Sunday, September 30, 2007

Pentecost 18 - Year C

Someone once said that if you want to find out who the Christians are, just ask the poor. They’ll be able to tell you.

That’s the challenge that’s thrown at our feet in today’s gospel reading. Jesus wants us to help poor people. That’s no surprise. We’ve heard that so many times that maybe that message has grown as stale a week-old-mug-of-beer. Luke can’t stop talking about poor people. He’s like your obnoxious hippie cousin who still lives in the summer of love, even though he was born in 1978.

Luke is suggesting that our salvation has something to do with how we treat those who need our help.

At least that’s what it sounds like in today’s gospel. To get a sense of the priority Jesus places on helping poor folks, just look at this text. This is the only place in scripture where Jesus identifies someone explicitly before sending them to Hell.

And it’s not because he didn’t have faith in Jesus. It’s not because he wasn’t baptized. It wasn’t because he couldn’t keep his zipper zipped.

The rich man is sent to Hell because he ignored a poor person who needed help.

It’s a hard story to listen to. Where most of the world lives on less than $2.00 a day, this story is directed squarely at us.

This is rich vs poor. There’s no getting around it. And Jesus sets up the story in a way that would make Rush Limbaugh’s head explode.

“There was a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. But at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”

Talk about laying it on thick. A rich guy with delusions of royalty vs a sick, hungry, person lying on the street.

You might be thinking, so the guy’s rich. What’s wrong with that? This guy’s done very well for himself. He worked like a dog to earn every penny. Why should he be penalized for hard work and good financial judgment?

Before Sean Hannity could accuse Jesus of inciting class warfare, it gets better – or worse – depending on where you’re standing.

The rich guy dies and is sent to Hell. The translation we use –the NSRV - calls the place “Hades” - the more linguistically correct if less provocative name for Hell.

You know the rest of the story. The rich guy, lit up like Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, tries to cozy up to Abraham, who seemed to be in charge of the place, so he’d be freed from his eternal heat blisters.

When Abraham denies him even the smallest relief, the rich man begs Abraham to send him back home to warn his family about the perils of being such a tight wad.

But Abraham isn’t buying any of it. “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them. That should be enough.”

In other words, if they want to escape everlasting burn marks they just need to read their bible at least as often as the Financial Post. Then they’d know what God wants them to do.

But the rich guy ups the ante. “But maybe seeing me back from the dead will freak them out into repenting.”

However, before Bill O’Reilly can cut his microphone, Father Abraham snaps back, “I doubt it. If they don’t listen to scripture, neither will they listen to someone who’s come back from the dead.”

(Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. He’s REALLY talking about Jesus. It’s called “foreshadowing.”)

Again, the rich man is in Hell because he ignored a poor, suffering, person camped out on his doorstep when he could have done something about it. But this rich guy kept the clamp on his wallet while stepping over the stinking mess of humanity at his feet.

This passage is about money. But it’s also NOT about money.

Probably one of the most misquoted lines of scripture is verse 10 of today’s second reading. “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Maybe you move in different circles but I always hear people say “Money is the root of all evil,” not merely the love.

But the word “love” is the escape clause. I can always say, “Well, I don’t LOVE money. Money’s not the boss of me. I don’t bathe in it. Or sleep with it. I’m not obsessed with it. So, I’m safe.”

But what got Paul’s collar starched were people walking away from their faith because they felt that Jesus couldn’t give them the life they wanted. Paul kept on talking about the cross when all they wanted was a nice house in the suburbs and the occasional vacation.

Then there’s us, we’re in church, we haven’t walked away, we still worship and serve God. We still sit on church committees and contribute to the building fund. We pray. We’ve kept the faith. There ain’t no flies on us.

But this passage, too, is about money. But it’s also NOT about money.

The prophet Amos wasn’t afraid to say what was on his mind. When he had a word from the Lord his tongue didn’t get stuck when he growled.

“Alas, for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria

“Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat in 5 star restaurants everyday and sip 50-year-old scotch while lazing by the fire; who’re more concerned with Brittany Spears’ flabby gyrating than the grumbling bellies of the kids at their daughter’s school. They’ll be the first to go.”

“They’ll be the first to go.” Kinda sounds like a political tract by the wingnut faction of the looney-left. But, no, this is sacred scripture.

Like the other two readings, this is about money. And it’s also NOT about money.

To say these passages are about merely about money misses the point. This is your basic meat-and-potatoes Christian story of loving your neighbour. This is about how we treat one another. This story seems to echo an earlier saying, “where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”

This isn’t a story about Hell either. That, also, would miss the point. Jesus isn’t threatening us. I don’t think Jesus wants us to listen to Moses and the prophets for our own sakes, but for the world’s sake. This isn’t a story about Lazarus, a rich man with a compassion deficit, or even about God. This story is about us.

This is a story about us being so caught up with ourselves, and our own dreams, goals, and aspirations that we forget to ask if they reverberate with God’s dreams, goals, and aspirations. This is a story that tells us that our success cannot be at the expense of suffering people.

I love what business writer Tim Sanders says about goals. He has a fresh take. While many business writers talk about setting goals specific for YOU; they say that no one can tell YOU what YOUR goals should be, that YOU are in charge of YOUR life and YOU shouldn’t let others make important life goals for YOUR.

After all, it’s all about YOU. It’s YOUR life. No one’s going to live it for YOU, right?

But Tim Sanders is different. He has the temerity to tell you what your life goal should be. He says that your life goal is to participate in the alleviation of the suffering of others. Again, your life goal is to participate in the alleviation of the suffering of others.

In other words, he’s saying that, even if you have the house you’ve dreamed about since your were 5-years-old. Even if you landed the job you’ve worked your entire adult life to achieve. Even if you amassed so much cash that Bill Gates would blush with envy.

You are a failure if you stepped over the poor, suffering, person lying on your doorstep.

I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating. Sanders also says that the younger generations get it. He notes that 80% of young people will make substantial financial sacrifices to take a job that makes a positive impact in the world. They don’t just take the first job out of school, or the job with the biggest package. And they don’t just want to “make the world a better place.” They don’t want to tinker.

They want to transform the world because they have a passionate love affair with life. They don’t want to be like the rich man and his family who couldn’t see resurrection and transformation if it bit them in the big toe. Young people may not name the name Jesus, but it seems to me they are living out his mandate.

And I see the same thing in our congregation. We are actively pursuing the purchase of Our Lady of Assumption Church. And many of us have approached me with gleams in your eyes over all the possible ministry opportunities we’ll have if we move into that building. This isn’t merely an opportunity for a bigger space to meet OUR needs. Although that’s a piece of it.

But people have talked about enlarging our student drop-in ministry, starting a ministry to the homeless population growing in this part of the city, giving the 12-step groups rooms of their own so they can take broader ownership of their ministries. The possibilities are as large as our ability to dream God’s dreams. And God’s dreams always include the poor and suffering.

So, today’s readings are about money. But they are also NOT about money. They are about living God’s dreams of transformation and resurrection. After all, isn’t that what Jesus was all about?

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Pentecost 17 - Year C

I read a lot of business books. I find them to be the best source of cultural criticism around. I read them much to the chagrin of my leftier friends and colleagues.

Some books are dry and academic, filled with charts and stats that make my eyes crust over.

Others are the motivational type. Tony Robbins on caffeine pills. These books make my wife roll her eyes in either amusement or bemusement. I can’t tell which.

Most are feet-on-the-pavement practical. Which is the chief reason I read them.

I started reading these books while I was an intern. Which was new for me because I was told that business was about money. Period. And money meant greed. Greed meant oppression. And God wasn’t into greed and oppression. So whatever businesspeople brought to the church table was to be resisted or shunned. At least, that’s what my mentors and professors preached. And I drank the Kool-Aid. I believed unquestioningly.

But suddenly, I wasn’t in a classroom anymore. I wasn’t surrounded by folks who believed what I believed, where we could be as sanctimoniously abstract about the world as we wanted.

Where we could debate the finer points of theology, never letting the messiness of real-world-living interrupt our dissection of a bible verse - in the original Greek, of course.

Where we could pontificate about how sinful the world was – the world being large corporations and certain brands of politicians. Sinners.

The business world and their puppets in Parliament sullied the purity of the church world and were destroying the whole world.

Then I found myself immersed in a church where people expected more than jabbering. Nor were they interested in the self-righteous musings of a snooty-nosed kid who never had a real job. They wanted something more spiritually cavernous than hoity-toity thoughts about God or angry political sloganeering.

They wanted me to DO SOMETHING for the Kingdom. All of a sudden I had programs to develop, meetings to chair, and ministries to oversee. I had people to visit and prayers to pray. And no one was going to hold my hand along the way!

My supervisor then played the best trick – ever - on me. He showed me to my office then disappeared. I didn’t see him for a week. I was on my own. He wanted to see what I would do when no one told me what to do.

So, for a day or two, I sat in my office twiddling my thumbs waiting for the phone to ring, surrounded by my personal library, I look at my shelves and realized that most of these books had appeal only for theology nerds like me. They talked a lot about God but said little about life.

So I wandered into my supervisor’s office and examined his bookshelf. At first blush, I was appalled. He must have been sick the day at seminary where they told us that the business world and the church world are as friendly to each other as Stockwell Day at a Gay Pride parade.

So, I pulled out a couple books on church management and church growth. They must be worth something because my supervisor was an exceptionally effective pastor. I thought I’d start within my comfort zone. And all of these books kept pointing to certain business books and magazines. So I picked up a couple recommended volumes.

The scales fell from my eyes. Suddenly, I knew what I was missing – the practical element to running an organization.

When my supervisor re-appeared the next week, he and other congregational members helped me initiate a bunch of new ministries. But these new books were also a big part of my broader education.

However I couldn’t get my professors’ voices out of my head. But if it was true, like I was told, that business and church mix as well as grape juice and motor oil, then verses 8 and 9 in today’s gospel made my brain ache. It’s the part where Jesus says:

“…for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

I read that as saying that the “children of this world” know how to get things done. They don’t just sit around thinking lofty thoughts and praying pious prayers. They’re getting their hands dirty; they’re working the system; they’re making things happen. If they can work so hard for what doesn’t really matter in light of eternity, we, as God’s people, can do the same – or even more.”

Kinda sounds like the ends justify the means, doesn’t it? Dirty money is still money, we might as well put it to clean use for the Kingdom of God. We can shake our puritanical fists at the system or we can work the system for God’s glory. We can be pure and ineffective, or we can jump into the fray and dirty ourselves while doing something worthwhile. Is that what Jesus is saying?

If so, what does that mean for us? Does that mean we should accept lottery money to help solve our accessibility problems? Should we care if the church invests in companies who employ child labour? Should we put an ATM in the lobby for folks who forgot their offering- getting both the offering and the $1.25? Or how about a Coke machine downstairs for the youth who drop in on Friday afternoons? Should all ethical reflection around money be tossed on the compost heap?

But then again, those things aren’t dishonest. Ethically ambiguous, maybe. Morally unacceptable, perhaps. But dishonest? No. Not like the dishonesty of the shrewd manager.

Let me say that this passage rubs me like a cheese-grater on sunburned skin. I guess I still hear my professors’ voices in my head.

3 years ago when this passage last came up I began my sermon by saying that “NO ONE really knows what this passage means.” I talked about how no two preachers interpret this passage the same way. All my bible commentaries point me in different directions. My colleagues are all taking divergent paths in their sermons, ending up in completely different places.

Even the different bible translations have a different spin on this parable. One bible calls this story the parable of the “Unjust Steward.” Yet another calls it: the “Shrewd Manager.” Another says he was “dishonest.”

Well, was this guy “unjust,” “dishonest,” or was he “shrewd”? Or are they suggesting that shrewdness requires a little tampering with the scales, some creative accounting, or blatant wrongdoing?

That can’t be what Jesus means, can it?

After my sermon, three years ago, no less then four of you came to me with what you were CERTAIN this passage meant. And again, I heard four distinct interpretations.

That was three years ago. This year I’m no closer to unlocking this passage.

What we have is a guy who really likes his job and wants to keep it. Or at least to clear a smooth exit for himself. So he goes to each of his clients and takes an axe to their invoices. It looks like he’s more interested in keeping these guys as customers then in keeping his boss happy. Maybe he wants to strike out on his own since he knows that a pink slip is waiting in his mailbox when he gets back to the office.

But when his boss finds out what the manager has done, the pink slip becomes a promotion. Apparently, the boss liked the way his manager played the game. A weird reaction, isn’t it? Or as one commentator put it, “ethically reprehensible.”

The punch line to this story makes even less sense, “You can’t serve God and money.” Especially after the story he just told.

So, which is it Jesus, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” or “You can’t serve God and money”? You can’t have it both ways.

Unless Jesus is saying to make friends with money but don’t let it become your master. Be the manager, not the boss. Work the system. Don’t let it work you.

Good luck. Given our human appetite for wealth it sounds like Jesus is setting us up for failure. We have to live in the real world, where our messy hands leave a grimy film on the purity of God’s ethical demands.

But maybe that’s the point that Jesus was trying to make. Perhaps Jesus is telling us in a round about way that there is no clear division between clean and unclean, between good and evil, between comedy and tragedy. Just as there is no such thing as clean money there is also no such things as a pure person. We are mixed both with the blood of Jesus which declares us clean, and the blood of Adam and Eve which announces us broken and sinful. We are, as one writer puts, “citizens of heaven and tax-payers on earth. It’s no excuse for the trouble we get into, but it does explain our spotty record.”

So what does this story mean? I still don’t know. I’m no farther ahead than I was three years ago. But what I do know is this: the world will behave shrewdly and with calculation. Perhaps Jesus is asking us to make the best of a bad situation by being shrewd and calculating ourselves, not worrying about following every rule, but daring to colour outside the lines, knowing we aren’t saints, forgiven stewards trying to figure out how to live faithfully as Jesus’ followers, serving one master who is merciful and loving and in who’s name we are saved - and living with another master who asks us to be shrewd and calculating. And all we can do is ask for the wisdom to tell which one is which.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Pentecost 15 - Year C

What is a disciple of Jesus?

A few years ago some of us heard a bonehead preacher at Break Forth make a distinction between a disciple of Jesus and a follower of Jesus. He divided those Christians between those who were completely, whole-heartedly dedicated to Jesus, and those who were just along for the ride.

And he used today’s gospel to prove the veracity of his argument. Either you were in or you were out. Cut and dried. No wiggle room. No slipping out the back door when the boss isn’t looking.

But I think he was hammering away too hard at the point Jesus was trying to make. And that’s quite the feat given the granite-like density of today’s gospel reading. In other words, this is a hard teaching.

Back in Christianity’s early days, the church had a way of breaking families up that would make James Dobson cry in his coffee.

Early Christians joined the church not because of their families but despite them. Numerous Greek philosophers argued that Christianity could not be true because of the family divisions it caused. Households were sawed in half. More than one husband-to-be was told to keep his hands to himself because his wife-to-be said, “I’ve decided not to marry you and adopt your religion. I’ve become a Christian instead. And you should become a Christian too.”

Some women became martyrs that way.

Those early Christians would have understood what Jesus was talking about. Jesus’ words of the cost of discipleship were more than a tight little theology that lived only on parchment. They would have seen Jesus’ words fly from the page and come at them with a knife.

And while you may not be facing martyrdom for your faith, my guess is that many of you know the cost of discipleship in your families as well.

The cousins who roll their eyes when you insist on saying grace at family reunions.

The son or daughter who lectured you against those corrupt preachers every time you wrote a cheque to the church.

The dad who sermonized on facing economic reality because you refused to buy mangoes that were grown in countries that used child slaves.

Or, you may have a different story, but a story nonetheless. Most Christians do. You’ve been willing to put a lot on the line in your service and love of Jesus. And maybe you haven’t yet had to carry a cross, you’ve given up much to follow through on your faith.

But Jesus places a special emphasis on possessions. Luke seems obsessed with it. Luke shares more of Jesus’ sayings on money and possessions than any other gospel. Jesus says that family, possessions, even our very lives must be tossed in the trash to be able to follow him. He demands full allegiance. No tourists allowed.

St. Paul makes a similar point in his letter to Philemon. Onesius, Philemon’s slave has run away from his master, and while spending time with Paul, Onesius decided to become a Christian.

So Paul, as his pastor, has a problem on his hands. Paul wants to stay in Philemon’s good books, but has his friend’s runaway slave as his parishioner. A scenario they never prepared us for in seminary.

So Paul sends Onesius back to his master with a promise that Paul would provide restitution for any financial loss that Onesius had caused. At the same time, Paul is asking Philemon to release Onesius as a slave.

So Onesius goes back to Philemon with his heart in his mouth. After all, Philemon could kill him on sight. But Paul is asking Philemon to give up his possession – the slave Onesius – and to welcome him as a brother in Christ.

Paul was saying that God wanted Philemon to take a huge financial hit to enlarge the family of God. Echoes of Jesus.

But I don’t think that Jesus was bashing possessions. And I don’t think his issue was materialism.

I think Jesus was sick of the comfortable, suburban religion that fit nicely into peoples’ lifestyles, and he finally blew a gasket.

I think Jesus was tired of institutional religion that the religious leaders were peddling that kept people in chains, a religion that had nothing to do with the God of heaven and earth, but the God of earthly blessing for the powerful, and Jesus thought his head was going to explode.

Jesus was tired of listening to people pay lip service to God at worship but forgetting who God was the other six days of the week, and he felt his heart would shatter into shards.

He was sick of religion that either feathered the beds of the powerful or cost little or nothing in the lives of the believers - grace on demand – and he couldn’t “stands it no more.”

And the way Luke ramps up this argument is by stacking story after story of Jesus getting more and more irked until his anger detonates all over his listeners.

The stories in Luke leading up to this passage are:

1. Jesus healing on the Sabbath and the synagogue leader completely missing the point.

2. The story of great dinner where the rich and powerful are invited but decline the invitation, so the host asks his staff to gather up the homeless, the sick, the blind, and let them sit at his table, and kick out any rich and powerful interlopers who end up at the door.

The point being that those who are privileged religious experts don’t get what God is up to in the world. Only those who were left behind by official religion were open to God.

So, Jesus was getting himself worked up into quite the sudsy froth until he blasts his listeners with an impossible standard to live up to. At least for the comfortably religious.

But for those UNCOMFORTABY religious, those genuinely looking for God, those who knew something’s wrong but couldn’t poke their pinkies on it, this provided a beginning. Something new. They weren’t given a little pat on the head and sent away. They were taken deathly serious.

They were told that it wasn’t what they could buy that made them important. It wasn’t what their family was like or even what kind of life they were leading. They were told that none of that matters.

They were told that God loved them just the way they were. God loved them just like they were when they came into the world: naked, vulnerable, crying.

So forget all about what you buy, what you own. Even forget about the gene pool you were born swimming in.

God wants your life because your life is your most valuable possession.

I don’t know about you, but I find this the most difficult of Jesus’ sayings. I like my stuff. Especially technology. I go to the Future Shop and they have to wipe up my drool off the counter.

I just picked up an mp3 player so I can listen to the news, ministry podcasts, and sermons while I work out. And I was giddier than a little boy at an NHL game when I got it.

But it sounds like Jesus is telling me to throw it in the trash. Not because the mp3 player is evil or because God is a luddite. But because God says that our stuff is unworthy of us as followers of Jesus - unworthy of us as human beings. And it may in fact get in the way of growing in our faith and maturing as his disciple. Our stuff keeps trapped in a sinking car.

But that’s not only why this passage stalks my soul. I’ve been told since day one that I get out of life what I put into it. I’ve been told to leave a legacy, to build something that will outlast me, to leave this world better than I found it.

But Jesus is saying that none of that matters. Everything I build, everything I worked so hard to acquire, everything I’ve down to leave my mark means nothing. He says that he doesn’t want me to make the world a better place. He said that he is renewing the world

Building collapse, names become forgotten, marks are erased. So God is saying that I am most holy when I have nothing. When I am naked.

That’s a hard message. At least it is for me.

This is a message I can’t spin. I can’t put lipstick on it and send it out to shake its money maker. I just have to let it tell its story.

Jesus is saying that we are to live a different life than the one we may have been taught, a life that’s an assault on the values of our culture.

Where the culture is obsessed with power, Jesus is into poverty. Where the culture demands brand loyalty, Jesus breaks those relationships. Where the culture rewards self-interest, Jesus asks us to be self-giving.

I hope no one ever told you it was easy to be a Christian.

Jesus is saying that, to be a Christian, means gradually, Sunday by Sunday, to be absorbed into a different story, a story different than the one we create for ourselves or that the culture creates for us. A different movie of where we have come from and where we are going. A story called “gospel.” A story called “good news.”

Christians are the ones growing into Jesus’ story. Where your story, and our story, are immersed in God’s story.

Our congregation will be talking about that story over the next little while because we’ll be talking about what it means for us to be Jesus’ disciples in our world. How are we different from the world? How does God want us to live? How is our story going to change?

So I’m asking you to pray about this. Pray that God will open the scriptures to us and show us what this passage means for us today.

And may we be given the grace to tell God’s story. Amen.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Pentecost 14 - Year C

“I want you to visit with folks,” she said. I didn’t really know what she meant but I was willing to do what I was told.

My first day at St. John’s Soup Kitchen began with a tour of the place. It was called “St. John’s Soup Kitchen” because it was housed in the St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church gym. Not a terribly creative name but at least you knew what it was and where you could find it.

But someone had an idea to change the name, something that wouldn’t sound so dowdy and utilitarian. Something to reflect the culture of the place.

The person who ran the place wanted to call it the “Duke Street Diner.” Her vision was that the soup kitchen wouldn’t just be a place for homeless folks to grab a bite, but she saw a community centre where people from all over downtown would meet, play cards, hang out, chat, do whatever. From 9:00 ’till 2:00, Monday to Friday. Except for holidays.

But some church bureaucrat put the kibosh on the name change saying that the name “Duke Street Diner” wouldn’t reflect the purpose. He let them drop the “soup” part from the name since they didn’t have soup everyday. And so they became “St. John’s Kitchen.” A modest concession but completely missing the point.

“St. John’s has a mandate to serve the poor,” he said, “and the poor need to be able to find soup kitchens.”

Folks were disappointed, but really, the name didn’t make the mission. But the new name would have built on what was already happening.

When I arrived on my first day I thought I’d be chopping veggies, slopping soup, or at least loading the dishwasher or mopping the floor.

“I want you to visit with folks,” Gretchen, the Lutheran-turned-Anglican manager told me. Gretchen was a former Missouri Synod Lutheran, or “Misery Synod, as she called it”

She started at St. John’s after her husband walked out on her and the kids, emptying the bank account along the way. Her pastor told her that divorce was a sin and wouldn’t give her communion. So she stopped going to church. She thought God didn’t want her anymore than her husband did. She knew that her church didn’t want her.

“I’m damaged goods,” she would say. Plus, there was no practical way to get back in fellowship with her church, even if she wanted to. How do you repent of something someone did to you? How do you repent of a philandering spouse?

She started off at St. John’s as a “patron” as they were called. She came looking for a sandwich and became the manager -and an Anglican – in that order, along the way.

“So you want me to sit with folks and clear tables, stack chairs, that sort of thing?” I asked.

“No, I mean your job is to sit at the table, eat your lunch, and talk to people.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a job. Wouldn’t you rather I helped out with the cooking?”

“No. You don’t get to cook until you know who you’re cooking for,” she said, walking me to a table at the back.

“This is Kevin,” she announced to the three guys sitting together, “he’s new, so I want you to be nice. Kevin this is Bob, Harold, and Ed.”

Bob kicked out a chair. He was obviously the leader of the group. The Alpha male.

“Grab a seat, Kevin. Don’t just stand there like a lump.”

I sat down.

“Okay, here are the rules of this place. You get only one sandwich and one dessert. But you can have as much soup as you want.”


“Before you sit down at a table with someone make sure you ask first.”


“If you start a fight you’re banned for a week. Two fights and you’re banned for a month. If you’re dumb enough keeping scrapping, the third fight gets you kicked out for life. We don’t want you here if you’re just gonna be a jerk.”

That won’t be a problem. Who did he think I was?

Then, as if on cue to emphasize the point, a big bear of a man pushed over his table and sucker-punched the guy he was playing cards with. Apparently there was cheating going on. Which shouldn’t have been such a big deal since gambling was against the rules as well. But I guess someone’s honour was sullied and swift retaliation was called for.

The other patrons watched with the same anticipation the crowd gets at a hockey game when two enforcers drop their gloves.

But out came Gretchen from the kitchen– all four feet, eleven inches of her - grabbing the two bears by the collars, she dragged them across the gym and threw them out a waiting open door that someone had opened for her, as if following proper procedure. Clearly, this was not a rare occurrence.

Bob lifted his eyebrows and smiled at me.

“One last thing. No drinking before you come here. If Gretchen smells booze on your breath, well, you just saw what she can do.”

No booze before 9:00 am. Got it.

My eye caught a something that didn’t make sense. I turned and looked at the door and saw a 40ish man in a blue business suit walk towards our table.

“Hey John,” Bob said.

“Hey guys,” said John.

“Meet the new kid,” Bob said. “This is Ken.”

“Uh, Kevin,” I said “pleased to meet you,” and reached out to shake John’s hand. Which he received.

I then realized that I didn’t reach out to shake Bob’s, Harold’s, or Ed’s hand when I met them.

After some quick chit-chat, Bob, Ed, and Harold stood up, “Well, gotta go.”

“Where you off to today?” I asked.

“We’ll find out when we get there,” Bob replied.

The three left, leaving me alone with John.

“So, do you work around here?” I asked.

“Yeah, I manage the H&R Block at the Mall; I like to pop in here a few times a week. The sandwiches are awful, but the company’s good. Better than grabbing a burger and listening to the cackling teenagers at the food court.”

I smiled.

“So, you’re the new guy, eh?”

I nodded.

“Why here?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Why did you come to work here?” he asked. “It’s not as if you couldn’t find anything else to do with your time.”

“It’s better than hanging out at the mall with all those cackling teenagers,” I replied.

He laughed.

“I come,” he said, “because I learn more about life here than anywhere else - even church. These are folks living lives with the volume turned up, and that brings a coarse wisdom. I don’t want to sound like I’m romanticizing poverty, because there’s nothing romantic about poverty or addiction or homelessness.

“But these folks aren’t bogged down with petty politeness. They give it to you straight. Bob’s spent most of his life in prison for robbing a bank while high. But Harold, the one with the crazy eyes has a PhD in geography,” he said imitating Harold’s moon-sized stare, explaining why Harold ended up living like he does.”

“What about Ed?”

“Ed’s just weird,” John said without explanation. “So why are you here,” he asked again.

“I came to learn how to minister to the poor.”

That’s when Gretchen sat down.

“The poor are not someone you do ministry to,” she said, “That’s why everyone begins by visiting with the patrons, so when you serve people their sandwiches and soup you see people with names and stories, not just recipients of your gracious ministry. These are real people with real lives. They are not abstract poor. That MUST be the beginning of any ministry.”

I was quiet. I knew exactly what she meant.

I’m sure she had me figured out as soon as I walked through the door: a fresh-faced, well-scrubbed, middle-class, leftie do-gooder out to help “the poor,” whoever they were. And St. John’s was where poor people hung out. Doggonit, I was going to do what Jesus said to do.

Like today’s gospel reading when Jesus told his followers that when they throw a party, he didn’t want them to invite folks who could do the same for us. The law of reciprocity need not apply here.

But he said to invite the poor, the lame, the blind. He asks that we invite folks who smell, who drink too much, who use foul language. He asks that we invite those whose broken lives have been put back together with duct tape, those who may even start a fight.

Our hospitality committee has been hard at work devising strategies for welcoming people. But who will be we welcoming? Who is God gathering in to share in our Sunday morning banquet?

If we’re doing our job the way Jesus wants us to, then it could be anyone thirsty for living water and hungry for the bread of life. Or it could be someone looking for a cup of cold water or a sandwich.

And God asks that we welcome everyone like we’d welcome Jesus. Because we might just be entertaining angels unawares.

But that’s easier to say than it is to do. The ELW has asked me to administer a “caring fund.” Which I’m both generous with and protective of. Many families have been served by it, other times we’ve been taken advantage of. That’s just the messiness of life in a fallen world. A world that Jesus asks we minister to. Jesus never said it would be easy. He just asks that we do it.

A month or two after I started at St. John’s I was downtown waiting for the bus. A homeless man was sitting on the bench. Without thinking I sat down next to him and started chatting. I didn’t see him as a homeless man. I saw him as a patron. I told him how to get to St. John’s.

When the bus arrived I got on. I looked back at the fellow on the bench, wondering if I was ready to serve soup. Probably not. But soon.