Wrapping up the year on Christ the King – Pastor Thoughts

The church is rarely accused of being ahead of the times. But every year around the end of November, with a little celebration, the church marks Christ the King Sunday and the end of the liturgical year. And so even ahead of the rest of the world, the church is still out of step. 

Still, I cannot help but ponder beginnings and endings around Christ the King. I look forward to this Sunday mostly because of what comes after, my favourite season Advent. 

But Christ the King requires the conclusion of all the stuff that came before it. To finish the story-telling arc of the previous year, to end with the Christ taking his place on the throne. Of course, on Sunday we will hear a very different understanding of where that throne is.

Stepping back to take stock of where we have been is an important process for us as people of faith and just as human beings. We can get so focused on where we are headed to next, that we get tunnel vision for the present and immediate future. It is difficult to take the long view, to step back and account for all the places we have been before now and how that has affected us. 

Christ the King reminds us that endings are not usually what they seem with God. Rather than a vision of the final dwelling place of God, we go to the cross, to the moment when death had seemingly won… and we discover that this was the moment of God’s new beginning. 

And so it is with the end of one church year and the beginning of another. On Christ the King we go back to the cross, and to begin Advent we talk about the end. God has a way of turning endings into beginnings, into new and second chances. 

As we see the myriad of seeming endings about us, the struggles of our world to maintain itself, our ending on the horizon as a church, we might wonder, what God has in store for us. We might wonder what new beginnings are around the corner this day, and how we might be changed forever by the new thing that God is about to do. 

Pastor Erik+

All Saints is hard, All Saints is beautiful -Pastor Thoughts

Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
~ ELW 422 For All the Saints v.  4

The older I get and the longer I have served in ministry, All Saints Sunday becomes more and more meaningful to me. As we remember those who have gone before us in faith, it is natural to also look back at our own lives and experiences. As more and more years go by, the more poignant the themes and images of All Saints Sunday become. 

I haven’t counted the total, but I think I have been a part of around 100 funerals as a pastor (which is neither a little not a lot in 13 years). For perspective, there are about 50 Sunday and festival worship services to preside at each year (that includes Sundays on holidays). So in 13 and a half years of ministry, I have presided at close to two extra years of Sunday services made up of just funerals. 

In my early years as a pastor, that made me an oddity among my friends of a similar age (other than my pastor friends). Many of my grade school friends hadn’t ever been to a funeral or just a very few in their mid-twenties, while I was helping families plan and presiding at funerals regularly. 

It is still a strange thing to experience regularly something that so many tiptoe around, to know funerals inside and out when most people find even thinking about them uncomfortable. 

Funerals often come in bunches as there will be periods of time when months and months go by without having any to preside at. Then all of a sudden there will be three funerals over the span of two weeks. Death is unpredictable and there is never a way to truly be prepared for it, no matter how many times you have walked the path before.

There is quite a bit of All Saints artwork that portrays the great crowd before the throne of God as a faceless crowd more numerous than can be counted. After praying over urns and caskets, standing at gravesides and praying with families in mourning, the great crowd of Saints gathering before the throne isn’t just a bunch of faceless people anymore for me. I can picture many of the faces in the crowd of Saints that I have personally helped to usher into the Kingdom, and an even larger crowd of loved ones, family and friends attached to that crowd. Faces as old as 100 years and as young as two years, those who have died of natural causes, and those who have died because of accident and tragedy. Each All Saints Sunday brings with it a growing crowd of the faithful departed that sticks out in my mind. 

Often when death is portrayed on TV and in the movies, the big moment is the dying. Main characters, whether villain or hero, will prolong their death with powerful last words. Friends and family will pack a hospital room to be there as a character slips away, lingering on with sad but knowing faces in the final moments. And then the scene will cut to a brief funeral or to a glimpse of a headstone. The last moments of life linger, but grief slips by in a moment – at least in Hollywood.

In real life, that time after a loved one dies, those minutes, hours, days and weeks, months and years of grief can feel long, heavy and drawn out. The days before a funeral can feel like an eternity of planning and preparations. The weeks following can feel empty and hollow and meaningless. There is a discomfort that we have with grief, even as our culture has a fixation with death. How it is that our navigating the messy and complicated path of grieving does not hold the same dramatic appeal as life and death stories do? 

Walking the path of grief is hard and lonely. All too often those at the centre of the grieving are left alone, while those around them gradually decrease their care and support. The week before and after a funeral, there can be a flurry of cards, phone calls and casseroles. Even six weeks or six months on, the grief and sense of loss can feel as deep as ever. Yet, there can be an unspoken expectation that it is time to move on and stop being sad, even from the most caring and well-intentioned support networks. 

All Saints Sunday is our moment to attend to that grief outside of the raw emotions of a recent death and funeral. It is an opportunity to grieve collectively, even as we each grieve our losses differently. All Saints Sunday helps us to put in context the life AND death of a loved one, into the grand story of the lives and deaths of God’s people but also into the story of death and new life found in Christ. 

All Saints Sunday helps us to place all of our grief on the table. Our grief for loved ones gone before us, our grief for lives that did not go the way we expected, our grief for all the losses experienced in this life, all the other kinds of death that we deal with each day: change, failure, broken relationship, illness, addiction and so on. 

And finally All Saints Sunday reminds us of a day when we can hopefully hear it better; that all the grief we bring to the table, all the losses and scars we bear, that all the ways in which life breaks us down… that all of this is held by God. All of this is not too much for God to carry. God holds us and all creation until we are ready for new life. 

The Odd Observance of Reformation Sunday – Pastor Thoughts

A Mighty Fortress is our God…

I am in a Facebook group for young(er) Lutheran and Anglican clergy “born after 1973.” By the world’s standards we are decidedly middle aged. (I had to explain to my kids the story of Come From Away or 9/11 this week and it made me feel old). But in the Church we still seem like children to many colleagues and lay folk alike – so we still think of ourselves as young, despite the fact that many of us have been serving 10, 15 or even 20 years!

Anyway, each year right around Thanksgiving, one or another of the Anglicans will post a question about when All Saints Sunday is being observed. All Saints is always November 1st, and in years when it gets pushed back to November 6 or 7th, it can run into Remembrance Day observances. So the question is whether to have All Saints Sunday on the Sunday before November 1st or after. 

Since the group is about 10% Lutheran and 90% Anglican, I usually find myself chiming in with a reminder that for Lutherans, the Sunday before November 1st is Reformation Sunday and it is kind of a big deal for us. So All Saints is always on or after November 1st. Mostly my reminders go unheeded and probably sound like I am speaking Greek – or maybe German – to our Anglican siblings (whom I still love dearly).

It doesn’t help that Martin Luther chose to post his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st, the first of a 3-day string of festival days – All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. 

It also doesn’t help that Reformation Sunday is an odd and difficult-to-observe day to begin with. Is it a celebration? Is it a commemoration? Are we happy to be Lutheran? Are we sad because of the wars and division caused? Are we bold to confess our faith? Are we humbled by our need of God’s mercy?

As is often the case with our historical observances, especially in recent years, things are more complicated then we always know how to handle. We know that Martin Luther stood up for the things that he believed were right: against injustices taking place at the hands of the Church, against the attempts to sell salvation by the Pope and the Church, against church leaders keeping control of the Word and the Sacraments. But there are also the hundreds of thousands of people who died in revolts and war directly inspired by Luther’s stand against Rome. There is the long-lasting division and splitting apart of churches who disagree with one another that it still going on today. 

The Reformation was a transformative moment for the Western world. The combination of the printing press and Luther’s writing made it one of the most significant events of the past 1000 years. But 505 years on from Martin Luther nailing his list of grievances to the door, what this all means for us today and how we move forward are still being unpacked. 

We are a Church born in a time of tumult and change, and we are still a Church in the midst of tumult and change. Yet, along the way the reminder that God’s faithfulness will lead us through is the same. And ultimately, Martin Luther’s reason for posting his 95 theses was to make sure that God’s faithfulness is the foundation and centre on which we stand. 

A mighty fortress indeed!