The Church is no longer invited to the Party

Luke 14:1, 7-14

But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Read the Whole Passage)

Sermon

For most of the summer, we have been hearing the stories of Jesus ministry, dropping in on scenes from his travels, hearing parables and other teachings. Stories like Mary and Martha, the Lord’s Prayer and the Good Samaritan. Last week we heard about the women who was bent over or stopped for 18 years. All Jesus had to do was reach out to touch her and she stood up straight, she was liberated from her condition by Jesus’ compassion.

Today, Jesus in invited by some big whig pharisees to a dinner party. An invite that only important people get. And with all eyes on him, Jesus is sounding a lot like Martha Stewart. Jesus is giving dinner party advice. About where to sit and how to avoid giving offense or being embarrassed. Don’t sit too high so that you aren’t asked to move to a lesser seat. Imagine that drunken and sleazy wedding guest trying to cozy up to the one of the bridesmaids at the head table of a wedding banquet. Not cool, Jesus says. Instead sit below your station. Find a table at the back of the banquet hall, and the bride’s father will come and move you closer to the front, and everyone will see how important you are! You can almost see the headline across a house and home magazine: “Where should you sit at the party?” find out pg. 23.

The only problem with this kind of dinner party advice is that it sounds opportunistic or faux humble coming from Jesus. And isn’t Jesus supposed to promote authentic humility? Sitting low to move high is not humble. Shouldn’t Jesus tell us to sit low and stay low?

These days, proper dinner party etiquette is mostly a niche interest, a vanity for the kind of people who worry about centrepieces, dinnerware settings and chair covers. But 2000 years ago in Hebrew culture, social standing was extremely important and it came to play anytime people gathered together. Each guest would sit according to the station in the community and knowing where you sat at a dinner party was about knowing how to rank yourself in society. And everyone knew where they belonged, on top, on the bottom or in between. And where you stood was a sign how important you were, how much respect you commanded, how you stood in the eyes of the powerful, and even where you stood with God. In fact, your social standing had a lot to do with where you stood with God. The more important you were socially, the more you had earned God’s favour. But perhaps most crucially to today’s story is the effect of honour and shame in Jesus’ world. To be moved down to a lesser place would bring shame upon yourself, and shame would lessen your social standing, and therefore lessen your favour with God. But for a host to seat you below your standing would be shame for the host, so it would be essential for the host to make sure that each guest was given the proper respect and honour due their standing. To be moved into the place of honour, was like being ushered a little closer to the gates of heaven.

The world that Jesus lived in was a little more Downton Abbey than we are used to… We just aren’t as hyper attentive to who are most and least important people in the room.

Still, in many ways our world is full of the same kind of concern for where we stand, and the same ranking of who is in and who is out, who is on the top and who is on the bottom.

Last week, Pastor Stan spoke to us of how the image of this woman bent over, unable to see anyone’s face but only their feet, that this was an image for the church. We are feeling bent over and burdened like this woman. It is a surprising turn for us, for the church. We used to occupying a place a of power and privilege in the world, we used to be seated at the places of honour. We used to host the influential and the powerful in our buildings and communities. Yet, these days we feel like we have been left off the guest-list by the world, or if we are invited to the party, it is to be the court jester. And when it comes to our table, we feel like there are more than enough places, that the few guests who are here, can choose any seat because you can’t offend an empty chair. Our tables feel empty.

However, there is more to Jesus’ dinner party advice than just knowing where to sit. We should realize that we have been guilty of exactly the things he names. When we had the power, we were often guilty of sending people down the table. We made sure that people knew they weren’t good enough for the seats of honour, and we saved the best spots for ourselves. And when people stopped coming to fill the cheap seats, we blamed them for not knowing their place and fulfilling their duty.

And now… now, we have been sent down the table. The world has told the church that we were sitting too high for our station. People are choosing sports, shopping, recreation, or sleeping in, rather than being at church on Sunday mornings. It has been happening for decades. And now as the baby boomers enter retirement, they would rather golf or go the cabin or travel than be in church. Generation Xers don’t trust institutions like us, and would rather build their own communities and their own families. Millennials are tired of the church trying to attract them in with loud music and flashy services, they want a church that wants to honestly deal with their doubts instead of shushing their questions.

Jesus’ advice to us about dinner parties is a lot more than it seems indeed.

But it is Jesus’ next piece of advice that should really get our attention. Dont’ invite those who can repay the favour… instead invite those who cannot.

For as much as the church is guilty of sending people up and down the table, we have also  been generous, we have welcomed strangers like the refugee family that arrived this summer. We have fed the hungry, cared for the sick, and opened our doors to our community. We have been a curious mix of generous and concerned with status, we have helped those in need even as we let them know their place was down the table.

But with Jesus’ last piece of advice, he names the thing that we have forgotten. Jesus reminds us that the table is not ours. The food, the chairs, the drinks, the invitations. They were never ours to control.

The table is God’s. And God has invited us to it. God has not invited friends and brothers and relative and rich neighbours. God has invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. God has invited us. We are the ones who cannot repay the invitation, we have no table, no place, no welcome good enough for God… and yet God’s table, Jesus’ table is always open to us.

And at God’s table each place is the place of honour. There is no moving up or moving down. There is no sitting higher with the risk of being sent down. There is no sitting lower to work our way up. All the places are the same, all are the best, all are open for us. With God, there is simply a place at God’s table. A place for us, each and every one of us.

Jesus’ dinner party advice is more than it seems. And even though the church has not always been the best guest or host, we have a God who is the ultimate host. God is the one who always has a place for us. God is the one who welcomes us to the place of honour. God is the one to whom the table belongs.

So when it seemed like we as a church sat at the place of honour in the glory days, or now when it feels like have been left off the guest list… neither has been the truth. For we have always had a spot at God’s able, a spot no better, and no worse than anyone else.

God’s table has always been open, set and ready for all. Ready for us.

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Why people are looking for “Church” in places other than Church

Figuring out what non-churched people are looking for is an agonizing endeavour for most church leaders. Churches everywhere are trying things that will draw in new people. Yet, in some of my more cynical moments, I wonder if churches actually offer anything that most people are looking for.

You have to be pretty deep into the weeds of spiritual exploration to be looking for what a Lutheran church is offering. You have to be interested in a rich tradition, heavy with its history, theology and ritual. You have be interested in the structure, patterns and rhythms of liturgy. You have be interested in a biblical understanding that goes deeper than the Sunday School idea of “good people go to heaven and all the people I don’t like go to hell.”

I have had the sinking feeling for years that in our world of reality TV, streaming music, mindless Facebook scrolling and other intense yet mind numbing forms of media, most people don’t even give a thought to the idea that church, being part of a Christian faith community (especially a declining mainline one), is something that they need in their lives. 

But then the other day I heard something curious on the radio. It was an interview on The Candy Palmater Show on CBC Radio. She was interviewing a superfan of the Tragically Hip (for those that don’t know, the tragically hip concluded their last tour in the summer of 2016 after lead singer God Downie announced that he has terminal brain cancer). Candy asked this superfan what his emotions were going to be like when he attended his last (21st) live concert and he said,

“This is church for me, and this is the last time I get to go.”

I was half listening to the interview at the time and this woke me  up and started my mind racing.

My first thought was, why isn’t church “church” for this man?

But my next more important thought was that maybe people are looking for what church has to offer.

You don’t have to look very far to see that people all around us are flocking to things that bind them together. The Tragically Hip for many Canadians is an example. Sports, politics, music fans, etc… people are gathering around shared interests – no, things they believe in – all over the place.

People want to be part of groups that come together around a common belief or common cause. People want to be a part of something bigger than they are, with others who feel and think the same way. People are looking for places to be church all around us.

So why aren’t people finding “church” at church?

American Christians have this expression that I have noticed becoming increasingly common lately. I have seen it on social media, in videos, and while travelling to the US.

When church people experience a group coming together around a common experience (around terrorist attacks or police shootings, for example), and there is an emotional and moving aspect of being together, people will say, “That’s church!” (said with a southern drawl).

This is almost never in reference to actual church.

It is almost as if our desire and need for “church” isn’t found at church.

The world around us (church people) is increasingly not seeing church as a place that does what church is supposed to do. Churches have stopped being places where people can come together under a common cause, a common belief or creed. Churches are less and less places where people are tied together simply because they believe in the same thing.

How did that happen?

Well, I have a theory.

A few months back I wrote about how many churches have become like soccer teams who no longer play soccer, but who simply gather for coffee and donuts. And as members decline, the chief concern has become who is going to make the coffee and buy the donuts. So when people are looking to join a soccer team come to us, and we ask them to be in charge of the coffee and donuts, they don’t stick around.

Being focused on coffee and donuts goes deeper than just not playing soccer anymore (or not having that Jesus guy be the centre of our faith communities).

My theory is that the reason so many un-churched, de-churched and even church people are no longer finding “church” at church is that we have made the focus of church ourselves. 

Worrying about who is going to make the coffee and buy the donuts, is really a worry about ourselves. What we are really worrying about is who is going to take care of us. Who is going to worry about us. How are we going to keep being us when us is declining.

The problem with worrying about us is that there is no room for people who aren’t us.

Put another way, Tragically Hip fans always have room for more Hip fans. There is always room for more people to cheer on athletes or sports teams, to support politicians and political parties, to be fans of something together. There is room for the whole world to gather around the Olympics.

There SHOULD always be room for another person who wants to follow Jesus with us. But so often churches are looking for people to care about the survival of us instead of following Jesus. And  when us is defined by who is already here rather than the common larger-than-us thing that draws people together, there isn’t room for more us. There isn’t room for more church members when our biggest concern the survival of group that is already exists here.

People are looking for “church” all around us. Faith leaders, church leadership and church people should take more notice. People are looking for experiences and communities that are gathering around something in common, whether it be a band, sports team or political party. They are looking for church as it is supposed to be, being tied together by a common belief in something or someone bigger than us.

But people looking for “church” will not find it in communities whose chief concern is the people who are already there. In fact, you will never find “church” in a group that has already decided that you aren’t part of the group before you even arrive.

Perhaps it is time it for congregations and faith communities to do some soul searching and decide, are we going to be church or are going to be “Church?” Are we going to gather around the group of people that we already are, or around Jesus who calls us to make room for more?


Where do you find “church” in your life? How can churches do “church” better? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Who said it? Jesus or Donald Trump: Olympics Edition

Luke 12:49-56

Jesus said, “…Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: (Read the whole passage)

Wow… Jesus is on a roll today. We have been making our way through the teachings, parables and ministry of Jesus for a number of weeks now, and so far we have heard familiar stories like Mary and Martha, the Lord’s Prayer, the Good Samaritan.

Last week things took a turn for the less familiar, but at least Jesus seemed much nicer, ‘Have no fear little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.’

But today we get some of the harshest words Jesus has in the gospel of Luke.

And yes, they make us uncomfortable. Jesus isn’t supposed to speak this way, Jesus is about uniting and bringing people together right? Not about setting people against each other. Jesus sounds almost like Donald Trump with all these talk about division and doom. 

And the difficulty with this passage from Luke is that there isn’t some neat trick of context that explains what Jesus means. It isn’t like the verses before or after explain what Jesus is really talking about. This passage on division comes in a chapter where we are given quote after quote strung together will no real details or information connecting them to each other.

I don’t know about you, but when some gun toting christian on some cable news show quotes this passage as justification for hate, violence, intolerance, and yes, division, it makes me want to curl up and hide under a rock. It is one of those passages from the bible that you almost wish wasn’t there. But it is, and it get used as justification for some Christians to be jerks. “Do you think that I have to bring peace? No, but rather division.” And a lot of embarrassing blowhards claiming to speak on behalf of all Christians say this passage shows that Jesus would be an assault rifle carrying bigot were he to come to today.

And so the question becomes, what do we make of this divisive Jesus? Where does he fit with the loving, compassionate, and caring Jesus that we know?

Of all the places and people who could perhaps offer and explanation to these strong words from Jesus today, it was a late night talk show host talking about the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games that provided me some insight.

In HBO’s John Oliver’s recap of the opening ceremonies, he showed a portion of IOC president Thomas Bach’s speech where he said, ‘In this Olympic world, there is one universal law for everybody. In this Olympic world, we are all equal.”

Sounds like the usual lofty speeches that get made at Olympic games.

But John Oliver, who was having none of it, replied,

“Okay, that is simply not true. If that were the case, you wouldn’t need to have an olympics. The whole reason we do this is to find out, who is better than everyone else, so that we can make them stand higher [cue photo of athletes on a medal podium] than the other people who are not as good as them. Because the point of the games is not to celebrate equality, but individual’s excellence.”

(Language warning)

Cheeky, but he isn’t wrong.

As I have been watching my fair share of olympics this week, I haven’t been spending much time cheering on the athletes destined to come in last. It is the ones who win medals, who come in first, who defeat the rest of the competition who are the focus. Everyone knows who Penny Oleksiak is the week, but does anyone know the name of the Canadians who didn’t place in archery, or shooting, or judo, or race walking, or discus or other sports where our country isn’t competitive?

The Olympics in some measure are a safe way for nations to go to war with other nations without dropping bombs or sending soldiers, they are hardly about equality.

And this is where the Olympics and John Oliver gives us insight into what Jesus says today. 

Sometimes our rhetoric, the fancy words and ideals that people throw about in the name of unity and equality don’t really express or name reality.

The reality is that we are human beings are compelled by conflict. We live to fight, it is in our biology – the reptilian parts of our brains are primed to override rational thought in order to Fight, Flight or Freeze when the opportunity aries. And Jesus know this. Jesus knows that sunshine and roses is not what the world is about. Rather that our world is full to conflict and division and sin and suffering and death. And these things are what catch our attention, these are the things that are the foundation of our established orders, these are the things we use to categorize and understand ourselves and our world.

And so when Jesus, God in flesh, comes to meet humanity on our turf, it has to be in the midst of division, because that is where we live as human beings. You will notice that Jesus doesn’t say that he has come to CAUSE division, but simply that he BRINGS it. Division will follow Jesus wherever he goes, because Jesus is going into the human world.

And Jesus is coming into our world, with a message. A message about God, and God’s love for us, and how God is turning our world upside down.

And Jesus represents a threat. A threat to the established orders, to the conflict and division that we love so much, a threat to making people stand higher than those who are not as good as they are. Because in God’s world everyone is equal, and there wouldn’t be an olympics because the medals and podiums would be not be for the first, but for the last. And those in first would be about as interesting to us as those in last are in our world.

And so today Jesus brings division. And yes it sounds terrible and probably makes us uncomfortable… but it is also what we know. And we are uncomfortable because we realize that Jesus really does know us, and knows that conflict and division is where we live.

But Jesus’ words also make us uncomfortable because they aren’t plastering over our conflict and division, our olympic battles with lofty rhetoric about equality and unity. Jesus words instead tell us that  God is coming into our world, to find us, and this will cause real division. Because God is going to change everything. God is going to change us. Change us with love and compassion, with true equality and true unity. 

God is coming to change us with the good news of Jesus in our world, division and all.

Amen. 

Do Not Be Afraid… of Discipleship

Luke 12:32-40

Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.(Read the rest of the passage)


We are getting into those long summer days now, where finding a nice patio to sit on, or a shady tree to sit under with a cold drink, a good book and lots of sunlight and gentle summer breezes is about as good as life can get. As Canadians know, we like to put life on hold in the summer as much as we can, to enjoy the warm weather. School, sports, work, hobbies, and other activities are suspended as much as possible while we do whatever summery things we can fit in to life.

So when Jesus offers advice about being prepared and on guard… it is hard to get into the spirit. He gives us different images: Give away your possessions. Pull up your sleeves. Attend to your house for the coming of the Son of Man. Keep watch and wait… These aren’t normal summer activities. They don’t really fit our summer schedule of afternoon naps and long evening sunsets.

