Tag Archives: lent

How Churches Confuse the Method for the Mission

Who remembers Kodak? Who remembers taking photos with Kodak film? Does anyone know what happened to the Kodak company in 2012? Who still takes photos with film cameras?

In a recent blog post, Pastor and Blogger Carey Nieuwhof compares Kodak and the church. He suggests that Kodak made a fundamental mistake in understanding their company’s mission.

In many ways,” He writes, “Kodak sabotaged its future by refusing to respond to the massive changes in culture. 

Kodak bet too much of its future on the past (film photography). It lost.

He goes on:

Imagine what might have happened if someone at Kodak had asked:

Are we in the film business, or the photography business?

If Kodak was in the film business, the future would be dim.

But if Kodak had decided it was in the photography business, the future could have been very different.

Instead, Facebook decided it was in the photography business when it bought Instagram. And Apple decided it was in the photography business when it developed the iPhone.”

“Too many leaders mix up method and mission. That’s one of the things that happened to Kodak [and that’s happening in journalism].

It’s also an epidemic in the church world.

This mistake is so easy to make in leadership.

A method is a current approach that helps you accomplish the mission. It’s how you do what you do.

The mission is why you exist.

The problem in most churches is people (including leaders) get very fond of their methods.

When Carey Nieuwhof talks about METHODS, what kind of things do you think he is talking about in the church? – PAUSE –

I suspect that there are a lot of examples he is thinking about, here are a few:

1. When I was is my first congregation, I had a member who was adamant that we have a Sunday School program – even though there were no Sunday School aged children attending the church.

The method of Sunday School had become more important than the mission to help people grow in faith.

2. This past week as pastors and other leaders gathered with our Bishop  to talk about worship, Carey Nieuwhof’s article came up in terms of the methods of worship over the mission of worship.

Churches will devout tremendous resources to particular methods of worship: contemporary or traditional, organs or praise bands, music before 1950 and music after, what’s considered to be more formal, or liturgical, verses what is more casual in worship styles – the list goes on.

The method – or preferred style – of worship has become more important than mission of proclaiming the gospel in the worshipping assembly.

3. Or the ultimate example, congregations focussing on attendance and budgets in order to keep their doors open – and failing to see that buildings and budgets are just methods.

The mission is – and has always been – helping others grow in their relationship to Jesus.

Churches, along with Kodak, are not immune from mistaking the method for the mission.

So at this point, you might be wondering what does all this method and mission talk have to do with the temptation of Jesus?

The devil, like Kodak and many congregations, has mistaken Jesus’ methods for Jesus’ mission. As the devil happens along Jesus wandering and fasting in the wilderness, he forgets what he has likely just heard and witnessed as Jesus was baptized and what we heard repeated again on Transfiguration Sunday. The devil has forgotten that the Father has just declared Jesus the Son, the devil has forgotten that the Father and Son are one God.

And having forgotten that, the devil tries to tempt Jesus with power and its misuse. The devil mistakes God’s mission to be one of power. The devil sees only the method of the incarnation – God becoming flesh. And the only purpose for God coming into the world that the devil can imagine is power.

Turn rocks into bread the devil urges – show God-like power over creation.

The devil tries again and offers that Jesus could rule over nations and peoples – show God-like power over humanity.

And the most desperate temptation, the devil dares Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple – as if forcing God to act and save Jesus shows God-like power.

With each successive temptation, the devil is trying to get Jesus to use his power, the power of an incarnate God. And the devil gets more desperate with each offer, trying to get Jesus to do something with all that power. The devil has mistaken the method – God coming to creation in flesh – for the mission.

The mission that Jesus reminds the devil, that Jesus reminds us of, each time he responds:

One does not live by bread alone… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him.

Do not put the Lord your God to test.

These are not the responses of a noble pious man resisting temptation in front of the devil. Jesus isn’t reciting bible verses for his own benefit.  We cannot split apart the trinity, split apart Father and Son when it feels convenient. When Jesus speaks, it is God speaking.

One does not live by bread alone, Jesus says, for it is I who gives you life.

Worship the Lord your God, Jesus says, for it is I who will gives you a place in this world.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test, Jesus says, for I have not come to show my power, but to show my love for all creation.

The method, God becoming flesh, is only to serve the mission.

And the mission is God’s deep and abiding love for the world. For each and everyone of us. 

