Reflection: "Guess Who SHOULD be Coming to Dinner"
In the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with Sydney Poitier, Spencer Tracey & Katharine Hepburn, a middle class white American family is introduced to their daughter’s African American fiancé, when she asks him to come for dinner. In those years, inter-racial marriage was illegal.
It’s amazing to think how attitudes to race and colour (in some parts of the US & the world) have mellowed in just one generation, yet in other areas, as we hear in the news, racial tensions are still running high.
For something that should be a joyous celebration, most of us know that wedding feasts can easily become minefields. How to seat the guests for the wedding meal is one of the toughest minefields to negotiate.
After getting through the difficulties of who to leave off the invitation list, there’s the problem of where to seat them, who doesn’t get on with whom, etc.
In Jesus’ day, a wedding feast was a big community event and it was a big issue to make sure that the seating order reflected their pecking order in the community.
What a dishonour it would be to not have your proper place at the table, or be asked to take a seat lower down the scale than you expected.
Even those without a seat at the table would be outside looking in to see who would be in the top seat.
When it comes to dinner parties, Jesus is not exactly a June Dally Watkins, but it’s not because he didn’t get enough practice.
Jesus and his disciples seem to eat their way through the Gospels.
They go from place to place, house to house, one meal after another.
Most of us can’t imagine what it would be like, not knowing where our next meal will come from.
Of course, Jesus would not have worried too much, as he trusted his father to provide for him.
Considering this, it’s surprising that Jesus would agree to eat at the house of a Pharisee.
They publicly criticized Jesus for blasphemy (because he forgave sins), for uncleanness (because he ate with sinners), and for working on the Sabbath (because he cured the crippled lady, his disciples plucked grain from a field, etc).
In Luke’s story, as the dinner begins, the Pharisees are watching Jesus carefully.
If we were invited to such a do, we’d probably be on our best behaviour - careful not to talk with food in our mouth, or put our elbows on the table.
As we might imagine it, the table is magnificent, the crystal chandelier shining, the servants attentive, the centrepiece impressive, and the champagne chilled. All the “right people” are there - bankers, doctors, lawyers and preachers.
Jesus is invited not because he is considered an equal, but because he’s a curiosity who’s been in the news.
The esteemed guests are watching closely to see how Jesus fits in.
Oddly, Jesus decides he needs to offend the guests.
This scene becomes a lesson in how to lose friends and alienate people.
Jesus has noticed how the Pharisees are always looking for ways to move up the social ladder - or up the table order, on this occasion.
He’s seen how they always try to sit at the place of honour.
You may have been in one of those awkward situations yourself, when you’ve been a guest in someone’s home.
You stand before the dinner table, not sure where to sit.
Most of us wouldn’t take a place at the top of the table, the seat of honour, unless, of course, the host invites us to do so. This kind of common sense would seem to be what Jesus is suggesting, but it’s more than that.
Jesus criticizes the guests for striving for status.
When someone invites you to dinner, you take the place of honour.
Then when somebody more important than you shows up, you’re red-faced as you’re asked to make your way to the last place - the only place left.
You might as well go and sit there when you first arrive, for the host might then say, ‘Come and sit up here with me.’
When Jesus finishes insulting the guests, he begins to insult the host about who was included and who didn’t make the list: “The next time you put on a dinner party, don’t just invite your friends, family, and those you’re trying to impress - the kind of people who’ll return the favour. Invite people who don’t have similar interests, who never get invited out - the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks, the least of our sisters and brothers, the poorest of the poor. They won’t be able to return the favour, but God will know what you’ve done.”
The disciples pull Jesus to the side and say, “You might want to back off a little.
First you went after the seating protocol, and as if that wasn’t rude enough, now you’ve gone after the guest list. Our host is an influential person and he could do good things for us.
All you have to do is act friendly and keep your elbows off the table.
We won’t have any more dinner invitations if you can’t get through the appetizers without infuriating the person who invited us.”
Why does Jesus have to stir up trouble?
Why does he criticize people who invite him into their homes?
Why can’t Jesus leave a pleasant enough dinner party well enough alone?
It’s because Jesus understands what’s at stake.
We have to learn that at God’s table there’s no need to jockey for position, because all are equally welcome.
There are no throwaways when it comes to human beings.
Christians are to honour the least among us - the poor and the marginalized.
While the Pharisees were striving to move toward the head of a rectangular table, the table of Jesus is a round one, where no person is better than another.
The character of our guest list - who is on it and who isn’t - has everything to do with whether, or not, we’re being Christ’s church.
The followers of Christ have learned that any table where Jesus is present is a table where everyone is welcome.
A foretaste of the heavenly banquet, foreshadowing the kingdom where God cares for all.
This parable by Jesus is told to encourage them, and us, to be happy to take the lowest place – as Jesus did when he came to our earth.
But then he comes up with this crazy idea of inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.
He’s turning on its head the whole scheme of dinners, where you invite the most important, so that you might become more important.
Jesus says that you will be most blessed when you welcome those most in need, not looking for anything in return.
Jesus wants us to reflect on how large God’s table is.
It’s large enough to welcome those we don’t agree with, or don’t even like.
It’s large enough to welcome the respectable and the disreputable.
It’s large enough to welcome people from every nation, every language, every colour, without any special seats. It has to be that large if it’s big enough to welcome even us!
The writer of Hebrews also exhorts us to show compassion and hospitality to those we meet, as by doing so, we might be entertaining hidden angels without actually knowing it.
He reminds us that we can do all things with confidence, because God will never leave us or forsake us.
So, the next time you’re planning a large dinner party, look not to who you can invite (in order to advance your social standing), but instead, to who is in most need of your love and care.
God will look after you and these sacrifices will definitely be pleasing to him.
Reflection: "The Sabbath"
When I was growing up, Sundays meant church, family, and food.
Our family would all go to church on Sunday morning, with the kids attending Sunday School, while the adults did something boring - then we’d buy crusty bread rolls on the way home before sitting down to a meal of roast lamb.
Sunday evenings meant the rest of the family would head off to church and youth group and it was my job to have the washing up done before they returned - which usually entailed a frantic, last-minute scramble from in front of the TV, when I heard their car in the driveway!
Perhaps your families had similar ways of spending Sundays, and they might have involved church, family, and food, too - that was the norm back then.
Perhaps some of you came from households where frivolous activities were even prohibited on Sundays.
You might just have read the Bible on Sunday afternoons after church, maybe played quietly before it was time for the evening church service.
Many of us can remember when the stores were closed on Sundays, salespeople having the day off and no business was transacted.
All of these customs originated from people's ideas about how to obey the Third Commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy."
From the time this commandment was given by God to Moses, there has been disagreement about why we should honour the Sabbath and how we keep it holy.
The book of Exodus links Sabbath observance to creation: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it."
In Deuteronomy a different reason is given: "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day."
The Sabbath was meant to be a gift, a time of rest and restoration, a time to worship God.
But quickly, that gift turned into Law, and all sorts of rules grew up about what was work and what wasn't, what was permissible to do on the Sabbath and what was not.
Keeping the Sabbath holy also meant reserving that day for worship of God, and, as you might guess, people had various ideas about what constituted worship and, therefore, exactly what kept the Sabbath holy.
Jesus and his disciples were constantly getting into trouble with the religious authorities for not properly observing the Sabbath.
The issue comes up four times in the Gospel of Luke, and three of these involve healing on the Sabbath.
In this week's reading, Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath when he notices a woman who is so crippled, that she’s completely bent over.
She’s been suffering this way for 18 years.
The woman doesn’t approach Jesus, nor ask for anything - she doesn't have to.
The minute he sees her, he calls to her, lays his hands on her and says, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment."
What Jesus does for the woman is to set her free from the torture and imprisonment of her own body.
Jesus gives her a new life, free from pain, free from shame, free from isolation.
Jesus restores to the woman her dignity, her sense of self-worth, her place in the community, and her very identity. No longer simply a cripple, she is, as Jesus calls her, a proud daughter of Abraham, heir of God's promise, and a participant in God's covenant.
Jesus reaches out to this outcast, this woman whose everyday life is worse than death, touches her, and gives her the wholeness, health, and peace that God always intended people to have.
And she didn't have to do anything - what Jesus does for the woman is a gift; it is pure grace.
When Jesus touches the woman, she stands up straight and tall for the first time in 18 years and she begins to praise God, as she knows the source of her healing.
Even on the Sabbath day, she praises God for this unexpected, wonderful, unbelievable gift of life.
Not everyone, however, feels the same joy.
The Leader of the synagogue can’t rejoice in this mighty act, nor thank God for it.
He can only see that Jesus has worked on the Sabbath – something forbidden in the Jewish law.
Rather than confront Jesus directly, however, he criticises the waiting crowd and tells them to go away: 'There are six days on which work ought to be done," he says; "come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day."
But Jesus isn’t willing to let this slip by without raising an issue.
He accuses the ruler of hypocrisy, because it was permissible for someone to untie an animal on the Sabbath to give it some water.
Relieving the thirst of an animal, so that it can continue to live, is not a violation of the Sabbath.
Why should relieving the suffering of a woman who has been tied up in knots for 18 years, so that she can live a full life, be any different?
Is she of less worth than an animal?
The Leader’s inconsistency, and his lack of understanding of God's will, are revealed to all.
Luke reports, "The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing”.
Jesus demonstrated to the crowd that keeping the Sabbath holy was not about observing rules and all the "thou shalt nots" that the religious leaders had created.
Keeping the Sabbath holy was about worshiping God by releasing people from bondage and giving them new lives, so that they, too, could praise God.
That's what God had done for the Israelites when he led them out of Egypt, so, in a very clear way, by healing the crippled woman on the Sabbath, Jesus was keeping, not breaking, the third commandment.
And that's the same thing that Jesus did for you and me when, out of love, he died on the cross and rose again, releasing all those who believe in him from the bondage of sin and giving them new lives.
Like the bent-over woman, we didn’t even have to ask for this gift - it is pure grace.
Having received the gift, we’re free to thank and praise God with so much enthusiasm, that crowds will join in.
So how do we keep the Sabbath holy today?
How do we worship God in the 21st century?
The old ways in which we used to keep the Sabbath are long gone.
On Sundays now, as well as attending church, we work, we shop, we play sports, or watch them on television, we do everything that we do on any other day.
With our busy schedules, our desire to spend time with the family, and our focus on having as much fun and free time as possible, we struggle with honouring the Sabbath and using the day to worship God.
Few of us would want to return to a world full of religious laws and strict rules about how to observe the Sabbath - even if we could.
And, yes, it’s often tempting to join the throngs of people for whom Sunday is no different from any day.
Yet, the very fact that we DO come to worship, says that we are looking for something more, that we are looking for ways to keep the Sabbath holy and to thank and praise God.
As we gather together to tell and to hear the story of God's love for us, we experience that love, given to us in the form of Holy Communion, with the bread and the wine, which links us to God and to each other.
Christians in every time and every place rejoice in the Lord's graciousness and meet to give thanks for the gifts provided to them by God.
My belief is that we should definitely worship God and keep the Sabbath holy on Sundays, but not to the exclusion of all the other days of the week.
God wants our attention and focus on the Kingdom at all times, not just on one special day of the week, so we need to also worship him in all we do during the rest of our weekly activities.
You are blessed to be a blessing to others…………………Pastor Rick
Reflection: "Why, Why, Why?"
The “5 Whys” is an iterative question-asking technique, used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem.
The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a problem.
(The "5" comes from empirical observations on the number of iterations typically required to resolve the problem.)
For example, let’s look at why the car won’t start.
First Why (Why won’t the vehicle start)? - The battery is dead.
Second Why (Why is the battery dead)? - The alternator is not functioning.
Third Why (Why is the alternator not functioning)? - The alternator belt has broken.
Fourth Why? (Why has the alternator belt has broken)? It was beyond its service life and had not been replaced.
Fifth Why? (Why did that happen)? The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule (the root cause).
In today’s message, we’re only going to need 3 “why’s” (modern ministers must just be getting more efficient, because they now always have 3 points in their sermons, not 5).
Looking at three of the readings set down in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary, we get a biblical perspective:
Reading #1. Isaiah was a prophet living in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 8th century BC.
The book of Isaiah is actually comprised of several collections of prophecies from various sources.
It shares its perspective on history with the book of Deuteronomy.
The catastrophes that befell Israel in 721BC (takeover by Assyrians) and Judah in 587BC (takeover by Babylonians), were caused by the faithlessness and ingratitude of the people toward God.
This had shaped a faithless form of politics and a self-indulgent upper class, whose worship was coupled with an indifference to injustice.
So, the people weakened their society and, consequently brought on their defeat by foreign nations.
Isaiah 5:1-7 is often called the “Song of the Vineyard” and it depicts Israel as a vineyard, chosen by God, but which did not yield usable grapes.
The people were not suitable for their intended purpose, because God expected justice, but instead saw bloodshed.
Reading #2. Psalm 80 is a community lament, which was often sung in the context of a military defeat.
Like Isaiah 5, it uses the metaphor of Israel as a vineyard.
The psalmist laments that God has broken down the wall protecting the nation from their enemies and prays for God to “turn again” and work through “the one at your right hand” (King David) to bring them victory.
Reading #3. Luke 12:49-56 records the words of Jesus to his disciples regarding the divisive nature of his teachings.
While the psalmist in Psalm 80 implores God to “turn again,” Jesus urges listeners to “turn back to” God.
It's interesting that this text is sandwiched between the parable of the faithful and the unfaithful slave (12:41-48) and the command to the Galileans to repent or perish (13:1-5), which is then followed by the parable of the barren fig tree (13:6-9).
This placement sharpens the point of this story and gives it added urgency.
The use of the word “division” may be seen as a sign of the presence of the Messiah in God’s kingdom.
For Luke, the teachings of Jesus, in the context of his coming death, call for a decision that will trouble the waters of a settled life and call for action, rather than helping listeners fit into a comfortable society and smoothing the way in all their relationships.
Now, to expand on the connecting thread that we notice when we study these readings.
Each of the three texts contains a “why” question.
In Isaiah 5:4, God asks the people a question, in which he challenges them to take responsibility for their situation.
“What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield rotten grapes?” (NRSV version), or
Why don’t you bear fruit when I’ve nurtured your growth for so long? (my version)
In Psalm 80:12, the people ask God a question, in which they blame him for their misfortune.
“Why then have you broken down its (ie. the vineyard’s) walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” (NRSV version), or
Why do you allow us to suffer the consequences of our actions? (my version)
In Luke 12:56, Jesus asks his disciples a question in which he challenges them to stop blaming God and start turning to God and repenting.
“You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret this present time?” (NRSV version)
Jesus asks us why we don’t see that now is the time to stop blaming God, start turning to God and start taking my teachings seriously? (my version)
These three “why” questions are not just focused on us as individuals, but also on the communities in which we live and are actually quite theological in their nature.
They have everything to do with sin, freewill and repentance, for individuals, as well as for communities.
Why aren’t we bearing fruit?
Why are we blaming God, or other people, for our situation instead?
Why don’t we see that now is the time to repent and change our lives?
Building a lesson around questions such as these, was something Jesus often did, as he liked to ask questions of hist followers.
These weren’t just rhetorical questions, which don’t require an answer and are meant to make us think more about the situation, like:
“How could I be so stupid?”
Or even questions that have obvious answers, like:
“Who is faithful to us in good times and bad?” Answer: “God!”
Instead, Jesus often asked what scholars like to call “impossible questions.”
These are questions that challenge the listener and make them think, because there are no straightforward answers.
“Who of you, by worrying, can add a single hour to your life, or one cubit to your height?” or
“What does it profit a person to gain the world and lose his soul?”
We can see, however, from the chosen readings, that the kinds of questions being asked of us today are not ones that are impossible to answer.
But they certainly are ones that cause us to reflect on our present situation and think about the consequences of our actions, or inactions.
They challenge us to “pull our socks up” and kick off a process of change in our lives that will see us bearing good fruit, not bad.
I won’t try to fool you - this process may not be easy.
It may even take a long time.
But my question to you, today is: “Are you willing to give it a go?”
And I’ll follow that up with another question: “If not………… why, why, why?”
“Let God kindle a fire within you for God’s radical and costly way of love.
Stay true to the path, love without ceasing, though it hurts, though it costs,
though it is hard.
Know that God is with you, our divine source of love.
Trust that God is with you always, our divine source of faith. Amen.”
Reflection: "The Faith of the Hopeful"
At the “Stockmen’s Hall of Fame” in the outback Queensland town of Longreach is a list of our early pioneers and settlers and this list is dominated by the names of men.
In a similar vein, the 11th Chapter of the letter to the Hebrews reads like a roll call of many of the memorable Old Testament people of faith.
It, too, is dominated by the names of men, although we know that many women were influential in both settings.
This list of people of faith is quite an impressive one and for any Jew, this chapter would make their adrenalin flow.
Even for Gentiles like us, it’s quite soul stirring stuff!
But then comes an unexpected phrase in verse 13, where it says:
“All of these persons died in faith, without having received the promises.”
What a way to ruin a good story! In spite of their mighty faith, they still perished like the rest of us.
Death, that indiscriminate leveller, got them all in the end.
But because we’re in New Testament times, we’re dealing with a different way of seeing life and death.
A different view of time and eternity.
From the Christian perspective, faith is NOT shattered by death. In truth, death is shattered by hope and faith.
To live by hope and faith, and to die in hope and faith, is actually a grand thing!
So, what’s this “hope” that’s mentioned here?
What’s this hope which, when taken up by faith, reshapes people, as well as shattering the gloom of death?
According to the letter to the Hebrews, faith is closely allied to hope.
“Faith gives substance to our hopes, and makes us sure of those realities that we cannot see.”
Christian hope isn’t a vague, wistful longing, nor a pathetic wish-list for the improbable, or the impossible.
Hope is not building imaginary castles in the air and it’s certainly not trite, sentimental optimism.
Instead, it’s a sharing in God’s vision and plan, affirming the glorious future which God has for humanity.
Hope is us turning to the promises of God and saying: “Yes please!”
For that childless couple, Abram and Sarai (who were renamed Abraham and Sarah because of their faith) hope was daring to envision the divine promise - that through their descendants “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Hope, for Moses, was daring to picture and commit to, the liberty of the promised land, “flowing with milk and honey”, at the time when his people were in miserable slavery in Egypt.
Hope, for Isaiah, was a commitment to the vision.
It was daring for him to see and preach about the new world, that would one day surely come to be.
“Then shall blind eyes be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing. Men shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning blades. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor ever again be trained for war. For the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea beds.”
For Christian people, hope takes on a special shape.
It dares to look at a new world order, shaped in the likeness of Jesus of Nazareth.
He is the first born of the future race, the shape of the new humanity.
He is the new creation, the future surging into the present moment.
By hope, we commit ourselves to doing things his way.
Hope is daring to look at this future and seeing it not as a mirage, but as a certainty.
By hope, an irrepressible longing and a joyful commitment enters into the human soul.
Unless we dare to hope, we’re most likely to become mesmerised by the greed and violence and chaos of humanity, slowly surrendering our ideals, sliding into pessimism and joining the so called “rat race.”
And what about faith - this “faith”, that the writer to the Hebrews extols?
This faith is always active, never passive, not something to calm people down and make them docile.
It’s a trust in God, which thrusts people into the thick of life.
Faith is not an escape, but a new, profound, re-creative involvement.
It’s like us launching out into the world, putting into action what God has done for us, in and through Christ Jesus.
Abraham and Sarah are worthy models of faith.
To them, faith meant leaving the comfortable existence of their home, family and country, and setting out on a journey - where the destination was somewhat cloudy. “He went out, not knowing where he was to end up.”
It meant a long, and at times risky, adventure, where there were to be joys and hardships, nasty twists in events, frustration and danger, on their journey of faith.
Faith is actively implementing as much of our hope as is possible in our time and circumstance.
It is giving substance to our hope and it’s an active way of life.
Our status in the Uniting Church is that of pilgrims. Andrew Dutney, past President of the Uniting Church, liked to remind us that in item 3 of the Basis of Union, “we are called to be a pilgrim people, always on the way”.
We should also notice that living by faith in the God of hope, makes us people who don’t totally belong in any one town, city, or rural region.
These faith heroes and heroines lived in many places, among many nations, settled amid many cultures, but they didn’t belong - they weren’t at home.
So, we have no final home here on earth.
“Home” is the vision we have of the better future, the promise from God.
Here we’re only sojourners, passing through and it can’t be otherwise, for people like us, who’ve been given the gift of hope.
Look around us at the culture in which we’re living.
Is this really our ideal home?
Don’t get me wrong, I love my world and I dearly love my country.
If we look at this myopic, selfish and often desperate world, our self-indulgent and anxious society, all the foppery of fashion and the silly pomposity of our politics and look at the injustices and grave abuses which occur from Darwin to Devonport and Broome to Burleigh Heads, are any of us content to call this our real home, our true soul-place?
This isn’t the world as it should be, our true home!
This isn’t the completed world which God has promised.
It’s inevitable that we’ll all live and die in the faith - with many of our God-given hopes not fully realised.
But it’s far, far better to die with the restlessness of hope still upon us, than to die as those who are content with the world as it now is.
For a Christian, the fact of dying doesn’t really matter that much, for in Christ, death is no calamity.
What’s important is how we live whilst we are alive in this world, moment by moment.
The important thing is whether we reach for the hope with all our faith and apply it with all the love we can muster.
For this task, we have the Spirit of God with us, aiding and abetting every step we take towards the promised land, every act of love we show our neighbour, every tilt we make against injustice, every prayer we offer with thankful and compassionate hearts.
By our active faith, we give solid content to our hopes.
I encourage you to take that hope and faith with you out into the world and become mighty warriors for God.