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Lenten Wilderness and the moving target of truth

John 18:12-27

19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20 Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (Read the whole passage)

We are coming to the half way point of our Lenten pilgrimage. We entered into the wilderness two weeks ago, and we will have two more weeks to go after this. But this year, as we have been using the Narrative Lectionary and the Gospel of John, we have been hearing different stories than the usual ones. We began in the wilderness of grief and loss with the story of Lazarus. We then jumped forward to a moment familiar to us in Holy Week, Jesus washing the disciples feet. This week, we hear a story of Peter and Jesus again… yet not as they interact with one another, but as they are contrasted.

As we continue our wilderness journey today, we are thrown forward again. This time we hear a story from Good Friday, a nighttime story of the chaos between Maundy Thursday and the cross. And it can be an odd moment for us to consider in the middle of Lent. Yes, we know that Holy Week and passion are place that we are eventually headed, but the Lenten wilderness is still very much before us. And Lent isn’t quite the intense chaos of Good Friday. Instead, it is slower, quieter, toned back place. And so again, we hear this story with new, Lenten ears.

After Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, only a few hours after washing the feet of the disciples and sharing in the Last Supper, he is brought to the high priest Annas. While Jesus is questioned in the court of the high priest, Peter is outside in the courtyard with the common folk around the fire. And each is questioned, Peter and Jesus, about their identity and relationship to the message that they have been proclaiming together for three years.

As Jesus responds, he does so grounded and firm in the things that he has been preaching and teaching. He asks for the wrong that he is accused of to be pointed out to him. But as he is struck by a solider, it becomes clear that he is in the middle of a game of power. A game where truth is a moving target, a game of politics and manipulation, a game of self-interest and control.

The temple authorities are not expecting Jesus to stand firm. They are expecting Peter instead. Peter plays the game. They know that when most people are faced with he power of the temple, they will recant and deny their heresy… even if they aren’t heretics.

The high priests want Jesus gone, but they also want to take away the power of his message. They don’t want a martyr, they want a disgraced prophet who took everything he said back before he was put to death. They want Jesus to grovel and to admit that he was just seeking power too.

And so, Jesus’ trial is just a game, a sham. Jesus is doomed from the beginning because the temple authorities don’t care about the truth… or at least the truth isn’t their main concern until Jesus starts speaking it.

They want Jesus to do what Peter does. When faced with accusations of being one of Jesus’ followers, Peter denies even knowing the teacher, master and friend that he has been following. He chooses to save his own skin, rather than stand for what he believes.

But instead, Jesus doesn’t play the game.

We know this game well. It is the game that plays out on the news, in parliamentary chambers or capitol hill, in board rooms of fortune 500 companies and on twitter. But is also played in PTA meetings, church committees, between neighbours and in families.

It is the game where truth and honesty are moving targets and information is controlled, but information is power. Truth is dolled out in small bits by those on the top, because when it comes out too much at a time it often spells the end of power, it embarrasses and shames.

But here is the most insidious thing about this game of the moving target of truth that we play. Often, we don’t even realize it. Sure there are some out there who know the extent of their manipulations, and who are only seeking power. But so often we aren’t even aware of the game. We are instead trying to the right thing, we are attempting to be faithful, yet as we seek to do the right thing at all costs, we end up doing the wrong thing.

And it might be only in this Lenten wilderness that we are in that the truth our game playing is finally revealed.

A the church gathers together week after week for worship, we begin by confessing our sins. It is a moment in community that sets us apart from much of the world. As we confess, we speak truths about ourselves that the game of power and the moving target of truth would never allow. We admit that we have done wrong, that we have failed to do right and that the truth is not in us. Our confession is very much a lenten wilderness moment, a moment when the truth is finally revealed about us.

If we listen closely to Jesus’ words today, we notice that he too gives a confession. But his is different than ours. Jesus says:

I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.

If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong.

Jesus speaks things that sound almost opposite to our confession of sin. Jesus confesses the truth.

As Jesus is in the middle of this stormy game of human sin and the moving target of truth, does something that neither Peter nor the rest of us can do.

He stakes a claim and tethers himself to the ground. Instead of the truth being a moving target, Jesus roots it in place.

And all of a sudden the game that is being played looses some of its power. The temple authorities cannot undermine Jesus. They cannot destroy his credibility, they cannot brush his teaching under the carpet.

Jesus is standing firm in his message.

In his message of the Kingdom of God coming near.

In his message of God’s love for creation, for humanity, for us.

Even at the height of the game… Jesus is still preaching about God’s mercy and forgiveness by demanding this errors be revealed.

It is a similar thing Jesus does here week after week. As we all blow in from the stormy chaotic world, where the game of power and the moving target of truth is constantly being played, the very first thing that Jesus does for us is root us. Stake us to the ground in confession.

We confess our sins, we admit our faults and failings. And the game is banished from us for a least a moment.

And then along with our confession, comes absolution. The promise of God’s mercy and forgiveness given to us. Mercy that holds us in place. That lets us breathe and live and let go.

