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That’s not how faith works

*As I am currently on vacation, here is a guest sermon from Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker, whom you can find on Twitter @ReedmanParker and on Instagram: creedmanparker

Gospel: John 17:6-19

[Jesus prayed:] 6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. (Read the whole text)

Here we are, the end of the Easter season. Seven weeks later, many stories and experiences of new life – unexpected life. These stories begin with grief and loss: death, an empty tomb, and no body. They do not begin in a place of joy or jubilation, or even peace. They begin from a place of fear and anxiety. From a place of not knowing what the future will hold.

In this season of Easter, these 50 days between the Resurrection and Pentecost, we spend a lot of time within the setting of that first day of the week. And the starting place for most of the these stories is so far from what the worship committee plans. The faithful women, the disciples, those who followed Jesus, are in a state of shock and disbelief. They can’t see Jesus when he stands before them, they don’t believe the testimony of others – at least not at first.

Like us, the early followers of Jesus, the faithful women, the disciples, have ideas about who God is, and how God acts in the world, how God acts through us. And what they were seeing and hearing didn’t match those expectations. Those ideas. Their long held beliefs.

Like the disciples, the faithful women, the early followers of Jesus, it’s hard for us to see, to understand, to follow Jesus, God, even when God is staring us right in the face!

But these stories don’t stay in a place of disbelief or lack of sight for long. Because God stays with those people – God stays with us – until they see. Until they believe.

Seeing what was previously un-seen. Believing in what previously was un-thinkable, un-heard of, un-imaginable.

Jesus lives. Alleluia!

New life, it turns out, is full of unexpected, unanticipated realities. Ask any new(ish) parent, and they will likely tell you, “this was not what I expected”. New life is hard work. Navigating these new realities, navigating not only the new life, but the new life and role as parent not easy. Not by a long shot.

And for all the planning, all the reading, all the advice and preparations, the most accurate version of what to expect when you’re expecting is to get ready for the unexpected. It would be a short book.

And maybe that’s part of the problem, part of the challenge for us – the un-expected. the un-planned.

Like it or not, we like to know what to expect. We like to know what’s ahead of us. We like to follow the rules. Or at least know what the rules are, so we know what the consequence is of breaking them!

We see this throughout scripture – how rule-bound the Pharisees become, not being able to separate the rule of law from the spirit of the law. Good and faithful people become so rule-bound that they are unable to see how God is at work in and through the ways and means and people that were above or beyond the rule.

Today is no different. In our first reading from Acts, we encounter the disciples taking up the task of choosing who from their community will fill Judas’ spot as a disciple after Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.

This community, and this group of people in particular, has already been through a lot! They want, and probably need, someone who they can trust. Someone they can depend on. Someone who won’t betray them the way Judas betrayed Jesus. They want to ensure that they “get it right”. As though getting it right will somehow ensure that they will not be disappointed again in the future. Or worse, that they will disappoint God in their decision making. That not getting it right, will somehow reflect upon their faithfulness.

But we know that even when we follow all the rules, when we follow the letter of the law, when we attend to every detail – it’s still possible to be disappointed. It’s still possible to not get it right, not all the way anyhow.

And that’s the rub. When we’ve done all the things we’ve been taught to do, and still find ourselves wanting… waiting… hoping for things to turn out in a way we can predict and anticipate. And then disappointed when they don’t.

But here’s the thing: that’s not how faith works. It’s certainly not how God works.

Note how the disciples put so much time and effort into choosing the correct candidate to take Judas’ place. Note the “rules.” Has to be a man, has to be someone there from the beginning, has to be someone who has witnessed the resurrection. [Only] two qualify. We learn their names. Lots are drawn. A man was chosen. And we never hear from him (or the other guy) again….

Because God was busy calling Paul. And Lydia. And the Ethiopian Eunuch. And so many more who weren’t in the narrow subset of ideas about who could be God’s messengers.

This is who God is. And this is who God reveal’s God’s-self to be over and over and over again. When God’s people become so rule bound that they cannot see God’s unconditional love and mercy, God chooses Mary to mother God’s son. Jesus arrives in a lowly stable and leaves the world by a procession on a donkey and hanging on a cross. And in his life, Jesus chooses the least likely candidates to help him proclaim God’s message to the world. He hangs around with the weirdos and the misfits, the outcasts and the strangers no one wanted – or by virtue of following the law – ought to be hanging around to be ritually clean. Jesus does all the things the law, the rules, tell him not to do. Talk about unexpected. This is who God is. Unexpected.

God does the unexpected. That’s what new life is – unexpected. The way God uses us is unexpected. How we get to live out God’s love and mercy in the world usually unexpected.

And so too, for us here gathered at Gimli Lutheran Church, maybe wondering how on earth is God working in and through us? Maybe you are feeling like you’ve followed all the rules and are still coming up short. Maybe you wonder where God is in the midst of this time of transition – between pastoral leadership, as the place and prominence of the church – not just here, but towns and cities, in families and communities changes.

Like the faithful women and the disciples on that first morning of the resurrection, we might feel like we are staring into an empty tomb. Like the disciples after Jesus’ ascension, we too might wonder how to find a leader to help us grow in our faith and equip others to know about Jesus and this great love God has for us.

But God does not wonder about us. God knows us inside and out. God knows our deepest desires and longings. God knows our fears and our dreams. God knows both what we want and what we need. And just like the early disciples, God is already out in the world calling forth new life, new leadership for this community. God is already stirring in us new life, new ideas, new ways of being that we can expect will be completely unexpected to us. This is who God is. Unexpected in the grace extended. Unexpected in the mercy given. Unexpected in the ways God continues to bring about new life in us and throughout the world.

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Go over to this chariot and join it – Electing a Bishop

*This is the reflection I shared during Saturday Morning Prayer at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada’s Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Synod’s 17th Biennial Convention. The delegates were in the process of electing a new Bishop, and later that morning elected an excellent candidate (and good friend of mine) the Rev. Jason Zinko. *

Acts 8:26-40

26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it… (Read the whole passage)

Go over to this chariot and join it.

How very different are the words given to us today by the reading from Acts and the reading from 1 John. 

Go over to this chariot and join it. 

A command. An oracle of the divine. A word sent from on high to stir our hearts, to get them beating a little more quickly than we like given to us in the story go Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.

And then First John’s gentle reminder that: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” sounds so very different, almost alien to God’s command today. 

Go over to this chariot and join it.

And yet they both speak directly to our worries and anxieties. 

It is almost as if God likes to mess with us. 

The spirit is causing us anxiety today and we know it, we feel it. God’s call is just as often jarring and terrifying, as it is a gentle summons whispered in our ears. 

The spirit is poking at us right in that spot where we would rather that God didn’t. Right in the place where we are vulnerable and soft, right where we know that this is going to cause us to give up comfortable, familiar, stable, low-risk ways of following that we would rather cling to. 

There is no going back anymore, there is no reaching and longing for the past anymore, the glory days are not here again, the chariot that the spirit is pointing us to is not the one with well worn imprints of our behinds formed in its seats. 

Go over to this chariot and join it.

For the past six months in the Interlake, 5 Lutheran congregations and one Anglican parish have been journeying towards formal shared ministry by trying out shared Sunday services. And this has meant that most Sundays, I have been at different churches than the ones I was in the week before. 

A couple of months ago, I brought my daughter Maeve with me to Teulon and Arborg for the first time. Maeve is not quite 2 years old and of course isn’t ready to be left alone while I preach or preside.

When I got to Teulon and began getting ready for worship, both Maeve and I were apprehensive. She knows all about church, but this was still a new place and new people. And I didn’t have our reliable surrogate Good Shepherd grandmas, I needed to ask new people to sit with my daughter during worship. 

Yet, before I could figure out who to ask to sit wit her, Brian came into the office to say hello. Then Brian introduced himself to Maeve and invited her to sit with him. And with my relieved consent, Brian took her by the hand to go find a place to sit. And throughout worship, Brian, and his wife Lois and a few kids from the congregation, sat with Maeve, letting her know that she had a place with them. That she was welcome.

Of course later that morning the same thing happened in Arborg and then again the next week in Lundar.

Go over to this chariot and join it.

Oh, how we wish that the spirit had our familiar, comfortable, known chariots in mind. Oh how we wish that “chariot” was a euphemism for glory days, and “ join it” meant that things are going to be easy. 

But is not easy to follow that command, to just get up and go to the next thing leaving behind all that is familiar and comfortable. Nor is it easy to be ones that God is sending someone to. 

But here is the thing. Maeve and my son Oscar… and even my wife Courtenay and I and other young people don’t remember the glory days… that familiar chariot is not familiar to us, we are often Ethiopian Eunuchs in a foreign land. And the church as it is now is the only chariot we have ever known. This chariot has always been aging and declining. Budgets have always been tight, and there are usually lots of empty pews to choose from in worship.

And this church as we are now is the church that we love.

This is the church where the spirit has sent Philips to welcome my children and bring them by the hand into community. Philips who are passing on the faith to them. Philips who sit beside them to hear the Word anew, who are welcoming them at the baptismal font and showing them a place at the communion table. 

The chariot that the spirit is pointing us to now, the chariot that the spirit is pointing a new Bishop among us to, the church that we are in this moment is the one that God is calling us to be. 

Go over to this chariot and join it.

This morning God’s word for us might be uncomfortable, and might cause us anxiety. And we might wonder just why the spirit cannot leave us alone and let us be…

Because that is now God’s way with us, because being left alone and let be is not what we need. 

The Spirit is calling our anxious hearts to Go over to this chariot and join it, because it is in this new chariot, in this next step and this new calling to new ministry will be found the good news of Jesus Christ, the spirit’s gift resurrection and new life given for Philip, the Ethiopian Eunuch and given for us.   

Thomas, Fake News and Resurrection

John 20:19-31

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (Read the whole passage)

It has been a week since we released the alleluias from their captivity, since we gathered around the story of the empty tomb and pronounced that Christ is Risen, Christ is Risen Indeed! Easter has come after a long time spent in the wilderness of Lent, after a Holy week where we did holy things like wave palm branches, share in the eucharist and lament at the foot of the cross.

And even though we are now a week into the Easter seaason, we a reminded today of that first Easter day…. the whole 50 days of Easter have been long held up as one great day of celebration of the resurrection.

So we go back to day one, we hear a story from that first Easter day. And it is a familiar one.

Thomas… We always get Thomas on the second Sunday in Easter.

There must be something about this story that we hear it every year.

It begins on the day of the resurrection, the disciples have heard the news of the empty tomb so they are naturally hiding away in fear. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they did watch their teacher and master be executed by the state and now three days later to hear that he has risen from the dead. This probably seems like too much to handle.

So while they are hiding away, Jesus shows up in their midst. He offers them peace… peace after of the chaos of the previous week. He then blesses them and sends them out, reminding them of the mission that he had been preparing them for.

But Thomas wasn’t there.

Perhaps he wasn’t afraid like the others, or maybe he drew the short straw and was sent to the grocery store for some milk.

Regardless, when Thomas returns he hears the news, the story from the others. Jesus has appeared to them. The rumours are true, Jesus has risen from the dead.

But Thomas will not believe.

So often we portray Thomas as some kind of skeptic… almost scientist like. Thomas the crime scene investigator who needs some evidence, some DNA to put under a microscope, some unassailable proof that Jesus is indeed alive. But those are 20th century concerns… not 1st century ones. And in some ways our 21st century world has moved much closer to the Thomas’s 1st century one.

Thomas lived in a world much like ours. Political leaders or dictators ruled cruelly and with fuzzy relationships to the truth. People were desperate for hope, for salvation, for quick fixes. Jesus wasn’t the only healer and miracle worker around. They were a dime a dozen, messiahs on every street corner collecting followers with promises of salvation, promises of revolution, promises of a better life. And most were fake news.

Thomas had heard the crazy stories before, his world was full of them. He knew what fake news sounded like, stories or conspiracies or promises too good to be true.

And after the week that he had just lived through, one where his beloved teacher and friend Jesus had been crucified because of fake news, because of false claims brought against him by the religious authorities and mobs, because of the heartless Romans who knew very well that the charges were false yet executed him anyways… because of all the events of the previous week…. this news that Jesus was alive was probably too much to deal with.

