying again but the disciples do not understand and are afraid to ask.

This point is important to keep in mind during the rest of the story. Because the disciples cannot understand what Jesus means when he says he will die and be raised three days later, they begin to focus on something trivial and manageable… they start arguing over who is the greatest. They are arguing over something they feel can control, something that seems to be quantifiable, a topic they think they can contribute to… all to distract from the fact that they didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about before and they were afraid to ask – remember what happened to Peter last week when he spoke up.

The question of who is the greatest among them is an idea they can manage… unlike the notion that Jesus has come into this world to be betrayed and die, only to rise again in 3 days. The little trivial matter is easier to talk about when the big issue, the big question makes them feel scared and powerless and insignificant.

And so they argue, they debate, they make passionate cases for who among them is the greatest… and probably they feel like they are achieving something as they travelled down the road to Capernaum. That is until Jesus hears them and sits them down for a talking to.

The disciples are doing something that we know well as human beings and especially as church folk. We know how to focus on the small trivial matters in order to avoid the big questions and bigger issues just like the disciples do.

Many of us have been to that church council meeting where the minute details of fixing a leaky sink or buying hot dog buns for the church barbecue or haggling over $10 item lines in a budget of 10s of thousands take up the bulk of time and energy….while questions of what it means to be disciples or how to follow Jesus in our community or how to encourage members growing in faith are met with silence and blank stares.

We naturally grab onto the small things, the things that feel manageable, the things that we can argue and debate and discuss… because the big questions of faith and mission and life… they sit like weights on our chests making our heats beat with anxiety when we think about them too much, let alone when we talk about them.

And so we end up sounding like the disciples, we end up arguing about who is the greatest because we are too afraid to ask about what it means for us that Jesus is betrayed, killed and raised three days later.

And we end up debating the little things like the annoyance of Sunday sports and shopping, grumbling about those who have drifted away and left us with the work, arguing over who is the blame for the decline of congregational resources and attendance… because we are too afraid to ask what it means for us that we are in this state, and what is God saying to us about being the church in this time of struggle.

So as we grumble along the way, on the road from where we were to where we are going… Jesus finally overhears us, stops us and sits us down – just as he did with the disciples.

To the disciples he says, whoever wants to be first must be last. Or in other words, all this stuff you are arguing about doesn’t mean a thing…it doesn’t mean a thing in the Kingdom of God.

And then as Jesus picks up a child and sets them in his lap, he says, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

But it isn’t some kind of moral lesson to the disciples… Jesus is in fact making a point about all that stuff he first said about dying and rising.

Because who is doing the welcoming? Who is holding the child in his lap? And who is it in baptism that declares to be children of God.

We aren’t the welcomers. We are the children.

God is the one welcoming us.

Jesus is reminding the disciples that they don’t need to be the greatest to understand what Jesus is up to in the world. Because in the Kingdom of God there is no first and last, no greatest and no least. We are all God’s children, and for us Jesus has come into the world. Jesus has come to die with us, to die with a dying creation. Yet, three days later Jesus shows us that death is not the end. And because Jesus rises from the tomb, we rise with the God of New Life on the third day.

The disciples don’t need to understand what it all means for Jesus to be betrayed, to die and to rise again… that isn’t their job. Rather Jesus tells them that he has come to bring them into the Kingdom, he comes to walk along side them, to let them see, hear and feel the Word of God among them… the Word made flesh.

And for all the things that we grab hold of to distract from the bigger issues of faith and life… they don’t matter in the Kingdom either. Because God will continue doing what God has always done for us. Whether it be when we thought we knew what God was up to with full churches and strong attendance and budgets we could meet or whether it is now when none of those things seem to be the case.

God continues to give us the Word of forgiveness and mercy week after week.

God continues to welcome us as God’s own as we are washed and renamed beloved.

God continues to gives us bread to eat and fill our hearts, so that we might become the bread that God uses to feed the world.

It has never been up to us to understand how the Kingdom works, or to have all the answers or to be saviours.

It is up to God.

And God is coming to us, coming to little ones such as these,

in the person of Jesus who dies and rises again,

coming to us again and again in Word and Sacrament,

signs of God welcome for us, signs that remind us that we are neither the greatest nor the least in the Kingdom, we are God’s beloved children.

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This is not the end of the story

Mark 6:14-29

…Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
(Read the whole passage)

They came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. 

Familiar isn’t it?

We have heard that story before. We heard it just in April… Jesus died on the cross, and one of his disciples Joseph of Aramathea came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Except today, it is not Jesus but John the Baptizer. It is not crucifixion but beheading. It is not Pilate but Herod. And John will be not raised from the dead in three days. 

This story comes in the middle of Mark’s gospel. A brief departure from the things we have been hearing about, from the parables, healings, exorcisms and miracles. We stop for a moment to hear a dark and disturbing, story. Political intrigue – a King who lives lavishly, takes what he wants, and yet is perplexed by the preaching of a wilderness prophet and hermit. Pride and incest – A queen who will not stand to be shamed for leaving her husband for his brother, the King, and especially not by this lowly Hebrew religious hermit and religious nut. Murder — A young girl who is used by her parents as a pawn in a political game. A prophet is murdered so that a drunken tyrant can save face. 

No happy ending. No drama to come. Simply power, greed, lust, and pride getting what they all want. Mark doesn’t leave out any of the dirty details. This is not a feel good story. This is too much like real life, too much like the world around us. This is not enough like a Hollywood feel good ending and too much like a bad night for news.

John the Baptist, the wild Advent preacher of the Messiah’s coming to make paths straight has an ignominious end of to life… a public execution simply to satisfy the political and prideful wrangling of the ruling elite. And then his disciples come and take away his body… and thats it. 

Sometimes the story just doesn’t end well. Sometimes life doesn’t figure itself out. Sometimes there is no happy Hollywood ending. 

This strange story, today, sets itself apart from the rest of the Mark’s gospel. It feels like it doesn’t’ fit. It is selfish motivations and actions, pure and simple. And yet, it can feel so familiar. It is the story of the world at its’ worst. It is our story at our worst. We don’t need to have the drunken parties, the incestuous relationships, the desire to show power and control, or pointless death to know what it feels like. This story of Herod, Herodias, Salome and John is just as much about us. It is the story of the dirty details of life. The story of broken families and marriages, the story of job loss and bankruptcy, the story of political games and corruption, the story of money and greed, the story of poverty and powerlessness, the story of disease and illness, the story of grief and death.  

And it is missing something… or rather it is missing someone. Someone who is hinted at at best and completely absent at worst. 

This is the only part of the Gospel of Mark where Jesus isn’t front and centre… in fact, Jesus isn’t in the story at all. It makes us wonder why Mark would include this terrible event, why tell us the details? Why lay out the whole thing for us?

This story is there because it is not the end. 

Not the end of Jesus’ story. 

Not the end of our story.  

If these dirty details was all there was to story, we wouldn’t need to hear about victory of evil and sin because we live it all too often. We hear about it on the news too much. We know that this happens in the world. 

But Mark has chosen to tell us this story. To boldly include all the dirty details of power, control, pride, lust, greed and evil. Mark has chosen to include this in the story of Jesus. To include the dirty details in the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

They came and took his body and laid it in a tomb is not the end of the story of God. And it is not the end of our story. It is not the end of our stories of suffering and sin, of evil and death. God includes all our dirty details. Includes them in the story of Jesus born in flesh. Included in the story of God’s great love for us. And they are not only included, but as our stories become God’s, God’s story becomes ours. God makes the ending that we know, the empty tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the news of the risen Christ, God makes this the new ending of our stories. God makes us the new end, the new point, the new purpose of God’s love.

