A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church of Prairie Village, Kansas. July 29, 2012. The last of a seven week sermon series on the Parables of Jesus.
Watch this sermon at vimeo.com/49804230
One of the most oft used books in my office
is a little work by United Church of Christ pastor Glen E Rainsley
Its mainly a liturgical resource, meaning that it offers
opening prayers and prayers of confession and that sort of thing.
We’ve used his words occasionally when I’ve prepared the bulletin.
But its that parables section that intrigues me.
Rainsley has drafted some stories,
not on par with Jesus’ parables, of course,
but moving nevertheless for our day and for our age.
Here’s the one I just happened upon this week, while pondering this text from Luke:[i]
On a crisp fall day, Cheryl decided to take a walk
through a small city park near her apartment.
There were the usual joggers,
several newspaper readers, a few picnickers.
Around one park bench inhabited by a thin grayish man,
there was an undulating feather carpet—
HUNDREDS of bobbing birds.
The fellow had a large garbage bag beside him,
and from it he withdrew piece after piece of bread.
These he reduced to crumbs and tossed gently to the ground.
Without asking permission to enter this scene,
Cheryl slowly walked around the birds
and sat on the opposite end of the bench from the feeder.
“You must like birds,” he said.
“Yes, I do,” Cheryl replied.
“Where’d you get all that bread?” she inquired.
“From the dumpster behind the market,
the dumpster near the highrise,
the dumpster behind the Wendy’s. Pretty good stuff.”
“It’s the same I eat. Me and my flock. Same bread.
[Here] Help yourself.”
Cheryl blanched and said, “Thank you, I just ate.
But I’ll feed these guys.”
Soon she had a pecking mob around her feet.
“You probably noticed,” said the bread man.
“They’re all pigeons and sparrows. Amazing, huh?”
He went on….
“Worthless birds. Nuisance birds. Common birds.
Who cares about pigeons and sparrows?
But I do. We have a lot in common.
So we eat together. I give ‘em everything I can gather.”
He stopped to button his jacket, to pull up its collar.
Cheryl looked at him with [a] great respect.
Here he was, eking out an existence on the fringe of society
and his FIRST THOUGHT was to provide for
the least among the creatures of the park.
From subsistence living, he gave of his substance.
Cheryl turned away with tears in her eyes knowing
she had much more to learn about generosity and compassion.
He tossed handful after handful of crumbs.
And Christ was present in the sharing of that bread.”
We end our sermon series on the Parables of Jesus with
the parable of the great meal, the great banquet, the great party.
In so many ways it is fitting to end this series this way,
with many of the themes from the last few weeks coming up again here:
a grand party, plans made for a celebration
delicious food and drink prepared
an awareness clearly lifted up
about those with means to opulent living
and those who dwell on the margins
hints about expectations and social norms
an interplay about who is in, and who is out.
This parable is also found in Matthew’s Gospel.
THERE it comes towards the end of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Today, in Luke’s narrative, Jesus offers it just a few verses
the text Jeff meditated upon last week.
So many of these deeply moving parables surround poverty and excess
means and scarcity
food in abundance and the gathering that takes place around it.
God’s realm. A big party. Food overflowing. More than enough to share.
Who, pray tell, will be at that party when the doors are open wide
the music begins
and everything is in place?
Well you could answer that question by looking at the guest list before hand.
To those formally invited. To those one might expect to be there.
Or you could go to the party yourself and see who crashed it.
Those on the formal guest list and
those who happen to be there, nibbling at the petit fours
and taking a champaign flute from a passing waiter’s tray.
Who, pray tell, is going to be there at God’s big party?
This question was of GREAT importance to
those who Jesus interacted with on a daily basis, it seems.
For when you have BOTH a dietary code, on the one hand
and a profoundly strong social code on the other,
in effect, both WHAT you ate, and WHO you ate with, matters.
For who you ate with spoke to the purity of your heart
and your dedication to TORAH, its precepts and proscriptions.
And who you ate with could impact your social standing,
your rank and place among your peers,
your opportunity for advancement or honor.
And these were all clearly at play here in Jesus’ parable.
The parable of the great banquet is itself offered at a banquet,
a Sabbath meal, at the “house of a leader of the Pharisees”
where he is “being watched closely” according to Luke.
This flags for us that Jesus’ teachings have already touched a nerve,
and that he is under the careful watch
of those concerned with his teaching.
Jesus is taking in his surroundings.
He notices “how guests CHOSE the places of honor,”
that is, where how they were acting at this party,
where they were mingling
to whom they were talking,
where they were sitting in relation to the party-thrower.
and Jesus engages them about taking the lesser place,
the place not of pride but of humility.
And then Jesus turns the tables, so to speak,
to talk not just about how to go about attending the party,
but who to invite to a party as well:
“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.”
And to this, one of the Pharisses’ guests exclaims:
Blessed is ANYONE who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!
This stands out so strongly to me when I read this passage:
A discourse about finding our humble PLACE around the table
turns to talk about who WE ought to INVITE to our own party,
not people we expect to return the favor,
not friends or relatives or rich buddies.
but people incapable of returning the gift we might offer them.
Then comes the parable: God, in the person of the party thrower,
perhaps the one who throws just THAT sort of party
where ALL SORTS of people are invited,
That one sends out invitations.
And what happens: Not everyone wants to attend a party
where the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind
are also invited.
Not everyone wants to be where they can’t jockey for position at the table.
Some may really WANT to go,
to be there for the FOOD in ABUNDANCE
for the JOY and MERRIMENT of the entertainment,
but when they SEE the guest list,
and see that more than just their own are in attendance…
they get second thoughts.
And how do the excuses fly!
I have to tend to my new house,
my lawn needs mowing,
sorry, I’m washing my dog that evening!
And they bail.
Why in the world would they bail?
Because they don’t want to be at a party where EVERYONE is invited.
And the text wraps pretty quickly after that:
Go out into the streets, the party thrower says,
and make sure they got the invitation too:
the poor, the lame, the blind.
Make sure they heard they can come. COMPEL them, if necessary.
I want my house, my party, filled!
I want those who don’t normally get the word to know that this is for them TOO!
Those others, who get the normal invite the normal way,
they wont taste my dinner. They’re too good for it….
They were invited, but in their folly they CHOOSE not to come…
The warning here is stark and clear.
How dare we say we are too good for anything God says is good.
How dare we pass up an opportunity for enjoying God’s grace and gifts
because we worry about it being shared to broadly and widely.
For it is in doing such things that we shut OURSELVES off
from the lifegiving
forgiveness offering love of God!
And, conversely, MAYBE it is by attending
to God’s radical, boundless hospitality
wherever we see it,
maybe it is THERE
that we can truly see the realm of God taking shape in our world?
A friend of mine recently traveled to California and visited the food pantry
at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, California.
It is a remarkable place. You can learn more about it at thefoodpantry.org
It was founded by Sarah Miles, author of the memoir Take this Bread.
Sarah is not your typical cradle Christian.
She’s a lesbian, left-wing journalist who has traveled the world
covering revolutions and the stark brutality of the human condition.
In many ways, she is the prime example of one
who many would not like to see on God’s guest list.
The former atheist turned disciple told her story this way on NPR’s This I Believe:
“Until recently, I thought being a Christian was all about belief.
I didn’t know many Christians,
but I considered them people who believed in the virgin birth,
the way I believed in photosynthesis or germs.
But then, in an experience I still can’t logically explain,
I walked into a church
and a stranger handed me a chunk of bread.
Suddenly, I knew that while it was made out of real flour,
water and yeast —
I also knew that God, named Jesus, was alive and in my mouth.
That first communion knocked me upside-down.
Faith turned out not to be abstract at all, but material and physical.
I’d thought Christianity was about angels and trinities and being good.
Instead, I discovered a religion rooted
in the most ordinary yet subversive practice:
a dinner table where everyone is welcome,
where the despised and outcasts are honored.
I came to believe that God is revealed
not only in bread and wine during church services,
but whenever we share food with others –
I came to believe that the fruits of creation are for everyone,
not something to be doled out to insiders or the “deserving.”
So, over the objections of some,
I started a food pantry right in the sanctuary,
giving away literally tons of food –
where I’d eaten the body of Christ
we gave food to anyone who showed up.
I met thieves,
bishops — all blown into my life
through the restless power of a call to feed people.
At the pantry, serving over 500 strangers a week,
I confronted the same issues
that had kept me from religion in the first place.
Like church, the food pantry asked me to leave certainty behind,
tangled me up with people I didn’t particularly want to know
and scared me with its demand for more faith
than I was ready to give.
Because my new vocation didn’t turn out to be as simple
as going to church on Sundays and declaring myself “saved,”
I had to trudge in the rain through housing projects,
sit on the curb wiping the runny nose of a psychotic man,
take the firing pin out of a battered woman’s Magnum
and then stick the gun in the trunk of my car.
I had to struggle with my atheist family,
[my] doubting friends,
and the prejudices and traditions of my newfound church.
But I learned that hunger can lead to more life—
that by sharing real food,
I’d find communion with the most unlikely people;
that by eating a piece of bread,
I’d experience myself as part of one body.
This I believe: that by opening ourselves to strangers, we will taste God.”[ii]
Today that food pantry, right in the sanctuary of St. Gregory of Nyssa church, feeds 1100 families.
And, I would argue, THERE is the realm of God,
feeding and welcoming and gracing a community
with God’s love and grace and tender care.
All because of the welcome extended to someone on the margins,
who offered the same grace to others on the margins
for the glory of God.
These parables of Jesus.
These challenging, hard, complex, life giving parables of Jesus.
What delicious and nutritious bread these parables are for us!
What life giving water they are for us!
I am so grateful that God’s guest list is so much broader than my own.
May we, whether we see God working through the strangest of people
the homeless man on a park bench feeding pigeons,
the formerly atheist, lesbian, journalist,
or whether we experience God working through
the love and compassion of those mechanisms that give us comfort,
may WE see the point and celebrate and shout
THERE! THERE is GOD’S REALM!
May we, when invited to share the party with those God has also invited,
may we decide to tag along too….