All posts by The Rev. Erik Parker

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church. Blogger | Liturgy Geek | High Church Lutheran | Husband | Dad. Musician, gamer, movie-lover, amateur techie.

The Stanford Rape Victim, Jesus and Forgiveness

Luke 7:36-8:3

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Read the whole passage)

In January of 2015, a young woman was sexually assaulted on Stanford University’s campus following a campus party. A young man named Brock turner was caught in the act by two  passersby and later convicted in the assault. Last week, the victim impact statement written by the anonymous woman was released to the public. Over the past number of days, the 7000 word letter has been trending online, and making headlines on TV and Radio news and in newspapers. Celebrities and pundits have commented on the case. US Vice-President Joe Biden even wrote an open letter to the young woman at the heart of this case.

Brock Tuner was sentenced to a shockingly lenient 6 months, of a possible 14 years because the Judge believed any longer would have had a “negative impact” on the young man. Turner’s swimming career and affluent background with no prior convictions were cited as reasons for the lenient sentence.

You may have read the statement from the young woman who was Brock Turner’s victim. You may have heard the commentary or read about the story. You may have discussed it with family and friends, or maybe you just heard about it for the first time now. But almost certainly, you would not have expected to read this story in church today…

This week, Jesus meets Brock Turner and the anonymous Stanford Rape victim. They go by different names, Simon the Pharisee and the woman who was a sinner, but make no mistake, this morning our gospel lesson is telling the same story that the world has been telling all week.

Jesus is invited by Simon the Pharisee for dinner. Simon is a well-to-do Pharisee, a religious authority, a moral authority, one who occupies position and privilege in his world. Someone that proper people would have considered righteous, a stand-up guy, some one who should be given the benefit of the doubt. Someone who gets a name in the story.

Just as Jesus, Simon and the other guests are about to sit down for dinner, a woman enters the scene. The woman only descriptor the woman gets is “sinner.” She doesn’t get a name, or position, she is only known for her “sins.”

And as if to emphasize the point, when Simon objects to this sinful woman’s presence, Jesus tells a story about two debtors, and how the one who is forgiven more would love more. It almost seems like Jesus is saying this poor sinful woman is to be pitied.

Can you see Brock Turner in Simon? The privileged man with power who doesn’t even see a person in the woman.

Can you see the anonymous woman who is a victim of her world in the woman who washes Jesus’ feet? The woman who is assumed to be a sinner first and foremost.

In case it isn’t clear, the assumptions built into this story are the same as the ones so many have made about the Stanford Rape case. 

Simon is assumed to be righteous, because we tend to think that people of his kind, powerful, respected, well-to-do people, are righteous. Brock Turner is assumed to be a good kid because he is a college athlete, he comes from an affluent family, he is a white guy going to a prestigious university. If he is accused of doing something wrong, it must not be that bad.

But more importantly, the woman who washes Jesus feet is assumed to be a sinner, but not just any kind of sinner. While the text doesn’t actually say, we assume that this is a prostitute. A promiscuous woman. She is assumed to be a prostitute because she is a woman, because there is no husband with her, because she is doing something intimate with Jesus’ feet. If she is a sinner, it must be the worst kind of sinner can think of.

And young woman who was assaulted? Every detail of her sins were laid out in court. Her clothing choices, how much she drank, what kind of relationship she had with her boyfriend, whether she actually wanted what Brock Turner did to her. Because she was sexually assaulted, we feel the need to question the ‘assaulted’ part.

Our assumptions about Simon and this woman who washes Jesus’ feet, about Brock Turner and the young woman he assaulted… our assumptions show our bias. How we can easily assume someone is righteous without any real evidence. How we can easily assume someone is a sinner just because of their gender or social standing.

And in case we still don’t see our assumptions about who is righteous and who isn’t, who should be given the benefit of the doubt and who shouldn’t, Jesus makes sure we get it.

Lest Simon think that he is the one with few sins to be forgiven, Jesus reminds Simon that just in that moment Simon has failed to show hospitality according to the law. He has failed to wash the feet of his guest, he has failed to offer a kiss of peace, he has failed anoint his guest with oil. The “sinful” woman has done all these things. The sinner has kept the law.

