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Reformation 500 – The Next 500 years for Lutherans, Protestants and the Church

This year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous act of nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st.

This act is considered by many as the beginning of the Reformation.

For Lutherans, Martin Luther’s particular witness to the gospel of Christ forms the basis of our confession and understanding of the Christian faith.

So as Reformation 500 approaches this year, Lutherans all over the world are commemorating the anniversary (as opposed to celebrating) and we are trying to include brothers and sisters of other denominations, particularly Roman Catholic, where possible.

As I attended the National Convention of the denomination in which I serve, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, we have been asked to consider what the next 500 years will bring for Lutherans, and all Christians.

This question has been rumbling around in my mind for a long time and in a renewed way this 500th anniversary year.

This is not an easy question to answer. It is deeply related to the biggest struggles of European and North American churches, most notably it relates to our experience of decline. Before getting to what I think the next 500 years will hold for us, the issue of delcine needs to be addressed.

Humans have this habit of thinking that what just happened will continue happening indefinitely. We, in this North American context of Lutheranism and wider Christianity, have been experiencing churches that are dropping in membership and attendance, budgets that are getting bigger while giving is shrinking and the average age of those still in the pews and contributing is getting older. And because this is our most recent experience we assume that the future holds more of the same.

But this is actually a really poor prediction model.

Let me put it in different terms.

50 years ago, the same kind of convention that I attended for my denomination would have looked like this: The-American-Lutheran-Church-Constituting-Convention_2-18-13

Now imagine going to someone standing in that crowd and telling them that in a mere 50 years, that the 3 or 4 Lutheran bodies that each look like the above picture will be merged together and look like this when they gather:

19800617_10159029420640541_3990159967040986153_o
Photo Credit – https://www.facebook.com/CanadianLutherans/

Thousands reduced to less than 200.

Those people back in the 50s and 60s would have laughed and laughed and laughed… But this is where we are now. So what would make people today laugh and laugh and laugh… not a prediction of more of the same. But perhaps a predication that churches will be filled once again… filled with a new spirit and new vitality that we would have never dreamed or imagined. It won’t be the 50s again, but it will be something unexpected and new.

You see, we also have to think back 100 years to gain perspective. Much of North American Christianity looked similar to where we are now. There were some large and thriving groups, but lots of small communities barely able too keep up buildings, barely able to pay pastors, barely able to fund seminaries or missionaries or wider church structures. Many church groups were marginal to larger society and many churches didn’t make it and were lost to history.

But think about it, society was in a time of great transition. Conflict was the story of global politics (WW1), immigration was high (settling the western part of the continent), new technologies were changing the way people lived (electricity, telephones, automobiles, modern medicine etc…). And it remained messy for nearly the entire first half of the 20th century.

But this chaotic situation eventually led to many, many people seeking a truth greater than themselves, finding solace in the promises of a God who was in control when the world seemed ready to end, finding comfort in faith despite the rapid pace of new technology constantly changing the world.

We don’t have to think about our current world situation very long to see the similarities, to see that our political and economic world which once seemed to provide a stability for people to live their lives on, is turning into an instability that is only going to get worse before it gets better.

Most predications that I hear about the next 500 or 50 or 5 years tell us that decline will simply continue indefinitely and we are just going to have to accept that.

I don’t.

I don’t think that the antidote to decline is to simply be better sales people for church with flashiest and shiniest features to entice largest slice of a shrinking pie of interested people into church.

I think the church is about to be one of the few places of hope that many people will have to turn to in our increasingly chaotic world. I think that some political leader may just push that red button (and no it will not be like an apocalypse movie) or some aspect of climate change will be pushed over the edge, or some hacker will decide that it is time to empty everyone’s bank account… or most likely I think that through difficult struggle and resistance the average people of the world – who are sick of living under systems that privilege a small few – will decide this is not acceptable anymore.

And a paired down church will have to be ready. Ready to welcome the masses who have no where else to turn for hope. The masses who no longer rely on the invisible forces of the world (governments, international organizations, corporations and civil society) to care for them.

Over the coming years and decades, as most church leaders anticipate more decline, the world is going to surprise us. The world is going to surprise us by needing what the church has to offer.

Let me offer and example.

In 2015,  the National Church Council of the denomination that I serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada wanted to challenge our church body to 4 different ways of commemorating Reformation 500. We were encouraged to raise $500,000 for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), to provide 500 scholarships for students in Jordan and the Holy Land, to plant 500,000 trees and to sponsor 500 refugees.

As the story goes, the intial idea was the above with one fewer zero on each number. But a particular council member said, “let’s slap a zero on these challenges.”

Of course the council did not expect us to meet those goals, but swinging for the upper deck was better than just going for a base hit.

Two years later, we have raised 150,000 for the LWF (3 times the pre “slap a zero on it goal”), we have provided 160 scholarships (3 times the original goal), and we have planted 80,000 trees (almost two times the original goal.

But here is where it gets interesting.

Since 2015, and with several months to go before Oct 31, we have sponsored 540 refugees exceeding the “slap a zero on it” goal and more than 10 times the original goal!

How did we do that?

Well just a couple months after our 2015 national convention, the body of a young Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. A boy who had been denied entrance to Canada. A boy whose tragic death mobilized the world. 

So did we meet our “slap a zero on it goal” because we are a church of expert refugee sponsors? Hardly.

But rather the world needed what we had to offer. Which was communities small enough to care for families who needed help, but large enough to mobilize enough money, furniture, and volunteers to settle newcomers in our commmnities.

All we needed to do was let our anxieties about decline die just long enough to see that God was bringing about tangible new life through us. God is using us for real resurrection.

It is in this intersecting place that a declining church meets a world in need of hope.

The decline of North American churches in the past few decades is not a never ending trend. But I do think God is using this time to help us shed our baggage. God is letting us struggle so that we can get all the wrong fixes and solutions to decline out of our system. So that we can try trendy music and flashy tech and hip pastors. So we can try to reincarnate the knitting groups and service clubs and curling bonspiels of the past. So that we can get all the complaining and shaming of our family, friends and neighbours over with. So that we can see that nothing we come up with will be the solution to our problems.

God is letting us experience decline long enough to finally die to our memories and nostalgia of the glory days and realize that the only thing the church ever had was the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. All we ever were at our best are communities grounded in Christ’s new life given for us.

To be honest, I think in many ways the next 500 years for Lutherans and for North American Christianity will look a lot like the last 500. We will continue to be communities where the gospel is preached and where the sacraments are administered. Sometimes we will be strong in number and power. Other times we will be weak and marginalized. But in the end, neither of those realities matter.

That God is answering all the sin and death in the world with resurrection and new life proclaimed in churches just like us does.

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Refugees Welcome – God sent YOU to us

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (Read the whole passage)

 

Sermon

As the plane descended, it broke through the orange grey cloud cover. As Mara looked out her window, she could see the lights of the city sprawling off in all directions. There were little cars and trucks moving along streets and highways. Buildings rose up tall in some places, and in other areas fields and parks broke up rows and rows of houses. All of it was covered in white… like a great sandstorm had covered the city, but not quite.

Soon the airport and runway came into view. This was a the 4th and final landing that she, her husband Yusef and her two year old son Isa would be making on their long journey. 72 hours before, that had left the Zataari Refugee camp for Amman Jordan.  In Amman they boarded a plane destined for Canada. They had been chosen for resettlement. They had been interviewed, screened, and interviewed some more. When the news came that they has been chosen to go to Canada, they couldn’t believe the news.

The plane touched down and began taxi-ing into the terminal. The plane was nearly empty with only a few dozen others. It was dark outside and the family was tired. They gathered their belongings to exit the plane. However, as Mara and Yusuf made their way up the gangway and through the airport, their anticipation was beginning to build. They were about to finally arrive at a new life, in a safe country. Mara noticed right away that there were no soldiers or guards, nor police officers to be seen Late at night the airport was nearly empty, except for the friendly airline staff waving them on towards the baggage claim with smiles and greetings. The government officials who had been with them the whole way were leading the group as they walked.

Through a final set of security doors, the group spilled into the escalators leadings down to the baggage area. The quiet airport all of sudden was filled with noise. There were people shouting and cheering, clapping. As Mara, Yusuf and Isa stood at the top of the escalators she could now see crowds of people. Hundreds – waiting just for them. Many were holding signs. In English and Arabic,

“Welcome Refugees. You are home”

As the group rode down the escalator it was thrilling. The gathered crowd began singing (Mara would later discover that they were singing O Canada). People were handing out coffee cups that looked like Christmas sweaters. And little sugar-coated balls of dough to eat.

The government officials were helping the refugees to find their sponsors, but Mara had already spotted hers. There was a group holding a sign in Arabic with their names on it. Underneath their sign it said, St. David’s church. Mara noticed it because Yusuf’s family had always said they were related to the great King of Israel – David.

There were about 20 church members. An older priest, surrounded by all kinds of people. A woman stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Mara – Marlena the woman said pointing to herself.

“My name is Mara” Mara said practicing the English she had been learning for the past two years in the Zataari Camp.

After many more hugs and introductions, Isa was off playing with boy and girl around 11 or 12 years old. Yusuf was trying on a number of winter coats the group had brought. Mara couldn’t believe all these people were there for her family.

Soon the three were packed up in a big SUV and on their way to their new home. Marlena and her husband Jim with their children David and Lizzie took the family to their new apartment. Mara was exhausted but exhilarated. She didn’t know how relieved she would feel to finally be safe, for the first time in years. For the first time since she and Yusuf had left Damascus with only what they could carry and walked to Jordan. She had been quite pregnant at the time and she had given birth to Isa their first night in Jordan. During the past 2 years they had lived in a Refugee camp wondering if they would ever go home again, wondering if they would ever have a home again. Isa had been a Refugee, a stateless person, a homeless person his entire life. He didn’t have a home until now. But now he was, with his parents, a Canadian.

