“Invitations to All” – August 28, 2016

“Invitations to All”

August 28, 2016 – 15th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

People say to me “you must love conducting weddings.”  My response is usually, “I actually prefer other facets of ministry.”  Part of the reason I am not overjoyed about weddings is because of the assigned seating at receptions.  I am inevitably assigned to the table with Uncle George, who by time the reception has started, is a good way towards drunk.  He usually has some very inappropriate comments to make towards women in ministry.  He makes some lewd comments about the bride’s dress.  He tries to crack an inappropriate joke or two, and is getting progressively more inebriated.  I am not having any fun.  And then I am asked to say grace.  I sit back down in my assigned seat and Uncle George usually tells me I’m a “Pretty little thing, for a minister!” Oh yes, the joys of assigned seating at wedding receptions!  Once upon a time, seating was a free-for-all and guests would arrive and find a place wherever there were empty places.  Now, it seems that the seating arrangement is as carefully plotted out as a major military operation.

For months in advance of the date, the wedding couple arduously attend to the seating arrangement that will result in the greatest degree of harmony on the big day.  “You can’t put Uncle Charlie with Aunt Beatrice!  All hell with break out!”  the haggard bride proclaims.  “Cousin Dorothy hasn’t spoken to anyone in her family for years, so where do we put her?” asks the beleaguered groom.  It’s no wonder more people are opting for small weddings in Mexico.

If Jesus were a wedding planner, he would no doubt encourage the seat-yourself rule.  The guests who had read the gospel text would no doubt hang around by the door, and make sure everyone else had a seat first, then they would humbly take what was left.  Me – I’d offer to help with the serving.

Hearing today’s Gospel text is one of those times when you can’t help but say “halleluiah, there is a place for me!”  It is full of acceptance, welcome and possibility.  But before we get too settled in our complacency, let’s remember that this acceptance is for the hurting, the poverty stricken, the ill, and the prisoner – just as much as it is for those of us who are comfortably well off, in committed relationships, and are welcomed in the most elegant places of Penticton. 

In the children’s game “musical chairs,” there is always a scramble when the music stops.  Only the fittest and quickest survive the game by claiming their chair before anyone else can.  But in God’s economy, when the music stops there is no scramble, for God provides a chair for every guest, a seat for each one at the Table.

Let’s go back to our scripture and take a closer look at what this meal with the Pharisees has to tell us. It is not a family gathering or a festival celebration but a symposium in which guests eat with a leading teacher.  Jesus has been invited to dine – an invitation that would have included an expectation of appropriate behaviour as well as a willingness to discuss theological and moral issues.

In this setting Jesus does two very unconventional things to upset his host.  As we heard last week he heals on the Sabbath.  Second, Jesus goes on to criticize the accepted standard of meal etiquette.  At such dinners, guests were always assigned places that indicated their social standing as well as their relationship to the host.  Jesus undermines the importance of the entire value system by quoting from Proverbs and urging guests not to trouble themselves with vying for places of honour.  After all, true honour – and by the way the Greek word “doxa” also means glory – the true honour is the glory that only God has and only God can bestow.  Similarly, Jesus tells those who host dinners not to invite guests who can reciprocate their invitation, which was a standard expectation then just as much as it is now.  Instead Jesus encouraged them to invite those who cannot pay them back – People who were the social outcasts such as the blind, lame, crippled, and poor who were excluded not only from the social circuit but from community life by virtue of their physical and financial limitations – those were the one’s that Jesus included.  Jesus’ exhortation to invite those who cannot reciprocate is an invitation to ignore societal norms and accept God’s invitation to create a community that invites and includes everyone.  Then as now, Jesus’ teaching calls for radical changes not only in what we do but also in how we think of others and ourselves.

As you know I am deeply committed that no one should be in a situation of eating alone on a family holiday unless they choose to.  That is why I open my home and invite you to join me for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinner.  Some times we have a fascinating array of interesting folk.  Some singles, some doubles and some in-betweens (to quote a favourite hymn) sit around the table and share stories and good food.  Not all of us have wealth – not all of us are in committed relationships -some of us are grieving the loss of loved ones – some have had health troubles – some are struggling to just get by – but all feel accepted and welcomed.  There is no assigned seating.  Sometimes you even have to eat off your lap.  But that is O.K.  We become family for one another for that period of time and it is good!   

A letter was written to Miss Manners, in the local paper.  “Dear Miss Manners:  My wife and I are planning a party, but even a well appointed home such as ours presents some limitation.  For reasons of space, we must keep the guest list within reason.  How can we be certain that we have invited the right people?  We do not want to offend any of my husband’s business associates, but everyone knows what too many stuffed shirt types can do to a party.  In addition, many of our friends from church have less than sparkling incomes and we do not want to invite them and them to feel terribly out of place.  Oh, I should also add that we wonder what to do with the pastor.  You know how ministers can be at parties.  Some of them can be real wet blankets and no one really feels all that comfortable around the minister.  Please give us some advice on who to invite and some tips about how to balance the guest list.”

There is an old legend that I have told before, and I’m sure you have heard from others, but it bears repeating.  A man died and went to Paradise.  He was shown 2 banquet rooms and invited to choose which one he wanted to spend eternity in.  At first he could see no difference, until the feast was laid and the guests took their places at the table.  In one room, the guests all began to moan and weep because they had their eating utensils fastened to their arms in such a way that they could not bend their elbows to feed themselves.  In the other room, the guests had their arms restricted in the exact same way, but they went quickly to work to work feeding each other with great joy and warm fellowship.  Said the host of the banquet, “This is the difference between Heaven and Hell.”

We are people who are being fed with good, nutritious food.  Others are there to assist us.  There are plenty of seats to go around.  The invitation has been circulated.  It says “Come to the banquet.  It is open to anyone who hungers for God’s grace.  There is a place for you, if you but acknowledge your neediness.  Come and be blessed.”  Amen.

New Beginnings – August 21, 2016

New Beginnings

14th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C – August 21, 2016

Karen is a beautiful woman who creates floral masterpieces.  However, when you speak to her she hardly talks above a whisper.  I wondered if she had some vocal condition that limited her capacity to express herself with much volume.  However, one day she collapsed in church.  When I visited her that afternoon she was crying uncontrollably.  She spoke about the terror she lived with as a child.  With some gentle coaching she acknowledged that she feared her father and the gun he carried with him in the back of his truck.  Karen believed that if she was not perfect her father would end her life. 

Karen, like the woman who was crippled for 18 years, was carrying a tremendous burden.  But, praise God, that day God touched her in such a way that she was ready to share her secret and was ultimately set free.  For Karen, it took an encounter with Jesus in the form of some time of counselling, being in a support group at her church, and regular visits by her minister.  She soon began talking with a strong voice.  She learned how to safely live in the community.  A restraining order was placed on her father and ultimately he was incarcerated.  For the crippled woman, she was set free as she encountered Jesus on the Sabbath.  Standing up straight after 18 long years of being stooped must surely have been worthy of great praise. 

Both Karen and the crippled woman were not healed in the conventional sense of the word.  It was not being cured from an affliction that is described.  Instead, what is described is being liberated.  Such freedom is in many respects much deeper and more life changing than the healing of a disease.  It is soul deep liberation. 

For nearly 20 years I served as a board member on several Safe Shelters, similar to our SOWINS.  In Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Ontario, I witnessed countless women flee abusive relationships and find safety and support in a Safe Shelter.  These women were young and aged, independent and with several children, poorly educated and with several degrees, poor and financially well off.  In other words, there is no stereotypic abuse survivor.  Some of the women have been in the shelter before and returned to their partner, hoping and believing that the abusive behaviour would stop.   In every situation the woman was surprised to find herself needing to use the services of the Safe Shelter.  In every situation the woman was burdened by the abuse. 

What I learned from serving on Safe Shelter boards, visiting in hospitals, hospices, and homes, and conversations in coffee shops is that being set free is quite different from being healed.  One can be set free from the oppression of abuse when a decision is made to not tolerate the abusive behaviour ever again.  One can be set free from a crippling illness when one’s mind accepts the reality of the condition and you choose to live life fully within this new reality.  One can be set free knowing that death is imminent when accepting that until death comes one lives to the best of their ability savouring each moment.  Oh – to savour each precious moment of life. 

The tiny medical clinic at the Chikore Mission in rural southeastern Zimbabwe seeks to serve over 20,000 people scattered across the countryside, with no resident physician, virtually no modern medical equipment, and a scarcity of medications which puts our own full medicine cabinets to shame.  Outside the hospital there is a sign that proclaims a truth as contemporary as it is ancient, and as sophisticated in Penticton as it is unpretentious in Chikore, Zimbabwe:  Chikore Hospital:  The Hospital Treats but Jesus Heals.

  

Why did Jesus choose the Sabbath to respond to the stooped over woman?  Why would he dare break the time honoured sacred tradition?  Certainly we recognize that the Sabbath laws had become a burden to the people rather than an aid to their spirituality.  In many ways the synagogue leader is just as bent over by the law as the woman is by her condition.  Both needed Christ’s healing and liberation.  Christ brought liberation to the woman by acceptance.  He offered liberation to the leader by showing him his hypocrisy. 

Such laws have been upheld for many centuries.  In 1670, two lovers in New England were tried and convicted for the crime of “sitting together on the Lord’s Day under an apple tree in Goodman Chapman’s orchard.”  About the same time, Captain Kemple of Boston sat for 2 hours in the public stocks for “lewd and unseemly behaviour.”  His transgression?  Kissing his wife publicly on the steps on the Sabbath day.  Even the circumstances were not considered important; Captain Kemple had been at sea and had not seen his wife for 3 years.

The prevailing attitude was that 6 days a week is plenty to do the secular activities of life.  Jesus’ response?  “God is not bound by that schedule and is available to meet human need at all times.”  In fact, I think Jesus was even more stirred up than that polite response.  I think that when Jesus saw the stooped over woman he thought to himself, “Give me a break!  It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is!  This person needs me to respond – and now!”

We have an account of a transformation and liberation of a woman who scripture says was “bound by Satan.”  Satan represents all evil powers that keep humans in bondage – cultures, laws, traditions, and economic systems or political powers that oppress us.  Early in the story, the bent over woman could not “look up,”.  She is without hope.  She was bound by the powers.

How have all those powers affected you?  Have you supported a woman forced to wear a hajib?  Have you worked for minimum wage while raising a family?  Have you listened to the political rhetoric coming from the United States the last few months and worried about the impact on the world and Canada in particular?  Have you helped at the Soupateria and really heard the stories of poverty?   It is hard to look up when bearing the load of oppression and bondage.  It is difficult to recognize Jesus when evil seems to be sitting on your back.  The chains of cruelty weigh too many people down and cause retaliation.  What is your part in breaking the chains of oppression?

So – what is the answer?  Writing letters and emails to our politicians outlining concerns about the poor of our community, those living under the terror of abuse, and the dreams you have for Canada to be a peaceful nation are important ways that we can help others to be set free.  Phone calls, cards and emails to those who are bent over can help the other person to stand straighter.  Volunteering for groups that help those in need to stand a little straighter is yet another path of support. 

I want to leave you with one more challenge.  You and I believe that this church is important in our lives.  We come week after week.  What would happen if each one of us invited a friend or neighbour to worship with us some Sunday?  I can’t help wondering if the invited person might be the bent over one, and we are not aware.  Perhaps our church might offer them the spiritual nourishment to straighten up.  What do you think?

Imagine that you have been bent over for 18 years.  You have not experienced the sun beating on your face.  You have not looked at your neighbour face to face.  But today – you are free from your ailment and you can stand straight.  The sun sparkles in your eyes.  Your neighbours have smiles on their faces.  And this congregation is excited to welcome you. 

“Oh, What Stress!” – August 14, 2016

“Oh, What Stress!”

13th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C – August 14, 2016

A few weeks ago I was called into the hospital to visit with a person I will call Susan.  Susan had been to a women’s retreat and had a profound spiritual experience.  She came back home and her family and friends thought her new behaviour was odd.  She believed they didn’t understand that this encounter with God had changed her in a way that was life giving and exciting.  “It’s not fair that I’m in here” Susan told me, describing the Psychiatric unit of the hospital.

