Monday, 28 October 2013

From social climber to tree hugger: a sermon (Luke 19: 1 - 10)

Even though I’m preaching this sermon only a few days after All Saints’ Day, our gospel lesson for today is about Jesus’ encounter with a person who wasn’t very saintly (at least at first), a person whose name is pronounced either Zacchaeus or Zacchaeus and, as far as I can tell, either pronunciation is as good as the other.
But before I go to the story of Zacchaeus, I want to mention that simple, brief statement in scripture, a brief verse that is frequently the first words of scripture learned by any child:  “God is love.” This statement may seem self-evident to many of us. We think, “Of course, God is love. That’s pretty obvious.”
But there are many people for whom this is not obvious.
  • There are many people who were never taught a view of God as one who primarily loves, but as one who primarily judges and condemns. For many who have rejected any sort of religious faith, this view of God is a major reason why they have done so.
  • But, as well, there are many people of faith, including many people of Christian faith, who see God’s love as very selective, and for whom their life of faith seems to be centered on pleasing a potentially angry deity.
The well-known title of one of Jonathan Edwards’s sermons from eighteenth-century Massachusetts may sum up their attitude to their god: “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” As some of us may soon sing about someone else in a few months’ time:
He’s making a list, and checking it twice;
going to find out who’s naughty or nice.
And there are some people in the community who worship that sort of god. There are many people who cannot get their minds around the idea that God’s love seeks to embrace the whole world, without exception.
In this vein, the British writer Adrian Plass wrote a series of humourous books about the members of a small congregation, one of whom was a man named Leonard Thynne. Leonard grew up within a very rigid sort of Christian denomination, possibly Plymouth Brethren or something similar. In his adult life, Leonard Thynne still wore the emotional scars of this aspect of his upbringing through very low self-esteem. He was an alcoholic – trying with rather mixed success to become a recovering alcoholic. One day, Leonard heard a sermon at his church by a visiting preacher – a monk, no less. He was impressed with the monk’s talk and commented:
He knows a different God to the one I do. His God’s nice!
Like Leonard Thynne in this story, there are many people who are not aware that God loves ... that God loves all people ... that God loves the whole creation. They have picked up the notion of a petty, little small-g godlet whose love is very, very selective:
  • the small-g godlet of “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”;
  • the small-g godlet who makes and double-checks a list of those who are naughty and those who are nice;
  • the small-g godlet that led Leonard Thynne in Adrian Plass’s story (and many more people in real life) to assume that their god is some scary, unwelcoming being – a god who is definitely not nice!
And in relation to all this, we hear the story of Zacchaeus.
Now, all too often, when we tell the story about Zacchaeus to children, we emphasise the part about his size. He was “short in stature”, as the New Revised Standard Version tells us. He was “vertically-challenged”. We often emphasise the part about the little bloke climbing up the tree to get a good look at what was going on, and we may even use the old song about:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
a wee little man was he …,
even if we know that “wee” only means “little” these days in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and New Zealand.
Those who know the songs of the Medical Mission Sisters from the 1960s may also remember the refrain about,
Now the Hebrews, they were tall,
But Zacchaeus, he was small … etc.
We tend to get hung up on the bit about Zacchaeus’s height. 
More importantly than his height, Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Not only was he a tax collector, but he was a chief tax collector. Luke used the Greek word architelones to describe Zacchaeus. It was the only time Luke used that word in his gospel. An ordinary tax collector was called a telones, not an architelones like Zacchaeus. An architelones like Zacchaeus had other tax collectors working for him, shaking down the people, while he dealt directly with his Roman masters. He would have had many more opportunities for personal corruption than an ordinary tax collector. The comments made by Habakkuk in our first lesson about the ethical breakdown of society in his own day were also relevant for the ethical situation in which Zacchaeus operated.
If an ordinary tax collector was considered a collaborator, an architelones like Zacchaeus was an absolute traitor. If an ordinary tax collector was unpopular with his neighbours, an architelones like Zacchaeus would have been absolutely hated.
There was one very ironic thing about Zacchaeus: his name. The name Zacchaeus was based on the Hebrew word zakkai, which means “innocent” or “righteous”. It was the sort of pious and hopeful thing that parents would have once done, and still do in many cultures, to name their child after a virtue they hope he or she would emulate. The New England Puritans were known for giving their sons names such as Perseverance. We still occasionally encounter such names, most frequently female names such as Grace, Faith, or Hope. Africans today do this to a great extent, not only naming their daughters Charity or Mercy, but also giving their sons names such as Courage or Justice.
But if Zacchaeus’s parents gave him the name in the hope that he would be zakkai (“innocent”, “righteous”), he may well have been a deep disappointment to them.
But when Jesus noticed Zacchaeus up in the tree, he didn’t examine him as to his ethics. He didn’t give Zacchaeus a conditional offer of God’s love. (“Get your act together, and you’ll be right, one of these days.”) That’s what some people in our culture think the churches are on about. But it’s not what Jesus is on about.   
Instead of examining Zacchaeus’s ethical credentials, Jesus offered him God’s unconditional love and, to seal the deal, invited himself to stay at Zacchaeus’s home. 
Zacchaeus did a few things as a result. He made a big donation to the poor. He offered to repay anyone he had cheated … four times over. In this process, Zacchaeus began to live up to his name. Zacchaeus actually started to become zakkai. He became a “saint”. 
But he also set about the task of providing hospitality to Jesus, to the group of disciples travelling with him, and (given the custom of the times), to the community at large.
Jesus expressed God’s unconditional love to Zacchaeus. 
Part of Zacchaeus’s response was to throw a party.
In this process, Zacchaeus began to live up to his name. Zacchaeus actually started to become zakkai. He became a “saint”. And the transformation that Jesus drew forth from Zacchaeus had a social justice dimension to it. Zacchaeus committed himself to make restitution to anyone he cheated and to give to the poor. The transformation that Jesus draws forth from any one necessarily has an ethical dimension, a social justice dimension, to it, or else it is not genuine.
There are many religious people today – both within Christianity and within other faiths - who see the life of faith merely in terms of such things as talking about religion a lot or taking on a few austerities in one’s personal life-style. In whatever faith tradition we may think of, if your faith does not have the result of increasing your level of basic human compassion in both your personal and your social ethics, it is just so much religious busy-work. In any faith tradition, including Christianity, if your faith does not make you a more compassionate person, your faith does you no good at all. 
In this encounter from Luke’s gospel, Jesus encountered Zacchaeus and drew forth from him the level of compassion that his name implied. Zacchaeus became zakkai; he became a “saint”. 
In our worship, Jesus promises us a similar transformation. 
  • The same water in which we shower becomes the means in which we are decisively identified with the cause of Christ.
  • Simple gifts of bread and wine become the means of Christ’s fullest presence in our midst.
  • People gathered for worship become the saints of God.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Some incidents that shaped my ministry (4): Bayonne, New Jersey, 1967.

This is the last of four posts in which I look at some incidents in my early life and how they shaped my ministry.  I'm writing about these incidents in an order that's the reverse of how they actually happened.  The first post was about an incident which happened when I was 30.  The second post was about an incident which happened when I was 24.  The third post was about an incident  which happened when I was 18.  This fourth and final post in the series is about an incident which happened when I was 13. 

It was Easter Day in the year 1967.  I was 13, almost 14.  I was living in Bayonne, New Jersey.  I had been confirmed in my local United Methodist congregation the previous June.  This Easter, for the first time in my life, I was going to attend the local ecumenical sunrise service on Easter morning,

A number of local churches co-operated on the sunrise service.  As it turned out, it wasn't all that good a year for me to go to the sunrise service for the first time, because it was the turn of the Assemblies of God to provide the guest preacher.

Even though it was Easter, this fellow didn't preach about Easter.  He decided he'd preach on the Second Coming.  Now, being a good, recently-confirmed United Methodist, I had never heard all that much about this Second Coming.  The preacher went on for a long time about how various people he didn't approve of were going to have a hard time of it when the Second Coming happened ... which he thought would be some time in the very near future.  He seemed to actually ... enjoy ... describing the torments that would happen to all these sorts of people he didn't like.

I had nightmares for weeks.

The nightmares only stopped after I went to youth group one night.  It was a co-operative youth group that the Methodist and Reformed churches in our area did together.  During the break, I overheard the ministers of the two churches joking about this guy who preached at the sunrise service.  I went up and asked them about what they thought of the guest speaker and what he said.  They left me in no uncertainty at all that they disagreed with this bloke, with his beliefs about the Second Coming, and with his whole fire-and-brimstone mentality.  (To the two ministers involved:  Thanks, George, Thanks, Ken.)

What I got out of this incident for my future ministry was this:   Whenever anyone is subjected to any unhealthy teaching from any religious leader which threatens the person's wholeness and well-being, it is the duty of good religious leaders to challenge the unhealthy teaching, and to do so clearly, definitely, and firmly.

Since my ordination, this is something I've tried to do in my ministry.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Some incidents that shaped my ministry (3): Easton, Pennsylvania, 1971.

This is the third of four posts in which I look at some incidents in my early life and how they shaped my ministry.  I'm writing about these incidents in an order that's the reverse of how they actually happened.  The first post was about an incident which happened when I was 30.  The second post was about an incident which happened when I was 24.  This third post is about an incident which happened when I was 18.

It was late in 1971.  I was a freshman at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.  I was living away from home for the first time in my life.

In addition to my academic studies, I was exploring who I was and what I believed about life, the universe, and everything.  Part of my exploration was about my religious identity.  What did I really believe about my Christian faith, and why?

In all honesty, I didn't find that the Christian groups on campus were helping much in that quest. 
  • There was one group which related to the official chaplaincy on campus.  In many ways, it still reflected the "God is Dead" radical theology scene of the early 1960s. 
  • Another group was of a more "evangelical" or "fundamentalist" nature.  They approached everyone on campus as a potential convert and made sure we all heard of the "Four Spiritual Laws", etc., and made sure we knew that they felt that those who didn't follow their path were destined to be fuel for an eternal BBQ.
I didn't see either group as terribly satisfying in terms of my own faith or spirituality.

As a result, I was wondering whether this whole God thing was worth bothering with.  Perhaps, I'd just put my faith on hold for a while, during my years at Lafayette, as many of my fellow-students were also deciding.  But before actually taking this step of "putting my faith on hold for a while", I decided to attend worship one more time. 

That Sunday, I went to the Catholic Mass that was celebrated on campus.  I'd attended Mass numerous times before, including times as a guitarist for folk masses celebrated by local Catholic churches when I was a high school student, so I had an idea what Mass would be like.

I remember little about the Mass.  The homily was mercifully short.  The music was familiar.  The liturgy was notably similar to that of the United Methodist congregation I attended at home.  And that was about it.

What I do remember is the conviction I had after Mass:  "This God thing is definitely worth bothering with!"  The whole notion of "putting my faith on hold for a while" was itself put on hold ... indefinitely.

When my "evangelical" friends ask me about my "conversion experience", I tell them about this incident.  (Usually, they're even more concerned about the state of my soul after I tell them than they were before, but that's their problem, not mine.)

In a sense, this incident set me on my career as an ecumenist.  The fact that I remained a Christian during my time of undergraduate religious uncertainty is due in large part to ministry I received from a community of Christians of which I was not a member.  It would be dishonest of me not to be ecumenical.  (Years later, I was at a meeting of people involved in ecumenical ministries of one form or another.  As part of the opening activity of the meeting, we were asked about how we got into the ecumenical scene.  The majority of the group could refer to an experience similar to this one.)  Given this experience, it would be dishonest of me not to be ecumenical.

In the fourth and final post, I go back to when I was 13, and had a traumatic experience as a result of a fire-and-brimstone sermon at an Easter sunrise service.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Some incidents that shaped my ministry (2): Miles City, Montana, 1977.

This is the second of four posts in which I look at some incidents in my early life and how they shaped my ministry.  I'm writing about these incidents in an order that's the reverse of how they actually happened.  The first incident happened when I was 30, and this one happened when I was 24.

It was late in 1977.  I was a theological student at Princeton Theological Seminary, and I was doing an intern year at a church in Miles City, Montana, a small-town that prided itself on its "Wild West" culture.  As a city boy from Bayonne, New Jersey, I was expecting some culture shock.

When I arrived for my intern year, my supervisor, Dave, told me that the church had signed up to participate in an evangelistic campaign organised by some of the other churches in town.  What's more, Dave was treasurer for the campaign.  (Evidently, some offering money had "disappeared" the last time there was a campaign, and they wanted a treasurer that wasn't involved in the last campaign, preferably from a church that wasn't involved in the last campaign.)

These sort of campaigns weren't our church's "thing".  They weren't Dave's "thing".  They definitely weren't my "thing".  Anyway, Dave agreed to be treasurer and I was dragooned into ... I mean, I agreed to assist him.  (Dave said something about a "learning experience".)

One of my tasks was to take the cash from each night's offering and take it (along with another man) to the night deposit window at the bank.

One night I showed up at the high school auditorium (where the services were held) and the pastor who was the chair of the campaign asked me if I'd do something called an "offering challenge".

"What's an offering challenge?" I asked'

"Just before the collection, you prepare the congregation to exercise their gift of generosity."  (I remembered what Dave said about a "learning experience", and decided I was about to have one.)

These services were led by two evangelists who were brothers, twins perhaps.  (I googled them, and they're both still preaching now.)  Their wives sang.  The wives looked like twins also, or else it was just their identical bouffant hairdos.  (It was the 1970s, remember.)

During the service, I was seated on the stage of the auditorium.  While the two bouffanted ladies sang, one of the two brothers approached and asked, "Are you the guy doing tonight's shakedown?"

"I'm doing the offering challenge," I said with what I hoped sounded like offended piety.

"Yes, well anyway, last night's take was horrible.  Give 'em a little guilt!"

I'm proud to say that the take that night was the worst of the whole week.

What I learned from this incident was, whether you're talking about money or about anything else, it is a seriously bad thing for any person in ministry to "Give 'em a little guilt!"

My next incident goes back a few more years to 1971, to the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.  I was an 18-year-old freshman at Lafayette, being set on the course of my life's work as an ecumenist.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Some incidents that shaped my ministry (1): Launceston, Tasmania, 1983.

This is the first of four posts in which I'm taking an incident from my early life and thinking of how it affected my later ministry.

I decided to post these in reverse order to which they happened, so this first post is about the most comparatively recent incident.

It was 1983.  I was thirty.  I had lived in Australia - and in Tasmania - for about three-and-a-half years.  I was serving my second parish appointment as a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, in a rural community near the city of Launceston, Tasmania. 

I was in Launceston one afternoon. 
  • I must have been in town to do some hospital visiting, because I was wearing my clerical collar.
  • I must have been in a hurry, because I crossed a street against a red light.
A drunk coming out of a pub was watching me as I jaywalked.  He staggered up to me and said, "Hey, mate, I thought your job was to tell the rest of us to obey the rules."

As he staggered away, I started to realise the implications of what he said.  It related to the handful of books I'd read by that time on the role of religion in Australian society.  I was provided with a concrete example of an important insight about how Australians regard religion.

Many Australians - particularly those who are not themselves participants in the life of congregations (whether Christian or of any other faith) - regard religion as a form of "social control", as a way in which the wider community tells individuals "to obey the rules".  This perception began back in the days of the convicts (when chaplains also functioned as magistrates), but continued on to our present day, with the result that many congregations of many denominations have been almost emptied of young people, working class people, and men.

In this incident, I learned that ministry in the Australian context will always involve struggling against this perception of churches and other faith communities that has been part of our heritage in Australia since the convict era.  This perception is why the churches are frequently either arrogantly dismissed or politely ignored by many of our neighbours.

My next post in this series will be set in Miles City, Montana, in 1977 (a few years earlier than this one), and will deal with why I don't like to "Give 'em a little guilt."

Monday, 7 October 2013

Our mission: to be the "tenth leper" (a sermon: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Luke 17:11-19)

I’d like to re-tell our gospel lesson, putting it into a contemporary Australian setting.

On his way into Hobart, Jesus was walking along Liverpool Street.  As he passed the Royal Hobart Hospital, ten patients with AIDS approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  

In a real sense, in our own lifetime, people with AIDS have been similar to people with leprosy in Jesus’ day. 
  • In Jesus’ day people thought leprosy was much more contagious than it really was, just as it it has been with AIDS during our lifetimes.
  • People with leprosy were shunned in Jesus’ day, just as people with AIDS have been during our lifetimes.
  • Leprosy in Jesus’ day was the object of a great deal of superstitition, just as AIDS was during our lifetimes. 
  • There was also a really unfair tendency of many people in Jesus’ day to “blame the victim” in terms of leprosy, as is the case with AIDS during our lifetimes.
Back to the story

When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the specialists.”  And as they went, they were healed.  Then one of them, when he knew that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a … a what?

The tenth leper, the fellow who went back to Jesus was a Samaritan.  Thinking of the way Samaritans were shunned in Jesus’ day, who are the “Samaritan” here in Australia? … here in Tasmania? …  Who are the “Samaritans” in the circles with which you associate? 

When I was thinking of my sermon, there were a number of candidates for the role of the despised and shunned “Samaritans” in our own setting. 
  • For a number of years, our Muslim neighbours have been placed in the role of the “Samaritan” in Australian society.
  • As well, Australia’s African community – Sudanese and others - have been treated like “Samaritans” by some of our neighbours.
  • For over two centuries, indigenous Australians have been made into “Samaritans”.
  • Some people treat unmarried couples or single mothers as their “Samaritans”.  For others, their “Samaritans” could be those members of the community in same-gender relationships.
  • People with intellectual disabilities, or with psychiatric illnesses, or with drug addictions are the “Samaritans” for yet others.
  • With high levels of prejudice still existing in the community against Jews and against Catholics, these communities are also cast as the “Samaritan” for many people, even now in twenty-thirteen.
There is more than one candidate for the “Samaritan” in our Australian context, far too many candidates.

In any event, it is particularly significant to the story that the one ex-leper who realised he was healed, and turned around to thank Jesus, was a member of a despised minority.  This sort of thing just goes with the territory with Jesus.  As David Gill once wrote, “You may expect to find Jesus among those whom society despises.  You will never find him in the company of those who do the despising.”

A significant thing about this story is the one little detail which is often missed by many people who hear this story.  The other nine lepers – the ones who, for whatever reason, didn’t turn around and thank Jesus personally – these other nine lepers remained just as healed as their Samaritan friend who returned to thank Jesus.  Luke didn’t say anything about the nine becoming somehow “un-healed” as they went on their way.  (After all, they were merely doing what Jesus told them to do, showing themselves to the priests to confirm that they were healed.)

Ten lepers were healed.  One of the ten expressed his thanks.  Ten remained healed. 

As people who worship God - … and as people who worship God in a mainstream faith community … - our task is to be the “tenth leper” for our broader community.

There are many people in Tasmania, … in Australia, … in our world … who do not make it a habit of turning up at a church, … at a synagogue, … at a mosque, … or at any other place of public worship.  They just don’t.  But like the nine lepers who went on their way after they were healed, they have received the same blessings from God that we have received. 

Our mission is to be their “tenth leper”. 
  • Our mission is to worship God, not only on our own behalf, but on behalf of our whole community, our whole nation, our whole world. 
  • I’ll go so far as to say our mission is to believe in the living God, not only on our own behalf, but on behalf of our whole community, our whole nation, our whole world.  
Our mission is to be their “tenth leper”, and be their “tenth leper” with gladness and without resentment. 

Jack Burton, a Methodist minister in Norwich, in England, once told about a Saturday afternoon when he passed a local cricket pitch.  A match was in progress, and he stopped to watch a few overs. 

As he went on his way, he thought that, while he wasn’t a cricketer himself, the cricketers were playing on his behalf.  Probably most of the cricketers wouldn’t be in church the next day, but he’d be in church, worshipping God on their behalf.

In our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jeremiah had a sense of the same thing.  He wrote a letter to the Jews who had been taken off to Babylon as exiles.  In his letter, he said that God wanted them to “…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The exiles were being taken to a place where the people worshipped a variety of petty, little small-g gods rather than the one big-G God, the one big-G God who was in the business of freeing slaves from their slavery and sustaining exiles in their captivity.  Jeremiah encouraged the exiles to be a positive influence in the place where they were, to bring the worship of the one big-G God to that place, and to bring the values of the one big-G God to that land, for the sake both of the exiles and of their captors.

“… [S]eek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Like the exiles to whom Jeremiah wrote, we have the mission to “seek the welfare of … [our community] …, and pray to the Lord on its behalf”.

Like the tenth leper, whom Jesus healed along with his neighbours, we have the mission to worship God both on our own behalf and on behalf of all humanity.

I believe that Jesus does not call us to complain about those who are not here, … or to act in any way as if we have a preferred position in God’s sight compared to them.  I believe God calls us to be their ‘tenth leper’, worshipping God on their behalf, and on behalf of all humanity.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

“Come here at once and take your place at the table!": a sermon (Luke 17:5-10)

In part of our lesson from Luke’s gospel, we hear:

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?  Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?  Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”

What’s wrong with this picture?  Is it the sort of thing we’d expect to hear from Jesus?  I’ll read this passage again.  Ask yourself “Does this sound like Jesus?”

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?  Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?  Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”

Does this sound like the sort of thing Jesus would say? 

It’s important to note that that we find this section only in Luke’s gospel.  Now, Luke’s gospel was written for the purpose of making the life, mission, and teachings of Jesus intelligible to the mostly Gentile congregations that developed around the Mediterranean as a result of Paul’s ministry.  These communities lived in the context of the Graeco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire, rather than in the context of the Jewish culture in which Jesus lived. 

This fact is very important because the relationship of the master and the slave in this story reflects the hierarchical order of the Graeco-Roman world much more than it reflects the more egalitarian culture of the Jews. 
·        First of all, the Jews rejected the practice of slavery.  The Jews regarded themselves as the descendants of freed slaves.  They worshipped the living God who was in the business of freeing slaves.  As a result the Jews saw slavery as a very evil practice.  In a Jewish context, a wealthy person may have had paid servants, who were free to look for other employment, but not slaves.
·        Also, in the Jewish culture in which Jesus lived, a master who treated a servant as arrogantly as the master did in this passage would have been ostracised by his neighbours. 
·        As well, in the Jewish context in which Jesus taught, a lot more backchat from the servant toward the master would have been expected, much more backchat than merely a meek “We are worthless slaves …”.

With many of the sayings of Jesus, we find them in more than one of the gospels.  With these sayings, we can see how the passage evolved from the earliest gospel – Mark – through to the later gospels.  We can also note how the different cultural settings of the gospel writers affected the presentation of Jesus’ message.  With all that, we can have a reasonable idea of what Jesus was trying to get at in some of his more difficult sayings.

With this passage which occurs in only one gospel, it’s far more difficult to find the core words of Jesus behind the words of scripture.  I’m pretty certain, however, that something important was altered here between the time when Jesus spoke these words and the time when Luke wrote them down. 

This is particularly the case when we come to the statement “We are worthless slaves…”.  Throughout his life, Jesus encouraged the people with whom he came into contact to view themselves as being people of worth, as being people whom God valued.  Jesus never regarded anyone as being “worthless”.  I could not see Jesus ever encouraging anyone to regard themselves as being “worthless”.

But there has been a problem with this idea over the years in Christianity.  Over the years, many Christians forgot the way that Jesus valued all people.  Instead, some Christians developed the notion that, as a human race, we’re all very, very bad. 
·        Sometimes they wrote books of theology that talked about the “total depravity” of humanity.
·        Sometimes they wrote prayers where the congregation says that we’re not worthy to gather up the crumbs under God’s table.
·        Sometimes they wrote hymns where the congregation sings about “a wretch like me”.

In all this, many Christians have been taught – sometimes by ministers, sometimes by Sunday School teachers, sometimes by family members – we’ve been taught to regard ourselves as being “worthless”.  And it is a fact known to many mental health professionals that many Christians – and particularly Christians who grew up in conservative faith backgrounds – have real problems with low self esteem.

In response to this, we need to affirm clearly that, in his life and in his actions, Jesus never regarded anyone as being “worthless”.  Instead, Jesus taught that we are all loved and valued children of God.

As we read today’s gospel, we can celebrate two things:
·        In the meal we regularly share in our worship, God does for us exactly what the master in Jesus’ story does not do for the servant.  God greets us, saying “Come here at once and take your place at the table.”
·        As well, we have through the life of Jesus – and through this meal which we regularly share - an assurance that God never regards us as “worthless servants”.