Marlena’s family said goodbye and promised to be back the next day. They would be going to church for Christmas Day. Yusuf put Isa to bed while Mara explored their new home. It was full of furniture, food and more. Finally late into the night, Mara and Yusuf, happy and content, drifted off to sleep…

In the morning, the doorbell rang. Mara went to the door. It was Marlena.

“Are you ready to head… Where did you get that sweater?” she asked surprised.

“They gave to us in camp” said Mara.

“What? How?” said Marlena.

“C-L-W-R” Mara said trying to remember the letters.

“I gave that sweater to the Lutheran church across from our church to years ago, that is incredible that YOU have it.”

Mara was wearing a St. Francis Xavier University shirt. It said Volleyball on the back. Marlena pointed to the arm. Stitched onto the arm it said Marlena – 1994.

“Amazing” said Marlena. “Just amazing.”

The two families arrived at St. David’s about 5 minutes before church was to start… they were greeted by too many people to remember. Finally, the two families found their pew on the right side of the sanctuary.

Father Angelo processed into the sanctuary to begin worship and the congregation began singing, “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Two years in the refugee camp and now two days in Canada had been full of unfamiliar things, this church was more like home than either Mara or Yusuf expected. They were Syrian coptic. The liturgy at St. David’s was very familiar to how they worshipped back in Syria. Even though they couldn’t always keep up with the English, the familiar pattern of standing and praying and singing reminded them of life back in Damascus. They listened to the sermon, they joined in the prayers when they could, and they went forward to receive communion. Father Angelo smiled as he put some bread in Isa’s hands.

At the end of the service, Father Angelo made a few announcements. And then he slowed down and said very clearly,

“As-salamu alaykum” which means Peace Be with you in Arabic.

“Today, we are also welcoming very special new members. Yusuf, Mara and Isa are joining us from Syria.” before he could finish people started clapping.

Overtop of the clapping Father Angelo asked the family to stand.

Marlena leaned over to Mara and Yusuf and gestured to stand. Uncertainly Mara stood up, Yusuf picked up Isa and joined her. As they stood the clapping almost immediately died out. People were gasping and some were even pointing. Mara became very self conscious. Trying to formulate the English words, she said, “Thank you. God has blessed us and given you to us. We are so happy.”

Still people were staring and pointing, until Mara realized they were pointing behind her. Behind Mara, Yusuf and Isa hanging on the wall was a Christmas Banner. It was a dark navy blue starry sky above a brown desert. Walking across the desert were two figures, one holding a child. Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt. Mara looked strikingly like Mary, with her white headscarf, blue sweater and blue dress matching Mary’s look exactly. Yusuf’s shaggy hair and beard, with his brown corduroy sport jacket and brown pants matching Joseph’s brown tunic. Even Isa’s red shirt and white pants mimicking the infant Jesus’ white and red clothes.

Father Angelo finally broke the moment.

“No” he said. “No, God did not give us to you. Here you are in our church, a family from the house of David who had fled across the same sands as the holy family, who has known fear and danger, who has sought refuge in a foreign land.”

Father Angelo took a breath.

“No, God did not give us to you. God has sent YOU to us. We are blessed because you have been given you us. You are the ones that we have been waiting for. The ones that we needed to receive here. You are the ones who have reminded us that we have not saved you. But you have saved us. Your little family has travelled across the world to remind us that we are the ones who needed the saving. That God is the one coming into our world in order to bring light into our darkness.”

Father Angelo took another breath and then said,

“The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Amen

*This is part 3 in the series. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

Mary and Joseph in Al Zataari

*Part 1 of this series is found here.

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Read the whole passage here)

 

Sermon

As he walked along the rough and sandy road, Yusuf looked up to see his fiancée. She was sitting in the back of a cart being pulled by a horse. She gave him a gentle smile and then closed her eyes once again to try and sleep. Every time the cart hit a bump in the road, the whole thing bounced and shook. Undoubtedly, Mara was not getting much rest. Rest that she, and the child within her womb, needed.

Mara and Yusuf had joined with the caravan of people walking south to Jordan. Mara was sitting in the cart with few elderly people, some children and another pregnant woman. The two had left everything behind, their home, their jobs, their family, their lives. Yusuf was angry at himself for having to make Mara embark on this long journey while she was pregnant. He had hoped that they could have stayed a little longer in their homes. He wanted the baby to be born in Damascus, but the bombs were dropping and the government troops had ordered everyone out. Anyone who was suspected of being a rebel was being thrown in prison or worse, and people were turning on each other, accusing friends and neighbours of rebellion in order to stay in the government’s good books.

Yusuf had told Mara that he would find them a place to hide out, where she could have the baby safely in Damascus. They would only have to stay a few weeks. But Mara had insisted they leave. She didn’t want their baby to be born into such a dangerous and chaotic world. And so here they were, traveling in winter on a hard and rocky road, from Damascus, Syria to Al Zataari, Jordan so that they could make a new life, one free from bombs and guns and soldiers. Yusuf was not happy about it, but every time Mara gave him that small smile of hers, he was relieved that she had insisted on leaving.

______________________________

Zataari was bustling full of people. There were NGO workers, peacekeepers, kids running around in packs, adults visiting, people working. Zataari was the same distance from Nazareth that Bethlehem was, the home of King David. Yusuf was a coptic Christian, and the family legend was that he was a descendant of King David, not that this was something to advertise back home.

Yusuf and Mara were hoping to find some of Yusuf’s relatives already in Jordan. He  heard that his cousins had already fled Syria. But as he asked around, no one seemed to know his family, it was a long shot in a town of 80,000 refugees. Yusuf was worried that they might have to make camp on the outskirts. He only considered this as his last option, for the threat of thieves and bandits was too great, especially with Mara being almost ready to have her baby.

Finally someone who seemed to be a distant cousin offered Mara and Yusuf a room to themselves…. Well kind of… it was a tattered tent with a faded UNHCR logo on it… it looked like goats and sheep had been living there before they came. Mara and Yusuf would have to make due.

 

Yusuf led Mara to their temporary dwelling and they settled in. Mara didn’t seem mind, she was just grateful to sit somewhere that wasn’t bouncing down a road. Yusuf’s distant cousin had given them some food and blankets and sweaters. Not long after they had sat down to eat, Mara dropped her food and grabbed her belly. Yusuf knew what this meant, the baby was coming.

Throughout the day and well into the night, Yusuf stayed by Mara’s side. Helping her as best he could through the labour. Finally, through gritted teeth, Mara told him,

“The Baby is going to come now”. Yusuf got into position as she gave her final pushes and then all of a sudden into his hands slithered a slimy and wailing bundle of legs and arms, hands and feet. Yusuf gave the baby to Mara, it was cold and there was nothing to wrap the child in. So, Yusuf took one of the sweaters his cousin has given to him and tore it into strips. Some he dipped in water and helped Mara to clean the child and with the rest they wrapped up the baby warm and tight.

Once the baby had been cleaned and fed, Mara and the boy slept. A short time later, while it was still dark, Mara woke up and called for Yusuf to take the baby. She wanted to clean herself up from the birth. She couldn’t quite stand on her own, so Yusuf put the baby down in the nearest convenient place — a long metal bucket or trough full of straw, probably for the goats. Yusuf was so proud of Mara, she had come all this way and now given birth, he was all of a sudden overjoyed that he had not left her when he had found out that she was pregnant, and he was overjoyed that she had made them escape the dangers of home.

______________________________

As Yusuf pulled Mara to her feet, they heard voices coming near their tent. At first Yusuf thought it might be his cousin coming to check in on them in the early morning, but there were several voices… several men. Yusuf peered out of the tent into the darkness and coming towards him was a group of men with weapons, with sticks and staffs, and rods and slingshots.They were boisterous, loud men… Yusuf’s anxiety grew and his heart began to pound. These men must be a gang of thieves.

“Stay in here” he told Mara and he pulled out one of the few personal items he had brought with him from Damascus, his carpenter’s hammer. He was ready to die for wife-to-be and child.

As the men got closer they quieted themselves, Yusuf was ready to fight. He put himself between the tent and the men, blocking their way. He raised his hammer above his head to signal that he would not allow anyone to come in. But the men stopped and only one came forward.

“Is he here?” the man asked excitedly. “The one the messengers told us about? The Messiah? The child in the manger? We were watching our sheep not to far from here, and were told by messengers – Angels  –  that we would find the great prophet here”. Yusuf’s jaw dropped, along with his hammer, in shock. How could anyone know that Mara had given birth already? Angels? Messiah? He turned and looked back to the tent. Mara was standing at the door, nodding her head and beckoning the young men to come forward. One by one the men came and knelt before the baby, saying prayers of thanksgiving as Mara watched on, looking totally unsurprised that these rough men had arrived. Yusuf’s head was spinning.

Finally, when the men had finished looking at the child, NO when they had finished worshipping the child, Yusuf looked to Mara who was holding a squirming Isa in her arms.

“Angels, Messiah, a baby in a manger! Our son is special isn’t he?”

Mara looked at Yusuf for a long moment. She thought about all that she had been through in the last 9 months. The visit from the angel and surprise pregnancy, the shame of being unmarried followed by Yusuf’s continued willingness to marry her, the time she had with her cousin Eliza while she gave birth to her miracle child in her old age and now the journey to Zataari. Mara was amazed at how her life had been so dramatically changed, how this baby had come into her world and changed everything. This tiny baby that could not lift his own head, who could not survive unless she kept him warm with her own body heat, who could not be fed unless it was she who gave him food, who could not be alive unless she worked to keep him so. This little child had come into her life and nothing was the same as it was.

Yet before tonight, the message from that first Angel had not seemed so real and grand. For certain she had been pregnant, but for her child to be the Messiah… well that was something she could not imagine. Yet the Shepherds had come, they told them of messenger Angels coming to the fields, telling them about the birth of her child, of this tiny little baby boy, so vulnerable to the world, of how he would be their saviour!

Returning to Yusuf’s question, was their son special?

