This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 6, 2019 at Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC. The Scripture for the day was Luke 14:15-24.

As an introvert, I have a love-hate relationship with social gatherings. I love being around people, especially friends and family, but sometimes social anxiety hits, or I’ve had one too many evening obligations that week, and I just don’t feel like it.

Because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, I try to think of a good reason for my absence; at the same time, I’m a terrible liar, so sometimes I just go with the truth and say “I’ve already changed into my stretchy pants for the night.” I need to get that t-shirt I saw once that says: “I wish I could, but I don’t want to.”

In this parable from the Gospel of Luke, we have quite the roll call of excuses being rattled off as invited guests explain why they won’t be at this fabulous dinner that’s being prepared. Frankly, these are some pretty lame excuses—they all seem like things that could wait. Translated into today’s terms: I just closed on a property, and therefore I need to meet with my realtor. I just got a new car, and therefore I need to test drive it—right now. I just got married, and therefore…you know…

OK, maybe that last one is a little more understandable.

Whatever the reason, one by one, the list of attendees grows smaller and smaller.

Now if I were the person throwing this party, I would probably just turn off the lights in my house and eat all the party food by myself while listening to sad music. But this host is determined that the show must go on, so he sends for anyone who will come. Instead of guests who will almost certainly bring a side dish or a bottle of wine, here they come, the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, from the streets and the alleys and underneath bridges. A fabulous meal is had, but no one who made the original guest list gets to enjoy it.

Reflecting on this passage, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber notes that everyone who had an excuse was a person of means—they owned land and property and had family, while the people who ended up coming likely didn’t have anywhere near the same resources. No one who ended up at the meal could have gotten there without someone else’s help.

Bolz-Weber sees these two groups—those who were invited and those who ended up coming—not as different people but as metaphors for different parts of each one of us. She suggests that it’s the able-bodied parts of us that refuse the invitation to the supper, because we don’t see the need or because we believe we have something better to do. She says it’s precisely our brokenness that gets us to the table, because it’s that part of us that knows we’re hungry.

I love this reading of the passage, but I’m also one to dig a little deeper. There’s a way of thinking and advocating called the social model of disability that has had a big impact on me. This approach to disability claims that while a person might be physically impaired—say, lacking sight or the ability to walk—what makes them disabled is not their physical or mental condition but society’s failure to accommodate their needs. A person in a wheelchair being unable to access a building isn’t a problem inherent to that person—it’s a problem with the building. In this passage, is the brokenness experienced by the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame something inherent to them, or is it something imposed on them by a society that actively or passively discriminates against them? How might the answer to that change our reading of this parable?

And I have to ask—why weren’t the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame invited in the first place? If we back up to the two verses right before this passage starts, Jesus says, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” Not only does inviting these vulnerable groups seem like a good thing, it’s what Jesus literally just said we should do.

And this brings us to the question of how we read Jesus’ parables and where we locate God in these stories. Every time I’ve read this passage, I’ve assumed that God was the one throwing the banquet, and most commentaries I’ve read assume the same. But if that’s the case, wouldn’t God have invited the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, from the get-go? Jesus’ parables often hinge on a of dramatic reversal that reveals our shortcomings and demonstrates God’s grace. If the reversal is God changing God’s mind about whom God should invite to dinner, that seems a little strange to me.

Some commentators point to clues in this parable that may signal something else is going on. Those lame excuses that people offered for not attending the dinner—they roughly correspond to what were considered at the time to be legitimate reasons not to go to war. Also, the host is a slave owner and hasn’t invited the people Jesus said should be invited—so what if the person throwing this dinner party is a Roman officer? One commentary suggests such a person wouldn’t invite slaves or other vulnerable people because they were already subjugated, and he may be trying to bring in others with more means and resources so they might feel indebted to him and serve his purposes. In this reading, the reversal comes when those who are not yet subjugated refuse to be wined and dined by the powers that be.

This reading of the parable made me think of a news story that has caused controversy in the last few days. Last week, former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the murder of Botham Jean, whom she shot dead in his own apartment last year. Guyger is white; Jean was black; and allegations of racism played a part in the case against Guyger.

What caught mine and many others’ attention this week was a subplot of the trial. During the court proceedings, Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt made the decision to offer Guyger his forgiveness, embracing his brother’s killer there in the courtroom. The moving image of Brandt Jean hugging Guyger made headlines and was heralded as a beautiful example of true Christian forgiveness.

But many were quick to point out the problematic ways in which this act of mercy was portrayed. Some noted that many who praised “the hug” didn’t know anything about Botham Jean’s killing. Some traced the history of a system that praises people of color for nonviolence and acts of mercy but refuses to acknowledge their righteous anger and protest.

What Brandt Jean did was courageous, and beautiful, and good. We would be wrong to dismiss or criticize what he needed to do in that moment to cleanse his heart toward Guyger. But we would also be wrong to weaponize his actions against other people of color and place an unfair burden on them to compulsorily extend forgiveness to those who oppress them.

Several activists have lifted up the example of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was lynched and beaten and murdered in 1955. Mamie Till-Mobley insisted on an open casket funeral for her son, forcing everyone to look on the mangled body of her boy. This, too, is grace—to be made to look on our collective sin and repent.

If we do not protest Botham Jean’s murder, we do not deserve to celebrate “the hug,” and this is why—if we see only “the hug,” we get the good feelings of a heartwarming story without having any idea what it really means.

To forgive someone who killed your brother is itself an act of enormous generosity and grace; in a society where we sit up and take notice of that act of forgiveness but not of the murder that precipitated it, a society where a black man like Botham Jean felt the need to warn his little brother Brandt to be careful in his interactions with police—in that society, that forgiveness means something we can barely grasp. Like Mamie Till-Mobley, we must refuse to participate in a superficial healing process if we have not yet truly faced the depth of the brokenness that requires mending.

To return to our parable for this morning, part of our call today is to refuse to participate in unjust power structures—to refuse to make performative forgiveness a requirement of already oppressed people; to refuse to continue to passively accept the privilege we enjoy because of race, gender, or class; to refuse powerless identities that keep us enslaved to a system that harms us all.

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Francis. Francis is best known for being the Doctor Doolittle of Christianity, but there was much more to his life and witness. One famous story about Francis has to do with the way his relationship with his family deteriorated as he followed God’s calling on his life. At its peak, this conflict led to a dramatic public gesture in which Francis stripped himself naked and returned his clothes to his father, who was a wealthy cloth merchant. Francis refused the invitation to participate in his father’s wealth, choosing instead the vulnerability and authenticity of a holy life of solidarity with the poor. In a twist of irony, Francis’ public nakedness so embarrassed the bishop present that he took off his own cloak and covered Francis with it.

We are called to refuse the seductive invitation to exert power over others in any form. We are called instead to respond to and extend the invitation to this table—the table of Christ, the table of justice and mercy and humility, the table of true forgiveness and costly grace.

About 5 years ago, a photo and accompanying story went viral on social media. The photo features a bridal party made up of beautiful white people in formalwear mingling with a group of young black men in t-shirts and baggy pants. The story goes that the bride, intending to let a groomsman know where to meet for pictures, texted the wrong number with a date, time, and address. Realizing her mistake, she apologized and said that wasn’t an invitation to strangers—but the recipient replied, “We still coming.” They did come, and the wedding photos capture these incongruous groups laughing and posing together.

I saw this story when it was trending with the hashtag #westillcoming, and I loved it. It reminded me of our passage for today, this story of uninvited guests coming to a party, and it perfectly alluded to the wedding feast of the lamb that we forecast every time we celebrate communion.

But in preparing this sermon, I went to look up that story again and found that the narrative that circled wasn’t entirely accurate. The photo that spread around social media was real, but it turns out the young black men weren’t crashing the wedding—instead, the bridal party was crashing their gathering.

Here’s what actually happened: when the group from the wedding arrived for photos in Detroit’s theater district, they came across a rap group shooting a video. They asked if they could take pictures, and the rappers welcomed them for a few minutes of hilarity, even featuring shots of the bridal party in the final cut of the music video.

When I realized that the heartwarming story of an accidental invitation wasn’t true, I was disappointed—but the journalist who dug up the real backstory made an excellent point. They said it’s likely that someone saw this photo, the absurdity of white people dressed to the nines hanging out with black men in street clothes, and assumed that the black men were the uninvited guests—or thought the story would be more popular if it were framed that way. So they fabricated an accompanying text message and watched the story go viral.

And I wondered why it had not even occurred to me that the truth might be the opposite of what was presented as fact—why it was so easy for me to believe that the rappers were the uninvited guests.

I thought about how two young people of color recently went to tour a food pantry with their school group and were stopped from following their white peers to the classroom by a volunteer who assumed they were there to receive services.

I thought about how when people see black friends of mine from college wearing their Duke sweatshirts, they assume they are fans of the basketball team but are surprised to learn they are alumni of the school.

I thought about the time in seminary when a black teenager knocked on my door and a housemate thought she was looking for handouts when she was actually coming to meet me, her youth leader, to go get ice cream with some other kids from church.

Who is invited—or not? And whom do we assume or believe is invited—or not? Who is crashing whose party, and who gets to throw a banquet in the first place?

Today is World Communion Sunday. With Christians across the globe, we celebrate communion as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all are invited and welcomed and fed. The good news of this table is that its host is not a slave owner or a government official or a military leader, but the sacrificial lamb. Christ invited us all to this table, but he does not just invite—he offers himself to us, emptying himself for our sake, becoming the embodiment of power made perfect in weakness.

I want to close with a blessing by Jan Richardson that I return to every year on World Communion Sunday. As we receive this blessing, may we know that there is room at the table for everyone—for black and white, rich and poor, male and female, and none of the above; for the able-bodied and those whom society disables by excluding and oppressing them; for Brandt Jean’s act of forgiveness and for Mamie Till-Mobley’s refusal to allow us to look away; for rap artists making a music video and for a wedding party showing up uninvited. There is room at the table for all of these, and there is room at the table for all of us.

Receive this blessing with me:

And the Table Will Be Wide, by Jan Richardson

And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
to receive.

And we will come
as children who trust
there is enough.
And we will come
unhindered and free.
And our aching
will be met
with bread.
And our sorrow
will be met
with wine.

And we will open our hands
to the feast
without shame.
And we will turn
toward each other
without fear.
And we will give up
our appetite
for despair.
And we will taste
and know
of delight.

And we will become bread
for a hungering world.
And we will become drink
for those who thirst.
And the blessed
will become the blessing.
And everywhere
will be the feast.

Amen.

Published by Sarah Howell-Miller

"I believe in kindness, also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when it is not necessarily prescribed." {Mary Oliver}

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: