New Old Parables: The Fish in a Net, the Birds in a Snare, & the Poor Wise Man – July 26

Welcome to this sermon blog. For more details from the worship service for this day, and various announcements, check out the bulletin, posted here on the Bulletin page.

SCRIPTURE Matthew 13:31-35, 44-52 – read by Maggie Beveridge

SERMON: ‘The Fish in a Net, the Birds in a Snare, the Poor Wise Man.’ Today, we have read five more of Jesus’ parables from Matthew 13. As we work through the sermon, and have a bit of dialogue, you will get to choose a couple parables to delve into; but first, let’s hear three wise sayings from the Preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes.  Ecclesiastes 9:12-17

Let us pray…

Qoheleth’s Story of a Poor, Wise Man.

The author of the book we call Ecclesiastes takes the pen name Qoheleth, in Hebrew, which we translate Preacher or Teacher. As book of wisdom, the few, oft quoted bits are surrounded by a lot of rather pessimistic spiritual philosophy. At least, it can come across that way. The little story of the Poor Wise Man is one example from this holy book, filled with irony, futility, and what seems quite negative.

A poor man is wise, wise enough to save his tiny town from the enemy forces besieging it. But no one pays any attention to the poor man. 

At first glance, in most English translations of this text, it seems a story about wisdom not getting the credit. The town is saved, but because the man is poor, he and his wisdom are forgotten. Yet, some of the Hebrew here is, apparently, not so simple. It can be seen to say that the man knew how to save the town, but he was ignored. So the town did not get saved from the enemy after all.

It’s a parable, of sorts, and they often are not crystal clear, on purpose, as we see with Jesus. They challenge. They get one pondering, for a long time. This story can do the same, whether we like the happy or not so happy ending for the town. In either case, the wise fellow is forgotten. It is a warning, a warning about being wise. Using godly wisdom does not guarantee a bed of roses, nor any honour for oneself.

Perhaps the late Eugene Peterson was quite right when he wrote that Ecclesiastes 

…is most emphatically and necessarily in the Bible in order to call a halt to our various and futile attempts to make something of our lives, so that we can give our full attention to God — who God is and what he does to make something of us. Ecclesiastes actually doesn’t say that much about God; the author leaves that to the other sixty-five books of the Bible. His task is to expose our total incapacity to find the meaning and completion of our lives on our own. (The Message, 2003, p.1157)

It is God who gives us the meaning and the completion of our lives. 

Now, there are a couple other images we read today from Ecclesiastes, but let us turn first to another wise Teacher, and some would say poor, not rich: Jesus.

Jesus’ teaching methods included an element of surprise and of reversal: taking common wisdom and turning it around. Two millenia later, and in a very different culture, we can miss the shocking bits of His tales. Especially if we have gotten to know the stories of Jesus from childhood. 

Take the story of ‘The Good Samaritan.’ The ancient term, ‘Samaritan,’ has come to mean a ‘good person,’ right? But when Jesus told his story of the man of Samaria who helped a Jew, the Samaritans were disliked, avoided, and thought of as heretics. 

But that’s not one of today’s stories. We have five, from Matthew 13, this chapter of parables. Which one do you want to explore first?
The Mustard Seed; The Yeast in the Dough;
The Treasure in the Field; The Pearl of Great Price;
The Fishing Net?

Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed.

Why does this parable interest you?

What does it mean? How has it influenced you?

What is unanswered for you?

What’s strange about this that we might not see? Mustard is a rather weedy plant, and not thought of highly.  There were rules for the Hebrews about not mixing crops as you planted, and how to keep a plant, such as mustard, from becoming a problem. 

Also, the mustard plant sure is not a Cedar of Lebanon. God’s empire is not a dominating cedar of lebanon; it arises as a common, even weedy, garden herb. It is something found in your own backyard.

How could you re-tell this story today?

The Rule of God is like a tiny root of Goutweed that arrives in your flowerbed, hidden in a Hosta plant, given to you by a friend. Soon the Goutweed leaves cover the whole ground, and shade the earth from the heat of summer.

Jesus’ Parable of the Yeast in the Dough.

Why does this parable interest you?

What does it mean?  How has it influenced you?

What is unanswered for you?

What’s strange about this that we might not see? Yeast is not considered clean or holy in Judaism. Remember the Exodus and the Passover? One was to get rid of all leavened bread. 

Also, the woman hides the yeast in the flour. This is an interesting word choice.

Also, the amount of flour is huge: about fifty pounds! But the same amount was used by other bakers in the Bible: Sarah, when Abraham received the three holy visitors (Gen 18:6); Gideon, when preparing for an angel of God (Jud 6:19); and Hannah, when making an offering for the temple presentation of her son, Samuel (1 Sam 1:24).

Also, we have here a female image of God.

How could you re-tell this story today?

The Eternal Kind of Life is like a virus that is smaller than any living thing. It sneaks into a human, and spreads like wildfire throughout the population, until the whole world builds up immunity.

Jesus’ Parable of the Treasure in the Field.

Why does this parable interest you?

What does it mean?  How has it influenced you?

What is unanswered for you?

What is strange about this that we might (or might not) see? 

We can ask: is it right or even legal to do what the treasure-finder did? After the days of Jesus, the Jews developed rules about found treasure. It was not an uncommon situation. From the Talmud, Only after one has the land for seven years and if the owner cannot be found can the new owner claim the treasure. (B. B. Scott, Lost Junk, Found Treasure, TBT 26 (1988), pp. 31-34)

Is the finder having just jubilation, or greedy glee?

Jesus’ story highlights the total response of the finder to the discovery of God’s reign. Life with God is worth letting go of everything else. Remember Jesus saying lose your life in order to gain it?

How could you re-tell this story today?

God’s Heaven on Earth is like the computer hacker who chanced upon the most beautiful photograph in the whole world, archived online. She sold everything to buy the rights to that website.

Jesus’ Parable of the Pearl of Great Price.

Why does this parable interest you?

What does it mean?  How has it influenced you?

What is unanswered for you?

Like the ‘Treasure in the Field,’ this parable tells of the complete value in the eyes of the finder, who found a great pearl, and does everything to get it. In this case, the one who finds was a seeker of pearls, not just one who happened to find a great one. God’s Kingdom is like this story, and the other: some who seek God in this world, and some do not seek, find God.

What is strange about this that we might not see? 

We might forget how merchants in the scriptures are often seen negatively. They can represent greed and unfairness. Also, the wearing of pearls and such finery is often frowned upon. Such as when Paul writes to Timothy, warning that the women should adorn themselves with good conduct, not with gold, pearls and expensive clothes. (1 Tim 2:9)

Yet, even a rich person can earnestly seek God, and find, and be welcomed into the Realm of God’s Rule.

How could you re-tell this story today?

The Kindom of Creator is like the investor in search of the best stocks on the market. When he found the low-priced stocks of the most amazing new business, he sold all he had and bought the whole company.

Jesus’ Parable of the Fishing Net.

Why does this parable interest you?

What does it mean? How has it influenced you?

What is unanswered for you?

What is strange about this that we might not see? 

There is nothing too topsy-turvy or shocking in this parable, unlike in many others Jesus speaks. The word Matthew uses for ‘bad’, of the bad fish, often refers to things that are ‘rotten.’ So playing with the words in our minds we might wonder at some of the freshly caught fish being rotten.

This little tale seems much like Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat. In the End, what’s bad will be separated from the good. 

How could you re-tell this story today?

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like harvesters who entered the orchard and picked apples of every kind. When the bins were full, they took them to the barn, sorted them out, put the good into shipping barrels, but threw out the bad apples. So it will be at the end.

Let us also look at Quoheleth’s Images of the Fish in a Net and the Birds in a Snare.  ‘Time and chance happen to us all,’ is the lesson here. As it says, No one can predict misfortune.
Like fish caught in a cruel net or birds in a trap,
So men and women are caught
By accidents evil and sudden.
(MSG)

Here is a theme that is woven throughout the wisdom of Solomon, who called himself Qoheleth, in Ecclesiastes. Today we might just say: random things happen. There is no explaining the meaning. 

I have been a committed disciple of Jesus for about four decades. Nevertheless, I tend to side with the ‘wise’ Preacher of Ecclesiastes. You just can’t explain why everything happens to us. Some things just happen without ‘meaning’ attached. There is no ‘why did that happen.’ It just happened. 

Yet we are meaning makers, we humans. And the God we grow to know speaks of the meaning and purpose of all things. 

I have been a lover also of nature, and science, natural history and geological history. Nevertheless, as much as I like ‘cause and effect,’ I believe much will remain mysterious for us. We can’t know it all. As the Preacher, Qoheleth, said, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. (1:2) And, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. (9:11)

This ‘wisdom’ stands alongside the wisdom of Jesus, such as we see in His parables and other lessons. There is naturally a creative tension between Ecclesiastes and Matthew 13, for instance. Jesus speaks of great purpose and the subtle rule of God, which sneaks in and is unstoppable. 

The fish in the net and the birds in the snare: how might Jesus re-tell us this story today?

No one can anticipate the time of redemption. The Realm of God is like a whale caught in a cruel net, or a seabird caught in an oil spill: suddenly, there is freedom from the ropes as they are cut, and there is washing clean from evil by Jesus Christ! So truth and grace happen to them all.

PRAYERS Let us pray: World In Prayer

New Old Parables: The Two Eagles & the Vine – July 19

Welcome to this sermon blog. For more details from the worship service for this day, check out the bulletin, posted here on the Bulletin page.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 – read by Margo Nesbitt

To study the allegory of ‘The Two Eagles & the Vine,’ one should read all of Ezekiel 17. (I’m not sure how I put Isaiah 25 in the bulletin – that’s an error!) We are going to work through our chapter in stages. To start, the reading of the first ten verses. Ezekiel 17:1-10

Let us pray.  May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. AMEN. (Psalm 19:14)

SERMON: The Two Eagles & the Vine. I have a bit of a green thumb. I can’t grow a vine from a cedar, but I can take the sprig from an Eastern White Cedar, root it, and grow a new cedar tree. 

About ten years ago I saw the stump of a cedar, formerly a tall, narrow, columnar tree. It had been cut down, in the prime of life. I saw plenty of vigorous new shoots coming up. I snipped off some cuttings. I dipped them in rooting hormone. I potted them in soil. To my joy, some of them took! I brought them with me and planted some here at the Parsonage. A couple are still in pots, looking for a home. Check out my photos…

Rooted cutting of Eastern White Cedar hybrid
Young Cedar at the Parsonage
Mature Cedar in the neighbourhood

Biblical imagery uses a few main categories. I’d say three of them are: the image of a great City, scenes of people eating together, and pictures from agriculture or nature. It is no wonder, then, that we meet again this week some growing plants. So it is an agricultural sermon, more so than last Sunday. 

The Allegory of the two eagles and the vine fills up Ezekiel chapter 17. Did you remember this story? Maybe it has been a while since you read this chapter. Perhaps you had forgotten it. 

Once upon a time, a great eagle plucked the top off a cedar of Lebanon, and planted it in a far-off land, bustling with business. Then the eagle planted a seed in the original land grew into a sprawling vine. It ended up growing towards a second great eagle that came along. The vine got transplanted into a fertile, well-watered land. “Will it prosper?”

Maybe you have not seen a Cedar of Lebanon. I have not. But Sharon White has, when she was in Lebanon, thirteen months ago.  

From of old, in the Middle East, the Cedar has been known as a grand tree, a symbol of Lebanon. Ezekiel, at his moment in history, spoke a parable, of sorts, about the kings and kingdoms of his world. He speaks, on God’s behalf, a message to and about the people at the top. 

The first Great Eagle is king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the empire to the north that was taking over Judah. The Topmost Shoot of the cedar tree is the King of Judah, who got taken captive, with many other people, up into Babylonia. Now, the king of Babylon made an agreement and set up Zedekiah as ruler over Judah, under himself. Zedechiah is the Seed from the land the Eagle plants the fertile soil back in Judah. 

But Zedechiah of Judah decided to rebel against his Babylonian overlord, and make an alliance with Egypt, instead. The Pharaoh of Egypt is the second Great Eagle. Zedekiah, the vine, starts growing towards the Pharaoh, in hopes of a better deal. 

But this will fail. It breaks the agreement with his boss, the king of Babylon. And it is not what God has in store for the Chosen People who are now going into exile in Babylon, though some Jews do end up in Egypt, including the prophet Jeremiah. 

Such is Ezekiel’s warning, in the allegory of the vine and the two eagles: the ruler of Judah and the rulers of their neighbours to the north and south. Zedekiah can’t save himself or his people. So the end of the Jewish glory days in the Holy Land has come, and the end of their monarchy too.

Whether you know all this biblical history, or followed me though all that, the story here illustrates the creative power of the prophet Ezekiel and God. After the allegory, Ezekiel proceeds to preach a warning about the vine, Zedekiah. “Will it prosper?” The answer is ‘no.’ Check out verses 9 through 21. 

But then – and this is what is most interesting to me – God extends the allegory, in verses 22, 23 & 24. The LORD promises to come along as the Eagle, and make something new happen. Let’s read it.

Ezekiel 17:22-24

Here is a messianic hope. The promise of a new Anointed One, or Messiah, or (in Greek) a Christ. One day, there will be a king of the Jews again.

The prophetic image of a shoot growing up is used for the Messiah by a number of Old Testament prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah. Remember the Jesse Tree we sometimes decorate in Advent? It pictures the shoot coming up from the family of Jesse, and his son, King David. The shoot we see growing up is Jesus of Nazareth.

The Lord God … will take a sprig… I will set it out. …I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.

Christ Jesus is the Noble Cedar. Ezekiel did not know what His name would be, but he proclaimed the promised hope that there would be an Anointed One one day in the future. Jesus arrived hundreds of years later.

Speaking of Jesse trees, and the incarnation of Jesus celebrated at Christmas (and yes, we will hear an Advent/Christmas Carol at the end of the service), notice Ezekiel’s poetry at the end of chapter 17. What does God do?

I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the LORD have spoken;
I will accomplish it.

God is the God of reversals. Others had sung this same song, through the ages. Such as Jesus’ own mother-to-be, Mary. Pregnant in Luke chapter 2, she sang of God, in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

This is the work of the greatest Anointed One, to use that Hebrew term. God’s care for the needy is highlighted. God’s warning for those not-so-needy is proclaimed! In all this one thing gets reinforced: God is in charge. When Zedekiah thinks he will solve Judah’s oppression his way, he is told he can’t do it. He is told, from God, ‘I myself will take this… I myself will plant that… I will accomplish it.’

In world events today, some wonder about ‘the hand of God.’ I have heard of one NS preacher I know who is speaking of the coronavirus as part of God’s judgment. I hear others frame things up in terms of opportunity – a chance to distill down to what is really important in life and faith now. 

In our personal lives today, some wonder about the point God is making in this unprecedented year. Many plans are being troubled. Plans for families to gather are shut down. Plans for medical help and healing are stalled. Plans for work and education are disrupted. Day-to-day life is altered, and many people are confused, or angry, or depressed by it all. How will we be helped by the Hearer of Prayer?

Help. Answers. It is not always clear what the right answer could be. Is something that happens a blessing, or a curse? We sometimes guess wrongly.

Here’s an old story to ponder, one I’ve told before.

