Category Archives: Theology & Culture

Ep 4 – Managing the Congregational System During a Pandemic

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-c57cd-ee9443

So it seems that this global pandemic is still around. 6 months in and many of us are hitting a wall. Managing the stress of a congregation is daunting task for any leader. Understanding how and why a congregation or any group of people are acting the way they do is vitally important. 

Pastors Courtenay and Erik discussion family systems theory as it applies to congregations and offer some thoughts on managing the system during a pandemic.

*Book recommendation*

Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke

Check out The Millennial Pastor blog.

This podcast is sponsored by the Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

Music by Audionautix.com

Theme Song – “Jesus Loves Me” by Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Alberta and the North (LOMAN)

God’s October (Third Day) Surprise

GOSPEL: Matthew 21:33-46
37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

What a week. 

Unless you live under a rock, the breaking news, local and world events of this week hit us like a torrent of hail. Here in Winnipeg we began by entering into the ‘Orange’ zone because of increasing COVID transmission. Gathering sizes have been limited to 10 indoors and outdoors. Our own cautious plan to potentially begin in-person indoor gatherings for worship has been put on hold for the time being. 

And then on Tuesday the worst United States presidential debate took place, like a dumpster fire inside a car crash inside a train wreck as one commentator put it. Two angry old men took the stage, with one being particularly belligerent and bullying, refusing to denounce white supremacy and seemingly endorsing neo-Nazi groups. 

On Wednesday, the CERB came to an end, with a potentially messy transition of millions of out of work Canadians to Canada Response Employment Insurance programs. 

By Thursday, Ontario and Quebec were introducing greater lock down measures with cases spiking there. And here in Manitoba, the Exposure App came online (make sure you download it!). 

And then by Friday morning, the news came that President Trump and the First Lady, along with some staffers and other legislators tested positive for the coronavirus, shaking a good chunk of the world with a big October surprise… on the 2nd day of October. 

Events that have captured our attention in gripping and anxiety inducing ways. 

In case we have forgotten, this is actually a sermon and not a news report! 

So let’s talk about Jesus then. 

In the midst of all that other stuff going on in the world, Jesus hits us with this curious parable. The 3rd parable in a row about a landowner. First it was the labourers in the vineyard getting hired throughout the day, yet being paid the same daily wage. And then it was the sons who said one thing and then did the opposite. 

And now we get this parable, which is rather nakedly an allegory for Jesus’ own death and resurrection. 

A landowner rented his land to some tenants. When it came time to collect the rent or harvest, he sent his servants to collect it. Yet, the tenants took a wicked a turn and killed those servants. 

So the landowner sends more slaves to retrieve the harvest and again the tenants kill the messengers. 

Finally the landowner deciding he needs to get serious, sends his son. 

It is a curious parable with a curious ending. Certainly, those listening to Jesus would have wondered the same thing that we might wonder. Why would the landowner keep sending messengers. Why not an army? Why not soldiers?

It is a parable where we can see the ending coming a mile away. The son will not fare well. Certainly, Jesus’s first hearers knew that the landowners rationale for sending his son was incorrect. Like when one of the characters in a horror movie decides to investigate the dark basement or abandoned mental hospital… things are not going to end well. 

And sure enough there is no surprise or twist. The wicked tenants kill the son.

But then Jesus asks a question. A question on which the whole parable hands.

“What will the landowner do?” 

I think we know what we would do. The crowds listening say it out loud. 

They think the landowner will answer violence with violence. This is the way of our world. When someone does you wrong, do more to them to make sure they understand their mistake. The punishment must fit the crime. 

There is something about this kind of narrative that grips us. There is something about the power to kill and the power of death that catches our attention. When those first slaves are met with violence and hostility we are hooked. 

And with each wave of messengers, with each response of violence and death on the part of the wicked tenants, we are drawn deeper into the dark narrative. Death has a hold over us, its power both frightens and allures us. But the time the son is sent, based on the flawed thinking of his father, we are caught up in the story even though we know the ending. 

Such is the power of the original sinner within us, the part of each human being that fears and craves the power of death. The thing within us that makes us unable to turn away from an accident scene, from breaking news, from a dark story, with dark twists and turns. The original sinner within both fears death and wishes for its power. We imagine the control we could exercise in the world were we to wield the power of death. 

And so this parable takes us along for the ride, hitting the right parts of our flawed humanity and biological self preservation instincts to keep us rapt.

The parable is almost like different version of our barrage of news this week. Enough violence, drama, suffering and death to keep us glued to screens. 

And yet, the parable isn’t meant to be a litany of things gone dark and wrong. 

For you see, the parable also is supposed to make us think of the other story of a son who is send to wicked people and is killed. 

A story that goes much the same way all the way to Good Friday. 

But that doesn’t end there. 

A story that completely surprises with a twist we would never imagine by Sunday morning. 

The Easter story keeps going. Resurrection changes the game. Life continues on. 

And this parable that we hear today only makes sense with the easter story as the backdrop. 

For you see, as the tenants keep killing and killing. As the hearers of the story keep expected more and more death. God is focused and intent on something else. 

God keeps expecting, hoping for, anticipating life. It seems almost naive. 

The landowner sends more and more messengers and finally sends his son. 

Just as God sent prophet after prophet, messenger after messenger to the people of Israel. God sends messengers and teachers to proclaim life, again and again. To keep calling a death focused humanity to something different, to something new. 

Finally, God sends the son, the revelation of God incarnate. The Messiah who has come to meet God’s lost people, to walk their paths and challenge their death focused ways. 

And when the son encounters the power of death head on… something new happens. The God who keeps expecting life, who keeps expecting something new, shows us a power greater than death, a continuation of the story when there should have been only end. 

And so it is with us during our heavy news week. At a time when we are bombarded over and over with death, with COVID restrictions, with ugly political debates, with shocking breaking news…. God is there in the background, expecting different outcomes. Expecting life, over and over and over again. 

And then when we least expect it, when death seems to have won, once and for all, there is new life. There is a new ending, there is resurrection, there are empty tombs, and there is the realization that death does not have the power we thought it had. That death is not our ending. 

Instead, God doggedly pursues new life. What God has been doing since the begging, chasing after Adam and Eve as they leave the garden, going with Abraham and Sarah into the wilderness, showing the Israelites the way out of Egypt, rescuing the Israelites from foreign occupation, calling for the repentance of God’s people, sending prophets to proclaim a return to God. 

And finally God sends us the son. 

The son that we will surely listen to, but don’t. 

The Messiah who calls out to us, 

who heals the sick, 

receives the poor and down trodden, 

who eats with sinners, 

and frustrates the powerful. 

The son who is nailed, unsurprisingly to a cross. 

And the son who walks out of the grave, extended the story. 

Extending life.

Loosing our grip on death. 

Showing us a new way. 

What a week, we declare today. 

And God responds by saying, 

“Just wait until you see my October, my third day surprise.”

Who Gave You the Authority, Jesus?

GOSPEL: Matthew 21:23-32
23When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

“Who gave you the authority?”

A question that is floating around our world a lot these days. 

Our relationship to authority has changed dramatically over the past months. Back in the “before time” it was rare that we had to listen to some kind of authority tell us how to go about some of the most mundane aspects of our lives, from work, to school, to groceries to, to eating out with friends. Now there are now a myriad of authorities that we need to consult  to go about our daily lives, from political leaders, to public health officials, to business owners, to those in charge of organizations and institutions, to the person telling us to hand sanitize when we walk into the electronics store. 

Authority and living our lives by stricter rules then we are used to is everywhere now. How we relate to authority is a constant calculation.

And so here we are, well on our way towards the end of the church year, with Thanksgiving, Reformation Sunday, All Saints and Christ the King Sunday on our horizon. When we would normally be settling into new routines, beginning up with all the groups and activities that we took a hiatus from over summer, and we are instead still stuck in a kind of limbo. Not truly opened up and back to normal and nor truly close down and closed off. Somewhere in between trying to figure what we can do in this new world and what we can’t, and how to stay stay safe and keep our neighbour safe. 

In the midst of this new world, we encounter Jesus being confronted by the elders and chief priests about his authority. About an issue that we know very well these days. 

This confrontation comes in Matthew’s Gospel, it comes from a moment just after Jesus has entered Jerusalem riding a donkey, the prophesied symbolic entry of the promised Messiah of Israel. 

From the cheering crowds, Jesus goes to the temple. The elders and chief priests know what Jesus has just done, they know the crowds have been cheering on this would be Messiah. And they also know that as the official gatekeepers of God for the people of Israel, that Jesus has not been sanctioned by the religious authorities to take up the mantel of the Messiah.

But when the temple authorities question Jesus’ authority, Jesus pushes back. He points them to John the Baptist, who was incidentally the son of a temple priest – one of their own. And Jesus declares that John had baptized or anointed him, much like Samuel had anointed King David. Jesus traps his accusers with a question they cannot answer, because it will either get them in trouble with the crowds or undermine their own authority. 

Jesus exposes the problem of the priest sand elders – their twisted relationship to power. Their motivation to hold onto power and stay in control, their use of the authority of the temple to control the flow of God’s mercy. 

The temple was first built to be God’s dwelling place. To be the place where God’s people would come to receive God’s grace and mercy, to receive forgiveness of sins. And the point of the temple was not to control God’s mercy, but to provide it. To hand it out. To make sure that God’s people could go and receive in concrete and tangible ways, That they always had access to God’s mercy.  

Yet, as it often seems to be with humanity, we like to turn points of access into checkpoints and bottlenecks, into points of control and power.

And now Jesus has become a threat to the temple cult, to this carefully crafted system that had been devised and shaped for centuries. 

Instead, Jesus was giving access to God out in the world, without the proper authority, without the proper control mechanisms. 

Jesus was undermining the whole system, upending the power and control of the temple leaders had over the people of Israel. 

Today, we certainly don’t hold that kind of control over people as the Church, at least not in 2020. There have been times over the past 2000 years when the Church has constructed systems of power and control around access to God – as Lutherans we were born out of such a moment in time in the Reformation. 

But these days, our place of authority in this world is quite different. We are increasingly being relegated to margins of most of public life. 

Yet, our understanding of authority and desire for it is not that much different than that of the temple cult of Jerusalem from 2000 years ago. 

Somewhere along the line we too have begun to confuse access to God’s mercy, with power and control over the world around us by gatekeeping God. 

We may not exert the same influence, yet still we long to. As churches well into the 21st century, often struggling with our place in the world, it is easy for us to believe that if we only need our authority back, our power and influence over the lives of people around us. If only Sundays could be kept free of sports, shopping and dance lessons, people would have to come to us. If only we had more money flowing to our offering plates, more staff carrying out our programs, more people to serve on committees, we could be an institution of importance again. 

As human beings, we often believe that more authority, more power and control, will bring more security, more comfort, and make our lives easier. 

And yet, as we watch the pharisees tie themselves in knots working to maintain their power and authority, we know that it is the same for us. That seeking out authority and influence, power and control only makes life more difficult. 

As Jesus responds to the elders and chief priests, he puts them on the spot by forcing them to choose between angering the crowds or undermining their own influence. So they choose neither. 

And you can see the math going on their heads. If they give up power and authority, than Jesus will gain it. They fear an inversion of the status quo, where all the folks at the bottom will wind up at the top, and the folks on top will fall to the bottom. 

Yet, Jesus isn’t seeking a power inversion, he isn’t looking to take the authority of the temple away from the elder and chief priests, at least not directly.

As Jesus continues to speak, he tells a parable about two sons who say one thing and do the other. But it is Jesus declaration that follows about who will gain access to the Kingdom of God that reveals what Jesus is up to. 

Jesus subtly names who is the source of that authority and what that authority is doing in the world. 

Jesus hasn’t ridden into Jerusalem to turn the existing power structures upside down, but to do away with them entirely. 

Jesus is reminding the temple authorities, that their job is not to withhold God’s mercy but to make sure God’s people receive it. Jesus is reminding us that his is out job too.

Because God isn’t putting authority and power into the world, God’s Kingdom isn’t about creating structures for human beings to exploit. 

God is the source of is mercy, love, compassion, and grace. 

God is putting hope and promise into the world. 

Hope found in the Messiah who meets humanity in flesh. 

Promise that the powers and authorities of this world are not the ultimate ones. 

Compassion given through disciples delivering good news in word and action. 

Love granted by the nearness of Christ to God’s beloved children. 

Mercy for the suffering and down trodden given by the Messiah who has found a wayward creation. 

