Ep 11 Transitions in and out of Pandemic

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-xaq22-10320a1

With vaccines rolling out, summer on the way, and the hope and dreams of pandemic measures finally no longer being needed, the church and all of society is entering into a period of Transition. As quickly as this pandemic started, transitioning out might not so be easy. 

Join Pastor Courtenay and Pastor Erik for a conversation about pandemic transitions.

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)

You did not choose me but I chose you

John 15:9-17
…You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

As we push into this back half of the Easter season, we continue to be prepared by the risen Christ to be an Easter community. Now that we have lived through the Three Days, come to empty tomb, and been met by the risen Christ, God shaping and transforming us into a new creation, into a new family of faith, a community tasked with being Christ’s Body given for the the sake of the world. 

We continue hearing Jesus speak to his disciples from the moment of the last supper, words that began with the image of the vine and the branches last week. Today, Jesus is giving final instructions. Preparations for leaving. Jesus is giving his disciples and friends some last words to live by as a community. 

As the disciples eat their last meal with Jesus, and as he leaves this commandment to love one other, their whole world was changing. 

3 years prior, they had been called to this ministry by the wandering teacher and rabbi. They had followed him around Galilee as he preached, performed miracles, exercised demons and met with the crowds. But lately Jesus was clashing more and more with the religious authorities, he was talking about dying, he was describing a new future for his community of followers… one where they took on more responsibility. 

And now, now in Jerusalem, Jesus has come riding in like a king. He had been met by the cheering crowds but tensions were high. And the sentiment of the city was changing. The authorities seemed to be planing something.

This was a world of danger. This was a world of risk. And this community of Jesus’ followers was under threat. Their little community was in danger of crumbling. It would be easy to just abandon ship. It would be easy to run and hide. It would be easy to just look for themselves and run. 

This frightened and scared group of followers was who Jesus was talking to. All the talk of a command to love, the reminder that they were his friends, that they were chosen by God. Jesus was worried that his followers might crumble and fall apart under the tense pressure of Holy Week. And he was right. Judas betrayed him. The rest fell asleep in the garden, Peter denied him in the courtyard and the rest fled.

Certainly, we know what it is to live in a world surrounded by threats and danger. We know what it is to run the risk fo crumbling. 

With our communities trying to do what is best for our community and for our neighbours, we have been running the risk of crumbling. We have been in danger by forces outside of us and beyond our control. The reality of our own fragility,  the possibility that our gathering might cause sickness and death has been held up to us nearly daily for year. 

Still, long before the pandemic, churches have been facing the threat of decline, the loss of social pressures that helped folks just show up at our doors and become members. 

And we haven’t been very good at dealing with this squeeze and this pressure. We have often taken the same routes the disciples have. We have hidden ourselves away at times, we have pulled back from community when things were hard, we have even denied knowing Jesus when it become uncomfortable to admit that we did. 

And like Jesus’ disciples, we have started to crumble and fall apart. The church in our time has not always been a shining example of love for each other and the world that Jesus describes today. 

So with his disciples frightened and afraid, with the church of 2021 frightened and afraid, Jesus reminds all of his disciples what this community is about and what it means to belong to one another and to belong to God. 

As Jesus leaves these final instructions with the disciples, he isn’t scolding them for their fears and struggles of the present. Jesus is speaking about what is to come. Jesus is preparing them for a new future and a new reality. Abide in me as I have abided in you. Love each other as I have loved you. Bear good fruit, just as I have born fruit in you. Treat one another as friends, just as you are now my friends. 

And then Jesus speaks one brief and short sentence. Perhaps the most important of all the instructions:

You did not choose me, but I chose you.

Hear the words of Jesus again:

You did not choose me, but I chose you.  