It is 10:00 Wednesday morning and John comes into the church and tells Dolores that he is hungry.  John wonders if we have any food that can tide him over until the Soupateria opens in another hour and a half.  He is the third person that day that has come in seeking a food hamper.

It is 2:00 am and Lois still has not dropped off to sleep worrying about her granddaughter.  Her granddaughter is 17 years old and dropped out of school after grade 9.  She refuses to get a job.  When she needs money she prostitutes or sells drugs.  It seems like each day she has a new boyfriend.  Her Mom, a single parent is at her wits end trying to figure out what she can do to help her daughter.  The Mental Health clinic, Social Services, RCMP, a lawyer, and private counsellors have all been consulted, yet have no answers.  It is another sleepless night.

Bill sits in the support worker’s office telling her about the emotional pain he is bearing as his self esteem has slowly been eroded after over a half dozen years of belittling comments and put-downs from his girlfriend.  The emotional abuse has left him physically ill as well as emotionally raw.  He knows he must leave the relationship, but with little rental housing available where does he go?  How does he afford first and last month’s rent?  How does he cope with the stress?

For Susan, John, Lois, and Bill – life is full of stress and pain.  Families are split apart because of anguish and hurt.  I suspect that each of us can relate, at least in a small way to Susan, John, Lois, and Bill – for their stories are our stories.  We understand their stress, for we have lived with stress.  We have gone through situations that have caused pain and discomfort.  We ask “where is justice and hope for these individuals and their families?”

We all know that stress is a fact of life.  Just read any contemporary magazine and likely you will see an article containing 10 tips to handle stress.  Portions of school curriculums talk about stress and how a young person might cope.  And yes, even sermons at church address this timely topic.

As we read the Gospel text we hear Jesus stating “What stress I am under.”  The challenges and no doubt frustrations that Jesus faced, surely lead him to feel tension.  He was on the way to Jerusalem where he knew that there was going to be a confrontation.  As if that wasn’t enough, his own personal family was divided – and the disciples were bickering.  I can imagine that Jesus was a prime candidate for an Advil or Tums commercial, for no doubt he had a doozer of a headache and a mighty fierce upset stomach.

But isn’t it startling what Jesus has to say about families?  Surely division and strife are not what most of us think of when we seek to follow the way of Christ.  However, division – as much as the mighty signs and wonders of Jesus – may be evidence of the presence of the reign of God.

We all know that following Christ means living a different kind of life.  Such a life is obvious in our obedience to the call of God.  For some, responding to the way of faithfulness may be challenged by those people who are closest to us.

Following Jesus the Christ is a decision to be made, but not all choose to walk with him.  Sometimes within our families not every member makes the decision and commitment to walk the path set by Christ.  And that can lead to some quite devastating consequences.

It was slightly more than 35 years ago that I was wrestling with God over whether I should leave a satisfying and rewarding career in the YMCA and present myself as a candidate for full time ministry with the church.  The concern of leaving my job was minor compared with my fear that my marriage would not be able to withstand the pressures of seminary training and congregational ministry.  And sure enough, that fear was well founded.  A year after presenting myself to my home congregation and presbytery as a candidate for ministry my marriage ended.  My personal story is minor compared with many others who have chosen faithfulness to God’s reign and have been shunned by their entire family.  However, the truth of the matter is that in Christ, some of our most fundamental relationships can be threatened.

I suspect that many of you also understand this passage in a personal way.  You raised your children in the church.  You ensured that they attended Sunday School and mid week groups.  You did your very best to live out the baptismal vows that were made when your children were babies.  Yet, in spite of all this, many of you feel the pain of having children who choose not to attend worship.  For some of you, religion and church is something that you are not able to discuss with your family.  It has become a point of division and conflict.

The gospel text speaks to the fact that we often make an idol of the family.  It is not that loving your family is bad, but that loving anything more than God is wrong. 

