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Not the Jesus we are used to…

Luke 12:49-56

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! (Read the whole passage)

This is not the Jesus we are used to hearing.

Where did the nice Jesus go who said “Blessed are the poor” or “You are healed, your faith has made you well.”

Jesus is saying some tough things today. “I came to bring fire to earth” “What stress I am under?” “Households will be divided” “You hypocrites!” “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth?”

These kinds of things are not what our usual Jesus would be saying, they sound much more like the kinds of things a movie villain might say and then laugh manically. For us Jesus is more of a Good Shepherd, gently herding sheep, or a kind teacher welcoming children, or a caregiver who tends to us when we are sick. We generally have a very gentle and soft perception of Jesus the Christ.

And so when we hear Jesus speaking in these confrontational terms, it doesn’t jive for us. Especially as church people, we work hard to make churches places where we show only our best. We like to think that God makes life easier and that Jesus is doing the opposite of what he talks about today. We prefer the Jesus who puts out fires, who relieves stress, who unites broken families, who congratulates us for our faithfulness, who brings us peace. It is very uncomfortable to imagine a Jesus who is causing trouble.

The Jesus who is confronting us with fire and with our own hypocrisy, and the Jesus who creates conflict in families, is very uncomfortable for us. We have become good at pushing the negative away. We are good at avoiding uncomfortable topics of conversation. We are adept at presenting put together personas to the outside world, even when we are a mess on the inside. We are afraid to show weakness, suffering, imperfection or flaw to others.

Even as the struggles of world are shown to us on online newsfeeds and 24 hour new channels, our society has become masterful at performing outrage and shock just long enough before going back to pretending that everything is okay. We so good at going back to business as usual we hardly need Jesus to bring us peace.

Yet to the crowds listening to Jesus speak, and to the first readers of Luke’s gospel, there was no pretending that their worlds were not unfair, broken, suffering places. They were living under foreign occupation, the brutal Roman Empire. Their own authorities made sure that everyone knew they place. Most people were poor. Women and children were considered property of men, and were excluded from public life. Most people worked long hours, and only could provide for themselves one day at a time. Most people could not access to the temple, therefore could not access God. Most had little chance of changing their circumstances.

For the crowds listening to Jesus speak, peace was not a simple matter. It wasn’t just an end to war, or a new political party in power, or a little more giving to charity. It couldn’t be solved in therapy or with medication. Peace wasn’t just a little change away.

For there to be true peace, there would be need of serious change. The world would have to be changed. Society would have to be changed. The rules would have to be change. And that kind of change causes conflict. That kind of change often ends in cities burning, families being broken apart, and a revolution that is much bigger than a change in weather. It is the kind of unrest that we are witnessing in Hong Kong this week, curfews and media blacks outs in Kashmir, in mass shooting after mass shooting, in high school students striking for climate change, in families being locked up in cages at borders all amidst political leaders who seem unable and unwilling to work for lasting change.

In fact, taken all together, the division and conflict that Jesus describes is already upon us.

And for the crowds hearing Jesus speak, the promise of radical change in their very chaotic world probably didn’t sound so bad. Their world, as it was, couldn’t really get much worse.

Yet, as we hear Jesus speak, the dramatic change and conflict that Jesus describes, confronts our carefully crafted ways of hiding our problems. Jesus isn’t making these things happen, but simply uncovering what already exists. We know that our world is far from perfect, and is full of big problems, and lots of suffering. But we don’t know how to deal with it, other than to pretend it isn’t really there.

And that is precisely what Jesus is getting at today. Underneath the drama of a burning world and broken families, is the promise that God is transforming it all. God is transforming us. And God’s transformation looks like nothing we could ever imagine.

God’s world changing activities are rooted in the baptism that Christ is baptized with. Unlike the crowds, we know the end of Jesus story. We know where Christ is headed. We know that God’s work of transforming creation begins in a manger, and leads to a cross. We know that Christ’s baptism, means death and resurrection. For Jesus, death at the hands of Romans, religious authorities and an angry mob. For us it is drowning baptism, all our flaws and sins exposed. Being identified as broken, suffering sinners, destined to die.

But this Baptism is also an empty tomb on the 3rd day. It is rising to new life out of the murky, churning waters. It is Body of Christ that meets us in bread and wine, and in our brothers and sister in faith. This Baptism is showing our true selves to one another and discovering that we are made children of God.

Yes, Jesus words are unexpected and uncomfortable today. But they point us to the difficult work of transformation. Jesus points us to God’s work being done here and now. To our transformation from sinner to saved, from unforgiven to loved. Jesus is pointing us to the end of the story. To the end where Christ walks out of the tomb, and meets us in cleansing healing waters, meets in life giving bread and wine, meets us in the honest and exposed body of Christ, where we practice confessing all the things usually hidden from the world.

No, Jesus has not come to bring us peace. And deep down we know that our world doesn’t need peace but change. We know it every time we read or watch or hear the news, every time we have to spend more than five minutes in community. We know that before there can be peace in our homes and families, in our neighbourhoods and communities, in our churches and congregations, that there will first need to be radical change and transformation.

Peace without change would be too easy, and nor would it deal with our problems. Instead, Jesus comes to uncover us and see who we truly are.

But Jesus is also revealing something else. Someone else.

