Monday, October 16, 2017

For Such a Time as This

Esther 4: 9-14
Jews have a holiday that occurs once a year usually in March but sometimes it can occur in late February, it depends on the lunar cycle.  It’s Purim.  The Bible instructs that it should occur on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Adar.  This is one of the happiest holidays of the Jewish year, Jews all over the world engage in festive merry-making, dress in costumes and use noise-makers called graggers and these yummy triangular cookies with jam inside of them called Hamantaschen appear.  It is also a time in which Jews are instructed to give tzedakah or charity as the Bible says,

And Mordecai inscribed these things and sent letters to all the Jews… to enjoin them to make the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and the fifteenth day thereof, every year… a festive day: to make them days of feasting and joy, and sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor."1

You see Purim is the remembrance of a time long ago when in the city of Shushan, Persia a wicked man named Haman, an Amalekite, tried to kill the Jews but the Jewish queen Esther saved them with help from her cousin Mordecai. It’s not an historical account but a story written within an historical framework.  It's a celebration for Jews when the Megillah or scroll of Esther is read.  And although God is not named once in the entire Megillah, it’s a story of God’s providence and redemption and a story in which one woman, Esther, rises to the call to save the Jews from certain death.

Let’s hear our focus passage from the Megillah of Esther:

Ha-thak (eunich in the court of King Ahashuerust) went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. Then Esther spoke to Ha-thak and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.”

When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish.

Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

I want you to remember the phrase, ‘for such a time as this’ but first, let’s put this passage in context because it is a plot that is laced with twists and turn, and lots of complications. After the destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah the people are taken into Babylonian captivity in what is known as the diaspora (Jews spread throughout the region). Persia conquers Babylon, some people return to Jerusalem and some stayed where they were which is the case for Esther and the Jews in Persia.

The plot simply is King Ahasuerus deposes Queen Vashti and then he holds a beauty pageant to find a new queen.  Esther is chosen.  Her cousin Mordecai discovers Haman’s plot to kill the Jews.  Haman was a vizier in the King’s court.  Mordecai tells Esther she needs to intercede. “For such a time as this”. Haman finds out and plots again to have Mordecai hanged but Esther tells the King about the plan to kill the Jews.  He finds out who was behind this all and of course it was Haman who then was hanged.  Mordecai is recognized as a good guy and the King sends out a decree that the 14th day of Adar a feast shall happen which is Purim.

The story all hinges on Esther who, by providence, happened to be the right person at the right time to do the job that needed to be done.  You might say she was called for a specific purpose in the pervading providence of God.

It is that way in life you know.  Sometimes you just happen to be the person who is available and willing to do a job and you are there at just the right time.  You often see people being interviewed on the news for being a hero because they helped or saved someone in distress.  They are unassuming bystanders who without hesitation intervened and helped to save someone. That’s what Mordecai was indicating to Esther when he said, you Esther were called to do this particular job, you were called for such a time as this. 

Sometimes we can plan and plan and plan and nothing pans out but then things just happen and you are in the right place, at the right time and bingo! You were able to effectuate good.  So you never know when you will be called into God’s service.  It’s about being open and willing to take a chance that what you are sensing is the right thing to do.  And it is about trusting that God can and will use you for greater purposes. 

Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner notes:  “The question is not whether the things that happen to you are chance things or God’s things because, of course, they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak … He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys … ‘Be not afraid, for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.”[i]

God is with you in your life journey make no mistake about that.  So the question is what  are you doing on and with your journey?  Are you letting God work through you in order that someone else can experience life giving justice and peace?
Next Sunday evening I hope that you will join me in ‘Conversations’. We are living in unusual times right now.  All you have to do is to look at the news or the paper and see that people are hurting in so many ways.  People have lost their homes and their livelihoods to natural disasters, people are dying when going to concerts and night clubs, people are the victims of hate, prejudice and bullying and it doesn’t look like any of this will stop in the near future.

For such a time as this we can gather together and talk.  We can talk about how this is all making us feel.  What does it do to your psyche every time you hear of such destruction?  How might we keep the faith when it seems as if evil has been unleashed around us?

For such a time as this we can pray about where God most needs us.  We live a pretty cushy and privileged life here, you have to admit.  But that doesn’t preclude us from rising up, rolling up our sleeves and doing some grunt work.  In fact, we have a responsibility to do so.  That’s what Jesus does and we are his followers so we must too.

For such a time as this we have been called into action.  Let us, like Esther rise to the occasion and be God’s messengers of hope, of peace, of justice.  There is no other time but now, for such is the time.


You Talkin’ To Me?

I Samuel 3: 1-14                                                                                             
This is the second week in October and the theme for preaching in October is vocation.  We explored it last week with the story of Moses being called by God through the burning bush.  We are now moving on to another story from the Hebrew Bible from the 1 Book of Samuel.  But first a little background.

