Lament, Mourn & Weep

repent

(James 4:7-10; Luke 18:9-14)

Sun, Oct 23, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

Repent, the End is near.
Repent, before it is too late.
Repent or perish!
So say the occasional signs along the highways and byways.  

Someone this week asked me if I would be pounding the pulpit, preaching fire and brimstone, when my topic is REPENTING.  No.  

But, Church, we still need a turnaround.  That’s what repentance is: turning around.  Turning away… turning to.  

Ever missed your turn-off while driving down a highway?  Oops, I missed my exit.  Hmm.  Do I wait until the next exit?  It could be a ways down the road.  Do I pull over and do a U-ie?  That’s not always safe… or legal.  But I need to turn around!

Repentance is turning away and turning to.  Lamenting where we’ve been headed – being sad about our sin.  Mourning it – what we’ve done, who we’ve been, what we’ve lost, who we’ve hurt.  Weeping – real sorrow that expresses our weakness and need to God, who hears our tears.  

Linda read for us some warnings and strong advice from James 4.  The little book of James is FULL of advice, if you have not noticed.  Lament, mourn and weep, we are told.  But, let’s hear these particular phrases again, now put into English, in his usual creative way, by Pastor and author, Eugene Peterson.  From James 4.

Quit dabbling in sin. Purify your inner life. Quit playing the field. Hit bottom, and cry your eyes out. The fun and games are over. Get serious, really serious. Get down on your knees before the Master; it’s the only way you’ll get on your feet.

My daily email from the Center for Action and Contemplation so often hits on this theme.  The spiritual theme of hitting rock bottom in order to be lifted up.  Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upwards, is all about this.

And so is Jesus’ parable of the two people praying in the Temple. This is our last Jesus story for the fall, our eighth week in Luke’s Gospel.  Next weekend we will celebrate Reformation Sunday with Romans 3, and then have a few Old Testament weeks.

Today, a parable of Jesus that has a clarity and directness about it.  Get your prayer attitude right and your attitude about yourself and others right. And let’s hear this one afresh, from Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of Luke.  (1969)

Two men went into the chapel to pray.  The one was a church member, the other was an unsaved man.  The church member stood up and prayed to himself like this: ‘O God, I thank you that I’m not like other people — greedy, mean, promiscuous — or even like this unsaved man.  I go to church twice on Sunday, and I am a faithful tither of all my income.’  But the unsaved man, standing way off, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes, but knelt down and cried, ‘O God, have mercy on a sinner like me.’  I’m telling you, this man went home cleaned up rather than that one.  For everyone who puts himself on a pedestal will be laid low, and everyone who lays himself low will be put on a pedestal.

Repentance must stay in our vocabulary with God.  We who are Sunday morning people, pew people and pulpit people.  We, more than the non-religious, should know how to pray these ways.  These ways Jesus taught, in parables.  

So, what are our personal prayer habits?  When we are on our own; and when we are together here, or in a small group?  What is your praying and my praying really like?  How much time does it take?  How much concentration?  What happens when you bow your head? Our attitude comes out: what is it like?  Is there any lamenting, and mourning, and weeping?  We each have our habits.  And we each may have little tools we use.

The devotional booklet The Daily Bread is very light on prayer.  Some days include a short prayer. As I looked through October, there seemed to be one day out of 31 that had a prayer of confession.  October 12.

I’m selfish sometimes, Lord.  I get more concerned with what I need than what others need.  Give me a heart of integrity and compassion.  

November looks like it will have four days that suggest prayer of confession.

Other prayer resources that I have found helpful seem to have more repentance, more lamenting and mourning and weeping over sin.  A classic is John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer, 1936.  A little volume with 64 prayers for morning and for evening, each day of a month, and one extra day.  About one in three days, the evening prayer is about repenting.  

On the 18th day, the evening prayer includes these confessions:
For my deceitful heart and crooked thoughts :
For barbed words spoken deliberately :
For thoughtless words spoken hastily :
For envious and prying eyes :
For ears that rejoice in iniquity and rejoice not in the truth :
For greedy hands :
For wandering and loitering feet :
For haughty looks :
Have mercy upon me, O God.

A newer book of prayers I recommend is Dr. J. R. C. Perkin’s Prayer Diary: short prayers for busy people, 1998.  I know from using it that it frequently encourages a humble attitude. I skimmed through October’s prayers, and, like Baillie’s book, Perkin’s has confession one third of the days. Here is part of October 25ths prayer, for this coming Tuesday…
Forgive me, Lord, that I am often unwilling
To undertake lowly tasks within my capabilities,
But seek to do important things
 For which I am not properly equipped.

In his book simply called, Prayer, Richard Foster gives four steps in ‘turning around,’ repenting.  I’m going to expand on this with six steps.  May these be helpful.

One.  Awareness of wrong.

There is a type of praying that gets called the prayer of examen.  Sort of an unknown term, but it really is about asking God to examine you from the inside out.  It’s the theme of Psalm 139, which ends:
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
   test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
   and lead me in the way everlasting.

You study in school, and there are exams.  You go to an MD to get checked out, and he or she puts you through a physical exam.  You do some housecleaning, and find a long lost object in a closet: you examine it closely.  

To be aware of our wrong, our sin, the knots that tie us up inside, we sometimes need the prayer of examen.  Often, the simple way to see inside ourselves is to ask for this blessing from our Master. Show me, Spirit.  Shine Your light inside.  

Two.  Ask for a contrite heart.  There’s another old-fashioned word.  But we see the meaning in the praying sinner in Jesus’ parable.  The tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  This man had a definite attitude of regret and repentance.  We might have to ask for help to get to this stage. We may need definite time alone to open our hearts to God… and ourselves.  

In all the centuries past, when people were converted to Christ, the deep sorrow about their own sinfulness always was there, coming to the surface.  Often the regret and lamenting would last days and weeks.  Here’s a bit of the story of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard coming to faith, at age 22.

As I stood… there [by the seacoast] alone and forsaken, and the power of the sea and the battle of the elements reminded me of my own nothingness, and on the other hand the sure flight of the birds recalled the words spoken by Christ: not a sparrow shall fall to the ground without your Father: then all at once I felt how great and how small I was; then did those two mighty forces, pride and humility, happily unite in friendship. (The Journal, 29 July 1835)  Out of a time of inner darkness, Jesus reached him.

Three.  Confess.  Actual, specific confession of failures.  We could skim over this step, thinking, well, our gracious God knows it all already – everything about me.  No wonder the example of scripture includes: cleanse me from hidden faults (Ps 139).  But we are unlikely to skip deep confession of the details if we have already seen what is wrong and have a heart that regrets it.  

There is a role for you and me with each other. As the book of James says in chapter 5, …confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. (J 5:16)  It is a ministry of reconciliation, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5 in the Bible.  Next week’s sermon – about the reformation of the Church – is going to make mention of the value of this ministry.  Watch for it.

Four.  Ask for mercy.

What was the prayer of the tax man in Jesus’ story?  ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  

This depends, of course, upon if we think of God as the source of mercy we need.  There is a problem if we decide just to be merciful to ourselves, or we find some person who will be easy on us and tell us, ‘There, there; everything is going to be all right.’  But, if we have seen our problem, and truly felt badly about it, we are likely to be deeply asking for mercy, a mercy we cannot make for ourselves.  Only from God.  Only from the Cross.  

I am not usually a lover of really simple, modern Christian songs.  But one I always appreciate is Michael W. Smith’s Breathe.

This is the air I breathe
This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me
This is my daily bread
This is my daily bread
Your very word spoken to me
And I, I’m desperate for You
And I, I’m I’m lost without You

Five.  Receive.

The promises of the Word are incredible for us.  1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This is what we receive.  

Here is another personal story, from the conversion of John Bunyan, as he told it himself…

Suddenly there fell upon me a great cloud of darkness, which did so hide from me the things of God and Christ… I was as if …my hands and feet had been tied or bound with chains…  After I had been in this condition for some three or four days, as I was sitting by the fire, I suddenly felt this word sound in my heart, I must go to Jesus; at this my former darkness and atheism fled away, and the blessed things of heaven were set within my view… (Grace Abounding)

After dark, regretful days, Bunyan saw he could receive Jesus and His great gifts.  

Six.  Obey.

Turning away is always a turning to a new way.  Christ’s actings here on earth tell us sin and wrong and evil are not a dead end.  And when the healing forgiveness is applied to our souls, Jesus is the way.  The new way for life, the new path, and our Guide.    

Shall you Repent, for the End is near!?  That is up to you.  Yet we should also say Repent, for the beginning is near.  That’s what a friend suggested to me the other day… and he was right.  Repent, for the beginning is near!  

Evil and wrong in life is no dead end.  A U-turn is possible – make legal, safe and secure by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Saviour.

 What did Christ preach?  Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.  

Repent, for the beginning is near.  The Gospel we preach does not end with a happy ending, so much as it ends with a new beginning. Let us pray.

Need to Pray

I prayed this past week. I needed to pray.

I prayed to God. I prayed with others.

On Thanksgiving Monday I prayed as usual for people who are sick or in some other trouble – that there be healing and help for them.

Next, I prepared for a funeral, and at the funeral some members of a local Lions Club led a number of prayers, so I just skipped one that I had planned to do.

On Wednesday I attended a meeting of our Deacons, and though we prayed at the start and end of the meeting, in the middle we also prayed – asking for guidance as we wonder who among you should be Deacons next year.  We made a long list of you to prayer over, that night.

On Thursday I visited a woman, a mother of three, to offer a house blessing.  We started outside, went all through the rooms of the home, and ended up out the back door, praying, again and again,
We call upon the Sacred Three
To save, shield, and surround
This house, this home,
This day, this night,
And every night.

On Friday I opened a committee meeting in Bible Hill with silence and some prayerful poetry from a rather New-Agey, former-Christian. (Jan Phillips, There Are
Burning Bushes Everywhere, 2016)
When I die …
If they wonder
did I believe in God
tell them every other week,
and the rest of the time
I bowed down to Mystery.

And yesterday I led four of you on a spiritual walk in the woods, including a bit of Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun.  

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, producing varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

William James, famed for his 1902 book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, said:  “The reason why we pray is simply that we cannot help praying.”

There likely are many people who do not ever pray, but even many atheists ‘pray,’ in their own way.  There even are atheist churches now, as well as a United Church whose minister is in trouble for being an ‘a-theist’, and still has moments in Sunday service that are like prayers.

We have just been reminded of that day when Jesus told his listeners a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. (Lk 8:1)  If we read a page before this, we see that Christ has been talking and teaching about The End, the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth, the ‘days of the Son of Man.’  

Amid the fears about The End, the questions about where and when and what will happen, the assumptions each disciple made, Jesus encourages.  Though the finish of God’s great promises seems so slow to get here, keep praying.  Don’t lose heart and give up on prayer.  

Jesus the Storyteller gives another parable.  Of a widow and an unjust judge.  Jesus’ audience would understand immediately; they had surely seen what happened to the poor in the land, treated unfairly by the judges, who always needed to be bribed to take your side.  

By the woman’s continual pestering, the terrible judge gives in and settles her case in her favour, just to be rid of her at last.  And, so, Christ concludes, how much better than an unjust judge is God the Father, the Hearer of Prayer?  He will not delay in making the right things happen.  “And yet,” Jesus said, “when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

As with many parables, we still do not get easy answers.  Answers, in this case, to our prayers.  And yet, we need to pray and not lose heart about praying.

Prayers, Christian prayers, include a gigantic variety of things.  Like our conversations with others.  Lots of topics, feelings, even body language are in our prayers.  Prayer is a lot more than asking for things.  And I suppose that we should express this when we are together – Sunday mornings, or in our small groups for study and other work.  So I should not only preach at you how to pray; I need to lead you into doing prayers in many different ways.  (That’s why we went for a walk in the woods yesterday.)

I read a quotation online a week ago, from the great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton.   He made this personal statement: You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.  

That’s a good personal example which could inspire more prayers in any of us.  Hand in hand with our many short moments of prayer need to be the extended periods of silence and listening and meditation and abiding with the Spirit.  Peter Marshall, former chaplain of the U. S. Senate, once remarked that God has equipped us to go deep-sea diving and instead we wade in bathtubs.  (Yancey, Prayer, p. 276)

Sometimes I realize my praying has not been very deep or extended… just short skims across the surface.  A quick splash in the tub instead of a deep dive to meet the Master.  It takes patience and persistence – like the widow in Jesus’ story – to dive deeply into prayer.  It can also take practice.  

I could not just try a deep-sea dive this week.  I need training, and practice, and trying some shorter, shallower dives, before I am really capable of going far down a long time.  So too in our walk with Christ.

Of course, our Sovereign God can break in and take a person, or a group, to an extended spiritual experience at the drop of a hat.  God makes that possible.  And many of us have those special times we can tell of in our testimonies.  But normally, from month to month, we need to practice the short minutes of grace, to train for the deeply devoted seasons of prayer with Christ.

Three of us sang
Just a closer walk with Thee
Grant it, Jesus, is our plea;
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

This is perhaps the best thing about prayer.  It is talk with God, quality time with the Spirit, sharing our heart with Jesus.  That day, with His followers, He wanted to encourage them to stay prayerful, trusting in God with their prayers.  Don’t lose heart.  

So, in a beautiful way, Christ has us together, and we become a team, a family of God, and are not alone in praying.  My praying helps your praying, and your prayers help me converse with Christ.

A Jewish teacher of prayer said, “When I prepare myself to say my prayers, I unite with all who are closer to God than I am, so that, through them, I may reach God.  And I also unite myself with all who may be farther away from God than I am, so that through me,  they may reach God.”  (Yancey, Prayer, p. 206)

It is within God’s grace that we learn to pray.  “Teach us to pray,” the disciples once said to Jesus, and He kept on teaching them.  As He sends the Spirit to keep teaching us.  Maybe you can look back and see how your own praying has changed and grown and had different seasons in your life.

In his book on prayer, Philip Yancey quotes this story from a woman named Sara.

As a new Christian I attended a private Ivy League – type school, where the only real option for fellowship was a charismatic prayer group.  Many times in that group I had a strong sense of God’s presence – a sense that has come and gone in the years since.

I didn’t grow up with the idea that God answers specific prayers, and I must say that whenever I heard of Christians praying for parking places and the like, it bugged me.  But when my teenagers went away to college and got exposed to risky behaviours, I prayed very specific prayers of desperation in the early hours of the morning.  As a parent, you read news reports of binge drinking and sex parties on campus, and you feel so helpless, wondering what your kids are doing.  I sometimes think of mothers whose children have committed suicide.  They prayed too…

I’m trying to pray less “parentally,” in other words, telling God what to do.  Rather, I try to look behind the symptom of rebellion or risky behaviour and ask God to help my children find better ways of finding meaning and of handling the stress in their lives.  (Philip Yancey, Prayer, p. 60)

The need to pray and not lose heart is a constant in our lives.  So we keep learning prayer. We keep prayer simple.  We pray alone.  We pray together.  We speak each other’s prayers.  We pray when we are inspired and feeling in touch with God.  We pray when we feel low and prayer seems just to hit the ceiling and bounce back. Christ gives us ways to pray.

Here’s a new parable to end today’s sermon.  The Parable of the Waves on the Seashore.  

Praying that God’s Kingdom Come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, is like waves breaking on the shore of a little barrier island.  A person watches a wave come in to hit the sandbank.  It does not reach that far up the beach.  The next wave comes up the sand, and just touches the bank.  Another wave comes, and does not reach it.  Yet another wave rushes in, and hits the island, taking a bit of ground away with it – just a bit.

So it goes, the waves keep coming, while the person stays and watches, or leaves.  The waves come and go with the ebbing and flowing tide.  In time, the little barrier island will be worn away.

So may God’s Kingdom destroy the barriers of the good life God wants for people and all creation.  The Kingdom is a sure thing.

Faith & Thanksgiving: Worship In or Out?

(Luke 17:11-19)
Thanksgiving Sunday, Oct 9, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

Today’s story of Jesus takes us away from His parables – stories He told – to an event from His life.  A healing moment on his travels.  Ten who are sick and outcast are healed, and one of them turns around to express deep thanksgiving to Jesus the Healer.

I wonder what catches your attention about this event?  What details that are here – or not here – arouse your curiosity?  Tell, briefly: what do you say about this story? . . .

Me, I wonder about what Jesus’ guidance really is.  The nine who were healed and did not come back praising were doing simply as Jesus told them to do.  Go and show themselves to the Jewish priest.  The one who returned with an attitude of gratitude was praised by Christ, though the fellow had not yet obeyed and gone to do a religious ritual.  What’s right?  Doing the religious thing by offering Bible-based worship with the help of a spiritual expert, or being spontaneous and individual and not particularly religious?  

From time to time I hear a person defend his or her spiritual life by saying things like the following:  “I can worship out in the woods, or in the light of a sunrise – I don’t need to go to church.”  “I can do good things a live a good life without a traditional religion.”   “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”  

Jesus’ experience with the ten lepers gives us listeners a picture of religious obedience that is a path of faith and healing.  It also illustrates the spontaneous expression of joyful gratitude that comes from faith and a blessing given by God.  

I am still a believer in both religion and free spirit response.  I still recommend this (Church) to people, as I rejoice in the not-so-religious ways people express their spirituality and have ‘God moments.’

All this is in the DNA of our faith.  The Hebrews of old rejoice when they say, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’ (Psalm 122) And they are in awe when the heavens were telling the glory of God; night to night declares knowledge, without speaking. (Psalm 19)  Jesus went to the Synagogue, and to the Temple in Jerusalem for the traditions of His religion.  And Christ went away to the quiet wilderness, healed when He was not supposed to, and hung out with the wrong, unholy crowd.  

So we might not be surprised today when He tells ten chronically ill people to go and do their religious duty and see if they have been healed, and then He welcomes and praises one of them who never even went to the priest.  Religious stuff is, well, not perfect.  It is all done by us people, after all!  

Years ago, C. S. Lewis wrote of his conversion – when he had to admit God was God – and of starting to attend worship at churches and chapels.   He did not find the Christian religion attractive!  He did not like the crowd, the business, the music, and so on. He wrote: To me, religion ought to have been a matter of good men praying alone and meeting in twos and threes to talk of spiritual matters. (Surprised By Joy, p. 187)

We know Lewis was not unique in his spiritual sensibilities.  As I suggested at the beginning, many a person is not fond of or interested in getting together and ‘doing church’ the way we ‘do church.’  Maybe we will talk about this in a few weeks at Monday’s Bible Study.  

Famous author, C. S. Lewis did stick with being a churchgoer, from that beginning, and the legacy of his books continues to be used by God around the world.

I stick with being a churchgoer out of a great love and enjoyment of it – if I were not always in a pulpit I would certainly be in a pew.  Or choir loft, I suppose.   

I also stick with the great outdoors; with the facets of Jeff that are the botanist, the birder, the scientist, the sightseer, the gardener, the environmentalist, and so forth.  I don’t think I am as good at worship and prayer alone, when out of doors, as many others are.  I get too wrapped up in what I am seeing out there.  And too busy with my own thoughts, and memories, going on inside me.  

So I see where I can improve a lot, in the natural, unplanned, non-religious moments of life where I am being blessed.  So often I do not notice there is a God out there.  I want to practice the presence of God more on the trail, in the garden, along the beach.  

I guess this makes me skeptical of those who say, “My church is the woods.  I worship better out there.”  I wonder… ‘Do you really worship God out there?’  Or is this just an excuse.  Well, this is likely my own projection onto others.  Since I’m not very good at worshipping God out there.  Or… I don’t think I do much with Christ out there.  Maybe my definition of worship, my sense of the holy is narrow, and I’m doing better than I realize.  

So, surely there is a lot of good, mystical experience going on for people, and quality time with God and Christ and the Spirit in creation.  I believe in this.  And the Bible tells me so.  Hey, the Son of God even joined in and became an animal within creation, like us.  What other world religion has the Supreme One do that?  

For our gratitude to be complete, it will be whole.  The whole person gives thanks.  

A human soul can be described many ways.   One way is to know the soul as the real you, including your whole being.  We looked at the soul this way a week ago at the retreat day.   The soul includes your mind and emotions.  It includes your heart and will.  Another part of the soul is one’s relationships.  And the soul, while we are here, includes our physical bodies.  

Our thankfulness lives itself out in all these ways. We think and feel gratitude, and experience it emotionally.  We relate to people, and to God, with gratefulness.  Deep down we make decisions because of thankfulness.  And we act on our decisions, and do things in life because of our thanksgiving.  

It seems clear to me that Jesus, in this Luke 17 story, blesses the religious acts of grateful worship, and the spontaneous thanks and praise of one person that does not fit into a box.  

Some people this weekend are getting together to worship God.  Lots of people are getting out there among the coloured leaves and at tables of plenty to rejoice in the blessings of life.  Some of us are doing both.  And keeping the inside and the out connected.

I remember one Friday in October about twenty years ago.  We divinity students were going into the chapel at the Divinity College for the morning service, a Thanksgiving service.  The chapel at ADC is a round room, walled with dark bricks, chairs in circles.  The chapel room is down on the main floor of the building, in the centre – the heart of the building.  There was a purposeful design.  

So, it has no windows, is rather cave-like, but homey too.  As we were to go in for worship, a student said she was not going to attend.  How could we have a Thanksgiving service in a dungeon like this?  We should be outdoors in creation.

Well, I understood her point.  Even here, we can’t ever see out to the rain and clouds or sun and trees.  

I want both / and.  Worship with our indoor, human rituals; and natural praise and prayer that happens everywhere in creation!  I want Bach organ chorales played to express thanksgiving with others, and I want to be alone out under colourful foliage with the tide flooding in along the shoreline.  I need religion and I need non-religion for my life, my soul.  I can have both.  I don’t have to choose, thank God!  I am religious and spiritual.  

And that’s what I’m looking for in the story of Jesus with these ten diseased men.  Nine obeyed Jesus and went to do the Jewish rituals with the priest – and were all healed.  The one who was a foreigner, discovered he was healed, and returned with spontaneous joy, and thanked the Master.  

You might notice too that Jesus seems to critique the other nine who did not return to say thanks.  ‘Why didn’t they also come back to me?’ But He did not scold the fellow who came to thank Him, without taking part in the Jewish religious pattern.  Sure, he was a foreigner, but the spontaneous worship seemed to be enough.  

So… do both.  Both are available to us.  God will allow one to touch the other, help the other in your life.  The time in the Baptist Church pew and the time looking out upon the Annapolis Basin.  

As we prepare to go out into the rest of wonderful October, may Christ inspire you to give grace to other people.  People who don’t want to be religious, but want to care for their souls.  Enjoy their spontaneity.  And respect the gratitude, praise, giving and goodness of others that is expressed differently than yours/ours.

And may the Spirit of the living God train you and me to thank and worship better when we are doing the organized religion thing, and when we are unorganized and unreligious.  So may our attitude be gratitude.  So may our faith increase, by God’s grace.  So may our faith make us well, in the name of Jesus.
Amen.

Slaving Over Supper

(Luke 17:5-10)

Sun, Oct 2, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

Let us break bread together, on our knees.

Today is celebrated, in quite a few churches, as World Communion Sunday.  We remember that we are sharing bread and ‘the fruit of the vine’ as millions of Xians do in a multitude of ways around the globe. We are following Jesus’ instructions.  

Long before our time, Reginald Heber, who authored hymns like, Brightest and Best, and Holy Holy Holy, penned these words:  (1827)

Bread of the world in mercy broken,
Wine of the soul in mercy shed,
By whom the words of life were spoken,
And in whose death our sins are dead:
Look on the heart by sorrow broken,
Look on the tears by sinners shed;
And be Your feast to us the token
That by Your grace our souls are fed.

Bread of the world, in mercy broken.  And by God’s mercy our souls are fed.  

I’m so glad for yesterday, when about 40 people gathered for a spiritual retreat day near here.  In a way, we were spending a bit of time on the care and feeding of the soul. We did not celebrate communion; we looked at a number of other ways we care for our own souls: our mind, heart, body, and relationships.  Caring for our whole self.  

Back here, in our local churches, we are sharing the Lord’s Supper.  Surely most of us who were together yesterday are doing this in our churches today.  We are still having our souls nourished.  And somehow, from church to church, we are sharing the same sacred feast, and in communion or fellowship together, across the miles.  Think of all the souls seeking to be fed by the grace of God, the disciples who want to grow in their faith.  

Our Jesus story today was from Luke chapter 17.  Again, Jesus tells a story of His own, a parable of sorts.  It comes because the disciples are pleading.  “Increase our faith!”  

Have you said that?  “Give me faith!”  Or, as another man once said to the Saviour, “I believe, help my unbelief!”  What a great prayer.  It has sometimes been my prayer.

Peter and James and John and the rest were likely asking for their faith to be helped because of what Jesus had just been teaching.  I didn’t have Charlene read the first scenes in the chapter, where Christ talks about not being a stumbling block to others – the consequences could be terrible.  And about forgiving someone who sins against you seven times a day.  They were told to rebuke, and then forgive when the person turns around.  Forgive again and again and again.  

The demands of their ministry – what the disciples were to do, we big demands.  “Increase our faith!”

Jesus tells them faith like a tiny seed can move… well, not mountains this time, but a mulberry tree, at least.  And Jesus then heads off into this story of a slave coming in from the field to serve supper.  

We are not accustomed to slavery in our lives.  We look down our noses at the cultures in the world where slavery still goes on.  We outlawed slavery a couple hundred years ago!  And we are horrified about the hidden slavery we hear of in North America, human trafficking and the like.  

But, in the days of Jesus and those disciples in the Middle East, slavery was a normal thing across the board.  So Christ tells His story.  The slave is not to expect rewards for doing his or her slave duties.  

So is following Jesus’ way like slavery?  A profound duty to God?  Well, this is indeed the way Jesus sometimes describes it.  Whether He speaks of taking up your cross to follow him, or of forsaking home and family and possessions to be a disciple, it’s a theme of our Master.  

Jump ahead with me – on this Communion Sunday – to Luke chapter 22, and the so called Last Supper.  Jesus leads the way into servanthood, or slavehood we might dare call it.  (We remember the story of Him even washing the feet of the disciples!)  And he keeps on serving.  Hear the story…

14-16 When it was time, he sat down, all the apostles with him, and said, “You’ve no idea how much I have looked forward to eating this Passover meal with you before I enter my time of suffering. It’s the last one I’ll eat until we all eat it together in the kingdom of God.”

17-18 Taking the cup, he blessed it, then said, “Take this and pass it among you. As for me, I’ll not drink wine again until the kingdom of God arrives.”

19 Taking bread, he blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, given for you. Eat it in my memory.”

20 He did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant written in my blood, blood poured out for you.

24-26 Within minutes they were bickering over who of them would end up the greatest. But Jesus intervened: “Kings like to throw their weight around and people in authority like to give themselves fancy titles. It’s not going to be that way with you. Let the senior among you become like the junior; let the leader act the part of the servant.

27-30 “Who would you rather be: the one who eats the dinner or the one who serves the dinner? You’d rather eat and be served, right? But I’ve taken my place among you as the one who serves. And you’ve stuck with me through thick and thin. Now I confer on you the royal authority my Father conferred on me so you can eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and be strengthened as you take up responsibilities among the congregations of God’s people.

Today, at our simple ‘Lord’s Supper’ we remember that Jesus welcomes us to His table.  Jesus serves us here.  Jesus feed us… and shows us he is our bread, our wine, our feast.  

Here we are reminded that our faith is fed not only by words, by teachings, by stuff for our brains.  We are fed without words, with actions.  Bits of white bread.  Sips of Welch’s grape juice.  We share, we pass them around, one to the other.  And it’s from Him.

Jesus, our great Servant, offers us a feast.  A fellowship for our isolation.  A simple action for our word-filled minds.  A quietness for our restless hearts.  Nourishment for hungry souls.  Jesus has slaved over this meal.  It is about His death: His human body busted, His life’s blood flowed.  

Churches, of course, have organized and orchestrated this ceremony.  Made a lot of rules about it.  And if you think it is the Roman Catholics or the Anglicans who make it so complicated, and are strict about it, look at Baptist history.  Look at the Baptist Churches that had closed communion so much that only the members of one local church could take part in their church.  And they would have ushers to ‘fence the table’ and keep outsiders out of their Lord’s Supper.  Bouncers at Church!

But there is something about all Jesus said and did that tells us His table is a welcoming feast.  And we can’t control all the moments of holy dining.  

We get surprised when God shows up.

A dear friend told me a story this summer.  A number of years ago she was working part-time in Halifax, and would sometimes pack her breakfast to eat early, down at Point Pleasant Park.  

One early morning, she parked her car – just about no one else around – and went off to eat her bread and cheese and fruit she’d thrown together.  

A stranger approached her.  A rough looking man.  He… he was begging.  He wanted some money, for a coffee or whatever.

My friend was nervous.  She was a 70 year old woman, alone in the early morning there.  But, she bravely told him, “I don’t have any money to give  you, but I have a bit of breakfast here, & I will share.”

The man looked at her, then went off quickly without saying anything, towards nearby building.  “Was he gone?” the woman wondered.  “Did he go off to bring some friends back with him?”  She sat down at a picnic table and started to open up her breakfast.

My friend told me, with tears, what she saw next.  She saw the man coming back… to her table.  He had gone to the bathroom.  He had combed his hair.  He had washed his face, and his hands.  Done up his shirt, for breakfast. He sat down and shared breakfast with my friend.

Jesus said, I’ve taken my place among you as the one who serves.  

Let us take our place at the table with him. Amen.