Tithing and Giving

As you are aware as we look to the future and the possibility of calling a minister full time we face the issue of finances.  Put bluntly we need to find another $35,000 each year, and we are currently looking at how that might be achieved.  We look over the fence at Hoon Hay congregation which is smaller than ours which has employed a full time minister and is looking at employing other ministry staff. 

We are slowly building up the usage of the complex to gain an income from the building.  We are looking at other ways to raise capital, but a key area we must look at is the income we receive from regular giving to our church.  Money and church is a touchy subject, but if we are going to go ahead and search for a full time ministry we have to be able to show we can meet our commitments, and our special workgroup looking at this has estimated we need to increase giving by $15,000 per year which is not chicken feed. 

As this has been talked about  several people have asked me about the practice of tithing.  The question has been asked about the practice In some churches that people will give one tenth of their income to their church.  I don’t think it’s that simple.

Tithing is a practice that is found in our scriptures.  We are told Abraham established the pattern of giving one tenth of what he received as an offering to God.  Just what that was used for is a little unclear.  The pattern is also followed by Jacob.  (Gen 28:20-22) Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”  The word tithe literally means “tenth,”  and the giving of a tenth to God seems to be a pervading pattern.  A key teaching was that all they had was gift from God, and this returning the tenth was a practice that built this teaching into their lives.  Because God cares for those at the bottom of the heap it was also used to help others who may not have had an income.

This pattern was established in the laws of Moses.  Originally the tithe was an obligatory offering requiring 10 percent of an Israelite’s first fruits. Because God provided the harvest, this first part was returned to God. It wasn’t something considered after all the bills were paid, but was a first call on the income which for most was in the form of harvest and food.  It was a show of thankfulness for God’s provision. It also provided for the Levitical priesthood, festivals, and the needy.

As the Israelites became a more settled community the annual tithe was largely used to sustain the places of worship and the leaders involved in the worship and teaching of the faith.  But this wasn’t the only obligatory tithe. They also tithed to support a special jubilee festival (Deut. 12) and took a third tithe every three years to take care of orphans, widows, and the poor (Deut. 14). Baked into God’s law was a special provision to take care of the most vulnerable citizens. Interestingly, this included caring for people from outside of their community.  Someone has worked out that if you average these mandatory offerings you come up with a figure of about 23 percent of your income was given in this way each year.  With introduction of kings and rulers there were also the introduction of other taxes and it all became quite complex.

On top of these compulsory tithes, there were regular opportunities for freewill offerings. These were generous gifts that expressed the Israelites’ gratefulness through voluntary giving to special projects.  At a bare minimum, they gave 23 percent a year, but there was no ceiling on their generosity. They could—and frequently would—give exorbitantly out of their excess. In response to Moses’ call for contributions to the building of the Tabernacle, the Israelites literally gave so much that Moses had to command them to stop giving (Ex. 36:2–7).

Jesus doesn’t mention the tithe as a requirement that his followers should adhere to.  Instead he promotes the idea that we need to get our priorities right in our lives.  Jesus praises the widow who dug deep and sacrificially to give alongside those who gave a little from their abundance.  For him there was aa focus on the new earth or reign of God in all things and that extended very clearly to money.   Maybe I’m just speaking to myself here, but the need to set our priorities carefully, and in all our money dealings we need to consider is this benefiting the kingdom.  Is this helping to bring God’s reign on earth?   Promoting the kingdom of heaven should be our first priority in life and not an afterthought when all my wants and desires are taken care of.  The widow raises some hard issues for us all. 

He also addressed the issue of calculating exactly what the law required in terms of tithing but not caring about the true intent.  Giving to the work of God should come from the heart and not the law.  The law if you like sets some guidelines, and Jesus was more interested in growing a generous heart and giving generously to support the provision of worship the teaching of the faith, and caring for others.  Super religious people it seemed were good at nailing down to the last cent how much was to be given, meeting the demands of the tithing law, but they failed to see others who were struggling in life.   In several teachings he warns that true religion is not about reaching targets of giving, but is about genuine caring and having a concern about justice and why for instance some are poor.  You may also remember that parading your giving also gets the thumbs down from Jesus.  (Matt 23:23, Luke 11:42)

What does this mean for us?

