Tag Archives: Pastor Thoughts

Wrapping up the year on Christ the King – Pastor Thoughts

The church is rarely accused of being ahead of the times. But every year around the end of November, with a little celebration, the church marks Christ the King Sunday and the end of the liturgical year. And so even ahead of the rest of the world, the church is still out of step. 

Still, I cannot help but ponder beginnings and endings around Christ the King. I look forward to this Sunday mostly because of what comes after, my favourite season Advent. 

But Christ the King requires the conclusion of all the stuff that came before it. To finish the story-telling arc of the previous year, to end with the Christ taking his place on the throne. Of course, on Sunday we will hear a very different understanding of where that throne is.

Stepping back to take stock of where we have been is an important process for us as people of faith and just as human beings. We can get so focused on where we are headed to next, that we get tunnel vision for the present and immediate future. It is difficult to take the long view, to step back and account for all the places we have been before now and how that has affected us. 

Christ the King reminds us that endings are not usually what they seem with God. Rather than a vision of the final dwelling place of God, we go to the cross, to the moment when death had seemingly won… and we discover that this was the moment of God’s new beginning. 

And so it is with the end of one church year and the beginning of another. On Christ the King we go back to the cross, and to begin Advent we talk about the end. God has a way of turning endings into beginnings, into new and second chances. 

As we see the myriad of seeming endings about us, the struggles of our world to maintain itself, our ending on the horizon as a church, we might wonder, what God has in store for us. We might wonder what new beginnings are around the corner this day, and how we might be changed forever by the new thing that God is about to do. 

Pastor Erik+

All Saints is hard, All Saints is beautiful -Pastor Thoughts

Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
~ ELW 422 For All the Saints v.  4

The older I get and the longer I have served in ministry, All Saints Sunday becomes more and more meaningful to me. As we remember those who have gone before us in faith, it is natural to also look back at our own lives and experiences. As more and more years go by, the more poignant the themes and images of All Saints Sunday become. 

I haven’t counted the total, but I think I have been a part of around 100 funerals as a pastor (which is neither a little not a lot in 13 years). For perspective, there are about 50 Sunday and festival worship services to preside at each year (that includes Sundays on holidays). So in 13 and a half years of ministry, I have presided at close to two extra years of Sunday services made up of just funerals. 

In my early years as a pastor, that made me an oddity among my friends of a similar age (other than my pastor friends). Many of my grade school friends hadn’t ever been to a funeral or just a very few in their mid-twenties, while I was helping families plan and presiding at funerals regularly. 

It is still a strange thing to experience regularly something that so many tiptoe around, to know funerals inside and out when most people find even thinking about them uncomfortable. 

Funerals often come in bunches as there will be periods of time when months and months go by without having any to preside at. Then all of a sudden there will be three funerals over the span of two weeks. Death is unpredictable and there is never a way to truly be prepared for it, no matter how many times you have walked the path before.

There is quite a bit of All Saints artwork that portrays the great crowd before the throne of God as a faceless crowd more numerous than can be counted. After praying over urns and caskets, standing at gravesides and praying with families in mourning, the great crowd of Saints gathering before the throne isn’t just a bunch of faceless people anymore for me. I can picture many of the faces in the crowd of Saints that I have personally helped to usher into the Kingdom, and an even larger crowd of loved ones, family and friends attached to that crowd. Faces as old as 100 years and as young as two years, those who have died of natural causes, and those who have died because of accident and tragedy. Each All Saints Sunday brings with it a growing crowd of the faithful departed that sticks out in my mind. 

Often when death is portrayed on TV and in the movies, the big moment is the dying. Main characters, whether villain or hero, will prolong their death with powerful last words. Friends and family will pack a hospital room to be there as a character slips away, lingering on with sad but knowing faces in the final moments. And then the scene will cut to a brief funeral or to a glimpse of a headstone. The last moments of life linger, but grief slips by in a moment – at least in Hollywood.

In real life, that time after a loved one dies, those minutes, hours, days and weeks, months and years of grief can feel long, heavy and drawn out. The days before a funeral can feel like an eternity of planning and preparations. The weeks following can feel empty and hollow and meaningless. There is a discomfort that we have with grief, even as our culture has a fixation with death. How it is that our navigating the messy and complicated path of grieving does not hold the same dramatic appeal as life and death stories do? 

Walking the path of grief is hard and lonely. All too often those at the centre of the grieving are left alone, while those around them gradually decrease their care and support. The week before and after a funeral, there can be a flurry of cards, phone calls and casseroles. Even six weeks or six months on, the grief and sense of loss can feel as deep as ever. Yet, there can be an unspoken expectation that it is time to move on and stop being sad, even from the most caring and well-intentioned support networks. 

All Saints Sunday is our moment to attend to that grief outside of the raw emotions of a recent death and funeral. It is an opportunity to grieve collectively, even as we each grieve our losses differently. All Saints Sunday helps us to put in context the life AND death of a loved one, into the grand story of the lives and deaths of God’s people but also into the story of death and new life found in Christ. 

All Saints Sunday helps us to place all of our grief on the table. Our grief for loved ones gone before us, our grief for lives that did not go the way we expected, our grief for all the losses experienced in this life, all the other kinds of death that we deal with each day: change, failure, broken relationship, illness, addiction and so on. 

And finally All Saints Sunday reminds us of a day when we can hopefully hear it better; that all the grief we bring to the table, all the losses and scars we bear, that all the ways in which life breaks us down… that all of this is held by God. All of this is not too much for God to carry. God holds us and all creation until we are ready for new life. 

The Odd Observance of Reformation Sunday – Pastor Thoughts

A Mighty Fortress is our God…

I am in a Facebook group for young(er) Lutheran and Anglican clergy “born after 1973.” By the world’s standards we are decidedly middle aged. (I had to explain to my kids the story of Come From Away or 9/11 this week and it made me feel old). But in the Church we still seem like children to many colleagues and lay folk alike – so we still think of ourselves as young, despite the fact that many of us have been serving 10, 15 or even 20 years!

Anyway, each year right around Thanksgiving, one or another of the Anglicans will post a question about when All Saints Sunday is being observed. All Saints is always November 1st, and in years when it gets pushed back to November 6 or 7th, it can run into Remembrance Day observances. So the question is whether to have All Saints Sunday on the Sunday before November 1st or after. 

Since the group is about 10% Lutheran and 90% Anglican, I usually find myself chiming in with a reminder that for Lutherans, the Sunday before November 1st is Reformation Sunday and it is kind of a big deal for us. So All Saints is always on or after November 1st. Mostly my reminders go unheeded and probably sound like I am speaking Greek – or maybe German – to our Anglican siblings (whom I still love dearly).

It doesn’t help that Martin Luther chose to post his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st, the first of a 3-day string of festival days – All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. 

It also doesn’t help that Reformation Sunday is an odd and difficult-to-observe day to begin with. Is it a celebration? Is it a commemoration? Are we happy to be Lutheran? Are we sad because of the wars and division caused? Are we bold to confess our faith? Are we humbled by our need of God’s mercy?

As is often the case with our historical observances, especially in recent years, things are more complicated then we always know how to handle. We know that Martin Luther stood up for the things that he believed were right: against injustices taking place at the hands of the Church, against the attempts to sell salvation by the Pope and the Church, against church leaders keeping control of the Word and the Sacraments. But there are also the hundreds of thousands of people who died in revolts and war directly inspired by Luther’s stand against Rome. There is the long-lasting division and splitting apart of churches who disagree with one another that it still going on today. 

The Reformation was a transformative moment for the Western world. The combination of the printing press and Luther’s writing made it one of the most significant events of the past 1000 years. But 505 years on from Martin Luther nailing his list of grievances to the door, what this all means for us today and how we move forward are still being unpacked. 

We are a Church born in a time of tumult and change, and we are still a Church in the midst of tumult and change. Yet, along the way the reminder that God’s faithfulness will lead us through is the same. And ultimately, Martin Luther’s reason for posting his 95 theses was to make sure that God’s faithfulness is the foundation and centre on which we stand. 

A mighty fortress indeed!

Thanksgiving, 10 Lepers and giving thanks isn’t the point

GOSPEL: Luke 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

*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

Thanksgiving has always been kind of weird Sunday to preach on. The theme of Thankfulness seems like a pretty obvious one for the church. Thankful seems like a good thing to be as people to faith. We use the term Thanksgiving regularly in worship. The greek word Eucharist, which is one of the names we use for communion, is translated as “Thanksgiving.”

And yet, Thanksgiving is a decidedly secular holiday. It is rooted in the meal shared by the pilgrims who arrived in North America with their indigenous hosts… or least the myth goes. Of course colonialism was not that at all, but is another sermon. Thanksgiving is also a harvest festival and its date was decided by an act of parliament in 1957, though it has a much longer and varied history going back to the 16th century. 

But it is not a church holy day. There is no thanksgiving story in the bible nor any commandment to set aside a day to give thanks. Maybe more difficult is that at the heart of Thanksgiving is an imperative for us to be thankful – something that we do.  Whereas the Gospel is rooted in God’s action – something that God does for us. 

Still in some kind of twist of fate, today’s Gospel lesson from the regular set of Sunday readings is all about thankfulness… and this story of the 10 lepers is centred around the return of the one to give thanks for what Jesus had done. 

So here I am, on Thanksgiving, having to preach about thankfulness!

As we pick up with Jesus, he is on the road, presumably still with his followers who were asking for increased faith last week. As comes into a village he is met by a group do 10 people with leprosy. Lepers were often segregated outside of towns and villages, even though leprosy in modern times we have discovered that it is likely not to be spread between people. The 10 lepers must have heard of Jesus before so they call out to him by name. They ask for his mercy. Now because we know the end of the story, we assume that what Jesus does next is heal them. But that isn’t so obvious. Instead, Jesus appears to redirect these lepers towards another source of healing, Jesus tells them to go to the priests. Whether the Jesus meant the priests of Jerusalem or some in this borderland town between Galilee and Samaria, the 10 turn and go.

Along the way, the 10 lepers are made clean. One of them notices that he was healed and turns back to Jesus in order to give thanks. When he returns praising God, Jesus asks why the other 9 haven’t returned along with him. Oh, and Luke mentions that this one was a foreigner, a Samaritan. 

The message here, especially on Thanksgiving Sunday, seems pretty obvious: Don’t forget to demonstrate your gratefulness. Maybe Luke was wanting to make sure we don’t forget our manners. 

Except it wasn’t good manners that allowed this Samaritan to turn back. It was that he likely didn’t know where he was actually headed to in the first place. It would have been difficult enough for these 10 Lepers to make their way through town and reach the priests being considered dangerous and unclean. But even if cleansed of his disease, the Samaritan would still have been unclean and unable to access the priests. 

Maybe what this one Samaritan recognizes is not the need for gratitude but something else. As an outsider in this borderland town, one existing on the margins, he cannot help but see that he has been healed from an unexpected place. 

The other 9 perhaps never even considered that it was Jesus who healed them, but assumed it was the cleansing rituals performed by the priests. According to their religious understanding this would make sense. They had gone and followed the commandments, they had fulfilled religious law and they had achieved righteousness. 

When we hear this story with 21st century ears, we want to learn the lesson of gratitude. We want to be the like the obedient ones who don’t just move on with life selfishly, but give thanks for our gifts. It is an easy position to take. 

Pointing to the ingratitude of others is all too common. Boomers claiming that millennials are entitled and self-centred, and millennials out of touch and unaware of their privilege. The rich giving thanks for their power to earn while slagging the poor for not doing better. The educated look down on the uneducated. Political tribes believe they are righteous while their opponents don’t get it. 

We are pretty good misidentifying the source the blessings, benefits, mercies or righteousness  that befall. Far too often we thank ourselves for our good fortune and good luck. And as people of faith it is no different. 

Like the 9 lepers who incorrectly identified the priests or their own obedience to the law as the reason for their healing and salvation, we too often forget the source of our salvation. Even as we hear and proclaim the gospel week after week, our thinking so easily flips to our salvation being because of our goodness – our being moral, loving our neighbour and doing good works.

Failing to remember who has granted us mercy, who has saved us, is all too easy.

Now if you have been paying attention the past number of weeks, you might catch some familiarity with the numbers 10, 9 and 1. Just a few weeks ago we heard the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. The shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the one and the woman  10 coins who tears apart her house to find the lost one. The 10 lepers are meant to evoke connections to these stories. 

And the one leper who returns? He isn’t the point of the story, his giving thanks is only incidental to the action – he doesn’t even get any lines. 

Instead as Jesus narrates the action, we are reminded again – just as we were in the parables of the lost – of what God is up to in our world. Jesus’s healing and salvation is given whether we know it or not, whether we see it or not. The Samaritan leper’s return highlights this: unclean because of his disease, unclean because of his ethnicity he has nowhere else to turn, nowhere but to Jesus. 

And once the Samaritan returns Jesus identifies his station, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus makes it clean that this one leper who has returned is one who is still on outside, still marginalized, still excluded from the faithful and righteous community. 

Then Jesus changes all of that. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Faith, trust, relationship to the one who is trustworthy and who grants faith… this One makes well. The God of Israel, the Messiah sent to save, the One who has been healing and teaching throughout Galilee, the one who is about to go to the cross and be raised on the third day… this One has declares the Samaritan acceptable and righteous, this One welcomes  the man into the Kingdom of Heaven.  

