Category Archives: Theology & Culture

Good Friday is neither special nor unique

John 18:1-19:42

Good Friday is neither special nor unique.

What happens on Good Friday is no different than what happens others days. 

One falsely convicted man killed by a merciless and cruel government is barely even news-worthy in our world. 

Jesus was no unarmed black man killed by the cops, causing marches in the streets, social media hashtags and widespread shows of support. Jesus’ followers hid away after his death. 

Jesus was no Ukrainian family shelled in from of new cameras by careless or cruel Russian military. Only a few devoted followers wept for Jesus. The whole world weeps for Ukraine and the atrocities committed there. 

Jesus was no missing and murdered indigenous woman, no victim of residential schools. His beating, his death did not spark an inquiry. His unmarked grave did not spark an apology from the Pope himself.

There were no news reports for the crucifixion. There were no hashtags like #PrayforJesus. There were no flags to put on profile pictures, no pundits or reporters or commentators who talked and talked and talked. 

Good Friday is not special. It is just another day for us. 

Good Friday is everyday in our world. 

Just in the past year we have come up with so many new names for Good Friday, so many new names for the violence and death that we simply cannot end:

Kyiv, Bucha, Kharkiv, Mariupol. Shanghai, Tel Aviv, Sacramento, Kabul. Ukraine, Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan.

Putin, the Kremlin, Zelenskyy, COVID-19, Variants, Omicron. Convoys, protests, truckers. Inflation, housing, poverty. January 6th, Capitol Riot, Insurrection. Residential schools, reconciliation, climate change.

Our list of new Good Friday words is so long we forget what we were listing off in the first place. 

Our list of new Good Friday words is so long that we forget them almost as soon as we create them. 

Our list of new Good Friday words makes us numb. 
Our list makes violence and death feel normal. 

The first Good Friday was not special. One man died on a cross. 

One man who angered those in power, so they go rid of him. 
One man who didn’t give the chanting crowds their King, so they started shouting crucify. 
One man whose own followers betrayed and abandoned him in his worst hour.

Jesus died like the rest of us, 
Jesus suffered violence and cruelty and hate like the rest of us,
Jesus was just another person to suffer an unjust and merciless death, 

The cross of Good Friday was not special.

Except that not being special is what makes Good Friday special.
We didn’t think that God would be on that cross. 
We didn’t think that God would die at our hands. 

The cross of Good Friday was not special, the violence of the death was not special, the ones who condemned were not special. 

The one who died was. 
The one who died changed everything. 
The one who died was God.

Today, God has died. On Good Friday God has died. 

And all those other words for Good Friday, for death and violence in our world. Those words from that list so long we forget. Those words lose their power. All those days of death and violence and suffering that seem to come at us unrelentingly from the news, from around the world, from our backyards.

All those Good Fridays that seem to happen far too often. 

They lose their power. 

Because the God who died, died with us. 
Because the God who died, lived with us. 
Because the God who died, loved with us.

God died on Good Friday.

But death did not destroy God. 
And God is not forgotten.
And God is not finished. 

Good Friday and all our other words for violence and death are not bigger than God is. 
On Good Friday, God who is bigger than death showed us something new. 
On Good Friday God gave us truly new words. Words that change the world.

Words likes:

Mercy
Forgiveness
Compassion 
Grace
Love

New words that God uses to change us. 

On Good Friday God dies with us.

But what is ended,
What is finished,
What is over is,
the power of death.

On Good Friday death is ended. 
On Good Friday death is no more
On Good Friday death will never have the final word.

Today, on Good Friday, God has a new word. 

One word that changes everything.  

Life. 

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Artwork –  Golgotha by Edvard Munch, 1900.

Maundy Thursday: The Last Supper and Funeral Lunches – Moving to the New Order of Things

GOSPEL: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean….”

Each year we arrive at this night having made the journey through Lent. With Jesus we have come through the Wilderness to the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Sometimes it has been long a difficult journey, sometimes it has been a chance to step out of the business of life and reflect, other years it has been race through the season to Holy Week. 

This year we have been pulled and dragged through the dust and dirt of Lent, maybe just holding on day to day, week to week. The world around us has not made Lent easy, or perhaps rather, the reality of all the struggles that our world faces, that we face have been laid bare before us this year. Pandemic, war, inequality, violence, suffering, colonialism, poverty, violence and death. 

And having come through all that, and still being in the middle of all of that, we arrive on this first night of the Great Three Days of the church. The days in which we reserve time to carefully and painstakingly retell the story of Christ’s Passover from death to life. 

Tonight we arrive at the dinner table of the disciples to watch Jesus and friends through the Last Supper. It is a small and intimate story, one that take places at the family table, in conversations between friends, over the span of just a few moments. And yet each part is worthy of being the focus of a sermon: The dialogue between Jesus and Peter, the teachings on servants and masters, the new commandment given to the disciples. 

And yet there is something about the whole scene which catches our attention. The movement that brought us from Palm Sunday to his feast of unleavened bread reminds us that there is something big coming. One does just ride into Jerusalem being hailed as a king and conqueror only to be forgotten and left to eat a quiet passover with friends. 

As the scene opens, we are reminded that Jesus knows what is coming shortly for him, he knows that Thursday will lead to Good Friday. As he washes feet he is taking the time for a final moment of intimacy with his disciples. And Peter’s argument with Jesus isn’t really about whether Jesus can wash his feet or not. Whether Peter knows it, he is stalling. He is trying to avoid the big thing that is coming next. Peter isn’t even the first disciple to do this. While it was all the way back on the 5th Sunday in Lent that we witnessed Mary washing Jesus’ feet with perfume while Judas objected, it is a story that only comes a few paragraphs before in the Gospel of John. 

The connection between the images couldn’t be clearer and the discomfort of Jesus’ disciples with what Jesus is up to couldn’t be either. 

Peter is holding onto the old ways and the old order. Servants washed feet, but priests washed the whole body to make one ritually clean. But Jesus isn’t concerned with ritual purity like Pharisees, Scribes and Temple Priests were, he was more interested in a new order for the world. And Peter knows that this new order will only lead Jesus into confrontation with the people in charge of the old world. And so he is trying to avoid it, trying to turn Jesus back from the brink of chaos and destruction… but he can’t. 

So they continue on towards the inevitable. 

Then as Jesus speaks to the disciples at the table, it might sound like he is passing on instructions to all future disciples on how to be faithful. But that isn’t really he intention. Rather, he is speaking to his worried friends, knowing that he will soon leave them. Knowing that soon all they will have is each other. Knowing that all that early church community – in which these gospels took shape – would have is each other. 

There is familiarity to the pattern and movement of this scene. We follow a similar ritual of movement today when we gather for a funeral lunch. Unlike just any meal, it is one that arrives from moment of procession and worship, from a time of formal lament and prayers for salvation.

And then when we come to meal, we know it isn’t about the food as much as it is about the community. The greetings and condolences, the company and the words that we share all serve to carry us to the next thing, to the big thing that comes next. As we move through the meal, we know that the burial is still come, followed by a life changed forever. A world with a new order to it. 

And so we know what Peter and the other disciples are feeling on this night, because it is a journey we have taken ourselves. A journey that carries us to the coming grave, to a new world.    The love that we give and receive in community, the hugs and knowing looks, the greetings and care we give to those who are grieving most, the words we share and stories we tell, the community we choose and keep are all the things that buoy us for what is coming, for the grave and the unknown world that comes after. 

Yet, there is one who does know what is coming. The One who washes his disciples feet, the One who bids his disciples to share in bread and wine in remembrance of him, the One who gives a new commandment and order to the world rooted in Love rather than self-righteousness… this One, this Christ leaves his disciples not with instructions on how to live but with a community shaped and formed in his image. 

Jesus is on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, to betrayal, trail, crucifixion and death. 

But the Body of Christ born in this moment, born at this meal, given to this world is the new order of things. And is the same new order promised and given to us. 

While we know that this meal will lead us into the unknown, into the big thing that coming, to the cross and drama of Good Friday… 

While we know that every funeral lunch sets us towards uncovering a difficult world without a loved one, with an impossible to fill hole in our lives, with another reminder that we too are mortals and one day that funeral and that grave will be ours…

Jesus leaves us with the washed feet, that bread and wine, the new commandment that is found in the Body of Christ. Jesus leaves us with the promise proclaimed by the Body of Christ each time we gather. Jesus is leaving us only to find us again in the new life that comes after Good Friday, in the resurrection that is on the other side of the big thing that is coming, in the grace and mercy of God that will not leave this world to death and the grave. 

And so on this first night of the Triduum – the Great Three Days – we begin with the disciples at the table. We begin knowing that we are being carried from this moment to what comes next, to confrontation between Jesus and sin and death. 

But Jesus begins with us. Jesus begins by washing our feet, by welcoming us to the table, by giving us the care and support and love that we need for what is to come. 

And by reminding us that we now belong to one another and to the Body of Christ.

Ep 203 – Ministry Endings and Beginnings During a Pandemic an interview withThe Rev. Aneeta Saroop

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-hsp2v-11edddf

In episode 3  of season 2, Pastor Courtenay and Pastor Erik invite Pastor Aneeta Saroop (pastor of Spirit of Life Lutheran Church in Vancouver) to a conversation about beginning (and ending) ministry during a pandemic. 

Check out The Millennial Pastor blog.

This podcast is sponsored by the Manitoba Northwestern Ontario Synodof 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)

The smell of death filling the room

John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Of all the stories of Jesus’ ministry that we have heard until this point during the pandemic, this scene may feel the most unsettling. Not because the story itself is strange or off-putting. But because of where we currently find ourselves. Having lived and continuing to live cautious lives and only considered careful measured forays into social settings. 

And the thing that sticks out to me more than anything is that it must have been almost hard to breathe. 

The smell of the perfume would have stuck in the room. It would have overwhelmed the noses of all present at the celebratory meal. In the before times, we all know someone who wears too much perfume or cologne, whether it is that strange aunt in the family, or teenage boys wearing too much body spray cologne. But I cannot remember the last time that I smelled someone else that doesn’t live in my house. Masks and social distancing have had the incredible effect of isolating us from the smells of being in community. 

Smells can overpower us like no other sense can. And certain scents can immediately recall memories long buried to time with incredible vividness. They can remind us more powerfully than a picture of past events, places or persons than just about anything else. The smell of chlorine can take you right back to that first time swimming in an indoor pool. Or the smell of pine trees can take you back to beloved Christmas memories. 

The smell today, the perfume that anoints Jesus’ feet cannot be taken lightly or be overlooked. A pound of perfume is not a delicate scent, and that seems to be Mary’s point. On this day, Jesus, his good friend Lazarus, and the disciples are being treated to a celebratory meal. Lazarus has been raised from the dead and this is the first time that Mary, Martha and Lazarus have seen Jesus since the miracle. Martha, as usual, is serving the dinner. She is giving thanks in her way. But Mary decides to give thanks in a different way. She wants to express her deep gratitude and her love for Jesus. It is the kind of emotional display that makes most of us uncomfortable, like two lovers passionately kissing in public. As Mary anoints Jesus feet, and then wipes them with her own hair, the rest of the guests at the party were probably feeling awkward. Washing feet was something that servants do. And using one’s hair as the cloth… well, that was just strange. Mary’s act is as extravagant and wild and passionate as it seems. Probably something that should have been saved for a private moment with Jesus. 

In the midst of this beautiful moment, this act of love and gratitude that Mary is giving to Jesus, Judas pipes up. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”. The moment is ruined. Judas has re-interpreted this lovely scene to his own ends. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with the display of affection, or perhaps as John suggests, he has other intentions for the money. Whatever Judas’ reasons, he wants to disconnect from the intimate and personal moment. He tries to make it about the impersonal and distant and abstract idea of how money should be used. Judas tries to make the moment about practicality and he almost steals away Mary’s extravagant love, diminishing her by rebuking her feelings. Judas tries to dismiss Mary’s love and gratefulness with his distant and impersonal righteous indignation. 

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I can very much get Judas’ discomfort, you probably do too. Having a display like Mary’s  can intrude in our space and feelings and sense of what is appropriate. And like Judas, we can seek to create distance, through power and manipulation, between ourselves and this deep display of affection. We fear what Mary is doing. We fear letting go of ourselves to God’s love and call for us. We fear the ways in which we might be changed, we might be vulnerable and unsafe, the ways in which our world and lives may become uncertain. 

And at the heart of our distancing, is our desire for control. We want to be in control of where we begin and end, to protect our bodies and feelings and tribes from risk and hurt. And we use whatever power we can. Money, judgement, shame. Mary’s act is not safe, it is wild and untamed. It is extravagant and passionate. This is not the way we think the world should work. “Don’t waste the money” we declare because we are uncomfortable with risk. “Don’t be so emotional” we cry out because we know loving so deeply can lead us to getting hurt. 

Our fear of being close, our need for control, gets in the way of opening ourselves to God’s love and call. Our discomfort puts practicality or pragmatism before others, before people. Judas only sees dollars being poured on Jesus feet. We often get bogged down by the resources being expended on our family, on our neighbours, on the church, on ourselves. Judas doesn’t see that what Mary is doing for Jesus is worth more than any amount of money. Often we find it hard to see that the families, friends, neighbours and ministries that we give our time and passion as being worth of the expense. It can be hard for us to let ourselves take  the risk being close, the risk of following and loving Jesus, the risk of being people who care about God’s mercy for the world too much. We know that all of that is very uncomfortable.

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For five weeks we have been immersed in the season of Lent. Immersed in this journey exploring the relationship of power and love.  We began with the powerful reminder of our mortality on Ash Wednesday. We hear the stories of temptation, lament, another year of grace, and prodigal love. We have kept from singing Alleluias, we have sung Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy, Lord have Mercy instead. And on this final Sunday before Palm Sunday, the deep symbol of death enters into our sanctuary. 

There is a pound of pure nard on Jesus feet. This perfume is one meant to keep the smell of death at bay. It is suppose to disguise the smell of a decaying body while it waits to be buried.  

Yet, so often the thing meant to distance and disguise, to protect us from reality comes to symbolize the very thing it is trying to hide. The perfume becomes the smell of death.

Jesus does not miss the symbol. Mary has anointed his feet with the smell of Good Friday, the day that we are slowly building to as we get closer to Holy Week. 

Jesus does not see waste, Jesus doesn’t need to distance himself from Mary. Jesus sees love, lavish, wild and untamed love. Jesus sees the future. “Leave her alone” he says, ”She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”. Mary is not anointing a king, or prophet. Mary is anointing a friend, teacher and son, who will be soon prepared for burial on Friday evening, and Jesus is reminding his disciples and friends one more time of all of this. The ministry, the parables, the miracles, the teaching in synagogues, the traveling the countryside. None of it is about the bottom line, none of it has been about being practical with money, none of it was about God staying distant and safe from creation. This moment is a foretaste of God’s imminent future.

When the time comes for Jesus’s body to be put into the ground, God will be accomplishing something new, something never seen. Something glimpsed as Lazarus stepped out of his tomb. God is accomplishing something new before the women even have the chance to anoint Jesus’ body on that Easter morning. God is about to turn the world upside, to bring new meaning to creation. Preparing for burial will no longer be preparing for death, but preparing for New Life. 

Here in this perfume filled room, where passionate and impulsive Mary has shown her love and thanks in her way, Jesus gives the whole world a new sign. God’s future is now about us. Jesus burial is about us. On Good Friday Jesus will be anointing the world with New Life. And God is bringing us all right into the middle of it, God crossing the bounds of our discomfort in order to love us.

What a contrast the walls and obstacles we put to protect ourselves, to our seeking to distance from God’s wild and untamed love. We try to protect ourselves by appealing to power, money, and supposed morality all because we are uncomfortable with God’s love. God risks it all, even death, to come close, to take on and wear our flesh, so that we will know love. 

Judas is uncomfortable with the perfume filled house, he wants to step back and distance himself. Make things about money, or poor people, or whatever else that is safe to feel. But Jesus stays present and near for Mary’s gesture of love, and then Jesus tells us that God is only coming closer. Coming in the familiar smells of Holy Week. 

Like any powerful perfume, there is no distancing ourselves from God’s love after this. Today God’s Love comes near to us in perfume that anoints Jesus feet, it will come on palms branches next week, it was waft from the table at Maundy Thursday. And it will comes so close on Good Friday, we will nail it to the cross to distance ourselves from it.

But after three days, God’s love will burst forth, uncontrolled, untamed, wild, passionate, extravagant. And it will be love that we can see, touch, taste and of course, love that we can smell.

Changing how we practice faith or practicing faith to change us – Pastor Thoughts

I  have always found the juxtaposition between Lent-Holy Week and Spring a little odd-feeling. 

