28 September 2009

The Word on the Street

Luke 24: 15-25
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 27th September 2009

Earlier this month I was San Juan, Puerto Rico, for two and half days – not on a mini-vacation, not to soak up some rays at the beach, but as part of a task force visiting el Seminario EvangĂ©lico de Puerto Rico, an ecumenical Protestant seminary, 90 years young, with strong foundational ties to the Presbyterian Church (USA). Why was I there? For the past six years I’ve served as an elected member of COTE – the Committee on Theological Education of the General Assembly. My last meeting will be this November in San Francisco. I chair the elected members of the committee and am convener of the task force formed to reaffirm and revise the General Assembly’s covenantal relationship with the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico. The covenant will be reaffirmed when the General Assembly meets this July in Minneapolis.

One evening we had dinner in Old San Juan and afterward walked around the streets of the colonial city, founded by Ponce de Leon in 1521. Almost every building from the colonial era, with its strong Spanish influence, has balconies with elaborate grill work which overlook the street. Looking up at those balconies and then looking down at the street, I remembered something I read in the works of John Mackay (1889-1983). Mackay was president of Princeton Seminary in the 1940s and 1950s. That evening I was walking with the current president, Iain Torrance, which probably also to trigger the memory. Mackay was a truly great leader of the church, one of my heroes. He was a brilliant theologian who famously denounced McCarthyism in a “Letter to Presbyterians” in November, 1953, which both The New York Times and The Washington Post commended in an editorial. Mackay actually preached here in Catonsville, from this pulpit. In the 1930s Mackay studied existentialism in Spain with the Christian philosopher, Miguel Unamuno (1864-1936). It was in Spain that he came to these thoughts.

In one of his books Mackay compares two perspectives – the perspective from the balcony and the perspective from the road. The balcony, often attached to the front of Spanish buildings, above the heat, the dust, and the stench of the road, allowed you to look down upon the street without getting too close. From the balcony, you watch the world go by from a distance. He saw the Balcony as a symbol of the soul, as a perspective some have of life. He contrasted the Balcony with the perspective one has from the Road, of how the world is viewed from the road. This, too, is a state of the soul – the soul literally grounded, in Christ. “By the Road [we] mean the place where life is tensely lived,” Mackay wrote, “where thought has its birth in conflict and concern, where choices are made and decisions are carried out. It is the place of action, of pilgrimage, where concern is never absent from the wayfarer’s heart. On the Road a goal is sought, dangers are faced, life is poured out.” Mackay called Christians to come down from the balcony – into the highways and byways, the lanes and alleys and roads of the world – stop letting life pass you by, stop being a spectator, and get from the balcony onto the road, get involved with people where they live.

The highways and byways, the lanes and alleys, the streets and roads where people – all people live – that’s where the dinner host in Jesus’ parable sends his servant. We find this parable in Luke situated among Jesus’ teachings about hospitality and welcome, about the cost of discipleship, of the need to be salt in the world, and other parables about what the kingdom of God is like – parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Parables, all, of being lost and found, of being welcomed in and included, of invitations extended to live in God’s new world being formed in Christ – and the cost and, therefore, resistance we experience in living out God’s mission.

Jesus’ parable came as a response to a dinner guest who says with an elitist air of privilege, “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” Blessed – happy – indeed – assuming, of course, he’ll be at the table! Then Jesus tells this parable that pierces through his pious pronouncement. Truly, blessed is the one who eats bread in the kingdom of God. But don’t be surprised when you see who is in the kingdom of God, Jesus says. So he tells this parable of a great banquet with many guests invited. You know the story – they all come up with excuses why they can’t get to the party (implied here are also the excuses we give for not getting to worship). All the excuses involve an excessive entanglement with possessions and personal involvement – being just too blasted busy. They have other things of interest, other concerns occupying their time. The people making excuses are all wealthy – they purchased land, ten oxen is a significant investment. The only justifiable excuse, and just barely, is being a newlywed.

Furious, the host sends the servant out with a new guest list. Those with excuses won’t eat bread in God’s kingdom – because they don’t value fellowship with the host over the value they place on everything and everyone else. Instead, the host goes radical – of course, Jesus goes radical in the thrust of the parable. Go out into the streets and lanes –not where the privileged live in their big homes (probably with balconies) – and invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”

The host is not simply being charitable to these folk in need. It’s far more radical than that. You see, what we need to know is that all of these people – the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame – are all people in Jesus’ time who would have been considered unacceptable to God, because their conditions and illnesses were signs of God’s judgment for some assumed sin in their life. They would not have been on anyone’s invite list – and certainly not on God’s Kingdom Guest List. In fact, we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in the 1940s, written by the Jewish Essene community at Qumran, these contemporaries of Jesus, living in the wilderness to the east of Jerusalem along the Dead Sea state explicitly that the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame would be excluded from the eschatological banquet feast of God at the end of time. But they’re not excluded in Jesus’ vision of God’s Kingdom – and not in his church! This is a significant and radical undoing of the norm.

The invitation is extended indiscriminately – to those rich and well-fed and full of excuses, but also to the hungry, the poor – to all people in all circumstances. Everyone is invited. However, Jesus is pretty clear which ones he thinks will be more receptive to his invitation. It’s the person who acknowledges lack, who comes empty; who confesses need, insufficiency, weakness, brokenness, the one who has had a rough and difficult life is most open to God’s invitation and gathers for bread at the Lord’s table.