It might feel uncomfortable for us to be so honest. Every week, we might feel like we are wandering into the lenten wilderness when we confess our sin and the games of power are left at the door. But God’s forgiveness is what we need and what we are given.

Jesus roots us in God’s love and all of a sudden the game of the moving target of truth doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matters because human power means nothing next to God’s love.

The truth that Jesus proclaims, that Jesus confesses changes everything, changes us. And the vulnerable, honest, revealing wilderness that we have entered into becomes a place where God is also revealed to us.

The truth is proclaimed today, but it won’t be until Good Friday and the empty tomb that the temple authorities, that the mobs and crowds, that Peter and the fearful disciples will discover that it isn’t just Jesus teaching that cannot be undone. And with that truth revealed, Jesus will deal the other issue of his trial – his condemnation to death

Soon God will show us that life itself cannot be undone, and that the power of death means nothing next to God’s love and new life promise to us.

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Could decline be a good thing for Christianity?

You might have figured this out already, but I write a fair bit about the decline of Christianity in North American. And by decline I mean the aging and shrinking membership of churches as people drift away from church membership and attendance.

I talk about it, preach about it, and I blog about it here.

I have been a pastor for nearly a decade, but I am still just young enough to be considered a millennial. Millennials, of course, being the generation much lamented as the ones who stopped going to church (here is a secret: it was our parents who started the exodus).

As churches and denominations experience the effects of decline, both in terms of fewer members and smaller budgets, there has been a lot of hand-wringing and lamenting and finger-pointing and worrying. There has been conflict about who is to blame, experts are brought in to teach churches how to “bring people back.”

Often the habit of those still committed to upholding congregations and denominations is to try to diagnose the reasons that people have stopped coming and churches are shrinking. The Lord’s Prayer no longer being said in public schools, Sunday shopping, sports on Sundays, etc… As if just changing one of those things send people back into church in droves. We long for the magic bullet fix that will turn the church back into what we remember it being… something that was never as great in actuality as it was in memory.

Decline is very scary for churches today. It is the thing that makes us wonder where all the young people went, that makes us tired and want to pass on responsibilities to someone else, it can quite frankly make us feel depressed every time we walk into big mostly empty sanctuaries with just a few bodies dotting the pews for worship.

Yet, I wonder if we have ever considered whether or not decline is actually a bad thing for us.

Could the decline of Christianity in North America even be a good thing?

We often imagine, describe and speak about decline in unhelpful ways. We buy into the notion that more is always better. We think of churches like companies who if they aren’t growing, taking in more people and more revenue, are dying.

But churches aren’t companies trying to survive in a downturned market. Churches are more like living creatures. And when living creatures only take in more and more and more it is not healthy. In fact, we know that never-ending growth for a living creature will lead to death.

Instead, living creatures need moderation and balance. When we have too much of something we need to cut back in order to be healthy.

The decline that we have been experiencing lately just might be God putting us on a diet. God is calling us to cut back, in order to be healthy, in order that we might live.

Just step back for moment and consider all that the things that need to be true about the church if decline is truly bad and limitless growth is good.

It means that the Gospel is nothing more than a numbers game, a tool to increase attendance and revenue.

It means that the Kingdom of God is retreating from the world as we shrink, and that God can only do as much as we are able to provide the money and people to do.

It means that real ministry is about attraction, sales, and consumerism because the goal is to get more people through the doors, rather than sending more disciples out.

It means that if we could reverse the decline we lament, the church would become a virus growing until everything is consumed by it, all people and all resources.

If these things are not true, is it possible that decline might be a good thing? 

If decline is a call to give up the excess, the things that don’t help us live but weigh us down… what is it that we are being called to give up?

The churches in the area I serve in are dealing with this question in concrete ways by working towards 5 congregations being served by 1.5 pastors.

But to get there we had to sort out the difference between important things and essentials. There are a lot of important things that we had to let go of. We had to let go of the hurts and failures of the past, the much beloved traditions and expectations that feel so central to our identity as churches. We had to sacrifice comfort and security for the sake of ministry, and for the sake of our brothers and sisters in faith.

And in coming to what was essential, we had to ask what were the things that God called us to do that made us church… things that we had to do no matter how big or small, rich or poor we are. Surprise, surprise, it turned out the be the same stuff that Martin Luther and the reformers said was essential to being church. The same stuff that Jesus commanded us to do – Word and Sacrament ministry. And while we would not be able to do a lot of the important things that churches are used to doing (programs, events, committees, traditions, expectations), we discovered that we could make sure that everyone had the essentials.

As we have taken the first steps towards a paired down focus on the essentials, on Word and Sacrament ministry, it has been surprising how good it is for us. It is like eating healthy food and doing exercises for a church, focusing on the stuff that we need to keep doing in order to still be Church.

And we are still figuring out what to do with this new smaller, leaner Body (of Christ) it clear that a lot of churches and denominations in North America just might benefit from decline as much be hurt by it. 

