Tag Archives: Ukraine

Practicing life and death with the ashes – A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

GOSPEL: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven…
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you….

Growing up my family was committed to being in church every Sunday, and often another night of the week for youth or orchestra practice or another church event. 

But Ash Wednesday was one of those days that seemed to get lost in the shuffle of family life. The way it moved around because of Easter, it sometimes landed on the same night as sports or music practice, some years its was during reading week at University. 

Yet, on the years when we did make it, it felt like it came out of nowhere. 

Church has just been merrily humming along through Christmas and the new year. Stories of Jesus’ miracles and the memorable story of Jesus going up the mountain, being transformed into dazzling white. A story that I can remember occupying my imagination as a child. 

Then all of sudden, the brightness of that moment is gone and rather than a mountain top, Jesus is giving a dinner table lecture on pride and boastfulness. Jesus’ instruction to pray behind locked doors invoked the image of praying in the closet to my mind as a child. 

But then the year that I did my pastoral internship, my supervisor had me help him burn the palms from the palm Sunday the year before. And a strand of connection materialized, a circle from humanity’s act of welcoming and then crucifying Messiah was made. This Ash Wednesday confession both rooted us in our great sin of trying to be God in God’s place both before the day of ashes and in the time to come as we retold the story of Holy Week soon again. 

In my first years as a pastor, the weight of Ash Wednesday would eventually hit me like never before. Ash Wednesday in its pacing and words feels like a funeral liturgy. Funerals which can come at any time and out of nowhere, interrupting any season of life. 

A good friend and seminary classmate wound up serving neighbouring coigretaion, and so we shared Ash Wednesday worship. As we stood together at front of the church, while worshippers came forward to receive ashes, the blessing took on more weight. 

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” takes on all kinds of new meaning when you have stood over a casket being lowered into a grave, and while dirt made the sign of the cross while declaring “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.” Especially so when you are imposing ashes onto the foreheads of spouses and siblings and cousins and friends of those whom you have blessed into the earth. 

As we made the sign of the cross in ashes on those that we served, finally it came time for my friend’s eldest son to receive ashes, maybe 5 or 6 years old at the time. I remember my friend stumbling back as if hit by a wall. He tried to compose himself to reach forward with his ashy thumb to mark his son. But he was barely able to choke out the words, “Remember you are dust…”

It is a pleasure to bless those whom we love. But it is a terrible burden to make that same sign of the cross in ash, to receive that sign of the cross in ash from those that we love – a souse, a child, a parent, a friend or even any cherished sibling in Christ. 

I could not help but think of that Ash Wednesday moment this week when I saw the video of Ukrainian father weeping as he hugged his young daughter goodbye. It was an Ash Wednesday moment seen around the world. 

For you see, Ash Wednesday truly the acknowledgement of the realities of sin and death in our world. WE confess both the truth of our sinfulness and the truth of our mortality.

And we practice. 

Just like in Nighttime Prayer, when we entrust our selves into God’s care through the night, it is an echo of the same blessing of entrusting ourselves to God that is said at funerals, the same blessing repeated at grave sides just before “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” On Ash Wednesday we rehearse having ashes and dirt put on us in the sign of the cross.

But even if we do not make it to Ash Wednesday each year the Ashes – the signs and symbols of sin and death – are still all around us. The signs of humanity’s sin, and suffering, the signs of our morality and dying are all around us. 

What is the pandemic if not Ashes?

What were the convoy protests if not Ashes?

What is this war in Ukraine if not ashes?

And yet…

And yet even though the Ashes dominate the day, even though they seem to ever surround us… 

The ashes are not the real point of the day.

The Ashes are a symbol that blows away in the wind, that washes off without a problem, that disappears as easily as they appear. Their impermanence is the point.

The Ashes only ever reveal what is already and was always there – what is underneath the sign they mark.

The mark of the One who has claimed us from the beginning.

The sign of the One of will not leave us to our morality, who will not leave us to the ashes and dust.

The cross of the One who turns the Ashes into something new, who turns us into someones made new.

Just as the ashes are all around, so to is the sign of the one in whom we are made new. 

The Ashes remind us that we are finite beings on our way to death AND they also remind us that One whose Cross they are marked in is the God of Life. 

The One who is also all around, found among the ashes wherever they are.

The One is comes to us in Word, Holy Baths and Holy Meals. 

Who does not abandon us in the time to trial and tribulation, who holds pandemics, occupations and even war in God’s hands. 

The One whose cross marks our bodies forever a sign that while we practice for the time when we die… we also rehearse and practice the promise that we too, on the 3rd will be called forth from our graves, as the ashes fall away, into resurrection and new life. 

