THAT ALL MAY BE … ONE?

World Communion Sunday

TEXTS: John 17:1-26 and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

… the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:23-25)

On October 2, 2022, with our fellow Christians around the world, this is what we will be doing. On World Communion Sunday, we will remember Jesus. And we will remember that his prayer for us—as we heard in our gospel passage—was that we might be one.

I ask … that they may all be one,” he said. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20a, 21-23)

The Service of the Table is meant to be a symbol of our unity—not only our unity as members of a particular congregation, or as members of a specific denomination—but of our unity as members of Christ’s Body, the Church … the universal church … “the church catholic” (small “c” catholic, as is often said).

On the first Sunday in October, in almost every nation, on every continent (except, perhaps, Antarctica), Christians will gather to share this holy meal. In some places it will be called “The Eucharist.” In others it will be called “Communion.” In others it will be called “The Love Feast.” In still others it will be called, “The Table of the Lord” or “The Lord’s Supper.”

And as varied as the titles are for what we will do, so also will be the ways in which our brothers and sisters come to the table, and the kinds of food and drink offered, and the understanding that people will have of what they are doing.

Some will come forward to receive unleavened bread in the form of a wafer into the palms of their hands. They may or may not then sip from the cup, which may contain wine, or unfermented grape juice—or even some other beverage, in those places where grapes are unknown.

Others will tear a piece of bread from a broken loaf—and then dip it into the common cup.

Still others will remain seated in their chairs—or in their pews—and they will serve one another from individual cups and trays of pre-sliced bread.

Some may do these things as a part of a full meal, seated at a table in a sanctuary of God’s presence … or in a church hall … or a home … or a school building. Others will sit in a circle in a hut, or in a clearing in the midst of a jungle or forest, or in the middle of a place of sand and rock.

Some will regard the bread and the wine as being literally the body and blood of Christ. Others will consider the entire exercise to be an important “memorial” and see Jesus as being spiritually present in a special way—but not physically present in the food and drink.

Yes, there will be differences—some of them quite profound—in the way Christians around the world view this sacred meal.

Some will think that their way of doing what they are doing is the only correct way to do it.

Some traditions will welcome only those adults who have made a public profession of their faith to the table, while others will welcome very young children—even babies—to the table.

Some will insist that each participant must be baptized, or belong to the denomination in which the sacrament is being observed; others will have a table which is open to all.

There will be a tremendous variety of practices and understandings as the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. However, over and above all the differences of opinion and practice, one thing will stand out; and that is … that all of us will consider that what we are doing is vitally important—so important that we might even risk argument with one another about what it means.

So what do we make of that? What is our communion with one another when we have such a wide variety of practices and understandings? What is our communion with one another—and with God?

Another way of putting this is to ask: Where, given our differences, is our “community”?

Someone—I wish I could remember who—once said that what makes a community is not shared values or common understanding so much as the fact that members of a community are engaged in the same argument.

“Members of a community are engaged in the same argument.” Think about that for a minute.

What helps to define us as a community—not only the community that we have in a local church, but also the community that we share with our fellow believers around the world—is the fact that we are all engaged in the same argument. We all see ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ. We are all engaged in working out the best way to order our lives as his people in response to his calling.

What makes us a “worldwide” community is not that we agree with one another in everything, but that we believe that the discussions we have—even the disagreements we have—are of significance.

The fact is, Christians have never been in complete agreement about everything.

In his letter to the Church at Rome, the apostle Paul tried to deal with some issues that were causing friction amongst believers in that first-century community. It had to do with holy days and dietary restrictions.

Some of the Roman Christians had scruples about eating meat, and drinking wine, and not observing the Sabbath. Paul discusses these differences of opinion in chapter 14, where he writes this:

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Rom. 14:5-9)

The important thing that Paul is telling us here is that each of us should be fully convinced in our own minds about what is important. We should do all that we do—or don’t do—with thanks to God and in the realization that Christ is Lord of all who serve him.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently evil about the fact that Christians disagree—not if we treat one another with respect. Yes, we continue to have our differences of opinion about what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is not good, what is true and what is not true. But you know, our common argument helps to define us. It defines us as the people of God, as brothers and sisters of one another—as members of one family.

Think about your own families for a minute, and how they function. Is there perfect agreement among you?

Are there not members who believe—sometimes quite passionately—that the family should do this or that thing, while others in the family hold forth for something else?

And yet—while there are these kinds of disputes—if we are really a family, do we not sit down together at meal-time and share that which has been prepared for us? And as our tastes and inclinations lead us, some of us will take more from a particular dish, while others will prefer a different one. Isn’t that true? I am the only one in my family who loves turnips!

If we have any sense at all of being a family, we gather on special occasions, don’t we? We come together around the table that has been set, and we give thanks to God for providing the food that we eat—even if our diets are slightly different.

That’s what families do, isn’t it? We bless one another and love one another—without demanding that everyone else do exactly what we do, or think exactly the way we think. We don’t all have to love turnips …

The church around the world today is one family. We are the family of God—defined by our common desire to follow Christ Jesus, who is both our brother and our Lord.

We are the ones who trust in Jesus—who strive to follow him faithfully and to keep the special law he gave us: the commandment that we love one another as he has loved us (John 15:12).

Where is our community with God and one another? It is in all the things we share that are of God and are fully agreed about—and also in all those things about which we agree to disagree. It is in Christ Jesus, whom we seek to follow in varied scheme and practice; and it is in God our Father, who sent Jesus to open the way to life for us; and it is in the Holy Spirit, who joins us together in a mystic communion—one that is not limited by time or space.

This comes to us as a gift from God: the God who wills that we love him with our whole heart, mind, strength and soul, and that we love one another as we love ourselves; the God who empowers us to do exactly that when we turn to him, and trust in him, and seek to do his will.

God is with us. Christ is with us. And, by the power of the Spirit, we are made one with all our brothers and sisters who call upon his name. What a magnificent blessing! Thanks be to God for it.

“LISTEN UP!”

TEXT: Luke 16:19-31

“The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” (Luke 16:22b-24)

As someone once remarked, “It’s not what I don’t understand about the Bible that bothers me—it’s what I do understand!” That comment could certainly apply to this morning’s gospel lesson—to the story about the anonymous rich man and the poor beggar named Lazarus. One of them “feasts sumptuously” every day, while the other one starves. The rich man’s life is a party; the poor man’s life is a misery.

As Jesus tells the story, both men die. Then comes the moment of judgment, when the playing field is leveled. The tables are turned. The first is now last, the last is now first. The poor man sits next to father Abraham in paradise; the rich man is in Hades, the place of torment. And there is no way to get from the one place to the other.

The rich man understands; he says to himself, “I blew it.”

But then he thinks: maybe he can salvage something out of his predicament. He says to father Abraham: “Send someone to warn my brothers, so that they don’t end up like me!”

Abraham replies, “They’ve got the law and the prophets, they should listen to them.”

However, the rich man knows his five brothers only too well. He knows they won’t pay any more attention to the Scriptures than he did. So he asks Abraham to send Lazarus—the beggar whom he ignored—to his brothers, to warn them. “Maybe,” he says, “if someone rises from the dead, they’ll listen.”

Abraham’s reply is as harsh-sounding as it is true: “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they listen to someone who rises from the dead.”

Luke tells us (16:14-15) that Jesus aimed this parable at the Pharisees—at the good, religious people of his day. He seems to be telling them: “You don’t get it. You’re not listening.”

And perhaps we—as we hear this gospel passage—want to ask, “Why don’t they get it? Why don’t they listen?”

But maybe we should ask ourselves: are we listening?

Let’s face it: even if we consider ourselves to be near the bottom of the Canadian heap, most of us are wealthy beyond the imagination of the vast majority of this world’s people. And, as much as preachers and theologians like to muddy the waters of the fountain of life, the truth we hear from Jesus is this: how we are judged has a lot to do with how we treat the poor.

There is absolutely no ambiguity about this point in the Bible; it is clear—from Moses to Amos, from Hosea to Micah, from Jesus to Paul. And it is clear in this story: we, the rich, have received our reward.

The poor are the ones who will be blessed from now on. How we will be judged depends in large measure upon how we relate to underprivileged persons. The law and the prophets have prepared us for it, if we will but listen. And in this teaching of Jesus, we are confronted with the matter yet again. Who are “the poor” in our world? And how do we treat them?

In Canada, we are receiving a steady flow of immigrants. And you know, there is some outcry about that, some resistance to that. But is it not true that this settler nation began as a company of immigrants? There has always been wave after wave of desperate persons coming here: first from Ireland and Scotland; then from continental Europe; and now, from China and Korea, from India and Pakistan and Iran and Syria, from Central and South America, from Nigeria and Somalia and Sudan—and, of course, from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Our Scriptures teach us not to harvest everything, but to leave something so that the destitute and the foreigners might eat and be filled. Why? “Because,” God says, “You were aliens in Egypt, and I heard your cries.”

In this parable that Jesus tells, the rich and the poor are bound up together. And the story gives us both a challenge and a choice: to connect with those who are disadvantaged, or to separate from them. For me, the most powerful image in this story is of the “great chasm”—a wide gap that separates the wealthy and the moneyless.

It surely exists in this life, and—according to Jesus—it exists in the next life, too. But here’s the good news: while the gap cannot be bridged in the next life, it can be bridged in this one. Our challenge, it seems to me, is to bridge that gap while we can.

Every time one of us makes sandwiches for a homeless shelter, that gap becomes a little smaller. Every time one of us donates items to the food bank, that gap becomes a little easier to cross. Every time one of us volunteers at an under-resourced school, that gap gets narrower. Every time we donate money to help hurricane victims in the Caribbean; every time we help build a home in Tijuana or a school in Haiti … that gap is bridged.

Again, here is the good news: in this life we can cross the chasm that separates us from the poor. In the life to come we cannot, but in this life we can bridge that gap. If we seek to make that connection, we will discover that many of the poor are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and that they have something to give to us. And, yes, we will also, sometimes, meet the Jesus of Matthew 25, just as he promised: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me …”  (Matt. 25:35)

The fundamental lesson for us is that there are no surprises in this story. Many of the teachings of Jesus do surprise us, it’s true. I mean, think about the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, or about the prodigal son in Luke 15. Remember the dishonest steward we heard about last week? All those passages contain big surprises! But in this story about Lazarus and the rich man, there are no surprises. We have been warned.

In this parable, Jesus’ word to us is: “Listen.” I believe this is a word of God for us. Jesus wants us to listen to the poor.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, once commented: “Oh, that God would stir up the hearts of all those who believe themselves his children, to evidence it by showing mercy to the poor.”

The gap between rich and poor is not only economic and sociological. It is Biblical, and it is spiritual.

At its best, the Church of Jesus Christ understands this. As people, we are at our best when we genuinely care about the less fortunate. Still, it is not all about what we have to give to others—especially to the poor. Surely they have something to give to us, as well … maybe even our salvation! The poor are not only beneficiaries of grace, they are channels of God’s grace toward us.

The rich man is there, in torment, wanting to get this message to his brothers—this message that we are judged by how we relate to the poor, that God wants us to connect with them, to cross that great chasm that exists between rich and poor in this life.

“How can I get this message to them?” he wonders. And then it occurs to him: “What if someone came back from the grave to tell them?” They would listen then, wouldn’t they? If someone rose from the dead, they would listen! Surely, if someone rose from the dead, they would listen then!”

And indeed, if someone rose from the dead to tell us, we would listen … wouldn’t we?

By the grace of God, may each one of us become a builder of bridges, and a crosser of gaps. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

LEARNING FROM LOW-LIFE SCUM

TEXT: Luke 16: 1-13

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; 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.” (Luke 16:8-9)

You know, that parable Jesus told about the dishonest manager reminds me of a story that’s sort of akin to it. It goes like this:

A man bought a donkey from an old farmer for $100.00. The farmer agreed to deliver the donkey the next day.

The next day the farmer drove up and said, “Sorry, but I got some bad news. The donkey died.”

“Well then,” the man said, “just give me my money back.”

“Can’t do that,” said the farmer. “I went and spent it already.”

“Okay then, just unload the donkey.”

“What ya gonna do with him?”

“I’m gonna raffle him off.”

“Ya can’t raffle off a dead donkey!”

“Sure I can. Watch me. I just won’t tell anyone he’s dead.”

A month later the farmer met up with the man and asked, “What happened with the dead donkey?”

“I raffled him off. I sold 500 tickets at $2.00 apiece and made a profit of $898.00.”

“Didn’t no one complain?”

“Just the guy who won. So I gave him his $2.00 back.”

It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think that there are only two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t!

As tongue-in-cheek as that is, it contains some real truth. There are always plenty of people around who view the world as if it were a western movie in which all the good guys wear white hats and all the bad guys wear black hats. From such a perspective, everyone is either completely on the side of good or completely on the side of evil.

Many of the people who see the world in such black-and-white terms are Christians. And of course, they are eager to co-opt Jesus to their cause. They are quick to associate the values of Jesus with their side, and to claim that God is therefore on their side and is totally opposed to the other side. They would have trouble imagining that God might feel anything but judgment and anger towards those on that “other side.”

In reality, the words of Jesus are seldom helpful to the cause of those who wish to paint the world in such stark contrasts. We all know that Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” and it’s hard to imagine any way of doing that that does not involve trying to find some redeeming features in your enemies. Once you start down that path, the lines get blurry. The story we heard Jesus tell in today’s reading is another one that’s going to be hard to swallow for those who want to shun those infidels who are not on the side of goodness and light.

It is a perplexing story indeed. Jesus is trying to teach his disciples something about how they should live and act, but he’s doing it from a story in which none of the characters are examples of moral integrity.

There are two main characters: the rich boss and his shady business manager.

Now, a quick survey of all the times that Jesus identifies a character in his stories as “a rich man” would lead you to believe that you should always assume the worst of such characters. They’re the ones who could get a camel through the eye of a needle sooner than they could be deemed fit for heaven.

And then there’s the business manager. At the beginning of the story, he is described as having squandered his master’s assets. And then, after describing the way he defrauds his boss, Jesus labels him as dishonest. But then, Jesus turns around and tells his disciples that on at least one count they don’t measure up to this dishonest manager, and that they would do well to take a page or two out of his book.

Notice that Jesus makes no excuses for the man’s behaviour. Instead, he makes it quite clear that this is an example of a person from “the other side”—one of the “children of this world” as opposed to the “children of the light.” But he is still clear that he wants his disciples to learn something from this story: he wants us to be as shrewd and creative in our thinking about how to do the works of light as the shady manager was in doing works of selfishness, greed and deceit.

This is a challenging text upon which to preach or blog! It’s a troubling passage. And I’m not at all certain that my poor efforts will be entirely satisfying. Still, I want to propose something. I want to suggest the possibility that what Jesus does here just might be something that he would call us to do a lot more often. That is, to recognize that there may be things to admire and allow ourselves to be challenged by even in those whose actions we would usually deplore and condemn.

I’ve already suggested that this might be related to the call to “love our enemies.” And that’s tough to do. I know that for me—and I suspect for most of us—it is much easier to perpetuate the demonizing. Once someone’s actions have angered me or disgusted me or terrorized me, I tend to focus only on what is abhorrent about them. I don’t want to admit that these people have some qualities that are highly impressive, and which I would have trouble living up to. But if I’m really committed to the truth, and if I’m really going to see people through the eyes of Jesus, then I’m going to have to face up to such uncomfortable truths.

And immediately, an example occurs to me which illustrates just how supremely difficult it is to apply this approach. Earlier this month—just last Sunday, in fact—we observed a grim anniversary; and of course, I’m speaking of the “9-11” commemorations marking the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York on September 11, 2001.

Perhaps today, Jesus would have us take a look at the terrorists who destroyed so many innocent lives on that day, and ask ourselves whether—like the dishonest business manager—they exhibited any qualities that we Christians should emulate. I want to apologize right away for saying that. I realize how offensive it is. Yet, I can’t help but wonder: Do those people—those terrorists, those fanatics whom we rightly describe as “children of evil”—point out some inadequacies in the “children of the light?” And I put it to you that they most certainly do.

Without in any way seeking to downplay the horror and the evil of what they did, I nevertheless think that we would do well to ask ourselves whether we would be willing to be even half as self-sacrificing for the cause of love and peace as they were for the cause of terror and destruction.

Am I as committed—body and soul—to advancing the reign of God as they were to advancing the reign of fear? Is there anything that I believe in so much that I’d be willing to leave my family and country and spend months or years preparing for and then give my life for? And if my answer is “No,” what does that mean? Does it mean that—compared to their belief in their cause and their passionate hatred—I just appear wishy-washy? Do I end up, by comparison, looking like I’m trying to serve two masters?

These are not pleasant questions. They are confronting and painfully hard to face. But facing them may be what’s needed if our world is ever going to break out of the endless cycle of conflict—of dividing up into opposing factions, and demonizing each other, and trying to obliterate each other.

Now, I’m not suggesting that any of us should beat ourselves up over this. Christ is infinitely loving and forgiving, and he is not going to boot us out of discipleship because of our failings. But neither is he going to be happy for us to rest on our laurels instead of continuing to grow and risk and stretch beyond our comfort zones.

Week by week, as we gather to worship, Jesus addresses us—and challenges us—through stories like the one from today’s gospel passage. He also addresses us through the intersection of those stories with our real life situations, as well as through the example of his own self-sacrifice. And as much as his challenge may disturb and discomfort us, especially when it comes to us from within the lives and actions of those deeds are reprehensible, Jesus still owns us as his disciples and as the “children of the light.”

Jesus is a good rabbi—a good teacher—and he expects us to make mistakes. He expects us to learn from our mistakes, but he also understands and accepts our failings. The good news is that he will never abandon us, and that he continues to walk with us on the unknown paths that lie ahead.

May God grant us wisdom and courage and discernment as together we journey through this less-than-perfect world. Amen.

“EVEN JUST ONE”

TEXT:  Luke 15:1-10

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? (Luke 15:4)

Labour Day weekend has come and gone. September is in full swing. This is the time of year when churches wake up from a long summer nap and get moving. Vacationers return. Committees resume their work.

The church board starts meeting again. The choir starts practicing again—and singing again—after a long summer absence. Organizing is underway for the turkey supper … and some of us are even beginning to plan for Advent and Christmas!

And you know, it’s very satisfying to look around and see the church doing what the church is supposed to do. The flock is in good shape. Lots of people are helping out with this or that, taking responsibility and sharing leadership. We are grazing in the green pastures right next to the cool still waters.

Then we read our gospel lesson … and there’s a problem. This reading does not celebrate the flock which is all gathered together, grazing contentedly and doing the church thing.

Instead, it almost seems like Jesus cares more about the ones who aren’t here. That may seem unreasonable to those of us who faithfully show up every week and keep the institutional church humming … but it is the gospel.

God cares deeply for each of us. God doesn’t just love humanity in general; God loves each and every person. To make plain this truth about God, Jesus tells two parables—about a lost sheep and a lost coin, and about how their owners searched and searched until they found even just one that was missing.

Jesus tells us that God is like a woman who will turn her house upside down to find even just one coin. Jesus says God is like a shepherd who will search high and low for even just one sheep.

There are no thorn bushes, no deep ravines, no alleyways, no hidden corners, no closets into which God will not go to find those who are lost—even just one.

Jesus came to save the lost—lost sheep, lost coins, lost brothers, lost prostitutes, lost loan sharks, lost fools, lost weaklings. Jesus came all this way looking for them. And those we have given up on or forgotten about or dismissed because of their unworthiness are the very ones that Jesus has headed out to look for.

Here’s a story I heard once. It’s about a little girl who was looking at all the pretty things in her mother’s jewelry box.

One item particularly fascinated her. It was an opal that had once been set in a ring, but which had come loose from its setting. The little girl liked the opal a lot. She liked how it sparkled, how its iridescence gave it different colors depending on how she held it and in what kind of light.

She liked looking at this opal so much that she took it out of the box and carried it around for a while until … well, you guessed it: she lost the small stone.

When she told her mother what happened, her mother began the most thorough search of their house the girl had ever seen. Her mother looked under rugs and between the sofa cushions. She swept. She looked everywhere. She was so energetic in her search that the little girl knew that what was lost must be truly precious.

The little girl had no idea her mother owned such a treasure, and she asked: “Is this the most precious jewel in the world?”

Her mother said, “No, there are jewels worth far more, that cost more. But this one was given to me by my great aunt, and—since she gave it to me—it’s precious to me, and I want to find it.”

Jesus says God is like a woman who, when she loses one of her ten silver coins, does not say, “Well, I still have nine others, that will just have to do.”

No. The woman turns her house upside down until she finds the one lost coin.

In the parable, the woman is so excited at finding her one lost coin that she calls all her friends. “We have to celebrate! I found my coin that was lost!”

And just like that, says Jesus, the angels of God rejoice when even one person who is lost is found, when even one person repents, comes home, allows God to embrace them and say, “You are mine. I love you. I would search the whole world for you if I had to.” Even for just one.

Jesus told these parables because, at the time, a group of people were grumbling about what kind of people Jesus was busy finding—what kind of people Jesus was inviting to the table and eating with.

And the ones doing the grumbling were the good religious people—folks who were certain that they themselves were safely in God’s fold, safely deposited into God’s change purse.

They didn’t realize that they, too, were lost ones that God was trying hard to gather up. They didn’t realize that God was turning the world upside down to find tax collectors and sinners as well as good religious people. They didn’t realize that God wants to claim us all as his own sheep, as his own precious coins.

From the very beginning, God’s Spirit has been sweeping through the world seeking people—people who would rejoice in belonging to God, whether they deserved it or not. And in Jesus, God really did do something to turn the whole world upside down. The God of the universe came among us as a human baby, who lived and died as one of us, stretched his arms out to us from the cross to welcome the lost and the least. Every … single … one.

God still wants to gather us all up, so that not even one more person ever feels lost—as if they have to do it all on their own, as if they’re not worth a cent. Why? Because even just one is precious to God.

Did you notice that when the woman found the coin that she’d lost, she threw a party for all her friends? She found one coin, and then she spent who knows how many more to throw a party! Is that foolishness … or is it grace?

If we are the coins in the story, then we are so precious to God that even just one of us is worth everything. If we are the coins in the story, then the occasion of finding just one of us is cause for great celebration. We are God’s coins, and our lives are to be spent in the cause of seeking and finding and celebrating. God doesn’t just tuck us away in some safety-deposit box like a heavenly coin collection, waiting for our value to increase. No. God says, “Let’s have a party—right now!

Even just one means everything to God. Even just one is cause for great celebration. Even just one who offers himself or herself to be spent for God’s purposes is a great blessing for the whole neighbourhood.

In our worship services, we practice God’s economics. We gather, acknowledging that all we are and all we have comes from God, belongs to God, is loved by God, can be given and offered and spent for God. We offer our time, our talents, our money, and the produce of our hands and our minds in God’s service—in our congregations, in our neighbourhoods, and out in the wider world.

Our ministries are varied, but each one is valuable, each one is important to God, because even just one enables us to continue God’s work of seeking and finding and celebrating.

Even just one. Even just you. Even just me. Precious to God. And precious in God’s family. Hallelujah! We should throw a party. Amen.

NO EASY RIDE

TEXTS: Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Luke 14:25-33

So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.  The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. (Jeremiah 18:3-4)

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)

Strong words from Jesus! Tough talk. Harsh demands: hate your parents, your spouse, your children, your siblings … even hate life itself. How are we supposed to react to statements like these? Can you imagine any pastor trying to grow a church saying, “Come this Sunday and we’ll tell you how hard it is to join our church?”

“First, you’ve got to hate your family. Then, you must carry a cross like a condemned criminal. Along with that, we expect you to give up everything you have worked so hard to acquire. Do these things, and then you can call yourself a member of our fellowship.”

Can you imagine it? Yet, that is the essence of what Jesus is saying. Christian discipleship demands everything we have. The first thing that Jesus says here is, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”

What does Jesus mean? Are we really supposed to “hate” the people closest to us?

Well, not exactly. We need to remember that the New Testament was not written in English. It was written in Greek. And to make things even more complicated, Jesus spoke Aramaic. So the words of Christ that are reported in the gospels have been translated at least twice by the time we get to read them in English. This creates some challenges for our understanding of the text.

Bearing that in mind, we discover that the Aramaic word for “hate” that Jesus uses here is a comparative verb. It actually means to “love much less than.” It means that the love we have for our closest family members, compared to the love Jesus demands from us, looks almost like hatred. In short, if God and his kingdom are given the proper all-consuming love Christ expects, then the highest and best of all our other loves—even our love for our own lives—will seem to be in a far-distant second place.

Remember what Jesus said when someone asked him, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:36-37)

It’s interesting to consider what we usually mean when we speak about love. We say we “love” all kinds of things: good food, fine wine, chocolate, white sand beaches, beautiful music. Some people even claim to love rhubarb!

And a lot of people around this part of the country say they love the mountains. I’m one of them. Especially, I love the view from the top of the mountains. In fact, one of my favorite things to do in Banff is to take the gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain.* Have you ever taken that ride? The view on the way up is quite spectacular, as the gondola ascends almost 700 metres to the upper terminal. That’s almost 2,300 feet, or three times higher than the Bow skyscraper in downtown Calgary!

I love that view from the mountain top. It’s absolutely incredible. But I wonder: what if that easy gondola ride wasn’t there? Would I have ever seen that magnificent view?

It is possible, I know, to walk—or, rather, hike—to the summit on the Sulphur Mountain Trail. That’s five-and-a-half kilometres—mostly straight-up—from the Upper Hot Springs parking lot. It takes about three hours, one-way. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve never attempted it. As much as I claim to love the view from Sulphur Mountain, I’m not willing to expend the sweat and energy it takes to climb that high. If the gondola ever stops running, I don’t suppose I’ll ever see that summit again … not unless they put in an escalator!

I have to ask myself from time to time—and perhaps you do, too—is my love of God like my love of the view from the top of those mountains? My love of God is a real and genuine thing; but is it one in which I am willing to put in only so much effort? Is it but one love, as it were, among many? How serious is my discipleship, anyway?

Those kinds of questions might make us uncomfortable, but—if we allow ourselves to consider them, to grapple with them—they can serve a deep purpose in our lives. They are like the hands of the potter about which Jeremiah wrote, the hands that shape the clay into a pot.

When the potter sees that the clay is marred, he pounds it and molds it into a new and better form. He reshapes it until it is pleasing and useful to him. Now, this is not an easy or comfortable process for the clay. However, the results are worth it, because the potter is God—and God, as the bumper sticker says, does not make junk!

There’s a difference between loving God and doing what God requires. There’s a difference between loving Christ and being his disciple—being willing to take up your cross and follow him.

The Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote his history of the Jewish people during the time that Rome ruled Israel—in the middle of the first century—talks about the cross and what it was like in those days to walk the main road that led into Jerusalem. He records how, along that road, there would sometimes be as many as 3,000 crosses lining the way. On some, fresh victims were nailed or tied, slowly dying in the desert sun. Other crosses held decaying and rotting corpses, baking in the heat and causing a great stench.

Crucifixion was the most terrible punishment that could be inflicted by the Roman state, and it was reserved for the worst kinds of criminals—thieves, murderers, traitors—and for those who would dare to oppose the Roman emperor. Can you imagine, then, the terror—and the horror—that must have filled the hearts and minds of Jesus’ listeners when he told them that to be truly his disciples they must “pick up their crosses” and follow him? It was the worst possible image that Jesus could have used if his whole intention was to get people to love him—and to love God—more than I love the view from Sulphur Mountain.

Discipleship is not like a gondola ride to the summit. If Jesus uses graphic images in our gospel today, it’s because he wants us to understand something: God wants more from us than our eagerness to receive bread without cost and wine without price.

When he talks about “hating” all those whom we should love, it’s because he wants to shock us. He tells us to “carry the cross” because he wants to horrify us. Why? Because he wants us to wake up to what’s at stake—to make us realize that Christian discipleship is about more than simply feeling thankful. There is more to loving God than simply waiting for him to pour a handful of goodies into our laps.

God wants us to be vessels which are able to receive his love—vessels which are able to hold his love, and then to pour it out upon others. Jesus is telling us that being half-hearted is about as much good as having no heart at all. Giving up some things—but not everything—to God, he tells us, can only earn us ridicule. “Count the cost,” he says in our reading today, “and pick up your cross and follow me.”

Oh, how much I want it all to be easy. How much I want every mountain to have a gondola ascending it. I don’t want to suffer or die. I want to live forever without having to pass through the grave. I want to have my cake, and eat it, too! I want to be a beautiful vessel for the heavenly potter, but I don’t want to be shaped or formed on the wheel. And isn’t that the truth about most people? I think that’s why Jesus talks to his followers in the way he does. I think that’s why he challenges us.

How easy I want it to be! And how awful the way of the cross appears to be! But, because the gospel has touched me, I can’t help thinking that perhaps all the suffering that I fear, all the self-sacrifice that I want to avoid, all the humility, the thinking about myself less and about others more …  Perhaps it’s all more than worth it for the sake of the gospel.

You see, the cross that Jesus speaks of—the cross that he himself was raised upon—does not end the story. If it did, then the story would not be told anymore, and people would not still be offering their lives in service to God. The one who talked about the cost of discipleship not only showed us what true love is like when he died for us upon the cross—he also showed us what God’s love for us is like when he was raised from the dead on the third day.

God’s intention and purpose is to have us become beautiful pots that can hold his love and pour his love out upon others. God’s intention is to make us more like Christ in every way, to make us into people who can be a blessing to others—and who can ourselves know the blessing, the presence, the peace, that only he can give.

What do we need to give up? What do we have to give up?

I think the answers are different for everybody. Some of us are still called to literally risk our lives by going in Christ’s name to places where relief workers and medical personnel regularly face kidnapping and torture and death. But God doesn’t call many to that kind of service … or so it appears. In any case, few of us are willing to give up quite that much for the sake of the gospel.

But, you know, there are things we can give up to God right here, and right now. What kinds of things? Some time ago, someone gave me a list of “The Devil’s Beatitudes.” It identifies a whole bunch of things—things of the self that we should soberly consider. It’s a list of beatitudes for Christians who start, but do not finish … and they go like this:

  • Blessed are those who are too tired, too busy, too distracted to spend an hour once a week with their fellow Christians; they are my best workers.
  • Blessed are those Christians who wait to be asked and expect to be thanked; I can use them.
  • Blessed are the touchy. With a bit of luck, they may stop going to church; they are my missionaries.
  • Blessed are the troublemakers; they shall be called my children.
  • Blessed are the complainers; I’m all ears to them, and I will spread their message.
  • Blessed are the church members who expect to be invited to their own church; for they are a part of the problem instead of the solution.
  • Blessed are they who gossip, for they shall cause strife and divisions; that pleases me.
  • Blessed are they who are easily offended; for they will soon get angry and quit.
  • Blessed are they who do not give their offering to carry on God’s work; for they are my helpers.
  • Blessed are they who profess to love God but hate their brother or sister; for they shall be with me forever.
  • Blessed are they who read or hear this and think it is about other people—I’ve got you!

Our gospel reading today ends with the words: “… none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:33)

Some things are well worth giving up to God because they cause us and others nothing but grief. Other things are well worth giving up to God because God can renew them and remake them—just as God can renew and remake us.

The treasures of this earth are not things we can keep, anyway. All flesh is mortal, and suffering will come to us whether we are devoted to God or devoted only to ourselves. But, if we are to suffer, how much better to suffer for the Lord, who is forgiving! If we are to die, how much better to die for the Lord, who gives life to those who call upon him.

God is the potter—we are the clay. Friends, let’s be ready to have him mould us and reshape us. May we follow Jesus, not counting the cost as people of this world count the cost, but rather counting the cost as Jesus counted it—knowing that our present troubles will prepare us for eternal glory, and knowing that in Christ we can do all things, for he loves us with a love that overcomes the world.

_____________

* https://www.banffjaspercollection.com/attractions/banff-gondola/hours-location/

 

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER?

TEXT: Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. (Luke 14:1)

Sir Alec Guinness once said, “A person who is keen to shake your hand usually has something up his sleeve.”

Jesus had been invited into the home of a prominent Pharisee, to share a meal with a gathering of important people. Now, on the surface, this looks like a friendly gesture.

However, our gospel text hints that something else was going on—that at least some of the dinner guests were hoping for an opportunity to criticize this young, upstart rabbi.

Perhaps Jesus knew that. In any event, he quickly turned his attention to the motives of the guests as they sat down to eat.

Now, in order to understand what Jesus saw when he looked at them, you need to know something about the culture and protocol of that place and time.

At a meal like this one, people would recline on couches that were arranged in a “U” shape, with the host seated at the base of the “U”—the most prominent place. The most favoured guests would sit nearest to the host.

For a while, Jesus watched these esteemed men jockeying for position. Then he told them a story, to illustrate how pride and self-seeking can lead to humiliation.

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.

“But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In other words, remember that honour is not claimed—it is awarded. Jesus commends humility for two reasons.

One is an earthly reason: that grabbing the best seat—to which you are not entitled—could lead to humiliation. But sitting at the lowest place could well result in an invitation to “come on up!”  Come up higher.

The second reason is a heavenly one. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The word exalt means ‘to lift up’. First, Jesus is referring to those who lift themselves up above others. He says God will humble them—“cut them down to size,” as we might say. Yet those who humble themselves will be lifted up to God through the work of the Holy Spirit.

As the great 19th-century evangelist Dwight L. Moody put it: “God sends no one away empty except those who are full of themselves.”

Now, when Jesus spoke of humility, he was not saying that people have to belittle themselves, or consider themselves worthless. No. He meant that we should realize that we are all equal in the eyes of God. Every one of us falls short of God’s perfect will—and, therefore, no one of us is in a position to look down on our neighbours.

Or—to put it another way—God loves us and cares for us simply because we are his beloved children. Not because of our good behaviour. Not because of our intelligence. Not because of our achievements. Not because God has something to gain by loving us. And God calls us to love one another in just the same way—without regard for status, or gain, or advantage.

I heard a story once. It goes like this: An elderly man walking on the beach came across a magic lamp. He picked it up and a genie appeared!

“Thank you, friend,” the genie said. “I was trapped for ages inside that lamp! Because you have freed me, I will grant you a wish.”

The man thought for a moment and then responded: “My brother and I had a fight 30 years ago and he has not spoken to me since. I wish that he would finally forgive me.”

There was a thunderclap, and the genie declared, “Your wish has been granted!”

“You know,” the genie continued, “most men would have asked for wealth or fame or power. But you only wanted the love of your brother. Is it because you are old and near to death?”

“No way!” the man cried. “But my brother is, and he’s worth about 60 million dollars!”

The issue of motivation looms large in our gospel story. Obviously, the guests of the Pharisee wanted the best seats so they could see and be seen.

It’s also worth considering why these particular people were invited in the first place.

Some would be invited to impress the other guests. Many would be invited because they had already invited the host to their banquet, or because the host hoped to be invited to their next soirée.

Jesus lays bare these self-serving motives. He calls his host—and, indeed all his disciples, including us—to act differently. To truly give hospitality, rather than to merely exchange it. We are called to reflect the way of God by reaching out generously to those who need help. God has done this to everyone spiritually. Jesus challenges us to do the same thing materially.

But you may ask: just how are we supposed to do that? All of us tell our children to beware of strangers—and with good reason! The idea of going out to invite disadvantaged strangers into our homes for a meal would seem foolhardy to most people today. And again, with good reason.

This point was underlined for me recently when I read the results of a survey. It said that—when it comes to facing the risk of violence—police officers and clergy are about evenly matched. Of clergy who were surveyed, 70% had suffered verbal abuse in the last two years, 20% had been threatened with physical harm, and 12% actually had been physically assaulted.

Let’s face it: working with people on the fringes of society can be a dangerous enterprise. Nevertheless, we still need to answer Jesus’ call. Fortunately, there are still lots of things that we can do to act differently—to humbly serve the Christ who calls us.

We can offer hospitality to those who are outside our usual circle of friends. This applies within the church or outside it. Perhaps you could invite someone you don’t know very well for a cup of coffee or a meal. In every church, there are people who feel excluded, and such a gesture could be a tremendous boost to them.

Commenting on today’s gospel text, someone once said: “Moral likeness confirms parentage.” In other words, those who imitate God’s love, humility and generosity show that they are truly children of God. John Newton (1725-1807)—the former slave trader who composed the hymn, “Amazing Grace”—once wrote: “I am persuaded that love and humility are the highest attainments in the school of Christ and the brightest evidences that he is indeed our Master.”

Sacrificial giving will lead to a blessing. And most often, this blessing will be the knowledge that someone in need has benefited from our giving—that someone else’s suffering has been lessened by our gift.

The American evangelist and author Tony Campolo writes about how he and his wife—in order to set an example for their children—made a bold decision. They decided that each Christmas they would give a large amount of money to charity—and only give one gift to each family member. The charity they chose was an impoverished school in Haiti. The Campolo children resented this at first—but eventually, they got used to it. Or at least, they eventually stopped grumbling about it.

The Campolo family continued this practice for many years—and after the children became teenagers, Tony took them to Haiti to see for themselves the school they had been supporting. As they approached the school, dozens of children rushed out to greet them. Tony’s son turned to him and said, “Dad, this is the best Christmas gift anyone could ever get.”

What the Campolo children learned, I think, is that—in the economy of heaven—the act of giving becomes an act of love, and it contains its own best reward. The ability to bless those in need itself becomes a blessing.

“Although they cannot repay you,” Jesus said, “you will be repaid.”

When Mother Teresa of Calcutta reflected upon life and its meaning, she alluded to the picture of Judgment Day that Jesus painted for us in Matthew, chapter 25. She said, “At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received; how much money we have made; how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat … I was naked and you clothed me … I was homeless and you took me in.’”

Hungry—not only for bread, but hungry for love. Naked—not only without clothing, but without human respect and dignity. Homeless—not only for want of a room and a bed, but homeless because of rejection.

When Jesus spoke about these things, he told us to expect him to come in exactly this sort of disguise: “Just as you took care of my sisters and brothers, so did you care for me.”

May God make us ever mindful of who is seated at our bountiful tables—and mindful also of who is not.

PICK UP! IT’S HEAVEN CALLING …

TEXT: Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

(Jeremiah 1:4-6)

Today we consider the story of Jeremiah, and his call to be a prophet. Did you notice how this plays out? The Lord comes to Jeremiah—who might have been about 14 years of age at the time—and he says to him: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Well, Jeremiah can see where this is going, and he immediately tries to deflect the Lord’s challenge. I like the way Eugene Peterson translates this. Jeremiah says: “Hold it, Master God! Look at me. I don’t know anything. I’m only a boy!” *

But his protest doesn’t do him any good, for the Lord replies: “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a boy.’ I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there. I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it. Don’t be afraid of a soul. I’ll be right there, looking after you.” *

In other words, there’s no room here for argument! So—in the beginning, at least—Jeremiah becomes a most reluctant prophet. And you might think that a person like that would not be a good choice for the task. Generally speaking, people who are pressured into doing things don’t make the best workers. But the Lord knew what he was about with young Jeremiah. The lad went on to become one of Israel’s greatest prophets.

And even if he remained somewhat reluctant, he eventually reached the point where he felt compelled to speak God’s Word—where he couldn’t not speak that Word, even if he had wanted to remain silent. Later in his career, Jeremiah would declare: “If I say, ‘I will not mention [the Lord], or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jer. 20:9)

God is good at picking his candidates! He always seems to know just exactly who is the right person for whatever job he needs to fill. Think about the “Noah’s Ark” story. Noah was just the right man to put in charge of conserving all the species in Creation. It’s not a job I would have wanted. The Book of Genesis says the flood lasted 150 days (Gen. 7:24). That’s five months! Almost half a year cooped up with all those smelly animals! Like I said, I wouldn’t have wanted to do that. And God probably wouldn’t have asked me, because he knows my temperament. If I had been Noah, today there would be no mosquitoes!

But I digress. Let’s get back to Jeremiah. When it comes to people whom God calls, Jeremiah wasn’t all that unusual. You may remember that Moses also tried to get out of the task the Lord set before him. The prophet Jonah was a most unwilling servant, as well. You know, the reason he ended up in the belly of that whale was that he didn’t want to go and preach to the Ninevites. So he got on a boat and tried to sail away … but we know where that got him! And in the end, he had to do what God had called him to do in the first place.

Some things don’t change, I guess. At least, it seems that way to me. The call of God is very seldom a call to do something we wanted to do anyway. The call of the Lord is not often a call to do what is convenient, or comfortable, or within what we perceive as our existing skill set. And sometimes—even if we think we know where the path of discipleship is leading us … well, it suddenly veers off in an unexpected direction.

How many of you, I wonder, have set out for one place, but—through something like divine intervention—have ended up at quite another destination?

How many of you, I wonder, have felt your God—or your faith, or your conscience, or your convictions—challenging you to do something that you did not want to do, or did not feel equipped to do? How did you react? Did you start spouting excuses? (I’ve done that—a lot.) Did you feel a sense of panic? Or terror? Did you want to bolt and run? (I’ve done that, too.)

More importantly: after all the excuses and panic and fear, did you do what you felt yourself called to do?

Whether your answer to that question is yes or no, if you’ve heard the call and considered the challenges—and the risks—then you have at least got an inkling of what the path of Christian discipleship is all about. Sometimes there is an element of glory or joy about it. But always—always—there is a burden to shoulder. There is a cross to carry. That is a frightening prospect, and before you dare pick it up, you have to ask yourself: “Do I trust the One who’s asking this of me?”

Do you really trust in God? Do you trust that he will give you the ability, and the power, and the courage, to do what he’s calling you to do? Scripture urges us—actually, the apostle Paul urges us, in Second Timothy, chapter one—to rely on the power of God, “who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace” (2 Tim. 1:9).

Do you get that? If you’re a believer—if you consider yourself a follower of Christ—you’ve not only been saved, you can also expect to be called—called “with a holy calling.” God has something he wants you to do—something which, very possibly, only you can do.

How do you feel about that? Is it exciting? Is it unsettling? Is it both? Or does it still just fill your heart with panic?

Well, if all you’re feeling is panic … I’m afraid I still have to tell you … You will be called. Unmute your phone. The Lord will be calling you. If not today, then maybe tomorrow, or the next day …  But make no mistake about it: God will be asking you to do something for him.  Maybe he wants you to carry a heavy burden. Maybe he wants you to bring an unwelcome message. I don’t know what it is. I just know that call is part of discipleship. You can’t avoid hearing a call, if you want to be a disciple of Jesus.

But I do have some good news, and it’s contained in the latter half of that verse from Second Timothy which I quoted a moment ago. It says God calls us “not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.” We are not called “according to our works”—that is, our own abilities or skills or wisdom—but according to the grace and purpose of God. When the Lord asks us to do something, he promises to give us whatever we need to have in order to carry it out.

It’s like the Lord said to Jeremiah: “you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you …”

So, to each and every one of you who wants to be a serious disciple, I say again: you will be called. God will call upon you. But don’t let yourself be crippled by fear—or by a sense of inadequacy, or unworthiness, or anything else. The One who calls you will also equip you, and he will lead you to the place where, at the last, you will have Jeremiah’s fire in your bones! Believe that this is true. The call of the Lord will come to define your life, and it will give you life. You won’t be able to bottle it up inside—and you won’t want to, either!

That is the message of Scripture—and it’s a promise you can trust.

____________

*The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Faith That Starts Fires

TEXTS: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!(Luke 12:49)

Some of you may know the name Li Juncai. He is the pastor of the Yuanyang County Central House Church in Xinxiang, Henan Province, in the People’s Republic of China.

On February 20, 2019, local authorities detained Li for refusing to remove the church’s cross and replace a religious sign in the church with a state-approved one. Mass removals of crosses from church buildings began in Henan Province in 2018, with police removing at least 4,000 crosses in the span of one year.

When authorities brought a crane to remove the cross from Pastor Li Juncai’s church, a group of Christian senior citizens, mostly women, met the plainclothes policemen and their crane. The Christians sang hymns and prayed while attempting to keep the authorities from taking the cross. Police beat and arrested the protestors before forcing the church gate open and removing the cross. Pastor Li Juncai told the workers they should proceed according to the law and that he opposed the removal of the crosses. He was arrested and charged with “obstructing official business.”

The next day, Religious Affairs authorities removed signs from inside the church building and forced church members to fly China’s national flag from the front of the church. Many churches are now required to do the same, along with hanging an image of President Xi Jinping inside the sanctuary and installing security cameras facing the congregation.

In January 2021, a court sentenced Li to five years and six months in prison and fined him 50,000 yuan (about $9,500 CA) for “misappropriation of funds,” “embezzlement,” and “intentionally destroying accounting books,” as well as the original charge of “obstructing official business.”

If you keep tabs on missionary agencies, you will know that Christianity is viewed with suspicion or outright hostility by many governments in the developing world.* Even in places that we would consider relatively civilized—like China—the practice of Christianity is considered to be a dangerous behaviour that threatens to destabilize society.

Of course, Christian faith is viewed quite differently where we live. In fact, it seems that church attendance is still reasonably common among those who control the laws and finances of this country. If we were sitting in any of the big churches in Ottawa on a Sunday morning, I think that—as we looked around—we’d be a lot more likely to notice senior bureaucrats and bankers than subversives and agitators.

In our society, Christianity is seen as safe and conservative and acceptable. And I wonder whether that is a major factor in why it also appears to be dying out. Because it seems too familiar, too hum-drum, too safe. We keep hearing that people in our society are hungry for genuine spiritual transformation—and most of us can see that’s true just by looking around at our friends and neighbours. They’re hungry for life-changing food—but, by and large, they no longer expect to be fed in church.

I think that’s because (quite reasonably) spiritual seekers associate Christianity with the way “we” have always done things. They think Christian faith is too tired, too status quo, to have anything to offer them. And our historic hand-in-glove cooperation with colonialism hasn’t helped, either. People’s perceptions of what Christianity is have been formed by what church-going people are seen to be and do. And if we are perceived as being people who live comfortably with the status quo values of our society …

Well, in that case, we are a long way from the kind of Christianity described in today’s two scripture readings.

In the gospel lesson, Jesus says he wants to take a flame-thrower to planet earth! He tells us that his mission will be seriously divisive, even breaking apart families as people find themselves on opposing sides of fundamental issues.

And in the letter to the Hebrews, the exercise of faith is depicted as something over which kingdoms rise and fall—and for which people have been tortured, mocked, flogged, chained, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, and killed by the sword.

“They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented,” it says in verse 37. And then the author concludes: “Of [them] the world was not worthy.” (Heb. 11:37b-38)

It seems to me that one of the reasons we have rendered Christianity safe and innocuous is that there has been a major change in the way we think about what faith is. We mostly talk about it as being something you have. We ask: “Do you have faith?” Or we say: “She’s got a lot of faith.” Or: “You need to have a little faith” … as if we could purchase it by the kilogram.

Those sorts of statements make faith sound like a possession—like something you own. And there are lots of things that our society has decided it can tolerate people possessing. Perhaps we’ve begun to think of faith as being a bit like an illicit drug: the possession of small amounts for private use won’t get you into much trouble—just don’t start trafficking it!

Somehow, I don’t think either Jesus or the writer of the Book of Hebrews was thinking of faith as something you simply possess for private consumption. Faith is not something you do while keeping your head down and letting the rest of the world go on about its business. No. Faith is not a thing that can be possessed. It is something you do, or something you exercise. Faith is something active that affects those around you.

Perhaps we could compare it to power. There is no such thing as simply possessing power without ever exercising it, and without anyone else being affected by it. Power only exists in the exercising of it—in putting it into practice. Faith is like that, too. Faith only exists as it is exercised and as it shapes what you do.

That’s why I think it is a mistake to completely equate faith with belief. You can have a belief that has no consequences. I can believe that Noah’s ark was 450 feet long, but that won’t make any difference to how I live when I wake up tomorrow morning.

Faith is more like trust; it is belief that steps up to the plate—that commits itself to action. If we say that we trust God’s foolishness will prove wiser than the wisdom of the world, we are exercising an active choice and backing one side over the other. We are committing ourselves to living by one and rejecting the other. And once we start to do that, the sparks begin to fly and the fires begin to break out.

If we say that we are willing to trust God’s radical hospitality over the world’s self-protectionism, then we’re taking a risk. If we reject the wisdom of the world that says that our country should not accept any more refugees; if, instead, we trust that those who offer welcome will be vindicated by God; then, not only will we find ourselves on the unpopular side of the opinion polls, but we may also find ourselves breaking the law and facing arrest and public vilification.

But that’s what faith is!  To say that we believe that something should be done—but that we’re not willing to do it unless it is popular, or at least legal … this is not the exercise of faith. It is the exercise of compliance.

Jesus was in no doubt that his own radical faith in God was going to plunge him into a baptism of fire. And he was also quite clear about the stress and anxiety that he was going to have to endure as he approached it.

And mark this: Jesus was under no illusions about faith making the world a nicer place. He said: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” (Luke 12:51-52)

Now, that doesn’t sound at all inviting, does it? You might reasonably ask, “Where is the good news?” Well, both readings point to the answer.

Jesus speaks of a baptism of fire, but a baptism is not only something you are plunged into. It is also something from which you emerge. You come out of it with a new identity and a new life filled with the Spirit of God. The baptism of fire is the birthplace of new life. And in our first reading—from the Letter to the Hebrews—the first line speaks about God’s people exercising faith by passing through the Red Sea to freedom. The Israelites were trapped between an advancing army and a seemingly uncrossable body of water! This was not a comfortable situation to be in—but it was a situation which demanded a choice. On the one hand was the only easy way out—a compliant return to slavery. On the other hand was Moses, saying, “Don’t worry, the sea waters will part for us. Have faith!

Some choice! However, the way to freedom and life was opened to those who were willing to trust: “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land.” (Heb. 11:29)

The good news is that we are not called to face the fire—or wade through the water—for no good reason. We are not asked to take risks of faith just to be daredevils. No. We are called to face the fire because that’s what lies between us and the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth. We stride into the sea because there is no way around it.

As the writer to the Hebrews says, if we keep our eyes on Jesus and follow his lead, the vision of the joy to come will give us the perseverance required to push on through whatever threatens to engulf us. And you know, that vision of a world where love and justice finally reign, and all things are made one in God … Well, that is the promise of the only life that is ultimately worth living—and the only life worth dying for! Amen.

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* For up-to-date news on this subject, one excellent resource can be found on The Voice of the Martyrs website: https://www.prisoneralert.com/prisoners

LOVE BADE ME WELCOME

TEXT: Luke 12:32-40

“Blessed are those servants whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.” (Luke 12:37)

Perhaps I don’t often enough quote from the King James Version of the Bible; it has an eloquence like few other things ever written in English. But knowing my usual habit, you may ask yourselves, “So what’s with the King James English this time?”

Well, at least in part, it’s because I want to quote something else to you—and it’s from roughly the same era. It’s the opening passage from a poem called “Love,” which was written by George Herbert, who lived from 1593 to 1633—about the time of Shakespeare. Here goes:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
           Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
           From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
           If I lack’d anything.

Herbert actually wrote three poems with the same title of “Love,” but near his death, he left this poem, the one that begins, “Love bade me welcome,” as the last poem. It was his final word, so to speak, on the subject of faith.

The poet George Herbert was one of those on his way up in the world of King James* (the one who commissioned the translation of the Bible which bears his name). Herbert may have aspired at one time to an important government office under King James. But then he decided to let his life take a permanent and irreversible detour to an out-of-the-way parish in the southwest of England, where he served quietly as pastor for the last three years of his life of just 40 years.

He could have taken steps leading toward high political office, but he gave up his secular ambitions in order to preach and to write poetry. Herbert said, “his soul drew back” in the presence of Love. In this poem, Love is his word for God.

We understand, don’t we? We also draw back in the presence of a superior. Wherever you are in life, are there not people above you? And in their presence, are you quite the same as you are with your peers? In the presence of one with titles, or position, or power, do not all of us show some kind of deference—or even reverence?

Life is marked by roles and expectations. Social rules dictate that some are higher and some are lower on the scale. And even though democratic societies are founded on the notion that all are created equal, we still live and work in situations where this ideal is not practiced.

This is an “up-down” world. But if we think we live in a time marked by expectations about roles and about one’s place in society, it’s nothing compared to the world that Jesus knew. Jesus lived in a time where a few were privileged and most were deprived. We see the issue of class in all those parables Jesus told about a master and the servants—and in today’s gospel reading.

And of course, what caused Jesus all kinds of problems was that his opponents thought he didn’t understand the rules governing society and religion. They thought he was just an ignorant carpenter, and they said he ate and drank with sinners—as if he didn’t know any better.

The whole ministry of Jesus was marked by a curious kind of crossing as he moved from the segment of society ruled by the religious establishment to that of the ruled—the underclass, those without property, the outcasts. He said the first would be last, and the last would be first. What a revolutionary statement! It was a message to trouble the powerful and comfort the powerless.

Jesus told his disciples that they should think of themselves as servants. That may be harder for us to consider than it was for them. They called him “rabbi” or “teacher.” In the Greek New Testament, the word is kurios, which means “lord” or “master.” Applying that term to Jesus shows that they already looked upon him in a special way. They were ready to serve him and his cause. It is a role that Jesus even commends them for (see Luke 17:7-10; John 13:13). The loyalty of a servant to a master is commendable.

Duty makes sense. You do what you have to do, and when you do it well and thoughtfully, it feels right. To be sure, you don’t always get rewarded for doing your duty or for doing what is right; it is just what you do.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says servants should have their lamps lit. They should be ready for action. They should be waiting for their master to return. That’s what you would expect faithful servants to be doing. If the master comes in the middle of the night, he will be pleased to find the house well-lit. Once their master has returned, those servants will know they have done the right thing by being ready and watchful.

They would also still be servants. They would be ready to continue as servants. Like George Herbert, in the presence of their master, their souls would draw back, “guilty of dust and sin.” They would know their place in the system—a place ready to serve their lord and master—ready to serve his needs and not their own.

Then Jesus says something really astounding—something so shocking that this had to be one of those little parables that quickly made its way from house to house and town to town. This had to be one of those stories, for it contains something totally unexpected.

Jesus says of the master that he should fasten his belt. Now, you’ve got to understand, masters of a household don’t do this. In Jesus’ place and time, there were all kinds of rules regarding dress and decorum for both men and women. It’s a world where very little skin shows. For example, men who wear long traditional robes will hardly even make their feet visible. To “fasten his belt”—as a modern translation has it—or “he shall gird himself” as the King James Version translates it, means to hike up your robe.

The robe is lifted up and then tied around the waist, so it doesn’t drag on the ground. Once the robe is out of the way, a servant can move easily and quickly. Being a servant means getting a job done, even if it means sacrificing your dignity—even if it means letting others see your legs!

Never, though, never would a master gird his loins, except for a most extreme or unusual emergency. But Jesus says the master becomes the servant. And yes, Jesus said that of himself: “I am among you as one who serves”  (Luke 22:27). Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, an act so memorable that John felt it was the keystone event of the last supper. And here in today’s gospel, Jesus says that the servants will sit at the table while the master waits on them. All of these were images and ideas that stunned his original audience. And when we grasp the full meaning of it, we, too, can stand in utter awe that God would love us that much.

Here, again, are the words of the poet George Herbert:

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

           Love said, You shall be he.

I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

           I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

           Who made the eyes but I?

 

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

           Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

           My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.

           So I did sit and eat.

The dialogue between master and servant comes to an end as the servant accepts the offer.

How hard it is to accept such a reversal. How difficult it is to accept that our faults, our unworthiness, our inferiority, do not matter at all. Shame and guilt—that is the point at which we are met and accepted! The grace of this relationship with God is all about the gift that is given—not about a gift that is earned. It is about a place at a table that is there when we least expect it—because it is about the Lord who loves the undeserving ones. So when we are less, when we are least, and when we are lost, God stoops to welcome us. Love bids us welcome. To call Jesus “Lord” and “Master” does not mean that the gulf between us is so great that we must hang our heads in shame all the while we are on our knees. “I no longer call you servants,” he said, “but friends.” (John 15:15)

This change in relationship—where we are fed at the table—is not about us, but it is about Christ. It is about our accepting God’s grace, and it is about how God meets us in our lostness and in our leastness. That understanding permeates Herbert’s poem—and it explains why his poem is so enduring. “Quick-eyed love”—the “love that bore the blame”—does not ask us to prove ourselves or to climb up on some ladder of perfection. We are simply asked to be part of a community marked by acceptance and forgiveness.

Let us pray that the sense of community we have in the church may be marked by a willingness to be centred in such love. Let us pray that we, like the servants described by Jesus, might let him serve us at the point of our greatest need. Let us accept the welcome offered to us by the “Love that bore the blame.” Amen.

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* When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, Scotland and England united under King James VI of Scotland who then became King James I of England, the first of the Stuart line. In 1604, at the Hampton Court Conference, James authorized theologians to start a new translation for all English-speaking parishes. Forty-seven scholars were convened, worked for seven years, and produced The King James Authorized Version of the Bible in 1611.

“Who’s Calling, Please?”

Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-20

. . . the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!”  And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10)

A common question that pastors are asked is, “What is the call like?”

When this question is asked, everyone knows that the questioner is not enquiring about a telephone call, but a much larger call—the call from God, the call to pastoral ministry—to “accountable” ministry, as the church likes to call it these days.

So, what is it like? As you might expect, it’s different for each person. For some, it is a slow evolution over a period of time. Some ministers say they knew when they were in elementary school. Some felt the call to ministry take them by complete surprise. And some of us, in retrospect, say we think that God must’ve got the wrong number! Or that we wish we’d left the receiver off the hook.

Today, we hear the story of Samuel’s call. God had a vision for his life, and not only called him once, but four times.

First Samuel 3 begins, “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” This tells us that heavenly calls were not frequent occurrences during Samuel’s time. In fact, there had been a 300-year period when no prophet had spoken the word of the Lord.

If you remember the story of Samuel, you’ll recall that his mother Hannah had dedicated him to a life of serving God. So when he was about four years old, she took him to the Temple and gave him to the priest Eli as his assistant. Since then, Samuel had been raised in the Temple, and was not only Eli’s helper but also a sort of surrogate son for the old priest, whose own sons were hopelessly corrupt and evil.

At any rate, it made sense that when Samuel heard his name being called in the night, he would go to Eli and say, “Here I am, for you called me.”

But Eli—roused from his slumber—said, “I did not call; lie down again.”

Three times Samuel heard his name being called. Three times he asked Eli what he wanted, and two times Eli told him to go back to bed.

But after the third call, we are told that “Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.” Eli then gave Samuel some excellent advice: “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’”

In other words, Eli told Samuel to be quiet and let God do the talking. Samuel went down to lie in his place, and the Bible says God did come back, and stood beside Samuel’s bed, calling as before: “Samuel! Samuel!”

This time Samuel answered God’s call saying,  “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” Then God spoke, and Samuel listened. And Samuel became from that young age onward one of the most significant prophets that Israel would ever know.

Well, so far we’ve talked about two calls: the call to accountable ministry, and the call of Samuel. But, so what? Why should this matter to you, or to me?

Here’s why. You may think that calls from God only happen to pastors, or occur in the Bible—but make no mistake about it: God has also called you to be a minister, to be a servant.

What is your calling? You may or may not have a sure sense of what it is. If you would like a greater understanding of how God wants to use you, there are three important questions that are helpful to ask.

The first question is, “What do I feel called to do?” Chances are that you have a sense of what it is. If the answer is not clear, ask yourself, “What am I good at?” Very often our call is related to what comes naturally or easily to us.

The second question is, “What do other people tell me I am good at?” While it is important that we feel a sense of call, it is also important that others validate the call. Someone may feel deep within that she or he is called to be a pastor, or a Bible teacher, or even a church treasurer; but no one can fill those roles without affirmation from the larger church. Samuel was being called from the outside as well as from the inside.

And finally, the third question you can ask is, “Who’s calling, please?” To determine our true calling, we not only need to feel a sense of call and have others tell us we are called, we must also make sure that the call is from God. When Samuel finally understood this, he said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

God spoke, and Samuel did what God asked him to do. Throughout Samuel’s life God continued to speak, and Samuel continued to act on God’s behalf. God used Samuel in a powerful way. He served as a judge, a priest, a prophet, and played a key role at a significant point in Israel’s history.

For Samuel, answering God’s call became a lifestyle. Each one of us is asked to carry on in that tradition.

You are called to be a minister. Yes, YOU. You are called to be a minister for God. You are called to minister to other people. We live in a world that is hurting, in a world where 40 per cent of all people report being intensely lonely, in a world that suffers from hunger, want, need, and injustice.

God is calling you to take stock of your gifts and to listen for God’s voice and the invitations of other people. God is calling you to a life of service, to a life of ministry. God is calling you to live your life in a way that God might be glorified.

There is no higher calling. So listen well. Amen.