The Gift of Humility” October 27, 2019 – 20th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

The Gift of Humility”

October 27, 2019 – 20th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

 

One day 2 men were walking along a busy sidewalk.  Looking at the 2 men, you notice that 1 wore an expensive business suit, and the other wore rags.  They were quite a contrast.  The well-dressed man walked with an air of pride, not paying much attention where he was going.  The poorly dressed fellow was huddled over, obviously quite cold.  All of a sudden, the 2 men collided.

The man in rags humbly apologized over and over.  The man in the suit cursed him and barked, “Watch where you are going!”  Then he stormed off without looking back, without apologizing, without even accepting the apology offered.

The man in rags apologized once more to the distant figure.  Then he slowly turned and trudged off.

To an observer, it was obvious that it wasn’t the fault of the man in rags.  The well-dressed man wasn’t looking where he was walking.  He ran into the poor man.  Clearly, if one was at fault it was the well-dressed man.  But he didn’t care!

When we hear a story like this, our thoughts and feelings can easily focus on the wealthy man – and likely we feel some anger and disappointment.

As we think about the poor man, the outcast, it is easy for us to feel proud of him.  This story parallels the parable recorded in the book of Luke about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  While the Pharisee praised himself, lifting himself above the others, the Tax Collector humbly bowed and said, “God, have mercy on me.”

Let’s be clear.  Tax collectors were not civil servants like tax auditors for the CRA.  They were independent owners of a franchise business.  They contracted with the Romans to collect taxes from their own people.  In return they kept a goodly percentage for themselves.  Many people of the time saw them as the scum of the earth.  They were detested.  The tax collector was a no-good , low-down, sleazy, used car salesperson type, who arm twisted people for money. He was a taker and not a giver.  They were rightly considered betrayers in cahoots with the occupying force. They were spiritual outcasts. As for the Pharisees, we need to give credit where credit is due.  They were genuine in their desire to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk”.  Theirs was a powerful lay renewal movement and their passion for righteousness was real.

But hold on.  this parable appears only in Luke and his intended audience is clearly stated in the opening sentence: “To people who were sure of their own goodness and despised everybody else.”  In religious observance and dedication to the Law of Moses, this Pharisee is depicted as the very pillar of the Jewish community.  He gives generously and prays continually, actually going beyond the letter of the law in his observances.  His fault lies, not in his quest to live within the Torah, but in his sense of superiority over others who couldn’t.  He counts himself as worthy before God and clearly sees this as a result of his own righteous actions.  He compares himself with others such as the tax collector and despises them for their “sinfulness.”  His prayer is boastful and self-righteous – full of extreme spiritual pride.  In contrast, the Tax Collector is all too aware of his shortcomings.  He feels unworthy and alone.  His profession isolates him from his fellow Jews.  He acknowledges his sinfulness and seeks God’s mercy.  Luke concludes: “Those who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who are humble will be made great.”  Most of us have no problem accepting that forgiveness is a gift from God – freely given and not earned or deserved or dependent upon individual worthiness.  The tax collector’s attitude of humility does not surprise us.  “And so he should!” most of us say along with the Pharisee.  What is never as clear is that “righteousness” or right relation with God is a gift too.  Both forgiveness and worthiness are blessings from God and can only be received with an attitude of humility and gratitude.  The Pharisee, despite all his religious correctness was not truly open to receiving God’s gift because his proud attitude masked his need.  In contrast, the tax collector had no problem recognizing his need and came ready to receive whatever gift God had to offer.

What does it mean to “walk humbly with our God?”  Perhaps a clue lies in the root word “humble” – that is humus or earth.  We are all inhabitants of the earth, dependent upon the earth when we die.  If we find ourselves blessed, and in a position to be pleased with our life, surely this is a matter for gratitude, not pride?  But then who among us can claim to be completely free of any trace of personal pride which causes us in some way to feel superior to others?  Is it possible to be fully ourselves before God, with all our shortcomings and inadequacies, and still be worthy in God’s eyes?  Could it be simply a matter of attitude?  What attitude might God be requiring of us, both as individuals and as a community of faith?  Before I address that, I want to point out that in Arabic the word for blessing and the word for rain are the same.  In a desert climate, blessing and rain are the same thing.

For years now, we have been warned about the dangers for climate change.  With an election just behind us, climate change was one of the “hot button” issues.  A 16 year old girl from Sweden spoke in a way and was heard in a way that even David Suzuki and other environmentalists can not match.  So, are we going to be like the tax collector and humbly go about doing our part in benefit of the planet?  Or, are we going to be like the Pharisee and make a lot of noise, but ultimately do little in actually effecting change on behalf of the environment?

How we live is as important as what we say.  We have all met or been a person whose words do not match up to the deeds.

In “The Quietness Book” Ray Ashford told this story, “I am reminded of a beautiful young woman, a renowned peace activist I once hosted for an afternoon.  I remember how much I looked forward to our meeting.  I remember too my disappointment when I found myself dealing with a crusader of the angriest and most arrogant kind – a woman who, in fact, was arrested only hours after we parted company.  The charge?  Kicking a police officer in the groin.”

As they say, “Actions speak louder than words!”

In the novel “Father Melancholy’s Daughter” tells this story: “A college professor, Trevor LaFarge, has fallen into disgrace.  Resigning from the Vestry, he continued to attend church and take communion.  His daughter Margaret describes how a certain lady sidled up to her father, the priest, at the first coffee hour after the disgrace.

On that occasion, Professor LaFarge had received communion but had foregone the socializing afterwards in the basement.  The lady confided to the priest.  “I was frankly surprised to see you-know-who at the communion rail today.”

The priest gave the woman a strange look before he replied.  “He’d better be there.  We need him.”

“I beg your pardon?” she asked.

“I said we need him,” the priest repeated.  “I say we’re lucky to have him.  The church has to have a few sinners.”  Then he quoted a verse of scripture.  “I am not come to call the righteous…” he said.  And then he added, “You-know-who said that.”

In one of the past churches I served, a group of us were talking about the fellowship of coffee time.  One woman courageously spoke up and said, “I disagree.  I find it to be a time of gossip.  I don’t feel included or safe saying anything personal.”  I broached the topic in a newsletter – and wow di I receive flack!  “We are a caring congregation,” said one.  “How dare you call us gossips,” said another.  But – in time I had several folk thanking me for my courage in naming an issue that had plagued that congregation for decades.

God calls us into a relationship that is both intimate and complex.  It is about more than simply doing the right things or praying the right prayers.  It is about seeing the world the way God sees it and responding with our whole selves.  Gossip is one of those fine line issues.  We mean well when we ask about another.  We intend well when we speak of a neighbour as failing.  And yet, it can too easily turn into a time of malicious slander.  I don’t think it was just the church from my past that struggled with the issue of gossip.  I think we all do.  For we are all Pharisees.  We are all tax collectors

We have reflected on a challenging parable.  We see ourselves in both caricatures.  And if we are honest, neither one makes us terribly comfortable.  But, we see clearly the door of humility open wide.  May we surrender ourselves to the path of kindness, open-heartedness, and gentle-spiritedness.  Amen.

 

 

”Persistence Pays Off” October 20 2019 – 19th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

”Persistence Pays Off”

October 20 2019 – 19th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

 

Rev. Bob Kaylor tells a story about a 3 year old boy named Scotty.  He is the youngest of 3 and has to fight to get heard over the general household chaos.  One day Bob was talking with Scotty’s mother when Scotty suddenly crawled up onto her lap, obviously in need of something.  The boy was persistent.  “Mommy, mommy, mommy, MOMMY!”  he whined.  But mommy was oblivious to the noise.  Then Scotty, realizing that simply making noise wasn’t going to work, he reached up and grabbed his mother’s face in both his hands.  Then he looked her right in the eye and said, “Mommy!”  he got her undivided attention.  At 3, Scotty had already learned an important truth – that the most effective communication takes place when we are face to face.  Bob said it this way, “True prayer is not about asking and receiving – it’s about crawling into God’s lap and seeking God’s face and resting in the knowledge that God will care for us.”

We have just heard _____ read the account of a persistent widow appearing before an unjust judge.  The persistent widow teaches us about yearning for change and modeling a healthy stewardship of commitment.  She shows us that seeking justice is really nothing more than wishful thinking if it is not attached to wise stewardship of our God-given gifts for justice-making.  The very nature of justice is such that it must go beyond theory.  It is not something we believe, it is something we do.

I am proud of the United Church of Canada’s commitment to justice on issues such as Canada’s response to climate change, residential school compensation, support of same-sex marriage, and improving race relations.  The United Church has knocked on the doors of policy makers in government many times over the years, adding to the rising swell of voices crying out for transformation and a more just world.

As I think about the persistent widow, I find myself wondering about her life story.  Is she a woman supporting children?  Does she have a way of supporting herself?  What is her health status?  Where are her friends?  What is her opponent?  Is it a misogynist community?  Is it poverty?  Is it a crippling illness?  Is it abuse at the hands of her in-laws?

The widow in this story requires no charity.  She demands admiration.  But it is not only persistence that is admirable in the widow who keeps hassling the unjust judge, demanding attention for her legal concern.  No!  Not only pathetic persistence!  The judge finally agrees to vindicate the widow out of fear that she will beat him up.  “She will wear me out,” says the judge.  This is not a woman to be pitied!  This widow, demanding the few legal rights she has, is a woman to be respected.  Persistence?  Yes!  Power?  Yes!  And yet powerless enough (she was a woman after all, and there are so many widows like her) that Jesus acted like a mother bear on their behalf.

Pablo Casals suggests: “Each person has inside, a basic decency and goodness.  If he/she listens to it and acts on it, he/she is giving a great deal of what the world needs most.  It is not complicated, but it takes courage.  It takes courage for a person to listen to their own goodness and act on it.”

Jesus essentially is making the point that, if an unjust judge can be moved by persistent appeals, how much more will God – who is wholly just and compassionate – be moved by the cries of the faithful?

Many of Jesus’ followers would be persecuted and even martyred for their faith, and Jesus wanted to prepare them for these tribulations.  They would need to be as determined as the widow, and to have an unshakeable trust in God’s care and defense of them, even when it seemed God had abandoned them.

Many people’s faith is shaken when bad things happen to them.  Few of us have not cried, “Why me, O God?”  Indeed, some people believe their faith is a shield against suffering.

Our Gospel passage ends with Jesus’ words, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Humanity comes, will he find faith on earth?”  It is a good question, is it not?

We live in a community that has a homelessness problem.  We live in a community that has a hunger problem.  We live in a community where too many people are crippled by mental illnesses or drug use problems and are living on the streets. We live in a community where too many people are living in poverty.  These people are coming to us and wanting us to do something positive.  I am sure they don’t want to have to use our stair wells as bathrooms.  I am sure they don’t want to be confronted by By-law officers and the RCMP on a daily basis.  And even though several affordable housing complexes will soon be accepting residents, not everyone will be housed. The Soupateria is no longer a safe place to get a noon meal.  So, many single parents and single women are reluctant to go there.  “What is the answer?” you ask.  I am a member of the Downtown Churches for Social Justice Committee.  It has expanded to include social service agencies, the RCMP, and other churches in Penticton.  We are working with local, provincial and federal government representatives, urging them to do their part in eradicating this injustice.  We are urging that more money be earmarked for affordable housing.  We have formed a food distribution hub, so that the hungry are not going from church to church for a hand-out.  We are working side by side with the RCMP.

Albert Einstein said; “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

For years I had a poster up in my office that said, “In Germany, they first came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.  Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.  Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.  Then they came for me – but by that time there was no one left to speak up.”

The whole image of God in this parable seems so bizarre.  If we just bug God long enough, God will change God’s mind.

Walter Wink, a noted theologian, talks about that in terms of the Lord’s Prayer.  He says you are meant to stand and yell it.  He says the Old Testament reading of prayer is that it is a demand, it is like saying “I believe in this and I want some action!”  And so, the story of the widow runs very much parallel to that.

Now, you could read this as saying something about God, that God does not pay attention.  But I think it is really asking something about us.  Are we convinced enough that God hears us?  Are we convinced enough that God hears us, to say things out loud?  Are we convinced enough to stand up in public and pray?  If so, will we be persistent?

It is not easy to be persistent.  Without the hope of something worth working for, it is easier to give up than consistently work for the compassion of God’s law to be realized.  On this Peace Sabbath it is important to uphold the hope of a world at peace and to persist in seeking the justice that will bring that hope to fruition.

May we hear this parable as a challenge from complacency.  May we feel challenged to stand up for justice.  And, may we pray fervently.  Amen.

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THANKSGIVING

SERMON FOR THANKSGIVING

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11          LUKE 17: 11-19

Hey!  Your guys.  Wait. Stop running, I can’t catch up to you.

Do you realize what’s happened?  Look at yourselves…go on look.  We’re clean.  There’s no open sores.  Look at your hands….your arms…your face…your legs.  There’s nothing there!  We are clean.  We have been healed.

Do you realize who that was?  That was the Messiah.  That was the one who came to heal all those with illnesses.  That Jesus is the one who will set free all those who are prisoners.

And that is us.  We needed to be healed, we needed to be set free and blessed by Jesus, we are!  We didn’t even know that Jesus was going to be around this area.

We have been truly blessed.  He just showed up.  And healed us.  We don’t even know him.  I mean we have heard about him.  It’s hard not to listen to those traveling through this area without hearing all those stories about Mary’s son, Jesus.

What a generous man he is.  He took the time to hear our pleas, and then he stretched out his hands, his clean hands and touched our dirty, open sores.                                                                                                                And when he removed his hands, there were no sores on our body.

Through his touch we have been given new life.  Our lives are now changed because of him.  Our lives have been wretched up until now.  I remember how when I was a child my family realized I was ill.  I wanted so much to help Mama that I ran up to her while she stood at the open fire.  I never saw that she was lifting off a pot of boiling soup.  When I ran up to her, it was just as she was turning, and the soup fell onto my arms and legs.  I cried, not because of the pain, but because I had caused Mama to spill our soup on the ground.  I felt no physical pain, just remorse at the accident.  I remember Mama and Papa wailing and crying and calling for priest.  None of my own family, neither my parents nor my brothers nor sisters would come near me.  No one would explain what was going on.  They just made me stay far away from them.  I just wanted to sit on Mama’s lap and hear her sing and rock me.  When the priest came, he banned me from entering the village or the temple ever again.  I was only 12.  I was left to fend for myself.  It was a few weeks later that some of you agreed to let me stay in your cave.  It was very lonely those first months. It was worse when you found out that I was actually from Samaria.  But then, you realized we all had leprosy, what did it matter where any of us came from?  We were all unclean in the eyes of the Lord.  I no longer had my Mama or Papa, instead I had a new family.  A family that cared for me.  You taught me new ways of living, ones that I had always been taught to despise.  You taught me how to beg…how to have a cracky whiny voice “Alms for the poor…alms for the poor.”, and how to reach my jar out in front of passersby at the city gate.

