Who Belongs?

At it’s heart, this story in Acts 15:1-17 is about a community trying to define itself. Does it want to be known by the rules it keeps or by radical inclusiveness?

The story starts with a group of new Jewish-Christians arriving in Antioch, which is where Paul and Barnabas are. This group, insists that non-jews who want to become Christian must adopt Jewish law and customs. Paul and Barnabas argue about this with them. Eventually, the community decides to refer the matter to the apostles and elders who are in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas head off to Jerusalem for a consultation.

There was a big debate. We think of debates as having rules. This was basically everyone weighing in with their opinion at the same time, all shouting over each other. Once the argument had blown itself out, Peter steps into the silence and speaks. He suggests that the law was central to the Jewish faith but that something new is emerging which is not based on the law but on Jesus. It is the relationship with the Risen Christ that is central to this new faith.

The early church struggled to make sense of who they were. Would membership be based on old traditions passed down through generations or would it be based on something different? Jesus consistently questioned laws that were interpreted as a way of keeping people outside of God’s grace. Peter wanted the early church to follow in Jesus’ footsteps of creating a community based on relationship.

In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Since that time, Christianity has been associated with governments and power in many places around the world. Christianity was the religion of colonization. Christianity was the rule of the land. Initially, there was little separation between Christianity and government and even though we identify as having separated religion and politics, there continues to be an assumption of shared stories and history.

At the time of the reformation, Martin Luther asked whether the church would be based on rules and traditions that had become a burden or would it be based on something new and different? Martin Luther wanted individuals to have direct access to God without having to go through a priest. This was about the same time that the Bible started being translated and printed into multiple languages so it became accessible to more people. These were radical things but they shaped the protestant church that we have today.

The separation of church and state is a fairly recent phenomenon. We haven’t needed, until recent history, to define ourselves because there was an assumption that everyone around us was Christian even if they weren’t practicing the faith. There have always been a variety of denominations and beliefs within Christianity but always based, to a certain extent, on shared stories and history.

What was at stake in the early church was a question of membership based on following the rules that had been handed down or membership based on relationship with the Risen Christ and the community. In the end, the relational form of membership won out. When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire it was no longer a relational faith but a faith of government and power and rules. Martin Luther recognized that the faith was falling into the old habit of using rules to keep people away from the Holy and wanted to return to a form of faith where relationship with the Risen Christ was central.

Within our culture, we no longer have the shared history or the familiarity of biblical stories that once could be assumed. How do we define ourselves and our membership without these common touchstones? I believe this is a great opportunity for us to really examine what it means to be a faith filled community. Are we a faith filled community because we all believe exactly the same thing? Are we a faith filled community because we have a set of common rules that all of us follow?

How do we decide who belongs and is fit to be part of the community? Historically, people believed (or at least gave lip service to belief), which led to what was considered appropriate behavior and as a result they belonged. If they did not maintain a lip service to belief or stepped out of appropriate behavior they no longer belonged. My grandmother was raised as an old order Mennonite and when she married outside the faith she was shunned. She didn’t believe in the right way, didn’t behave in the right way and didn’t belong.

A new model of church membership flips this order. We belong. We are welcomed and loved. We have relationship with the Holy and the community. This leads to belief that there is something beyond us and that the spirit is active and present in the world. This belief then shapes our behavior. I like this model because it begins with an assumption of belonging. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. We always belong to God. If our community is faith-filled then we always belong here too. Belief and behavior flow from this sense of belonging.

This is what the early church was trying to get at. In God’s family, everyone is welcome without having to know the shared history and stories. As people are immersed in Christian community, everyone is transformed. Newcomers and long-timers alike are transformed by their interactions as they seek new ways of being faithful in a changing world.


Sharing the Faith

In Acts 8:26-39, we hear about Philip, who was named as deacon along with Stephen. Philip is given direction by an angel to go into the wilderness. There is no one for miles. It is a deserted road. On this road, he meets an Ethiopian eunuch who is the royal treasurer. He was travelling in his chariot and reading the scroll of Isaiah but he doesn’t understand it.

As Philip listens outside the carriage he is moved to speak to the eunuch. They spend time together and the eunuch is moved by what Philip says to him. The eunuch is baptized by Philip. The eunuch understood that he couldn’t learn and understand the faith by himself. He needed someone to teach him and help him to understand.

W510 - picture009 - CopyWe cannot learn the faith by ourselves. We need each other to help us learn and grow. That’s one of the reasons we always baptize in community—because we recognize that parenting and raising children in the faith is difficult. We invite families to choose God parents whose primary role is to encourage and nurture children and their parents in deepening their faith. As a faith community, we commit to supporting individuals as they grow in faith. We learn about our own faith as we worship and other times when we talk together can be even more powerful for deepening our experience of faith. Bible study, children’s programs and even moments of pastoral care can be powerful experiences of learning the faith.

Learning the faith is not something that stops when we become adults. It is something that should be an on-going part of our lives until the moment of our death when we discover what comes next. The eunuch was curious about a faith he knew nothing about and was drawn into learning. That learning was transformative for him. Learning with others needs to shape our own faith. saturday worship 4

Sometimes we are hesitant to share our faith with others. Maybe they don’t think like us and will disagree with us. Maybe we worry that someone won’t like us any more. Religion was on the list of things to not talk about when I was growing up but we need to get over this discomfort of speaking about our faith with others. Philip didn’t wait until he knew the eunuch well. He didn’t wait to find out where he had been worshiping. Instead he approached and said, “can we talk?”

We need to be bold in talking with others about our faith. There are many different kinds of Christianity. I believe that the world needs to hear a message of faith that holds rationality and mystery in tension. The world needs to hear a message that is inclusive and welcoming. The world needs to hear a message of faith grounded in compassion and love. This is a gift that we have to share with the world and the world needs this message. We need to be bold in sharing our faith, speaking truth and offering hope in a hurting world.

As we learn, we find the boldness and confidence we need. As we speak and proclaim the gospel we continue to be shaped in the spirit of Christ. We are transformed and the world is transformed.

Serving Even in Discomfort

This week’s passage (Acts 6:1-7:44) covers a lot of ground. It begins with a conflict in the church. The Greek Christians were complaining that when they were giving food to the widows the Greek widows were not being given as much as the Hebrew widows. There’s a conflict over which group within the Christian community is more important or more deserving. We’ve seen Jesus addressing similar issues in his own community as he tries to help people understand that one group is not more important than another but that all have a place in God’s kingdom. The early Christians continued to struggle with the practice of breaking down barriers and seeing “the other” as an equal. We continue to struggle with this in our own community and congregation.

But the disciples have a solution. “We’re too busy preaching the word of God to worry about feeding the widows so let’s appoint leaders to distribute the food and look after the needs of the poor.” The Greek word used to describe these leaders is diaconia. It is means to serve and it’s where we get the words deacon/deaconess and diaconal. After these people are named, the disciples pray and lay their hands on them. The Greek word here is ordinatio and from this comes ordination. Ordinatio means to lay hands on someone, to pray over them and commission them to a particular ministry.


for more info about Diaconal Ministry check out DUCC

As a Diaconal minister, this story is rooted my identity—to serve. One of the reasons I find myself called to diaconal ministry is its commitment to serve and stand with those who are most marginalized. Training for diaconal ministers covers a wide range of places where people can be marginalized. In the social ministry year we covered topics including: Residential schools, addictions, colonization, globalization, violence and abuse, disabilities, prison ministry, refugees, militarism and non-violence, poverty, sexual orientation and gender identity, racism and many more. We were encouraged to experience as many different people as possible and learn directly from people who live these realities. The role of diaconal ministry is one that supports people in current situations and provides pastoral care, Diaconal ministry encourages people to find their own voice and then works alongside a community to transform individual lives and communities. I see my role as serving you and together serving the community beyond our doors.

It took me a long time to be comfortable with the idea of serving. I struggled with the word serving because of it’s close ties to servant. I don’t know anyone who is a servant but it conjures up images of always being at someone else’s beck and call and always following someone’s orders. What I have come to realize is that my call is to serve God. I do that by serving people. It is service that requires me to give of myself, my energy, my creativity. As a person of faith, I have to serve God. I need to do what is required and expected of me because I my faith, because of my understanding of scripture and God’s purpose in the world. This service brings joy and hope into my life. It is service that requires me to be in relationship with others. Sometimes it is challenging. Sometimes it is inconvenient. Sometimes it is exhausting. Sometimes it brings me into conflict.

Sometimes, even within the Christian church, my understanding of Christ’s radical into inclusivity and welcome leads to conflict. At times, it would be easier to remain silent but my faith requires me to challenge injustice. This week Yorkton celebrates it’s 2nd Pride week. There are many people in our community who live in fear because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. There are people who feel they can’t come to church because they will not be welcome or safe. What does that say about us as a church? I don’t want to live in a community where people feel unsafe because of who they are. I believe we are all created in God’s image and loved by God. Our communities and churches need to celebrate the diversity that God creates.

Sometimes, we might feel that we don’t know anyone who identifies as sexually diverse so it doesn’t impact on us directly. You might be surprised who you know that doesn’t tell you this part of themselves because they don’t feel safe. You might be surprised by who is a part of your congregation. When people don’t feel safe, I believe that the entire community suffers and the body of Christ is broken.

Stephen was commissioned to a particular ministry. I am commissioned to a particular ministry. All of us are commissioned to ministry when we are baptized. We lay hands on an infant or adult. We give a blessing and send them out into the world to be God’s hands and feet. We reaffirm these commitments in confirmations and professions of faith. Ministry—caring for the poor and marginalized is not limited to a few people but is an expectation of all people of faith.

We are entering the time of year when many communities host Pride events. I encourage you to attend at least one event this season. Your presence helps people to know that they belong, that they are welcome and that they are safe. Your presence helps to heal the body of Christ. For some of us, participating in these events might stretch our comfort zone. It might unsettle us. It is an opportunity for us to celebrate and affirm the diversity that God creates.

If Stephen could risk his life for his faith, perhaps we can risk some discomfort.

An Easter Reflection

Mary Magdalene tells her story:

Woman, Old, Senior, Desperation, Grief, Female, PersonWe spent the Sabbath, weeping and mourning and praying. There was nothing left for us to do. We wondered why God had abandoned Jesus and why God had abandoned us. We were all together comforting each other. After the Sabbath, I went with Joanna, Mary who is the mother of James and some other women to Jesus’ tomb. We hadn’t had time before the Sabbath to prepare him for burial. It was just one more indignity that he had to endure. Now we just needed to perform the proper rituals for him.

When we got to the tomb…the stone was gone. Suddenly, there were two men. They were dazzling and light glowed from them. We were terrified. There were too many strange things happening. How could it be that the stone was gone? Who were these men and why were they surrounded by bright light? They spoke to us. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That doesn’t even make sense. Jesus is dead. We saw him die. This is the place where you look for dead people and Jesus is dead. “He is not here, but has risen.” Wait….what…risen? risen? Wait… risen…raised to life? How is that possible?

We ran away in fear—not understanding what had happened. Distressed at another insult. Distressed at something else we couldn’t explain. We found the others. We tried to explain but our words just tumbled out in a jumble making no sense. It made no sense because our grief was too raw and too huge to understand, to share or explain. This new event just added to our confusion, our grief and outrage.

Rock, Outlook, Landscape, Holiday, Nature, Rocky, ViewThe Easter story is a story many of us know well. it is one that we read or hear year after year. I want to offer some cultural background about death which might put a different spin on our reflections about Easter. This information is taken from the Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Richard L. Rohrbaugh and Bruce J. Malina . In Jesus’ culture, the original culture of Easter, there was a different understanding of death. We think that there is a moment where life stops…breath stops, the heart stops beating, the brain stops transmitting. For us, this is the moment of death…This is the moment we grieve as life changes to something else.

But in Jesus time, after death, the body would be placed on a shelf in a tomb. Family and friends would mourn for a whole year while the body decomposed. As the body decomposed, any evil deeds would fall away. It was believed that the bones contained the personality and were necessary for a resurrection. At the end of the year, the bones were collected and placed in a box to wait for resurrection.

In the case of capital punishment or crucifixion the body was held by the Sanhedrin (which functioned like a court) for the full year. When the flesh was gone from the body the sentence was complete and the bones prepared for resurrection.

For the women arriving at the tomb on Easter morning, they arrive to participate in a ritual that is part of the mourning process. But there is nothing there to mourn. Without the bones there is no hope of resurrection. We think of Easter as a happy and joyful occasion but the first witnesses would have been more distressed by an empty tomb. Their hope of resurrection is now gone.

Malina and Rohrbaugh make two points that I think challenge our theological perspective of the resurrection. They suggest that Jesus’ resurrection (the disappearance of the body), could go directly to God because there were no evil deeds that needed to rot away. This leads to another important point. Jesus death was wrong and in taking Jesus directly after death, God overturns the judgement of the earthly condemnation.

I like this twist because rather than suggest that God sent Jesus to die, it affirms that the death of Jesus, like so many other deaths, is unjust and wrong. It speaks to us in our moments of despair and confusion and grief and reminds us that God’s love and compassion overcomes the evil and violence in our world.

Maybe after they thought about it for a bit. Maybe after they had cried until they could cry no more, Mary and the other women at the tomb might hear the words of the two men at the tomb differently. With the bones gone, the only way to find hope was to believe that God had overturned the conviction and proclaimed Jesus innocent. The only way to find hope was to believe that Jesus was already resurrected.

As we look around the world and see violence and hatred and injustice the Easter story reminds us that this violence is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new story. It is an opportunity for new ways of seeing the world. It is a chance for hope to blossom and create new life in places of violence and pain.

What thing in your life or in the world is painful, confusing, grief-filled? What can the Easter story teach you about finding new life within this situation?

Reflection on Holy Week

People Raising Their Hands during DaytimeWe have been walking the path with Jesus since we celebrated his birth a few months ago. We read the story of his baptism and how he brings light and love into the darkest places of the world. We heard stories of his love and compassion for those on the margins. We witnessed him challenge injustice. We have witnessed this challenge bring him closer to the cross…to the point where we are today.

This week Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. The story (Luke 19:28-44) leaves lots of room for questions. How we answer the questions says something about who we believe Jesus to be. How did Jesus know where to find the colt? Had he made previous arrangements for it? Had he been in the community before and seen animals at that corner? Did he have some sort of vision or message from God that told him the colt would be there?

Jesus is part of a crowd coming into the city. Throughout Luke, the disciples have not understood who Jesus is and yet here they are proclaiming Jesus is king. Why this moment? Are they simply contrasting him with Caesar and proclaiming Jesus as their political and military leader? Do they understand that Jesus is a different kind of leader? Do they understand that Jesus is not going to be in charge of this new kingdom? Jesus is just the messenger sent by God bringing a message of love, compassion, justice. Do they understand that this new kingdom Jesus is bringing will be different from any other kingdom they have experienced?

What about the stones that will continue to shout? Even if no human ever calls Jesus king or Lord, the very earth will know that God is the creator and Lord of the universe. Can we hear the earth crying out, proclaiming God?

And then Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. Is he predicting the destruction of Jerusalem because he knows it is going to happen or he simply because he can see the state of the country and recognizes that bad things are going to happen if they continue on this path? What could prevent the destruction that Jesus imagines is coming? Could the people, the city be saved if they had recognized Jesus as a messenger from God? What would the world look like if the hearers took Jesus’ message to heart? What would our world look like if we imagine God’s kingdom among us?

We know how this week will end. We know that Jesus dies on a cross but did Jesus believe that God had sent him to this place so that he could die? Was he simply living faithfully, knowing that the path he was on would put him into a difficult and dangerous situation?

Are we willing to risk living as Jesus lived? Are we willing to be messenger that point to God?

Zacchaeus the Honest Tax Collector


It’s a cute song but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the Zacchaeus story in Luke 19. Today, I want to dig a bit deeper into what might be happening. Jesus is continuing to travel around teaching and healing and he arrives in Jericho. There is a chief tax collector who is wealthy. Chief tax collectors contracted with the local administration to collect the taxes in an area. They would pay the amount upfront and then hire tax collectors who went out and collected the money. If there was any cheating or extortion on the taxes it was a benefit to the chief tax collectors. The tax collectors tended to be people who couldn’t find work. Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. He has paid the taxes up front to the city. He hires people to collect the taxes with the hope that they will bring in enough money for him to break even. Even better would be to make a profit. This is how Zacchaeus lives. There was a stereotype that the chief tax collectors were wealthy because they had collected more taxes than were necessary. (See Social Science Commentary on the Gospels for more detail.)

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus but he was too short to see over the crowd. So, Zacchaeus got an idea and climbed up in a tree. From there he had a great view of what was happening. Jesus comes along and calls out to Zacchaeus. As they walk the crowds follow and they are distressed because they see Jesus associating with someone wealthy who has gained his wealth at their expense. Zacchaeus makes a declaration. In many of our English translations it says something like: half of my possessions I will give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone I will pay back four times as much. But the English translations miss a nuance. The Greek is in the present tense which means that Zacchaeus already gives half of what he has to the poor. If he realizes that one of his tax collectors has defrauded someone he pays it back four times as much. Zacchaeus is already a good guy but the community doesn’t know this. They see his wealth and make assumptions.

But now they hear Zacchaeus making a claim and they have to rethink what they think they know about him. As the crowd has their image of Zacchaeus shaken they might find new respect for him—a wealthy man who gives away half his goods with asking for recognition and a tax collector who is honest. As the crowd reassess their perception of Zacchaeus he is no longer an outsider. The English translation says that salvation has come. Salvation has its roots in the Greek word salve which means to heal. When people find their place in community they are healed and the community is healed.

Salvation isn’t just for the individual but for the community. We are healed as we find our place in community. We all make assumptions about other people. We lump people in with a particular group without really knowing anything about them. We don’t always know how people think or what is in their hearts. We might not even know the good things they do because they keep it hidden or because we don’t want to see. Seeing something different might unsettle us.

Stereotypes create broken community. Making assumptions about people create broken community. If the community had taken time to get to know Zacchaeus they would have known the he was honest and that he shared his wealth. It wasn’t Zacchaeus who needed healing. Zacchaeus didn’t need to change. The community of people who disliked him needed to be changed.

We all have stereotypes and we all make assumptions. These stereotypes create broken community. We (all of us) are always in need of healing. Like the crowd in the story, we need to listen to our neighbours. We need to listen to the people we don’t know and hear their stories. We need to be open to being transformed so that healing can happen as community is restored.

The Prodigal Son

A retelling of the Prodigal Son based on Luke 15:11-31.

I have two sons. A few years ago my youngest came to me asking for his inheritance—no. He didn’t ask. He begged. He wanted so badly to go out and see the world. We didn’t always get on and he was angry at what he felt was my unfairness. Eventually, I relented and divided everything I had between my two sons.

The younger one left. We didn’t hear from him again for a long time. I thought he was dead but he tells me he was living wild. I don’t know all the details but he wasn’t here. He spent all the money and had to work on a pig farm—of all the unclean animals. Eventually he realized that he had it pretty good in my tent so he came back home.

I saw him coming. I was afraid for him. He had dishonored me before more community by asking for his inheritance and then by leaving. He was no longer a part of the community. I had to do something to protect him. I was afraid my neighbours would see him and kill him because of how he had dishonored me. I ran out to greet him. I put my arms around him. I gave him gift of a ring to show that he was still my son and to show forgiveness for the dishonour he had caused. We went home and I had the best calf killed and threw the biggest party the town had ever seen. I had to appease them some how. I had to repay the dishonour from my son with honour for my friends and neighbours.

My older son had been working in the field. He came home and heard the music, saw the dancing, smelled the calf cooking and was angry. He refused to come to the party. He complained to me, “I have worked hard for you and you never threw me a party. It isn’t fair. How come my brother who dishonours you gets a party while, I worked hard for you receive nothing?” I said to my older son, “you have worked hard but they would have killed your brother. He was dead to us but he has come back to life. He was lost and now he is found. Come join the party for honour restored and your brother’s return.”

Image result for prodigal son leaving

from: wetherekeepers.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/om-my-way-home/

We hear this story and think that father was so glad to have his son back but in reality he had to protect his son from the community and even from his own brother. By extending honour to the son who had dishonoured him, the father placed him under his protection. This story reminds me of families where there might be addiction or mental illness and a child goes off again and again and returns home again and again to safety and love. How difficult it is for those on the outside to understand second and third chances. Like the older brother in this story, friends and neighbours might ask, “Why do you let your child take advantage? Why don’t they just grow up?”

The father in this story was not willing to give up on his son—even if the rest of the community disowned him. Sometimes, we might find ourselves as the son who must return. It is difficult to go back when we have wounded someone. It takes courage to go back and acknowledge our brokenness and admit wrong doing.

Lent invites us into exactly those places. The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to med relationships—to go back to people we have wronged and acknowledge our brokenness. We acknowledge the brokenness not knowing how it will be received. We also need to be open to seeing the brokenness in others and responding with compassion to their vulnerability.

God doesn’t give up on us. We cannot give up on ourselves. We cannot give up in each other.