No, we will not be the churches we once were. Not everyone will come back, not every fall supper, craft sale, dinner theatre production, scout troupe, curling bonspiel can be resurrection. Maybe not even every Sunday School or women’s group or men’s breakfast. We cannot go backwards, we cannot return to what we once were.

Because it was unsustainable. Memories of full churches with lots going on, and more people and finances than we knew what to do with could be described in others ways. Full and growing can also mean bloated and gaining weight. Filled to the brim can also mean burdened.

God just may be calling us to let go and cut back on the stuff that no longer works, stuff that we struggled to find volunteers for, that we tire ourselves trying to maintain, that we wish there were others to take over for us.

God just may be telling us to stop. 

To stop relying on social pressure or favourable shopping hours to bring people to church, but instead let the Holy Spirit call people to faith.

To stop seeing church membership as an act of citizenship, but instead a practice of faith.

To stop focusing our energy and time on maintaining budgets, facilities, membership roles, committees, programs and local traditions, but instead let the disciplines of Word and Sacrament ministry govern our communities. To let the rhythms and patterns of the liturgy and church year show us where to spend our time and energy.

To stop trying to do everything for all people, but instead refocus ourselves on the Gospel – the story of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.

The longer church declines and more we try to go backwards… the clearer it becomes that God is getting us ready for the future. But first God is shedding us of our old selves, cutting back on the things that once worked for us, but now weigh us down and keep us from moving forward.

Decline isn’t a bad thing. It is a diet, a diet so that the church can be healthy again. 

The parable of the sower – The soil is not the point

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. (Read the whole passage)

This is one of my favourite readings. For my installation service in my second call, I chose this parable as the gospel lesson. I just love the idea of a sower or farmer planting seed with wild abandon, willing to imagine and see if seeds will grow – even in the unexpected places. The excitement of potential, the willingness to see possibilities seems so hopeful.

And yet, anyone who knows anything about modern farming, knows that this kind of hap hazard seeding is not how things are done. These days GPS plows make for the maximum use of soil, air seeders measure density and plant at the optimum places. Good soil maximized for productivity, seed isn’t wasted and poor soil avoided.

But ancient farming, while a little more low tech, wouldn’t have been much different. In fact, isn’t that the point Jesus is making. A good sower knows where to seed and where to avoid just wasting valuable seeds on soil that won’t produce.

Yet this parable that Jesus tells, describes a sower who is not so efficient and careful with his seeds and soil and planting techniques. This farming style seems crazy to us and to the crowds listening in Jesus time. This haphazard sower who scatters seed anywhere, draws our attention to the different kinds of soil. To the hard packed soil of the paths, not unlike gravel roads or waking paths. We hear about rocky soil with no depth to it. Soil that is in amongst the thorns and thistles. But perhaps the most interesting soil of them all is the soil that gives 30 or 60 or 100 fold return. These kind of returns from good soil are almost unimaginable. In fact, anything that gives even a 30% return is almost unheard of in life. Anyone with a savings account knows that a 30% interest rate is crazy.

And so as soon as we hear Jesus talking about these incredible returns, we want to jump right to part where we figure out how to be good soil. We want to separate those who are bad, hard, inhospitable soils from those who are good soil. We want to see ourselves as the good soil, we like the ability to categorize and label, to judge and condemn. This lens of productivity is one we know well. It is one that all 3 gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, give with their telling of this story. If we want to be productive, we need to be good soil. If we want to be righteous, we need to be good and faithful.

Yet, we know that this kind of productivity just isn’t realistic, we know that this really isn’t the way the world is. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know that life is full of unpredictable, unexplainable, and unknowable outcomes. We know that sometimes the people with strongest faith, those who are gentle and kind, those who are most vulnerable sometimes receive the hardest lot in life. We know that suffering and sin doesn’t really seem to follow a pattern but rather happens to us at random. We know that there are those out there who seem to have an easy and blessed time with life, who get all the legs up without really trying or even when they don’t seem to deserve it.

And when it comes to hearing the word as Jesus says, we know that much of the time we are much more like the hard, or rocky or thorny soil than the good soil. We we all wish we could pray more and pray better. We all wish that we gave more to the church, more time and money. We all wish we could share our faith more easily, that we could tell our friends and neighbours just why this place means so much to us, that is when we ourselves find the time to come.

But we don’t feel like good soil… we can see and feel in ourselves what we know to be failure. We can see and feel the rocks, the thorns and the hardness within us.

In the parable, we get caught up in the business of the seeds and the soil. We like to imagine the details of where we fit. And we are struck by the reality of what it means to be soil, good or otherwise.

But the parable isn’t about seeds or soil. Jesus gives us the clue right at the beginning.

Jesus says, “Hear then the parable of the sower”. This parable is not about soil, it is about the sower.

Not about us.

But about God.

About this sowing God who seems radical, haphazard, and all over the place. God whose seeds end up everywhere.

When Jesus explains this parable, he never encourages or exhorts anyone to be good soil or good seed. He says that the parable is about the sower. It is about the one who owns and works the fields, the one who owns and plants the seeds. This parable is about a God who is willing to see that there is possibility even in the rocky, hard, shallow and thorny soil. Even knowing that the seeds may not grow in poor conditions, God scatters and plants anyways.

This parable is about God who declares that the hard packed soil, the rocky soil, the thorny soil and that dark, nutrient soil… God declares that all these soils are acceptable. All these soils are good enough to sow. Good enough for the Word to be scattered on.

The sower seems to be scattering seed, knowing that it probably will not grow, but seeing the possibility that it might. So are we the soil or the seeds in this parable? That part isn’t clear. And maybe it doesn’t matter if we know where we fit exactly. What this parable does show is a God who has decided to scatter grace, mercy and love in all directions. This parable shows a God who has decided to scatter on the rocky, the shallow, the thorny soil and the good soil. It is a God who is wants the Word of the Kingdom to be heard everywhere and anywhere. It shows a God who is determined to let this creation, these seeds and this soil, to let us know, that we are cherished and loved, imperfections and all.

This sowing God is showing us that the lenses of good and bad soil that we see the world through are not how the sower sees. The productivity of the soil does not determine the whether the sower sows. Whether we are good and holy, whether we are hard, rocky or thorny… these things do not determine whether God loves.

The sower sows because the sower has decided to scatter the seed. God gives God’s word of grace to us because God has decided that we are God’s beloved. And there is no amount of fruit that we can bear or fail to bear, no good works that we can do to earn or sins that we separate us from God’s love and mercy.

“Listen!” Jesus says, “a sower went to sow…” and with those first few words gives us the good news. The good news that God has decided to love us, no matter whether we feel good enough or not. Because God’s love is given because God has declared it is given – for us.

Holding on to Truth in a Post-Truth World

 

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (Read the whole passage)

Have you ever been asked by a curious family member or friend, or even skeptical  or non-believing co-worker or neighbour why you show up here on Sunday morning? Have you ever been challenged to explain by a person who simply cannot and will not understand why you believe the outrageous claims about God that we Christians make? Maybe they were inviting you away for the weekend, or to play golf on Sunday morning, or out for Sunday brunch and you had to explain that you could not come along or it would have be later on in the day because you go to church. Maybe you were talking to some friends having a conversation over coffee when the topic of religion came up and you simply said nothing, because nothing seemed better than embarrassing yourself.

Most of us have probably experienced, at some point in our lives, that sheepish feeling of not knowing what to say or do when confronted with the challenge to explain why we believe in these things that we cannot explain or prove. Maybe you tried to give faith an explanation that you thought made sense or that seemed reasonable, but in the end all that came out is something like, “I can’t explain it, but I just know that its true somehow”. Reasons and explanations seem to only fall flat in the face of unflinching skepticism…At least this foolishness of faith can be somewhat justified because it is only a couple hours each week on Sunday mornings when the rest of the world is sleeping in anyways. Yet, at the same time the power of coming to this place is something that wish we could share, instead of humming and hawing when someone asks us what we do on Sunday mornings.

Unfortunately, the problem and the foolishness of the Gospel is that it does not jive with all the competing truths out there. It doesn’t make sense that God who created the universe would come to live with us as a peasant carpenter in the backwater of the known world two thousand years ago. It doesn’t make any more sense that God would willingly die at the hands of the people God created. And the thing that makes the least sense of all is that once creation had clearly done its best to finally get rid of Jesus by crucifying him on the cross, he comes back three days later.

Believing in the truth of God found in Jesus Christ is a minority opinion these days. Today in Canada there are more people sleeping in on Sunday morning than are showing up to church. This is not of course surprising in our post-truth world with alternative facts. We at one time are free to believe any crazy story we come across, while being skeptical of everything we hear. Evidence and facts are easily changed. Holding to truth to like the truth of Jesus’ work of saving dead sinners by making us alive is a fools endeavour.  There are many other truths that could portray us in a better light and give us a whole lot more power and importance.

And yet here in the foolish Church we have been proclaiming for weeks now the second coming of God in Christ during Advent, the birth of the divine Christ over Christmas, the revelation of Christ the Savior on Epiphany and soon we will proclaim the death of Christ the King on Good Friday. We have been singing about how Jesus is God, and we have been reading about how God has come in flesh and we have been praying about God working in ways that we cannot understand…. Yet, with all the ways we tell the story, it seems the Church doesn’t take the time to stop and ask, “Does this make sense?”

In perhaps one of the few places in scripture that might be considered an attempt to answer the skeptical question of “Does this make sense?” Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. Paul seems to be saying that this whole faith thing does not make any sense… except by faith. Only by experiencing of the power of God is our willingness to believe in this foolish proposition of the cross possible.

Look no further than what Jesus does today. As if Jesus is trying to show us the foolishness in action he preaches a sermon on a mountain to his disciples and crowds arounds, saying that things we would call curses are actually blessings.

