Tag Archives: Sermon

Finding those who aren’t lost

Luke 15:1-10

1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? (Read the whole passage)

For parents of small children looking for solidarity one of the places I go to is Fowl Language Comics, fowl spelled “F.O.W.L.” Parenting comics using ducks and chicks. In my favourite comic, a chick with arms in the air and standing in a nearly empty room loudly declaring, “I can’t find it anywhere! It’s just gone!”

The only other thing in the room is a red ball on the floor with an arrow pointing to the ball and the word “It” on the other side of the arrow. The caption below reads, “whenever I send my kid to find something.”

I am sure many of you can relate.

In our house, I am the designated finder.

I am sure most families have one – the person whose job it is to find misplaced and lost things. Other finders out there will know, that there is a certain art to checking all the usual spots, getting into the head of the person who has lost something, retracing steps, scanning rooms and eliminating all the places where something is not followed by almost always finding the lost thing. The TV remote under the couch, a toy in a low kitchen drawer, a phone under a magazine, keys in a coat pocket.

Today, Jesus tells some grumbling Pharisees two parables about lost things. Two familiar parables. The lost sheep and the lost coin.

On the surface, these parables can give us those warm, soft, comfortable feelings. The sense that Jesus has got our back. The Shepherd who goes out to find the one lost sheep, leaving the 99 behind. The woman who tears apart her house looking for a single lost coin. And of course, there is a third story that we don’t hear today but still know very well, the parable of the prodigal son.

Each parable follows the same pattern. Something is lost, something is found and then there is a party to celebrate.

Although… the party to celebrate part is a little weird, isn’t it? A party to celebrate finding one lost sheep out of a hundred? One lost coin out of a ten? A party for a son who squandered his inheritance and returned home, cap in hand?

As a finder, I like finding things, but not that much.

And of course what is truly interesting is that this trio of parables begins with the Pharisees grumbling about the fact that Jesus eats with sinners. And they end with the older brother of the prodigal son grumbling about the party his father is throwing.

And the grumblers might have a point.

That lost sheep is likely the curious one, the one who gets in trouble, the one who wanders instead of staying with the flock. And those coins, they are small and slippery and hard to see. And lets not get started on the prodigal son and his issues.

The Pharisees, they know something about the real world, something that we know too. Sometimes lost things are lost for a reason. Sometimes sinners are sinners for a reason. And why is Jesus spending so much time with sinners? Why leave the 99 sheep to find the one? And can’t 9 coins still buy the things you need? And what about that older brother and what he deserves for his hard work and obedience?

We get what the Pharisees are grumbling about. There are consequences to our actions. People get what they deserve. The Pharisees start off these parables about lost things with a point that is kind of important… at least it feels important to us. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And all know what the unspoken line that should follow – They don’t deserve to eat with Jesus!

We know the world of ‘people get what they deserve’ very well. We live by it every day. It colours our feelings and principles about immigrants, those who are poor, those who are different skin colour or background, about indigenous people, about those with different sexual orientations and gender identities, about those who vote for different political parties…

And Christians have been just as guilty of grumbling as anyone. Grumbling about those who we deem unworthy, those who choose sports, or shopping, or sleeping in Sundays. Grumbling often about those who worship in other ways or choose not to worship any God at all. Grumbling about those who we deem not to be pulling their weight or giving enough of themselves…

And yet, in the past few years our Grumbling has been accompanied by grief. Grief that we aren’t what we once were. Fresh, exciting, vibrant churches of decades past are not aging as well as we had hoped. Decline feels like it is ravaging our communities, our bodies… in a world of “You get what you deserve” decline makes us wonder what it is that we have done to deserve this… why does it feel like God might be letting us die?

These parables of the lost – lost sheep, lost coins, and lost sons – might be saying something to us today that different that what we have always heard. They may not be so much about the lost things as they are about grumblers.

For you see, even as the Pharisees and the elder son grumble about the parties being thrown for the found things… Jesus is still doing something curious and unexpected. This isn’t just a case of things being turn upside down. It is not just that the sinners are welcome, the 1 sheep and the 1 coin are searched for, that there is a party for the prodigal son…

It is that all the rules are being changed. It is that “You get what you deserve” is an idea that doesn’t matter to God. Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with Pharisees. There is a party for lost sheep and lost coins and everyone is invited. The Loving Father runs to meet his lost on the road and goes out to meet his older son in the field to invite him to the party too.

Jesus invites all. All are welcome at the table. Lost things, sinners and the worthy along with the Pharisees, obedient sons and the grumblers.

And yeah… that is something that is hard for us to imagine, hard for us to accept. We would prefer the world where there were some rules…

And yet, welcoming all has been what Jesus has been up to all along.

Here in this community of welcome, in this gathering, we are welcomed. Welcomed by God who washes, names and claims us in the waters of baptism. Welcomed by God who builds us up, gives us hope and shown the coming of God’s Kingdom in the gospel word. And here God feeds us, binds us together and makes us one at the table. And Jesus then reminds us that we just might not be as worthy as our grumbling suggests… and we might not be as lost as we might feel. We are a little bit of both – lost and grumbling. Worthy and unworthy, Sinner and forgiven.

These parables of the lost and grumbling remind us today that Jesus is changing the rules… changing the rule of the world that says you get what you deserve… And Jesus is ushering in a new rule, a new reality – A reality where God is forgiving and welcoming sinners… sinners not just like those whom we think don’t deserve it, but welcoming sinners like us.

And just like the lost things that aren’t as lost as we thought, and worthy things that aren’t as worthy as we thought… these familiar parables aren’t the straightforward stories that we thought.

And yet, in them Jesus keeps finding us. Finding us in unexpected and surprising ways. Finding the lost and the grumblers all the same.

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Jesus and breaking the rules for the right reasons

Luke 13:10-17

When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” (Read the whole passage)

I know a pastor who tells his congregation the following about his day off: “if you want to see me on Monday, you have to die.” A dramatic statement, with some humour, to make the point. There is only one exception for which he will give up his personal time, imminent death.

Boundaries around time, work and family, leisure and hobbies are sometimes hard to navigate. We live in a world that is always challenging boundaries. The boundaries of national borders, the boundaries of science and technology, the boundaries of social convention, of workers personal and private time, of online privacy and security.

And so to leave our time and place to listen in on a scene from Jesus’ time and place, we have to understand that boundaries were not so easily pushed and broken. Boundaries and rules and limits were hard and fast, exceptions were rare.

Yet, like that pastor I know who makes a joke about having to die if you want to see him on a Monday, Jesus outlines a similar exception today. He encounters a bent and crippled woman in the synagogue, and without hesitation offers her healing. As the community of faith gathers in God’s house, the place of healing, nourishment and renewal, this crippled woman is touched by God and granted new life. Now she can look her friends and neighbours in the eye, instead of the feet. It is not only healing of a crooked back, but a healing of community. Jesus’ compassion seems to make perfect sense.

Yet, before there can be any celebration, the leader of the synagogue scolds Jesus in front of the crowds. Healing and curing illness is work, and it is the Sabbath day. A day for rest and relaxation. Surely one more day would not make a difference after 18 years. The leader is worried that this exception will lead to other exceptions, and then the day set apart for no-work will be just like any other day of the week.

Jesus’ exception to the no-work rule on the Sabbath seems pretty obvious to us. The healing only took a moment, so why not heal the crippled woman? To the people of Israel, working on the Sabbath was a much bigger deal that it is to us. The Israelites had left slavery and 7 day work weeks in Egypt. In the wilderness, Yahweh then gave them the 10 commandments, including the one to rest on the Sabbath. No work for one day a week was very good news. Keeping the sabbath for rest was very important for the Israelites. The leader of the synagogue’s objection to Jesus doing work was an honest attempt at reminding the people of this good news. Taking Sabbath time was one of the most import things the Israelites did.

For us, the importance of a day of rest is… well not that important. We hear the story about Jesus today and say the healing only took moment, but we also answer those extra emails at midnight, answer those after hours phone calls, stay that one extra hour of work even though we should go home. We find it much more acceptable to give up rest time for extra work, and we celebrate those who work too much. We live in a culture of busy… rest is simply not a priority for us. And because we relax on our own boundaries, we often feel comfortable to infringe on the boundaries of others. How often have we slipped into a store minutes before it closed? Made a phone call or sent a text later than we should have? Parked in a parking spot for people with disabilities?

Of course the problem is not about measuring out how much work is okay on the Sabbath day, but how we live with the rules that govern our lives as community. How many exceptions do we make to a rule before it stops being a rule? In the Church, we have had to deal with rules and exceptions for a long time. It used to be that women and members of the LGBTQ2SIA couldn’t be pastors or serve in other leadership roles. Divorces were not permitted except in cases of infidelity. Children were not communed until confirmed. Marriages, baptisms and funerals were not performed for non-members. Sometimes those who weren’t of a certain ethnicity or skin colour were not welcome to worship.

Both keeping the rules and allowing exceptions has always been a difficult process to navigate for us. And today Jesus doesn’t actually make it easier. Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath in a 1st century synagogue. Today, Jesus might be inviting his drug addict friends to church, or tweeting with non-church goers during the sermon, or playing soccer in the sanctuary with the youth, or hosting Islamic prayer on Friday nights, or serving meals to homeless during communion.

Jesus bends the rules wherever he can, and if Jesus were busy doing all these things we would certainly protest like the leader of the synagogue, and with good reason. Yet, despite our protests, Jesus often seems to find the exceptions that we cannot see. Jesus is often more concerned with the 1 than the 99.

Still, sometimes our rules and exceptions have no obvious way around them. We can see that our rules are hurting some, but breaking them would hurt others. It feels like our only alternative is to choose the lesser of two evils. One more day of suffering for one person is the best we can do without giving up everyone else’s day off. Or so it seems. But for God, the exception is where mercy and compassion are given. And God is all about the exception:

God is giving up godly power to be intimate with powerless creation.

God is giving forgiveness to sinners who deserve condemnation.

