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Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Guesting Side of God--A Sermon

The Guesting Side of God
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 27th, 2010

Luke 14:16-24
Thomas 64
Matthew 22:2-14

Today is the first Sunday of summer. This week we explore a new via. Welcome to the via postiva. This is the spiritual path of awe and wonder. It is the path of celebration. It is vivid. It is lively. It is hot. It is life! Yes! Our senses are filled. Creation is showing off her stuff.

And we are alive.

Time for a party.

During this summer I am going to look at some of the parables of Jesus as starting points. I think that is what Jesus intended them to be. Starting points. Jumping off points. Diving boards. You don’t just stand on the diving board, analyze it, admire its craftsmanship and then call it a day. You use it to dive into the pool.

The parables of Jesus are like diving boards that bounce us into the big splash of life.

I have a few initial thoughts about the parables of Jesus. I don’t think they are primarily allegories to emphasize or illustrate theological doctrine. I don’t even think they are about God, or certainly not some concept of God that we have been taught to believe. I also don’t think they are for the purpose of moralizing—
good boys and girls are like this and bad boys and girls are like that.
The parables are quite ordinary on one level. They are about normal things, a woman searching for a coin in the dirt, a man hiring laborers, a son who runs away and spends his father’s money, a woman baking bread, a farmer sowing seeds in a field, a mustard weed growing, and a man throwing a dinner party.

But you know as you hear them that they are not really about any of those things. They touch on the meaning of those things, the life within those things, but they only touch, they don’t clobber. Rather than insist they agitate. It is as if Jesus is saying,
Oh, so you think this is what it means to be happy? This is your idea of justice, is it? You know compassion, do you? Well, try this one on for size…
And then Jesus proceeds to tell a parable of a man beaten and left for dead in the ditch. He doesn’t speak a word or perform any action. He is helpless and in need. The scandal is that he has to bear the humiliation of being helped by his enemy.

Some of the most interesting work on the parables has been done in the last few decades by fellows of the Jesus Seminar. We are fortunate to have Brandon Scott and Art Dewey come to Elizabethton in October for a Jesus Seminar on the Road. The focus of that seminar will be the parables. These parables of Jesus give us insight into his voice.

It is tricky work, because many other voices have been added to Jesus’ voice, so we don’t always know who is speaking. Is the writer of Luke’s Gospel speaking or is it Jesus? Is this Matthew speaking or is it Jesus?

For instance, the parable of the Dinner Party is found in three Gospels: Matthew, Thomas, and Luke. Matthew's version is quite different from the other two. In Matthew’s version, the host is a king and it is a wedding. When the king discovers that his friends have refused his invitation, he sends out his soldiers, kills them, and burns their city. The moral of that story is that there are some parties you make sure you attend. But even then you aren’t guaranteed a good time, because one guy shows up and he doesn’t have a wedding garment. So he is cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew has taken this parable and turned it into a theological salvation history.

Thomas is not in the Bible. This gospel discovered in the 1940s contains sayings of Jesus. Some are familiar; others are not. It contains the parable of the Dinner Party. All of the invited guests who refuse the invitation do so for business reasons. For some reason, the author of the Gospel of Thomas didn’t like merchants or business people. Apparently, the author of the Gospel of Thomas has an aversion to the worldly matters of buying and selling and puts that concern on the lips of Jesus. Thomas has Jesus interpret the parable by saying:
Buyers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father.
Luke takes the parable yet one more direction. Luke has a concern throughout his gospel for the poor. So he adds the specific invitation to the “poor, crippled, blind, and lame.” And when they don’t fill the house, then another invitation to all who would come.

When we look at the parables, we will find that the different gospel writers take a core parable and add to it, or subtract from it, or change it around, or place it in a certain context that suits their needs. They didn’t invent these ideas out of whole cloth. They are not necessarily being deceptive. It is how they saw Jesus.

So separating out Thomas, Matthew, and Luke’s concerns, an earlier version of the parable might have gone like this:
A man was giving a big dinner and invited many guests. At the dinner hour the host sent his slave to tell the guests: “Come, it’s ready now.”
But one by one they all began to make excuses. The first said to him,
“I just bought a farm, and I have to go and inspect it; please excuse me.”
And another said,
“I just bought five pairs of oxen, and I’m on my way to check them out; please excuse me.”
And another said,
“I just got married, and so I cannot attend.”
So the slave came back and reported these (excuses) to his master. The master said to his slave,
“Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.”
Brandon Scott thinks that what is going on here is a social snubbing and a shaming. The excuses are lame. The invited guests are purposely refusing the host’s hospitality. The tradition is that a formal invitation would be sent and then when the time for the party would come, guests would be escorted to the party. So it isn’t as though the invited guests didn’t know it was coming.

