Sunday, November 19, 2017

The God of Great Parties

You know, I really can't help but wonder what was on the table that day. I almost like to imagine it the way we tend to picture the first Thanksgiving. What do you see in your mind's eye when you picture that? I think I see a couple plump roast turkeys, bronzed exterior glistening in the sunlight. I see pumpkins and gourds and grapes and apples. I see the vivid orange hues of bushels of yams, and the golds and browns and purples of ears of colorful corn. I see bowls of filling – and not just any filling will do, you know, but the good stuff – and spreads of cranberry sauce. I see mashed potatoes running with gravy, I see those sauteed green beans and the glazed carrots and pie after pie after pie. That's how I think I have to picture what was on the table that day in the home of a leading Pharisee. I'm sure that's not what the Pharisee and his wife and his hired help actually served the day Jesus came to dinner one fine Sabbath. But whatever the table fare, whatever the Mediterranean equivalent to our fabled Thanksgiving dinner, I'm sure it was lavish.

I think it was lavish because Luke records for us, when he sets out the picture of the dinner and the scrutiny and the healings and all that, Luke tells us of one guest who's reflecting on this abundance. And the guest is looking around at the guests, and he wants to celebrate his host for bringing such refined, prominent, sophisticated colleagues together for such a fancy soirée. And so surely he raises a glass of wine – of a fine vintage, I'm sure – to make a toast. “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Luke 14:15). Or, you might say: How exciting it is to be so good, to be so esteemed, to be so upstanding, that you have confidence you'll be on God's guest list with the prophets and patriarchs of old!

In response, Jesus does what he so often does. He tells a story. And it's never the kind of story anyone expects, and usually not the kind of story anybody asked for. And so Jesus paints a picture. Once upon a time, you might say, there lived a man with a house not so unlike this one. He was the master of the house, a wealthy man of refined sensibilities, a man who wanted to throw an especially big dinner party – perhaps Jesus wants us to imagine it as the wedding reception for a favored son or daughter. And so, long in advance, this man sends out members of his staff into the nearby villages to invite his closest friends, his relatives, and all the people one would hope to have at a wedding – a veritable Who's Who of the province, maybe of the whole countryside. So these refined and desirable guests send in their RSVPs; they book their reservations at this splendid banquet, to be held when the time is ready.

And then the day arrives. The chefs and caterers have put together the most sumptuous feast you ever saw. You would be a fool to miss out on the rich diversity of foods, the flowing wine, the musical entertainment provided, and more. And so the master of the house sends his staff out to go let everyone know that it's ready. That was the custom in those days – the initial invite couldn't be very specific as to the time, and so if you wanted to have a big social event, you'd send out two invitations, and the second basically meant, “It's ready, so come on over now.” The master of the house sends out this second invitation, to call folks to hustle on in for the party.

But these refined, prestigious, desirable guests all blow it off! One just picked up some real estate and wants to undertake a survey – something he could do any time, any time at all, but he uses it as an excuse to skip the party. Another one has been augmenting his personal estate – he bought five yoke of oxen, a pretty impressive investment for a very wealthy farmer of the time. Today, if Jesus told this story here, I have a feeling this guest would be saying, “Oh, please cancel my RSVP – I just bought a new Harley, and I want to take her out for a ride.” And then there's a third guest mentioned, who says that he's gotten married since the original invitation came, and he just can't leave the little missus unattended for a couple hours or who knows what kind of grief he'll get, so he won't be there either (Luke 14:16-20). All of them concoct their lame-brain excuses – reasons not to go and eat, reasons not to honor the host, reasons not to celebrate. Or, they presume the party can't start 'til they stroll in, fashionably late, and the host would just have to adapt to their schedule.

Well, the messengers return to the party's host, who's standing there surrounded by all this catered food, all these table settings, the band ready and eager to play – and when the messengers tell him that all the people who RSVP'd are backing out, he's furious! And who wouldn't be? Especially in a world, like the world where Jesus and the Pharisee lived, where honor was everything – a world where a snub like this was a serious offense, a grievous insult, as bad as a slap to the face if not worse. And so the host is just furious. He looks around and takes a gander at the food, the table linens, the band, the performers, maybe his son or daughter, and all the empty seats – and his heart breaks.

So he has an idea. He tells the members of his household staff, the messengers, to go out to the city, into all the broad roads and squares and all the narrow little back alleys, and find just anybody – to go look up “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” – and bring them back to have a seat at the table (Luke 14:21). And that's a very interesting decision. Usually, when people invited folks to parties, there was an expectation of getting to go to one of their parties in return. I invite you to mine, then you invite me to yours – that's how it worked. But beggars panhandling by the side of the road, the dreadfully maimed and disfigured, those absent a foot or limping, those missing a vital sense – that's the definition of people who won't be throwing fancy parties any time soon. And you have to admit, it's a pretty rare host these days who seeks out their company. In some Jewish circles in those days, it was also the list of people who were excluded from the fellowship of worship, and imagined to be excluded from a seat at God's table.

And yet the host of this all-too-empty party sends out the messengers to bring them in. And they do exactly that – but there are still plenty of seats, reserved in the name of people who snubbed the shindig, left unfilled (Luke 14:22). And so the host tells his staff, “Alright, go back out. Go down every road people travel. If that's not enough, start barging through hedges, knocking down fences, climbing over walls; grab people in their yards, if you have to. Drag them here, or get down on your knees and beg, or offer them a reward to come – anything, whatever you have to do, but do not leave any seats still in the names of those jerks who canceled at the last minute when everything was ready. Because one thing I know for sure: not a one of those guys will taste even a bite, not one bite, of this banquet I set out for them” (Luke 14:23-24).

That's the story. And so, Jesus hints, that's the way things are with God. See, the God Jesus knows is no dour figure with a permanent scowl. The God Jesus knows is no buzzkill. The God Jesus knows is no sourpuss. No, the God Jesus knows can be described many ways, but not those. The God Jesus knows is the God of Great Parties. He's a God present in all holy joy, a God of invitation and welcome, a God of abundance and plenty, a God who has plans to share his delight with us. The scriptures Jesus read talk about how, when the covenant was made with Israel in the days of Moses, the elders climbed up Mount Sinai and “beheld God and ate and drank,” up there on the mountain (Exodus 24:11). Those twenty-four elders were guests at a divine party, and what a celebration it must have been.

Looking back, the prophets saw that day – the day the covenant was put into effect and sealed – as being like the wedding celebration of God and Israel. In Ezekiel, we read, “I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine” (Ezekiel 16:8). And through Jeremiah, God talked about the covenant he made with that generation freshly brought out of Egypt, “my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband” (Jeremiah 31:32).

And just the same, the ancient prophets like Isaiah caught glimpses of a coming day when that marriage feast would take place all over again – the banquet of the kingdom of God. Isaiah prophesies, “On this mountain the LORD of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 25:6-8). Can you picture what that feast will be like – when not just twenty-four elders, but people from every tribe and tongue gather up high in the Lord's presence to dig in to the most sumptuous food and wine anyone's ever tasted, with death destroyed and grief a distant memory?

It's not just in the Old Testament. The Bible's closing book picks up on the prophets' themes, and talks about this new wedding banquet: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9), the big party celebrating the union of Christ and his Church. And Jesus in his own teaching spoke of it, how “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11). And Jesus told his loyal disciples at the Last Supper that they would “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22:30). But can you imagine what that party will be like – how fun, how exciting, how filling and satisfying and delightful in every way? Can you picture the buffet spread before you, and the company you'd have to your right and your left? Blessed are those who eat in the kingdom of God!

But who will that be? That's what Jesus is driving at here. See, those who ate at the Pharisee's house that day took for granted that they'd be there, because they were so good, because God through Moses and the Prophets had invited them long ago. But what Jesus is telling them is, “Don't you see it's time to get dressed, time to get ready, because the table is set?” And yet so many are snubbing the invitation at the last minute. So many were making excuses why they couldn't join Jesus for the party. So many were presuming that the kingdom couldn't be arriving except on their schedule.

And things are no different today. How easy it is to assume that God won't start the action until we stroll in, fashionably late to the party. How easy it is to make excuses for not being wherever Jesus is and lending a hand to whatever he aims to do. How easy it is to take offense at his message and snub the real invitation altogether – all while presuming that we'll find our way to the grub when it really counts. Because we think we're qualified. We think it just wouldn't be a good party without us.

But Jesus says that the supposedly 'qualified,' the seemingly 'desirable' guests, often don't take a seat. It's not the snubbers who come. It's not the presumptuous. It's not the excuse-makers. The ones who actually find a seat, in the end, are for the most part the uninvitable – beggars, disfigured, weak, needy, poor. Those who have nothing to cram into their schedule, those who know a deal when they hear it, those who make themselves available at the last minute – those are the ones who find a chair. It's not the eminent and the prominent, but the helpless and the available, who eat and drink at the banquet in this story.

And so it is with the God of Great Parties. He spreads lavish grace and eternal delight on his table, far beyond all we can conceive or imagine (for “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor the heart of man imagined what God has prepared” for that table [1 Corinthians 2:9]), and he asks nothing but a response now while there's still room. The God of Great Parties actively seeks out the excluded and the downtrodden, the bereft and helpless, – those who've got no gifts to offer but their appetite and their excitement and their gratitude. Those you'd never expect to be sharing a table with Jesus – that's who eats and drinks and parties with him after all. Not those who think they deserve it 'cause they reserved it, but those who show up wherever he is with an appetite and a thanks-giving heart.

And so, Jesus tells us, we should imitate the God of Great Parties. He told those at the table with him that day, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, don't invite your friends, your brothers, your relatives, your rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they can't repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14). In other words, don't look for good company; look for need. Be hospitable to the helpless. Share freely with the chronically excluded. Favor the unfavorable. Ask nothing but an appetite and a thanks-giving heart. It's true, you may get nothing out of it – at least, not that you can see now – but just you wait 'til the Great Party that's in store when even those now six feet under get up and dance a jig in the light of resurrection.

And, he says, don't be afraid to issue an invitation on the spot – and if that goes for the parties we throw below, how much more for God's Greatest Party of all? As messengers, we're sent into “the streets and lanes of the city” (Luke 14:21) – into broad public squares where big culture happens, and into crowded nooks and forlorn crannies filled with shade and trouble, the unseen places of society. And as messengers, we're sent to “the highways and hedges” – we're sent to places where people travel, where people might expect to see you; but we're also sent to the hedges, the fences, the barriers, to bust through all these dividing walls and defenses that shield people from each other, and to persuade and implore and urge people to come to the Great Party.

Do we do that? What a shame, what a tragedy, if anyone around us – caught up in the hustle and bustle of the public square, traveling on a journey to some needless place, languishing in the nooks and crannies, or holed up behind a hedge – would miss out on this!

O Church, we've been sent to evangelize with urgent joy like there's a party in store – because there is! But do we spread the word, and do we live it, and are we showing up ourselves? O Church, be ye imitators of our God of Great Parties! Have fellowship with this God of Great Parties! And savor real joy through the God of Great Parties, “the King of All Kindness who welcomes us in with the wonder of love and the power of grace”! May you bring to him a real appetite and a thanks-giving heart. May you all fill your seats at his table, and may those you bring back with you – to your tables and to his – fill his house ever more. Amen.

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