Stranger Things and the Good Samaritan – Pastor Thoughts

And now for something completely different…

For the past couple of months or so, I have been watching the Netflix show Stranger Things. It first came out in 2017 and for some reason I didn’t get into it. I really should have been really excited to watch it as it checks a lot of boxes that match my interests. It is set in the mid-80s, the era of my childhood. It focuses on a group of friends who play Dungeons & Dragons together and do other nerdy things. There is a healthy dose of pre-teen and teen angst navigating the challenges of school, relationships and growing up. 

Behind all of this is the fact the there is a government science lab running secret tests that result in some pretty fantastical stuff involving monsters, portals to other dimensions, missing friends and danger that could end the whole world. Of course, the kids who play Dungeons & Dragons who understand the world of fantasy are the only ones who can really figure out what is going on. 

While I can see myself and my childhood in the kids in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, it is the adult characters that I identify with. I understand the sheer panic of Winona Ryder’s character, Joyce, when her son goes missing, and her determination to do anything to save him. 

But it is the Chief of Police Jim Hopper whom I cannot help but identify with. He is a big shabby grump with a tragic back story, who ends up caring about the kids of Hawkins and Joyce more than he ever thinks possible. I can see that without Courtenay, Oscar and Maeve I might have found myself living a similarly grumpy and shabby life. 

Now, what does this all have to do with church? Well, this week we are about to hear one of the most familiar parables of the bible, the Good Samaritan. A parable so common and whose image is so powerful that we encounter it frequently in culture, despite most biblical images falling out of the cultural awareness. (A metaphor that even Stranger things uses in on episode). 

Though the Good Samaritan is story that we often think is about doing good works, caring for our neighbours even when it doesn’t benefit us, it isn’t really about that at all. 

The Good Samaritan a parable Jesus uses to warn against the temptation to save or justify ourselves. To try and be the hero of our own stories, or take control of our lives and world and do it all alone. 

This is where Stranger Things meets the Bible. 

A common theme through the seasons of Stranger Things is that when one character thinks that they have to solve a problem, take on a mission alone or be the sole hero, they ultimately fail. It is always in team work that they succeed. 

This Sunday, this is precisely what we are going to explore. Now how the Good Samaritan is an example of how to care for our neighbour, but in fact why this parable is telling us the truth that we cannot do it alone, that we cannot save ourselves, that we cannot justify ourselves. 

The Good Samaritan is one of my favourite passages from the bible because when it is truly explored, it undoes our first thought about its meaning. And instead reveals to us what God is actually up to in our world and how God meets us right in the moments we are sure we don’t need God anymore. 

Looking forward to Sunday.

Thinking about a future church more than 1, 2, or 5 years from now – Pastor Thoughts

On Monday, the fourth of July I will be remembering an important anniversary in my life and my time in ministry. No, not American Independence Day. Only that I was ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) on July 4th, 2009. 

I was 26 at the time and went from being a full-time student my entire adult life to serving a congregation on my own as “The Pastor.” I was full of enough naive and youthful confidence that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. 

Still, my immediate experience was that my sense of the future church was much different than nearly everyone I was working with.   Most of the church leaders and most of my colleagues were old enough to be my parents or grandparents. It wasn’t long before it became clear that most people when imagining the church were thinking one or two or five years down the road, if they were thinking forward at all. Often times the church of people’s imagining was a church 10, 25 or 50 years prior. 

My first pension plan statement really brought home the difference for me. My expected retirement was in 2048 – 39 years from my starting date. 

Well, this year I am about one third of the way into those 39 years, and if you did the math based on my ordination date and age, you will know that there is a milestone birthday coming up for me. 

With my 13th anniversary of ordination on the horizon, I have to say that things aren’t much changed. I still spend a lot of my time speculating about what the church will look like between now and 2048. Not just because it is my retirement year. Now, I often think about the church of my children’s future, and what it will look like for them. 

I think a lot of people in church leadership these days, whether lay or ordained, might think I am still naive for imagining a church that exists that far into the future. For a lot of people, imagining a church that is NOT closed one, two, five or ten years from now is really hard. 

In fact, a lot of the big questions that loomed in the background in the past decade or two have been pushed to the forefront. Questions are on our minds more than ever about whether or not the church that many have known for the past 50, or 60 or 70 years can survive into the future.

Certainly it is on my mind. 

But let me say this, even though there are big questions demanding to be answered just ahead of us, I don’t think I have ever felt less concerned about the church’s survival than I am now in 2022. I think the church needs to change and the way we do ministry together needs continued adaptation, but I can picture the church of 2048 as clearly as I ever have been able to. 

Thirteen years ago I was often planning for the church of the future, and that hasn’t changed for me. 

As I have been musing about visioning for the past three weeks, I hope it has been clear that I think God is calling us into the future. A future already prepared by God, a future that will stretch and challenge us, a future that will make the church look even more different than it has since the 1950s. It will be hard, and it will be exciting. 

But most of all, I believe that God will carry us through. Even when we are sure that the end has come for us, or think that it isn’t worth the effort anymore, God will show us the way. 

In fact, if there is something I learned in 13 years of ministry, God is already showing us the way to the next thing. The question is whether we are ready to go along for the journey.  

Impatient Jesus and Ministry Not Going the Way We Expect

GOSPEL: Luke 9:51-62
… 57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video.

Maybe this is a familiar experience to you. You are part of a community or group and someone shows up to something with energy and passion, ready to kick start things with new ideas and vision. Maybe it is at church, on the hockey team, in the office, on the PTA, in the music group. They show up, try their new thing and it does’t go the way they expected. In fact, the community doesn’t receive this new person very well at all. So they pull pack, drop out and probably disappear as soon as they appeared. Maybe you have seen this person, maybe you have been this person. I was this person when I tried out coaching kids soccer for about 8 weeks in 2019. 

Today, as we hear from Luke’s Gospel, there is definitely something familiar about this story and experience…

Jesus is out in the world proclaiming the gospel and he sends some disciples ahead of him to make things ready in a Samaritan village. Samaritans and Judeans did not get along. 

So when the Judean disciples show up in Samaritan village to tell these backwater folks they are brining the real good news, it doesn’t go so well. 

Disappointed, the disciples return to Jesus asking if they should get revenge on these unreceptive folks… which Jesus doesn’t take too well either. 

But it is the next part of the story that might be the most interesting or the most convicting. As they walk away from their failure in the Samaritan village and rebuke from Jesus, some disciples in the group begin reflecting on their commitment to the cause. First one vows to follow despite the failure, to which Jesus warns that there might be more unreceptive folks ahead. The next says that they have to go home and care for an aging parent before following (the father is not dead yet, but likely aged). And then another says they have to say goodbye to family before they can follow… to family that is certainly begging or demanding them to stay home. 

As we hear this story of Jesus and his disciples today, we hear it as people who have lived through the same disappointment.

I can think back to a number of experiences in my own time in ministry: 

One summer I decided to try hosting campfires on a few Sunday Evenings through the summer months. The church I was serving at the time was not a congregation with a strong connection to camp or outdoor ministry and I thought that this might be a small way to introduce them to some of the things I loved about camp. So I invited folks to come out to our large green space behind the church on some select Sunday summer nights to sit around a large fire for some hot chocolate, s’mores, and camp songs. The first week there were 8 people that showed up. Smaller than I hoped, but a good start I thought. The next time there were 4. The third time 2… and then last one zero. 

The reverence and nostalgia for evening campfire that I had after 5 summers for working at Bible Camps, was simply not part of their experience and so sitting around a fire in mosquito season didn’t make a lot of sense… Mydream of singing Kumbyah around the fire weren’t to be.

And over the years there have been more disappointments: Bible studies, confirmation classes, fellowship events where things have not been as well received as I hoped for and not turned out as I imagined.

Still, I am hardly the only pastor who has a story of planning an event and folks not showing up as hoped for. And there are more stories of this happening to whole congregations, planing events to welcome the community only to be received tepidly. 

In fact there are many places in our lives and world where this same story has played out. Where we have jumped in with two feet, put ourselves into something while also hoping and expecting things to go a certain way, only to be disappointed when when they don’t… and then to quit altogether. Whether it is in the workplace, in the neighbourhood, in volunteer activities, even within families. And in the church, there are lot of congregations who are feeling like there have been more failures than successes lately, and many folks slipping away because it is too disappointing when expectations aren’t met.

This is an understandable human reaction. And yet, when Jesus responds to these disciples making excuses to quit, he does it pretty harshly: “Let the dead bury the dead” and “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Clearly, Jesus is frustrated with disciples who are throwing in the towel when things don’t go their way.

But why is Jesus frustrated. Does he think the response of the samaritan village should have been better? Or that maybe his followers should have done a better job? Is the solution to do more and do better instead of quitting…

I don’t think that is it. 

Rather, Jesus seems to get quite well that failure is part of the price of doing the work. Or rather, that doing the work in order to meet our expectations is not the point. 

He didn’t send his disciples to meet conversion quotas in that village. Jesus did NOT promise cheering hoards excited to finally hear from his followers. Jesus isn’t measuring his work by how many attended or put money in the plate. In fact, Jesus is often annoyed by the crowds, frustrated when they want more and more from him. 

For Jesus, the thing that he is looking for is not the result, but the action. That the gospel is preached, that God’s Kingdom comer near is proclaimed, that the coming of the Messiah is announced, the good news is told to God’s people. Whether it is to 1 or 10 or 100 or 1000… it does’t matter to Jesus. What matters is that God’s story of Good News is shared in the world. 

And however that happens does’t really matter. Jesus knows where he is headed. He knows that the cheering crowds will welcome him into Jerusalem on Sunday and call for his death by Friday. Jesus knows that his rag tag group of followers will be barely able to get it together to make sure the story of his resurrection goes beyond their fear and baggage and resistance. But the Easter story cannot be held back and makes it in to the world none the less and that is enough for God to do God’s work. That is enough for God to change everything. 

And 2000 years later, Jesus knows that it is the same for us. Our expectations and visions of how we think this ministry business ought to go get in our way more often than not. But for God that isn’t the point. 

God is at work in our failures and false starts. God is still present and up to something when our target audience doesn’t get what we are trying to do. God has plans in mind for us even when we put ourselves out there and things go sideways, or things don’t happen at all. God is still calling us to go ahead and make things ready even when we are ready to pack it in, when it feels like our best isn’t good enough, when it seems like the world doesn’t care, when we are looking for excuses to go home and stay home. God is still doing in and through us – in and through our community of faith, our meagre feeling gatherings for worship, study, and fellowship – the thing that God has always been doing. God is putting the story of Jesus out into the world. God meeting whomever will hear it, with the promise that the Messiah has come with good news, given for us. 

The point is that the story keeps getting told. The good news for us is that the good news told to folks who receive it tepidly, told to folks who only hear it once in a while, told to crowds that hardly seem worth the fuss… that is enough. That good news of the One crucified and Risen, the one who claims us in the waters of baptism, the one who feeds us with his own body and blood, the one who calls us to go out into world and tell the story again… that this one only needs the story to be told. That this one calls us to figure out how to tell the story and what the story does in the world after that is up to God. 

Jesus doesn’t call us to change the world, that God’s job. Jesus doesn’t call us to manifest crowds of faithful followers, Jesus simply calls us to follow. Jesus doesn’t expect that we will succeed at every turn, but instead warns us that we will likely fail… But that is the mission, that is the call. To tell story of God’s love for the world, and let God carry us the rest of the way… to places we would never imagine and never expect. 

Finally looking forward after 2 years of pandemic immediacy – Pastor Thoughts

At some point this winter, as we came out of the Omicron shutdown, I realized that I had been planning only from week to week for two years. For two years we had all been planning our lives only a few days, or a few weeks ahead. Last Christmas Eve was the harshest reminder of that, as we made plans that ended up being cancelled at the last minute.

When we began planning our family trip out west months ahead, I had to come to terms with imagining how something three months away might go. I had to force myself to be okay with looking into the future and believing that things wouldn’t be upended by a last minute pandemic development.

As it happens, planning for that trip was my gateway to thinking about the future again, both in my family life and at church.

Back in the “before times”(pre-pandemic), I had become a future planner. It took me a few years of ministry, but I eventually learned to plan for fall programs in late spring, to begin Christmas planning in September/October, to start thinking about Lent and Easter in Advent, to begin thinking about late spring and summer after Christmas.

But even more than that, our somewhat predictable “before times” world allowed us to plan years ahead. I have been writing my Council reports with my successor in ministry in mind, even as I began new calls in new congregations with no intention to going anywhere. When I was in the Interlake, the view of our future that we adopted for shared ministry was a one-year, two-year, five-year, 10-year and 25-year outlook. Our hope was to create a ministry that had long-term generational viability, not just extending the runway by a year or two.

This spring my one-year, two-year, five-year, 10-year, and 25-year thinking has resumed for the church. Even though most of my three-and-a-half years here have been focused on week-to-week decision making, I know that it is time to begin thinking about the longer term.

That doesn’t mean the pandemic is over or the next variant won’t send us into another season of adapting to restrictions. This doesn’t mean that unforeseen realities like the war in Ukraine, inflation and recession, the climate crisis or other things won’t sideswipe us.

But it does mean that we have a future to meet, and so it is time we start planning for it.

Our Congregational Council invited the Assistant to the Bishop from our Synod to come and meet with us, to help walk us through the first step of this future-planning conversation.

I have done these kinds of events before and I have led these kinds of events before. But the difference this time is that the world has changed and the challenges that we are facing have changed.

Over the next few weeks my hope is to reflect on some of the things that I took from that visioning session and to get us thinking about having the visioning conversation as a whole congregation.

We were reminded often that Assisstant to the Bishop wasn’t there to give us all the answers and that one conversation wouldn’t figure much out. But she did say that she hoped that, by the end of the day, we would know that our next step was to have more conversation about who we are as a community, about what and how we want to be together and about where God is calling us to go.

And in the end, that was what we needed more than any five-step, foolproof plan to make all of our problems go away.

I am ready to start planning for the future again. I hope you are, too. Because God is calling us to move into the next step, for us, for the Church and beyond.

Playing Church on different teams – Pastor Thoughts

When I was in grade school there were three things that filled my extra-curricular hours: church, music and sports. I never felt like I an odd kid, in fact I moved pretty easily through social groups from the band geeks, to the video game nerds, to the Young Life group (evangelical club at school), to the jocks. But I knew that I lived an odd extra-curricular life. I don’t recall anyone else playing in the band and playing varsity sports. 

It isn’t just that music and sports attract different sorts of people, they demand teamwork in very different ways. It can be challenging to go from after-school basketball practice to evening orchestra rehearsal.

I started playing in an orchestra in grade 4 and continued through to grade 12. I played in school band from grade 7 to grade 12, then found a semi-professional community band to join through my university years. I also played in a variety of church groups during that time. There is something incredible about playing music in ensembles like that, when all the parts fit seamlessly together to make a unified and beautiful sound, there is nothing like it.

In Junior High, I played basketball and then switched to football in Senior High. (I am sure no one is surprised I played football.)

As I said, sports and music teach teamwork in important ways. There is a similar beauty of a perfectly executed pass and goal to that perfectly in tune chord.

And though I managed to become a fairly accomplished cellist and euphonium player while also being a good basketball and football player, I didn’t really fit either mould. But on some level I usually played the part of musician better than that of athlete. In fact, I kind of played sports like I played music. Playing in orchestra and band teaches you how to intensely focus on what you are doing in the moment and how that fits in with every other part, all while staying in time and following the director.

It was a skill I could bring to sports. When the whistle blew, I could summon an intense focus and awareness of what I was doing and what my teammates were doing. I think that is what allowed me to play on the top basketball and football teams at my school. But it was also something that infuriated my coaches, because they didn’t get what I was doing.

During an orchestra rehearsal, if you play your part correctly, you might be able to get in a few minutes of cracking jokes with your seatmate while the director rehearses the 2nd violins again. As long as we were quiet enough, the director didn’t care. But goofing off between repetitions on the football field infuriates coaches to no end. There is a culture and expectation of being constantly engaged. And in football, there is an expectation of acting like an angry meathead; I mean bringing emotional intensity, during games.

“Angry meathead” was not my style. So while it was a very difficult decision, I choose to turn down a number of offers to play university football after high school. I think a part of me knew that I just didn’t have the temperament to keep playing football.

Besides, even while I dreamed of one day playing in the CFL during those years, it was usually in the context of being a football-playing pastor.

Now, what does this all have to do with church?

Well, coming together as a community of faith is also a kind of teamwork. There are times where a certain emotional intensity is required, as we care for and grieve with those who are suffering or mourning, as we rejoice and celebrate with those who are happy and joyous. There are other times when we need to be in tune with one another, all playing the same song–in worship, in serving our community and in discerning God’s call for us.

There are times when we are working toward a common goal over the long-term, like winning a championship or undertaking a large project.

There are other times when we are simply joining together to make a beautiful sound of praise in the moment, which disappears as quickly as it arrives, but transforms us forever.

And there are times when being together in community creates moments of beauty and awe, allowing us to see something more incredible than we could ever have imagined.

It is clear that there are many challenges in front of us, probably more challenges needing to be dealt with imminently than the Church has faced in a long time.

But as we move into the future, there is also hope to be found in working together. Recognizing that as we come together and strive for the common purpose of following God’s call, the things we can do are by no means small. Instead, the work has already begun and, despite all we have been through these past few years, God has been working through us. The ministry we have already been doing shows that, together and with God’s leading, we will make it through.

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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