Give Me Liberty And Give Me Death

Luke 14.15-24

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 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.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 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.’ And the salve said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ 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. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

I wrote three versions of this sermon.

In the first version I, the preacher, encouraged you, the listener, to imagine yourself as a party host. You worked diligently to prepare a feast, ordered the perfect set of invitations, and you even hired a wine sommelier just to make sure everything was in harmony. For months you laid awake at night not worrying about the extravaganza itself, but imagining all the profoundly kind compliments you were about to receive.

And then, as the day of the shindig got closer and closer, the RSVPs started to arrive and with every “No” your heart started to sink deeper and deeper until you realized that no one, not a single invitee, would be coming.

You fretted over what to do next. After all, you had spent a small fortune to set the whole thing up and you couldn’t just return everything. You began calling all your family members, and knocking on the doors of all your neighbors, but it still wasn’t enough. It got to the point that, like a crazy person, you started yelling at people on the street demanding that they come to your party.

But, it wasn’t a very good sermon. It wasn’t a very good sermon because it made all of you, the listeners, out to be like God. You became the divine party host and when no one showed up, it just left you with a bit of rage.

And where’s the Good News in that?

In the second version I, the preacher, encouraged you, the listener, to imagine yourself as one of the invited guests. You received an invitation in the mail to a very posh party and though you were initially excited about the prospect of attending, you quickly realized that the celebration would be an impossibility.

You knew that it would not be responsible to accept such a grand invitation and you thought about how it was all really such a waste. You pictured in your mind all of the hungry children across the globe and you just shuddered with the thought of such delicious food in the midst of a broken world like ours.

So you came up with a list of reasons why you would not be attending. For some of you it was because of your spouse. For others you had responsibilities in the home that could not be overlooked. And still yet a few more of you simply lied because you had better things to do.

But that one wasn’t a very good sermon either. It wasn’t a good sermon because when all of you found out about the lengths the host went to to make sure the party was full in your absence, you weren’t really jealous. I mean, he invited all of the delinquents and riffraff from the community; who would want to go to a party with those people? You became satisfied by your excuses and patted yourselves on the back for a job well done.

And where’s the Good News in that?

The third version was my favorite. In it I, the preacher, encouraged you, the listener, to imagine that you had no business attending the party in the first place. You were down on your luck, worrying about how to pay your bills, fretting over your child’s grades, overwhelmed by domestic trivialities. And all the while you saw the host preparing for the party. You witnessed truck after truck bringing in the wine and beer, you saw the caterers lugging in all of their equipment, and when the day of the party arrived you could hear the live band playing all of your favorite songs and yet, you weren’t invited.

And then, miracle of miracles, the host came and knocked on your front door, grabbed you by the collar, and started dragging you to the party. And, because you were full of humility, you pleaded with the host to realize the mistake he was making. You didn’t deserve to be at the party, you would never be able to return the favor, and you really didn’t even have anything nice to wear.

To which the host simply waved his hand and told you to raid the closets at his house and take whatever clothes you wanted. The party simply must be full and he didn’t give a flip about who you were, he just wanted you to be there.

And so you went, and you had the time of your life. You ate, and drank, and danced. You fraternized with people who never would have give you the time of day. And the longer you partied, the more people started showing up. And they, like you, had sparkles in their eyes because something like this was beyond all of your wildest imaginations. 

And that sermon, that sermon was a good one. It was good because it spoke truly about the ridiculousness of grace, how unmerited it is, how we, even up to the moment we receive it, make excuses for why we shouldn’t be the ones to get it. And I almost preached that sermon – one long story about being dragged to a party that you didn’t deserve to attend – it was going to end with the host bringing out another case of wine as the sun rose in the east and everyone trotting back out onto the dance floor to do it all over again.

But I’m not preaching that sermon.

Nope.

I’m not preaching it because the Good News sounds too good.

Goodnews word on vintage broken car license plates, concept sign

Jesus is still at the dinner table when our scripture for today begins. He has already healed a man much to the chagrin of everyone else at the party, he has called everyone out for wanting to sit in the best places, and he just commanded them to invite the wrong people to their own parties when someone inexplicably stands up to shout, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”

The comment sounds like the man is mocking Jesus. As in, “No one is going to buy whatever you’re selling. Blessed would be anyone, and apparently everyone in your kingdom Jesus, but that ain’t the way it works.”

And Jesus won’t stand for it.

What the interrupting man doesn’t know, what he can’t know, is that the very kingdom of God he referenced was sitting right there at the table with him, and none of them want it. They don’t want to eat bread in the kingdom if it means what Jesus was describing. They had all worked too hard to get where they were, and it doesn’t sound like good news when the first are told that they are going to be last.

So Jesus jumps into another story. 

A man had invited many to his awesome party. Everyone had already responded to the card in the mail, but when the day of arrived, they were no-shows. Each of the guests, in their own way, said, “Hey Lord, I’ll spend time with you later. But right now, I’ve got other things to take care of.”

And all of the people at the table hearing Jesus’ story, are like the people in the parable with their excuses – they had pursed the sensible paths, they were what we could call successful, and Jesus tells them, to their faces, that it is precisely all their pursuing that keeps them from the party.

For this crazy Lord of ours, the one we worship and adore, he has no use for winners, people only concerned with their own definitions of what it means to do and to win in this life. So instead of bringing all of the right people to the party, the host, Jesus, goes out looking for all the wrong people. 

One way or another, the host will fill the tables – the food will be eaten – the drinks will be consumed – the band will be enjoyed. 

It sounds too good to be true but this is the gospel: the losers of life are the winners at God’s table. On a day when they woke up expecting nothing, or worse, they rise to a new way of being that surpasses even the people who first received their invitation. 

The last, least, lost, little, and dead never get invited to parties because they run counter to everything the world tells us to do.

But in the kingdom of God, lastness, leastness, lostness, littleness, and deadness are all Jesus is looking for.

As Jesus has been saying again and again and again throughout all of these parables in different ways, shapes, and forms, you and I don’t get to earn our spot at the party. There’s no to-do list to get in. 

Parables-of-Jesus

In this particular parable none of the people who had a right to be at the party came, and all of the people who came had no right to be there. Nothing in the kingdom has anything to do with rights; God is going to deal with us in spite of our deservings, not according to them.

And that just gets under our skin, or, worse, we completely ignore it. We’re so accustom to a way of being about earning and rewarding that free grace sounds irresponsible or too good to be true. 

But hear this, hear it in all of its craziness and bizarreness: Grace works by raising the dead – not by rewarding the living. 

This story from the lips of Jesus is about liberty. Not liberty from monarchy like so many of us celebrated this week with our food and fun and fireworks. But a liberty from all of the labeling that comes about in this life. Liberty from the truest tyranny that the world has ever known – sin and death.

This party of Jesus’, the parable of the host dragging in people from the street, it shows us how God in Christ gives us liberty in death. It even shows us how free we really are right now for we have been baptized into Jesus’ death. 

Or, at least, it shows us how free we should be.

Because most of us aren’t, myself included. I too am shackled to the expectations of the world, of the need and the desire to appear first even when I am really last. The need and desire to appear wealthy even when I’m in debt. The need and desire to seem as if I’ve got it all figured out even when I really have no idea what I’m doing.

I want to be a winner, but Jesus saves losers.

I want to be first, but Jesus is for the last.

I want to be in control of my life, but Jesus wants me to die.

Jesus wants me and you and all of us to die to all of these overwhelming expectations we place on ourselves and on others. Jesus tells these stories to break down all of the labels we throw around and to show how salvation, our salvation, has already been figured out. 

Jesus turns things upside down. The whole gospel is one topsy turvy tumbling narrative. The chosen people of this world, the privileged, the powerful, the righteous, the religious, the pious, they will not be the ones filling up the dance floor because they often ignore the invitation.

But at God’s party, it’s those of us who’ve been crippled by our sin, blinded by our shame, and made lame by our guilt who eat, and drink, and dance. We do so precisely because we were a bunch of outsiders and nobodies who never thought we had a chance in the world.

God desires a full house – God wants the party to be bumpin’ – and we’re all invited. Amen. 

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The Dinner Party

Luke 14.7-14

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

When he was invited to the dinner party he knew it was a mistake. To begin with, he had never been to a dinner party before and this one was being hosted by all the religious big-wigs in the area. 

But the invitation had come nonetheless, and the host wanted him to be there.

He mulled over the possibility of going for a few days, weighing out the pros and cons. From what he could tell, it would be a boring evening. These weren’t really the type of people known for being fun. But they were the people with power, and he apparently had a place at the table. So he decided to go.

When he got to the house he was immediately overwhelmed with the opulence. It was as if it had been taken right out of a Better Homes & Gardens magazine, and he was worried about touching anything and everything. 

He had spent hours fretting over what to wear, and even though he settled on jeans and a button up shirt, he was clearly underdressed. The men were in suits and the women were in long flowing dresses.

Nevertheless, he politely tiptoed through room after room, with the occasional nod toward one of the other guests until he heard a simple bell ringing from the other side of the house, and assumed the time had come for the dinner party to begin.

Hero-Dinner-Party

He entered the dining room and was bombarded by the bartender who wanted to know his order.

“Got any wine?” He asked.

“Why sir, we have the cave filled to the brim with a great variety of years and regions! Shall I make a recommendation?”

“How about you bring me a glass of the stuff that you can’t get rid of, that’ll be fine.”

And with that the bartender started off in a fit of rage.

The man then turned toward the dining room table and took in its perfection. The settings were beautiful and the napkins looked as if a professional origami artist had spent hours creating unique folds for each plate. He felt all of the eyes in the room on him as he made his way over to the table, but before he could pull out a chair, the man next to him winced and reached for his lower back.

“Something wrong?” He asked.

The man was doubled over now and said, “I threw my back out this morning and I thought I had worked it out but now I feel like I can’t move.”

So he took the man by the hand, led him over to the table, pushed some of the plates and cups and cutlery out of the way, and laid the man down. He fussed around for a few minutes poking here and there while muttering a few things under his breath and immediately everyone gathered around in a tight circle with their jaws on the floor.

“Has he no decency?

“Where are his manners?”

And finally, the host entered only to exclaim, “What in the world do you think you’re doing?”

The man looked up from his make shift examining table and simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “If it was your kid, or your spouse, who was hurting, wouldn’t you drop everything to do something about it?”

And no one said a word.

The man with the back problem promptly got off the table, now fit as a fiddle, and the hired help rushed in to put everything back in its proper place.

With a wave of the hand the host encouraged everyone to find their seats so the feast could begin.

And yet the man, who had already offended everyone in the room, noticed that all the guests rushed to get to the seats as close to the host as possible.

He stood there in silence, observing the frantic frenzy of power dynamics, and contended himself to remain silent until they noticed that he had not taken the remaining seat.

And so it was in the midst of a profoundly uncomfortable silence that all the eyes fell upon him once again.

“Hey, the next time any of you go to a party, don’t sit in the best places. Someone more important than you might’ve been invited, and then you’re going to have to give up your seat to go sit in the last place. So, don’t you think it would be better to start off at the end, and that way the host can come and raise you up to a better place?”

Again, no one said a word.

The man took it as a sign that he should keep going. 

“Where has all the humility gone? There is a great and wonderful joy, known only to a few, that comes with humility. It comes not because humility earns you anything, but it brings a newfound sense of joy from not having to be in control of every little thing. You can finally enjoy the party instead of trying to be responsible for it.”

The other guests started to fidget uncomfortably in the chairs.

“Look at yourselves. If you keep showing up at these things and only choose the best seats, you’re going to cut yourselves off from all the other places and all the other people at the table, who, in my experience, are the ones who have the most fun. I know some of you would rather die that have sit in the back, but dying to all of this is the best thing you could ever do.”

The man started to really feel the words bubbling up within him and he began swinging his arms with ferocity spilling wine all over the oriental rug.

He stared deeply into the eyes of everyone around the table, all of the winners of the community, people who were so self-satisfied with all they had done and earned, and he began to pity them. He instantly knew that, to them, this was the most important moment of their week – sitting around a table, jockeying for power, doing everything they could to impress the person to their left and right. 

So he continued, “Just go ahead and die to everything you think you’ve done and earned for yourself. None of you are as good as you think you are anyway. And if, only if, you’re able to die to that, maybe you can actually start enjoying yourself.”

And he sat down.

Over the next hour the guests ate in silence as the courses of food were brought out in proper order. They were either so moved by his words or infuriated by them that they did not know what to do or what to say. 

The evening quickly came to its inevitable conclusion and the guests began to express their gratitude to the host, promising to return the favor by having the host come to their respective places, and the man felt another rally coming.

“You need to throw away the book.”

“What did you say?”

“You need to toss it out to the trash and leave it there forever.”

“What book?”

“The one you’ve been keeping in your head about who owes you what. You’re so stupidly stuck in your bookkeeping that you’re trying to keep the world together and you can’t even see how quickly its ripping at the seams. Why don’t you just let it all go? I mean, what good does it do you to climb the social ladder by inviting people just to have them invite you back. You already have all of this. Next time, try inviting the wrong people. Think about how much fun you could have at the table surrounded by the last, least, lost, little, and dead. I promise you this: you will never really be happy until the bookkeeping stops, until you learn how to let go of your clenched hand, so that someone else can grab hold and bring you onto the dance floor of life.”

The guests, again, looked upon the scene with disbelief at a man with no sense of manners at all and they, along with the host, fumed.

“Anyway,” he began, “Thanks for the evening I guess. The wine was okay, the food was good, and the conversation was to die for.” And with that he left.

It was only then that one of the guests worked up the courage to ask the host a question: “Who was that guy?”

And the host replied, “His name is Jesus. And I could just kill him for everything he did and said tonight.”

Parables-of-Jesus

If we want to take Jesus’ words from the parable at the dinner party literally, that’s fine, but it’s a quick recipe for a ruined evening. If we invite the wrong people over, they’re not going to invite us to their houses, nor would we really want to go to theirs in the first place. But, again, these parables aren’t here for us to understand how we are supposed to be living, but they function to show how God lives for us.

Jesus destroys the exceptions of the dinner party crowd and he does it throughout his ministry. He is a critical Lord, though we often forget that part of him. He’s critical because he wants to destroy all of our favorite and foolish expectations. Being first, found, big, important, and alive matter little in the kingdom of God. They matter little because Jesus didn’t come to make the first firster, or the found founder, or the important importanter, or the alive aliver. He came to raise the dead.

And we can die, we can die to the desire to sit at the best places, we can die to the bookkeeping that keeps us awake at night. We really can die to all of that because Jesus already has. 

Look: It’s as if Jesus is sneaking into the dinner parties of our lives, seeing our jockeying and our comparing and our bookkeeping, just to whisper into our ears: “Why are you doing all of this when I already threw out the book on you? Why are you keeping score when God doesn’t? God already nailed all of your sins to my cross, past-present-future. Go ahead and die to all of that so you can finally start having some fun.”

So hear Jesus today, hear him through scripture and song and silence and sermon, hear him through the sacrament to which we are invited at the table. For as much as we would like to argue against it, we are the poor, the cripple, the lame, and the blind. We are the ones invited to Christ’s dinner party, an invitation we cannot repay, and he wants us to have fun. Amen.

Narrow Hearts. Narrow Minds. Narrow Doors.

Luke 13.18-30

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ Then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

It must’ve been very frustrating to be the Messiah. Hey Lord! Can you fix my bum leg? Hey Lord! We’re getting hungry, can you whip up some dinner? Hey Lord! What’s the kingdom of God like?

Everywhere he went, through all the different towns among all the different people, questions just kept coming. And, bless his heart, Jesus responds. Sure, take up your mat and walk. Sure, we can eat – anybody got any bread or a few fish? You want to know about the kingdom? Hmmm…

You know what, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

The kingdom of God is like yeast hidden in some flour.

Do either of those make sense to you? 

Well, it seems like one of the disciples mulled over parabolic answers from the Lord for a few days before asking yet another question: “Jesus, will only a few be saved?” 

Well, it’s like a narrow door and, believe it or not, a lot are going to try to enter and they’re not getting in. Imagine that the owner of a house has already shut the door for the night, and you go knocking loudly. He’s not going to let you in, no matter how much you can claim to have done with the owner. 

Today, we live in a world in which we are always walking on eggshells. We have to be careful about what we say, and to whom we say it, and even how we say it. And specifically in the realm of the church, we do this with an ever greater degree of attention.

And can you blame us? We want everyone to know that God loves them. We want everyone to feel welcomed. We don’t want to upset anyone.

But then what in the world are we supposed to do with Jesus’ words about the narrow door? Because it sounds like whatever the kingdom of God is, it is inherently an exclusive endeavor.

Parables-of-Jesus

One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, was once questioned about his theological position regarding universalism, an understanding of salvation such that all are saved. 

And when pushed to respond his answer was this: “I don’t know if I’m a universalist, but I do know this: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

I like that a lot – but how can heaven be crowded if, to use Jesus’ words, many will try to enter and will not be able?

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When mustard seeds get talked about in the church they are mostly known for their size. They are tiny. And it is from tiny things that great things come. That’s all good and fine. But one of things we almost never talk about is that for a mustard seed to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the ground.

The kingdom of God is like yeast mixed with flower. When yeast gets mentioned in church it usually falls into the category of its hiddenness, or its reactivity in terms of making something new a la bread. But one of the things we almost never talk about is that for the yeast to do anything, it has to die.

It has to be buried in the flour before it is baked away.

Death has been stinking up all of these parables we’ve been encountering week after week. And the more Jesus confuses his disciples, the more he mentions death, the city of Jerusalem hangs brighter on the horizon and the view of the cross comes sharper into focus.

Death is, and will be, the mechanism by which God makes all things new. 

And so it is on the heels and very much among the theme of death that the question is asked, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”

Now notice: Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He just hears the question and starts in with another one of his bizarre and meandering stories.

Strive for the narrow door my friends – many will try to enter and will not be able. 

It’s as if Jesus looks out at the crowds with a twinkle in his eye only to say, “You bet there will only be a few that get saved. Many of you will go crazy studying for the final exam, an exam that you will fail.”

Homily-20130825-Small-Narrow-Gate-shutterstock_112858771

Now, I know a lot of you well enough to know that this Jesus doesn’t square up nicely with the Jesus in other parts of the Gospel story. We like to think of Jesus as the one standing with open arms, the one who reaches out to the last, least, lost, the one who even offers Judas a spot at the table. 

And even our church, it can have all the open hearts/minds/doors it wants, but it doesn’t make much of a difference if they only open narrowly.

Jesus goes on to add a little more flavor to the story with the aside about the one who refuses to open the door once it has been shut and the imagery of our exclusive Lord and Savior looks more like a divine bouncer standing outside of Club Heaven than the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the one lost sheep.

And yet the narrow door is precisely the image of the story, the one that stays with us long after our Bibles have been closed and put away.

club-line

The door is narrow friends, but not for the reasons we so often think. The door is narrow because the door is Jesus himself. 

We’ve been saying this a lot over the last two months, so I apologize for banging on the doors of all of our brains with this repetitive declaration – the parables are primarily about Jesus, and only secondarily about us.

It is the Lord who makes the door what it is, with all of its narrowness, because we can’t get through it on our own. For as much as it might make us cringe – the door that is Christ is inherently exclusive because it is not for us. 

Jesus doesn’t set up a long list of requirements meant to keep only the perfect inside of his grace. This is truly the only way to enter into the many mansions of the Father’s house, and it’s certainly not because we’ve earned a space or somehow gotten our name on the list with a smattering of good deeds.

We only get in to the party because Jesus is the door.

For a long time Christianity has been defined by its exclusivity – you have to do this, and you have to believe this, if you want a space at the table. It’s an inherently narrow proposition. But the narrowness of the door in the parable actually comes not from being small or difficult. It’s narrowness comes from the fact that it is so counter to everything we think and know that we are repulsed by it. 

It has been my experience, and perhaps your own too, that people do not often hear what is said, but they hear what they are prepared to hear. Such that a parable about a narrow door immediately conjures up in our minds the innate difficulties of getting into the club rather than us actually listening to what God has to say. 

It is so difficult to hear because it implies that this is impossible for us to do on our own, and we hate being told that something is impossible. We hate being told something is impossible because we are told throughout our lives that so long as we work hard enough nothing is outside of our grasp.

This is a particularly challenging parable because the narrow door that is Jesus lets in a whole heck of a lot of people who don’t jive with what we think the party is supposed to look like.

The whole last will be first and first will be last is actually frustrating because the lastness of the last is what makes them first in the kingdom – not because they did what was right, or because they earned all the right things. They are now first precisely because they were last.

And those of us who have done what was good, those of us who have earned all the right things by doing all the right things, we can’t stand the idea that we’ve been put at the back of the line, in fact we wouldn’t be caught dead at the back because we’ve worked so hard to be at the front. 

And then here comes Jesus, who looks at all that we’ve done, or left undone, and says, “The door is narrow friends, and none of you are good enough.”

This parable sets us up to be duped and radicalized. God doesn’t want to let us into the house. No amount of banging on the door is going to do us any good. Even the desperate pleas of our self-vindication (But Lord I went to church every Sunday, I gave 10% in the offering plate, I fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and befriended the lonely), none of it merits us anything.

But that’s exactly where Jesus drops the bomb of the Good News. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you all try to measure yourselves up to a standard of your own making and design. You will grieve all of your wasted energy, and all your accounts of self-righteousness. Because the door is too narrow for you.

AND THEN, the Gospel says, AND THEN, ONLY THEN, will people come from the north, south, east, and west to eat with God.

There are definitely two ways to read the parable, and there are two ways to preach the parable. In version one we all leave church feeling pretty crummy about our chances of getting in through the narrow door. We leave with our heads hanging low as we contemplate our sins, or our problems, or our lack of faith, and we wonder if we’ll ever be good enough. There is a way to read and preach the story such that God has closed the door of grace and locked out those who do not measure up.

In version two, the door is still closed. But the closing of the door can also be read and preached in a way that the door God closes is the one that says we have to do this that and the other in order to gain eternal salvation.

While the world’s firsts, the winners by all definitions, are out there knocking their knuckles bloody on the locked door of righteousness, Jesus is quietly knocking at the narrow door of our own deaths trying to get us to let him in.

Remember, this narrow door follows the mustard seed and the yeast. All those two things have to do in order to do anything is die. They have to give up being a seed and being yeast, they’ve got to let the old fall away in order to become the new. 

And yet we live by and in and world that tells us we have to do everything on our own. There are systems and norms that are largely designed to show us how we will never be good enough. And then Jesus shows up to say perhaps the most radical truth any of us will ever hear: Don’t worry about how good you are or what you’ve been able to achieve, I am the door, and I’m coming to find you. 

This parable, much to the consternation of preachers and Christians who want to scare others into behaving better, is actually about the opposite; Jesus is not busily thinking up new and frightening ways to keep people out of the kingdom – instead Jesus is actively and forever committed to letting himself into our kingdoms in order to tear them down.

At the very end, Jesus says the we who are knocking at the doors of perfect living and measured morality are nothing but workers of iniquity. Our good deeds are no more capable of getting us into the kingdom than our bad deeds are of keeping us out. 

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not while we were perfect, and not even while we were repentant, but while we were sinners. There is nothing on this earth that can make God love us any more OR any less.

That’s the scandal of the Good News, but its also why we can call it good.

And lest any of us remain unconvinced of the narrow door becoming the obliteration of any door keeping us out of anything, let us end where Jesus does – the meal. 

It is after the weeping and gnashing of teeth, or own refusal to live under the unfairness of grace for everyone whether we deserve it or not, its only after our lamenting of the old world, that Jesus speaks of the meal –  the meal that draws people literally from all directions. 

The feast is not a trickling in of guests who, after becoming the paragons of perfection get a special invitation to the party, but instead it is a flood of uncountable people who, for free – for nothing, will be drawn by the love of Christ to the ultimate party that has no end.

Or to put it all another way: I won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen. 

Party Like Jesus or: Preaching to the Preacher

Luke 12.35-48

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Peter said, “Lord, are you tell this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to him, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. From every to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

The internet and social media have made us all hyper-aware of everything that is happening all the time. Because of these things we have in our pockets and purses we know what is happening, where it is happening, and before its over we can look through all of the comments about what happened and where.

Some of this is good. We are more connected with people all across the world than we have ever been. Because of the instantaneous nature of communication and information we have been able to help those in need, we’ve been able to prepare for things we never could’ve imagined, and there is an invisible thing uniting us in ways previously impossible.

But, of course, a lot of it is bad. 

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A teenager posts a picture and is bullied for the rest of her adolescence.

An adult is radicalized through forums to commit horrible acts of violence.

Older individuals are regularly belittled for not being up to date with everything that, by definition, is changing faster than we can keep up.

We create and consume so much information today that, regardless of our age, we can barely recite that which we have received.

And, in a strange way, we are made most aware of all that we are missing.

In some circles this is called the “instagramification” of all things. We flock to places of social media, more often than not, to show all that is right in our lives when so much is wrong. 

We gather the family together for a picture while on vacation and post it for everyone to know and believe that we have it all together, when in fact the family was screaming and pulling one another hairs just to get the picture taken moments before. 

And when we see these images of friends, or family, or even celebrities we can’t but help to judge and measure our lives against what we see on the screen.

Jesus, in his strangely parabolic way, has us imagine that we are waiting for our best friend to come from from a wedding. A wedding we weren’t invited to.

Weddings are all over the place in the Bible, and are particularly profound in the New Testament. Consider: Jesus’ first miracle is turning water into wine at a wedding, and one of the last images in the Book of Revelation is the marriage of the Lamb to his bride the New Jerusalem. 

Jesus, the master in the parable, the friend in ours, returns to us after a wedding. The story makes the claim that we are to be awake and welcome him in glory, and we will be blessed by his arrival because he brings the party with him. 

Whether its the master with his slaves, or the uninvited friends, it is particularly striking that the one who has no reason to do much of anything, desires first and foremost to sit down and hang out, with us.

Jesus is crazy. He, again and again, contrasts the ways we so foolishly live in this world by showing how the opposite, in fact our dying, is the only good news around. And to make matters even more confounding, according to the Lord the sooner we die the sooner we can celebrate.

Now, of course, the ways we speak about and even conceive of our own deaths is inherently problematized – and yet, as Christians, our deaths are particularly peculiar. For, we are already dead. At least, that what we claim in baptism – By Jesus’ death in ours, and ours in his, we have conquered the whole rotten game of the universe.

The sooner we can accept that our lives have already been changed, irrevocably, for good, the sooner the party arrives through the door. 

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Therefore, we needn’t even worry about being invited to the party, we don’t have to lay awake festering over whether we’ve been good enough, or popular enough, or even faithful enough. Our salvation, the party itself, is never contingent on our ability to make it happen.

All we need to do is be like those who know the party is coming through the door.

It is the greatest thing in the world that our friend stumbles in to us in the middle of the night, perhaps in the greatest of moods a few sheets to the wind from the wedding reception. 

See it and believe it: He does not come with sober judgments about why we aren’t good enough, or with grim requirements about what we have to do or how we have to behave to get a ticket in. 

Instead he comes humming along to a song from the distant dance floor, perhaps with a nice bottle of red stashed under his arm that he clandestinely removed from the open bar, and before we can say much of anything he’s popped the bottle and is dolling out a full assortment of finger foods to quench every bit of our hunger.

It’s a strange story. One that we often ignore, overlook, or disregard.

But it is there and it is very much here.

We are blessed by the risen Lord, for he knocks at the door, even in our deaths, and he comes bringing the party with him. And this party is not far off and distant in both place and time from us, the party is here with us, right now. It’s just that most of us are too stubborn to notice.

To return to our own parable, we’ve got our noses so stuck in our phones judging our lives against the lives of others that we can’t even here Jesus banging on the door.

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And then Peter perks up: “Lord, is this story for us, or is it for everyone?” A worthy question, for we should want to know who exactly is supposed to be around waiting for the Lord’s party to arrive. 

Jesus answers the question with a question, “Who is the manager that the master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their food at the proper time?

The previous parable is certainly for all, but now the Lord put some things into perspective; the disciples are given a job, and those who continue in that line of work, dare I say pastors, are supposed to know their job.

Now, before we continue, I must confess that we have arrived a strange precipice, one in which Jesus is telling the future clergy (in a way) what they are to do. And yet here I am, your appointed clergy, preaching about what God has told me to do.

So, bear with me for a moment.

Pastors, the disciples in charge of the slaves as it were, are commanded to trust. Nothing more, less, or else. Pastors are not called to know everything, or to be enigmatically clever all the time, or to be fully of energy, or even to be talented.

They are to trust that the truth is in fact the truth. The greatest truth of all being that salvation does not come from a particular way of living or being. Which is a good word to those of us living in a world while drowning in efforts toward whatever we think life is supposed to be. 

Contrary to what the televangelists proclaim,  and pastors of all shapes and sizes, and even this one in front of you at times, the church does not exist to tell people like you to engage in acts of superior morality with the expectation that salvation will be your reward.

The foolishness of God is wiser than that.

God, more often than not, chooses what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise.

God, more often than not, uses fallible pastors to remind all of us that its the nobodies of the world, the last, least, lost, little, and dead who bring about anything we might call holy.

And so, as the only pastor in the room, I feel what can only be described as a sense of relief. After countless years in which people like me have been made to feel that forceful preaching, and masterful obedience, and perfect extraversion with just the right dash of introversion, is the name of the game – it’s nice to be reminded, here in this parable, that Jesus expects the preachers of the church to be nothing more than half decent cooks.

“Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.”

Food at the proper time. And, to be clear, we clergy are not gourmet chefs or even casino buffet coordinators, but just some Gospel minded cooks who can rummage through the pantry of the Word to turn out a half decent and nourishing meal once a week.

And we then could turn to look at the meal of preaching, the Word made flesh in a certain way, every week. But it’s much better than that. Because the greatest meal of all offered by the church has almost nothing to do with the preaching. In communion we find the sustenance that goes beyond all imagining – clergy need only serve it to those who are hungry. 

So long as all of us, we who come to the table, get enough death and resurrection in our diet, so long as we are reminded with regularity that there is nothing we can do to earn it or lose it, then we will be, as the Bible says, filled.

And I wish we could end it there, but Jesus has more to say to Peter and the preachers…

“But if,” Jesus continues, “If the manager thinks the master is taking his sweet time in getting back, and therefore beats on the other slaves and get drunk, then the master will return and cut him into pieces.”

This is the moment that you can can offer up a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord that you’re not pastors.

To put Jesus final words another way: If the preachers decide to take matters into their own hands, if they make promises they can’t keep, if they abuse the weak in their midst, if they create systems in which people can earn anything for themselves in the realm of salvation, then they will be torn apart, from top to bottom, whether at the hand of God or by their own undoing.

Preachers, managers, cooks of the gospel, whatever we want to call them, are to do nothing more than sit at the foot of the cross with words of what God has already done. They are to share the meal waiting at the table, a meal prepared long before the preacher ever preached a sermon.

This whole parable, for the laity and clergy alike, comes down to trust.

Not a trust that God is going to come and sweep down and fill all the potholes in our lives, but a trust that God has already changed the game for good.

Trust.

And when we’ve learned to live a life of trust, whether we wear robes or not, then we are living the life of grace. And in the life of grace, one in which we know what has already been done – something that can never be taken away – no matter how many doubts we have, or waverings, or questions, no matter how happy or sad we may become, no matter how awfully we sin – we simply trust that someone else, namely Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, we can say thank you Lord and that’s enough.

Our whole lives, from beginning to end, the mess that we are, they’re leading to our own inevitable death. And it’s all okay, because we’ve already died. It is Jesus who is our life, he is the one who comes for us from the wedding feast, he is the one who comes to us with the celebration under his arm and wants nothing more than to party with us. Amen.

The Death Of The Party

Luke 15.1-3, 11b

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons…”

There was a man that had two sons.

The family business had been good to the family. The little grocery store had been passed down generation after generation. It was a staple in the community and the family knew the names of nearly every customer that walked through the doors. 

The father had been good to his sons as much as any father can. And one day the younger son walked into the shop and back into the office to find his father going over the inventory.

“Dad,” he said, “I want my share of the property right now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.”

The father responds by dividing the assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes in on some investments to give him his half in cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son has blown all of the money in Atlantic City. At first he was careful with his bets at the roulette wheel, but the more he lost the more he spent, on booze, and girls, and more gambling.

His fall from grace happened so fast that before he left the casino he was begging the owner for some work. 

“Sure,” the owner said, “We’ve got a new opening in our janitorial services and you can start right away.”

Within hours he had gone from being the wealthiest individuals in  he casino, to picking up the trash from the now wealthiest people in the casino.

And with every passing day, and every emptied trash bag, he contemplates pulling the scraps of food from the bottom just to provide some sort of sustenance. He had taken to sleeping outside behind the casino in a place where no one would find him, and he would wash his uniform every morning in the sink of one of the public restrooms. 

And finally he came to himself.

He realized that even his father’s employees back at the grocery store had food to eat and roofs over their heads. 

In the midst of accepting the condition of his condition he starts working on his confession. “Dad, I really messed up. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please just give me a job at the store.” 

So he packs up the little that he has, and leaves the casino without even picking up his paycheck.

And how does the father respond when this prodigal returns home?

He’s sitting by the window, listening to his older son now barking out orders to everyone in the shop before retiring to the back office, and then the father catches a glimpse of his youngest boy walking down the street. And he reacts in what would seem an unexpected way: he bolts out the door, tackles him into the street, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the boy whispers under the tidal wave of love, “I’ve really messed up, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”

“Shut up,” says the father, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party.” 

He grabs the boy by the collar, picks him up, and starts barking orders to everyone in the store to get everything ready. “Hey Joe, pull out the beer.” “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “George, do me a favor, find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got and start roasting it on the grill out back.” “It’s time to party, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”

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And the beer caps start flying, the the radio in the corner get turned up to full blast, and everyone starts partying in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the time sheets, making sure that none of his employees are trying to swindle him out of some money, and he hears the commotion on the over side of the store. He catches a glimpse of George with beer foam stuck in his mustache running out the back door with what looks like a leg of lamb, and he shouts, “What in the hell is going on?”

George skids to a halt in the hallway, and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home, and your father told us to party.” And with that he runs out the back door to get the grill going.

The older brother feels his fists tightening and he retreats back into his office and he slams the door.

And with every passing minute, and as his rage increases, the party just gets louder on the other side of the door. The older brother tries to distract himself with the work before him, but he eventually gives into his feelings and throws the ledger across the office and puts a hole in the wall.

And that’s when he hears a knock at the door. 

His dad steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles something like, “What’re you doing back here? You’re missing the party.”

But the older son is incredulous. “What do you mean ‘what am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job. Look, I’ve been working live a slave for you for years, and I have never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me, you’ve never told me I could go home early. But this prodigal son of yours returns home, having wasted all of your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

And the father sobers up for a moment while listening to his son lamenting his present circumstances. And maybe its the beer, or maybe it’s just his own frustration that causes him to shout back in return, “You idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve been working for yourself. The last I checked you were the one in charge around here.”

The older son stands speechless. In all his years he had never heard his father speak so freely.

And the old man continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him his inheritance, well I gave you this. And what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by the rules, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, and you’re clinging to something that isn’t real.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now. Listen! All that matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And look at yourself – you’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the party that’s bumping in the other room. We’re all dead and having a great time. You, you’re alive and miserable. Keep complaining all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”

The father turns to go rejoin the party, but before he crosses the threshold he turns back to look at his older son and says, “The only reason you’re not already out there having a good time with the rest of us is because you refuse to be dead to all of your dumb rules about how you’re life is supposed to be enjoyed. So do yourself a favor, son of mine, and die already. Forget about all your stupid rules and just come and have a drink with us.”

This has to be the most well known story that Jesus tells in the gospels. And, strangely enough, the whole thing is about death. The first death takes place right at the very beginning. The father is asked to effectively commit vocational suicide to give his sons their inheritance prior to his biological death. The second death happens when the prodigal wakes up dead, or rather dead to the life that he once had back home. Reduced to the shame of working for nothing he comes to himself and realizes that whatever life he thought he had is gone forever.

So he returns home to a moment of profound judgment and grace. It is a bizarre reunion, and the son realizes that he really is dead, and that if he is going to have any new life at all it will be through his father who willingly died for his behalf.

Notice, the confession on his lips, the one he planned for, follows forgiveness. Only after being tackled to the ground by his father does he come into contact with the completely unmerited gift of someone who died, in advance, to forgive him.

Confession, at least according to Jesus, is not something we do to earn forgiveness. The best we can ever do is open our eyes to what we already have and then respond with our confession. 

In the church we talk about forgiveness all the time and we do so without recognizing the true weight of our forgiveness. We say things like, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” and it’s true. We are forgiven not only for the sins committed before the confession, but also for a who life of sins yet to come. And this is only possible for one reason: Jesus died for us.

Which leads us to the third death – the fatted calf (or the lamb in my version). This is Jesus Christ himself in his own story. What does a fatted calf do? It sits around waiting to drop dead at a moment’s notice in order that people can have a party. I don’t mean to sound so crass, but this is what Jesus is saying. 

This whole story, the beloved tale of the prodigal son, isn’t about our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God having a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.

But, lest we forget about the older brother, he shows up in the story to show the Father how foolish he is. When in fact, the greatest fool of all is the one who stayed home. He’s the fool because he refuses to die – not literally, but to his crazy sensibilities about the world and about his work. 

He is so convinced, too convinced, that doing all of the right things will be enough to save him. His refrain is “I did everything I was supposed to. I stayed home. I took care of my responsibilities. I planned accordingly. I was perfect.” And yet his life is anything but perfect. And he cannot stand the idea of his father throwing a party for his brother who deserves nothing.

But we all deserve nothing. 

Grace is a crazy thing. Jesus tells this story and whenever we hear it we are quick to read ourselves into the story. We can think of times when we’ve been the prodigal, and we made bad choices. We can think of times when we’ve been the Father, waiting to receive the one asking for our forgiveness. We can even think of times when we’ve been the older son and we’re just so angry that someone else gets something for nothing.

But this story is really about the party and the craziness of grace. The party is already happening. Jesus has already marched to the top of Calvary. We were dead, but now we’re alive. We were lost but then God found us. 

And the best part is none of us deserve it. Amen.

 

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Offensive Grace

Luke 15.11-32

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property is dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

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Today marks the third part of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we are attempting to recover this sense of strangeness and re-encounter the power of the parables.

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There was a man in Staunton who had two sons. For years the family enjoyed the small town feel of the community, rejoiced in running into friends at grocery stores and the park, and celebrated the goodness of God in church every Sunday. They were always the family that every other family envied; whenever they were seen in town the sons were so well behaved, the husband and wife were always holding hands, and everything looked perfect.

   But within the safety of their home, far removed from public few, things were not as they seemed.

The father loved his sons, but he could tell that the younger resented him for being raised in a town such as this. The father knew his younger son enough to know that whenever he harshly reacted to a comment at the dinner table, or stormed out of the house, it was out of a desire to depart and start over somewhere else. But he remained patient with his son and always tried to love him the only way he knew how.

One day, while the father was sitting in his study, the younger son walked in with his fists clenched tightly by his side. The father listened as the son listed off his chief complaints and demanded his inheritance early. As the frustrations percolated, and the son kept talking about how suffocated he felt, the father was already pulling out the checkbook and signing his name. He said, “Son, I love you and I’ve known this day was coming for a long time. Just remember that you will always be welcome here.” And with that the son grabbed the check from his father’s fingers and walked out of the house, and out of his father’s life.

For a long time the father heard nothing from or about his younger son. Life continued as usual in Staunton: babies were born, older folks went on to their heavenly reward, time passed, and the father kept living his life. Little by little news would seep into dinnertime conversations from the mother or the older son about the one who was missing. Rumor had it that he had set up in Richmond and was spending money left and right on all sorts of things, including some that could not be mentioned out loud. But the father gave it no thought. The money was his son’s to do with as he pleased.

But as time passed, the rumors became fact, and the father knew his son was in trouble. The money had run out and he was working odd jobs to get by. The mother no longer even had an address to send him letters because he was either moving from house to house or living on the streets.

The days became weeks, the weeks became months, and the father eventually heard nothing about his younger son. No letters arrived in the mail, no text messages were sent, and the son even stopped updating his Facebook account. As far as the father knew, his son was gone.

And then it came to pass one afternoon, while sitting in the same study where he had given the son his inheritance, the father glanced out the window and saw a figure walking up the road. From his vantage point the father thought it might be his son, but the person was too frail, and slumped over with what looked like shame. But sure enough, the closer he came to the house, the more it looked like his son. Before he knew it the father was running out the front door and he tackled his son to the ground on the front yard. He simply could not contain himself and he began covering his younger son with kisses and the tears were flowing out his eyes.

Only then did the father hear his son say, “Dad, I’m so sorry, and I am no longer worthy to be called you son.

But the father wasn’t listening. Instead he was yelling up to the house describing preparations for the party he was about to throw. Go to the grocery store. Invite all the neighbors. Get the music ready. We are going to party tonight!

Hours later in the midst of a rather crazy party the father noticed the older son standing in the corner with what looked like an angry expression on his face. The father was filled with such merriment on the return of his one son that he walked over to the other with a smile on his face and asked what was the matter.

The father listened as his older son started listing off the complaints. But it was what he said at the end that hit him the hardest, “Dad, I’m glad that he’s home just as you are. But did you really have to throw this party? I’ve been living with you all this time while he was gone wasting his life away and you never even let me invite my friends over and now look at all this!”

And the father put his arm around the older son and said, “I love you and all that is mine is yours. But we had to party tonight because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found!”

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We call this the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is easily the most familiar of all of Jesus’ parables, and has been embraced by faithful and secular alike for its powerful message. We like the idea of a reconciled relationship and we sigh in affirmation whenever we hear about the wayward son returning home. But, as the church has so embraced the clichés of the story, we’ve missed out on the offensive grace that it dramatically conveys.

We call it the parable of the Prodigal Son, but we should probably call it the Parable of the Loving Father. The father is the main character of the parable and the one that Jesus identifies with. He tells this parable in response to an attack against his character for eating with sinners. He, Jesus, is the one who welcomes everyone to the table in celebration regardless of circumstances. And for as much as we enjoy hearing this story, we should really be offended by it.

The older brother has every right to be angry. I would be if one of my siblings ran off and my father treated them the way the one does in the parable. It’s fine to welcome a wayward child home. Sure, give him some clothes and some food. Let him rest at home until he can get back on his feet. But it is simply bad parenting to throw a party in the wake of so many mistakes. For years we have emphasized the moment where the prodigal son “came to himself” and we have identified with a particular moment in our lives when we turned back. But in so doing we have neglected to confront the utter strangeness and offensiveness of the father’s love.

Reading and imagining the story from the father’s perspective frustrates our understanding of justice, fairness, and grace. We want people to be punished for their mistakes, we want them to grovel when they’ve wronged us, we want payment for our suffering.

We don’t want to welcome the prodigal home. We want to be rid of the people who drive us crazy. We don’t want to waste our time on someone who might disappear again. We want to honor the good people who have been with us. We don’t want parties for sinners. We want celebrations for saints.

And then Jesus tells this story about the Loving Father and everything gets flipped upside down.

The power of this parable is not the good and warm and fuzzy feelings we have when we hear it, but in God’s love being so strong that it can offend us. God’s forgiveness and mercy is so powerful that it is beyond our ability to understand. God truly loves the unlovable, forgives the unforgivable, and welcomes us whenever we stray away.

God’s love is weird. And we would do well to remember that. Not to belittle God’s love into a line on a Hallmark card, but to be offended by how God could love the people we hate. Not to limit God’s love to the people in the pews next to us, but get angry that God even loves the people who sleep in on Sunday mornings. Not to assume that God only loves Christians, but to be offended by the truth: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.

The parable of the Loving Father will forever frustrate and offend our sensibilities precisely because God’s grace is offered to all, and all really means all.

 

 

Responding:

We are going to try something a little weird. I want us to take a moment to think about someone that absolutely drives us crazy. It might be a neighbor who is forever frustrating our understanding of decency. Or maybe it is someone in our family that always takes everything too far. Or maybe it is one of the candidates running for president this year. Just think of someone who you can’t stand. Picture them in your mind. And then I want you to think about them walking into our sanctuary right now and pummeling them with loves and kisses. I want you to imagine grabbing them by the hand and dancing around the sanctuary in the midst of the greatest party you’ve ever attended.

Because in a moment we are going to put on some music, and we are going to dance like we’ve never danced before. We are going to break out of our pews and boogey up and down the church. And it is going to be weird and uncomfortable, it is going to upend our ideas of what church should be like, because sometimes God’s grace should be offensive.

Partying with Jesus

Luke 14.15-24

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 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.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 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.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ 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. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

parables

Today marks the beginning of our July Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. Over the next month we will do our best to recover this sense of strangeness and encounter the power of the parables.

 

I really didn’t want to go. I’m not one to feel anxious but the entire car ride was white knuckled and nauseating. As we went around the block until we could find an available parking space I came up with even more excuses to why we shouldn’t go into the party but I kept my mouth shut. While walking up the front steps my knees began to wobble but Lindsey put her hand in mine and confidently opened the front door and walked right in.

I really didn’t want to do.

Days before Lindsey had casually mentioned that we were invited to an engagement party for someone she knew from work. We were dating at the time so I was willing to do pretty much anything to keep her interested in me so I agreed to attend. The days passed and finally I decided to learn a little more about this couple before we showed up for their party. I assumed that the bride-to-be was a fellow coworker with Lindsey, that they had spent countless hours together learning about one another, but I was wrong.

She met the woman through work because she was a customer who happened to strike up a conversation one time and casually invited Lindsey to attend her engagement party. They had barely spent 30 minutes together and we were now supposed to join her and her husband-to-be for a celebration of their impending wedding.

“We can’t go,” I declared. “We don’t know them at all! If this was just a casual double date or even a dinner party I would entertain the thought of going, but we absolutely, positively, cannot go to a stranger’s engagement party!”

            Lindsey replied, “Oh yes we can, and yes we will!”

The moment Lindsey and I walked through the doorway we were engulfed into a living room filled to the brim with party-goers. Like the proverbial record scratching through a speaker system, most people turned to look at us and when no one recognized who we were they all went back to their prior conversations. To me, it was a nightmare.

Lindsey, on the other hand, was lapping it all up. She thrives on this kind of unexpected atmosphere and quickly began floating through the house to find the happy couple. I remained transfixed just on the inside of the front door watching her disappear into a large community filled with joy. It was only when she completely disappeared from view that it really hit me how even though I was in a room full of people, I felt absolutely alone.

Jesus was surrounded by a group of people at a party when someone shouted out, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “A man decided to have a party and invited many. He sent out his people to those who had been invited to announce that everything was ready, but each of them started to make excuses. One of them said, ‘Sorry, I just moved and I’ve got so much to take care of at the new house; please accept my regrets.’ Another said ‘I just bought a new car and I really want to give it a test spin; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, “We just got home from the honeymoon, and therefore we cannot come.’ So they returned to the party with bad news about the impending lack of attendance. The man throwing the party became frustrated and sent them back out into the streets to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”

I wandered around the party, looking for an opportunity to jump into a conversation with anyone about anything. Lindsey was invited, but I felt compelled to attend and was trying to make the best of it. I literally knew no one in the house and was hoping to find a place to stay put until Lindsey returned. In the den I encountered a group of good looking young couples who were talking about their strong financial portfolios, so I kept walking right passed them. In the backyard, sitting around a fire, there was another group of friends talking about the virtues of libertarianism, so I kept walking right passed them. In the dining room I experienced an air of exclusivism as the group insisted on telling one inside joke after another, and I decided to start the loop all over again. These were not my people.

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The crowded house felt like a never-ending loop of diversity and strangeness whereby I found no one like me. Everyone seemed so different and unlikely paired up in conversations and I continued to mingle about without ever opening my mouth.

In the kitchen I saw an opportunity for a small reprieve: a glass of water. My hope was that the act of walking into the space for a glass would give me a brief moment of purpose. With a glass in my hand, I turned away from the sink and was immediately met with an outstretched hand from a middle-aged man with a wide smile.

The servants returned from rounding up the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, and still there was room at the party. The host had enough and he sent them back out once more and ordered them to compel people to come in, so that the party might be full.

The wide smile said, “My name’s Mark. Who are you?”

I returned the smile and attempted to introduce myself without giving away the strangeness of my attending a party to which I did not belong. He asked me about my work, I told him I was a student. I asked him about his work and he told me that he was in sales. We talked for about five minutes before he asked the question I dreaded: “So how do you know the happy couple?

I briefly thought about lying and making up some intricate story of our long time friendship, but after walking around without conversation for so long I decided to stick to the truth. I explained that I had no idea who they were, that they could be standing with us in the kitchen and I wouldn’t even know which two people we were celebrating. I confessed my discomfort in walking around a house without knowing a soul inside, and laid it all out.

The man looked back at me the whole time with a puzzled look on his face and then he said, “Well, I’m the father of the bride. And in my opinion it’s better to have a house full of strangers to celebrate than a house with no one at all. So I’m happy you’re here.

Parables are a strange breed. They are heard in a number of ways, even by the same person at different times. They defy explanation and demand proclamation. They should leave us scratching our heads just likes the first disciples, they should jolt us, and they should shock us.

At times we can identify with the party host. We have all spent time preparing for a celebration, filling out all the invitations, only to have people make excuses for not attending. We have known the embarrassment of putting all our energy into something and not having nearly enough people show up for the event.

At times we can identify with the people who have excuses. We’ve all received invitations to something we don’t want to attend, or something that has grown so familiar that it no longer holds the luster it once did. We have known the ease of creating an excuse in the midst of a moment and the hope that enough other people will show up to distract from our lack of attendance.

And at times we can identify with the people compelled to attend. We have found ourselves in an environment we did not deserve to be a part of. We know the strangeness of being surrounded by people who do not look like us, nor think like us, nor speak like us. We have known the joy that comes with being caught up in something bigger than ourselves, and the thrill that comes with being welcomed into a strange and new community.

That’s the power of a parable: it can strike us differently every time we hear it. A new detail will emerge that we’ve never seen before, or we will identify with a character we’ve never thought about before. The power of a parable is its ability to convey a deep and profound truth about Jesus without succumbing to the desire of explanation. We know what it means without anyone telling us what it means, even if it upsets our expectations about what the kingdom will look like. The power of a parable is its ability to show us that God’s kingdom is strange, unexpected, and beautiful.

A man was sitting in church one Sunday when he felt compelled to invite others to attend the following week. Whenever he brought the subject up with coworkers and friends they quickly and politely made excuses for not being able to attend. He couldn’t believe it; he was inviting them to discover God’s grace, not go to an office party. And as Sunday loomed closer, he began inviting complete strangers to join him in worship. He would rather have a church filled with oddballs and strangers discovering the grace of God, than no one at all.

A mother becomes distraught when all of the kids she invited to her son’s birthday party made excuses for not coming. She can’t bear to picture her son’s face while she places a birthday cake down at a table surrounded by empty chairs. So she gets onto Facebook and makes a plea for anyone, anyone, to come to her son’s birthday party. She would rather have a house full of strangers to celebrate her son, than for him to sit at that table all by himself.

A father rejoices when his daughter meets the man of her dreams and they plan to get married. In order to properly celebrate he sends out all the invitations he can afford to fill his house to the brim. And in the middle of the party he meets a complete stranger in the kitchen and believes that it’s better to have a house full of strangers to celebrate than a house with no one at all.

Partying with Jesus is a strange, unexpected, and beautiful thing; precisely because Jesus loved filling places with people who by all other accounts did not belong together. He was the original melting pot for diversity. He compelled his disciples to go out into the streets to share the good news. He knew that what he had to offer would radically transform the lives of the people who received it.

All of us are here, not because we received an invitation in the mail, but because someone once compelled us to come. They believed that bringing us in to this party was worth it because it would transform our very lives. And now we are compelled again to come to the party and to the table. Here we will feast and rejoice with the bread and the cup and Jesus is the one who looks at us in the middle of the party and says, “I’m happy you’re here.” Amen.

 

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