“Come and look into his eyes Yusuf, see for yourself”, Mara finally said.

And together as they looked at this little child, so new to world, wiggling and gurgling like newborns do, they saw skin and hair; ears, eyes and a nose. And yet as they looked longer, they saw something more, something so much more. As they looked into this child’s eyes they could see themselves, they could see everyone that they loved, they could see the whole world. In this little helpless child, they could see the divine, they could see a great passion for all creation, they could see God in flesh — Emmanuel. Looking at this little miracle in their arms, Mara and Yusuf saw the whole world differently than it was just a moment before. A miracle bigger than they could hold. A world with God in it.

As the first wisps of light began to breach the horizon with the sunrise, the little family stood at the door of their tent, watching this new light come into the world. As starlight and sunlight danced with each other across the sky, Mara could almost hear voices singing from above and she listened to the heavens.

Yusuf whispered to his son,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Amen.

Our version of Christmas is NOT God’s

Luke 1:39-45(46-55)

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit…

[And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

(Read the whole passage)

 

Sermon

We have come to the end of Advent. Advent has been rough this year. We have endured talk of the end times and John the Baptist’s fiery preaching from the river banks.

Finally today, on this last Sunday of Advent things start to sound a little more Christmasy. Elizabeth, a woman thought to be too old to conceive and barren, is pregnant with John. Mary, a virgin still only engaged to be married, is pregnant with the Messiah.

Today’s story sounds beautiful and picturesque. It is easy for us to imagine two delightfully pregnant women greeting one another lovingly; a scene that makes us smile.

But we forget to consider the struggles these two women are facing. Elizabeth is older than a pregnant woman should be. She and Zechariah will be raising a child in their old age, more like grandparents who have unexpectedly found themselves raising children again. While Mary is a young unmarried teen girl, and her fiancé is not the father of her child. Joseph could call the marriage off at best… maybe forcing Mary to a life of begging on streets, with a child to care for. At worst, both she and her unborn child could be stoned for adultery. For both women in their day, child birth was dangerous and all too often women would not survive the birth experience without some luck. There is probably more relief than joy while the women greet one another, as Mary has gone with haste to see her cousin, to avoid the judgement of her hometown family and friends.

The story of Mary and Elizabeth is not one of those Christmas movies. Rather it is story full of fear and danger, one that stands in contrast to the Christmas image we generally try to present. Mary and Elizabeth challenge the notion that Christmas is about shopping, baking, decorating and hosting. Mary and Elizabeth introduce things we don’t want to talk about this time of year. Fear, danger, shame and uncertainty.

(Pause)

In the middle of Advent, St. David’s church was having an extraordinary congregational meeting. It was a busy time of year. The actors for the annual pageant were having regular rehearsals. Father Angelo and Father Michael were frantic with preparations, sermon writing, and pre-Christmas visits. Everyone was busy with all the usual Christmas stuff at home – office parties, school concerts, family visits – it was not a good time for a congregational meeting.

Yet, the basement of the church was packed full of people.

The meeting was extraordinary because it had not been called by the parish board or the priests. It had been called by special petition. Simon, the building committee chair, had gotten the 35 signatures required to call a special meeting of the congregation.

The president of the congregation stood up to the mic and called the meeting to order. She asked Father Angelo to lead the congregation in prayer. Then the president asked Simon to read the one motion that the congregation was to vote on.

Simon came to the mic, “I move that our congregation cancel our plans to sponsor the refugees. Bill seconds the motion.”

When Simon finished, people began to murmur and talk.

The president had to ask for quiet. She then open the floor to debate, with Simon getting to speak first as the mover of the motion.

“Our parish board went ahead a decided to sponsor those people without asking us. Because they know what we would have said. They know that Father Angelo and the tour group was over there when it happened. They stuck in that church only a few blocks from the bombs. We don’t think bringing people who could be terrorists to our church is right. We need to vote no, before they get here next week.”

(Pause)

The real story of Mary discovering that she is pregnant unravels and upsets our vision of the Christmas story. We don’t want Christmas to be like real life, it supposed to something different, or least that is what we hope to create. The perfect and ideal vision of the perfect family preparing for a new baby. This is the Christmas we try to tirelessly create each year, a diversion from the messiness and struggle of real life. We want to imagine Mary and Elizabeth as calm and peaceful expectant mothers, as if they this is the way the planned to have children all along.

But our version of Christmas is NOT God’s.

God is telling a different story at this time of year. God is telling a real story, about real people. About people who have big problems, and no easy way out. It is about poverty, about unmarried parents, about unwanted babies, about couples too old to raise a child, about judgment and the threat of death. And it is about how God’s people respond to fear and danger.

(Pause)

After Simon’s speech, people started shouting, some in support, others against Simon’s motion. The president had to call for order again.

June stood up to the mic, June was like everyone’s favourite surrogate grandma at St. David’s. “Now Simon, you are just being silly. Syrian Refugees need our help. We have to welcome them.”

Again people started shouting, again the president called for order.

This time Nelly, the director of the Christmas Pageant was at the mic. “I don’t know what to think. I watch the news and all these people are leaving their homes, but then it feels like every week some new act of terrorism happens. I don’t know what the answer is.”

The debate went on like this for 30 minutes. People speaking passionately for one side or the other, with many stuck in the middle.

Jim was standing in line at the mic behind 5 people. His 11 year old daughter Lizzie beside him. Finally it was his turn to speak.

“I don’t actually have anything to say” he said. “Lizzie does. Can she speak Mme. President.” There was more murmuring from the crowd. The president nodded.

(Pause)

Sometimes the real world can get in the way of Christmas. While we try to create perfect memories with seemingly perfect families, God is discarding the rules about pregnancy before marriage in order to send us a messiah. As we stress and worry and prepare for the perfect Christmas, God is sending divine messengers to an old woman and unwed teen mom living in poverty.

God does not wait for the everything to be perfect or to fall into place in order to begin the work of the incarnation. God does not come only when it is safe and there is nothing to fear. God’s activity of taking on our flesh and becoming like us starts now. God comes to us, whether we want God to or not.

Mary’s and Elizabeth’s real life shoves aside our idyllic nativity scenes, visions of perfect Christmases. Mary and Elizabeth show us a real story about real people. A story about shame, and danger and betrayal. But also a story about mercy, and compassion and grace.

(pause)

Jim lowered the mic for his daughter.  Lizzie stepped up, she looked around the room, pulled out a piece of paper to read.

“I am not afraid” she said. “I am not afraid because I would want a church like this to let my family come if we had to run from home or war. The refugees might be terrorists but they might be kids too. Kids like the boy on the beach. Kids like me. Kids who need homes and schools and safe places to live. St. David’s is a safe place. I know that because my parents always tell me that if I am lost, I can come here and people will take care of me. Father Angelo, Father Michael, June, Nelly, Simon. They tell me that you are safe people and you can take care of me. They tell that I am safe here because this is God’s house, and God makes it safe.”

Lizzie stepped back from the mic and grabbed for father’s hand. The two went and sat down together.

(pause)

For when Mary gets past the shame of pregnancy before marriage, when she get past the fear of death for adultery, she with her husband to be Joseph, with her elderly cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah, they all become guardians of God’s promise, bearers of the Good News made flesh.

And it is the same for us, when our fears and worries get out in the way, when we can’t see what God is up to. God comes anyways.  And God bears grace and mercy for the world in us. God makes us the messengers of the Good News of God’s love and compassion for all. God sends Messiah to frightened world.

And because of what God is doing, with Mary, we can sing:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Amen. 

*Part 2 of this series is found here.

Why Advent is sucking less this year

Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Read the whole passage)

*This sermon was based on this blog post

Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God

Advent just isn’t doing it for me this year. Maybe you feel the same way too.

Advent is normally my favourite season of the church year. I don’t think that is uncommon for pastors.

Christmas is of course the Super Bowl (or Grey Cup) of the church year. Christmas is like the most popular chain restaurant in town, everyone goes there and it is a big party. But Advent is more like that hole-in-the-wall family run restaurant with the most delicious food you can find, that most people seem to pass by without much notice.

The rich flavour of Advent is found in the images that we hear – the way of Lord, valleys filled up, mountains made low, crooked paths made straight that we heard about last week. This week it is the spicy brood of vipers, the firey winnowing fork burning the chaff. Next week it will be angels and virgins, and promises and hints of Messiah. Advent’s beauty is in the blending of hints and promises of Messiah together with real life. With the messiness of people looking for something better.

Real people like the crowds in the desert going to John the Baptist, looking and hoping for something different than what they know. Real people like the hypocritical religious and political leaders that we know as well as 1st century Israel did. Real people like a girl dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and the reality of impossible life choices.

Advent speaks to the real circumstances that people – everyday, average people – deal with all the time.

And Advent weaves the coming of Messiah through it all. Christmas tells us of the extraordinary. Advent brings God close to the ordinary.

But this year, Advent has not felt so hopeful.

Normally, the light of the coming Messiah shines brightly through the cracks of our Advent images. We cannot help but see Messiah bursting into our world. This year, the light feels dull.

Instead, all the messy and broken stories of God’s people that we hear in Advent are hitting too close to home.

Stories and images of burning chaff speak less to farm hands separating wheat on the threshing room floor and more to a warming planet that world leaders cannot seem to get a handle on.

Stories about King Herod’s willingness to kill infant boys to protect his own power and the violent world of occupied Israel of Jesus’ day reminds us all too much of the terrorism, shootings, and bombing that we hear about in the news.

Stories about the innkeepers who turned away the holy family remind us too much of political leaders like Donald Trump who are vowing to prevent any muslims or refugees to cross their boarders.

Stories like the possible stoning that Mary could have endured had Joseph chosen to dismiss her sound too much like violence against women simply because they are women, against indigenous people because they are indigenous as the murderer of Tina Fontaine was arrested this week. Tina Fontaine whose death just up the river from here sparked the call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

Advent stories are coming at us in the news as often as they are coming from the bible this year.

Not to mention that here at Good Shepherd our community and family is struggling with suffering, with illness and with death. We are grieving as a church family this week as we said goodbye to beloved wife and mother on Monday. And still there are those of us that are sick, lonely, and tired, even with Christmas approaching.

Advent is our reality. Waiting for Messiah is what we are doing this year.

As John the Baptist declares, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” We are living out Advent in real-time.

We are the ones standing on the riverbanks hoping that this wild hermit preacher named John can give us some hope. And all he seems to be talking about is wrath. Axes waiting to cut down trees. Warnings to start living better lives. Threats of burning with the chaff unless we get it together.

At least that is what John seems to be talking about.

John describes the Messiah standing on a threshing room floor, the place where grain is brought in once it is harvested from the land. And the Messiah has his mighty winnowing fork in hand. A winnowing fork is used to separate a wheat stock from the grain itself. As the fork lifts the grain from the pile, the heavy grain falls to the floor, and the lighter useless chaff is blown into the fire to be burned away.

John’s message today sounds harsh but fitting for our world. Somewhere between racist political campaigns in Canada, ISIS, Paris, US Gun Violence, Climate Change realities and all the other stuff our world is suffering from… the illusory veneer of the “Christmas season” has been stripped from us.

As Advent isn’t doing it for us this year, and its light seems to be dull, because the world is full of depressing stuff… maybe throwing us all into the chaff isn’t what John is getting at.

Because a pitchfork is not what Messiah is holding, for a fork would be a useless tool to clear a threshing room floor. And nor is the word fork used in the original greek of this text. No, the tool that the messiah is holding is more of a winnowing spoon… or more precisely a shovel. The winnowing shovel is not a tool of separating but a tool for gathering.

Maybe just maybe, Messiah is gathering us up. Gathering us all up. Gathering up our broken and suffering and dying world so that we can finally begin to see the light.

Maybe that is how God is reminding us that the Good News isn’t just reserved for Christmas.

As bad as the world seems to be, Messiah is already a work around us. Messiah has his winnowing shovel and is gathering. Messiah’s is bringing light to our Advent world.

Messiah is gathering us up in Paris as world leaders realize the climate must be preserved for future generations and reach 11th hour agreements to heal the planet.

Messiah is taking us in as Prime Ministers and Premiers greet lowly refugees with smiles, hugs, jackets. With love, compassion and welcome.

Messiah is scooping us up off the floor with an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women so that we can know what happened to the most vulnerable among us.

And Messiah is gathering us here at Good Shepherd while we grieve the death of  a member of our community this week, we are also finding new ways to care for each other.

And Messiah is taking us in as we collect hampers for those in need, and as we support the work of the Soup Kitchen, Food Bank and Homeless Shelter with year-end donations from our congregation.

And Messiah is scooping us up off the threshing room floor with children who reminded us this morning of the Christmas story and how God is coming into our world.

Messiah is gathering us up, all the mess and dullness of our real-time Advent so that we can see that a real God is coming to us in a real incarnation, and this real broken and suffering flesh that we bear is also born by Messiah.

Messiah is coming. Really coming to this real and dark world. Not into the world of sweet idealistic Christmases that sound more like fantasy that reality. Messiah is really coming to us.

Stir up your power Lord Christ and come.

Why Advent Sucks this Year – Why We Need Advent

Advent is normally my favourite season of the church year. I don’t think that is uncommon for pastors.

Christmas and Easter are of course the big celebrations, but Advent and Lent have a certain depth and richness, that allow Christmas and Easter to be what they are. Advent and Lent add the flavour to the meal.

For me, the richness of Advent is found in the images – the way of Lord, valleys filled up, mountains made low, crooked made straight, broods of vipers, winnowing forks and chaff, angels and virgins, and promises and hints of Messiah.

Advent’s beauty is in the blending of hints and promises of Messiah together with real life. With the messiness of people looking for something better. The people in the desert going to John the Baptist, looking for something different than what they knew. The hypocrisy of religious and political leaders, which is a true as death and taxes. A  teen girl dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and the reality of impossible life choices.

Advent speaks to the real circumstances that people – everyday, average people – deal with all the time.

And Advent weaves the coming of Messiah through it all. Christmas tells us of the extraordinary. Advent brings God close to the ordinary.

But this year, Advent has not felt so hopeful.

This year I feel like I am being dragged into Advent, and the hope and anticipation just isn’t there.

Instead, all the messy, crappy, broken stories of God’s people that we hear in Advent are hitting too close to home.

Terrorism, shootings, bombs, political leaders vowing revenge feels all to close to world of the seeking crowds, the oppressive world of tyrant kings, the violent world of occupied Israel.

Violence being condoned towards women and their bodies simply because they bear the child of a man, sounds too much like the possible stoning that Mary could have endured had Joseph chosen to dismiss her. A pregnant and unmarried woman was basically worthless and damage good… a sentiment that too many entitled white men  still feel about women.