Jesus also uncovers God. The God of life. The God of resurrection and new life. The God who can turn nothing into something, who can transform sinners into saints, who can right all the troubles and struggles and suffering of the world… who can transform death into life.

Jesus show us this uncovered God who is transforming us and the world, right before our eyes.

And no, it is not the Jesus we are used to… but this is the God that we need.

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Waiting with lamps lit – has Jesus forgotten us?

Luke 12:32-40

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them…(Read the whole passage)

Jesus is still talking to his disciples and the gathered crowds from last week. Last week Jesus told the parable of the absurd rich man who, despite his inherited land, worked by others, and blessed with abundance by God, believed it was his own doing that made himself rich. The rich man who stored up all his wealth only to have his life demanded of him, and all his hoarding be for nothing. Jesus warned his listeners against the dangers of greed and thinking that stuff will save us.

Today, Jesus is continuing the conversation. And while the instructions start out seemingly normal, they get odder and odder as Jesus goes along. He begins by telling his audience not to rely on material possessions, but to give their wealth away. Trust in heavenly riches, in the grace and mercy of God. Sounds good so far.

But then Jesus instructs the disciples and crowds to be prepared. Be ready and on guard. Wait for the return of the master. Stay awake because the master can return at any moment, day or night.

This advice sounds odd to us. And in fact, probably sounded a bit odd to Jesus’ listeners. The people of Israel were waiting for a Messiah, but he wasn’t going to sneak up on them. There would be signs and advance warning.

For us 2000 years later, the hyper vigilance that Jesus was suggesting seems out of place. We have been waiting for a long time, and we are more accustomed to the long view…

So what is Jesus getting at with all this being awake, dressed and ready?

In the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Christian community waited with great anticipation for Jesus’ return. Some didn’t even bother working to feed or clothe themselves because they thought Jesus was about to return any day. Yet 50 years later, as Luke sets out to gather the first hand accounts for his gospel, the Christian community was beginning to wonder what was going on. Was Jesus actually going to come back? They were 2nd and 3rd generation believers, how long were they to wait? How could they keep the community going? What were they supposed to do?

In many ways, we are not that different from that community who would have first read Luke’s gospel. We might not be waiting for Jesus to return in the same way, but often churches today wonder what we are supposed to do now? Those of us who can remember the church 30, 40, 50 years ago, remember worship services with people packed to the rafters. Sunday schools had more kids than could be counted. Pastors sermons were broadcast on the radio. Churches were so so full that you could almost feel Jesus ready to pop the roofs off and say hello.

We look around now, and we feel like Luke’s audience. We have watched as members drift away, as attendance and budgets have shrunk. We have lamented the loss of our young people (which we might have to admit is actually the loss of our own youth as we age). We have searched for the next new thing to make us exciting again. And we have been left asking,

“Has God forgotten about us? What do we do now?”.

The Christian community of Luke’s day struggled with how to go forward, not entirely certain what they were supposed to do. We are in the same boat.

And so we hear Jesus’ words today, and they add insult to injury. Be dressed for action. Stay awake, the master is returning, at any hour. As we dream of our bursting congregations coming back. We think being prepared means becoming again the churches we once were. We will know God has come back when we look like that again.

How wrong we are.

Without even thinking we make things about ourselves. Even in how we read Jesus’ words. Today, Jesus seems to be telling us, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet”.

Yet, the greek says something quite different.

Instead Jesus could be translated this way, “Let your waist be girded about, and the lamps burning.” Let someone else dress you, let the light around you illuminate your world.

The disciples, the crowds… us. We are not the doers of the action. We aren’t doing the verbs. We are the recipients of the action. We are not the ones who get ready, or who prepare the way for Christ’s return. It is the Master who is preparing us. It is Jesus who makes us ready.

Even still, when the master comes it is not the servants who will do the serving, but the Master. Jesus says, “truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them”.

The Master is the one serving, and the servants are being served. Jesus comes back to turn our expectations upside down. Jesus is coming at an unexpected hour and we won’t have made ourselves ready. Jesus is the one making us ready, and still when Jesus comes, he does the serving. Not us. We are the ones being prepared. Being prepared to be served.

Like the first readers of Luke’s gospel, we hear Jesus words today and we imagine that it is our faith that will make Jesus return. We think it was our faithfulness that filled our churches in the past. It wasn’t us.

Today, Jesus tell us that he is making us ready. Jesus is the one doing the serving. And God’s presence is not measured in attendance and offerings. God has always been here, doing the things that God has always done for us.

God shows us the signs each week. God clothes us in baptism with Christ. God feeds us with Christ’s Body and Blood. God makes us into new creations with Christ the Word. God gives us new identities as members of the Body of Christ.

Our preparations have not made God come, and nor has our shrinking made God leave. Rather, God has always been here. Making us ready in Water, Meal and Word. Serving us with the Word and the Bread of everlasting life.

Prayer is the starting line, not the finish.