And Grace, Grace on its way, on its way to Good Friday, on its way to that morning of the Third day. 

God is in our world filling it and us with the power of life and new life found only in God. 

And so as we crave influence and control of the world around us, as we wish for just enough power to be comfortable and to not have to worry… 

Jesus still brings us the good news of forgiveness for sinners, mercy for the suffering, and life for the dying anyways. 

The church may never be as powerful and influential as it once away, we may never be an important authority in this world again in our lifetimes… but God the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of God’s love for all of creation and for us….

That is as authoritative as it has ever been, that is the root and source of the power of the Church, of the Body of Christ out in the world. 

“Who gave you the authority?”

This is perhaps the question of our time. 

And the answer is found in the grace and mercy of God, given to us in Christ. 

Ep 3 – Ministry During a Pandemic Part 2

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-pjcsb-ecd82a

In Episode 3, Pastors Erik and Courtenay AGAIN talk about doing ministry during a pandemic. Although it is only been six month since a global pandemic was declared, it feels much longer.

The conversation continues:
Act 3 – Should we or Shouldn’t we? A conversation about about resuming or beginning in-person ministry after lockdowns.
Act 4 – Pandemic Long Haul. The church is being transformed, but living in the in-between time is hard.

Act 5 – Where do you go from here? Finding a way forward for ministry and life together.

 

Articles referenced in the show:
Nothing can Make up for the loss: back to worship in a pandemic https://medium.com/ministrymatters/nothing-can-make-up-for-the-loss-back-to-worship-in-a-pandemic-14edd1aa2b15 

Fasting from the body of Christ and fasting from the Eucharist

https://millennialpastor.ca/2020/04/02/fasting-from-the-body-of-christ-and-fasting-from-the-eucharist/

 

Check out The Millennial Pastor blog.

This podcast is sponsored by the Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

Music by Audionautix.com

Theme Song – “Jesus Loves Me” by Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Alberta and the North (LOMAN)

Guaranteed Basic Grace

GOSPEL: Matthew 20:1-16
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

Today, as we continue into the second half of this long season of green, we hear a familiar parable. The parable of the landowner and day labourers. 

It is a familiar parable for most folks who have spent years sitting in pews, listening to sermons on the parables of Jesus. This parable caught my attention from an early age. I can picture sitting in church as a child, hearing the pastor talk about this story… even when listening to sermons wasn’t all that interesting to me yet. The way it sets itself up to challenge our assumptions, even when we know the story. The upside down way it treats how the world is supposed to work. They way it speaks to ancient labour practices and yet still seems so applicable and current with the way we understand work today. And the familiar indignity of the workers who worked all day contrasted with the surprising generosity of the vineyard owner. All of these parts of the parable grab us every time we hear it. 

But these days we have new ears to hear and the parable comes to us from a different place and with different questions and challenges for us. So much of our focus is on the dangers and risks around us in the world. We hear about massive fires burning far, far away but still sending smoke our way. We read the news about outbreaks at schools in our neighbourhood community. We get blasted with the constant election coverage of our neighbours to the south and the election question is being asked of our own government. 

This is a parable that points back to so many of the questions we have faced in the past few months and questions that we are about to face in the coming ones. Questions about privilege, equity and equality, question about justice and human dignity.

When we hear the parable again today, we remember the familiar elements. The landowner hiring workers for his vineyard. Early in the morning, again at 9, in the middle of the day, at 3o’clock and against just before day’s end. We envision this well-to-do landowner coming back again and again to the marketplace, the agora, the centre of a town’s economic and social life. 

The day labourers are waiting for work, just as they probably did each day. They waited in the marketplace, hoping to be hired for the day so that they could earn enough to support themselves and their families. The basic currency of that world, the Danarii was based on a day labourer’s wage. Enough money to pay for food and shelter for one day. 

We don’t have many similar systems here in Canada, but if you know the right places to look, you can still find day labourers. The first time I saw a group waiting for work as when I was a teenager. Our church youth group travelled to San Diego and then across the border to Tijuana to build houses in Mexico. We stopped at a Home Depot to pick up some supplies  and there was a group of men waiting to be hired. As we sat in the van while leaders went into the store, we watched as pick-ups pulled up to the group waiting on the sidewalk. The drivers would call out a number, and the equivalent number of workers would hop in the back. 

The first part of the parable would have been a common and easy to understand circumstance for Jesus’ hearers. A landowner goes a hire some labourers first thing in morning, discovers after the a bit, the harvest isn’t progressing quickly enough, so goes to get some more. 

But once the owner goes back a third time at noon, this should be setting off our spidey sense. It would be strange to go a hire labourers for half a day, and strange that the labourers were still waiting at noon. 

Still the parable gets more strange. The landowner keeps going back, at 3 and 5 o’clock. Why would he keep hiring? How much work could those latecomers do? And why were they still waiting, who did the labourers think would hire them in the middle of the afternoon and at day’s end?

But then we get to the important part. The part that we cannot help but identify with. The part when the landowner pays all the workers the same wage. 

There is a part of us that enjoys the indignity of the full day grumblers. We identify with these ones, the ones who feel entitled, who have worked all day and recognize what they have earned. Even if landowner doesn’t pay the extra, the grumbling workers know they have earned more. 

They see themselves as the dedicated hard working ones who have put in the time and should reap the reward. 

And nearly every sermon I have heard on this parable admonishes faithful Christians in the pews not to complain (even if deserved because of hard work) about those who might come to faith a the end…

Yet, certainly this year, this chaotic and unprecedented 2020 year with natural disasters, protests against racially motivated police violence, and a pandemic… certainly this year is challenging our established understanding of this parable and ourselves. 

It is easy for us to think we are the hard workers and the others are the lazy ones looking for a free ride. We rarely attribute our situations to opportunity and good fortune. 

Surely, the grumbling workers knew what is was like to be passed over for work. Surely they knew what is was like to wait in the marketplace for the chance to feed their families for another day, only to wait and wait and wait for nothing to come in the end. 

Surely, they could see that the latecomers where not lazy layabouts who are taking advantage of a generous landowner, but rather that the early workers were the lucky ones, the ones who could rest easy for the day knowing they their needs would be provided for, that their families would have roofs over their heads and food in their bellies. 

If this global pandemic has taught us anything about fairness and privilege, it is often those who are perceived as lazy and taking advantage are often the least advantaged and some of the hardest working. We have see many all of sudden be without work and have nothing to do but wait. We have seen how it is often the poorest least advantaged who are forced to work the front lines of a pandemic world. 

And we have heard our own Lutheran Bishops, along with Anglican Bishops write political leaders in support of Guaranteed Basic Income, which is receiving a lot of attention in the news, in legislative halls and around kitchen tables. As the CERB, the Wage Subsidy and other programs kept food on the table and the lights on… we have discovered that there is a lot of luck when it comes to earning a living and hard work is no guarantee that you will have enough. 

And so as the workers who worked all day grumble about not getting more than they needed and agreed to work for, the landowner replies to them,

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The landowner, the one standing in for God challenges the perspective of privilege and entitlement. The landowner challenges it with generosity, with a generosity that gives not based on merit and worth, but based on need. The landowner provides all the workers, the lucky ones who were picked first and the ones who had to wait all day, enough. Enough to eat, enough to feed their families, enough to live. 

Guaranteed Basic Grace. 

This challenge to the way we understand the world works, this reminder that hard work is often born of opportunity and circumstance and that those who are left to wait and who are left out are the unlucky ones. 

And yet Jesus’s challenge to us also reveals the generosity and abundance of God’s grace and mercy given for us. 

That God’s approach to us is not to measure us by our hard work or merit, not to give us what we deserve… because we are certainly all lacking and all fall short. 

Rather God’s approach is to give us what we need. To show us the mercy and grace that will get us through to another day. God’s approach is to extend life where there only seems to be death. Where there would have been empty bellies and unsheltered heads, God extends life once more. 

God’s way with us is to keep life going, to give us one more day. One more day that carries us to the third day, to the day of resurrection, to the day of grace and mercy when life extended.  indefinitely. 

And this year, God has challenged our sense of fairness, our understanding of opportunity and privilege. God calls us again to consider not what each one of us is worth nor what we think we deserve…. But to consider what each one of us needs. And God reveals the generosity that is given to us. 

And however unfair that feels, God gives all the grace and mercy needed for one more day and for life eternal in Christ.