Syrian refugees fleeing the exact part of the world that the holy family was forced to flee because of violent rulers being fearful of young boys growing into terrorists just feels eerie. Somehow this year, we became all the innkeepers who turned the holy family away because they were too different and unsafe.

The callous brutality of Herod and the Romans feels like the unwillingness of American politicians to consider the smallest modicum of gun control. Royal death squads sent to murder infant boys are the price Herod paid for power and money. Daily mass shootings are the price to pay for an unregulated gun industry.

Advent stories are coming at us in the news as often as they are coming from the bible this year.

Advent has always beautifully shown us the interweaving of incarnation and reality. But this year, the stories we read, preach and hear in the church are reality in the world. We have become a people waiting for and in need of a Messiah.

Advent is our reality.

We are living out Advent in real time.

And maybe that is why we need Advent more than ever.

Without Advent, our current troubles would make celebrating Christmas a farce.

Without Advent, our current troubles would be all there is in the world.

Without Advent, our current troubles would eclipse any glimpse God at work among us.

Advent is sucking this year because the world is sucking this year. Somewhere between racist political campaigns in Canada, ISIS, Paris, US Gun Violence, Climate Change realities and all the other stuff our world is suffering from… the illusory veneer of the “Christmas season” was stripped from us.

And maybe that is the point.

Maybe the real the world has to be held out in front of us, maybe we need to see the unvarnished, un-white-washed, naked world to really get it.

Maybe Advent needs to be real so that we can get that the incarnation is real too.

To get that Messiah is coming into this Advent world.

Stir up your power Lord Christ and come.


Are you in the Advent spirit this year? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

When our words are weak – A Lament for Alan, Ghalib and Rehanna Kurdi

Yesterday, I was scrolling through my social media feeds and a vivid photo of a beach passed by. I scrolled back to see a very young boy in shorts and a t-shirt laying in the sand.

It took me a moment to piece together that this wasn’t a child playing on the beach, but instead a wordless and unimaginable tragedy. It was Alan Kurdi.

 I have a son. A little boy that has often been dressed in shorts and t-shirts this summer. Those hands and feet, those legs and arms, that little body is one I see everyday.

It was heartbreaking to see the same arms, legs and body as my little boy lying lifeless on a turkish beach. It was guilt inducing and gut wrenching to be grateful that there was dark hair and not my son’s reddish blonde.

I have regularly prayed for Syrian refugees in my church. I have just slipped in a few words for them along with prayers for rain in spring and sunshine in harvest, prayers for world leaders and peace, prayers for church ministries and programs, prayers for sick and dying people. It was the very least I could do.

I have regularly forgotten to pray for Syria when all those other things took all my attention.

I have have encouraged my congregation to collect sweaters for displaced Syrian refugees, to give money to our denominational aid organization working in the refugee camps, to be open minded about our muslim neighbours.

I haven’t pressed them as hard as I could have.

A few months ago as I sat in my office, a muslim refugee family came to me to ask for help. A father and mother just like Abdullah and Rehanna, 6 children just like Ghalib and Alan. A family just like Alan’s sat in my office and I hemmed and hawed about how much help I could provide, secretly wondering about how much effort I would need to put in helping them.

As a pastor, I have had grieving mothers cling to me. I have had to offer failing words and inadequate comfort to those who are grieving the death of a child – young and old.

My job is to point to hope, even when no one else can. My vocation is to be the one who declares “Life” when everyone else declares “death.” My calling is to give words to the grieving.

Words for Alan, Rehanna and Ghalib. Words to Abdullah.

Words that somehow make sense of death.

I wish I could say there is some purpose in this tragedy, but there isn’t. I hope that Alan’s  photo becomes as significant as the naked Vietnamse girl’s is, but it would better that neither needed to be taken. I wish that Alan’s death had some greater meaning, but would you volunteer your child’s life to be the one that moved the world to action?

I hope that Alan reminds us that the words ‘Syrian’, ‘Migrant’, ‘Refugee’ are synonymous with ‘person.’ I hope that we remember that Syrians, migrants and refugees are human beings, not numbers, not news headlines, not problems to pass off, or expenses we don’t want to incur.

The world – 5 years too late – cries out for Alan and for Syria.

Finally. 

Yet, world leaders, NGOs, military campaigns, and good intentions will not solve this crisis. At best, they will mitigate it, they will make things slightly less tragic.

That is where my job to speak words for Alan, Ghalib and Rehanna comes in…  to speak words that somehow spark hope in the midst of tragedy and death.

Words that are not mine… words that belong to and are given by God. 

Because when are confronted with images of tragedy that make us cry out,

Because when we know that our leaders don’t have the will to respond, nor could they adequately respond if they did will it,

Because our good intentions have never solved our problems.

Because the human spirit, as noble as it might be, will not save us.

Because when we cannot redeem senseless death, God can. 

God makes sense of that which we cannot. 

God turns our tragedy into something better – into mercy and resurrection.

God does have the answer, God has life and love for a little boy laying on a beach.

God has life and love for our broken world.


Featured photo courtesy of Leadnow.ca