Archive for August, 2010

July 25th, 2010 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost

A few weeks ago, our youth group presented a dramatic reading of the Lord’s Prayer which caused many of us to start thinking about prayer in a different way. For those who were not here on that Sunday, the reading started with a person beginning the Lord’s Prayer in the traditional way, but at various points throughout the prayer, God interrupted the words with comments and questions. By the time the prayer was finished, the person who was praying realized what she was really saying, and recognized that the words really did mean something. I know that people who were here on that Sunday started to look at the Lord’s Prayer in a different light, and I would like to move from that now to looking at prayer in general in a different light.
Many people do not realize that there are two distinct versions of the Lord’s Prayer in Scripture. There is the one we heard today, but there is another one in Matthew’s Gospel, and the words are a little different. Here, we can read: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
The fact that there are two versions of the same prayer sometimes leads to problems for people, as they wonder which one is “authentic”, which one contains the words which Jesus actually used. If we look at one of the differences, we can see that Matthew appears to have added: Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Thinking logically about it, while the disciples were questioning Jesus, they likely asked for clarification while he was speaking. Jesus probably said: Your kingdom come; and a disciple asked: What does it mean to pray “your kingdom come” and how will we know when it has come? Jesus could have answered, “The kingdom comes when God’s will is done here on earth as it already is done in Heaven.” Then Matthew could simply have added the clarification to the prayer.
Of course, this is all guesswork on my part. I wasn’t there, and there was no secretary taking minutes.
But this does open up an interesting question. We accept the Bible as the revealed word of God. But it was not dictated by God. Some denominations, particularly fundamentalist ones, insist that it was. Mormons also make that claim about the Book of Mormon, and Muslims say it about the Qur’an. But we don’t. We say that the Bible is true and inspired by God but that its truth and inspiration do not depend on precise, word-for-word reporting. So our question is this: What is the difference between FACTUAL and TRUE?
If we think about a genre of writing called HISTORICAL FICTION, we will understand. There is a mini-series which has just started called PILLARS OF THE EARTH, about the building of the great cathedrals in England. Some of the characters are based on real characters, but most of them are fictional. The story is true, but not entirely factual. Likewise with Scripture. The stories which Jesus told, the parables, are fiction. Jesus told these stories to make a point. They contain an element of truth, in that the morals of the parables can be applied to all people at all times. But they are not facts. The story of the Good Samaritan was a story. The wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus changed water into wine – this is not a story. Jesus did this.
As far as the Lord’s Prayer is concerned, I believe that it is both factual and true. Jesus DID teach his followers to pray, using a certain formula. Some of the words have been altered over the years, but the basic formula is still there.
Let’s go back to our Gospel reading. The disciples had been watching Jesus pray, and when he finished, they said: Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples. Now, from what we know, most of those first disciples were devout Jews before they became followers of Jesus. Surely, they already knew how to pray. From what I have read, Jews lead a very active prayer life, with various prayers set down for almost any occasion. There are prayers to celebrate birth, prayers to mourn death, and prayers for just about every major life event in between. Then there are prayers for Sabbath, prayers for worship, prayers of thanksgiving, praise, and lamentation. Surely, the disciples already knew how to pray. And yet, they said: Lord teach us to pray.
They could see that Jesus had some kind of special relationship with God, and they knew that, somehow, this was connected with the way he prayed. They longed for that relationship, and therefore, they decided that, if they knew how to pray as Jesus did, they would be granted it.
So we are going to look more closely at the Lord’s Prayer, in the hopes that, at the end of it, not only will you understand what Jesus was saying, but that you will also be prepared to have your lives interrupted by God.
Many times, we just rattle off the Lord’s Prayer without really thinking about what we are saying, and that is not always a bad thing. Rote prayer is a good place to start, especially if the rote prayer is the one Jesus taught us. This is often the first prayer young children memorize, and often the only prayer which we in the Reformed tradition recite regularly. Sure, we sometimes pray extemporaneously, as when we ask God for help with an exam, or with a particular problem. But for rote prayers, this is the one we use. We say it together every week in church, and except for the week our young people made us hear it with new ears, we often don’t think too much about it.