Whether this man was a leper or a Samaritan or a beggar – Jesus says that he is one of the faithful. This man to belongs to God… We belong to God

Then… just like the ones that Jesus has been sending out in his name throughout the book of Luke, like the Apostles on the road last week who asked for increased faith, Jesus sends this man too. Out of the borderlands, away from this place of isolation and into God’s world.

Today, Jesus says the same to us. As we come needing Jesus’ mercy, as we beg for healing and wholeness… Jesus grants us salvation whether we know it is from him or not. Jesus makes us whole even if we think it is because of something we did all on our own, or whether we have nowhere else to turn. 

And in this world that wants to convince us that we are the source of our own righteousness, Jesus brings us into God’s Kingdom. Jesus reminds us that God is the source of salvation. Jesus doesn’t wait for our gratitude or praise, but sends us into the world healed and renewed. 

Then Jesus declares that our faith makes us well also. Our trust in the One who is trustworthy, our faith granted by the One who is faithful restores us to health, returns us to community and joins us to the Body of Christ. 

On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we given the same reminder that we receive every other week. That here in this community of faith, that here gathered around the Word, here made clean in the waters of Baptism, that here fed at the banquet table of the Lord… here God is doing what God has always done. God is giving out mercy to all who are in need – God is giving salvation to us. 

Artwork: Ten Lepers by Bill Hoover, 2013

Thanksgiving and the passage of time – Pastor Thoughts

As I write, it is the coldest day of Fall so far, the wind is blowing, flurries are falling but mercifully melting on the ground. After hanging on for longer than usual, the leaves are finally turning those beautiful shades of yellow and red for fall. 

Here we are at Thanksgiving weekend already and it feels like Fall snuck up on us. Weren’t we just sitting at the beach on a hot sunny summer afternoon just yesterday or something? 

The change of weather reminds us of the passage of time. These days my relationship with time feels forever altered; maybe you feel the same. Days of the week and months of the year all feel a little more fuzzy than they did just a few years ago. The wet weather this Spring and Summer certainly changed the way time passed in the natural world with a delayed Spring, delayed Summer and now a delayed Fall. 

Time feels “off” from the pace and routines that we used to follow. There used to be structure and order to the way we experienced time. 

When I was younger I used to measure the days by orchestra and football practice, youth group events and the freedom of weekends. In university and seminary, time passed as semesters, reading weeks, exam dates and essay deadlines.

Then it all changed 13 years ago. Once I was ordained and in the parish, my life became governed by Sundays. Every seven days another Sunday arrived. And in between I needed to prepare for worship, write a sermon, collaborate with all those involved in various roles of making music, reading scripture, making and distributing bulletins, choosing hymns, setting up communion, etc. In some ways it is like putting on a small-scale musical theatre production every week, but different in that all the people attending participate in some way. 

We all have rhythms to our weekly cycle, but in the church during all the other days, and considering whatever other responsibilities, activities and stuff  we have to do, Sunday is always in the background. All the other days point to Sunday. Most pastors take Monday off because it is the furthest from the next Sunday, and the urgency to prepare is lower. My colleagues who do work on Mondays often cite a desire to get a head start on that Sunday urgency. Others have other tricks, like I start memorizing the dates of the Sundays about two months out from wherever I am – it feels helpful to know what is coming. 

Along with the rhythm of Sundays, there are the seasons and festivals that orient us to “when” we are in time. The liturgical calendar has governed my months and years in a way I could understand since I started serving in ministry. It is the same for teachers and the school calendar, for accountants and the fiscal/tax year, for business owners and the schedule of holidays and sales times, etc.

And so here we are being governed by calendars and schedules that have been knocked off their axis by the pandemic. Thanksgiving arrives and it doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving as we once knew it. Re-orientation to the structure of time as we once knew it isn’t an easy thing. 

And yet, through all that we have been through these past years, the grounding of God’s story in time has remained the same. Even as we did not work, play, serve or worship as we were used to these past years, we still found ways to tell the story of God. Of God’s death and resurrection each week. Of the coming of Messiah in Advent, of the birth of Christ at Christmas, of the revelation of Jesus at Epiphany. We still walked in the wilderness of Lent following our Teacher and Master, and we still bore witness to the drama of Holy Week, and rejoiced on the Day of the Resurrection at Easter. 

In the midst of “fuzzy” time and holidays that don’t feel like the versions that we used to know, God’s story still holds us, and, indeed, holds us close. The story of God’s promise to carry God’s people through this life with mercy, grace and new life is clear and true. 

Happy Thanksgiving,