Sermon for May 6th, 2017
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22 And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ 23 Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
Small Stories, Big Ideas - The Great Banquet
Exactly one week ago today, I was on a giant airplane crossing the Atlantic Ocean on my way back to El Paso from the country of Turkey, where I had the opportunity to visit some old friends, and to visit the ancient city of Ephesus, which was, like White Acres, a retirement village. It was the place where Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John the beloved disciple lived out their long retirement, looking after one another and taking care of each other as Jesus directed them to do.
I took a lot of pictures in Turkey. Many were pictures of beautiful churches, exotic palaces, ancient ruins. But just as many were pictures of tables, laid out amazing food and drink, with good people (old friends, new friends) seated around them. Clearly, some of my best impressions of Turkey and Turkish people were formed around a table.
But it's not just Turkey, either. Right here in El Paso, I will never forget two meals I had when I was just sixteen years old. One was at State Line. It was just me, my dad, some bread, some steak, and some sauteed mushrooms. I don't know what exactly made that meal so special--growing up in a family of six, maybe it's just one of my few memories of having my dad all to myself for an hour or two.
The other meal was at Chili's restaurant on Mesa street. It was the night of the Coronado High School Homecoming dance, and around the table were me, my friends John Wahrmund and Andy Moye. John's date that night was Ginger. Andy's date was Leah. And my date was a complete stranger--Ginger's friend, a blind date set up at the last minute. I can't even remember what food I ordered (probably chicken crispers), but sitting accross from me, my date was a quiet, beautiful girl in a baby blue dress with white lace. Her name was Amy. We were sixteen, and it was the very first of a lifetime of meals shared around countless tables.
Amy's family lived on Marimba Street, right around the corner from my grandmother's house on DeLeon. I remember a lot of meals at my grandmother's house, around her dining room table, through the years. When Amy and I moved back to El Paso a few years ago, it made me happy to see my own children sitting at my grandmother's table again, just as I had done when I was their age. When Grandma Betty moved here to White Acres, there was no way that giant dining room table was ever going to fit in her apartment...but one of the first phone calls I got from her after she moved here was her saying, "I found a great little table for my apartment but it needs some work--can you help me fix it?"
We live the best moments of our lives around tables that have been prepared for us, or tables that we have prepared for others. And I think that's why so many times in the Bible, Jesus compares heaven itself to a banquet or a feast around a lavish table.
In today's scripture passage, Jesus tells the story of a man who throws a party, and sends out invitations. In Middle Eastern tradition, there are always two invitations. The first is what we would call the RSVP: I'm throwing a party; I want you to come; I need an idea of how many people to prepare for; will you come? The second invitation is to say: It's time; the table is set; come on over. Presumably, those who get the second invitation have already said yes to the first invitation.
But when the time comes, those guests who had previously said "yes" begin to make their excuses. Interestingly, all the excuses are somehow related to acquisition of material possessions. I just bought some land. I just bought a team of oxen. I just bought a wife--and yes, with due apologies here, in ancient Middle Eastern custom, that's pretty much how it worked.
Of course, Jesus isn't talking about a literal meal here. He's talking about the Kingdom of Heaven. What person in their right mind would turn down an invitation like that? Well, they didn't...the first time. They all said yes. They all RSVP'd, just like we would. It's easy to SAY yes. But when the time comes to actually DO something, to get up and follow where our master is leading us...well that's a bit harder. And what Jesus seems to be saying here is that it's our material possessions, our attachment to the things of this world, that's most likely to keep us from sitting at his table.
When my grandmother was getting ready to move to White Acres, she quickly realized that she had too much stuff. Years living in a house will do that to you. So she gave away as many things as her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren would take. Then she held a big rummage sale. Today, her apartment here is just as beautiful, just as warm and hospitable as any house she ever lived in...and it all fits in two rooms.
I noticed that a funny thing happened in that process: As her space got smaller, her world got bigger. That little table I fixed for her doesn't get used nearly as often, since she takes her meals now in a dining hall, surrounded by friends at a larger table, prepared for her by the people of this community.
God's invitation to his kingdom is like that. In the end, the ones who end up coming to the banquet are the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Why? Because they are the ones who have fewer earthly posessions, less to distract them and compete with the banquet. They are the ones with the greatest need and the greatest desire to sit at a lavish table where they are not only fed, but cherished.
What are the things that distract you from God's invitation? What are the things that cause you to turn away from his table? Maybe they are material things--the pursuit of property, posessions, or financial gain. Although I suspect that most of you here today, like my grandmother, already had your big rummage sale long ago.
Maybe in your case, it is spiritual or emotional or intellectual distractions that keep you away from God's table. Maybe you said yes to God's invitation years ago, but it's been so long that you've forgotten the way to the banquet table, and in any case, other things seem more important on a day to day basis.
If so, it's never too late for a spiritual rummage sale. Maybe it's time to downsize all the things pulling your heart and your mind and your soul in so many directions. Let go of your cares and burdens, in order to rediscover your deep need, your great desire to sit down at the Lord's table with him, in the great company of all the saints in every age.
The old hymn says it best:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.