The point is clear for Luke – here and throughout his Gospel and Acts: Jesus came for the people who are generally not on the invite list, those who are unwanted, the outcasts, the people the world leaves out, forgets, ignores, doesn’t care for, excludes, judges, people who are feared because they are deemed different, particularly by the people in power. Everyone on Jesus’ second list is powerless and marginalized. These are the people Luke tells us who are to be invited into the life of the church, because it’s for them that Christ has come into the world, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (see Luke 4: 18-19!). Jesus is basically saying, “Fetch all the people on the street without discrimination.” We know that this parable is very old, going right back to Jesus. It’s also found in the Gospel of Thomas (c. 140 A.D.), which is a collection of sayings with no narrative. (The manuscript was found in Egypt in 1945. ) In it we find Jesus saying, “Invite whom you find (Saying 64).” That’s what happens.

When the poor, the cripple, the blind, and the lame come into the banquet hall – which is the church – they discover that in God’s kingdom “there is still room.” “There is still room.” So, the host sends out the servant, “Go out into the roads and the lanes, ….” Implied in the Greek here are the hedges or fences along the road where the homeless poor camped out, seeking shelter. It’s as if the host is saying, leave no inch of ground uncovered. “Go out…and compel, persuade (there’s even a sense of urgency in the invitation) people to come in, so that my house may be full.” Friends, behold the extraordinary generosity of our God! This is what God’s amazing kingdom is like: and it’s the vision, the mission that must inform the work of the church, the church as an agent of the kingdom!

Our gracious Host wants the banquet hall to be full, for the invitation to be extended, for the church to reach out on the road where people live. For us to reach out…to extend the invitation.

Extending the invitation – that’s a good definition of evangelism, that “E” word that stirs panic in most Presbyterians. Yesterday, I was on the phone with my good friend, Christy Waltersdorff, a Church of the Brethren minister, serving a church in Lombard, IL. I asked her what she was preaching on today. She said, “Leadership.” She asked me. I said, “I’m preaching on evangelism.” To which she said, “OH – Scary.”

Extend the invitation to all people, indiscriminately, to come and share with us what God is doing in our lives and in this church and in the world. Come and be part of God’s good news. It’s not our responsibility whether or not folks respond. We have no power over that. That’s God’s work, the work of the Spirit. But we are called to extend the invitation – otherwise how else would people know they’re invited? How else would people on the outside of the church know it’s safe to come here, that visitors are expected and welcomed? How else would people know what we’re about and the work God calls us to if we don’t invite them?

Did you know that in countless surveys and studies of why people decide to go and eventually join a church, there’s one factor that always emerges as primary, above all others? People join a church not because of its choirs, organist, music director, or music program; not because of the beautiful sanctuary and modern facility; not because of the preaching in the pulpit or the pastoral care; not because of the Christian Education program or ministry with youth; not because of its mission work or its presence in the community; not because of its adult education offerings; and not because the church is friendly. The number one reason a person attends and eventually joins a church is because someone – a member of the church, whom they know and trust – invited them to worship.

You might be thinking to yourself – wow, that’s impressive. I wish I could do my part and invite someone to worship. What can I do? Glad you asked!

We’re going to embark on a little adventure as a church, sponsored by the Outreach Committee with the help of the Vision Task Force. On Saturday morning, November 14, we’re going to walk through the streets and roads of Catonsville, going door-to-door, and inviting our neighbors – if they’re not already part of a worshipping community – to join us. We’re not going out to convert anyone or engage in theological debate. We’ll have door hangers with a simple message about the church to leave behind; we’re simply inviting people to join us. We’ll gather for some training, pray, go out in twos, and then return back to share our experiences. This might be ambitious, but I would love us to have about thirty people volunteer, people who are comfortable talking with strangers, people eager to offer a happy, smiling face of Catonsville Presbyterian to the community. Give it a try. Teenagers are of course welcome. It might be something you wish to do as a family. And you’ll even get some exercise out of it. Sure, you might be nervous about doing something like this (most calls from God make us nervous). It might even sound un-Presbyterian (that might be a good thing). We need to step out of our comfort zone as a church. All we’ll be doing is going out to invite people to come in that God’s house might be full. Pray about. Ask God if this is something you need to do.

The Sri Lankan evangelist, and ecumenical leader, D. T. Niles (1908-1970), once defined evangelism as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” That’s also a good definition of Christianity. From that perspective, we’re all beggars, hungry to be fed at the Lord’s table, inviting fellow-beggars to the table. Not a bad image to keep in mind this week as we prepare to break bread and share the cup at the Lord’s Table on World Communion Sunday. “Blessed – happy – is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” Happy indeed.

John A. Mackay, A Preface to Christian Theology, Introduction by John Baillie (London: Nisbet & Co, Ltd., 1945), 30.
Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 228-233
The Gospel of Thomas is known as a New Testament apocryphon. This Coptic papyrus manuscript was discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egygpt.

Photo: Catonsville Arts and Crafts Festival along Frederick Road, September, 2008.

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