Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sermon for September 23rd: Luke 16:1-15

Discipleship and Money

My friend John Bowen tells a story of how he arrived home one day to find his wife Deborah waiting with one of those ‘good news/bad news stories’. ‘The good news’, she said, ‘is that a friend back in England sent us $1000. The bad news is that I felt that God wanted us to give it to Fred down the road, as he’s just lost his job’. Commenting on this story, John says, ‘In the school of following Jesus, Deborah got an A+ for making a good choice. I got a C+ for a bad attitude!”

Moments like these tell us where our heart really is, and it’s because Jesus is concerned about where our heart is that he spends the whole of Luke chapter sixteen teaching us about money. Jesus is in the business of making disciples, people who live in the real world while learning to follow the values of the Kingdom of God. And because he lived in the real world, Jesus knew that the love of money, along with hunger and sex, is one of the greatest drives that human beings have to deal with. Jesus therefore gave us specific instructions on how to handle it. If we want to be his faithful followers, sooner or later we will have to come to grips with what he said about money.

So in our Gospel for today we meet a strange character - a dishonest manager. At least, he seems strange to us, but perhaps he would not have sounded so strange to Jesus’ original hearers. In those days there were many absentee landlords who left the day to day running of their property to middle men. These managers were notoriously corrupt, and many of them extorted hugely exorbitant sums from the sharecroppers who were at the bottom of the pecking order, while presenting fraudulent accounts to their masters.

The manager in Jesus’ story seems to have been unusually corrupt even by the standards of the day. He was not only making a profit for himself, but also ‘squandering his master’s money - in other words, he was using it for his own enjoyment instead of his master’s purposes. The master got wind of this and so he gave the servant his notice: ‘Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer’ (v.2). So the manager thought carefully about the unpleasant fate that he was facing, and came up with a scheme to win some friends who would help him out after he was fired. He called in all the people who were in debt to his master and wrote off a large portion of their bills. What he was probably doing, in fact, was canceling the exorbitant cut he had been planning to take for himself. By doing so, he was saving the sharecroppers a great deal of money. Of course, this meant that they were all very thankful to him and felt obligated to help him out when his own time of need came. The master heard about this, and shook his head in admiration for the shrewdness of the man.

Now why would Jesus tell a story glorifying such a dishonest man? Is he telling us that we should be dishonest? Not at all. The first thing we need to understand here is that this story doesn’t begin by telling us what we should be - it begins by describing what we are. Look at Luke 16:1: “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property”. That’s us, you see; we are the managers who are squandering our master’s property.

The Bible’s view about private property begins with a breathtaking statement. You’ll find it in Psalm 24:1. It says ‘The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it’. So in other words, there is really no such thing as private property. I may think that I own a house and a car and two computers and a bunch of guitars and a monthly pay cheque and all that stuff, but in fact it all belongs to God. What has really happened is that God has trusted me with some of his wealth for a while. He has put it under my management, so that I can use it to advance the purposes of his kingdom in the world. Look at Luke 16:10-12:
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”

The most important word in Christian teaching on stewardship is this word in verse 12: faithfulness with what belongs to another. Everything that exists was made by God and belongs to God, and we are entrusted with it by God. I can tell you that on the occasions when my car has been under repair and I have had to borrow a car from someone else to go somewhere, I have been extra-careful with that car. Why? Because it doesn’t belong to me! I will have to return it to its rightful owner, and I want to be able to return it in good condition. And if I am that careful with a car which has been lent to me by a human owner, how much more care should I take with God’s possessions, which he has entrusted to me!

But what have I in fact done with God’s possessions? Sadly, I’ve treated them as if they were mine. I haven’t asked God what he wants me to do with them, and even if I have, I certainly haven’t listened to his answers. God wanted his money to be used to care for the legitimate needs of me and my family, yes, but also to look after the poor and needy who have nothing, to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to build up the church and advance his kingdom in the world. How have I used it instead? Too often, to indulge my own selfishness. So I don’t have to worry about whether this parable is telling me to be like the dishonest manager. It isn’t - not at first, anyway. It’s telling me that I am the dishonest manager!

But now Jesus is blowing the whistle on me. He’s saying “You’ve been found out! The Owner knows what you’ve been doing with his money. He’s set a date when you will have to give an account of the stewardship he entrusted to you. So if you’re smart, you’d better get ready for that day”. And if I ask “Well then, what’s the smart thing for me to do in my situation, Lord?” his reply would be “Stop using the material things God has entrusted to you selfishly, and start using them for God’s kingdom”. Being a selfish human being who is badly hooked on material possessions, I then protest “But Lord, why should I do that? Can you give me one good reason?” To which he replies, “Not one, but three!” Here are three reasons why I should use money and the things it can buy for God’s purposes and not for my own selfish enjoyment.

First, because even at the level of pure self-interest, it’s the best investment. Look at verses eight and nine:
“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 the light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of the dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”.
I’m not into making investments myself, but people who are into it amaze me sometimes by the seriousness with which they take it. Day by day they watch the stock market on their computers. They pay money for analysts to help them decide which investments will give them the best return. Often they use good leisure time to take courses on how to make more money through their investments. And if we were to ask them “Why are you doing all this?” they would probably say, “I’m making the best possible use of my money, so that I’ll be comfortable in my retirement”.

But there’s one important thing many of them are trying hard not to think about. A young man was once talking to a pastor about the death of his uncle. He said, “My uncle died a millionaire”. The pastor replied “No he didn’t”. The young man bristled; “What do you mean? You didn’t even know my uncle?” The pastor replied, “No, I didn’t, but I know he didn’t die a millionaire”. The young man said “What do you mean?” and the pastor simply asked, “Who has the million now? No, no one dies a millionaire; he dies poverty-stricken. All of us will”.

And this is the awkward truth that many people are trying hard to avoid. They’re working so hard for all this money and in the end it’ll only be good for a very short while. Afterwards, they’re going to be poverty-stricken. Nonetheless, Jesus says, there is something we can learn from them. If they’re so shrewd and careful and committed in amassing temporary wealth, how much more shrewd and careful and committed should Christians be in storing up riches in heaven?

So often we Christians don’t take our view of the world seriously enough. We say we believe that we are going to live forever. Well then, what’s the best investment to make? Surely an investment that will have effects forever! Investing our time, talents and resources in the kingdom of God will yield returns for all eternity. Jesus says in verse 9 “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”. In other words, the day is going to come when money will fail and we must stand before God without a cent, without a bank account, without property, without anything whatever to recommend us. Then the only thing that will be of any significance will be the testimony of those who will say, “Lord, when I was really in need she gave me, at great cost to herself, something that helped me along”.

So this is the first reason why we should use our money for the kingdom of God. Even if you look no further than self-interest, it’s still the smartest investment going. And the second reason is this: if you refuse to use your money for the kingdom of God, you are in fact setting it up as a rival god, a rival master, and trying to serve it as well as God. Look at verse 13:
“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth”.

Now let’s be perfectly frank, as Jesus is. What he is really saying to us is this: you cannot live to make money and live to serve God at the same time. It cannot be done. I’m only kidding myself if I think it can. If the reason I am living, the reason I am working, is to make money so that I can buy more things and feel more secure in them, then money is in fact my god, and I am not serving the true and living God. The proof that I love God first, and that money is only an instrument of my love for him, will be that I use that money for the help of others without seeking recognition for myself. That will indicate that I love God and that I am rightfully serving him with the money he gives me; that it has a right relationship to me.

So the first reason for us to invest in God’s kingdom is because it’s the smartest investment to make; the second reason is because if we don’t, we’re really setting up money as a rival god. The third reason is found in verse 15:
So (Jesus) said to (the Pharisees), “You are those who justify themselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God”.

Remember Tony Campolo’s ‘Who changed the price tags?’ sermon? He says that our modern world is like the window of a department store, in which many different kinds of products have been displayed, some expensive and some cheap. However, during the night someone with a mischievous sense of humour has gotten into the store and changed all the price tags around, so that what is really valuable is advertised cheaply, and the cheap stuff is selling for an arm and a leg. This is especially true when it comes to the question of money. I look at a fat bank account and I see security in my old age, comfort, potential holidays and enjoyments and possessions and so on. What does God see when he looks at that account? More often than not, he sees the selfishness in my heart, the poor people I’ve neglected, the churches struggling hard to proclaim the good news without the financial resources to do it, and all kinds of other grievous wrongs. Which leads me to spell out plainly this third reason for investing in the kingdom; in the midst of a world that is starving, both physically and spiritually, there can’t be many things more saddening to the heart of God than a pile of cash which is doing nothing but feeding the selfishness of its owner.

So here are three reasons Jesus gives in this passage for us to use our worldly wealth for God’s kingdom: First, because it’s the smartest and safest investment we can make; secondly, because if we don’t, we’re really setting our money up as a rival god and worshipping it instead of the one true God. Thirdly, because what we think is really valuable - the accumulation of wealth - is in fact hateful in God’s sight.

Our money matters. The way we use it is a spiritual issue. It can be a rival god that wraps its chains around our hearts and binds us to the earth, or it can be a wonderful tool by which we care for our families and support the work of God’s kingdom in the world. What are we to do?

First, Jesus tells us “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). His rule in the world, his will being done in our homes and families, in the lives of the poor and needy, in the spread of the good news so that more people come to know and love Jesus - that’s to be the thing we long for more than anything else.

Second, once we’ve made that commitment, we find out what God’s priorities are in the world, and we use his money to help bring them about.

Does that mean that we never spend money on ourselves or our families? Of course not. God cares for us and our families, and he is a generous God who wants us to enjoy all the good things of his creation. But he has no interest in confirming us in selfishness, or allowing us to live in luxury while others are starving for physical food or for the message of the Good News. Every time I take out my wallet I’m showing what’s really important to me. Is it the false god of worldly wealth, or the true God who gave his Son for the life of the world? God help all of us to use our money and possessions to help spread his kingdom in our homes and families, in our community, and in the world.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sermon for September 16th: Luke 15:1-10

Searching for the Lost

I once had a call from a car thief who needed counselling. No, this is not a scene from the movie ‘Analyse This’, with me taking Billy Crystal’s role and acting as Robert de Niro’s therapist; this is a true episode from the life of a rural pastor. The car thief called me in desperation; ‘Anglican’ was the first church he could find in the local phone book! He had left his girlfriend in a fit of temper, driven over five hundred miles in one day and tried as best he could to stop drinking, cold turkey. When he came to see me it was obvious that he was barely hanging on to his sobriety.

At first he didn’t tell me he was a car thief. He told me he was an alcoholic and had just destroyed his relationship with his girlfriend - all of which was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. I was able to get him hooked up with Alcoholics Anonymous and for the next two weeks I drank more coffee than I ever have in my life before or since, because every day he wanted to get together and talk. It was during those conversations that I found out he was also a car thief. Well, not just a car thief; he actually made a good living by stealing heavy machinery – graders, gravel trucks, combine harvesters – that sort of thing. The other people drinking coffee in the restaurant didn’t know he was a thief, but a few months later they discovered that he was a disreputable character because he was arrested and charged with growing marijuana! One of my older AA friends, who had spent a lot of time with this man, just shook his head and said “One day he’ll learn!”

If I had been having these conversations with my car thief friend in Jesus’ time, no doubt the Pharisees and the teachers of the law would have been muttering about me, too: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’ (v.2). And we need to remember that the Pharisees and teachers of the law weren’t taking this attitude because they were bad or malicious. They were taking it for the same reason we tell our children to be careful about the company they keep. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ is the old saying; if you want to stay on the right road in life, watch the crowd you run with. Run with the wrong crowd and you can get into trouble. Bad company ruins good morals. These are all things we were told by our parents, and no doubt most of us who have children have said something like that to our kids as well.

This is why the Pharisees and teachers of the law didn’t want to associate with the people Jesus was associating with - the loan sharks of his day, the prostitutes and thieves and - well, today we might add words like ‘drug pushers’, ‘pimps’, ‘child pornographers’, not to mention drunks and car thieves! Their motives were good - they wanted to stay pure from sin and holy in God’s sight. But in order to do this there were some very important things they forgot. I want to give you a list this morning of four things the Pharisees forgot:

First, they forgot that everyone is a sinner. This is obvious to us today - or should be, anyway - but in Jesus’ time people would have denied this. They divided the world up very much into two camps - the good and the bad, the righteous and the sinners, the ones who were in and the ones who were out. If you made an honest attempt to live by the commandments, kept away from bad company and followed the Jewish ritual laws, you were ‘in’. If you didn’t, you were ‘out’. As far as the Pharisees and teachers of the law were concerned, they were ‘in’.

But in fact the situation is much more complicated than that. Some sins are obvious for all to see - murder, or adultery, or stealing cars. Other sins are not so obvious, but Jesus treated them just as seriously - the love of money and the things it can buy, lack of love for the poor and those in need, covetousness, self-righteousness and so on. Jesus summed up the law of God with two commandments - love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. If you fall short of these two commandments, you have sinned. I think we all qualify.

In the first half of the twentieth century an English Church Army officer named Sister Doreen Gemmell did a wonderful work amongst inner city prostitutes in London. Many of these young women first experienced the love of God through Sister Gemmell, and some turned to Christ through her ministry. One day a very proper church lady asked Sister Gemmell how she could possibly associate with such people. She replied: ‘Always remember that the ground is level at the foot of the Cross’. In other words, we all come to Jesus as sinners needing a Saviour. No-one is higher up than anyone else; no one starts with any special advantage. We have sinned; we need to be forgiven; Jesus died so that we could be forgiven, and the ground is level at the foot of his Cross.

The first thing the Pharisees and teachers of the law forgot was that everyone is a sinner. The second thing they forgot was that every person is important to God. Not just as a part of the crowd, but as individuals. God loves each one of us, notices when we stray away, and goes out looking for us to bring us home. He would not do this if we weren’t important to him.

God’s math, you see, is a little different from ours. If we had gathered ninety-nine sheep together we would probably have weighed up the risks of leaving them and going out to search for the one that was lost, and decided “I’ll stick with the ninety-nine”. Or if we still had the nine coins we might be tempted to chalk up the loss of the tenth to bad luck and leave it at that. Not so in Jesus’ stories. Every single person is significant to God. You’re not just a statistic that he can write off; you’re a person made in God’s image, a unique individual, precious in his sight. When you stray away, he feels the loss deeply, and he wants to find you and bring you home.

Jesus, you see, did not look on these tax-collectors and sinners with a condemning eye. He said that they were ‘lost’; in his parable he compared them to a sheep that wanders away. Most sheep don’t wander away on purpose. They just aren’t thinking ahead. They keep their heads down, eating grass, thinking only of the needs of the present moment, and then after a while they look up and realise that the rest of the flock seems to have vanished! Their problem is that they’re so concerned about the need of the present moment - grass - that they take their eyes off the shepherd.

And that’s the way it is with so many people. We don’t mean to stray away from God; we just get so tied up meeting the needs of the moment - a bit more money here, a moment of relaxation there - that we lose sight of what life is all about in the first place, and we lose sight of the Good Shepherd who gives our life meaning and purpose. As C.S. Lewis once said, it doesn’t take a big sin to take us out of orbit around God – just a little distraction will often do the job.

So that’s how Jesus sees people - we’re like lost sheep, and he’s coming to look for us. He came all the way from heaven to earth, and gave his life on the Cross for us. As he says in John’s version of this story, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). And not just for the sheep as a group; Paul the great missionary says ‘The Son of God...loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). You matter to God. So do I, and so does every other individual on the face of the earth. God is out searching for us, and he won’t rest until he has found us and brought us home.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law forgot that everyone is a sinner; they forgot that every person is important to God. The third thing they forgot was that love leads to change, not change to love. What do I mean by that?

Well, the best way of explaining it is to refer to another ‘lost and found’ story from Luke, the story of Zacchaeus. We’re told that Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector of Jericho, and very rich. He wanted to see Jesus when he passed through Jericho, but he was so short that he couldn’t see over the heads of the other people in the crowd. So he climbed a tree and looked down on Jesus from up above. Jesus, however, saw him up the tree, called him down and went to have tea at his house. Again, the Pharisees and teachers of the law started grumbling that ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’ (Luke 19:7). Zacchaeus, however, responded to the love of Jesus by giving away half his possessions to the poor, and repaying all the people he had ever cheated four times the amount he had cheated from them. Jesus’ comment was ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:9-10).

That was quite a transformation in Zacchaeus’ life. I’ll bet the Pharisees and teachers of the law had been trying to make that happen for years. I can take a good guess at their tactics, too: I’ll bet they had scolded Zacchaeus, told him he should be ashamed of himself, warned him that he would go to hell if he didn’t repent and so on. None of this had any effect at all when it came to changing Zacchaeus’ heart. What changed Zacchaeus was when Jesus came to his house, loved him just as he was, and communicated by his actions that God loved him too. Once this message got hold of Zacchaeus’ heart, he was so thankful that he began spontaneously to repent and get his life in order.

And that’s the way the Christian Gospel works. God didn’t wait for us to smarten up and get our act together before he came to save us. Paul says ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). The message of legalism is that people first have to obey God’s laws and get their act together, and then, if they are able to achieve a satisfactory standard of righteous living, they will be accepted by God. The message of Jesus is the very opposite; while we are still sinners, God comes alongside of us in Jesus, loves us as we are, and then helps us to turn away from our sins and become the holy and loving people he wants us to be. We don’t have to change in order to earn God’s love; God loves us first, and when we accept that love, it helps us change. Love leads to change, not change to love.

We’ve seen that the Pharisees and teachers of the law forgot that everyone is a sinner, and they forgot that every person is important to God. They forgot that love leads to change and not change to love. One last thing they forgot: They forgot that shepherds look for sheep, and not the other way around. The proper movement is for the Church to go out looking for the lost, and not for us to wait for the lost to come to us, because, as Will Willimon says, ‘The last time I went down to the farm, it wasn’t the job of the sheep to find the shepherd’. That’s why Jesus was associating with tax collectors and sinners; he was the good shepherd, going out to find his lost sheep. He was the woman sweeping the house and searching until she found her lost coin.

You see, the God of the Bible is a missionary God. The word ‘mission’ is about ‘sending’, about ‘going out’; it’s not about waiting for people to come to you! A church which worships this missionary God can’t help being in mission itself. We are learning to see people as Jesus sees them: lost sheep who have strayed away from the Good Shepherd. We are praying that God will help us to demonstrate his love in the way we live our lives, and to take every opportunity to explain the Christian message in a way that people can understand and relate to. We are the Shepherd’s assistants – his sheepdogs, if you like! It’s our job to go out and find the lost sheep, not their job to come and find us.

So I suspect that this passage has comfort in it for us, but also challenge. God is telling each one of us this morning that we matter to him. We are so important to him that he left the glory of heaven and came among us in Jesus; the Good Shepherd laid down his life so that you and I, his lost sheep, could be saved and come home again to him. We are all sinners, but he died for sinners, so we all qualify. And he doesn’t wait for us to measure up to a certain standard before he loves us; he comes to us as we are, loves us and helps us as we try to leave our life of sin and walk into the new way of life he teaches us.

But the challenge to us is this: if we’ve discovered this love of Jesus in our own lives, we have a responsibility to share it. There are plenty of other lost sheep out there, and not too many of them are finding their way to the door of the church. You and I will have to make the first move, take the initiative, leave our comfort zone and to look for the lost until we find them. I doubt very much if Jesus will be impressed by the argument that ‘Lord, we told them what time the service was, but they wouldn’t come!’

We have received the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Good Shepherd has found us and brought us safely home. He wants us to rejoice in that. But he also wants us to know that there are thousands more who haven’t found their way home yet. Every single one of them is important to him. There is absolutely nothing that is more important on his agenda than finding them and bringing them home. And he wants our help in that. Are we willing to give it to him?

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Sermon for September 9th: Luke 14:25-33

The Cost of Discipleship

As I read through today’s gospel in preparation for preaching today I found myself asking, “What are the words and phrases that are going to trip people up? What are the things that are going to cause people to scratch their heads and say, ‘Is that really right? Is this really Jesus speaking here? Because it doesn’t sound much like the Jesus we think we know!’” I’m sure you’ll agree that there are a couple of words or phrases like that in this reading!

The first one is the word ‘hate’. Jesus says, “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” (v.26). How can the same Jesus who told us that the two great commandments are to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves then turn around and tell us in the next breath to hate our parents, our spouses and children and siblings? What’s that all about? I expect that, for some of you, it was so disconcerting to hear this that you didn’t really hear the rest of the gospel reading!

The second one is the word that appears in the same verse, the word ‘cannot’: “…cannot be my disciple”. We spend a lot of time at St. Margaret’s thinking and praying about being an open and friendly church, welcoming to everyone. We think – quite reasonably – that anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus should be able to sign up. So why is Jesus suddenly setting such stringent conditions on who can and cannot be his disciples? Why is he fencing people out?

The third word is the word ‘all’ in verse 33: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”. We hear this, and we quite reasonably ask, “Then who can follow Jesus? Can anyone in North America follow him?” I mean, our cities are designed in such a way as to make it very difficult to get around without a car, and everyone needs a few clothes to keep warm in the wintertime. Do we all have to become beggars like St. Francis of Assisi if we want to be followers of Jesus?

Let’s think about this, and let’s start by considering one more word which probably didn’t grab your attention with quite the same force as those other three: I mean the word ‘cross’ in verse 27: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”.

We’ve heard this cross language a lot in Christian tradition. Somebody receives a diagnosis of a terminal illness and they say, “I guess this is the cross I have to bear”. Or someone has a difficult relative who they are trying to act lovingly towards, and they say, “This is the cross Jesus has laid on me, I guess”. We’ve developed a tradition of using this cross-language for any suffering we go through. In using the language in this way we indicate our desire to offer up our suffering to the Lord and to try to be faithful to him in it.

That’s wonderful, but it’s not what the language meant in Jesus’ day! In first century Palestine and all over the Mediterranean world, the Romans used crosses to execute rebels against their empire. Crosses were never used to execute Roman citizens, which is why tradition tells us that St. Paul was beheaded rather than being crucified. Crosses were used for outsiders, non-citizens, who had been engaged in acts of rebellion against the empire. No empire looks kindly on traitors; and even today many countries around the world have laws allowing them to execute such people. The Romans did it with particular savagery.

So what does Jesus mean when he says that those who want to be his disciples must take up their cross and follow him? He’s saying, “You have to understand that I am starting a revolutionary movement – the kingdom of God. This kingdom is about God’s justice and peace, about doing what is right rather than what will make more people wealthy, about keeping promises and caring for outsiders and including the weak and the small and not just the strong and powerful. Not everyone is going to like this movement. The powerful will not want to share their power. The rich will not want to have to give their wealth away to the poor. Those who nurture hatred and resentment will not like to hear that they must love their enemies and forgive those who have hurt them. Therefore, those who follow me must brace themselves to suffer for my name and for my cause. They must prepare themselves for the fact that the world around them may well call them outsiders and treat them as traitors”.

Within living memory this has in fact happened to followers of Jesus. During the Second World War one bishop of the Church of England, Bishop George Bell of Chichester, spoke out against the carpet-bombing of German cities because it involved the wholesale murder of thousands of non-combatant men, women, and children. George Bell spoke as he did on the basis of the teaching of Jesus. He was not a pacifist; he was a believer in the just-war theory. According to that theory, one of the rules for determining whether or not a war is just is that ‘non-combatants must not be harmed’. Bell was speaking on the basis of Christian teaching, and for this he was hated and derided in England; people called him a traitor and a Nazi-lover. In fact, some people think that this was the reason he did not become the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1944; Winston Churchill could never forgive him.

So let’s understand what it means to become a Christian. To be a Christian means to take out citizenship in another kingdom; you and I are dual citizens, of Canada and of the Kingdom of God. The other Canadians around us think that our religion is just one of our private opinions and that when the crunch comes our loyalty to Canada should come first. But we who call Jesus ‘Christ’ – which means ‘King’ – know otherwise. We know that when Canada is just a distant memory the Kingdom of God will be a shining reality. So in baptism we pledge our first allegiance to God’s Kingdom and to its anointed King, the Lord of all, Jesus Christ.

What does that loyalty mean for our family commitments? Let’s be clear – strong, loving families are vital to the Kingdom of God. But what happens when the rest of our family is not happy about our Christian commitment? What happens when they tell us not to be so single-minded about this religion business, or when they try to get us to do other things rather than attending worship? Well then, that’s when we have to be firm about our priorities. Jesus is the Son of God, God’s anointed king; he is the one who has the right to first place in our lives, and in our baptism we have agreed to give him that place.

That’s what the ‘hate’ language means; it’s an Aramaic figure of speech. We use those figures of speech all the time without thinking of them; for instance, we say that something is ‘wicked’ and we don’t really mean that it’s wicked! This Aramaic figure of speech simply means ‘love less’. Our love for Jesus is to be so passionate and committed and single-minded that, compared to it, all other loves in our lives are left far behind.

This was a shocking thing in the Jewish world of Jesus’ day, where family ties were sacred. But I think in our own day we have things we’re far more loyal to than family. For instance, I know people who have shown themselves willing to make their families suffer in order to make an advantageous career move. Wealth and success and prosperity are sacred to us.

So what about our loyalty to our possessions? The kingdom of God is a kingdom of valuing people and not things; a kingdom where everyone has enough and no-one has too much. But the reality of the situation is that 90% of the Christians in the world today live below the poverty line. How do I make decisions about what to do with money in the face of that reality? Do I love the good things that money can buy more than I love the Kingdom of God? When I pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, am I secretly adding a clause, ‘As long as it doesn’t mean a drop in my standard of living’?

That’s what Jesus was on about in verse 33, you see, when he said, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”. One of the first words most children learn is the word, ‘mine’, but it’s a word we have to learn to grow out of as Christians. The early Christians in Jerusalem pooled all their possessions and distributed them according to need. Later generations didn’t always follow that literally, but they all understood that they were stewards of their possessions, that everything they had belonged to God, and that they were responsible for using their wealth to care for others.

Let me try to tie this all together by using an illustration I found in a book by Tom Wright.

Imagine a politician who stands up at a public meeting to address a crowd. He says, “Vote for me, folks! If you do, you’ll lose your homes and your families! Your taxes will go up and your wages will go down! In fact, you’re sure to lose everything you love best. Now – who’s on my side?” At first sight this seems to be the very kind of speech Jesus is making in today’s Gospel.

But suppose we’ve got our illustration wrong? Suppose that ‘politician trying to win an election’ isn’t such a good metaphor after all? Let’s change it; let’s have Jesus instead as the leader of a relief expedition; he’s guiding us through a high and dangerous mountain pass in order to take sorely needed medical aid to an isolated village. If we don’t get through, the people in the village will likely all die – and those people are our relatives, people we care for, people we’re desperately worried about. Our leader gathers us all together before we begin and says, “Okay, if you want to come with me, you’ll have to leave your packs behind. The path ahead is much too steep for them; you probably won’t see them again. In a moment I’m going to give you all time to send postcards and make phone calls to your family members; this is a dangerous route and there’s every chance that some of us won’t make it back”. We may not like hearing this kind of speech, but in the context of that kind of expedition, we can understand why Jesus would make it.

How is this good news? What’s the Gospel in this passage? The Gospel is that the Kingdom of God is worth this total commitment.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen in the Second World War were willing to put their lives on the line, leaving careers and families behind, because they believed the goal was worth it. On a smaller scale, across the city of Edmonton every week, thousands of people offer themselves as volunteers in hundreds of different organisations, getting no material benefit from it, because they believe in the goals and values of those organisations.

I’m here to tell you that the Kingdom of God is a goal so good, so perfect, so beautiful, so compelling, that it’s worth all the commitment we can give to it and more besides. God is holding out to us a future where there is no poverty, no war, no injustice, no oppression. God is holding out to us a future where the people of the world live together in justice and peace, where everyone acknowledges God and where the nations of the world stream to him to learn his ways – a future in which natural enemies like lions and lambs – or Israelis and Palestinians - lie down together in peace. This day is coming, as sure as the summer follows the winter. We have God’s promise on that.

But living into that kingdom is not for the fainthearted. Jesus is calling for volunteers to help make it happen; that’s what it means to be a Christian. And it won’t cut it to say, “Well, I’ll certainly include Jesus in my life, but he’ll have to compete with my other priorities on the same level”. It won’t cut it to say, “I’ll follow him as long as it doesn’t offend with my family or interfere with my weekend leisure activities or significantly reduce my standard of living”.

No – Jesus is calling us to give our primary allegiance to the Kingdom of God, and to make it the number one value of our lives. This means dethroning potential rivals for our primary loyalty so that we can follow Jesus as our Lord. It requires a careful consideration of the cost of discipleship and a realization that we will need resources from God to stay the course, because the road will be hard. How could it be otherwise on the kind of rescue expedition Jesus is asking us to join? So let’s pray for the grace to choose this life of absolute commitment to Jesus, and for the strength to be faithful to his call, today and every day.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Sermon for September 2nd: Luke 14:1, 7-14

What’s in it for Me?

As I began my Bible study in preparation for this sermon, I was confronted with this question in the ‘Serendipity Study Bible’: ‘If you could have the best seats in the house, what would you choose: Super Bowl? A rock concert? Philharmonic orchestra? Indy 500? Royal Wedding?’ For me, having recently attended the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, that was an easy question to answer: I’d like the Golden Tarp at the 2008 Festival!

For those of you who haven’t been initiated into the mysteries of the Folk Festival, seating at the main stage is rather rustic: we bring tarps and low chairs and set them up on Gallagher Hill. If you want a seat really close to the front at the main stage, you probably have to line up at about seven o’clock in the morning, and most of us don’t have the time to do that. However, there’s a way of jumping the line up. Each year there is a raffle, and one of the prizes is the ‘Golden Tarp’ for the following year: the winner gets to be the first person on the hill every day and can put down his or her tarp wherever they want, before anyone else gets a chance!

I’ve never had a lot of success myself getting close to the main stage, but I’ve done quite well at some of the smaller stages – usually by going to them quite a bit ahead of time. Fortunately for me, no one has ever come up to me and said “Someone more important than you is here: give them your place!” With some of the more popular smaller stages, that would probably mean going an awful long way back!

In today’s Gospel Jesus has a lot to say to people who always want the front seats – in other words, to people who want the best deal for themselves and don’t care who they displace in order to get it. Whether they are going to a dinner party put on by others, or throwing a party themselves, these folks are not actually thinking about the other people at all. Rather, their first question is always “What’s in this situation for me?” Let’s refresh our memory of the story.

Jesus went to dinner at the house of a prominent Pharisee. Let me remind you of two things about these dinner parties. First, these were not private occasions. The doors of the houses were left open all the time, and it was not uncommon for the curious to wander in and out while the meal was going on, especially if well known people were there and it was likely that there would be interesting discussion and debate. And this leads to the second thing about these parties: in the Gospels, they are often occasions for teaching and the discussion of issues.

Jesus tells the dinner guests two parables, one about not taking the highest place at a banquet, the other about who you ought to invite when you yourself give a dinner party. In each parable, self-interest is Jesus’ target. In the first parable, he warns against using the banquet as an opportunity for others to see how important you are. In the second parable, he warns against issuing invitations to your party out of self-interest: “If I invite Lord so-and-so, then I’ll get an invitation to his party in return – cool!” In both cases, gatherings that ought to be occasions for human companionship and fellowship are spoiled by self-interest.

So let’s think about what Jesus has to say about lining up for the last place. Apparently St. Francis of Assisi was once invited to a meal with the Pope and many other important church dignitaries. Of course in those days before photo technology people were less familiar with the faces of celebrities, and when Francis turned up at the door of the Vatican in his plain brown robe, the doorkeepers thought he was a beggar. So they sent him round to the kitchen to take his place with the other beggars. Francis didn’t complain; he went joyfully as usual, and was soon having a good time with the folks in the kitchen.

Meantime there was consternation at the high table; where was the guest of honour? Eventually it was discovered that Francis was in the kitchen with the beggars, and a message was sent that he should come to the banqueting hall. He did as he was told, sat down with the guests at the high table, and immediately began to share with them the scraps he had gathered on his beggar’s plate!

Obviously St. Francis was a person who had no problem taking the last place in the pecking order – in contrast to the people Jesus is aiming at when he warns us in his parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour” (v.8a). Of course, we don’t very often see this happening in a literal way; I’ve never attended a wedding reception in which someone has marched up to the head table and sat down there, only to be told a few minutes later “Madam, I’m afraid this seat is reserved for the wedding party!” Nonetheless, the attitude behind this action is widespread. Let me point out to you two common manifestations of it today.

The first is the inability to sit back and be part of the crowd. You know what I mean: there are some folks who just have to be up front all the time. They can’t just be ordinary members of the group; they have to be visible, they have to be leaders, so that people can look up to them and they can feel important. Leadership, when it’s offered genuinely, is a real gift to a group. But the hunger for leadership, so that we can be recognised and looked up to, is poisonous and dangerous for the group and also for the person who wants to be a leader.

The second manifestation of this attitude is less obvious; it’s when we’re always wondering what others are thinking about us. Some people are so insecure that they are constantly worrying about whether others will like or approve of them. It’s as if they have a mental mirror which they are constantly checking to see how they look in the eyes of others.

The root cause of all this, of course, is insecurity and a low sense of self-worth. We have an empty, aching space inside; we’re not sure if we’re loved, if we’re valued, if our life has any significance. We need others to reassure us of these things all the time. The trouble is, we can’t rely on them to do it, so we have to engineer situations which prompt them to do it for us.

The good news is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes down like rain on the dry field of our insecurity. The vital word in the vocabulary of this Gospel is the word ‘Grace’. Grace is God’s free and unconditional love for you and for everyone else he has made. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to deserve it; it comes as a free gift, and nothing can change that. As Philip Yancey says, grace means that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less; God already loves you infinitely, and nothing can ever change that.

So – Jesus is inviting us to trust in God’s love for us and to relax in it. Don’t rush to get the first place! Of course, don’t rush to get the last place either, if your motive is to get someone to invite you up to the first place in the end! No – the Christian way is not to think about precedence at all. Rather, relax, enjoy the feast, share God’s love freely with the people who happen to be around you, in the secure knowledge that you are loved by God and nothing can ever change that – especially not the trivial matter of whether or not others recognise you for the celebrity that you actually are!

Let’s now go on to think about Jesus’ second parable, in which he discusses invitation as a form of grace. In June 1990 the Boston Globe told the story of an unusual wedding reception. A woman and her fiancée had arranged to have their wedding reception at the Hyatt Hotel in Boston, and as they had expensive tastes the final bill on the contract came to over $13,000. But on the day the invitations were to go out, the groom got cold feet and asked for more time to think about things. When his angry fiancée went to the Hyatt to cancel the reception she found that she could not, unless she was willing to forfeit the vast majority of what she had paid.

It turned out that ten years before this same bride had been living in a homeless shelter. She had been fortunate enough to get a good job and get back on her feet. Now she had the idea of using her savings to treat the down and outs of Boston to a night on the town. So in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken – “in honour of the groom”, she said – and sent invitations to shelters and rescue missions throughout the city. That summer night, people who were used to eating out of garbage cans dined on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’ouevres to elderly vagrants propped up by crutches and walkers. Bag ladies and drug addicts took a night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big band melodies late into the night.

For this jilted bride to be, this unusual dinner party was an angry response to the collapse of her wedding plans. For us, however, Jesus is inviting us to embrace it as a way of life. Look at verses 12-14:
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous”.

This parable cuts me to the heart, because I have to admit that most of my social interaction is chosen on the basis of my own enjoyment. “I’ll go and visit so and so – that’s always enjoyable for me”. But Jesus is inviting me to make those decisions on the basis of unconditional love. I don’t think Jesus is literally condemning every family party or quiet dinner between friends. Rather, he’s challenging us to look for creative ways of reaching out to those who have no friends and no status in society at all. I find it interesting that the literal meaning of the word ‘hospitality’ is ‘love for the stranger’.

A friend of mine who was the rector of a church in a small Alberta town became aware that there were many lonely people in that town on Christmas Day. So he posted signs and issued invitations to any who had no family or friends in town to come and join him and his family for Christmas. They were welcome to come to Christmas Day service at the church, and then afterwards come over to the Rectory for sherry, mince pies and conversation. Over a dozen people accepted his invitation, most of whom were unknown to him before.

I wonder who you know who could benefit from a social invitation – perhaps a cup of coffee, or an invite to dinner? It might not be someone you would naturally think of inviting, or someone who could pay you back. What might be the best way for you to reach out to that person?

Fund raisers discovered a long time ago that it’s easier to raise money if people can get their name on something – a brass plaque on a pew, or a list in a book. At the River City Shakespeare Festival here in Edmonton, they have humorous Shakespearean names for different categories of donors – and of course the people who give the biggest gifts get the most recognition.

In this passage Jesus is offering us a vision of a different way – a way of freedom from our slavery to self-interest. If we live by his vision, we can go to a dinner party without quietly asking ourselves “I wonder how I can get people to notice me and admire me”. Instead we can concentrate on listening to others, loving them, and building them up. Or we can throw a dinner party and initiate social relationships, not for what we can get out of them, but for what we can give to them.

For some of us it might seem an impossible dream to think we could ever be that free. I put myself in that category; I’m well aware that my fundamental sin is self-centredness, which is why these parables hit me so hard. But I have met people who live in the way Jesus is inviting us here to live – in fact, I’m married to one of them – and their lives challenge and inspire me.

So we don’t always have to be silently asking the question “What’s in this for me?” Rather, because God loves each one of us out of pure grace, we also can learn to live our lives in the same way, and discover in it the way of freedom, joy, and love.