Seedtime to Harvest

Twenty two years ago I was reflecting on the décor for my expected baby’s nursery. I decided to go with Noah’s ark. That would be cute. Pairs of animals placidly walking up a gangplank to salvation. Beautiful sunsets each evening on the deck with animals contentedly making their respective noises. How sweet.
Never mind the backdrop to the story. In Genesis 6 we read of God’s deep displeasure with creation. Human violence has corrupted the perfect home that our Creator fashioned for us. Evil seemed to be the mark of being human and any hints of that divine spark within each one of us was extinguished. Except for one family, God would purge the evil with a flood, doing a reboot to this earth with a nucleus of just one family. Such a cute story! Watching the torrential rains fall unceasingly in Texas last week was not fun entertainment. That original water chaos in Genesis was terrifying: drowning on a scale never seen before nor since. All human efforts and wildlife were destroyed—save for one boat carrying precious cargo on an endless sea. A great bedtime story for my little newborn!

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We jump ahead to chapter eight when the waters finally recede. Noah and his crew are able to leave the boat and we see what God saw in this man: faith. Noah builds a fire and sacrifices from his cache of protected animals to express his gratitude to the God who saved him. It is the odor of this blessed barbeque that captures God’s attention. In fact, this act of worship seems to turn God’s heart. Never again, the architect of our world proclaimed. The divine spark in Noah fanned into full flame as he recognized God’s mercy in the protection of his family from death. We are given a rare insight into God’s own heart. We almost hear God singing an original song:
“As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

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The basic rhythms to a fruitful world shall resume. The rhythms that we take for granted to a world that flourishes through predictable seasons will continue. So as Noah’s world dried out, the surviving seeds performed their duty: they took root, grew, and produced a harvest.

In 2003 several of us from our congregation went to a building seminar because the idea of adding on to our facility had been brewing for a good long while. Another group went to a seminar in 2007 to lay the groundwork for such a bold endeavor. We decided not to hire an outside fundraiser but put before our people the opportunity to contribute to a wing that would house offices and classrooms for our growing children’s program. I don’t think that any of us at that 2007 seminar could have imagined that a mere two years later, amidst a national recession that crushed most dreams, we would begin raising money to turn this dream into a reality. But we moved forward because a relatively small group of members said they thought we should finally launch the building program. They were ready to back this with their own money. In July of 2009 the machinery started cranking forward for this wing where our children now sit with their teachers learning to love Jesus.
By the time we broke ground our congregation was sick of hearing appeals for the building fund. It took us almost three long years to get ready to build so that we could honor the conviction that we build it mortgage free. Who does that these days? What kind of a crazy vision is that? Maybe something ludicrous like Noah and his family hammering boards together in an arid climate to construct an enormous boat. That must have stood out from the landscape like the concrete castle on the southern end of Grand Rapids! “What on earth is this monstrosity”, Noah’s townspeople must have laughed!
But we listened to each other during this seed-planting time. We took the necessary amount of time to raise the money and watch the vision take root and grow. We made prayerful decisions about the blueprint, using our own members as builder and architect. We chose an exterior design that would honor our historic building. We incorporated the needed technology of cables, carrier, and countless other decisions. What if a few people had bulldozed their way into this project, pushing it along faster and dishonoring the voices from the congregation? It took us 2 ½ years of wrangling with the City of Rockford to tear down a house immediately south of our sanctuary where the driveway now swings through. We took the time needed and God granted us victory time and again so that our plan for a Christian Education Wing could serve us well. The Sunday that we dedicated it to God’s service our children tore up a faux mortgage document. Now, seven years later, our Sunday School classrooms will be used several weeks per year as temporary shelter for homeless families. We could not have considered becoming a Family Promise congregation without that wing. Many times one harvest leads to another because we use in faith what we have to shape the future. From seed time to harvest, we invited God to walk with us.
My father-in-law loved seeds. He was a science teacher, a botanist really, and he collected seeds wherever he went. In the last years of his life, as his eyesight failed him and he could no longer drive, he would direct us to certain places so that he could retrieve his beloved seeds. One day we were driving from a doctor’s appointment in Grand Rapids and he asked if we could swing over to Woodlawn Cemetery. “Of course”, I replied with curiosity. Although he couldn’t see well he knew which meandering trail to follow through the cemetery. We arrived alongside a tree with branches that were within reach from his car window. He told me there was a very small window of time that the seeds from this tree would be available and this was one of those days. I will never forget the image of this old man reaching out for seeds he would never be able to plant knowing that a good farmer always collects seeds for the next harvest.

The pivotal moment in this story about old Noah is found in Genesis 8:1: “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.”
A moment of Divine remembering changes the situation from hostility to commitment. God’s memory of a man and his family floating along in the watery mess of a sinful world brought an end to the deluge. In Job’s agony after suffering staggering loss, he cried out to God in Job 14:13: “Remember me.” Isn’t that our prayer? Job’s raw cries to his Maker remind us that our prayers don’t have to be polite. The Psalms are full of human emotions and questions launched at God: How long, O Lord? Why do the evil prosper? Why do my enemies surround me? Where are you, my God? We cry out like the forebears in our faith and God answers.
What is our response when we realize that our prayers have been heard? We remember God! We sacrifice, like old Noah did with his sea legs finally on terra firma. And God smells the fragrant aroma of our gratitude and promises, “Never again.”
Dr. Hugh McKean of Chiengmai, Thailand, tells of a church of four hundred members where every member tithes. The Biblical mandate is that we offer a tithe—10% of our financial well-being for holy purposes. These Christians receive a weekly wage of forty stangs (which is less than a quarter) and their rice. Out of this meager wage, each contributes 10% to their church. Because of this, they have done more for Christ in Thailand than any other church. They pay their own preacher and have sent two missionary families to spread the gospel in a community cut off from the outside world. They are intensely interested in all forms of Christian work, especially work for unfortunates of every kind. They have not only accepted Christ, but, having found Him good, they are making Him known to others. And one other interesting fact about this church of all tithers: every member of this generous congregation has leprosy. From their tiny harvest they plant seeds for the growth of Christ’s kingdom!
The greatest generosity typically comes from those who understand suffering, those who know what it is to be dependent on the care of others. Those who have been in dire straits live with gratitude for God’s mercy and want to give back. In our times of need we are particularly reminded that we are utterly dependent on God. Like Noah, we offer our thanks through humble worship and sacrifice.

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Generations after faithful Noah climbed into an ark in obedience to a dishonored God, the prophet Isaiah served as the mouthpiece for this same God. The people to whom he preached had strayed far from the divine plan for their lives. They had been overtaken and carried off into captivity. They marched hundreds of miles away from their homeland and sat in despair as slaves of the Babylonians. Disheartened by their defeat Isaiah offered words of promise from the God they were sure had abandoned them: “But now, this is what the LORD says- he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.’”

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Noah’s ark: a sweet bedtime story for our children? Not so much! But it carries within its tale of destruction the love of a God who provides a bountiful harvest in spite of our sin. That’s the good news we share with each new generation.



Years ago a group of us from the church were heading to the Corner Bar for a meeting. I felt somewhat self-conscious about appearances: So this is the church that does its business in a bar! What would people think? But as we approached the building a group of folks from our sister church on Bostwick Lake were laughing as they were leaving the establishment. They had clearly hashed out congregational issues in our local tavern. Inside Father Tom was holding court around a large table with some of his parishioners. Whatever sense I had of impropriety quickly disappeared as we colleagues greeted each other warmly and settled in to do our ecclesial business.

As I read the story from Luke 15 I picture Jesus sitting in the Corner Bar with a slew of folks who were more hungry for his teaching than for a chili dog! It’s a ragtag crew who are on the bottom rung of the social ladder. In this chapter of Luke we have the religious bigwigs watching in on what Jesus is doing. This time He is offering radical hospitality, welcoming those who NEVER get the honor of meeting traveling celebrities, let alone sitting at table with Him as honored guests. They are delighted but the scribes and Pharisees are appalled. Their reaction to this table fellowship is to grumble. Why would the great and powerful Jesus seek out these losers? They sensed that they were being replaced! Anyone who knew how to run a campaign understood that they were the folks to invite to a banquet. But Jesus sat at the local pub eating guacamole and chicken wings with the least and the lost.

A beautiful message from this scene is that we are lost to someone who is actively seeking us out.

Many times those in power don’t want the peasants in their fiefdom to find redemption. There’s a certain social order that has been in place for ages: folks of varied economic strata sit atop each other in a community and those on the bottom know to stay there. The high and mighty need to be needed and offering the lowly a chance to climb out of poverty, sin, and dependency throws off this order. In verse one it states that the tax collectors and sinners were “hearing” Jesus. This implies an element of repentance and conversion to a new and more holy way of life. This was threatening to the leaders for whom the status quo was advantageous. Luke is the advocate for social justice and in this part of his Gospel the parables are about a radical hospitality that seeks to forgive and restore.

Sometimes we step in to save people from their plight. But we don’t really want to socialize with them. We like it when they still rely on us and love it when they thank us. Our “saving”, particularly in the Church, can stem from judgmental attitudes expressed as pity. Jesus saves them by teaching them of a new way of life and sits at table with them. Eating a meal with someone requires trust. It necessitates an effort at two-way conversation. To welcome someone offers intimacy whereas saving a soul can preserve a distance between us. Do we seek to save or welcome the lost among us?

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When have you searched for something—like turned the house upside down—and found it? I remember when we were getting ready to go on a long-awaited summer vacation. We had about $600 in cash set aside in an envelope that was going to help fund our road trip. I couldn’t find it. I looked everywhere. We were leaving on a Thursday and it was Tuesday night. I couldn’t think of another place that I hadn’t already examined. On Tuesday night we take our trash can down the driveway to be picked up first thing Wednesday morning. I took my son out with me to the garage and said we needed to comb through the trash before putting it on the curb. I didn’t dare assume that it wasn’t in there, thus sending our vacation money to a landfill. He was less than enthused about the task but we dug together. This is when we had four children at home and our trash bin was full each week. So we went through plastic bags of garbage, napkins, stinky cat food cans and yucky things you forget are in your trash until you have to dig through it! About four kitchen trash bags down, layered with other cast off pieces of mail, I found the envelope. It had goop on the outside of it but inside were the clean bills ready to fund our time away. I grabbed on to my startled son and held the envelope out before him. I’m not sure he had fully appreciated the loss until he saw hundred dollar bills emerge from a trashed envelope. He still remembers that moment we shared when the lost was found, our seeking paid off, and we threw a joyful party in the humble setting of our garage! When have you searched diligently for something of great value and found it?

In these two parables we are reminded that we are the lost items: the coin that held the value of a day’s wage or the sheep, 1% of the shepherd’s flock? It might appear that we play a passive role in this story, hiding out in a dusty corner unable to change our own destiny. But there is something required of the lost: they have to be willing to be found. Like the four crewmen trapped in the enormous capsized ship this past week off the coast of Georgia, we have to be tapping on the metal sides of our confined quarters so that the rescuers are given a hint of where to find us.

Scott Bader-Saye writes, “What is it to ‘lose faith’ but to lose the conviction that one has been found, to begin to wonder whether one is sought at all—whether there is in fact a shepherd or a peasant woman tracking us down? To those whose lost object is faith itself, these parables whisper that losing faith—that is, becoming like the tax collector and sinner rather than the Pharisee and scribe—is to have wandered into the place where one can be found.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, page 72)

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Early in my ministry I knew a pastor who had five sons: four were ordained pastors and the fifth was homeless. He struggled with mental illness and never wished to receive medical care for his condition. His family sought him out to take him to doctor appointments, even to put him in an institution where he would be well cared for. He didn’t want this. His life on the street and sleeping in shelters on cold nights was acceptable to him. When his father died he wandered into the funeral because word had somehow reached him, arriving late and leaving early. Afterwards he drifted back to the places where he felt he belonged. His mother lived a long life and died still broken-hearted that she could not rescue this son who he never saw himself as lost.

To lose our faith is to wander into a place where we can finally be found. When we are certain of ourselves and have pat answers to all our theological questions, we are more lost than the tax collectors and sinners. Our sin is that we have forgotten that we all are lost and that someone is actively seeking us out. The Scribes and Pharisees were the religious insiders and they had no concept that they, as they stood on the periphery of the crowd casting aspersions on Jesus’ ministry, needed to repent in order to be found. Who are the outcasts in our world? Do we take time out of our busy schedules to assist them knowing that there may not be a word of thanks and that their plight may not improve significantly? When did your investment in someone outside your usual circle of friends turn out to be pivotal to your life’s path? There’s a bumper sticker that says, “MY RESCUE DOG RESCUED ME.” When have you reached out a helping hand to a stranger and discovered that you were the one in need of saving?

Penny Nixon shared a story in her reflection on this text: “Religious insiders can still be easily threatened in the sharing of a meal. Many churches put conditions on the Communion table. In fact, in one church people wearing rainbow sashes, indicating their solidarity with LGBT people, were refused Communion. A person who was offered Communion took his wafer and began to break it into pieces to share it with those who had been denied and deemed unworthy. The church officials, the religious insiders, called the police. How do we react when our nearness is threatened?” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4 edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, page 71)

What attitudes and secret prejudices need to be swept out of the dark and dusty corners of our hearts? Sometimes we surprise ourselves when we react to a situation and realize that our self-righteousness has blinded us to the needs of others. We have compromised their humanity in order to hang on to our narrow world view. Do we confess when this happens—because, if we’re honest, it happens to all of us at some point or another? Or do we push it back out of view, unexamined, justified, defended?

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Is there a time you were found when you hadn’t realized that you were lost? Did the disciples know they were lost before Jesus showed up on their turf and said, “Follow Me”? Was it only after the divorce that you realized how defeated you were, how your self-worth was in tatters and you had lost sight of your identity? Was it only after you started the new job, one that used your gifts and affirmed your talents, that you were able to recognize that the workplace from which you were fired was toxic? You had hung on to a position that had sapped your strength and left you questioning your worth. When were you found when you had no idea that you were lost?

The next parable in this part of Luke’s Gospel is that of the prodigal son. He parties till the cows come home, until the cash runs out and the job he has to take is grueling. The absence of the family he rejected weighs upon his heart. The pivotal moment for him is described in this way: “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger.” (Luke 15:17)

Is there a moment when you “came to yourself”, repenting of your sin and scanning the horizon for a Father who was exhausted, searching for you?

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These lost-and-found stories end with rejoicing. There is a party that is thrown for the community members to join in on the celebration that the object so earnestly pursued was found. How would you shape a rejoicing party? Who does it include? It’s interesting that God is portrayed as a woman in the parable of the lost coin. There is no other parable that presents the image of a woman for God. Remember the furor over the imagery used for God in the book, The Shack? God was portrayed as a jubilant dark-skinned woman cooking up comfort food in an aromatic kitchen. The Holy Spirit was depicted as a wisp of an Asian woman who appeared and disappeared at will, a sort of Holy Tinkerbell. The picture painted of Jesus was akin to a mountain man wearing Eddie Bauer flannel while chopping down trees in a Montana forest. Jesus is all-inclusive in these parables, making a man the savior in one parable and a woman the protagonist in the other. The male and female qualities of God are celebrated in this chapter of Luke’s Gospel that points the lost toward the Finder.

There are those with narrow boundaries who don’t wish to be challenged. Living in a world with safe parameters offers a sense of familiarity and “rightness” to which we cling. The Pharisees didn’t want redemption for the folks they determined beneath them on the social ladder. There was no joy among the religious celebrities watching the joyful interaction of lowly folks sitting with Jesus at the Corner Bar table next to theirs. They ground their teeth and the chili dogs churned in their stomachs as they agreed with one another, “We don’t party with folks like that!”

The good news/bad news of these parables is that Christ’s party will happen whether we like it or not! We can choose joy—or grumble—at this act of radical hospitality. The choice is ours. But the party is happening! Among us. Now. And we are invited! Amen.



Someone newly home from a trip shared that they were pretty sure the pilot of their flight was new to the job. The traveler said, “I base that on his pre-flight announcement, ‘We’re going to be taking off in a few…Whoa, here we go!’”
The folks in my congregation reconvened after the adventures of summer, jumping back into the waters of discipleship. We’re never done navigating that journey. There are always challenges that become points of learning. In some ways it’s always new so we hang on to each other in the church and kick off another program year with our sights set high!

Our local newspaper, The Rockford Squire, shared a story several years ago about trout that had been farmed in the Harrietta Fisheries Station. When they were mature, more than 30,000 were collected out of the hatchery and carried off in tankers. The trucks made their way to the Rogue River’s edge where they were shot through a pipe with a swoosh of water, landing in their new home! Imagine how terrifying that journey would be, leaving the still waters of their early development. But then imagine how amazing it must have felt to have a whole river to explore! All that their bodies had been designed to experience could be found in their new habitat. But there was work to be done with their independence. They had to search for their own food. They had to acclimate to a new environment, no longer coddled. At the right season they knew by instinct that they had to swim upstream, using all their energy to ensure the propagation of the species. It’s not easy to start a new life that requires a set of skills you haven’t yet developed.
For those of us baptized into the faith, we find ourselves swimming in water that is both exhilarating and challenging. The story from Luke’s 14 addresses what we have committed to as disciples. With our sights set on Jesus we pledge, like the very first believers, to follow Him whatever the cost. In this chapter of Luke we see how the stakes rise as we wade through it. Last week we reflected on Jesus’ teaching about table manners. Don’t just invite people to join you for a meal who can return the favor. Bring to your table folks of limited means, those who never receive invitations and make sure that everyone is equally welcomed and fed. As a guest, take the lowliest place for your seat rather than presuming that you are deserving of the best seat in the house! Humility. Gratitude. Loving acceptance were Christ’s lessons.