And then Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven”

But not forgiveness in the sense that her wrongdoing have been forgiven. Because Jesus knows that this woman is victim too. A victim of her society that sees women as property to be owned and casually discarded if perceived to be broken. This woman is a victim of a world where an unowned woman’s life choices included begging or prostitution.

Forgiveness in the sense that the sins that have been heaped on her do not define her. Forgiveness in the sense that the judgment and scorn of the well-to-do and powerful don’t get to determine her value.Forgiveness in the sense that her righteousness isn’t decided by the standards of her unjust world.

Forgiveness in the sense of freedom and release. 

A seminary professor of mine once said to us,

“The gospel is always contextual. You wouldn’t tell a rape victim that she is forgiven of her sins”

But after reading statement of the young woman whom Brock Turner was convicted of assaulting, after reading about the shame, self-doubt, the regret and suffering, after reading about the trauma and re-traumatization, after reading of helplessness and injustice she endured…

Perhaps forgiveness is exactly what is needed.

Release and freedom from the sins that have been dumped on her. Release from the shame and judgment of the powerful. Forgiveness of any need on her part to demonstrate her victimization or righteousness or need for justice.

Forgiveness and freedom.

Forgiveness and freedom found in The One who has been victim and accused sinner before us.

Forgiveness and freedom found in The One who does not live by assumptions about our goodness, worthiness or sinfulness.

Forgiveness and freedom shown by The One who determines our righteousness solely in love.

Forgiveness and freedom found in Christ. 

The reality is that our world is full of Simons and Brock Turners, those whose power and privilege protect them from seeing their un-righteousness. Our world is full of anonymous, unnamed people looking for freedman and release from the shame, judgment and sin of the world. The reality is that we are both Simon and the woman who washed Jesus feet, we are both Brock Turner and the young woman who was his assault victim.

We are people who assume our righteousness, our goodness, or worth is based in our power, achievements, wealth and status. We are people who assume our sinfulness is based on our gender, race, language, religion, orientation.

But most importantly, we are people for whom God chooses to discard all that. We are people loved and freed by Jesus. We are people that God chooses to forgive.

God chooses to forgive us and free us from our sin, to free us from all the ways the we try to define ourselves, to free us from the burden of trying to be righteous on our own, free from the shame and judgement heaped on us by the world.

God chooses to forgive and free us. Period.

The Widow’s Dead Son and Interrupting Jesus

Luke 7:11-17

When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up… (Read the whole passage)

 

In this third Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear the second part of a story that really began last week. Jesus was simply minding his own business when the Centurion sent for him to come and heal his beloved slave. Jesus was surprised to find such faith in this Roman Officer – a gentile and an enemy, but the slave was healed.

Today, the story is much the same. The focus is on a grieving loved one. A widow whose only son has died, is processing with the community to the grave where she will say goodbye to her son.

But beyond this shared grief over the death of a loved one, the widow and Centurion do not share much else. The Centurion was a man of power and control. He existed almost entirely outside of Israelite society, other than to command the military force occupying the land.  The Centurion was faced with the loss of a slave, someone who served him.

The Widow is a person of weakness and dependance. She is completely dependent on the structures of society around her. She would have first been a servant to her husband, and then to her son. She would not have been permitted own land or to make money on her own. Without her son to provide for her, she would be left destitute, reduced to begging on the streets, dependent on the charity of society around her.

And yet, before they encounter Jesus, the Centurion and the Widow are equals before death, there is nothing they can do about it on their own. Perhaps that is why the Centurion, being a man of power, tries anything, reaching out to a local rabbi and healer knowing that this something outside his control. Perhaps that is why the widow is simply accompanying he son to the grave, here again is another confirmation that she no power in her world.

And so with no other recourse, the Widow is doing the only thing that she and her community know how to do. They turn to the rituals that can add the tiniest bit of dignity to the death of a loved one. They have gathered for worship, they weep and mourn, they console one another and pray. And now they are marching to the grave of this dead son. They are doing the only thing that they can do at a time like this.

But the widow is not just marching her son to the grave. She has marched her husband before her son. And now that her only son has predeceased her, her life as she knows it over, and she will soon become a forgotten widow surviving on scraps in the streets. She is marching to her own grave too.

Like the Centurion, like the widow, we too occupy the same place in life. When we stand before death, we have no power over it. It happens to all of us, weak or strong, powerless or powerful.

And like the widow today, we have the same response. When we are faced with death in our community, we gather together to do what we can to add some dignity to tragedy. We gather for worship, we weep, we mourn. We console one another and we pray. We offer hugs and casseroles, we do all that we can. And do these things without question, because these things are all we have in the face of death. This is what powerless creation, powerless humanity can do in the face of death.

And so the widow and her community do that know, they take this dead son to his grave as best they can.

Yet… while they are focused on the task grieving and mourning, of doing the last things for a loved one… Jesus does something that neither that the widow and her community would ever expect.

Jesus interrupts.

As the widow walks with her dead son to his grave, Jesus interrupts the whole funeral procession. There is no mention of a request for healing, there is no mention of the faith of the son or widow, no mention that they even knew who Jesus was.

Jesus interrupts and raises the dead son to life.

Jesus interrupts this community focused on the task of attending to and adding the smallest dignity to the death of one of their own… Jesus interrupts in an almost playful, even flippant, manner.

Yet he is touched by the widow’s hopelessness and helplessness. “Do not weep” he says.

It is out of compassion he walks up to this woman who has not seen him. He walks into the widow’s broken community and reaches out to death.

Jesus interrupts the flow of the last things and brings the steady march of the inevitable to a halt. The pallbearers stop in their tracks.

Death stops.

Death stands still.

And then Jesus does the unimaginable: he commands the widow’s son to rise.

Death hears the Word of God speaking.

Death hears the words of the Lord of Life:

‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’

And the dead man sits up.

Jesus’ compassion for the widow, his compassion for the community turns their world upside down. Jesus shows up at this funeral and interrupts the un-interruptible. Jesus stops the most powerful force known to humanity, and Jesus sends death away.

And Jesus raises not only the son, but the mother. But not only the mother, but the whole community. But not only the community, but us too.

Jesus raises us from the dead, just as the son was raised. Jesus raises us in this community week after week in the words of forgiveness and mercy, in the Word of God that we proclaim to one another, in holy baths where we are washed with grace, in holy meals where we are fed with love. In this community, with the very things that we fall back to when faced with death, with tears and prayer, casseroles and consolation, Jesus us raises from the dead.

Today, Jesus interrupts. Jesus interrupts the widow on the way to her grave. Jesus interrupts the ritual of the last things that consumed all the attention of the community and turns their words upside down, turns the finality of death into the beginning of new life.

And Jesus interrupts us too. Jesus interrupts us at our graves, Jesus interrupts our deaths. When we are powerless in the face of death, when we are consumed with the last things. Jesus comes along, interrupts our community and makes us sit up with the command:

People of God, I say to you, Rise!

Jesus, the Centurion and the Prayer of Last Resort Trope

Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. (Read the whole passage)

This story sounds like one we have heard before.

The narrative of this powerful Roman solider calling on Jesus to help when he seems to have no other option is actually a fairly common story telling device. In fact, it is called the “Prayer as a last resort” trope. It characterized by the main hero of a story exhausting all other avenues for success, and finally turning in desperation to prayer as a means of solving the problem or saving the day. Praying before the last resort, would of course be a sign of weakness.

Prayer as a last resort is common in movies and on tv. A character is trying again and again to have things go their way, with no success. When faced with no other ptions, they then find a quiet place kneeling next to a bed or they wander into an empty, but open church with candles lit to offer an awkward prayer, something along the lines of:

“I don’t know if you are up there God, but if you are, can you do this thing for me, just this once.”

It is actually a pretty common example of how hollywood, pop-culture and many people in our world think prayer works. It is even pretty common among people of faith like us. We might find ourselves turning to God in ways we have never imagined when we are faced with trial and tribulation, with struggle and suffering. There are usually a lot more prayers offered in hospital rooms than in living rooms. We are more than willing to seek out a greater power when we are in trouble and desperate. But often, like the Centurion who tells Jesus that he doesn’t have to come all the way to his house, that just doing the miracle from a far is enough, we too generally prefer a little distance from God. Or at least, most people in our world are happy to let God be far away until needed.

The story of this Centurion and his request for help is a way of approaching God that is generally familiar to us… or least it is easy to impose this familiar trope onto this story and view it as confirmation that Jesus is pretty cool with staying out of our business until we need help and ask for it in a nice way.

But the Centurion’s story isn’t so straight forward as we think.

The details shows show something very different than the typical “Prayer as a last resort” trope.

First the when centurion sends for Jesus’ help, he sends Jewish Elders when he could have sent soldiers. The elders probably put Jesus ease, while the soldiers would have forced Jesus to go.

The centurion has risked looking like traitor to empire by funding the local synagogue, by being in good standing with the religious authorities, by working with the Jews, rather than subjugating them.

And then to prevent Jesus from having to come to the home of an unclean gentile or risk looking like a collaborator, the Centurion sends word to let Jesus take a pass on the whole healing if he chooses to. The centurion is allowing Jesus to decide what he will do, recognizing that Jesus might say no.

Usually, when a tv or movie character offers up a prayer of last resort, God is only secondary to the equation. It is the willpower or desperation or virtue of the person praying that is supposed to make the prayer work. The power of person praying will accomplish the task. Even a desperate last resort prayer becomes a sign of the hero’s power.

So often our desperate prayers are not about God at all, but instead are about us and our issues.

But not so with the Centurion.

The Centurion’s request for help comes in such a way that it shows that the solider recognizes that despite his power, despite his ability to command and order people around, despite his position in the community… that salvation and healing for his slave is entirely in the hands of Jesus.

When Jesus recognizes the faith of the Centurion, it is NOT about seeing some kind of virtue or worthiness in the Centurion. It is NOT that the Centurion is such a good person that he has earned healing for his slave. The centurion allows Jesus to show the people of Capernaum, and to remind us, of something important. We are reminded of a narrative or trope that we don’t hear all that often.

The faith of the Centurion is that he recognizes how deeply he needs God. Faith is understanding how deeply we need God, no matter how much power or strength or righteousness or virtue we attain. We are all equally and deeply in need of God’s grace, no matter who we are.

And when faith recognizes all that we are not, how powerless we truly are, how deeply we need to be healed and saved… that is when we can see just what God has been already doing long before we ever utter a prayer of last resort.

The last words that Martin Luther wrote remind us of this truth that the Centurion helps us to see. Luther wrote:

We are beggars: This is true.

We are beggars: This is true.

When it comes to the matters of life and death, like the Centurion’s request for his beloved slave who was near death or like so many of those prayers uttered by TV and movie characters…

When we get down to the real power we possess in this world, we are beggars.

We are beggars whose prayers are of little power. They are of little power when compared to the One who can actually do something in the face of death.

And so when the Centurion asks for help, Jesus already knows that this powerful solider is actually powerless man. When the hero of TV and movies pray as a last resort, God already knows that these powerful characters are actually powerless people.

But there is also another truth at play. A truth about real power.

Far from being some passive silent onlooker in the sky who may or may not hear those prayers of last resort…

The God of power and might who has created all things has already chosen life over death.

The God of power and might who has died an risen from the dead has already chosen us.

And this powerful God has already come into the world to meet us in human flesh, to encounter our powerlessness, to join us in our weak humanity.

Jesus was already in Capernaum ready to meet the powerless centurion, even if the centurion asked for help in the most gracious way.

Jesus is already here, ready to meet us in the our weak words of confession with the power of forgiveness, to wash away sin and death with the power of the waters of baptism, to gather sinners and outcasts into the one body of Christ in the bread and wine of communion.

Jesus has already already gone to place of our greatest human power and greatest human weakness – death.

Jesus has gone to the cross and faced death head on. Faced the thing that makes us beggars no matter our human power… and Jesus has swatted death away like it is nothing.

And that is because it is.

The centurion’s request for Jesus to heal his beloved slave reminds us that we are all indeed beggars: this is true.

And the centurion’s request also shows that Jesus is already here, already ready with New Life, given long before we ever turned to prayer to save us. New Life given long before we ever knew we needed it.

The centurion’s request shows us where the things that really matter in this world, life and death, are held in God’s hand. Only God has power over these things, no matter how many prayers of last resort we may hurl towards the heavens. And God has chosen not to be far away waiting for a powerful prayer, but to be nearby and ready for powerless people, powerless us. Ready with new life given for us.