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

For every prayer that is offered around the world today, there must be an equal amount of opinions and ideas, rules of thumb and conventions, that tell us how prayer works. As, seek, knock. Ask and keep asking. Seek and keep seeking. Knock and keep knocking. Pray boldly and you will receive. You need more faith to pray. You need to pray more. You need to pray for God’s will. You didn’t pray enough and you were punished with illness, suffering or death. Prayer brings us closer to God. Prayer doesn’t do anything. Prayer is for us, so that we know our needs. God hears the prayers of holy people more, especially pastors. God hears all prayers. God only gives us what we need. God will give you what you ask for. There are three answers to prayer, yes, no and maybe later. Prayer is like meditation. God speaks to us in prayer. You have to pray from the heart, you need to pray with words that have been prayed by the faithful for centuries.

Lost and confused yet?

Prayer is a key aspect of Christian life. We pray together each Sunday, we pray alone. We pray for many things here: for rain and sunshine. For Justice and peace. For those who are ill, who are grieving and in distress.

And still prayer can be a very frustrating aspect of Christian life. We want to know the hows, and the whens and the whys. Prayer carries with such expectation that it has the power to make things happen, and yet… we have prayed for and with those for whom prayers have not been answered. We have all had prayers that are not answered. And it begs us to wonder what use is prayer, and perhaps more painfully, why God does not hear us.

The disciples ask Jesus how to pray. And he gives them a mouthful.

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

It sounds familiar, but not quite. Of course it’s the Lord’s prayer, but not quite the one we remember. There is no earthly will of God mentioned in Luke’s version, but it is an earthy prayer that gives us a foundation. The Lord’s Prayer has grounded Christians for 2000 years. Daily bread, forgiveness of sins and salvation from trial and temptation.

This prayer is so engrained in us that we pray it without needing to think… like breathing. It becomes part of the most basic aspects of our living. It is a prayer that goes with us through life from beginning to end. A prayer prayed at baptisms and prayed at on death beds. A prayer prayed before meals and to end meetings, and each time right before we gather together at God’s table for the meal of bread and wine.

Yet, the disciples surely were not hoping for a prayer like this. They maybe wanted one of the cool ones like Jesus would pray. When Jesus would look to heaven and bread and fish would multiply, or dead children would be raised, or demons would scatter, or the sick, blind and lame would be healed, or when a man who had been a corpse for four days would rise up from a sealed tomb. The disciples, 70 of them, had been just sent out and had been healing and casting out demons in Jesus name. Yet, like us, they probably wanted to control such power, not for it just to happen without really knowing why. They want to know the trick, the formula to prayer.

We want prayer to be the same as rubbing a magic lantern. We hope that prayer can gives us wealth and happiness. We hope that it will save us from harm and heal everyone who is sick. Or at the very least, we all wish that prayer and its effects would be something we can measure simply and easily. But it isn’t… Jesus doesn’t do simple and easy.

(Pause)

With every new tragedy to scroll through facebook feeds and across the tickers on 24 hours news channels, we hear politicians and other leaders stand up and offer ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ for victims and families. Thoughts and prayers are offered so often, that these words feel like an empty phrase. Every time there is yet another horrendous act of violence, thoughts and prayers abound, but nothing seems to change. It makes us wonder, if all this praying is doing anything at all. It makes us wonder if there is a point to praying at all.

When the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, it may seem like they are looking for some angle on power, on the ability to get stuff from God. They might be looking for what so many TV prosperity gospel preachers are offering.

But they might also be more like us and how we feel about prayer. They might be asking Jesus how to pray, because for them, prayer feels empty and powerless.

And so Jesus offers them a place to start, a beginning. Jesus give the disciples instructions on how to achieve great things in prayer, but how to start and begin.

Daily Bread, Forgiveness, Salvation from Trial.

God’s Kingdom come.

Jesus shows them that prayer doesn’t achieve the results but begins the process.

Praying for Daily Bread doesn’t feed all who are hungry.

Praying for Forgiveness doesn’t reconcile all peoples.

Praying for salvation in times of trial, doesn’t alleviate all suffering and pain.

Praying begins those things. Prayer is the starting place.

To put it another away, what would it look like if we didn’t pray for the world, the church and those in need.

How many refugees or migrants would ever find welcome if we didn’t pray for displaced persons week after week? None. Yet as pray for those without homes and displaced week after week, it is often people and communities of faith leading the way in sponsoring refugees, welcoming displaced persons at borders, offering shelter and compassion.

How many congregations would run food banks, serve at soup kitchens or offer meal programs if we didn’t pray for the hungry week after week? None! Yet, as we pray for daily bread, churches and people of faith have been the primary feet on the ground for feeding the hungry for years, decades, centuries!

Would we will be able to offer forgiveness if we didn’t pray that God would help us forgive? No we wouldn’t. Yet, as we ask for forgiveness, God shows us how to give forgiveness.

Where would we turn in times of trial, if we didn’t pray that God would save us week after week? We don’t know. Yet, as we pray that God would deliver us, God reminds us that we do not face the trials of our world on our own, but together as the Body of Christ.

Prayer is the beginning. In Prayer God reveals to us all the places where God’s Kingdom comes into world. In prayer, when we pray for daily bread, for forgiveness, for salvation from time of trial, we see that God’s Kingdom is breaking into the world with food for the hungry, with mercy and forgiveness for sinners like us, with salvation for those suffering under the shadow of death.

But even more than that, God gives us a way to speak about the needs of the world in prayer. God gives us words in prayer to speak about the hungry, the poor, the suffering, the dying without it sound like a depressing news report. Instead, prayer allows us to see where God is already at work meeting the needs of the world, and God gives us words to express this reality in prayer.

Prayer is a starting place, when we so often treat it like the end point. Prayer helps us to see where God is at work in the world, where God’s Kingdom is coming. Prayer helps give us the language to talk about the needs of the world without being overwhelmed and depressed by the brokenness of it all.

And so when we wonder with the disciples about whether prayer has any meaning or purpose, Jesus shows us that prayer is the starting place. The starting place to see God in our world. When another politician or leader or Facebook post offers “Thoughts and prayers” for something and we wonder if that does anything to help… Jesus shows us how to begin in prayer, how to begin with daily bread, with forgiveness and salvation from trial.

Jesus shows us that in prayer God’s Kingdom begins to come.

Amen.

A Pentecost Moment for an Easter Community

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Read the whole passage)

After seven weeks of celebrating the season of Resurrection, seven weeks since we gathered with the women at the empty tomb on Easter morning, we have come to the next climactic moment of the church year – Pentecost Sunday. Today, the spirit comes unexpectedly and surprisingly into the gathering of disciples, and sets them on fire with the gospel in dramatic fashion. Tongues of fire, impromptu sermons, intrigued crowds and many baptisms. The Pentecost story is one that we would love to see and experience more often in our congregations and worship services.

Yet, Pentecost is a day to which we have an odd relationship as modern Christians – as Lutherans gathering together for a Barbecue on the plains of Manitoba in 2019.

Pentecost comes from Greek meaning the 50th. The 50th day from Passover, seven weeks after Easter. Pentecost is one of the major church festivals, along with Christmas, Epiphany, Easter and All Saints.

However, Pentecost usually comes and goes without the same in of fanfare are Christmas or Easter, instead it is maybe a convenient day for confirmations or recognitions of graduates… a Sunday that moves us from Easter in spring to green summer Sundays.

There is something about the Pentecost story though, something that resonates deep within us. There is something about the excitement and drama that also makes us want to look back with feelings of nostalgia, with feelings of loss and grief even.

This small little group of disciples that are one day thrust out into the public square, out of hiding into plain sight. And all of sudden the wind of the spirit blows through, igniting the interest of the entire city of Jerusalem. And the crowds just come – effortlessly. Residents of Jerusalem from all over the world. Peter begins preaching, catching the attention of all. The becomes an unplanned worship service. 3000 people are baptized. It is chaotic, but it is exciting. The crowds have come to church. Our shared ministry service here is almost like a recreation of that Pentecost story, a way for us come together with worship and some BBQ fire to recreate the drama.

But here is the rub, if we are honest, the crowds aren’t showing up most Sundays no matter what we do to recapture the moment… it isn’t easy and normal for people to just show up to church anymore. And it is a lot of work to keep the folks we have, a lot of work to keep coming ourselves. Church today is not effortless like it seemed to be on Pentecost.

But it feels like church once that effortless, or our memories of it are. We can look around most Sundays and remember the faces that once sat in empty spots. We can remember the days when many hands made for light work, when it was easy to put on a potluck or Sunday School picnic or congregational event. We can remember the hoards of kid running around church basements or playing outside during congregational meetings.

And maybe most of all we remember the Pentecost energy. We long for that energy, that Pentecost fire to come and wake our communities up. If only we could find that again.

Because we can see still that the world can get caught up in Pentecost-like moments. We can see it in Jets or Raptors playoff games. We saw it in the spontaneous crowds gathering to sing and pray even as Notre Dame cathedral was burning. We see it in the youth walking out of school and striking for climate change. We can see it in the parades for Pride month, in the crowds that will descend on Birds Hill Park for folk fest, in the spontaneous vigil crowds that seem to come with each new mass shooting, in the crowds protesting politicians and greeting royal babies. We can glimpse what seems like Pentecost energy and drama in the news, on social media, in our communities… often seemingly out of the reach of faith communities and churches.

And we also see how fleeting it all is, how interest and drama comes and goes in the blink of an eye.

And so we wonder how to find it again… if we will ever experience it again in our congregations, in our communities of faith. Will church ever have that effortless energy again?

Of course, as usual, there is more to the story.

It easy to think of the crowds and excitement.

But Pentecost was scary and confusing. It was dangerous and momentary.

It easy to forget just how terrifying those 50 days leading up to Pentecost were for the followers of Jesus. The women had come back from the empty tomb on Easter. Jesus had appeared in the locked room twice. And Jesus served breakfast on the beach only to point that Peter was unable to answer Jesus’ questions with the self-giving love that Jesus hoped for. The disciples were hiding, and fearful and confused about what came next for them. Nothing seemed to be in their control.

But then all of a sudden they were thrust into the streets, out from hiding into public view, from the closed circle of Jesus’ friends to being revealed to Jews and Gentiles alike. And even though it was chaotic, they somehow managed to gab hold of some control. Some how they managed to get organized enough to baptize 3000 people.

It is easy for us to forget how fleeting it was. St. Paul wrote to small churches. To communities of 15 or 25 people. To small groups of disciples wondering how to become the church of Jesus’ followers, waiting for Jesus to return and save them from the struggle.

And in fact, the church over the course of the past 2000 years has more often than not looked like those first disciples hiding away not sure of what to do next after the resurrection. The church has been those small communities of the faithful navigating the day to day of minisry and life in amongst the strange and chaotic world around them.

The drama and excitement, the crowds of Pentecost did not become the norm. It was only momentary. Pentecost is not the model for being church in the world.

The model has always been Easter.

The spirit’s coming was for an Easter community. The tongues of fire and the crowds and baptisms were all for the sake of the gospel, all to help the disciples tell again the Easter story. To tell the world around them the good news of resurrection, of New Life coming into the world of sin and death.

And yes, Easter is confusing. It is about empty tombs, and unbelievable stories, and Jesus showing up where we least expect him and messing with us in ways we cannot comprehend. Easter is about recognizing that we have no control over what God is up to in the world, that Jesus is ushering in new life and we are along for the ride.

The disciples, the faithful, the Church is an Easter church given a Pentecost moment. We are not a Pentecost community given an Easter moment.

Easter defines us, Easter claims us, death and resurrection creates us anew.

It is the Easter story that we tell every week, every time we gather, every time we confess our faith, we hear the Word, we gather at font and table.

And Pentecost is the Spirit’s way of pointing us back there again, of reminding us that new life comes in surprising and unexpected ways.

Pentecost is God’s way of breathing life into the Church and giving us glimpse of the new life the Gospel brings.

And yet, we remain Easter people. Even as most of the time it isn’t Pentecost, and life and ministry isn’t full of the dramatic and unexpected. Even if the crowds and energy are fleeting. Even if we feel more like those little churches of 15 or 25 that Paul was writing to instead of the 3000 that Peter was preaching to.

Even when it isn’t Pentecost, it is still Easter.

Because with Easter there is always forgiveness of sins, healing and hope for the suffering, life for the dying, resurrection for the dead. There is always the Word and Water, Bread and Wine that tie us again to the mystery of faith that Christ has died, Christ has Risen, Christ will come again.

And so this Pentecost Sunday is not the destination of we have been headed to for the past 50 days, but a reminder of who God has made us to be – Easter People brought to New Life in Christ.

Doing ministry when the plan doesn’t come together

GOSPEL: John 17:20-26

Jesus prayed:] 20“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. …

25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (Read the whole passage)

Today is the last Sunday in the season of Easter. Seven weeks of celebrating and hearing of the Alleluias of the Resurrection. Yet, we do not leave Easter behind today. Rather, each Sunday is like a new mini-Easter, a new extension of God’s future given to us in the resurrection of Christ.

Therefore, as we prepare to move on to Pentecost next week, and into the long season of green after that, we go with our forebears in faith as a community shaped and formed by the seven week long, great day of the resurrection.

Throughout this season of Easter, we have been moved from the immediacy of the resurrection to the shaping and forming of the disciples into the early christian community. We have heard again how they were and we are being prepared to the body of Christ in the world. And with all of it coming to a head on Pentecost next week, as we mark the birth of the church.

But before we get there, we are left with two seemingly contrasting stories about where the early followers of Jesus were headed.

In one, we are silent eavesdroppers on a conversation, a prayer between God the Father and Christ the Son. In it Jesus commends this little band of misfits, outsiders and the least likely leaders to his father. And what comes from this handing over is a promise that this community of Christ’s followers are not left alone, and that those who belong to Christ are brought into the life of the Trinity, into the mission and activity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And then in the other story, we see the unfolding and surprising ministry of Paul and Silas as they go about the Greek world. As the two make their way to Phillipi with the intention of ministering to the fledging community there, they are interrupted by a slave girl who has been given the gift of divination.

The slave girl and her interruptions soon become an annoyance to Paul… and so he decides to cast out the spirit possessing her. This gets Paul into trouble, and the slave girl’s owners set to Paul and Silas to beat them and have them thrown in prison because they have just lost their lucrative source of income.

Once in prison Paul and Silas set about a new ministry to the prisoners only to have that interrupted by an earthquake and then a fearful guard contemplating taking his own life, whom Paul must again change course and do something about.

While maybe not obvious at first, the contrast between the two stories is striking. In one Jesus promises divine providence for the community of his followers. In the other, every plan for ministry that Paul has goes off the rails because of interruptions rooted in tragedy and suffering.

Somewhere between the promise that God will always go with us as the Church, as God’s hands and feet for mission, and the reality of how ministry is experienced in practice seem to diverge quite a bit.

On some level we know what Paul and Silas were experiencing. We too tend to have certain visions for ministry. We bear expectations for what church, for what our community faith, should look like. And yet, we also know what it is like when those expectations and visions aren’t realized. We know what it is to have our visions for church interrupted by the wrong kind of people, to have suffering and tragedy interrupt our plans.

It may be forest fires or the new of another mass shooting or governments unable to make trade deals that affect the daily lives of citizens or the crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women happening right on our door steps being labeled a genocide that keep us from being focused on the particular mission and formation of our community of the faithful.

It may be the struggles of balancing work, family life, young children, aging parents, retirement planning, declining health or other things of life that keep us from putting the time, energy and effort into practicing our faith that thought we would.

It might be the realities of tight budgets, tired volunteers, and a past that seems better than the future, expenses that keep going up and dollars that didn’t go as far as they used to that keep us from looking forward with hope and believing that God has good things in mind for us.

