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.

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