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All Saints – The way the world should be

Luke 6:20-31

20Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said:

 “Blessed are you who are poor,

  for yours is the kingdom of God. (Read the whole passage)

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.

Words that begin one of Jesus’ most famous sermons. Famous because we are not quiet sure what to do with them. The beatitudes or blessings and woes describe a grand reversal of the normal order to the world, and depending on how you see yourself, they are very hope filled words or very scary words.

Either way, the Beatitudes stick in our mind not because they describe the world as we know, but rather a world so very different than our own. And so very different from the world of the first hearers of the sermon, the one who Jesus was looking towards as he preached these words.

The people of 1st century Israel would have heard them as the same kind of radical reversal of the order of things that we do. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God. And to be sure, these are not the spiritualized versions of Matthew’s gospel, these are not “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke’s Blessings are for those who do not not have enough to live on, a roof over their heads, enough clean clothes to wear. And Jesus goes on from there. Blessed are the hungry, the weeping, the hated.

It is the specific nature of the beatitudes that are the point. But not to say how it is we can be blessed, rather to undo and deconstruct the normal ways that we define blessing. It is almost as if Jesus is saying to his audience that anything that they can imagine being a curse is instead a blessing, and anything they they imagine a blessing is in fact a curse.

And once all the categories that we normally live by are undone, we might wonder, what is left? How does Jesus mean for us to understand a world where blessings are curses and curses and blessings?

And today in particular, we wonder what does all of this blessings and woes talk have to do with All Saints and remembering those who have gone before us in faith.

All Saints goes back to the early centuries of Christianity. Within a few generations of the first followers of Jesus, the Church had begun to remember and pray for those who had gone before in faith. Those who were the first witnesses of Christ. Those who were early leaders and faithful followers of the fledgling Christian community. The faithful who had passed on their faith in Jesus to successive generations.

The most important Saints received their own feast days or commemorations. The feast of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Saint John the Baptist, St. James, St. Micheal and all Angels. And that list of saints and figures of the faith that we remember on particular days has grown to include Martin Luther and his wife Katie, Martin Luther King Jr and Mother Theresa. Yet, for the myriad of saints who don’t get their own commemoration, and for all the faithful witnesses to the faith in our lives who have gone before us, we have the Feast of All Saints.

And as Lutherans who boldly claim the title of Sinner and Saint, as a way of reminding ourselves of God’s mighty deeds of salvation done for us, “All the Saints” is an expansive and inclusive list. We remember all those who have gone before us, and in particular we remember those loved ones who have died and especially those who have died over the course of the past year.

So along with a remembrance of the Saints, All Saints brings with it a sense of grief and loss. Today, we bring the individual experiences of grief that we usually bear alone, to this community and this gathering for worship. And we recognize that even as the ones we grieve may be different and varied, we all carry grief and loss with us in some way. Whether we are grieving a spouse, or family member or friend. Or grieving the loss of a relationship, community, or vocation. Or simply change in general. Grief infiltrates our lives in so many ways… and today we are reminded that we are not grieving alone.

And if there is anything that grief does to us, it turns our lives upside down. All of a sudden the things that were blessings: love and companionship, relationships and community, become curses and woes… the loves that filed our lives before become the things that hurt the most.

Kind of the way Jesus flips things around and calls curses blessings and blessings curses in the beatitudes.

The beatitudes that show us a world order that we don’t know yet that we understand deep down. We understand that they are the way the world *should* be.

The beatitudes show us the way that the Kingdom of God is.

The Kingdom that is breaking into our world.

The Kingdom where God makes all things right and new.

The Kingdom that is far more open and welcoming than we can imagine.

The Kingdom that is for those who are poor and hungry and weeping and hated.

The Kingdom that is for those rich and full and laughing and well liked.

The Kingdom that we glimpse today on the feast of All Saints.

All Saints is not an only about ritualizing our memory and grief, about giving meaning to the hurts and pains that we experience in life as we lose so much.

All Saints gives us also a glimpse of that Kingdom, a glimpse of the end of time, a vision of God’s Kingdom breaking into and transforming the orders of this world, making us all and all things new. The promise of All Saints is not just a memory of the Saints, but a joining with the saints of all times and all places. A moment where the veil between heaven and earth becomes thin enough to see that the Kingdom of God is nearer than we know.

All Saints points us to the coming end of the liturgical year and also points us to the end of time and all things. All Saints points us to the grand upending of our world that is coming, and to establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth… To the Kingdom that is already coming into focus now, but not fully here yet.

