Hosting in action – into the public eye

I make visits to nursing homes. I go with a purpose: to serve the elders in our community. And because I am ordained, I am given the responsibility and privilege to administer a sacramental service, in addition to offering mutual comfort, words of encouragement — and, most importantly — all done in the context of prayer.

I also go with expectation and joy, because I know encounters with my elders almost always are received with appreciation, acceptance and mercy.

Today I make my monthly visit to a dear member of our congregation, ‘Lil. She lives at the end of a long hallway in a private room adorned with flowers and pictures hanging on the wall. When I knock gently and enter, softly calling her name, ‘Lil welcomes me in. I sit by her bed as we exchange pleasantries and begin to settle into the visit. She is kind and beaming with joy at my arrival.

I assure ‘Lil that her congregation continues to pray for her, and she tells me of the occasional visit from her god-daughter who brings honey dip donuts to share with her every Wednesday evening. She particularly looks forward to that. A big smile creases across her freckled face.

I pause before inviting her to share in Holy Communion with me. I do so because ‘Lil also particularly looks forward to this sacramental connection not only with her Lord but with the whole Body of Christ on earth.

Then, the tables turn, so to speak.

She invites me to join in this special meal outside her room where there are a couple of chairs at the end of the hallway. She says she considers that place her own living room where she like to host her guests — at the end of the hallway under some picture windows looking out onto the treed yard.

I accept ‘Lil’s invitation, suddenly realizing the truth. I was the guest. And what was to be a Communion in her room would be displayed outside for all to see. What was to be a ‘private’ service would become, at least, a public witness to anyone else in the hallway.

And what is more, the transformation from a private, spiritual event to a public expression of faith came not at the initiative of a ‘religious professional’ in myself, but at the gentle behest of a 90-year-old woman of deep faith.

Our witness together came about because she was the host. Not me. The presumed host — the expert provider of a professional service — became the humble recipient of a grace: to be led by the hand of a beloved senior of the church — out of the realm of private religious observances, and into the public eye.

Hosting a family reunion

It may come as a bit of a surprise for you to hear that one of the most important reasons you are here today is to be a good host.

Almost every Christian I encounter — when the conversation goes deeper — touches on concerns about the demise and downsizing of the institutional church. And everyone, it seems, has an opinion about why it is so.

Most of those opinions are rather negative; that is, pointing to something that is deemed “wrong” with the way things are going in the church today. And if only the church did things the way it used to half a century ago, or like the “other guys and gals” down the street do it — well, then, everything would be hunky-Dorry and the church will grow again.

These negative reasons usually presume what needs to change is anything and anyone besides the person giving the “negative” opinion. We may have presumed that the reason I or you are here today is to ‘get something out of’ the experience of worship; so, we are here predominantly to be spectators in the entertainment business.

“But take care and watch yourselves closely,” directs the Deuteronomist from our first lesson for today (Deuteronomy 4:9). Maturity and spiritual growth begin from a healthy self-awareness, not the blame-game to which we more naturally and easily revert.

So for me to stand here and suggest that you are not here to be entertained; and my job is not to do the entertaining, but to encourage you to be good hosts to others, may come at you sideways!

Let me give you some recent examples:

I am grateful for my aunt and uncle for giving the whole lot of us a place and space within which to meet, in Wasaga Beach last month for our family reunion. What stands out for me was their quiet, non-intrusive, relaxed manner of their hosting.

Fundamentally they were gracious, accepting. And this affected the way I felt about myself, regardless of my self-conscious preoccupations. They simply allowed the family reunion to happen. They allowed everyone who came to make of the experience what they brought to it themselves.

The hosts didn’t impose their own agenda; the structure of the day was simple and accepted by all: we gather at noon for the meal; then for those who want, can go to the beach — and several of the younger generation usually go to spend the afternoon there together; and by the late afternoon before anyone is allowed to leave Wasaga Beach we get the family photos done.

The order of service, so to speak, allows for give and take, and everyone engages it together. My aunt and uncle, whose house upon which we descend, make sure the basic things are available for the meal; but everyone brings something and they simply stay in the background helping everyone with their needs. There’s a feeling of mutuality that pervades the experience; it’s not just about the hosts and what they can do for everyone else.

Then, a week later, when Jessica and I enjoyed a couple of days at Chateau Montebello (a parting gift from Zion Pembroke), I witnessed again something good from good hosts. Even though the Chateau was brimming with families and couples and all manner of people — there was even a wedding on site during the weekend — I watched the staff, from cooks to servers, to room cleaners, to receptionists, waiters, tour guides — there were many.

In fact, that’s the first thing I noticed about my hosts — there were many workers there; almost every time I turned around, another staff member was there … to answer my question, to guide me where I wanted to go, to attend to my need. They didn’t tell me what to do; they were there to help me — and make me feel welcome, accepted. They were there to give the space for me to be who I was and wanted to do in leisure and play.

And I wonder: What if the church behaved like this to newcomers, visitors, others who may be crossing the threshold of our church for the first time? What if we, each and everyone of us, allowed our guests to find their own stride with God, to express the mission of God from the giftedness that each of us bear, in Christ Jesus?

We are hosts, all of us. And in the end, it’s not about us. It’s about God’s mission, God’s love, God’s desire for all people.

And this outward stance to others begins inside of us. As I stressed last week, what goes on on the inside of us ends up on the outside. What we believe on the inside gets expressed, eventually, in our behavior, our attitudes, our decisions and way we are with others.

Let’s for a moment consider why it is we may have a hard time conceiving ourselves as good hosts. Perhaps a better question would be, simply: what do you believe? When we are honest about what we really believe, when we confess the truth about us, then we can grow into our identity as hosts.

Michael Harvey in @UnlockingtheGrowth makes the point that Christians are supposed to “see what we believe”. This is the basis for faithful living; we are ready to receive the power of God’s presence and purpose in our lives when faith is already active.

But normally, it’s the other way around, isn’t it? We will  rather believe what we see — we say, “I’ll believe it when I see it”. But, let’s be honest — that’s not belief; that’s not faith. Belief and faith are interior qualities that precede action, attitude and behavior.

The reading from James today (James 1:17-27) points to the discrepancy between our actions and what comes out of our mouths: “If any think they are religious” but then say and act in ways that are not — then what does that reveal about what they really believe deep down? Not to mention bring condemnation upon themselves. Our faith and what precedes does not depend on our circumstances. We see and therefore act from what is beyond the apparent, the visible, the material reality in which we find ourselves.

In the Gospel for today (Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23), Jesus’ teaching validates this relationship between what goes on in the heart and what comes out in our behavior, words and actions: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”

Not only what is evil, but what is good as well; because — back to the Deuteronomist (4:6) — our obedience to God will also show “your wisdom and discernment to the peoples”. And from the Psalm: “My heart is stirring with a noble song” (45:1).

If we believe that we’re not good enough, that we have nothing valuable to share with others, that church is about me and what I want out of it — well, then, you can imagine: We wouldn’t be good hosts, would we?

But if on the inside we believe that God loves everyone, even those who are not familiar with church life; if we believe we are precious in God’s sight, that we have remarkable gifts to share with the world, that we have something valuable in faith and that each person who walks in this door is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139) — then we WILL see what we believe, won’t we? We will be very good hosts.

God creates this new family in the kingdom of God to which we belong, in which we find our homes. And God invites us all, not because of what we look like on the outside, but because of what God sees on the inside of us. God sees a beauty beyond words.

And upon this gracious conviction, we will see growth and transformation in our lives, and in the life of the church. We will see so much value in what we are all about here that we will learn to invite others to share in the experience of God.

Created and Chosen – youth sermon

In “Captain America” – the movie – the main character played by actor Chris Evans is deemed unfit to serve in the military during the 2nd Word War. Steve Rogers is too short, to light, and sickly; his medical record shows he got the brunt of all the bad genes from his ailing parents.

Steve Rogers’ outward, physical appearance doesn’t measure up. He is judged basically by what people can see on the surface of who he is.

Eventually, he does get chosen after five failed attempts. How?