Some churches teach the tithe as a law that applies today with the church as the recipient.  Some may have seen the movie In My Fathers Kingdom which came out this year and focused on a Tongan family here in New Zealand.  Dad in his retirement took up a paper round to provide money for the church and when it came to the annual tithing Sunday he would ring around his kids to ask for a thousand dollars from each of them to give to the church.  Often how much you give becomes public knowledge so an impressive donation gives mana.  His commitment to give almost destroyed his family.  Other churches stress the benefits of giving saying God will bless those who give much.  I live with the principle that we are constantly blessed and while I have no doubt God loves a cheerful and generous giver I don’t think we get special rewards.  There is something wrong when giving to the church almost destroys families and is manipulated by the church to provide blessing.  There’s nothing new here.  Martin Luther was motivated to call out the church in his own time for providing tickets to heaven or indulgences for those who gave generously. 

Thankfully we maintain a highly confidential system of giving in our church.  Our giving is a matter between us and God. 

It is a sobering exercise to work out what 10% of our gross income is.  I don’t want to get into strict tithing rules, but the principle should sit there at the back of our minds and hearts as we consider our budgeting. We are called to commit sacrificially to support Gods work and not hoard it for ourselves.

We need to recognise our taxes are part of the command of God to ensure that those at the edges are taken care of in our society.  Our giving to other charitable organisations or causes are also part of this obligation to serve the purpose of God’s reign or kingdom.   What we give should however not be governed by law, but by a cheerful and generous heart that mirrors the heart of God. 

In all things we should consider all we have as gift from God and ask how can we use it wisely and well:

 to live with joy and appreciation for the good things and gift of life,

to support others in need,

and to invest in promoting God’s kingdom. 

Our church is a key part but not the only part of God’s work in our community.  Therefore we should carefully consider how much we will invest in our church as a means of promoting God’s kingdom.  This should be a conscious and sacrificial decision and not a ‘I think I can spare a few bucks’ for the church commitment.  The Israelites gave 10% of their first fruits, and that represented not what was left over, the crumbs from the leftovers, but was a first call on their income.  Our church deserves a high priority.

My invitation is simple.  Over the next month will you review your giving in the light of our scriptures and our situation?  Next Sunday we will have a letter prepared to give you which will outline our situation in more detail and ask for a response so we can plan for the next ministry.  

There is one other thing I want to say, and that is “thank you!”  I know many of you have over the years maintained a regular giving practice in your lives.  There have been wonderful results to that giving and the teaching and presence of Jesus in our community has been promoted with care and compassion.   We now face a society that more than ever needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  I believe we are called to keep the flame burning, and indeed to turn up the gas so it burns brighter. 

Pray

Let us pray  – 

[Pearl, Florrie, and the Bull is a great little true story you can find on You Tube]

Pearl Florrie, and the Bull is a great little video about a true story.  For me the punch line is when Florrie and Pearl were fighting the bull, and Florrie says, “do you know what we haven’t done?”, and Pearl is puzzled.  But Florrie says “we haven’t prayed.”  And amidst their wrestling they pray.

Note there’s no magical answer that delivers them from their dilemma.. there is no lightning bolt that strikes the bull dead.  Instead Pearl decides she really must go for help and as she does she continues to the most earnest prayer she has ever prayed to keep her sister safe.  A cynic may say what use was that and what a waste of time. Prayer didn’t magically make the bull placid and peaceful and take away the threat the women were facing….. but something did happen. Florrie received a flash of inspiration to lie across the bulls face.  Where did that arise from?  How was God involved in that flash of inspiration?  Did prayer somehow open a door to receive a message from God?  Prayer didn’t magically fix things but brought another dimension into the scene.  Prayer opens our eyes to see things we didn’t see before. Prayer gives us courage to face things with renewed hope.  Prayer helps us see what is really important amidst the chaos of life.

Praying as I have said many times is a mysterious business, but it is a business that lies at the heart of our faith journey.  Prayer is a vital part of our lives as Christians.  Jesus used to rise early each morning to pray, and prayer is a vital part of every great person of faith.  In our own time it has become a neglected spiritual practice and I speak as someone who knows this truth personally.  Busyness, lack of encouragement from others, and the trivialisation of prayer into a shopping list and ‘what can God do for me” practice, a lack of personal discipline has meant prayer drifts down the priority list in our lives.  We often fail to take spiritual formation seriously in our lives.

An old saint of the church, Clement of Alexandra, said prayer is simply “keeping company with God”.   It is a little like plugging in an electric jug and making a connection with God which allows a flow of electricity that can warm the interior contents. With God there is a power called love which flows, an illumination of the mind which occurs, and a mysterious inner transformation that somehow changes how we see things.  It’s like opening a door to another dimension of life.  In essence it’s not hard, there are no magic formulas, we just need to find the way that works for us.  I’m interested that even hardened atheists can find a way to pray.  During the heady days of communism in Russia, party stalwarts used to keep pictures of Lenin in places where traditionally Russians might have kept an Orthodox Christian icon.  Pravda the national newspaper had this advice to readers in the 1950’s:

If you meet with difficulties in your work, or sudden doubt in your abilities, think of him – Stalin – look at his picture and you will find the confidence you need.  If you feel tired, think of him, and your work will go well.  If you are seeking a correct decision think of him – Stalin – and you will find that correct decision.”  It sounds very much like prayer to me!

Sadly in our consumer driven world prayer has often been reduced to asking God for things.  God is often asked to bend normality to give us a special favour.  It’s the capitalist consumerist take on prayer.  I learned a lesson early in my life about prayer.  I tried to enlist God’s help to ensure the All Blacks beat their dreaded foe the Springboks in South Africa. As a young boy I set about some very earnest praying in the Roslyn Presbyterian church, all through a service of worship.  I was devastated afterwards when I learned the Springboks had defeated my team.  Didn’t God listen to me and yet I had prayed so earnestly.  I learned that God was simply quite happy to let the best team win on the day.  I’m sure God did care about my sense of loss and my passion for my team, God also desired that I might grow up and see a bigger picture of life!   Just focusing on my wants and the desires of my ego wasn’t going to really benefit me nor the kingdom of God.  It’s a pretty silly example but it does reflect the modern state of prayer. If only we can twist God’s arm we can get God to do things for me.  I still find it interesting that people can ask me to pray to pray for things believing that as a minister I may have more pulling power to influence God’s mind. Some may suggest thats what our little gospel story we read this morning is all about.  Piling the pressure on God so God will give in and give us what we ask for.  Simple answer: NO. Go back and read the introduction and the point of the story is persistence of prayer. 

When you hear the word widow in our scriptures think downtrodden, neglected, isolated.  Women weren’t expected to seek out judges (that’s men’s role), and clearly she has no means to bribe the court officials like everyone else did to get their case heard.  Her only weapon is her voice and her passion for justice.  And note it’s not some individual want she is after but justice and justice is dear to God’s heart.  She doesn’t give up, she persists, and she believes she will be heard even by a corrupt uncaring judge!  How much more will the source of love and life listen.  We may pray in a half-hearted way when we need or want something, but most of the time we are content and manage life by ourselves.  Jesus is saying prayer is something that should persistently be part of our lives, anchoring our lives, guiding our lives, connecting with what God wants in our lives.  Constant, persistent, part of our everyday pattern.  

What is needed in our consumer world is a new understanding of prayer as paying attention to what God wants.  In our time I believe the purpose of prayer that God wants to emphasise is transformation – transformation of our very beings.  I believe we need to see prayer as a spiritual practice or discipline which helps transforms our lives, to make them truer, more authentic, more centred in God.   Prayer is like opening a door to a friend.  It’s not rocket science, but we need to bear in mind we have two ears and only one mouth. When we open the door and engage with a friend there may be words, but we may simply share silence.  Instead of sending words off out there somewhere to get God to do things, we need to recapture prayer as a time God connects with us deep to deep.  I go for a morning walk, and sometimes I talk to God on the walk, but mostly I just walk in stillness.  I hear the birds singing greeting the new dawn, and something within is transformed.  As you are aware I have started a mediation group that meets weekly but encourages a daily practice of mediation.  I’m still working into that daily practice, but I can report I find it encouraging and helpful to meet with others to meditate and pray. You are welcome to join us, but I know it’s not for everyone.  In the quietness of mediation which happens as I focus on a word as a mantra I believe I connect with God deep to deep.  It’s not a matter of words, but of a deep connection in the silence and in the moments where my chaotic ego driven mind stills.  I am transformed.  It’s not dramatic and it required ongoing discipline and effort. There are other activities that  may encourage this deep connection.   