The Period of the Judges is likened to the Wild West where shoot outs and ‘soil dove’ women took center stage.  The Hebrews – all 12 tribes - had banded together as the tribal confederacy in a defense effort against the Canaanites and Philistines becoming loosely known as Israel.  So it was a time of warfare for the tribal confederacy, but this effort eventually deteriorated to intratribal warfare. 

If you read the book of Judges, it was not pretty. Tens of thousands of warriors are stricken one day.  Blood, guts, gore, and yes, S E X.  I always said that if kids really knew what was in the Bible they would be staying up in to the wee hours of the night with their flashlights reading the Bible. What kept these 12 tribes loosely bound together in the end was that Yahweh-God had made with them a covenant. 

But it got pretty dicey and their lament echoed over and over again, “In those days there was not a king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  And what was in their ‘own eyes’ was not right.  The twelve tribes of Israel had fallen apart by the end of the book of Judges.  They were convinced that a king would solve all of their problems.

Enters Hannah.  Barren Hannah.  She goes to the temple and prays fervently for God to grant her a child.  Eli, the priest sees her, chides her for her prayers which liken her more to a drunkard rather than a desperate woman who so very badly wanted a child.  You see Eli and his sons were not quite on the up and up.  Well Eli was a good man but his sons were scoundrels and he did nothing to discipline them.  But Hannah continues and makes promises to bring her child before the Lord if the Lord would only help her to conceive.

And God hears her prayers, she conceives and Samuel was born.  Now Hannah was an honorable women and brings him to the temple to minister alongside of Eli just like she had promised.

Our reading from the first Book of Samuel…….

 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;  the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.

Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”  and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.  The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.  Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.   On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.

Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

Little Samuel.  Called Samuel.  Samuel who says, “Here I am Lord” when God calls his name.  He is such an unlikely one to be a prophetic voice between the period of the Judges and the coming monarchy.  Samuel is called to tell Eli of his families demise and he is also called later on to anoint Saul as the first king of Israel and then the great King David.  All from a little boy who was given over at birth by his mother.  All that from the adolescent who said, “Here I am!” 

This is a classic ‘call narrative’.  Like so many other call narratives in the Hebrew Bible, a very special person is born to a once barren women and is called by God to do or say certain things in order to accomplish what it is that God wants done.  What also these people have in common is that they really are somewhat of a ‘rag-tag’ and ordinary group of individuals. 

Moses was slow of speech, Abram was just a plain old geezer, Jeremiah just a kid, so was Samuel.  All of them had something going against them.  Unlike political candidates of all persuasions who can’t say enough good about themselves, the candidates that God calls are quick to point out all of their faults and argue with God about their qualifications.

But guess who wins?  Not us!  God of course wins.  It was once said that, ‘the task does not depend on the leaders ability, but on the leader depending upon God.’  No matter how inadequate one might feel about him or herself, with trust and faith in God, a lot can be accomplished.

Which is true in all of these narratives, what God wanted was someone who would rely on God for strength, to depend on God with all their heart that what they were being asked to do was within God’s realm of glory and intention, and that they would be able to handle it or at least stick with it.  God wanted someone who trusted that their life was going to be used to the benefit of others.  It didn’t matter their ability.  That was secondary.  What mattered was their faith.

To be called is a term that is used a lot in the field of ministry.  You trot off to seminary and are asked to articulate how you were called by God to this ministry.  And believe me there are some pretty UNbelievable stories, one that told of God appearing in their computer screen and speaking with them and another told of St. Michael appearing to them on their front windshield on a stormy and blustery night.  Who am I to dispute their claims?  But they were people of faith.   The point is that we each have our own call story if we awaken ourselves to God’s still speaking voice. 

God calls us and then prepares us for the task at hand; it is where your gifts meet the needs of this world.  That is where God is calling you.  Just like the rag-tag group of Biblical folks who were called by God, so too each one of you is called.  And just like those of old who bickered with God about their call, who felt inadequate and insignificant and not up to the task, they finally answered God’s call in full faith that God would have their back. That’s what you need to do too. 

It was Howard Thurmann who said, “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” That is attentiveness to God’s call.

And as the beautiful hymn from the Iona community says,  ‘Take O take me as I am, summon out what I shall be’.  That is, take me just exactly as I am today and call forth from me what you need and that is what I will become.  Gifts aren’t always grandiose, but each one is important and fills a need.     

You know being called by God doesn’t necessarily mean a life to ministry.  But it does mean awakening others to God’s love by the life you lead. 

Brother Roger of the Taize community in France asks, “Will you, for your part, be one of those who open up the ways of the Risen Christ?  Or will you hesitate and say, “Why do you ask me to prepare ways of the Gospel for others?  Can’t you see that I am quite helpless, like a child?”  He later says, “You awaken others to Christ above all by the life you lead…..You communicate the life of the Risen Christ through a profound personal unselfishness, by forgetting about yourself.”[i]

I do believe that if we are to call ourselves Christians it means that all of us are called to exemplify God’s love and forgiveness, Christ’s unquenchable thirst for justice, and the Holy Spirit’s energy in our every day world and each day that we live out.  We are called to be.  And we are called to do.

Will you, through your actions, tell the Gospel that you have been called to tell?  Words are not necessary, just an open ear, like Samuel who heard God calling in the night.


[i] Brother Roger of Taize, “The Sources of Taize”. GIA Publications, Chicago, 2000. P. 30.

Pastoral Prayer

God bids us to pray unceasingly and so we lay before God the names of those individuals that we lift up today for prayer.

God of heaven and earth we come into your presence now in heartfelt prayer.  You are the one who knows the intimate details of our lives and you are the one who can comfort and sustain us.  You lift us up and rejoice in our wellbeing always loving us for our true selves. Help us not to run but to reach out and live confidently into your call for us.  Fill us with your grace and in doing so may you grant to us forbearance, hope and abundant living.  So much resides within us today so we entreat you to hear us now. 

For a healing balm for those who are ill in body, mind or spirit we pray (mental illness, addiction, recovery, hiv/aids, cancer)
Comfort those who mourn the loss of a loved one or friend and console those who grieve this day. 
For our country and the men and women who serve in the armed forces we pray strength, we lift up Kristin, Michael, Eugene, Nicholas, Gabe, Jason, William, Joshua, Zachery, Justin, Ryan, Brandon, and Colin and all who serve our country in military duty may their homecoming be sooner rather than later.

For Orange Congregational Church, the United Church of Christ and the larger we pray for guidance and discernment in these unusual and stress filled times.  Help us to be a beacon of light for all who are in need of tender care.

For new life around us, for the joy and energy of our children we thank you. 

God in community, Holy in One Amen.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Reluctant to Answer God's Call

Exodus 3: 1-15
October 1, 2017

We are now switching gears in our thematic preaching schedule.  In September we explored the theme of hospitality and what it means for our individual lives as well as our communal life together as a church.  Because it was the first time to really explore a subject for four weeks I hope that you were able to sort of ‘sink your teeth’ in to the theme of hospitality as I was able to. 

Today we are moving on to the theme of vocation and we will stick with this for five weeks in October.  So put your vocation thinking caps on.  Vocation is not just what you do for work day in and day out with all of the drudgery of an Archie Bunker scene in ‘All in the Family’. It is a summons or a strong inclination to a particular state or course of action, something that really excites you beyond your wildest imagination.  It is spending your days doing some that particularly speaks to your heart and soul, something for which you have been given special gifts and something that you can never imagine yourself quitting.  It’s something you wanted to do ‘all your life’.

Choosing ones vocation begins often early in life.  It’s probably when well meaning parents ask their children, so what do you want to be when you grow up?   I asked my oldest son – now 36 beautiful years old – when he was around 9 or 10 that very question.  So John, what do you want to be when you grow up?  His reply, “I want to be a doctor or a doctor on TV”.   Realistically, medicine was never a thought in his head, he’s just not wired that way.  But I could have envisioned him as a doctor on TV.  He’s bright, he’s funny, he’s engaging, he would have made a good doctor…..on TV.   But that wasn’t his path.  He works at Sikorsky Aircraft today.

What do you wan to do when you grow up?  Questions are important! They make you think, they bring clarity, they endeavor to help make profound meaning in life, they help you determine where you are and where you are going, they are critical to developing relationships.

In our scripture today Moses asks a lot of questions as his relationship with YHWY deepens. It is the old familiar story of the burning bush.  Remember he grew up in the house of Pharaoh, as an Egyptian, not a Hebrew even though that is his biological lineage.  But he never forgot his roots.

One day he goes out and sees the forced labor of his people the Hebrews and he is not happy.  Finally he’s beginning to live into his born identity.  He sees an Egyptian beat one of his people and he, in turn, murders the Egyptian.  But he was found out by one of his own and he flees for fear of his life, he flees from Egypt, from the forced labor camps of the Hebrews, and from Pharaoh and he finds himself in Midian.

It’s here that he meets his future wife Zipporah and they begin to have children.  The Israelites continue their agony in Egypt until the king died and God finally looks upon them, finally God hears their cries.  We pick up the third chapter of Exodus.

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing; yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:  This is my name forever and this my title for all generations.

The story continues from here, Moses is to go to the Israelites and let them know that God has heard them and that they will be delivered.  Moses doubts that they will believe him and God sends a sign by changing the rod Moses had in his hand to snake and back again.  That’s how he’ll convince the people. 

But even after that, Moses still doubts his leadership for the task and asks questions.  In fact, in this call story of Moses he asks five questions before he reluctantly takes up God’s call.

Why isn’t this bush burning up from all the flames?
Who am I to go to Pharaoh and do such a thing?
What if they want to know who sent me?
  He can’t just say that he’s working for a talking bush..[i]  he needed some    
What if they don’t believe me?
And his last ditch effort question:
            How can I accomplish this for you God, I’m not a good speaker.

That’s a lot of questions that Moses asks of God in an effort to subvert God’s call. But these questions are important questions between him and the great ‘I am’ because the answers reassure Moses that God will be with him, that God would not send him off on a wild goose chase and leave him flapping in the wind. 

I think we all have questions from time to time about our life.  I have I know. Questions much more profound than ‘Do you know the way to San Jose”.  My questions were, “Am I suited for ministry?  How will I ever afford seminary?  Am I smart enough to go through the rigors of seminary and all of it’s paper writing, after all an art major doesn’t write papers, she paints or sculpts her way through university or memorizes slides of great art works for art history classes.  Is this a crazy idea?” And yet it is these very questions that deepen our relationship and reliance on God for whatever profession it might be.  And, by the way, I had a patient and loving friend who sat by me as I struggled to answer these questions.  She affirmed me and asked questions of me too.

It was the poet and author Rainer Maria Rilke who once told a young poet, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them….the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”[ii]

Live the questions, someday you’ll know the answer but for right now live into the very questions that press upon your heart.

No doubt about it, Moses was called into the presence of God for a specific moment in time to make a difference in the lives of his fellow Hebrews.  He eventually said yes, but not without inquiry.  If you live and love the questions long enough you will eventually know the answer and understand the call that God has placed on your life whether its vocation or direction.   God calls each and every one of us to greater living through God’s presence.  The ‘I Am’ has said so.

In the words of Barbara Crafton, “…if we remember Gods words to Moses from the burning bush, ‘Say this to the people Israel, “I am has sent me to you”. God doesn’t have a name.  God is the very energy of the universe. Everything that is, exists in God…there is nothing outside of God.  This includes you, your thoughts, and desires and doubts as well, they all exist in God.[iii]   In God the possibilities are endless and no question is too small or too silly or too trite.

Being called by God most often doesn’t mean a life to ministry.  It means awakening to God’s love in the life you lead.  That is, I believe, fulfilling your potential, nurturing your gifts specific that God has given you, this I believe is vocation.  God doesn’t want you to be anyone else but you where you are at the moment, with all of the questions that you can muster. 

It means being highly attuned to the presence of God in your life.  If you’re a poet then write your poems with the awareness of God’s love, if you’re a laborer then labor in God’s presence and it will make all the difference.  If you are meant to be a doctor or a doctor on tv then head off to med school or acting school.  And if you are old, and are in those post working days, don’t worry, God continues to call us to be the best that we can possibly be reinventing ourselves many times over.

As Christ followers it means that we are called to exemplify God’s love and forgiveness, Christ’s unquenchable thirst for justice, and the Holy Spirit’s energy in our every day world and each day that we live out.  We are called to be.  And we are called to do.

Will you, through your love and actions, tell the Gospel that you have been called to tell?  Eloquent words are not necessary, just an open ear and lots of questions like Moses who heard God calling him through a talking bush.


[i] Karla Svomala, Associate Professor of Religion, Luther College, Decorah, IA.
[ii] Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Letters to a Young Poet’.
[ii] Crafton, Barbara Cawthorne, ‘Called’. Church Publishing 2017, p. 147.

RSVP Requested

Luke 14: 15-24
September 24, 2017

Marrying off a son is much different than marrying off a daughter and I have done both. There is a lot more involved when your daughter marries.  Most recently, some of you know, my son was married in August.  While I was part of the wedding planning I didn’t take a huge role because of the logistics of where we live – he and his wife in NJ - and the distance of the wedding, it was in France, because she and her family are French.  I’ve learned that many traditions are similar in a French wedding but some aren’t.  Like, for instance, there is no rehearsal dinner but there is a seven-course meal at the wedding reception that is served throughout the night well into the wee hours of the morning. The cake at the end of the affair, around 2:30ish, maybe 3:00 am finally comes out with two lit sparklers on the top!

Most everyone who had received an invitation responded with a yay or nay, and it’s no surprise that most of the US invitees declined because of the distance.  That made it easy for Dan and Laura to decide who made the invitation list in the first place.  Everyone did who was important to them!  Sorting out who was going to sit with whom however was a bit dicey on the other hand with the English speakers and the French speakers, but it all worked out and of course there was a table for the ‘misfits’, these are folks whom just really couldn’t be placed at any particular table because well, they just couldn’t.

Another French tradition is the day after picnic.  I thought it was just going to be family and friends who finally rolled out of bed around 11 am or noon, but no, that wasn’t it at all. While there were friends and family certainly there who enjoyed the prior evenings festivities, the picnic the next day was for the people whom they aren't as "friendly" with, so most of the extra people were colleagues of Dan’s and Laura’s dad from the French office.  So while you wouldn’t invite them to the wedding (there are always limits) you would invite them to a relaxed, informal and fun celebration the next day.  This too was catered with a chef cooking up all sorts of delicious meats on the grill all afternoon. 

Who’s in and who’s out always is a factor when having a banquet and making up the guest list.  In fact hosts generally take a lot into consideration and consternation when making up a list, that’s why it is ALWAYS incumbent upon the invitee to – répondez, s'il vous plaît. RSVP, Please reply.

For most all of chapter 14 in the Gospel of Luke Jesus talks in parables about dinner parties and wedding banquets.  In fact the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke is preoccupied with eating.  ‘There are more references in Luke to eating, banquets, tables and reclining at tables than in any other of the Gospels.’[i]  Food is something that we all can connect with, he knew it and so it’s here, around the table, that he teaches, reproves, and provides fellowship and discourse.   

Here now the words of Jesus in the 14th chapter of Luke…. 

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’  

But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’  So the slave returned and reported this to his master.

Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’  And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.  For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

Let’s put this in context because it will make more sense.  Just before our passage for today we have two scenarios: in the first Jesus is going to the house of a Pharisee on the Sabbath for a little dinner.  Shabbat dinners are different and special above the rest of the week’s dinners.  And on the way he stops to heal a man with ‘dropsy’, most likely edema.  The Pharisee’s are aghast that he would heal on the Sabbath but Jesus sets them straight.  He asks, ‘If your child or your oxen fell into a well wouldn’t you rush to help them out?’ Of course, they had no response.  In this passage Jesus teaches that there are always exceptions to every rule, the Pharisees didn’t have a corner on the market  of prohibitions.

The second scenario is the parable of the wedding feast. It was once again the Sabbath, but this time it was not about some sort of Sabbath infraction that Jesus had made.  He was at a Shabbat meal and he was people watching!  He watched the guests spar over seats at the table.  (They must not have had name placement cards)  Jesus seizes the parable-telling moment and he jumps on it, he goes all ‘Emily Post’ on them.  All meals in antiquity were subject to regulations based on a hierarchy of the patron-client relationship. 

Jesus’ instructions, simply put….If you’re the guest - don’t sit at the head table, sit at another table maybe even the table by the kitchen door.  It’ll save face for both you and your host if you’re in the wrong seat and saving face was important.  So a big helping of humility is in order.  If you’re the host - don’t invite those who can repay you, oh no, that’s too easy.  Invite people who could never repay you, even if their lives depended on it.

So this brings us to the parable that we just heard.  It was the custom back then when giving a dinner, to invite an exact number of people.  Because there were certain rules for killing an animal and the meat would have needed to been eaten right away, so to back out of an invitation would have been downright rude and inconsiderate.  And again without going into it the two excuses that the potential guests gave for not coming to the banquet, they were flat out lies because their customs dictated a different set of rules than what the potential guests tried to pull over.

It would be ‘those people’, the poor, the crippled and lame, the blind.  Invite them, give them a treat and never mind that you won’t get invited over to their house.  You’ll get a blessing, don’t worry.  Maybe you’ve even entertained angels without knowing it as the author of the Book of Hebrews reminds us. (Heb 13:2)  Humility, humility, humility.

So he orders the slave to invite the outcasts, the poor, the crippled, the blind.  He did and there was still room at the table so the owner instructs the slave to go out into the streets and compel them to come in so that his house may be filled.  Filling the house with complete strangers who could never repay your back?  This is radical hospitality.  This is what we will be doing in January with Abraham’s Tent.  We are offering shelter to 12 men who will never be able to pay us back nor do we want them too. We have a warm place and food to offer and they trust that we will treat them with dignity and respect as equals in this game of life. Radical hospitality is not quid pro quo.  It is to simply offer and give.

Fr. Daniel Homan, in ‘Benedict’s Way of Love’ says, “Rather than viewing any person in terms of how they benefit us, radical hospitality means accepting the person with no thought of personal benefit.”[ii]  He  means that radical hospitality is to accept others for who they are not for who we want them to be and isn’t that what we fundamentally want too?  Don’t you want to be accepted and loved and offered community just the way you are?  I do. Don’t you just want a place to connect with others and to enjoy their company and be welcomed?  I do.  A place where I don’t have to conform to someone else’s expectations or perform in a way that is just not me. I most certainly do.  

We, as a church, can offer programs until Jim Zeoli’s cows come home.  Programming might entice people to come but they won’t stay long if we don’t find a way to offer ourselves as a community of loving, accepting and supporting people.  Radical hospitality is found in relationship pure and simple.  It is opening up space in your heart for someone else to enter and for you to humble yourself so that others might accept your beautiful soul.

Our scripture today invites, even implores us to a higher understanding of the kingdom of God.  It is a place of unconditional love for you and me and for everyone else too.  There is plenty, there is no need to fear.  God’s abundance is real.  God’s mercy, grace and truth is genuine.   And we are invited to partake in this banquet.  There is a place with your name on it, you will never be left off the invitation list or just on the picnic list the next day.  That’s just the way our God is. 

All God asks is that we RSVP! 

May the teachings of Jesus shake us out of our complacency.

May God open our hearts to a broader level of understanding.

May the Spirit breathe hope and love in us toward our brothers and sisters in the journey.


Showing Mercy

Luke 10: 25-39
September 17, 2017

Today as we continue to examine the theme of hospitality we will look at a very familiar parable of Jesus, the Good Samaritan.  So let’s jump right into this Parable from the Gospel of Luke.
 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Our culture, has glossed over this Parable and we have lost the poignancy of its message.  The term “Good Samaritan” has been used over and over again to mean someone who comes to the aid of another, it has really pervaded our psyche and soul.  And, that’s a good thing, really, coming to the aid of someone else is always good. 

It’s the name of a roadside assistance group who rescues stranded motorists.  There even is enacted into law, a statute called the Good Samaritan Act that protects a person from giving emergency, volunteer help and aid to someone in dire need.  It is very unfortunate that we have to protect ourselves from being sued by someone that we have just helped, this statute is the antithesis of this parable.  So in one form or another people know this parable.

But the Samaritan didn’t help because he knew the guy, or that he knew he was protected under the law if something went wrong.  He was a GOOD, ethical man from Samaria who saw that there was another man in need.  He broke through the boundaries and risked his life, his limb, and his social status to help another.  It was not a quid pro quo, this for that, conditional help.  He gave all, expected nothing.  I think that is  the ultimate definition of hospitality, giving all expect nothing.  Let’s look at this text more closely.

A man traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho.  It is a tough journey, rotten terrain.  Bandits could hide out in the crevices and descend upon travelers as they did with this man.  We know nothing about his identity except that his luck had run out and he was robbed, beaten, and stripped, left to die on the side of the road.  But the identity of this guy really doesn’t matter at all or, for our purposes, shouldn’t matter.  Mercy should be extended to all people, it doesn’t matter where they are from or the color of their skin or their ethnicity or religious affiliation.  When someone is in need, you help.  But Jesus is telling this parable to Jews and the expectation for the Jewish hearer is upon the three men who pass by the beaten man. Way back then it just didn’t matter. 

A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan turns their expectations and world upside down, because a Samaritan was not a Jew.  Jesus wasn’t railing against Jews it’s just that there is a certain orderliness to ALL cultures in defining who they are and there are many assumptions that are made about who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside. 
Jesus crosses the picket line of thinking.  He challenges them to think about “the other” being nice, “the other” giving aid, “the other” the one to reach out to an almost dead man, “the other” offering hospitality.

The first two men flub up completely.  A priest, I’m sorry to say, someone of my own profession, does not bother to help the beaten man.  So wrong, a complete breach of his “charge to the pastor” if he were an ordained clergy person.  The priest passes right on by.  In fact, he moves to the other side of the road so that he doesn’t have to confront the situation.  He doesn’t have to have eye contact with the man.  You know what I mean!  You’re taking a walk, in the next block you see someone coming towards you, the anticipation mounts, should I say hi, acknowledge the person and then at the moment of passing by each other, the walker fixes their gaze to the ground as if you aren’t even there.  Because too look someone in the eye is to, for a brief moment, have a relationship with that person and you really do not know who that other person is.  Or what they will do to you.  But the priest!  It would have been expected of him to help, it would have been expected of him to bury the man had he been dead.

And the Levite – same expectations.  Descended from the tribe of Levi, the Levites assisted in the ancient Temple, sort of assistants to the priests.  He would have known the laws and commandments, he would have known what to do with the man if he were dead.  But nope, the Levite, like the priest, passed by on the other side of the road.  Too preoccupied, in a hurry to get to Jericho, perhaps he was late for an appointment, or maybe he just didn’t want to bothered.  Genuine hospitality was not even a thought in this guy’s brain.

The Samaritan, he was the good guy!  It was the Samaritan who was a good neighbor because he showed mercy.  A Samaritan, an unclean person of mixed marriage, down from the North who interprets Torah differently, a bitter enemy of Jesus. I can imagine that the crowds mouths dropped wide open when Jesus said, “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.”  He showed mercy.  You know the rest. 

I believe that this is hospitality at its core.  His heart was changed.  To be moved with pity, for your enemy, to stop your route and to help the one you dislike intensely, can only be of God’s doing, not of our own human instinct.  Hospitality happens within the context of relationship; he cared deeply about what would happen to this man and he extended himself without any expectation of reciprocity.

Hospitality at this level is not easy and probably difficult for most of us.  Most of us choose the surface level hospitality, “how ya doing?” and then go about our business.  But with genuine hospitality you build relationship by caring what is actually happening to the other person.  I care.  I see you.  I acknowledge the pain you are in, I can see your joy because I’ve been there too.  You find out what peoples needs are and you meet them right there.  There is a certain equality in hospitality in that the one offering hospitality is not different or above the one who is receiving the hospitality.  All are equal brothers and sisters in Christ.

What makes this parable as moving and remarkable is it is is the Samaritan shows compassion and mercy, forgiveness and understanding without asking a person’s ethnicity, or race, or theology beforehand and that is what that great commandment  says to us – love God and love your neighbor as yourself. This is how we are to order our living.  This is hospitality.

Love God; love your neighbor as yourself.  God’s expression of love in your life will enable you to love your neighbor as yourself.  God’s intervention and blessing in YOUR life will help you and equip you to overcome prejudice, and weakness, and fearfulness, to seek justice, to help another person in need and to strive for better living for ALL people.

When you least expect it you will be called to be a Good Samaritan along the road of life and your neighbor will be the unsuspected one.  Accept that moment, approach that person, do not avert your gaze and offer the most loving and sincere hospitality that you can, show genuine mercy.  Love God and know that God will strengthen you and give you the ability to do whatever is needed of you, whatever God has called you to do and to be at that moment in time.

We are blessed to have a God who will do this for us and with God’s help you will love your neighbor as yourself. 


Unexpected Events

Luke 19: 1019
September 10, 2017

Me and Barbara
Recently I had some friends drop in unexpectedly.  I had been texting my friend about colors and designs and she was out with her husband and they decided to stop by so we could have a real conversation about that, and then we did a check in about our kids and our own psyche’s and then well, a few hours had passed. 

So all this was just fine with me however it was getting close to the noon hour and as we were talking I began to think in my mind, I have got absolutely nothing in this house to eat.  Nothing to offer, I just had tea or coffee.  I finally admitted this to them and they said, no problem!  Come over to our house, we can make some sandwiches.  At first in my mind I thought, no I can’t do that; impose on them at the last minute like this but just as soon as I was thinking that thought the words, ‘Oh that sounds like fun’ came rolling out of my mouth.

We hopped in our cars, drove to their house which is very close, made sandwiches and watched some TV as we looked at paint swatches.  My friend is an interior designer.  It was a complete and wonderful day of hospitality and love.  It was unhurried and really nothing fancy at all.  We just opened our homes and our hearts to one another.

I wonder if either one of us would have been so casual about it though if it had been Jesus who said, ‘hey, I’m coming over to your house today’.

Let’s now take a look at Luke, the 19th chapter:

He entered Jericho and was passing through it.  A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.  He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.  So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”  So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”  Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Jesus and Zacchaeus Exegesis
In the Gospel of Luke we find this story, which, throughout the years, has become somewhat endearing.  As a child I used to sing a song about [Zacchaeus, a wee little man who climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.  And as the Savior passed that way he looked up in the tree.  And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down! For I’m going to your house today.”  The song is cute and gets a kid going yelling out ‘Zacchaeus, you come down’, as they point their fingers in exclamation at Zacchaeus.]  Except this little song leaves out some critical points of the story.  Points that are the exact message of the Gospel.

Jesus by now, well on his way to Jerusalem for his final entry, happened by Jericho which is about 22 kilometers northeast of Jerusalem on the other side of the Judean hills.  A short ride really.  Jericho was a large city so it was a major center of taxation.  It’s quite a beautiful place which is why Herod had built one of his palaces there.  So there was a lot going on when Jesus arrived and entered Jericho. Street vendors and shop owners, mothers and children, beggars, tax collectors and Pharisees, everyone came to the entrance of the city to greet or if not to greet, to at least get a glimpse of Jesus, this man who by now had quite a reputation in first century Palestine.

