A new year has begun and I am not sure what it will bring. Usually I have a sense of new beginnings, or I have excited expectations and hope as I pick up from where I left off and start over again. Not this year though. There has been too much acrimony, too much hate, too many lies, too much racism, and too little justice, mercy, kindness, and peace for me to look forward to the coming year. Sad really, because it seems 2017 is already defeated before it is a week old. I am afraid 2017 will just be a year of more hateful speech, more injustice, more discrimination, and more violence.
There is no one person to blame, we all are responsible for the atmosphere of distrust and hate we see every day, in the news, from our politicians, from our neighbors. Let me make this clear, you and I are to blame from the people who fear the changes created in the last 30 years. We forgot that people might not understand, might not be willing to accept those changes. We assumed they would go along “when the discovered how much better they had it.” But they didn’t. No, they felt left out of the process, unasked, and left behind, and they felt their concerns and issues weren’t being addressed.
Yes, they could have become involved and worked with those of us who believed we were working to better the lives of everyone, and the environment. But somehow, they didn’t feel as if they could. Maybe they didn’t believe as we did, maybe they needed to be given more information, maybe they just needed more time to assimilate all the information being thrown at them. Whatever the reason some people became alienated and open to manipulation by those whose agenda is to turn back the clock to a time when only the few profited from the bounty of this country.
Maybe the reason for the divide is that those of us who want to see us progress broke into interest groups who fought over what issue was most important when, in reality, all of it is. No one has ever bothered to look at the larger picture. To try developing a program that would have given equal emphasis to each issue. To bring together the disparate interest groups formulate a policy that would have benefited each area of interest. The modernization of each issue, environment, inclusivity, racism, woman’s rights, children’s right, poverty, immigration, all of them, each is dependent on the other.
What do we do now that we have a president whose only interest is his own personal gain, a congress dominated by old white men bent on preserving white privilege, and the hate and racism propagated during the last eight years by has let loose violence and terror in our communities. Well, to start we work together, all interest groups working together to keep what has been achieved from being lost. Our job now is to stand up when we see abuse or harassment and protect the victims, stopping hate speech when we hear it, and working to prevent injustice wherever we see it. None of this is easy. It isn’t easy to do and it isn’t easy to work up the courage to take a stand. But that is what we are called to do.
I am a person of faith, and 2016 sorely tested that faith. Yet I still believe in what I was taught that we are to act justly and to love kindness, mercy, and compassion. We as a people of many faiths and beliefs are called to care for the disinherited, the lost, the incarcerated, elderly, young, and the stranger. That doesn’t change even though it has become much more difficult at the moment. History moves in many ways and we repeat our mistakes over and over again. We have the possibility to achieve great heights or astounding lows. The choice is ours. Do we repeat history or do we show that we can change history.
15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ 16Then Jesus* said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” 18But 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 apologies.” 19Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” 20Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” 21So 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.” 22 And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23 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. 24 For I tell you,* none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” ’
On a warm June afternoon in 2000 I was sitting at the entrance to the primary hotel in Vallejo CA. I was waiting for a bus to come and deliver John to me who was coming from the Oakland airport. I could hardly contain myself, you see in just a few short weeks I would be retiring from my consulting job and moving back to Edmonds. John was coming to help me pack-up the apartment and drive with me back to WA. We would be married in September. This was the beginning of 6 months of celebration that has extended into nearly 16 years.
I had accepted an invitation, I said yes. I knew that in that acceptance I would now be living a new life and one that would require me to make the choice to change from a life of taking care of only me to taking care of someone else. Now that’s a huge change for someone who was 53 and never married. But it was a choice that I have been grateful for ever since. You see by accepting the invitation I was transformed from a stranger into a member of a community. And, as a result I was blessed with a new life that has had its challenges and its joys. That’s what happens when you chose to transform your life. Life can be a bed of roses, but what you must remember is roses have thorns and you can be sure you will sometimes get stuck with one, or more, of those thorns.
Today’s scripture is not only about choosing between accepting and refusing an invitation to a banquet given by an upper class gentleman, it is about choosing between accepting or refusing to live a transformed life of free grace in the way we were meant to live. It is choosing to live as a member of a community rather than being a stranger, and, to decide living a transformed life means accepting all of that life of grace. It means we are to commit to live that life no matter what gets thrown at us or how many thorns we run into. Living a transformed life of grace doesn’t mean there won’t be thorns, or potholes, or great sorrows on your path. It means we are given the strength to walk through them because we aren’t traveling the road alone.
Our story this morning is about a man who has invited his friends and, probably, business associates to a banquet. In the first century preparing a large dinner was not an easy process. Different items were served depending on how many people RSVP’d the invitation. If only a small number accepted then chicken fish or duck may be the main course and a larger number would result in the host preparing anything from a one lamb or oxen to preparing many.
You have to remember there was no refrigeration so all of the food had to be prepared and eaten before it spoiled. To help prevent food wastage two invitations were sent out. The first invitation invited the guests to the dinner and they responded yes or no but the time of the dinner was not given. When all is ready the host sends out a second invitation calling the people to the prepared dinner. It was extremely rude to accept the first and not come for the second invitation because that meant a huge waste of resources for the host.
The householder has invited the guests and now sends his servants to call them to the prepared dinner. But despite accepting the first invitation all of his guests find excuses for not attending. The first guest refuses because of business issues. The second guest let’s his possessions take precedents over his social obligations, and the third puts his home and family above attending to a promise already given. I suppose to us these don’t seem like unreasonable reasons for not attending but what if we look at the story from a different direction.
First of all this isn’t a story isn’t about an ordinary householder. No, our host happens to be Jesus who is inviting his guests into a relationship that will transform their lives. How does the story and the excuses change when we see that it is Jesus who is inviting us into a banquet that will transform us from strangers into the Children of God in order to live a new life? How will that perspective change the way we hear this parable?
So here is how the story might sound if we told it as if Jesus was throwing this shindig? The guests Jesus first invites to his amazing banquet are those he expects will accept the invitation because they already understand, or he thinks they do, what it means to live the transformed life He is offering them. Jesus wants them to come and celebrate with Him, to become part of the new life that only happens when we accept the Divine invitation. An invitation of free grace to live the life we are meant to live in the presence of God, Jesus and Holy Spirit. So he sends his disciples out to bring his guests to the party; the food is ready, wine is poured, the orchestra is tuning up for an all night event. But his disciples come back and tell him all have refused, all are too busy with the details of life, the minutia of daily living. So what does he do, after all he has a hall prepared, food on the table, wine chilling, and musicians waiting? Well, Jesus did just what he told his disciples to do when he sent them out to preach and the invitations they gave were refused. He “dusted the dirt from His sandals” and turns his back on those who refused him and sends his disciples out again into the streets to bring in whomever they find to the party, the good and the bad, the worthy and the unworthy. These guests are the disadvantaged of the Jewish people; tax collectors, prostitutes, the homeless, and the ostracized because they are different. But still he has room so he sends out his servants again this time to the people from the roads and byways around the city. These are the people normally not considered part of the ‘Jewish family,’ these are the gentiles, the ultimate outsiders for the Jewish people.
How would we identify these people with those from today, the 21st century? Well think of who are our people of the streets and you might first of all think of “Nicholsville,” or the man or woman standing on the corner with a sign that says “Homeless vet, needs food and job,” and think of the shop keepers in the poorest parts of Seattle, or any town for that matter. It was people like these who were the ones who were welcomed into Jesus’ party. They were the nobodies of the town and here they were going to a big shindig given by the most important person in town. Now think of those people outside the Christian circle of community, Muslims, Buddhists, Jewish, atheist, and agnostic. Those might be our version “gentile.”
Can you imagine how they all felt? Can’t you just hear them as they walk to the mansion, “Jesus invited me, me, to his party,” “You too, I can’t believe it,” “I was invited too, and get this, the woman said come as I am, and it didn’t matter if I’m not part of the Christian faith. He just wants me to celebrate the Divines presence in my life as you celebrate it in yours, how cool is that.”
Unlike Jesus’ first guests these guests weren’t concerned about who they would be sitting next to at the table or who might make a big splash in the news media. It didn’t matter to them that the person next to them was a drug addict, a thief, a prostitute, a shop keeper, a prosperous business person or followed a different faith, they were all children of the one God. They didn’t care if Jesus was failing or succeeding in life. They were excited about being invited. They understood the importance of being invited to this banquet, this table. They wanted to have new lives. Unlike those first invited they knew their old lives weren’t working for them and they were willing to change and live new lives, transformed lives of grace that had meaning and where all people are recognized as family and community despite who they were or how they walked their way to God.
What Jesus was offering wasn’t a new idea for his banquet. For centuries the Prophets of Israel were telling the people the same thing. Moses says in Deuteronomy (30:19b) “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” In Proverbs 9 Wisdom calls to the people:
4“You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, 5 “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. 6 Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
And through Isaiah God tells the Jewish people:
6 “ theLordof hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”
In the New Testament James writes:
6 “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
God has been inviting us to the table of grace since the beginning. She spoke through the fathers of the Jewish people, through the prophets, sent her Son and spoke through the disciples. But we have let greed and self-centeredness takes precedence over the original message of grace.
But what does it mean to choose life? Well “When you say ‘Yes’ to life you say ‘Amen’ to all of life as a package deal. Thereafter the so-called problems you have with personal injustice do not arise. You renounce your concept of victimhood and the old impulse to complain about being unfairly treated.” A “commitment to life . . . refuses to make any distinction between your outer life and your inner life, or between secular and sacred spheres of life, or between loving God, loving all of life, or loving one’s neighbor, no matter who they are. Nor does it distinguish between your current life concerns or your eternal concerns. On the contrary, it simply calls for an unhesitating and unreserved ethical response to the call of life, the call of Jesus, God, and Holy Spirit – right where you are at this moment in time, at this point in your life,” to live a life where you defend justice for all and refuse to accept injustice for anyone as an expedient to living. That is what Jesus taught, that’s grace. It’s not new information, its old stuff we haven’t listened to, at least not for long time.
No matter how you tell today’s story it’s about Divine invitations, the acceptance of grace, and how you live once you’ve accepted God’s grace. When John asked me to marry him, I had a number of options. Like the first invited guests I could have refused and that would have been that. I don’t know where I would have been 16 years later but I am quite certain it wouldn’t have been here. But I did say yes and again to that yes I had options as to how I was going to live within this new relationship. One way was I could continue to behave as I have always behaved, just as the first guests invited to the banquet. Taking care of me, making sure I had what I wanted and what I needed. Yes John would be there but our relationship would not have been very deep because I wouldn’t have let him into the deeper part of me, the part of me that would have built the relationship where both of us would have lived a transformed life. But I chose to say yes and I chose to attend my life banquet. I let John into my heart and said we are partners and what I do and what you do will affect and change who we both are. We looked at the covenant of our marriage and said we do this together as one, not as two people living their own lives in one house. When I accepted John’s invitation to marry, when I accepted that covenant, I had no clue as to what that might look like, but I knew I was going to have to change if I was going to make my life with John. And yes it hasn’t always been sunshine and flowers. Sometimes we have had our thorny moments. But it was because we chose to live a life together as one that we had the strength to overcome all thorns and rocks in our path. While my wedding story wasn’t about God’s grace specifically, by accepting my invitation I discovered grace in a way I did not expect, and that is how it sometimes work.
As many diverse faith community’s we are given a Divine invitation to free grace every time we choose to come invite to our tables all people no matter who they are. We have heard this invitation before and we accepted it with our desire to be who we, as individuals and as communities, were meant to live. We are invited to a banquet of grace, welcoming every single one of us to the head table, and No questions asked about our past or how many times we haven’t understood, if we believe a certain way, or look a certain way. No the Divine wants us to come and join Her. To laugh and sing and eat together, to tell jokes, and play games. To dance to the music that life brings us, and cry together when life brings us sorrows. We are asked to change who we are at our deepest level and live grace filled lives that do not see differences between us, whether they are gender, racial, religious beliefs, cultural, social, or political. He asks us to live a life where we see only brothers and sisters and not people of different abilities, colors, faiths, or cultures.
We can change the world we live in, we can change the world by being the people we are meant to be, a people of grace, by being a people who refuse to accept evil, greed, and self-centeredness as the status quo. We can change the world by refusing to accept war as the only solution, or that homelessness and hunger is just part of life. We can change the world by seeing each other as the Children of God, living the life God meant us to live.
The banquet meal is ready to be served: lamb roasted, wine poured out, table set with silver and flowers. . . . Jesus goes to town, stands on the street corner, and invites everyone within the sound of his voice: Come, rich and poor alike, come the worthy and the unworthy, come with me, oh come, and celebrate the joining of our spirits! I’ve prepared a wonderful spread—fresh-baked bread, carefully selected wines. Leave your lives of self-centeredness, loneliness, fear, poverty, greed, and come, celebrate with me! Come celebrate a life with meaning, a life of grace. Come change your lives, remember to live transformed, not only your inner selves, but also your outer selves. Put on your cloak of joy and celebration and come, walk up the street to a life with meaning.”
 Cupitt, Don: Life, Life, Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa, CA, 2003, pg 6-7.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled. Matthew 5:6
What does it mean to “hunger and thirst” for righteousness? What Jesus was saying is better understood if we understand how the 1st century audience understood righteousness. A person listening to this scripture in the 1st century would have heard righteousness as justice; so those who “hunger and thirst for justice “will find justice. However, at least if you listen to the news media, it doesn’t seem as though justice is a priority today.
In this land of so much abundance there are too many who are hungry, homeless, and lost in a world of mental disability and addictions. Last Tuesday I volunteered at Common Ground in Everett. About 40 homeless and hungry people and one sweet dog showed up between 8 am and 12 noon, for coffee, tea, sandwiches and snacks. For 4 hours, 4 days a week people who live on the streets find a warm place to talk, play a few board games, drink coffee and eat snacks, or just sleep in a safe place.
Each and every one of the people served by this small shelter was hungry for justice. Some are homeless due to alcohol abuse or chemical addictions. Some have mental illnesses, too many are veterans suffering from PTSD. Some are young people thrown out of their homes by their parents and some are homeless through no real fault of their own. Some have committed crimes that prevent them from getting a job, but that is a smaller percentage than most people think. Many are homeless because they lost their job and are unable to find another one. It is one reason why some 50 something’s are on the street. They were living paycheck to paycheck and when the paycheck was lost so was their housing and everything else.
Every single visitor to Common Ground only wanted enough to survive on, a clean place to live, enough food to eat, and clean clothes to wear. Is that too much to ask? Each person wanted to be recognized for the person they are, with all the wounds and scars that living a life produces. Is that such a hard thing to ask for?
Homelessness, hunger, illness aren’t sins or crimes, even though they are often treated that way. Homelessness is the dirty little secret we want to hide away and tell ourselves it can’t happen to me, or those we love. Well, the truth is losing your home, and/or your family, everything you hold dear can be lost in a moment. When it happens, you very well may end up on the street asking yourself what happened.
The spiritual practice for the week is to recognize the people on the streets as our brothers and sister, our aunts and uncles, our mothers and fathers. You might carry with you an extra sandwich, or candy bar and when you meet someone offer it to them. They may refuse, but most likely they will accept. Shake their hand and let them know you recognize them for who they are, a child of God, a child of humanity. If you are in the position to speak up for those on the street then find a way to do it. If you are able to volunteer at a shelter the life lesson you receive will change how you view your own life of comfort and abundance. Even if you believe you have very little it is still more than what those on the streets have. They believe you are rich, and in meeting them face to face you will recognize how rich you are. You probably are saying that’s not a spiritual practice but it is spirituality in action, practicing what we are taught in the Gospels. It does no good to pray if the prayer is not followed up with meaningful action.
May each of you find the Divine in the face of a hungry man, woman, or child and may you be righteous offering justice for those in need.