Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pentecost 14C

“Be present at our table Lord,” is a prayer we usually sing before church meals. It’s a nice, familiar, song, that adds some reverence to our gathering. Especially when we have some good singers who can add four-part harmony. We pray that Jesus will be present as we gather to eat.

But is that really wise? Do we REALLY want Jesus present at our meal? Do we REALLY want Jesus to come to dinner?

Just look what happens when the Pharisee invites Jesus to eat at his house. Considering that Jesus just finished a series of blistering attacks on the Pharisees, such an invitation for to eat supper at the Pharisee’s house might have seemed to be quite gracious. Perhaps the Pharisee was extending at hand to Jesus after all those fights. Maybe the Pharisee was hoping to mend some fences between the official religious establishment and the wandering, upstart preacher, from the sticks.

But the Pharisee soon learned that when you invite Jesus to dinner, you do so at your own peril. The first thing he does is insult those at his table. He makes fun of them. He notes that they all jockeyed for the best seats, “Those who build themselves up will be pushed down, and those who are down will be built up.”

Then Jesus points out who ISN’T at the table; the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, those who can’t pay their own way. He notes that everyone at the table have a place in community. They were respected. Honoured. They worked hard, played by the rules, and earned everything they had. It was as if the system was built for people just like them.

And, of course, it was. The social and economic system was rigged to benefit those who already were rich and successful. But then, again, most systems are built to benefit those who create them. This is nothing new. Which is why Jesus’ call to invite those who have nothing to sit at the head of the banquet table is so astonishing. He’s cutting against the grain how social orders work.

But this is a hard lesson for us learn. It’s easier to fall back on what’s easy and familiar. Especially when the system works really well for us, but not so well for others.

As Christians we complain when we don’t have a seat at the head of the table. We murmur that people aren’t coming to church like they once did. We worry about the numbers in our Sunday School. We worry that the world is losing its way because there’s not enough prayer in public.

We tend to believe that bigger is better; that more power and influence means a greater witness. For 1600 years, Christians have held the reigns of power. Kings and emperors sought the counsel of the clergy. Baptism became a legal obligation in some countries. Christian churches were given preferential treatment in society. We took our place at the head of the table.

But did such power and influence bring in the kingdom of God? Did we create a world of moral courage and spiritual power from our place at the head of the table. Did our proximity to authority build a world that Jesus would recognize as good and faithful?

Clearly, the answer is “no.” In fact, most church historians and theologians agree that the church is at its worst when we’re close to worldly power. And the church is at its best when its on the margins; bearing witness to a different reality than the one the world gives us.

I’m thinking of the massive church growth in China, despite being persecuted and marginalized. And in contrast, I’m thinking of Europe and their less than three percent church attendance despite heavy government funding.

The distinction couldn’t be more striking. God seems to be saying that if God wanted us to be socially and culturally powerful, Jesus would have been born into royalty and created an empire. But instead, Jesus was a poor, wandering, preacher born to an oppressed people in the middle of nowhere.

But God has a way of creating something new and beautiful out of out old, sinful ways.

A couple of years ago, the congregation at Deer Park United Church in downtown Toronto faced a painful decision. Membership had fallen steadily for years and the congregation could no longer afford to maintain their 100-year old church. They decided to sell the building and worship at a nearby Presbyterian church.

“This was much like a grief process for us,” said Robert Muncaster, a Toronto lawyer and a member of the church executive. “We lost something here. And part of how you try to deal with grief is legacy and things continuing.”

Selling the building wasn’t easy because of its designation as a heritage property. It eventually sold this year for just under $4-million. After setting aside some proceeds to help finance the worship in their new surroundings, the congregation gave away the rest.

Their largest gift, $1.5-million, went to the University of Toronto’s Emmanuel College, a theological school affiliated with the United Church. The money will be used to establish a professorship in music and a scholarship to support doctoral-level research.

Another $700,000 went to KAIROS, the church-based organization that works on social justice issues.

Other gifts included $500,000 to a resource centre in Regent Park, a low-income Toronto neighbourhood; $320,000 to the United Church’s international development program; and $100,000 to two summer camps to help wipe out their deficits.

That wasn’t all. The congregation donated the church’s organ, worth about $1-million, to Holy Trinity Anglican located next to the Eaton Centre; the hymn books went to a church that couldn’t afford new ones; and the grand piano went to another needy congregation. Even the church’s 100-place setting of hand-painted bone china was donated, to a food program in an at-risk neighbourhood. ( A ‘Giving Away’ Congregation, Monday, Aug. 23, 2010 7:58PM ED)

What, on the surface, looks like a defeat, a dwindling congregation, has become a victory. Instead of holding on to a massive church building, living beyond their means, and compromising their mission to look “successful” in the world’s eyes, they, instead, followed the poor man from Nazareth and bore witness to a different reality than the one the world gave them. God has spoken eloquently through them, and has shown us and the world what it looks like to REALLY sit at the head of God’s table.

As we walk with Jesus, moving forward in our mission, God has given us a vision of servanthood, a sense that we use what we have for the sake of others and the gospel, a call to answer the cries of the hurting.

We may not get it right every time. But God is still faithful, making us citizens of God’s upside down kingdom, where those at the end of the table, become those at the head. May this be so among us. Amen.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pentecost 12C

One required seminary course was called “Conflict Management.” It looks like the folks putting together the seminary curriculum had been around churches long enough to know that Christians don’t always get along. And so we were taken through techniques and scenarios on how to “manage” conflict, rather than “resolve” conflict.

To be honest, I still don’t understand the distinction between “managing” conflict and “resolving it.” But either way, the idea is that human beings will fight with each other. And Christians aren’t exempt from conflict. Perhaps we’re more prone to it. After all, we take our lead from Jesus, who said in today’s gospel:

“Do you think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth!?? NO I tell you. Not peace, but division!”

Not peace. but division.

That’s not the kind of talk we expect from the prince of peace, is it? Peace is what the angels proclaimed the night you he was born. Peace is what Jesus is known for.

Clearly, Jesus was upset about something. He even pointed out that he’s under a lot of stress before his mission - or baptism - is completed.

That’s a curious way of talking about his job on earth, don’t you think? Jesus calls his ministry his “fiery baptism,” and he can’t put his feet up until it’s complete. He REALLY wants to get it out of the way.

But we tend to think of baptisms as a joyous occasion. A baby in a white dress. Friends and relatives gather from all over the known universe to witness the initiation rite of the church. We pour some water over the child’s head. He or she might cry a little. We “ooo” and “ahhh” over how cute the baby is. Then we go downstairs to eat cake.

That’s a far cry from what Jesus was talking about in this bible passage. He’s talking about a fiery separation. A dividing of loyalties. Family verses faith. Friends verses God. Following Jesus verses following the herd.

Most of us here in North America haven’t really felt the sting of division for being Christians. Of course, there are some loud-mouthed preachers who believe that Christians in Canada are a persecuted minority, which usually means that the culture isn’t deferring to them the way they’d like.

For folks in Jesus’ time, abandoning your family to join another religion was an act of unbelievable betrayal. It was unfathomable. Incomprehensible. It just wasn’t done without heavy social and economic consequences, not just for yourself, but for your family.

They NEEDED all the hands they could to keep food on the table. They needed EVERYONE to keep the household going. Everyone had a job. No one was superfluous. To leave the house and run off following some preacher was to spit in your family’s face. You were dead to them. If you left, you could never return home.

It’s hard for us to understand the kind of commitment the early followers of Jesus made. In our culture, we try our best to keep families together, but Jesus seems to actively tearing them apart, pitting them against each other.

But Jesus didn’t ask his followers to do anything he didn’t do. He left his mother with no one to take care of her after Joseph presumably died. He abandoned his domestic obligations to do God’s work, as if the two were somehow different. He never bowed to social and religious pressure to get married and have lots of Jewish boys and girls to carry on the faith. He even rejected his mother in public, severing the blood ties he had with her in favour of a more universal family of faithful people.

Family clearly wasn’t Jesus’ first priority. It wasn’t on his radar screen. He was more interested in preaching the message of the kingdom of God than in settling down in domestic respectability.

He was living a different story than the one he was born into. And he knew that he couldn’t bear witness to God’s new reality without causing some trouble. He knew that preaching the kingdom came at a cost.

He knew the living in God’s kingdom meant living according to a different story. Where the dominant story values revenge, Jesus says to forgive. Where the prevailing narrative emphasizes the strong and wealthy, Jesus to prioritized the weak and poor.

Jesus didn’t confront the dominant story that people lived by, but to showed others that they don't have to live according to the culture's expectations. Another story is at work. A story that tells us that our lives can be life-giving, creative, hope-filled, and other-oriented. We can be a healing presence, an example of how God wants the world to be.  

But also, living according to God’s story recognizes that it's God who is at work in the world through us. The Spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus makes us holy when we cannot be. It’s acting with humility, knowing that we are not the world's saviour.

The division that Jesus is talking about is the conflict that emerges when two stories smash into each other. And often those two stories collide even within ourselves as we live out our faith in Jesus. We are conflicted inside ourselves. God’s story and the world’s story fight it out within our own hearts.
Separation isn’t something that Christians go looking for. It happens to us when we live according to Jesus’ story instead of the world’s.

I don’t think Jesus was particularly happy about the conflict he knew he was creating. That’s why he wanted to get it over with.
He wanted to gather the whole world to himself.

But he also knew hard it was for people to grab hold of what God was doing. The kingdom that he preached didn’t make sense to our understanding of how worked. He knew his preaching would hurt people, and perhaps push them away from God because they were so grounded in their own ways of dealing with the world.

So Jesus blasts them, probably because the stress he said he was under. And because he knew that the cross was just around the corner. The cross where he would finally take all the conflict he created, all the division in the world, and take it to the grave with him, so he and the world can rise to the New Creation, where the Prince of Peace will finally reign with all people gathered to himself.

A New Creation where all people are gathering around God’s throne, and mercy, justice, compassion, healing, and forgiveness reign in the world that God so lovingly made.

And today we catch a glimpse of the day when we gather around the table as a family, equal in sin, equal in forgiveness. All conflicts cease as we hold our hands to receive our Lord in the bread and wine - the very presence of the crucified and risen Jesus, who has made all things new.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Pentecost 11C

NB: With a little help from Willimon's Pulpit Resource.

“Do no be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

I don’t know what you hear in this passage, but sometimes such promises increase my blood pressure. Mainly because of the second half of Jesus’ statement:

“Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

No doubt Jesus is right. We spend money on things that are important to us. All spending is emotional spending. It comes from the heart, not from the mind. It’s not rational. No matter how much we tell ourselves otherwise. And I’d rather not have Jesus poking around in the most personal areas of my life.

I’m reminded of this passage each month when my credit card bill arrives. I dutifully check each item to make sure that there’s nothing on there that shouldn’t be. Or that I wasn’t charged twice when made me click two times to make complete my transaction.

I don’t know if this happens to you, but every couple of months I’m surprised by where I’ve put my treasure. I’m staggered by some of the stuff I’ve purchased after sober reality kicked in. But I know, at the time, such purchases must have seemed like good ideas.

A subscription to a magazine that I could easily flip through at the library. The extra book that will give me free shipping, but which might not get around to reading any time soon. The organic olive oil in the fancy bottle to give my little cubby-hole of an apartment some semblance of class. And a few other items that shall

They were all emotional purchases. I handed over my treasure to where my heart was.

And Jesus clearly tells us where he wants our hearts to be. “Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses form yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

The fear that Jesus is talking about is the fear that the stuff we have will be taken from us - stolen or destroyed. Jesus said that it is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, and that kingdom apparently does not include the things we accumulate. The kingdom is that which God gives us and cannot be taken away. It cannot be stolen or destroyed.

Our relationship with the material stuff of life is conflicted at best. After all, most of our purchases keep in economy’s engine humming. My magazine subscription and book purchase provides royalties to the authors and keeps the publishing industry afloat. The organic olive oil helps the farmers and processors make a living, and encourages sustainable agriculture. My purchases were a source of some good.

But that can go too far. We can pay a high price for our accumulations. We neglect our health, our families and friends.

We spend too much time at work, giving too much of our labour to those who don’t deserve it, thinking that we’ll get a worthwhile return.

Retail-therapy blasts endorphins into our pituitary glands providing a momentary sense of well-being, but evaporates once the bank statement comes at the end of the month, sending us out for another shot.

So what do we do about this over-striving, over work, and over accumulation?

The church says that we can put it all on the altar. We can take this morally ambiguous money - the root of all kinds of evil, and the source of so much good - and offer it back to God. In doing so, our daily work is redeemed.

What we are doing, in our offering, is transforming our days the mere making of a living to the living of a life.

Whatever we do for a living, we now do for the glory of God and the giving of others. We offer our gifts for the work of Christ’s church. And the work of Christ’s church is the kingdom of the God.

The offering is probably the most counter-cultural act we do as a church. It’s at that moment that we take a stand against the consumerism that tells us that we are what we buy.

When the plate is passed around we put our beliefs into action that God’s kingdom has come in Jesus.

When the offering is taken our hearts begin to transform from being self-centred to God-centred.

It’s a minor sport to make fun of churches who ask for money. And for good reason. The last couple days I’ve been watching the Miracle Channel re-invent indulgences for today’s troubled consciences as they go about their fund-drive appeal.

And we know of sham-preachers who lie, cheat, and pilfer folks out of their hard-earned paycheques to pay for their air-conditioned dog houses.

Or we hear of the pastor in the $2000 suit who flies around the world by private jet, sharing the message of the poor wandering preacher from Nazareth. The record is spotty at best.

As a congregation, we don’t like to talk about money because I understand that there’s been a history of negative experiences with fundraising. And some might look at how we, as church, allocate our resources and think that we’re being stingy when it comes to those outside of our church.

But if we look at where we put our treasure we’ll see where our heart is.

Training Stephen Ministers for one-on-one caring visits does not come cheap, but is extraordinarily effective.

Nor does building helpful ChristCare small groups who learn and minister together. Our very successful Vacation Bible School came with a price-tag.

As did the Spiritual Gifts and Ministering to Inactive Members classes.

Not to mention the elevator which will help people participate in every area of our ministry together.

The list could go on. This is kingdom work. This is where we place our treasure. This is where our heart is. This is stuff that cannot be stolen or destroyed.

So watch as the plate goes around. You will see the church at its best. We take the stuff of our daily lives and we give it back to God, for God’s work.

May this be so among us. Amen.