Sunday, September 5, 2010

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Robert J. Elder, Pastor

September 5, 2010

Luke 14:15-24

‘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.

I don’t know about you, but for me, I think it is that last line of our passage that haunts me the most. “None of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” None. Zero. Bagel point oh. Some people just aren’t going to make it to the party. At first glance, this goes against the grain of much contemporary thinking about the expansive and accepting grace of God. It certainly goes against what I like to think is essentially true about the nature of God. But we need to remember, it is not a declaration of the withdrawal of the invitation, it is a statement of fact about what is true in a world where people are free to turn toward God or not.

For generations, centuries even, the church has split into denominations, cults and factions trying to figure out who is going to be welcomed into God’s kingdom and who is not. Almost all religious groups began with some sort of self assurance about possessing this knowledge.

Catholics long believed that places at the heavenly table are reserved for those who die in a state of sacramental grace, who have made confession, received absolution, and last rites. Calvinists, for our part, historically believed that we would gather at the heavenly banquet only with those who were pre-selected as the elect of God, predestined from the mists of eternity to be among the saved. (Parenthetically, I sometimes wonder if Calvin really claimed procrastination, rather than predestination, as the chief doctrine of the Reformation.) Historically, millennial groups, such as the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses stuck with a literal number found in the book of Revelation, declaring that only 144,000 would be among the saved. Fundamentalists in the tradition of the Southern Baptists expected to dine in heaven only with those who had identified a “born again” experience in the course of their lives at a certain date, place, and time. Pentecostalists believed heaven’s banquet is reserved only for those who have received the second spiritual baptism of ecstatic speaking in tongues. And so it goes with our human attempts to delineate the ways in which God will make room for folks in the Great Beyond.

But all the concern over splitting and dividing neglects to consider who the no-shows in Jesus’ parable actually were. Were they miscreants, people who had gotten their beliefs wrong, folks who didn’t memorize the appropriate creeds, or who failed on some test for religious orthodoxy? No. In fact, those might be good descriptions of the sort of folks who did get in to the party: far from passing tests for religious righteousness, the people who got to the party turned out to be any folks that the master’s servants could find sleeping under the bridge, dozing on the park benches, scraping around the bottom of the trash cans looking for returnable bottles. These were the ones who got admitted to the banquet. There is only one reason there were folks who got left out. They didn’t come. They were those who were invited but made up their minds not to come for some reason. Apparently the only standard necessary for acceptance into the banquet of the host was a willingness to show up.

The essence of the story seems to be this: The first people invited to the banquet refused the invitation, so then the host threw open the doors and invited everyone – and anyone – to come in and have a seat at the table. This reminds us of something we already know about our faith, which is that God’s grace is available to all, regardless of merit. Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself” expresses this truth about the gospel and this story:

“This is the meal pleasantly set...

this is the meat and drink for natural hunger,

It is for the wicked the same as the righteous...

I make appointments with all,

I will not have a single person slighted or left away,

The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited...

the [heavy-lipped] slave is invited...

the venerealee is invited,

There shall be no difference between them and the rest.”

For Luke, this is the story’s main point: The grace of God is extended to all sinners equally, both good and bad have been invited. Here is how Frederick Buechner describes the scene:

“...the champagne glasses are filled, the cold pheasant is passed around, and there they sit by candlelight with their white canes and their empty sleeves, their Youngstown haircuts, their orthopedic shoes, their sleazy clothes, their aluminum walkers. A woman with a hairlip proposes a toast. An old man with the face of [King] Lear on the heath and a party hat does his best to rise to his feet. A deaf mute thinks people are starting to go home and pushes back from the table...”[1]

In other words, when it comes to inviting every sinner to the banquet, we are likely to be surprised at the cast of characters who will be there in response to the inclusiveness of God’s invitation. When Jesus said, “For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner,” he was not issuing a threat. We are not destined to be the victims of God’s choices about us, but our own. Even so, I think that perhaps God can save us from our own bad choices, I believe God is big enough to do that.

The host said to his servant, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.” Remember the fellow whose enthusiastic comments back at the beginning of chapter 14 launched Jesus’ teaching, including this parable? Finding himself with Jesus and the others in their privileged seats at the banquet in the house of the Pharisee, he had said, with no small hint of self-congratulation, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” The final scene of the story must have been a surprising idea to this fellow. Probably he was not only enjoying the meal set before him, but feeling rather confident that his reservation was already taken for a seat at the messianic banquet in God’s kingdom. Yet when he looks over the guests at table in Jesus’ story, he sees no one who looks like himself, nor his friends and present dinner companions. Surprise! The host has invited anyone and everyone.

There is no place in scripture that suggests we have to do certain things or have certain abilities, or behave in socially appropriate fashion to be invited into the presence of God. This parable seems to make at least that point if no other. In fact, those who cling to the idea that their social acceptability or their possessions, or their high station are the most important assets they can bring before God are the very ones who make themselves incapable of coming to him when invited.

One commentator reflected on this idea, writing, “The point is that none of the people who had a right to be at a proper party came, and that all the people who came had no right whatsoever to be there. Which means, therefore, that the one thing that has nothing to do with anything is rights. This parable says we are going to be dealt with in spite of our deservings, not according to them ... Grace as portrayed here ... works in short by raising the dead, not by rewarding the living.”[2]

The host winds up throwing the sort of party at which his original guests – people of means who buy land, livestock – wouldn’t be caught dead. But by pointing this out, Jesus seems to say that “being caught dead is the only ticket to the Supper of the Lamb.”[3]

German pastor and theologian, Helmut Thielicke used to share a story of his own personal anguish from World War II. During the war, an 18 year-old soldier in a tank division came across one of Thielicke’s pamphlets, written for soldiers, which was titled, Where Is God? The young man wrote to Thielicke from the thick of battle in a letter filled with bitterness. “Everything you wrote is [junk]. I have yet to meet God anywhere. In fact, I have found more than ample evidence to disprove him, given all the horrible things I have seen and experienced.” Dr. Thielicke decided to keep the correspondence alive by writing to the young man. The exchange of letters seemed to get them nowhere, though. The young man remained bitter about religious faith, though interested enough to write back. Then one day Dr. Thielicke received a letter from the boy’s mother. Her son had been killed in action. She enclosed the son’s final letter, which had been included among his remaining personal effects which she received, and which he had been writing when called suddenly to duty only to be killed by an exploding shell. This would be a more satisfying story if the letter had showed some change of heart toward God. Instead, it included many of the same words of rejection as his previous letters.

Far from being the end of the matter, now Dr. Thielicke had the boy’s mother to deal with. She had read her son’s bitter denunciations of God. She was devastated. She wrote at the end of her own letter to Dr. Thielicke, “Can I expect to see my son in eternity?” It is likely that everything in her pious Lutheran faith up to that point in her life would have suggested that she expected to hear, “No, you should not expect God’s gracious offer to be extended indefinitely. Your son is lost.”

In the end, Thielicke wrote to her,[4]

“It is true that we are to pay earnest heed to God’s call while life’s clock is still running. But perhaps it is also true that God has other ways to come to us... even beyond death... and beyond our limited views of space and time. I believe God has ways to come to those...

...who did not hear Christ’s call

...who lived before Christ’s call

...who live (in this very day) beyond the sound of Christ’s call, or hear it (if they hear it at all) poorly presented

...who hear the wrong call and become misdirected

...or who lose sight of the call, only to be snatched away by death before they get back to it.

I simply cannot comprehend that the Word... should be withdrawn from, and become a judgment of condemnation upon, those who did not hear it in their earthly life. I believe that there are no limits to the sway of God’s mercy, and that it is entirely possible that the word of Jesus Christ can penetrate, even to the inhabitants of the realm of the dead.”

I have to say, I like Thielicke’s answer very much. It isn’t ruled by sentiment or wishful thinking, nor does it gloss over the young man’s rejection of God. His response is rooted in the belief that God’s love and mercy do not depend upon the adequacy of our response. No more than the poor folks in the parable can we stop God from a divine determination to show amazing grace to the lost and least and last.

The love of the young man’s mother did not end with his death, nor does the love of God for us end with ours.

How are we to feel about this parable from the lips of Jesus? I like the response of one anonymous (so far as I know), aspiring poet, who wrote,

I dreamt death came the other night,

And heaven’s gate swung wide.

An angel with a halo bright

Ushered me inside.

And there! to my astonishment

Stood folks I’d judged and labeled:

As quite unfit, of little worth

And, spiritually disabled.

Indignant words rose to my lips,

But never were set free

For every face showed stunned surprise,

No one expected me.[5]

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, by Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, p. 67.

[2] The Parables of Grace, by Robert Farrar Capon, Eerdmans. 1988, p. 133.

[3] Ibid., p. 134.

[4] Between Heaven and Earth : Conversations With American Christians, by Helmut Thielicke, out of print, quotes taken from an unpublished sermon, “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, Who’ll Be There?”, by David Brown.

[5] Author unknown