God’s Interruption of Our Expectations – A Sermon on Transfiguration

GOSPEL: Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 

Today, we come to the end of an unusually long season after Epiphany… Nearly two months ago, a lifetime ago, we gathered with the wisemen around the Christ-child to worship this new king sent to save the people. And in the weeks that followed, the divine Christ was revealed to us in different ways, each time pushing us, making us ready for today. For this journey up the mountain of Transfiguration… because on the mountaintop everything changes and the world as know it will come to an end. On this mountain, Jesus charts a course that puts him on a collision course with our efforts to be like God, to be in control of our own fate. 

Transfiguration Sunday is a hinge Sunday, a Sunday that swings us from one part of the story into the next. From the dark of Christmas night, into the bright noonday desert sun of Lent. Transfiguration is that moment where the bright lights are too much to take in and our eyes need some time to adjust.

These past two months have shown us a world that we were not prepared to see, a world that we did not expect. It has felt as between Sundays, between the stories that showed us again and again the Christ revealed in ways – in his baptism, at the wedding of Cana, filling fishing hets on the lake, preaching in Nazareth, and preaching blessings on the plain…. In between of all that a Pandemic thought to be winding down has raged, our family friends and neighbours occupied streets in Ottawa, important border crossings and the roadways outside of provincial legislatures all in name of freedom, with some white supremacy accelerationismon the side. And then as if that wasn’t enough… a peace between western nations that has last, if not uneasily, for 70 years, was broken as Russian military forces invaded Ukraine. 

In in twist of sick irony, the bright lights of bombs and gun fire has revealed to us a whole new world. 

Back on the mountain of transfiguration, things begin innocuously enough down in the valley, where Jesus decides to bring a select few with him to climb a mountain. Peter, James and John… oh, and the rest of us… are chosen to follow Jesus up the mountain. If you have ever had the chance to climb a mountain, you will know that it is not as glamorous as it sounds. It is mostly staring at the ground and the feet of the person in front of you as you tiredly trudge uphill. Once in a while there is a stop or pause to admire a view, but then more trudging. 

So after Jesus, Peter, James and John have trudged up their mountain, the disciples are understandably tired, sleepy even. And in their tired and sleepy state all of a sudden, Moses and Elijah appear. The two greatest prophets of Israel. And they are standing next to Jesus… but not normal Jesus. Jesus in dazzling white, looking suitably prophet-esque himself. 

Now before unpacking what happens next, it is important to know about all the clues we missed up until this point. The religious practice of Israel of the day was centred around the Jerusalem temple and laws of Leviticus. Making sacrifices in the temple and keeping the laws to maintain one’s purity and righteousness was how you stayed in God’s good books. The burden of righteousness of salvation rested on the shoulders of people. And the Jerusalem temple and its priests were the chief judges and gatekeepers of righteousness, making sure that only those who could keep the law and make sacrifices were given righteous status. 

But before the levitical laws and Jerusalem temple, there were the prophets of Israel. Messengers appointed by and speaking on behalf of God who brought God’s righteousness and mercy and compassion to God’s people. These prophets were the patriarchs of Israel, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But chiefly Moses and Elijah. And these prophets represented God away from the temple, and apart from the following the law. They often came preaching from the wilderness, they met God on holy mountains, they brought the very voice of God to God’s people. 

So as Jesus and his disciples trudge up this mountain, the clues are there. Jesus is not aligning himself with the centre of religious authority, with the temple and its laws. But rather with the prophets of old, those appointed directly by God to represent God to the people. 

And there on the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus receives his prophetic appointment, just as Moses and Elijah did. Confirmation that God was sending Jesus, the Messiah, to bring God’s righteousness, God’s love and mercy to God’s people. 

And yet even in this moment Peter cannot escape the burden of keeping the law, the sense that he must do that work of saving himself. 

“It is good for us to be here, let us make three dwellings.”

Peter wants to preserve this holy moment and make it a holy place, a place where the faithful can go to earn their righteousness. Peter just cannot imagine a faithfulness that doesn’t include his responsibility to earn his salvation. Peter cannot imagine a faithfulness outside of what he knows and experienced outside of his expectations.

We see you Peter. And we know you. 

We totally get this feeling. 

As for the past 20 years our world slowly shifted and twisted away from our expectations, as the church slowly but surely stopped being a given in Canadian society, in the lives our neighbours, friends, and family… maybe even in our own week to week routines… We understood that feeling that Peter has… we know in our bones what the world is supposed to look like, we know what being faithful Christians takes. And it almost hurts things aren’t just woking they are supposed to anymore. 

Following the rules, paying taxes, working hard is not the guarantee of a safe, secure, peaceful life it once was. Showing up to church with an offering envelope – when Sunday morning didn’t conflict other more exciting options – isn’t the promise that church will just be there when we need it that it once was. 

And certainly these past 2 years have crumbled our expectations that life will just keep going as it always has, the pace of change accelerated while we have held on desperately to the hope that we can go back to what things were. 

Finally this week, the 70 years of relative security and comfort for the Western World has come crashing down. Where we go from here no one knows, but building a dwelling place on top of a mountain is possible any more. There is no going back. 

So yeah, we totally get Peter’s feeling of being burdened. We would almost certainly want to do the same thing if we were standing on that mountain, we would try to capture the moment, hoping to continue life as we once knew it. 

Yet, before Peter gets too far into his plans to hold on.

God interrupts. 

Just as God spoke in Jesus’ Baptism, just as God spoke over the waters of creation, God speaks again. 

“This is My Son, My Chosen, listen to him!”

And what is that Jesus has said?

Well, he has NOT told his disciples and the crowds that earning their righteousness comes through keeping the law and making sacrifice at the temple. 

In fact, the last time that Jesus said anything before going up this mountain was to predict his death. That he will suffer, be rejected and be killed. And on the third day be raised again. 

Jesus has just told his confused disciples that he is coming to meet God’s people, to meet them in the midst of their suffering and rejection. And to die just as they die. Jesus has just told his disciples that he has come to bridge the distance between God and creation, and has come to carry their burdens. 

Jesus has come to carry their burden of righteousness earning to the cross.

Jesus has come to carry our burden of faithfulness to the grave. 

Jesus has come to carry the burdens of God’s people so that we don’t have carry our burdens alone.

This Messiah born in the manger, baptized in the Jordan, who turned water into wine in Cana, who filled the fishing nets on the lake, who preached on the plain… this Jesus, transfigured Prophet of the most high God does not stay on the mountain for an important reason. 

God’s prophets are not sent to go up mountains.

They are sent to go down.  

To bring God down to God’s people. 

Jesus the Messiah is coming down the mountain with Peter, James and John… and the rest of us… so that we can know that it is not our burden to earn our righteousness nor our right to stay on the mountain-top. So that we can face our changing world, even though we would rather stick with a world that meets our expectations. 

Still, God has always been coming down to meet us and to carry our burdens, to walk with us in suffering, to show us the way through uncharted waters.

God comes down to meet us every time we gather as community, no matter how many of us there are. 

God comes down to us whether we are in church every week, or have forgotten that church entirely. 

God comes to down to us in a world that we hardly recognize, to remind that us in the midst of the chaos God reminds the same and holds us to a faith that roots us in the image of God, that gives us an identity in the Body of Christ. 

God comes to meet us in this place and in many more places of worship whether they are full or nearly empty, whether the budget is easy to meet or underwater, whether we follow the success comes easy or we have no idea where to begin. 

God comes to meet us because we are God’s people, weighed down with burdens that only God can carry. 

And so God comes to carry them and to carry us. 

In God’s Word spoken here, in the waters of God’s cleansing grace, in the bread and wine of mercy, Christ’ body and blood – in all these things, God comes down the mountain to us. 

And so on this Transfiguration Sunday, as we also go down the mountain with Jesus, we are reminded  God is always on the way down to us. 

Haven’t we seen this before? Pastor Thoughts on the Cycles of History.

For the first part of this week, I couldn’t shake feeling tired and worn out with a mild sense of impending doom. I am sure we have all been there lately. 

There are of course many possible reasons:

Omicron which has certainly broken us and changed this whole pandemic on its head. 

Then there were the “trucker/freedom” protests/ occupations happening across Canada. 

And the question of war that has been lingering in the air over Russia and Ukraine. 

When the news of troop movements followed by explosions and the real outbreak of war, it all started falling into place. 

I have seen this before… I think?

When I was in university, I had a predilection for two areas of study. The first was theology and Christian history, which probably seems obvious. The second was 20th Century history, particularly the two World Wars. In university I was often schlepping between theology classes and history of modern warfare classes. 

Though, I probably sounded like a raving lunatic to most, I have often thought there is a similarity between the past 20 years of history and the period between World War One, the Great Depression and World War Two. 

History can be viewed in cycles, and this 70 year period of relative economic and political peace for much of the (western) world has been an unusual blip on the timeline of humanity.

Finally this week the peace that the western world has known since 1945 was breached. There is now conflict on the soil of Europe for the first time since the Nazis were defeated. 

Our place in the cycle of history seems more assured now, and this is what I have “seen” before.

The war on terrorism and its intractability rings too true with World War One. This pandemic has had similar effects on us as did the Great Depression. And now the Russian Invasion of Ukraine is straight out of Adolf Hitler’s playbook, even down to the speech Vladimir Putin gave this week justifying his attack.

Even if western sanctions, the bravery of ordinary Ukrainian folks and political turmoil back in Russia ends this war before it spreads too far, the damage is done. The balance of our world’s order is forever altered. 

Now what does that have to do with us? With Christians about the world? Lutherans in Canada? With neighbourhood congregations?

Today, we don’t know yet. 

But I suspect it has something to do with our calling as people of faith. The world is stumbling from crisis to crisis. Institutions of governments and power are failing at providing an equitable and just world. People are on the edge. 

And as followers of Jesus, we have a message, a gospel promise that speaks directly to a suffering and dying world.

For people in need of hope, we follow a God of Hope. 

For people in need of new life, we are made alive in a God of empty tombs and resurrection. 

For people in need of love and mercy, we are called to care for a world in need.

As difficult as it is to be the church these days, the world has never needed us more. 

And so we keep following, know that wherever this world is headed, God in Christ is right there with us, giving us what we need.  

It is overwhelming to care about Ferguson, Gaza, Ebola, Syria, ISIS, Ukraine, etc…

These days, checking twitter feeds, listening to news updates, reading online articles can be depressing. There are so many crises facing the world at the moment, with new information and action happening moment by moment. As a pastor, the prayers I write and pray for things going on in the world is getting as long as it has ever been in my memory.

0819_ferguson_social_970-630x420
Protestors in Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri is boiling over with tensions between the white police and african american community after the shooting and murder of an unarmed Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is committing atrocities with the hopes of drawing more to their cause.

Syria continues to be a mess with millions of refugees spilling into neighbouring states.

Skirmishes in Ukraine have brought down planes and resulted in death.

Israel and Hamas can’t seem to stop firing rockets and launching airstrikes at each other.

The Ebola outbreak in Africa is spreading and more people are dying.

Red Cross agent disinfected a hospital room
Red Cross agent disinfecting a hospital room

And these are just events from the past week.

This year we have seen #BringBackOurGirls, #YesAllWomen, issues of poverty and homelessness, environmental damages caused by resource extraction and more ongoing issues.

It is exhausting keeping up with it all.

It is harder to invest what little energy we all have to care about all these things. I am sure many are getting tired of it all.

As Christians, called to pray for our world and to serve our neighbour it is hard to know where to begin. What articles should we read? How much do I need to educate myself about each issue? What does it look like to get involved?

imagesAnd in the face of these overwhelming issues, the ultimate apathetic question is always just below the surface.

What difference can I make?

As with most big, complex issues that we face, the prevailing wisdom is to start with small steps.

Pray for our neighbours, help our children develop healthier attitudes towards those of different ethnicity, religion, socio-economic class. Getting involved locally is a logical step. Volunteer, help educate others, support active charities and organizations that are working in the midst of crisis to alleviate suffering.

Last fall, Canadian Lutheran World Relief, managed to collect nearly 80,000 sweaters for Syrian refugees living in camps. Our small national Lutheran NGO managed to do this amazing thing and response was overwhelming when the initial goal was 10,000! Yet, the UN estimates that there at least 2.5 million refugees. That means we collected sweaters for 0.032% of them…

Our achievement feels hopeless in the face of so much need.

And that was one small piece of the Syrian refugee issue? What about the war? What about medicine and food? And what about all the other crises?

Now, I am not trying to say that this is all hopeless… but I think there are a few things we need to admit to ourselves before we can figure out how to respond as people of faith.

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Crisis in Ukraine

Firstly, our political leaders are in over their heads. I often hear that politicians don’t care or are only interested in re-election. Some might be that way, but I think there is good news and bad news. I think most politicians would make the world a better place if they could. However, it is becoming clear that our modern political systems are failing us. At the end of day, most politicians – from top to bottom – probably feel as powerless as we do. The systems that they serve value the status quo. Governments, electorates and human beings are not good at accepting sweeping change, despite our clamour for it. Politicians realize that daycare credits, cheaper cell phone bills, and lower taxes buy votes in elections. Not social reform.

I wish these crises are left unresolved because of political apathy… because then we could elect un-apathetic leaders. But it is worse than we thought, those whom we trust to fix these problems are not capable of fixing them.

Secondly, we need to admit that we contribute to these problems. I need to admit that I am complicit in the poverty and lack of development that is allowing Ebola to spread. My prejudices contribute to tensions in Ferguson. People are dying at the hands of ISIS because of my lifestyle. Russia is breaking apart Ukraine because of the people my grandparents, my parents and I have elected to power. Israel and Hamas are constantly at each other’s throats because of the freedoms I enjoy. Syria is at war because of my attitudes about Islam and the Middle East. I am a part of the problem.

Thirdly, these problems are really just symptoms of a larger issue.

The crises that we are facing today are not entirely caused by one problem, but there is one issue more than any other that fuels their fires:

ECONOMIC INEQUALITY

I recently watched Robert Reich’s documentary Inequality for All (you should all watch it on Netflix). The movie clearly lays out, over and over again, the relationship between an unequal society and social problems. The last time inequality was as high as it is today was during the 1930s. The world was starving, unemployment was sky high and wealth was concentrated in the hands of very few.

I have no doubt that a large reason the world fell into World War II was because inequality had pushed people to edge, allowing them to find reasons to justify racism, intolerance, and eventually global war. Germany was putting Jews in concentration camp. The United States and Canada were putting Japanese in internment camps. Racism and intolerance was on both sides, the world was recovering from economic crisis. People needed someone to blame.

I also have no doubt that during the period of the highest level of equality, the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights issues and the liberation of women gained momentum and achieved change in leaps and bounds.

6490813449_f0c51a7cc0When people are struggling to make ends meet, they become more conservative, more fearful and more close minded.

When people are not worried about paying bills, buying groceries or affording a home, they are able to open themselves to new ideas and different people.

We are in a time of high inequality today. Extreme global Inequality. In fact, this year 85 people are more wealthy than the bottom 3.5 billion.

Yes, I wrote billion.

The number of people that can fit in a public swimming pool have more wealth than half of the people on the planet.

What chance does peace, tolerance, development, open-mindedness, or social change for the better have in a world that is so unequal?

What chance does Ferguson have at bridging the racial divide when it is based on a 400 year old economic one?

What chance do under developed African nations have at fighting off a deadly disease like Ebola when hospitals are tents and sanitation is nearly non-existent?

What chance does peace in Gaza when both sides are fighting over the scraps of the western world?

What chance does democracy have for the people or Iraq or Syria have when the fighting is just as much about control of resources and wealth than it is issues of religion?

What chance does Ukraine have at bettering its quality of life when Russia desires to keep Ukraine under its thumb to prop up its own power and wealth?

We treat wealth and equality like a zero-sum game. For you to have more, I need to have less. But it is not zero sum. We can all become more prosperous together.

Christ.In_.A.Suit_In the Bible nearly 2000 verses deal with money or wealth, more than prayer, faith, and hope combines. Jesus talks about money in 1 of every 7 verses. Over 1/4 of his parables were on wealth. And let’s not forget that when Jesus talked about keeping the law, clean and unclean, or making sacrifices in the temple, he was talking about inequality. Those who could afford access to God, and those who couldn’t.

In a very unequal world, Jesus declared the abundance of God’s grace. God’s love is not a commodity to be hoarded or controlled by a few at the exclusion of the many. Wealth and prosperity are, likewise, not to be hoarded. God’s creation, wealth included, is not to be hoarded or controlled by a few at the exclusion of the many.

As one christian, one pastor, one blogger sitting in relatively calm Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, it can feel overwhelming to hear about every crisis that seems to be popping up this week, and wondering what I can do about it. It is like trying to play Whack-a-Mole with one mallet on a game the size of a football field. There isn’t even time to see all the moles popping up, let alone choose which one to think about whacking.

But if there is something that can be done to address all these issues at once, even in some small way, it would be to work towards greater economic equality. Elect leaders who will introduce policies that help level the playing field. Support programs that encourage education, which is the greatest tool to help us all become more prosperous. Look for ways to stand for political change that will distribute wealth more equally. Teach our kids that everyone deserves the same access to education and opportunity, and they will see past the racial, religious and political divides on their own. And lastly, find others who are talking about this issue. Join with them. Educate yourself.

And if you are a Christian, remember that Jesus thought this issue was important too. He talked about it more than heaven or hell, he preached against the extremities of wealth and poverty more clearly and definitively than just about anything else.

And when you pray for peace, for tolerance and understanding, for help for those who are suffering, remember to pray for a more equal world too – because equality will help bring about the rest.


How does this news cycle make you feel? What do you think we can do about it all? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik