How to Throw a Party

One of my all-time favorite films is called Places in the Heart.  You may not remember this 1984 film, but you may remember a well-known incident associated with it.  In 1985, Sally Field won her second Academy Award for her role in this film.  In her now-famous acceptance speech for her Oscar, Field said, “You like me, you really like me!” I think she really deserved that award because Places in the Heart was a wonderful film. Set in Texas during the 1930s, it’s about survival in the face of very difficult circumstances.  Sally Field’s character suddenly becomes a poor widow with small children when her husband, the town sheriff, is accidentally shot by a young black man. As you might imagine, there was no trial. The young man was beaten, lynched, drug behind a truck, and his body discarded in the front yard of his mother’s house. After both funerals are over, Sally decides to take in boarders to help make ends meet.  Her two borders are a blind man, played by John Malkovich, and an African-American man, played by Danny Glover.  Glover is also her farm hand and farm manager and faces overt racism from Field’s white neighbors, especially considering who killed her husband.

Now, I bring this film up today because “Places in the Heart” is one of the most theological Hollywood films ever made.  It deals with grief and loss, racism and reconciliation, faith, healing and hope.  AND, in the final scene of the movie, the camera moves to the interior a church.  AND as Communion is being distributed, the camera pans the congregation.  There, pictured all around Sally Field’s character, are all the people who are or have been important in her life, both living and dead.  The most touching part to me however, is when the deceased husband passes the communion tray to the young black man who took his life. This final scene a portrait of the heavenly banquet, the communion of saints, if ever there was one.

I thought of “Places in the Heart” when I read today’s gospel lesson.  In it Jesus is describing God’s heavenly banquet, one which will include everyone, not just the wealthy and friends and relatives, but also the poor, the outcast and discouraged, the lame and the blind. This story is typical of Luke’s Gospel.  Luke often pictures Jesus eating and drinking from calling Matthew, the hated tax collector, to be his disciple over supper through his Last Supper Passover meal with his disciples.  The Jesus of Luke likes to eat and drink.  He likes to attend dinner parties. And this is key! Luke’s Jesus always has an open table for his dining.  Welcome at Jesus’ table is for everyone, rich and poor, men and women, all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations.[i]

And in our text for today, Jesus offers his guidance on how to throw a party while attending one himself at the home of one an important person, a well-connected and wealthy person. The kind of a party where all the “right” people were in attendance.  Like one of those Hollywood red carpet shindigs.  BUT it was right in the middle of this high-end gathering that Jesus said, “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing!”[ii]

But he doesn’t stop there. Jesus goes on to share a parable. A parable about the ultimate party. A party that’s being thrown by God.  And what does this party look like? Well, when God throws a party, the protocol isn’t anything Emily Post would recognize. When God throws a party, there’s no thought given to inviting only the elite, only those who can return the favor. When God throws a party, a diversity of people are invited. People who have nothing in common except they have accepted the invitation. When God throws a party, the invitations are issued without a hint of proper attire because it’s a come-as-you-are event.  You don’t have to look or act or think like everyone else. There are no airs to be put on.  AND When God throws a party, you never know who you’ll end up sitting next to. The mutual fund manager may be seated next to a homeless person, a store owner next to the person he just fired, or like Places in the Heart, a white police officer may be serving communion to a young black man.[iii]

And here’s the best part! Notice that I didn’t say “a party that God is going to throw sometime in the future.” God’s party is going on right now. The Kingdom of God, the present Reign of God, the kin-dom of God’s people IS an on-going party that started with the birth of Christ and continues up to and beyond today.

 

This is an important thing for us to understand. It’s a key point that we need to wrap our minds around. Because if God’s party is on-going it up to us to issue some invitations. But a question still looms in the background, who should we invite?  In theory and in the front of our brains we say “everyone” of course. But does the reality match up with ideal? In other words, as the Church, Church with a Capitol C, the universal Christian Church; do we practice what we preach?

Author and pastor Tony Campolo tells a story of an experience at dinner in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, some years ago. He was checking on mission programs that his organization carries out day in and day out in Haiti. He wanted to see how the workers were surviving emotionally and spiritually. At the end of a long day, he was tired and “peopled out,” so it was with great relief that he sat down to eat a good dinner at a French restaurant in the heart of Port-au-Prince. He was seated next to the window so he could enjoy watching the activity on the street outside. The waiter brought a delicious looking meal and set it in front of him. Tony picked up his knife and fork and was about to dive in when he happened to look to his right. There, with their noses pressed flat against the window, staring at his food, were four children from the streets. They pressed their faces right up against the glass; they were staring at his plate of food. The waiter, seeing his discomfort, quickly moved in and pulled down the window shade, shutting out the disturbing sight of the hungry children. The waiter then said to Tony, “Don’t let them bother you. Enjoy your meal. [iv]

On this World Communion Sunday can we truly enjoy our meal? Who’s on the outside looking in? What faces are pressed up against the stained glass?  Who do we “pull the window shade down on?” What barriers prevent some people from feeling truly welcome in the fellowship of God’s people?

Now, I realize that these questions may come off as a little harsh. They’re intended to be startling. But let me qualify them a bit. When I pose these questions they are intended to challenge the whole of post-modern Christianity.  Because there’s two sides to every coin. You see, World Communion Sunday is the only time of the year when all Christians are invited to the table as one.  But the loudest voices seem to excluding those who think or act or live differently.  How many Christian denominations allow only members or those deemed worthy by the pastor to partake of the sacrament? How many people are excluded from church because of class, race, or sexual orientation?

Now, you might answer my charges here with, “But that’s not our church. We’re an inclusive church; both our local congregation and the United Church of Christ. And you would be right. But, Jesus issues an interesting challenge to us progressive Christians in this text.  “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.” (14:23b NRSV)

We are called, my friends, to “compel” people to come in. Other translations of the Bible say “urge” them, “make” them … in one case even to “drag” them in.[v]  Now, this might seem a bit extreme or even hyperbolic, but does speak with some urgency for us to imitate to the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry.  To make sure that our voice is heard as well. Some churches do exclude some people. But that’s not us. And we must be bold in our proclamation, our invitation, our extravagant welcome to all people. As we say in our communion liturgy, “all people are welcome to share in this sacred meal, no exceptions.

That’s the crux of Jesus’ message in Luke 14 as well.  All people are welcome into the company of God, no exceptions. And when we’ve all been invited and when all the invitations have been issued and accepted, what a party it’ll be! May it be so.  Amen.

—————-

[i] Gonzales, Justo. The Story Luke Tells, Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2015 pg. 77-91

[ii] Peterson, Eugene.  The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs: NavPress Publishing Group. 2005 Luke 14:12b-14

[iii] Copenhaver, Martin B. Room to Grow: Meditation on Trying to Live as a Christian. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2015 pg. 132 – 133.

[iv] Campolo, Tony.  Stories that Feed your Soul. pg. 104-106.

[v] The Precise Parallel New Testament. John R. Kohlenburger III ed.New York: Oxford University Press, 1995 pg. 398-399

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