Sunday, November 30, 2014

Don't Miss the Mystery

"A King is coming, but he is not the kind of king that people thought was coming. This King had no army, no great house, and no riches. The King was a baby who was born in a barn.

"The King who was coming is still coming. This is full of mystery. You know, a mystery is hard to enter sometimes. That is why this time of Advent is so important. Sometimes people can walk right through a mystery and not even know it is there. This time of year you will see people hurrying in the malls buying things and doing this and that, but they will miss the Mystery. They don't know how to get ready ... or maybe they just forgot."

- Jerome Berryman's Godly Play story for children, First Sunday in Advent

--

"Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

- Mark 13:35-37

--

Shhh. Slow down. Quiet. It's not Christmas yet ... not by a long shot. It's Advent. Don't rush through it! Don't miss the mystery.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Edmund, King of East Anglia

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

In the late ninth century, the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were invaded by the Great Heathen Army of Denmark—well, at least, their enemies called them that. They called themselves the Great Viking Army. Either way, this “great army” swept into Britain under the leadership of Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless. (Did you know that? I didn’t.) They took over a giant swath of the island, including the little country of East Anglia, where Edmund was king.

Edmund of Anglia was probably a real king, and he was probably martyred in this invasion. Other than that, most of the information we have about Edmund is hearsay from an Archbishop of Canterbury 90 years later, who heard it from someone who claimed to be Edmund’s armor bearer, so … you know. Grain of salt. But Edmund became universally loved in that part of the country, his fame peaking about forty to fifty years after his death, when coins honoring him became very popular.

The story goes that Edmund came to the throne at the age of 15, but the invasion didn’t take place until he was 29. Two Danish Vikings named Hinguar and Hubba, whose force of men had been burning, looting and plundering the countryside, offered to share the loot with Edmund if he would renounce his faith, ban Christianity, and act as their puppet king.  Edmund refused, choosing to fight the invading force instead. Though he fought valiantly, he was captured, tortured, beaten, shot through with arrows, and beheaded. Edmund’s traditional site of burial is a place now called Bury St. Edmunds.

You know, every November, as our weekly Bible readings turn gloomy and dark, I wind up preaching a lot about death and what it might mean to prepare for it. The feasts of martyrs inevitably turn our thoughts in this direction as well. I wonder what Edmund did throughout his life to prepare for the moment of his death. I wonder what I am doing, and what you are doing.

Do you ever wonder how you would react if your life were threatened on account of your Christian faith? I sure have. But we don’t even need to get that extreme. When faced with a crisis, whether life-threatening or not, what is the source of the strength you need to overcome it?

The first letter of Peter instructs us to be ready at all times to give an accounting for the hope that is in us—that is, a defense of our faith—maybe the “elevator speech” I mentioned last week. Yet Jesus’ promise in Matthew’s gospel says something rather like the opposite. Jesus counsels us not to worry too much in advance about a situation like this. Rather, we are to live our lives knowing that we are in the presence of God, and this is what will prepare us in ways that we can’t begin to understand now. In the same way, it is not running a marathon that enables us to run marathons—it is the exercise we do in the weeks, months, and years leading up to it. Moments of crisis—including martyrdom—work the same way.

Jesus counsels his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” It seems that most people prefer to be one or the other—shrewd, or sheltered. I don’t know how shrewd Edmund was. It sounds like the Great Heathen Army was not something that could be avoided, and as Edmund learned, it could not be appeased except through moral concessions that the king was not willing to make. So whether wise or innocent or both, Edmund came to a moment of decision, and he chose to stick to his principles. He decided that it was not acceptable for him to fold under pressure.

I have a friend who came to her bus stop one day and saw a man and a woman there. The man was aggravated about something. He took the woman’s scarf off her neck and started beating her across the face with it. My friend acknowledged that she was afraid, but she knew something had to be done. She stepped up to the man and said, “Hey, are we going to have a problem here?” Immediately the man shrank back and began to make excuses: “I’ve had a very bad day.” The woman said nothing, but she was visibly upset and crying. A large, burly man stepped up behind my friend to support her, and that helped her feel bolder.

Eventually the bus came, and everybody got on board. The man and the woman didn’t look at each other at all; the woman sat on the edge of her seat as if she wished she could be anywhere else. My friend was the first to get off the bus.

As she told me the story, and she wondered: “Did I do the right thing?” It bugged her for days: “What should I have done differently? I didn’t know what to say, so I just said things. I wasn’t prepared for anything like that.”

I replied, “But you were prepared, and you know that because you acted. Something prepared you. The sum total of your life experiences prepared you in some way to choose to do the courageous thing instead of the easy thing.” My interpretation is that the Holy Spirit gave her exactly the words that were needed.

My friend went on: “I just hope I didn’t make things worse for the woman later on, when the two of them are alone.” I commended my friend’s bravery and sensitivity, and I acknowledged that she was right: we don’t know. But we can never know all the consequences of our actions. We can only do what we believe to be right, and often that’s the courageous thing instead of the easy thing. And when it comes to those we’re not likely to cross paths with ever again on this side of the grave, well … we can pray for them as often as we like.

It’s a small example. It’s not martyrdom. But I’m glad my friend stood up to the man, sending him a clear message. She gave an accounting of the hope that is in her: that the world should be different than it is. Nobody should never have to cower in fear. Such a world is not OK and must not be allowed to go unchallenged. There was no excuse for this man’s violent behavior.

I remember times in my own life when I have succeeded or failed at doing the courageous thing. I remember failing completely to call out words of blatant racism. On another occasion, I remember hearing misogynistic language and not letting it go, but giving my account in no uncertain terms. So today I want to commend to all of us the courage of King Edmund of East Anglia, and also of my friend at the bus stop. Amen.



Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Elizabeth of Hungary

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

Have you ever seen the film Schindler’s List? One part of the film (among many) that will always stick with me is that at the end, the people attempt to honor Oskar Schindler for saving so many Jews from certain death in the Holocaust. But all Schindler can do is obsess over the millions of people whose lives he did not manage to save. All he can do is wish that he had done more.

I thought about Oskar Schindler when I read about Princess Elizabeth of Hungary. Born in 1207 as the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary in what is now Slovakia, Elizabeth was married at the age of 14 to King Louis IV of Thuringia in modern-day Germany. She became a mother of three. Her lifelong concern for the poor and sick attracted her to the order of Franciscans she met in 1223, from whom she received spiritual direction.

Elizabeth’s husband Ludwig allowed her to use her dowry money for almsgiving. She even sold all her jewelry to establish a hospital, and she fed the sick from the royal grain reserves. One story has it that Elizabeth placed a leper in the bed she shared with her husband. Ludwig was prepared to be furious about this, but when he pulled back the sheets, he saw a vision of the crucified Christ lying there instead.

Only six years into their marriage, Ludwig died, and the royal court, aggravated by Elizabeth’s record of extravagantly giving away the royal treasure, sent her and her children away. Elizabeth became the first of the third-order Franciscans and spent the rest of her short life caring for the sick and needy. She died at the tender age of 24, having exhausted herself to death.

So Elizabeth was a master at caring for others while failing to care for herself. Is this the sort of behavior for which we canonize people as saints? Well … yes, so it would seem.

Our readings today encourage us to give generously to those who have less. You will hear our text from Matthew again in church this coming Sunday. It is, for Matthew, the culmination of Jesus’ teaching: whatever kindness you do for another person is kindness you do to Christ. In fact, those who are saved on the last day are precisely those who have done the work of caring for others. Elizabeth took that teaching so seriously that she died for it.

The Book of Tobit raises almsgiving to a status higher than prayer and fasting, and it counsels that those who give alms will live “a full life.” Well, Elizabeth of Hungary lived a full life and died at 24.

Meanwhile, today’s psalm credits God with caring for widows and orphans. This is just what God does. So to what degree is the work up to us? We may say, “If we don’t take care of the poor and sick, nobody will.” This is true, for we are to be Christ’s hands and heart in the world. But is it up to each one of us to care for all the poor and the sick? Even Jesus didn’t cure everybody he encountered.

Did Elizabeth need to work so hard to secure her salvation? No. But in a medieval world that gave women so few options for personal fulfillment, Elizabeth’s actions could only be seen as heroic. I wish I had a time machine so I could go back and urge Elizabeth to take a vacation.

Oskar Schindler wished he had worked harder; how many more might he have saved then? Elizabeth worked too hard. How many more might she had saved if only she had stepped away to take care of herself every now and then? We can see that playing either game is fruitless. One of our post-Eucharistic prayers asks God to “send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.”

The idea of self-preservation as a condition for service to God might not have made any sense to Elizabeth. It may well be that she worked herself to death simply because she could do no other. So today we honor Elizabeth of Hungary for her single-minded dedication to living the gospel: to feeding, clothing, and welcoming all the people God placed under her care. Amen.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Elevator Speech

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

The Rev. Charles Simeon
(form Wikimedia)
Charles Simeon, a young undergrad entering Cambridge in 1779, prepared to receive communion for the first time. He was given as preparation material a 17th-century tract called The Whole Duty of Man, a document that taught him he could only receive the sacrament if he scrupulously followed God’s laws. He became depressed and discouraged at this theology, as he heard in it that it was all up to him to make himself worthy before Christ—and he knew himself to be a sinner.

Later that year Simeon was given a different document, Instructions for the Lord’s Supper by Bishop Thomas Wilson. The theology here reassured him that by no amount of good works could make himself worthy before Christ, but that Christ, in his sacrifice, had done all the work necessary to reconcile him. In this theology Simeon experienced true salvation, and it inspired him to become a priest, preacher, and evangelist. Upon his ordination, Simeon was given the congregation of Trinity Church, Cambridge, and he held that post for the rest of his life—over 50 years.

In the early 19th century, Simeon became known as the leader of the evangelical movement in England, spreading the good news of Christ. He was a great supporter of English missionaries worldwide. The historian William Lecky said of him and as friends in the evangelical movement that “they gradually changed the whole spirit of the English Church. They infused into it a new fire and passion of devotion, kindled a spirit of fervent philanthropy, raised the standard of clerical duty, and completely altered the whole tone and tendency of the preaching of its ministers.”[1] Indeed, his preaching is what Simeon is most remembered for, and he published sermon outlines in order to assist many other priests in crafting their own sermons. Simeon was, to his core, an effective communicator.

Last weekend a group of us represented St. Paul’s at Diocesan Convention, our annual gathering of all the congregations and ministries of the Episcopal Church in Western Washington. The theme was “So That All Might See Jesus.” One presentation we heard was the concluding report from a task force that has met for the last two years, a task force that included our own Brad Howard. They called themselves Outside Church Walls.

Of the wisdom they taught us about how we Episcopalians can bring the church to people outside the range of our church walls, the one that stuck with me most was this: Episcopalians tend to be great and “what” and “how,” but not so hot on “why.” Why do we come to church? Why do we get involved in ministries here and elsewhere? Why do we pray? What is behind all this? What does it do for us, anyway? In short, they said, if someone asked you, in an elevator, “Why are you a Christian?,” would you be able to give a compelling answer before one or both of you leaves the elevator? What is your elevator speech? If we can’t explain to others why we are Christians, we certainly can’t expect them to understand us, let alone join us in our joyful faith and work.

I decided to tweet my own response from the convention floor. After all, limiting myself to 140 characters seemed like a great way to get my speech down to elevator length. I worked with language I had thought through before. And here’s what I came up with:

I am a Christian because Jesus says, “Love. It'll hurt; it might even kill you. But believe me, it's the only thing that works.”

Charles Simeon learned from his experience with dueling confirmation preparation tracts how important it is to communicate well, so as not to mislead people into impoverished theology. He preached simple, straightforward sermons—certainly nothing short enough for a tweet, but his preaching resonated because it spoke to people where they were, putting them on the spot to clarify the essence of their faith.

In today’s gospel, we hear Jesus putting Peter on the spot, and using his birth name: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Hidden in the English text but clear in the Greek is the fact that in Peter’s answers, he tries to wiggle out of the question. In essence, Jesus asks Peter whether Peter gives his entire self to Jesus, heart, mind, body, and soul, and unconditionally so. But Peter replies that he maintains a strong liking of Jesus that could certainly be called love—a dedication, to be sure, but more like dedication to a best friend than dedication to the divine. Jesus asks him again and receives the same waffling reply.

Finally, Jesus changes his language to match Peter’s: all he asks is whatever dedication Peter can muster, and Peter, probably in tears, confirms that this is what he can give. But we know that Peter will not stay stuck in that lesser love. He will give the rest of his life obeying Jesus’ commands: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” He will even give himself to Jesus in his martyrdom.

Jesus loves us, this we know. And Jesus will always meet us right where we are. But he loves us too much to let us stay there. Jesus keeps calling us into the kind of life in which there will always become more of us to give to others, not less of us to protect from harm. Jesus teaches us as he taught Peter: “Love. It'll hurt; it might even kill you. But believe me, it's the only thing that works.”

With that in mind, what is your elevator speech? I’m going to ask you right now, in fact. Imagine that we’re in an elevator. And let’s just start with one word or phrase. If you could boil your faith down to one word or phrase—knowing that this is not at all a fair representation of your entire faith, but knowing you have to start somewhere—what word or phrase would you be certain not to leave out?

[…]

This week, work with that word or phrase. Develop it into a tweet if you like—a 140-character limit. Or go a couple sentences longer, but not more than that. Be focused and dedicated to giving a compelling answer, not a waffling answer. Speak the deepest joys of your heart. Be prepared to answer the question, “Why are you a Christian?”

Amen.




[1] Biographical details and quote from Holy Women, Holy Men (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2010), 676.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Unprepared

sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27), November 9, 2014

Every year in the weeks leading up to the season of Advent, things seem to be ending and falling apart. Running through all of our readings today is a sense of urgency coupled with a strong wish to reassure. We hear Paul's words to the Thessalonians, who have formed a joyful Christian community. One assumption of the early church was that since Jesus had risen from the dead, the end of the world must be near. I imagine the people were so overwhelmed by this unprecedented divine action that they felt there must not be much history left.

Paul counsels the Thessalonians not to worry about the end of the world, but just to continue to live joyously and generously with everyone. And it’s just as well, because Paul and all the other evangelists were mistaken: two thousand years later, the universe continues to unfold. Yes, to each one of us does, indeed, come an end. But Paul reassures his hearers with a compelling vision of the dead being reunited with the living. In the past 200 years many Christians have tried to conflate Paul’s vision and other Bible passages into a blow-by-blow account of what will happen when the world ends … completely missing Paul’s point, in my opinion, which was not to worry about such things.

image from gardenoffrancis.com
And then in Matthew's gospel, Jesus, in the final days of his life, is also trying to get across an urgent message: "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." What were the earliest Christians waiting for? And considering all our science and everything we have learned since then, are we still waiting for the same thing in 2014? It's a fair question. But we know we can ask, right along with the Thessalonians, "If Christ is risen and has destroyed death, why are people still dying?"

Like the disciples, and like the Thessalonians, we also live in the in-between. We live in the knowledge that the Kingdom of God is at hand but is not fully realized in our timeline. We wait for "the coming of the Lord," the Greek word for which is parousia. It's the same word that would have been used to describe the ceremonial arrival of a king, or as in today's parable, the ceremonial arrival of a bridegroom. We hear of ten bridesmaids who have been invited to this wedding banquet. But it's a very strange story.

A little bit of cultural background is helpful. Assumed is the tradition that the bridesmaids are waiting at the home of the bride's family, but the party will be held at the home of the groom. Momentarily--or so they believe--the groom will arrive to pick up the wedding party, who will escort the happy newlyweds, by lamplight, to the groom's house and to a grand banquet. But the groom still hasn't shown up -- where on earth is he? In the bridegroom’s late arrival, we catch the anxiety of the early Christians of Matthew's community waiting for Jesus to come back and set the world right. Ever since, we in the church have been the bridesmaids; can we really be blamed for dozing off after 2000 years? And then we have to figure out what to make of the distinction between “wise” and “foolish” bridesmaids.

Five of these girls have brought oil for their lamps. They are prepared for a long wait: Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon describes them as dragging along giant Clorox bottles full of lamp oil; he also imagines them to be a gaggle of giggly fourteen-year-olds. Now, in what world do five out of ten teenagers plan ahead so painstakingly? Yet these over-prepared bridesmaids are vindicated as the wise ones in this parable. Meanwhile, the other five girls have brought whatever oil is currently in their lamps, but no extra. They have the minimum ... if that.

All the bridesmaids start in the same boat: adolescent girls on their way to a party, excited to be seen in their pretty dresses, chatting gaily away as the night wears on, and finally sacking out as if this has become a slumber party. Are they concerned about when the bridegroom will arrive? Maybe, or maybe they're just enjoying each other's company. But when the foolish girls realize they will not have enough oil for the procession itself--the whole reason they're in the wedding party to begin with -- the wise girls refuse to share their own oil, for there might not be enough, and at least some of the girls need to process, right? So they send their friends away to buy more. Will the girls find, somewhere in ancient Judea, a 24-hour convenience store ready to sell lamp oil at midnight? We never find out. But either way, the "foolish" bridesmaids miss the procession completely. And when they finally make it to the groom's house and ask to be let in, they hear the chilling words, "I do not know you.”

None of the girls is punished for falling asleep; they have all fallen asleep. And nobody is punished for not having enough oil, at least not directly. But it's like going on a business trip without the laptop that contains your presentation, and then missing your plane in order to retrieve it. It's like realizing you don't have bus fare, and then leaving to get change just before the bus arrives. If you're not there when the bus comes, nothing else matters. If you miss your plane, you don't get to do any presentation, no matter how ill-prepared.

Time waits for no girl. But what were they doing earlier in the day? Getting dressed up. Getting their hair and nails done. Sure, all of them wanted to look really fetching. But five of the girls stopped and realized, "I have a job to do at this party. I am one of those who are escorting the bride and groom to their home. If I don't have enough oil for my lamp, there's no point in my being there." Perhaps the other five girls merely thought, "I can't wait to be seen at this party! Maybe that one boy will be there--ooh, I hope so! He's so cute!"

Theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann pointed out that eschatology--the theology of the end--is not so much about endings, but beginnings. Even so, to each one of us does, indeed, come an end. The hour of the party will arrive, but in this moment, right now, we have time to decide whether and how to get ready. Life is a series of closing doors. But the closing of doors is what gives shape to the lives we live. No matter how many things we wind up not doing, we are privileged to get to do so much! Life is, to some degree, about preparing for death without feeling defeated by it--about preparing our lamps for the inevitable moment when we must step out into the darkness in the hope of processing to a big party.

So maybe the oil has something to do with how we choose to spend our time while we wait for Christ's return, whatever that return might mean. Our call from Christ is to love--to love freely and without reservation. Are we practicing? Are we developing the disciplines of patience and forbearance and mercy and forgiveness that mature love cannot flourish without? To be sure, it's not our works that save us, and indeed, we have all received our invitations to the wedding banquet. The host wants us all there--every one of us! But when we get there, will we find that we're able to perform the functions we're asked to perform?

Worse still, if the bridegroom arrives and finds us unprepared, will we face him and admit to our failure? Or will we forget how loving and insistent that original invitation was? Will we scramble at the last second to make ourselves worthy for the banquet all on our own, and only after yet another round of pigheaded insistence on self-reliance come crawling back and beg to be let in? In so doing, we would demonstrate that we haven’t learned a thing about love or forgiveness, because we don’t even recognize our own need for it. Indeed, the host may not recognize us at all.

And so the question I want to ask today is this: What would have happened if the five unprepared girls had not left to buy more oil? Maybe, just maybe, if they had been willing to admit embarrassed defeat, the best man would have said to one of the groomsmen, "Hey, get these girls some oil. They can't process like this!" It may even be that the one wise thing those five wise bridesmaids actually did was to be there when the procession left. Maybe when it came time to go out into the darkness, they would have been shocked to discover just how much light had been provided for them. I don't know. It's a parable, not an allegory -- so we get to play with it a bit!

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
(image from www.stjamesjackson.dioms.org)
I heard a story once about a little boy whose mother committed suicide. The family’s congregation wondered how best to minister to the boy. In Sunday school the week after her death they happened to tell this very story, using Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a curriculum similar to our own Godly Play. Later the boy was working with the storytelling materials, which included a house ready for a banquet, five little figures with lit lamps, and five with unlit lamps. He processed the five with lit lamps into the house and positioned them at the windows, looking out. The door shut. Then he took one of girls with an unlit lamp and had her peek into each and every window, one at a time. Finally, the door opened, and the unprepared girl entered the party. The boy explained to his teacher, “She didn’t have a light. But they let her in anyway.”

It may be that there are those who, like the five wise bridesmaids, are perfectly prepared for Christ's return. I pray that I may count myself among them. But if not, I pray that at least I won't run away and hide. Our trust in our creator, redeemer, and sustainer must be such that we can be there to hear the words: "There you are! I created you, but you squandered your existence. I redeemed you, yet even in that knowledge you acted selfishly. I sustained you, but you were still unprepared. Nevertheless, you are here now, and I know and love you. Please, please ... come in and join the eternal party. It won't be the same without you." Amen.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Jesus, the Lousiest Dinner Guest

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
November 5, 2014

Luke 14:15-24
“For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”

Have you ever thrown a really great dinner party? I can think of numerous times when my wife and I have hosted good friends, like-minded people, people who share many views in common with us, people it’s great to share a glass of wine with, and then maybe to play Ticket to Ride or Lords of Waterdeep. I love these times.

But this isn’t the kind of dinner party Jesus blesses.

Have you ever been a guest at a really terrible dinner party? You know, the kind where one person makes everybody else feel uncomfortable, and it’s clear that everybody wishes the person would just leave, so the party can go back to being a group of like-minded people, people who share many views in common with us, people it’s great to share a glass of wine with?

The gospels show us that when Jesus is on the guest list, this second kind of party is much more likely. Someone at the party is going to make a scene, whether it’s an unseemly woman breaking in and crying all over Jesus’ feet, or in this case, Jesus himself.

Jesus is eating at the home of a leader of the Pharisees on the Sabbath. He tells a parable to one of the dinner guests, and by extension, to the table in general. Now, it’s not like they didn’t mean to invite Jesus. Most likely, Jesus is the supposed guest of honor, and the crowd invited has been invited for one purpose: to trap Jesus in his own words and to give them a reason to seek his arrest. And that’s the context into which Jesus drops his parable.

So what if you threw a party and nobody came? Even if you have a fairly healthy ego, chances are you’d wonder, at least for a fleeting moment, what that said about you. “Maybe nobody likes me. Why not? Where have I gone wrong?” But that’s not a problem for the dinner host in Jesus’ parable. The host is angry about the guests who didn’t come, but his greater concern is that there’s all this food, and it wouldn’t be right for it to go to waste. And so he invites “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” None of these people hold any status of value in his society. All of them will be hungry. So they will be much more likely to come to dinner.

Jesus tells this parable after just having said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He has also just advised, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, don’t invite your friends, or rich people! Invite people who could use a meal, and who can’t possibly repay you.”

In the world of social services, we hear that we should not give cash to people on the street; who knows how they will use it? We should not support the dependent nature of those who are not helping themselves—whether they can or cannot help themselves is another question. There will always be those who want to assume that the poor, if they just worked a little harder, would no longer be poor. And there will always be those who helping instincts are difficult to rein in, who might not recognize their tendency to breed unhealthy dependency.

But both of these extremes are based on the assumption that we don’t actually know the people we’re helping. They’re based on caricatures, not on individuals. Jesus, on the other hand, was all about individuals. He could look at a person and very quickly ascertain the necessary remedy. In some cases, it was food or healing. In other cases, it was a very hard truth designed to shake the person up. Jesus’ response to a given stranger is totally unpredictable, but only because we don’t know the stranger. Jesus does. He evaluates this situation and decides that what this party needs is a hot, steaming, and very bitter plate of truth. And so he tells this parable.

Now, here I want to point out a detail of the parable we can’t possibly render in English unless we resort to a technique for Greek translation I picked up while living in the South: for singular “you,” say “you.” For plural “you,” say “y’all.”

“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 y’all, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”

In the last verse, “you” is plural! So the voice has shifted from the parable back to the real-life dinner party guests. “I may be a guest here, but in reality, I’m the host, and when the time comes for the heavenly banquet, not one of y’all will taste a bite.”

What an ungracious and embarrassing guest! Who does he think he is? Could somebody please ask this Jesus guy to leave so we can go back to our comfortable party of like-minded people? And then could somebody please uncork another bottle of wine? We’re going to need it!

Indeed, blessed is anyone who will eat bread (and drink wine) in the kingdom of God. But the very people who were invited first, when they assume they are included, become the ones in danger of being thrown out. These are the people who assume their place at the head of the table. So Jesus shames them and tells them to move down to the lowest seat. Jesus invites to the table first any poor, downtrodden soul who feels forsaken by society or even forsaken by God. But for those who feel assured of God’s blessing, Jesus offers only fear and trembling. He says, in essence, “I’m throwing a party for everyone in the world, all right. On the menu tonight you’ll find mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. But y’all are acting boorish and arrogant and threatening the other guests. If you’re not interested in what we’re serving, I can’t allow you to stay here and spoil the party. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” And so the guest becomes the host, and before long, he will also become the meal.

Friends, there is nothing more important than this banquet—not your land, not your oxen, and not even your own wedding. Not your financial security, not your self-assurance, and certainly not your social status. Even within the realm of God’s infinite loving mercy, there are consequences for our actions. Our places can be given away. But today, look! The table is richly laid, and you are welcome to it, as long as you understand that you may not unseat anybody else from it. Not even the wicked. Not even the undeserving. Not even those who never get their lives together. Everybody is welcome to eat their fill of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Come and eat. Amen.