Friday, 11 February 2011

Jesus is Watching You

When I was preparing my sermon for this morning, I couldn't help but think of the Christmas song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town". Now before you start thinking that I've been working too hard and need a vacation let me explain. There is a verse in that song that ties in quite nicely with my sermon. It goes like this:
He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows when you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake.
Jesus is always watching us, especially how we treat others. Consider the situation in this morning's Gospel reading for example. Jesus was invited to a banquet at the home of a Pharisee, and not because the Pharisee was a big fan of Jesus. In fact, you might remember that the Pharisees always gave Jesus a hard time because his teachings always went against their rules and practices. The real reason behind the invitation was that the Pharisee wanted to get a better view of Jesus.
When Jesus arrived, he noticed that all of the important people in the society were vying to get the seats closest to the guest of honour, while those of lower classes sat at the back. The same thing happens with us. All we have to do is remember that at many of the formal banquets that we have attended, there is always a head table that is reserved for guests of honour and other important people. Jesus rebuked the elite for thinking that they were better than everyone else, and he warned them that they would be in for a big surprise in God's kingdom.
He also warned the host for only inviting the elite. He urged the host to invite the less fortunate to his table, just like he urges us to invite the poor to our tables. In fact, Jewish law very consistently commanded care for the less fortunate. In Leviticus 19:34, the connection is very clear, "You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God". Jesus' life and ministry asks us if we are doing this.
Contrary to what it might seem Jesus' advice has nothing to do with worldly self-promotion. It deals with life in God's kingdom. In God's kingdom, there will be a role reversal. Those who consider themselves to be first on earth will be last in heaven, and those who are last on earth will be first in heaven. In other words, the mighty will be humbled and the humble will be exalted.
Imagine this situation, if you will. A husband comes home from work on a Friday night. As he comes into the driveway, he sees that there is a rented tent in the back yard. Under the tent are tables and chairs for about forty people. A bandstand and a dance floor are in one corner of the tent. Decorations are hanging everywhere. None of this was there when the husband left for work in the morning. Seeing all of these preparations and having them come as a surprise, what do you think then husband might think?
One reaction might be panic: "Good Lord! It's our anniversary, and I've forgotten about it!" After a few minutes, he might realize that it is not their anniversary, so he might continue thinking, "I guess all this must be for a birthday party". Now suppose the husband walks into the backyard and finds his wife cooking a huge pile of chickens and choice steaks. He might think, "Wow! This is going to cost me a bundle!"
Then suppose his wife looks up, smiles sweetly and asks, "Guess who's coming to dinner?" His guess might be "Relatives, friends, neighbours and business associates". Before he can answer, she continues, "I've invited twenty homeless men from the local homeless shelter, clients of the local food bank, and residents of the local nursing home. Don't worry dear, you won't know anyone, and best of all, not a single one is likely to ever pay us back".
Now given that situation, the husband might think that the wife is ready for the mental hospital, but in reality she is following the words of Jesus in Luke 14:12-14. "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they might invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous"
This is a call to trust God to repay what the less fortunate cannot. God will repay us at the resurrection of the righteous. On Judgment Day, God will also repay those who have wronged his people throughout history. The evil-doers in history will get what they deserve, so the Hitler, Mussolini, Saddam Hussein and others like them will get their just punishment. In fact, a good punishment for Hitler might be for him to be made a waiter at God's banquet and have to serve the table of the King of the Jews. That day will be an example of the old adage, "What goes around, comes around".
We are called to do more than just donate money. We are called to invite the less fortunate to join us at our table-the most intimate place in our lives. God calls us to kingdom values and blesses us when we seek to please God instead of pleasing other people. We please God when we act humbly and unselfishly and in particular when we help those who are vulnerable. Anything that we do for someone else, especially when we do it for Jesus' sake and without selfish motives, will be blessed by God. This might require us to move out of our comfort zones. Jesus warns us against moving into a comfort zone that is all our own as though it is something we need to do. He also warns against staying in our comfort zone once we find ourselves there. We are to follow Christ's example. He left comfort zones behind forever because he is now present everywhere in judgment and in mercy.