And it is not just the devil who needs this reminder. We need it too. As individuals, and as communities. We need to be reminded that we exist in service of God’s mission. That all the things we do are in service of God’s mission. Whether it is Sunday School, or bible study or individual study and prayer, we serve God’s mission of growing in faith. Whether it is with organs or rock bands, old hymns or new songs, formal reverent liturgies or casual intimate gatherings we serve the mission of announcing God’s love.  Whether it is with grand buildings and large staffs, or rented space and volunteers, we serve God’s mission by being the places where forgiveness and mercy are offered. Where sinners are washed with Holy Baths. Where the hungry are fed with bread and wine. Where the dying are given words that breathe into us new, and eternal, life.

God’s mission is front and center today on this first Sunday in Lent, as Jesus refocuses us back to the heart of the issue.  And it’s no mistake that the story of the temptation of Jesus is always told on the first Sunday of Lent. It focuses us on the heart of the issue between God and us. And from now until Easter we are headed towards the core of the conflict, between method and mission, a conflict between power and love. Our desire for power, and God’s desire for love.

And as the devil tries to tempt Jesus, he doesn’t know where Jesus is headed. But we know how the conflict ends. We know the end of the story. Humanity’s desire for power leads to death on a cross on Good Friday. God’s desire for love leads to life and an empty tomb.

And the same story plays out here among us. Our desire might be to control the methods, to make how we do church the most important, but God’s desire is for the mission, to make the “why” the most important. Lest we forget that the mission comes before the method, God has a habit of stripping us of our methods. This Lent, God is calling us to look at whether our focus is on the methods we use, or on God’s mission for the church and us. God is leading us into the wilderness, calling us to leave our attachment to our favourite methods behind, challenging our assumptions  about power and then God is reminding of us what is most important.

Like Kodak who thought they were a film company rather than a photography company, the church too has a habit of mixing up the method for mission.

But unlike Kodak, God does not let us stay mixed up for long. Instead, God comes into our world and reminds us that isn’t about methods, not about the programs we have nor music or worship styles, nor buildings nor budgets.

The mission is God’s love. Everything else comes second. 


(*Thanks to my wife, Courtenay, for co-writing this sermon with me)

The Day After Jesus Cleared the Temple – The reality of church decline

John 2:13-22

He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (Read the whole passage here). 

Jesus has come a long way from the wilderness to here. We began Lent as Jesus went for 40 days in wilderness to do what God has always done… to search for God’s people in the desert. But this time we weren’t there. So Jesus returned to civilization to begin his preaching and teaching. Last week, Jesus began preparing his disciples for what was to come – death and resurrection. And Peter would have none of it. Peter’s fears got in the way of seeing what God was up to.

Today, Jesus strikes out for a place very opposite of the wilderness. Jesus heads straight to the heart of Jerusalem society – the temple, God’s dwelling place, God’s house. The temple was a bustling place of business. There were pilgrims coming and going from all over Jerusalem. Pharisees debating religious law. Priests performing sacrifices. And lots of people selling things. Selling animals for sacrifice. Kosher food and clothes. Selling whatever a religious person might need in order to access the temple appropriately.

For most Jews the temple was the experience of a lifetime. It was something that took time and money, and was not easily afforded. The temple was a place for rich folks to come and go from, for those in the middle to visit occasionally, and for those on the bottom, the poor had no hope of ever getting the chance to make it into the temple.

But it had not always been so. All the rules about sacrifice and ritual that the temple was based on were not about keeping people out when they were first given to the people of Israel. Instead, they were meant as means to talk about God in a communal and shared way. They were meant to facilitate the communal practices of worship and prayer. They were meant to make it easier for everyone to access God’s love and God’s forgiveness of sins. As people tried harder and harder to follow the letter of the law, to be faithful Jews, they created more and more barriers to God, rather than making access easier.

By the time Jesus comes to the temple, the cost and process for even getting into the temple, an enormous building surrounded by huge imposing walls meant to protect the holy of holies, was so cumbersome that only the rich and privileged had real ease of access.

It is not surprising that Jesus seems to lose his cool. Jesus running around with a whip, overturning tables and yelling is not the Jesus we are used to. Jesus declares, “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace”. These words are more profound than we imagine. In greek ,the word for household is oikos and from that comes the word oikonomos or in english: economy. Jesus’s words could be heard this way:

Stop making my father’s economy a marketplace

What had begun as a means for the people of Israel to access God, was now a money making machine. It was a place for entrepreneurship, for making money. And the exclusive product being sold was God.

