Monday, February 2, 2009

Turning the Text Upside Down

Scripture: Luke 14:16-24

Yesterday I had the joy of attending the 50th Anniversary of a church in Toronto where I had been Minister of Christian Education a number of years ago. The current minister of this church was enrolled in a doctorate programme for ministry at an American university, and he invited one of his professors, an African-American preacher from Chicago, to come and preach to us.

He preached on this text, the parable of a man who gave a banquet for his friends, and ended up having his servants bring in the blind, the lame, the crippled and the poor in order to fill up the seats at the table. I’ve heard sermons on this text before—I’ve even preached a few myself. But I’ve only heard and spoken sermons on this text from my own white, Canadian middle-class background. To hear the perspective of an African-American on this text was both eye-opening and liberating for me.

His main take on the text, the whole point of his sermon, could be summed up in the phrase, “You don’t belong here. This banquet was made for others better than yourself, and you’ve just been invited to fill the tables.” Or, to paraphrase George Carlin’s “Refrigerator” sketch—“If you don’t eat it, we’re only going to throw it away.”

Coming from a liberal white Christian background, I grew up believing, and still believe, in the inherent worth of each person. Every person is created in the image of God, and every person is loved by God.

As most from my background do, I’d extrapolated that belief to a belief that we all belong at the banquet table, that we all have a right to be there.

Except I knew, deep in the depths of my heart, that the right to be there didn’t really apply to me. I know who I am—I’m a person who lusts, whose financial affairs are a mess, who separated from her husband and left her kids to his care, who is wasting her life working for a movie theatre instead of preaching the gospel as she’s been trained to do. I’m a slothful glutton who eats and sleeps too much, and runs away from hard work.

There are times when my faith in the church has faltered. There have even been times when my faith in Jesus Christ and God have faltered. Merciful Heavens, I still haven’t figured that one out, and can’t tell you for sure exactly what I believe about God!

I don’t belong at the table, and I know it, and it will always be that way, and nothing the liberal feminist theologians can say has helped me believe otherwise.

And for the first time in a very long time I felt liberated. I don’t belong at the table. Nothing I can do can change that fact and earn me the right to belong. And that’s true of the folks who worshipped with me that morning, and of everyone throughout the world who sits down to eat at the banquet that God has prepared. We all have our secret sins and passions, things that make us unworthy to be at the banquet.

It’s a gift we did not, and can not, earn. We’re at the table by grace alone. We don’t have to prove ourselves better than those who aren’t there. We don’t have to prove ourselves better than those who sit beside us. We don’t have to be perfect or anywhere close before we can go to church and sit amongst the congregation of the faithful.

Unworthy as I am, God has compelled me to come to the banquet and eat. I’ve been snatched out of the alleyway where I’ve been hiding, and dressed in my rags I’ve been seated in a chair where a rich, powerful person in beautiful clothing should be sitting instead, eating a meal that is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

I don’t belong there, but by God’s grace, I’m there anyhow. The only choice I have is to enjoy it, or not.

I will choose to enjoy.


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