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector – (read) he had gobs of money.  He was a man of means thanks to the all of the people that he had collected taxes from throughout the years.  You see tax collectors would purchase the rights to collect taxes then they could turn around and charge and tax the people whatever they wanted and after they paid the Roman Empire what was due they could pocket the rest.  Clever system if you’re the tax collector or the Empire.  No wonder tax collector’s back in Jesus’ day were despised and counted as public sinner number one.

He might have been a big-wig in town however he was short so with all of the people crowding in to see Jesus that day it prevented him from doing so.  So he climbed up into one of the sycamore trees at the entrance of the city.  Jesus takes note.  I guess he didn’t always see people hanging out in the trees.  Intuitively Jesus engages Zacchaeus.  It’s Jesus who initiates the conversation, “I see you Zacchaeus, I know you Zacchaeus, come down, let’s go have a bit to eat at your house, let’s ‘reason together’ like God once said to the prophet Isaiah (Is 1:18) ”.     

Zacchaeus, happy as the IRS on April 15, scampered down the tree and took Jesus to his comfortable home.  But, adding drama to the story, the crowd was not happy; they began to grumble and nothin’s worse than a grumblin’ crowd on a hot day in Jericho.  A person who steals from you is not beloved and so tax collectors, even though they were rich and powerful, were outcasts.

We don’t know the nature of the exchange between Jesus and Zacchaeus, whether it was hostile and strained or friendly and honest but Zacchaeus repents.  After seeing Jesus, Zacchaeus’ repentant heart pushed him further into action, which is the way it should be. ‘Shuv’, the word for repentance in Hebrew, also means to turn around.  He repents and then makes plans for restitution to the people.  He did the right thing, the ethical thing.  He turned from his old ways and he distributed the money that he had to the people he swindled, over above what his fair wages should have been. Salvation had come to Zacchaeus.

In the Gospel of Luke faith and repentance are ethical issues.  One’s life must reflect in action and words, one’s confession.  Ethics plays a role.  Otherwise, what good is it?  Zacchaeus get’s it.  He’s a little man who puts into action some grand plans for giving back the money that he had taken from people.  For that sunny day in spring when it was getting close to the Passover, Jesus, Zacchaeus’ salvation had come to Jericho and sought out to bring him back.  Zacchaeus was saved and brought into the proverbial fold and enacted the message of the Gospel.

Lens of Hospitality
If we look at this story through the lens of hospitality I think we see some interesting twists.  Let me remind you that we are embarking on thematic preaching this year and September’s theme is hospitality. I hope that you have begun to think more deeply about hospitality, what it means, how it’s exhibited here at OCC, in your life, and in your home.  

Generally when we think of ‘providing hospitality’ we think of preparing our space, you know vacuuming the floors, dusting the furniture and there might be some sort of food preparation involved to feed the guests.  But we see from the story of Zacchaeus that sometimes you just don’t have the time to prepare because the opportunity for hospitality presents itself very unexpectedly, in unusual moments when you might least expect it.   

I think that fundamentally Zacchaeus was a good guy who got stuck in a bad system – he jumps at the chance to entertain Jesus in his home.  He didn’t hesitate one iota.  Who knows what the condition of his household may have been.  He didn’t bicker with Jesus, he just hops out of the tree without hesitation and was open to receive Jesus and whomever else might have been travelling with him just as they were, probably dusty and tired from the journey.

And in that open spirit of hospitality Zacchaeus was changed.  That is the power of deep rooted hospitality it has all the potential to transform your spirit if you are open to it.  We have so much to learn from one another and in learning about one another we learn more and more about the God who lovingly crafted us.  Everyone has a story to tell through honest, open and inviting hospitality it can be told.

The Monastic tradition is infused with hospitality, it is the basis for The Rule of St. Benedict.  Br. David Vryhof of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA says this of hospitality, “True Christian hospitality requires a giving of ourselves, an opening up of who we are, a willingness to stretch our sometimes-narrow lives, to step outside of our comfort zones. If we truly try to follow Jesus, our outlook on the world – especially its strangers, its poor, its homeless, its helpless, its needy, even its enemies – will be forever changed.”[i]

So hospitality in the Christian sense is more of a mindset, and a ‘heartset’ than a physical act.  We give of ourselves to make room for others.  It is acceptance and it is love.  I think that’s what Jesus did when he engaged Zacchaeus in the first place.  He took notice of Zacchaeus’ contemptible little self and made him honorable.   He loved him as he was with all of the potential for a changed spirit so sometimes these unexpected events for hospitality can be the key that unlocks grace filled living.

It is my prayer that you will be blessed to receive hospitality and to give hospitality in ways that will make for a transformative life that echoes Jesus’ acceptance and love.


[i] Vryhof, Br. David.  From ‘Brother – Give us a Word’ meditation for September 4, 2017.  Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Cambridge, MA.