There was once a farmer in ancient China who owned a horse. “You are so lucky!” his neighbours told him, “to have a horse to pull the cart for you.” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

One day he didn’t latch the gate properly and the horse ran off. “Oh no! This is terrible news!” his neighbours cried. “Such terrible misfortune!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

A few days later the horse returned, bringing with it six wild horses. “How fantastic! You are so lucky,” his neighbours told him. “Now you are rich!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The following week the farmer’s son was breaking-in one of the wild horses when it kicked out and broke his leg. “Oh no!” the neighbours cried, “such bad luck, all over again!” “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next day soldiers came and took away all the young men to fight in the war. The farmer’s son was left behind. “You are so lucky!” his neighbours cried. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The path of life takes many twists and turns. The good and the evil are mixed in together. Look at the life of our Jesus through the eyes of that wise farmer of Ecclesiastes…

Dear Mary is pregnant. 🙂
Oh! But she is not married yet. 🙁
An angel assures Mary and Joseph to wed and raise the child. 🙂
When the baby is due, they have to leave town. 🙁
A place for them is provided, just when there seemed to be nothing. 🙂
Then the local ruler decrees all baby boys be killed! 🙁
The holy family flees and finds safety in Egypt. 🙂
As an adult, Jesus teaches and heals and gathers disciples. 🙂
The powers that be decide to get rid of Him. 🙁
Several times, Jesus easily escapes his enemies. 🙂
One of His own disciples turns Him in. 🙁
When on trial, one local authority declares Jesus not guilty three times. 🙂
Jesus gets sent to a terrible execution anyway. 🙁
A couple days later, He is seen, alive again! 🙂
A few weeks later, Jesus leaves, for good. 🙁
But He promises the Spirit of God to his disciples, Who does arrive. 🙂 And Jesus promises to return.
Almost two thousands years later, has He returned? 😮

In the moment, any day, any week, any year of our lives can be a disaster. But what comes next? More is possible with God than we ever ask or imagine.

So, we also heard a story today from our Anointed One. Jesus’ parable of the weeds in the wheat. Again, a little later, there is an explanation. Some basic lessons  appear to be that: One, our attempts to pull up the weeds among us are premature. Two, our attempts to pull up the weeds among us will disturb the wheat and wreck the crop. Three, the task of judging belongs to Christ, not to us.

Most of us have dealt with weeds in our crops, or our flowers, or just in our lawn. But just take a look at this. I’m no farmer, but those who are are planting things in ways I never expected. 

Here is a field of barley, across the dirt road from our cottage. Is it full of weeds? At first glance I’d think so. But no. What was also sown with the barley? Peas. I saw them in bloom earlier; now the pods are forming. A mixed crop. Later, those fields will be combined: feed for the pigs at Longspell Farm. 

This was not a practice in Palestine of old. Crops were sown as pure monocultures. Anything else coming up in the field was a weed. In the case of wheat, darnel, also called tares, is a bothersome weed. The plants are very similar in appearance to wheat, but the darnel is actually toxic to eat.

Jesus’ story is memorable, and may be quite familiar to you. The farmer plants seed. An enemy sows weeds in the same field: tares or darnel. There is a lesson just in these facts. Notice that it is not God who makes all things happen, the good and the bad. There is an Enemy held responsible. Not as it sometimes had been thought in OT days, when the saints of old spoke often of God sending evil upon people.

Jesus, especially, clarifies the character of God. God is good and right, never causing wrong or tempting us to do wrong. And, as Ezekiel knew, in the days of Zedekiah of Judah, God takes the lead to guide & save people.

So we look for ‘the hand of God’ in the challenging events of our lives, and those we love. We look for the Spirit blowing through world events today. Shall we continue to put our trust in God as our Saviour? There are big players playing their parts. A great Eagle named Trump, and another named Trudeau. Or a Vine called Dr. Tam and a Vine called Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada. 

I wonder what sort of cutting God will take, and plant, and grow, and make flourish among us? What will Jesus do, today?

PRAYERS Let us   pray. O Christ, Noble Tree planted in history, planted deep in our lives: we confess. We confess we have not learned all our lessons from history. We confess we have not learned all our lessons from scripture. We confess we have not learned all our life lessons. We listen for wisdom today in every direction: guided us, Master. Show us godly wisdom. Make our minds teachable and our hearts malleable. Grow in us, and grow us up all the more, in these days when our community and our world, Lord, need Christians of maturity and confidence. 

O Spirit, giver of John’s vision of the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations: we pray for healing, as always. For healing among the nations who are in conflict, the cultures who tell lies about one another, the peoples who live in fear of one another. It is so hard to have peace in a world of fear and crisis, God. You must act; and You must help us do our part. 

We pray for healing in our own lives too. Healing in times of grief: we think again of the family of Marj Wilson. Healing in times of uncertain health: bless folks like Dwight and Terry and Peter and Jack and…

We seek healing help in the lives of those confined to hospital, such as Donna and George; and those isolated in the place they call home. You sustain, Comforter, You guide, You encourage, we pray.

O Father, who grafts us into the Vine of Jesus: we pray for people who seem far from being one with You, knowing You, finding grace and salvation. We seek good things for the many people we know who had a taste of Your presence, once, but have rejected, or forgotten, or simply neglected to look to You. And we ask You to inspire those for whom their religion is mostly a comforting and nostalgic bunch of routines. 

O Holy One, perhaps our prayer has been very routine and ordinary. We are ordinary people. We are humbled & grateful, that You love and You choose ordinary people. Thank-You. Amen.

New Old Parables: ‘The Plowman’ – July 12

For the full worship service plan, please read the bulletin for today on the Bulletin page. Video of the Sermon, and other parts of service, will be included on this page after the morning service of worship.

SERMON: Today, as some of us gather again, after sixteen weeks away, we continue New Old Parables. We share the parables of the Sower and the Seed, and of the Plowman, as well as stories called ‘A Sense of Vocation, and ‘The Oyster Man.’ Let us pray…

“I love it when a plan comes together,” said ‘Hannibal’ Smith, on The A-Team TV show. Today, we are putting together a new plan, a whole new kind of plan, for worshipping together. It’s our first try, and we will learn from this experience. Perhaps you count this, already, as a success? The plan comes together.