And the excuses themselves are pitiful. Who buys a farm and then goes and inspects it? Who buys oxen and then checks them out? Why would the person who must have known he was getting married, accept the invitation in the first place?

Others have suggested that these excuses are legitimate. In the original version of the parable, these guests are caught off guard. This is a sudden invitation and they had plans already made to check on newly purchased farms and oxen in the first two cases and to celebrate a marriage in the third. The host miscalculated. He thought everyone would drop everything and come to his party, but you know, people have lives to live. Just because you throw a party, it doesn’t mean it is all about you. Disappointed and angry the host invites whoever will come.

Snubbed or not, I suppose it doesn't matter. That happens sometimes. No use burning cities over it or forcing folks to attend your dinner party. Whether the excuses are legit or not probably doesn't matter either. If you don't want to do something, one excuse is as good as another.

One of the difficulties with parables especially in church is that we think they are about religion. They must be about God, heaven, and hell. So we automatically think that the host is either God or perhaps Jesus referring to himself. The Dinner Party must be heaven. But there is no requirement that that be the case. In fact, it doesn’t work so well with God as the host. Is it really God’s character to invite the wealthy first and then the others only after the wealthy refuse? What does that say about our conception of God?

Perhaps the parable is a challenge of our expectations. It invites us to think about our lives.

I am going to offer a secular reading. I don’t think the historical Jesus cared that much about theology. I don’t think he talked about God that much. He talked about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God it seems to me was more of a metaphor for Life, Life with a capital L. I also don’t think he cared about moralizing. I think Jesus told parables to shake people up so that they could move beyond convention and see their life with fresh eyes.

The big questions are
How does one find happiness in this vale of tears?
How does one become an appropriate guest to Life?
We know that there are all kinds of rules and stories, parables and mythologies of how one is supposed to be happy, what it means to be happy, and who gets to be happy. There are other rules that tell us if we are happy in that way (whatever way that might be), then we aren’t really happy.

We are born and raised with all kinds of conventions, that is, conventional wisdom, about what happiness is and how we are to get there. Religion certainly is not the only happiness broker. Most of our ideas of happiness come from our parents. We live out their desires and inadequacies unconsciously.

The parables of Jesus invite us to challenge conventional wisdom or at least to think about it.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is a philosopher and historian. I am enjoying her book, The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn’t Working Today. The title may be somewhat misleading. She is not saying that happiness is a myth. She is inviting us by strolling through history and culture to analyze our own myths of happiness. We may be happier than we think, if we would allow ourselves to be. Happiness may take work, but it is not impossible. She writes:
According to the great philosophers, your worst barrier against happiness is you, your own wrong thinking. Your four problems are these: You cannot see yourself or much about the world you live in. You are ruled by desire and emotion. You will not take your place or rise to your role. You are alternately oblivious to death and terrified of it. As such, your job is to master these four errors in yourself. If you do, you will be happy and more free to love, work, and play the way you wish you could. None of this comes easily; it has to be practiced a great deal, and it never works completely. However, there are no useful alternatives to the effort. P. 67.
Notice her adjective, “useful.” What we are doing here gathered on a Sunday is practicing something useful. Practices for happiness. Happiness practice.

We can be happy having a beer and watching television. That is a form of happiness. We can also be happy working hard (which will entail some agony) to complete a project. Both are forms of happiness. If we only work in one arena, if we spend all day, every day, drinking beer and watching television, we won’t be happy for long. Yet if we are at the office 80 hours a week for 40 years, we may find that we have missed the bus.

If the Dinner Party is a metaphor for happiness, how do we read it? Perhaps there is no one who is right or wrong in this picture. Maybe the folks who are getting married, buying oxen, and checking out their new farm are happy. So let them be. If they aren’t happy, even more reason to let them be. There will be other parties.

Not only is the party, Life. But not going to it is Life as well. At the end of the day, each of us has to negotiate how we will balance immediate and long-term joy.

The best commentary on the Dinner Party might be this poem by Mary Oliver, The Summer Day:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
The hopeful news is that the Dinner Party (or Life or Happiness) is for everyone, not only for the wealthy and well-connected. Some things--perhaps the most important things (like grasshoppers)--are those that are available to all of us if we know how to pay attention. If we discover how to be a guest.

Amen.
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