September 22, 2019

You know I love to buy things at thrift stores. One day I was standing in the book section looking for something to take with me to read on the plane, I was scheduled to attend a conference in Toronto. I knew it had to be a quick read and I didn’t want anything too heavy. Suddenly I saw a slim book on former President Clinton and the title caught my attention. The book was written by a Methodist Minister who had counselled Clinton throughout the impeachment debate. I was interested because I wondered how a Minister of the Gospel spoke truth to power to the most powerful man in the world, surrounded by all the trappings of the iconic White House.

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I had just read a book on the Nixon tapes and was very disappointed by the response of Billy Graham, who sat with Nixon while the President vented racist and anti-Semitic commentary. In essence Graham either said nothing or occasionally would added an affirmative word or two. I was appalled this evangelist who would rail against sin at his rallies, naming names and being provocative about the issues of the day would become so mute in front the President. I wanted to know if this Minister would do likewise as he counselled Clinton on his transgressions.

I read the book. What jumped out at me was the observation by the author, a United Methodist clergy, that because Clinton had been raised a Baptist he had always known he was a sinner, that every day there would be mistakes made, some big and some small. And the correct and only response to such a reality was a conviction to right the ship and move forward. Bill Clinton wanted to know how to work on himself, how to get help and he wanted to do repentance, to do good and hopefully make amends for his sins. What struck the author was Clinton’s singular resolve to not “give up”.

You see the author was a mainline Minister like me and as such he was used to parishioners who could be disabled by such crisis. As a United Methodist Minister the response by many of his flock was either to fall to pieces (“how could this ever happen to me?”) or to deflect (“this must be someone else’s fault”). Many in the mainline tradition have been raised with a false sense that living a good life, a pious life, a generous life, working hard and playing by the rules, these kinds of setbacks just never happened. Clinton, as a good Baptist, knew the opposite, sin is real, sin is constant and sin will capture you for a spell whether you are good or not.

And so for many of us in the mainline church the Gospel story we hear this morning is quite an affront. How could it be that a dishonest manager, about to lose his job because he has misspent his employer’s assets, not wanting to do manual labour or receive charity, shrewdly makes arrangements and thus is praised by employer and becomes the hero of this Gospel text? How could this be? The dishonest manager goes around to all the people who owe his employer money and reduces their debts. He does this so that they will be hospitable to the employer after he loses his job. Since when is someone who is clearly dishonest commended in a Gospel story?

To begin to answer this question, we can note that this story serves as a bridge between the the Prodigal Son (15:11-32) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31). Like the prodigal in the preceding story, our dishonest manager has “squandered” what was entrusted to him. And, like the story that follows, this parable begins with the phrase, “There was a rich man”. Although our dishonest manager does not repent (like the prodigal) or act virtuously (like Lazarus), he nonetheless does something with the rich man’s wealth that reverses the existing order of things. In Luke, reversals of status are at the heart of what happens when Jesus and the kingdom of God appear. The proud are “scattered”. The powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted; the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. Note also that the pious elder brother in the Prodigal story is not the hero, despite being “good”, “pious” and “loyal”. This is not shaping up to be a family value sermon.

Some commentators have suggested that the manager has reduced his own commission in the debts owed and that this is what is being commended. Yet others have suggested more generally that the employer is simply commending the manager for responding shrewdly to a difficult circumstance. The word for “shrewd” here can also be translated as “prudent” or “wise”. The text itself provides four interpretations of the employer’s commendation.

First, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”. In other words, Jesus’ disciples -- often referred to as “children of light” -- could learn something about acting prudently from the “children of this age.”

Second, what they could learn from the “children of this age” has to do with “making friends for themselves” by means of “dishonest wealth” so that those new friends might “welcome them into the eternal homes”. Instead of using “dishonest wealth” to exploit others (as the rich do), disciples are to use wealth to “make friends for themselves.” If friendships are based on reciprocal and egalitarian relationships, then releasing other people’s debts not only enriches them, but also establishes a new kind of reciprocity with them.

Third, there’s a connection between being faithful (or dishonest) with “very little” and “very much.” How one deals with “dishonest wealth” and “what belongs to another” says much about how one will deal with “true riches” and “what is your own”. How we use the resources at our disposal in this life -- especially in tight circumstances -- matters, even though our “true riches” can only be found in that place “where no thief can draw near and no moth destroys”.

Finally, the “take away” to all this is that “no slave can serve two masters…you cannot serve God and wealth”. This reiterates a central theme in Luke. As noted, Luke places great emphasis on how the reign of God reverses the status of the rich and the poor. In Acts, the Christian community is one where disciples share “all things in common,” distributing “to all, as any had need”. These texts cannot just be spiritualized. Luke is talking about a different way of using wealth. Our wealth belongs to God and is to be used for the purposes of God’s reign among us and not simply for our own interests.