I see, in the Bible parables of this day, stories of failure and success. Life is filled with both. The past four days for me, I have been viewing some key life moments, and reflecting on the successes of life, life’s meaning and purpose. On Thursday, a wedding. On Saturday, a funeral. Today, the dedication of a baby. If only I had a baptism, I’d have all the big moments!

And these moments, from cradle to grave, touch me with the timeframe of life. This year is teaching us again the need to be patient, the need to be learning new things, the need to change our ways and be transformed. The need to ‘let go and let God.’

The Old Testament ‘parable’ I chose for today is called ‘The Plowman,’ from Isaiah 28. It is, I think, a story about: time, the right time, taking enough time, God’s timing.

It is an agricultural scene. Isaiah preaches it in the form of a series of rhetorical questions, mostly. 

Does the plowman keep plowing forever? 

Doesn’t the farmer plant each crop in the proper method needed for each?

And, to put it in more familiar terms… Pumpkins aren’t harvested all winter, eh? Oats aren’t left in the fields for the horses to eat, right? & surely apple trees aren’t pruned & pruned until there’s nothing left?

The long and sometimes harsh times of farming are not too long. Crops take time, but they take just the right time. So too with the consequences of the actions of the peoples. There will come a day, by God’s grace and plan, when the suffering and the struggles will be over. The punishing of their poor leaders will finish up. It will be harvest time. It will be joyful again. There will be a new beginning.

Isaiah chapter 28 is dealing with the failures of the leaders in Israel, long ago. Disaster befell them, and they deserved it. But the trouble will not last forever. The record of these days long ago, in the pages of the Bible, remains for us, reminding us, teaching us. There are lessons to be learned from human failure. There is hope gained from the action of God. Building beauty out of trouble is the way our Master works.

This year, on earth, is a big year for learning lessons, among the human race. To borrow from the field of education, God has a real ‘teachable moment’ with us all, right now. It is a big opportunity.

Our own sense of purpose, as Chistians these days, is being tested, really put to the test. Perhaps I have been saying more than once that we have a mission in our area. I just have not said exactly what that mission looks like! It could look like developing our prayer ministry more: doing some training, and praying in small groups, and offering prayer for more people in our neighbourhoods. Writing a book of prayers garnered no interest among you – what does?

It could look like more sharing about our faith online during this time. We could start an internet channel for interviews and chats in which many of us could share our faith experiences. (Or a podcast – audio only, in other words.)

It could look like more practical help to people in need – through foodbank or grocery delivery or phone check-ins with isolated people.

I could look like another ministry… What better time than the present to start a new creative thing, with Christ, to “reach out to those in the church and community conveying the message of Jesus Christ through preaching and teaching with hearts of compassion and loving hands in service.” We, Digby Baptist, have a vocation, a ‘mission from God.’

An old friend is a preacher and a writer. In His 1994 book of stories, Art White tells this anecdote that he titles, ‘A Sense of Vocation.’ He says: 

I was visiting a friend in Hospital, one lawn of which was a shambles due to the gouging of heavy equipment and pallets piled high with building materials.

Amid this scene of diesel-driven gadgetry, worked a lone figure with a pick-and-shovel, waist-deep in a cramped trench which ran beside the dusty walkway from the parking area.

“There’s something you don’t see much any more,” commented the fellow behind whom I was walking, “a hand-dug ditch.”

He called out, “What are you doing there?”

Pretty obvious, I thought. Perhaps the labourer did too, but he didn’t say it. His answer was mature and memorable. 

“We’re expanding the hospital.”

(Art White, From Away, Here to Stay, 1994, p. 53)

That man with the pick and shovel had a sense of purpose, a purpose he shared with others, when he said, ‘We are… expanding the hospital.’

It is a real success to know your purpose. I looked at Mark and Janet on Thursday, and thought about the purpose of them being together. I looked at the family of the late Darlene LeBlanc and wondered out loud about the purpose of this woman whom I’d never met. We looked at little Eliana Taylor Grace this morning, held and surrounded by her family, and pondered her purpose here on earth. It may all seem mysterious, and wonderful, and frightening, and grand, all at the same time. Thanks be to God, the failures and successes of life get balanced out in the best direction possible. This is the story of our Faith.

So, we do have this famous story from Jesus today. Of the sower who sowed some seed. Like some of His other parables, it can seem simple on the surface, but can get deeper and challenging. 

Today, it looks to me like another story of failures and successes. It looks like three failures, to begin with. Some seed hits the path, and becomes bird food. Some seed springs up in shallow soil and is doomed. Some seed is out-competed by weeds. Three strikes, you’re out: get yourself a better farmer!

But no, there are other seeds; they get into the good ground; and the harvest, well, from some of those plants it is incredible! 

There will be failure. There will be loss. There will be trouble. Yet there is also success! Life! A rich harvest! This is God’s Kingdom, God’s Rule, God’s Empire. What does life-with-God look like in this pandemic time? Has our private, devotional life improved? Has our practical help to people increased, or decreased? Have we started deeper conversations with people we used to share only smalltalk before?

When your life is an example to others who see you, who know you: some days they glimpse God and a good example; some days they see your failings and miss out on some grace. When you have a chat of some importance with someone, you may be clear and honest and shine for Christ; or you may be selfish and hide the Good News that helped you. When you cooperate with others on some little project, you may do more than humanly possible, thanks to God; or you may end up not making the most of your opportunity together. Give thanks, whatever happens, for God in Christ has a will to forgive and a way of repairing the trouble we cause.

At times, we need to embrace our weaknesses, and failures, in order to be all that we can be. It is then that we rely upon God more, so to speak. Or, to put it another way, when we are imperfect, we are more likely to tap in to the Supreme Source of Good and Truth and Grace. 

Years ago, one of my Deacons in Windsor drew my attention to a little story. She liked it very much, and gave me a copy of it. It is called

The Oyster Man, from The Daily Bread, by Cindy Hess Kasper, April 9, 2008

In the days of John Wesley, lay preachers with limited education would sometimes conduct the church services. One man used Luke 19:21 as his text: “Lord, I feared Thee, because Thou art an austere man” (KJV). Not knowing the word austere, he thought the text spoke of “an oyster man.”

He explained how a diver must grope in dark, freezing water to retrieve oysters. In his attempt, he cuts his hands on the sharp edges of the shells. After he obtains an oyster, he rises to the surface, clutching it “in his torn and bleeding hands.” The preacher added, “Christ descended from the glory of heaven into . . . sinful human society, in order to retrieve humans and bring them back up with Him to the glory of heaven. His torn and bleeding hands are a sign of the value He has placed on the object of His quest.”

Afterward, 12 men received Christ. Later that night someone came to Wesley to complain about unschooled preachers who were too ignorant even to know the meaning of the texts they were preaching on. The Oxford-educated Wesley simply said, “Never mind. The Lord got a dozen oysters tonight.”

Our best may not always measure up to the standards of others. But God takes our inadequacies and humble efforts and uses them for His glory.

The writer of this story, Cindy Kasper, is right, I think. Our humble efforts are worth something. Even our errors can be transformed, and good things can grow. Much of the seed we sow will end up on the path, the rocks, and among the weeds. But just the bit that we do for the good can end up growing more than expected. 

Is this not the way of God, described over and over in scripture? As a preacher, an educated, ordained preacher, I yet feel the challenge of communicating truth and reality, from our sacred text. Many times a year I think I am far more like the lay preacher who spoke of an ‘oyster man,’ than the brilliant evangelist of long ago, John Wesley. I have many moments of feeling that my work is not accomplishing much that is truly worthwhile. 

For years, I have held to the hope that God does more than I ask or imagine. And the few seeds I scatter that land on good soil will grow to produce a harvest greater than I expect, and more than I will see.

A Church reopens, during a pandemic. A couple in their 50s gets married. A woman dies at age 60. A family brings an infant daughter to Church, believing she can be blessed in this life. In every life, the seeds of God’s Rule are sown. Will they grow?

Failure, or success? Both can take us closer to the Divine, and both are steps along the eternal journey. Thanks be to God!

PRAYERS Wonderful Counsellor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace: we are called together for prayer, and we answer You today. From pews, and from our places at home, we gather before You. 

We seek good for this world of trouble. The virus of the pandemic is but one of so many illnesses and troubles that threaten life every day, and disrupt the hopes of so many. Healer of body and soul, reach into lives, reach into the systems for healing and help, and do more than we can, for the sake of millions.

Our prayers are also local. Eternal One, we pray for Marj Wilson, in palliative care in hospital, and her family, and all who face the end of life in these days. Bless those who mourn, such as Cairine and family, and the family of the late Darlene LeBlanc. 

O Mind of Christ, we pray for all who are troubled, depressed, or distressed in this stressful year. When things are too much to bear, may there be relief and a gift of inner strength. 

Dear Spirit of power, descend upon the bodies of all who are ill, all who are undergoing treatments or therapies or surgeries, and all who face chronic, unending illness. 

And, with mercy, hear all our prayers now, spoken aloud or offered in silence…   

Our Father, who art in heaven… AMEN.

Worship at Home, June 14 – ‘Why Parables? Why Stories?’

Welcome to ‘worship at home,’ a way for us to share the same service together while we are distanced. Welcome to the fellowship! Follow along with the parts of the service below. Other information is available in the Bulletin (see link above) and the Anniversary Newsletter.

Our Anniversary Newsletter is available to you now; check on the link above for Newsletters. We will celebrate our 182nd Anniversary on June 28th with guest preacher, Rev. Borden Scott, Pastor of Faith Baptist Church, Lower Sackville, NS.

Pastor Jeff will be taking four days of vacation Monday-Thursday, June 22-25.

WORSHIP Welcome Let’s use the worship scene in Isaiah 6 to provide the framework for our service today. Jeff will say more about this in the sermon.

Worship can begin with praise and adoration of God. It can be very spontaneous, initiated by God. Isaiah 6:1-4

I had a vision of the Lord. He was on his throne high above, and his robe filled the temple. Flaming creatures with six wings each were flying over him. They covered their faces with two of their wings and their bodies with two more. They used the other two wings for flying, as they shouted,

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord All-Powerful!
The earth is filled with your glory.”

As they shouted, the doorposts of the temple shook, and the temple was filled with smoke.

HYMN Holy Is the Lord

Worship continues when we realize who we are, in the presence of the Holy One: Isaiah 6:5 Then I cried out, “I’m doomed! Everything I say is sinful, and so are the words of everyone around me. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord All-Powerful.”

PRAYER Tell us the ‘old, old’ story today, God. Tell us again. Like a child, listening to her father, we like the same story over and over from You. Tell us, we pray, about Isaiah and his vision of amazing worship! We feel so alone and unable to get together on a Sunday morning. Tell us, we pray, the story of Jesus, explaining why He is a storyteller. His parables we know, yet we still forget, and we still do not always ‘get it.’ Tell us, we pray, the story of our own lives, from Your viewpoint. You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until the find rest in You. AMEN.

Worship celebrates the forgiveness that is found when we open up about our problems: Isaiah 6:6-7 One of the flaming creatures flew over to me with a burning coal that it had taken from the altar with a pair of metal tongs. It touched my lips with the hot coal and said, “This has touched your lips. Your sins are forgiven, and you are no longer guilty.”

SONG Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah! Praise Ye the Lord!

CHILDREN’s Time God is Holy

Worship is also a matter of discipleship, an opportunity to learn something: Isaiah 6:8a After this, I heard the Lord ask, “Is there anyone I can send? Will someone go for us?”

SCRIPTURE Matthew 13:10-17, 34-35 – Myra Edwards

SERMON Why Parables? Why Stories? – Jeff White

For years, Isaiah 6 was a favourite chapter of mine. About the time I got to adulthood, worship services became very important for me and my discipleship to Jesus. I’d moved away from home and explored new services in churches and chapels that were not what I’d grown up with, and I soaked it all up like a sponge. A lot of it was formal and fancy. All my experiences were still rather Baptist, but diverse and different from my ‘home church.’ Isaiah 6 was a key scripture, at the heart of things, for me.

A couple ministers who deeply influenced me, then, referred me to a book by one of their old friends, “Come, Let Us Worship.” Written by a Baptist Minister, Jud Levy, it used the flow of Isaiah’s vision in chapter 6 to build a ‘proper’ Christian worship service. Perhaps you see in today’s service that I planned, how the elements of Isaiah’s dramatic encounter guide our steps today. 

One of my mentors was Chaplain to the University, and managed to build his worship plan around the name of the institution. 

A – Adoration of God
C – Confession of sin
A – Absolution of sin
D – Discipleship (scripture and sermon)
I – Intercession (prayers for self and the world)
A – Atonement (blessing of being right with God)

Worship service, when the Church gathers, is a conversation. It is a drama. It has movement, it takes us somewhere. It becomes a story, our story with God.

(The Isaiah 6 flow might also be used as a framework for the path of salvation by faith in Christ.
1 – awesome experience of God happens.
2 – awareness of how small/sinful I am/we are.
3 – a saving and forgiving word is given, in Christ.
4 – discipleship begins: following Jesus, training.
5 – a mission is given, a purpose, a goal, work.
6 – all will be well, and eventually perfect.)

You may be reading along the parts of Isaiah 6 I have in the service today, but what’s next? What was the message, the actual mission for Isaiah? It’s in the rest of the chapter. And what a severe message it is!

9 “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.

I’m glad this was not my first sermon assignment, as a budding preacher! At least it ends with a bit of messianic hope: from the stump can grow a new life. In other words, there will yet be an anointed one, a Messiah. But the main message is all about the people not understanding.

So, we Christians worship, and we want to understand. Why do we plan these services (which right now happen to be private, in our own homes)?

Some would say they come to Church services for the music. Be it the joy of the music, the making of it, or the experience of praising and worshipping God.

Some would say the best thing about worship is prayer, and our connecting personally with God. In his great book, ‘The Contemplative Pastor,’ Eugene Peterson goes so far as to say, about his ministry, a conviction grew: that my primary educational task as a pastor was to teach people to pray. (Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, 1989 p. 96)

Many others claim that the heart of worship is education, teaching, preaching the Word of God. Not that every sermon is an academic lecture. There is a lot of testimony and witness, creative writing, poetry and storytelling in preaching, at its best. 

I have not told you many stories yet today, and I’m not going to. But stories – of many shapes and sizes – are so important to sharing faith and sharing life with Christ. So, Jesus tells stories. He gives His ‘sermon on the mount,’ He speaks of esoteric things recorded in John’s Gospel, but He also tells many tales. Parables. All those memorable parables. 

Why parables? ‘Why tell these stories, all the time, Jesus, and in the way you tell them?’ Jesus’ close companions ask Him, and He gives a surprising answer. Seems surprising to me. ‘So you will understand.’ No. ‘So everyone will get it.’ Wrong again. ‘So people of different learning styles will also learn.’ Nope. ‘So they will be easy to remember and retell in the years ahead.’ No, this is not Jesus’ answer.

He paraphrases, from Isaiah chapter 6. “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen nor do they understand.’” (Mtt 13:13) He actually quotes directly from that chapter. The people are not going to get it. At least some of them. Christ almost says, ‘those who understand are going to understand, and those who don’t won’t.’ Much like what Isaiah had been told to proclaim, centuries before.

Jesus is a wise teacher, a Rabbi of the wisdom tradition who has all the tools of teaching and training at His disposal. He has a Hebrew sneakiness, and subversiveness about His lessons. All these centuries later, and half a world away, we can miss out on how provocative His words so often were. And they still are challenging, and even mysterious. He gives out the secrets, the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, but it is like He uses codes and puzzles and riddles. The greatest of teachers can use such tools well. Built into the lesson of the day is the test, the exam. Not everyone will pass. Some will fail to learn. Today.

I’ve had a few friends through the years who are very clever with words. They can dabble with them and play and have fun with language in ways that are both joyful and bothersome at the same time! 

My friend and ministry colleague, Jeff, for instance. We were always playing with words. He is more skilled. We would have online conversations like this all the time:

Him: we can talk over lunch too
Me: Indeed
Him: I will make a reservation at Rosies
Me: What a reserved guy you are!
Him: I speak with reservation
Me: I hope I can re serve you well when we meet.

Then there was the time my new buddy, Jonathan, was explaining to a group of hikers how to drive to our starting place in Bear River. ‘Take the Christmas Eve exit.’ ‘What!?’ ‘You know, out here is Boxing Day, then Christmas, then Christmas Eve.’ I just shook my head; it did not compute! I was new in town, that was my excuse. I did not know, by number, 101 exits 24, 25 and 26. 😉 

Even the parable Jesus is telling here in Matthew 13 points out that some people will understand the message of God, and some will not. It’s the parable of the sower of seeds. Some fell on the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorny weeds, and some on good soil. We’ll look more at this parable one month from now.

It was only Jesus who spoke parables just the way He did, the ones we know so well, from the Gospels. The weeds in the wheat, the sheep and the goats, the lost coin, the pearl of great price. Yet, it was not only Jesus, among the Jews, who spoke in parables. We also find parables in the Old Testament books, parables of a sort. They are little allegories, or holy fables, or anecdotes with an accusation in them. A story with a challenge, we might call them. That’s where I want to take us, this summer.

The word parable is created from a couple words that mean thrown together, or thrown side-by-side. One thing is put beside something else, in a surprising way. The Kingdom of God, and yeast in the bread dough. God’s Kingdom is good. Yeast, in Bible days, was always a negative thing, to be got rid of for Passover, for instance. Throw God’s perfect Kingdom and unholy yeast together… and what do you get?

During this summer, I am going to attempt to ‘throw together’ some of Jesus’ parables with some of the Old Testament fables. We will seek to use Jesus’ wisdom to unfold the parables of Old, from Ezekiel and Isaiah & Jotham & Jehoash. A summer of stories. 

We must tell our own stories too, and listen. The power of stories has been coming to light for me. A couple weeks ago I heard on radio again the 2003 Massey Lectures by Tom King, ‘The Truth About Stories.’ That led me to review the Hayward Lectures in 2018 by Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley, who is, among other things, a good indigenous storyteller.

And we are learning, I hope, that a first step in relating well to people who have suffered, and suffered injustice, is to listen. To hear their story, from them. This is the work of truth and reconciliation. 

People of Faith are storytelling people. I have wanted to be a better storyteller than I am. But no matter. We shall tell Bible stories, and our own stories, as best we can. May our Master bless us.

Today is June 14th, and I was supposed to be going to Tatamagouche today, for an annual week long seminar in theology. It is cancelled. For years I have gone, and remember well one year that was all about stories, biblical, and others – “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Parable.” Not to mention the year that the theme was “The Spirituality of Pop Culture,” with examinations of many movie plots, from Superman, to Disney flicks, to TV’s ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’

Well, let us look at Old Testament Parables, this summer, simply to know them. Here they are, hidden in the pages, little treasures: the Plowman, the Two Eagles and the Vine, the Poor Wise Man… We shall discover which are most valuable to us in our age. Next Sunday, the real storytelling will begin.

Let us read them that we may be wise. Wise when it comes to our own speaking; we can be better storytellers, and thus communicate more deeply.

Let us study them to learn from the past. All the tales we will hear told are from history. They each were important in a moment back in time. And they have been kept for us to instruct us from history.

Let us use them to be trained by God. These Old Testament texts were the Bible of Jesus, and the backdrop for His powerful speeches. These stories are part of the context of Christ. We shall understand Jesus better when we know the Bible better He used.And let us include these Old Testament tales in our scripture work so we may know more deeply our salvation, and our Saviour. The whole, complete Bible is salvation history. The reading of the stories will be good for the redemption of the saints. That’s you and me. Thanks be to God!

Now, here’s a little extra, a bonus video I found that seems to me a good introduction to Jesus’ parables…

Worship, at its best, opens us up to hear the call of God to do something, to take a new step, to be transformed: Isaiah 6:8b “I’ll go,” I answered. “Send me!”

OFFERING Our oldest Baptist educational institution in the Maritimes is Acadia University. Today, the Acadia Divinity College within it is still ours, still run by us, Atlantic Baptists, for the training of pastors and workers in Christian ministries. As a local church, we financially support ADC, as well as their special fund right now (2018-2020) for the refurbishment of the 50-year-old building. Designated gifts can be made any Sunday to ‘ADC’ or to ‘ADC building fund.’

PRAYERS O Divine Master, it is in praying that we are not alone: for You are with us. It is in praying that we are not powerless: for Your strength is made perfect even in our weakness, thanks to Christ. It is in praying that we are not overcome by confusion: for Your wisdom shines within, by the Holy Spirit. 

Light of the world, we pray for our world, upset by sickness and violence, by poverty of necessities and greed for power. We pray for those who march for justice, and for all whose stories have been ignored. We pray for the creatures of creation and the lands and waters and air that are getting a little less of our pollution right now. We pray for our fellowship, especially those ill, alone, isolated, or troubled now. And we pray simply to be, and be with Thee. Amen.

HYMN 669 God of Grace and God of Glory ‘I think this video recording, from a Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, NY, is wonderful and delightful. This profound hymn (with Baptist lyrics) is inspiring, perhaps especially so with this diverse choir, finding they way into it, one by one.’ – Jeff

BENEDICTION Love in all sincerity, loathing evil and holding fast to the good. Let love of the Christian community show itself in mutual affection. Esteem others more highly than yourself. And may the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be amongst you and remain with you always. AMEN.

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.

AMEN.