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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.

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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.

Why nothing seems to get people back to church – The issue at the core of decline

“People just aren’t committed like they used to be”

This week, I came across this satirical article from the site BabylonBee “After 12 Years Of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked By Daughter’s Lack Of Faith

The article humorously reveals an issue facing many churches today. I can’t tell you how many times (56,819 times) I have had the conversation where someone talks about the fact that young people aren’t as committed as they once were. People aren’t coming to church like they did in decades past, and those left behind have started to notice. Many congregations are feeling older, thinner, and tired out. The future feels bleak. The studies tell us that the church is declining.

And so churches try any number of things to attract people back to church. Youth group programs, revamped and modern music, renovated worship spaces, hip and cool pastors with tattoos and any number of other gimmicks.

But nothing seems to work. At least I haven’t heard of any churches successfully bringing back all the members who drifted away. And yet we keep at it, week after week, year after year worrying about people who were once here. Our grand plans for revitalization is to try and appeal to people who have already chosen to leave. Sure, it works once in a while, but this is probably not a strategy for success.

Yet, while churches fret and worry about those who were once there, we rarely take the time to understand what we are asking people to come back and commit to.

Commitment to church

A lot of sermons, bible studies, meetings, conferences, lectures, consultants, coaches and more have been spent analyzing and communicating the message that the social advantages of church that drove attendance in decades past no longer exist. It just isn’t the case anymore that good citizens born here are expected to become good church members. Schools, work, neighbours, businesses, governments don’t do –  society-at-large doesn’t do – our evangelism for us anymore.

Church isn’t an expected social commitment any longer.

Yet, almost always when we speak of getting people to start coming back to church, we say it just like that – ‘back to church.’ And the issue goes deeper to than that. So often when I ask church members what reason keeps them coming to church, there is almost always one things at to the top of the list: Church feels like family, church is a community.

Churches should be communities where we feel connected to each other in deep ways.  But family and community are still social commitments at the end of the day.

Social Commitment

Most churches are, at their core, institutions formed around a social or societal commitment. The core of churches have been based on the fact that people are expected to attend because of societal pressures. And when society taught us through family, friends, neighbours, schools, workplaces, TV, movies, newspapers, courthouses, and governments that being church attenders was important, churches organized around social commitment worked well.

These churches did good ministry, they reached people with the gospel and they were servant communities.

But now that society is no longer providing the pressure to be church attenders, attracting people to a social commitment doesn’t work.

In fact, it may be the very thing that is driving people away.

Our pitch for church has often become some version of “come to church because you should” or “come to church for your family” or “come to church for the community”

Yet, people are choosing sports or music or clubs or brunch with friends or sleeping in with family because they love those things. People are choosing things that they are passionate about, things that they love. Social pressure doesn’t hold much sway anymore, even if our society did push church on people.

When you love soccer, finding a team to play on is also finding a community with a shared passion. When you love brunch, finding a brunch club means joining a community that shares your love of brunch. When you love lazy Sunday mornings with family, you have a community that also loves sleeping in.

But what is our shared loved at church? Are we just communities to join without a shared passion?

Commitment to Jesus

If I had to guess, the vast majority of people who still might be looking for a church in 2016 are not looking for a social commitment to church.

As a millennial, I never lived in the era of social commitment or social pressure to go to church. While most of my peers growing up weren’t interested in church, nor exposed to it beyond Christmas and Easter, the ones who did express interest did not do it for the social commitment.

My church going peers were interested in following Jesus.

Now, imagine someone is looking for a church. They are looking for a church with a commitment to following Jesus at its core and they show up at a social commitment church. It would be like showing up for a soccer team that stopped playing soccer years ago, and who instead gathers for coffee and donuts with friends and family. But this gathering of people still call themselves a soccer team.

Now imagine members of that “soccer team” wringing their hands week after week over the fact that no one wants to join the team to clean up coffee and pick up the donuts. You can see why soccer players looking for a team wouldn’t join. You can see why many members of the team left a long time ago.

As churches try to understand why all the attempts to attract people back to church haven’t yield better results, I think it is because the core foundation that brings most church communities together is fundamentally at odds with what people who are looking for churches are seeking today.

If I had to guess, that if people are looking for church these days, they are doing it in the same way that someone would look for a soccer team. A soccer player looks for a team because they love soccer. A church seeker is looking for a church community because they love Jesus and want to follow him. They are not looking for a church because they love church.

And it goes deeper than that. If getting people to church is the chief concern, than we will always be looking to draw people in.

But if following Jesus, and letting people know about this gracious, merciful and compassionate God, is at our core, we will reach out. And reaching out to let people know about Jesus, may or may not include more bums in pews. Either way, building the church is not the goal, but at best is a symptom of reaching people with Jesus.

So how can churches address this? How can churches built on the social commitment to church have the conversation about the fact that the very thing that brings them together as a community is their biggest problem?

With a lot of soul-searching, a lot of questions, a lot of discerning and a lot of prayer. Changing our foundations and cores will not be easy. In fact, many churches will choose to die instead of changing to the core of following Jesus.