Talking about family may well make us a little defensive.  When we are feeling this way, it is too easy to assume that Jesus was asking us to give up our families.  However, what Jesus stated was not that we must abandon our families, but instead we are to give up our idolatry of the family.  Jesus is intent on telling us that no idol should keep us from engaging our faith journey.  We are called to lay aside all those things that we cling to so closely, even family.

But, as we know all too well, there is a significant segment of society that talks about “the family,” as if it is something that they have and you don’t.   This language permeates conversations at school, church and even politics.  Challenging to the image of Mom, Dad and 2 children is popular but possibly dangerous.  It certainly proved to be so for Jesus.  Jesus announced that he had come to call the “traditional family” of his time into question.  He offered his ministry and his life as evidence that the reign of God is at hand.  He warned people to “be on guard against all kinds of greed,” called them to be prepared, and in no uncertain terms called them hypocrites when they pretended they did not understand.

Let’s back up a little and think about the context in which Jesus was speaking.  Jews of Jesus day were raised learning the stories of forebears of the faith.  As we read the Hebrew Scriptures there is little doubt that family meant something different than it does today.  Multiple partners, children raised by whole communities, and discarding a spouse because of infertility, were all normative, more than 2000 years ago.

  The family in the 1st century was linked to the values of property and economic stability.  Strict rules of ownership dictated the order of marriage, inheritance and political power.  While times have changed, we continue to cling to links that connect our family ideals to economic stability and particular values.

Today, we seldom hear of orchards or vineyards being passed down from father to daughter, nor do we often hear of sons following their mother’s career path.  While some career paths are still gender dominated, that trend is starting to change.  For instance, we are seeing more females in the trades than ever before.  More men are now teaching in the elementary schools. 

One of my favorite saying is, “family is a circle of friends who love you.”   To follow Jesus puts us into a new circle that has no social, economic, racial, or political boundaries.  This almost incomprehensible view of human relationships and partnership with one another is nothing short of radical, and some might even say blasphemous

It is a call to each of us to welcome all kinds of families into our circle of welcome.    The Dad, daughter and grandparent.  The 2 women committed to each other.  The woman alone with grown children.  The aged man and woman and their single son.  The man who has never been in a committed relationship.  All are family.  All are a circle of friends who love you. 

In these stress filled days, when you wonder where to turn, know that God is with you.  In these stress filled days, know that Jesus also experienced the discomfort of tension.  Susan, John, Lois, and Bill who we met at the beginning of this sermon, are experiencing the peace and comfort of Jesus walking with them.  They have each turned to their churches and are experiencing the support and welcome of community.  All four, while knowing the reality of stress, also know the truth of God’s incredible love.  Stress is a fact of life.  So too is God’s all encompassing grace.  May we also hold fast to the assurance of God’s abiding grace.  Amen.

“Heart Treasures” August 7, 2016

“Heart Treasures” 

August 7, 2016 – 12th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

There is a story of a conversation between a young and ambitious lad and an older man who knew life. Said the young man, “I will learn my trade.”

“And then?” asked the older man.
“I will set up in business.”
“And then?”
“I will make my fortune.”
“And then?”
“I suppose that I shall grow old and retire and live on my money.”
“And then?”
“well, I suppose some day I will die.”
“And then?” came the last stalking question. (William Barclay)
And then? Seems to be the question, concern and hope that every person must face. You would think that for us as people of faith, there would be no hesitation in answering. But true to our very humanness, we wonder. It is difficult to hear Jesus’ advice to us. It is a life long challenge to follow the way of Christ.
Today’s scripture encourages us to look at our own readiness and alertness because we do not know when Jesus will come again. So, Jesus gives instruction to his followers about what they are to do after he has gone. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” Jesus says to his disciples. “Seize the day” is the advice given by Mr. Keating to his students in “Dead Poets’ Society”.
Have you ever gone to sleep thinking that your day was lacking in some way? There is every chance that opportunities were missed to meet God in the human faces around us because of an overdeveloped sense of worry and anxiety. Opportunities missed may occur when we are turned in another direction or are unaware of the possibilities of transformation in a certain situation. Jesus encourages us to seize the day, be ready for action and service, and to trust God into the future.
Eugene Peterson writes in “The Message” saying ”keep your shirts on; keep the lights on! Be like house servants waiting for their master to come back from his honeymoon, awake and ready to open the door when he arrives and knocks.” I’m not sure that you and I can relate to being like house servants, but we sure can understand, keep your shirts on; keep the lights on! It is rather like waiting up for your teenager who is on a date. You are worried if they are going to be home on time. Will they be safe. Will they be smart. That is how it is for God with us. Are we ready? Are we going to be home with God, sure and secure and non-anxious?
The disciples are urged to be vigilant, like faithful servants, always ready for action and service. We remember that the early church looked forward to Christ’s return within their lifetime. This passage reminds them, and us, that being faithful cannot be measured on a clock or calendar, and doesn’t give immediate results. It is a way of life, a journey of trust into the future.
“Do not be afraid,” opens todays Gospel text. You’ve got to be kidding, Jesus. Surely there is lots of which to be afraid. The Canadian dollar is decreasing in value. Our American neighbours are soon heading to the voting polls and the candidate choices are pretty frightening. The European attacks that have taken place over the past few months have been horrifying. Ethiopia is yet again facing famine. Many of our families are facing crises. Some of you, or your loved ones, have health challenges. And the list goes on.
15 years ago I stood outside the burning home of a friend. We had been woken in the wee hours of the morning and quickly fled the burning building. Dressed only in bedtime attire, I was anything but dressed for action. It was an incredibly vulnerable and anxious feeling. She did not have contents insurance on her treasures. We were not prepared for a fire. And that is in part what makes fires, robberies and accidents so traumatic. There is little doubt that faith is tested when the unexpected crisis occurs.
After such a traumatic experience I realized how sentimental I am. Most of the things I own have a story behind them. Realizing that my friend had lost virtually everything that she owned helped me to reprioritize my belongings. As long as I have my faith, my friends and family – I have all I could ever need or want.
Jesus reminds us “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I have just purchased a small ½ duplex and am busy sorting my treasures. By the end of October, my move date, I know I will be moving far less than I currently have laying around my home. I have too many things. Not all of them are treasures, and certainly, not all of them are essentials. Faith, friends and family are my treasures. What about you?
Victor Frankl, a survivor from Auschwitz makes the point that someone can take away everything you own, everything that belongs to you, but there’s one thing that they cannot take away from you and that’s your attitude toward what’s going on – your choice to live in spite of death and destruction all around you. To me, that, heaven, Frankl suggests.
We hear Jesus directing us to invest our lives – our time, our energy, our talents, and our money in the gospel way. Rather than gathering many personal possessions we are to invest ourselves in God and God’s realm. This frees us to live our faith joyfully and confidently. We are encouraged to be ready to receive blessing.
We as a congregation have been profoundly blessed by 2 saints of the church who together have left bequests totalling over $100,000. It is not just the amount of money that these 2 women left that humbles us, but the fact that Blanche and Shirley thought so much of their church that they wanted to give it a lasting legacy. These financial gifts are their heart treasures. They have blessed us richly.
Our Council has done much good work this past 7 months seeking to discern a direction and plan for our congregation. Each month we worked on assessing our mission and how we are living out our declared objectives. We sought the help, support and wisdom of resource people who guided us in ultimately coming up with 12 recommendations that came to the congregation on June 5th. Since then we are putting in place those 12 recommendations. We are acting with courage and faith. We know we are well blessed. We know where our treasure is. We are letting go of fear and are acting faithfully.
Audrey West, a theologian who writes for “Feasting on The Word” suggests the following: “The less we want to have, the less we need to have. This fact is itself one of the blessings God offers, with compound interest. The less we need to have, the less we need to fear. The less we need to fear, the more we know that a life of giving allows us always to live, not on the brink of destruction, but on the brink of blessings, where we can more readily hear the promise that the “Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” desiring not to punish but to bless.”
The scripture texts for today are challenging, encouraging, and full of blessing. We are called to rest in the assurance that we are God’s beloved. It is in that deep faith that we set aside our anxieties and put our trust in God’s loving grace. Our hearts are full of blessed treasures. Amen.