While we don’t read this today, Peter follows up Jesus’ commands with a question. He says out loud what many of us are thinking,  ‘Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?’ Like a good Canadian in summer, Peter is hoping that these commands to be diligent are not specifically for him, but more of a general warning, a take it or leave it kind of idea.

Peter makes a good point. Are these commands really for us? Is it even possible to do fulfill all of these demands? Giving away all our possessions just isn’t realistic in today’s economy. Waiting up all night for the master to return from a wedding banquet… well that image is outdated because none of us are slaves. And protecting our house from the thief is what locks, guard dogs and alarm systems are for. It is like Peter is saying, “Come on Jesus, the Olympics are on. Can we we just give the discipleship talk a rest for a few days?”

Jesus throws so many images at us that its easy to get lost in them. They are overwhelming and sorting through the meaning of each one may or may not provide answers. To figure this out we need to step back, take a breath and consider what the big picture is.

When it comes to faith and sorting out how all this God stuff applies to us, we are quick to look for the tasks that we think we need to do to make God happy. What do we need to get out of the way, so that we can get on with life, so that we can get to the real business of summer? This is at the root of Peter’s, and our question. If all these demands really do apply to us, what is the fastest and easiest way we can get them finished. How many times do we need to come to church? How many prayers do we need to pray?  How much money should we give? What else do we need to do to make Jesus happy?

We hope that completing the assigned tasks will satisfy Jesus, but that isn’t really what he is getting at today. Its not about the details, is not about breaking down faith into tasks and to do lists. The impossible demands that Jesus lists are just that — impossible. Faith is not something that can be reduced to simple instructions that we follow. Rather, faith is that relationship that finds us and grabs on to us. Faith comes from our gracious God who claims us and marks us in baptism. God pulls out of the details and our need to just complete the tasks that make God happy, and God does it with the first words that Jesus speaks today.

Do not be afraid. Words that echo throughout the bible. Words that always come before the announcement of the good news.

Do not be afraid. And we are standing with Sarah and Abraham as God calls them to be the mother and father of a nation.

Do not be afraid. And we are standing with Daniel as God promises to be with him in a foreign land and even in a den of lions.

Do not be afraid. And we are standing with Mary as she is told that she is pregnant with the Messiah, and that he will be Emmanuel — God with us.

Do not be afraid. And we are standing with the disciples in the upper room hiding in fear, and Jesus appears among us bringing peace, showing the holes in his hands and the mark in his side.

Do not be afraid. And we are standing here, and Jesus is telling St. John, that it is the Father’s pleasure to give us the Kingdom of God.

Its easy to overlook these first few words at the beginning. Its easy to get stuck with the details, stuck with trying to figure what exactly it is that Jesus is telling us to do.

Do not be afraid, these words, always accompany God’s promise. Do not be afraid. They come to us in big moments, important moments of faith. Moments when God is going to change the world. When God turns everything we know on its head. Do not be afraid, God speaks these words to us in moments that are confusing and terrifying, moments that give hope in the darkness. Moments when all seems lost and destroyed. Moments of promise that remind us first and foremost that God is doing something amazing in our world. Do not be afraid.

With these words, Jesus’ impossible demands to give ALL we have to the poor, to be ALWAYS on guard and ALWAYS watching for the return of the master, and to be CONSTANTLY alert for the unexpected coming of the Son of Man… with these words, Do not be afraid, Jesus reminds us that all those instructions coming next have less to do us and more to do with God.

And even more we hear today in this place that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom… whether we are ready or not. God gives us a treasure more valuable than any and all possessions: Grace and forgiveness… whether we are diligent or not. God comes from the heavenly banquet to bless and serve us with water, with bread and wine… whether we are watchful or not. As the Son of Man, God is breaking into our world, into our lives… whether we are waiting or not.

God pulls us out from all these impossible details. And in the midst of sunny days and olympics, Jesus says yes, these words are for you. Do not be afraid, for it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom!

Amen.