Room for Anyone
An old friend of mine pastors a church near Bellaire, MI. This past Sunday, he posted this on Facebook after worship: “A preacher’s thought for the day. Preaching is like being an alarm clock. People pay you to wake them up, but when you do your job, they swear and want to smack you.” Just part of the job hazard, I guess. If you have your Bibles with you, turn to Luke 14:15. We’re going to look at this passage in a minute.
For 20 years, Chris Heuertz was the international director of Word Made Flesh, an organization that helps the world’s poor. He was a classmate of mine when I was studying for my Bachelor’s degree at Asbury University in Kentucky. After studying at Asbury, Chris moved with his wife to India, where he was directly mentored by Mother Theresa for three years. In his book Simple Christianity, Chris writes that one night in particular stands out in all his world travels. While walking the streets of Kolkata, a destitute region in South Asia, Chris and his companions – Josh, Sarah, and Phileena, his wife – stumbled across a person lying under a filthy, fly-infested blanket. A three-foot trail of diarrhea was making its way toward the gutter. It was obvious to anyone passing by that the person under the sheet was either dead or dying. Chris writes: My pal Josh tapped the body on the shoulder to see if the person was dead. The body moved. Josh pulled the blanket down from the face that it covered to see a helpless young man, maybe twenty-two years old and visibly stunned by our approach. As soon as he realized we were there to help him, he began weeping uncontrollably. A crowd gathered. He continued to cry. We didn’t have much to work with, but our friend Sarah grabbed a bottle of water and some newspaper. She began cleaning the young man, wiping the diarrhea off with the newspaper and rinsing him with the water. We asked him his name. Tutella Dhas. He was lost, afraid, alone. His body was a leathery-skinned skeleton, and his bulging eyes accentuated the shape of his skull. He kept crying. We tried to get a taxi, but none would stop. The crowd grew. No one wanted to help. Two more friends happened to be walking down the street just then, and they were able to find a taxi. They took Tutella Dhas with them and headed off to Mother Teresa’s House for the Dying. Phileena, Sarah, Josh, and I stood there in disbelief. I lifted my head and caught sight of a church and its sign less than five feet where we found the dying Tutella Dhas. The sign read, “All are welcome here.” It may have been what inspired someone to drop Tutella in front of the church. But was he welcome? People from the church watched as we helped Tutella, yet the gate remained closed.[i]
Jesus had been invited to enjoy a meal over the Sabbath with a leader among the Pharisees. The Pharisees were very conscious of their social standing. And one of the primary ways they advertised and sought to enhance their social standing was through their meals, who they accepted invitations from, and who they invited to their own table.
You know, who you are willing to eat with says a lot about you. Who have you eaten with lately? Think back over the last month or so. Who have you shared a table with? In Jesus’ day, the social elite would only dine with someone who shared their social status, or who would elevate their status. And they would only dine with someone who could return the favor. An invitation to someone who was poor couldn’t be reciprocated. So the offer was never made. And as Jesus prepares to eat in the home of this socially elite, in-crowd Pharisee, a man with “dropsy” appears in front of him. Jesus was probably just outside the home. Dropsy isn’t a term we use much anymore. Today a doctor would say that he had severe edema. He was very swollen because he was retaining fluid. Not a disease in and of itself, but a symptom of a number of serious conditions, including congestive heart failure. Something was seriously wrong with this guy. In Jesus’ day, dropsy was viewed as a punishment for sin. So not only was this guy very sick in some way, people figured he’d committed some great sin and brought it on himself. But unlike the last time Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath, Jesus didn’t wait for them to question him about something he had already done. This time, Jesus struck first, with a question Luke records up in V. 3. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” And Luke tells us that they were silent. They refused to answer. They refused to answer because they knew that in front of them stood a man in great need, facing a man who seemed to have the power to meet that need. If they said “no,” they would be viewed as uncaring, cold, and callous. If they said “yes,” some would say that they had broken with traditional views of the Sabbath. So they said nothing. And look tells us that Jesus “took” the man, or “took hold of” the man. The words used indicate that Jesus pulled the man into his arms in a compassionate embrace. Jesus hugged him. And healed him.
So Jesus has just shown up his hosts. He asked them, “Do you want me to heal this man, or not?” Put them in a really uncomfortable situation. And then he healed the guy. But he didn’t just heal him. He drew the man into an embrace. Jesus didn’t have to touch someone to heal them. He’d healed someone from miles away once. He touched them because they needed to be touched. It was a sign not just of affection, but of restoration. It signaled their re-entry into the community. Where they typically knew only exclusion, Jesus brought them in. He included them. He embraced them. And then, as the evening progressed, Jesus told them a story. Like most parables, this one is a double edged sword, with both hope-filled promise and stern warning. It just depends on who you are. How you respond. Look at Luke 14:15-24.
A man of great wealth extends an invitation to his friends to attend a great banquet. Now, it was customary in Jesus’ day for the host to send an initial invitation, which people would RSVP to, and then send a summons days later when the banquet was ready. Jesus says that it was a “great” banquet. This wasn’t just your average, run-of-the-mill, rich person’s lavish dinner party. This was the banquet to end all banquets. The guest list was large and distinguished and the menu larger. And people had initially indicated that they would come. But when he sent his servants out to summon the guests, because things were now ready, they made excuses, and didn’t come.
The first person said he’d just bought land and needed to go and see it. First of all, who buys property without looking at it first? Sure, we all like to walk through new property, a new house or a new hunting property after we buy it, but we’ve certainly looked at it first, before handing over the sizeable amount of money it has always required to purchase land. The second person said “I’ve just bought five new teams of oxen and I need to try them out, see how they do.” Now, remember, this was an agricultural society, and horses and oxen were the way work got done. This was the technology, the farm equipment, of the day. No farmer would have bought that much farm equipment without knowing it’s capability. And a third said “I’ve just gotten married.” Now, this one seemed to have scriptural backing. Deuteronomy 24:5 says that newly engaged or married men were exempt from military and other civil duty for a year. But not parties! Even a newly married couple has time to go to a great party. But the excuses came. I’m too busy. I’ve got too much going on. There’s something else I need to do. What excuses do you make?
Imagine your friend is moving Saturday. Are you free to help? The real answer is yes. Your Google calendar is empty, and the person is coming to stand over your shoulder. The honest answer is no, because you’re a human being and not a forklift. And also because you guys aren’t really that close. If only you had something else planned so it would be easier to say no. “Got This Thing” is just that. It’s a Web app uses your phone’s location to populate your Google calendar with local stuff that’s happening. Click on the “Get Busy” button and in an instant – your blank schedule turns into a confetti of things to do. The app has real potential as an event aggregation and discovery tool. It could make it easy for people to find things to do without having to do much. But, the developer says half-jokingly, all of that is secondary: “It’s for people who want to avoid doing things.” What is the nature of our commitment to the Kingdom of God? We say we’re disciples of Jesus. We say we’re ready to follow. But when the request is inconvenient? Or difficult? Or might cost us something? Do we respond? Or are we busy?
So the host has prepared food based on RSVPs, and now no one will respond to his call. So he tells his servants, “Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (V. 21). You see, the heart of God beats for people. The heart of God beats for us. The heart of God beats for you. The image of a great banquet is a common image for the coming of the Kingdom of God in its fullness. It’s a common image for heaven. But like most conceptions of the Kingdom of God, it’s just an image. The kingdom of God isn’t an eternal dinner party any more than it’s an eternal worship service. That’s a common image too. Those are images. Analogies. But not the real thing. The only thing the Bible tells us straightforwardly about God’s kingdom in its fullness, when Christ returns, is that sin will no longer separate us from God, and the old order of things, the way things are now, with evil and pain and tragedy, will be gone, and every wrong will be made right. But God’s invitation to life isn’t just for when we die. It begins now. Right here. In our lives as we live them now. He invites us to live as citizens of his kingdom now.
Some of you might remember the “When God’s People Pray” small group study we went through a couple of years ago. The study was written by Jim Cymbala, pastor at the Brooklyn Tablernacle. In an article called “Messy, Costly, Dirty Ministry,” Mark Buchanan tells the story of his visit to the Brooklyn Tabernacle. The Tuesday night prayer meeting at Brooklyn Tabernacle felt like skydiving into a tornado, exhausting and exhilarating all at once. I’d read about the meeting in Pastor Jim Cymbala’s book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, but nothing prepared me for the event itself: 3,500 God-hungry people storming heaven for two hours. Afterward, my friend and I went out to dinner with the Cymbalas. In the course of the meal, Jim turned to me and said, “Mark, do you know what the number one sin of the church in America is?” I wasn’t sure, and the question was rhetorical anyhow. “It’s not the plague of internet pornography that is consuming our men. It’s not that the divorce rate in the church is roughly the same as society at large.” Jim named two or three other candidates for the worst sin, all of which he dismissed. “The number one sin of the church in America,” he said, “is that its pastors and leaders are not on their knees crying out to God, ‘Bring us the drug-addicted, bring us the prostitutes, bring us the destitute, bring us the gang leaders, bring us those with AIDS, bring us the people nobody else wants, whom only you can heal, and let us love them in your name until they are whole.’” I had no response. I was undone. He had laid me bare, found me out, and exposed my fraudulence. I was the chief of sinners. I had never prayed, not once, for God to bring such people to my church. So I went home and repented. I stopped sinning. I began to cry out for “those nobody wants.”[ii]
So servant says, “Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.” The host told him, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled” (V. 23). Beat the bushes. Find them. The word compel there doesn’t mean “force at gunpoint.” It means to persistently pursue people. It means that no seat will be left empty. This is gracious, uncalculating hospitality. These people can’t return the favor. They can’t boost the social standing of the host. By every social convention of the day, they don’t deserve to be there. And yet they find a seat at the table.
And then the warning. “None of those who were invited shall taste my banquet” (V. 24). You’re invited. Don’t reject the invitation. For there will come a day when it will be too late. And accepting that invitation means becoming an inviter.
Steve Sjogren was the founding pastor of Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s the church our youth will be visiting when they participate in Summer of Service in June. Steve now lives and pastors in Southern California. In his book, “Changing the World through Kindness, he writes: Not long after we moved [into our first house in California], my wife, Janie, and I picked up on the tension between a couple of neighbors. One was a very outspoken churchgoer, while the other was an unbeliever. I knew I was in the hot seat when the unchurched man struck up a conversation with me as we were both working in our yards. “Say, Steve, aren’t you a pastor?” It seems implicit in the public’s understanding that pastors exist to serve as referees in times of conflict, so I reluctantly listened as this troubled man opened up about the neighbor he’d never understood. He unfolded a long history of numerous conflicts over small issues. … Then he looked up and sighed, “But the most recent problem takes the cake. We received a letter from his attorney threatening to sue us if we don’t trim a tree that borders his yard. It seems strange he didn’t just come over and ask me to take care of the tree before he went to his attorney.” … With a little wink this streetwise unchurched man continued, “You know, I was getting ready to trim that tree, but now there’s no way I’m going to do anything until he forces me. I will gladly go to court just so I can have a story to tell about being sued by Christians over an orange tree.” He summarized his thoughts with a haunting observation: “I guess sometimes Christians love us – they just don’t like us.”[iii]
Christ’s invitation is simply this: COME. To the business owner and the day laborer he calls out, come. To the police officer and the gang banger he calls out, come. To the fitness addict and the drug addict, he calls out, come. To the young, innocent couple madly in love and the prostitute who has known nothing but abuse and scorn, he calls out, come. To the healthy and wealthy, and to the sick and destitute, and to everyone in between, he calls out come. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). And so that must be our call. Come. If we are his hands, our hands must be gentle and heal. If we are his arms, our arms must welcome. If his eyes are searching for the lost, then our eyes must search. If his heart is pure, and yet filled with love, then our hearts, filled with His Spirit, must be pure, and yet filled with love. If the gospel really is good news, then good news must be on our lips. Do we love, but not like? Are we willing to pursue those who don’t know Christ? Who is welcome at Christ’s table? Invite them, for still there is room.
[i] Christopher L. Heuertz, Simple Christianity (IVP, 2008), pp. 61-62
[ii] Mark Buchanan, “Messy, Costly, Dirty Ministry,” Leadershipjournal.net (5-15-09)
[iii] Steve Sjogren, Changing the World Through Kindness (Regal, 2005), pp. 103-104