God is preaching Good News to those who are too poor, too sick, too unclean earn it. God is going to the cross and dying when God shouldn’t die.

God is coming back to life when death should be the end.

We struggle with the rules, yet God holds all the exceptions within Godself. We cannot see the way to compassion and mercy, but God does. And God sees people before God sees rules. God values us more than the rules. We are judged and found imperfect under the rules, under the Law, but God loves us perfectly as we are.

The rules are supposed to help us live together peacefully, but eventually they serve only to condemn. And God finds the exceptions, when the rules push us down, God finds us and lifts us up. Lifts us up with mercy and compassion.

When the rules lay us low, and we are weighed down with the burden of keeping the law, when we cannot imagine exceptions without chaos, God find us in the rule bending Christ.

Christ who touches us with mercy and compassion,

Christ who holds all the exceptions in God,

Christ who is God’s exception, sent to be with us.

Christ who sets us free.

Not the Jesus we are used to…

Luke 12:49-56

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! (Read the whole passage)

This is not the Jesus we are used to hearing.

Where did the nice Jesus go who said “Blessed are the poor” or “You are healed, your faith has made you well.”

Jesus is saying some tough things today. “I came to bring fire to earth” “What stress I am under?” “Households will be divided” “You hypocrites!” “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth?”

These kinds of things are not what our usual Jesus would be saying, they sound much more like the kinds of things a movie villain might say and then laugh manically. For us Jesus is more of a Good Shepherd, gently herding sheep, or a kind teacher welcoming children, or a caregiver who tends to us when we are sick. We generally have a very gentle and soft perception of Jesus the Christ.

And so when we hear Jesus speaking in these confrontational terms, it doesn’t jive for us. Especially as church people, we work hard to make churches places where we show only our best. We like to think that God makes life easier and that Jesus is doing the opposite of what he talks about today. We prefer the Jesus who puts out fires, who relieves stress, who unites broken families, who congratulates us for our faithfulness, who brings us peace. It is very uncomfortable to imagine a Jesus who is causing trouble.

The Jesus who is confronting us with fire and with our own hypocrisy, and the Jesus who creates conflict in families, is very uncomfortable for us. We have become good at pushing the negative away. We are good at avoiding uncomfortable topics of conversation. We are adept at presenting put together personas to the outside world, even when we are a mess on the inside. We are afraid to show weakness, suffering, imperfection or flaw to others.

Even as the struggles of world are shown to us on online newsfeeds and 24 hour new channels, our society has become masterful at performing outrage and shock just long enough before going back to pretending that everything is okay. We so good at going back to business as usual we hardly need Jesus to bring us peace.

Yet to the crowds listening to Jesus speak, and to the first readers of Luke’s gospel, there was no pretending that their worlds were not unfair, broken, suffering places. They were living under foreign occupation, the brutal Roman Empire. Their own authorities made sure that everyone knew they place. Most people were poor. Women and children were considered property of men, and were excluded from public life. Most people worked long hours, and only could provide for themselves one day at a time. Most people could not access to the temple, therefore could not access God. Most had little chance of changing their circumstances.

For the crowds listening to Jesus speak, peace was not a simple matter. It wasn’t just an end to war, or a new political party in power, or a little more giving to charity. It couldn’t be solved in therapy or with medication. Peace wasn’t just a little change away.

For there to be true peace, there would be need of serious change. The world would have to be changed. Society would have to be changed. The rules would have to be change. And that kind of change causes conflict. That kind of change often ends in cities burning, families being broken apart, and a revolution that is much bigger than a change in weather. It is the kind of unrest that we are witnessing in Hong Kong this week, curfews and media blacks outs in Kashmir, in mass shooting after mass shooting, in high school students striking for climate change, in families being locked up in cages at borders all amidst political leaders who seem unable and unwilling to work for lasting change.

In fact, taken all together, the division and conflict that Jesus describes is already upon us.

And for the crowds hearing Jesus speak, the promise of radical change in their very chaotic world probably didn’t sound so bad. Their world, as it was, couldn’t really get much worse.

Yet, as we hear Jesus speak, the dramatic change and conflict that Jesus describes, confronts our carefully crafted ways of hiding our problems. Jesus isn’t making these things happen, but simply uncovering what already exists. We know that our world is far from perfect, and is full of big problems, and lots of suffering. But we don’t know how to deal with it, other than to pretend it isn’t really there.

And that is precisely what Jesus is getting at today. Underneath the drama of a burning world and broken families, is the promise that God is transforming it all. God is transforming us. And God’s transformation looks like nothing we could ever imagine.

God’s world changing activities are rooted in the baptism that Christ is baptized with. Unlike the crowds, we know the end of Jesus story. We know where Christ is headed. We know that God’s work of transforming creation begins in a manger, and leads to a cross. We know that Christ’s baptism, means death and resurrection. For Jesus, death at the hands of Romans, religious authorities and an angry mob. For us it is drowning baptism, all our flaws and sins exposed. Being identified as broken, suffering sinners, destined to die.

But this Baptism is also an empty tomb on the 3rd day. It is rising to new life out of the murky, churning waters. It is Body of Christ that meets us in bread and wine, and in our brothers and sister in faith. This Baptism is showing our true selves to one another and discovering that we are made children of God.

Yes, Jesus words are unexpected and uncomfortable today. But they point us to the difficult work of transformation. Jesus points us to God’s work being done here and now. To our transformation from sinner to saved, from unforgiven to loved. Jesus is pointing us to the end of the story. To the end where Christ walks out of the tomb, and meets us in cleansing healing waters, meets in life giving bread and wine, meets us in the honest and exposed body of Christ, where we practice confessing all the things usually hidden from the world.

No, Jesus has not come to bring us peace. And deep down we know that our world doesn’t need peace but change. We know it every time we read or watch or hear the news, every time we have to spend more than five minutes in community. We know that before there can be peace in our homes and families, in our neighbourhoods and communities, in our churches and congregations, that there will first need to be radical change and transformation.

Peace without change would be too easy, and nor would it deal with our problems. Instead, Jesus comes to uncover us and see who we truly are.

But Jesus is also revealing something else. Someone else.

Jesus also uncovers God. The God of life. The God of resurrection and new life. The God who can turn nothing into something, who can transform sinners into saints, who can right all the troubles and struggles and suffering of the world… who can transform death into life.

Jesus show us this uncovered God who is transforming us and the world, right before our eyes.

And no, it is not the Jesus we are used to… but this is the God that we need.

Waiting with lamps lit – has Jesus forgotten us?

Luke 12:32-40

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them…(Read the whole passage)

Jesus is still talking to his disciples and the gathered crowds from last week. Last week Jesus told the parable of the absurd rich man who, despite his inherited land, worked by others, and blessed with abundance by God, believed it was his own doing that made himself rich. The rich man who stored up all his wealth only to have his life demanded of him, and all his hoarding be for nothing. Jesus warned his listeners against the dangers of greed and thinking that stuff will save us.

Today, Jesus is continuing the conversation. And while the instructions start out seemingly normal, they get odder and odder as Jesus goes along. He begins by telling his audience not to rely on material possessions, but to give their wealth away. Trust in heavenly riches, in the grace and mercy of God. Sounds good so far.

But then Jesus instructs the disciples and crowds to be prepared. Be ready and on guard. Wait for the return of the master. Stay awake because the master can return at any moment, day or night.

This advice sounds odd to us. And in fact, probably sounded a bit odd to Jesus’ listeners. The people of Israel were waiting for a Messiah, but he wasn’t going to sneak up on them. There would be signs and advance warning.

For us 2000 years later, the hyper vigilance that Jesus was suggesting seems out of place. We have been waiting for a long time, and we are more accustomed to the long view…

So what is Jesus getting at with all this being awake, dressed and ready?

In the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Christian community waited with great anticipation for Jesus’ return. Some didn’t even bother working to feed or clothe themselves because they thought Jesus was about to return any day. Yet 50 years later, as Luke sets out to gather the first hand accounts for his gospel, the Christian community was beginning to wonder what was going on. Was Jesus actually going to come back? They were 2nd and 3rd generation believers, how long were they to wait? How could they keep the community going? What were they supposed to do?

In many ways, we are not that different from that community who would have first read Luke’s gospel. We might not be waiting for Jesus to return in the same way, but often churches today wonder what we are supposed to do now? Those of us who can remember the church 30, 40, 50 years ago, remember worship services with people packed to the rafters. Sunday schools had more kids than could be counted. Pastors sermons were broadcast on the radio. Churches were so so full that you could almost feel Jesus ready to pop the roofs off and say hello.

We look around now, and we feel like Luke’s audience. We have watched as members drift away, as attendance and budgets have shrunk. We have lamented the loss of our young people (which we might have to admit is actually the loss of our own youth as we age). We have searched for the next new thing to make us exciting again. And we have been left asking,

“Has God forgotten about us? What do we do now?”.

The Christian community of Luke’s day struggled with how to go forward, not entirely certain what they were supposed to do. We are in the same boat.

And so we hear Jesus’ words today, and they add insult to injury. Be dressed for action. Stay awake, the master is returning, at any hour. As we dream of our bursting congregations coming back. We think being prepared means becoming again the churches we once were. We will know God has come back when we look like that again.

How wrong we are.

Without even thinking we make things about ourselves. Even in how we read Jesus’ words. Today, Jesus seems to be telling us, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet”.

Yet, the greek says something quite different.

Instead Jesus could be translated this way, “Let your waist be girded about, and the lamps burning.” Let someone else dress you, let the light around you illuminate your world.

The disciples, the crowds… us. We are not the doers of the action. We aren’t doing the verbs. We are the recipients of the action. We are not the ones who get ready, or who prepare the way for Christ’s return. It is the Master who is preparing us. It is Jesus who makes us ready.

Even still, when the master comes it is not the servants who will do the serving, but the Master. Jesus says, “truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them”.