When Jesus told this story, I wonder if it hit its intended targets. The Pharisees thought they were the upper crust in God's kingdom. They were the most religious, pious and holy people they knew, and if anyone deserved places at God's table, certainly it was them-at least in their minds. They had developed an attitude of distinction, but in this Gospel reading, Jesus says, "Not so fast, folks! There are other guests who are just as important as you. They might not look religious, and they might not have all the right table manners, and they might not wear the best clothes or live in the best parts of the city, but I've invited them to the banquet as well. "
There is a subtle but significant implication for the modern church too. Jesus hates pride, but religious pride is the worst of all. When we, like the Pharisees, think that we have a special place in God's family because of something we've done, or the particular theory we embrace, or because in our own minds we belong to the "right" church, or the length of time we've been followers of Jesus, Jesus says, "Guess what? These other guests of mine are just as important as you are". All of the guests will be equal. Rich and poor will sit side by side because they are the same. Look at our cemeteries, for example. Rich and poor are buried side by side in the cemetery. It doesn't matter if the cemetery is a church cemetery or a community cemetery.
The culture we live in is very good at producing popular trends. We call it "the in thing". It is the "in thing" to be so focused on ourselves and our own needs that we don't see the bigger picture and how we can meet the needs of others. For example, I can tell you that as a volunteer with the local food bank, I have seen donations drop like a stone during the summer months because people focus so much on their desire to "get away" for a vacation that they forget that hunger never takes a holiday.
It is the "in thing" to ignore how our actions affect our community, our church, and our world. One only has to look at the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to see that this is true. According to reports, the oil rig explosion that caused the spill was caused by the failure of a blowout preventer-a failure that was reportedly caused by British Petroleum's emphasis on profit at the expense of preventive maintenance.
It's easy to follow the "in thing" without checking to see if it is what God wants us to do. If the "in thing" in our lives is to follow God's ways, the path will be difficult to follow because it goes against the ways of our modern world. It is as if we are going backward compared to the rest of the world. If we follow God's ways, we must look for a place where we can serve, and aim for prestige. If he wants us to serve on a wider scale, he will invite us to take a higher place. I honestly feel that this is what God did with me in my life. I started my ministry in this parish as a scripture reader, and then I was invited to become a lay reader. My lay ministry started with preparing Prayers of the People, assisting the priest, and acting as Master of Ceremonies-ministries that I continue to enjoy today. Finally, I felt that God was calling me to preach. He has guided me at every step in my ministry, and he continues to do so today. Every time I prepare a sermon, he speaks to me. Sometimes he speaks volumes and I have to do very little research. Sometimes he says very little, and I have to do a lot more work. It is at those times when I believe that God is trying to teach me something, and the only way I can learn it is to embark on a voyage of discovery by myself.
Truly humble people recognize their gifts and strengths and are willing to use them as God dictates. Only God knows if I truly follow into that category; but I believe that my ministry and my secular work are steps in the right direction. We are to use our talents as best we can since they are gifts from God and will benefit others as well as ourselves. Some of you might know that one of my jobs in the secular world involves doing the bookkeeping for the local Roman Catholic Church. To some of you, it might not seem right that I, an Anglican lay minister, should be working for another church. Well folks, I hate to tell you this, but I do not see it that way, and neither did the Roman Catholic priest and the head of the finance committee when I was interviewed and hired-and neither did God. God does not see different religions such as Anglican, United, Baptist, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Salvation Army or Disciples of Christ when he looks down on us from heaven. He only sees two kinds of people-sinners saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, and sinners who are on their way to hell.
Works of charity are better than works of show. That's why I along with one or two other members of our parish volunteer with the local food bank. That's why our rector was the Chaplain for the Missions to Seafarers in the Port of Halifax, and that is why he is the Honorary Chaplain for the Missions to Seafarers in the Port of Liverpool/Brooklyn. We fulfill these roles not for personal benefit, but to serve God. Those who insist on playing the game called "beat the system" also refuse to come under God's authority and have little fellowship with God. They are so committed to controlling and manipulating people and circumstances for their own gain that it is impossible for them to yield control of their lives to God. In order to receive our reputation from God, we have to lose the reputation we get from the elite of our society and find it among the less fortunate.
The "right" people will be at God's banquet. They will be everyone who responds to God's invitation. The poor and the outcast will be seated next to Jesus instead of the dignitaries, and people of position and prominence. We must not erect social barriers that keep some people from joining us at God's table. The less fortunate in our society need both our natural gifts and the dignity that comes with being acknowledged. They need the gift of our friendship, and we need them as well. At this point in Luke's Gospel, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Along the way, he is showing the disciples who God is and how they are to live a life that reflects a hospitable God. He is teaching us the same lessons today. Are we learning the lesson?
Craig Condon, Lay Minister, Anglican Parish of South Queens, Liverpool, NS Canada. He can be reached by email at