October 11, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Message from Rev. George Porter
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
O Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you, I will praise your name;
for you have done wonderful things,
plans formed of old, faithful and sure.
For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens is a city no more,
it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Sermon: George Porter
What is God Doing?
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so I am wearing this pink shirt today to remember and affirm those dealing with breast cancer – both those who have cancer, as well as those who walk with them, support and encourage them – those who work for healing in this very important experience. In Canada, this is also Thanksgiving weekend: a time when we celebrate harvests, not really having anything to do with pilgrims and the like.
I also know that, in the United States, this is sometimes known as Columbus Day and sometimes as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I don’t want to get into the politics of this, though as a mixed-blood person I also have thoughts and feelings about this.
My interest today is in why we choose whom we honour as heroes and whom we don’t. We live in a time when it’s really tough to be a hero. One of REM’s songs has the line ‘heroes don’t come easy’. Heroes don’t come easy because human beings are imperfect – we are all imperfect. Some have secrets that get exposed. Others fall victim to changing cultural sensitivities and values. People in every area of life are susceptible to scandals: Hollywood scandals, political scandals, scandals in schools and, of course, religious scandals. When I think of people I regard as heroes, some have been tainted by scandal – stains which sometimes obliterate the heroic dimensions of their lives.
Maybe the parable in today’s reading should be called ‘The Parable of the Scandals’. Jesus tells of a king who throws a wedding party – a big feast. Those who are invited, however, ignore the invitation. In that culture, this was a major insult – a scandal. Then the king does something even more scandalous by inviting those on the margins – the social outcasts to the feast. Then, again, when they show up there is a scandal of someone improperly dressed for the occasion – a cultural thing which we find difficult to understand.
I remember, however, a time when I was a teenager and saw an advert in a newspaper from a church that would be showing a video about the end times. I, like many teenagers, was very interested in ‘end times things’, so I thought I would go. After all, the notice said that ‘everyone’ was welcome – something I foolishly believed. When I showed up and sat in a pew, the people already sitting there got up and moved to the other side of the church. Apparently, I wasn’t dressed acceptably.
Another time, when I was a Regional Dean in the Diocese of Brandon, I was invited to speak at an ACW (Anglican Church Women) meeting. What they neglected to tell me was that this was their annual meeting and a very formal affair. I showed up in shorts and t-shirt – clearly not dressed for the occasion!
When I was in Northborough at Church of the Nativity, I went to Worcester to visit someone in hospital. The hospital staff, however, wouldn’t let me park in the clergy parking lot because they wouldn’t believe I was a priest. I didn’t look like a priest and wasn’t dressed in a ‘priestly manner’.
There real scandal behind the scandals in the Gospel account, however, was that the religious leaders knew that Jesus was talking about them – and not in a flattering way. He seemed to have a thing about a show of outward forms of righteousness without an inner reality of righteousness.
The symbols in the parable reinforce this. A wedding feast is often used in the biblical writings to represent the Kingdom of god, and it’s fairly obvious who this king represented in the story. When god’s call is taken lightly or ignored altogether, there is a scandal in the making. When God shows a propensity to associate with the poor, the outcasts and socially marginalized people, there’s more scandal. As I noted, the person who isn’t dressed for the wedding feast is a bit harder to understand, but being dressed by the king – the one who would provide the proper garments – was not something that should be ignored.
For many people in the Western world, if numbers are to be believed, it seems that ‘church’ has become un unanswered invitation. People are busy. There are sports and school events to be attended. Sunday is the only ‘family time’ available. For some, it’s the only day for shopping and other chores.
I’ve been hearing quite a lot about how there is growing concern that in the post-pandemic period people will not return to church. If we’re honest, I wonder what we really fear. I suspect the fear is that people will find they don’t really miss ‘church’ in their lives and that not going hasn’t changed much in the way they feel, think or live. It might be easier not to return.
But, what if the problem isn’t ‘out there’? What if the problem is in the way we ‘do church’?
I have frequently asked various people why someone would choose to be part of this church or that church. I asked this in the context of the interview with SCEC. There were some really good answers. I, of course, had my answer already in mind.
I often refer to the poet Rilke who advised that we learn to love the questions – to live into the questions – first rather than rushing to press for answers. Perhaps the question beyond all the other questions in this regard is: ‘Why Church at all?’
Do you remember the story about the young foster boy asking; ‘Why is this a couch?’ I had nothing – a blank look. Again, I sometimes get that same sort of look when I ask these questions, as though the answers are supposed to be so obvious that even asking the questions is inane. ‘There are no dumb questions’ – well, except for perhaps these.
When I listen to people via Zoom talking about why they want to get together, I hear that they miss worshiping together, singing together, praying together and celebrating Eucharist together. Mostly I hear people missing one another – and missing that ‘mysterious something’ that happens when you get together. I would say that I hear people missing the ‘community’ part of SCEC.
Yet even that isn’t all. I said that I had my answer in mind before I asked the question. There really are lots of things I could say. That’s why, for me, SCEC wasn’t – and isn’t – just another church where I could get a ‘job’. I love where I am in Thunder Bay. I love the people at Gathering Table. Connecting with SCEC wasn’t some sort of fishing expedition. From the time that Rich mentioned this parish and said that he thought it would be a good fit, I didn’t stop pestering him for information and dates when names would be received.
You see, underneath all the good things – good answers – as to why I would want to be part of what God is doing at/in/through Southwick is just that: ‘what God is doing’. The fundamental question under all the other questions, for me, is; ‘What is God doing?’ What is God doing in lives, in the church community, as well as in the neighbourhood community and the larger world?
That’s what I heard being talked about here. That’s the ‘missional’ question.
People have all sorts of reasons for going or not going to this or that church. People have various reasons for being part of, or not being part of, church at all. Some of those reasons are more on the mark than others, of course, but for me this is the question: ‘What is God doing?’ The answer to the ‘why’ question is in the ‘what’ question, and not just in what we are doing, but what is God doing?
That’s what people often don’t really understand about this term ‘missional’, even though it’s become a very popular buzz word these days. I am sometimes amused – and if I am honest, sometimes annoyed – when people talk about ‘getting God back into schools’. I want to say something like: ‘What aren’t you understanding about who the scriptures say God is? How can you put God back into someplace where god already is? You could put religion or prayer or whatever there, but you can’t put God somewhere when God is already there.
This is what ‘missional’ is all about. Because ‘missional’ is not the same as engaging in missions. It’s not putting forth programs and projects. ‘Missional’ isn’t primarily about – isn’t first of all about – what we’re doing. Ultimately, the first question in being ‘missional’ is; What is God already doing?’
From that then follows the question of how we can then get on board with what God is doing. Then we ask about what we do, in what missions or projects or programs we engage.
If that’s the way the life of the parish is lived out, then the ‘why’ kind of takes care of itself. If God is present and doing something – and if it matters more to us than anything else to discern what God is doing and how God is calling us to be part of whatever God is doing – we don’t have to wonder if it will be a priority. If God is present and doing something that I can be part of – that we can be part of – that’s exciting! It’s purposeful. It’s significant. It matters.
It’s exciting in a wild sort of way because God really is a wild God – a wild sort of Mystery beyond us – beyond our understanding, and yet made known to us. This can, of course, be dangerous: take up your cross and follow doesn’t sound like a safe invitation. ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ is a risky proposal. It can be many things, but in the end it’s worth it.
Quite a few years ago I was the pastor of a little church – different denomination – in a little town just a few hours from where I now live. Together with the pastor of the local Baptist church, I was involved with a joint youth group. One day, the mother of one of the boys in the group – they happened to be Roman Catholic – called me to ask if I could spend some extra time with her son. She was concerned because of the overall direction he was taking -- falling in with a ‘bad crowd’, drinking and using drugs. I said that sure I could spend some extra time with him, but that she needed to be aware that this could ruin his life. She was taken aback, so I explained that I didn’t see it as my job to be just a social worker or counselor. My job was to present the good news of God’s love in Jesus in a way that people could encounter him. If this guy encountered Jesus and the Spirit got hold of him, I said, there’s no telling what direction his life would take.
Yes, we do – and will – miss the mark. Our hearing isn’t always perfect, but nevertheless we try to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church. We aren’t some sort of religious superheroes. We bring what Brené Brown calls ‘the gifts of imperfection’. This is the divine scandal: in the middle of all this messy reality – and very messy it can be – is God. It’s not some idea about God that we can think about, but it’s the Living God who is encountered – this living God who is always doing a new thing (even if it’s doing an old thing anew).
And this never ends. Questions always come back: ‘What is God already doing?’ Then there is the other part of this divine scandal: ‘How is God calling me – us – to be part of it?’ This, then answers the most important of all the ‘why’ questions. Why wouldn’t I want to be scandalously involved in what this Living God is doing?