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There is life in the Wheat and Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (read the whole passage)

Most of us know the annoyance that weeds cause in gardens and lawns and even fields. Weeds steal energy, water and resources from the plants that we placed purposefully in our gardens. Weeding is probably one of the more joyless parts of maintaining our plants and gardens. Pulling those prickly, finicky nuisances that seem to do anything they can to stay in the ground is not fun.

And so when we hear Jesus tell the parable of the Wheat and Tares or wheat and the weeds, we can identify with the experience of the servant who wants to get the weeding done.

Yet, as anyone who regularly walks down neighbourhood streets knows keeping and maintaining gardens, in particular the weeds, is an individual approach as anything. On the street that we live on, the gardens, flower beds and lawns of our neighbours vary wildly. There are some lawns and flower beds kept impeccably. Hardly a blade of grass out of place, not a weed to be seen. And then there are others where the weeds and grass seem to be growing in harmony… and growing tall. The contrast is noticeable when there are next door neighbours with these two extremes of garden and lawn styles. A golf green lawn next to a patch of wild grass and weeds.

This tension sits at the heart of the parable of the wheat and weeds. The crops have been planted, the wheat is growing… but so are the weeds. And the servant and the master have very different approaches to deal with this tension. The slaves of the household wants to get down to weeding. They want to purify the fields, get ride of bad and unwanted weeds right away, resolve the tension that they are experiencing… but the master wants to wait. Let the wheat and weeds grow together, for in pulling up one you will destroy the other.

Now of course, when we slow to think about it, this parable is not about wheat and weeds. Jesus isn’t discussing gardening philosophies.

But nor is this parable about the explanation that Matthew puts in Jesus’ mouth either. This isn’t about the weeds being like the evil ones of the world who will be thrown into the fire, or about the good wheat being gathered into heavenly grain bins.

In fact, the explanation to the parable about what the wheat and weeds are seems to have missed the point.

The point just might be the tension.

We are not good at living with tension.

The master says to leave the weeds be, but we are most often more like the slaves who want to get down to weeding. We don’t do well with tension because we would rather get to resolution. Its why most TV shows tell a complete story each episode, and why cliffhangers frustrate us so much. It is why most music is careful to end with resolving notes, a song that ends without sounding finished feels wrong. It is why we want to get the weeding done, instead of letting the weeds grow with the garden… the tension bothers us.

But the tension extends far beyond gardens and into our lives and work, into our relationships and even into our faith. We don’t like it when things we perceive as good and bad, right and wrong, exist at the same time in the same place. We don’t like weedy things infecting our wheat.

As Matthew attempts to unpack this parable by telling us what it means, he puts it in terms of faith, or more specifically faith communities. As faith communities, we know that we need to welcome new people, to try new ways of doing things, to open ourselves up to new life and the places it could grow among us… yet, new people can feel weedy to us, new ideas and new ways of being can feel like they are taking our limited energy and resources… new life can feel like it is choking our life out.

How often do we turn down new ideas because they are too weedy… they seem like they will just take energy and life from us like weeds?

How often are we concerned only about whether we will get a fruitful return, a wheat crop as reward for our efforts? How often do we weed out potential new members to our community because we expect them to be wheat instead of weeds?

How often does new life in our midst need to be a bit weedy… need us to sacrifice some of our own resources, our soil, our water, our energy in order to let the new life take root among us?

We really do struggle with with letting the wheat and the weeds co-exist, especially as people of faith. We struggle with the tension, of living in the grey areas, and not being able to define our world in the terms of good and bad, right and wrong.

And yet the tension, the place in between good and bad, right and wrong, even life and death, is where so much of our faith rests. It is the grey ares where God seems to show up, in the places where wheat and weeds are growing together.

God comes to us a king of creation, yet born as a nobody peasant in the backwater town of Bethlehem.

God comes preaching good news, but to the lost, least and forgotten of the world.

God comes to save us, by dying on a cross.

And so we are sinners yet forgiven and righteous.

And so we find our lives by losing them.

And so we are made alive by dying in Christ.

And so God chooses to love us, even though we should be unloveable.

The master tells his servants to leave the weeds be, leave weeds because pulling them out will uproot the wheat.

The master tells the servants to live in the tension, because that is where life can grow. The weeds will steal from the wheat… but both will grow. The tension is the place where life grows.

It is the same message that God gives to us, that God proclaims in and through God’s church.

Come you who are sinners, to this community of people made righteous. Here your sins are forgiven.

Come you who are suffering, to this community of healing. Here you will be made whole.

Come you who are hungry, to this community of bread and wine. Here you will be fed.

Come you are dirty and unclean, to this community of the washed. Here you will be cleansed.

Come you are who are dead, to this community of life. Here you will be raised.

The tension is the place where life grows.

Here is the thing… just as wheat fields without wheat doesn’t exist in reality, there is no community of people without sinners, without suffering, without hunger, without being unclean, without death.

The Master knows that the weeds are always part of the growing, all part of the fruit producing. The Master knows that the weeds are a part of life.

And God knows that it is in the grey areas that life is found.

God knows sinner meets righteousness in the grey area of forgiveness.

God knows that suffering meetings healing the grey area of mercy.

God knows that death meets life in the grey area of resurrection.

And so the Master says to us, let the weeds be. Let the bad grow with the good because it is in the grey areas that life is found.

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Abraham failed the test… and so did God

Genesis 22:1-14

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. (Read the whole text)

Here we are back into the long season of green, the chance to explore the various stories the bible. The Gospel readings of this season tell about Jesus’s teachings and ministry. The Epistle readings take us through the various letters of the New Testament to explore what was happening in the early church. And the Old Testament readings give us the stories of God’s people.

Today, the story of Abraham and Isaac is simply too tempting to avoid exploring.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one we know well. It is a story that is not only familiar when we hear it, it is one whose themes are used over and over in literature, movies  and TV. How often is the hero in a movie faced with an impossible choice involving the sacrifice of someone that they love?

The reason that Christians know this story of Abraham so well is that it is often used as an example of faithfulness. Abraham is an example of unwavering faith, so the idea goes. And on the surface it is an idea that makes sense.

In order that Abraham demonstrate his faith, God orders Abraham to put his faith before everything. Before the love he has for Sarah and their only son. Before  the love that Abraham has for Isaac, the son who will be person who carries Abraham’s legacy into the future. Without Isaac, Abraham and Sarah are simply people who will be forgotten to the sands of time.

And Abraham delivers. He shows us what it means to be faithful. Abraham’s faith is so powerful an example that even the authors of the New Testament point to it as a model to follow.

Abraham is willing to sacrifice his own son if God asks. Unwavering faith.

Or perhaps blind faith.

Or perhaps radical faith.

Radical fanaticism even.

Because we don’t usually call people willing to kill for their faith great examples… we have other words for those people don’t we?

And what about God? In this story, God asks his chosen disciples and follower to sacrifice his son, the very son that is the fulfillment of the covenant.

Have we read this story right? Christians have been using Abraham as an example of faith for hundreds of years, and the Hebrew people for thousands before that.

But blind faith or radical fanaticism is not normally the kind of faith that we are trying to help grow in people, in ourselves.

And a God who toys with us simply to “test” our faith doesn’t seem very loving or caring.

So what is going on in this story?

Well, to understand how Abraham and Isaac arrive at this moment, we need to go back to the beginning.

The oldest part of the bible is not found in the stories of creation or the garden of Eden or in Noah’s flood. Rather Abraham’s is the oldest. And ten chapters before Abraham and Isaac, the story begins. Back when Abraham was Abram, and Sarah was Sarai, God called these two to take up everything they had to go to the land that God would show them.

Abraham’s story begins with a 3 part covenant made with God. God promises Abraham land, descendants and a relationship. And this 3 fold promise becomes the focus of the rest of the book of Genesis, and to some degree the rest of the Old Testament.

So Abraham and Sarah pack up everything and go. And when God says, “Go” Abraham is really good at going. He is always willing to go when God calls.

But it is this other part of the promise… the descendants one that Abraham has trouble with. Going is easy… when God commands it, Abraham does it either out of faithfulness or perhaps fear. But the promise of descendants is tougher. Faith in this promise cannot be rooted in obedience out of fearfulness. Believing that God will provide this barren couple with children takes hope, it takes faith in the future, and faith in the third promise, that Abraham and Sarah are indeed God’s chosen.

And so Abraham goes, but as soon as he encounters the powerful Pharaoh of Egypt he gives Sarah away to be a part of Pharaoh’s harem, claiming Sarah is his sister, not his wife. So God has to intervene to save the day.

And then Sarah, fearing that she will not provide a son, tells Abraham to have a child with the servant Hagar, who gives birth to Ishmael… but he is not the son that God promised.

Next God tells Abraham directly that Sarah will bear a son, and all Abraham can do is fall to the ground in laughter.

And two weeks ago we heard the story of God showing up again to tell Abraham and Sarah that she will bear a son and this time Sarah laughs.

And after all this, Abraham gives Sarah to King Abimelech for his harem, again requiring God to intervene.

So finally, after 9 chapters of Abraham’s struggle to believe the promise of children, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.

And the long awaited, hard to believe promise has come to fruition.

Yet still Abraham still struggles to believe in the promise, in hope for a future. Even with Isaac in his arms now.

Some Rabbis suggest that the test that God gives Abraham is not one of obedience. That it isn’t a game of chicken that God is playing. In fact, God knows that Abraham will follow the commands, he has always been willing to go when called.

But does Abraham have faith in God’s future? Does he believe that God will make him the father of God’s chosen people?

So just one chapter after Isaac’s birth, God gives the command to sacrifice Isaac.

So Abraham goes and for three days – without a word of protest – walks to the mountain with Isaac. And when they arrive, Isaac asks where the lamb to be sacrificed is… and Abraham says something about God providing it, knowing full well that there isn’t a lamb. Abraham then leaves his servants and pack animals behind, and goes to the ritual place with Isaac. There he ties up his son, binds his son like lamb to be slaughtered and places him on the altar.

And without hesitation raises the knife.

In that moment, when you take into account everything that has happened in the ten chapters before this… Abraham has not passed the test.

He has failed.

And so has God.

For ten chapters, through rescuing Abraham from himself, from proving wrong Abraham’s laughter at what he and Sarah thought was impossible, God must have thought that Abraham would finally believe that promise, the promise of descendants, the promise of hope and a future.

And yet for 3 days Abraham marched to mountain without a word of protest. Abraham looked his son in the eye and lied about what or who would be sacrificed. Abraham tied up his son and placed him on an altar of sacrifice. God must have expected that Abraham would protest or bargain, just as he had for the people of Sodom. God must have thought that Abraham would demand that God live up to the covenant, that God certainly wouldn’t just arbitrarily take away Abraham’s future. God waited for the protest. But nothing.

And so Abraham fails the test… but so does God, for a good test is one a student can pass.

And yet there on mountain, standing above Isaac with his knife in hand… just maybe it is Abraham who teaches God something, maybe it is Abraham who tests God.

Perhaps after 10 chapters of trying to get Abraham to believe in the covenant, in the promise of hope and future that God makes with Abraham, God realizes that Abraham cannot have faith… only fear. Fear that drives him to go when God commands, but fear that prevents him from having hope.

So God intervenes.

God caries the hope for the future that Abraham cannot.

God upholds God’s part of the covenant… even if Abraham cannot have faith in the promise…

God will have hope in Abraham, even when all the signs say that God shouldn’t.

God sends a ram.

God sends a ram who is a sign that God will not give up on us.

God sends a lamb who will be not a sign of death on an altar, but life on a cross.

A lamb whose coming into our world will signify God’s unwavering faith in us.

A lamb who is God’s promise of hope and future in the flesh.

For you see, we are just like Abraham.

In fact we are Abraham.

We too find the promises of God laughable, we find the threats to our future too much to confront, we too have difficulty seeing our hope and our future… even when God plunks signs right in our arms.

And so God sends us the lamb who will save us.

The Christ who is found in the thicket of the church.

The Christ who is mercy and reprieve from the knives that we threaten our hope with.

The Christ who is life, when there is surely and only death in store for us.

The Christ who is God’s promise in flesh.

Abraham’s faithfulness is nothing to be marvelled at, he isn’t a model to aspire to…

Abraham is a model of the faith we already have.

As too is Abraham’s fear the same fear that we carry. Fear that is dispelled each and every time we gather around God’s word of promise and hope for us.

Abraham reminds us that God knows we cannot be faithful on our own… and so God is faithful for us. God knows that the promise of Christ is our hope and our future.

God is one the passes the test for us.

Two Sparrows for a Penny

Matthew 10:24-39
Jesus said to the twelve disciples…,

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

“For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household… (Read the whole passage) 
As we begin this long season of green in the church, we start with some bold words from Jesus as told to us by the Gospel of Matthew. You would think that we could start this season of Jesus’ parables, preaching, and ministry with something a little more tame. But that is not Matthew’s style.

The 4 gospels, and their four authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, but in very different ways. Just like 4 pastors might preach very different sermons on the same topic. If we were to imagine what kind of people the gospel writers were, John might remind us of an academic, a professor type passionately using lots of words to describe his topic of study. Luke would be the compassionate care-giver, always thinking of the less fortunate. Mark should remind us of a mystic, a wise spiritual advisor who never says more than he has to.

And then comes Matthew. Matthew is like the TV evangelist, the mega church preacher preaching to a stadium of people. Matthew is the type who has all the answers. Matthew can spitfire verse after verse of scripture without hardly taking a breath. Matthew knows what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad.

And so, as we hear Matthew collect some of the sayings of Jesus, he gives them to us in spitfire fashion, one after another. 

Together, they almost sound like a warning. Warnings about being in the right allegiance, about following Jesus in the right way, about being a disciple and the dangers of what will happen if we choose the wrong side:
“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”
“rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”
“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
“For I have come to set a man against his father,”
“whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me”

Wow… harsh stuff.

The Gospel of Matthew has been the most popular gospel of Christian history. For nearly 1000 years, it was the only Gospel that christians used. And when we hear what Matthew offers us today, as harsh as Jesus sounds, Matthew’s popularity makes sense. Matthew offers us what we want to hear. Easy answers. Right and wrong answers. Matthew offers us a legalistic path to the truth. Do this, this and this, and you will be okay. Do that, that and that, and you will go to hell.

Matthew’s approach to Jesus’s words appeals to our fears. Matthew frightens us into feeling secure. Matthew warns us of the danger in the world, and then tells how we can avoid it. Just like a good salesmen or TV evangelist.

And we lap it up.

We love the binary, right/wrong, us/them answers. We love the categories of us and them. We like knowing what to be afraid of in the world, and how we can protect ourselves. We like it all because it is easy, it feels safe, we feel like we are in control.
And that need for control comes from a place deep within us. It is from Original Sin, the Old Adam, the Old Sinner that wants to be like God that drives to easy answers that Matthew and so many others try to give us. And it this original sin that what we are washed of in Baptism. 

In Baptism, God begins the hard work of stripping away our need for control, our desire to be like God. And it is hard for us too. It is hard to deal with questions. Answers are easy. It is hard work to live with the ambiguities, the grey in life. Binary, right/wrong is easy. But it is hard to be uncertain, to be vulnerable. It is easy to know who and what to be afraid of so we can stay safe.

We don’t want to deal with questions or uncertainty or ambiguity. We like it when someone gives us the answers we want to hear.

But that is not Jesus’s way.
Even while Matthew is trying to give us the harsh Jesus, the one who warns, one with easy answers and ways to protect oneself from all the dangers, Matthew cannot help but let Jesus break through with the Gospel. In the midst of swords, devils, fighting families, choosing sids, taking up our cross, denying Jesus… It almost passes us by.
Two sparrows for a penny. Jesus says, do not two sparrows cost a penny. Two things so invaluable and worthless that you can’t even sell one for a penny, you have to offer two. Even these do not live or die apart from God. God is interested in everything or everyone. God is not choosing sides, God is not about right/wrong binaries, God is not out there offering easy answers. Jesus is showing us a God who is found even with the worthless sparrows. Nothing is too small, too inconsequential for God. In a world that wants Jesus to tell us what we want to hear… this is not it.
And even St. Matthew, the author of the most famous and often used of the Gospels, cannot keep Jesus breaking through to us, breaking through our desire for easy  answers. Matthew cannot help but show us God. 
So often the answers we long to hear are not the ones that God gives to us. Even as Matthew strives to give us a Jesus who is out separating good from bad, right from wrong, and while we lap it up. No matter how much we want the easy, safe, secure, certain answers, Jesus is giving us something else.

Jesus is giving us questions, Jesus is giving us ambiguity, Jesus is telling us that God’s concern for the world is so much bigger than we can imagine. Two sparrows for a penny. Something that isn’t even worth the smallest coin imaginable… even this sparrow does not live or die apart from God. God is working in ways and in places that we would never think to look. It is not flashy or showy or easy. It isn’t a list of requirements or steps to follow. It is hard, yet life giving work.

And what God is up to begins in baptism, begins in the waters of new life. God uses baptismal waters to introduce new questions into our world, questions of mercy, forgiveness, and life. God shows us that God’s world is so much deeper and wider than we could ever imagine.

Matthew’s harsh words like sword, Beelzebub, denial, against, unworthy – they are designed to scare us, scare us into binary right-wrong thinking and easy answers. But today, Jesus is all about the sparrow. The thing that seems worthless, even this is important to God. God breaks through our desire for an easy to categorize world. God breaks through with questions and ambiguity, but God also breaks through in the baptismal waters with grace, mercy and new life.

Doubting the Trinity 

Matthew 28:16-20

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Read the whole passage)

Holy Trinity Sunday is a unique festival in the church year. All the others ones tell specific stories, like we celebrated last week at Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire to the disciples, who then preached the Gospel was a story of drama and intrigue. Holy Trinity Sunday is quite a contrast. It is about a doctrine of the church. The trinity describes who God is, yet it is a complicated and often difficult to understand concept that we struggle to explain. We have all heard the children’s message examples. God is like water, solid, liquid, gas. God is like apple pie: crust, filling, ice cream. God is like someone who puts on different hats, sometimes a parent, sometimes a child, sometimes a friend. Each example that we try give ends up failing when stretched too far. The relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is just too much, too broad, too complex to explain.

It is no wonder that some of the disciples doubted Jesus, even as they witnessed him ascending into heaven from the top of a mountain. They had stuck with him through the whole story. They has seen the improbably acts of his ministry of teaching and miracles. They had seen him fall into the execution plot of the temple authorities. And they had now heard the rumours and seen Jesus alive, even though he should be dead.

This is the final moment in the story of Jesus, and the final moment of the Gospel of Matthew. It hardly seems like the time for the disciples to still be doubting, yet the doubters are sticking out like a sore thumb there on the mountain top, not quite ready to get on the bandwagon. Their doubt is pulling them apart, pulling and tugging them away from the moment.

As the disciples stand on the mountain top and witness the risen Jesus with their own eyes, the doubt that some felt was probably not disbelief.  But perhaps they had a hard time making sense of what exactly all of this meant, all the events they had just lived through and all the the things that Jesus had told them. Their doubt is not skepticism, but rather a sense of being overwhelmed and pulled in different directions. Our doubt comes from the same place.

Doubt pulls us apart, it threatens to unravel us and undo our sense of understanding and meaning. Faith and doubt are nearly the same, as they are the way we put together all this stuff about God, about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Neither faith, nor doubt are about knowing with certainty or about complete skepticism. Rather, faith and doubt are lived experiences, part of day to day living with all this stuff about God and Church. Faith and doubt are a relationship and they are a part of being in relationship with God and each other. Faith is planted in grown through worship and prayer, in families and at church. It is a part of everyday life. And in the same way, doubt creeps into all parts of life. Self doubt, doubt when it comes to others, doubt when it comes to the community. Doubt comes in the moments when we are stretched to limit and when making sense of everything is too much to do on our own.

Did you notice the contrast that Matthew makes when it comes to doubt. He does not say some believe, and some doubted. Or some had faith and some doubted. Or some were certain and some doubted but Matthew reminds us where are our doubts are met. Simply believing harder or being more certain are not the solution to doubt. Matthew says that the disciples worshipped but some doubted. All the disciples worshipped, and in the mist of their worship some doubted.

And despite their doubt, Jesus gives them all the same task. To preach the Gospel and to Baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus words are not just for those who feel like they have a strong faith or feel fairly certain of the message. The mission of the Gospel is for all members of the community. The doubtful and the faithful, the same group. And so is Jesus’ promise for all, not just for those feel like it is true in a given moment, but Jesus reminds and helps his followers to remember exactly what that promise is, “Remember, I am with you until the end of the age”.

Our doubt comes most alive in worship. And Jesus meets us in our doubts in worship. When we gather, there will always be some of us that doubt. We will all have times when we are feeling pulled apart and unsure…  when it will be hard to speak the words of worship. Words like, “Peace be with you” or “Lord to whom shall we go?” or “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”.

But it is in these words that the community of God, the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity comes to us. The Trinity comes to us remembering us. Re-membering us together. Re-joining us, in faith, to the community of faith. Being re-membered, or made a member again, is part of the work of the Trinity. It is a part of the dance of the Trinity to give and receive, to move back and forth, to go forwards and backwards. The Trinity has room for our doubts, room for us to not understand and yet still be a part of the community.

There the disciples are, and there we are, in the mist of worship, some with doubts. And the promise that Jesus makes, the promise that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit makes to us, is that we are remembered. We are not given certainty and Jesus does offer to help this crazy story of God in the world make sense. But the Trinity offers a place to be a part of the community. The Trinity is the promise that we are re-membered and re-joined.  God remembers and rejoins to the dance of the one in three, the back and forth, and the to and fro. God remembers and rejoins us in worship, with our faith and with our doubt.

Amen. 

The Unknown God and the God who knows

Acts 17:22-31
It would serve us well to listen carefully to Paul today. Paul is telling us about a radical God that we don’t get to hear about very often. His words might have originated in Athens, from the place where Greek philosophers would gather to argue and debate ideas. But make no mistake, Paul is speaking directly to us. And there is a sadness in his sermon and there is a certain joy. The joy is the proclaiming the living God in whom we live – we move- and have our being. The sadness is in realizing that God is essentially unknown to most North Americans. 

The place and people to whom Paul was speaking was not much different than our world today. The Athenians were careful folks who liked to hedge their bets when it came to religion. Scattered throughout the city would have been statues and temples to numerous Gods. To Greek Gods, Romans Gods, Persian Gods, and many more. Newborns would often be dedicated at each temple, just to make sure that all the bases were covered. Zeus, Athena, Mithras, Poseidon were all honoured just to be sure.  

And just in case any gods had been overlooked, there was the statue to the unknown God. A coverall, so as not to offend any other gods out there that didn’t have specific statues or temples. 

When Paul was in Athens, his purpose wasn’t to preach or evangelize. He was just visiting, waiting for his friends to re-join him while they preached in a neighbouring city. Paul, was more like a tourist than a traveling preacher. Yet, when he saw this statue to the unknown God, he must have seen an opportunity. An opportunity to address a culture that was quite concerned with covering their religious bases by doing the right rituals and keeping the right rules. The Athenian philosophy of religion was, make the gods happy and they won’t bother you,  

The pluralistic religious system of the Athenians is not all that far off from our modern version of religion that is practiced today. In fact, sociologists have come up with a term for the most widely “practiced” religion in North America, and it is probably not the familiar name of a denomination. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This term was born out of study North American Teens and their views on religion. There was a surprisingly high level of agreement on what teens thought about God and the faith. There was no difference in views between those who were regular church attenders their whole lives to those with no church background at all.
These are the core statements of their faith:

1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

Good people go to heaven when they die

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is basically the belief that God sets out some ground rules for behaviour which is the moralistic part. The Therapeutic part is that God is a being who exists to make us feel good and solve our problems. Deism is belief in a God who just created the world and left it to its own devices, God does not have much bearing on the rest of our lives and doesn’t really engage us personally.   

The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the God of Oprah, Hollywood and financial gain. It is the God of inspirational greeting cards, reality tv, music videos and consumerism. Making money, being self-centered and ignoring the big issues of life are also encouraged, because God wants to send us to heaven as long we are good people, which most of us are. 

This distanced, self centered approach to religion is precisely what Paul’s words address today. And this kind of religion is exactly what our sinful selves wish religion to be. The pluralism of the ancient greeks and modern day Moralistic Therapeutic Deism appeal to us at our basic levels. They are religions were we get to be in control, and God gets to be a divine therapist and butler. They don’t demand anything of us, and they don’t intrude on our daily lives in any kind of real way. They are the perfect religion for a curved in on itself humanity. 

As Paul walked around the Aeropagus, looking at the variety of statues he must have been asking himself, 

What about sin?

What about evil?

What about death?
What about hope?

What about grace?

What about love?

For Paul, all of the greek Gods would have been unknown. His are the questions that none of the unknown Gods could begin to answer. These are the questions that sit below the surface when life is going well, but that rise up and force us to consider them when things go wrong, when life begins to hurt, to be painful. The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems pretty empty in the face of addiction, disease, divorce and separation, in the face of death. It seems pretty empty in the face love, beauty, sacrifice and wonder too. 
In fact, the unknown gods of the ancient greeks and of our modern world are not really gods at all when compared to the God who washes, names, dies with us and raises us to new life all in the one baptism. These gods not compare to the One who feeds, forgives, joins and loves in communion. The god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism does not compare to the God who was born, who lived with us, who died on the cross and rose on the third day in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Paul sees the opportunity with the statue of the unknown God, to show his audience that God is known. And even more so, that God knows us. As Paul preaches to the Athenians: 

What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. God is known. 

What a radical difference from what the Athenians knew. Paul does not just re-interpret the unknown God, but re-interprets the whole religious system. The God that Paul knows is the one who created all things. The God that Paul knows is the one who gives us life and movement and being — and does not require petty sacrifices in order to show mercy. The God that Paul knows, know us — knows what it is like to be born, to live, and die as one of us. 

The who God knows us sees us — all of us. Sees our faults and failures, our imperfections and loses. Our confusion and blindness. Our intolerance and bigotedness. Our despair and frailty. Our successes and hopes. Our dreams and desires. Our joys and our loves. All of these God sees. 

The God who knows us hears us — our pleas for help. Our anger and frustration. Our sadness and sorrow. Our celebrations and thanksgivings. Our happiness and our wonder. Our normal and everyday words. All of these God hears. 

This God who knows us loves us — all of us. God loves all of us as a whole. All of us as individuals. All of us personally, intimately, completely. This God loves us despite our sinfulness and despite our faithfulness. This God who knows us simply loves us without condition. 

The unknown Gods of ancient and modern times promise heaven for good behaviour. 

But the God who knows us promises New Life to those that are dead. New Life for all creation. New Life for each one of us.

In a world that is often looking to cover its bases and for people whose best vision of what God could be is a divine therapist and butler, God offers so much more.

As Paul preaches to the Athenians and to us, the unknown distant gods that we try to make happy are not gods at all. The God of all creation, of all life, of all that moves of all that is. This God is known. This God is known because this God first knew us. As Paul preaches:

What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. This God knows us. 

Amen. 

Clerical Collars and Ecclesiastical Titles: 5 Reasons they are needed in the Church

“Just call me Erik”

I have never said these words out loud in the context of pastoral ministry.

Sometime just before or during my childhood, there was a movement toward informality in the church. Many pastors stopped going by “Reverend Last Name” or “Pastor Last Name” and started going by just “First Name.” At the same time, there was movement away from clergy attire (although for many Lutherans, collars and vestments had only been reclaimed a few decades earlier).

When I began seminary in 2005 and graduated in 2009, it was more-or-less the norm that clergy would expect to be called by their first name by parishioners, church goers from other churches and colleagues. Wearing a clerical collar was a hotly debated option for many seminary students.

I often got the sense that my desire to be called “Pastor” seemed stodgy and formal to some. And while seminary students of all stripes often liked to experiment with wearing clerical collars, it was not uncommon for veteran pastors having been active for 20+ years would come and drop off collars and vestments for students… yet, these pastors were not intending to retire or resign… they just had no need to clerical attire any longer.

“They create a barrier” was the common refrain when speaking of titles and collars. And real ministry can only be done through personal relationships. And you can only have relationships where people feel like they know you and trust you with personal relationships, which means first name basis and casual clothes.

Once I began serving, colleagues twenty years my senior would tell stories of their own childhood experience in church. They remembered having “Reverend Last Name” teach confirmation, and he was a real strict, no-fun, jerk who always wore his clerical collar. But then “(Pastor) First Name” came to town, and he was lots of groovy fun in his bell-bottom jeans and t-shirts. So now, every pastor should go by their first name because being old and traditional and stodgy is not good ministry. And being fun, and casual and cool is good ministry.

But even at 22 when I started seminary and 26 when I graduated, I thought that going by “Pastor” and looking like a pastor made sense.

The thing is, I was worried about being considered a kid or too young. The average age of pastors in my denomination is well in to the 50s, and here I was, half the average age. And I was about to lead a congregation on my own. Going by “Pastor” was just a small way that I could project the office to which I was called. Looking the part would disguise my youthfulness. Just maybe the people I was serving might see me as a pastor – and not some entitled millennial – if they visualized me as and called me “Pastor.”

In the eight years since, I have learned a few things about what it means to project the symbol of pastor, and to get by on the virtue of personal relationships and charm.

And there are reasons that the church has used titles and clerical collars to identify pastors, reasons that still hold water today. Here are some of them:

1 Pastors are Symbols

Like many vocations and callings in our world, we become public symbols when ‘on the job.’ Like police officers or fire fighters who symbolize safety and protection, like doctors or nurses who symbolize caregiving, like teachers or professors who symbolize learning, pastors are symbols to the people that we work with. We are symbols of God’s and the Church’s public voice in community. When we speak we speak not has individuals but as representatives of someone or something other than ourselves.

The symbol is visualized in the collar or other clerical attire. People can see the symbol in the uniform of pastors, just as safety is presented in firefighter’s gear, or healthcare is by hospital scrubs.

The symbol is verbalized in the title. When people address pastors by the title “Pastor” the symbol and its existence are intentionally articulated, rather than unintentionally assumed.

2 Using titles and collars provides clarity

Here is how pastors who wear collars and go by “Pastor” know that the two are important. When a funeral home, for example, calls me looking for a generic pastor for a funeral, they don’t tell the family that some guy named “Erik” will be doing the service. Rather by calling me “Pastor”, the nature of the relationship I will have with this grieving family is understood. When I show up in a collar, it is clear who I am.

Imagine walking into an ER and everyone was dressed in street clothes, and some person in jeans and t-shirt asked what your symptoms were, and then told you that Jimmy would be with you in a minute? You would be confused wouldn’t you.

Now imagine the same in a church. A person walks in looking for spiritual help, and a member says, let me get Erik to help you.

Collar and titles provide clarity.

3 Privilege

The varied ways in which we bear privilege is coming into our social awareness. And the option to decline the visual symbols and verbal cues of pastoring are a privilege, in particular a white and a male privilege. It takes a certain amount of privileged assurance to decline being called “Pastor” and to forego looking to still be confident that those you serve will assume and understand the full nature of the pastoral relationship. It takes privilege to assume that people won’t confuse your person with you vocation. And that is because whiteness and maleness are not characteristics about that might lead people to assume that one couldn’t be or wouldn’t be a pastor.

Yet, it is often assumed that women who are pastors are not pastors, whether it is sales people looking for the pastor over the phone, or visitors new to the church, or staff at hospital questioning the legitimacy of a visit.

The same goes for people of colour whom are often likely to be disbelieved that they are who they say are.

Worst of all, is that when white men, like me, decline the title and clothing of pastors, we undermine our colleagues who are women and people of colour, because we send the unconscious message that it is our whiteness and maleness that allows us to be pastors. Yet, if we used titles and wore the garb, we would clarify that we are filling office of pastor by looking like clergy and being addressed as clergy. It would also help if we insisted that all of our colleagues, regardless of gender or race or orientation were addressed by their titles.

4 Order over hierarchy

Often the objection to titles, or collars are that they symbolize a hierarchy in the church. Only special people get to wear the special clothing and have the special titles.

But in fact, titles and collars help to minimize the hierarchical nature of the church when understood correctly. When the visual and verbal symbols are not used by pastors, we subconsciously convey that it is for other reasons that we occupy the office of ministry. Perhaps it is that we are more spiritual or moral, that we are smarter or more competent.

Instead, it should be understood that it is “putting on the uniform” that symbolizes taking on the office. It is because through people I serve that God has called to serve, and this why they call me “Pastor.” Titles and collars are the things that are put on in order to serve, rather than service rooted in virtue and specialness. They identify the fact that we are called to particular ministry in the Church, some for this ministry, some for that ministry.

5 Titles and Collars are reminders.

Just as I thought as a 26-year-old starting out in ordained ministry, it is still the case that going by “Pastor (First Name)” and wearing a collar are helpful reminders of the office I fill. And I have noticed over the years that when I wear the collar, people treat me differently. Not with more respect, but less as my particular self. I am more the office than I am Erik. And I have also noticed that whether subconsciously or not, when people address me as “Pastor Parker” or “Pastor Erik” or “Pastor” or “Erik” that is says something about their relationship to the office of pastoral ministry (and secondarily to me). Sometimes how we are addressed is sign of comfort or discomfort, security or insecurity. Those who call me just “Pastor” are often those who are the most comfortable in their relationship to me as their pastor. Those who use my last name are often the least familiar and from outside my particular church community. Those who use just my first name are either very comfortable and familiar, or sometimes are uncomfortable with my relationship to them as their pastor (for likely complicated reasons).

But the reminder is not just for those that I encounter and serve in the course of ministry. Titles and collars are probably most importantly reminders for me. When I put on the black shirt and slide that white tab into my collar, I am reminded that my personal identity takes a back seat to my vocational identity – I am a clergy person and pastor first and foremost to the people I interact with.

And when someone calls me pastor, it is small and constant reminder of who I am to them and the nature of my relationship and responsibilities. That I am called to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ in whatever way possible in this particular moment with this particular person.

Titles and clerical collars are symbols and tools for ministry which, I think, all clergy should consider. But wether not you prefer your suits and ties and go by your first name, or whether you want your pastor to be in a collar every time you see him or her and call them “Pastor”… The symbols we use, visual and verbal are important and they speak to nature of our call to serve in God’s Kindgom.

So let’s all think about the symbols and cues that we use that help us to understand and do ministry… titles and collars included.


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Why Can’t Pastors Agree on What a Pastor is?

What DOES a pastor do anyways?

Ask 10 pastors what a pastor is, and you will get ten different definitions. Read 10 different blog articles on what a pastors is and should be doing, and you will get ten different opinions. The job title and ecclesiological office of pastor is one that encompasses a variety of definitions, often confusing and contradictory ones.

This vagueness around the job description and theological concept of being a pastor is one of the most frustrating parts of my vocation. The debate lately seems to be between the pastor as CEO vs. pastor as Shepherd. Just check out the titles of some relatively recent blog posts:

Why you should be thankful if your pastor behaves like a CEO by Carey Nieuwhof
CEO-style pastorates all the rage but offer little to those seeking deeper faith by Jim Brumley
Quit Telling Pastors We Have to Stop Pastoring to Have a Successful Church: Great churches don’t need spiritual enablers or high-achieving CEOs. by Karl Vaters

The current debate raging online, and probably in churches and among colleagues, about what a pastor is and does is nothing new. It is simply a symptom of the church facing the changing world and some dim sense that part of facing that change means pastors and churches updating their understandings of each.

Even in my short millennial life-time, I have seen pastors of different generations try to live up to different and changing ideas of what it means to be a pastor.

A different time, a different pastor

In my first congregation, a small farming community where the church had been the central focus for nearly a century, pastors were understood to be something akin to the “community professional.” In the early part of the 20th century, pastors were often called upon not only to shepherd the flock, but also provided medical knowledge, taught school children, provided legal and mediation services among other things.

In my Grandfather’s generation in the 40s and 50s, pastors were public moral paragons. They were (supposed to be) living examples of moral living who were required to lead the faithful in their own moral living and a disciplined faith full of regular devotion and study. Pastors were expected to be public moral authorities whose credibility was rooted in their character and leadership position. They were called upon to serve on public boards, public offices and positions and were often in the public eye.

And then in the 60s and 70s, Clinical Pastoral Education and a trend towards psychology and therapy transformed again the role of the pastor. No longer was the pastor a voice for morality and divine authority, but now a counsellor, therapist even. Someone to hear your troubles (sometimes on God’s behalf) and direct you to the help you need. And pastors started using as much the language of psychology as theology.

And then 80s and 90s, when, despite the early signs of decline, the trend was for established and growing congregations to program their ministry. This meant large facilities and increased staff positions. Pastors became middle managers, overseeing growing churches that had become corporatized. Business language become the vernacular at board meetings and for church leadership.

And then in the 2000s, pastors were called upon to become entrepreneurial CEOs, revitalizing the unwieldy and declining organizations that had been started by the community professionals and moral paragons, grown by the pastoral care providers, and managed into decline by the middle managers. Pastors were and are expected to be the source of mission and vision renewal for churches longing for a return to the glory days. The glory days of course depend on which of the previous eras felt the most glorious for a given person. And the new glory days also include incorporating all the new technology of a changing digital and online world.

These are, of course, not the only dominant forms of pastor that have risen up recently. There are several of other images and ideas about what the primary role of a pastor is:

There is the social justice warrior, who leads their faith community in striking out to address all the evils of the world. This pastor strives to lead people in activism and to organize communities of resistance beyond congregations who will fight for justice among all the injustices that exist in the world.

And there is the cruise director / country club pro who is the omni-present social glue that holds the many activities and programs and fellowship events that a congregation plans. The pastor will likely make an appearance at everything: every meeting, every breakfast, every golf or curling fundraiser. The pastor is more mascot than spiritual leader.

And there is the coach and cheerleader. The person encouraging the laity in their calling by passing off the bulk of the responsibilities of the pastoral office. A pastor’s job is to put themselves out of a job is mantra of this style.

So which of these is the right style or idea of the core of pastoral ministry is? Should pastors need to choose?

Jack-of-all-trades pastoring?

Picking one version of pastoral ministry over another actually misses the point. Of course all of the responsibilities are, at times, part of what a pastor does. Sometimes you will be the community expert, other times you will inspire your people to faithfulness, sometimes you be called upon to provide counsel and care for people in need, other times you will be the one checking the boiler and booking rentals, sometimes you will be hiring and firing people. And of course in the midst of all these things there is preaching and leading worship / the liturgy, studying and teaching the bible, prayer and helping people grow in faith.

But none of these shifting ideas about what it means to be a pastor are core to pastoral ministry as it has been understood for most of the church’s history. Pastors or priests have always been tasked with preaching the word, administering the sacraments and tending to God’s people. And throughout the millennia, this has put various responsibilities on the shoulders of pastors, managing and tending to groups of people wherever they are is complicated.

Yet, whatever trend or style of ministry is current, and even whatever denomination or part of the world  a pastor serves in… the essential of what is a pastor is the same.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.

Whether it is the through high church smells and bells liturgy or someone standing alone on a staff with just a bible in their hands, whether it is providing expertise, modelling faithfulness, caring for those in distress, managing complicated communities, or revitalizing declining churches pastors are the connection through which a particular faith community (a church) encounters the faithful of all times and places (The Church).

The Office of Ministry is how The Church enters into the life a church or congregation. In all those things that the debates suggest that pastors should be spending their time on, the underlying purpose of doing any of those things is to help local and particular communities be connected to the body of Christ. To help local congregations participate in the mission of the whole Church, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. And we don’t do this in vacuums, rather we serve this mission in consort with all the congregations and communities doing the same around us and around the world.

When pastors, or lay people, or the church as a whole debates what a pastor is or does, the reality is that in some sense there is still agreement. The different ideas or styles still fit within the scope of a pastor.  And yet, all the debates fail to return and remind us of the core.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.


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