First Congregational Church
September 22, 2013
18th Sunday after Pentecost
"What Is Right"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The preparations for today's sermon lead me to some interesting places: the worlds of entertainers and their performance requests, which is code for the worlds of - dare I say - weird, odd or at least unlike the world in which many of us live.
Singer Christina Aguilera requests real coffee mugs for her java, along with soy milk, soy cheese, Echinacea, vitamin C and Flintstones chewable vitamins. British hip-hop artist, M.I.A., requests an organic cheese tray featuring cave-aged Gruyere, Swiss and sharp cheddar, along with organic berries, fresh – not canned – olives and Ferrero Rocher chocolates. (Cave-aged Gruyere.) Hip-hop-soul queen, Mary J. Blige, demands that a brand new toilet seat be installed at any venue she plays. Apparently, singer Ben Kweller is really into fishing, so he requests bait on all his buses. (Okay, maybe that one's not so strange.)
What got me to all of those idiosyncrasies was what the rock band Van Halen demands. Each contract insisted that a "bowl of M&M's be provided back stage, but with every single brown M&M removed." If the band arrived and saw that the bowl had any brown M&Ms in it, they were free to cancel the concert and receive full payment. I'm sure that that demand has been waved as extraordinary by a wide variety of writers and venues.
But here's the deal. Van Halen used so much gear, where most bands used three 18-wheelers, they used nine. More gear meant the possibility for more errors - whether it was the girders couldn't support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren't big enough to move the gear through. As a test, buried somewhere in the middle of the rider, would be Article 126, the no-brown-M&Ms clause. If there were brown M&Ms, it meant that no-one read the contract, so it was likely that other safety features would also have been ignored, and they could be life threatening. At one venue, the band found that the local promoters had failed to read the weight requirements and that the staging would have fallen through the arena floor.
By many accounts, this morning's scripture passage is not one of the easiest to decipher, so I've asked Molly to read it from Eugene Peterson's translation called, "The Message." It happened over the dinner Jesus was eating with the disciples, tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and teachers of the law - when he was in the parable-telling mood: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost - or prodigal - son - and then this one, the one that is sometimes called the Parable of the Shrewd Manager and at other times the Parable of the Dishonest Manager.
Luke 16:1-13 The Message
16 1-2 Jesus said to his disciples, “There was once a rich man who had a manager. He got reports that the manager had been taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses. So he called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? You’re fired. And I want a complete audit of your books.’
3-4 “The manager said to himself, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve lost my job as manager. I’m not strong enough for a laboring job, and I’m too proud to beg. . . . Ah, I’ve got a plan. Here’s what I’ll do . . . then when I’m turned out into the street, people will take me into their houses.’
5 “Then he went at it. One after another, he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 “He replied, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ “The manager said, ‘Here, take your bill, sit down here—quick now—write fifty.’ 7 “To the next he said, ‘And you, what do you owe?’ “He answered, ‘A hundred sacks of wheat.’ “He said, ‘Take your bill, write in eighty.’
8-9 “Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”
10-13 Jesus went on to make these comments: If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things. If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store? No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second Or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank.
Thank you, Molly. Does anyone else have a bit of confusion about this passage? I think most people get the last part, about being honest in all things and the reminder that we don't serve God and the bank, but we serve God thru the bank. But I can't be the only one that wants to scratch the noggin when it comes to what Jesus is trying to say about this rich man and his manager.
It seems that the "hero" Jesus is holding up is an anti-hero. It seems that he's a crook, a swindler, a cheat. It seems that there is making "honor among thieves" a virtue. In the discomfort of this passage, I, like many who "preach," find it easier to avoid the hard part, and settle for the easier part. But sometimes, life ain't so easy to avoid.
We can rule out the obvious: Clearly the point here is not that any form of theft, cheating, swindling, or dishonesty is a good thing. Jesus just wouldn't change horses - and then back again - for such a brief moment in the middle of his ministry river.
When I started looking at the first two verses, I wondered if there might be a piece about "things that happen without our being able to defend ourselves" in this passage. After discovering the fraud, the landowner fires the manager, and the manager doesn't get a chance to defend himself - except through the audit that he's to make. Yes, this is a parable, but we all know real people to whom "things happen," and they have no recourse to undo the damage. An untrue accusation - once released from the lips - cannot be rescinded, and if the accusation is bad enough, it can hang on a person like a mold and/or stink that just won't go away. But then there's the rest of the story.
So I wondered if there might be a case for the idea of "taking realistic stock of what I/we are able/capable of - vs. life as pie-in-the-sky. My mom's health has been deteriorating a lot, so says my sister and brother-in-law - and her doctors. But if I or any of you were to ask, she's doing just fine, thank you, very much! At least the manager had the ability to realize his reality: calling his pride what it was and not over-estimating his strength. But the rest of the story doesn't really support such a stretched thesis.
Remember the mention about this passage being the continuation of the dinner party with all the folks - the "in" and the "out" crowd? Maybe there is something here about seeing people - only what they look like on the surface - and those that do what seems "wrong" can be easier to dismiss as the kinds of folks with whom we don't care to associate. Perhaps the larger issue has to do with realizing that God gives us all those around us, that we might become richer in our own being as well as in the body of Christ. While that point may be relevant for someone today, just like all Jesus' parables, there is more to it.
It wasn't uncommon for powerful business folk to hold a monopoly on resources to manipulate their books to make it appear as though their debtors owed more than they actually did. Incidentally, few people know that our manager's name was N. Ron. Anyway, in order for a wealthy businessman to pad his pockets for an extra profit here or there, he would need a business manager that was also less than scrupulous. Who wouldn't understand a less-than-honest steward of a less-than-honest business being inclined to make a little nice padded landing for himself as well? Realizing that he had been out-gamed by a gamer, the landowner had to begrudgingly respect the guy for it. And after all that, Jesus points out that none of this earthly wealth mattered all that much anyway. How much money we have means nothing to God. How we conduct ourselves around money, however, that is different. And you know the rest.
I wonder if part of the lesson in this story is about being uncomfortable - especially with some people. One of the analogies that made some sense came from the movie, Schindler's List. It's about the heroic efforts of a German business man named Oskar Schindler, who bought Jewish people to work in his factory - a factory which was supposed to be part of the military machine of Germany. On one hand, he was buying people. I believe that is called slavery in some places. On another hand, each Jewish person that Schindler bought was saved from the concentration camps or death. (In the end, he was able to divert over 1,000 Jewish people from Auschwitz. When the Germans surrendered, he told his workers they were free to go.) Oh, and he deliberately sabotaged the ammunition that was produced in his factory. Entering the war as a financially wealthy industrialist resulted in bankruptcy at the end of it. To accomplish such a thing, Mr. Schindler had to act in ways that were not what any of us might call "upstanding." And yet, we applaud the end result.
When you get past what Jesus said about being like the manager, and see what he said after that - well now we begin to see a horse of a different color. He said, "I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival.
By and large, we know what is right. Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm apple crisp and cold whipping cream are good for you. Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some. And draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work everyday some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
Let us pray. Gracious God of Mercy and Compassion, we thank you for giving us minds - that we might understand you and the world you've given us - just a bit more. We thank you for the things in this life that make sense and breed a feeling of rightness. And for whatever reasons, Lord, there are things in this world that seem to whittle away at us, complicated things, grey things, sometimes even people. We know that we cannot change the world all by ourselves, so help us find those that can help us use every adversity to stimulate us to creative survival - not just for our sakes, but for your glory, too. For all your provisions and blessings, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 15, 2013
17th Sunday after Pentecost, Blessing of the Backpacks, First Day of Sunday School, Camp Reports
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Ole bought Lena a piano for her birthday. A few weeks later, Lars inquired how she was doing with it. “Oh,” said Ole, “I persvaded her to svitch to da clarinet.” “How come?” asked Lars. “Vell,” Ole answered, “because vith da clarinet, she can’t sing.
To my way of thinking, there was at least one reason to use that joke in a sermon titled "Perception." Little Jimmy Kolehmainen has a certain perception about a "box inside the treasure box" somewhere here in the church. If any one else can come to the same perception, we might be able to find his mother's car keys.
Luke 15:1-10 NIV
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Thank you, Mary. I don't know about anyone else, but I love these two parables. I love the fact that Jesus uses a rough-around-the-edges, low-status, lowly, even despised shepherd to show us what God's love is like. I love that he uses a poor woman - probably at the end of her rope because that coin representing one tenth of her wealth and probably having a significant purpose - also shows us what God's love is like. I love that these two stories, that have probably been used as a basis for mission work and repentance is maybe not as much about those things as about God's over-the-top grace and joy. Footnote: both stories end with heaven and angels rejoicing, without comment on "sinful behavior."
Most of Jesus' parables have a bite or kick to them - something that doesn’t set quite right and keeps you thinking, wondering, wrestling with the story until you begin to wonder if you’ve understood it all. We can appreciate the joy of the lost being found, but what about the 99? Jesus at least heavily implied that they didn't need to repent. That's not an especially exalted theme in a lot of preaching that goes on - regardless of denomination.
One sermon I came across was titled, "The Parable of the Ninety-Nine, Or Why It's Probably a Good Thing That Sheep Don't Talk." Her question was "If one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren't, who's really the stray?
It's easy to see the "lost" among us: the ones that hurt themselves or others, the ones that schools call "at risk," the ones that fall between the cracks in a variety of places, the ones who aren't like us. It isn't so easy to see the teenager who works so hard to be "perfect" and who is will to do just about anything to fit in - to be lost. The parents who want their children to succeed so much that they wrap their whole lives around athletic games and recitals - may be lost. The senior citizen - regardless of their pension plan - may feel lost if life doesn't seem to have much meaning, especially if life held greatest meaning with a deceased spouse. It is likely that there are a number of people that feel lost - right here in this gathering - and yet our perception is that life is probably just fine.
Then there are the "celebrations" when the lost is found. If you think about it, the "celebrations" are a little on the goofy side. At the party for the recently-rescued sheep, is it to be the main course? When the lost coin is found, does the woman end up spending it on the food and drink she would have provided at her party? Oh yes, that's right. These are parables - stories rather than Biblical reality tv - meant to teach lessons and truths.
What many of us fail to realize is that the big thing is not our being lost in this thing we call life, but God's quest for us - all the time - in so many ways. We don't always realize that God is way more concerned about us than we can fathom - even on a good day. Ours is not a tyrant God who demands subservience to impossible demands, but rather a God who actively seeks restoration, a "God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness," as we are reminded in Exodus and Psalm 85.
The word that is translated as repentance doesn't mean contrition or remorse but a change of mind and purpose. It's a shift in how we perceive and respond to life. On any given Sunday, the odds are that there is at least one person sitting in these pews feeling lost. So if it might be you, what change of mind and purpose are you needing?
Is it that the focus of thoughts needs to be on the blessings in your life, rather than on the plagues or pestilences? Granted, sometimes, like now - for the people in Colorado, Mexico and the Boardwalk, the focus of life needs to include the outside forces that impinge on life. But when it's time to heal, sometimes we have to stop "hiding" from God - that it is easier for God to find us. Sometimes we can give ourselves those moments of respite from intense pain and suffering by looking at what we have, and who we have been given, and who we are - especially in who we are in Christ. Sometimes we may realize - in checking our perceptions - that we aren't as lost as we maybe thought we were.
The beauty of The Church is that this is a place for all who feel lost, regardless of the visibility of anyone's lostness. This is the place where we all get to admit not only our lostness, but we can confide our hopes and fears, dreams and dashed hopes to God. On top of that, when we do those very things, God throws one heck of a party and invites all the angels to celebrate.
