Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pentecost 8 - Year B

“I'm sorry, pastor. I just don't feel fed. I'm going to find a church that feeds me.”

One of the hardest critiques a pastor hears is when someone leaves the church say, “I'm not feeling fed. I need to go to a church that feeds me.”

When I ask what they mean by “not being fed,” often, they can't really define it. It's a feeling they can't describe, a need they can't articulate.

But somehow, I, and those in leadership positions, are supposed to meet that unarticulatable (is that a word?) need.

It would be easy to shrug them off as being “consumer Christians” more interested in fuzzy, spiritual feelings and pretty Jesus words than following Jesus in the way of the cross.

We can dismiss them as being more concerned with inner-spirituality than in serving the world in Jesus' name.

We can ignore their concerns, saying that they're what's wrong with North American Christianity: self-centred, self-obsessed, self-satisfied purchasers of goods and services, treating churches as spiritual Wal-Marts rather than people who know their need for salvation.

But then again, who can blame them them? Maybe we've set up the church to meet peoples' consumer expectations.

I have a whole row of books on my shelf outlining how to properly advertise our worship services, how to make sure we have a comfortable, non-threatening worship space, how craft worship experiences that can compete with the new Harry Potter movie.

Rick Warren, in his book The Purpose Driven Church, for example, says that the best way to grow a church is to “Find where there's an itch [in peoples' lives] and scratch it.” Our job as Christians, he says, is to meet “felt needs.” He says that's how Jesus ministered to people – by meeting whatever needs they tossed at his toes.

I'm not sure I agree. Mainly because know I have some “felt needs” that I'm quite certain that Jesus has no interest in meeting.

It would be easy to raise a condemning voice, point a criticizing finger at those who want to turn the Church of Jesus Christ into a multi-national corporation.

But then we have today's gospel reading.

A huge crowd followed Jesus. They liked his preaching. But I guess they forgot to pack a lunch. Jesus decides to use this as an opportunity to mess with Philip's head.

“Ummm, Phil, how much money do you have in your pocket? I forgot to stop at the ATM and these people gotta eat,” Jesus says.

While Philip stares blankly at Jesus, Andrew arrives with a couple of loaves of bread and a few fish. A decent lunch. A fish sandwich. Carbs and protein. Fibre and Omega-3s. All that's missing is a salad.

The people had a need – lunch. And Jesus met that need. Therefore, our job as Christians is to meet peoples' needs as they arise. Right?

But then, as Jesus realized. People can be black holes of need, needs which can never be fully filled. They will always come back hearts empty and hands out. We human beings are insatiable when it comes to having our needs met.

Jesus found this out the hard way. The crowd gathered around him and tried to put a crown on head, whether he wanted it or not.

They wanted someone in charge who would meet their needs the way Jesus did on that hillside and in their homes. They wanted someone who would satisfy every hunger, who would always find the right words to soothe their aching souls, someone who was always available when they called.

They wanted a king who was their best friend, their greatest companion, their most devoted servant, their most tender lover.

They wanted a king that would stop all their nightmares and make all their childhood dreams come true.

But Jesus didn't want to be THAT king. He WASN'T that king. Which is why he slipped out the back door and ran for the hills.

His disciples, probably thinking that the crowd has scared Jesus off for good since he'd been gone for hours, long after the crowd disappeared and the sun had set, got in their boat and headed for their next stop.

But a terrible storm swoops down on them. And if the rough waters weren't enough to smack them upside their heads with terror, along comes Jesus moseying across the water to find them. Since they left without him he had to catch up some how.

And John notes that the disciples were “afraid.” No doubt. How WOULDN'T be afraid if they saw someone saunter across a lake without the need of a bathing suit? It's no wonder they thought Jesus was a ghost.

Jesus tells them to “not be afraid.” A common refrain to his students who have trouble believing their lying eyes.

But even as they arrived safe at the other side of the lake, I don't think they stopped being afraid. Afraid of Jesus. Not because of Jesus' heat seeking sermons, or because threatened them with eternal third degree burns.

I think they were afraid of Jesus because they couldn't control him. I think they were afraid of the change Jesus might bring to their lives and to the world.

They probably didn't really know what they were getting themselves into when they heard Jesus' call to follow him, and probably didn't know why they left their old lives behind and started a new one.

They thought they were going to learn about God, how God can help them with daily living, how to navigate the ethical traps they face, how to raise their kids to be good citizens, how to be better husbands and wives.

But instead what they got was a crash course in God's savage healing, a front row seat when God's power upsets peoples' comfortable lives, hands-on learning of God's suffering love, nose-to-nose with God's kingdom at loose in the world.

Following Jesus couldn't have been easy for them. There are times when they probably wanted to walk away from the whole thing. There were probably moments when a peaceful existence stashed away in the suburbs looked mighty enticing.

I don't think that fear went away. In fact, the disciples' fear probably deepened the longer they followed Jesus. So, it was no surprise they disappeared when Jesus' was arrested. It was probably the last straw for many of them. The climax of a difficult ministry.

Sometimes I wonder if we feel like that too. I know I do at times. Times when I wonder if this whole Jesus thing is worth my time and effort. Time when I look back after putting my hand to the plow.

We tend to see faith as something that helps us get along in the world, comfort for our sorrowing hearts, ethical guidance in a morally ambiguous world, a connection to a presence totally removed from our daily living but at the same time deeply embedded in our lives.

We think of faith as something that makes our lives better. A spiritual shot of adrenalin when life weakens us.

At least that's how I often think of it.

But Jesus isn't interested in making our lives better. Jesus is interested in our salvation. Jesus is interested in transforming the world – beginning with us.

And transformation means that some things get left behind. Things like our assumptions of how the world works and even our place in it. Even our expectations of who God is can be left behind. Especially when our expectations of God are more about ourselves and our own comfort than they are about God's kingdom breaking loose in the world.

But transformation also means that what we gain is far greater than what we lose. It means that God is working hard within us, cleansing us, forgiving us, turning us into the people God wants us to be.

And that can be a fearful thing. Martin Luther said that the old Adam - our old, sinful ways of being – the old Adam is a good swimmer. He won't easily be drowned in the waters of baptism.

But drowned he was. Our old Adams and our Old Eves were lost at sea when God threw them overboard. This means that you are the beautiful, clean, forgiven person that God wants you to be. When God looks at you God doesn't see you as the sum of your worst deeds, God doesn't see you as damaged goods.

When God looks at you, God sees someone worth dying for. Someone whose face shines brighter than a hundred suns. Someone who's pure, radiant, whole, and holy.

We may not see that. But then Jesus has a view from the cross. God looks at us from the future, a future where all people will be transformed into who God wants them to be.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pentecost 7 - Year B

“Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” God asks David. It had been a long time since God was about to rest the divine feet. God's people had moving around longer than any of them could remember. And God went with them, carried in the ark of the covenant (made famous by Indiana Jones). God was tired. God's people were even more tired. It was time for Phase Two of God's Liberation Project.

“I took you from the pasture,” says the Lord, “from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies.”

If that wasn't good enough, it gets better:

“Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”

And so it begins. Israel's glory years. The golden age of David's reign.

Israel was now a REAL kingdom. With REAL power. No longer were they a wandering group of bumbling nomads, fighting with themselves, making people laugh at the God who rescued them.

Now they were established. They had arrived. Solid. They finally got a seat at the imperial grownup's table.

But those of us who know the back story, know that this wasn't what God REALLY wanted for God's people. God didn't want to give them a king because God was their king. God didn't want them to be “planted” in one spot, nailed down for all time because God wanted them to be a light to ALL the nations. Not just their neighbours.

But that didn't seem to be good enough for the people. So they demanded an earthly ruler.

And when Israel demanded a king, Samuel warned them that it WASN'T a good idea.” These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you:” Samuel warned, “he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” In other words, “A king will take your stuff and make you his slaves. He won't care about YOU. It's going to be all about HIM.”

But, of course, we know they didn't listen to Samuel. And to show them a lesson that would last for centuries (and probably to stop their whining) God gave in. Samuel put a crown on Saul's head. Saul, the brain dead frat boy more interested in beer and sports than actually governing, was exactly the type of king Samuel warned them about.

But this is what they wanted. If they were going to be taken seriously at the UN, they needed an accepted form of government. If they wanted to protect themselves against foreign invaders and build a prosperous economy, they needed the proper infrastructure. If they wanted the other countries to stop sniggering at them as they walked by, they needed a leader who wasn't afraid to use the business end of a gun.

And that's what they got.

But I think God was saddened by this whole episode. I'm not sure that this is what God really wanted for them.

I think God preferred being carried around in the ark rather than kicking back in a palace. When God asked David, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” I think God was being facetious, it was a tongue-in-cheek question. I think God was more interested in being out in the world, having unrestricted mobility, rather than settling down in the suburbs and being established in the community.

I think God was happy in the ark because it represented who God is: a God who will not be constrained in one place, a God who is on the move, a God who drags God's people from place to place, being a light in the darkness of wherever they go.

I think that's why Jesus keeps sending out the disciples. He does it again in today's reading. I think that's why Jesus never settles down in one place, but he's always on the move. If you wait too long, you'll miss him.

That's a good lesson for us today. That God's feet will not be planted in one spot forever.

One thing that delights me about this congregation is that we don't make a fetish out our of building. We see it for what it is: a tool. A place the family gathers. We DON'T see it as an end in itself.

In seminary I was told that you lose 5 members for every inch you move the baptismal font. That people demand that the font be nailed down, so as to avoid raising the ire of the altar guild or the trustees.

Here, we move the font to various places of prominence and not one eyebrow is raised

And looking out at this new configuration in our worship space, I'm guessing that I'd probably be fired if I tried this in my first congregation in eastern Ontario. When the first members bolted then pews down 160 years ago, the pews were meant to STAY down.

Here we know that our building is where God calls us to learn and pray together. And to invite others to the Family Meal. We know that this building is not a cage for God. Because God will not be caged.
While we just came off a VERY successful week of Vacation Bible School where we invited the community into our church home, we know that this is just ONE way to minister to others.

We know this because we have more ministry happening outside this building than inside. ChristCare Groups and other small groups meet in peoples' homes. We bring worship to seniors' care facilities almost every week. Stephen Ministers meet with the care receivers in coffee shops and small apartments. The parking lot conversations, the hospital visits, the prayers we say at our desks and the veggies we chop at the soup kitchen. These places are where God has called us to serve. God has sent us OUT in Jesus' name to minister to those who need God's healing love.

One night I counted, and our little church had 11 (eleven!) different ministry activities happening at the same time. And NONE of them (NONE of them!) were happening here. I think this is because we know in our skin that God is more interested in being out to the world than being locked up in a church. We know that we come here to gather in order to be sent out.

“Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” God asks jokingly, already knowing the answer. Because God doesn't need one. God wants to be carried with us wherever we go. God does not want us to stand still.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pentecost 6 - Year B

Back in May, National Bishop Susan Johnson and a group of other national church leaders flew up to Ft.McMurray to take a look at the oil sands. She was part of the Kairos delegation (Kairos being the Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, an umbrella organization for various church groups to engage social issues from a gospel perspective. Good Shepherd is a member of Kairos. Corrine Jerke is our representative) that went to see first hand what was happening in northern Alberta.

According to the Kairos website, they went “To explore the theological, social, and ethical implications of fossil fuel extraction in the Athabasca tar sands. To listen, discuss and learn more about the Alberta tar sands projects and their impacts on all involved communities: society at large, workers, Indigenous peoples and communities, and the environment.

“The delegation’s week-long tour included meetings with church and community members, Indigenous peoples, civil society groups, government and industry representatives” (

You might have seen the article about their trip in the Lethbridge Herald. And you might have read the letters to the editor the week following their visit up north.

One letter, specifically, was from someone VERY upset at church leaders sticking their noses where he believed they didn’t belong. He was angry that the churches were getting involved in social issue, instead of just sticking to our mandate of “preaching the gospel”and teaching the things of God.

I found it interesting that the writer, himself, had written letters to the editor condemning abortion and same-sex marriage, is if those issues weren’t social issues.

But it wasn’t just from angry Albertans who thought that church leaders should stick to saving souls. The Globe and Mail printed a whole slew of letters condemning our church leaders for meddling in the economy, sticking their noses where the writers believed, didn't belong. You can't mix the two worlds.

They said that Christians and other religious groups should just stick to the spiritual stuff, and leave the social, political, and economic stuff to those who know what they’re doing. Because we all know that our social, political, and economic machinery is chugging away just fine.

I would imagine Herod would have been one of those angry letter writers. It's easy to hate Herod. He doesn't even try to make himself palatable. Herod's the corrupt, powerful, figurehead king. And he's seems okay with that.

But Herod's wife has the real power. The Lady MacBeth of first century palestine, whispering her evil demands into her husband's ear, is not afraid to use the her daughter's burgeoning sexuality to get what she wants.

And Mark seems to revel in telling this story. He clearly has no love for Herod and his wife and, like any tabloid journalist, he gives you all the juicy details. Like a tell-all writer, he doesn't spare his subjects the indignity of exposure, but allows them to wallow in their shame. Mark loves it when the rich, beautiful, and powerful behave badly. And he can't wait to tell you about it.

When Mark tells this awful story he doesn't hold anything back. The rich and corrupt implode in public view, an innocent man gets killed, a victim of the king's lust.

If family background is any clue as to as person's later behaviour, then this apple didn't fall far from the Herod family tree. We meet Herod's dad a few days after Christmas when he massacred all the first born males of Bethlehem because he read in the bible that a king would be born in that city, a king who would rule over God's people. This is who Herod was. So we shouldn't be surprised when he acts so violently.

Herod had been listening to John’s preaching, and for a time, Herod was riveted, hanging on John’s every word. Just as long as John stuck to things of God, Herod was happy. Even pleased with John’s preaching.

But then John stuck his nose where it didn’t belong. John decided to hold Herod to the laws that Herod was supposed to uphold. Herod, part-Jew part-Gentile, only obeyed the Jewish laws that were politically expedient. He ignored those that weren’t. And marrying his brother’s wife may have been politically astute, since Herodius came from a powerful royal family from a neighbouring empire.

So, this wasn't a case of Herod leaving his wife for his soulmate. He wasn't hiking the Appalachian Trail and finding himself in Argentina. This was a political marriage designed to consolidate power in the region. Herod didn’t really care about his Jewishness. He was only interested in keeping his power.

But John’s preaching became more and more of a threat, reminding Herod that Jews at that time gave their allegiance only to those who upheld Jewish law. John’s objections were not some religiously driven moralism from some backwoods preacher obsessed with sex. John’s objections were political. He demanded that Herod take his Jewishness seriously if Herod was going to be king over Judea.

And because John stuck his nose where it didn’t belong, he lost his whole head.

If you look closely, you'll see that what happened between Herod and John was a struggle of empire, one kingdom battling another. The kingdom of Herod, with its lust for power and pleasure and the kingdom of God, the kingdom of justice, truth, mercy, and love. And, for a time, it looked like Herod's kingdom beat out God's kingdom as John's head was paraded on a platter.

But where Herod saw John's defeat, I think God's people saw victory. Not the kind of victory that removes tyrants from their thrones, but the kind of victory that exposes them for who they really are. Herod lost power when he took John's head. He lost power when he used violence against those who said what everyone else was thinking. As soon as Herod raised the sword above John's head, Herod lost the battle. And John won.

I think the same thing is being played out in Iran after their so-called “election” last month. Each time a protestor is killed by the army or police, Ahmadinejad loses. His power is diminished. He may have the authority of his office but he has no real power. Neda, the young protestor killed on the street by the police, has more power than the president.

It was that way with John. And with Jesus. That'w the way God seems to work. God's ultimate victory was Jesus dying a horrible death, forgiving his enemies, promising paradise to a thief. Jesus' execution by the state was an exercise in worldly authority. Jesus' death on the cross was an exercise in power. Jesus' resurrection validated that power.

It's hard to wrap our heads around that isn't it? I know it is for me. I think of it like parenting. What's a more powerful way to discipline kids? To yell at them? To hit them? Or to speak to them in love? When I yell at my kids I know that it's usually more about MY ANGER, MY NEED for CONTROL, than about THEIR DISOBEDIENCE.

My yelling only hurts them. My loud voice may get them to bed on time. But our relationship diminishes as the level of my voice rises. I may use my parental authority, but I lose my power.

God is more interested in how we love each other and the world, than in how strong we become. We heard Paul say last week that God's power is made perfect in weakness. I think this is what Paul was talking about. Love is weakness in the world's eyes. But in God's eyes, it is the strongest force there is.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Pentecost 5 - Year B

“Jesus ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.”

What do YOU pack when you go on a trip? Are you that person who drags a 6-piece Samsonite luggage set through the airport, carrying everything from a hair-dryer, to formal wear, to 3 sets of swim attire?

Or do you throw a few odds and ends into a backpack so you can glide smoothly from one destination to the other?

Or somewhere in between?

While I’m not a seasoned traveler, I’m told that the more you travel, the less you know to bring. I don’t know if that’s true, but it makes a lot of sense.

Three years ago when our young adults went to Mexico for 10 days we decided that we were only going to bring whatever stores snugly into an overhead compartment or securely under the seat in front of us. We didn’t want to get bogged down waiting at the baggage carousel.

It was a wise decision. And when I travel, I usually do the same. I hate waiting at the airport. I like to just grab my stuff and go.

But Jesus says that we already bring too much with us if we can fill a small suitcase. If we are going to be traveling from place to place in Jesus’ name, then all we need to bring is that which hides our nakedness.

“Jesus ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.”

To be honest, I don’t know what to do with this passage. I DO know that we DON'T take it seriously. I DO know that, while we pay lip service to the truth of what Jesus is saying, we don’t follow it. In fact, we don’t even try.