The Master is the one serving, and the servants are being served. Jesus comes back to turn our expectations upside down. Jesus is coming at an unexpected hour and we won’t have made ourselves ready. Jesus is the one making us ready, and still when Jesus comes, he does the serving. Not us. We are the ones being prepared. Being prepared to be served.

Like the first readers of Luke’s gospel, we hear Jesus words today and we imagine that it is our faith that will make Jesus return. We think it was our faithfulness that filled our churches in the past. It wasn’t us.

Today, Jesus tell us that he is making us ready. Jesus is the one doing the serving. And God’s presence is not measured in attendance and offerings. God has always been here, doing the things that God has always done for us.

God shows us the signs each week. God clothes us in baptism with Christ. God feeds us with Christ’s Body and Blood. God makes us into new creations with Christ the Word. God gives us new identities as members of the Body of Christ.

Our preparations have not made God come, and nor has our shrinking made God leave. Rather, God has always been here. Making us ready in Water, Meal and Word. Serving us with the Word and the Bread of everlasting life.

Doing ministry when the plan doesn’t come together

GOSPEL: John 17:20-26

Jesus prayed:] 20“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. …

25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (Read the whole passage)

Today is the last Sunday in the season of Easter. Seven weeks of celebrating and hearing of the Alleluias of the Resurrection. Yet, we do not leave Easter behind today. Rather, each Sunday is like a new mini-Easter, a new extension of God’s future given to us in the resurrection of Christ.

Therefore, as we prepare to move on to Pentecost next week, and into the long season of green after that, we go with our forebears in faith as a community shaped and formed by the seven week long, great day of the resurrection.

Throughout this season of Easter, we have been moved from the immediacy of the resurrection to the shaping and forming of the disciples into the early christian community. We have heard again how they were and we are being prepared to the body of Christ in the world. And with all of it coming to a head on Pentecost next week, as we mark the birth of the church.

But before we get there, we are left with two seemingly contrasting stories about where the early followers of Jesus were headed.

In one, we are silent eavesdroppers on a conversation, a prayer between God the Father and Christ the Son. In it Jesus commends this little band of misfits, outsiders and the least likely leaders to his father. And what comes from this handing over is a promise that this community of Christ’s followers are not left alone, and that those who belong to Christ are brought into the life of the Trinity, into the mission and activity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And then in the other story, we see the unfolding and surprising ministry of Paul and Silas as they go about the Greek world. As the two make their way to Phillipi with the intention of ministering to the fledging community there, they are interrupted by a slave girl who has been given the gift of divination.

The slave girl and her interruptions soon become an annoyance to Paul… and so he decides to cast out the spirit possessing her. This gets Paul into trouble, and the slave girl’s owners set to Paul and Silas to beat them and have them thrown in prison because they have just lost their lucrative source of income.

Once in prison Paul and Silas set about a new ministry to the prisoners only to have that interrupted by an earthquake and then a fearful guard contemplating taking his own life, whom Paul must again change course and do something about.

While maybe not obvious at first, the contrast between the two stories is striking. In one Jesus promises divine providence for the community of his followers. In the other, every plan for ministry that Paul has goes off the rails because of interruptions rooted in tragedy and suffering.

Somewhere between the promise that God will always go with us as the Church, as God’s hands and feet for mission, and the reality of how ministry is experienced in practice seem to diverge quite a bit.

On some level we know what Paul and Silas were experiencing. We too tend to have certain visions for ministry. We bear expectations for what church, for what our community faith, should look like. And yet, we also know what it is like when those expectations and visions aren’t realized. We know what it is to have our visions for church interrupted by the wrong kind of people, to have suffering and tragedy interrupt our plans.

It may be forest fires or the new of another mass shooting or governments unable to make trade deals that affect the daily lives of citizens or the crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women happening right on our door steps being labeled a genocide that keep us from being focused on the particular mission and formation of our community of the faithful.

It may be the struggles of balancing work, family life, young children, aging parents, retirement planning, declining health or other things of life that keep us from putting the time, energy and effort into practicing our faith that thought we would.

It might be the realities of tight budgets, tired volunteers, and a past that seems better than the future, expenses that keep going up and dollars that didn’t go as far as they used to that keep us from looking forward with hope and believing that God has good things in mind for us.

It might be a world that changes and moves on from one thing to the next so fast that our heads keep spinning, societal values and norms that seem to shift every day, new people with new identities that we aren’t sure how to navigate showing up and being part of the world in ways we struggle to understand.

Our visions and expectations for ministry are so easily interrupted these days, and along with brothers and sisters in faith here in the pews, across Winnipeg and Manitoba, across Canada and North America we don’t know what to do about it.

Paul didn’t know what do either… and maybe that is the point.

There is of course an interesting thing about the story of Paul and Silas: while they were being interrupted by the slave girl, she was telling everyone that these two men knew about salvation. And while Paul acted out of annoyance, he freed a suffering girl from possession. And while Paul was busy trying to minister to the other prisoners while in prison, it was the jailer who needed to hear the good news.

