“Hanging Out In a Tree” – October 30, 2016 – 24th

“Hanging Out In a Tree”

October 30, 2016 – 24th Sunday in Creation – Year C

I’d like to tell you a story about a woman who sold insurance and was very successful.  She is dark skinned and rich.  So rich in fact that many people speak disparagingly of her.  She wanted to see Jesus, but on account of the crowd she could not see over their heads.  So she climbed up an apple tree, knowing that Jesus was heading toward Naramata on his bike.  When Jesus came riding by he glanced up and saw the woman.  Stopping the cart, Jesus got out and yelled up, “Issa, hurry and come down; for I wish to spend time with you.”  So she hurried down and was happy to welcome Jesus.  But, those who saw what was happening were aghast!   You never heard such grumbling and gossiping.  “Jesus has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,” they said.  The Issa stood there dumb-founded, for she gave generously to the Food Bank, the Care Closet, the hospital building fund, and she tithed a full 10% of her earnings to her church. “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back 4 times as much,” she promised.  Jesus was humbled.  He announced that she was set free and was granted salvation to Issa and all of her family!

Are we just as anxious to catch a glimpse of Jesus?  Will we fling the door open so that Jesus might walk in?

A colleague talks about having had a Zacchaeus in his congregation for awhile.

He wasn’t a tax collector, but he was a high-roller in real-estate who knew how to make enormous amounts of money by exploiting other people’s vulnerabilities.  He was very personable and gregarious.

This “Zacchaeus” didn’t like the prayer of confession.  “I don’t know why we have to say that,” he’d complain.  “I haven’t done anything wrong.  I haven’t broken any laws and I haven’t told any lies and I haven’t sliced anybody up.  Why do we have to keep confessing this stuff.”

He was right in a way.  Our confessions often get to be pretty perfunctory and meaningless and self-serving.  This man didn’t see what he was doing as wrong.  And he wasn’t doing wrong, in a technical sense.

My colleague had a few conversations with him about this and other things.  And one day he got involved in a study group.  Gradually, ever so gradually, he began to see the difference between legality and morality.  This “Zacchaeus” began to see that it is perfectly legal to sell people a house that’s more expensive than they can afford, but it isn’t moral.  He began to realize that morality is not so much what you don’t do, but more what you do.  This slowly translated into a genuine caring for the people he encountered in his work.  There was a note of personal triumph in his voice when he told his minister how he talked a couple out of buying a house, even though that lost him several thousand dollars in commission.

This Zacchaeus climbed down from his high-rolling financial tree and turned his real-estate business into a real-estate ministry.  He serves people, not financial statements.  He has a lot more to confess now, but he’s a stronger, happier man.

He can sit down and enjoy his lunch with Jesus.

As I prepared for this message, I encountered an interesting suggestion.  What if the statements which Zacchaeus makes – “I give half of my income to the poor” and “if I have defrauded anyone, I restore it fourfold” – are not promises about future conduct but indignant claims about his present behaviour?  What if Zacchaeus has been given a “bum rap” and unfairly ostracized?  What if, according to this reading of the text, he has all along been one of the most conscientious and generous of the citizens of Jericho, though anonymously?  Then this encounter with Jesus is the moment of his vindication!

Such an understanding is quite possible as first century listeners would have known that being a chief tax collector on the main trade route would have been quite lucrative.  Zacchaeus would have known Mosaic Law and realized that Leviticus 6:5 called for adding a 20% penalty to the amount as part of a guilt offering was required.  But Zacchaeus went overboard.  He promises to give half of what he owns to the poor and, if he has cheated anyone, to restore 4 fold – far, far more than the amount required by Law.  I like to think that Zacchaeus was a generous man by nature and knowing Jesus, he was even more liberal with his offerings.  What a story of generosity!

The story of Zacchaeus redeems all the kids that were bullied on the playground because of their size.  Thank You Zacchaeus!  And thank you, Jesus of Nazareth, for extending such grace to this scrappy little guy who kept on trying until he got what he wanted and needed – an audience with true greatness.  Not the kind of greatness that requires muscle and height, but the kind that requires gentleness, compassion, and acceptance.

May each of us be generous in our giving, compassionate in our encounters with the living Christ, and accepting of all – for we might just find Zacchaeus up a tree or Jesus passing by.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

“A Love Story” – October 16, 2016

“A Love Story”

October 16, 2016 – Year C

Once upon a time a man was out in his yacht and it struck a floating log and began to sink.

This man was a devout Christian so he prayed for God to save him.  His boat sank further.  By and by a man in a canoe came by.  “Do you need help? He asked.

The man refused.  “I’m a Christian; and God will save me!”

Soon his boat was almost totally under water.  A woman in a speed boat roared up and offered her assistance.  The man refused again for the same reason.

Now his boat was completely swamped.  A helicopter from the Coast Guard appeared overhead.  “We’ll throw down a ladder!”  said a voice from the helicopter.

“No thanks,” said the man.  “I’m a Christian.  God will save me.”

So the man drowned.

He arrived in heaven.  He bowed low before the throne of God.  “I have just one question God,” he said.  “I’ve been a devout Christian all my life and I’ve always believed that you answer prayer.  Why didn’t you save me when my boat sank and I prayed for deliverance?”

“Of course I heard your prayer my child,” said God.  “I do answer prayers.  I sent a canoe, a power boat and a helicopter!  What more did you expect?”

Can’t you just imagine Jesus offering this story, to grab our attention and to remind us that God is merciful.  Approximately 2000 years ago Jesus told a story to his disciples.   It was a tale with interesting twists and characters. As the story went, there was a widow – a woman who was a nobody by society’s standards.  She had no source of income, no husband and was not even considered a real person.  This woman was a little like Canadian women prior to 1929 when woman were not legally considered persons.  Anyway, back to the tale that Jesus told.  The widow was a nobody – a bag-lady.  But she didn’t let her social standing deter her from approaching a judge at his home.  Now, the judge had no right to pass judgment on the woman.  Remember, the widow had no rights.  And further, pestering a judge at home was just not done.  Besides, as powerful as the judge was, that power and authority only resided when he was holding court.  The judge had no right to hear the case or to render a decision.

Yet, the widow was not deterred.  She pleaded her case and persistently approached the judge seeking justice.  The widow was stubbornly in the judge’s face.  Talk about audacity!

It’s a fascinating story isn’t it.  A widow – a nobody, and an unjust judge meet.  It is a tale of persistence.  It is also a story of God’s incredible mercy and grace.  But, it is also a parable where Jesus offers a series of questions rather than definitive answers.

Jesus suggests to his listeners that just as the judge in the story acted, will not God also act with mercy and grace?  Rather than legalistically following a human designed law, grace is God’s gift for persistent seekers. 

God’s power is always surprising.  While we may want God to act in dramatic and terrifying ways, God chooses the way of steady perseverance and never gives up.  While we might like to think of God as a mighty judge, instead, Jesus chooses images like a poor but persistent widow.

Those of you who have read or studied the books of Bishop John Shelby Spong recognize that he talks about God’s wasteful love.   What a fabulous description of God’s relationship with us.  Wasteful love!  Now that certainly is a powerful picture of God’s persistence in wrapping us in love and compassion.  However, that wasteful love is also a call to justice.  If all people of the world are to experience such love, there must be justice. 

So- what does wasteful love and enduring justice look like?  Surely it is the hundreds of visits that this congregation offers, to folk in hospital, hospice, care facilities and homes.  It is expressed as this church makes itself available to the community for funeral and memorial services.  It is lived out as we hand out over 35 food hampers every month. 

The 175 folk who shared Thanksgiving Dinner at the soupateria surely know something about wasteful love and seeking justice.  The dedicated workers there offered such compassion and caring that one wonders if we too are as persistent in our caring.  So it is that we are called to reach out to those who are hungry and homeless.

I believe that our gospel parable is also challenging us to pray fervently.  For when prayer is who we are, then our lives will be transformed.  It is in prayer that our hearts are bound with God and we have the strength and courage to love wastefully, just as God in return bathes us in wondrous love.  Now- perhaps you are saying that you do pray ceaselessly, but God doesn’t respond.  When we face illness, tragedy, death of loved ones and all the other struggles of life, it is easy to feel as if God is not answering your prayers.  However, if we earnestly pray “Thy will be done” then boundless love is the gift.  And then we have the courage to take the next step, and the next step, and the next step assured that God is with us.  In other words, prayer is not demanding of God what you wish God to do, but rather opening ourselves to God’s grace. 

Wasteful love and true justice transforms us as a church.  We fling our door open wide so that all people can experience the welcoming community of God’s beloved.  We embrace the person with HIV/Aids, the street-wise teenager, the lonely widow, the differently abled, the straight and the gay, the questioning sojourner, the Aboriginal  person,  and everyone who is needing the blanket of acceptance.  And yes, it is not easy.  We need to be like the widow of our story who persistently insists that justice be done.  And that may cause us to re-think long held beliefs and understandings.  It may make us squirm a little.  It may even challenge our sense of what church is all about.  But I assure you that God’s abundant love is here at Penticton United Church.

Let me finish with a true story.  “David was a devout Quaker.  During the civil rights movement, he and his African American friend went into a drugstore in the deep south and calmly ordered sodas.  All of a sudden, David felt a sharp object jabbing him in the back.  He turned to look into the angriest eyes he had ever seen.  The eyes sparked with hate.  Now that he had turned, the sharp knife was aimed directly at his heart.  David looked directly into the eyes of his adversary.  He spoke calmly and softly, “Friend,” he said, “whether you push that knife into my heart or not is obviously up to you.  I want you to know that in either event, I love you.”  The man’s hand trembled, the knife fell to the floor, and the man ran out of the drugstore.  The man had never confronted that kind of power before.”

May each of us be filled with God’s persistent, wasteful love.  Amen.

“I’m Full” – October 9, 2016 – Thanksgiving Sunday

“I’m Full”

October 9, 2016 – Thanksgiving Sunday – Year C

 

Don’t you love the smell of fresh baked bread?  There is nothing like that wonderful yeasty aroma.    Just the suggestion of new baked bread and we can smell it.  That is what I hope will stay with you throughout the rest of this time of worship.

I invite you to imagine that you have just attended a concert of your favorite performer.  The crowds are in the thousands.  In fact, the group numbers into the 5,000’s.  In the midst of the crowd is Jesus.  He offers to feed the hungry throng.  Talk about a leader who could satisfy real needs.  You have long let go of the glow from the concert you attended.  Jesus makes his way through the crowd and escapes by boat, accompanied by his disciples.  Across Lake Okanagan they go.  Reaching Kelowna, Jesus and his friends build a fire and sit back.  “Whoa!  I know you are here for food.  We had a good time last night.  Let me tell you about the bread of life.  Let me tell you about a bread that feeds your spiritual self, says Jesus.”

Or – to tell the story another way, the day after Jesus feed 5,000 people with a handful of bread and fish the crowd comes after him wondering what it all means.  It is a little like a contemporary rock concert or after a World Cup soccer match.  The crowd is so excited!  Here is a leader who could satisfy real needs!  But Jesus chides them for not understanding that the miracle included not only feeding the hungry, but also addressing the spiritual ills that give rise to hunger, poverty and a whole range of social and economic ills.  The people had come to him for all the wrong reasons.  Jesus knew that physical hunger returns the next day unless we eliminate the spiritual hunger that gives rise to such evils.  Jesus encouraged people to seek a real and lasting cure for sin and suffering.  Jesus wants the people to work for the bread that truly satisfies, that doesn’t go mouldy or stale, and that nurtures all into eternal life.