And Paul takes the foolishness of faith even further. He says that we, the ones who are called by this foolish God to spread the gospel… he says that we are not wise, we are not powerful and we are not noble. We not only believe in a foolish God, but this foolish God has chosen us to be followers… a ridiculous choice.

But it is this ridiculousness that catches our attention. Its maybe even this ridiculousness that makes us show up to church on Sunday morning when most others are getting an extra sleep in day each week. This ridiculousness draws us here despite everything so that at least for a couple hours we can hear again the foolish story of God’s love for us.

In our world where truth is whatever we decide we want it to be… as people of faith we hold to a truth that roots us in a God who is not made in our image but we in God’s. And this God continues holding to the same story, even when it sounds foolish and silly. And because of that, we come here and we share with each other this ridiculous story about a peasant carpenter turned wandering homeless preacher. This story that tells us of a God who does everything backwards to the way we are told to do it. And the more we hear God’s story, the more it starts to break down and strip away all the fake truths and alternative truths of our world. And this foolish truth at odds with all the other truths start to root and ground us in our post-truth world. The Gospel gives us something to hold on to, when there doesn’t seem to be anything else. This story of radical grace and radical love from God that begins with the call to follow of a wandering preacher tells us that God is doing things that don’t make sense to rest of the world. Instead of offering proof, God offers love. Instead of offering explanation, God offers freedom. Instead of answering our questions, God invites us to follow.

Jesus calls us not only to set aside wisdom and power, but to set aside our mistrust, our cynicism, and reluctance to believe any so-called truth. And Jesus does it by simply saying, as we heard two weeks ago, “Come and See” and last week by saying “Follow Me, I will make you fishers of men”. This is the power of the Gospel that Paul was talking about. The power to turn our worlds inside out with a few simple words. This power allows us to trust in possibilities and opportunities of God’s working in the world in ways we cannot know. This power challenges our desire to be our own God while at the same allowing us to let of go of the burden trying to be God.

And so when we keep coming back here on Sunday morning, where we foolishly gather to hear the call of God to a new way of being in the world. Except that the more we come to hear this story about a God who comes to be born, to live, to die and to show us new life in resurrection, the more this story starts to be the only thing that makes sense during the rest week. Yet still our answer to those skeptics who ask us, “Why do you bother with that faith thing?” is the same. “We don’t know why, it just makes sense somehow”. And maybe this is why Paul doesn’t explain it to us but reminds us that the Gospel will only ever sound like foolishness. And maybe this is why God doesn’t offer any spin or alternative facts, because it is an unchanging foolishness of the call to “Come and see”, to “Follow me”, its in the foolishness of God’s unexplainable love, that truth is found.

Lying awake in the Advent darkness

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Read the whole passage)

The darkness persists today. We are 3 Sundays into Advent and we have been exploring the dark places of our world. Two weeks ago, Jesus implored us to Keep Awake. Keep Awake watching for the Son of Man might come like a thief in the night. Keep Awake and let your eyes adjust to the dark places of our world.

Last week, we went into the wilderness with John the Baptist, we left the lights of the city behind, the lights of society with all its problems, to go to the stark and empty wilderness. And there John preached about the coming of Messiah to straightened crooked paths. 

Today, we emerge with the followers of John the Baptist from the darkness of prison, to ask about who really is the Messiah. 

The darkness of advent that we encounter these days is not just the dark winter nights and short winter days. It is the darkness that exists all around us, the suffering and difficult places of the world. It is the darkness that seems to be falling as the world is gripped by fear and foreboding about the future. And the darkness is also the same one that we encounter when we lie awake at night and ponder the deep questions of life. The preparation and making ready of Advent has less to do with decorating trees and putting out wreaths, than with spending time in the dark to consider the deeper parts of life that are often only thought of in the darkness.

The questions that keep us up at night are often questions of identity. Who am I? What do I believe? Where am I going? Does what I am doing with my life have any meaning?

For us, as we ponder who we are and who it is that we follow and what it is that we actually believe, we are left to wonder just what it means to be members of this congregation. to be Lutherans, to be Christians, to be members of the body of Christ. 

Does believing in God and the bible and virgin births and resurrections from the dead mean that we also have to agree with those Christians with condescending and judgemental on TV? Or is it okay to have a quiet faith where we just come to church on Sunday and mind our own business the rest of the week? Should we be serving the homeless more? Knocking on neighbours doors to ask them about their Lord and Saviour? Praying more? Reading the bible more?

Confronting the darkness and the questions of Advent are the means of preparing for Messiah to come. And as our eyes adjust to the darkness, as the distractions of the light are stripped away and we see ourselves more clearly, we are left to ask questions about who we are.

Wondering about identity is at the heart of the question that John’s disciples ask today. John’s wilderness sermons have made him popular, and many have begun to follow him as if he is the Messiah, despite John’s pointing to another. But John’s wilderness preaching has also made him a threat to those in power. So King Herod has John jailed. And now in prison John is perhaps wondering if all the bold preaching he did on the banks of the river Jordan is still true from the his dark prison cell. Or perhaps his followers are wondering who they should follow now. Whether Jesus is the really the one who is come.

And while it sounds like John’s followers are asking about Jesus’ identity, their question is one about their own. Wondering about who Jesus is, is actually a question about who they are, about what they believe and about who they believe in. And like John’s followers, in the Advent darkness, with all the busyness of the life hidden from view, we can lose confidence in our identity. In the midst of darkness and uncertainty all around us, we can find it hard to see our selves as people who really believe that Jesus is the one.

And so with John followers we ask our Advent question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Is the Jesus the Messiah who is actually going to do something about the suffering of our world? About the people around us and in our community who are suffering. About the fear that is seeping into people around the globe. Is Jesus the one who is going to end wars, feed the hungry, reconcile the divided, calm the fearful and bring hope to the nations.

These days, it is hard to get behind those things.
It is hard to feel that Jesus is actually going to do any of that.

And so we wonder, who are we if we cannot see or believe that the one we follow is the one to come.

And then, just as Jesus answers John’s followers, Jesus speaks to us.

“Its not about you” Jesus says.

“It is not about whether you can believe, even in the dark”

“It is about me. It is about light that I will show you.”

Jesus says that our identity is not ours to sort out. It is not up to us to figure it out in the dark.

But rather, out of the darkness comes a light. A light born into the world from the divine. A light rooted in the Messiah. Messiah who determines our identity.

Whether Jesus is the one or not, is not the question.

But rather whether we belong to Messiah is.

And Jesus the Messiah says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see”

That the faithful gather here even in the Advent darkness.

That the word of life is spoken not just in quiet whispers, but in confession and prayer, in song and praise, in reading and preaching.

That the mercy of God is given and received, offered to all who come.

That the waters of rebirth are crashing over us day after day as we are reminded of who we are as baptized children of God.

That the bread and wine of salvation is served and shared with wild abandon, making a place for any and all at the table.

“Its not about you.” Jesus says, ‘Yet, it is all about you.”

Because just when we cannot see who we are in the darkness, God comes and enters into our very flesh, God joins with creation so that our identity is no longer found in the dark, but in the light. Because God has taken on our created-ness, we take a new identity in the Body of Christ.

And all those things that worry and nag at us from the darkness, the suffering and struggles of our neighbours, the fear and divisions of our nations, the wars and conflict of our globe…. all those things begin to be transformed by the light of Messiah.

The crooked paths are straightened, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lepers cleaned and the good news is preached to the poor all because God has become us.

The darkness of Advent is where we must begin each year. Lying awake in the dark, wondering and watching for who we are and what this all means. Asking if Jesus is the one to come, or must we wait for another.

Because it is in the darkness of Advent that light it stirred up. It is only from the darkness that we will clearly see the light, that our advent questions will lead us to One who has been here all along.

And so today, from Advent’s dark and wild places, Messiah’s coming is proclaimed… and Jesus reminds us above all,
that the light is on its way.

Reformation Four Nine-Nine

John 8:31–36

Then Jesus 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.

Sermon

So confirmands, today you are lucky enough to share this day with the 499th anniversary of the reformation. Now don’t worry if you aren’t entirely sure what “The Reformation” is all about, your parents and families probably aren’t entirely sure either. But today, as you affirm your faith in front the congregation you are standing on the shoulders of a community of people that have gone before you for almost 500 years – The Lutheran community (and Anglican one for some). And Lutherans and Anglicans are just one part of a larger Christian family that has been around for 200 years.

Now the words and promises that you will hear today have already been spoken and made to you in your baptism. But you probably don’t remember your baptism, so we remind you of those promises again today, when you are at an age when you will remember. So you can hear and remember the promises that God has made just to you.

And those promises are the same ones that the reformation was all about.

Reform. Change. Reformation. Change for the better.

Our world talks about change and reform a lot. Political reform, economic reform, environmental reform, social reform – you name it, we are talking about changing it. When we listen to the message around us and to what we as individuals want, change and reform are common themes.

The call for reform and change is not just for change’s sake. The desire for reform comes from a deep need within ourselves. A need to make things better, to make things right. We desire a better life, better circumstances. And at the same time the scariest thing about reform and change, is the fear of loss.

As Lutherans we stand on change, we try to embrace ongoing reform. There are 87 million of us in the world, nearly 3 times the population of Canada. And today, the Lutherans around the world remember that big Reformation from where we began and started.

Four hundred and ninety-nine years ago on October 31st, 1517. A young monk, priest and university lecturer, published 95 theses about change, about religious reform. Martin Luther hoped that his ideas could be discussed by friends and colleagues in a civil manner. Instead, Luther’s writing expressed the growing dissent among the people and pushed into the light issues that had been simmering for decades, which hit Christianity in Europe like a hurricane.

