August 29th, 2010

During my final year in Montreal, I was placed with a congregation as a student minister. This is called our in-ministry year, and it involves the student working closely with the minister, and the congregation during the last stages of preparation for ordained ministry. It is a learning experience, and, at times, a humbling one. You see, up until that time, most of my preaching had been done at Presbyterian College, in front of the faculty and other students, not with a real, live congregation. This meant that my preaching was pretty academic most of the time. Now, that worked at Presbyterian College, but, I soon found out, that some of the things I had taken for granted then just didn’t work as well with a congregation. For instance, the word “lectionary”, which I assumed everyone would know, was totally foreign to most of the people at Ephraim Scott.
So today, I will start by explaining to you what this word means, just in case there are people here who don’t know. In the Presbyterian Church in Canada, we use something called the Revised Common Lectionary to choose our scripture focus. For the past several months, I have given you the readings for next week in this week’s bulletin, so that people who are interested, can read ahead, and maybe think about what message I might deliver. The way the lectionary works is quite simple. Each week, there are 4 readings from Scripture. One is from the Old Testament – usually from one of the historical books, or from one of the prophets. The is also a Psalm every week, which we use as a responsive reading every Sunday. There is what we sometimes call an Epistle, which is from one of the letters in the new Testament. And there is the Gospel reading. Now, the lectionary runs over a three-year cycle – A, B, and C, and we are getting near the end of Year C. Year A will start on the first Sunday of Advent. Each one of the years chooses one of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, or Luke – as its focus, and there are readings from the Gospel of John thrown in during each year. This year, we have had mostly readings from Luke, and next year, it will be Matthew, with Mark’s Gospel the following year. Then it starts all over again.
As an aside, I heard one of my younger colleagues in seminary once say that a minister should leave at the end of three years, because he (or she) will have preached all his sermons then, and rather than write new ones, can just go to a new place and recycle the ones already stored on the computer. Most of us didn’t agree with that!
Anyway, back to the lectionary. Most Christian denominations use the same lectionary reading, so if you were to visit an Anglican or Roman Catholic or United Church on any given Sunday, you would likely hear the same Scripture readings that you would have heard here at St. Andrew’s. There are some ministers who don’t like using the lectionary, and I will admit that there are times when I think that I would just as soon not use the assigned readings. However, overall, I am glad that we have this direction, this path to follow through Scripture. For if we didn’t, I would probably preach only on those texts I like, only on those texts that I am comfortable with. And we all know that this is not the purpose of Scripture or of my preaching. The words of Jesus are not meant to lull us into complacency, but to challenge us. The words of Jesus – or the words from the Old Testament, or the words from the letters written in the early days of the church – are not meant to make us think that everything is all right. Rather, by studying them carefully, we are meant to see what things we need to change in order to live as we are meant to live.
And there is something I have noticed. Even when I have difficulty with the chosen passages, even when I struggle through the entire week, there is always something there which speaks to someone. I have had people come to me after worship, and comment on a particular thing I said, and tell me how it answered a prayer that morning. Then I know that it was the Holy Spirit guiding me which allowed me to write those words.
This week was one of those weeks of struggle for me. I read over all of the readings, and tried to figure out how they could go together. The reading from Jeremiah, for instance, in which God accused Israel of forsaking him – the spring of living water: This, to me, seemed as though it should have been paired with the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at the well rather than another story of Jesus dining at the home of a Pharisee. There was a little more of a connection between the reading from Hebrews – which we didn’t use in this church – and the Gospel, in that both referred to making people feel welcome. But still, trying to preach on all of them at the same time is more that I felt capable of doing. So I decided to focus on one – the Gospel reading, because it is so rich with messages for us, and yet, at the same time, so open to misinterpretation.
I always find it interesting when Jesus eats in the homes of people who are not his followers, as he did in this reading. We heard that when he went to eat in the home of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. We skipped over the part where he again healed on the Sabbath. I suppose that, after what happened in last week’s reading, nobody was willing to challenge Jesus on this point any more. Then we moved to Jesus’ words. As usual, he had been observing what was happening around him, and he noticed that the guests were vying for places of honour at the table. I can picture the look of disgust on his face, as he launched into what could be taken as an etiquette lesson. He said: When someone invites you to a wedding feat, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. It so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this man your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honoured in front of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Jesus, as usual, was not just speaking to the people at the dinner party. Nor was he just instructing them about where they should sit. He was speaking to us. He was advising us against arrogance, against assuming that we have a right to put ourselves ahead of others. More than that, he was saying that we need to leave such decisions to God – our heavenly host. If you will recall, some months ago, we heard a story about the mother of James and John, who wanted Jesus to promise that her sons would be seated next to Jesus when he came into his kingdom. Jesus said: To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father. Now, that was pretty blunt. And it was honest. Even Jesus cannot make this decision, as it has already been made by the Father.
And when you come right down to it, choosing a better place really has no effect on the eventual outcome. At a dinner party, everyone ends up well fed. At a concert, everyone hears the same music. In a church, everyone says the same prayers. When I was preparing this sermon today, I couldn’t help thinking about the movie TITANIC, which I saw several years ago. In this movie, you could really see the differences that people perceived among themselves. The ship had many physical levels, and people were not permitted to cross from one to the other. Picture it like a pyramid, with the multi-millionaires like Guggenheim, Astor, and Strauss at the top. These first class passengers enjoyed a particular way of living and were treated in a particular way by others because of their class. They only spent time with each other, because that was how they could continue to make the deals that kept them rich and others poor. They were given seats of honour at every meal, and they just assumed that this was how things would be.
At the next level, the second class passengers were those people who hoped to strike it rich some day. They probably lived a comfortable life, but aspired for more. They looked up to the Astors and Strausses and Guggenheims, and looked down on the third class passengers. And the third class passengers – well, they also knew their place, but they also aspired for more. That is why they left their homes in Europe to undertake the journey to America, where they were convinced life would be better.
Of course we know what happened. The unsinkable titanic sank. Rich and poor alike drowned. There was no distinction made when the icy waters of the Atlantic claimed over 1500 lives. What, then, is the point of jostling for position? What, then, is the point of fighting for the best seats at the dinner table? As Jesus pointed out, there is no point. Far better, instead, to wait until we are told where we belong.
The second part of today’s Gospel reading is possibly a bit more difficult for us to grasp. After all, if we are giving a party, shouldn’t we be able to choose whom we want to invite? Shouldn’t we be able to choose whom we welcome? Theoretically, we should, but listen to what Jesus says. When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Now, all of us have heard stories about people who took this advice literally, and who reaped tremendous benefits as a result. But somehow, I don’t think that Jesus means us to go out into the streets of the city, seeking out people to invite to our homes. I think that what he is talking about here is the idea of doing something for someone without expecting anything in return. In just a few minutes, you will hear an announcement which is the result of a visit I had from Major Carver of the local Salvation Army. Those of you who will sign up to take part in the activity will certainly not be getting anything in return. Well, nothing of any material worth anyhow! But you will be reaching out to others in a very real way. It is easy for us to drop a few dollars into the red kettle off the Salvation Army. How much harder will it be to sit with the kettle for an hour or so on a busy Saturday?
Jesus said: when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
We cannot see ourselves doing this, and there are some very good reasons for NOT doing it. But when was the last time you stopped for a few minutes to offer some words of encouragement to someone who was obviously unhappy? When was the last time you said a prayer when you saw an ambulance rushing by on the way to a hospital? These are ways of inviting others to the banquet. These are ways of including others.
There is one last thing I would like to say about today’s Gospel. I have often had difficulty with the idea that we do things here on earth so that we will be rewarded in heaven. That, to me, seems to take away the whole idea of doing good for the sake of doing good. After all, if I am only doing good things so that God will reward me, then that kind of defeats the whole idea of altruism. That kind of defeats the idea of doing things because we are loving our neighbours as ourselves. But I think that the point of Jesus saying this was to give us a place to start. Being human, we always ask: What’s in it for me? What will I get out of it? What will my reward be for doing this? Jesus knows this, and he gives us an incentive to get us started. The idea is that, after a while, we will realize that the good things we do are, in fact, their own reward. The good things we do, no matter what they eventually lead to for us, are primarily to benefit others. And that is why we do them. That is why – I hope – we will have members off this congregation sitting with the red kettle in December. This is why – I hope – we in this congregation welcome those who show up here unexpectedly on a Sunday morning. This is why – I hope – we will all be seated at the heavenly banquet, where there will be no jockeying for position, where all will be content with their place.
William Temple, an Anglican minister, used these words in a sermon: When I get to heaven, if I do, I imagine I shall be surprised at three things. First, I’ll be surprised that I’m there. Second, I shall be surprised at many of the other people who are there. Third, and most astonishing, will be their surprise that I’m there at all. And since our heavenly Father does the assigning of places, I am sure that there will be many surprises. Thanks be to God.

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