In this passage Jesus describes this cure as being like manna from heaven, the bread which fell daily to feed the Israelites when they wandered in the wilderness between the Exodus and entering the promised land.  Jesus takes us back in our memory to the time of Moses.  What an assurance that God has not abandoned us.  God has sent Jesus as living bread – a fresh sign that God is with us!

Jesus tried to explain that the gathered group had come to him for the wrong reasons.  Sure, he had lots to give them, but what they needed was a different kind of food.  He told them to work for the bread that truly satisfies.  Jesus reminded the folk that they were to seek the bread of life – a sustaining food that doesn’t go mouldy or stale.  The bread that Jesus offered nurtures all into “eternal life.”

A friend in Saskatchewan told me the other day that she is finding this weekend difficult because her friends are commenting how thankful they are that their families are doing so well.  My friend, on the other hand, has a daughter who was recently fired from her job – a granddaughter who has turned to prostitution to earn money – and a daughter whose marriage has ended.  Although my friend is a devout Christian, her faith is certainly being tested.  A few days ago, she said, “at least I have plenty to eat, a strong faith, and many good friends.”

 

Many of us today hunger for love, acceptance, life and truth.  Often we try to satisfy those hungers by getting the things that money will buy.  And we come to Thanksgiving services ready to give thanks for these things.  The writer of the gospel of John reminds us our thanksgiving is for living bread – God with us.

In the yoga class I go to on Wednesday evenings we are encouraged to do a gratitude practice.  What is a gratitude practice you ask?  It is simply taking time each day to reflect on 3 things you are grateful for.  Sometimes I have a rich and varied list of incidents, people, and spiritual awakenings that I acknowledge in my gratitude practice.  Other times I struggle to come up with 3.  I do this daily.  It has me thinking though.  Why is it that I have to go to yoga to be reminded of the value of being grateful?  Why is it that I have to go to yoga to learn about a gratitude practice?  Shouldn’t this be something that we encourage in church!  And so – I encourage you to take so time every day to stop and reflect.  In your quiet time, I invite you to name 3 things for which you are grateful.  Do this every day for this upcoming week.

There was a name in the 1850’s Asia for persons who came to church because they were hungry for material food.  They converted, were baptized, joined the church, and remained active members as long as their physical needs were met through the generosity of the congregation.  But once their prospects improved and they and their families no longer needed rice, they drifted away from the church.  Hence missionaries called them “rice Christians.”

We know something about folk who are dependent on our church for their daily bread.  From January 1st to September 30th we handed out 318 meagre bags of food to people asking for assistance.  These are young men and women, middle aged men and women, single parents, aged people, some who slept in doorways, and all who are hungry.  Dolores and Marianne, and to a limited extent Shannon, give out what has been donated to our food drawer.  Usually the bag of food consists of a couple of granola bars, a couple of tins of beans or stew and a pudding or two.  This, plus the lunch at the soupateria must last them for a week, for each person can only get one food hamper a week from us.  Generally, we are thanked and encouraged to have a nice day.  We can’t help but think of these friends of ours on this Thanksgiving weekend.  I pray for them that they might know Jesus as the bread of life and that their lives might be turned around.

A number of years ago the Roman Catholic church produced a lovely calendar featuring an Ojibway artist from Sandy Lake Ontario.  In it the artist makes a profound statement.  He says he used to paint just to get enough money to go to town on the weekend and get drunk.  Then, someone took him aside and prayed with him and something happened.  Now, he still uses his paintings to earn money, but the content of the painting is radically different, and the context of his life is different also.  Someone came and offered him the bread of life.  What a gift he received!

May we, this thanksgiving weekend give thanks that Jesus Christ is the bread of life.  Rest assured that whoever comes to Jesus will never be hungry, and whoever believes in Jesus will never be thirsty.  Amen.

“An Open Invitation” World Communion Sunday – October 2, 2016

“An Open Invitation”

World Communion Sunday – October 2, 2016 – Year C

Come – people of Penticton, approach the banquet table, knowing there is plenty for you!  Come – people of the north, the south, the east, and the west – draw close to the dinner table and know that you are welcomed with open arms.  The communion table is over-flowing with breads from many lands and grapes from our own vineyards.   Come – you who are hungering for love, acceptance and spiritual feeding.

In a few minutes we will join our voices in prayer, acknowledging the breads from many lands.  There is rye bread from Eastern Europe, tortilla from Central America, and bannock from our First Nations people.  The various breads remind us of the diversity of Christ’s followers and yet we all know Jesus as “The bread of Life.”

In some traditions wine is sipped from a common chalice, while in others we sip grape juice from individual cups.  What ever your tradition, today we will remember the grapes from which the wine is made and will give thanks to the land which has nourished the vines.  Scripture tells many stories referring to Jesus as the true vine.  Today we taste some of the fruit of the vine and acknowledge that Jesus is our strength and brings sweetness to our lips.

(Doug plays 1 verse of #460 All Who Hunger)

All who hunger, gather gladly, holy manna is our bread.

Come from wilderness and wandering.  Here, in truth, we will be fed.

You that yearn for days of fullness, all around us is our food.

Taste and see the grace eternal.  Taste and see that God is good.

Doug played the tune of this profound hymn, the music written by William Moore and Words by Sylvia Dunstan.  It is #460.

All who hunger, never strangers, seeker, be a welcome guest.

Come from restlessness and roaming.  Here, in joy, we keep the feast.

We that once were lost and scattered in communion’s love have stood.

Taste and see the grace eternal.  Taste and see that God is good.

All who hunger, sing together, Jesus Christ is living bread. 

Come from loneliness and longing.  Here, in peace, we have been led.

Blest are those who from this table live their lives in gratitude.

Taste and see the grace eternal.  Taste and see that God is good.

This wonderful poem hymn describes well the oneness that is ours this World – Wide Communion Sunday.   Whether it be Christians in Botswana who have walked half a day to join brothers and sisters of faith in worship and feasting on the communion meal, or Lutheran Christians in Iceland gathering once a month for communion, or the Maori in New Zealand gathering to write a new hymn book and beginning their time together with communion, or those of us who are seated in this sanctuary, we yearn for this sacred meal.

(Doug plays 1 verse of #460 All Who Hunger)

In a few minutes we will taste and see the grace eternal.  We will taste and see that God is good.  In doing so we will bear witness that though our faith may be like a mustard seed, tiny and seemingly inconsequential, we have the potential to do amazing things in the name of Christ!  Ours is a faith that moves trees – and yes, ours is a faith that moves mountains, as the expression goes.

But the second saying in the gospel text is also important to remember.  Our primary motivation for living faithfully must not to be honoured and rewarded.  Even though the disciples of long ago expected to be recognized and affirmed, the call by Jesus is that we are to live faithfully, act kindly, and be generous – whether or not we are rewarded for doing so.  What a challenge!  But on this World Communion Sunday, we let go of our desire for recognition and instead commit ourselves to the partnership way.

Our Wise Elders program is a reminder that working alongside our sister churches produces incredibly wonderful faith-filled realities.  We have much in common and that we can share our communion with one another.  Presbyterian, Anglican and United Church join so that we might be a strong presence in Penticton.  Our shared services, picnic and an upcoming community forum in March are all endeavours we can rejoice in.  Experiencing communion in the style of the host church is gift.  Worshipping, praying and getting to know one another as sisters and brothers of faith only makes us stronger.

Come – people of Penticton, approach the banquet table, knowing there is plenty for you!  Come – people of the north, the south, the east, and the west – draw close to the dinner table and know that you are welcomed with open arms.  The communion table is over-flowing with breads from many lands and grapes from our own vineyards.   Come – you who are hungering for love, acceptance and spiritual feeding.

(Doug plays 1 verse of #460 All Who Hunger)