For you see, Luther hit a chord. He connected to that deep desire for change. He identified the issues of oppression in the church and of abuse by the clergy. People were tired of being exploited by the church who made them fear death, hell and purgatory nor did they not want to be continually controlled by the nobility who made them fear soldiers and prisons. As Luther identified these issues, he diagnosed the illness that existed in medieval church.

Figuring out he problem is the easy part though. We are good at diagnosing our problems and knowing that we need and want something different. Luther looked around and saw the suffering of the people and he saw the need for reform.

When we look around at ourselves, we see problems too. We long for change. Here we see a shrinking church membership and at the same time an aging membership. We have heard about financial short comings. And many of us are tired as we give more of ourselves to the church, of our time our money, and of our energy.

And so while Identifying the problem is the easy part, actual Reformation is hard.

When the followers of the Jesus are faced with the prospect of freedom, they balk at the idea. They know their problems too. They struggle under the government of the Romans. And they struggle under the religious rule by the temple priests. But when change and freedom stares them in the face, they would rather stick to what they know. They would rather be oppressed by the Romans and the Jerusalem Temple.

When Luther began proposing reforms to the Church of his day, they were rejected. Even though the Vatican was in debt because of never ending wars and had been bankrupted by the enormous building project of St. Peter’s Basilica, they wanted to stay on the same path rather than actually change.

And the difficulties that christianity faces today in North America are so frightening to some, that congregations are deciding simply to slowly die. To make sure all the surviving members are cared for in the last years of their lives. It is easier and safer to stay the same, even when we can clearly see the problems around us.

And so here we stand. On this Reformation Sunday, on this Sunday of change, we know that we have a problem, we know that we need to reform too.

As Jesus talks to his followers today he reminds them of two simple realities. The truth will make you free. The Son will make you free.

It is the same truth that Luther discovered, the truth that prompted him to begin writing about change in the church.

And it is the same truth that will carry our congregation and our larger Christian family through our problems.

Jesus will set us free.

The reality of our need for change, our desire for reform, is that we cannot do it on our own and and we cannot get it right. As St. Paul writes in Romans, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.  We know that things could be different, we know that life could be better, but we also know that no matter how hard we try, we cannot keep from hurting others or being hurt, or from causing others to suffer or suffering ourselves, from causing grief or being grieved, or from killing or dying.

And while most people would give up in the face of this news. Luther heard something different. Luther heard the promise that Jesus makes:

So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed

We are all sinners, and we all fall short. Yet, God’s promise is in Christ. As Jesus comes  into our world, as Jesus joins us in falling short and being unable to make things better, Jesus offers freedom.

The Reformation started with this idea, that we cannot really change things, but instead, God is doing the changing. Even though we sin, and fall short, even though we cannot change our world to be the place we know it could be, God is there loving and caring for us. Christ is there, living with, dying and rising again with us.

And God’s grand plan for changing the world, began in the smallest way. A baby born in a stable. A baby like no other. A baby that was divine and human. But God wasn’t done there. God’s next reform was to the idea God loved some and not others, and that God’s love was for those who could earn it. As Jesus preached and taught, he told people, he tells us, that God’s love is for all people. And finally God’s biggest change was in the shape of the cross. On Good Friday, Jesus endured death, yet the surprise of Easter morning was God’s undoing of death’s power over life, God had made a new promise that new life will go on.

It is on these changes and reforms, these promises by God that the Reformation began. And it is on the shoulders of the Reformation that we stand. As Lutherans, we have been given a gift. A gift that came at great cost, a gift that came out of division, conflict and strife. A gift that reminds us that the most important thing the church can do is tell people of God’s love.

And by God’s love, we are set free. We are set free from sin and death. We are set free from our own failures and fears.

Reformation Sunday is about remembering what happened 499 years ago, about remembering and commemorating where we came from. But it also about the reformation that is happening now. The Reformation and transformation that God has been up to this whole time – God has been changing the world, changing us by setting us free.

Amen. 

Church Membership vs. Carrying the Cross

Luke 14:25-33

“…So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Read the whole passage)

I remember when I was little and our family visited my grandparents. My grandparents living-room was always in perfect, pristine condition. Everything look new and unused, despite being dated with styles from decades before. Whenever we were in the living room, we had to be exceptionally careful not disrupt anything. No throw pillows could be moved, no dirt could be tracked, no signs of anyone actually being in the living room were allowed. Even as young child, I didn’t understand what the fuss was about – why was it called a living room, if there was no living allowed in it.

Now, as an adult, I understand only a slight bit more the desire to keep one’s possessions in good condition. And I also understand that nice things and children don’t really mix.

Yet, Jesus’s conditions on discipleship today, certainly poke at our materialism. We like our stuff, and Jesus knows it.

For a few weeks now, Jesus has been giving us the gears. Last week Jesus reminded us that we like to sit in the places of honour and send others down the table. Jesus continues the theme of pointing our faults, with his words on discipleship and possessions.