It broke my heart the first time I had to beg from my real family…and they just walked around me.  They didn’t even know I was their own child.

It was then I knew that I was alone, except for all of you.  Even when things were bad, somehow you made me laugh.  I will always be grateful for everything that you have taught me.  Most of all I am grateful for the love and acceptance you have given me.  May God bless you.

I forgot, God already has!  You have new life.  Isn’t it glorious!

Where were you running to when I caught up with you?  You were going back to you own real families.  Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t be caught dead with a Samaritan now, huh?

‘where was I?  Well, I was also running to my family, when I thought that maybe I should run back and thank the one who had made this new life possible for me.  It took me awhile to find the Messiah.  He is an amazing man isn’t he?

What did he say when I went back?  He was so kind.  He took my face in his hands and looked into my eyes, and all I could do was muster up a very weak thank you, and then I fell at his feet, my tears falling onto his sandals. He crouched down beside me, and kept stroking my head and back, saying “there, there, it’s all right now.  It’s all right now.  Your faith has made you clean again.”  I sat up and looked at him and said thank you again.

Then Jesus embraced me!

No one had touched me like that for almost 24 years!  The tears of joy overflowed again.  Then he stood up, dusted himself off, and then what he said, made me come back for all nine of you.  He said “weren’t there 10 of you?” I said, “Yes, Lord, there were.”  He looked around and then said “where are they?”  I said that maybe you had all run off to show the priest that you were now clean.  After all for some of you it has been over 30 years since you’ve been in a temple.  Jesus just shook his head and turned to walk away.

I asked him what was wrong.  “Are the other nine not as thankful as you?  Are they not grateful for the miracle God has performed in their lives?  Have they been forsaken for so long that they no longer have faith in the one who gave them life?”

I didn’t know what to say.  What could I say?  I just hung my head.  When I looked up again, Jesus was nowhere to be seen.  I called to him.  I wanted so much to follow him, and listen to his stories about people rejoicing over what they had found.  I realized we were not rejoicing over what we had found.

We have found life.  We have found the Messiah.  And if we do not praise God, and give thanks, we will lose him.  Do you want to lose him?  Do you?  I didn’t think so.

Then go.  Search for Jesus.  You will find him.  And when you do, give him thanks for what you have been given.  You will even receive more.  I know, what better thing have we been given than our lives, but there was something I could see in his eyes.  I’m not sure what it was, and I know I certainly don’t want to live without it.

We have had to beg for so long for what little we have been given that maybe we have lost out ability to thank God.  What do you think?

Yes, we need to go to the priest to prove that we have been healed, but we have waited so long to be able to go to the temple, what will another day or week matter?  What matters is our faith, and our willingness to be grateful.  You have been given so much, who do you find it so hard to say your thanks?

Don’t wait.  Don’t waste another moment in selfish gratitude.  Find Jesus, find the one who has given you life in abundance, and when you do, dance, sing, embrace him, just as his love and forgiveness has embraced you.

Where is he you’re asking?  If you look, you will find him.  Thanks be to God for all the many gifts of life we have received in the name of the Messiah, the Holy One.  Thanks be to God!!  Thanks be to God!!  Thanks be to God!!

 

 

 

”One of Billions” World-Wide Communion – October 6, 2019 – Year C

”One of Billions”

World-Wide Communion – October 6, 2019 – Year C

            Today is World-Wide Communion Sunday.  I’d like to take you on a brief tour of 3 communities around our magnificent world.

The news on May 8th, 2018 that confirmed cases of Ebola were present in the Equator Province of Democratic Republic of Congo just 50 miles outside the city of Mbandaka was paralyzing. The Ebola virus is one the deadliest on the planet with no known cure. That second Sunday in May, the Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo began to mobilize to increase awareness and equip medical facilities to treat the victims and contain the spread. Thankfully, by the second Sunday in August, the Ebola outbreak in the Equator Province was declared over because of the quick response by a cross section of local, national and international actors.

During the Ebola response, the Community of Disciples of Christ in Congo instructed local churches to take special precautions, such as halting the ritual greetings of handshakes and kisses on the cheek. Then there was communion.  How was the church going to protect parishioners while still conducting the weekly celebration at the Lord’s Table?

It would have been understandable if the church stopped offering communion, at least for a time. It was decided that communion would still take place, but in a different way than before.

To begin with, hand washing stands were placed outside each church in Mbandaka. When the time for communion came, the elders prayed over the elements as usual and then brought them down in front of the pulpit. The ushers dismissed each pew to proceed to the front of the church to wash their hands again and receive an application of hand sanitizer. Then they could partake of the bread and the cup, depositing the empty cup into a bucket, and returning to their pew. The process was smooth and was in no way disruptive to the overall worship experience.

This augmented process for conducting communion at Disciples of Christ parishes served as a powerful reminder for parishioners to remain vigilant during the outbreak. Communion highlighted the seriousness of the situation and the necessity to change behavior, providing a credible counter to voices of skepticism regarding the imminent danger of the virus. Therefore, communion became a source of the community’s resilience to overcome Ebola and prevent it in the future.

The world marveled at the how quickly the Ebola crisis in the Equator Province came to an end. Some credited the community’s isolation deep in the equatorial forest with containing the spread of the virus. The quick resolution can also be attributed to the community’s cohesion. A city of over 1 million people, lacking in many amenities and basic infrastructure, doesn’t simply emerge from a health crisis without strong associations, a sense of solidarity and mutual responsibility. The Lord’s Supper has been described exactly the same way… an expression of unity, of oneness in Christ and concern for one another.

Let’s hear a story from Haiti.  The Saturday morning service starts out the same as any Sunday service. The music is pouring out of every opening of the small building in Haiti.

Women, men and children, dressed in their “Sunday best,” quietly make their way to the open seats. The worship leader is at the pulpit, singing at the top of her lungs – all songs titles, and lyrics memorized – arms raised and swaying with the rhythm, there is a diverse age group and more often than not, all are singing without reservation

This Saturday service is a monthly routine to those attending, there is a buzz of anticipation, as today is La Sentsèn.  For the Protestant churches in Haiti, La Sentsèn is Kreyol for The Sacrament. They use this term to distinguish themselves from the Catholic Church’s communion service.

After about an hour of singing and praying one of the pastors comes up to preach. He is preaching about how Jezi Kri (Jesus Christ) died for our sins on the cross – for our salvation. There is such a sense of urgency to his words and prayers, one wonders if this is how Paul and Peter sounded to their congregations. Next, the pastè (pastor) comes to the pulpit to emphatically tell all about the importance of coming to receive the elements with a pure heart.

The deacons and pastors prepare the bread and wine while the preaching is happening. In Haitian churches, they do not wait quietly for the person speaking to complete their part and then move onto the next segment. There is an ebb and flow. People are still coming in, children are wandering from bench to bench and friend to friend, some are getting up to get water to drink, setting up to sing, etc .

About another hour later (time becomes irrelevant for these days), it is time to receive the bread and wine. As people line up to accept the communion, they begin to pull out little cards. The paper cards are their baptism certificates. In Haitian Protestant churches, one must be baptized before being allowed to participate in communion. Each time you receive the sacraments, one of the pastors will sign off on the card that you participated with them.

Next comes a feet washing ceremony.  There are bowls of all different shapes and sizes on the floor with towels and pastors standing in front of them. The bowls are filled with water. This is a grand ceremony!  Not all Haitian Protestant churches have a feet washing service in conjunction with La Sentsèn. Some churches only do it once a year.

Everyone continues in line up in front of the next open “station.” Eagerly, everyone comes forward, sits in front of a kneeled pastor, slides off their sandals and places their feet in the pastor’s hands. He gently scoops the cool water and pours it over the feet. One can’t help but notice the stark difference between the guests’ skin color and the size of their feet in the pastor’s large hands. The presence of God in this moment is palpable. After drying the feet gently, the recipient stands and the pastor holds their shoulders and states, ou te renmen. You are loved.

The La Santsèn experience is one of reconciliation. It is an example of unconditional love coupled with humility that allowed one to realize the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice. It is indescribable!

Now we move to Mexico.  During a recent “Roots in the ruins: hope in trauma” course with the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ and Congregational churches of México, participants were asked to write about a healing ritual in their congregations. A participant wrote the following:

“The  ritual of communion at the church of “La Reforma” in the state of San Luis Potosí, México is something beautiful I would like to share.  The children have the responsibility of serving the elements of communion.  We have a list with all the children, and every Sunday, one serves the bread, one the wine and another takes up and prays for the offering.  Each one prays for the elements, though sometimes we have to help them, and they also read a Bible text.  The children love this moment, and I believe that it has helped them be more self-confident and to feel like they are an important part of this church and community.”

Well, we have toured 3 countries and have experienced communion with 3 different groups of people.  In a few minutes we too will share communion.  Like we have done in past years we will share bread from many lands, reminding ourselves that Jesus is the bread of life for all people who seek his nourishing way.  The unifying message is Good News indeed!  We are one in Christ.  Amen.

”Joyous Giving” September 29, 2019 – Year C – 16th Sunday after Pentecost

”Joyous Giving”

September 29, 2019 – Year C – 16th Sunday after Pentecost

 

Two of my long-time friends were married in a Scarboro Ontario church about 15 or so years ago.  Just as Brian and Darren were about to exchange their vows a group of 3 or 4 scruffy men came into the church to check out what was going on.  Brian stopped the proceedings and invited the men to come in and take a seat and join in the festivities.  At the end of the wedding ceremony, the 4 men were invited to the reception.  Rides were arranged for them and everyone had a great time.   The 4 men didn’t bring gifts in the traditional sense, but they more than made up for it in the joy they brought to the gathering. They were some of the last to leave the party.

 

It is common to hear people say that money is the root of all evil.  If pressed on the source of this proverb, many people will point to the Bible, though they will most likely not be able to cite 1 Timothy 6:10.  And that is unfortunate, because this is perhaps one of the most misquoted verses in all of Scripture.  The Bible does not say that money is root of all evil.  Money is itself is not a problem:  The problem is what we do with it and how we view it.  What the writer of 1 Timothy actually says is that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”  There are 2 qualifiers there: 1st, it is the love of money that is the problem, not the money itself.  And 2ndly even the love of money is not the root of all evil but a root of all kinds of evil.  These points are significant, because this passage is not an attack on the rich for being rich but a warning to the rich (and those who seek to become rich) to make sure that they use their financial assets for good.  As the writers of the “Peoples Commentary” point out, the central claim in this passage is that money becomes a problem when it is seen as an end rather than a means to an end.  It is a “good servant, but a poor master.”

 

Milton Schwartzentruber writes in 2004, “No wonder we have such a strong attachment to money.  It permits us to do many things that are both pleasant and, yes, even good for us.  Vacations and travel can enhance mental health.  Being able to buy nutritious food permits our children to grow taller.  There is almost no end to the advantages of having money, just as there is almost no end to the disadvantages of having little.

1/3rd of the passages in the gospels have to do with wealth.  If one third of the sermons in our churches dealt with the dangers posed by the love of money, many ministers would get turfed out.   A few years ago I read a report on the average yearly givings of Canadian churchgoers.  Members of the United Church of Canada were near the bottom.  Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists were at the top.  Givings in Newfoundland, considered a poorer province in Canada, were higher than in Ontario, Alberta or B.C., the richest provinces in Canada.  Giving does not seem, to have much to do with the amount of resources available.  A strong sense of purpose and caring does.

At our February 2019 Congregational Annual Meeting, Our Finance Committee chairperson Colin MacDermott pointed out to us that if every regular giver gave an extra $82 per month, we would have no deficit this year.  I’m not sure how many people heard that challenge.  I am even less certain how many took up that challenge.  In today’s Bulletin material is a different take on the challenge.  It is a chart that identifies how many people fit in each giving level.  It invites you to step up a level.  For most of us, it would be quite easy to step up a level.   If you normally give $40 per week, you are encouraged to step up to the $41-$60 per week category.  If you give by PAR, just let Marianne know that you want to increase your monthly donation.

Many years ago I saw one of George Bernard Shaw’s play’s at Shaw theatre.  I have long forgotten the name of the play, but I have not forgotten one particular scene.  The character was outside and held a coin up to the sun and remarked that “you cannot see the sun when money gets in the way.”

The parable from Luke exists in several cultures and many versions.  The rich man was clothed in purple and fine linen, a description of the robes of the high priests as well as wealthy citizens.  The word used for feasting could be translated “gourmet meals.”  He had them every day, even on the Sabbath, which broke the Law of Moses.  His mind was closed to the demands of compassion, also a violation of the Law of Moses.  The sores on Lazarus were obvious, but the rich man has an even more serious problem or disease of which he is unaware.  In those days, food was eaten with the hands.  Wealthy folk wiped their fingers on bread and then threw it to the dogs.  It was this bread Lazarus came seeking.  Note who remains nameless in the story – a real role reversal for those society usually sees as nameless.

The rich man died and was buried.  Lazarus went to a feast in heaven while the rich man went to Hades, land of the dead.  What was the rich man’s sin?  He didn’t order unsightly Lazarus removed from his gate.  He had objections to Lazarus taking the bread thrown out for the dogs.  He wasn’t deliberately cruel.  The rich man’s sin was that he never really noticed Lazarus.  He accepted Lazarus’ poverty and illness and his own life of ease, as just the way life is.  He did not recognize that the gap between his life situation and that of Lazarus, had also caused a gap in his relationship with God

The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to help him. But Abraham, says the gulf between the, cannot be crossed now.  Now we begin to see some concern for, the rich, and toward others.  He begs Abraham to send someone back into the world to warn, others not to do what he has done.  Abraham declares that there are prophets among us every day if only we would listen.

On this final Sunday of our Stewardship month, we have heard our friends and neighbours speak of their commitment of giving.  Some have spoken about giving through PAR.  Others have talked about giving both locally and to the Mission and Service Fund.  I spoke about tithing.  All of these presentations have come from the heart.  Hopefully they have inspired and encouraged you to look at your own patterns of giving.

Today, I want to tell you about why I give.  When I was in my late teens and working part time while going to school, I gave basically pocket change.  I didn’t think much about how much I could afford to give, nor much about what the church needed.  But, one day I heard a stewardship appeal, much like this one, and I realized I had never looked at the money I had and considered what God was calling me to give.  So, here I was, all of 18 or so, and hearing the challenge to examine my weekly offering.  I calculated what I earned and figured out what 10% of my earning would be, and I started tithing.  Even through the years I was a student in University, when I was existing on bursaries and savings, I still tithed.  There were some very lean years.  But the church was my first expense I paid each month.  There were times I didn’t know how I was going to buy groceries, yet always a scholarship would arrive when I needed it most.  I continue to tithe, in a little different way today.  I give to the church, to some causes that augment what the church is not able to support, and I donate time and resources to causes I believe in.  So, for the past 46 years I have heard God’s call to give generously.  And I try to do that.