The Good News of Christ is that in the midst of all the evil, all the sin, all the death that exists in our world, in our lives, in relationships, in our stories, God is joining our story, our world, our lives. God joins us by coming in flesh and dwelling among us. God joins us to the Body of Christ. The dirty details, they are not what make the story any more. Rather the new plot twist, the surprising new reality is New Life. New Life in Christ, New life in the ongoing story of God. 

Sometimes life just seems full of the dirty details. Sometimes Jesus is nowhere to be seen. Sometimes all there is pointless evil, rampant sin, and needless death. 

And sometimes when our stories feel too terrible to be anything like God’s, God reminds us that we haven’t reached the end yet. There are still chapters to be written, still details to be added. God reminds us that in Christ, that because of Christ, there is only one ending possible to our story. 

God reminds us today, that our ending is life and our ending belongs to God. 

Amen. 

Clinging to the Ghosts of the Past

Luke 24:36b-48

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Read the whole passage)

Today it is the still the day of the Resurrection. Even though this is the third Sunday in the season of Easter, in keeping with the tradition of the church we treat this whole 50 day season as one great day of celebration. And so we go back once again to the day the resurrection, and we hear a similar story to last week’s story of Thomas… yet, this time it is Luke who tells it to us. 

It is situation that can be pretty hard to identify with. We may know the Easter story and believe that we encounter the risen Christ here in this place each time we gather for worship, but how many of us have witnessed the death of a close friend and teacher, only to have that person show up in our house a few days later? Don’t answer that…

Jesus’ moment with the disciples today comes as the third such moment where the disciples struggled to understand their encounter with the risen Christ. First it is Peter who runs to check the empty tomb, after the women from their group report back that the tomb is empty. And Jesus walks with other disciples on the road to Emmaus, who cannot see who they are walking with until he breaks bread with them. 

And now, with all the disciples in one place, Jesus shows up again. 

But of course, the group thinks he a ghost. 

And so Jesus goes through elaborate ancient tests to demonstrate that he isn’t a ghost. He shows them his hands and feet, invites the disciples to touch him, to see that he walks on the ground and doesn’t float in the air like a ghost. And he eats a meal with them, because ghosts don’t eat, people do.

Yet, the disciples still don’t understand what is going on. 

They are stuck, they are stuck back on Good Friday, back in Holy Week, back in the wildness of Galilee, back on all those dusty roads, small town synagogues, back among the crowds of people clamouring for a piece of Jesus. 

It us more than seeing Jesus as a ghost, they are clinging to the past. They still have not moved on from what once was, from the way things were, from the pre-crucifixion Jesus that they knew and loved. 

They are holding onto the ghost of what was before because they are afraid to move on. Peter was more than willing to run out into the world when he thought Jesus was dead, but once he found an empty tomb, he and the others are hiding in fear. 

They hide because it is easier to hold on to the ghosts of the past then to begin new life with new purpose. And so when Jesus shows up, they would almost rather that Jesus were a ghost than risen from the dead. 

The disciples are not much different than we are. 

Like the disciples, we too cling to the ghosts of our past. 

As our country continues to feel the pain and loss, the grief for the lives lost outside of Tisdale Saskatchewan a week ago Friday, we might have some insight into what it means to be in a mental and emotional state that can’t quite get past what has taken place. Because we know what it is to be driving on rural highways. Because we know what it is to send our kids, our loved ones, out into the world that we know is unsafe, where accidents happen everyday.

And so we we grieve and pray, we wear jerseys and put hockey sticks on porches. We cling to one another searching for hope and peace, much like those disciples after the tragedy that they had encountered. 

Yet,  ghost our pasts come in many forms not always rooted in grief and loss. They may have to  do with church, and with our memories of the past and wanting things to be like they were. To bring the young people back or perhaps really to ourselves the young people that we remember sitting in the pews. 

But the ghosts of our past can also be personal. We might cling to relationships that ended long ago, to times in our lives that we wish never ended, to jobs we once held, to youth we once enjoyed, to eras that we once understood. 