It might be a world that changes and moves on from one thing to the next so fast that our heads keep spinning, societal values and norms that seem to shift every day, new people with new identities that we aren’t sure how to navigate showing up and being part of the world in ways we struggle to understand.

Our visions and expectations for ministry are so easily interrupted these days, and along with brothers and sisters in faith here in the pews, across Winnipeg and Manitoba, across Canada and North America we don’t know what to do about it.

Paul didn’t know what do either… and maybe that is the point.

There is of course an interesting thing about the story of Paul and Silas: while they were being interrupted by the slave girl, she was telling everyone that these two men knew about salvation. And while Paul acted out of annoyance, he freed a suffering girl from possession. And while Paul was busy trying to minister to the other prisoners while in prison, it was the jailer who needed to hear the good news.

Even in the midst of some of the worst things imaginable, some of the worst suffering – slavery, exploitation, violence and false imprisonment – the gospel found a way through. Even though it was not what Paul was expecting, even though it wasn’t even according to plan B or C or D… the gospel broke into the world precisely in the midst of the interruptions of human suffering.

It is not say that the good news only comes when there is bad stuff happening, but rather than in the midst of the mess and chaos of human life, the gospel has no problem breaking in. And the gospel doesn’t need our plans to be realized to be preached and to be heard.

In fact, our plans seem to have relatively little to do with where the good news of Jesus who died and rose again for us is made known.

Paul had one idea for Philippi, but God had another.

And just maybe that is the promise that Jesus is talking about with the Father. Not a promise that our visions and expectations will be realized, but a promise that in the midst of the real messiness and chaos of the world, the gospel will break through and break in.

It all fits of course, with a God who chose to be born in a manger in forgotten Bethlehem in order come into human life. With a god who chose to wander around the backwoods of the Roman Empire with a bunch of fishermen and tax collector in order preach the news of God’s love and mercy for all people. With a God who made execution on a cross at the hands of the best religious and political leaders that humanity had to offer the moment of our redemption along all creation.

The good news of this upside down, unexpected God found in Jesus wouldn’t make sense if it could only be preached when all the plans come together, when all the visions are realized, when all the expectations are met. The good news of this Jesus makes perfect sense preached in the midst of our plans gone wrong addressing the realty of our suffering world.

Jesus’s promise that suffering and death isn’t the end makes sense when it comes to us in the midst of fires and shootings and community crisis and economic struggle.

God’s naming and claiming as God’s own in the waters of baptism reminds us of who we are as we navigate the struggles of daily life, of family, work, community, health, retirement and on and on.

Christ’s presence among us in the Body of Christ remains the same even as congregations struggle to keep up with this shifting and changing world.

The forgiveness and mercy of God help us to change and grow, even as we don’t always understand the people and things around us and how to adapt to them.

The good news of this Jesus makes perfect sense preached in the midst of this community of misfits and outsiders called the body of Christ, it makes prefect sense that it comes to us in Word, Water, Bread and Wine shared here in our imperfect, messy, and chaotic community of faith.

And so, on this last Sunday of Easter, we hear two seemingly contradictory stories that fit perfectly together. That remind us that God always comes in our imperfections and plan Fs and struggling messy moments of suffering and surprise… because that is where we are.

Because where we are is where God in Christ breaks through in order to find us, in order to tell us again of God’s promise of New life for us.

Closing 9000 churches in Canada – Why decline might still be a good thing in 2019

I have been writing about decline for a good while now… as a Millennial and a Pastor, the entirety of my life has been in a “declining” church. Church buildings that greatly outsize worship attendance, mostly grey-haired people sitting in the pews, budgets that are strained and a whole lot of grief about what we once were and anxiety about the future.

And yet, the deeper we get into this era of decline the more complicated the situation becomes. Or perhaps better said, the more aware of how complicated this situation is we become.

Still, the narrative we often tell is that the people have drifted away from church for a number of shallow reasons like laziness, sports, shopping, and a general lack of commitment.

Just this week, there was a CBC news article about the impending closure of 9000 church buildings in Canada over the coming decade.

Sounds very ominous.

The article interviews a representative of Faith and Common Good, a group working to preserve historic buildings in general. At one point the interviewee says,

“If you follow the statscan data you can see that since the late 1970s, early 1980s less and less Canadians attended faith services. I think, to some extent, that also has to do with the way families have changed. They’re off at hockey and soccer and this and that and it’s harder to have a set Sunday date to go somewhere. So, that happened slowly and then suddenly the congregation, there were very few of them and they were quite elderly and the amount of money they could contribute to the plate couldn’t keep up these often very large and historic spaces.”

I think that this situation is a lot more complex than this interviewee describes.

And honestly, I think this is a shallow and misleading narrative. Hockey and soccer are not responsible for keeping people away from church. Church attendance did decline in the 80s and 90s as immigration from European countries dropped. However it has since stabilized in the 2000s according to Reginald Bibby, Canada’s sociologist of religion.

It is also true that as the bulk of Canada’s current immigration from Asia and Africa is bolstering mainly Catholic and Pentecostal groups. The mainline in many cases continues to slowly decline, more or less depending on which denomination you look at.

But a significant piece of this “decline” that is rarely mentioned by anyone but Bibby is that it wasn’t until the 90s that the census allowed people to choose ‘no affiliation’ in the religion section. So lots of people were filling out censuses and checking off a box of religious membership despite rarely or never having been to church. The precipitous decline of the 90s was mostly about more accurate information.