In a few minutes we will celebrate the end of stewardship month with a potluck lunch.  If you didn’t bring something, don’t worry, there is lots to eat.  We will give thanks for the abundance that God has provided.  We will look to our friends and neighbours and acknowledge that God has done marvelous things in Penticton United Church.  We are good and faithful stewards!  Amen.

 

”Discerning the Cost” September 8, 2019 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

”Discerning the Cost”

September 8, 2019 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

 

In the movie “Lion King”, there is a concept called “koona-me-tada”.  It basically means, don’t worry, be happy, do your own thing.  Simba, the lion cub, discovers this when he leaves home after he becomes convinced that he must kill his father.

Off on his own, he takes up with a wart hog and some other creature, and all they do is eat grubs and play.  A long time later, he is discovered by his friend, a female cub he used to play with.  Simba tries to explain this concept to her.  She says to him, “But you were called to be the king.”

Finally, with the help of the monkey who is kind of like a priest in this movie, Simba decides to go back.  “If I am going to be the king, I have to go back and face up to what I did.  I have to face up to my community, my family, and be responsible to them.”

That’s what discipleship calls us to.  We roll around with the grubs and the wart hogs, or we answer the call to be what God calls us toward.

In today’s scripture, sayings on the cost of discipleship are addressed to the large crowds following Jesus.  He was on the road to Jerusalem, aware of mounting tension, and travelling with many who did not realize the implications of following him on that path.  The saying about “carrying your cross” reminds us that both storyteller and listeners know the outcome of the story and are aware of what this might mean for those who choose to be his disciples.

Jesus’ followers are told they must hate their family if they want to come with him.  The Greek word that is translated as “hate” is miseo.  It does not carry a sense of anger or hostility but rather is an indication of priority.  If a choice has to be made between discipleship and family loyalty or discipleship and possessions, Jesus’ followers must be prepared to let their attachments go.  Like the examples of the tower-builder and the king going to war, the saying about family is about considering the demands of discipleship before making the commitment.  Jesus wants those who would journey with him to give heart and soul to the enterprise.

If our yearning for and accumulation of wealth has been the organizing passion of our life, a recalculation is required to enter a community, characterized by Luke, as one sharing possessions.  Jesus is all about truth-telling and this is some of his best material.  He speaks the hardest truth of all – that even the people we are closest to can hold us back from achieving our best potential.

About 20 years ago I had the privilege of offering support to a devoted Mennonite woman.  Over the course of numerous weeks, I came to learn about her pattern of faith-filled giving to her church.  If she made a discretionary purchase, she also gave the same amount of money to her church.  If she gave a gift to her children or grandchildren a corresponding monetary gift was given to the church.  These financial gifts were over and above her weekly 10% tithe.  When I asked her why she was so generous, she paraphrased today’s scriptural text.  She reminded me that she is called to place discipleship above possessions.

As we hear today’s passage it sounds as if Jesus was losing patience with his more insistent fans.  Maybe he too was plagued by Paparazzi!  He turned to the crowds and told them off.  The sharpness and tone seemed designed to shock them, to cut through fan club adulation.

Jesus himself did not, apparently practiced what he preached.  His mother was at the cross.  One of his brothers succeeded him as leader of the Jerusalem church.  That doesn’t sound like a family divided by hate.  Instead they are loyal followers of Christ.

The rest of the reading says, “Read the fine print!  Don’t follow me unless you understand what I expect of you.”  Do a cost-benefit analysis.  Know what you’re getting into.  Then- and only then – commit yourself to this cause.

The cost of discipleship is complete surrender to Jesus and a willingness to put God first, above all else.

Today’s stewardship theme is PAR – Pre-Authorized Remittance.  We have heard our friends and neighbours tell us why they prioritize the church in their financial management.  One of the ways that one can ensure that their ongoing donation is received is by signing up for PAR.  On the 20th of each month the designated amount is withdrawn from your bank account and credited to the church. Even if you are away for a period of time, the church receives your offering.  You save having to write cheques.  And a steady flow of money comes into the church account.  It makes budgeting easier for our finance committee.

One church I am familiar with in Central Ontario has done an educational campaign about PAR and now has every member on PAR.  It is a church about our size, and it has limited financial worries due to the commitment of its devoted members.

I encourage you to consider enrolling in PAR if you are not already.  Forms are available on the welcome table.

I have heard it said, and I am sure you have too, that a Minister should never preach about money.  If that were true, a significant part of scripture would be eliminated.  Jesus was certainly not afraid to talk about money.  Money is no more or no less important a topic than faithfulness, discipleship and grace.  Did you know that there are 2,000 verses in the Bible that talk about tithing, money and possessions?  A full 25% of Jesus’ words deal with Biblical stewardship.  Nearly ½ of the Gospel parables deal with money and possessions.  And a final statistic for you – 10% of the verses in the Gospels talk about money.  So, it is no wonder that Minister’s preach about money.  If we didn’t there would be little else left to preach about.

So, my friends, we have examined a difficult scriptural passage.  We have been challenged to put our money where our faith is.  We have heard about the value of PAR and have been gently encouraged to participate in that way of giving.  I close this message by inviting you to examine your priorities.  Is discipleship 1st in your life?  That is Jesus’ call to each one of us.  May it be so.  Amen.

”Money Talk” September 1, 2019 – 12th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

”Money Talk”

September 1, 2019 – 12th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

 

Motivational speaker, Sam Keen, began a workshop held in the United States, by passing around a plate and asked everyone to put a dollar bill on it.  Then he set it in the middle of the group and set it on fire.  No explanation.  He just burned the whole plate full of money.

A while later, he passed the plate around again, and this time some of the participants were really reluctant to put the dollar in, but they did anyway.  Then Sam took the plate full of money and gave it to one of the participants.  “It is yours,” he said.  “No, you don’t have to give it back, and you can spend it on whatever you like.  Just take it.”

Same passed the plate around for the 3rd time.  No explanation.  Just put a dollar on the plate.  When he had the plate full of dollar bills, he shoved them all in an envelope and said that he was sending them off to a favorite charity.

Finally, Sam Keen passed the plate around a 4th time, again demanding a dollar from each participant.  This time he grabbed the whole plate full of bills and shoved them in his pocket.  No explanation.  Some of the group was boiling mad by this time.

At the end of it all, the group talked about money, and how they felt about it.  Everyone realized that money was far more than just currency.  It symbolized a whole host of things, from power to envy to greed, and all the way around again.  Everyone in that group had a pile of feelings about that money, and they were not entirely proud of all of those feelings.  Especially the way money symbolized their sense of status.

Today we begin Stewardship month.  We have already heard members of our congregation tell us about their financial sharing practices.  By listening to our brothers and sisters of faith we catch a glimpse of their beliefs and commitment to God.  We also are privileged to have a mirror held up to us, so that we might examine our own giving practices.

“Look at me, Mommy,” cried the little child.  “See how high I can swing.”  “Look at us, God, see how generous we can be.”

It was a voice that rose high over the neighbourhood playground that Saturday morning.  But in the child’s words were a whole view of life shared by most of us on the playground that morning, children or adults.  Look at me.  See how high I can go.

Each time we lay our offerings on the offering plate we express our gratitude to God and our willingness to serve generously.  We do it inconspicuously.  There is no great fanfare.  There is just the simple devotion expressed as we sing and pray the doxology.