And those who do take Jesus words seriously are dismissed as saints - or insane. Because no normal person would behave so recklessly.

But then again, does Jesus ask us to be normal? Anyone can follow the crowd but Jesus asks us follow him. The question is, do we want to follow where Jesus leads? Or do we want to settle back into a cozy faith that offers peace and comfort, but not challenge?

That seems to be the subtext of what Jesus is saying to his disciples. To be his follower means to be uncomfortable at times.

Jesus didn’t want to make it easy for them. If this was a comfort challenge then maybe Jesus was trying to weed out the tourists. This was NOT an easy assignment. Despite what others may have told them.

Nor was it new. Back then and there, wandering philosophers moseyed through the countryside teaching anyone who would listen to them. And in return folks would give them food and a place to crash for the night.

It looks like Jesus was sending his followers out, just like these wandering philosophers, but with a different agenda, a different way of teaching people. In fact, the disciples weren’t supposed to teach anyone anything. They were to confront the power of evil, to bring God’s healing power to those who needed it, and to preach good news to those who only knew bad news.

The disciples’ travels weren’t about them and their wisdom and knowledge, it was about God’s power breaking loose in the world.

That’s why I think Jesus sent them out with NOTHING. The only thing they carried with them was God’s power. It turns out, that’s all they needed.

I think that’s the challenge for us today. We don't trust that God's power is all we need to advance Jesus' mission for us. When many churches are struggling, we tend to look for the quick fix, the easy turnaround. We think that contemporary music, or technology, or some shiny new program will help us gain what we once had - a thriving Christian church that plays a central role in the culture’s life.

I wish it were that easy. I wish there were some silver bullet that would make all our troubles go away. I wish there were some simple solution to our problem of dwindling numbers.

If only we could get a pre-packaged program that people will connect with. If only we could simply increase our advertising budget so that people could find us. If only we could have a more user friendly worship service that didn’t ask anything of anyone. THEN, we’d be on the track to renewal. THEN we would see the numerical success that we think God wants for us.

But it turns out that God doesn’t work that way. It turns out that all God has given us is the message of good news in a bad news world. It turns out that God doesn’t work by program or policy. God will not be contained in our church box. God will not be constrained in the little prison we’ve made for the divine.

It looks like God doesn’t want to make it easy for us. God wants to do things God’s way. Not our’s. And I don’t know about you, but that makes me sweat in my sleep. It’s too hard to trust something I can’t control. And I definitely CAN’T control God’s power. I wish I could. But I can’t.


The theme for last week’s National Convention was “In Mission for Others: Signs of Hope.” I have to admit, I rolled my eyes at the title. Maybe I’ve become too cynical in my old age, but I wondered out loud, what hope there is for our beloved and beleaguered Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

Every year we hear about churches closing. People fighting with each other. Congregations leaving. We hear about financial troubles and smaller memberships. We hear about worship wars and missional failure. And we wonder if God has baled on us, leaving us to wallow in our losses.

It feels like our bishops, despite their best efforts, don't know where to take our church. They try program after program to renew a declining church, and all they get for their efforts are budget cuts and nasty emails. Please pray for our bishops as they take on what is an impossible job.

But oddly, against all signs to the contrary, I found signs of hope in our little church. Talking with friends from around the country, hearing what’s happening in Toronto, Thompson Manitoba, Kelowna, BC , and everywhere else, the common theme is that we do our best work when we throw our pre-packaged programs in the recycle bin. We do our best work when the work isn’t about US and OUR GROWTH.

We do our best work when we worry about and care for others, when we worry about and serve those who may not step foot in the church, but we care for them as Jesus’ followers’ did, with no other motive than to love our neighbours as ourselves

Confronting the evil of poverty in Vancouver. Sponsoring a refugee family in London. A struggling, little, congregation in Fredericton decided that, instead of closing their doors, they'd build an affordable housing development where their church once stood. These are signs of hope. God blesses these efforts. Whether we know it or not. Whether that was the intention or not.

Of course, this is NOT a formula - if WE do this then GOD will do that – unfortunately, that’s not how God works. God will not be be bound to our blueprints. God is too busy transforming the world with us - and despite us.

I don’t know if that sounds like good news to you. I don’t know if that sounds like good news to me. I’d rather have control over the divine. I'd rather God follow my plans than I follow God's plans.

But God is more interested in the world’s salvation than in my comfort. That’s the God we have. That’s the God who saves us.

May this be so among us. Amen.