I think this is why Jesus so often stressed the need to find a quiet place to pray.  He talked of going into the inner room which I see as the deeper place of my being.  In the stillness I am aware of being opened to a bigger presence, being embraced by a deep love, an enlightening power.  Prayer is about changing and transforming me, so that I am no longer blown this way and that by the hungers and desires of my ego but instead find a deeper moral foundation that allows me to stand against the tide. 

Of course that doesn’t mean we give up on words.  Like the widow we should cry out to God and voice our deepest longings.  Recently I was wrestling with an issue in my life and I prayed that God might give me insight.  About two hours later someone phoned me and talked for a while about some issue in their life.  In concluding they happened to just mention something out of the blue which just seemed like an answer to the question I had been wrestling with.  I guess someone might say it was all coincidence and wishful thinking but I choose to believe otherwise.  When we share our deepest desires and longings with God expect an answer.

Prayer, like all spiritual practices, is about becoming more centred in God. It is about learning what matters to God in our lives.  Centring in God changes us and transforms us.  If you know me you’ll know there is plenty of transformation still needed!   Paul said prayer should bear fruit…. These fruits are many but the most important are compassion, authenticity, courage, and gratitude. 

I don’t know if you caught the last line of this morning’s parable.  I suspect the gospel writer saw a community around him that neglected prayer and so adds a little note.  When Jesus returns will he find people who are faithful in prayer.  I with Luke want to say that without constant practice of prayer together and as individuals we will wither as communities of faith.  We all know the institutional church is dying.  My response is to say look at our prayer life. I often hear messages like we need to do more in our community, or we need to change the way we do things to be more relevant as a church.  I think if there one thing we need it is a more persistent and active practice of prayer.  My deep hope for us as the St Martins church family is that as a community of faith we might all know the importance of prayer and we might like Florrie say “let us pray” more often.   

Dugald Wilson 20 Oct 2019

If you want to watch the movie

Google Pearl, Florrie and the Bull and you should be directed to the You Tube clip of the movie.

Be Grateful

Importance of saying Thank You…. Luke 17: 11-19

There is something I think I can guarantee we all want.  There is something that we all look for.  There is something you would spend a lot of money for.  There is something I bet you wish your neighbour has too.  I’m thinking of happiness.  You and I want to be happy, we want everyone to be happy.

Happiness is a strange thing.  Actually I don’t think you can buy it. 

Rich people are often unhappy people and people with not so much are often happier people.

Maybe happiness can be linked to circumstance.  When everything goes sweetly in our lives we can be happy.  But then I think of people I know who seem to have all sorts of misfortune and who radiate a sense of happiness. 

I have a hunch that happiness is closely connected with something else in our lives – our sense of gratefulness.  Happy people are grateful people.  One of the quotes on our service sheet says simply, ‘you cannot be truly happy without being grateful first’.  

Wealthy people are often unhappy because they simply want more and they are not grateful for what they have.  People who have great misfortune can radiate happiness because they still have a sense of gratitude even though life has dished up some hard times. 

Without gratefulness I don’t think we can be truly happy.

But what is gratefulness?  Where does gratefulness come from.  Two people can watch a magnificent sunset and one goes, ‘ho hum the sun has set nice colours’, and the other goes, ‘wow, what an amazing  magnificent sight, how fortunate I have been to be part of it.’  Gratefulness arises within us when we experience something we value as a gift.  We experience something we value like a magnificent sunset and we know we haven’t made it happen, we haven’t earned it, we haven’t purchased it.  It’s generous gift to us.   Religious people will often say it is a gift from God.  You can probably think of some amazing experiences for which you’ve been grateful.  Sun rise, birth of a child, someone listening, the love of a friend, shelter in a storm.  When we are grateful happiness is not far away.

Have you noticed some people are grateful people.  They radiate a deep happiness.  You sometimes wonder what they’ve been smoking.  I wonder how they do it?  Part of coming to worship every Sunday is an opportunity to be grateful.  We sing songs of thanks, we offer prayers of gratefulness and thanksgiving.  Our liturgy encourages us to develop thankful grateful hearts through our worship together.  I think we often miss the opportunity. 

 I think we often miss the opportunity in our daily lives to be grateful.  We are too busy, we are too preoccupied and living out of the moment, we are anxious and fearful, we are too worried about what others think, or standing out in some way.  What if we saw every moment of our lives as amazing gift, as opportunity?  I think we would be happier.

