Impatient Jesus and Ministry Not Going the Way We Expect

GOSPEL: Luke 9:51-62
… 57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video.

Maybe this is a familiar experience to you. You are part of a community or group and someone shows up to something with energy and passion, ready to kick start things with new ideas and vision. Maybe it is at church, on the hockey team, in the office, on the PTA, in the music group. They show up, try their new thing and it does’t go the way they expected. In fact, the community doesn’t receive this new person very well at all. So they pull pack, drop out and probably disappear as soon as they appeared. Maybe you have seen this person, maybe you have been this person. I was this person when I tried out coaching kids soccer for about 8 weeks in 2019. 

Today, as we hear from Luke’s Gospel, there is definitely something familiar about this story and experience…

Jesus is out in the world proclaiming the gospel and he sends some disciples ahead of him to make things ready in a Samaritan village. Samaritans and Judeans did not get along. 

So when the Judean disciples show up in Samaritan village to tell these backwater folks they are brining the real good news, it doesn’t go so well. 

Disappointed, the disciples return to Jesus asking if they should get revenge on these unreceptive folks… which Jesus doesn’t take too well either. 

But it is the next part of the story that might be the most interesting or the most convicting. As they walk away from their failure in the Samaritan village and rebuke from Jesus, some disciples in the group begin reflecting on their commitment to the cause. First one vows to follow despite the failure, to which Jesus warns that there might be more unreceptive folks ahead. The next says that they have to go home and care for an aging parent before following (the father is not dead yet, but likely aged). And then another says they have to say goodbye to family before they can follow… to family that is certainly begging or demanding them to stay home. 

As we hear this story of Jesus and his disciples today, we hear it as people who have lived through the same disappointment.

I can think back to a number of experiences in my own time in ministry: 

One summer I decided to try hosting campfires on a few Sunday Evenings through the summer months. The church I was serving at the time was not a congregation with a strong connection to camp or outdoor ministry and I thought that this might be a small way to introduce them to some of the things I loved about camp. So I invited folks to come out to our large green space behind the church on some select Sunday summer nights to sit around a large fire for some hot chocolate, s’mores, and camp songs. The first week there were 8 people that showed up. Smaller than I hoped, but a good start I thought. The next time there were 4. The third time 2… and then last one zero. 

The reverence and nostalgia for evening campfire that I had after 5 summers for working at Bible Camps, was simply not part of their experience and so sitting around a fire in mosquito season didn’t make a lot of sense… Mydream of singing Kumbyah around the fire weren’t to be.

And over the years there have been more disappointments: Bible studies, confirmation classes, fellowship events where things have not been as well received as I hoped for and not turned out as I imagined.

Still, I am hardly the only pastor who has a story of planning an event and folks not showing up as hoped for. And there are more stories of this happening to whole congregations, planing events to welcome the community only to be received tepidly. 

In fact there are many places in our lives and world where this same story has played out. Where we have jumped in with two feet, put ourselves into something while also hoping and expecting things to go a certain way, only to be disappointed when when they don’t… and then to quit altogether. Whether it is in the workplace, in the neighbourhood, in volunteer activities, even within families. And in the church, there are lot of congregations who are feeling like there have been more failures than successes lately, and many folks slipping away because it is too disappointing when expectations aren’t met.

This is an understandable human reaction. And yet, when Jesus responds to these disciples making excuses to quit, he does it pretty harshly: “Let the dead bury the dead” and “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Clearly, Jesus is frustrated with disciples who are throwing in the towel when things don’t go their way.

But why is Jesus frustrated. Does he think the response of the samaritan village should have been better? Or that maybe his followers should have done a better job? Is the solution to do more and do better instead of quitting…

I don’t think that is it. 

Rather, Jesus seems to get quite well that failure is part of the price of doing the work. Or rather, that doing the work in order to meet our expectations is not the point. 

He didn’t send his disciples to meet conversion quotas in that village. Jesus did NOT promise cheering hoards excited to finally hear from his followers. Jesus isn’t measuring his work by how many attended or put money in the plate. In fact, Jesus is often annoyed by the crowds, frustrated when they want more and more from him. 

For Jesus, the thing that he is looking for is not the result, but the action. That the gospel is preached, that God’s Kingdom comer near is proclaimed, that the coming of the Messiah is announced, the good news is told to God’s people. Whether it is to 1 or 10 or 100 or 1000… it does’t matter to Jesus. What matters is that God’s story of Good News is shared in the world. 

And however that happens does’t really matter. Jesus knows where he is headed. He knows that the cheering crowds will welcome him into Jerusalem on Sunday and call for his death by Friday. Jesus knows that his rag tag group of followers will be barely able to get it together to make sure the story of his resurrection goes beyond their fear and baggage and resistance. But the Easter story cannot be held back and makes it in to the world none the less and that is enough for God to do God’s work. That is enough for God to change everything. 

And 2000 years later, Jesus knows that it is the same for us. Our expectations and visions of how we think this ministry business ought to go get in our way more often than not. But for God that isn’t the point. 

God is at work in our failures and false starts. God is still present and up to something when our target audience doesn’t get what we are trying to do. God has plans in mind for us even when we put ourselves out there and things go sideways, or things don’t happen at all. God is still calling us to go ahead and make things ready even when we are ready to pack it in, when it feels like our best isn’t good enough, when it seems like the world doesn’t care, when we are looking for excuses to go home and stay home. God is still doing in and through us – in and through our community of faith, our meagre feeling gatherings for worship, study, and fellowship – the thing that God has always been doing. God is putting the story of Jesus out into the world. God meeting whomever will hear it, with the promise that the Messiah has come with good news, given for us. 

The point is that the story keeps getting told. The good news for us is that the good news told to folks who receive it tepidly, told to folks who only hear it once in a while, told to crowds that hardly seem worth the fuss… that is enough. That good news of the One crucified and Risen, the one who claims us in the waters of baptism, the one who feeds us with his own body and blood, the one who calls us to go out into world and tell the story again… that this one only needs the story to be told. That this one calls us to figure out how to tell the story and what the story does in the world after that is up to God. 

Jesus doesn’t call us to change the world, that God’s job. Jesus doesn’t call us to manifest crowds of faithful followers, Jesus simply calls us to follow. Jesus doesn’t expect that we will succeed at every turn, but instead warns us that we will likely fail… But that is the mission, that is the call. To tell story of God’s love for the world, and let God carry us the rest of the way… to places we would never imagine and never expect. 

Finally looking forward after 2 years of pandemic immediacy – Pastor Thoughts

At some point this winter, as we came out of the Omicron shutdown, I realized that I had been planning only from week to week for two years. For two years we had all been planning our lives only a few days, or a few weeks ahead. Last Christmas Eve was the harshest reminder of that, as we made plans that ended up being cancelled at the last minute.

When we began planning our family trip out west months ahead, I had to come to terms with imagining how something three months away might go. I had to force myself to be okay with looking into the future and believing that things wouldn’t be upended by a last minute pandemic development.

As it happens, planning for that trip was my gateway to thinking about the future again, both in my family life and at church.

Back in the “before times”(pre-pandemic), I had become a future planner. It took me a few years of ministry, but I eventually learned to plan for fall programs in late spring, to begin Christmas planning in September/October, to start thinking about Lent and Easter in Advent, to begin thinking about late spring and summer after Christmas.

But even more than that, our somewhat predictable “before times” world allowed us to plan years ahead. I have been writing my Council reports with my successor in ministry in mind, even as I began new calls in new congregations with no intention to going anywhere. When I was in the Interlake, the view of our future that we adopted for shared ministry was a one-year, two-year, five-year, 10-year and 25-year outlook. Our hope was to create a ministry that had long-term generational viability, not just extending the runway by a year or two.

This spring my one-year, two-year, five-year, 10-year, and 25-year thinking has resumed for the church. Even though most of my three-and-a-half years here have been focused on week-to-week decision making, I know that it is time to begin thinking about the longer term.

That doesn’t mean the pandemic is over or the next variant won’t send us into another season of adapting to restrictions. This doesn’t mean that unforeseen realities like the war in Ukraine, inflation and recession, the climate crisis or other things won’t sideswipe us.

But it does mean that we have a future to meet, and so it is time we start planning for it.

Our Congregational Council invited the Assistant to the Bishop from our Synod to come and meet with us, to help walk us through the first step of this future-planning conversation.

I have done these kinds of events before and I have led these kinds of events before. But the difference this time is that the world has changed and the challenges that we are facing have changed.

Over the next few weeks my hope is to reflect on some of the things that I took from that visioning session and to get us thinking about having the visioning conversation as a whole congregation.

We were reminded often that Assisstant to the Bishop wasn’t there to give us all the answers and that one conversation wouldn’t figure much out. But she did say that she hoped that, by the end of the day, we would know that our next step was to have more conversation about who we are as a community, about what and how we want to be together and about where God is calling us to go.

And in the end, that was what we needed more than any five-step, foolproof plan to make all of our problems go away.

I am ready to start planning for the future again. I hope you are, too. Because God is calling us to move into the next step, for us, for the Church and beyond.

Playing Church on different teams – Pastor Thoughts

When I was in grade school there were three things that filled my extra-curricular hours: church, music and sports. I never felt like I an odd kid, in fact I moved pretty easily through social groups from the band geeks, to the video game nerds, to the Young Life group (evangelical club at school), to the jocks. But I knew that I lived an odd extra-curricular life. I don’t recall anyone else playing in the band and playing varsity sports. 

It isn’t just that music and sports attract different sorts of people, they demand teamwork in very different ways. It can be challenging to go from after-school basketball practice to evening orchestra rehearsal.

I started playing in an orchestra in grade 4 and continued through to grade 12. I played in school band from grade 7 to grade 12, then found a semi-professional community band to join through my university years. I also played in a variety of church groups during that time. There is something incredible about playing music in ensembles like that, when all the parts fit seamlessly together to make a unified and beautiful sound, there is nothing like it.

In Junior High, I played basketball and then switched to football in Senior High. (I am sure no one is surprised I played football.)

As I said, sports and music teach teamwork in important ways. There is a similar beauty of a perfectly executed pass and goal to that perfectly in tune chord.

And though I managed to become a fairly accomplished cellist and euphonium player while also being a good basketball and football player, I didn’t really fit either mould. But on some level I usually played the part of musician better than that of athlete. In fact, I kind of played sports like I played music. Playing in orchestra and band teaches you how to intensely focus on what you are doing in the moment and how that fits in with every other part, all while staying in time and following the director.

It was a skill I could bring to sports. When the whistle blew, I could summon an intense focus and awareness of what I was doing and what my teammates were doing. I think that is what allowed me to play on the top basketball and football teams at my school. But it was also something that infuriated my coaches, because they didn’t get what I was doing.

During an orchestra rehearsal, if you play your part correctly, you might be able to get in a few minutes of cracking jokes with your seatmate while the director rehearses the 2nd violins again. As long as we were quiet enough, the director didn’t care. But goofing off between repetitions on the football field infuriates coaches to no end. There is a culture and expectation of being constantly engaged. And in football, there is an expectation of acting like an angry meathead; I mean bringing emotional intensity, during games.

“Angry meathead” was not my style. So while it was a very difficult decision, I choose to turn down a number of offers to play university football after high school. I think a part of me knew that I just didn’t have the temperament to keep playing football.

Besides, even while I dreamed of one day playing in the CFL during those years, it was usually in the context of being a football-playing pastor.

Now, what does this all have to do with church?

Well, coming together as a community of faith is also a kind of teamwork. There are times where a certain emotional intensity is required, as we care for and grieve with those who are suffering or mourning, as we rejoice and celebrate with those who are happy and joyous. There are other times when we need to be in tune with one another, all playing the same song–in worship, in serving our community and in discerning God’s call for us.

There are times when we are working toward a common goal over the long-term, like winning a championship or undertaking a large project.

There are other times when we are simply joining together to make a beautiful sound of praise in the moment, which disappears as quickly as it arrives, but transforms us forever.

And there are times when being together in community creates moments of beauty and awe, allowing us to see something more incredible than we could ever have imagined.

It is clear that there are many challenges in front of us, probably more challenges needing to be dealt with imminently than the Church has faced in a long time.

But as we move into the future, there is also hope to be found in working together. Recognizing that as we come together and strive for the common purpose of following God’s call, the things we can do are by no means small. Instead, the work has already begun and, despite all we have been through these past few years, God has been working through us. The ministry we have already been doing shows that, together and with God’s leading, we will make it through.

Sermon – Jesus and the spirits of fear that possess us all

Luke 8:26-39
Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video.

The long season of green or Ordinary Time has begun, and for the next 25 weeks or so, we will be hearing the stories of Jesus ministry: his teachings, parables and miracles. In contrast to the stories and pacing of the the first half of the church year,  Ordinary Time or counting time has a way of meandering and lingering with the stories. There is no agenda or place to get to, simply hearing what Jesus is up to week after week is the point. And after a busy Advent through Easter, taking the time to slow down an re-orient ourselves in the Jesus story isn’t such a bad feeling. 

So today, we begin with an infamous and often quoted story from the gospel of Luke. Jesus and the disciples sail across the sea of Galilee to gentile territory and show up in the region of Geresa, a place where no self-respecting Jew would ever want to find themselves.

Geresa was a town on the other side of the sea of Galilee from Judea, it was a mixed territory, where Jews and Gentiles both lived. But Geresa more recently was also a Roman military outpost, where Roman soldiers were stationed. And because occupying soldiers need food and shelter, the towns people were forced to work in service of the army, raising pigs and hosting their oppressors. 

But Jesus doesn’t just show up in Geresa, the first person he meets there is a man possessed by unclean spirits. A man living in the town cemetery. An outsider. 

So when Jesus shows up in Geresa, he is showing up in a place that good jews would avoid at all costs because everything about this place is unclean. The town, the cemetery, the pigs, the possessed man. This isn’t just the discomfort we might feel visiting a poor, impoverished, rundown part of the city. This is about Jesus and the disciples coming into contact with the unholy, about Jesus becoming unholy himself. It isn’t just the possessed man who has an unclean spirit, but everything around this place seems to suffer from unclean spirits. 

And those who lived there, did as much as they could to protect themselves from the unclean spirits around them. The people shackled the possessed man in the cemetery in order to avoid his uncleanliness. The possessed man tries to escape the chains of the townspeople, so that he can avoid their shackles. The pigs are kept near the cemetery so that everyone can avoid the unclean spirits of the Roman occupiers. And by the time people figure out what Jesus is up to in their town, they even ask him to go away too, fearing what kind of unholy power he might possess. Of all the unclean spirits in this place, the greatest is not Legion or the Romans or the pigs. But fear. The unclean spirit of fear has gripped and paralyzed the people of Geresa. 

Certainly, if at any point in our lives we understand those poor folks in Geresa it is now. The unclean spirit of fear has been dwelling among us for a while now. We all remember when it first settled in… at least we think we do. Some might say it appeared the week that the NBA and NHL shut down, the week that the schools and churches and countless businesses closed their doors. 

But maybe it came about later when the protests erupted following the death of George Floyd. Or could it have been November 2020 as the world watched and waiting to see what would happen in the US Election… or then on January 6th on Capitol Hill. Maybe it was the lockdown of June last year, when we could not even meet with people outside our own households. Or this January as the trucker protests rolled towards Ottawa and to border crossings.

Or maybe it is right now as inflation and interest rates rise, making it harder to make ends meet. Maybe it is war going on in Ukraine, refugees arriving on our doorstep, continued calls for help. 

And yet the unclean spirits of fear didn’t just show up in 2020… We can see them all over the place going back in history. The presidential election of 2016, the 2008 financial crisis, 9/11. 

And just like the fearful people of Geresa, the spirits inhabit the world all around us. We know them on a large scale, we know them on the personal scale. We know them in world events, we know them on our streets, in our hospitals, in our community, in our neighbourhoods, in our homes. And as much as try to avoid coming into contact with the unclean spirits of our world, to avoid coming face to face with the things or people we fear the most. We end up possessed in some way or another. We end up ruled by the fears of the day. 

And in case we thought we could forget or pretend the unclean spirits of our fear don’t exist, we have been rocked by tragedy after tragedy these past weeks. Shootings in schools and churches. More unmarked graves discovered on the grounds of residential schools. More warnings of climate change, extreme heat after an extremely wet spring. 

The unclean spirits of fear push and pull at us. They demand that we protect ourselves from anyone or anything different. They make us feel like need to divide ourselves from the other, build walls to keep the other out, destroy the other in order stop feeling threatened. And thus fear begets more fear and violence begets more violence. 

But the most powerful thing that the unclean spirits of fear make us feel is stuck. They make us feel like we can never escape the other unclean spirits around us, like we can never make the dangers go away. 

And that is why Jesus’ presence in Geresa can seem like such a problem… he is too close to all the unclean spirits, too close for our fear’s liking. 

When Jesus shows up in Geresa, he does exactly what the unclean spirits of our fears keep us from doing. Jesus approaches unafraid. 

Jesus is not afraid of the unclean spirits. He doesn’t fear the town, or the cemetery, or the pigs, or the possessed man. And because Jesus is not afraid that the spirits will taint him, he is willing to meet and be with the community of Geresa. He is willing to meet the possessed man on the man’s turf, in the cemetery. When the possessed man begs for mercy, Jesus simply asks his name. 

And because Jesus is willing to brave the uncleanliness around him, Jesus does what we cannot. Jesus begins to reconcile and rebuild the people of Geresa. He sends the unclean spirit of Legion away. He sends the unclean spirits of oppression, division, intolerance and fear away. Jesus restores the man to community and the community to the man. 

Anyone else would have been afraid of becoming unclean in Geresa. Anyone else would have feared the unholy taint of unclean spirits. But when Jesus comes to this unholy place, God comes and meets the unclean and the unholy. And all of sudden, the fears that held everyone back don’t matter anymore. They don’t matter because the God of all creation, the Holy One of Israel, the Christ in whom we are God’s children makes the unclean clean. In Christ, God shows us how not fearing the unclean spirits, the unclean places, the unclean people allows God to see people instead of a condition. God sees beloved children instead of things to be feared and avoided. God shows us what it looks like to see beyond our fear, and how to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. 

This past week as council gathered to vision and discern our future, we knew there was a lot of on our plate, and lot challenges to face ahead. But as we talked and unpacked, we began to see that things aren’t all challenges and struggles. We remembered all the things we have been doing during these past years. All the music we made over lockdowns, the small groups that we started, the sermon packages that have been delivered, the continued meeting of youth, confirmation and young adults, even if in new ways. We saw the important work we have done solidifying the foundation, of making ourselves ready and prepared for what comes next, for the exciting opportunities that will undoubtedly come our way.

Sure there is so much to be worried about, so many things to occupy our concerns and fears in this world. Yet, Jesus has habit of showing up right in the middle of our mess, right along side the things that we imagine are insurmountable, and Jesus begins facing and encountering what we cannot do on our own. And from there Jesus begins to show us hope, Jesus shows us all that he is leading us into a hope and future that we would never expect or imagine. 

When the unclean spirits of fear threaten to divide us beyond all hope, to keep us stuck and afraid… God shows up. God shows up despite the uncleanliness. God shows up despite the fear. God shows up to free us to see one another as God sees us. As beloved Children of God. 

Facing challenges one at a time – Pastor Thoughts

I am writing to you back from Monday morning (June 6th). I am preparing to head out to a Study Conference for clergy . It is the first time that we have been able to gather in person since 2019.

Strangely, I actually feel closer to my local Lutheran colleagues now than in 2019. And that is because we gather weekly on zoom to support one another and we started that practice in March of 2020. That support and collegiality has been invaluable during this time. Sometimes it is just nice to commiserate with folks who are going through the same things that you are going through, who are faced with the same struggles as you and who know what it is like to be standing in your shoes.

So, I am looking forward to this week of fellowship and study. Looking forward to getting away for a few days. Looking forward to being challenged by new ideas and having the chance clear the mind while learning some new things.

The other thing that I am anticipating today is something I have been refraining from bringing up for a number of weeks now.

I haven’t written about the Oilers or boasted about my team, lest I jinx them. (I didn’t say anything during the Oilers/Flames series!) The Oilers are facing elimination tonight (you will know if they won by the time you are readings this) from the Western Conference finals of the NHL playoffs down 0 games to 3 to the Colorado Avalanche.

One of the things I do to keep sane and to clear my mind is that I often listen to podcasts and sport radio about Oilers throughout my days. But even as I listen to analysts and sport media endlessly talk about the minutia of hockey teams, sometimes things break through into my thoughts about church.

And as the Oilers face elimination needing to win four games in a row to stay alive in the playoffs, some of the rhetoric coming from the team has sparked my thoughts.

The mantra today is “one game at a time.” Even though they are facing an impossible task of winning four straight games after losing the first three and even though only four times have teams done this before where 198 teams haven’t, they are choosing to focus on the things that are immediately in front of them.

There are lots of things in the world right now that can make us feel like we are facing an impossible mountain to climb, the task of winning four games in a row against the best hockey team in the NHL.

But like the Oilers, we can only face things one at a time. You can’t play all the games at once, you can only go one by one.

Wherever it is in life we feel like there are impossible mountains in front of us, I think it does us well to slow down and focus on what is right in front of us, what the next thing that we need to tackle is. In fact, I think this might be exactly where God calls us into discipleship. We are not called to go out and to preach to all the nations today, but to take the next step in our journey of faith.

And so as we consider what comes next for us, whether at church, at home, at work or in our community, we are only ever called to tend to the next thing, to play the next game, to focus on the upcoming challenge first.

So I am looking forward to this week and looking forward to being back with you on Sunday. But for now, the next thing for me is to pack my suitcase and guitar.