Jesus reminds the disciples of this key and important truth of God’s mission in the world. God is the one doing the choosing. All along the way, as Peter tries to choose a different less dangerous path for Jesus. And Judas tries to get Jesus to show his true power by having Jesus arrested, hoping the Messiah will fight back and topple the Roman rule. As the temple authorities, Romans and the crowds try to gain power and control by putting Jesus, and therefore God, to death on the cross. Jesus chooses a different path. God chooses to face sin and death head on. And God chooses life. God chooses now. 

Just like the disciples, we are tempted to crumble apart in the face of adversity. We are temped  look out only for ourselves, to pull back from our sibling in Christ to protect ourselves.

Yet, in the midst of the dangers around us, in the midst of the struggles we face, the uncertainty we face, Jesus is calling us to remember who are. To remember who God has named us to be. 

Jesus is reminding us that God has chosen us, we did not choose God. God has chosen us to be an Easter people. People claimed and gathered from the foot of the cross and taken to the empty tomb. People who might want to hide away, but to whom Jesus has appeared and given us peace. 

Jesus has chosen us even in locked away homes, even when we cannot see one another face to face, Jesus has binds us together even with online worship, zoom gatherings, text messages and phone calls. Jesus makes us one body, though scattered through the shared word of Good News that we hear together week after week. 

It might feel like it is all we can do but crumble in face of a third wave, more lockdowns and a promises end of the pandemic that just doesn’t seem to be getting closer. But Jesus’ disciples have been here before, they have faced all but certain ends to their community….

And the risen Christ has carried them through. The risen Christ has called them from their hiding places, locked doors and graves. This God of New Life that knows and claims us, binds back together in love. Not a commandment to follow, but a naming of the thing that holds us together. God’s love for us, and our love for each other. 

Today, God reminds us again, when we most need to hear it: You did not choose me, but I chose you.

Abiding in the Branches

GOSPEL: John 15:1-8
Jesus said: 1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

Abide in me as I abide in you.

Here we are into month 14 of this global and pandemic, while it feels like we are in much the same place that we found ourselves one year ago, so much has taken place during this past year. 

This Easter season has again been a journey begun in Lent, Lent 2020 that is. And when we gathered at the foot of cross on Good Friday and then again the empty tomb on Easter morning with the women who were afraid, our journey barely paused for moment. 

These 14 months have dragged us through much, through world changing times, even as so much of it has been about staying in place and keeping to ourselves. 

In this back half of our second pandemic Easter, Jesus lays out this metaphor of the vine and branches for us. And today, we need as much as ever to hear Jesus’ promise again… the invitation to Abide. 

To stop, to gather ourselves, to lay aside our fretting and worrying, to take a breathe and simply abide.

Abide in me as I abide in you.

This 1st century metaphor of a grape vine may be an image mostly lost on our 21st century ears. While there are certainly many green thumbs out there, grape vines are fairly uncommon in wintery Manitoba. I know because I remember them being uncommon in wintery Edmonton where I grew up. I know because many summers growing up, the back walls of my parent’s house bore the unusual sight of heavy, leafy, green vines growing up makeshift trellises, tended to by my father. Dutifully grown, and pruned each spring and summer. Harvested and picked clean each fall. Carefully wrapped and buried each winter only to be resurrected each spring. 

So unusual were the grapes, that my kindergarten class took a walking field trip to our house to see them. So did other gardeners come from time to time, interested in seeing these uncommon grape vines. 

Now the thing that almost all the first century folks listening to Jesus would have known about grape vines is that they are complicated plant systems. The vines twist and tangle up around grape trellises to find sunlight and air. The branches grow big leaves which protect the fruit from the sun and the rain. Other branches grow to make structure and support space for the fruit to the grow in sheltered areas between vines and branches. The grapes grow in luscious bunches when they find the combination of supported vine, protected shade and space. 

The vine, the support systems, the branches, the leaves all work together in symbiotic harmony to produce fruit. Unlike apples or some other fruit bearing trees and bushes that just seem to grow something no matter the conditions, grape vines need attention and care, they need all the parts of the plant working together towards the common purpose of growing fruit. 

And the branches that don’t work in the system need to be pruned back, even sometimes the branches that do work need to be cut back in order to keep the fruit growing. 

And it is this image of the complicated, fragile plant system that Jesus choose to describe the community of the church. If Jesus were Canadian he would describe a well coached hockey team, with all team members working toward the common goal… the players who weren’t getting cut from the team or traded away. 

The branch who does not abide withers away. 

Abide in me as I abide in you.

Whether it is a withering branch, a hockey player cut from a team, or a church members feeling disconnected from church community… it can feel a little rough to consider being cast out from a community from which we think we should belong. 

A branch withering on its own maybe hits a little too close to home these days. We get what it means to feel like we are withering way having cut pruned from the other branches and vine that we thought we belonged to. 

And on the other hand, we also know of the branches who will not abide. Those who insist on striking out on their own, those who will not abide working in harmony with the community, those who would rather be cut off than be beholden to system working together for the common good. 

Either way the effect is much the same, being cut off from community is life draining. Both for the branch who cannot abide or will not abide, but also for the system as it must heal and regrow to compensate for the loss. 

Abide in me as I abide in you.

And so it feels almost harsh that Jesus seems to suggest that not abiding is cause to get cut off by the vinegrower. Yet, Jesus is not being prescriptive, Jesus is not suggesting condemnation for those who aren’t getting along. 

Jesus is describing what happens to the branch that leaves the plant system. The branch will not abide, so the branch withers and then the branch is thrown into the fire and burned. Immediately our minds turn to the medieval visions of hellfire and brimstone. 

And yet to Jesus’ ancient hearers, hell would not be the place that they would be thinking of. 

Instead, they would imagine the cleansing fire pit of agricultural land. The place where the pruned branches, the branches who will not abide are reclaimed. Reclaimed, found again,  and brought back into the fold, into the plant system. 

These burned up branches are reclaimed and turned into new life, sprinkled as fertilizer onto gardens and vineyards, or added to compost as key sources of nutrients. 

Even the branches who will not abide, the branches that are burned up are still found and reclaimed by the vinegrower and put the purposes of new life. 

The withered branches are not left or abandoned or punished by the vinegrower, but instead are brought back into new life. 

And this complicated system of vines, of branches for leaves, branches for support and branches for fruit, are joined by branches for fertilizer ash. In the vines and branches, the community of the church there is room for all, for all kinds of gifts and skills to join in the work of producing fruit for the sake of the world, for all kinds of people who work in the midst of community and those who have trouble abiding. God vine grower pursues them all and finds a places for in the community that produces life. 

This is good news for us who are withering away these days. Those who of us who are having trouble abiding alone. Those of us who have forgotten how to live in systems and communities tasked with working for new life, for life for the sake of the world. 

That even when life feels as though it is draining from our bodies, God is the One seeking us out, finding and reclaiming us for the sake of the kingdom, putting back into the business of growing into new life. 

As we enter into yet another withering lockdown, as we contemplate our ever shifting and uncertain future, as we imagine what comes next in this topsy, turvey world, as the life feels as though it slowly draining away from us… God is busy at work, pruning, watering, tending and finding a place for us to grow into new life. 

God is making us ready to grow into new life when the time comes, making us ready for life in community, for being part of a system of vines, branches, leaves and fruit… and fertilizer once again. God is preparing us for life in together in the church, for being part of a worshipping, baptizing, word proclaiming, meal gathering, learning, growing, music making, praying, serving, community of faith once again… soon. 

But today, as we wait and wonder for God’s future… Jesus says:

Abide in me as I abide in you.

Christ is Risen – Do NOt Be Afraid!

Mark 16:1-8
But he said to them, “Do not be afraid; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

“And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

This is not the ending of the story that we usually tell. In fact, nothing about the stories from the Gospel of Mark is usual. The Gospel of Mark has never done things the way we expect. Of all the Gospels, Mark is the shortest and perhaps the strangest, expecting things of us, expecting that we will put the pieces together and be moved to a deeper discipleship. 

Mark’s Easter story is perhaps the strangest of all. In the 3 other gospels, we normally hear about Jesus appearing to the women and disciples at the empty tomb. Jesus speaks with Mary in the Gospel of John. He bring greetings to all the women in the Gospel of Matthew. In Luke, Jesus meets two of his disciples on the road of Emmaus. 

But in Mark there is none of that. And it makes us uncomfortable. And not just us today, but Christians for centuries have been so uncomfortable with Mark’s ending, that they added to it. Hundreds of years later, shorter and longer endings to the Gospel of Mark were added just to try and wrap things up. 

So what is it about the Gospel of Mark and his ending that doesn’t sit well with us?

“And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Failure. 

Easter isn’t suppose to be a story of failure. The women hear the good news, they are given clear instructions to tell people about Jesus being risen, and they tell no one. 

In fact, this is the story all the way through the Gospel of Mark. The disciples, the ones who are supposed to know and understand who Jesus is what he is about never do. And the people who do know are unreliable. It is unclean spirits and demons who recognize Jesus as God’s son. It is the blind man who never actually sees Jesus who knows he has been healed by the Messiah. All the way through the gospel of Mark, not a single reliable soul figures it out. 

Last Easter, as we gathered online for the first time, we toned down our celebration for the sake of our neighbour. And though the world seemed scary, and things so unusual and different, we held to the hope that things would “go back to normal” soon. 

And yet, a year later, here we are. And it can feel like there has been a failure along the way. Failure to do the things we needed to do as a society make things safe, or perhaps a failure to stand up for what many are claiming is our right to gather for worship. Or maybe we have failed our ancestors and failed our children by not being able to gather for the celebration of the resurrection that our forebears in faith have done for generations, that we hope our descendants in faith will continue to do for generations to come. 

So maybe Mark and his story of an Easter failure fits us and our circumstances  well this Easter. 

But here is the thing, Mark knows that we know that it didn’t end with the women being afraid. We all know the story of the resurrection. We are reading it in Mark’s gospel. We proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead every Sunday we worship, just as Christians all over the world have been doing so for 2000 years!

So Mark expects that we can figure out that things didn’t end with the women running from the tomb afraid… but Mark also expects that we see our part in the story too, in the command to go and tell the world of the resurrection. Though this news of the resurrection is scary, though the world that we are called to speak it to is scary, though our circumstances for preaching the gospel are less than ideal. We are called to be ones who are not afraid to speak. 

It is a big calling. 

Because it was only on Good Friday that we stood below the cross and we proclaimed that this instrument of torture and violence, of humiliation and death is God’s transformed tool of life. 

Because now today at the empty tomb with the women who are too afraid to say anything,  we are just as afraid as they were. Afraid to announce this news to world. Afraid of that no one will believe our incredible, unbelievable story.

But this Easter morning and Easter story reminds us something else more than our fear and failure. 

We are reminded that it is always in our fears and failures that Christ meets us. It is when we are too weak, too afraid, too focused on ourselves, when we are too much intent on our sin, on our selfishness, that Christ comes and meets us. It is when we feel alone and powerless, when things seem impossible for this story to get out there and be heard.

There is no Easter without sin and death, there is no resurrection without humanity’s greatest failure, without our trying to be God in God’s place.

And in the midst of our failures, big and small, the Risen Christ meets us. The Risen Christ reveals himself to us and brings us into the new reality of a world where sin and death are no longer the end. Yet still, our fear overcomes us and this new world that God is creating is too much for us. And like the women at the tomb we are too afraid to speak, too afraid to act, too afraid even look at how things are different. 

“Do not be afraid, you are are looking for Jesus for Nazareth, who was crucified. Has has been raised.”

Do not be afraid. 

Across the old and new testament, these words always precede good news. 

Do not be afraid. 

And even still the good news can be terrifying. 

We stand before an empty tomb today, on this day of the Resurrection. And even when everything is supposed to be perfect, and when death is finally defeated, and Christ is raised from the dead. We are reminded that we still fail. We are reminded that we are still imperfect, sinful and selfish people who are frozen in the face of God’s amazing work in our world. 

And we are also reminded again, that it is in our frozen failure that we are met by the Risen Christ. 

The Risen Christ who has overcome the cross. 

The Risen Christ who has conquered death. 

The Risen Christ who has entered in our lives, our joys and our sorrows and has made our life his own. 

The Risen Christ who has shown us a new reality, where death is no longer the end, where we are no longer defined by our failures, and where our sin no longer has control of us. 

We are met today by the The Risen Christ and we are shown that God’s love for us is alive and there is no place we can go to escape it, no place where God’s love cannot reach us, and no limits on God’s love to keep binding us to the Body of Christ, the family in faith entrusted with this good news.

Even when are afraid to speak a word to anyone,  even when it feels like there is no one to speak this good news to, the Risen Christ meets us with the words “Do not be afraid!”

Behind-the-Scenes-Philip and the Greeks who Want to See Jesus

John 12:20-33
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…

Lent has been long and hard on us this year. Lent has been a long and hard year. Usually, this 5 week season of preparation for Holy Week is about opening us up to Jesus’ work in the world, helping us to see just where God is doing important work in our world. Instead of that, this year has felt like stumbling through the wilderness, learning to trust that God is leading us somewhere, even if we cannot see the way. 

We began Lent as Jesus showed us that wilderness is not the scary place we imagine, but where God meets God’s people. We continued as Peter rebuked Jesus for talking about death, and we were shown how our fears get in the way of seeing God’s work. We then watched as Jesus overturned tables in the temple, accusing people of selling God and we were shown that our own tables have been turned right side up. 

And last week, Jesus reminded us that the familiar verse of John 3:16 is not exactly the verse we hope to use to convert those around us, but instead comes in the context of a reminder of how we are condemned already… and it is in our dark world that God shines a light, even if that light stings a little. 

As Lent concludes this week, the disciple Philip is milling about the busy religious marketplace of Jerusalem. This scene actually comes after the triumphant entry, where Jesus rides into town on a Donkey. 

Unlike Peter, James and John, Philip is not a leader among the disciples. He is more of a background kind of guy. Peter is the one who speaks up as the leader of the group, even if he is putting his foot in his mouth half of the time. James and John are vying to be Jesus’ second in command. The three got to go up the mountain with Jesus. But Philip is behind the scenes. While Jesus is teaching the masses, Philip is finding the boy with 5 small loves and 2 fish to feed the 5000. Today, Philip is away from the action, from the crowds surrounding Jesus. 

And this is where some Greek Jews come to him. They are from far away. They have come to the Holy city for passover… perhaps this will be their only chance in a lifetime to be in Jerusalem for the festival. As foreigners, they are unfamiliar with the city, but they have probably heard about this rabbi and teacher who rode into town like a King.”Sir, we wish to see Jesus” they ask. 

Philip, uncertain, goes to Andrew. Together, they leave the Greeks behind to go and talk to Jesus, who gives them a long speech.

If Philip were a church member today, he would be an usher or greeter. He would be one of those volunteers who likes behind-the-scenes work. Peter, James and John might be up front preaching, reading the lessons, conducting the choir, or on church council. Philip would be in early to make coffee, he would probably have picked up some doughnuts for a snack after church. While others are up front leading or taking charge, Philip was the disciple looking for a place to eat or sleep, he is the one making sure that people are looked after and that everyone has what they need. 

But when the Greeks come looking for Jesus, when that visitor walks in the door of the church, he knows how to pass out a bulletin or a cup of coffee… but he isn’t so sure about taking people to meet Jesus. 

If I had to guess, it would seem that many church members are Philips. Faithful people diligently working behind the scenes, caring for each other.