The ghosts come in many shapes and sizes, and the desire to cling to them is not anything but a normal human response to grief, loss and even change.

Yet, we know that refusing to accept change will not work. Staying stuck in the past, clinging to things as they once were, holding onto the ghosts of what once was, in the end, is impossible. 

Because the more stuck and unwilling to move on we become, the more like the ghosts we cling to we become… Like the disciples who found the tomb of Jesus empty, their response was to hide away from the world in a tomb of their own making. A tomb where they could stay at Good Friday, cling to the Jesus they once knew refusing to imagine to new life, the new Jesus that they sense is coming. 

And again, Jesus comes into their midst offering peace. 

Peace to the troubled hearts of the disciples. Peace to those who are stuck in the tense conflict of holding onto a past that is slipping away. 

Peace to our troubled hearts, peace to our grieving world, peace to those unable to let go. 

But Jesus doesn’t end with Peace. 

Once Jesus shows the disciples that clinging to ghosts is not possible, he takes things a step further. 

And all of a sudden the Easter moment, the resurrection moment extends beyond the empty tomb of Jesus and reaches into his hide away of the disciples. 

Jesus begins to transform these stuck and hopeless disciples clinging to a ghost of the past. 

“Everything you know, everything you believe in” Jesus says, “From Moses, to the prophets, to the psalms” or in other words the whole Hebrew bible, “has been fulfilled.”

And Jesus opens their minds, Jesus begins to transform these disciples giving them a new understanding and a new experience of their world. 

Everything that they thought they knew about God, about religion, about meaning and purpose in the world has been changed. The Messiah’s death on a cross and resurrection from an empty tomb changes everything. Everything moment in the story of God’s people that has come before has been leading to this moment… to this Easter moment. 

To this moment of the disciples’ Easter, to this moment of our Easter. 

“You are witnesses of these things.”

A witness is more than someone who saw something or experienced something. 

A witness is someone with a story. 

A witness is someone with a story to tell. 

Jesus transforms the disciples, transforms the world, transforms us. Jesus brings us into God’s story. Into God’s story of new life, new life given for the sake of the world, new life found in empty tombs where there should only be death. 

By making us witnesses of the Messiah, by making us witnesses to this story of God bringing new life into the world… we are given new life, we are given new meaning and purpose. 

Everything we thought we knew, everything we thought we understood has been changed by Messiah, by the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

And every week, every Sunday, every Easter morning, Jesus reminds us of this again. Jesus reminds us that that ghosts we cling to will not root us in past, and we no longer will be stuck. 

Jesus has made us witnesses. People tied inextricably to the story of God. People whose purpose is to tell that story to world. 

And Jesus continues to make us witnesses in the word of God that is proclaimed here, in the holy waters that we are washed and claimed in, and in the bread and wine, body and blood of Christ that we share together. Jesus makes us resurrection people, free from the ghosts and the past and given a story to tell. 

Today, Jesus says to us,

I have made you witnesses to resurrection and new life. 

Do not be afraid… Christ has been Raised!

Mark 16:1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be afraid; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

 

“And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

This is not the ending of the story that we usually tell. In fact, nothing about the stories from the Gospel of Mark is usual. The Gospel of Mark has never done things the way we expect. Of all the Gospels, Mark is the shortest and perhaps the strangest, expecting things of us, expecting that we will put the pieces together and be moved to a deeper discipleship.

Mark’s Easter story is perhaps the strangest of all.  In the 3 other gospels, we normally here about Jesus appearing to the women and disciples at the empty tomb. Jesus speaks with Mary in the Gospel of John. He bring greetings to all the women in the Gospel of Matthew. In Luke, Jesus meets two of his disciples on the road of Emmaus.

But in Mark there is none of that. And it makes us uncomfortable. And not just us today, but Christians for centuries have been so uncomfortable with Mark’s ending, that they added to it. Hundreds of years later, shorter and longer endings to the Gospel of Mark were added just to try and wrap things up.

So what is it about the Gospel of Mark and his ending that doesn’t sit well with us?

“And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Failure.

Easter isn’t suppose to be a story of failure. The women hear the good news, they are given clear instructions to tell people about Jesus being risen, and they tell no one.

In fact, this is the story all the way through the Gospel of Mark. The disciples, the ones who are supposed to know and understand who Jesus is what he is about never do. And the people who do know are unreliable. It is unclean spirits and demons who recognize Jesus as God’s son. It is the blind man who never actually sees Jesus who knows he has been healed by the Messiah. All the way through the gospel of Mark, not a single reliable soul figures it out.

But here is the thing, Mark knows that we know that it didn’t end with the women being afraid. We all know the story of the resurrection. We are reading it in Mark’s gospel. We proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead every Sunday we gather for worship, Christians all over the world have been doing so for 2000 years!

So Mark expects that we can figure out that the women didn’t run from the tomb afraid… but Mark is also including us in the story, in the command to go and tell the world of the resurrection. Because if the women are too afraid to speak, that only leaves us, the reader. We are called to be ones who are not afraid to speak.

It is a big calling.

Because it was only on Good Friday that we stood below the cross and we proclaimed that this instrument of torture and violence, of humiliation and death is God’s transformed tool of life.

Because now today at the empty tomb with the women who are too afraid to say anything that we are just as afraid as they were. Afraid to announce this news to world. Afraid of that no one will believe our incredible, unbelievable story.

But this Easter morning and Easter story reminds us something else more than our fear and failure.

We are reminded that it is always in our fears and failures that Christ meets us. It is when we are too weak, too afraid, too focused on ourselves, when we are too much intent on our sin, on our selfishness, that Christ comes and meets us.

There is no Easter without sin and death, there is no resurrection without humanity’s greatest failure, without our trying to be God in God’s place.

And in the midst of our failures, big and small, the Risen Christ meets us. The Risen Christ reveals himself to us and brings us into the new reality of a world where sin and death are no longer the end. Yet still, our fear overcomes us and this new world that God is creating is too much for us. And like the women at the tomb we are too afraid to speak, too afraid to act, too afraid even look at how things are different.

“Do not be afraid, you are are looking for Jesus for Nazareth, who was crucified. Has has been raised.”

Do not be afraid.

Across the old and new testament, these words always precede good news.

Do not be afraid.

And even still the good news can be terrifying.

We stand before an empty tomb today, on this day of the Resurrection. And even when everything is supposed to be perfect, and when death is finally defeated, and Christ is raised from the dead. We are reminded that we still fail. We are reminded that we are still imperfect, sinful and selfish people who are frozen in the face of God’s amazing work in our world.

And we are also reminded again, that it is in our frozen failure that we are met by the Risen Christ.

The Risen Christ who has overcome the cross.

The Risen Christ who has conquered death.

The Risen Christ who has entered in our lives, our joys and our sorrows and has made our life his own.

The Risen Christ who has shown us a new reality, where death is no longer the end, where we are no longer defined by our failures, and where our sin no longer has control of us.

We are met today by the The Risen Christ and we are shown that God’s love for us is alive and there is no place we can go to escape it, and there is no way that would could fail and make God stop loving us.

Even when are afraid to speak a word to anyone, the Risen Christ meets us with the words “Do not be afraid!”

On Being a Millennial Pastor – Leaders who don’t remember the glory days

“You give us hope for the future.”

The first time I heard those words, I was 23 years old and in seminary. A group of us had travelled 7 hours, from the prairies to the mountains, to attend a study conference for pastors and other church professionals. We were a group of 20 and 30 somethings, all Masters of Divinity students already having bachelor’s degrees and work experience, but compared to the average age of pastors in the mainline, we may as well have been teenagers. So we probably seemed like a group of disruptive students crashing a conference for older folks.

But instead of being grumpy with us or giving us glares (as church folk can sometimes be guilty of doing with young noise makers), we were heartily welcomed by our future colleagues. Our relative energy and enthusiasm seemed to bring them some life and excitement.

And that is when it started happening. Sometimes one or more elder colleagues would sidle up to us and say things like, “You all give me hope for the church’s future” or “You make me feel better about the future.”

“Millennials” weren’t a thing back then, but our age cohort was perhaps the first to be obviously missing from the church. We weren’t the first generation to stop attending, that was the Boomers, our parents, who led the mass exodus. But rather, we were the first to be noticeably absent. The first generation to have mostly never been there at all. And so when a bunch of Gen Xers and Millennials showed up at seminary together around the same time, it was out of the ordinary. We were a cohort of young leaders who had been the kids in our home churches who were leading youth groups, playing in worship bands, serving on church councils, attending campus ministry while at school, working as bible camp counsellors and even camp directors. Our parents had bucked the trend of the Boomer exodus, and brought us to church where we had been encouraged to lead. We had to lead because we were all there was of our age cohort.

The “You give us hope” comment became a pretty regular occurrence in seminary and after… but I always had the sinking suspicion that the church wasn’t quite ready to hand over the reigns to the next generation.

Whether it was the resistance of boomers to converting the seminary newspaper from a paper publication to an online blog format, or later on to a hesitation let young pastors serve in positions of leadership in the church, a constant comment I heard from seminary classmates in their first few years of ministry was,

“We were trained and prepared to serve in this church, but no one got this church ready for us.”

After ordination, when I began serving in my first call, I couldn’t help but notice something that seemed to be below the surface of wherever I went in the church. Not just my congregation, but the ones of neighbouring colleagues, and larger church ministries, and coming from church leadership. It took me a while to put my finger on it.

And then as I had yet another conversation with colleagues or parishioners or other church folk lamenting the absence of young people, the decline of attendance and giving, and the general sad state of the present church… it dawned on me.

These people are grieving. 

As soon as I could see it, it was like puling back the veil and seeing the weight being carried by nearly everyone around me. Everyone of a certain age that is.

The glory days were gone. The days when pews were full, Sunday Schools bursting at the seams, programs well attended, giving was enough to pay the bills and increasing, when every family had 4.2 kids and a housewife who would devote volunteer time to the church, or keep the house in check while her husband did. Those days were over.

But it wasn’t just that those days were over, it was the intense desire to bring them back. Churches, pastors, leaders who could remember those days seemed to be universally bound and determined to somehow bring that glory back. Get the young people back, get the families back, fill the pews, resurrect the Sunday Schools, meet and exceed the budgets.

My problem, as a young pastor was, I wasn’t grieving the glory days with most people around me. I wasn’t grieving them because I don’t remember them.

Even though now I have almost a decade of experience under my belt, I am still a young pastor by mainline standards.

And it has always been tension the church that most people around me are grieving, and the one that I have always known and loved. The church that God called me to seminary and to be a pastor to serve.

The church has always been filled with grey hair in my memory. Sunday School has always been pretty sparsely attended, youth groups have never been more than a handful of kids, budgets have always been hard to meet, and there are rarely times when it is hard to find an entire pew to yourself in worship.

This is only version of the church I know… and it is the one I am called to serve.

I also suspect it is the church God is calling us to be. 

While it is has been difficult for the congregations I serve to have a leader who isn’t longing for the glory days as they are, it has also been good for me and them. It has been hard and taken time, but eventually we have started looking forward rather than looking back. We have begun to listen to where God is calling us now and where God is calling us to go.

God’s mission hasn’t changed, just the vehicle isn’t as fancy as it once was. The Gospel is is still preached, sacraments still administered, the Body of Christ is still present… even in churches whose glory days are over.

And I think that this is the cross roads that many churches and denominations find themselves at these days. Will the memory of the glory days keep us looking backwards? Will we admit that our desire to bring the young people back, might actually be us saying that we want to be young again?

The synod (read: diocese/jurisdiction/area) in which I serve is about to elect a new Bishop. For the past few months we have been asked to discern what kind of Bishop the synod needs, and to do that discernment in congregations and other synod ministries. This discernment process here has got me thinking about leadership, and about what kind of leaders the church will need going forward. What will a declining Christianity need in order to begin moving faithfully into the future?

And the answer I keep coming back to is that the church in North America will need leaders who can let go of the glory days. Maybe even leaders who don’t remember the glory days. Leaders who can see the church as it is now, rather than what it used to be.

As my generation, Gen X and Millennial pastors and clergy, steps into more and more leadership positions in the church, letting go of the glory days becomes inevitable. We simply don’t remember them.

Because we are the ones who showed up to seminary full of energy, called to serve a church in decline.

The church for us has always been full of grey haired faithful and committed people.
The church has always been small close-knit Sunday Schools and youth groups.
The church has always been struggling to meet budgets by searching for creative solutions.
And the church has always had room in the pews for more people to come.

It will not be easy to get over the grief that is lingering below the surface, and it will be easy to see the solutions to what the church is currently lacking by going back to a time when we remember abundance.

But the church cannot go backwards. And God doesn’t call us into the past, God calls us into the future.

So perhaps it is time for the church to let leaders who cannot remember the glory days, but who only know the present, guide the way into the future.

Perhaps “You give us hope for the future” needs to become:

“You give us hope now.”

Reformation 500 – The Next 500 years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this is actually a really poor prediction model.

Let me put it in different terms.

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

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

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Thousands reduced to dozens or less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter wanted a private club – Jesus gave us the Church

Matthew 16:13-20

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…(Read the whole passage)

Last week, I had a brush with fame. If you happened to be listening to the local Christian music station on Thursday after around 5pm, you would have heard me do a brief two part interview. Yes, I know, I know… for anyone that is wondering I will sign autographs in addition to shaking hands on the way of out church… and no, this hasn’t gone to my head.

In all seriousness, the reason that I was interviewed was for an article that I had written and that was published by Christian Week magazine…a locally founded but national/ecumenical publication in Canada.

The article was about something that I mentioned in my sermon last week, Why White Supremacy is a Sin. After the events of Charlottesville two weeks ago, the article was my attempt at articulating why the ideology White Supremacy is sinful.

At its foundation, Christian White Supremacy takes the idea that faith and church confer a special status and power to us to extreme ends. That being a follower of Jesus or a Christian makes a special group, a special in-crowd, that the church is only about who is on the inside, rather than reaching those outside. For White Supremacists, only white skinned people are those special ones.

Now, what does that have to do with the Jesus and Peter today?… well in a way, Jesus is naming that same attitude among the disciples – the idea that being a follower of Jesus confers special status and special power.

Jesus and the disciples are out in gentile lands again. Last week they were in the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon, where Jesus encountered and eventually healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter… but only after she convinced him that she, a gentile and a woman, was worthy of his compassion.

Today, Jesus has travelled inland to the region of Caesarea Philippi where he takes the opportunity to ask the disciples a question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This gets a few different answers, mostly comparisons to the prophets of old. But Jesus isn’t satisfied and takes it a step further. “But who do you say that I am?”

When none of the other disciples have an answer, Simon offers a guess. “You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” Not a dead prophet but son of the living God.

And for that Jesus gives Simon a new name – Peter. Peter which means rock, the rock on which Jesus will build his church, giving the church the power loose and bind sins.

That is a quite the journey from “Who do you say that I am?”

This story of this encounter between Jesus and his disciples that we hear today, is a passage we tend to place a lot of meaning on.

The Roman Catholic church reads this story as Jesus’ choosing Peter to be the first among the disciples… the first Bishop of the church, the Bishop’s office whose has become the office of Popes through the centuries. The Pope, they say, is the successor to Peter. The Papal symbol is two keys.

Others find in this passage an important question, one that is more relevant today than ever. Who do we say that Jesus is? Many church leaders today would contend that this question is at the core of what it means to follow Jesus and how we answer this question in a world of suffering, violence, hatred, division, conflict, war and death determines the character of our faith.

And perhaps for us here at Good Shepherd, our answer to the question of who Jesus is would impact significantly how we minister to the community around us.

But perhaps neither of these concerns are truly what this passage is about.

As usual, there seems to be something else going on.

And getting at that involves asking the question why.

Why does Jesus ask his disciples, far from home and in gentile territory who people say that he is. And why does Jesus give Simon a new name with new responsibilities.

On regular occasion, the disciples get caught up in the perks of being disciples, rather than the reality. They want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands. They want power to heal and power over demons. They get jealous of others who do works of power in Jesus’ name. They get impatient with people who come to Jesus for healing, much like the Canaanite woman last week.

And so when Jesus asks the disciples, who they think he is… it isn’t because Jesus is wondering what people think of him. It is because he wants the disciples to connect with reality.

They are followers of Jesus. Jesus who is the Messiah. Jesus who is then son of the Living God. The Messiah who has come to save the whole world, sent by the Living God, the God of all creation. The forgiveness that they proclaim is not a power they hold over others, but a responsibility they now carry. The New Life that they preach is not privilege bestowed to a few, but a gift given to all.

Like the disciples, the church, including us, has fallen into the same trap again and again. And while it isn’t usually as extreme or destructive as White Supremacy… it is something we struggle with.

For many churches and communities of faith in North America these days it has been the norm to see ourselves firstly as centres of community. Faith families who love and care for each other. Groups who exist for the benefit of our members. Clubs with special privileges.

And yes, in some ways those definitions do apply to us. But they do not define us. They are not the why. They are not our first and primary purpose for existing. The Church is not a community of the privileged, but a community of the burdened. A community given responsibility. A body tasked to preach and proclaim the story of the one whose name we bear – to tell the world about Christ.

When Jesus gives Simon a new name today… it is first a reminder of who Jesus is. In the Old Testament the only person who ever changed someone’s name was God.

When Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock on whom he will build his church, it is a reminder that this community of faith is the Messiah’s. It is a community rooted in the forgiveness of sins for sinners, mercy for the suffering, and resurrection of the dead.

When Jesus tells Peter that he will be given the keys to kingdom and that what he binds on earth is bound in heaven, and what he looses on earth is loosed in heaven… it is a re-orientation of the privileged and self centred attitudes of the disciples.

The power to forgive, the power to grant mercy, the power of resurrection and new life… these are powers NOT to be used as Peter, the disciples and the church desires. But rather responsibilities and tasks to be undertaken. Forgiveness is not to withheld, but given. Mercy is not to be given with discretion but with wild abandon. And new life… well God’s answer to all death is resurrection and new life.

When Jesus re-names Simon, and makes him the rock of the church, and gives him the keys to the Kingdom… it is not a moment of granting privilege or benefits… It is a moment of reminding Peter, the disciples and us of the responsibility we bear.

That we are firstly a community of faith. Faith is not a by-product of our community, but rather community and our love and care for one another is a by-product of our faith. Forgiveness is not a power the church wields over people, but rather something we are not to withhold. We are to forgive sinners. Period. And new life… well resurrection and new life is the story that we tell… or rather that Jesus tells through us, week after week, year after year.

Through Peter, through the disciples, through us, Christ proclaims again and again that death does not have the final word. Christ proclaims through us New Life given for all and for us.

Today, Jesus asks a pretty simple question to the disciples and to us. But the result is a reminder, again, of just how Christ is re-naming and transforming Peter and us, into the his body. Into the Body of Christ giving forgiveness, mercy and new life to the world.