The accompanying narrative about decline is usually that churches are mostly older members now, which implies young people not coming. And yes, it is true that attendance has declined through successive generations. But there are some real demographic realities in Canada that need to be acknowledged when it comes to current church demographics. In the 60s, families had 4.2 kids. Today the average Canadian family has 1.6 kids. And Canada has gotten older. In the 60s, the first baby boomers where leaving childhood for adolescence. Today, 50% of us are over 50 with all the baby boomers falling into that category.

So what does this mean for churches?

For every young family of four (2 adults, 2 kids) like mine, there will be two empty-nester households (4 older adults). Two grey-haired families for every young family. Expand that to the whole congregation, it means the best demographic you can hope for is 2/3 of your congregation will be “grey haired” households. The congregation that I serve is pretty close to that demographic spread. Of course, some churches out there are indeed trending towards mostly grey haired folks and that is problematic.

But the point is, all the young people that we often imagine not coming to church anymore are not who we think they are. In fact, all those young people we remember that used to come to church are actually the grey-haired family units coming now, and the new young people to replace them were never born – they literally don’t exist.

And the last demographic reality faced by churches these days, and the one that probably most accounts for the prospect of closing 9000 churches in the next few years, is the rural to urban demographic shift. Canada’s population has been shifting from the rural setting to the Urban one for decades. Churches in rural communities are closing at an alarming rate, but so are schools, hospitals, banks, grocery stores and on and on. Rural communities are losing people to support most of their local institutions, not just their churches. Rural depopulation is also coupled with people being as mobile as ever — many rural people are shopping, seeing doctors, going to school and to church by driving into urban settings.

Okay… so that is a lot of factors and complications added to the picture of the institutional decline of Christianity in Canada and by extension the United States. Clearly this is NOT about hockey and soccer being more appealing activities on Sunday mornings.

So what is it about?

Well, I think there are a few things that those of us who are trying to understand decline and continue to be church in the 21st century need to keep in mind.

1.We need to stop seeing the exception as the norm.

The current “shrunken” state of the church is far closer to the norm of Christianity over time than the bursting full churches of the middle 20th century. Rather than asking how we got here, we need to be asking what happened that caused such widespread church attendance in 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

2. We need to admit that the full pews did not translate in to widespread discipleship and faithfulness.

There was (and still is for many older people) a significant social and cultural aspect to attending church 50 years ago. Many societal norms simply slotted people into church during the golden age of attendance. Being a citizen of Canada or the United States also made one a Christian during that time. You had to be a good church going person to do business, to have a community, to get married and have a family, to navigate many day-to-day interactions in most communities. People came to church because of social advantages and social pressure.

But did they come to church because believing in Jesus and being a disciple was important? The answer has to be that for many the faith and discipleship aspect of going to church was not a significant factor.

3. We need to admit that before we can be healthy again, we need to shed our attachment to cultural and social Christianity.

While there is a lot of grief about decline and a sense of loss of what churches once were, there are also important truths to hold on to. By now, most people consistently showing up to church on Sunday morning are there because faithfulness and discipleship is important. Following Jesus and hearing again the Good News of God’s love, mercy forgiveness and promise of new life is why people are there. Sure some are stubbornly holding onto social/cultural Christianity, but I think most people in the pews most Sundays are present because the Holy Spirit has brought them in faith. We are becoming communities gathered around faith, rather than around societal expectation.

Decline is still all the rage in 2019, as evidenced by secular news articles about closing church buildings that emphasize their importance to secular communities. Yet, I am not sure decline is such a bad thing for Christianity. It is a common state of existence over our 2000 year history. It is a difficult adjustment but also a call to change, to find news ways to preach the gospel and encouraged faith in a 21st century world.

Decline is shedding baggage that we need to rid ourselves of… because cultural-social Christianity is not about the gospel nor about helping people grow in faith and discipleship. Yet a Church free from adherence to the norms and expectations around it is a Church free to proclaim the radical grace and mercy of God, free to proclaim the God of New Life and Resurrection to a world hellbent on dying.

And isn’t that not just a good thing, but the most important thing?

The future we cannot imagine

GOSPEL: John 5:1-9

6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up;… (Read the whole passage)

Six Sundays into Easter we are coming to the end of the great party of the resurrection. Sure, things have been winding down for a few weeks already, but now is the time when the hosts are letting everyone know that the kitchen is only open a few more minutes, its last call before hitting the road. We are close to being ejected from this celebratory season into the next thing. But the coming end of Easter isn’t just about moving to the next thing. Easter wraps up the first half of the church year where we tell the story of Jesus’ life, from birth to death to resurrection. On Pentecost Sunday we mark the beginning of the Church, the Body of Christ, of Jesus’ presence in the world in a new way and we follow that with about 25 Sundays of green where we hear the teachings of Jesus.

And so it is curious, that coming to the end of the portion of the church year where we tell the story of Jesus’ life we skip back to a moment earlier on. A scene from early on in Jesus’ ministry not long after his baptism and early miracles. In the light of Easter, this moment takes on different connotations than it might have before.