Thomas wasn’t a scientist or crime scene investigator. He was a hurting human being. Someone who was too wounded and grief filled to get his hopes up again for story that was too good to be true.

Because what if he did believe that Jesus was risen from the dead and it turned out to be another false hope…

We have been living in Thomas’s world for a while now. Despite all our technological advancements and progress, we find ourselves in a society where truth and facts are largely irrelevant. Fake news is everywhere. Just the other day I saw a news story about a group of people in the United States who believe that mass shootings are conspiracies. Fuelled by internet conspiracies, this group travels around the country to confront the families of victims of mass shootings… to tell them that their loved ones were not killed and probably never existed in the first place.

Horrific

Of course, not all fake news is so extreme.

A recent survey of Canadians and their perception of climate change revealed that one third don’t believe that human beings have contributed to climate change, and only about half believe that addressing climate change should be a government priority.

And who among us hasn’t received a spam email from a Nigerian prince offering to give pass on a fortune to us.

Christianity isn’t immune from those who peddle fake news or false hope either. Turn on the tv and find any number of prosperity gospel preachers offering miracles, health and wealth all for a modest contribution to their ministry.

We know what Thomas’s world was like, we know that we cannot trust every story we hear out there. We know what it is like for those in power to twist the truth for their advantage, we know what it is like for those who lead our world to lie to us.

It is easy to see that Thomas might be distrustful of a story that seems too good to be true.

And we also know what it is like to have a lot invested in Jesus, to have all our hope and all our faith in the Christ.

Especially having just come through Holy Week ourselves, having been gathering together week after week proclaiming the importance of this story of Jesus’ resurrection… we too know the heartbreak that would come if it turned out to be just fake news.

That heartbreak is exactly what Thomas is guarding himself against. He knows that he just wouldn’t be able to handle getting his hopes up, only to have them crushed all over again.

So when Jesus shows up again, he does so to give Thomas exactly what he needs. Just as he came and stood among the disciples, he comes and stands before Thomas.

And both times, Jesus does something that is so opposite of how our world would choose to spread the news of someone back from the dead.

Jesus begins with peace.

So often Fake News declares, “Look at me!” “Be surprised!” “Be enraged!”

Yet Jesus speaks, “Peace.”

Peace, so that the disciples can see their Risen Lord.
Peace, so that Jesus can break through Thomas’s guarded heart.
Peace, to calm our troubled hearts that need to know Jesus.

And then Jesus offers Thomas his hands and his side.

It is easy to think that it is holes that are important for Thomas to see. The holes in Jesus hands and the holes in Jesus’ side.

But it is the hands that have shared bread with Thomas for years that reach out.
It is the body that has walked and sat and slept next to Thomas that is offered.
It is the flesh of the one whom Thomas loves and follows who breaks through to Thomas’s guarded heart.

Thomas wasn’t looking for evidence of crucifixion and death, Thomas needed to see that Jesus was alive.

And that is what Jesus gives him.

And is what Jesus gives us.

Because Jesus does the same for us. Jesus continually breaks into our fake news world offering peace and life.

Peace to our troubled hearts.
Peace so that we can be calmed down in order to hear God’s promise given to us.
Peace so that we see.

Jesus breaks through to us, through all the stories and people of our world that we are suspicious of, that we know are too good to be true, that we cannot unguard our hearts for.

And Jesus reaches out to us in the hands that share peace with us,
the hands that place the bread and wine into our outstretched hands,
the hands that welcome us here.

And Jesus offers his side,
his body given to us in the bodies of our brothers and sisters
who sing and praise and pray next to us,
the bodies who come to table and receive next to us,
the body of Christ that we eat and share,
the body of Christ that we become.

Jesus has been breaking into our world over and over again, from the empty tomb, to the upper room, to the waters of font, to the table of the Lord.
Jesus breaks through to us in order that our guarded hearts might know Peace.
Jesus break through in order that we see the Christ, God in flesh.

God in wounded flesh, Risen from the dead.

Hearing the Holy Week story anew… again.

GOSPEL: Mark 14:1–15:47 (Read the whole passion text here)

 

Today, we enter into Holy Week.

We step out of the wilderness into the chaos.

Don’t mistake the palms for some kind of party or excuse to celebrate. This is the tension filled moment of at the beginning of a thriller. Every detail, every action, every face in the story should be sign that things are not as they seem. This coronation moment on the road in the Holy City will not last, the crowds will not see the one riding a donkey as a king who will save for much longer.

Humanity puts Christ on the throne today…. a human throne of power.

But the throne at the end of the week, the throne of suffering and death is where Christ will end up is the opposite moment of today.

Today, we begin the story. The story we have told so many times, the story that has been imprinted on our foreheads in baptism, the story that our bodies take in when we eat of the bread and drink of the cup… this story is one that we cannot help but tell. A story told each Sunday in the words of scripture, in our worship, in our gathering as a community.

And yet, this week, this passion week, this holy week, the story is told anew. The story of Christ’s passion and crucifixion is told as though we have not heard it before. It is told in old and ancient ways to new ears.

It is new because we still need salvation from sin and death, it is new because God continues to come into our world saving us from sin and death.

No, we do not relive the story, and Christ is not nailed to cross again and again… yet we continually die to sin. We die each day, deaths in a million small ways, the deaths of failures and brokenness, deaths because of the things we have done to ourselves and others, and the things others do to us.

The story is new because we keep experiencing death in this world.

But the story is also new because of what God is doing with us.

God keeps showing us the empty tomb. God keeps pulling up and out of the waters, breathing new air, a new spirit, a new life into our lungs.

The story is new because even with all the death in the world around us, God is meeting and confronting all those millions of ways we die. And God promising us resurrection, God is pulling us up out of the tomb.

The story is new, because God is making us new.

God is making us new creations in the risen one, in the Christ whose exit from the grave becomes our way out too.

So let us begin this week anew, this passion week, the holy week. Let us hear the story that we know so well as if it is new.

Because it is new.

Because God is making us new… again.

How can there be anything but death in the ashes?

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you… (Read the whole passage)

Just a few days ago we along with Jesus and the disciples as they came across a Blind Man. Jesus spoke words reminiscent of creation, “I am the light of the world.” And then reached down into the mud, touched the eyes of the blind man. And then after washing in the pool of Siloam, the Blind Man’s eyes were opened.

The light streamed in. The world was revealed to him in a brand new way.

He could see.

It was a story of Transfiguration. A mountain top revelation.

But that was then.

Because here is the thing about shining a light… it reveal things that we might not want to see.

Everything looks great from the mountain top, everything looks great when there has been only the dark ness for so long.

But it isn’t long until, when we go down into the valley, when we get up close to the difficult and challenging places of the world… that we begin to see the flaws and faults.

The scratch and chips and cracks reveal themselves.

And the perfect beautiful world that we could see from the mountain top, the brilliant colours streaming through to eyes that had so long been dark, the vibrant wold that seems to be so full of good… becomes tainted.

The longer we look the more something seems off. The more see, the more truth is revealed.

The world is good but it is also bad. There is goodness and righteousness out there. But there is also evil and suffering.

And then, after we have been looking long enough, after we come close to the reality of the world too many times, after we have been hurt, and burned, and sinned against… we realize that most of what we are seeing is the bad stuff, the hard stuff, the tragic stuff.

And that is when we see them.

And what is when we see the ashes.

The ashes of a scorched world.

The ashes of broken relationships, broken promises, broken people.

The ashes show us death.

And then we find ourselves searching. Searching for the incredible light we once saw. Searching for the bright and vibrant colours. Searching to see like we did from the mountaintop.

So we end up here.

And when we keep showing up here, week after week, year after year… we begin to see some mountain tops. The Angels singing to shepherds, the magi coming searching after the star, and of course a transfiguration on the mountaintop.

And then somehow, inexplicably, we end up here.

We end up here, on the night of ashes.

The night that reminds of all the things we don’t want to remember.

Sin and suffering and death.

How can we ever see the light again on this night?

How can we find life in the scorched earth of this world?

How there be anything but death?

How can there be anything but death in the ashes?

And so we come and confess our sin. We hope for mercy.

It is here, on this night of death and ashes that God says,

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We are not the ones who find the light.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”

We are not the ones who bring life to scorched and ash filled world.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We cannot conquer death.

Christ does.

Christ is the light. Christ brings life from the ashes. Christ conquers death.

You see, God does something on this night that is not found in the light or on the mountaintop.

God finds us in the ashes.

In the very thing thing, the dark, mucky, staining residue of death…. God finds us.

Remember that you are dust.

Because in the very substance of suffering, sin and death… God finds us in order to something that we could have never imaged, something that our eyes would never let us see.

In the ashes of lenten sin and repentance and wilderness.

In the ashes of our demand for a warlord messiah.

In the ashes of our cries for crucified blood.

In the ashes of cross.

God finds us… God finds us with forgiveness for sin.

God finds us… with Messiah who brings peace.

God finds us… with a God willing to die on a cross.

God finds us… in an empty grave.

We come here tonight, looking for light, looking for the mountaintop, looking for goodness and hope in the midst our darkness.

And we find ashes.

Ashes that remind us that we are dead. Dead people walking.

And yet, in the ashes of death… in the dark, grimy, lifeless ashes…

God finds us

And God re-members.

God re-members us to life.

The Great Multitude and Declining Churches

 

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands… (Read the whole passage)

 

All Saints Sunday is an ancient yet often unfamiliar festival of the church for many of us. It has only been in the past few decades that some Lutheran churches have begun to observe the feast day on the first Sunday in November.

But we all know of a tradition related to All Saints Day, and that is Halloween or All Hallows Eve – Hallowed being another word for saints. In other words, the Eve of All Saints.

All Saints is the tradition of remembering in prayer all those in our community who have died during the past year since last All Saints. In the Roman Catholic version of the festival, the official list of approved saints is recited and prayed on Nov 1st, and then on Nov 2nd, All Souls Day is marked when those who are still in purgatory are prayed for.

As Lutherans, we mash the two together in a sense, praying for all those who have died on the Sunday of All Saints as we dropped the notion of purgatory 500 years ago with the Reformation.

And so, many churches today will be praying for loved ones by name, or lighting candles as a part of worship and as a way to observe All Saints. In that sense, All Saints Sunday can be a bitter sweet day – one where grief is remembered but also one of hope pointing us to the coming end of time when God will gather all the saints into the Kingdom.

As we hear Matthew’s beatitudes and how they speak to the idea of the saints, they certainly speak to the definition of blessedness. In that way they point us to the Reformation idea that we are sinners AND saints… saints not because we have been blessed by good fortune, health and conflict free lives… but because God has declared us holy and blessed, even in the midst of the struggles of life.

And while unpacking the ins and outs of what it means to be a saint and what it means to be blessed is not a bad idea on All Saints Sunday… it is not the beatitudes that truly show us the vision of All Saints. The idea that we are all joined together in faith to the saints who have gone before and who will come after us.

Rather, it is John’s vision in Revelation, and the great multitude coming before the throne of God, that gives us a true glimpse into what All Saints is all about.

The setting of this vision from John found in the book of Revelation was that is was written for an early church community experiencing persecution. Christians in the decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus found themselves clustered in small communities scattered across the Roman Empire. Island of faith in a sea of imperial paganism.

These small churches of sometimes only one or two dozen people lived in a world that didn’t give them too much mind. They were surrounded by a pluralistic society that prioritized the empire and its success beyond any particular religion. Early Christians communities stood out because they insisted, like their Jewish cousins, on worshipping the one true God. Most of the time Christians were largely ignored by this world, but when they were noticed by Roman society, they were oppressed and persecuted. As the first generations of the faithful began to pass by, these early church communities started to wonder about the imminent return of Jesus… Some, as we hear in Paul’s letters began to doubt the point of keeping the faith at all.

As John’s Revelation writings came to these early church communities they would have sounded radical, absurd even. To small communities used to be ignored or forgotten, or remembered only to be used as lion food in the gladiator games, John’s vision promising hope in a God who would correct all things, end oppression, destroy evil and bring the world to right would have sounded crazy.

Imagine being a church of a few dozen people, in some forgotten and ignored part of the world, trying your best to keep the faith. And as the world around you seems to pay little attention, you receive this letter of encouragement. A letter proclaiming a future where the Kingdom and reign of God is dramatically breaking into the world. Where God gathers up the little group of a few dozen into a great and uncountable multitude, robed in white, signifying the fact that they are not alone in following the risen Christ. And there in that crowd they march with joy to worship at the throne of God singing the very same songs that had been sung week after week in the worship of faithful:

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!…

Blessing and glory and wisdom

and thanksgiving and honor

and power and might

be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

It sounds incredible, unbelievable.

It sounds nuts.

And it sounds familiar.

1900 years on from those small church communities hearing the Revelation of the John for the first time, we aren’t in that much of a different space than they were. Things have changed for us, we used to be the biggest show in town and the world used to care about who we were and what we did. But now we are not much more than small islands gathering to keep the faith in a world that has mostly forgotten we exist at all.

No group of Christians is immune to this reality today. Churches are declining across board, we are no longer the big deals that we once thought we were.

And we wonder how the great multitudes will ever come back, how the grand worship before the throne can ever be a thing again. Especially on a day like All Saints Sunday when we remember all those who have gone before us faith, it is hard to imagine who will come after us.

It is almost like the vision itself plays out the same conversation that we are regularly having. As John stands there with the elder watching the great multitude of the saints go by, he asks,

“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

And along with John we have no idea. We cannot imagine or understand this world where God is bringing all creation to worship before the throne.

And so we too shrug our shoulders…. we don’t know. We only know small gatherings of hopeless peoples… or so we think.

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

This is the great uncountable multitude, from all tribes and all nations, worshipping God and the lamb.

And in case we missed the memo, this great uncountable multitude is us.

You and me and all those gathered here… we are part of that multitude.

When the name of the triune God and the communion of the Holy Spirit is invoked, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When sins are confessed and forgiveness received in the body of Christ, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When the word is proclaimed, and the good news is heard, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When the faith is confessed, prayers are offered up for the world, the church and those in need, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When body of Christ is placed in our open empty hands and when we take in the blood of Christ swirling with the cloud of witnesses, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

You see, this scene from the vision of John is not just a vision of the end of world… it was a vision of those tiny churches without hope scattered across the Roman empire, it was reminder of who God was forming them to be.

And John’s vision is a reminder to us, of who God is making us. Each time we gather, even though we may feel small and forgotten…

God is making us into the great multitude of the saints, past, present and future.

God is reminding us that we are not alone in carrying the faith.

God is showing us that here in this moment, in this community, as we worship…

That the great multitude is gathering here, before the throne, singing the praises of Christ the lamb,

And here we will hunger no more, and thirst no more;

the sun will not strike us,

nor any scorching heat;

for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be Our shepherd,

and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”

Amen.

Reformation 500 – Telling the Right Story

John 8:31–36

Reformation 500

October 31st, 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the day that a young Roman Catholic monk and university professor nailed a list of 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. His list of 95 pointed and succinct grievances became the flashpoint for the beginning of a period of upheaval and change in western Christianity which would later be named “the Reformation” by historians.

And so each year on the Sunday on or before October 31st, we, along with Lutherans around the world, take the opportunity to commemorate this occasion.

This 500th anniversary year, in particular, has been a busy one for Lutherans everywhere. It began in Lund, Sweden (the birthplace of the Lutheran World Federation) last year as the President of the LWF, the General Secretary of the LWF and the Pope led a shared worship service as a sign of reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics. This past summer, the ELCIC hosted its National Reformation Commemoration during our National Church Convention in Winnipeg at St. Gianna’s Roman Catholic Church with ecumenical leaders from a variety of denominations from across Canada.

Along the way churches and communities all over have been marking this 500th anniversary year with special bible studies, community events, concerts, and even in this part of the world a Manitoba Reformation Social.

And so even though today may feel like a fairly typical Sunday morning, we gather for worship with our Lutheran sisters and brothers in Christ from around the world to mark this significant occasion.

As we commemorate, and remember, and celebrate, and mark, and observe this Reformation moment 500 years on, things in 1517 were not nearly as festive. (There were definitely no socials).

Martin Luther’s intention in nailing his list of 95 theses articulating what he believed to be errors and failures of the Pope and institution of the Roman Church was perhaps to inspire some lively debate among his colleagues at the university. But the relatively new invention of the printing press changed all of that, and Martin’s writings were copied and spread throughout all of Europe. Today, we might say Luther went viral.

Luther’s main concern had to do with the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. Essentially papers issued by the pope (and sold by the church) giving people time off of purgatory. And not just for yourself, but also for your dead loved ones! Basically the church’s version of monopoly’s get out of jail free card. The selling of indulgences was Rome’s way of fundraising for the construction of St. Peter’s basilica.

What resulted was a showdown between Martin Luther and the arrayed political and religious powers of his day. Luther’s insistence that salvation was entirely a gift from God in faith threatened the church’s main source of income. Popes had been using the Vatican treasury to play politics, assemble armies for war and fund large building projects and art commissions. Indulgences kept the Vatican afloat, and needless to say, church leaders were not impressed with this nobody monk from the sticks and his growing popularity.

Now, nothing that Luther advocated for was new to Christianity. He certainly did not discover grace, that originated with that Jesus guy 1500 years earlier. Nor was Luther the first since Jesus to re-articulate the centrality of grace as a free gift from God, as we just heard that from St. Paul in Romans. And there was St. Augustine and others  were also very clear about salvation being a free gift from God.

The thing that Luther identified in his day was how the church was turned in on itself and obsessed with its own history and power. For hundreds of years, the church had been very cozy to political power, crowning emperors and declaring empires to be holy. By Luther’s day, power and influence were the centrally important things for most Popes and other leaders. Rome’s identity was deeply wrapped up in being an institution of influence and power, and not in being the body carrying out God’s mission to the world.

And so when Luther showed up declaring that perhaps God and God’s mission to save a sinful world was more important than big cathedrals and military forces, it did not go over well with those in power.

The ensuing conflicts between Rome and Luther resulted in a split in the Roman church and the birth of numerous protestant denominations over the past 500 years.

500 years on from Luther’s moment at the church door in Wittenberg, things have a changed a fair bit. Those of us who bear his name as Lutherans no longer carry the same clarity of the gospel that Luther did, and we often fall into the same temptation that the 16th Roman church did of loving our past, the power and influence that we used to have, a little too much.

As we commemorate 500 years of our history, it is easy to forget that one of Luther’s key points was that our history is not the point. God’s story is.

God’s story of love, and mercy;

God’s story of reconciliation, and grace.

God’s story of redemption for a fallen humanity.

This story is not one that is told in past tense only, but in the present and in the future.

Martin Luther’s insistence on grace through faith had to do with a simple but radical idea that salvation is not something that we could achieve. We cannot save ourselves, we cannot save others, we cannot save the church, we cannot save the world.

Salvation is God’s alone to do. God is the actor, the one who gives the gift, the subject of the sentence, the one whose deeds of power achieve the goal.

A simple but radical idea.

Simple because it sounds like it should be obvious.

Radical because it challenges our notion that we are in control, that our power and influence matters, that our story and history is somehow significant when it comes to salvation.

And if any Reformation commemoration is going to tell the story of the Reformation faithfully, it is not going to just be about Martin Luther, or just about the Lutheran church. But it will remind us again of God’s story. Of God’s story where sinners are forgiven freely, and the dead are raised to new life.

This central focus of Reformation on God and God’s action is also the hardest part of Reformation. It is easy to get lost in our own story, to make our past the thing that defines us, to believe that the way things were are how they are supposed to be in the future. It is hard to set aside our own past and continually orient ourselves back to God’s story and God’s future…

In fact, as Martin Luther would remind us, it is impossible not to make things about us, it is impossible not to put ourselves into God’s place, whether we are the church of 1517 or 2017.

But what is impossible for us, is not impossible for God.

God who continues to form us into God’s image.

God who continues to make things about forgiveness and mercy; grace and reconciliation.

God who continues to shed us of our own stories and pasts.

God who continues to transform us with the story of resurrection and new life.

God who continues to reform us 500 years on from a church door in Wittenberg.

*This sermon was co-written with Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker*