Jesus the Party Planner
Here’s my sermon from yesterday.
Jesus the Party Planner
Luke 14: 1 – 14
Enterprise Community Congregational Church
August 28, 2022
It has been great to be with you these three Sundays. Thank you for the invitation and for your warm welcome. We do feel a special sense of connection with you, and we will hold you in prayer as you seek a new permanent pastor.
Before I get too much further along let me apologize in advance. Linda and I will need to make a quick get-a-way after the service. It’s not that I anticipate being chased out after today’s sermon, although I guess that’s always a possibility. It is that we need to be in The Dalles to pick up a U Haul truck by 4:30.
Our daughter, who is a UCC minister, served a church in White Salmon, Washington, down in the Gorge, until recently. Now, for reasons of the heart, she had moved to the east coast, South Carolina of all places. At any rate, Mom and Dad will be hauling her worldly goods across the country next week. For sure, hold us in your prayers!
Okay, I’m a little proud of myself because without really planning or intending it, but with our string of three readings from Luke 12, 13 and now 14, we’ve managed a three-week sermon series on — surprise! — Jesus. First week was Jesus Disturber of the Peace. Second week Jesus the Rule Breaker. And now, Jesus the Party Planner.
It seemed like it was about time for something a little more positive, upbeat. But in truth it could as easily have been “Jesus the Party Un-Planner” or even “Jesus the Rude Guest.”
He is a dinner guest. And not just anywhere. He has accepted an invitation for dinner on the Sabbath from the leader of the Pharisees. That is, in other words, “the big house” on the hill. Or, if you like, the fanciest ballroom in town. The faculty club at a fancy college. This is the invitation to the White House, or at least one of those fancy D. C. parties put on by ambassadors and socialites.
“Jesus,” says Luke, “was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath.” Then Luke adds this, “they were watching him closely.” All eyes were on him. Would he be a good guest? Would things unfold in a dignified, a proper, fashion on this the holiest day of the week. They were watching him closely to see how he would play it. There were disturbing rumors. Would he dispel them? Would he make a good impression?
No. No, he would not. For immediately a man appears — not apparently one of invited guests — someone in pain, suffering a disabling affliction which involved swelling, particularly in the feet. Jesus turned to the other guests to ask, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?” Odd, no one said a word. There was silence. Jesus took the man, healed him and sent him on his way. Then he addressed the guests again . . . “What? Don’t look so offended. If your child fell into a well on the Sabbath day, you know you drop everything and save him.”
This should sound pretty familiar as it is so similar to the story we heard last week of the bent-over woman whom Jesus also healed on the Sabbath. For this week’s purposes the point is that the fancy party where everyone is watching him to see how, or if, he will behave is off to well a bad start, unless of course you are the man who was set free from his ailment. Because Jesus is about new life and healing, not obedience to the law.
So we come to scene two of this dinner table drama, of Jesus’ advice for party-goers. They’ve been watching Jesus. He turns the tables. He watches them. And what he sees is people jockeying, perhaps subtly and politely, for position and for the best seats.
I don’t know if they still do it this way but Southwest Airlines used to not have any reserved seats, everyone just rushed for the best ones. It was quite the scene.
Other airlines put us through this elaborate, fairly Byzantine series of levels of status and access, gold-this and hi-flyer that. It all begins of course with the first-class passengers. I like it when they started putting up little theater ropes to demarcate the special lane for the first-class. You were all going the same place, over the same carpet. But a little rope divided the first class from the lane for the hoi-poloi. Once I got bumped up to first class. I think it was a mistake. I did like it.
So all the party guests are making for the best seats, no one wants to sit back by the kitchen. Jesus the party planner tries to help. He says to the guests, “Listen, suppose you get yourself situated in the best seat at the O.K. Theater and Darrell Brann comes along and says, ‘Sorry, these seats are reserved for some of our most generous donors, I’m terribly sorry but I need to ask you to move.’”
You get up, scan the room, and see the only remaining seats are up in the back in the nosebleed section. You tuck your tail between your legs and head off, everyone watching.
‘Don’t let this happen to you,” says Jesus. “Head for the cheap seats. Who knows maybe you’ll get an upgrade.” What he actually said was, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Of course this can be distorted too. Now everyone is trying so hard to show how humble they are, as a new Jesus-endorsed strategy for getting ahead. No one will go first and get in line for the dinner, so the food, to the consternation of the chef, is getting cold as people try to out humble each other. “After you . . . No, please, you first.” Or its like you find yourself at a four-way stop, but since everyone is trying to be humble and nice — “you go, no you,” you nearly have an accident trying to get through the intersection.
In other words, it is not Jesus’ point to simply give another strategy for being thought first or best or most distinguished. He sees how at least some social occasions aren’t about joy and hospitality, but about establishing a pecking order.
At the last church I served I noticed that the default way that we introduced ourselves should we be in a group where people didn’t all know one another was to tell how long we had been a member of the church. “I’m Ted, I joined this church in 1953.” Next is Alice who says she become a member there in 1983, to which Ted says, “oh, you’re a newcomer.”
I suggested —one of those crazy minister type suggestions — that we stop saying how long we had been members, and instead maybe share how it had been going for you this last week in your attempts at following Jesus. Well, that bright idea, like quite a few of my bright ideas, didn’t get a lot of traction. Even in the church we have our pecking orders!
Scene three. Jesus the Party Planner, having offered his counsel to the guests who were angling for the status seats, now does his best Martha Stewart, offering advice for the host of the affair.
“Hey, when you give a party don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors. They will only invite you back. And what kind of party is is when you have to invite the people that are there? Tell you what you do, invite the people who can’t pay you back, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.
I worked with a congregation that did a community dinner on Thanksgiving Day. It was for everyone in the community who had no place else to go on Thanksgiving. It was quite successful, if turnout means anything. There were older people who lived alone, some homeless people from the nearby shelter, some newly arrived immigrants. It was, maybe still is, a wonderful event.
But it got better the year that one change was made. Members of the congregation had been doing all the cooking and the serving. They then stood back as the guests had dinner. Or they got busy serving second helpings or getting going on the dishes. Their pastor wondered if there was too much Martha (busy doing/ serving) and not enough Mary (sitting and listening).
The year the dinner changed was the year the people from the church decided to just join everyone else for dinner. They didn’t hover over their poor — no place else to go on Thanksgiving Day rejects — they joined them. In fact it became difficult to tell who was who especially when one of the homeless guys said, “Oh yeah, I know how to use this dishwasher.” He was a pro with their big institutional dishwasher. Other of the guests followed him into the kitchen to take part in the clean up.
When, supper was over that day and everything was cleaned up, nine-year-old Eric said to his Dad. “That was a great Thanksgiving.” “Why, Eric, what did you like about it?”
“Well no one seemed nervous about making a mistake or, you know, spilling something or not someone’s special food. Everbody was having a really good time. And I kind of think everyone felt like an honored guest because we weren’t so much the hosts, you know the people in charge.” “It was kind of like, here at our church, God was the host. It was God’s party.”
Jesus isn’t so much giving us a new way to make points, whether by being more humble, taking the lowest place or being last in line. He is not so much telling us that church should be showing or tallying its good works by organizing more dinners for the homeless or the lonely or the infirm.
He isn’t just giving us different stuff to count, or a different way of keeping score, so much as he is saying, “Stop counting. Stop keeping score. Stop looking for pay back. Give freely as God has given freely to you.
You see, from Jesus’ point of view, the world doesn’t divide so much into the winners and the losers. Oh, he was plenty aware that some were poor and others rich. It was just that he didn’t buy the idea that because of that some were better than others, that some were winners and others losers and that the smart people cultivated the company of the winners. From Jesus’ point of view, all of us are debtors, debtors in need of grace, not ever able to re-pay God. From Jesus’ point of view all of us are losers, people who have made mistakes, who have failed, who have done things we wish we hadn’t done or said. We are all people who are in some way blind to what God is doing. And we are crippled, crippled by our constant counting and keeping score.
I’ve been to a lot of church budget meetings. Maybe you have too? The way it usually goes is that we are reminded that we don’t have enough, we have to cut here or there. We groan a little, maybe fidget, but the truth is we’re used to it. Never enough.
But after years of this it occurred to me that we were actually pretty comfortable with the “never enough.” What would baffle us is if the church treasurer stood up and said, “Hey, we’ve got an extra $50,000.” Not sure how that happened. This would be a real crisis.
What should we do? “Well, squirrel it away, save it of course.” Then someone pipped up, “I know, let’s throw a party, a party not just for us, but a party for everyone.” “Well, that would be stupid,” said the church treasurer.
Ironically, at just point — when I was writing this sermon — Linda called out from the kitchen, “Did you make a withdrawal from our checking account? They’re telling me we don’t have enough in our account to pay this bill.”
Okay, so someone has to do some counting and accounting some of the time. That’s life. But it’s not all of life. It’s not life in the Kingdom of God.
But sometimes we try to take the same logic of getting ahead of tallying up our points or prestige into our relationship with God. We say, or maybe think, to ourselves. “God look at all I’ve done. All the times I’ve volunteered here or there. Lord, look at how much I’ve given for those who are in need. God, I’ve been a faithful member of the church for so many years. I recycle. I am watching my carbs. Surely, God I’ve done enough. Why are you on my back? We can feel that way sometimes, can’t we?
But a word, the word, comes back to us. “I’m not on your back. I have your back. I always have and I always will. And, you are enough. You are enough.”
But you can’t earn my love. You can’t deserve my blessing. It’s free. A gift. So you can stop living in the world of constantly getting ahead or proving your worth. You have been made worthy by the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and nothing can undo that. It’s grace. Gift. One-way love. Coming at you.
By the grace of Jesus Christ, you have the best seat at the best table all the days of your life. You have a seat at the Welcome Table. The table with all kinds of people. The table of sinners and outcasts. The table where the lost are reclaimed and the prodigal welcomed home. Because you too, you and I, we are among the lost, we are the prodigal. We have turned away from God’s love and mercy, but God hasn’t turned away from us. God hasn’t forgotten us.
What, dear ones, would it be like to stop keeping score? What would it be like to live into the freedom to stop calculating our status or stop worrying about what others think and simply be kind to everyone around you, particuarly those who are not often the recipients of kindness?
My friend Clayton was turning four recently and because four is a very special birthday his mom asked him, what kind of party he would like for his fourth birthday.
Without a moment’s hesitation Clayton said, “I want a party where everyone is a king, or a queen.” So Clayton’s parents set to work. They made paper-mache crowns for everyone. Everyone got a regal cape made from crepe paper. And everyone had a royal scepter made from a coat hanger adorned with colorful ribbons.*
All the party goers went for a royal parade up and down the block. And everyone behaved in a most regal way.
That night as Clayton’s Mom tucked him into bed, Clayton said, I wish that everyone could be a king or a queen, not just on my birthday, but all the time. Well Clayton, something like that happened long ago on a hill called Calvary when God won the victory over the powers of Sin and Death. At the cross God made us all kings and queens. By God’s grace you, dear ones, are royalty. So then, be who you are. Amen.
*this story is from my friend, Will Willimon’s book, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything.