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.


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