Jesus is making his way through Jerusalem and comes near the Sheep Gate and the pool of Bethzatha. It was believed that this particular pool was periodically visited by an angel who would stir up the waters, after it would heal those who bathed in it – the sick, blind and lame.

Laying there is a sick man who had been there for 38 years. Jesus sees this man and asks him a question, “Do you want to be made well?”

The man tells Jesus that there is no one to bring him to the waters when they are stirred up, and he cannot make it in time on his own.

At this point, the conversation should be feeling a little off. It is like when someone responds to a question that isn’t actually an answer to the question. We have all had these kinds conversations. “What time is it?” “Oh, well we haven’t had lunch yet.” Or “How do you get to the grocery store from here.?” “That’s a long ways, you will need to drive.”

Jesus asks a fairly straight forward question and the man answers a completely different one. And in fact, there are a lot of different answers that the man could have given that would have been closer to answering Jesus’ question. He could have said ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ he could have told the story of how he lost the use of his legs or became sick, he could have asked for mercy and help. But the man doesn’t respond in any of those ways…

Instead the man begins, “Sir, I have no one…”

The man begins with relationships or his lack there of. He has no one, no one in his community has been willing to help him for 38 years. But the man also claims no agency, he believes that his problem is that he has no one, and no one will make way for him.

And maybe after 38 years that makes sense in the man’s mind. He neither sees nor imagines any kind of alternate future. This is his life, the sheep gate with all the others in his community like him, just a few steps from healing, yet completely unattainable.

The man has also completely avoided Jesus’ initial question. “Do you want to be made well?” And that is significant.

It’s significant because it is the same kind of thing we do as well. The conversation that Jesus and the man have could have just as easily been one in our homes or work places, churches or neighbourhoods. It feels unimaginable that no one would have helped this many in nearly 40 years. Yet, how many of us live with pain and discomfort, frustrations or grudges for years upon years? How often when faced with the prospect of doing something about the problems we bear, we look around and say, “There is no one here to do the work needed to do.” As a community and society, how often do we simply accept or even encourage the suffering of an unfortunate few? “If only they could help themselves, if they did’t make the choices they did, what could I do about a problem so big and so hard?”

Our problem is that we find it so hard to imagine any kind of different future than our present. The man has become his story. He has no one to take him to the pool and when he tries to make it on his own, someone steps in his way.

And so too we become our stories…

I am too old to start over,

too set in my ways to learn,

too far gone to be be saved.

We are dying because there is no one to step up and do the work,

we are declining because sports and shopping on Sunday morning,

people just don’t care enough to give of their time and resources like folks did in the past.

Climate change is too big a problem.

Sexism, racism, and inequality are other people’s problems.

I didn’t do those awful things, why should I have to pay for the sins of my ancestors.

We too cannot imagine a future different than our present. It isn’t that we don’t want to be made well or not… its that we don’t know what being well even looks like. We believe that we are what we are.

Yet, Jesus shows up and asks anyways. “Do you want to be made well?”

And you see, before the man even answers, Jesus has invalidated the man’s story of himself. “Sir, I have no one…”

Except the One who has seen him and reached out to him and asked him if he want to be made well.

And even when the man cannot see it, even when he still does not realize that Jesus has broken through his isolation and solitude, and that Jesus has seen him not for his problems but for his humanity…. even when the man cannot see all that… Jesus stays present.

“Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

It isn’t that Jesus has fixed the man’s legs, or taken away his sickness. It’s that even when the man cannot recognize Jesus’ breaking through with a new future and a new story… Jesus hears the man.

It is as if Jesus is saying, “So you think your problem is that you cannot make it to the pool and no one will help you there?… Okay, how about now?” And the man has help, the man can get to the pool.

Jesus meets this man, see him for who he is, and hears who the man believes himself to be…. and Jesus breaks through it all. Jesus makes the man well with a future that only God could have imagined.

And for all the ways in which we cannot imagine any other future, in which we believe that our present is our future… God has a new future and new story in mind for us.

Each time we gather as the assembly, God greets us with a new story about us.

Forgiveness for sinners,

Healing for suffering,

Reconciliation for the conflicted,

Intimacy for the isolated,

Welcome for the marginalized,

Community for outsider,

Hope for the despairing,

Peace for the tormented,

Life for the dying,

Resurrection for the dead.

God greets us and this world with a Word that changes our present, and opens us up to a future we cannot conceive of or imagine.

And even when we cannot see what Jesus is doing, Jesus sees who we truly are in the waters of baptism, the new identity that we are washed and cleansed with in the waters.

And even when we cannot imagine what being well looks for us, when we cannot answer Jesus’ question for us, Jesus greets us at the table, welcomes us into God’s future, into healing relationship and community found in the Body of Christ.

It is as if Jesus hears all the stories about ourselves that we bring here, that we bring to this assembly, and Jesus says to us, “Okay, so you think that that is your story, that this is your future? Okay, how about now?” And we are forgiven and healed and reconciled and brought to new life.

Jesus meets us over and over again, from Christmas, to Lent, to Good Friday, to Easter and beyond. And Jesus keeps on asking,

“Do you want to be made well?”

And thankfully, our answer to this question doesn’t matter… because Jesus has already seen us, already sought us out and already has set us into God’s future.

And Jesus’ answer to us is, “Stand up, take your mats and walk.”