Lent walks us through a somber and solemn season toward the darkest point in the Christian story. Meanwhile our season is changing as winter ends, snow melts, days get longer and, if we are lucky, the greens of spring start to appear. Mid-week evening prayer services in particular start out in dark evening settings but often by the end of Lent and because of the time change are taking place in full daylight. 

Now this is a particular feature of the Northern Hemisphere, as our Southern Hemisphere siblings experience Lent and Easter through fall into winter (and Christmas in the middle of summer!). For my seminary cross-cultural component, we travelled to visit CLWR projects in Peru. It was odd to arrive on January 1st – the middle of summer – to Christmas Lights, Santa displays and many, many nativity scenes and Feliz Navidad signs during the 12 days of Christmas.

The way that our local contexts impact our experience of faith can change how we practice being church together. Most church folks don’t really notice however because you have to move from church to church to see it. 

My first congregation in a rural farming community told me that the best time to have bible studies, meetings and other programs was after harvest in November and before seeding in April. 

With all the cottagers here in Manitoba, I know some churches have just cancelled summer Sunday worship altogether or tried mid-week services. 

And of course these past two years, the way we have practiced our faith has been deeply impacted by the pandemic and all the measures we took to keep one another safe. 

This week while reading an article about pandemic faithfulness, some of my own thoughts were clarified by this article in The Christian Century entitled ”My spouse is also my pastor (it is not about pastor-dynamics ). Here is an excerpt:

I began to realize this after almost a year of worshiping online, sometimes attentively chatting and liking and humming along, sometimes watching on my phone while Arsenal FC flickered on the big screen, sometimes listening while riding my bike. I wasn’t worshiping; I was going through the motions. I began to realize that my pastor was no longer a mediator but more of a proxy. As long as she was doing the work, I didn’t have to.

I wonder if this is one of the scars or fears or possibilities COVID has laid bare. Stripped of the presence of people, we are left to ask questions of what we believe and do and are beyond the simple act of showing up at a building on Sunday.

Because I pre-recorded worship for much of the past two years, I was also watching worship in my PJs with a coffee on Sunday mornings. Even though I was the one presiding and preaching, I could feel that watching worship was missing the essential element of being active and engaged. That person on the screen was doing my faith for me. 

(Don’t hear this knocking down online services. They were essential during the past two years and continue to be essential means of making church accessible in ways that we weren’t before). 

Without an ounce of judgement, I also know that as a pastor, becoming a proxy for faithfulness has been happening for years if not decades. I know that the line between helping people grow in faith and practicing faith on their behalf has been an ever blurring line. Reading the bible, praying, serving the community and telling people about God’s love has been shifting from something that pastors help people to do into things the pastor does for people. There are a lot of complicated reasons behind this, from the clericalization of the church to a world that doesn’t know Christianity as it once did. 

The result is that even as life-long church goers, it is becoming more and more difficult to make space and room for the practices of our faith to shape and form our lives. Because there is this other direction that things can and should go on this two-way street of faith. Yes, things like geography, history and culture, local traditions and community affect how the church goes about its day to day, season to season ministry. 

Yet there is also the way in which the rhythms and patterns of our Sunday to Sunday lives, our season to season journey of faith changes and shapes how we live the rest of our lives. Whether it is finding time to read the bible, pray or watch a devotional on YouTube each day. Whether it is giving something up for Lent. Whether it is joining a small group, signing up to give rides to church, volunteering to bake cookies for the Urban, or to be a sponsor for the splash program. Incorporating faith into our day to day lives takes on many shapes. 

But there is also the way in which our faith reminds us how God’s loves makes us worthy, God’s grace and mercy reconciles us, God’s Kingdom has room for us, the Body of Christ needs us. And that this changes how we are in the world with family, friends, at work, in the neighbourhood and beyond.

We are in a place of destabilization and deconstruction as individuals, as a society and as a church. As the structures that undergirded our lives are stripped away, we are left to start again building up our world and our lives. And that begins by understanding anew who we are – our identity. 

In Christ the foundation of our identity is assured – beloved children of God. Now figuring out what it means to be beloved children of God in this Northern Hemisphere, spring has sprung, zoomed out, extremely online, pandemic weary world as Winnipeggers (or people from wherever you are from) trying to live this life of faith together in 2022 and beyond. 

I am excited to find the answer to where God is leading us together.