So now… this is usually the point in the sermon where we would look at the parallels between story and us. And we don’t have to look very far in Christendom to see where God is being bought and sold. We can look to the prosperity preachers on Sunday morning TV, to the Christian book stores that promise to make our spiritual life grow, or places like FOX news who are using quasi-Christian beliefs to boost ratings.

But if we really look around ourselves here, or as Lutherans in Canada and the US, or as mainline Christians over all… I think we can safely say that Jesus wouldn’t have much cause to show up with a whip to overturn our tables.

If we are selling God here… we are not doing it very well.

We look a lot more like the day after Jesus has come through and upset the order of things. Now let’s not kid ourselves, the Jerusalem temple was certainly back to business as usual the day after Jesus overturned those tables. But the Jerusalem temple which had been built and rebuilt over the course of a 1000 years, would be destroyed for good within 40 years by the very same Romans that the Jews would soon be demanding to kill Jesus.

And after the Romans razed the temple for the last time, the Jewish people had to completely change the way they did religion.

Like the Jews after the destruction of the temple, our marketplace moment has come and gone. We were once the only show in town. We were once the centres of communities all over. Our religious leaders could phone prime ministers directly. Governments have mandated holidays on our holy-days. Public schools forced children to pray our prayers and read our holy books. On Sundays everything was closed and people couldn’t do anything but come to us. Lutherans, Anglicans and Catholics, we were planting churches and starting congregations left and right 40, 50, 60 years ago. We were the ones who controlled access to God.

In order to have people walk in our doors, all we had to do was build a building and raise the money to call a pastor. And Sunday Schools were bursting, confirmation classes full, choirs robust, Sunday worship was bustling.

Yet, like the people of the Jerusalem temple we began to lose sight of what our purpose was. In Jerusalem, providing access to God’s love and forgiveness was transformed into making the right sacrifices, being ritually clean and worshipping only in God’s holy temple. Forgiveness became a way to sell sacrificial animals, to earn money for maintaining the temple, to bring people from all over to Jerusalem.

For us, providing a place for the Body of Christ to hear the word and receive the sacraments has been transformed into maintaining structures and budgets. Sermons and worship have become selling features to pay for buildings and to fill offering plates. We have flipped the functions of our building and budgets with gathering for word and sacrament. Instead of buildings and budgets being tools that allow our faith communities to gather to hear God’s word, to be baptized and receive communion;  attractive, flashy worship becomes a tool we use to keep our budgets viable and buildings open.

But somewhere along in the past few years, Jesus showed up and declared,

Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

And like the temple authorities who protest, we have lost sight of what our buildings and budgets are for in the first place.

Yet, Jesus has a curious answer for us.

“Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up”

Jesus is not talking about the physical structure. Jesus is not going to be found in the walls here. Jesus is not hiding in our wallets waiting to be put into offering plates.

Jesus is reminding us who builds this church in the first place. Jesus reminds us whose faithfulness is building the Body of Christ.

Hint: it is not our faithfulness.

God is the one who is providing the means for forgiveness. God is the one who comes to us in word and sacrament. God’s faithfulness is the purpose of our gathering together, week after week. Buildings, temple walls, balanced budgets, ritually purified coins, programs that bring the people in, animal sacrifices… these are not the things that show us where God is.

God is in the person, the flesh of Jesus who comes and meets us in our misguided attempts to be faithful.

God is the One we meet in the Word, in the words of faith proclaimed here, over and over. Words like forgiven, mercy, grace. Like Gospel, baptism, communion. Like peace, love and welcome.

God is the One that we feel and encounter in water, bread and wine. Who we touch as we embrace our brothers and sisters in faith. Who we hear with words of eternal life, with words just for us.

Jesus is reminding that God can raise up the body of Christ without bricks or mortar, without budgets and programs. God can build churches just with people, with a book, with bread and a cup. None of us can do that, no matter how strong our faith. 

As faithful as we try to be by building holy places for people to meet God, as upside down as get things as we try to sell God to pay for our holy buildings, Jesus is coming out of the wilderness to meet us right in the heart of our marketplaces. Jesus is coming right to the middle of our bustling temples.

And Jesus, for a a while now, has been relieving us of the burdens of buildings and budgets. Jesus has been overturning our tables and whipping us back into shape. And it is Jesus that shows us that God’s temple, God’s church is not buildings and budgets, but people, the Body of Christ.

Jesus shows us that our overturned tables have not been turned upside down, but instead Jesus has turned them and us…

Right side up.

The Wilderness is Not what We Think

Mark 1:9-15

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. (Read the whole passage here.)

Sermon

We have come a long way from the mountain of Transfiguration. Last week, Jesus stood on the mountain with Peter, James and John, and was changed into dazzling white. Moses and Elijah showed up and God spoke to all gathered there. Yet, by Wednesday, we had come down from that mountain, and we were faced with our own sin, our brokenness and our mortality on Ash Wednesday. And as we begin Lent, Jesus is tossed into the wilderness. 

This pattern of Transfiguration to Ashes to Wilderness is one that we repeat each year as we move from the season after Epiphany into Lent. On the first Sunday of Lent of each year we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which sets the tone for our Lenten journey. The story of Jesus’ temptation represents both the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but also is the first step of Jesus’ path to the cross.

Yet, in the year of the Gospel of Mark, the story seems to lack key elements. In fact, the temptation part of the story is obscured by two stories that we have already heard in the past few weeks. In January, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism and we heard the story of Jesus entering Galilee to preach his first sermon, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”

The temptation part of the story is told in only 5 words by Mark, “He was tempted by Satan.”

And that is it.

No stones to bread. No power over all the kingdoms of the earth. No jumping off the temple.

In fact, Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days, tempted by Satan, but also hanging out with the wild beasts and being waited on by Angels. Where is the fasting and praying? Where is the stoic resolve? Where is our example of resisting temptation? Mark’s version sounds almost like a spa vacation.

However, Mark remembers something that we have largely forgotten over time. The wilderness is not the place of trial and tribulation that we imagine. In fact, before Jesus arrived on the scene, the wilderness was actually the place where God met God’s people. God sent Abraham into the wilderness with the promise of land and descendants. Moses and the Israelites wandered the wilderness for 40 years, while God provided water from the gushing rock, and manna and quail to eat. Elijah was sent out as young man to save the people of Israel, and along the way God provided water at the stream and food delivered by wild ravens.

While the wilderness was a place fraught with danger, it was the place where God’s people met their God. God always showed up in the wilderness, and God’s people were not left to suffer alone.

When we imagine wilderness, we don’t usually think of it in these terms. We think of wilderness as the times and places, the experiences in our lives when God seemed absent. The times of illness or suffering, the times of workplace strife or family conflict. The times of addiction and doubt, of grief and depression. And yet, wilderness is no such thing. Wilderness is where God meets God’s people, while all these other things are simply part of the experiences of human life. They are part of the baggage we carry everyday.

Wilderness, as we hear about it in Mark’s gospel today, is the place where we go to leave our baggage, our troubles behind. Wilderness is where we are stripped of our burdens and our comforts, where day-to-day living, joys and sorrows, are left behind. Wilderness is where God takes us when we need to be renewed and refreshed, where we can let go and be cared for by God.

When the spirit tosses Jesus into the wilderness, it is not really about temptation like we usually hear with this story. In fact, the wilderness is the place where God goes to meet God’s people. And as Jesus waits in the wilderness with Satan, the wild beasts and the angels, there is something, or someone one curiously missing.

Human beings.

Jesus goes out to the wilderness, God goes out to the wilderness, just as God has always done and God waits. God waits for God’s people, and we don’t come. It is just the wild beasts and angels. And if there is any temptation on Satan’s part, perhaps it is tempting God to keep waiting and waiting for us. And just has God has always been, God waits for us in the wilderness. God waits the obligatory 40 days, long enough to be sure we aren’t coming.

And when God’s people don’t show up, Jesus does something new. Jesus breaks the pattern, God recognizes that waiting for us to come out to the wilderness isn’t working. We just can’t drop our baggage, we just can’t let go of life in order to find God.

And so Jesus gets up and leaves Satan, the wild beasts and the angels behind. Jesus goes to Galilee, goes to civilization, goes to where the people are. Goes to the place where they are living, where they are suffering, where their baggage is keeping them in place. God finds the people stuck in lives, stuck in their details and burdens, stuck with their obligations, their work, their family, their relationships. God comes to the place where human life is happening. God goes to where the people are and declares,

“The Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.”

The wilderness is where God meets God’s people, and when the people won’t come to the wilderness, God brings the wilderness to us.

This is what our Lenten journey is about. God coming to us, bringing the wilderness to us. God’s coming and stripping us of our burdens, of our obligations, of our suffering and shame, of our self-centred focus. And God comes to meet us in whatever dark places we are in, whatever dusty, ashy places we exist in.

Jesus comes into our lives and delivers an ashy Lenten promise. 

Jesus promises that wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we do, the Kingdom of God’s love is near to us, and that God’s enduring love will find us as we head toward death and resurrection. Towards crosses and empty tombs. From the first step of Lent, all the way to Easter.

Amen.

Ash Wednesday – The Bell Tolls for You

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

The flashing red lights of firetrucks and ambulances at an accident scene.

A “Code Blue” announced over the intercom at a Hospital, followed by doctors and nurses rushing down hallways.

A doorbell rung late at night and a door opened to a police officer or pastor bringing bad news of a loved one.

Intrusions all of them. Harsh images that force us to see how fleeting and impermanent we are. They take away the cares and concerns of real life. The price of gas, keeping coffee appointments and promotions at work hardly seem to matter in face of these images.

And it is not out of morbid curiosity that we all slow down to drive by and gawk at that road accident. Or that all conversation stops in a hospital waiting room when all the staff rush away for a Code Blue. Or that we peer out our windows to see why there are those late night and officious looking visitors at the neighbour’s house. We don’t stare because it is fascinating. We stare because it could have been us. Deep within us, we all have the sense that if the wind blew hard enough, we might just drift away like dust in the wind.

ash-wednesdayTonight, on this night of Ashes, we are practicing. We are practicing for the moment when it will be us. “Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust” and sand in the shape of a cross will be laid on our caskets as we wait to be lowered into the grave.

This is a harsh reality that we rehearse tonight. Sin and Death are real. The palms that we waved last year on Palm Sunday have been burned to remind us of this. No matter how much attention we give to all the other goings on in life, no matter how much we care about work, family, sports, entertainment, politics, fashion, money or whatever, we are all subject to the effects of Sin and Death.

And not just sins like lying, stealing, or cheating. We are subject to Sin. To the reality that we are born into brokenness. That we are always on our way to death, from the moment we are born. We are the walking dead.

This is what the Ashes say to us. Just as ancient peoples covered their heads in sack cloths and ashes, as the ashes are placed on our foreheads, they speak of the shame of mortality that we all bear. The shame of being alienated and estranged from each other, and alienated and estranged from God. The shame of having tried to be like God in garden of Eden, and the shame of failing to be like God ever since.

But the shame that the Ashes speak to us is not only our shame. The ashes speak also of God’s shame. The shame that God willingly took on when Christ was born into our dusty flesh. The shame that God willingly endured by living with those who could not understand, those who pridefully mocked, those who maliciously persecuted and those willingly deceived. The shame that God then took to the cross, in humiliation. The shame that God took to the grave in powerlessness.

But out of the shame of the grave, God began the undoing of our own shame. God began the reversing of our mortality. God began the birthing of Life in the face of death. And while the Ashes remind us of sin and death, the cross shape in which they are placed reminds us that Sin and Death have been conquered.

The Ashes will be washed away, but the cross on each of our foreheads remains. Because that cross was placed there in Baptism. It was sealed to our dusty bodies as a permanent sign that out of death comes new life.

The Ashes mark the beginning of our journey into Lent. The beginning of God’s journey down with us into the water’s of baptism. The place where the power of death is washed away. And under the waters, we too die. We die to our shame and to our sin.

And over the next 40 days of Lent, we will be continually washed in baptismal waters, we will be made ready to dine with Jesus at the Last Supper, we will be made ready to lay at the foot cross, we will be made ready to preach the good news of an empty tomb.

But tonight, on day one, as the red lights flash for us. As the Code Blue is announced for us. As the door bell is tolled for us. As the sand is tossed on our caskets, We will confess that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Amen. 

Share your Ash Wednesday thoughts, or Lenten Disciplines in the comments or on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor Page or on Twitter: @Parker Erik