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Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Kingdom of God is Like a Friendly Stranger (Luke 10:25-37)


Today, we are wrapping up our June message series, on the “The Kingdom of God is Like . . .”  Jesus frequently taught in parables, stories, and the most common subject he taught about was the kingdom of God.  His stories made comparisons, using analogies to help people understand what the kingdom of God was like by drawing on things and experiences that were close-at-hand.  We’ve heard over the last month how the Kingdom of God is Like a Party, a Treasure Hunt, and a Good Story.

 

Today, we will hear how the kingdom of God is like a friendly stranger.  In a moment, I will read a familiar Bible passage – the story of the Good Samaritan.  Even if you’ve never spent any time in church, you likely know something about the story of the Good Samaritan.

 

The difficulty with familiar stories, of course, is laying aside our familiarity and allowing them to speak to us in fresh ways.  But that’s just what I’m asking you to do today.  With fresh ears, I invite you to hear the story of the Good Samaritan as if you’ve never heard it before, as we turn to the Gospel of Luke, the 10th chapter, verses 25-37:

 

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31  Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32  Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33  A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34  The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35  The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36  What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

 

A  number of studies indicate that we are who we are by about age 5.  90% of what makes us who we are – our personality, our temperament, our habits that we will carry with us through life are imprinted upon us very early in life.  Robert Fulghum made a fortune telling us, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, but it turns out we learned most of it even earlier than that.

 

One of the things that was drilled into my head at that age was “Don’t talk to strangers.”  Part of the reason this was drilled at me is because I wasn’t very good at it.  Mom said she would turn around for thirty seconds, and I had wandered off and struck up a friendly conversation with some unsuspecting senior citizen who thought I was just the cutest thing with my chubby cheeks and dimples, and in reality, they were probably more in danger of being taken in by me than I was in danger of being abducted by them.

 

That, of course was the fear.  Strangers want to do us harm.  Strangers = danger.  That childhood fear stayed with us through adulthood.  Don’t talk to strangers – and believe me, I have spent enough time in waiting rooms and on airplanes to have developed my own reasons for not wanting to talk to strangers, although, truth be told, those reasons have little to do with a concern for my personal safety.

 

We fear everything and everyone who is different from ourselves.  Because that fear is based on differences, we begin to notice those differences more.  We begin to make value judgments and start ranking those differences in terms of preferability, and history is a witness to that.

 

In a million different ways, fear gives way to judgment.  And then judgment gives way to hate.  Hate gives way to more judgment, which gives way to oppression and exploitation and violence and death, which only feeds further fear, and the never-ending cycle of fear, hate, and death begins all over again, and friends, God weeps each and every time.

 

Fear, hate, and violence were all at play in the famous story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan.  A legal expert, a lawyer, stands up to test Jesus.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks.  Jesus says, “You’re the lawyer.  What does it say in the law?”

 

The lawyer gives the right answer, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

Loving one’s neighbor was not a new concept.  Jesus didn’t invent it.  The lawyer knows, as well as anyone, the provisions in the Old Testament where the people of God are commanded to care for those in need.  To care for those on the margins of society, to stand up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves.

 

This command is not just about being nice.  No, caring for those in need was an integral act of worship and devotion to God.  Jesus would go as far to say that if you claim to love God but don’t love your neighbor, then your religion is phony-baloney.  To love God is to also love your neighbor – these two go hand-in-hand, they are inseparable like two sides of the same coin, loving God and loving neighbor go together like peas and carrots.

 

The lawyer has given the right answer.  He has aced the quiz, but now he’s hunting for extra credit. As lawyers are prone to do, this one starts hunting around for a loophole in the Law of Love.  He says, “OK, love God and my neighbor.  Got it.  But WHO is my neighbor?”

 

You see what he’s doing here?  To define who is my neighbor also defines who is not my neighbor, in other words, who do I not have to love?

 

He’s asking about the bare minimum he can get by with and still pass the course and graduate.  What’s the absolute least I can do and still get credit?

 

Think of that in the context of your own relationships, for a minute.

·        What’s the bare minimum I have to do for my partner and them not divorce me?

·        What’s the bare minimum I have to do for my grandma and still stay in the will?

·        What’s the bare minimum I have to do for my kids and not be arrested for neglect?

 

If you are asking, “What’s the absolute bare minimum I have to do?” then, friends, that relationship is already in trouble.  So it is in our relationship to God.

 

When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor, he is asking, “Who are the absolute bare minimum of people I have to love?”

 

 Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan.  Along a dangerous highway, a man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead in a roadside ditch.  Two people come along.  He doesn’t know either one very well, but he recognizes them.  They live in his neighborhood.  Their kids play soccer together.  They even go to the same church.  If anyone will stop, it’s these two – but no – they cross to the other side of the road, going out of their way to not help.

 

Along comes a third man, but he’s a Samaritan.  The Jews of Jesus’ day hated the Samaritans; even the word “Samaritan” was little more than a hateful, racial slur.  The Samaritans looked different.  Their beliefs and ways were different.  To the people hearing Jesus’ story, they were not “like us.”

 

And yet, who stops and shows compassion and cares for the half-dead man along the road?  The Samaritan.  The one from the group everyone else hated – the foreigner, the half-breed, the stranger.  The one who, according to the prejudice of everyone hearing the story, would be the least likely candidate to show some compassion, yeah, that’s the one Jesus says was the neighbor.

 

Who is our neighbor?  Anyone and everyone is our neighbor.

 

Where do you place yourself in this story of the Good Samaritan?  If you’re like me, maybe you’re asking yourself if you would have been one of the people who passed by, or the one who stopped to help?  Which one in the story would we be?

 

But, what if you and I are the fellow in the ditch – robbed, beaten, left for dead?  Who is my neighbor, now?  Anybody who stops to help, and I likely won’t care what color they are, where they are from, or what they believe about any number of issues.  At that point, all that matters is the willingness to stop and offer compassion and care.

 

So, what if we are the one in the ditch, and what if Jesus is the one who has stopped to help?  It is Jesus who has interrupted what he was doing, seen our problem and made it his problem.  It is Jesus who stooped to our lowest weakness, and raised us up to a height we cannot fathom.  It is Jesus who saw us half-dead, and brought us back to life.  It is Jesus who gave himself for us, while, as St. Paul says, we were still sinners.

 

While we were in rebellion, while we were unrighteous, undeserving, sinners, Christ extended himself, inconvenienced himself, gave himself for us to prove God’s love toward us.  Thank God that Jesus wasn’t asking about the definition of his neighbor, trying to calculate the bare minimum of people he had to love, because, guess what, you and I probably wouldn’t have made the list!  Thank God that his heart of unconditional love was open wide enough to encompass and embrace you and me, to restore us, to place his life within us, and once we are alive again in his love and have gained strength though his grace, he says, “Go, and do thou likewise.”

 

Every Christmas, we see the red kettles of the Salvation Army outside every store in town.  Maybe you fish in your pocket for some change when you see them, maybe you pass them by.  At one busy store, there was a man who came and went several times a day.  He wasn’t particularly well-dressed, probably needed every penny he had, but he always dropped something in that red kettle every time he passed.  On one trip, he stopped, looked at the Salvation Army captain ringing the bell, and said, “A few years ago, you helped my wife and kids out when I wasn’t there for them.  I’ve never forgotten that, and I want to help the next family like you all helped mine.”

 

One who has received much also has much to give.  One who has been loved has much love to offer.  One who has been saved by grace also can live in grace toward others.

 

The lawyer who asked Jesus was looking for the right answer, which he already had.  As it turns out, just having the right answer isn’t enough.  Like that lawyer, we can devote our lives to the right answer – getting our doctrine straight, our beliefs in line, but unless our hearts have been transformed by God’s love, it gets us nowhere.

 

This week, I’ve seen a lot of Christians offer their opinion about things that are right and things that are wrong – scratch that, I’ve seen a lot of Christians offer their opinion about what they perceive to be wrong, and how they, themselves, must therefore be right.

 

Paulo Coelho says, “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”

 

Friends, Jesus isn’t going to ask us what we know.  He’s going to ask us how we love.  The Christian faith is not about having the right answers; it’s about having the right heart.  By the love and grace of God, the right heart is learning to be grateful for what we have been given when we didn’t deserve it, extending love and grace to every neighbor – every one – around us, seeing people as God sees, loving people as unconditionally as God loves us.

 

Given the choice between being right and being loving, between having the right answer and having the right heart, may we be the kind of people who err on the side of love and grace.  The world has enough people who think they’re right.  It needs more people who love and live like Jesus.

 

A lawyer stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he asked.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?  He already had all the right answers, but he lacked the right heart.  It’s not enough to know that we’re supposed to love God and our neighbor; to inherit eternal life, we have to actually do it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Kingdom of God is Like a Treasure Hunt (Matthew 13:44-46)


44 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. 46 When he found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.

 

What do you value the most?  What is most important to you – maybe a possession, a relationship, an idea that you prioritize over everything else?  What do you value the most?

 

Several years ago, my car was broken into overnight, and when I came out and discovered it the next morning, my first thought was, “My golf clubs!” and I popped the trunk and breathed a sigh of relief to see that they were still there, and then it took me several minutes to discover that my GPS and pocket change in the tray were what had been taken through the smashed window.  That incident helped me realize what, of the contents of the car on that night, anyway, I valued the most.

 

We all love our stuff, don’t we?  Our possessions, our things, our stuff?  Over the last 30 years, the size of the average American home has increased by about 700 square feet.  At the same time, the number of people living in the average American household has continued to decrease – we need bigger houses for fewer people – why?  Because we love our stuff, and we have more stuff than we used to, and we need more places to keep all our stuff.

 

And actually, even our bigger houses are too small, and so we rent storage units to keep the rest of our stuff.  If I had known then what I know now, I would have invested early on in the self-storage business! We pay every month for that unit to keep our stuff, and occasionally, we drive over to the storage unit so we can visit our stuff.

 

That’s just the American way, isn’t it?  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has been replaced by the right to accumulate stuff.  We think having lots of stuff will make us happy, at least, if it’s the right stuff, but it doesn’t give us the joy we think it will, and rather than granting us freedom, it takes some of our freedom away, with the time and energy required for us to obtain, store, and care for all our stuff.

 

One of the shows Ashley and I enjoy watching is Tiny House Hunters¸ capitalizing on the “tiny house” craze as people look into moving into homes that are often just a few hundred square feet.  As people downsize and simplify their lifestyle, they have to get rid of a lot of their stuff.  They are forced to make some hard decisions about what stuff they will keep, what stuff they value the most.  It’s a task that seems daunting and impossible, at first, but when it’s complete, there is a joy and freedom that comes from living the simple life, and not having to look after all that stuff.

 

Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).  Rather, the abundant life Jesus desires for us and points us toward is a matter of knowing what has true and everlasting value, and treasuring that more highly than the rest.

 

The kingdom of God is like a treasure hunt.  We have read just a few, simple verses today – yet they tell us of what matters most, and the lengths to which the faithful will go in order to grasp it.  I know you heard it a moment ago, but I invite you to hear the story again:

 

The kingdom of God is like this:  there was a hired man who worked in this field and it wasn’t a very good field either, with lots of rocks in it.  Not a field worth owning.  The farmer was plowing along one day, with his wooden plow and its iron tips, behind his own scrawny mule wearing a worn out harness.  And he kept on hitting rocks in this crummy piece of land.  Clunk.  And the farmer would stop and dig out the rock.  He would plow a little more and another clunk.  Another rock.  And he would dig it out.

 

He dug out so many rocks, that a rock wall surrounded this field, as is often true of ancient fields.  Plow, clunk, dig.  Plow, clunk, dig.  Plow, clunk, dig. Plow, thunk.  Thunk?  That was a different sound?  A thunk and not a clunk.  He stooped down, dug and there was, not a rock, but a treasure chest.  He opened up the box and it was filled with . . .

priceless jewels.  Incredible.  His heart skipped a beat.

 

He looked around, but there was no one nearby.  He quickly covered up his new found treasure and kept on plowing as if nothing happened.  At the end of the day, he went and sold the shirt off his back, sold his old mule, sold the old harness, sold the iron tipped plow. In fact, he sold everything he owned, and went back to the owner of the field, and as non-chalantly as possible asks, "Ummm, how much would you like for that rocky, worthless, barren field out there? Call me crazy, but I'd like to buy it."

 

Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to people like that.

 

Jesus told another riddle.  The kingdom of God?  It’s like merchant, a very wealthy merchant, who owned fleets of ships that traveled all the seas of the world.  His ships went to the farthest ends of the earth in search of the finest jewels the world had ever seen.  His treasure chests were filled with the finest emeralds, rubies, jasper. And one day, in his travels, he saw a pearl like he had never seen before, a pearl of great price.  Quietly, he went and sold all his ships, his entire fleet of ships, all his jewels, all his emeralds, rubies and jasper. He happily sold it all and bought this one finest pearl the world had ever seen.

 

Interestingly, the emphasis is not on the finding of the treasure or the pearl, but on what the person does when they find it: “he went and sold all he had and bought it”. Taking hold of the treasure that God wants to give us involves our whole person. We cannot search for the meaning of our life with a bit of ourselves; it’s all or nothing. Now that sounds rather frightening for us human beings: is it possible to risk everything, to “sell all we have”?

 

The merchant who finds the pearl of great value must certainly already have possessed a collection of pearls.  But the pearls the merchant has also create a difficulty for him. He had invested a lot of time and energy to collect them. Now he has to let them all go in order to take hold of something more important, and this is hard. We, too, need to discern between what is good and what is better. We have many things in our life which in themselves are good.  But even good things can become distractions!  We can spend our time doing good deeds, accumulating good experiences and possessions, while the center of our life remains curiously empty.

 

How many of us have devoted our lives to the pursuit of things and the accumulation of stuff?  We have built a business, made a name for ourselves, developed a reputation.  We’ve worked hard, been promoted, we have rank and title and privilege, we have everything we’ve ever wanted, and yet, it’s not enough.  Even through all the pursuit and accumulation of that stuff, an emptiness remains inside of us, a longing we cannot fill.  Perhaps the key lies in the joy which the man who finds the hidden treasure discovers. When we discover a joy that comes from God, a joy which is authentic, then our attachment to other things will be loosened, our priorities changed.

 

 

The treasure of God’s kingdom – now that’s the real deal!  The discovery of God’s kingdom fills us with a joy that changes us from the inside out.  Those who come face-to-face with the love and grace of God are changed!  When we genuinely encounter the treasure of God’s love and grace, and we will never be the same old people, doing the same old work, pursuing the same old agendas ever again.

 

Fred Craddock tells the story of visiting in the home of one of his former students.  After dinner, the parents went to put the children to bed, leaving Fred alone in the living room with the family dog – a beautiful Greyhound who had spent a successful racing career on the dog tracks of Florida before being adopted by this young family.

 

Right there in the living room, the dog eventually turned to Craddock and asked, “Is this your first time to Connecticut?”

 

“No, no.  I used to go to school up here.”

 

“Well, you probably heard, I came up here from Miami,” the dog continued.

 

“Yes, I heard,” said Fred.  “You retired from racing?”

 

“Retired?  Is that what they told you?  No, no.  I spent ten years as a professional, racing Greyhound.  Seven days a week, I chased that rabbit around the track.  Well, one day, I got real close and got a good look at that rabbit, and you know what?  It was a fake rabbit!  All those years, and I’d been chasing a fake rabbit!  I didn’t retire, I quit!”

 

How many of us have spent our lives chasing a fake rabbit?  Accumulating possessions, listing off accomplishments, earning rank and title and privilege?  Looking for happiness in the next job, the bigger house, the fancy car, the next election, the new gadget, only to find that we’ve dedicated our lives to chasing something that just doesn’t fill our emptiness.

 

And yet we cling to these things, we prize these things, when the treasure of God’s kingdom is just waiting to be discovered.  We hold onto these things like they are the treasure itself, when in reality, they are the rocks that need to be cleared away in order for us to find the treasure.

 

The treasure is relatively small in size by comparison.  A tiny box, in a vast field of hundreds of acres.  A priceless pearl is a small thing in a world full of fakes and baubles, yet it has greater value than anything we already possess.  And a great treasure, unexpectedly found in a seemingly worthless field full of rocks, will require giving up everything we have.

 

It’s easy to give up what you have when you don’t have much.  Easier to join Jesus on that adventure when you don’t have much to lose.  How much harder that becomes when we have accumulated some things we’ve grown fond of.

 

There was a time in my life, maybe yours, as well, when I was up for an adventure at a moment’s notice.  But then, I graduated.  I got a job.  A mortgage.  Student loans. Health insurance.  A retirement plan.  I have responsibilities, obligations, rank, privileges.  I have a lot of stuff, now, Jesus, and I like a lot of my stuff!  I’d like to join you, Jesus, but what should I do with all my stuff?

 

In these parables about treasure, Jesus says, “How about you stop chasing that fake rabbit, and pursue God’s kingdom, instead?  How about you let go of all your stuff, even your good stuff, and reach for something greater?

 

Did you hear about the man who reached all his life’s goals by the time he retired at 65?  He spent the rest of his life lamenting that he’d set his sights too low.  Life is short.  The only thing worse than not meeting your goals is setting them too low, and reaching them.

 

God help us when we sell out too quickly, settle for too little, dream too small.  God help us when we give our whole lives to make nothing more than money, and thereby miss the treasure.

 

Two men discovered treasure.  One had nothing.  The other had everything.  They both gave all they had in order to obtain the treasure.  The kingdom of God is not so much in the prize, itself, but in what we are willing to do in order to obtain it.

 

We discover the kingdom of God when we give everything – all we have, all we are – to the One who gave us everything, and we find in him a treasure that is precious beyond all measure.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Kingdom of God is Like a Party (Luke 14:1,7-11)


One Sabbath, when Jesus went to share a meal in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, they were watching him closely.

When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable. “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. 10  Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11  All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

12 Then Jesus said to the person who had invited him, “When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward. 13  Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. 14  And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”

 

Today, I am especially grateful for the teachers in my life.  Those from whom I have and continue to learn, and I am grateful for others who are lifelong learners, as well.

 

Right now, teachers and students alike are counting down the final days until school will be out.  Parents are also counting down, though I don’t know that their excitement level is quite the same.  I thank God for teachers, in part because I see aspects of Jesus in those who teach.  Jesus was called “rabbi,” which means, “Teacher.”  He taught us about God – what God is like, how we should live in light of who God is, how to experience the fullness of new life in God’s love.

 

You can find the heart of every teacher’s passion by studying how they teach, and what they teach.  Jesus’ passion was for ordinary, non-religious people to know how deeply loved they were by God – a radical departure from the message of most of the religious people.  There was a sharp divide in Jesus’ day, initiated by self-righteous religious people, saw themselves as part of the in-crowd, and everyone else as outcasts, yet Jesus was deeply in love with those who were excluded from the circles of the religious elite.

 

When Jesus taught these ordinary, non-religious people, he just told stories – we call them parables – stories about ordinary and familiar things, but they always had a twist, an unexpected turn from social norms, and in that twist, some little nugget about God and life with God could be found.

 

His method involved stories.  His subject matter?  Jesus taught about God’s kingdom more than any other topic.

 

Even before he started teaching what the kingdom is like, Jesus first said, “The kingdom of God is among you.”  That means it’s already with us, right here, right now.  The kingdom of God is not just out there in the future somewhere, not just the promise of heaven after earth, but that heaven will come to earth, in and through us.

 

In the Scripture we’ve read today, Jesus likens the kingdom of God to a party – a great, celebratory banquet.  Meals, then as now, played a social role that often overshadowed the food itself.  Seating order was a not-so-subtle way of determining rank and social hierarchy.  The most important would be seated to the left and right of the host, the least important down at the far end, by the kitchen, maybe even asked to join in with the servants in setting the table and cleaning up after the meal.

 

The guests jockey for the places of highest honor, leaving the lowly places to someone else.  It’s tricky to navigate when everyone in the room thinks they are the most important one there, everyone thinks they are entitled to the highest place, and claim it for themselves, with little regard to the others who are also invited.

 

Whether dinner for four in someone’s home, or an elaborate banquet, everyone has to sit somewhere, and it is the host’s prerogative to assign who sits where, if for no other reason, than to avoid confusion and help the party run smoothly.  But, there can also be the perception of some social rank and hierarchy based on who is assigned to sit in which place.

 

We’ve all shown up to a wedding reception and found our assigned table.  Every wedding reception has more desirable and less desirable tables.  Typically, most of the guests have some sort of a connection to some of the other guests, and you can group them together – out-of-town cousins over here, grandma’s sisters over there, work colleagues at this table, friends from college you barely speak to anymore at that table.  Easy enough to make those groupings, but a bit more difficult as to where in the room to place each group.

 

The reality of the situation is that someone will end up at the head table.  Someone else will sit next to the kitchen.  Someone will be in the back, someone next to the dance floor, someone will be next to the bar, someone will be as far away from it as possible.

 

As Jesus watched guests jockey and elbow each other for the places of highest honor, the best seats around the table, he taught that we ought not to presume to take the best place for ourselves, or to be so prideful and inward-focused as to assume that we are the most important person in the room.

 

Remember, the host of the party makes the seating chart.  In the kingdom of God, Jesus is the host, not us.  In Jesus’ day, when the religious folks looked over the guest list, they were appalled at the company Jesus invited to his banquet.  Tax collectors and prostitutes. Social outcasts and misfits.  All manner of unclean, unrighteous, undeserving sinners – these were the people Jesus most desired to have as guests at his party.  And if that weren’t bad enough, Jesus gives these undesirables the best places around the table, much to the consternation and fury of those who thought they belonged on the “A” list.  Jesus was head-over-heels in love with ordinary people, especially those the religious folks wanted to keep out of their exclusive religious clubs.

 

The kingdom of God is like a party, but the surprising twist is that the very people we try to keep out of our parties are the guests of honor.

 

Many have said that the Gospel has a way of comforting those who are afflicted, while simultaneously afflicting those who are comfortable.  The Gospel is, at the same time, both good news for the unrighteous, and bad news for the self-righteous.

 

Perhaps this is why “party” is not the first word that comes to mind when we think of Christianity, because of how the faith is practiced by so many Christians.  Much self-righteousness likes to masquerade as godliness.

 

On vacation one time, Ashley and I ended up sharing a breakfast table with another couple.  We sat down, the first thing they told us what that they were Christians, and then the conversation that ensued let us know that they were some of the meanest, hateful, homophobic, racist, judgmental people I have ever had the displeasure of meeting.  It’s a good thing they told us they were Christians, because based on our conversation, I would have never been able to figure it out on my own!

 

They were not the kind of Christians who would fit in at Morehead, not the kind of people who loved their neighbor into God’s family.  So filled with hate, they were the kind of Christians who give the rest of us a bad name.

 

Perhaps they would have benefited from the words of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who said, “Sour godliness is the devil’s religion,” but I thought better of dropping that little pearl of wisdom right then and there.

 

Their lives showed zero fruit of the Spirit.  No love.  No joy.  No peace.  No kindness.  No gentleness.  No generosity.  I wonder if they had to tell everyone they were Christian because the permanent scowl on their face made it difficult to see Jesus within them, and the darkness of their own hate obscured the light of God’s love.  It made me wonder, when they reached heaven, if it wouldn’t have felt more like hell to them, because it was clear they weren’t interested in partying with the crowd Jesus would have invited.

 

The kingdom of God is like a party.  A great, celebratory banquet.  Jesus wasn’t the first to pick up this theme.  Centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah had said, “The Lord of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples a rich feast, a feast of choice wines, of select foods rich in flavor, of choice wines well refined” (Isaiah 25:6).

 

A good party is a sign of the kingdom of God.  A good party is a foretaste of heaven.

 

Lest we miss the point, Jesus played on this theme in performing his first miracle, at the wedding where he turned water into wine, and kicked an already good party into an even higher gear.

 

In the Bible’s final book, Revelation, this theme of a party is picked up again.  “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding banquet of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9).  Jesus, the Lamb of God, after evil and death are finally defeated once and for all, throws a never-ending feast, and invites and blesses everyone.

 

When we throw a party, some make it in, many get left out.  When God throws a party, everyone gets invited.  Genteel, Emily Post culture is replaced by a scandalously inclusive invitation to sinners and unrighteous and undeserving people – which is good news for people like you and me.  Before we judge others, may we remember what we’ve been forgiven.

 

None of us deserve a place at God’s table.  None of us have earned a spot.  None of us are entitled to an invitation.  God doesn’t welcome us because we are good, God invites us because God is good.  God has given us all good things for no good reason, and invites us to do the same for others.

 

Friends, God is having a party, and the invitations have gone out to everyone.  All are invited!  Man, talk about loving our neighbors into God’s family.  God has prepared a table for all, laden with bread and wine, where God’s love and grace are actually the main course.  God invites all to a table where love is served in heaping helpings, and where grace is as tangible as the bread you will soon hold in your hand.

 

No matter our station in life, whether we fancy ourselves on the A-list, the B-list, the hit list, or some other list, we have an invitation to a party.  After all is said and done, our worthiness is not the thing that matters most to God.  God’s unconditional love, expressed in Christ, for us and for all is what matters more than the rest.

 

Jesus bids us to come up higher than our self-absorbed and judgmental natures might allow. He beckons us to sit at the head table with him, right alongside all the rest of humanity whom God has exalted through Jesus' love.  Jesus invites us today to remember that all people have the potential to be lifted up and exalted by him who loves us.

 

Jesus calls us today to come to the Lord’s table to understand and accept that we are all, first, last, and always, God's beloved people.

 

And Jesus tells us to live our lives like we believe it.