Us AND Them

(Psalm 139; Romans 8:1-11; Matt 12:1-9, 18-23) J G White

Sunday, July 16, 2017, UBC Digby

Canada 150 has been celebrated… or not.  The statue of Governor Edward Cornwallis has been… covered, for a time.  Public online debate about the payout to Omar Khadr continues, on and on.  In every story we can see Us and Them.  Two opposing sides, of opinion, debate, action.  

Romans 8:9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

Who’s in and who’s out?  Who is saved and who are the unsaved?  Pastor’s pet peeve: church membership…

It is not always a matter of ‘Us and Them.’ Sometimes it is more like ‘us AND them.’  

There are more than two categories of those who hear the Word of the Kingdom of God.  Not just Us and Them.

Parable of the Sower and the Seeds
Seeds fell on the path… birds at them up.
Seeds fell on rocky ground… sprouted but then died.
Seeds fell among thorns… got choked out.
Seeds fell on good soil… grew a great harvest!

We may wonder, is a person with God?  Is God with that particular person?  There are shades of gray, it is not all ‘black and white,’ so to speak.

We could start, thinking about the ways we know of God being near or close.  Of God being with some one or with some group.  One 20th Century theologian put it this way, as he thought about Holy Communion:

… we are bound to distinguish several degrees or modes of the divine presence. [1] To begin with the most general, we believe in the omnipresence of God.  He is everywhere present. [NB Psalm 139]  [2] And yet we also say that God is with those who trust and obey Him in a way in which He is not with others.  We say, God is with them.  [3] And we say that God’s presence is with us more at some times than at others.  We speak of entering into His presence in worship, and ask Him to come and be with us and grant us His presence.  We say that wherever two or three are gathered together in His name, He is there in the midst of them.  [4] And then in apparently a still further sense we speak of the Real Presence in the sacrament.  (D. M. Baillie, The Theology of the Sacraments, 1957, pp. 97-98)

So I wonder how much God is with a person, not if they have God or not.  More of a scale of one to ten, not yes/no.

Matthew gives us next Jesus’ parable of the Weeds and the Wheat…
It is not always our job to weed out the ‘outsiders.’
The Kingdom is hidden among us.  It is a ‘divine conspiracy,’ the sure and subtle ways the Divine Love is undergirding this world and at work.  

The unclarity about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ is itself grace.  It is my calling, and yours, to help everyone along in a good direction, the next good step. C. S. Lewis wrote of imagining every single person we meet, each destined to become a glorious being, one day, that we might be tempted to bow down and worship, or a tragic creature from which we would turn our heads.  Moment by moment, we are helping others toward one of those two destinations.  Even with this simple, two category thinking, the point is to point people in the right direction, no matter what direction they are pointed when you meet him or her.

For we do not know how it is with any other person’s soul.  Just as well.  It is grace.  And when death comes, even we in the Church usually talk and act as if every person, everyone, is going to heaven, though our traditional teaching is otherwise.  Look at all the people who have died in our area this year so far… did any not go to heaven?  I imagine that at every funeral or celebration of life or memorial gathering they all were said to have gone on to a greater life.

There may well be a time for everything, and a season for every purpose under heaven.  Even a time for ‘Us and Them’ and a time for ‘us AND them.’  Our sacred stories, in the Holy Word, are filled with both attitudes.

Above it all remember, God desires everyone to be saved… Once, as the apostle Paul wrote about praying for leaders, he said: 3 This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2)

Jesus’ beatitudes:  The Kingdom He proclaimed was available for all, available to all.  (Matthew 5)
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

God throws a party, and everyone is invited.

David Bruce at ASTE… Welcoming and including, not pushing back and protecting.  Not pushing hands, hugging hands.  

We must see ourselves a being in this together.  Yes, we are different.  Yes, some people are healthy and some not so healthy, when it comes to body or mind or spirit, their spiritual condition.  But it is better to be together headed with us working to get us all the right direction than to be divided and isolated.

D’ya know Tony Campolo? He is a well-known Baptist author and preacher.  In his book The Kingdom of God Is a Party (1990), Tony Campolo relates an experience he had late one night in Hawaii. He was far from home, in a very different timezone, and could not sleep…

Up a side street I found a little place that was still open. I went in, took a seat on one of the stools at the counter, and waited to be served. This was one of those sleazy places that deserves the name, “greasy spoon.” I did not even touch the menu. I was afraid that if I opened the thing something gruesome would crawl out. But it was the only place I could find.

The fat guy behind the counter came over and asked me, “What d’ya want?”

I said I wanted a cup of coffee and a donut.

As I sat there munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door of the diner suddenly swung open and, to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes.

It was a small place, and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman beside me say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”

Her “friend” responded in a nasty tone, “So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”

“Come on,” said the woman sitting next to me. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you it was my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

When I heard that, I made a decision. I sat and waited until the women had left. Then I called over the fat guy behind the counter, and I asked him, “Do they come in here every night?”

“Yeah!” he answered.

“The one right next to me, does she come here every night?”

“Yeah!” he said. “That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why d’ya wanta know?”

“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday,” I told him. “What do you say you and I do something about that? What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night?”

A cute smile slowly crossed his chubby cheeks, and he answered with measured delight, “That’s great! I like it! That’s a great idea!” Calling to his wife, who did the cooking in the back room, he shouted, “Hey! Come out here! This guy’s got a great idea…”

At 2:30 the next morning, I was back at the diner. I had picked up some crepe-paper decorations at the store and had made a sign out of big pieces of cardboard that read, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” I decorated the diner from one end to the other. I had that diner looking good.

The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street, because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes…and me!

At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open, and in came Agnes and her friend. …We all screamed, “Happy birthday!”

Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted, so stunned,  so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to sit on one of the stools along the counter, we all sang “Happy Birthday”‘ to her. As we came to the end of our singing with “happy birthday, dear Agnes, happy birthday to you,” her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.

Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes! Come on! Blow out the candles! If you don’t blow out the candles, I’m gonna hafta blow out the candles.” And, after an endless few seconds, he did. Then he handed her a knife and told her, “Cut the cake, Agnes. Yo, Agnes, we all want some cake.”

Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I, I mean is it okay if I kind of, what I want to ask you is, is it O.K. if I keep the cake a little while? I mean, is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”

Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure! It’s O.K. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home, if you want to.”

She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door. As we all just stood there motionless, she left.

When the door closed, there was a stunned silence in the place. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?”

Looking back on it now, it seems more than strange for a sociologist to be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning. But then it just felt like the right thing to do. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed and that God would be good to her.

When I finished, Harry leaned over the counter and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”

Harry waited a moment and then almost sneered as he answered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”

Well, that’s the kind of church that Jesus came to create!

The welcoming arms of Jesus are for those we are pretty sure are out; and for those who might be in; and for any other category we come up with.

Charles Péguy said, “We must be saved together.  We cannot go to God alone; else he would ask, ‘Where are the others?’”  (Shane Claiborne, Common Prayer, 2010, p. 516)

Keep doing your best to welcome and include, not push away or put up walls.  Others will thank you.  Jesus will thank you.


Oh, To Be Good!

(Psalm 19; Romans 7:15-25a ) J G White
Sunday, July 9, 2017, UBC Digby

Be good.
Oh, to be good.
Oh, to be good enough!

It could be said that religions aim at making people good, making communities good, making society good.
But we seem to fail at this.

Paul’s writing here in Romans is a challenging read.  There are powerful, poignant moments.  
Sounds very personal and deep here at the end of chapter 7.  I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  (15)
Yet, Paul delights in the law, the rules, the patterns for life. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self... (22)

Such was the Hebrew way.  To delight in the guideBook.  Psalm 19, for instance.  Rejoicing in the word, the law.  It can be a bit of culture shock to get into this.  Though some Christian groups are quite strong on enjoying Bible obedience.  We have a local church near here named the Bible Believers Baptist Church. (Praying for Amelia D)

We do have moments of loving our own rulebooks.  Yet there are more than one. What law code does one follow?
Paul, of old, was a Roman citizen.  Roman authorities.
Paul had been a Jew, and a Pharisee. Law & Prophets.
Paul became a Christian.  The Way of Jesus the Christ.
Follow all three sets of laws?

We too can face conflicting sets of rules, dilemmas. Our ethical standards can crash into each other.  
Man on radio program about ethics… After taking his small child to the hospital, he was charged with injuring the little boy.  In the court proceedings it came down to this: should he lie and say he did shake the infant – plead guilty – to get off easy, or should he tell the truth – no, I did not hurt him – and go to jail for years and years if found guilty?
A personal value: truth telling.
A personal value: be husband and father.
He lied and pled guilty. Was given a short sentence. Years later, he was exonerated and found to be innocent.

We want to be on the right track.  There grows within us a desire for goodness, to be good and right.  It takes many forms of course, but it is there.

There are a variety of motives we humans have for being good, living a good life:
– Ambition and competitiveness: drive for perfection.
My friend Adam and his Everest challenge!  64 times bicycling up a hill in Ellershouse = Mt. Everest.

– To please other people.  Some people – some of us – get caught up in this in not so healthy ways.

– Ego: I’m great, the best. I’m superior. Many of us can have issues with pride, but some are driven to be and show themselves better than the rest.  

– I must! – forced by others. E.g. compelled by parents, etc. The power of parents and other mentors is so powerful.
Story of Madrid advert: ‘Paco, all is forgiven.  Meet me at noon on Tuesday at the Hotel Montana.  I love you.  your father.”  On Tuesday, 800 men named Paco showed up, looking for forgiveness, acceptance, approval from their fathers.

– forced by God… sometimes with an element of fear!
Be good for the sake of saving your own soul.  Earn eternal life or salvation or heaven or whatever you name it.  About ten years ago I was so disappointed one day.  A senior woman of my congregation, who was a leader of groups and attender of Bible studies, was asked by a younger woman “how do I get to heaven one day, where my mother is?”  The younger woman herself had grown up in a Baptist Church and always been involved.  The older woman said, “Well… you’ve got to be good and do your best…”  
What!? I thought to myself.  That is definitely not the Gospel.  But even from the church pews people still sometimes say we need to be good enough for God, and earn our way into heaven.  Goodness grows out of salvation, not the other way around.

– Give up on it totally!  Well, perhaps never totally.
Hermit of Gully Lake… went into hiding for his whole life after going AWOL before being sent off to WWII.
Jean Vanier’s story of his friend counselling a mafia man in his dying days.  In the strong man’s days of pure weakness, he became a wonderful friend.  He found the good life, at the end.

And then, we as Paul describes in Romans 7.  Amid our own codes of right and wrong, our ideals, and our motivations for goodness and badness, we fail ourselves.  We do not do what we want to do.  We have struggles within us.  
After all his convoluted thoughts about God’s law and the law of sin, about the human body and the mind and the heart and the soul, and all this other stuff… Paul cried out:
Wretched man that I am!  
Who will deliver me from this body of death!
Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ!

He said he was delivered – set free – by Christ.
So, Paul expressed a very personal struggle.

Your challenges, and mine, are different.  
Many of us, like Paul, would say that in Jesus we have seen God, met God, received grace, been made right & good, got in touch with who we are meant & made to be.
So when we face a failure, lift up your hearts!
– Be in touch with Christ.
Do your part to be a disciple of the Master.
– Believe in amazing grace.
Life is not about earning your way into God’s good books, or anyone else’s.  

– Believe in others who could use some grace.
Are there people in your life who struggle with their own failures?  Those who need more hope?  Those who could stop striving and start thriving?  Consider your own personal calling, your ministry, to believe in others, be on their side, encourage them.

– Be active in living the good life.
I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.  – Jesus. Without being perfect, life can be abundant!  Without being easy, life can be worthwhile.

One of many people I knew who died recently in Windsor was a woman named Bette Smith. living abundantly, despite pain and problems.  A founder of the weekly free lunch program at the Baptist Church: House of Hospitality.  Suffered with Crohn’s disease for years.  Persisted.  I was told that in recent months she suffered a great deal.  Have various surgeries that were not successful.  To one friend, who often took her to appointments in the city, she said: it would be better to die.
And it was better to die.  She did, a few weeks ago, and was finally released from all that pain and trouble.  
Her legacy lives on.  Bette lived an abundant life – 83 years – not easy, when her body failed her, but abundant.

So may it be for you and for me, in the grace of God.  God who knows all about pain and trouble.  God who knows all about death and disappointment.  God who know all about sin and circumstances – in Christ He bore that too.
Who will rescue us from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Now, using rather personal words from Celtic Daily Prayer, let us pray…  (p. 223)

Canadian Hymn Sing

(Rom 6:5-11; Ps 121; Mtt 10:40-42) J G White

Sunday, July 2, 2017, UBC Digby

Romans 6:5-11  Quite a few Sundays this summer will will hear from the book of Romans.  I will use some of the verses suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary, a list of readings for each Sunday of the year.

In today’s text, we ponder what it means to be one with God, united in Christ Jesus, as Paul puts it here.  It is made clear what we already know.  Our existence has life and death in it.  So, the story of Jesus is the story of God in life and in death.  

I was back to Windsor, where I used to live, on Wednesday.  Went to a friend’s deathbead at the Windsor Hospital.  She was already unconscious, unresponsive.  A woman of great vitality and creativity, in her final chapter.  We were close neighbours for seven years, in the same apartment house.  She also sat in a pew in front of my pulpit there.  

Interestingly, she would talk with me privately about how she disliked most funerals.  She actually disliked all the talk about resurrection and eternal life.  Did not really believe in the whole ‘life after death’ thing.

I appreciated her honesty; and it did not bother me.  To die and then live with Christ is beyond our explaining, and whatever I think about it, or my friend thought about it, it will be what it will be when this life ends, by God’s grace.

These sentences from the book of Romans are also getting at the life and death of various parts our our lives.  The beautiful way things not good can die off in our lives, and the great stuff can flourish and grow.  That’s what I believe in, here and now, and in the next installment.  Let’s hear from Romans chapter 6…


Psalm 121 Unto the Hills

This hymn is a song lyric version of the 121st Psalm.  Perhaps it is a rather dull song – music and words – but it is a classic.  Of course, it is Canadian content too.  

The whole book of Psalms is a book of poetry, poetry intended to be sung.  So we sing it. We sing of the hills we look up to.  Even our rather short Mount Pleasant, Beaman’s Mountain, and Mount Shubel can be looked upon with joy and awe.  The inspiring landscape brings out the awe in us.  And the hope.  And the wonder – wondering about it all.  Wondering about ourselves in this world.

A good friend is a paraglider ‘pilot.’ Like hang-gliding, paragliding takes one up to the crest of a great hill, and then one steps out into the wind and soars in the sky.

My friend, Brian, is a very relaxed, easy-going fellow.  His long-time life-partner jokes about him, climbing hills with his wing on his back, waiting for the wind to be right.  She says he goes up there to work out his problems.  Most of us cannot imagine what problems Brian actually has.

When we have problems to face, we sometimes find our way to the mountains – looking from a valley below, or a lookout on top – and we seek help.  

Let us sing Psalm 121, Unto the Hills.  


Matthew 10:40-42  In a moment, Evelyn reads from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter ten.  Words of welcoming and of rewards.  

On Canada Day, we would do well to rejoice in the welcome of our land.  The actual land itself was welcoming to the first peoples who got here and called it home.  Those people were welcoming – they had to be – to newcomers from Europe through the centuries. We have the daily opportunity to welcome others we meet.  Welcome them with the spirit and love of Christ.  Welcome the friend and the stranger as we welcome Jesus and the presence of God.  

As Jesus said at other moments, we can bless Him when we help people who cross our paths today in all sorts of circumstances. Let’s hear these words recorded in Matthew…


PRAYERS of the People  Let us  pray. July 2, 2017

God: the Singer of the Song, with our hymns and Psalms and spiritual songs we have prayed today…

We have been not dismayed whatever betide.  We pray for those who do feel hopeless and troubled.  We pray for the sick and the sorrowing among us.  We pray for healing of bodies, of souls, of relationships.  

From every race, from every climate, Your people gather… and we have gathered with them, around the Table of Jesus.  Bless the Church, in an uncertain age, that we may be a gracious light in the world.

The wonder of springtime and harvest, the sky, the stars, the sun… is before us.  With the roaring rain and startling lightening we pray for all who are frightened and traumatized, that they may find healing comfort.

We’d rather have You, Jesus, than anything the world offers today.  In an age of buying and selling, of hoarding and stealing, may we be saved from greed and emptiness.

Faithful One, so unchanging, Ageless One, you’re our Rock of peace.  O that there could be a solid rock of peace for the refugees of the world to stand upon, in all the places they flee and suffer.

Angels fall before You, prostrate, worshipping.  On this Canada weekend, we remember the many peoples who worship in many different ways, praying that we may have the grace to respect and know one another.  

Unto the hills around do we lift up our longing eyes.  

All the earth makes a joyful noise unto You.  Let there be joy for those who are surrounded by hate and violence, little celebrations that bring happiness in hard times.

Make us now Set apart for You, our Master, ready to do Your will.  As You taught, may people be transformed from within, and our desires and action become completely that of You, our Holy Source.

We Crown You the Lord of life, who triumphed over the grave.  We give thanks that this little life of ours can be so magnificent: we give thanks!

God keep our land glorious and free.

And now, we go out to express our citizenship – as citizens of Canada, citizens of humanity, citizens of earth, and citizens of the Heavenly Kindom.  

We humbly plead before You, reveal Yourself in us.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.