By Gisele McKnight
It became apparent, just before retired Bishop Bill Hockin was to begin, that the 100 chairs in the room would not be enough.
Another 20 chairs were added, and the talk began. Bishop Bill has entitled this Lenten series Springtime for the Soul – Looking at the Parables of Jesus. Two more talks, on March 5 and 12, will take place as well, beginning at 12:15 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Fredericton.
This is Bishop Bill’s first Lenten series in a few years. His Advent talks are always popular, and it appears these are being met with the same enthusiasm.
The title of the first talk, on Feb. 26, was “God Came Calling, But I Was Out to Lunch,” based on Luke 14:15-24, the Parable of the Great Dinner.
“This is a cautious tale about finding true satisfaction and happiness in life and if we can do that without God,” said Bill. “It’s about choices with eternal implications. What we choose might be good, but not the best.”
Referring to the title of the talk, he said there are many attempts by God to meet us, “but we are out to lunch.”
Bill went through the parable and what took place immediately before it. A prominent Pharisee put on a meal to which Jesus was invited — for the purpose of watching him closely. It was the Sabbath, and among the guests was a man clearly suffering from ill health. The Kings James version says it was dropsy. The NIV says abnormal swelling of the body. Bill explained it as congestive heart failure.
In any case, Jesus healed him, then asked his host if it was right to do good on the Sabbath. The host was speechless.
Then Jesus noted the scrambling of the other guests to sit close to their host, and responded with a lesson in humility. At a wedding, he said, do not take a place of honour, because there will be someone there above you. Take the lowest seat, and maybe your host will elevate you to a better one. Verse 11 says, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus went on to say that when you give a dinner, don’t invite your family and friends. Instead, be blessed by inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Of course, this was in direct contrast to the surroundings of the moment — an important man holding a fancy dinner, joined by his important friends.
To break the tension, one of the guests said, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”
“Jesus responds with ‘well, not so quick’ and proceeds to tell this parable,” said Bill.
A man gave a great dinner and invited many important people.
“We’re talking about linen tablecloths. The greatest chefs. I’m sure Martha Stewart wasn’t far away,” said Bill.
But on the day of the feast, no one showed up. He sent a servant to find out why, and these were the excuses: One had bought a piece of land and was anxious to go see it. Another had just bought five oxen and wanted to test them out. And a third had just gotten married and needed to be with his wife.
“All these excuses centred around work and family. The excuses are rooted in what the potential guests already have — ‘I have bought a piece of land; I have bought five yoke of oxen; I have just been married.’ In other words, I don’t need your banquet. I don’t need your brand of religion,” said Bill.
He told the story of being in a parking lot many years ago in Ontario, and hearing a woman yelling, ‘Hey, Reverend, got a minute?’ The woman, a stranger, pushed a strolled towards him, telling him, ‘We’ve had a baby and we want to get her baptized. When can you do it?’
He told her she and her husband could meet with him, talk about baptism and Christian formation and so on. But she didn’t want all that. Her response was, ‘Why can’t we just show up on Sunday morning and you can do it?’
There was no time for lessons, meetings and Christian formation. They went to their cottage every weekend, they both worked and they were too tired to attend meetings at night, she said.
“I never heard from her again,” said Bill. “The cottage, the jobs — they are all good things, but they’re not the best thing.
“When we say to God, ‘I have, I have, I have and that’s all I need,’ we’re leaving God out. ‘I have enough religion on my own and I don’t need you.’”
Back at the dinner, the waiters were standing around wondering if they were going to get paid, when the angry host sent them out again — to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. But when the hall was still not packed, they went out again for more.
“Can you imagine — waiters in white tops saying ‘do you have any plans for dinner?’ There was no twisting of arms. They don’t own land, they are alone. They come and have a great time and God is overjoyed!
“These lucky people are not restricted to the literal poor and blind,” said Bill. “They are people like us who take stock of our lives and find something missing.”
Bill recounted the story of a couple whom he had married. The husband died soon after, and then the wife got sick. But she wasn’t bitter, he said.
“She confessed to me a new presence in her life. ‘It sounds crazy to my friends but it feels like God has joined me on this journey and I’ll never be alone again,’ she said.”
Then there was a man named Frank, a bubblegum factory owner who had success, money and family, but it was not enough. At the end of a service one Sunday, he approached Bill, tears in his eyes, saying, ‘My cup runneth over.’
In the book “The Pursuit of Happiness,” social psychologist David Myers said happiness comes from an attachment to something outside ourselves that is greater than ourselves. The greater it is, the greater the happiness.
In closing, Bill said there is room for everyone at the banquet of God.
“Today God is calling and I hope no one is out to lunch,” he said.
After the talk, Bill entertained questions from the audience.
Bill Hockin has been called one of the finest preachers in Canada. This is your chance to hear him. The next Lenten talk on March 5 is called “Virus in Paradise,” based on Matthew 13’s parable of the weeds. The final talk, on March 12, is called “The Gospel of the Second Chance” based on Luke 15’s the prodigal sons (Bill’s plural on sons!). Both talks begin at 12:15 at the Crowne Plaza in Fredericton. All are welcome to these free events.