If I were asked to explain prayer, I would use the Lord’s Prayer as my model. There are three reasons to pray – to praise God, to petition God, and to seek forgiveness, and all are contained in this prayer.. The first part of the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of praise. We say: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. This word “hallowed” shows the reverence in which we hold God’s name, and our desire that others should also do this. On a more personal, individual level, this means that we should reserve God’s name for special times, and not use it as a part of daily conversation. This does not necessarily mean that the only time we use the name of God is during private or corporate worship. Sometimes, when something particularly wonderful happens, I will say, Thank God!. Is this a prayer; Certainly not a crafted one! However, it is showing gratitude, so at its most elemental level, it would be a prayer. If an individual peppers her/his speech with the Lord’s name, that is not hallowing it. When I do God’s will for me, I am also hallowing his name, even if I do not say it. As a church, we hallow God’s name by using it appropriately in worship or hymns. We hallow God’s name by putting God ahead of things, by putting God ahead of persons, by putting God ahead of buildings. We gather together in God’s name, and this means that every time we assemble – whether for worship or a congregational meeting – we start and end with prayer, asking God’s blessing and thanking God. When we give freely of our time, talents, and money, we are hallowing God’s name.
The next section of the prayer – thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – acknowledges God’s sovereignty. I have spoken with some people who have problems with the word “kingdom” because of certain negative connotations associated with that word. However, if we can remove our human way of looking at things, does it not make sense for us to refer to God’s kingdom when we praise him? After all, God is the creator and the supreme being, so it stands to reason that he should have a kingdom. And, being God, his kingdom is one which we all want to share. We can share it simply by doing his will here on earth, as it is already being done in heaven. In doing God’s will, we praise him, we acknowledge him as God, as the Supreme Being, who is deserving of all the praise we can give and then more.
Now we come to the petition part of the Lord’s Prayer. When we say: give us this day our daily bread, we acknowledge our dependence on God. The words daily bread refer to all our needs. Notice that I said needs and not wants. Like a loving parent, God will provide for our needs, if we ask him. That does not mean that he will give us everything we want, just as your parents do not give you everything you want. There are good reasons for not getting all the things your heart desires, and God knows them. When people say to me: I prayed for such and such, and God didn’t answer me, I respond: Yes, he did. He said no. God always answers our prayers. We sometimes don’t like the answer we get, but it is an answer nonetheless.
Next we move into seeking God’s forgiveness. Simply because we are human, we are sinners. Now, I am not saying that we are all evil or depraved. But we are not perfect, and therefore we need God’s forgiveness. This is a very important reason to pray – to acknowledge our sinfulness before God, and to ask him to forgive us. Of course, there is a catch. If we want God to forgive us, then we must be willing to forgive others. Depending on the translation used, the word “debts” is rendered “sins” or “trespasses”. I prefer the word “debts” for several reasons. First of all, in ancient times, it was not uncommon for Hebrews to sell themselves into slavery for various reasons, usually indebtedness. But at the end of seven years, debts were to be forgiven and the slave set free. This shows me that God’s forgiveness is absolute, and that I am able to start over with a clean slate. The word “sin” as used in the Lord’s Prayer is a bit confusing for me because I believe that we can only sin against God, not against each other. “Trespasses” could work, but it can sound as though what we did to offend God was almost an accident, and that it really isn’t that serious. “Debts”, now, that is a word with meat, a word which acknowledges our role in the process. A debt is something we enter into with full knowledge, as when we borrow money to buy a car. It is something which we are required to repay. And if we expect God to forgive OUR debts, then we must surely forgive the debts of others.
The concluding phrase of the Lord’s Prayer in our reading for today is: Lead us not into temptation. Matthew rendered this a bit differently when he wrote: And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. We are all tempted, all the time. Someone once said, Everything I like to do is either immoral, illegal, or fattening. And you know, that is not far from the truth! We like chocolate, we like good wine, we like it when people flatter us. And we are not the only ones who are tempted. We have read in the Gospels about Jesus’ temptations. Henri Nouwen, whom I have been reading this year, said that Jesus was tempted with three compulsions of the world, which tempt us now. First, he was tempted to turn stones into bread. In our modern words, this could be called being “relevant”. Second, he was tempted to throw himself down from a great height, so that angels would bear him us. Today, this could be called being spectacular, or having our fifteen minutes of fame. Finally, Jesus was tempted by being offered many earthly kingdoms. This is power, which many people strive for today. Jesus was able to resist these temptations, and replied “You must worship the Lord your God, and him alone.” This turning to God in the face of temptation is what will keep us on the right path. We cannot do this alone, and we acknowledge this when we ask God to save us when we are tempted.
So this, then is the perfect prayer. It begins with praise, which is where all prayer should start. It moves to petition, which acknowledges our dependence on God. The next step is seeking forgiveness, which God has already granted us. And we ask God’s help when temptation comes along. How much more could a prayer contain? Too often, we only do one part of a prayer. We ask God for things, or we seek forgiveness, or we ask for help, neglecting the other aspects of prayer. If we follow the model of the Lord’s Prayer, our prayers will not be so self-centred. We will praise God, which is what we were created to do. We will acknowledge him as our sovereign king. We will be open to his interruptions, or, better yet, we will not need them, as we will truly know what we are saying. Then, as Jesus said: Your father in heaven will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. Thanks be to God.

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August 8th, 2010 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Some people have commented that they like my children’s story because is kind of eases them into the adult sermon. Often, they have the same theme, and some people say that the children’s story sometimes provides an insight into the message I have for the rest of us. Well, that’s not going to happen today. You see, with the children, I spoke about what things are most important to us, and what things should be most important to us, and this is a theme that we have already heard in the adult sermon. Besides, I seldom get a chance to preach on the Epistle, because there is usually just so much in the Gospel that I don’t need to. So today, I decided to focus on Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, in which he shows us what can be accomplished through faith.
In the section which we read, we were given a list of people who had accomplished something or other through faith, and we will be talking about that a bit later. For now, though, let’s look at the definition Paul gave us. He wrote: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. I found it interesting that Paul used hope to define faith, showing how it is that faith keeps hope alive in each one of us. When things aren’t working out as we expect them to, it is faith that keeps us from giving up because it is faith that allows to hope. And where would we be without hope?
Of course, different people have different levels of faith, and if we look at the faith displayed in Paul’s letter, many of us could easily feel just a little intimidated. Let’s take a look at some of the people from the Old Testament who displayed – or not – faith. Paul starts by mentioning Abel, whose faith led him to offer a better sacrifice than did his brother Cain. His faith was so strong that God accepted his offerings, and Abel has been called a righteous man ever since. I don’t think that his parents had nearly so strong a faith, however. They seemed not to accept God’s word, and this led to what is called original sin, and to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Then we move to Enoch, whose faith was such that he didn’t even die. He is one of only two people about whom this can be said, the other being Elijah. Noah, of course, we know from the story about the flood. But can you imagine being Noah’s neighbour and laughing at him for building an ark with which he hoped to save mankind? Or at least enough of mankind to repopulate the earth AFTER the fact. Surely, he was ridiculed by everyone. And let’s remember that it took him quite a long time to build the ark, with no sign of rain during the construction period. But his faith in God was so strong that he persisted. And it was his hope that – after the flood – the waters would subside so that he would be able to fulfill the rest of God’s plan.
Abraham had faith that, even though he and Sarah were old, they would have a child, and his faith led him to a nomadic life. This is where our reading for today stops, but we are going to move on, just to see some more examples of what great faith can accomplish. We know, of course, that Abraham and Sarah did have a son – Isaac – but can you imagine how he must have felt when God demanded that he sacrifice the boy? He did not know, as we do now, that God would intervene, and an alternate sacrifice would be provided. Paul suggests that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead, but even so, that is quite a test of faith.
Moving ahead to Moses, we see that his mother believed him to be destined for something other than the death Pharaoh had in mind, so she hid him in the bulrushes. Sure enough, the baby was saved, and grew up to become one of Israel’s greatest leaders. Of course, it wasn’t only Moses who had faith in the story of the Exodus. The Israelites followed him, and even though they lapsed fairly regularly, did eventually build their nation in what was called the Promised Land. Moses’ lieutenant, Joshua, also shared in this faith, and it was through this that he was able to cause the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down simply by blowing his version of a trumpet.
Well, fine, you say. All of these people had faith, but they were all good people. They were all people who followed God’s laws, and did as they were told. It stands to reason that they would have faith. But what about the rest of us? Well, let’s just read a little further in Paul’s letter. In verse 31, we read: By faith, the prostitute, Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. Wait a minute! A prostitute? Most people don’t know the story of Rahab, but I am going to give you the Reader’s Digest condensed version right now. It seems that, when Joshua was getting ready to attack Jericho, he really didn’t know what he was up against, so he sent some spies into the city to gather information. They went to the home of Rahab, reasoning that, as a prostitute, she would probably have a lot of inside information to give them, Now, because she was a prostitute, Rahab was not allowed to live right IN the city, but had her home built into the wall, as Jericho was a walled city, not unlike the way Quebec used to be. But in the case of Jericho, the wall actually contained homes belonging to people who were not really accepted by the society in the city. When the king of Jericho heard about this, he sent a message to Rahab, demanding that she turn the men over to him. Rahab lied, and said that the men had left, and that she had no idea where they were. Of course, she got away with it, and in exchange for her help, she was spared in the massacre which followed. And why did she do this? Because she had faith in God. As an aside, if we take a look at the Gospel of Matthew, we will see that Rahab was one of the ancestors of David, and hence one of the ancestors of Jesus.
To me, this speaks volumes. This shows me that God doesn’t just speak to the members of religious groups, that God’s message is not just for those who live strictly according to the law. God speaks to people on the fringe, and even to people totally outside what we see as normal boundaries. As we know from the New Testament, Jesus also did this. He consorted with tax collectors and prostitutes. He was crucified between two thieves, one of whom was saved because of his faith. Remember Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief? This day you will be with me in Paradise.
Now, you have heard me mention different people in my sermons. I have spoken about theologians, such as Bonhoeffer and Nouwen. I have talked about Mother Theresa and St. Francis of Assisi. If you look at the stained glass windows here in this church and in other churches, you will see depictions of Jesus himself, of the disciples, of Mary and Joseph, and the list goes on. But I don’t know of any church which has a stained glass showing Rahab saving the spies. Our church is called “St. Andrew’s”, and there are other churches of our denomination known by other names. The church my father attended was St. Matthew’s, and a friend of mine preaches at St. Columba by the Lake in Pointe Claire. The point of all this is to tell you that we do acknowledge saints; we are not quite as caught up in the idea of saints as our Roman Catholic friends are, but we are comfortable with the notion that there are people who are probably a bit closer to God than we are. These are people we can look up to, for various reasons. But we tend not to consider ourselves to be saints, and certainly the person in the pew next to us isn’t a saint. In fact, if someone came along and told us that he thought himself to be a saint, we would probably wonder if everything was working as it is supposed to inside his head.
And yet we have Rahab. Not only did she help Joshua, she is mentioned at least twice in the New Testament. She is included in this list of people of faith. We can acknowledge that, yes, the other names are deserving of mention in such a list, but Rahab? A prostitute? Not only have I never seen her displayed in a stained glass window, I have never heard of a church named after her. But her faith is acknowledged by no less a person that Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
And if Rahab was an unlikely saint, an unlikely person of faith, she is not alone. We all know about people like Jean Vanier, who founded the L’arche communities, and we pretty well all acknowledge that we could not do something like that. We all know about people who live exceptional lives, giving themselves for the sake of others, and we pretty well all acknowledge that we could not do something like that. Hearing some of these stories can actually be a downer for those of us who know that we cannot do the things that these people do. But maybe we don’t need to do those things. Maybe we have the wrong idea of what it is that makes people saints.
If we take a look at what DOES make a person a saint, I think that we will find that it all comes back to faith. It is faith in God that makes one a saint; it is faith in God that makes one a member of the communion of saints. Next week, we will welcome Jordan into our faith community, and he will be a part of the communion of saints. Of course, he doesn’t know it, and he certainly won’t have any idea of what is being done to him when I pour water on his head. But if his parents bring him up in the church, he will have the faith that we all have. He will believe. Faith is the thing he will need, and it is the thing that we all need. For without faith, we have nothing. Nothing to believe in. Nothing to hold on to.
And it is faith that makes us Christians. But Christians are not perfect. We are fallible. We make mistakes. We are not in control, and we are certainly no better than other people. Few of us can give the perfect theological answer to every question. But we have learned that God can be trusted. God can be trusted to give peace in the midst of the storm. God can be trusted to take what is evil and transform it into something good. God can be trusted to empower you in the midst of trouble. God can be trusted to receive you when you die. Because we know this, we have faith.
Now, just to put this in context, I want you to think about the Cirque de Soleil for just a minute. I have seen them a couple of times now, and each time I am blown away by what they do. Forget the costumes, forget the make-up. What they do is incredible. And what does this have to do with faith? Well, the late great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen received the greatest revelation about faith at, of all places, the circus! Nouwen went to see the German trapeze group “The Flying Rodleighs” perform. He was mesmerized by their breath-taking performance as they flew gracefully through the air. At the end of the show, he spoke with the leader of the troupe, Rodleigh himself. Nouwen asked him how he was able to perform with such grace and ease so high in the air. Rodleigh responded, “The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher…The secret is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me. The worst thing the flyer can do is try to catch the catcher. I’m not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me”.
And it’s God’s task to catch us, it’s God’s job to take care of us. All we have to do is to have faith that he will do that. Thanks be to God.

August 1st, 2010 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost

When I was much younger, and we only had two channels on our black and white TV, one of the shows we used to watch as a family was The Jack Benny Show. Even those of you who are too young to remember Jack Benny must have heard about him. He was a comedian who was famous for being cheap. In the show, he hated to spend money, and would do hilarious things to save a few pennies. Anyhow, the story goes that one night, after his show, he was walking home, because he was too cheap to take a taxi. Suddenly, he was accosted by a robber, who said, “Your money or your life.” There was a long pause, and the robber cried, “Hurry up! I don’t have all night! What is your answer?” Benny replied, “Don’t rush me! I’m thinking it over.”
While I was preparing for ordained ministry, we were required to do a brief missionary stint in Cuba. It was thought that this would help us see the contrast between the way we live in Canada, and the way people live in what used to be called the Third World. We saw many things while we were there, but most of them were not really that different from what we can see in any large city in Canada. There were beggars, and people living at or below the poverty line. The main difference in life in general was that, in Cuba, every person was guaranteed a minimum amount of food. This doesn’t happen in Canada, and there are some people who are forced to choose between food and medicine, between food and heating their homes, between food and – well, you get the idea. Now, of course, none of this made me decide that I wanted to live in Cuba rather than Canada. We have rights here that the Cubans can only dream about, and I think I’ll stay here, thank you very much.
However, there was one thing which made a real impression on me, and which I still think about. One of the places we visited was a small rural church. The pastor lived in a house nearby with his wife, children, son-in-law and his little grandson, who would have been about 4 years old. The pastor spoke to us about his life, and about how he never stayed more than 3 or 4 years with a congregation. He described himself as a “fireman”, and said that his job was to go to churches which were in trouble, and straighten them out. Then he would move on to the next place. Interesting as that was, I have to confess that I was more taken with the little boy. He realized that we were watching him, and asked his father if he could show us his toy. Note, TOY, not TOYS. He disappeared for a few minutes, and then came back holding a headless plastic horse. This was his only toy. I thought about the toys my children had had, and the toys my grandchildren have thrown in the garbage because they were bored with them, because they didn’t want to play with them any more, and my heart ached for this little Cuban boy.
When I read today’s Gospel reading, I couldn’t help but think of this little boy, and contrast him with most children I know in Canada. Most of the children I know here have more toys than they know what to do with. I know people who regularly toss out garbage bags full of toys, simply because they have no more room. Like the rich man in the parable Jesus told today, the parents of these children need to build a larger house, simply to accommodate all of the things the children have.
Let’s just take a quick look at part of today’s Gospel, just to see how Jesus felt about this desire to accumulate, this desire to have more and more and more. It seems that there was a rich man, whose land produced more crops that he could have imagined. Now, this, in itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, it would normally be considered a very good thing, and a sign that this person was favoured by God. But we read nothing about the rich man sharing any of his wealth with others. In fact, as far as we can see, he lives alone. We read: He thought to himself; and: I’ll say to myself. He didn’t even have anyone to share the good news of his bounty. But he doesn’t seem to care. He says: And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy: eat, drink, and be merry.” But that’s now how it works out. Instead, God calls him a fool and says: This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”
Here we see the unimportance of material things. Here we see that it doesn’t matter what you accumulate. If God were to speak to us today in a similar vein, he would probably say something like: the things you collect, the possessions you cherish, the toys and gadgets and clothes – whose will they be? But more importantly, whose will your soul be? Jesus is warning us not to let ourselves – and our souls – be tied to the accumulation of things. Rather, we need focus on God, so that we will be rich in what truly matters. Think for a minute. What are the most important things in your life right now? What are the things which define you? The things you own? The amount of money you make or have? Or are your most valuable possessions your family? Your loved ones? Your relationship with God? If you have these last three, then your actions and attitudes will reflect that these are the most important.
As you know, most stories from Scripture must be seen in context, and this one is no different. Jesus had been approached by a young man who was not happy with the way his father’s inheritance had been divided. How many of us can tell similar stories when it comes to inheritances? How many families have been broken apart because of fighting about who gets what? In our self-centred way, we assume that what is really a gift is actually ours, and something we have come to expect. We all have heard about rich people going to court to settle disputes about inheritances, but it also happens among those who have significantly less. And yet, when you come right down to it, nobody is entitled to an inheritance. It is a gift, and this is Jesus’ point. Not only does he want the young man to realize this, but he wants to let him know that – in the overall scheme of things – material things don’t matter. THINGS will not keep death away; THINGS will not make us more important in God’s eyes.
And you know, this whole concept of THINGS mattering, this whole concept of POSSESSIONS being the most important is not known to all humanity. A few years ago, we were on vacation in Nova Scotia, and we stopped in at a Mi’kmaq store and were talking to the owner. When he found out that we were living in Labrador, he wanted to discuss the whole land-claims issue, which was very big at that time. His comments were very interesting. He said, “I just don’t understand it. The land doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to the Creator, and we are allowed to use it for the time we are on earth. Man cannot own land.” Man cannot own land. Likewise, we do not really own anything of material value. It is temporary, and the sooner we realize that, the better off we all will be.
Frederick Danker wrote a commentary on the Gospel of Luke called Jesus and the New Age. In the section on our Gospel reading, he wrote: “In 1923, a group of the world’s most successful men met at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. Assembled there were: the president of the largest steel corporation in America; the greatest wheat speculator; a man who was to be president of the New York Stock Exchange; a member of the President’s cabinet; the canniest investor on Wall Street; a future director of the World Bank for International Settlements; and the head of the world’s largest monopoly. A few years later, this was their fate: Charles Schwab died in debt; Arthur Cutten died abroad in obscurity; Richard Whitney did time in Sing Sing prison and was blotted out of Who’s Who; Albert Fall was pardoned from prison in order than he could die at home; Jesse Livermore, Leon Fraser and Ivar Kreuger, the match king, all committed suicide. …. All of these people learned how to make money; none of them learned how to live. All the bulls became lambs, and Schwab’s bleating in 1930 was the most pitiful of all: “I’m afraid; every man is afraid. I don’t know, we don’t know, whether the values we have are going to be real next month or not.” The point is that, no matter how high a person may rise, he is only one step away from ruin.
In the parable, Jesus was pointing out three mistakes the young man made, three mistakes which many people made in the past, and which people are still making today. The first mistake is to believe that the purpose of money is to make it easy for us to eat, drink, and be merry. The second mistake is to believe that whoever dies with the most toys wins. And the third mistake is to think that financial wealth gives you security for the future. But people forget that the future is not yet here, and may in fact never come. If we were to read a bit further in Luke’s Gospel, we would read Jesus’ advice to his disciples, when he said: Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will wear, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: they do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labour of spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians reinforces the Gospel message for today. He advises his listeners: Set your hearts on things above and set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. Paul says that, as followers of Christ, we should demonstrate Christ-like behaviour. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature. Instead of worrying about things you really can’t control, or wasting time making plans for a future that may never come to pass, Paul tells us that we are to reject worldliness and concentrate on things above. When this happens, then we will truly be equal with each other. There will be no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free. And even if we continue to make distinctions, we can be assured that God doesn’t, and that God won’t. before God, we are all equal. Before God, whatever THINGS we accumulated won’t matter. And how liberating is that? How wonderful is it to know that God doesn’t care if we have a Blackberry or an IPhone?
I am sure that most of you have read The Little Prince, a children’s story which is really meant for adults. The message I took from this novella is that it is only with the heart that we can see rightly. Only with the heart, not the eyes. Jesus’ parable talks about a man who saw only with his eyes, who was so focused on things that could be counted, and added together, and piled up, and shown to others, that he lost sight of what was most important. God values what cannot be seen – our compassion and kindness to others; our generosity and ability to love; our humility and caring. Ask yourself now what is the most important thing to you? Would you rather be rich in money or rich in love? Would you rather be rewarded by the world or by God? In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus asked: What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?
As Christians, we KNOW what is most important; we KNOW what choices we should be making. And yet, our lives often do not reflect these choices. We take and take and take from the earth, and now we are reaping the consequences of this. We take and take and take from others, and never think about giving back. We always think that we need more THINGS, no matter how much we already have. I have a challenge for you as we roll into the last month of summer. Instead of spring cleaning, try to do some fall cleaning. Look at your possessions, and see what they say about your values. Then ask yourself what changes you can make to reorder what is important to you. What changes can you make to disconnect from possessions? Some people have already done that, to some extent, but there is always more we can do. Think about your priorities, and see if they need to be reorganized, see if there are things you can live without. There is always something we can eliminate from our cluttered lives, which will make room for Jesus. Thanks be to God.

July 18th, 2010 – 8th Sunday after Pentecost

Again this week, we have a very familiar story. Last week, it was the good Samaritan, and this week we hear the Martha and Mary conflict. Many of us are made uncomfortable by this story, as we tend to identify ourselves with Martha. Remember, Martha was the one who was the hostess for the evening, as the older sister. From what I have been able to find out, their parents were dead, and they lived in the family home with their brother, Lazarus. You remember Lazarus, right? In a few weeks we will be reading about Jesus raising him from the dead, but he doesn’t seem to be in evidence in today’s reading. We have talked in the past about the importance of hospitality at the time Jesus was living on earth. Just a little while ago, we read about Jesus going to dinner at the home of Simon, and how he was upset because Simon did not show him the proper hospitality. So Martha was just doing what her culture demanded, when she was making sure that food was prepared for Jesus and the disciples when they came to visit. And Mary just sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words. Mary was the one who was not behaving as she was supposed to. As a woman, she would not have been permitted to learn in the same way as a man was, and it would have been highly unusual for her to have done what she did in the story. But she did, and when Martha came to Jesus, complaining, Jesus rebuked her. He did it gently, but it was still a rebuke. He told her that Mary had chosen the better part.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I always felt that maybe Jesus shouldn’t have done that. Maybe he should have suggested to Mary that they could finish their conversation during dinner, and that she could go and help her sister. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Martha. It was probably a day like many in Québec City this summer, swelteringly hot. Martha wanted to have everything just so for their guests, and she was probably rushing around all day, making sure that there was enough food, and that everything was properly prepared. Now, when it was almost time to eat, and she just had to put the finishing touches on the meal, Mary disappeared, and Martha was left by herself. Maybe she would have liked to sit and listen to Jesus too, but the custom of hospitality demanded that she get things done first.
Somehow, I think that most of Martha’s life was like that. She always had to get things done, and, no matter how much she did, there was still more to do. When would she ever get the time to sit and listen? When would life’s demands leave her alone for just a minute, so that she could soak up Jesus’ words?
This urgency surrounding Martha’s life is also part of our lives. I remember, as a child, having only one telephone in the house, and that was in a central location. There was no such thing as a private conversation, as people walked past on the way from one part of the house to another. And we were limited in the amount of time we could spend on the phone, because other people also needed to use it. My father told me stories about the telephone he had known when he was younger. You didn’t dial the number yourself, but lifted the receiver off the hook, and asked the operator to connect you to whichever number you wanted. If the line was busy, the operator would tell you to try later. Of course, by the time I came along, telephones with rotary dials were in use. But you were still attached to the wall by the cord. If someone called and you weren’t home, they would have to try later. Answering machines didn’t yet exist. If you were on the phone, the caller would get a busy signal – no such thing as call waiting then! It was assumed that, if someone really wanted to talk to you, they would keep trying until they reached you.
The next innovation, which speeded things up a little, was the key pad, and you just hit the numbers. I remember during the transition from the rotary dial to the key pad, hearing people complain that it took so much longer to dial a number than to punch it in. By this time, most families had two phones in the house, but still the same number, and phones were still attached to a cord.
But the telephone still didn’t control us. There was still no answering machine, no voice mail, so if we missed a call, we missed a call. If we were lucky, when someone called, there was someone at home to take a message, but often the message didn’t get passed along. I remember when my children were teenagers, friends would tell me that they had called and left a message with one of them. But I rarely got the messages. I rejoiced when I could get an answering machine – no more depending on other people to write down the information. Oh, and by this time, we had a portable phone, too, so that we could walk around the house, chatting. But, if someone was already using the phone, then the caller would get a busy signal. That lasted until voice mail. Now, if I am on the phone, voice mail kicks in, and I can retrieve my messages later.
And after voice mail, all that was needed was a way to take calls when you weren’t even home, so someone had to invent the cell phone. Of course, I have one. Most people here have one. I even know people who have given up their land lines altogether, and kept only their cell phones. How often have you gone to a restaurant for a quiet meal, only to have it interrupted by someone talking on their cell phone at the next table? Thanks to the cell phone, I know more about some people’s lives than I want to. I have heard one side of many arguments; I have heard people yelling at their kids; I have heard kids yelling at their parents. And I really don’t need to know some of the details they have shared.
But it gets worse. Fortunately, most provinces have banned cell phone use while people are driving. Research has concluded that people who drive while using a cell phone are as impaired as people whose alcohol level is over the legal limit. People have been injured and killed by drivers who were talking on their cell phones. And really, what is so urgent that can’t wait until a person is not driving?
But it is this sense of urgency that pervades all our lives. It is the idea that EVERY SINGLE THING is so important that we can’t miss it. It is the idea that EVERY SINGLE THING we are required to do is so important that we can’t take the time to relax for a few minutes. We can’t be disconnected even for an hour. By the way, in my notes, those words “every single thing” are written in capitals, just to highlight the urgency of every single thing. I hope you could hear the capitals in my voice. Cell phones have rung in movie theatres and in churches. People seem to think that something can be important enough to interrupt a night of entertainment. People even think that something can be important enough to interrupt worship.
And this is what Jesus was talking about. He said to Martha: you are worried and upset about many things. In another translation, the word used was “distracted” rather than worried, and that is more appropriate in our context today. For we are distracted by things. Cell phones distract us. Life itself distracts us. We are a nation of busy people. We run from one appointment to another. Most of us have taken to carrying agendas with us, so that we can keep track of everything we have to do. And if we lose our agendas, we panic. I was at a lunch meeting recently, and when I stood up, my agenda fell out of my pocket. Someone picked it up, and when passing it back to me, commented, “If I lost mine, I would lose my life.”
This busy-ness is perceived as something good, as something which lends structure to our lives. But is it? Is it, really? Is it good to be so busy that we don’t have time for ourselves? Is it good to be so busy that we don’t have time for God?
There has been a lot of talk about burn-out in various professions, including the ministry. In fact, we were required to study it when I was in seminary. We learned that people in caring professions – doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, ministers, and so on – often suffer from burn-out. They work hard; they care deeply; and many of them reach terminal exhaustion before they realize what is happening to them. One of the counsellors at Camp d’Action Biblique last week is actually heading that way, and he is a very young man. He seems to have the idea that only he can do the work he does, and he has not learned to accept help. What will eventually happen to him? The same thing that happens to anyone else who burns out. His work will go downhill; he will start to do less while taking longer to do it; he will always feel tired; he will start to feel hopeless and unfulfilled. Eventually, he will reach a point where he will not only no longer care about others, but he will be unable to care. People who suffer from burn-out feel angry, anxious, and worried. And who felt like that in today’s Gospel reading? Martha. She was “worried and upset”. She was “anxious and distracted”. If we apply today’s terms to Martha, she was burning out. She was pushing herself unnecessarily. And she resented it. She wanted to sit with Jesus, but could not bring herself to do so until everything that needed to be done, was done.
Let’s paraphrase what Jesus said to her. He said, “Martha, Martha, you are so busy looking after me, so busy serving me, so concerned that the right things be done, that you are missing out on being with me. You are missing the necessary thing.” And that is what we do. We crowd our lives with so much that we miss being with God. And yet we know that we need to be with God.
I am reading a book now by Joanna Weaver, called Having A Mary Heart In A Martha World, and this describes how many people live. Thanks to years of sermons, we know that we must make time for God. But the reality is that most of don’t. This book acknowledges that we are busy, and that some of our busy-ness is necessary. But she also insists that God must come first, if everything else is to be done as God wishes. She says that there is a bit of Martha in each of us, and a bit of Mary. As Christians, we should build on the Mary part. The Martha part – which applies to men as well as women – will build on itself. Next time you think that you are doing too much, that you are being pushed to the limit by the busy-ness of your life, look for the Mary heart within you, and allow it to take over for a while. I promise you, the work won’t disappear while you are otherwise occupied, with the better part.
Weaver quotes Robert Munger, who described the time he invited Christ into his heart. Munger showed Jesus around the rooms in his heart, and when he got to the drawing room, he wrote: We walked next into the drawing room. This room was rather intimate and comfortable. I liked it. It had a fireplace, overstuffed chairs, a bookcase, sofa, and a quiet atmosphere.
He also seemed pleased with it. He said, “this is indeed a delightful room. Let us come here often. It is secluded and quiet and we can have fellowship together.”
Well, naturally as a young Christian I was thrilled. I could not think of anything I would rather do than have a few minutes apart with Christ in the intimate comradeship.
He promised, “I will be here every morning early. Meet with Me here and we will start the day together.” So, morning after morning, I would come downstairs to the drawing room and He would take a book of the Bible… open it and then we would read together. He would tell me of its riches and unfold to me its truths…. They were wonderful hours together. In fact, we called the drawing room the “withdrawing room.” It was a period when we had our quiet time together.
But little by little, under the pressure of many responsibilities, this time began to be shortened… I began to miss a day now and then…. I would miss it two days in a row and often more.
I remember one morning when I was in a hurry… As I passed the drawing room, the door was ajar. Looking in I saw a fire in the fireplace and the Lord sitting there… “Blessed Master, forgive me. Have You been here all these mornings?”
“Yes,” He said, “I told you I would be here every morning to meet with you.” Then I was even more ashamed. He had been faithful in spite of my faithlessness. I asked His forgiveness and He readily forgave me…
He said “the trouble with you is this: You have been thinking of the quiet time, of the Bible study and prayer time, as a factor in your own spiritual progress, but you have forgotten that this hour means something to Me also.”
Now, you will notice that I did not say that Mary was right, or that Martha was right. It is not a question of right or wrong. There is work which must be done, but there is also listening which must be done. Jesus has grace to give us. All we need to do is to take it. Let’s not leave him waiting in the drawing room. Let’s go there to be with him. Thanks be to God.