Today’s Gospel lesson has an unusual setting. Normally we pick up with Jesus in the gospels after he has traveled to a new place. But today, Jesus is still on the road. He is somewhere between destinations, with a crowd of people following him. You can almost picture it… Jesus and the disciples, on to their next village or town to preach in. And a large crowd following a short distance behind. From Jesus’s words to the crowds, we can guess that they were complaining. Kind of like the Israelites following Moses through the desert, the crowd is complaining about the journey. “Where are we going?” “When we will get there?” “What can we expect?” “What will we get out of it?” It sounds like the crowds are wondering whether following Jesus was a good idea, they are looking for something out of the deal. They want the benefits of being followers, but so far all they have found is a walk through the desert.

And so after hearing enough complaining, Jesus stops, turns and lays into the whiny followers behind him,

“Look, I didn’t say this would be easy. In fact, I told you that you would have to give up everything. Your homes, your families, your jobs, everything about your lives. If you are going to follow me, that means carrying MY cross.

You say you want to know what the plan is?!?! Yet, how many builders sit down and plan a whole project before beginning to build a tower? None.

You say you want assurances that we are going somewhere worth going to? Yet, how many Kings sit down with an enemy army across the field and say, “Well, looks like we won’t win. Let’s send out the white flag.” None.

If you want to be my followers, you are going to have to give up all the things tying you to your life before now.”

Jesus lays it out plainly for the crowds. They cannot hold on to their lives before and follow Jesus. Jesus knows that no builder can plan a whole project before its started. Think of all those contractors on HGTV who say things like, “Well, you don’t know how much the reno will cost before you open up the walls.” And yet the walls come down in search of show home living rooms and chef’s kitchens and dream master bedrooms. Jesus is calling out those who are grasping for the next new and shiny thing.

Think of all the wars being fought around the world for the sake of money and power. For the soldiers and civilians dying at the hands of kings and rulers who are trying to get or hold on to power. Jesus is calling out those who are clutching with all their might, and at any cost, on to power and control.

And now think of the church, and how we are like those crowds, looking for the things, the possessions that we can hold onto as well. Things like membership, with benefits like a reserved pew, or a key to the building, or eternal salvation.

But here is the thing about possessions. About the stuff we hold on to. The more we try to hold on, the more the stuff holds on to us. The more people want the next new and shiny thing, the more they become slaves to keeping up with the jones, to standing in line for that new iPhone coming out next week, or getting that new car, or having that kitchen renovated again. The more people try to hold on to power, to be in control, to call the shots,the more they must descend into darkness in order to keep power.

And here in the church, the more we see membership, faith and even God as something we have have, that we can own, that we can hold on to… the more it demands. The more weeks we have to keep making appearances to be in good standing. The more time we have to devote to keeping everything going, the traditions and duties and tasks. The more money we have to shovel into a hole that never seems to fill up. When membership and faith and God become possessions, they soon begin to own us, trapping us in a never ending cycle of keep it all afloat.

Jesus says, if you want to be a disciple, you need to give up your possession, give up all the things you are holding on to, because they will ultimately hold on to you and drag you under.

Jesus says, the thing you need to hold on to is the cross. Not your own cross, but his cross.

THE. CROSS.

And again, here is the thing about the cross.

We know that story. We know that Jesus carried the cross to Golgatha. We know that he hauled it up that mountain on Good Friday. But we also know that he stopped carrying the cross, because once he was on the mountain, the cross carried him. The cross held on to him. The cross trapped Jesus, just like all the things that we hold on to eventually do to us.

That is until Easter morning.

And all of sudden the cross that held Jesus on Good Friday, became the cross that holds all of us on Easter morning.

Jesus calls the crowds and calls us to carry the cross, because Jesus knows that we can’t carry the cross, because the cross carries us.

In world full of possessions that will hold on to us and drag us down – power, control, membership, status, new kitchens, pristine living rooms, things.

In our world full of all that, the cross is the only thing that lifts us up.

The cross is the place where the human need to hold on is met by God’s need to give up.

To give up wrath for love.

To give up judgement for mercy.

To give up sin for grace.

To give up death for life.

Jesus calls the crowds and us to give up our possessions, and not to literally empty our bank account and give away all our stuff. But to recognize that the things we hold on, keep us from seeing just what, or just who, is truly carrying us.

Our world will may never give up the quest for what is new and shiny. Our rulers may always be willing to sacrifice people for power.

Yet, God just may be calling the church to give up holding onto membership as something we own, to let faith be something that carries us. To see that the church is not a bottomless trap for energy, time and money.

But rather a community of the faithful.

A community of people who are being carried by Jesus, whose identities are being transformed by being together, who are called to work together to let the world know about this good news of giving up and letting go.

As Jesus calls out these crowds today, Jesus is reminding us of just who is doing carrying. Jesus is reminding us that the cross carries us. That Jesus’ love for the world, Jesus’ grace for sinners, Jesus triumph over death, all found on the cross, are what can truly carry us and lift us up.

Jesus tells the crowds and us today, that it is God, who was the first to give up everything. And that being a disciple, is not about what we carry, but about God who carries us.