Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Community Thanksgiving Sermon: Banquet of Grace

Text Luke 15: 13-21

Don’t need to be invited to Thanksgiving dinner, you come when you’re part of the family, right? I remember the first time I went to my wife’s extended family thanksgiving meal. Things were a bit different than what I was used to. Now there’s an experience. Oysters at Thanksgiving? And yet, there they were in a casserole.

Banquet table an important place to be according to our scriptures: You heard the Isaiah passage where God swallows up death forever—many times this is read at funerals, and my own church heard it just recently on All Saint’s Day when we toll the bell for all who have died over the past year. That banquet sounds delicious, doesn’t it?! Well aged wines and lots of marrow! Yum! But, the important thing about that banquet isn’t what is served, but instead who’s invited—you heard it in the text, “people of all the nations will come to the Holy mountain.” That must’ve been interesting to the people who first heard Isaiah’s message. God was pushing the boundaries. In fact, God was simply stating that our “boundaries” don’t mean anything to him.

We have another banquet table in the much loved 23rd Psalm, and once again, the table is set with people we might not expect to see there. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Hmm, that’s odd—I thought banquets were supposed to be something you shared with friends and family. That’s what we do, right?

Then you have all the banquet parables that Jesus tells in the Gospels, such as when a King throws a wedding banquet for his son, and everyone rejects the invitation, so the king sends his messengers out to invite the street urchins and rejects, and that’s who we find around the table at God’s banquet.

It’s at a table that the two disciples see the resurrected Jesus “in the breaking of the bread” after they’ve walked with him and they’ve talked with him but not recognized him. After they plead with him to stay even though he seems intent on walking on, he stays, and then they see him. They came into the banquet.

Later on, Peter and Paul come to blows because Peter seems embarrassed in front of the Jerusalem apostles because he had taken Paul’s advice and what? Eaten with the Gentiles. These unexpected people who showed up at God’s table and are hungry for what is there.

What is there? What is the succulent marrow of life? It’s grace. You see it there in the story of the Prodigal son—it runs throughout the story.

. At the end of our parable today, we see the same thing—a party. And then we see one of our characters, who is actually the main character considering who Jesus is speaking to when he tells this story, we see him sulking outside the party, whining that his father has been unfair.
We see him distancing himself from his brother, “this son of yours,” he says. "The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." (TS Elliot) This doesn’t just apply to the prodigal son, it applies to the older son as well. The older brother is faced with a decision. He chose not to go exploring. He chose not to have parties with his share of the inheritance. Instead he chose to silently stay and fester. How he came to utilize his father’s inheritance evidently came to weigh him down with the burden of resentment.
For all those years, he directed his resentment toward his long lost brother—that selfish, head in the clouds, squanderer. But when the boy returns home and he refuses to go in and join the party, the resentment boils over onto his father as well, doesn’t it! “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.”
So, the older brother too finds himself in a new/old environment. He is home where he has always been, but now his father has cracked the door open a little bit so he can see his old relationships in a new light. He can view his brother not from a “human point of view” as Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthians, but instead as a “new creation!” The power and glory of grace is that if he looks at his brother in the light of his father’s love and acceptance, he will see his father’s abiding love for himself too! He will arrive at the place he started and know it again for the first time.
But then again, our older brother may withdraw from his father and run off into the dark night, listening to the faint echoes of the party from his own private hiding place, sinking deeper and deeper into the hell of resentment.
Jesus, master storyteller, leaves us hanging. He doesn’t give us an ending because the story itself is a call to action. He doesn’t just tie up the story in a pretty little bow and say, “And they all lived happily ever after.” Jesus was telling the story to the Pharisees. He probably intended for them to see themselves as the older brother, and he was giving them a choice: stay out here and sulk and turn you nose up at the people I am embracing, or come on in and enjoy the party!
Resentment can poison a heart. It colors one’s whole perspective, and turns a celebration into reason for jealousy. But Grace pursues us, even into the depths of hell, trying to get us to turn around and peek through that cracked door. Part of our most central creed had the notion of Grace pursuing even those in Hell. And because the parable ends with the Father out there on the porch, we are led to the conclusion that God’s grace chases us wherever we go—endlessly hopeful in our persuasion.
And this is a key to sanctifying grace. It offers us the framework of saying that Grace is journey. It is a process. It is not a ring put on our finger, it is not something to possess or earn. It is a dynamic, evolving relationship between us and our Heavenly Father.
Grace, even sanctifying grace, isn’t compulsive. God will run out and welcome us as we return home, but notice you don’t see the Father down there in the far country, grabbing Prodigal Son by the ear and fetching him back home. He will come out in the courtyard and cajole and plead with us to come on in to the party, but there must be some element of response.

But though Grace isn’t forced upon us, it is never withdrawn from us. God cajoles and pleads with us to walk in the Light, but we are stubborn. We are “stiff-necked” people, to use an Old Testament description, who are too resentful to have fellowship with our brother.

It’s my hunch that we’re not all that excited to see one or two people who will be sitting at the Thanksgiving table this week for one reason or another. That’s how families are, isn’t it? Perhaps you have a prodigal son in your family—perhaps you are the prodigal son, and have been shown a tremendous amount of grace just by sitting there enjoying the food and the love of the family.

We’re all that prodigal son. We’ve all run off and “squandered our substance.” But isn’t it wonderful to be treated with grace. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of the opposite, when someone doesn’t treat us with grace and forgiveness. It’s corrosive! It eats a hole in our guts!

Isn’t it beautiful to be shown grace? That’s something to be thankful for. When you mess up and you come home with your tail between your legs and you receive an embrace. Sometimes that’s the kind of response that makes you want to change the most. I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I know I’ve messed up and I get attacked for it, that only makes me defensive and hard headed. But when I’m shown grace, the disappointment with myself sinks in, and I’m more ready to change. God is a smart parent. God knows what works, and it’s grace that works.

Think about what the original thanksgiving meal was giving thanks for: for peace between people. For living another year through a cold and unfamiliar winter and a hot and humid summer amidst illnesses and people in a whole new world. It was for grace.

If the banquet table is a symbol for our lives of faith, then who are we hoping isn’t included? Who are we shocked has an invitation? Who is God welcoming in that we don’t see as fit or favorable? God help us! Keep cajoling us to come into the banquet for our lost brothers and sisters. Soften our spite, warm our hearts, open our minds to the great gift of reconciliation and peace among people. Help us be thanksgiving peacemakers. Inspire us to be one of your servants preparing the feast rather than one of your sons complaining about who’s on the inside.

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