October 1, 2017

Preached by Rev. George Yando on October 1, 2017.

Exodus 17: 1-7
Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2: 1-13
Matthew 21: 23-32

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Is it Time for a Change of Heart?

A number of years ago, I had occasion to visit a downtown church in a medium-sized city here in Western Canada, in the Okanagan Valley actually. The name of the church and the city where it’s located isn’t really important to the story. Like a lot of downtown churches in cities across this country, it had its share of challenges because of its location.

“The problem” as it was called by the church members with whom I talked was the fact that they shared the entrances to the church with homeless people – men and women alike, many of whom were migrant agricultural labourers who’d come during the growing season looking for employment, folk who would set up camp in the sheltered spaces of the nooks and crannies around the building and wandered into church most weeks. And most nights the easily recognizable, downright obvious “unmarked” police cars were parked within viewing distance, their occupants keeping a watchful eye for drug dealers looking to peddle their wares. And the church members and the migrants shared the parking lot with the sex trade workers. Early each Sunday, before the kids arrived for Sunday School, someone armed with rubber gloves and long handled tongs and sporting a wrinkled nose on his face, was tasked with the duty of collecting up the latex litter left in the wake of numerous “personal encounters” in the dark the previous night.

No one in the congregation was particularly thrilled by the people sleeping in the church doorways. They urinated in dark corners, they begged for money, and their arrival in church was heralded by particularly pungent body odours. I heard a lot muttering that weekend about the ways people used – or misused  – their church property. I certainly didn’t hear any reflection by anyone about the prospect that those sex trade workers and their pimps, the pushers and those homeless people might actually enter the kingdom of God ahead of the upstanding religious folk who worshipped in their grand old sanctuary on Sunday and left the building locked and barred, surrounded by an impressive wrought iron fence that nevertheless failed to keep the enterprising and the resourceful and the desperate off their pristine property.

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before you do.” How could this be?

Well, once upon a time, there was a woman who had a couple of kids. She went to one of them and said, “Sweetheart, I need your help in the garden.”

But her daughter said, “Can’t you see I’m reading?” and went back to her book. Later, however, when she’d finished the chapter, the girl put her book down and went and pulled some weeds. The mother went to her other child, “Sweetie pie, please come help in the garden.” The girl said, “OK, Boss” but never left the couch. Now which of the two obeyed her Mom?

Now, you folks know your Bibles, especially the many memorable sayings of Jesus and the disciples who authored many of the books within its pages: You’ve read – or heard it said, “Beloved, love one another. Love your neighbour. Love your enemy. Judge not. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. You cannot serve God and wealth. Forgive, forgive, forgive.”

We all know what’s expected of us, the right things to say. More than that, we mean them. We feel sympathy for the poor. We know that migrant workers and refugees and asylum seekers are treated terribly, and that justice needs to be done. We feel compassion, and empathy, and kindness, and love. We struggle with the difficult ideas underpinning our faith that nonetheless fly in the face of prevailing attitudes in our day.  We think and wrestle with sincerity and depth. We pray for others, that they be blessed as we have been blessed, and we really, really mean it. We are the good guys, the folk who feel kindness and compassion… and we know it.

But the problems of the world seem too big, too overwhelming. We can’t actually fix anything much. Whether it’s homelessness or injustice visited upon Indigenous people, whether its corporate ravages on the natural world or violence against women or wars in the Middle East or the terrors of ISIS and Boko Haram and whoever else; well, who are we to imagine that we might make a difference? There are too many problems and they’re all way too big – and we become paralysed, and then complacent. It becomes much easier to pray for the world, and preach kindness and love, and work on our personal relationship with God, than to take hands-on, personal, direct, concrete action.

In the parable, which of the children obeyed their parent? The one who said the right thing, and no doubt meant to get around to it, sometime; or the one who did the right thing? I think we all know.

Saying the right words is not enough. Thinking and believing the right things is not enough. Even praying the right prayers is not enough. We can feel oh so kind and compassionate, we can spiritualise obedience, we can pray for justice – but Jesus invites us – no, he challenges us – to more. Because if our words and our prayers are genuine, they must bear fruit. They must lead to action.

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul reminds us, Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Paul is talking about more than an attitude, a way of thinking.  Paul is saying, “In your lives you must think and act like Christ Jesus.” And how did Jesus act? Again, Paul is clear:

6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Paul is saying, “Christ did not think that being equal with God was something to be used for his own benefit. He gave up his place with God and made himself nothing. He took on the form of a slave…”   And as God’s slave, he loved. He loved prostitutes. He loved tax collectors, collaborators, liars and cheats. He loved snotty-nosed rambunctious children, bleeding women, and untouchable men with weeping sores. He loved the Roman soldiers who occupied his native land, and the homeless and the hookers. He fed the hungry with food and stories, and sat at the table with them.

And so Paul wrote, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in y’all – or youse – that was in Christ Jesus….” Now all of you out there that are former English teachers and those who fancy themselves guardians of good grammar, please forgive me, but I misspoke to make a point. Paul’s ‘Let each of you” is a plural “you” that’s easy to miss when we hear the text in English.  Paul was writing to a group; he was using a plural “you,” and we need to hear this. You see, as a group, I think our church is a relatively small faith community and a rather comfortable one. We know one another and are fairly good at examining ourselves. But maybe it’s time to expand our view a little.

If we peek out that door, we see a large, looming urban core in the midst of a large diverse city, one that reveals its dark side if you look closely enough.  A whole host of large, looming problems, threatening the peace and tranquility of the sacred space to which we retreat each week, in part to get away from those large looming seemingly insurmountable challenges.  Of course we can’t take on the whole mess of problems that are seething away out there. But, as we heard in Paul’s letter this morning, “God is working in youse to help youse want to do and be able to do what pleases God.”

And I wonder if that is happening right now. Because things are bubbling up. This transition time we’re in as a congregation is disconcerting for many. People are feeling anxious, uncertain about what the future holds. “How soon are we going to get a new minister? What will he or she be like? Will he or she be a good as the one who just left and look after us as well as did she? Or will he or she bring new, disturbing ideas that threaten to push us out of our comfort zones?”

Some have looked to our neighbourhood and are beginning to ask, “What different? What’s changed around us in the 13 years or so since our last minister arrived? What are the needs now in our downtown community?

Can this church do anything about them, or are we too small, and are our members too committed to other really good projects to do anything in this neighbourhood? And are we okay with this?”

Being equal with Christ is not something to be used for our own benefit. Answering the call of God on our lives means giving things up, sharing our resources, inviting others in. How we are called to do this requires discernment. But right out there, within walking distance, there are desperate people with desperate needs. Now, I realise that just because there are needs and we might be able to help meet them does not necessarily mean that that it is our calling and we should do it. I know that many of us pour enormous amounts of time and energy into building the kingdom in other places and other ways. Yet these questions are beginning to bubble up, in one form or another, in the minds and hearts of various members of the congregation in recent weeks and months, and so these are questions we need to grapple with.

On this World Communion Sunday, as we gather at the Lord’s Table, we gather at a table which he has set; a table where he is the host; a table to which we are invited, regardless of who we are; a table to which he bids us invite others, regardless of who they are.

In gratitude we gather, we eat and drink and remember and give thanks. Then after the meal, be prepared for Jesus to say to us, “Kids, go work in the garden.” Will we agree, and just keep praying? Will we argue, then go dig some earth? And which garden are we called to work in anyway? These are good questions for us. Let me leave you with one more. The one in Jesus’ story that initially struggled with the request to go and serve, eventually had a change of heart and went as bidden.  Perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves – and one another – is this: “Is it time for a change of heart?”

May the Spirit of our risen and living Lord, who has loved us – and everyone else, regardless of who we and they are – have his way in our hearts and minds, that we use our hands to serve as he served, always and only to the glory of God. Amen.

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