Even in the midst of some of the worst things imaginable, some of the worst suffering – slavery, exploitation, violence and false imprisonment – the gospel found a way through. Even though it was not what Paul was expecting, even though it wasn’t even according to plan B or C or D… the gospel broke into the world precisely in the midst of the interruptions of human suffering.

It is not say that the good news only comes when there is bad stuff happening, but rather than in the midst of the mess and chaos of human life, the gospel has no problem breaking in. And the gospel doesn’t need our plans to be realized to be preached and to be heard.

In fact, our plans seem to have relatively little to do with where the good news of Jesus who died and rose again for us is made known.

Paul had one idea for Philippi, but God had another.

And just maybe that is the promise that Jesus is talking about with the Father. Not a promise that our visions and expectations will be realized, but a promise that in the midst of the real messiness and chaos of the world, the gospel will break through and break in.

It all fits of course, with a God who chose to be born in a manger in forgotten Bethlehem in order come into human life. With a god who chose to wander around the backwoods of the Roman Empire with a bunch of fishermen and tax collector in order preach the news of God’s love and mercy for all people. With a God who made execution on a cross at the hands of the best religious and political leaders that humanity had to offer the moment of our redemption along all creation.

The good news of this upside down, unexpected God found in Jesus wouldn’t make sense if it could only be preached when all the plans come together, when all the visions are realized, when all the expectations are met. The good news of this Jesus makes perfect sense preached in the midst of our plans gone wrong addressing the realty of our suffering world.

Jesus’s promise that suffering and death isn’t the end makes sense when it comes to us in the midst of fires and shootings and community crisis and economic struggle.

God’s naming and claiming as God’s own in the waters of baptism reminds us of who we are as we navigate the struggles of daily life, of family, work, community, health, retirement and on and on.

Christ’s presence among us in the Body of Christ remains the same even as congregations struggle to keep up with this shifting and changing world.

The forgiveness and mercy of God help us to change and grow, even as we don’t always understand the people and things around us and how to adapt to them.

The good news of this Jesus makes perfect sense preached in the midst of this community of misfits and outsiders called the body of Christ, it makes prefect sense that it comes to us in Word, Water, Bread and Wine shared here in our imperfect, messy, and chaotic community of faith.

And so, on this last Sunday of Easter, we hear two seemingly contradictory stories that fit perfectly together. That remind us that God always comes in our imperfections and plan Fs and struggling messy moments of suffering and surprise… because that is where we are.

Because where we are is where God in Christ breaks through in order to find us, in order to tell us again of God’s promise of New life for us.

The future we cannot imagine

GOSPEL: John 5:1-9

6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up;… (Read the whole passage)

Six Sundays into Easter we are coming to the end of the great party of the resurrection. Sure, things have been winding down for a few weeks already, but now is the time when the hosts are letting everyone know that the kitchen is only open a few more minutes, its last call before hitting the road. We are close to being ejected from this celebratory season into the next thing. But the coming end of Easter isn’t just about moving to the next thing. Easter wraps up the first half of the church year where we tell the story of Jesus’ life, from birth to death to resurrection. On Pentecost Sunday we mark the beginning of the Church, the Body of Christ, of Jesus’ presence in the world in a new way and we follow that with about 25 Sundays of green where we hear the teachings of Jesus.

And so it is curious, that coming to the end of the portion of the church year where we tell the story of Jesus’ life we skip back to a moment earlier on. A scene from early on in Jesus’ ministry not long after his baptism and early miracles. In the light of Easter, this moment takes on different connotations than it might have before.

Jesus is making his way through Jerusalem and comes near the Sheep Gate and the pool of Bethzatha. It was believed that this particular pool was periodically visited by an angel who would stir up the waters, after it would heal those who bathed in it – the sick, blind and lame.

Laying there is a sick man who had been there for 38 years. Jesus sees this man and asks him a question, “Do you want to be made well?”

The man tells Jesus that there is no one to bring him to the waters when they are stirred up, and he cannot make it in time on his own.

At this point, the conversation should be feeling a little off. It is like when someone responds to a question that isn’t actually an answer to the question. We have all had these kinds conversations. “What time is it?” “Oh, well we haven’t had lunch yet.” Or “How do you get to the grocery store from here.?” “That’s a long ways, you will need to drive.”

Jesus asks a fairly straight forward question and the man answers a completely different one. And in fact, there are a lot of different answers that the man could have given that would have been closer to answering Jesus’ question. He could have said ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ he could have told the story of how he lost the use of his legs or became sick, he could have asked for mercy and help. But the man doesn’t respond in any of those ways…

Instead the man begins, “Sir, I have no one…”

The man begins with relationships or his lack there of. He has no one, no one in his community has been willing to help him for 38 years. But the man also claims no agency, he believes that his problem is that he has no one, and no one will make way for him.

And maybe after 38 years that makes sense in the man’s mind. He neither sees nor imagines any kind of alternate future. This is his life, the sheep gate with all the others in his community like him, just a few steps from healing, yet completely unattainable.

The man has also completely avoided Jesus’ initial question. “Do you want to be made well?” And that is significant.

It’s significant because it is the same kind of thing we do as well. The conversation that Jesus and the man have could have just as easily been one in our homes or work places, churches or neighbourhoods. It feels unimaginable that no one would have helped this many in nearly 40 years. Yet, how many of us live with pain and discomfort, frustrations or grudges for years upon years? How often when faced with the prospect of doing something about the problems we bear, we look around and say, “There is no one here to do the work needed to do.” As a community and society, how often do we simply accept or even encourage the suffering of an unfortunate few? “If only they could help themselves, if they did’t make the choices they did, what could I do about a problem so big and so hard?”

Our problem is that we find it so hard to imagine any kind of different future than our present. The man has become his story. He has no one to take him to the pool and when he tries to make it on his own, someone steps in his way.

And so too we become our stories…

I am too old to start over,

too set in my ways to learn,

too far gone to be be saved.

We are dying because there is no one to step up and do the work,

we are declining because sports and shopping on Sunday morning,

people just don’t care enough to give of their time and resources like folks did in the past.

Climate change is too big a problem.

Sexism, racism, and inequality are other people’s problems.

I didn’t do those awful things, why should I have to pay for the sins of my ancestors.

We too cannot imagine a future different than our present. It isn’t that we don’t want to be made well or not… its that we don’t know what being well even looks like. We believe that we are what we are.

Yet, Jesus shows up and asks anyways. “Do you want to be made well?”

And you see, before the man even answers, Jesus has invalidated the man’s story of himself. “Sir, I have no one…”

Except the One who has seen him and reached out to him and asked him if he want to be made well.

And even when the man cannot see it, even when he still does not realize that Jesus has broken through his isolation and solitude, and that Jesus has seen him not for his problems but for his humanity…. even when the man cannot see all that… Jesus stays present.

“Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

It isn’t that Jesus has fixed the man’s legs, or taken away his sickness. It’s that even when the man cannot recognize Jesus’ breaking through with a new future and a new story… Jesus hears the man.

It is as if Jesus is saying, “So you think your problem is that you cannot make it to the pool and no one will help you there?… Okay, how about now?” And the man has help, the man can get to the pool.

Jesus meets this man, see him for who he is, and hears who the man believes himself to be…. and Jesus breaks through it all. Jesus makes the man well with a future that only God could have imagined.

And for all the ways in which we cannot imagine any other future, in which we believe that our present is our future… God has a new future and new story in mind for us.

Each time we gather as the assembly, God greets us with a new story about us.

Forgiveness for sinners,

Healing for suffering,

Reconciliation for the conflicted,

Intimacy for the isolated,

Welcome for the marginalized,

Community for outsider,

Hope for the despairing,

Peace for the tormented,

Life for the dying,

Resurrection for the dead.

God greets us and this world with a Word that changes our present, and opens us up to a future we cannot conceive of or imagine.

And even when we cannot see what Jesus is doing, Jesus sees who we truly are in the waters of baptism, the new identity that we are washed and cleansed with in the waters.

And even when we cannot imagine what being well looks for us, when we cannot answer Jesus’ question for us, Jesus greets us at the table, welcomes us into God’s future, into healing relationship and community found in the Body of Christ.

It is as if Jesus hears all the stories about ourselves that we bring here, that we bring to this assembly, and Jesus says to us, “Okay, so you think that that is your story, that this is your future? Okay, how about now?” And we are forgiven and healed and reconciled and brought to new life.

Jesus meets us over and over again, from Christmas, to Lent, to Good Friday, to Easter and beyond. And Jesus keeps on asking,

“Do you want to be made well?”

And thankfully, our answer to this question doesn’t matter… because Jesus has already seen us, already sought us out and already has set us into God’s future.

And Jesus’ answer to us is, “Stand up, take your mats and walk.”

The Complications of Belonging to a Church

GOSPEL: John 13:31-35

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Read the Acts text)

We are now into the latter half of the season of Easter. The Alleluias from Easter Sunday, or as it is formally called The feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, are not ringing as loudly as they were a month ago. Yes, it is still Easter but with 4 weeks of resurrection stories behind us we are coming into the questions that the early church community faced. Questions about what it means to be a community, what does it mean to belong, who exactly are we and where do we go from here? Sound familiar?

Even as we consider this new Easter world, John jumps us back to Maundy Thursday… to hours before betrayal, arrested, trial, and execution. Jesus is eating the Last Supper with his disciples, and he gives them a New Commandment – to love one another. On the night before Good Friday, these are the last instructions of a teacher to his followers. Yet, here a month into Easter, they speak of a different reality to a fledgling Easter community being birthed before our eyes.

In some ways we should have read story of Peter from the book of Acts after the gospel reading, because Peter’s dilemma is precisely how to live into the New Commandment that his teacher and master had given him.

In the days, months and years after the resurrection, the community of Jesus’ followers that continued on to become the church, had to begin dealing with a lot of questions. Questions about who belonged and what it took to become a member of the community. As Peter became the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem, the question of who could be a part of the community quickly arose. Particularly, as small Christian communities began to sprout up beyond Jerusalem and into the Greek world, the early church had to contend with what new converts needed to do in order to join.

When Peter meets the community in Jerusalem, they are a Jewish group… all are circumcised. And they have been keeping to the tradition of Judaism not necessarily seeing following Jesus as a departure from the faith of their ancestors. Yet, Peter has been meeting with uncircumcised followers – gentiles. But not just meeting with them, eating with them. Of course, observant Judeans kept Kosher, so eating with gentiles would certainly mean breaking Hebrew purity laws. The circumcised believers question Peter’s actions… so Peter tells them a story. Peter was given a vision, a voice from heaven telling him to eat non-kosher meat. Yet when he dismissed the dream, it kept coming back.

Even then, Peter is not swayed… so the spirit sends him to the home of a gentile, Cornelius. And there Peter’s mind is changed.

Now some twenty centuries later, we don’t generally feel the same way about circumcision and eating non-kosher meat that the early christian community in Jerusalem did… yet there is still something extremely familiar about this debate.

Of course, we know on a technical level that the first step of becoming a Christian is to be baptized. In fact, the Greek word Cristos means anointed one, Messiah is the equivalent in Hebrew. And after being washed in the waters of baptism, we are a marked with cross in oil… we are anointed, we are named as Christians.

And yet, knowing what it means to become a Christian through baptism and anointing compared to belonging to a particular community… well those could very well mean different things.

In the first congregation that I served, an open country church on the corner of a quarter section of farmland, what it meant to belong had a complicated meaning. Belonging happened in a variety of ways: If your family had been farming the land for a few generations, you belonged whether you wanted to or not, whether you were in church every Sunday or once a year. And yet, if you were new to the community, meaning being the first generation to the land, you were always new. Some who had been faithfully attending for decades, were still considered “new members.”

In my second congregation, a very large congregation in a small city, belonging was very much tied to involvement and connections. You could quickly belong within months by joining one of the many groups active in the congregation, like knitters, musical groups, prayer groups, people interested in global mission and so on. Yet, you could remain a new person for years if you kept to yourself and just showed up for worship.

And at my last congregation, belonging was tied to one’s place in the community surrounding the church. Where you worked in town, what street you lived on and who your neighbours were, and how connected you were in town determined your status of belonging.

Of course, here at Sherwood Park, we have unspoken rules about what it means to belong too… they are apart of every church from Peter’s day to ours.

Circumcision and eating non-kosher meats, or having generations to stand on the shoulders of, or sharing a common interest like quilting or music or missionary work, or meeting by chance at the grocery store and again at the PTA meeting and again while shovelling snow… all of these things and so many more make up the complicated definition of belonging to a community, belonging to a church, of a church belonging to a denomination, of a denomination belonging to a religion and so on.

Yet, all of these complications of belonging are about more than checking off boxes and fulfilling requirements. They are ways that we deal with the same fear living within each of us. The circumcised ask Peter about his fraternizing with the uncircumcised because they are worried if they themselves are worthy, if they are acceptable, if they actually belong. All of our ways to defining who is in and out, who checks the right boxes and who doesn’t… they all have to do with our own fear of being good enough, of being worthy and acceptable.

Last week, we heard from Revelation giving good news to Christian communities living on margins of society and how the great multitude worshipping before the throne was God’s way of breaking down walls that divide and separate.

Today, is about God breaking down the same walls within our communities, within ourselves.

Even after being given the same vision three times Peter is not convinced… that is until he comes to the home of Cornelius.

It is when Peter must look Cornelius in the eye, in the flesh, and decide whether the good news of God’s forgiveness and love is also for this Gentile… The Holy Spirit breaks the walls Peter’s heart. The Spirit makes Peter realize something new…

All the complications of belonging… that is our baggage, that is our stuff.

But for God, there are no complications… there is simply belonging.

In Christ, we all belong. We all belong to Christ.

We all belong because of the one who crossed the chasm, who bridged the divide of Creator and creation, who joined what was separated in sin and death together in forgiveness and resurrection. In Christ, the one who is both our flesh and the divine, we are joined to the Trinue God of all.

And this same Christ, likes to keep reminding us of that. Not in the complications, but by meeting us in the flesh. Christ meets in human voices and bodies that read and proclaim God’s word, in prayer and song, in peace shared and praises given.

Christ reminds us that we all belong in the water that washes us and the oil that anoints us, and we are washed and forgiven by God, we are anointed and clothed by God, and we given the same family name – Christian.

And Christ reminds us that we are all one in the same body. As Jesus gathers at the table, as we share in Body and Blood of Christ, God makes us what we eat and drink – Christ’s body given for the sake of the world.

And all those complications, all those other things, all those reasons we find to say someone whether belongs or doesn’t… those things are pushed aside.

And instead Christ proclaims us that belonging isn’t up to us, not based on our worth or the worthiness of the generations that came before, not based on our ability to participate or contribute, not determined by our integration into the fabric of community, the number of connections to others we carry….

But belonging is determined by the One to whom we belong.

Today, Christ declares to Peter, to the early church, and to us… that we no matter who we are, we belong to God.