Despite the social commitment at the core of our churches, I think that many churches and church members do want to follow Jesus too. And it isn’t that a church has to choose between being a community or following Jesus. One doesn’t exclude the other.

But churches DO have to choose what is at their core. Churches need to choose the foundation that gathers their community.

Is it a social commitment to church?

Or are we followers of Jesus whose shared passion brings us together?


What is the core passion that brings your church together? How can churches change their core? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Why did Jesus have to die? – Why God didn’t kill Jesus on Good Friday

We are on the doorstep of Holy Week.

Clergy types will soon be setting out to write and preach sermons that somehow make sense of the passion story, from Triumphant Entry, to Last Supper, to Trial and Crucifixion and finally Resurrection.

Along the way, it will be important to say something about how the death of a wandering preacher, teacher and healer on a cross is the means of our salvation… and what exactly we are being saved from.

This is a tricky endeavour because the story of the passion doesn’t explain the reasons. Instead we are left to fill in the gaps, and Christians have been trying to make sense of Christ’s death since St. Paul was writing letters.

And so often on Good Friday, a strange and convoluted theory of the reasons for Christ’s death is presented… one that makes God seem merciless, if not plain incoherent.

Often, God is presented as the ultimate source of Christ’s condemnation, the one who kills Jesus on Good Friday.

And this is absurd.

It is my contention that Good Friday is the day of the most important facet of the Good News and it is not because God killed Jesus.

Satisfaction Atonement

One of the most common ways that Christians tend to explain the atonement is with Bishop Anselm’s satisfaction atonement theory. The cole’s notes version is that the punishment for human sin is our death. And the satisfaction, the making things right is Christ’s death (since he was without sin).

What is rarely stated is that Anselm used medieval legal practice to formulate his theory. In medieval law, a fine was the punishment for most crimes. Anselm saw then that death was the fine for sin. But that wasn’t the end of the matter. In order to compensate the victim, satisfaction was paid. An additional amount that would make things right.

Anselm figured that since death was the most human beings could pay, an additional payment to make satisfaction with God was needed. Christ’s death becomes the satisfaction for our sin.

Now, beyond the fact that his medieval legal system is flawed and very human like any other system, there are a number of problems with Anselm’s theory:

God requires blood in order to show mercy… which is not mercy.

God is bound by human laws… which means God isn’t free.

And finally God and Jesus split apart by the cross… which is trinitarian heresy.

Anselm’s atonement theory is certainly not the only one out there (Christus Victor/ Ransom theory, Moral influence theory, scapegoat theory etc…). But it shows a common problem that most explanations of what was going on on the cross seem to have – they undo the trinity.

The Cross and Trinity

For some reason preacher’s tend to get uncomfortable with God being too close to the cross of Good Friday. When I was a neophyte theology student, still two years from starting seminary I was asked to give a short reflection on Good Friday on one of the 7 last words of the cross. My words were “I thirst.” And I pontificated eloquently on how Jesus experienced the human condition fully on the cross. Sounds lovely. And I then expounded on how Jesus was fully separated from God, just like we were. Almost sounds legitimate… except for that whole trinity thing.

The doctrine of the trinity reminds us that the persons of the trinity are never separate because they are one God. They are distinct, but one. So the experiences of one are shared by all. The Father and the Son could not be separated, even on the cross.

And this the heart of the problem. We don’t like the idea of God suffering, the Father suffering. We would rather make God the killer than the sufferer.

But the Trinity necessitates that God the Father experienced the cross just as much the Son did. God was crucified and died on that cross.

So who killed God?

We did.

Humanity. Our religion. Our government. Our authorities. Our mobs.

Yes, I do think that God knew the cross was in store of Jesus even before that angel visited Mary to tell her she was pregnant.

But it was not because God was perversely and cruelly looking to punish someone for our sin. It is not because God needed blood to be merciful.

God knew the the cross was in store because God knew us. God knew that humanity couldn’t let God come close in the incarnation. God’s coming close threatened our godship. We cannot be god if God is God. We could not be god if Jesus is God.

And here is where the Good News of Good Friday meets us.

Even though God knew the consequence of incarnation – of coming close to creation, of coming in flesh – God followed through to the end. God was born, God lived, God died. God did all the human things. Good Friday was the completion. God declared that God is going to a part of all of created life. There is no part of human existence that would be apart from God.

So why did Jesus have to die? Because we said so.

And why do we get to live? Because God said so.

So this Holy Week, whether you are preaching or hearing the preaching, listen… listen to hear the good news of Good Friday.

Listen and know that it is not that God killed God’s son in order to show us mercy. The good news is never a demand for blood. That is sin.

The good news is that God chooses life. God chose to live. To live all of created life, including death.

And because God lived it all, that whole resurrection thing that happens on Sunday becomes part of our story. Because God chose live and die with us, we get to die and live with God.


What good news do you hear on Good Friday? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik