For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
-Romans 12:4-5

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

There's a Party Going On

OCMC 2/2/14
Luke 14:15-24

            Today we are continuing this sermon series “Empowered by the Spirit” which is the beginning phrase of our church mission statement.  If you’ve never seen this before, we had the mission statement and the vision for mission statement printed on these bookmarks with contact information and our logo.  Most of you should be familiar with the mission statement by now because it’s printed on the front of your bulletins every week and we’ve been reading it together every week that we’ve been doing this sermon series.  We wanted to do this series of sermons to focus on our mission as a congregation and focus on the different areas of ministry that we have at OCMC.
            Today we are focusing on the ministry of hospitality.  When I originally thought of this topic, the story of Lydia in Acts 16 came to mind.  She was a woman in Philippi who had a business selling purple cloth and she was converted to Christianity by Paul.  After her conversion she offered for Paul and his companions to stay in her house while they were at Philippi.  When she extended the invitation she said to them, “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my house.”  I read that and got to thinking how odd that was.  Usually when we invite someone to stay at our house, we don’t think about if they will consider us good people to stay with.  We usually think, is our house clean and comfortable, and what will we need to do to make it that way so our guest feels welcome and their needs are met.  But Lydia is saying, if they think she’s okay to stay with because they consider her to be a believer, then they can stay at her house.
            Then I remembered another story from Luke chapter 7 where a Roman centurion had a servant who was very sick and he sent the Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come heal the man. The Jewish elders said to Jesus “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  (v. 4).  But as Jesus got close to the man’s house, the man sent another messenger to him saying “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”  There’s that idea again of, if you consider me good enough, come to my house.  It seems that hospitality in Jesus’ day had some rules attached to it.  With the centurion and with Lydia as well, it can be partly explained by the fact that these were Gentiles interacting with Jews.  The Jewish purity laws would have placed restrictions on Jesus and Paul being able to come into the house of a Gentile.  But it seems that there is also this idea that the host should be worthy of the guest.
            We have the same sort of rules today in certain circumstances.  For example, I’ve never been invited to dinner at the White House.  I’m guessing most of you haven’t either.  And that’s because no one at the White House knows me.  Dinner at the White House with the President is for leaders in the worlds of politics, business, science, the arts and so forth.  It’s for religious leaders like the Pope or Billy Graham.  I’m not in that category yet.  I haven’t done anything to warrant an invitation to dinner at the White House.  This makes sense to us. 
            But if I were in that category and did receive an invitation to the White House, the President certainly would not try to convince me that he was worthy of having me as a guest.  And when we invite people to come over for dinner or to a party or any event we may host, we usually don’t talk about whether we are worthy of having them as our guests.  Hosts don’t usually have to sell themselves as being good people.  Most people consider an invitation to be a gracious gesture and are happy to be thought of.  But in these 2 stories I’ve referred to, the people doing the inviting seem to be having to sell themselves to the invitee.
            Now we come to the passage from Luke 14 that Chantelle read for us.  In this passage a man is having a banquet and he’s already invited people and they have accepted his invitation.   In Jesus’ day, when a person had a big dinner party like this with lots of people invited, they would get confirmation of how many people were planning to attend and then plan for the food.  On the day of the banquet, when the food was ready, they would send out servants to let everyone know it was time to come eat.  When we have dinner parties, we usually tell people what time to come and then plan our food prep so that the food is ready shortly after people arrive but in Jesus’ day they didn’t have the conveniences we have, so they summoned people once the food was ready.
            In this parable that Jesus tells, the servant goes around to let people know it’s time to come, and the invited guests start to give him excuses.  One says he’s bought a field and has to go inspect it.  This is a lame excuse.  No one buys a piece of land without looking at it first and making sure it’s a good property for what you have in mind. 
The second guest says he’s just bought 5 yoke of oxen and needs to go try them out. 
This is another lame excuse.  Oxen were valuable animals in Jesus’ day.  It was no easy thing to pair oxen together for work.  Both of the animals had to have about the same stamina because they would be working together.  You couldn’t have one ox getting tired and trying to lay down while the other was still pulling the plow.  The animals had to like each other.  You couldn’t have 2 oxen fighting each other while trying to get them to plow your field.  They had to be about the same size because they would be yoked together.  No one is going to buy 5 yoke of oxen without first putting them in the field and seeing how they work together.
            The third guest doesn’t even ask to be excused.  He says he’s just gotten married and can’t come.  What he means is he’s too busy with his wife to be disturbed.  In Jesus’ day, this would have been considered a very crude excuse.  The servant comes back and lets his master know that no one is coming.  It has become very plain that, for whatever reason, these invited guests do not consider the host to be worthy of their presence, even though they originally accepted his invitation, and by their excuses and absence, they mean to ruin his banquet.  It’s a real social snub that Jesus is describing.
            So the host is upset and angry and rightfully so. He’s gone to all this trouble and fixed all this food because these people accepted his invitation and now no one’s coming.  These people are insulting him in their refusal to come.  But he does something truly amazing.  He takes his anger and he channels it into extending a broader invitation.  He doesn’t take his anger and channel it into retaliation.  To put it in street terms, he doesn’t worry about the fact he’s been dissed and he doesn’t strike back.  This is grace.  This man has suffered an injustice.  His guests have disrespected him, they have lied to him, they have insulted and embarrassed him.  He gets angry.  But he turns his anger in a positive direction.  He doesn’t strike back and he doesn’t go off and hide.  He doesn’t get depressed and think no one loves him.  Instead he chooses to extend the invitation again, to send his servant out into the streets and alleys and to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. 
            Hospitality doesn’t give up.  Here we see hospitality partnered with grace and it continues to invite people to come share the banquet rather than giving up or striking out.  Hospitality continues to welcome.  The first guests refused to come so the host went out and got other guests.  Plan A didn’t work so, rather than give up, he went to Plan B.  When our invitation is rejected by one person, we can’t give up.  We go to another person and extend the invitation again.
            When I was working in London, we did a lot of street evangelism.  Our youth engaged in this type of evangelism in 2012 when they went to Berlin.  When you do street evangelism, you have to practice this type of hospitality.  When you approach someone to engage them in conversation about the gospel, and they reject you, you simply move on to the next person.  You don’t chase them down or argue or anything else.  That type of behavior will really turn people off and give them one more reason not to listen.  But if you respect their no and move on, they may hang around longer and may end up talking to someone.  Hospitality takes the rejection and continues to extend grace.
            Another thing I see in this parable is that the host sent his servant out to invite in the lame, the blind, the poor, the crippled.  These were people of a lower social class than the host.  Jesus’ listeners would have been shocked that the host would choose to invite these people.  These are people who couldn’t possibly repay this man’s hospitality and they wouldn’t have been considered worthy of the host.  But hospitality breaks the rules.  The hospitality that Jesus is describing here is one that crosses boundaries.  It doesn’t let itself be limited by social mores.  In the face of injustice, like the insult the host suffered from his first guests, biblical hospitality breaks the rules and continues to reach out in a gracious way.
            So the servant goes out and invites the poor, the blind, the crippled and they come but there is still room for more.  So the host tells him to go out into the countryside and make those people who live outside the town come to the banquet.  So now the man is extending the invitation to strangers.  Jesus’ listeners would have understood him to mean possibly Gentiles are being invited.  These are people who aren’t from our neighborhood.  These are not the people that we are familiar with and see as we go about our business.  Now the man is inviting strangers from the countryside.  But this host wants a full house for his banquet and he’s willing to really stretch the boundaries wide and invite unknown people into his house. 
Hospitality has a long arm.  It reaches out pretty far.  It crosses some pretty solid borders.  There have been times in history when, in the face of great injustice, hospitality reached out pretty far.  In the civil rights movement, there were people who dared to cross some pretty intimidating borders.  Last summer Vandy and I went to the Smithsonian Museum of American History and we saw the Woolworth’s counter where the 4 young African American men sat as they challenged the border of segregation and extended an invitation of inclusion.  Yesterday, google had a doodle honoring Harriet Tubman, a brave woman who crossed the border between North and South many times to bring slaves to a place where they could be free. These are just a couple of examples but there are many times in history where, in the face of great injustice, hospitality has reached out with grace and extended an invitation to something better.
            In our vision for mission statement, we as a congregation have put out an invitation to work together for reconciliation.  I want to read part of this, which was written about 8 years ago.  “Oxford Circle Mennonite Church envisions being a place and a people open to God’s new life.  Having experienced God’s forgiveness of sins, and having committed to imitate Christ’s example, we seek openness to God, each other, and to our larger community through the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  We yearn for increased wholeness – spiritual, physical, environmental and social:  purer hearts, healthier lifestyles, cleaner neighborhoods, and safer streets.  So we commit to bold movements towards reconciliation, because God has made us right with himself through Christ.  We embrace risky opportunities to love our neighbors in order to see the Spirit tear down walls of race, gender, age and class….we sense that there will be increasing hope; new faces and voices; deeper discipleship and communion; more holistically Godly living.  We realize challenges to these efforts, for conflict often accompanies openness to diversity.  However, we trust that honesty and reliance on the Spirit will keep us humble and united, as we listen to God and each other…We believe all this is possible because of God’s grace, which joins us in Jesus Christ, as we together submit ourselves to the Spirit’s wisdom.”
            When we put together this statement, we committed ourselves as a congregation to be a people and a place of hospitality.  Not just hospitality that likes to eat together, although this statement does talk about sharing each other’s ethnic foods, but the type of hospitality that challenges the rules.  The type of hospitality that continues to reach out in the face of injustice.  The type of hospitality that will take the insult and still extend the invitation to come.  This is the type of hospitality that our God practices.  In the face of the great injustice of sin in this world, He offers to invitation to come and be forgiven and reconciled and healed.  Even as Jesus was being crucified he extended the invitation for forgiveness, first to those who were nailing him to the cross, and then to the thief dying beside him.  That’s crossing all kinds of social barriers right there. 
            Ultimately this parable is talking about the great banquet of God. God is the host.  He is the one whose invitation is rejected by those first invited, so he partners his anger with grace and extends the invitation to strangers and to those considered unworthy.  He crosses social and cultural borders because He’s prepared a feast and He wants to see people enjoying it. He’s offering those things that we can’t provide for ourselves.  The poor sick people invited in this parable could never have afforded a feast like they got at this banquet.  God is offering to us what we can’t afford or provide for ourselves.  He’s offering forgiveness of sins, healing of hurts, peace, His presence with us always, His Spirit remaining with us to empower us to live as He wants us to.  He’s offering us life.  Are we going to accept his offer?
What is the invitation that you sense God is extending to you today?  Maybe an invitation to lay down a burden you’ve been carrying, to let Him carry it for you.  Maybe an invitation for forgiveness, to come and be cleansed of whatever it may be that’s on your conscience so you can have peace.  Maybe it’s an invitation to commit to something or someone.  Whatever invitation you sense God is extending to you, understand that he gives this invitation because He loves you.  He knows you might reject it, but he extends it anyway.  He’s reaching across all kinds of barriers to you.