I’m not saying we should be grateful for everything that happens, because there are plenty of things in life that we should not be thankful for… violence, war, loss of someone we value, uncaring hurtfulness, but we can be grateful in every moment even when we are confronted with pain and conflict.  In every moment there will be opportunities for good.  I can be grateful for that.  Why is it for example that when I show you a piece of paper with a little black dot on it we tend to notice the black dot and not be thankful for the rest of the sheet which has all sorts of opportunity to write and draw on or even the other side which has complete opportunity to do something creatively with.  It’s just the black dot we notice rather than the opportunity of the blank page!

I think we can learn to be grateful and happy.  We can build what I call spiritual practices into our lives to enhance our sense of gratitude.  There is a little technique we learn when we are young about crossing the road.  It is just three words: ‘Stop, Look, Go’.  I  invite to take these words into your life as a spiritual practice that will bring more gratefulness and happiness into your life. 

Stop – Make time in your life to be still – hit pause more often in your day to make space to ponder and be aware of what is happening.  Build some stop signs into your day where you reflect on simple things like turning on the tap and getting a supply of fresh clean water.  Saying grace before a meal is one of those stop signs.  Maybe it’s making time at the beginning or the end of the day to reflect.  Some people write a gratefulness journal.  Someone else I know has a practice in their life of spending a few minutes each night to review their day and name at least three things they are grateful in that day.  But we all need stop time if we are going to build gratefulness and happiness in our lives. . 

Look – ponder, reflect.  Savour the experiences of life in your heart.   Some of us have lived in places where there is little fresh clean water and we know the value of this gift that comes at the turn of a tap.  Or when you switch on the light pause for a moment and reflect on the ingenuity that gives us energy so easily.   Notice the intricacy of the flowers in your garden, the hard working bees pollinating, the trees converting carbon dioxide into oxygen so we can live.  Notice the love that others share with you. When someone asks ‘how you are’, notice the love and concern that is behind the question.  We take so much for granted in our busy lives and we are the poorer for it.  It is not a giant clockwork universe we live in, but wonderfully rich, gracious world where we are constantly on the receiving end of gifts.  Notice this and you will be more grateful and happier.  Notice the buds opening, the birds singing, the fresh scents the sunset and think ‘gift’.    

Go – and as you stop and look and notice, let your life be changed.  Let the gratitude make you a happier person, and more generous person.  Let your life be healed.  Let it be well.  Let it be thank-full and let the thankfulness radiate from you.  Let it bring shalom into the world.  Don’t keep it bottled in but share it, affirm others with it.  Psychologists are now telling us that there is a huge amount of scientific research behind the positive impact of showing gratitude.  It enhances the neurotransmitters, serotonin, and dopomines. When we are grateful we change our cognitive processes and we notice more things to be thankful for.  Another quote…God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today.  Have you used at least one to be thankful... to express thanks.  Saying thank you is one of the most powerful things you can do for others, and it’s a great way to give witness to your faith in God the amazing gift giver!

A grateful person will help save the planet because they will share more and consume less.

A grateful person enjoys differences in others and will respect others who are different.

A grateful person is happy with who they are and less likely to be violent and abusive to those around them.

A grateful person will be more joyful .

A grateful person will often be more aware of God and gifts of God.

The Crazy Father

Luke 15:1-3, 11-24

Jesus upset the Pharisees, the good religious folk of his day.    What sort of God did he represent? He mixed with the wrong people, enjoyed life and parties, and worse openly welcomed people that were considered sinners and beyond the pail.  When the Pharisees grumbled he simply told some stories.  There was the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the story we read this morning. 

It begins with a simple little opening.  A man had two sons and the younger comes and asks for his inheritance – half the farm.  “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” And so the father divides the property and gives him his share.    We read these words with ease but I invite you to stop and reflect what you might do if one of your children came and said, “I would like my inheritance now.”  I can almost guarantee you’ll react inside at least with some anger and hurt.  In Middle Eastern culture the father reigned supreme.  No true son would dream of asking this question, and if he did, he could expect a very clear message.  Asking for your inheritance now is rude, inappropriate, and unacceptable.  Further, this father knew the character of the son.  He was the wild impulsive one and the father would know that there was every chance that the land would be cashed up and the proceeds wasted and lost to the family forever.  Everyone listening would simply expect the father to say ‘no’ and to tell the disrespectful son to go jump! 

But this father is screw loose, crazy, different.  He simply let’s the son have his way.  He simply lets the son make his wild choices and instead of putting him in his place lets him freely choose his path.

It didn’t take long for the worst fears of everyone to be realized as the younger son cashed in the assets and head off to another country turning his back on his dad, his family, and his religion.  You can just imagine what the village gossips were saying about the crazy father, and maybe you can just imagine how the father felt as his younger son left possibly without even a word of farewell.  In the background the older son was absolutely fuming and would have gladly wrung his brother’s neck.  He could see his dad hurting.  The family had not only lost half their farm but were now deeply troubled and divided.

The younger son meanwhile was having a great time.    My Bible says he “squandered the money in dissolute living.”  That’s living without moral constraint, or as we might say loose living – parties, wild living, women, fast cars, and booze. 

It didn’t last, and just as the money ran out a severe famine hit the far off land and the son disassociated from any of the normal support networks finds himself at rock bottom.  A Jewish boy ends up feeding pigs wishing he could eat what the pigs were eating.  You can’t get much more desperate as a Jew.  He is in a distant country isolated and lonely.  There is it seems no-one who would know or care what was going on inside him.  He is lost.  He is far away from his father’s home.  Both literally and figuratively there is a deep void and emptiness within. The story simply says he came to his senses.  It is often the way that it takes a deep crises to face up to things in our lives.  For the son it was time to swallow whatever little pride he had  left and realize there was a better life back home.   This wasn’t going to be easy – he had no idea how he might be received.  There would be anger no doubt and judgment, and things could never be as they were.  But maybe there would also be some mercy , just a little mercy and he could serve as a labourer on the farm.  And so he prepares his little speech that comes from deep within.  Father I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me like one of your hired hands.  It’s his only hope of life, so this bedraggled, skin and bone lump of  flesh sets off with his last play of the dice. 

Word travels and while he was still  far off the scriptures tell us the father saw him and was “filled with compassion.”  Full up with Compassion.  The father ran to meet him….. no father in these times ran it simply wasn’t the done thing.  The queen would never run in public.  He immediately throws his arms around him and kisses him a sign of welcome and acceptance that even in our culture we understand well.  I might add that this welcome I believe would have saved the son from a stoning at the hands of the locals who would not want this boy back in their midst.  They remembered well how he had shamed his family and turned his back on them all and in typical middle eastern fashion they would ensure he didn’t come back into their midst. 

The boy however is oblivious.  He knows he’s really gone off the rails so even after the welcome from his Dad he splutters out his little speech.  Father I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son, treat me like one of your hired hands.  But the father simply doesn’t hear him.  He’s busy ordering his servants to bring a robe – the family robe- to put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. These are all the signs that this boy is not a servant but is one of the family, and not only one of the family but an important respected key member of the family- a son.  The father orders the fatted calf to be killed, – my Bible has a little note: meat was not often eaten so killing the fatted calf was a sign of a very special celebration, and of course this little episode has lived on in our language where still we use the metaphor of killing the fatted calf to signify a special celebration.

The father blesses him with the gift of amazing acceptance. Despite the hurt, the disaster of his life, there is grace and acceptance.  You are mine.  My son was dead but now he is alive, and they began to celebrate….well all but the faithful older son who was fuming…..judging…..and unbeknown to him as lost as the younger son was.  He has never left home.  He has always done the right thing.  He was a good boy and a model son.  He has never rebelled or turned his back on his dad or family, but sadly he has also never really got to know his father and the compassion that was key to his character.  There’s no way he’s going to accept this younger son – not after what he did and the hurt he’s caused.  There is no compassion, just judgment.

So why does Jesus tell this story and what do you make of the story?  Who do you think you resonate with in terms of your life?  The younger son, the older son, the father?  Maybe a bit of all of them.

I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found- in the search for success, in the making of money, in seeking the praise of others.   I know in my heart the far off place – the distant country.  I know the fathers love, but I forget.  My rebellion is Adam’s rebellion: the rejection of God in whose love we are created and by whose love we are sustained.  It is the rebellion of the world around me, where overflowing compassion is irrational and crazy.  It’s simply not how the world works…. But it is how God works.     

I am also the older son, the good boy who tries to please the father in the hope that this will earn my salvation.  I keep busy doing good things hoping this will please God and obtain the eternal stamp of approval my soul longs to know. 

But isn’t the story really about the father.  The crazy father.  I often call this story the story of the crazy father because that’s what the father was.  Absolutely crazy.  Irrationally compassionate.  Totally at odds with the way of the world.

But I do see.  I see the carving before us and am reminded that God is a crazy father who never stops believing and never stop longing, and never stops longing to bless.  Every so often it rubs off and I find my true self, I come to my senses and I live the life God intended.  I am no longer lost or alienated but caught up in the compassion of God I too am compassionate.  Praise God! 

Here in this story the spiritual mystery of my life is unveiled. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. But the crazy Father is always out looking for me and you with outstretched arms to welcome us back and whisper again in our ear: ‘You are my Beloved’.‘   Such is the Father that we see in Jesus Christ our Saviour.  Such is the good news of Jesus who invites us to put our trust in our God of crazy compassion.

The banquet

The Banquet…. Isaiah 25: 6-10, Luke 14:15-24,

Have you ever noticed that Jesus liked a good nosh up.  He talks a lot about feasts.  He turned the water into wine at Cana to have a good banquet.  Zacchaeus had an interesting meal with him, Simon the Pharisee got more than he bargained for when he invited Jesus to a banquet.  The feeding of the 5000….The upright Pharisees accused him of eating and drinking too often and too much. 

Feasts still are an important part of most cultures.  Take a wedding feast for example.  Some of you will remember agonising over the guest list trying to decide who to invite and who to leave off.  Those you invite are honoured and those you leave off are … well sometimes it turns into major family issues.  Ouch….The insiders belong, the relationship with the host is strengthened, but for those on the outer there is a message that somehow they don’t matter so much.  That hurts.  Then there’s the food because you want the best for your guests, but there are also practical issues like costs.  The last thing you want is people going home hungry or thinking that was a stingy affair.  Feasts are a celebration and you want the assembled guests to have a good time.  There are all sorts of important messages being conveyed in feasts.

In Middle Eastern culture where hospitality is such an important virtue, magnify this by ten.  Feasts were and remain incredibly important.  

Our scriptures have stories and images about a special feast called the Messianic Banquet.  The idea is that sometime in the future when the earth is transformed according to the will of God, God will host a great feast.   In Christian imagery it also marks the return of Jesus although in my eyes Jesus remains with us in Spirit.  

Whenever we celebrate Communion we are remembering the Messianic banquet…. And our scriptures quote Jesus as saying at the Last supper that he looked forward to the time when he would share a meal with all people at the great reunion. I wonder if you have any thoughts of what that may look like?  (No more hunger because everyone well fed, healing of all the barriers, caring for creation, Shalom – Peace)

Our passage from Isaiah is pre Jesus but it’s typical of the images we have about this great banquet.  Remember as with so much of our scriptures you need to turn on your imaginary brain, your poetic brain, which we are not always good at.

On this mountain the Lord of all hosts will throw a feast for all the people of the world, a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food lavish with gourmet desserts.  And God will banish the pall of gloom hanging over all peoples, the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations, and God will swallow up death forever.  God will wipe away the tears from all faces and every sign of disgrace of his people.  All will be well fed, and all the earth will be healed and resonate with the joy of salvation.  What an image.

You can hear the resonance with the final passages in the book of Revelation.  There is a new intimacy between God and humanity.  The shroud referred to is the temple curtain that separated people and God.  Heaven and earth become one as all peoples sit down to the great feast hosted by God with the best wine and food.  Exquisite flavour, goodness, rich food.  MasterChef eat your heart out.

But note who is there…all peoples, all nations.

Actually that was too radical for the good religious folk in our past.  Around the time of Jesus there was a translation of some of the scriptures into Aramaic, the everyday language of the day.  This added text to try and explain what the original Hebrew said a little like the Living Bible or the Message does in our own day.  It was called the Targum and in the Targum this vision of Isaiah is given a whole new twist.  All people will come to the mountain but also that they would be inflicted with plagues, plagues from which there would be no escape and they will come to their end.  Where did that come from?  The universal welcome is changed into judgment and destruction for the outsiders.

About the same time another piece of writing called the book of Enoch emerged and that too speaks of a great banquet with the Messiah to which the Gentiles were invited.  But Enoch tells us the angel of death will be present and will use his sword to destroy the Gentiles.  The banquet hall will run with blood and the select few believers will have to wade through the gore to reach the meal and sit down with the Messiah to enjoy the feast.