The perception is that these two parables are about sinners and and being lost. Truth is, these two stories are about a God being so crazy in love with God's children that God will do anything to find them. To find us. So let us enter into the party.
Gracious, loving and merciful God, sometimes we are like wandering sheep or coins that roll away from you. So thank you for your crazy, drastic love that never stops seeking us - to help us to that place where we are "found" in you. Thank you for the parables you have given us that challenge our perceptions of life, us and you. Thank you for giving us opportunity after opportunity to freely chose how we think and realize the purposes you intend for us. Help us realize when and how we can shepherd each other, as all your flock says "Amen."
First Congregational Church
September 8, 2013
16th Sunday after Pentecost
"Where Is the Twinkle In Your Eye?"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This morning's sermon title, "Where Is the Twinkle In Your Eye?", came from a little piece written by Rev. Walter Cowen to something he had read in Dear Abby. He said, "Dear Abby, since I am a pastor with 43 years' experience, I'd like to offer this suggestion to the inexperienced young minister who didn't know how to handle a very bold woman in his congregation who had designs on him. "Whenever I noticed a romantic twinkle in the eye of a woman in my congregation, I always checked to make sure it wasn't caused by a reflection from the gleam in my own."
So I had the question in mind, "Where is the twinkle in your eye?", because it's a good reminder to check the reflection in our own eyes. I even came across a nifty illustration, to remind all of us that forgetting to keep an eye on our focus can sometimes be life-saving.
It seems that there was a certain pond on an Eastern farm with two ducks and a frog. These three neighbors were the best of friends; all day long they use to play together. But as the hot summer days came, the pond began to dry up and soon there was such a little bit of water that they all realized that they would have to move. Now the ducks could easily fly to another place, but what about their friend the frog?
Finally it was decided that they would put a stick in the bill of each duck, and then the frog would hang onto the stick with his mouth and they would fly him to another pond. And so they did. As they were flying, a farmer out in his field looked up and saw them and said, "Well, isn't that a clever idea! I wonder who thought of it!" The frog said, "I did ..."
I was even thinking of following up that anecdote with a real Aesop fable about a fox and a crow. The crow sat in a tree holding in his beak a piece of meat that he had stolen. The fox saw him and determined to get the meat. It stood under the tree and began to tell the crow what a beautiful big bird he was. He ought to be king of all the birds, the fox said; and he would undoubtedly have been made king, if only he had a voice as well. The crow was so anxious to prove that he had a voice, that he dropped the meat and crowed for all he was worth. Up ran the fox, who snapped up the meat, and said to him, "If you added brains to all your other qualifications, you would make an ideal king."-
I had thought about those things, because one of the lectionary Bible passages was two parts of Psalm 139. Like so many psalms in the Bible, this one was written by David to be used in worship services of the Hebrew people as they reflected on the nature of God - especially God's all-knowing, ever-present, all-powerful nature. However, it seemed that my heart felt that the whole psalm be read today.
Psalm 139 The Message (MSG)
1-6 God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand. I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking. You know when I leave and when I get back; I’m never out of your sight. You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence. I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too— your reassuring presence, coming and going. This is too much, too wonderful— I can’t take it all in!
7-12 Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit? to be out of your sight? If I climb to the sky, you’re there! If I go underground, you’re there! If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon, You’d find me in a minute— you’re already there waiting! Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark! At night I’m immersed in the light!” It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.
13-16 Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother’s womb. I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration—what a creation! You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something. Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you, The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.
17-22 Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful! God, I’ll never comprehend them! I couldn’t even begin to count them— any more than I could count the sand of the sea. Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you! And please, God, do away with wickedness for good! And you murderers—out of here!— all the men and women who belittle you, God, infatuated with cheap god-imitations. See how I hate those who hate you, God, see how I loathe all this godless arrogance; I hate it with pure, unadulterated hatred. Your enemies are my enemies!
23-24 Investigate my life, O God, find out everything about me; Cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of what I’m about; See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong— then guide me on the road to eternal life.
Thank you, Michael. After hearing Michael read last week, I could just hear his voice read this morning's passage - in all it's glory. I had intended to talk about how God knows us so intimately, and even with that knowledge, allows us a free will to chose what we will say and what we will do.
And then the Stapleton story began pressing down, not only on my heart, but on so many in this community. With such sadness and all the other stuff that surrounds this family, how could an upbeat service, one that focused on praise of God, make any sense, much less have any application to any situation, from politics to grief, transitions to mental illness? And then there is the question: does God create people to be autistic, handicapped or any other thing we think of as negative? The answer is, I believe, no, but how does real life correlate to this Psalm?
The answer lies in one of the verses that was not suggested to be used today, verse 7. "Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?" David suggested all sorts of places and situations, but the bottom line is that there is no place where we can get lost from God - no matter how we feel, no matter our situations, no matter what.
There was a time when the depression in my life caused me to think that I was somehow unworthy of God's attention, much less love. Everyone else was worthy, but not me. But to believe that would be to deny the truth of Psalm 139, verse 7. Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit? If it is true for everyone else, then it must be true for me. If it is true for me, then it is true for everyone else, most especially everyone in this room.
There are some who might use this Psalm to make a case that if God knows what we're going to say before we say it, then aren't we like puppets in the hands of God? But despite the work of Carlo Collodi, who wrote the Pinocchio stories, we aren't wooden wanna-bes. How do I know that to be true? Simply because of some of the stupid stuff that falls out of my mouth! If it is true for me, then it true for everyone else, and I'm guessing most everyone in this room can attest to such moments of human brilliance.
Which is part of what this Psalm is all about. No matter who we are, God is with us. No matter the time or the day, God is with us. No matter what we have done, or left undone, God is with us. No matter how sad, how bad, how incredible or unbelievable, how good, how not good, there is no place where God cannot reach each one of us. If it is true for each one of us, then it is true for everyone outside these walls, too.
And here's the cherry on the top: knowing all about us - the good and the ugly parts of our lives, the beautiful parts and the parts with warts, David tells us that God's thoughts about us are beautiful.
What I love about David is how human he is. As he gets all wound up in this Psalm about God, David gets back on his high horse. "And you murderers—out of here!— all the men and women who belittle you, God, infatuated with cheap god-imitations. See how I hate those who hate you, God, see how I loathe all this godless arrogance; I hate it with pure, unadulterated hatred. Your enemies are my enemies!
Yeah, David, about your soldier friend, Uriah, whom you killed - murdered - after you got his wife, Bathsheba, pregnant.... I don't know who said it, but "Criticism is often a form of self-boasting." Equally true, but less direct; "staring up to admire your halo usually creates a pain in the neck." I also love this anonymous thought. "God never intended for us to pat ourselves on the back. If He had, our hinges would be different." Then there's this one. It is the person who most knows himself liable to fall that will be most ready to overlook any offenses from his fellow men.
The question behind the sermon title should more accurately be "where is the gleam in your eye?" If it's not on God, then we set ourselves up for a heap of trouble we donn't need. If our gleam is directed at the right or wrong of someone else, then we've taken our eyes off God, and we run the risk of making fools of our selves.
Life is what it is, and there are times when we lose our focus. Until we enter into eternal life, we are susceptible to doing things that make us look less than the fine creations that God made us to be.
At Crystal Gardens, as you drive up to the parking area closest to where you pay for your things, there is a pile of broken clay pots, and since I've not been there for a while, I don't remember the clever saying they have over those pieces of pottery, except not to take them. God has no such broken pile of discards. There are plenty of cracked pots, but that's for another day. For today, it is ours to consider our focus, and why we can praise God - even if we don't fully understand this life, no matter what our circumstances, so let us pray.
God of each one, sometimes it is hard to realize that we may have taken our focus off you. For those of us who may feel unworthy, we pray that you bring our gaze back to you - to our worthiness in you. For those of us who may feel vitriolic, we pray for your grace to rinse away the bitterness and criticism and fill our view with all that is good and right, because you give us a lot that is just that. For those of us who get too wrapped up in ourselves and in the lives of others, we pray for balance in our focus.
Most especially God, we thank you for knowing us so intimately, yet never putting us away. Thank you for being every place, that we are never alone. Raise all of us, Great God, and lift our heads to you as you guide us to the road of eternal life. And so all of us pray, as all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
September 1, 2013
15th Sunday after Pentecost, Labor Day Weekend
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
"A Tough Call on Humility"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
So Sven goes into a restaurant for a Labor Day breakfast while in his hometown for the holiday. After looking over the menu he says, "I'll just have the Eggs Benedict." His order comes a while later and it's served on a huge fancy chrome plate. He asks the waiter, "What's with the fancy plate?" The waiter replies, "There's no plate like chrome for the hollandaise!"
What is a pirates favorite kind of cookie? Ships Ahoy! What do pirates like to eat? Barrrbecue! Why didn't the pirate get hungry on the desert island? Because of all the sand which is there!
For those who haven't looked at the scripture yet, perhaps you have surmised that this morning's passage has something to do with meal time or food. If you did so, you would be correct.
A man named Emerson Powery wrote a commentary on this morning's lectionary passage that talked about meal time being the time of catching up on the day's events and a respite from the busyness of life. In his family, no texting is allowed at the table. Maybe part of that "rule" is because with four sons, the noise level would be such that it would cover any text rings on a phone. But a greater reason for the coming together in such fashion is that it is a time in which families can make large decisions together. Other times it can be an opportunity to put family pressure on one who is facing an ethical decision. Mr. Powery said, "Character building and value shaping are central, even if not plotted, to the time we share together around the evening meal." For those who live alone, we get some of those opportunities when we get to eat with someone else.
Then Mr. Powery pointed out that Jesus, too, was interested in mealtime. While Jesus is at a banquet, he tells a parable about the meal setting, which is followed by another story about another banquet.
Luke 14:1-24 The Message
1-3 One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move. Right before him there was a man hugely swollen in his joints. So Jesus asked the religion scholars and Pharisees present, “Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath? Yes or no?”
4-6 They were silent. So he took the man, healed him, and sent him on his way. Then he said, “Is there anyone here who, if a child or animal fell down a well, wouldn’t rush to pull him out immediately, not asking whether or not it was the Sabbath?” They were stumped. There was nothing they could say to that.
Invite the Misfits
7-9 He went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left.
10-11 “When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
12-14 Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”
The Story of the Dinner Party
15 That triggered a response from one of the guests: “How fortunate the one who gets to eat dinner in God’s kingdom!” 16-17 Jesus followed up. “Yes. For there was once a man who threw a great dinner party and invited many. When it was time for dinner, he sent out his servant to the invited guests, saying, ‘Come on in; the food’s on the table.’
18 “Then they all began to beg off, one after another making excuses. The first said, ‘I bought a piece of property and need to look it over. Send my regrets.’ 19 “Another said, ‘I just bought five teams of oxen, and I really need to check them out. Send my regrets.’ 20 “And yet another said, ‘I just got married and need to get home to my wife.’
21 “The servant went back and told the master what had happened. He was outraged and told the servant, ‘Quickly, get out into the city streets and alleys. Collect all who look like they need a square meal, all the misfits and homeless and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here.’
22 “The servant reported back, ‘Master, I did what you commanded—and there’s still room.’ 23-24 “The master said, ‘Then go to the country roads. Whoever you find, drag them in. I want my house full! Let me tell you, not one of those originally invited is going to get so much as a bite at my dinner party.’”
Thank you, Michael. I will openly admit that this morning's message has been greatly influenced by a Rev. Dr. Sam Matthews, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Marietta, GA. In fact, I completely stole his sermon title, "A Tough Call on Humility."
Part of what grabbed my attention was Rev. Matthews' point that whatever Jesus is talking about in these verses, he's certainly not talking about seating arrangements or etiquette in general. If that were the case, we might have found references in some verses about four-way stops or giving way to people with one or two items in the grocery store. He then went on to talk about the "prosperity" gospel that is preached in some places, where humility and sacrifice are merely means to an end - mainly in tangible and immediate rewards. To get an idea of this line of thought, take the example of our church secretary Candace.
Before I begin the story - with her permission, of course, I have to tell you that Candace is the queen of squeezing out every last cent of a coupon. She may not be able to squeeze blood from a turnip, but she sure can with a coupon. On top of that, she even reads the sermons from the Sunday's she can't be here!
So Candace was in line at Glen's a week ago yesterday - Fishing Frenzy Saturday. For those who don't know, that's the day when this town explodes with vehicles and empty trailers in Goose Park - by the public boat launch. And since fisherpeople need food and refreshment, they would naturally stop at Glen's - before or after their contest. And it was sort of a last-hurrah weekend, so there were people with great cartloads of food, waiting to check out, way down the coffee, cereal and bread aisles. And there was Candace, with her lone loaf of Texas bread.
Looking at the woman in front of her and her mounded cart of groceries, Candace realized that she had a choice. She could get all cranked up over this woman who didn't seem to even "see" Candace. Or she could rely on the profound message she had read in a recent sermon - about not knowing why people cut you off in traffic and other such slights - because you haven't walked a mile in their moccasins, as the saying goes.
In the end, it seemed that the woman - not Candace - was maybe overwhelmed with trying to get her chores done amidst the clamor of the morning. And since the woman didn't have a Glen's card, when all was said and done and the woman realized her situation, she gave the grocery points to Candace. In some places, times and people, the gift of 900 Glen's points may be a reward for "humility" and not jumping to conclusions. (pause) Aside from such a "point gift," I think that Candace's greater gift was in the deliberate decision of not allowing someone else's actions to ruin the start of her day.
There is a bit of such thinking in this morning's scripture passage. Maybe more than we realize. Maybe Jesus' point - certainly understated - is about not letting the situations that surround us determine our moods and attitudes. Truthfully, I hadn't even thought about that "understanding" of the middle part of the scripture passage until I was writing this message.
Anyway, the lectionary reading for this morning was just the middle section of what Michael read - the parable about the dinner seating. When I first read it, I was struck by Jesus' suggestion, "Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host." I don't know about anyone else, but wasn't Jesus about including everyone into the kingdom of heaven? Why would he "suggest" that some were "better" than others?
One of my favorite authors, Scott Hoezee, suggested that we needed the first few verses of this chapter 14, because it is important to realize that Jesus was telling this parable at a dinner with Pharisees, some of whom may have thought themselves above others. Mr. Hoezee pointed out that the three segments that were read were cut out of a single piece of story fabric.
So we need the third part of this passage to remind us that Jesus really was about welcoming who ever is willing to come to the table - literally and figuratively. I don't think it was an accident that in Luke's gospel, Jesus doesn't attend any other dinner parties with religious authorities. The next dinner he attends is in Luke 15, one that is attended by tax collectors and "sinners."
The point, at least for today, is that Jesus wants a full house. Here - maybe in your work place or where you volunteer - maybe in your home for a meal or cup of coffee - we know who Jesus' kind of people are. The big question is whether Jesus' kind of people are our kind of people - no matter their social situation, their spiritual situation, their health situation, whatever situation. Perhaps we might just pray about that.
Gracious and great God, you do put a tough call on our humility. Remind us that what we do, especially for you, is not about any reward we might obtain here, but is about an eternal fullness of house with you. We know you want us to be true and real and hospitable, and we know that you understand when life gets in the way of those ideals. So forgive us when we fall short. Encourage us when we may waiver. And remind us always that we are more than ourselves, that we are your children, brothers and sisters, not by choice, but by fact. And all your children say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.