The reading that begins at verse 25 requires that we jump into the deep end! We can imagine people in the crowd asking Jesus what it costs to follow Him and He offers this unexpected answer. This is the only place in the New Testament where the word “cost” is used. What are we willing to give up so as to acquire something desirable? The Greek word involves a measure of sacrifice and personal loss. Where there is a cost to us, we have to expend effort. It isn’t something that just falls into our laps!
So what do we need to give up so that we can be joyful disciples? What does our baptism cost us in order to grow as followers of Jesus? The examples He gives are jarring! It might cost you your whole family: Your spouse, daughter, father, mother, son, in-laws! You may lose these relationships that are foundational to our self-understanding in order to more closely follow Jesus. How’s that for family values?! Folks come back to worship after a summer of roaming, resting and reuniting to hear this? What kind of crazy talk is Jesus spouting?

A word that jumps off the page of this scripture passage is the word “hate.” How many of you have or had a rule in your household that you can’t use the word “hate”? Why is that word forbidden? It’s so strong, isn’t it? Hate is what lurks behind the almost 300 mass shootings we’ve already had in our country this year. Hate undergirds wars in which our men and women, our daughters and sons are killed. The #metoo movement addresses hateful acts that violate and debase. We teach our sweet children that the word is off limits. Yet Jesus tells the large crowds following Him: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Wow! Did anyone stick around for the Discipleship 201 course? It’s a hard passage that confronted us as launched a new program year with enthusiastic families sitting attentively in the pews! I’ll blame it on the lectionary for putting this unpleasant story before us today!

As much as we’d like to reject this sermon, we recognize truth in it! At our summertime family reunions there are people we avoid. We have relatives whose values are very different from our own. After a gathering of kinfolk we have to explain to our children that Uncle Larry says things he shouldn’t and Cousin Amanda fights too much with her boyfriend and sometimes grampa drinks more than he should. We don’t choose our family and for many of us, things work out very well. Parents raise their children with loving acceptance, taking them to church so that they can learn that Jesus loves them! Children learn to share with each other. Parents model a sacrificial love for each other that the children absorb and emulate. Grandparents embrace grandchildren in healthy ways, adding to their base of support for navigating life.
But others are not so lucky—I mean, blessed—when it comes to FAMILY MEMBER ROULETTE. Dysfunction is the common denominator in the childhood of too many people, including those in our congregations. Walls are erected. Relationships are severed. Reunions are avoided. Divorce, addiction, exclusion, and abuse are named behind closed doors with a trusted counselor who tries to bring healing. We can’t choose our family but we can choose our closest relationships. Growing up, many of us had an “aunt” or “uncle” who wasn’t biologically related to us. We loved them and gave them titles usually reserved for blood relatives. In deep ties of friendship we discover the kind of intimacy that God intended for us in Christian community. These are the folks with whom we choose to spend our holidays if the family Christmas party leaves us feeling battle-weary and war-torn.

I took my dog with me when I headed to my family’s cottage for a week on the lakefront. He’s gone with me before. Family and friends come in as they are able to enjoy time away from chores and professional obligations. But a good portion of the time it’s just my dog and me. Hunter has always enjoyed the different smells on Lake Michigan. He patrols the beach and sniffs things in the woods as I let him out each morning. The main attraction for me each day is the sunset. I sit on a deck overlooking the lake and he comes with me. Hunter is older this year. Life is harder. He checked things out along the edge of the deck the first few nights. But the fourth night I noticed he wasn’t nearby. I had to stand up to locate him. He was sitting right near the house, quite a distance from the deck, looking right at me. He didn’t come when I called. He was so over the sunset! In fact, he seemed subdued, even depressed. When my kids came down near the end of the week I told them to take him home. It dawned on me that I hadn’t packed any of his friends for our week away. On the main floor we have a laundry basket that is filled with stuffed animals, bones, balls and other odd objects he has claimed as part of his community. When we leave for work each day, he goes to the basket, whining, and finds solace spending the day with them. When we are gone, he is NOT alone! When we are all home for the night and he’s been fed, he finds one of his furry friends, carries her around whining to celebrate what a beautiful moment it is for him. I realized that I had taken him away from his community and he would be better off alone at our house, but in the presence of his laundry basket village. I thought that staying with me in a lovely vacation spot was preferable to being left alone at home while folks were at work. But, when I left him in the cottage to run errands, he was completely alone in a manner I hadn’t considered. His many-colored, soft pals are a big part of his life when his human family is absent! Joe took him back on Thursday night and the reunion video was tender and sweet!

We gather in our churches from week to week because we care for one another. Some folks have extended family members who sit with them in worship. Others arrive with no previous history. There are deep friendships in our congregation and some folks are just getting to know each other. The beauty of life in a church is that we are forging those ties that turn acquaintances into family. The more we deepen our love for Jesus, the more we are drawn to others who share that faith perspective. We want to spend time with friends who will pray for and with us when times are tough. We are glad to be with people who begin each meal with grace, who teach their children Bible stories, who confess when they realize they’ve strayed and who are transparent about their faith struggles. In the setting of the Church our hunger for meaningful conversations is sated and these are the human ties we seek out. These bonds of Christian community are not meant to replace our biological families. Rather they broaden the base of support we establish so that, when we are shot into new waters with no warning, others will be with us to make sense of the unfamiliar tides.
In this passage Jesus makes it clear that commitment to a Christian lifestyle is not easy. He urges us to look at the people and circumstances that compete for our limited attention. What do we need to do to be joyful servants? What’s got to go and what should we add to our daily routine? Jesus uses the example of building a tower or fighting a war against 20,000 soldiers! He knows that we run up against seemingly impossible odds and mighty forces that would seek to distract us away from the life Christ offers. Jesus reminds this large crowd of fans that they must be ready to suffer—to carry their cross, a means of public execution—if they want to follow Him. This is not a good publicity ploy on His part! Why would we want to do this?

Those of us who are engaged in the life of faith know that there are gifts that come from our baptismal commitment. We find dear friends who become family. They walk with us in the ups and downs of life. We talk meaningfully in Bible Studies that support and challenge us. We roll up our sleeves in mission work and discover the joy that comes from helping others. We are reminded that prayer must be our primary conversation every day, a talk with Jesus that brings us peace even when we find we find ourselves in the cockpit on our first flight lesson and have to land the plane on our own. That was the experience of Australian Max Sylvester last week when his instructor passed out mid-flight! Air traffic controllers coached him into a safe landing as his wife and three young children watched from the ground. There will be times when we are out of our element. The question Jesus asks is “Where will you turn for help?” This passage invites us to reflect on who we choose for our community. It requires action. The result is we are transformed more and more closely into the ethics Jesus preached. We look in on our lives and realize that we are very different people than we were before we invited Jesus to direct our journey.

After the respite of summer church folks reconvened this past weekend to recommit to another program year of growing together in the love of Christ. We are not perfect—that’s the good news! But we are people who need each other and choose to swim up-river, soar to heavenly heights, with our sights set on the One who calls us His friends, Jesus Christ.


Table Manners

Just four years ago the FBI was brought to our fair town to investigate claims that a woman was actively looking to hire an assassin. Ann Marie Linscott, aged 48, had developed an intimate relationship with a married man in California. Ann Marie, also married at the time, decided to take matters into her own hands and get rid of the competition. She placed an ad on craigslist under the heading Freelance and several people applied for the job. She asked them to “eradicate a 56-year-old female living in California.” The three applicants found it surreal that this was the job description but decided that she meant business. Each reported her to the police who then turned to the FBI to determine if it was a credible threat.

In her interview with the police she admitted to her plan. When asked what she meant by “eradication” her answer reflected an arrogance that didn’t fit the situation: “Duh. Well to have her killed.”

Which begs the question, who’s the dimwit here? Ann Marie judged that the law enforcement officers were not so bright but, in fact, she was the one under surveillance. Her selfish desire to go to whatever lengths necessary to be with her lover cost her her freedom and ended her career.

By the way, Ann Marie was a therapeutic massage therapist at Riverview Athletic Club in Grand Rapds. Their website offered this recommendation of their employee: “Ann Marie is here to serve you, and help reduce your everyday stress, aches and pains with massages to relieve stress and promote wellness.” Hmmmm.

Jesus taught, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14: 11)

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Quite a few of our families have dropped kids off at college, helping them set up study areas and meeting their roommates. I attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota. On my corridor there was a triple room. I think it was originally intended as a double but enrollment numbers required that some freshmen add a person to their space. They slept on towering beds stacked three people high. There wasn’t enough room to sit up in the bed—you had to slide out, your life in peril if you were stuck with the top bunk! One of the “roomies” made a point of showing up as early as she was allowed. She let it be known that she wanted to grab the goods. Mind you, there wasn’t much to wrangle over but she had her choice of bed, closet and desk. By the time the other two students arrived, she was happily ensconced in the places of her choosing. It’s not that she got away with anything much better than the other two. What was apparent to the rest of us on the hall as she boasted of her early arrival, was that her ego was the driving force behind her place in the room. Fortunately for her, the other two were gentle souls who didn’t go against her selfishness and quietly took their places in the triple room. They were more readily embraced into dorm social life than the one who demonstrated that she was in it to win it!

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Do any of you have your name pieced together in stained glass? Probably not! Not too many new homes have stained glass windows painstakingly leaded together and on display in front parlors. But that used to be an esteemed way to honor a loved one. We are surrounded by names at the base of our sanctuary windows. On the rear-most window on the west side of the building two names are given: Henry and Horace Childs. I have wondered who they were and what role they played in the history of our congregation? In 1866 Henry bought a defunct mill along the Rogue River in the area where Bridgeway Church now gathers. He resurrected a dying business and the mill was humming along once again. That industry drew employees so homes and businesses grew up along with the mill. The area was named after Henry’s family—Childsdale. Eventually the train tracks were routed to go by the mill so that their product could be shipped. Henry deeded half the mill to his son, Horace who introduced new machinery into the production line. Horace and his wife, Frances, built a three-story, 30-room mansion overlooking Childsdale. Horace presented a striking image, remembered as one with flowing hair, a Prince Albert coat and sporting a black fedora. This was a success story until Horace fell in love with the postmistress, Maude, who worked out of the General Store of the village. Frances was furious and kicked him out. She took the kids and moved to Grand Rapids. The business declined and Horace ultimately lost his real estate holdings and his town’s respect. Former Rockford Squire journalist, Susie Fair, came into our sanctuary once to see whose names are on our windows. She laughed when she saw this father-son duo because they, apparently, used their means to make sure that their names were imprinted around our town. She described them as egotistical womanizers who had no involvement in the churches where their names still appear! (Rockford Squire, October 11, 2012, page 5)

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

What I love about Jesus’ stories are that they transcend cultures and time frames. They still speak to us today. We’ve all met folks who walk into a party and assume it’s all about them! Carly Simon captured it well in her song: “You walked in to the party like you were walking onto a yacht. Your hat strategically dipped below one eye. Your scarf it was apricot. You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte. And all the girls dreamed that they’d be your partner, they’d be your partner and you’re so vain. You probably think this song is about you….”

Who among us would seat ourselves at the head table at a wedding without an invitation to do so? The head table is understood to be privileged and assigned seating. But aren’t there turf wars at wedding receptions about who sits closest to the front, at the table with the parents, near the bathroom, with all the singles who come alone and don’t know anyone? Some folks come to a wedding or other important occasion ready to be offended if they aren’t treated right. We understand the common denominator in the stories about the Childs, the college roommate in a triple, the woman vying for her lover’s undivided attention: it’s ego, selfishness, a love for power.

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The story in Luke 14: 1-14 tells us that Jesus was being carefully watched by the Pharisees who were threatened by His popularity. They often asked Him questions aimed at stumping Him but He left them speechless. But it seems, as we dig beneath the surface of this dinner party, that the Pharisees and the other dinner guests—undoubtedly folks with clout in the town—were the ones whose behavior was being judged.

In Luke’s Gospel the table is featured frequently as a gathering place. Jesus took the opportunity around the dinner table to do some teaching. The best way to make a point is to teach it in the very setting of the story. What Jesus described to these stuffy diners is barrier-breaking hospitality. As a follower of Jesus, we are to act with humility. Make no presumption that you are a guest of elevated importance. Take the seat at the table in the back of the room near the bathroom. If the host wants to honor you and put you in a place of prominence, he will find you, she will invite you to move up. You know what’s endearing about celebrities that common folks like us meet? Their humility. We tell someone else, “He’s so down to earth!” “She was so nice and regular!” We expect bigwigs to be snooty and demanding. Humility is winsome. Rodney Sadler writes, “Verses 7-11 bear witness to the nature of life under God’s reign, where presumptions of privilege—not only those of individuals, but those of groups, things like ‘race,’ ethnicity, class, gender, nationality, and native tongue—do not ‘distinguish’ us; but if we allow them to define us, they will certainly ‘disgrace’ us.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, page 25) Ronald Byars states that underestimating, rather than overestimating ourselves, may be challenging to some but it is “potent medicine for those too impressed by their own resume.”  (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, page 23)

The wisdom of King Solomon gives similar advice in Proverbs 25: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

Check your resume at the door and put aside your witty conversation. Present yourself as a servant to those around you—even (and maybe particularly) to the most overlooked person present! In that way you will be used by Jesus as a blessing. In submitting to the needs of others, you will be blessed. This doesn’t make sense through the lens of our culture that tells us to be assertive, stand above others, make a name for yourself, reach for the stars. But Jesus’ ministry was characterized by breaking barriers so that the least of these would be honored above Presidents and Pontiffs.

So let’s think about our own tables for a moment. What happens around your table? Do you eat with family members at the table. Do you share meaningfully or do you look at your phone? Do you enjoy the food or just inhale it to get to the next meeting, game or lesson? Do you invite people over—whether it’s to your house or to join you at a restaurant? As the host, do you take genuine interest in your guests? Do you listen more than you talk? Are you so busy thinking about what you will say next to impress the others that you don’t hear the longing in their voices to be accepted and loved? Have you invited folks to join you who don’t receive dinner invites from others? Have stereotypical barriers been broken around your table because you have extended the love of Christ to an unlikely mix of people? Have you asked someone without family, without table manners or friends or tact to join the warmth of your table fellowship on Christmas or Easter or some other cherished holiday? Or do we reserve the special occasions for pre-selected guests only, those who can repay our hospitality in kind? What happens around our own tables?

Part of the lesson Jesus was teaching around the astonished Pharisee’s table is what it means to be blessed. Beginning at verse 13 it says, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” What does it mean to be blessed? We interpret it differently at unique stages of our lives. As a child, to be blessed means we get the x-box game system we asked for (which translates from the shiny red wagon of yesteryear!). As a teenager, to be blessed is to be given the keys to the car for a football game or to get a paycheck for the first job ever worked. As life rolls on we dig into the deeper meaning of our circumstances. Hardships have a way of teaching us what matters.

In the trenches of life we discover that blessing comes from an ever-deepening relationship with God. The storms rage around us but God keeps us steady. A good friend dismisses us, hurting our feelings, but God reminds us that we are lovable. We learn that we cannot earn God’s good graces. When we surrender the reins, God surprises us by showing up and our priorities shift. It turns out that the “cool girls”, in whose awesome presence we yearn to dwell, are actually “mean girls” whose acceptance of us is whimsical and conditional! The ones who stand up in our weddings are the ones who were kind, who listened, who had room in their lives for us, our stories, our joys, our deepest sorrows. Emilie Townes writes, “Being a blessing, living righteousness in our daily lives, draws us into relationship with those who have less than we do, yet are the true representatives of God’s countless blessings in our lives and in the lives of others.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, page 24)

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In the New Testament the banquet symbolizes the Realm of God. We continue to eat around a table with Jesus as the Host when we share in communion. Five years ago members of our congregation worked together on a project entitled “Open Table?” We chose 12 categories of people who are often excluded from table fellowship in the Church and decorated a chair to represent that population. We put them around a long, hand-crafted table with the Jesus chair in the middle. It stood as a visual reminder that our God extends a blessing to all people around the table through the Son, Jesus Christ. Our table manners are challenged in this scripture passage. Byars writes, “Jesus’ challenge reaches across boundaries of place and time, calling us to be more aware of those from whom we are inclined to avert our eyes, and to follow him rather than those who baptize common prejudices as virtues.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, page 25)

“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

We see on the news daily stories of common prejudices at work, introducing hurt into our communities. Michigan gained coverage on CNN a couple of weeks ago when Jean Cramer ran for City Council in Marysville. Her pitch as she tried to earn votes? She stated that she wants a “white community as much as possible.” Seriously!? She said that out loud? Fortunately, it made headlines as negative news and Jean ended up dropping out of the race. There are those who baptize common prejudices as virtues and we have to call that out! What happens around our tables can make a difference—in our own attitudes, the shaping of values in our children, the message of acceptance to the overlooked who sit with us and enjoy our hospitality. What happens around the communion table that brings us together each month? We invite Jesus in and nothing is the same again. I promise. And that’s a good thing! In fact, it’s a blessing.