And up until a year ago, we knew how to care for each other. We had tools and habits that we could rely on to maintain community. The chit chat with a sibling in Christ while setting up communion or washing coffee dishes. The conversations in the narthex following worship, or before choir practice, or in the parking lot after a committee meeting. 

And like Philip, the faithful and diligent behind-the-scenes disciple, we find ourselves out of our normal context. Our usual habits and tools for building and caring for community have been ripped away from us. Instead we have been forced to build and maintain community in the comments section of a Facebook video, and over sometimes awkward zoom calls “Gladys, I can’t hear you, you are on mute!”

And we have had to learn to be intentional about reaching out with phone calls and emails and check-ins. We have had to find new ways to be together and collaborate as community. Finding that nice spot in a house to film yourself doing a reading, singing hymns into your iPhone hoping that it can all be mixed together for Sunday, delivering sermon packages and hymnals, teaching an elder relative in faith how to zoom, sharing the peace with text messages and praying over the phone. 

And even as we have been worshipping from home, we have also been revealed to the world in perhaps uncomfortable ways with our worship being on social media, viewable by people across the world. 

Just when our old familiar tools and habits for being church have been ripped away, we have been joined by folks coming to us, wishing to see Jesus in our midst. 

Like Philip, every instinct tells us to go to Andrew instead. In the before time, we might have pointed a visitor asking for Jesus to the bathrooms, showed them how to use a hymnal, waved the pastor over hoping to make quick exit. These days, being out in the open and in the public space of social media might make us uncomfortable or uncertain about what to do when people we don’t know “show up” for worship. 

Before this past year it was easy for us to forget why people walk through church doors in the first place. To forget why we keep coming back again and again. To forget that the volunteer roles we sign up for, the jobs we agree to do, the relationships that become so important to us, the community we form and become a part of are not the things that make us the church.

But this past year has revealed to us a truth more important than ever. That even with all those things that seemed to make a community, those relationships and connections, those habits and tools, those jobs and behind the scenes things that bonded us together… even with all of those things mostly taken away, here we still are still gathering together, still a community of faith.

This past year has revealed the thing that binds us together… the One who binds us together, the One at the centre of the shared faith we confess… the one who has been dragging us through this long season of wilderness. The one that those Greek Jews asked Philip to see. 

When the always helpful Philip goes to Andrew, and the two go to Jesus not sure what to do with these foreigners… 

The Greeks are looking for the King who rode into Jerusalem. 

Yet, Jesus takes their question and steers it in a new direction. 

Jesus says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

God is busy drawing all people. All nations. All kinds, young and old, new and familiar, those leading up front and those behind the scenes… God is drawing all of us to the Christ who is lifted up on the cross. God is the ultimate reason that we are all here regular or visitor, seeking and searching or committed and devoted. 

God is gathering us together, and God who is we are ultimately looking for when we show up at church. God is who makes the church the church. God is who finds us, even as we are uncertain at times with what to do with that question, “We wish to see Jesus”

Today, Philip, even though he is not sure how to answer the Greeks, is still trying to be a faithful disciple and follower of Jesus. 

And Jesus recognizes that too. 

Jesus knows that even when our communities are thrown into turmoil and we have to learn completely new ways of being a community and gather using unfamiliar means and struggle with what to with when people come to us ask “We wish to see Jesus,”… Jesus knows that even with all that we are still trying to be faithful. 

And so God keeps gathering us. Gathering us around the word, proclaimed and shared in the most surprising of ways.  

God works with our faithfulness as it is. And from there, God draws us all to the cross. To the place where Christ will be crucified and will die.  

And yet also the place where death will drag us through the wilderness to the empty tomb. To the place where God’s faithfulness is fully revealed, to the reason that we continue to be and gather as community despite all odds.  To the place where God’s faithfulness is on full display when Jesus is lifted up, drawing us all to God’s love. 

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

%d bloggers like this: