Sunday, June 23, 2019

New Beginnings

A word from the preacher, who was also the bride's father...
I
There is nothing quite so wonderful as a beginning… unless, of course, it is a new beginning.

Nothing more exciting than a real chance, unless it is a real second chance. Or a third. So no wonder the great English theologian, Stevie Winwood has said, “When you see a chance, take it!”


In fact, to use theological language: nothing more powerfully, or eloquently testifies to God’s eternity and will and purpose than the creation itself; except, of course, for new creation.  
Do you remember, how in the book of Genesis, after six long days, God looked at everything the divine Word had created and, behold, it was very good.


II
But, eons later, in the book of Isaiah, God summoned that very same, very good but now languishing creation—all the world and all its people and Israel, most especially—to take note, to bear witness, to pay attention.” Look! God said…   

“I am about to do a new thing;

Even now it springs forth,

do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness…

I provide water in deserts—

streams in thirsty lands for (my beloved children).
So do not remember the former things,
    or consider the things of old.

What a great text to recall today! Even now, as refreshing new beginnings spring forth!

III
I want you to know I am as excited about new beginnings, about second and third chances, about the new creation, as it is possible to be. And today, especially.

So happy. So happy I thought I might sing. And especially since there is no other music. I might give voice to an old hymn, kind of,  penned by that great American hymn writer, Johnny Nash: which I thought especially appropriate for today (and even more so now, given what happened in the last hour):

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.

I can see all obstacles in my way.

Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind…

Join me on the chorus?

Oh, yes, I can make it now, the pain is gone.

All of those bad feelings have disappeared.

Here is the rainbow I’ve been praying for.

It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day.

I believe that for these two. They can see clearly now. The rain is gone. And with it, much of the pain and bad feelings.

Or, as St. Paul says in II Corinthians: because of Christ, one way or the other, in ways we might not be able to imagine: here, today, we do see new creation! “All things are new! “Everything old has disappeared!”

St. Paul echoes the Almighty’s over-speak in Isaiah: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old…”

With apologies to the Lord, we want to remember some things, one creation to the next. With all due respect to St. Paul, everything old has not disappeared. 

Which is to say, hyperbolic prophet and preacher poetry aside, there is joyous carry-over in evidence here today: children, to name two.   

Even in the setting: this old house becomes a brand new home.

And just think: a civil, and sometimes uncivil, less-than-sacred sacred institution, marriage—old and broken and confusing, sometimes, these days: today, in this green, feels fresh as Eden.

IV
So, yes, we rejoice in new beginnings; no, everything old has not disappeared.

We do not want to forget everything, but instead choose to remember, and celebrate, and thank God that God was present for Eric and Bethany in what may at the time have seemed God-forsaken moments; blessing in ways that could not always be recognized, there in the wilderness. God provided water in the desert, and comfort even in painful times.

And so it is for all of us, always.

God does not just show-up at the beginning and the end—and never as a reward for our perseverance, but always as a gift of his abiding grace. Not only when the rain is gone and the clouds have passed-away. No, God is present even in the storms: that’s what rainbows prove.  That is what Eleanor and Trinity prove.

And, truth to tell—a truth we all know—in spite of Mr. Nash’s hymn, all the rain is not gone, all the clouds have not disappeared, all the bad feelings are not entirely a memory… Look straight ahead: there will be yet be cloudy days as well as sunshiny ones… sickness as well as health, hard times as well as soft.

But in those very moments, look all around: God will be there.

These two know that: for among the other carry-overs from one beginning to the next is wisdom: real wisdom born of real experience.

Wisdom, gestated in hope. Crowned with love. And faith.

All those ancient virtues—and these two along with them along with them—today reconfigured, rearranged, recreated: made wholly new.

A new creation.

Thanks be to God.

Dinner Church


I

The fishing was terrible. In three days we caught almost nothing.

            The food, however, was wonderful. In 6 ½ days we ate almost everything.

            I had planned to lose ten pounds before July 8; I may have gained that much last week. Three meals a day—I never eat three meals a day. Two appetizers before supper each night: spicy meatballs, enormous stuffed jalapenos, nachos, shrimp and cilantro ceviche, bacon-wrapped shrimp, shrimp cocktail…   

            In fact, our chef, Emerson, declared all-out war on shrimp, and lobster, and fish, and chicken, chorizo, rice and beans, tortillas. Lord, goodness. He made fresh cherry cheesecake. He made fresh key-line pie.

Forget the Mediterranean or Holy Land: my next trip may be back to Belize. If I can score a villa where Emerson is cooking, who’s with me?

II

            But the fishing was terrible.

I did catch a couple of insights, however.


This one day, off in search of bonefish, we happened onto a small diving village. On the pier we saw half-a-dozen mostly shirtless young men, fifteen to twenty years old. All of them skinny, but muscular, , wearing wide straw hats against the sun. They had had come back to the pier with that day’s haul of rock lobsters.
And a model of efficiency there in the pier’s little cleaning station, how quickly one of the guys cut and bagged the lobster tails, forty or fifty of them by my count, and dumped the rest of the lobster like chum into the water. That’s where we found the bonefish. Caught a few of them.

            Soon, a man walked down the pier. He was from the local co-op, it turned out, which regulates the harvest and sets the price, buys from the harvesters and sells to the restaurants and chefs. The young men gathered around him while he examined the lobster tails, calculated and paid them…

But not, apparently, as much as they had hoped.

            The very next night, Emerson prepared lobster tails for us: two apiece for our group of four: so rich and sweet and buttery.

But with every bite, I thought back to the pier—chewed on the fact that in Belize, and elsewhere, some dine sumptuously while others subsist, and receive only a few pennies for all the many dollars rich tourists fork-over, as it were.

            Between bites, I remembered, prayed to myself, a little table prayer I learned as a boy: “Bless, O Lord, this food, and the hands that prepared it.”

That night, I had more than Emerson in my mind and heart.    

III

            From my observation—and I hope I am wrong—but it would seem that these days few, even Christian families and their Christian friends, stop to pray before meals. Home or restaurant.

The consequences are, I believe, of course, but also ethical.

Spiritual, because when we forget to pray, “Bless, O Lord, this food…” or something like that, we gradually forget how indebted we are to God these and all our many blessings (another old table prayer).

And ethical: because when we forget to pray God’s blessing on the hands that prepared it, we forget how indebted we are to so many other people for the food we are about to receive.

When we do not call ourselves to regular, humble thanks-giving, we can begin to imagine that we deserve to eat lobster, while others deserve only pennies on the pound.

There are, I believe, eternal consequences to that kind of thankless presumption.
IV
Which brings me to our gospel lesson for today, and all the excuses people gave to the man who had invited them to his party.

And have you ever noticed how much of Jesus ministry is taken-up with meals? And eating?

How many of his parables are set at banquets, dinners, feasts?
 
Image result for banquet feastHow many of his miracles involve food—whether the multiplication of the loaves and fish, or turning water into wine?

            How much of his teaching takes place at Table… The Last Supper, the First Breakfast? The banquet at the Pharisee’s house, who was offended when the woman washed his feet. And again, later, at Lazarus’ house when Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, did the same thing? Jesus was always teaching a dinner time.

            And do you remember how one of the main criticisms of Jesus was that he ate with sinners?

            But so much of what he wanted to show, what he wanted to tell; where he earnestly desired to be with his disciples, where he wanted his disciples to demonstrate the lessons he taught them, up to the very last night of his life—involved eating together.

And even this morning. 

“When you give a banquet,” Jesus says, “do not invite friends and relatives and others who can reciprocate.” That is not hospitality; that’s investment.

Instead, he said to his disciples, invite the folk who cannot, will not invite you in turn. Your reward will come at the Last.

And perhaps that is what today’s lesson evokes: The Last. The Kingdom of God. The End of Days. Suppertime in heaven. 

How sad, then, for the ones who turn down the nan’s invitation.

Who don’t even realize they need, or should want, what the man offered. Because they have so much to do. They don’t want to be rude—please excuse me, if you will—it’s just that they don’t have time for this particular activity when there is so much else going on.

They have excellent, familiar excuses: I have a field, I must go see it. I have five new yoke of oxen. I must go examine them. I just got married. I’m still on my honeymoon.

            Their excuses don’t make them bad people. Quite the opposite, in fact. I mean, yes, it’s just a parable, but as Jesus sets-up the story you assume they are good people, successful people, prosperous people. With money to spend, family to enjoy, property to farm: they have means. AND…

The things they choose are not bad things. They are good things.

These people are so good, and so busy with good things, that it never occurs to them that they really need what the man offered them. Instead, they just go on in their self-sufficiency, imagining that the good life is the life they can make for themselves, full of business and possessions, full of activities and narrow associations.

Good people—just, with other good things to do.

Can anybody relate?

V

            You remember how the story comes out: the man is insulted, and so others get to share the banquet with him. People who were not on the A-list, or B-list. People who could not have given him a  banquet in return, but that is part of Jesus’ point.

And how wonderful for those who get the surprising, gracious, never-expected invitation the poor, maimed, blind and lame. And more besides, even further off the path than those. And soon the banquet hall is full of the not-so-respectable—but the absolutely appreciative.

Those original invitees? They never got a taste.

VI

            Reading this parable this week in Belize, I have been reminded of a new kind of ministry that is taking hold here and there, a new vision of what it means to be church in this day and time. Looks kind of like the early Methodist movement, when on Thursday nights small groups came together to read the Bible and pray and hold each other accountable to the demands of the gospel…

            Only, not quite like that, either. For the followers of Wesley, they gathered Christian formation: like Theology on Top, or Sacred Space: it was the way they grew into Christ.

            This new thing, which is an old thing if you stop and think about how much of Jesus’ ministry happened at Table, is called “Dinner Church.” People invite people to dinner, at someone’s home. Sometimes everyone knows everybody—8, 10, 12—instead of a Sunday School class or small group.

Sometimes people don’t know everyone: there are colleagues of others, acquaintances, the marginalized, even the homeless.  

Sometimes they cook together, then eat what they cooked. Sometimes, the host cooks and you just eat.  

            In some places it is evangelism: an intentional invitation to the skeptical, to people who may not feel comfortable in traditional church settings—may not feel good enough or worthy enough—but might accept the unexpected invitation to dinner to come hear about Jesus, or prayer, or being in an intentional faith community.

However it starts, whoever shows, the meal turns into a Eucharist before it is over. Bread. Cup. Worship, but away from any sanctuary.

There is little in the way of liturgy or music—kind … kind of like it was back in Jesus’ day.

            Some predict that, in the not-too-distant future, after all the big-church scandals and denomination schisms, on account of the disaffections and disenchantments, “what’s left” of Jesus’ Church will look this this: people purposing to set aside work, and busyness and all the other things that are good things but can get in the way—and eating together.

And remembering Jesus: his teaching, his miracles, his love.

And trying to be more like him in the world, and inviting people over again next week.  

            A bunch of sinners. And Jesus right there with them, we believe.

Nothing magic about it. But interesting. How many of you might find that kind of venue and small group attractive? Already thinking of people you could invite?

            Rachel Held Evans, the best-selling young author who died so surprisingly and horribly back in May, once wrote, not about dinner church, per se, but about any church, at all, and what it be and remain if it is represent Jesus in the world. 

She says, “…the gospel does not need a coalition devoted to keeping people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls and throwing open the doors and shouting, “Welcome! There’s bread and wine! Come and talk!” This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy. It is a kingdom for the hungry. This is what God's kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there's always room for more.”

At Hawthorne Lane, we will not keep anyone out. There will always be room for more.

            As it was in the beginning. Is now and ever shall be. Of such is the Kingdom of God.

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