And so as Jesus declares blessings and woes on All Saints, he does so to expand our vision of Kingdom. To know that we are not alone, not alone in our grief but joined together in it, with all the blessings and curses that we bear.

And Jesus declares that this upside down version of the world that we don’t quite understand is in fact, the Kingdom of All Saints – to which we belong.

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Reformation 502 – You will be made free?

GOSPEL: John 8:31-36

31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

400 years ago not too far from the shores of Church Hill, Manitoba, the first Lutheran pastor in North America presided over the first Lutheran communion service on this continent. Rasmus Jensen, was a Danish Lutheran Pastor sailing with Danish explorers who were searching for the Northwest Passage.

Of course, that is somewhat relevant to us here a Sherwood Park because nearly a hundred years ago, the original incarnation of this congregation was started by Danish Lutherans in the north end of Winnipeg, and they called it First Danish Lutheran Church.

It is strange to imagine that just about 100 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 these to the door of the church in Wittenberg sparking the beginning of the Reformation, that a Lutheran pastor to whom this congregation could trace a common lineage, was presiding at communion on Manitoban soil.

400 years of history for us to stand on is a pretty big deal.

And they said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

I hadn’t been in my first call long before people started asking me if I was of German descent. The congregation I served was part of a cluster of the oldest Lutheran churches in Alberta, a community of descendants of German immigrants that had been farming the land for over 100 years.

“No” I would respond. “I come from Norwegian Lutherans.”

A response that often made made eyes glaze over.

The first few times I tried to explain… my grandfather was a pastor, who had served congregations in Saskatchewan and Alberta. His brother was also a pastor who had served in Alberta. My grandfather’s brother in law, my great-uncle had been president or national bishop of the church. People all across the country knew my family, we had relatives and family friends in every synod, connections all over the place. When I started seminary, all the professors knew who I was because we had a scholarship named after our family.

Just because I wasn’t German, didn’t mean I wasn’t important! It was a sentiment that didn’t seem to matter much to anyone but me.

And they said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

As Jesus speaks to his followers, he declares that if they follow him, they will know the truth. And the truth will set them free.

Yet they balk at the idea. Not at the idea of following Jesus, the one whom they think is the promised Messiah. And not at the idea that Jesus will reveal to them truth. No, they balk at that idea that they aren’t free.

“We are descendants of Abraham,” they protest. They are part of the chosen in-group, part of inheritors of God’s covenant of blessing for the Israelites. They have never been slaves… well other than that time in Egypt and God used Moses to recuse them, and that time they were carted off to captivity by the Babylonians, oh and the Romans who were currently occupying Israel and taxing the place the death… other than those times they have always been free. Oh, and also when the Philistines, Persians and Assyrians conquered Israel… other, than those times they have never been in captivity or slavery to anyone!

Jesus promises truth and freedom, yet even his own followers are too proud to imagine that they needed to be set free.

And whether we like to admit it or not, we kind know this indignant attitude well. We are taught often by our world to assert our noble independence, our freedom from the burden of obligation anyone or anything. Whether it is political leaders who will say anything for a vote or a contribution regardless of the facts. Or people commenting on social media about whatever the rage inducing issue of the day is. Or media and marketing that tell us we are in charge of our own destiny, as long as we buy the right products. Or social divisions based on nationality, language, skin colour, religious belief, political partisanship, sexual orientation, occupation, age or any other number of arbitrary categories where being part of the in-groups means finding fault and blame with “those people,” or “others.”

And of course the church is guilty of promoting this attitude too. Christians have been all too good at believing that we are part of the in crowd, and that the problems we face are to be blamed on people outside of our in-group, on the world around us. Non-believers, people who have fallen away from church, people of other faiths… they are the ones who are the problem. Why do we need to be set free?

And [we] said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

Today, on this Reformation Day, it might be hard to imagine the desperation that the average person felt in 1517. Desperation to avoid sin and death, to avoid eternal punishment and hell. Part of what drove Martin Luther to speak out against the church was seeing how the Pope and the Church were exploiting this desperation, rather than giving people the truth. The truth that God’s grace and mercy were freely given.

Like those first followers of Jesus, we don’t know that fear of hell and condemnation. Rather we hold onto what we perceive as our birthright as though it is the sign of our salvation. “We are descendants of Abraham. I was baptized, or confirmed, or married in this church. I have been attending here my whole life. I was born and raised in this country. I am a well respected member of my community.”

Jesus offers the truth. Jesus offers freedom. And we are loathe to accept it because it might mean that we weren’t free in the first place.

And [we] said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

It is a hard truth to accept. That being descendants of Abraham, that being the home of the first Lutherans in Manitoba, that coming from big Lutheran families… that being a noble, independent 21st century master of our own fate and future… that none of these things are what matters about us to God.

Jesus gives us the unvarnished truth. We are sinners. Sinners in need of saving.

But the truth of Christ doesn’t end there.

We are sinners who are forgiven

Sinners who are shown mercy.

Sinners who are given grace and love.

And it is Christ who forgives. Christ who shows mercy. Christ who gives grace and love.

And that is Good News indeed. Because deep down, we know that all those other things that we get indignant about don’t truly matter. Because being a descendant of Abraham won’t save us in times of trouble. That who we are related to, the name of the church that we were baptized at, the job title on our business cards, the party that we vote for, the team that we cheer for… that none of those things will save us when we are broken down by sin, when we are facing death and the grave.

There is but one thing, there is but one person who saves.

And they said to Jesus “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

On this reformation Sunday, as we remember our heritage and history, as we give thanks for those who have gone before us… we are also reminded about the truth of the matter. The truth that Martin Luther rekindled among the faithful, the truth that Jesus came to preach good news to God’s people.

The truth that we declare every time we gather, the truth revealed in holy baths and holy meals.

That God’s grace is given for us, not because we of who we are, but because of who God is.

And that it is the God of grace and mercy who has come for those who are enslave to sin and death.

And even when we think we don’t need saving, that the God of New Life who has come to save us.

The Persistence of Jesus – A Sermon for the Confirmation Class of 2019

GOSPEL: Luke 18:1-8

1Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused;… (Read the whole passage)

So confirmands… the scariest part of today is over. You have stood before us and shared with us a glimpse of your thoughts and experiences of faith. Of what all this God stuff means in your life. And that is not easy. Being vulnerable enough to talk about your faith is something that many adults would rather get a root canal than do what you have done today. So job well done.

Now some *hashtag* real talk… even though we asked you to figure out something to say about God and your faith, the reality is you haven’t got it figured it out yet. God and faith and what this all means for us is something we don’t ever truly figure out. As soon as it feels like we have got a hold of something, it all slips through our grasp. That is the weird thing about faith… it is not easy to make sense of.

In fact, even here on confirmation Sunday, you might not be fully sure what is going on. Confirmation is often a vague and hazy thing to describe. Your parents told you had to go, confirmation teachers and pastors spent a lot of time talking about how important the bible, church, and God are… and yet parents, teacher and pastors don’t always clearly explain just what is actually happening as you are confirmed. But don’t worry because most people who have been confirmed for decades might not be totally sure yet either.

So here is a little secret… you are, in fact, already confirmed. You were confirmed the day you were baptized. After the pastor washed you water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he or she laid hands on your head and prayed that you would be blessed with the sprit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, the spirit knowledge and fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence.

That is confirmation. Laying hands on your head and praying that short blessing.

Today, we are going to repeat that very same laying on of hands and blessing, with the hands of your mentors and family blessing you. And the hope is that today it will become a blessing imprinted in your memory and that you can take with you into the rest of your lives.

Now, of course that action of laying on hands and blessing is rooted deeply in 2000 years of tradition, and it is a public symbol and sign that you have been welcomed and blessed into the faith of the Church. Something that the church has been doing in various ways for millions, if not billions of people.

But there is also all this other stuff that we have been doing during confirmation. Learning and growing in faith together through weekly confirmation classes. Because today is also about this new stage of faith in your lives.

Yet the end of classes isn’t a graduation from church. And nor is this you taking ownership of your faith. Faith is not something we own… if anything it owns, or holds onto us.

Rather today, we are welcoming you into the practice of your faith. That’s right practice, kind of like how you practice hockey, or math times tables or piano. Today you are being entrusted with the practice of your faith.

And it is that word practice that connects us to this strange story about a widow and an unjust judge that we heard earlier. This weird story that seems to be about the uncaring and self-important judge (think warrior king in this context) who is hounded by a lowly widow demanding justice. She makes herself such a nuisance that the judge gives her what she wants. It sounds like a story about how to get what you want out of God, but it is not that.

It is a story about practice… about coming back again and again to something. Kind of like here at church. We do the same thing over and over again, week after week… not because we are unimaginative and boring, but because we are practicing. We practice our faith on Sundays, so that we can live out faith the rest of the week.

But the story is also a reminder of who God is, by telling us who God is not. God is not the uncaring and merciless judge. God is a loving parent, the merciful Messiah who is constantly seeking us out. The Christ who names and claims us in the waters of baptism.

