Plan B, C, D or E for the Church

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. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

It was three days before my 30th birthday, and after 3 and half years of being a pastor, I felt like I had preached too many times on mass shootings in my short time in ministry. But the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting felt different, the unspeakably tragic nature of that event seemed like it would finally change the gun culture of our neighbours to the south. 

Instead,10 years later, is both too easy and too hard to recount countless shootings in nightclubs, hotels, places of worship, high schools and again another elementary school. 

And so here we are this week reeling from another mass shooting of children and teachers in Uvalde, Texas. 

Where will it end, O Lord?

Today, is the last Sunday in the season of Easter, but it hardly feels like a time to celebrate. And yet, in the midst of tragedy, we remember the horrific events to which the empty tomb is revealed as the good news. As the world has a way of laying death before our feet when we least expect, Easter has a way of turning even that reality upside down and revealing to us that new life that comes from the grave. As we ask when the violence will end, God reminds us that Easter is God’s answer for us in the midst suffering and death. 

And so… for these seven weeks we have been walking along with the disciples through their initial surprise encountering the risen Christ and then God’s calling these followers of Jesus as they are transformed into the Body of Christ – the Church. We have heard again how they were and we are being prepared to be 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 start another new ministry to the prisoners only to have that interrupted by an earthquake and then a fearful guard contemplating taking his own life, for 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. 

The promise that God will provide glory and providence for the community of faith 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. 

Another mass shooting, ever increasing cases of pandemic-19, run away inflation, war in Ukraine all seem to make us feel as though God is far away from us. 

The struggles of work, family life, young children, aging parents, retirement planning, declining health, and figuring how to re-enter into an uncertain pandemic world get in way of taking time for faith. 

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 keep us from looking forward with hope and believing that God has good things in mind for us. 

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 finds 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. 

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 are not the end makes sense when it comes to us in the midst of shootings, pandemic, inflation and war. 

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 that doesn’t really feel Easter-y we hear two seemingly contradictory stories that fit perfectly together. That remind us that God always comes in our imperfections and plan Bs, Cs, Ds, and Es and struggling messy moments of suffering and surprise… because that is where we are. 

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

The tension point of pandemic hybrid community – Pastor Thoughts

Last week I shared with you reports from our family trip out west to visit family and to attend the funeral for Courtenay’s aunt (who was like a second mother).

Along with all the much needed visits with family not seen for years, we managed to also pick up COVID-19.

It has been a powerful insight into how this pandemic has hit us right where some of our most important relationships and activities are. As human beings we need to have time for community. Family gatherings, Sunday morning worship, coffee with friends and neighbours, time at the gym, breakfast club, serving on that volunteer board, playing on sports teams… so many of the things that we do to keep sane, the the relationships that make us feel grounded and known, the keep us going day to day, week to week.

So many things that zoom or Facebook Live streams, or phone calls can only do so much to emulate.

Last week, I said that this new world we are living in is going to keep looking like this for quite a while. COVID-19 cases are surging everywhere (again). 2nd Booster shots are being recommended. And there always looms in the background the possibility of another variant that could make our lives more difficult.

Before our family trip, I would have said that we just need to accept these new ways of connecting with community. But now I recognize how important being with those that we love truly is.

So rather than accepting, I think we need to, are being called to, adapt. We are being called to change. The world has changed and so must we.

The thing is that we don’t really know what we are adapting to or changing to quite yet. But I do know that prioritizing the health and safety of our community while also making space and opportunity for that community to come together in a variety of ways is important.

And that is something we are not so used to doing, prioritizing so obviously competing and contradictory things: Being together is a risk and our need to be together.

Thankfully, we DO come from a tradition and community of faith that includes many examples of living in tension. We boldly declare that we are sinners and saints. We confess that Jesus is both Human and Divine. We receive bread that is body and wine that is blood. We proclaim that we are people who die to sin in the waters of baptism, only to be raised to new life.

And we will figure out how to be people for whom being together is a public health risk and who need to gather for our health and sanity. Something tells me that God is already way ahead of us on this and has been calling us into this place all along (more on that next week!).

This pandemic likes to remind us it isn’t over – Pastor Thoughts

After a couple of weeks away on holidays, it is good to be back – well, sort of.

As some of you may know, our family ventured west for the first time since June 2019. It had been nearly 3 years since our family had made our pilgrimage to see extended family across the prairies. It was incredible to see just show much our kids loved seeing various relatives. they marvelled at all the people they were related to. At 8 and 5, I think they felt like they were meeting many folks for the first time.

The purpose of our trip a this time of year was to attend an important family funeral, but the opportunity to see family was something we all needed after 3 years of staying home.

After two weeks of visits, of recreating missed birthdays, family dinners and just spending time together, our hearts were full of something we had been desperately missing. It almost felt normal at times, being around people we love and have missed so much.

Finally, close to the end of the second week, we began the long drive home.

In the weeks before we set out on this holiday, in the midst of Holy Week and Easter, I did my best to keep up on the pandemic situation. I knew that COVID was spreading widely, but seeing family, particularly because of this family funeral, was important at this point.

In the middle part of the second week, we began feeling some symptoms: Runny noses, coughs, plugged ears. While there were stories of COVID cases all around us, we initially attributed it to seasonal and pet allergies (so many dogs and cats!). But still we took rapid tests, we were always wearing masks in public, and compared to a normal whirlwind family tour, we reduced contacts and limited household visits substantially.

Still, we were feeling pretty crummy as we came home. Before going out into the world once home, we decided to rapid test again.

And after a week of symptoms, our tests finally showed two lines.

We were positive for COVID-19.

The thing that we had been working so hard to avoid for over 2 years had finally made its way into our house all the way from across the country.

We let our family and anyone who visited us know.

For us, it has been very hard to be so far from family during this pandemic. But I also know it may have been one of the things that has kept us safe from infection. If we lived closer to family, I am sure we would have been gathering and visiting when the public health orders allowed. I am sure our contacts would have gone way up.

And looking back it is easy to see why we were infected with COVID-19. In two weeks we were in more homes, and spending more time with people unmasked and close contact than we have in the two years previous. We thought we were careful enough, but every visit was a risk.

It is a reminder of just where this pandemic has hit us hardest. It speaks to why we are all so beaten down and struggling. COVID-19 has robbed us of the most important activities that help us stay healthy and grounded. Gathering together with the family and friends who are most important to us. Two years of FaceTime and Zoom calls every other day was nothing like just once sitting around the dinner table with those that we love.

The pandemic is far from over. We continue to balance finding ways to connect with and be close to those people who are most important to us – family, friends, neighbours or siblings in Christ – with staying safe, preventing illness and disease.

And I cannot help but come to the realization this is our new world. The realities that we are struggling with today are not going anywhere anytime soon, and so we continue to struggle together. We continue to follow God’s call together. We continue to adapt and change and seek out ways to be community, to care for each other and to walk together in faith.

So far COVID-19 has been like a bad head cold for us… and hopefully I will start testing negative soon and be able to re-join our local community not long after that.