So why is our dishonest manager shrewd? Even though he is still sinner who is looking out for his own interests, he models behavior the disciples can emulate. Instead of simply being a victim of circumstance, he transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others. By reducing other people’s debts, he creates a new set of relationships based not on the vertical relationship between lenders and debtors but on something more like the reciprocal and egalitarian relationships of friends.

Sometimes when I feel low because I have messed up in some major way I think about Clinton and how he endured his humiliation, public as it was. I certainly take no inspiration from his dishonesty and likely criminal behavior (telling witnesses to lie). But his resiliency is inspiring. I recall watching him at a National Prayer Breakfast quoting the Apostle Paul, “do not grow weary in doing good”. I remember that because when I am low because of my own sin I know deep within me is the gift to do good. I can grow weary, weary because of embarrassment, shame and guilt, but the resolve to shake off the weariness and “do good” comes directly from my spiritual roots, my Christian faith.

I now know, at the age I am today, that just because people are basically good, do good things and join us for worship weekly (even pray) does not mean they are immune from sin. All of us sin. And there will be times when our sin is exposed. The shrewd dishonest manager’s story is a reminder not to give up, to move forward, and find means of both restoration and survival.

I want to return to “children of light (Jesus’ disciples) could learn something about acting prudently from the children of this age.” Have you noticed there is a federal election going on? I recall the federal election of 2000 when I offered as a candidate. I was then serving a church where people would routinely tell me they liked me. But once I announced as a candidate it was like I had told them I had decided to take a part-time job at a local brothel. People were unnerved. Even people steeped in the political process were scandalized by the thought of a Christian Minister becoming tainted, corrupted, by this dirty world of politics. There were people who had told me with tears in their eyes, “you are the best Minister we ever had” now refusing to shake my hand. And it had nothing to do with the party I represented or the policies I was espousing, it was just that church and politics were to be separated like germs and clean hands.

And yet I will tell you many of the strategies I use to do my work as a Minister; like reaching out to everyone and offering to visit, listening to what each and every person is looking for from the church, weighing all opinions and needs equally, these are all techniques I learned in politics. Even public speaking, organizing my time and getting to know the community around the church, all skills that sprang from my life in politics. In a very real way I have become a more complete “child of the light” by my experience as a “child of this age”.

I wonder what you have learned from people who are not normally associated with the church. Was it the art of “living in the moment” so helpfully modeled by our Buddhist friends? Was it sound business practices from people involved in the private sector? Was it a deep love and reverence of the earth, witnessed for us so beautifully by indigenous peoples all over the world? Lessons learned can come to us from a variety of sources, inside and outside our church. We all have a lot to learn.

Almost all of the great sins of the church have come when we assumed we had all the answers and we could tell everyone how to live, how to pray and what to believe. Our arrogance has caused great pain. And here we are told by Jesus that we have much to learn, from anyone and everyone.

Finally, just let me say something personal, and very, very heartfelt. I know many of you struggle with finding joy in your life. And I know many of you have kin who struggle likewise. Like this manager in our story today all of us will find ourselves in a ditch, believing the harder we try to dig ourselves out we just go deeper and deeper down into the pit. Whatever means you find to bring yourself or your loved one out and into the light I want you to consider this strategy. This manager was shrewd, he was cunning, and his methods ended up helping almost everyone along the way. I believe each of us has this resilience deep inside us, that God is not finished with us yet. I believe there is a way out and I believe in you. If you ever need a listening ear, I am here. Don’t give up.

Luke 16                                                                                                                                  

I want you to be smart—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

Thanks be to God for this Good News! Amen.

September 15, 2019

Luke’s Gospel has an overarching theme, the lost need to be found. Whether it is a sheep, a coin or a son, what have drifted or stomped away needs to be sought. We are as a church are in the rescue business. Today’s sermon is not about the prodigal son, a tale many of us can relate to first hand and one that makes many families angry. Of all the Biblical stories I have heard read in church none elicits the negative, almost hostile, reaction as that one. I remember one oldest daughter standing at the back of the church, after everyone had long since left for the Hall, ranting and raving, “How dare that father give a party for that no-good ingrate of a son when the good son, the eldest son, who worked hard and played by the rules, he got nothing!” Would it surprise you to know that woman was the eldest of three adult children?

But I am happy this morning to be focused on the first two examples of loss in Luke’s 15th chapter. It is one thing to loss a family member to disagreements, hurt feelings and bitter arguments but it’s another thing to lose a sheep or a coin. It’s less personal, even if the shepherd does love her sheep, there can be no comparison between losing a sheep in one’s flock and losing a family member. But what I like about this story is the lack of a specific relationship that triggers the search. A sheep is missing, a coin is lost, we need to look and we need to travel wherever necessary, get down on our knees, and desperately search. But the requirement is not all laid upon the father or the parent. The call to rescue is laid at our feet as a church.

I remember a funeral I was asked to help plan in Toronto. The funeral director called, he explained this one would be “a little different”. He explained there was no immediate family, not that he knew of anyway. No relations had contacted him when the obituary was published. But several persons did drop in, buddies this man had made while living on the streets. They wanted to tell the director about their friend. They called themselves family. I met this band of buddies at a local coffee shop. They described how they had met their friend many years ago, he was alone, and they all decided he needed some sisters and brothers. I remember one woman who said, “He looked like one of those match book covers, all crumpled up on the ground. I just felt I needed to walk over and pick him up.”

Sometimes we as a church need to do that. Sometimes when we meet someone, not necessarily someone down and out, maybe even someone quite affluent in terms of income and possessions, but someone alone and drifting, we need to “walk over and pick them up.”

Note that in the previous chapter 14 Luke’s Gospel Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a banquet where the invitations keep extending beyond the original guest list: to the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:1-24). Note that in all three examples of rescuing the lost in Luke 15 events conclude with feasts.

The shepherd and the woman in these stories evoke images of a God who not only actively seeks out individuals who are lost -- note the emphasis on the “one” out of the ninety-nine and the ten -- but also rejoices when they are found. This God is not a tyrant who demands subservience to impossible demands, but rather a God who actively seeks restoration. In these stories, the drama centres on something that was lost. So what happens when the sheep or the lost coin are found? Note that the verb here has to do not with forgiving but with finding. The Greek word for “find” (eurisko) occurs seven times in the chapter. When the sheep or lost coin is found, no comment is made on any sinful behavior (as in the stories of Levi, Zaccheus, and the sinful woman), but a connection is made between God’s finding and rejoicing over what was lost. There is clear sense of priority here, find the one who is lost first, rejoice second, feast third. Confession and repentance are important part of the Christian story but in these stories they take a back seat to the searching and the rejoicing.

Luke does not laud the behavior of sinners. Tax collectors were corrupt, dishonest, and had colluded with the Roman Empire. By contrast, the Pharisees and scribes who are agitated with the company Jesus keeps, are the “not lost” of the story. At issue here are two different types of responses to Jesus and God’s reign. Sinners repent because they know they are lost and thus can avail themselves of the transformation that comes with God’s finding them. By contrast, the righteous do not need to repent (or change their ways) presumably because they don’t think they are lost. They don’t need God to find them; they are justified either in their own eyes or in the eyes of others. Jesus seems to judge these leaders less for their conduct or righteousness but rather for their indifference to those whom are lost.

Note one aspect of the setting: "All the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near in order to hear him" (15:1). Sage preachers will ask, "Why? What is it about Jesus that attracts tax collectors and sinners to him?" Here we want to avoid vain romanticism about Jesus' winsome personality and follow Luke's lead instead. Luke provides a mixed message: Jesus seeks to bring sinners to repentance (5:32), but not once does Jesus actually scold or correct a sinner.

Finally, let us attend to the role of meals. If we take on the risk of naming today's "sinners" and then welcoming them, words alone do not suffice. There is the matter of setting a table -- literally, not figuratively. Table hospitality reveals and breaks down the boundaries of human relationships.

What is described is not their “repentance” at all, but the absolute commitment of the person to finding them again. Action verbs predominate for the shepherd, and not the sheep: leave, go after, finds, lays it on his shoulders, rejoices, comes home, and calls together his friends. The same holds for the woman: light a lamp, sweep the house, search carefully, finds, and calls together her friends. The parallels here show that the emphasis is on the finding and the one committed to find the otherwise hapless lost sheep and passive lost coin. As near as I can tell, neither lost sheep or lost coins can really repent.

I firmly believe a church cannot live out its mission unless it knows what its mission is. I remember one Elder in a former church telling me his definition of the church’s mission, “to make good people better people…” I suspect he speaks for many in the mainline church. There are times when the evangelical Christian is trying to convert me to believe exactly what s/he believes. I tire of these interactions, it is clearly less about saving or rescuing and more about one person’s experience and certainty and the need to compel others into agreement. Most often I discover in these conversations the evangelical is not trying to tell me about the Good News of Jesus, s/he just wants me to agree with her/him. But one thing I do admire about this ethos, it is a mission based on reaching out to others and inviting them “home”. I wish we in the mainline church were less about making good people better and more about bringing those who are alone into our community of faith.

For me the mission of the church is to search and find. We need not be like the father who waits for the son, we can be like a shepherd who finds a lost sheep from another flock or a woman who finds a coin lost by someone else who lives nearby. It is not up to kin or close friends or the government to find, it is also up to the church. I know you are good but my passion every day I come to Bethany is not to make you better but to work with you to find the lost and invite them home.

And here’s the thing. With every lost brother and sister who calls our church home Bethany changes and changes for the better. Every new person makes us different, more welcoming, more diverse, more interesting, and more able to welcome the next new brother and sister. And don’t wait on me or the Elders or the ushers to be that searching woman, that searching shepherd. The mission to find the lost and invite them home belongs to all of us!

Praise be to God who invites us to the Table, who invites us to invite others and who is present most fully when the Table is full of invited guests whom we now call family. Amen.

September 8, 2019

One of the many shifts in public attitude I have witnessed in my 29 years of ordained ministry is the way families speak about themselves. At the beginning of my ministry people in “blended families” would introduce adult children as “she is his” or “he is mine”. The obvious implication then was a biological bracketing, in a second marriage it was somehow important for a parent to identify to someone whom had never met their children who was the biological parent...

September 1, 2019

Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master…Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with. James 5:13-20

August 25, 2019

One of the most powerful Christian experiences of my life is something called a Circle of Care. When someone has committed a serious crime and has been placed back in a community s/he can be asked to participate in a Circle of Care, a group of people who gather on a weekly basis to hear how said person is integrating into the community, finding ways to make importance changes in her/his life...

August 18, 2019

Clarence Jordan (1912–1969), a farmer and New Testament Greek scholar, was the founder of Koinonia Farm, a small but influential religious community in southwest Georgia and the author of the Cotton Patch paraphrase of the New Testament. He was also instrumental in the founding of Habitat for Humanity. The farm itself was a demonstration plot for the kingdom of God, persons of colour...

August 11, 2019

When I graduated from seminary in 1990 we ordained clergy were told that while we were not certified professionals in matters of counselling, addiction, mental health, abuse, etc…we should be aware of resources in our communities to utilize in the event we encountered persons who disclosed their specific trauma. I recall certified professionals in a variety of fields coming in to our classrooms and sharing some of the wisdom they had accumulated over many years of practice...

August 4, 2019

My August preaching series will focus on Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation. "Sin," according to Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and noted preacher, "is our only hope, the fire alarm that wakes us up to the possibility of true repentance." Many would argue with this proposition. Mainline Protestants all across the country are tired of hearing about sin and salvation...

June 30, 2019

Lucy often asks me about what it was like when I was her age. She specifically wanted to know about my part-time jobs when I was in school. Like most young people of that era I worked as a paperboy. My last “paperboy” job was standing on the corner of Oxford/Liverpool Streets selling newspapers to drivers on their way to work. I remember the first time I laid eyes on the New Hampshire license plate...

June 23, 2019

“What is the world coming to?” Have you heard this question before? It won’t surprise you that I hear this in many visits where nostalgia is a common theme. It might surprise you to know this comment comes from all age groups, both genders, long-standing members of the community and recent arrivals. The comment is rooted in an assumption that things used to be “normal” or at least closer to how they “should” be...

June 16, 2019

When we experience true suffering, the kind that results in the dark nights of the soul, our most burning question is almost always: “Why?” “Why is this happening to me? To someone I love? Why is this happening right now? Why did this have to happen this way?” Another question that arises from suffering is, “how can I find healing in this challenging time?”...

June 9, 2019

John 13

During supper Jesus…got up from the table took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him...

May 19, 2019

Revelation 21:1-6 The Message

I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband...

May 12, 2019

Recently we have hosted a few weddings and funerals at Bethany. If you happened to be walking through this building you may have heard someone read Psalm 23. At weddings the most popular scripture story is 1 Corinthians 13 and at funerals it is John 14. But coming a close second for both rituals is Psalm 23. I think people love this reading because it brings an element of constant and abiding peace...

May 5, 2019

Many of you know “our Ann” is well versed in all matters related to food and nutrition. We like to tease Ann about that. Correction, I like to tease Ann about that. You might hear me asking her if there is anything she eats without kale as an ingredient. But all teasing aside what we eat has to have an impact on how we feel inside and outside our bodies. It has to...

April 28, 2019

As many of you know I am not a participant in the facebook experience. You will not find me there. Still I know that world can bring many good things to life. Recently I attended an event on mental health that had no conventional advertising, no posters, no ads, no notices in the paper. I was worried no one would be there, I was ready to console the organizer...

April 14, 2019

Two weeks ago we said goodbye to our friends Grace and Les. This week I was referred to two families, one grieving the loss of a mother, the other living through the loss of a father. The referrals came as a result of family members being present at a funeral where I offered some leadership. Sometimes you just show up at the right time to walk on rocky ground with people who are hurting...

April 7, 2019

Many of you remember a golden time for the church. Many of you remember a time when everyone you knew went to church. The church then was the centre of a community’s life; young people accessed recreation programs, older people put on plays and sang in musical groups, Sunday Schools were huge, they had to be managed like a School Board...