Jesus is the one who meets us in this strange story of widow and judge, meets us week after week in the words of confession and forgiveness, and then again in the Words of God that inspire faith in us. Jesus meets us in song and prayer, in the faces of our siblings in Christ sitting here in the pews with us, and in the Bread and Wine, the Body of Christ for the Body of Christ.

And Jesus comes week after week to our practice of faith, meeting us again in those things. Jesus keeps coming kind of like that widow who persists. Jesus keeps coming after us, keeps seeking us out in faith.

And the judge who isn’t like God… well, there is someone who he is like. Us.

This why we need to practice. We need to be constantly reminded of who we are and who God is.

Martin Luther once said about the practice of faith, “Every week I preach justification by faith to my people, because every week they forget it.”

Our inclination is to forget, to think we know it all, to believe we don’t need reminding… And yet Jesus reminds us again and again, that we are named and claimed in baptism and again in confirmation, that we are forgiven in confession, that the good news of the God’s Word is for us, and that we need to be fed with the Body so that we can become the Body of Christ.

So remember how I said the hard and scary part is finished… well that wasn’t exactly true. Confirmation classes and now sharing your faith, that was the easy part… the hard part is just beginning. The hard part is finding out today that Jesus is going to persistently seek you out for the rest of your lives like that persistent widow. And like that judge, we are annoyed by it… we might even try to walk away or hide… but Jesus will keep coming to us, no matter how much we dislike it.

Jesus is persistently here, ready to meet you week after week. Jesus knows we need the constant reminder of what faith is. A reminder that the promises of forgiveness, life and salvation of baptism, and repeated again today are the real deal. And that the hands placed on you in blessing are the hands of 2000 year of practicing this faith in community, in the church.

Jesus reminds you and us again that this blessing and these hands are the Body of Christ welcoming you home, again and again and agin and again.

Thanksgetting at the Thanksgiving Table

John 6:25-35

When the crowd found Jesus on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. (Read the whole passage)

Thanksgiving is a strange day for us. We celebrate the occasion as Canadians. As Christians we note the day and we even appoint readings about thankfulness. But strictly speaking, Thanksgiving is not a Christian Holiday because it is not really about Jesus. Thanksgiving is more about us… it is day to reflect on all the good things that we have been blessed with during year, to give thanks for harvest, thanks for family, thanks for health… or at least that is the ideal of thanksgiving.

Often the day is less about giving thanks and more about getting thanks. To get thanks for the best mashed potatoes, turkeys, gravies, stuffings, yams, place settings, napkin foldings and fine china. And if not to get thanks, than to get stuffed, to fill empty bellies and empty hearts. It is a day to create memories and nostalgia of family and friends that will last us during the hard times until next year.

It was to spend the weekend looking for that perfect thanksgiving table to fill us up, at least for a while.

The crowds that come to Jesus today are looking to get stuffed too, while probably in the last few moments before thanksgiving dinner is ready, most cooks feel like Jesus does today too.

“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves”… Translation, you don’t really see what I am doing for you, you only want the food.

Thanksgiving is not so much about gratitude as it is about the memories and nostalgia rooted in autumn colours, fall sweaters, family gatherings and an extra day off work.

_______

When the crowds come to Jesus today, they come demanding a sign, and thinking about food. They want something for themselves. You can hear it in their words

“What must WE do?” “What sign will you give US?” So that WE may see” “ Give US this bread”.

Doesn’t sound like thankfulness does it?

Its selfishness through and through. And the self-centred questions and demands won’t end there this weekend. “When is dinner ready? Can I have some more? Pass me that. I’m hungry”.

And toughest part of all? There is nothing we can do to be different. As human beings we slip so easily into these self centred ways. If we aren’t putting all the pressure of an entire year on our shoulders, we are sniffing out our next feeding time. We live in a world that is slowly slipping out of our hands. And the tighter we try to hold it, the more it falls away. All the self centredness comes from a the primal hunger to be fed, and the subtle hunger that pressures us to impress our family and friends, to earn their approval.

Yet, Jesus is not concerned with selfish motivations to get fed or the hunger for approval, Jesus is about providing what we need. Even as he scolds and chides the crowds, he reminds them of the ways in which God changes our world. “You are looking for me… because you ate your fill of loaves.” God provides what we need to be satisfied. The need for approval, the hunger to be full — God is what fills that empty void within us.

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

This thanksgiving, along with the disciples we look for miracle bread, for that next thing that will fill our bellies, fill our empty hearts. But today with just bread and wine, Jesus fills us to the brim. What a contrast to the meals we will all go home to and share. There is but one course here. One item on the menu, one choice of beverage. And this table? This table can be found all over the world, at any time of the day or night, and there is always room. It is a common feast and it is each day given for us. It is not reserved for that one special day a year, but rather it makes each day special and holy.

This simple meal of bread and wine, this feast that God offers to each and every one of us, it does teach us about the holiday we celebrate today. There are many names for this meal, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. But it is the Greek name that is important today.

The Eucharist. The Thanksgiving.

And this Thanksgiving, God’s Thanksgiving, is not about having thanksgiving just the way you want, its not about getting your fill of mashed garden potatoes, or approval for your hard work. Its about giving. Its about the words “Given for you”. The Body of Christ Given for you. The Blood of Christ Given for you.

The bread of God comes down from heaven and feeds the world. The bread that God serves here today does what we cannot. God fills our empty bellies AND our empty hearts, God feeds us with food that will satisfy, God loves us enough to make us full.

The real thanksgiving table that we sit at today is the table of the Lord. It is a table of thanks for God’s gift of love. We eat and we are satisfied. We drink and we are no longer thirsty. This is what Thanksgiving is at its core.

It is God who sets and welcomes us to the table.

It is God who serves us what we need to be full.

It is God who makes sure that none leave the table hungry.

So today, we will all celebrate thanksgiving with people that we love, and no it won’t be the perfect celebration, in fact it will be a very human way of giving thanks, it will be wrapped up with selfishness. But God is present in our Thanksgiving despite this, and more importantly God is the one doing the giving part. Giving us what we do not deserve, love and mercy. Giving us himself, in body and blood.

In the Eucharist, in the Thanksgiving meal, God gives us life that is life.

Not even a mustard seed worth of faith

Luke 17

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (Read the whole passage)

Today, we continue hearing the stories of Jesus ministry and work from the gospel of Luke. Two weeks ago Jesus told the parable of the dishonest manager and the generous God. Last week it was the familiar story of the rich man and poor Lazarus. But today, it is the disciples who cause the action. They have been following their master for a while now, seeing him teach and preach, watching him heal the sick and lame, being amazed at his miracles and exorcizes. And despite seeing all this, they still want something from Jesus.

The disciples come to Jesus and make only a simple request. “Increase our faith”. It doesn’t seem like much. All they want is maybe a little show of power from Jesus. Maybe some power of their own to heal minor diseases, maybe not lameness and leprosy, but limps, sore backs and bad acne. Maybe Jesus could let them exorcize some minor demons, the ones that make the floor boards squeak or that make single socks disappear.

This hardly seems like an unreasonable request, Jesus is God in flesh after all, he could easily make the disciples better believers, super followers or something. The disciples just want a little more certainty, a little more assurance, a few more benefits for being faithful.

“Increase our faith!” the disciples ask.

Jesus does not take this well.

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could make mulberry tree be uprooted and plant itself in the sea. It would obey you!”.

So obviously the disciples don’t even have a mustard seed worth of faith. The tiny barely perceptible mustard seed, the seed that grows into an unwieldy bush and causes gardening headaches. Not even faith the size of a tiny, useless seed.

Jesus sees right through the request, he sees to the heart of the matter. The disciples want some control in this whole God business. They want power, assurance, confidence. They want what we all seek in the darkest places of our hearts, to be like God.

Increase our faith!

We have made that request, issued that demand, prayed that prayer just like the disciples. Increase our attendance, increase our budget, increase our volunteers we have all said as churches. Increase our morals, increase our nation, increase our respect for the past has been a a favourite refrain of politicians.

And privately many of us have probably prayed this prayer. “Increase my faith, give me something to hold on to, let me know that you are real God.”

Jesus scolds the disciples, and sometimes it can feel like God ignores our simple requests. And sometimes all we want is something to hold on to, something that will satisfy our uncertainty and our fears.

Yet, whether it is a selfish request of God, or a demand for control, or an honest prayer in desperate moment, the rebuke that Jesus responds with can hurt.

Jesus says that If we had the smallest amount of faith you could do great things… and yet we cannot do them.

And even more we are reminded that “Increase our faith” is about us. It is about our need to have some kind of say in this God stuff, to make faith a little more “take” than “give”, to have some part in our relationship with God.

And when we dig at that need, it soon becomes clear that it is rooted in the same insecurity that made Eve grab the fruit,

the fear that made Abraham send his wife to be the concubine of a King,

the rage that made Moses kill that Egyptian,

the desire that made David lust for Bathsheba,

the resistance that made Jonah run from God’s call,

the reactiveness that made Peter strike off the ear of the servant,

the pride that made Paul persecute and kills Christians,

the confusion that made all the disciples hide in the upper room even when they knew Jesus was risen from the dead.

We ask, we demand, we pray, Increase our faith, and it comes from the Old Adam, Old Eve within us, the place of pride, fear, control. The place of Original Sin.

And even so, just as Jesus has been reminding us week after week, Jesus reminds us again.

We are not in control. We are not the ones who have the power. We are not God.

Jesus talks about mustard seeds and mulberry trees and then goes on to talk about a master and a servant. And not to tell us that we are slaves or subservient. Jesus isn’t trying to make us feel small. But rather Jesus reminds us that we have a role in this God stuff, and it isn’t to be God.

The greek word (pistuo) that we often translate as faith, is almost better understood as trust.

“Increase our trust” we might say.

And yet we know that increasing trust is not something the truster can do. Trust can only be increased by the one who is trustworthy.

Faith or trust is not a power we wield, or a control we have or even something to hold on to. Faith or trust is what God places in us, it is the wild and untamed relationship that God wants to meet us with,

faith is what God holds us in,

what God grabs us with,

what God places beneath our feet.

Increase our faith.

Jesus reminds us today that faith is not something that we own or control or have power over.

Because God’s faith is in us.

Because God’s trustworthiness is complete.

Because faith is a gift we receive.

A gift bestowed in Baptism.

A gift fed and renewed in the Lord’s supper.

A gift shared in the Body of Christ that is the church.

God is the one who creates faith, and we are the ones in whom faith is created.

God is the one who gives faith, and we are the ones who receive it.

God is the one in whom faith rests, and we are the ones who are held and rest in God.

Jesus reminds the disciples and us of our roles in this faith stuff. The disciples want – we want – power, assurance, something to hold on to. Increase our faith, we ask, we demand, we pray. And Jesus steadily reminds us week after week that God is the one doing the work here. We might want some control over our relationship with God, we want some input, but God’s love doesn’t need anything from us. We are simply the ones who are loved. We are the ones who are loved, and in whom God’s love meets the world.

Increase our faith we ask today.

And Jesus says, if you had faith you could do great things. But faith is what God has in you, that is what in you truly need.

Amen.

The One Off – What Commitment looks like for the 21st Century Church

If you follow the liturgical calendar, you will know that the the first half of the church year is made up of diverse seasons that tell the story of Jesus – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter. And then comes a long season of counting Sundays called Ordinary Time.

Towards the end of that second half of the church year, there are a bunch of “one-off” Sundays that mark an occasion for a single Sunday, rather than a season. Thanksgiving (it is in October in Canada ), Reformation Sunday (for Lutherans), Halloween/All Saints, Reign of Christ, the Christmas Pageant and then Christmas Eve.

I find it interesting that for most churches out there October through Christmas is often the busiest, most active time of the year. It probably has to do with the beginning of school and the lingering fall weather that keeps us looking for opportunities to get outside before winter.

But I often wonder if it says something about the changing nature of commitment of active church goers. In decades past, active church members were defined as those who attend every Sunday or nearly every Sunday. I have seen the old buttons, pins and stickers of the 60s and 70s for people to collect from the churches they attended while on vacation. These were for those going for perfect Sunday school attendance records, and probably to ward off nosy pastors inquiring as to why you missed a Sunday.

In the last decade or two, active church membership has been counted by those who attend once a month or more. There simply isn’t a statistically relevant number of people who show up every Sunday. There are still some who can be counted on to be in their pew every week, but often the active members of a congregation attend 1 to 2 times a month. These are people who are leaders in churches, serving on council, leading music, teaching bible studies, chairing committees etc…

There are lots of factors to this of course, and no, it is not Sunday shopping and sports. I think it has more to do with most households shifting from 1 income earner to 2. Longer work weeks – 50 or 60 hours – being demanded of many. The snow bird schedules of those who have the chance to travel in retirement. And our changing tolerance as a society for long term obligations and duties. We simply have less time and energy because we work more and earn less – so our personal/family/recreation time comes at a premium.

So when the church has a bunch of one-off Sundays like Thanksgiving, Confirmation Sunday, Reformation, All Saints, Reign of Christ, the Christmas Pageant in Advent and the most one off Church events of them all – Christmas Eve – people start showing up. We are now a society that can handle committing to show up once… but not usually more than that.

This change is the reason why Sunday Schools struggle to keep going. Church councils and committees struggle to find bodies. Choirs, men’s and women’s groups, and bible studies are falling out of the commonplace in the life of congregations. It isn’t that people don’t want to do these things, it is that there isn’t time and energy for many weekly or even monthly obligations anymore – there is barely time to go to church at all more than one or two times a month.

And one of the one of common concerns you hear from church leaders, from tired out folks wanting to give up their long held commitments, is how to get “those other people” to come and take on more. How can we get people to come back?

The thing is, we all know that this is the wrong question, we just don’t know who to frame it differently. It just isn’t going to happen, we haven’t turned the clock back before and we won’t figure out how to do it now. People aren’t going to just come out of the woodwork to volunteer in droves for 3 year committee commitments and 25 year Sunday School teacher terms.

I think we also know what the right question is too.

I think most church leaders and members know that the real question lies in how the church shifts from being a social obligation to a place where we practice our faith in community. And more importantly, shifting our own understanding of what this means.

It isn’t actually bad thing for churches to differentiate ourselves from the local cultural club or community centre or YMCA or arts community or PTA or soup kitchen. We might have aspects of those things, but those thing are not core to our identity as churches.

Churches are primarily places to practice our faith – to gather with other believers and hear again the good news of Christ given for us.

Churches are places to follow Jesus, to experience God’s commitment to us, rather than be burdened by our commitment to God.

Churches are places where we are a community of people brought together by Jesus, by a common faith that we want to share with others. Not a group of friends who also sometimes pray.

The transformation from place of social and culture obligation to place where faith is practiced is pretty damn scary. In fact, it so scary to imagine that we would rather just complain about “those other poeple” who aren’t taking our jobs from us so that we don’t have to do them anymore.

It is scary to imagine what a church full of people who actually wants to follow Jesus together and to see where Jesus leads will look like… because it will be very different than what we look like now.

It is scary to ask how we get there too – even if we know that this is the question we need to ask and the one being asked of us.

And it might mean allowing for a world full of poeple who cannot give more than a day or two a month to commit to something… but is also means preaching the gospel to a world full of people carrying heavy burdens, who need communities of faith to share those burdens with, and who need to hear about a God who is deeply committed to them, no matter what.

It might mean reimagining what commitment to church looks like, or rather imagining how churches can be places that give people grace, hope, mercy and meaning… instead of slave labour in the form “volunteer jobs…”

Oh, and it might also mean giving people that new life thing that Jesus likes to talk about too.

The fifth parable of the lost – it is not about rich or poor

Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side…” (Read the whole passage)

The parables keep coming this week. And unlike the parable last week, the parable of the wealthy land owner and the dishonest manager, where the land owner praises his manager for being dishonest, this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus seems very straight forward.

There is a ridiculously rich man who acts selfishly and goes to Hell because of it. The poor Lazarus gets nothing in life, and so goes to Heaven in death. It sounds like a simple formula for us follow.

If we look out of the poor, and make sure not to hoard all of our wealth and, we don’t act like little kings and queens, we should probably be okay. If we aren’t poor like Lazarus, we should probably help those who are… and that should be enough to save ourselves from eternal punishment. Right?

Not so fast. As usual, there is more to this parable than its surface reading.

In fact, throughout history, Christians have had some problems with this parable. One problem being that the rich man doesn’t have a name. If characters in parables are given names, it is almost always the important ones. And this rich man is the focus. He has most of the lines. Lazarus doesn’t even say a word. In order elevate the status of the rich man, Christians have often called him Dives. Rich people aren’t nameless characters in stories, we know that rich folks are more important than that.

And probably there is a part of us that hears this parable and identifies the most with Dives, or at least if we had to choose, we wouldn’t want to be pitiable Lazarus… however this really isn’t a choice between rich and poor.

Dives is not your average rich guy. He is ridiculously rich. He acts like a king. He wears purples robes, clothing reserved for royalty. He has a feast every day, even most monarchs didn’t do that. He is the epitome of self-aggrandizement and entitlement. Dives is the ultimate rich man.

Lazarus on the other hand is the opposite. Unable to even move his own body, he has been laid at the Dive’s gate in the hopes the rich man will have compassion. Lazarus is so pitiful that the street dogs look after him. He is utterly helpless. Lazarus is absolute bottom of society.

Lazarus and Dives are complete opposites… they are caricatures of rich and poor, cartoon-like, beyond reality. Yet, still when Lazarus ends up with Abraham and Dives in Hades something is off, this is not the way things work in 1st century Israel. Lazarus was not only poor, but he was also unworthy and unclean. He would was too poor to make sacrifice at the temple, too unworthy and unclean to even go to synagogue. He wouldn’t have been able to pray, to receive God’s forgiveness, to follow the law. He would have been doomed.

Dives however, could have easily kept the law, easily afforded to make sacrifices, easily maintained his righteousness. Dives should have been set in life and in death.

So when Lazarus and Dives die, what unfolds would be have mind boggling to Jesus’ hearers. For Lazarus to be carried by Angels to Abraham would have been preposterous. Only two people had experienced such an honour, only Moses and Elijah, patriarchs and heroes of faith. A poor man lying a rich man’s gate is no patriarch and no hero.

Dives’ fate is equally absurd. Dives is the one who should have gone to be with Abraham. Rather he goes to hell, but not just any hell, he goes to Hades. Greek Hell, Gentile Hell. Hades is the hell of a different religion entirely, not judaism. Dives is no pagan gentile.

Yet, somehow despite ending up in the complete opposite places of where they should be, somehow Lazarus and Dives maintain their earthly positions. Lazarus still does not speak or act for himself, but instead Abraham speaks and acts for him.

And even in gentile hell, Dives has not understood that his fortunes have been reversed. He calls out to Abraham, but not for mercy. Instead he treats Abraham like the butler of the house, and Dives orders some room service from the bell hop Lazarus to bring some water. And even when Abraham explains, Dives still does not understand and tries to order something else. He wants to send Lazarus the telegram delivery boy to bring a message to his family. Dives cannot stop being self-righteous and entitled. And Lazarus continues to be a silent and helpless character who needs to rely on the care of others.

The rich man and Lazarus are two extremes, polar opposites, they really represent concepts or ideas more than they portray real people. In fact their names say it all. Dives is the Latin word for “Rich”. Lazarus the Greek word for “God has helped”.

When we see Dives and Lazarus in this light, they stop being examples of what we should do or not do.

These two characters represent the extremes of human behaviour. The extremes that exist within each of us.

We are all Dives. We are all Lazarus. We are all both.

We have the capacity within us to be completely self-centered. We have moments when we believe that we are truly in control. We wish, deep down, that we could save ourselves. We think we are righteous when we follow the rules, or receive blessings, or are gifted with wealth.

We also have the capacity within us to feel truly unworthy and totally helpless. We have moments when we believe that we are nothing and undeserving, that we cannot be saved, that we are unclean and cursed, that we are the victims and the guilty of the world.

So often as human beings we trick ourselves into thinking that we are the ones who have earned our success, our status, our blessings. And when it comes to God and heaven we think we can save ourselves.

So often as human beings, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we are to blame for our failures, our downfalls, our curses. And when it comes to God and heaven, we think that we have made ourselves unworthy.

Abraham explains the problem we have to Dives. “Between you and us, a great chasm has been fixed”. Not a rocky canyon or deep hole. But a chasm of self-righteousness. A chasm built by our trust in ourselves, our trust that we have made ourselves worthy or that we have made ourselves unworthy.

And when Dives cannot see why the chasm is there, Abraham explains again. You will not “be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there is the key.

There is the point that Jesus is making.

This is the fifth parable of the lost. The lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son, dishonest manager and now the rich man and Lazarus.

And its both the dives and Lazarus who are lost. Lazarus is found, because he is hopeless. Dives isn’t quiet ready to not be the one saving himself. And yet, there is nothing even the richest man can do to achieve salvation.

For you see, Lazarus doesn’t need to rise from the dead, someone already has. Someone has already gone to the cross. The cross bridges our chasms of self-righteousness and self-doubt. The cross is what God traverses in order to join us in our hells, our pits, our isolation. The cross that connects a dead creation to an alive creator.

Christ is the one who has risen from the dead, and Christ is the one who shows us just who does the saving, the righteous making. Christ reminds us that we cannot make ourselves righteous and we cannot make ourselves unworthy. We simply don’t have the power. Our own chasms are too great for us, but no chasm is too big for God in Christ.

And so we gather to hear this again, to be convinced over and over again.

Christ has risen from the dead.

We repeat this good news, over and over each time we worship, in many and various ways

Christ Jesus who came to save sinners.

God who brings us home from the wilderness of Sin

Your sins are forgiven and you are made free.

Worthy is Christ, the lamb who was slain.

You have the words of eternal life.

On the third day he rose again.

Jesus Christ who on this day overcame death and the grave.

Christ has died.

Christ is risen

Christ will come again.

Save us from the time of trial

Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world.

We repeat this good news, over and over and over, and maybe one day we will believe it, even if it takes a lifetime to sink in. God keeps reminding us. No matter how much we act like rich Dives, no matter how much we feel like poor Lazarus. It is Christ and Christ alone who makes righteous, who makes us worthy.

This parable seems straight forward and seems to give us ideas on how to live. But isn’t life advice at all. It is yet another declaration and another promise.

Only God saves, and because of Jesus being raised from the dead, we too are raised from being dead in sin into alive in Christ.