Our Gospel text focuses on how we treat others.  Both the host and guests are reprimanded for selfishness.  Trying to make ourselves number 1, and giving only to receive, oppresses the needy, contradicts Christ’s example, and ultimately leads to humiliation. The passage from the letter to the Hebrew people is ethical and moralistic.  It commands to love fellow believers, welcome strangers, visit prisoners, honour marriage, not love money, and remember church leaders all the while offering acceptable worship to God.  It becomes obvious that true worship occurs in our daily living of how we treat each other and how we conduct ourselves financially and sexually.

As we delve deeper into our Gospel text we see it as a tale about humility.  At a dinner party Jesus watches the guests jockeying for position, all wanting the most privileged spot.  He says to those who are there, “Don’t grab the best seat.”  He speaks to hosts as well as guests, “Think about your motivation!  Extend your hospitality not to those who can repay you or do you good (so much for power lunching!) but to be hospitable to those who can’t – the poor, the lame, and the blind,”

We are reminded once again that those whom we often exclude have an important place within God’s realm.  In God’s realm, we are all guests, not by right or by worthiness, but by invitation.  God’s generous gift of love calls forth from us an equally generous response towards God and others, as we live daily in God’s realm.

It is because of scripture passages such as this that I am so committed to giving to the Mission and Service fund.  By giving to the M&S fund I am assured that those in need receive care and compassion.  Projects that receive M&S funding ensure that equality is a given.  That is the kind of world I dream about.

The founder of the Habitat for humanity movement, Millard Fuller, changed the world we live in by trading in his life of prestige and power for one of self-giving love.  Lives all over the globe have been transformed by the habitat experience.  In the building of homes that give families a hand up in the world, tangibles such as hammers and nails are transformed into a mysterious and almost sacramental grace.

A church youth group held a car wash, not to raise money, but just to be a good witness in the community.  It was their free way of helping people with no strings attached.  The teens were told ahead of time by church leaders that they weren’t to take any money (no personal tips), and if someone asked what their motive was or “what the catch was,” they were simply to respond, “there is no catch, we just want to serve our community.”  Throughout the day several conflicts developed as a few car owners insisted they pay for the wash.  Some were even offended when their money was refused, and in 2 cases the teens had to take a donation to avoid hostility.  This payment/reward culture can view a free gift as scandalous.

These young people got what the letter to the Hebrews was trying to say.  They got it when it said, “Keep your lives free from the love of money.”  The youth-group  realized that money was to be put to good use.  And they did just that!   Will we do any less?

Our food packs that we hand out to the hungry is a great example of this church’s commitment to “keep your lives free from the love of money.”  We hand out small snacks of granola bars and puddings, that help the hungry make it until they can get to the Soupateria.  We are generous in our outreach.  Our hundreds of prayer shawls that are handed out to the bereaved, hurting, and ill are a further example of extravagant giving.  Our openness in conducting memorial services for all, is a reminder that one need not pass a means test to receive care and compassion from this church.

Grace transforms our obedience to Christ from “we have to” to “we get to” – from “we are bound to” to “we are free to.”
I like the story historians tell about the funeral of Charlemagne.  Charlemagne was the greatest Christian rulers of the early Middle ages

After his death, a mighty funeral procession left his castle for the cathedral at Aix.  When the royal casket arrived, with a lot of pomp and circumstance, it was met by the local bishop, who barred the cathedral door.

“Who comes?” the bishop asked, as was the custom.

“Charlemagne, Lord and King of the Holy Roman Empire,” proclaimed the Emperor’s proud herald.

“Him I know not,” the bishop replied.  “Who comes?”

The herald, a bit shaken, replied, “Charles the Great, a good and honest man of the earth.”

“Him I know not,” the bishop said again.  “Who comes?”

The herald, now completely crushed, responded, “Charles, a lowly sinner, who begs the gift of Christ.”

To which the bishop, Christ representative, responded, “Enter!”

May we all remember who we are and to whom we belong.  May we be extravagant in our loving.  May we be generous in our giving.  May we be faithful in our living.  Amen.

”God’s Invitation” August 25, 2019 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

”God’s Invitation”

August 25, 2019 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

 

 

As I look over any congregation, I am extra sensitive that there are several women sitting in the pews who have experienced the horrors of abuse.  They may be in partnerships where they feel trapped due to the violence imposed on them.  Some may have lived through the soul-destroying experience of childhood physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.  Also, there are men who have been dehumanized due to abuse. These are God’s children who are bent over with the weight of shame and pain.

The Gospel of Luke tells the powerful story of a woman who is set free from something that has afflicted her, weighted her down, and bent her over for 18 years.  The Greek word that is used means to set free rather than to heal a disease.  We are not told what has oppressed this woman, we know only that she cannot look up.  Luke does not say that she approached Jesus.  Instead, Jesus speaks to her, “Woman, you are free from your affliction.”  Somehow, she can trust these words of Jesus, stands up straight and praises God!

The bent-over woman has become an important image to women, as she resembles the many women who arrive at the doors of “safe shelters” in countless communities, every day.  Jesus did more than perform a Sabbath healing and challenge synagogue leaders.  He also challenged an entire social system that saw women as possessions to be treated and mistreated at will.  He lifted this woman up with love and dignity and tore down the dehumanizing forces of evil that had disabled her.  Jesus’ challenge to the status quo upset the synagogue leader, but he does not deal with Jesus directly.  Instead, he responds by speaking to the crowd about broken Sabbath laws.  Jesus becomes angry and calls them all hypocrites.  They have no problem untying a donkey and taking it to get a drink of water on the Sabbath, yet, freeing this “daughter of Abraham” seems to have been an unworthy act.  The term “daughter of Abraham” is an unusual one, and, shows Jesus’ deep respect and concern for the dignity of women.  He had come to the synagogue to worship, and, had ended up confronting injustice.  But then, that is what worship prepares us for isn’t it?

It was a very busy intersection and an elderly gentleman was slowly making his way across the street when his legs gave way and he could not proceed.  A woman stopped her car in the middle of the road and went to his aid.  He was too heavy to move.  Another 2 people rushed toward him and lifted him in their arms and crossed safely to the other side.  Some drivers pressed down hard on their car horns admitting their frustration at being held up at a crosswalk.

Hearing this story we recognize that both of today’s scripture texts speak to our choice to respond or not respond to a call to service.

We are called to confront injustice, to free the oppressed and give them respect, love and their dignity.  God lifted the sights of Jeremiah who thought he was just a child and therefore unable to speak on God’s behalf, and Jesus lifted the woman so she could see her true worth as a “daughter of Abraham”.  Jeremiah and Jesus responded to a call to service and moved from what was safe to the unknown and unpredictable.  What acts of freedom and compassion is God calling us to, I wonder?

Jesus is not afraid to touch the sordid places of our world that need healing.  We have seen people who are so engulfed in grief that they are mere shadows of their former selves.  We have seen churches so fractured by power struggles that they have torn apart.  We have seen neighbourhoods so torn by the drug trade that violence has led to deaths of children.  We have seen women who have tried to cover their bruises with makeup and concealing clothing, all so their family and neighbours won’t know that their partner beats them.  We have seen all this.

And Jesus walks right up to the grieving person and cradles them with love.  Jesus enters the church and rather than taking sides calls forth reconciliation.  Jesus walks up to the drug pusher and teaches him about grace.  Jesus takes the hand of the beaten woman and leads her to SOWINS.  We have seen all this.  We stand up straight.           Can you imagine not being able to look up and see a sunrise or sunset?  Can you imagine not being able to look up and see the clouds floating by?  Can you imagine not being able to look up and see the eyes of your 6 foot tall son?

The story describes the transformation and liberation of a woman who 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 women.  She cannot “look up,” She is without hope.

From the darkness of exile from himself, Kirk Maynard Gull walked timidly toward Jonathan Livingston Seagull, wobbling across the sand, dragging his left wing, to collapse at Jonathan’s feet.  “Help me,” he said very quietly, speaking in the way that the dying speak.  “I want to fly more than anything else in the world…”

“Come along then,” said Jonathan.  “Climb with me away from the ground, and we’ll begin.”

“You don’t understand.  My wing.  I can’t move my wing.”

“Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way.  It is the Law of the Great Gull, that Law that Is.”

“Are you saying that I can fly?”

“I say you are free.”

As simply and as quickly as that, Kirk Maynard Gull spread his wings, effortlessly, and lifted into the dark night air.  The Flock was roused from sleep by his cry, as loud as he could scream it, from 500 feet up; “I can fly!  Listen!  I CAN FLY!”

By sunrise there were nearly a thousand birds standing outside the circle of Jonathan’s students trying to understand Jonathan Seagull.

He spoke of simple things – that it is right for a gull to fly, that freedom is the very nature of being, that whatever stands against that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation in any form.        (Richard Bach – “Jonathan Livingston Seagull, 1970)

Jesus never fails to meet people where they are, exactly how and who they are.  For him, no one is a lost cause – no one is expendable.  The woman bent by life’s burdens for so long was, during that brief encounter, the most important person in Jesus’ life.  I find that profoundly comforting.

It is also deeply challenging.  Our death-denying society is fearful of the things in life that bring us low and weigh us down with sorrow and memories.  We can easily be drawn into hurrying others through their pain and grief, as much for our own comfort as for theirs.  But Jesus doesn’t ask the bent woman to straighten up her act and get over herself before she comes seeking his touch.  He throws caution to the wind and makes her needs the priority of the moment.

Being with someone who is in pain is uncomfortable.  We often feel helpless in the face of inner wounds that cannot be bandaged or easily healed, but Jesus invites us to stay in that uncomfortable place.  This is where human suffering and the love of Jesus meet, and while it may be messy, it is holy ground, to be honoured above all else.

I can’t help thinking of the church office helpers who have come in on Thursday noon hours.  They have helped to fold the bulletins and do other easy tasks that Marianne assigns.  These helpers have included Evelyn who was with us for over 25 years, and Karen who is currently with us.  These special women bring unique talents and interests that make the two hours each week fly by.  While it is true that they have some cognitive challenges, they are funny, talkative, and conscientious workers.

I don’t know if any of you remember the TV show ‘Cheers.”  On the 200th episode celebration there was a clip that involved Coach and his daughter.

Coach’s daughter comes to visit, and the 2 of them are talking in the back room where they can have some privacy.  The daughter says to Coach, “Dad, I’m ugly.”

Coach looks at her for a minute. And then replies, “You’re not ugly!  You’re beautiful!”  Then he pauses as if he’s thinking and sys, “You look just like your mother!  I never realized that before!”

“I know I do,” says the daughter. “I’m, the exact image of my mother, and whatever Mom was, she wasn’t …”  She was going to say, “She wasn’t beautiful,” but, watching the face of her father, she knows how much it would hurt him, and so she doesn’t say it.

Coach is still lost in his own thoughts, and he continues, “Your mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, and you look just like her!”  He is so intense, earnest, and convincing that his daughter begins to believe him.

Slowly a light goes on in her face.  She begins to smile, and she asks, “Am I beautiful, Dad?  Am I really?”

“Yes,” says Coach. “You really are!”

May we know ourselves as beautiful, upright, free people who God loves deeply.  Straighten up everyone.  We are no longer bound!  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

”Reading the Signs” August 18, 2019 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

”Reading the Signs”

August 18, 2019 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

 

 

God comes first.  Let me repeat that in case you didn’t understand.  God comes first.  Not after your partner.  Not after your children.  But first, all the time.  Every-time.  God comes first.  Now, you have to agree that Jesus certainly knows how to get our attention.  We can’t help but sit up and take notice.  God comes first.  This is not an appeal for individual devotion.  It is about freeing ourselves from everything that gets in the way of our relationship with the Holy.  Yes, even those attachments as deeply entwined and essential as family.  God comes first.

Wow!  This is a hard concept to hear, let alone put into practice.  We have been raised to put family first.  Our wedding vows acclaim that we will put our partner first.  Many occupations insist that the job comes first.  It is into this reality that Jesus’ words come across as incongruent to 21st century living.

Jesus dismantles the illusions of safety and security we have put in place to help us sleep at night and bring us “peace.”  Jesus did come to reinforce our illusions.  What we call peace may only be a momentary deal made with our psyche not to acknowledge the lesser gods we idolize.  Those gods may be money, possessions, or the people we love.  Jesus says, “no.”  “God comes first.”  It becomes increasingly clear that this is no cushy desk job Jesus has called us to.  This is costly discipleship.

To peel away the blinders and recognize that our lives and relationships are richer when we put God first is to grow up spiritually.  In doing so, we recognize that the promise of God in Jesus Christ is the only true assurance we have.  Everything else pales by comparison.

Harriett Buell was the daughter of a wealthy American Industrialist.  She had everything she wanted as a young woman.  During one visit to New York City, Hattie and a fried came across a tent meeting of Christian evangelists.  She and her friend entered the tent just for laughs, and for the purposes of meeting a few interesting people, but left the tent having heard a life-changing message to which she responded.  The city newspapers carried the story the next day, “Harriet Buell walks the Sawdust Trail,” reporting her conversion to faith in Christ.  Her father read those headlines, and was furious.  This was a great embarrassment to the Buell family name.  When Hattie got home, he confronted her and asked her to retract the story the next day in the newspaper.  The request he made was really a threat, for if she did not withdraw her public confession of Christ as Lord within 24 hours, she would be asked to leave the family mansion, and all her inheritance with it.  After Hattie had spent a night in thought and prayer, she met her dad coming down the stairs.  Putting her arms around her father, she said, “Father, I love you dearly, but I love Jesus more.”  “You have made your decision then, he replied, and with that, she left a home of privilege in the lap of luxury.

Later, Harriett wrote a song expressing her choice to follow Christ, even at the expense of her family, entitled “A Child of the King.”  The last from over there.  Though exiled from home, yet still I may sing; All glory to God, I’m a child of the King.”

As profound as the story of Harriett Buell, the Gospel text of today gets to us.  It seems to be filled with images of destruction and catastrophe, of family breakups and divine judgement.  Oh sure, it is a smorgasbord of images and a landscape of visual concepts including fire, baptism, a fight within the family and an observation on the perceptive skills of weather watchers.  For us as 21st Century Christians, we understand the imagery of fire and baptism, but are rather startled by Christ’s comments on family dynamics.

Division and strife within families 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 Kingdom of God.

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 chose 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 almost 40 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.

As we look again at the reading from Luke, it makes clear the high cost of discipleship and the faithfulness that will be required of Jesus’ disciples.  There are no soothing words here as Jesus declares; I came to set the earth on fire” (the fire of judgment and of cleansing), “I bring division, and peace,” Jesus knew that before there could be the true peace of Shalom, there would need to be much upheaval.  At the time of Jesus’ birth, old Simeon foresaw the confrontations that Jesus’ life and work would bring about, and John the Baptist spoke of the baptism of fire that the Messiah would introduce.   These are strong words and images.  For the early church facing persecution, Jesus’ words bring the comfort of his understanding.  And they are helpful for us too as we struggle to be faithful in the issues of our time.

How do we deal with the divisions that appear when peace activists from our congregation picket a company making armaments parts which many of our townspeople and congregation work for, or our environmentalists confront our logging and mining executives?  We can respond to these crises out of fear, or as an opportunity for growth.  What about our position on recycling, reducing and reusing, when some in our community refuse to believe that global warming is real?  Sometimes, we wish our eyes hadn’t been opened.

Jesus goes on to say how observant and astute people are in discerning the weather, but how unable they are to deal with the meaning and needs of their present age, and the coming of Shalom.  We know well the danger in the crisis of our time. Can we also see the opportunities?  May God grant us the courage not to sell our birthright but to labour faithfully in the building of God’s new community.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr says, “I am not surprised that most prophets are itinerants.  Critics of the church think we preachers are afraid to tell the truth because we are economically dependent upon the people of our church.  I think the real clue is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom on has learned to love.”  I agree.  It is hard to stand before you and preach a sermon like this one.  It is not soft and full of love and kindness.  There are hard things I am announcing to you. Prophets have always been strident and a little crazy.  They’ve needed to be.

The prophet Deborah wouldn’t have beaten the tar out of the Canaanites by issuing directives from her living room any more than Moses would have gotten his people out of Egypt by writing letters to the Vancouver Sun.  The truth I proclaim today is God comes first.  Are you prepared to live your life in this way?  May it be so.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

“It’s About Being Prepared” August 11, 2019 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

“It’s About Being Prepared”

August 11, 2019 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C

 

There is a story about a person who was not much of a handyman but tried hard nonetheless.  He decided to save some money and change the oil in his car himself.  He prepared very carefully for this “big event.”  He went to the store and bought a pair of vehicle ramps to run his car up on.  They were on sale for only $27.95.  Next he bought a special mechanics “creeper” so he could roll under his car.;
The ‘creeper” cost $15.95.  He decided it would be best to get a special flat oil pan which cost $3.50.  And he got a super special oil-can spout, guaranteed not to leak for only $2.95.  He bought a special oil-filter, wrench, $3.25 and of course the filter itself, $5.49.  So far, he had invested $59.09.  He then drove his car up those special ramps, took out the oil plug and drained the oil into the special pan.  He unscrewed the oil filter and replaced it .  Suddenly he realized with all his preparations, he had forgotten to get the oil.  No problem.  The Walmart was only 2 miles away.  So, he simply started up the car, backed it off the new ramps and drove towards the Walmart.  Cost of engine overhaul – $895.00.  Total cost of the oil and filter change – $954.09.

With that picture in our minds, let’s jump to the Hebrew scripture text.  The letter to the Hebrews comes from an unknown author, is addressed to a Christian community that has grown passive in their faith.  The chapter begins by defining faith as an inner conviction within a person that is not accompanied by tangible evidence, “assurance of things not seen,”  it says.  The following verses name some things that faith does, and goes on to give examples of things that have been accomplished in history because of faith.  Where are we being called to go?  Are we aware of unexplored places in our lives that need to be visited?  Who are some women and men whose active faith has encouraged you?  Where has your faith taken you?

Perhaps your faith has pulled you into approaching some of your neighbours and you formed a neighbourhood clean-up group.  Perhaps your faith has directed you to get together with some like minded friends and study the Truth and Reconciliation report.  Perhaps your faith has nudged you to sign up for an international working experience in a developing country.  Perhaps you made a pilgrimage to a Holy site.

The letter of Hebrews offers a wonderful recitation of people who have been faithful down through history.  They are people whose lives expressed “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  They were faithful stewards of the vision and promises of God.  Abraham and Sarah left their homeland to journey to an unknown land that God had promised to their descendants, and they continued to believe in the promise long after Sarah had passed child-bearing age.  And although they died before they saw the promise totally fulfilled – descendants as numerous as the stars or grains of sand – they had the vision of what would be, and that was enough to be faithful stewards of the present moment.  Their lives were focused not on the past and what had been, but on God’s future in which they trusted.

Do you hear the repetitive refrain: “By faith…By Faith…By Faith.”   As we hear this directive, we find ourselves wondering, how?  Mary Hyatt writes, “Come now, let us argue it out.  Faith is a process that we work at all our lives.  It’s our dialogue with God.  Our faith is a dialogue with God and our living is a dialogue with the world.”

A wealthy woman, once felt that God was calling her to the religious life.  She thought she would be able to give up everything in order to follow Christ, with one exception.  She had a garden that was very important to her.  It was a place for her to be alone, to be at peace with herself and to find refreshment.  She was unwilling and unable to give up the key to her secret garden.  Her privacy was too precious even to share with God.

Are you willing to give up your garden so that you might follow Christ?  Will you give up 3 coffees a week and give that corresponding amount of money to your church offering?  Will you engage a street person in meaningful conversation each time you walk by one?  Will you invite three persons to church, sometime this year?

If someone had come up to Jesus when he was on the cross and asked him if it hurt, he might have answer like the man in the old joke, “Only when I laugh.”  But he wouldn’t have been joking.  Faith dies, as it lives, laughing.

Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than a possession.  It is an–on-again–off–again rather than once-and-for-all.  Faith is not being sure where you are going but going anyway.  A journey without maps.  Tillick, a 20th century theologian, said that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.

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 on 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.

That brings to mind the wonderful movie “Dead Poet’s Society.”   “Seize the day” is the advice given by Mr. Keating to his students in this wonderful movie of the 1990’s.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” reads vs 35 in the Gospel of Luke  chapter 12.  Be prepared!  Start your engines!  Ready, set, go!

Jesus is giving instruction to the disciples about what they are to do after he is gone.  Above all else, they are to be active in living out their faith.  This faith is based on trust in God, who will take care of them.  We are reminded that where we invest our lives – our time, our energy and talents, our money – is where we will be focused.  If our primary concern is to serve ourselves and amass personal possessions, we have little time for God or others.  If, on the other hand, we invest ourselves in God and God‘s realm, we are freed to live our faith.

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 own 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.

Are we prepared to see Christ in our neighbor who is living with cancer?  Or in the teenager whose life on the street is safer than the home she ran away from?  Are our hearts and spirits prepared to respond faithfully to the needs of the day?

We are only able to see and meet the needs around us when we place our love for God above all else.  This is where our hearts need to be, embraced in the treasure of God’s grace, ready to love and serve God’s grace, ready to love and serve Jesus – wherever we meet him.

Throughout this passage Jesus speaks to the disciples about a different kind of wealth – investments that cannot be stolen, will not wear out, or deteriorate.  They are asked to share what they have and not be anxious about financial security.  Their true wealth is of a different kind.  The passage reminds us that where we place our investments – our time, our energy, and talents, our money – is where our life will be focused, and will show what we truly believe in.  Jesus’ followers are left as stewards of the new community until Jesus comes again.  They must 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 own lifetime.  We are reminded 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.

We are people who have been gifted in so many ways.  Do our grandchildren and neighbours see us living lives of thanksgiving and trust in God’s future?  What is our vision?  Are we faithful stewards of God’s gifts and promises?  Are we blissful about the coming age?

One of my colleagues preached a wonderful sermon about heaven.  He said heaven is the response to the question that we’re born asking, which is, “Do you love me?”  We ask our mothers and fathers if they love us; we ask that by crying when we’re babies.  It’s a question we ask constantly of the people around us.  Do you love me?  Do you love me?  But really, it’s an ultimate question.  Does God love me?  And we ask God every day of our lives in one way or the other, “Do you love me?”  Heaven is the response that comes back that says, “Yes, I love you.”

Victor Frankl made 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’s heaven.

May we live each day fully.  May those who encounter us experience God’s grace.  And may we be blessed with deep faith.  Amen.