Today, underneath this story that sounds like one we have heard before, is another story. Another narrative that we forget too easily and don’t hear enough.

And that is the story of the powerful God who has compassion for and loves deeply a bunch of powerless beggars like us: this is true.

 

Why did no one help the man for 38 years?

John 5:1-9

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids– blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When 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?” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

We are coming to the end of the season of Easter. Over the past 6 Sundays we have been with the women at the empty tomb, locked away with Thomas, fishing on the other side of the boat with the disciples, walking in temple with Jesus at Hannukah, and back to Maundy Thursday with the new commandment to love.

But today we reach way back into the story of Jesus. Before Last Suppers, betrayals, trials, crucifixions. Before resurrection and miracles. We go back and see with Easter eyes that the resurrection was not just on the Sunday morning of the empty tomb. We see that Jesus has been showing us resurrection right from the beginning. But we can only see it now, only after we have made our way through the Easter story.

Today, a man who cannot walk lays between the pillars of the Sheep Gate Portico. A public square in Jerusalem. He watches as people file by, merchants, soldiers, farmers, religious authorities. He watches as other beggars, the lame, blind, deaf and unclean lay there with him. Many are bathing in the spring water pool hoping to be healed of their infirmities, but the man who cannot walk has no such hope. Instead, he is only looking for the charity of others, as he has been doing for 38 years. Legend has it that at certain times, an Angel of the Lord comes to stir up the waters of the pool. The first person into the water after this is believed to be healed. This portico is a place that gatherers people in need of healing. But the man cannot walk, and there is no way he could ever drag himself into the pool first – without help.

As the man who cannot walk lays there, a group of men come by and stop, one of them speaks to the beggar, asking him question. But without really hearing what has been asked, the man who cannot walk launches into his story, his hands extended. ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Its a well rehearsed story, it is short, to the point and designed to make people dig deep in their pockets. The man has been telling it for decades. He isn’t expecting healing, he is expecting pity or charity. A few coins so he can provide for himself a few more days.

But the question that is asked to the man is not “Why haven’t you bathed in the healing waters of the pool?”

That question is too absurd to contemplate. 38 years is far too long for no one to have done anything for this man. Its is impossible to think that this man could have been laying just a few meters from healing for nearly four decades. The answer that this man has simply fallen through the cracks of human compassion for so long if too painful to imagine. How could that happen?

This story demands a question. “Why has no one helped this man? How could he have been left to suffer for 38 years?”

It seems ridiculous… almost too absurd to be true.

And yet the same question could be asked all around us in our world. This story is not only NOT absurd, but it is a story told all around us.

How long must the community of Shoal Lake First Nation go without clean water? 100 years? 200 years? Why has no one helped this community?

How long must Syrian refugees camp out a the boarders of closed nations? 5 years? 10 years? Why have these nations turned their backs?

How many people have to die of fentanyl overdoses until we do something? 100? 1000? Why has no one helped them?

How many children on First Nations must attempt suicide before we commit to making their living situations worth staying alive for? 50? 100? Why has no one noticed before now?

These questions are hard to ask, and even harder to imagine the indifference it took to let these things happen in our world.

Yet, there is a problem will all these questions. The questions are no more compassionate than the indifference and inaction that they question. Asking why no one has helped is more about us than the people suffering. It is more about making our own guilt go away, than offering what suffering people really need.

Notice that when Jesus approached the man who couldn’t walk today he didn’t ask, “Why has no one helped this man in 38 years?”

Jesus doesn’t jump to solving problems. He doesn’t define the man by his condition. Jesus doesn’t dehumanize the man in some attempt to be the white knight riding in to save the day.

Instead, Jesus asks the man who cannot walk, “Do you want to be made well?” 

Jesus presumes nothing. Jesus doesn’t jump right to problem solving. Jesus isn’t worried about saving the day or about making his own guilty feelings better.

Jesus is concerned with the man. Jesus recognizes the man. Jesus humanizes the man.

Jesus isn’t there to save the day, but to save the man. Jesus doesn’t do it by dragging the man into the pool. He doesn’t even do it by helping the man walk.

Jesus saves the man by seeing a person first and condition second. By seeing a person rather than a problem. Jesus embraces and acknowledges the man’s humanity.

“Do you want to be made well?”

It is a question that is about what the man who cannot walk needs and wants. It is about how the man wants to address his own suffering. Jesus isn’t there to force solutions on a problem, but to care for a person in the way they need to be cared for.

It is this that saves the man. Not the healing pool. Not the command to walk.

Jesus saves the man by caring for him as a person. But turing him from a problem into a human being. Before the man ever takes a step, Jesus welcomes this man back into relationship. Jesus welcomes this man back into life.

And the man who had been lame for 38 years gets up and walks. He walks because Jesus has seen him, recognized him, welcomed him back to life. Restored him to true life, to be more than his problems, to be more than injustice, to be more than legs that don’t work right.

“Do you want to be made well?”

Jesus’ question is rarely one we ask of those who are suffering. Human beings rarely take the time to ask this of each other, because it requires we get out of ourselves.

Because we when ask it we realize that problems we see around us are not just situations needing solutions. If we were to ask questions that humanize one another, we would see that we too are the people of Shoal Lake living for generations without clean water. That we are refugees fleeing for our lives. That we are those dying as we try to numb our pain with drugs. That we are people whose living conditions aren’t worth living for. We are all those people, just as we are the man who has not walked for 38 years too.

We are the ones whom Jesus is asking “Do you want to be made well?”

Today, as Brooklyn is dunked into the healing waters of Baptism, we are reminded that Jesus has asked us this question too. That God has seen us, recognized us, named us and claimed us. In the waters of baptism Jesus turns into people, Jesus welcomes us into new life. We stop being defined by the problems of sin and death, we stop being the sum total of the suffering we endure. And Jesus turns is into people. Into beloved children of God.

And in this act of God, in these cleansing and healing waters, God says to us, “Stand up and walk.” And through the waters of Baptism, we are raised to new life, we are raised to walk, to walk in this life of faith.

Today, as we near the end of Easter, we see that Jesus has been showing us resurrection all the way along. We just couldn’t see it before now, we couldn’t see it without Easter eyes. As Jesus sees the man who couldn’t walk, whom no one bothered to help for 38 years, Jesus sees us too. Jesus sees all the suffering and injustice of our world, Jesus sees us – not as the problems that define us, but as people who are beloved and cherished by God.

And because God has seen us and loved us we are able to stand up and walk.

Amen

A Full Church is not Measured by the Number of People

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.

(Read the whole passage)

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each 4th Sunday in the Season of Easter is reserved to hear about Jesus the Good Shepherd. And here at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, we could consider this Sunday an opportunity to celebrate our congregation. Just as congregations with names like St. Matthew’s, or St. John’s often celebrate on the feast days of their saints.

But this year we get short changed in the shepherd department. We are in the 3rd year of our 3 year cycle of readings for each Sunday. And last year and the year before, Good Shepherd Sunday got the good readings. “I am the Good Shepherd” readings. Today we get a passing reference to sheep and that is it.

In fact, as we encounter Jesus, it is an entirely different celebration. The festival of Dedication. Or more commonly known as Hanukkah – nothing to do with shepherds.

Instead of Shepherds, sheep, meadows and spring, we get the dead of winter. Jesus is walking through the temple, the Portico of Solomon. A space along the East wall where crowds would have gathered to celebrate Hanukkah – a winter festival of lights. It was an 8 day celebration to commemorate how the temple had been liberated 200 years earlier from oppression by the Seleucids – the empire of Alexander the Great. The liberating rebels found the temple defiled and the only undefiled thing was a sealed bowl of olive oil, enough to light a lamp for one day. But the oil lasted 8 days, long enough to complete the ritual cleansing.

Hanukkah, this winter festival of lights was a time for families to gather, to remember how they had been freed from oppression and how the nation of Israel had been restored. But by Jesus’ day, the celebration would have been bitter-sweet. The people now lived under different oppressors – the Roman Empire.

And so the crowds gathered at the temple for Hanukkah see Jesus, and they are looking for liberation again. They want to be saved, restored to former greatness, they want control of their destiny and future. They press in on Jesus wanting answers. They long for the day when their nation would be their own again – they want a Messiah to come and lead them to greatness, just like the rebels had done 200 years before. “Tell us plainly” they demand of Jesus, give us the quick and easy answer to our problems.

Jesus doesn’t give them answer they are looking for, instead he talks about sheep knowing his voice and people being snatched out of his hands. A cryptic non-answer for a crowd wanting a plain and straight forward response.

In many ways, the bitter-sweetness of celebrating liberation while living under oppression is something we know too. No we haven’t needed liberation from anything here in Canada. Nor do we know what it is like to live under oppression.

But we do know what it is like to feel like for our identity and place in the world to be taken away. On a day when we could be celebrating Good Shepherd, it is easy to carry concerns about the future. It is easy to feel like an older, thinner and more tired version of ourselves. It easy to feel like those crowds did, like we are celebrating something that is already gone from us.

This week as the ACTS group met for bible study and considered this gospel lesson, it was Jesus’ answer to the crowds that generated questions. One question in particular stuck with me throughout the week, “If Jesus says he won’t let us be snatched from God’s hand, what does being snatched out look like.”

What I think our group was really asking was, “If Jesus is the Messiah, why does it feel like our church is shrinking and dying. Why does it feel like the world doesn’t care about us anymore? Why do people who were once here, once parts of our family, once parts of our community, no longer come? What about all the people who are gone? Have they not been snatched away?”

The question that the ACTS group asked is most certainly on the minds of Christians all over. And it is one we consider lots here at Good Shepherd too.

And we get frustrated too when we just want a plain answer from Jesus, but he gives us something vague and cryptic. Or at least he gives an answer that doesn’t satisfy our questions.

When the crowds demand to know if Jesus is the Messiah, he rejects the premise of their question. “I have told you, and you do not believe”

The crowds are asking for their temple and nation to be restored. They want a Messiah who will bring back the glory days, who will make Israel great again (as some politicians these days are fond of saying). The crowds are looking to return to the glory of Hanukkah… to relive the story of human triumph in the world. Of one group overcoming and having power over another.

But this is not about God’s work in the world. They are not remembering the covenant with Abraham, God delivering them from Egypt, nor God giving them a King in King David (despite God’s objections). They remembering their own glory.

And Jesus is not talking about a Messiah King, or Messiah warlord or Messiah President. Jesus is talking about a Messiah who has been sent for God’s work in the world.

So what are we asking of the Messiah? What do we want Jesus to tell us plainly? Sometimes we get wrapped up in asking the Messiah to restore our church, to build our membership, to increase our attendance. Sometimes, without thinking, we can equate how we feel about church with how we talk about God. We say that our church is shrinking, dying, getting smaller, becoming tired, a shell of what it once was… we say that God seems to be shrinking, dying, getting smaller, becoming tired, a shall of what God once was in our world. How we feel about church is how we talk about God.

Jesus is reminding us that it is actually the other way around. How God feels and acts towards us is how we should be talking about church.

Who is here and who is not hear is not a measure of whether or not we have been snatched out of God’s hand. How many people keep up weekly attendance is not a measure of the church or the Good Shepherd.

Jesus is telling us today the fullness of the church, that the aliveness of the church is about what God is doing here.

The church is full because the Word of God fills it with the Good News of God’s love for sinners, for the broken, for the forgotten and marginalized. The church is full of God’s love for us.

The church is full because the waters of baptism overflow here with grace and mercy. Just as Jaxson is baptized this morning, so to are we reminded that because we are baptized too, that God’s grace is overflowing here, filling this place. The church is full of God’s hope for us.

The church is full because the bread and wine of new life are in abundance here. Because when the Body of Christ gathers, we become bread for the world and we are send out with good news for the world. The church is full God’s gifts for us.

Like those crowds gather for Hanukkah, we can easily can get wrapped up in wanting to restore former glory, with wondering what God is doing with a seemingly shrinking, dying place, with measuring our fullness by who is here and who is not. We can starting talking about God using the language of how we feel.

But Jesus reminds us of how God feels and acts towards us.  That the Messiah is about doing God’s work. And that God’s work fills this place, not with us, but with God. God fills this place with love and mercy and grace – God’s work done here and done for us.

Amen.