The Qumran Community also active in the time of Jesus and from whom we got the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered last century has a number of writings about the Messianic banquet have yet another take on who would be invited.  It was a feast for the pure ones, the faithful ones who were part of the select community.  So the Gentiles didn’t even get a look in, but neither did anyone with a disability, the blind, the deaf, or anyone smitten with a visible blemish which clearly was a sign of God’s disfavour.  Oh dear,  people can so often get the wrong end of the stick.  Only the select few who are good enough will be invited.

We are good in all sorts of subtle ways if putting up fences, deciding that some are worthy and some are not.  Jesus seems to have very different ideas. 

He asks his servants to go out and invite others to the feast.  I have to admit I’m not the greatest at going out and inviting others but I’m in good company. 

In a typical Middle Eastern village the host of the banquet invites a group of friends.  On the basis of the acceptances they will design the menu and prepare the food.  On the appointed day the beast are slaughtered and the meal prepared.  When everything is ready the host will send his servants around the village with the message, “please come, everything is ready”.  We do it a little differently.  We invite people for drinks and nibbles and then at the appointed time we say, come let’s sit down to eat.  Whatever when the appointed time came in Jesus’ story there are excuses.  I have to go and inspect a piece of land that I’ve just purchased…. I have just purchased a new car and need to give it a spin….I’ve just married and I want to spend some time in the bedroom. 

Only if you think about it these excuses are not very genuine.  Have you ever purchased a house without looking at it first?  This is pre internet so there isn’t even a picture to look at.  No-one purchases without some sort of pre-inspection.  I guess it could be that there has been a negotiation in the wind for a while that needs to be settled immediately, but that isn’t what the text says.  The response in the text is simply lame and insulting.  So is the second.  You don’t buy a car without a test drive.  You certainly don’t buy yoked oxen without trialling them.  Do they work well together?  They will be hopeless if they don’t pull as a team.  As with props in a scrum you have to get balanced pulling or pushing power or else everything screws around.  No farmer will even bid on a pair of oxen without testing them carefully.  It is an insulting response.  And the third man doesn’t even ask to be excused.  I have a new woman in my bedroom and I am busy with her.   It is rude and insulting.

The master hears the three responses and is angry.  He has been stood up, and he is insulted.  Those invited simply don’t value the master and what he stands for.  The master has been slapped in the face and it hurts, but the anger is channelled into something positive.  Go out into the streets and byways and bring in the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame.  The master could have gone after the three so called friends and found some way to get back at them for their rude-ness but instead he channels the anger into grace.  Such is the character of the master.  The everyday people, the nobodies, the common-folk are invited and welcomed into the banquet.  There is no expectation of an invite back because it’s simply not possible for these folk. And despite the fact that there is many of them, there is still room, and so the invitation is issued wider to those who naturally will respond, ‘what me, impossible, look at who I am!”  Some gentle persuasion is required to convince these folk to accept the invitation because the master and they are poles apart.  Why would he invite me?  The Master is a gracious being who seems to care for everyone.

The final sentence is addressed to all of us.  For I tell you none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.  This sounds harsh and judgmental but they were invited and I believe the door would have been open had they changed their minds and come.  God is always invitational giving us the freedom to choose yes or no.

It’s sobering to realise that Jesus was aiming these remarks at good religious folk who one suspects had become well settled in their faith and were no longer open to the leading and activity of God in their midst.  We know it all.  We have God nicely boxed up.  This parable gives me a little jolt to open my eyes wider, to open my mind further, to know I have much more to learn and experience in my journey with God.  It’s actually easy for insiders to make themselves outsiders as their faith and religion becomes simply a settled place of comfort and not an ongoing journey of discovery, learning, and celebration of God’s grace. 

For Jesus the banquet is not just something in the future, but it has begun.  Remind yourself often of the great goodness and grace of God.  What an amazing earth we have been gifted with.   What opportunity we have been given in our lives.  What good fortune has been ours in fining a home in this land called Aotearoa.  What hope we have because God has reached out to invite us to join the feast and to look forward to the culmination when Shalom will be found in every corner of our planet.  

And knowing this  is not the challenge of this parable really to invite others to the banquet of grace and belonging where God welcomes us all. 

Dugald Wilson 8 September 2019