Saturday, August 27, 2016

15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, Year C

Free Grace, Undying Love

Readings: Jer 2:4-13; Isa; 81:1, 10-16; Heb 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

I had a wonderful family from Newfoundland in one of my parishes. They were larger than life in every way. They loved to have a good time; they also loved to be at church. Their faith was extremely important to them. One of their sons fell in love and was to be married. A church wedding was important to both young people. The young woman’s family was not happy with the match to say the least. They considered themselves to be of a much higher station in life. It made for an interesting wedding.

The church was packed with people from both sides of the family as well as with parishioners. It was not difficult to see which family was which. That became especially apparent at the reception, which was held in a posh private club of which the bride’s family were members. There was, of course, a head table with the young people and their wedding party. It was a true mixture of both families, all getting along famously. When it came to the guests, there was a noticeable divide. The bride’s family and friends were all seated decorously on one side of the hall. The groom’s family and friends were on the other side, and there was nothing decorous about them. They were laughing and talking and enjoying one another’s company.

When I came into the hall I was ushered over to sit with the family from my parish amidst great enthusiasm. After saying grace – seems to fall to the lot of the clergy – I went back to my place with them. The father of the bride came over and in a hushed voice suggested I might be more comfortable seated with them. I declined as politely as possible. I was having far too much fun to want to move. I did hear later that he was “deeply insulted” by my actions.

It seems a nice parallel to a party that Jesus went to. He is invited for the Sabbath meal at the home of a Pharisee, obviously of high standing in the community. His first act on arriving is to heal a man. Remember! It is the Sabbath! To add insult to injury, he puts the host’s guests on the spot. He is reacting to the raised eyebrows and silent looks of disapproval at the healing. At the same time, he has noticed them vying for the place of honour at the dinner party. Who is going to sit nearest the head table? Who will catch the eye of the hosts? At last everyone is seated. They are waiting for some pleasantries from the host. Instead they hear the voice of Jesus, calm but authoritative, as he reminds them of their manners.

“When you are invited to a party,” he tells them, “don’t demand the best place. Take the lowest place. Otherwise when someone really important comes along you may find that you have lost your spot. Wait to be invited to come to the head table,” he tells them. He is recalling his vision of God’s realm where the last will be first and the first last.

How embarrassed they must have felt as they heard the truth of Jesus’ words! How resentful! How furious! Wouldn’t you love to hear the conversation as they made their way home? “What a radical that Jesus is!” I can hear them saying. “Who gave him the right to judge us? Did you see the riff raff he was sitting with?”

And as if that isn’t enough, he then takes on the host. He contradicts the ‘me first’ attitude of his guests. “When you have a dinner party, don’t invite important people simply to get repaid. Invite the poor and the needy. Invite the ones who cannot repay you. Invite the ones who really need it.” How angry the host must have felt! Here you invite a guest into your home, you wine and dine him, and then he turns on you and calls you a hypocrite.

We are called as Christians to hold on to the higher values that are so easily lost in time and society. It is true of all times, but most particularly, I suspect of our own. It is startling to hear that message speaking so clearly to us from scripture. There is Jesus, friend of outcasts and sinners, reminding us that love of God and love of neighbour transcend any other law.

The same concerns are voiced in the other readings. Jeremiah questions the values and standards of his society. Like Jesus, he is either very courageous or really crazy. He begins by challenging the priests for not pressing the people to follow the faith. He then challenges the lawyers for the way they handle the law. He takes on the politicians for their lack of action. Finally he goes after the other prophets of his day, making enemies of every sector of society. But then if one is truly going to transform society then it is a necessary step in making change.

In our own day as in that of Jeremiah we see the erosion of long-held values and beliefs. Social norms concerning family and community have changed. Consider the impact of infrastructures like social media on society. We now live in a global economy where a few individuals control most of the world’s wealth. Nations are financially interdependent. Look at the near bankruptcy of Greece and even more recently, the impact Brexit has had on the global economy. Beyond that, we live in a society that is dependent on consumerism. We need to ask the question that Jeremiah was asking. “Are these new ‘gods’ really viable, or are they ‘no gods’?

It is a question that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews may very well have been asking. He offers a list of what it means to live the way God wants us to, the essentials for living in community: mutual love, hospitality, remembering those in prison and those being tortured, holding marriage in honour, being content with what we have, remembering our leaders, and finally doing good and sharing what we have. It is a practical list, far more about our actions and behaviour as Christians than it is about our faith.

It gives us a pretty clear picture of what life in a Christian community should be like. It should be a community where there is empathy one towards another. We need to support one another in faith. We need to support our clergy. We need to be a welcoming and caring community. We need to understand that while wealth is not wrong, to reduce life and love and loyalty to money considerations is. Material things can become gods for us until they are ‘no gods’.

All of this strikes home about our hypocritical society. Jeremiah is not simply speaking about the people of Israel spurning the generosity of God and pursuing worthless goals. Jesus is not just a radical voice speaking out against the Pharisees and their hypocrisy. These are contemporary voices speaking to us across the ages about the way we live. Like the Hebrews we need radical guidelines about how to live as Christians in a secular world. Are we taking the best seats in the banquet hall while the rest of humanity goes uninvited?

Jesus, if we are willing to listen and follow, is revealing to us who God truly is. The way he lived his life opens to us a God who does not pick the place of honour at the table, but rather becomes a servant. How do we understand Jesus’ words, “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”? How do we even understand the essence of true humility? What does it mean to be humble?

For that matter what doesn’t it mean? It doesn’t call on us to put ourselves down. It also doesn’t mean that there is an equal rate of exchange between God and us. In God’s kingdom we come before God with empty hands and God fills them. Everything is gift. Everything is grace. Free grace, undying love!

What about our own work in the community? What do we do to invest in relationships and causes that are not self-serving? How open are our churches? Are we welcoming? Are we just as welcoming to those in need as we are to those who have much? Are we welcoming to everybody? What issues of justice should we as a faith community be tackling? Are there homeless in our midst? Are there those who go hungry? Are we welcoming to people no matter what their sexual orientation? How do we become advocates of change?

The worst thing we can do is to think that we cannot be agents of change, that we cannot do anything about it. We can respond to the needs of others with the same generosity with which God deals with us. We can be the ones who volunteer time and talent on behalf of the marginalized. We can be the calm, authoritative voice of Jesus at the dinner party naming the hypocrisy of our society. When we open our doors and throw a party, when we reach out in ministry and mission, we have to be willing to take some risks. Results aren’t the point of our hospitality. It isn’t about honour, glory and reward. Ultimately we will find ourselves guests at that banquet table in the kingdom.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, Year C

Bent Out of Shape

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrew 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

After eighteen years of being bent over in pain, the woman could scarcely remember any other way of seeing the world. To see anything but the ground, she had to cock her head like a bird. Even that twisting of her head caused enormous pain. What an agony it was to be “unable to stand up straight”, to be unable to look another person in the eye. She went as usual on the Sabbath to the synagogue to worship, but this time there was a special excitement in the place. A Galilean preacher and prophet, Jesus, had arrived in town and would be teaching there. She had heard stories about him – not only about his teachings about God’s grace, but about how he went about healing the sick. She tried not to get her hopes up. After all, her life had been one disappointment after another.

As she entered the synagogue, the place was buzzing with excitement, but a hush fell over the place as soon as Jesus began to speak. Then he caught her eye – not an easy thing to do. He had to bend over and turn his head to see into her face. The invitation was unmistakeable. “Come up here with me!” he said to her. Still bent nearly double, she made her way with him to the front of the synagogue.

“Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” Jesus said to her. He put his hands on her broken, bent body. She felt power surging through her. She straightened her back and stood tall for the first time in years. “Praise God!” she said as the whole crowd rose to their feet in stunned silence.

It did not last long. The silence quickly changed to accusations against Jesus. The leader of the synagogue was totally bent out of shape by Jesus’ compassion. “You broke the law,” he said, accusingly. “The law prohibits you from healing on the Sabbath. This woman could have waited until tomorrow to be healed. She is in no imminent danger.” The crowd murmured their consent. The law is the law after all.

“You hypocrites!” Jesus argued. “The law allows people to provide for their animals on the Sabbath. If you can be merciful to an animal, should you not be even more merciful to a human being? Don’t you understand? The liberating power of God cannot wait. What better day to bring freedom than on the Sabbath? To liberate this woman fulfills the purpose of the Sabbath.” Jesus is not saying the law has no merit. Jesus is saying that compassion and mercy take precedence, even over the law.

We can so easily get bent out of shape. Perhaps we suffer from chronic pain or sickness. Or we are bent over with all the worries and cares of life. Or we suffer under a burden of oppression. Or we cannot sense that God could possibly forgive us for the wrongs that we have committed in our lives. Or we are just weary of all that life has thrown at us.

And it is not just physical ailments that cripple us. We can be spiritually blind, spiritually sick, spiritually doubled over. When we are, everything becomes difficult for us. We get so bent out of shape that we cannot relate to God or to our neighbours. We cannot understand the great breadth of God’s loving compassion. We cannot fathom that God’s grace is freely given to us. We think it is earned by following the letter of the law. We dot our I’s and cross our T’s and become indignant when someone we deem unworthy receives God’s grace. We need to get our faith straightened out. We need to get right with God.

Religious systems get bent out of shape. You do not have to look very far to see the dysfunction in the religious system of Jesus’ day. But then we do not need to look very far to see it in our own faith communities. Many see God as the one who upholds the rules and wreaks havoc on those who disobey. It is the kind of thinking that suggests that sickness is punishment from God. It is the kind of thinking that causes homophobia, sexism, racism. It is the kind of thinking that blames victims. For me the real point of the healing of this woman is that God is not a rule maker who takes vengeance on us for every little misdemeanour in our lives. God is the lover who bends over backwards to show us how to live, to help in our transformation as the people of God.

Congregations – good, well-meaning church people – can be just as rigid in their thinking. They can get bent out of shape over the liturgy not being exactly as they want it. Or the clergy not doing things the way they think they should be done. Or members of the congregation who do not seem to them to be “Christian’ in their behaviour.

I share with you a joke I heard not long ago. A man, obviously under the influence of alcohol entered a church just in time for the service. The sidesperson on duty rather reluctantly showed him to a seat near the back. He declined and headed up to the front seat right under the pulpit. As the priest launched into the sermon, the man really got into the spirit of things. “Amen!” he shouted as loudly as he could. “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” after almost every word the preacher uttered. After a few glaring looks from the preacher, the sidesperson came forward to where the man was sitting.

“You’re making too much noise!” he said to him, and taking him by the arm he escorted him out of the church.

“Well brother! I’ve got the Holy Spirit!” the man shouted.

“You didn’t get it here, so you’ve got to leave!”

The shame of rigid religion is that in God’ name it often does no good. The result, in fact is that it does real harm. Jesus models the kind of compassionate action to which a genuine relationship to God should direct our lives. God’s love does not play by the rules of formal religion. Rules do not regulate God.

The writer of Hebrews is reflecting on that same view. He contrasts the Old Testament image of God with the Christian view. He is thinking of the events that occurred on Mount Sinai as Moses received the law. It presents a terrifying image of God, a threatening picture in stark contrast to what is to come. That image of God as judge gives way to the figure of Jesus, one that suggests familiarity, support, welcome, even intimacy. We come to the mountain, not to be stoned to death, but to a place of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of love. Grace has taken over where trembling, terrifying fear once occupied the hearts of men and women in their relationship to God. That allows us to enter the holiest of places without fear.

Jesus’ primary concern was that we should love and care for one another. That changes everything. It is no longer just about following rules. It is about transforming God’s world. It is about love. Love heals. Love forgives. Love sets us free to be everything that God calls us to be. That is amazing grace. So let us bend over backwards to live with a sense of God’s great compassion and love.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...