Sermon for May 7th, 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
In looking over all the pictures I took on our recent trip to Turkey, I noticed they fall into pretty much two categories: The first category consists of places--beautiful churches, palaces, ancient ruins. The other category consists of tables, spread with food and drink, with fascinating people seated around them. Some of my favorite memories of Turkey will always be meals shared around a table.
It's not just Turkey. 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 a lot of 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 awhile.
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 across 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.
In college, I remember dressing up in a tuxedo and serving a table in the home of one of my English professors, who would host elaborate feasts for all the other professors in the English Department. He would go all out, preparing a five course meal around his giant, ornate, gothic style table. Halfway through the evening, he would excuse himself and come back to the kitchen to make sure that his waiters (his students) were well fed. I loved those banquets, and I loved that man--his name was Grady Walker, and my eldest son, Grady, is named after him.
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.
Today's scripture passage starts around a table--a real table, before Jesus begins his parable. He's teaching those seated around the table what I would call "good table etiquette." Don't be presumptuous when seating yourself, or you might get embarassed. Be generous and kind--don't just invite people who will invite you back, but invite the people who don't usually get invited, the people who can't pay you back.
And one of the guests, perhaps alarmed at the idea of sharing a table with someone of a lower station, says in verse 15 "Blessed is ANYONE who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God." To put it in modern terms, it's kind of as if Jesus just said "Black lives matter" and one of his guests corrected him, saying, "No Jesus... ALL lives matter." While that may be true, the guest obviously missed the point Jesus was trying to make about the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame (people who tend to get left out and ignored).
So Jesus tells this man a parable, about a man who throws a big party, and sends out invitations. In Middle Eastern tradition, there are always two invitations: The first one 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 already said yes to the first invitation.
But when the time comes, in verse 18, we read that one by one, the 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 (ἠγόρασα -egorasa) 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 how marriage worked.
So everyone was interested in the IDEA of the banquet (that's why they said yes in the first place) but when the time came to actually put actions to their words, other things were more important.
The fact that these invited guests could actually afford a piece of land, a team of oxen, a wife...that indicates they were fairly well off. Inviting them, you might be out the cost of the party, but you'd probably make it up when they inevitably invited you to their party later on.
But when they decline, the master does something unexpected: He throws open the invitation to exactly the sort of people who don't typically get invited to parties--the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the disabled. Ironically, these are the people who are probably in the most need of a good meal, some entertainment, some good company.
Does that strategy work? Well, we don't know. Like last week's parable, this parable ends with a cliffhanger. Once the master of the house throws the doors wide open, we never get to hear who shows up to the banquet. He says that "none of those who were invited shall taste my dinner" but we already knew that, because we heard them give their excuses. Once more, the point of Jesus' parable is not who shows up in the end. The point is who gets invited.
Who are we in this parable?
The banquet is pretty obviously God's kingdom, because this whole parable is in response to the man who tells Jesus "Blessed is ANYONE who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God." So that means the master of the house is most likely God. Now the question is, from among the remaining characters, who are you? Well that should be easy enough--are you crippled, lame or blind? No? How about poor? Some of you might think you're poor, but the Greek word Jesus uses here is πτωχός (ptochos), which Strong's dictionary defines as "completely lacking ANY earthly resources; destitute; a beggar."
Most of us here today are not in that second group. So what about the first group? Are we the ones who get invited to the banquet, to God's kingdom, and say "Yes--I want to go!" but then when real, actual, commitment is required on our part...we make excuses and get distracted by other things? Is that us?
Well, maybe. I'd even say probably. The person to whom Jesus is addressing this parable is certainly in that group, and many of us do let our possessions, or pursuit of material things get in the way of our relationship with God. We'll come back to that later.
But there's one more character in this story, who rarely gets noticed. It's the slave (or the servant). The one who faithfully does what the master asks, who goes out into the world and makes the invitation, three separate times, and possibly four! In this parable, I think that we--as Christians, and as a church--are supposed to be that faithful servant, inviting people to the banquet that is God's kingdom. It's not our banquet, not our table. We just try to get people to show up.
Today, First Presbyterian Church has a membership of 328 people. That's 328 people (not counting their children) who said, "Yes, I want to be a part of this community, and I promise to support it with my prayers, my studies, my service, and my gifts." How many of those 328 are here this morning? I realize I'm preaching to those of you who actually DID get up and make the trip today! But the simple truth is that most of those who were invited, most who said yes, still find reasons not to come, and this beautiful sanctuary, these beautiful facilities, are mostly empty on Sunday mornings.
But starting tomorrow morning around 8am, the doors will open, and over 100 children and their families will begin to trickle in, filling this place with the noise and joy of learning from the wonderful preschool our church sponsors. Later, 60 families with homeschooled children will join them for our homeschool co-op. Later that afternoon, the girl scouts will gather here, and later still, the cub scouts and then the boy scouts we sponsor. When El Paso's only non-profit children's theater, Kids N Co, was homeless, and looking for a place to put on their shows, we threw open the doors and said, "Come to our building! Come to our banquet!" Tomorrow night they will be here, too.
Today, there may be about 100 of us here, if we're lucky. But tomorrow, by the end of the day, over 500 people, most of them children, will have graced the premises of First Presbyterian Church. And the number one question that church members ask me about these groups is this: Do they pay rent? There are some groups who use our facilities--those who can--that do pay rent. But all of the groups I just listed, do not; they cannot. Most of them are groups that if they could not meet here, would not be able to meet at all.
But pastor--they consume resources! We have to heat and cool the building for them! And sometimes (God forbid!) they move things; they break things! How many of you had children who did not eat food, consume resources, and never broke anything?
Jesus said to invite the ones who cannot repay you...even though they will still eat your food! "And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
So far, I've been talking about what this parable means for us as a church. I think we've been like that faithful servant. We have faithfully gone out to our invited guests, and when they didn't come, we faithfully went out to the highways and the byways, and we found others--those with greater need--and we have brought many people to the table of this community. One way or another, this building will be full!
I want to end today, not with our story as the church, but with your story, as individuals. Remember, Jesus addressed this parable to one individual--someone who didn't get it, someone who was distracted by his preconceived ideas about who should be in and who should be out. I think Jesus must have looked deep into this man's soul that day, just as he does with us, today.
What keeps you from the Lord's banquet table when the invitation comes? Is it your property? Your possessions? Your spouse? Is it your schedule that pulls you in a thousand directions, and none of them closer to God? Or are there emotional burdens that you carry? Anxiety, guilt, or shame that weighs you down and keeps you from answering God's invitation? Maybe you answered "yes" years ago, but have long since forgotten the way, or gotten sidetracked in the mundane cares and concerns of day-to-day life.
Whatever it is that keeps you from this table, Whatever excuses beckon you elsewhere, Let them go. Lay them down.
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.