What the doctor who approves him for service sees in him is something special. Not based on outward appearance, but on his attitude, his beliefs, what he holds true within, interiorly.

How is his attitude made manifest? Through a couple of tests. First, a fake grenade is thrown amidst the group of prospective soldiers. And all of them, even the most physically strong and capable soldier, dive for safety behind walls, tires and underneath trucks. All of them have self-preservation as their primary instinct.

Except Steve Rogers. Instinctively when the grenade is thrown he throws himself upon it, literally, so that the blast would not hurt anyone else. Selfless. Other-centred.

The second test is an answer to a question posed by the doctor who approved his application: “Do you want to kill Nazis?” While most of Steve Rogers’ peers expressed the killing instinct in war, he says, “No, I do not want to kill anyone.” His desire to join is based on a much deeper and higher sense of service and mission.

In the Bible we read that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14); whether we realize it or not, God creating each of us makes each of us very special. And it’s not about how big or strong or handsome or pretty or beautiful we are or look on the outside. It’s all about what Jesus sees on the inside of us that counts.

We are special, even when you think about how each of our bodies work. Here are some facts I looked up about our bodies, facts you may not have known, and which prove how incredible we are merely on a cellular level:

  • Our lungs contain over 300 million tiny blood vessels; if they were laid out end to end, they would stretch from here to Florida!
  • The nerve impulses to and from our brains travel as fast as 275 kms/h – almost as fast as a NASCAR race car!
  • The brain is more active at night than during the day
  • Sneezes exceed 160 kms/h – way faster than driving on the 417 or 401!
  • Babies are, kilogram for kilogram, stronger than an ox!
  • Your nose can remember 50,000 different scents
  • The tooth is the only – and I repeat only – part of the body that can’t repair itself
  • Every day our bodies produce 300 billion NEW cells
  • Your body has enough iron in it to make a nail 10 cms long
  • A single human blood cell takes only 60 seconds to make a complete circuit of the body
  • In 30 minutes, the average body gives off enough combined heat to bring almost 2 litres of water to boil

We are special – each and every one of us! And God has chosen us, not on account of our appearance or physical attributes. But for a special mission to share God’s love with others in the different ways God made us to do this. God chooses you to belong in God’s family because God made you, and God loves you!

Prayers among the people – Pentecost +13B

13th Sunday after Pentecost; Year B

With reverence for the whole human family and all of creation, let us offer our prayers to God, saying “Let us pray,” and responding, “Have mercy, O God.”

For the family of God in the church, that you empower our inner lives and renew our minds, so that we may act boldly to invite others to church; and that we may trust the work of your Spirit in all that is good in our action. Let us pray … /R

For the family of God among nations’ leaders, that your Word gives life to those who are mal-treated and victimized by greed and self-serving leadership. We pray for those families affected by the gun-violence in the United States – in Chicago, New York and Colorado, recently. We pray also for justice, peace and restoration in Syria. Let us pray… /R

For the family of God in all of creation – the sparrows, swallows and birds of flight – that they may find home in safe and clean environments. We pray for the families affected by the oil refinery explosion in Venezuela yesterday. We pray also for those affected by the devastating earthquakes in Iran a few weeks ago, that lives and communities may be restored and needed help offered by those who have much. Let us pray … /R

For the family of God in our local congregation, especially parents and students travelling together to colleges and universities this week, that heartfelt farewell is expressed and new beginnings and empty-nesting be embraced. Let us pray … /R

For those in the family of God hurting, ill, distressed and despairing, that you deliver all in trouble, affliction, danger, or need; especially we pray for ….and those we name in the silence of our hearts or out loud……. May they be rooted and grounded in your love. Let us pray …/R

Receive our hopes and prayers, O God of mercy. Because we are a church that belongs to Christ Jesus our Lord, we all find a place in your home and at your table. Great is your faithfulness, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. 

Cold sores and family

A highlight for me this summer was the family reunion at Wasaga Beach. We had been unable to attend this annual reunion the last few years, so it was a while since I had last connected with many people on my spouse’s side of the family. And as is consistent with my personality style, I was worried about making a good impression.

God has a funny way of challenging us where we need to be challenged. Because at about the time we decided to attend (which was a last minute thing on account of our recent move), I woke up with a big, festering cold sore on my lip.

Now, I had not had a cold sore for the last several years. It had also been a while since I knew what a cold sore was all about: irritating, itchy, never letting you forget it’s there (for a fleeting moment I wondered whether family reunions and cold sores had something in common!).

The cold sore has about a ten-day cycle, from initial growth to its drying, scabby end. I was to hit the high point of visible grossness the day of reunion. Everyone with whom I would have a conversation would have to be blind not to see the bulbess thing hanging from my lip. What would they say to me? (“Aahh, Martin, wipe your mouth man! Too much salsa for lunch?”) How would I respond? (“Awwh shucks, it’s nothing, really”) What would my extended in-law family think of the man their wonderful daughter had married?

As it turned out, God also has a funny way of reminding us of what is true, what is good, and what speaks of God’s love for us all. You see, my obsessive preoccupation with how I looked turned my conciousness away from others and the whole meaning of the event. Martin Luther defined sin as “being turned in on oneself”. I guess I was sinning: I was preoccupied with myself.

And yet, by the end of the day and contrary to my initial expectations, I felt accepted, loved and part of a family. No one drew attention to the cold sore; it was a non-issue. They were just happy to see me and my famly there! “It’s been too long!” That was the main thing: being together at the reunion. I felt like the Psalmist who expressed: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young” (Psalm 84:3).

According to the Psalmist, it was the relatively insignificant, common, plain-looking, rather small sparrows who found a home among the rafters and ceiling crevaces in the tabernacle. It wasn’t the eagles, hawks, larger birds with colourful, attractive plumage.

What does this image suggest about who finds ‘home’ in God’s presence? The great? The mighty? The successful? The seemingly perfect? The beautiful?

By the end of the reunion day, I had almost forgotten about my cold sore because I was more focused on this collection of diverse people who found there way to Wasaga Beach on a sunny, August day: There were some fifteen youth and children under the age of twenty in addition to some twenty adults and seniors. And this collection of people spanned the whole socio-political spectrum and North American continent …. You get the picture.

Immersed in this blessed diversity I forgot about myself, because it wasn’t about me to begin with. This reunion was bigger than the sum of its individual parts. There was something more going on here.

The basis of our unity was not the visible aspects of our togetherness, otherwise we would all look the same! The basis of our unity was something we shared on the inside that was manifested on the outside. And what is true on the inside of our lives gets expressed on the outside by way of attitude, by way of our beliefs, by way of the nature of how we relate to one another.

“As it is on the inside, so shall it be on the outside,” as Michael Harvey explains (@Unlockingthegrowth). While mortals look on the outside, the Lord looks upon the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This notion from the Lord’s Prayer suggests that heaven (the invisible, interior reality) leads to a corresponding visible reality on earth. Like in the Holy Eucharist, Baptism — any Sacrament — an inner truth reflected exteriorly, in water, bread, cup, meal.

Over the past month we have heard scriptures from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John reflect on Jesus as the “bread of life”. We conclude today this teaching of Jesus from the synagogue in Capernaum. And the disciples, it is reported, had difficulty with it (John 6:56-69).

Admitedly, I think for us, too, it is much easier to deal with external, material reality: we can touch, taste, manage, something on the outside of us. It is easier to make judgement on a crooked picture frame hanging on your wall; but to reflect on why that particular picture is there in the first place and who painted it, for example, takes much more work that often, quite frankly, we’re not up for.

To approach the inner realm of our lives can be dumbfounding, intimidating, overwhelming a prospect. And so we avoid this work and get ourselves immersed in unreflected, unexamined action and busyness. Because that’s easier.

Yet Jesus emphasizes the truth of the inner life giving reason and substance to the outer life. In his words, “It is the spirit that gives life; [without the spirit] the flesh is useless.” (John 6:63). The beginning points of all meaningful and effective action are prayer, contemplation, reflection, engagement with our inner lives in relationship with God and others. The spirit gives life.

And this is how to understand that more famous text from Ephesians 6 about putting on the armour of God. We put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes proclaiming the gospel of peace, the shield of faith and helmet of salvation and sword of the spirit, NOT in an aggressive, confrontational, external stance against enemies of the flesh. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but … against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Again, the beginning point of faith is in the internal, invisible reality of our lives.

That is not to say that sometimes when we don’t feel inside any stirrings of the spirit, we ought not do anything. Sometimes the reverse is true: we need to engage in right action despite our feelings or what might or might not be going on interiorily; our external action, then, may affect positively what is going on inside us. After all, Jesus doesn’t exclude one or the other: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit AND life” — internal AND external are both vital, to hold in balance. Not either/or, but both/and.

As I said, the exterior reality that reflects the inner truth is that of attitude, and the quality of our relationships. And, more to the point, this attitude is pointed to the quality of our relationships with those whom we invite to church and those to whom we are strangers and happen to cross the threshold of our church.

These people, too, are part of God’s creation, loved and cherished. Every person on the planet can claim the passage from the Psalms: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). And therefore they are among us for a divine purpose.

More Christians are raising concern about equating the church with ‘family’ – presuming the analogy refers to a traditional father-mother-children unit. For being exclusively defined as such, I agree with their objections. Because the family of God is so much more.

It is not our job to judge their status in the family. It is our job to invite them. To be an invitational church. That family reunion at Wasaga Beach happened because an invitation to come went out. I am grateful for that invitation.

Because we are a church that belongs to Jesus Christ, there is a place for you and everyone else here. “You did not choose me,” Jesus says, “But I chose you …” (John 15:16).

Christ’s invitation is about joining in God’s mission. And this mission is not just the purvue of the rich, the famous, the successful, the educated, those who have unblemished bodies, those who have been a part of the church forever — but to all, including you and me. Because God made us, “wonderfully”, from the inside out.

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What don’t you see?

Implicit, Covert, Subversive — Adjectives you might not initially associate with Christianity.

But look again. What do you see? And perhaps the better question is, What DON’T you see? Because authenticity in faith calls for a deeper approach. I think it always does.

What is beneath the surface, or first impression, stays truer and lasts longer.

And that’s what Jesus was all about in his teachings. We are to be the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13). But salt is not the food. We are to be leaven for the bread (Matthew 13:33). But the leaven is not the whole bread.

We don’t even see these ingredients once they are applied and mixed in.

Even Jesus’ followers eventually reflected the importance of the inner, hidden life in their writings to the early church: Saint Paul wrote, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

“The Gospel tells us that we must first find our power and freedom within; then we’ll know what to do externally” (Richard Rohr, p.118 On The Threshold of Transformation).

How does awareness of the subtle affect our presence and influence in the public? As brazen, power brokers using all the overt means of money, media and culture to be in everyone’s face? To sensationalize the message and shock-and-awe those with whom and to whom we relate, in the love of Christ?

In considering the oft quoted text by social justice advocates from the prophet Micah – “…do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (6:8), how much stock do we place on the last part of that verse?

What don’t we see here? What do we expect in following the Way?

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When roots show

Roots are, by nature, unseen. They do their work below the surface. Roots absorb the nutrients and cherished water from deep within the earth. In fact, the deeper the root system the stronger and more enduring the plant, shrub or tree above.

The invisible character of the vital roots of any plant species draws a close parallel to spiritual truth: What exists internally, not easily seen but deep below the surface of things, is important in understanding the whole.

In North America we are often distracted and mesmerized by external, materialistic realities — whether how something or someone looks, or the stuff we own or acquire, even our over-emphasis on action.

When the roots show, however uncommon an occurrence, a deeper truth emerges — a serendipitous reminder to us exhausted, forever-running people.

For roots to show, something counter-intuitive has happened over time:
People have walked the path, stayed true and faithful to a practice of returning to their roots.

This may be a discipline of contemplative prayer. This may be honoring silence and stillness so that not the surface ego compulsions, but rather the true self rooted and sustained in God emerges.

For all to see. And invited to follow down the path forged by others before, and followed in faith that others still will come again.

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