SCRIPTURE Luke 14:15-24 “Someone gave a great dinner …”
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[a] 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.’”
MESSAGE “RSVP” Rev. James R. Renfrew
Who is the most important person in this room today? Who is the least important? I bet you struggle to answer that, but in Jesus’ time the answers were obvious. The most important people sat in front, the least important in the way back. And if you sat in the wrong seat someone would grab you firmly by the arm and move you to the cheap seats.
Jesus lived in a world that was governed by status. Is our world any different? It is, though perhaps not so obviously. Your job in those times was to improve your own status, and push away people of lower status. You did everything you could to lean into higher status, trying to hang out with high status people, marrying your children to higher status families, and turning you back on those with lower status who would drag you down to their sorry level.
Jesus didn’t like this attention to status. And he did everything he could to up-end it. In this parable he constructs a different kind of invitation list that courageously up-ends the privileges of the elites.
If you are an elite you might not understand Jesus’ parable, you might be offended by it. But if you are one of the ones usually not invited and usually not wanted, this parable gives you a place upon which to build your courage.
Here is the moment when you know you are not invited, and you know that you are not wanted. It happened day after day in the neighborhood where I grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut. The neighborhood was perfect for kids, because we lived on a dead end street with a big round cul-de-sac that was perfect for playing games. Lots of room to play and only the occasional car would come through. In addition the sewer cover happened to be the perfect place for home plate whenever we played kickball there. The neighborhood was filled with kids, boys and girls, who liked to play together.
So here is the moment when you know you are not invited, and you know that you are not wanted. A few kids would gather out in the street, and before you knew it all of the other kids emerged from other houses to add to the number. Kids of all ages. From the start there was a fairly rigid distinction between two kinds of kids, BIG kids and LITTLE kids. The big kids ran everything and the little kids got to play only when the big kids allowed it.
So here is the moment when you know that you are not invited, and you know that you are not wanted. The two biggest boys always appointed themselves captains and began to choose teams. The first ones chosen were other big boys, the ones good at kicking the ball a long way and who could catch the ball when out in the field and throw it back forcefully. When there were no more big boys, then it was time to choose the big girls, who the big boys in charge didn’t think could kick or catch as good, but were clearly better than any of the little kids. When the big girls were all chosen, only the little kids were left.
So here is the moment when you know that you are not invited, when you know that you are not wanted. At the start, the captains choosing their teams were eager to choose the best players, but at this later stage with only little kids left the captains were reluctant to choose anyone. And, finally, one captain would with utterly fake generosity say to the other captain, “you can have the rest”.
So that is the moment when you know that you are not invited, and you know that you are not wanted. Because YOU are one of those last kids that no team wants. No captain wants you, and everyone wants to give you away. You are assigned last in the batting order, and you are put in right field. And if you screw up playing the game your own team turns on you calling you stupid. At that moment you know that you are barely tolerated in the game, and most other players would prefer that you not play at all. That is the moment when you know that you are not invited, and that you are not wanted.
As I grew up it gradually dawned on me that life in general was very much like that neighborhood kickball game. I became very familiar with the huge difference between big kids and little kids, and this trained me to see all sorts of unfairnesses based on gender, class, wealth, race, and religion and eventually many other categories. I started out talking about children, but now I’m talking about adults. It’s no longer based on physical size like in a kickball game, but in other ways that have the same effect, that some are not invited, and some are not wanted.
Jesus wants to up-end this system of status and privilege, and as I grew up, his teaching made more and more sense. What Jesus teaches runs counter to the way much of the world works. On Jesus’ invitation list is not just the biggest, wealthiest, or the strongest. The categories of people that he mentions are the ones usually not invited, who are pushed away, and at best barely tolerated. Jesus takes these categories – the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind – and puts them at the center of the banquet. He teaches not just grudging tolerance but togetherness, openness. unity, and heart.
I’ve seen the wisdom of Jesus confirmed by my own eyes. One year the small church I served needed to find a new deacon. It was a small church and the committee just couldn’t think of anyone to ask. “How about Hannah?” I asked. Oh no, Hannah couldn’t possibly do it. She was too needy to help others, with Muscular Dystrophy and Epilepsy, and in a wheelchair she couldn’t get up the stairs to our meeting room. But in the end out of desperation they asked Hannah to be a deacon, and she was a good one. She helped to organize a neighborhood walk for hunger, she sent cards to people in the hospital. And we changed the place where we met so that she would be fully included.
Our stewardship theme this year is a celebration of “courage”, courage that invites, includes and inspires. We’ve barely talked about estimates of giving or budgets this year, because the stewardship we are trying to cultivate is courage. We believe, if we have the courage to live as Jesus’ people in the world, that blessings will flow, possibilities will arise, and a new world begins.
Our courage is nothing like that old kickball game. Our courage does not separate us. Our courage does not preserve the privileges of a few. Our courage does not come at someone else’s expense. Our courage does not disconnect us from God. Instead, our courage gives us opportunities to grow in faith and service. Our courage helps us find common purpose. Our courage brings ut the best in ourselves and others. Our courage draws us into a web of care, concern, mutuality and love. Maybe most important of all, our courage builds friendships.
Here is the moment when you know you are invited, when you know that you are wanted. I moved away from that Connecticut neighbor-hood, left kickball behind, and finally became a pastor in Rochester. One day I found myself organizing a kickball game with the youth group at Grace Presbyterian Church and I got my first chance to change the culture of kickball. So we tried a few things that ran counter to the usual rules of the game. Like making the little kids the captains – the smile on their faces when they got this unexpected opportunity could melt the coldest heart. Like inviting the girls to have a turn at being captain – the courage they displayed was enough to turn the world upside-down. The moment when you know you are invited, when you know that you are wanted. Jesus knew what he was talking about, he knew exactly what he was talking about. We’re better together, we’re stronger in our diversity, we’re ready to show the courage that we’re ready for a new world!