Only beggars get in (Luke 14:15-24)

Sermon preached at Burke UMC LifeSign service 10/1/2011
Text: Luke 14:15-24

What if God threw a party and nobody came? What if he sent out messengers a month ahead of time to make sure that everybody saved the date and didn’t make other plans? What if the people he invited checked with each other and figured out that nobody else wanted to go to God’s party since it was going to be lame so when God’s messengers came back to remind them, they responded with a bunch of lame excuses like “Sorry, I have to inspect this new field I bought” or “Sorry, I’ve got to break in my new oxen” or “Sorry, I just got married”? How do you think God would feel if his messengers came back and told him that not one of the people He had invited said yes?

Have you ever thrown a party that nobody came to? I did once. My senior year in college, I had the opportunity to live in a room on the Lawn that was part of the original 19th century academic village at the center of the University of Virginia. My room had a wicker rocking chair and a real fireplace; I was so excited to celebrate this honor that I decided to throw a party in my Lawn room a few weeks after the year started. I sent out an email to people I thought were my friends and talked to them in between classes during the week beforehand and then nobody showed up. So I turned it into a party of one. I enjoyed my refreshments, sat down in front of my electronic piano, turned the amp all the way up, and started playing the blues with my door wide open until about fifteen minutes later when my neighbors couldn’t bear it any longer so they shut the party down.

It hurts to throw a party that nobody comes to. Do you want to go to God’s party? What if it isn’t entertaining in the way that you want to be entertained? What if they don’t play your music on the jukebox there? What if all the people there are annoying or even boring? What if there are people who sniffle too much, people who either need more cologne or wear too much of it, people who talk too much about their cats or their children, people who wear clashing colors, people who don’t have a good sense of personal space, people who stand at the snack table the whole time and pig out as if they haven’t had a meal all week? Guess what? Those are the kinds of people you’ll find at God’s party, at least according to Jesus’ parable, because God’s party is for the people who don’t think they have something better to do.

When the cool people didn’t want to come to His party, God told His messengers to go out into the streets and the alleys of the town to bring in the poor and the crippled and the lame and the blind. Now back in first century Palestine, people who were crippled and lame and blind didn’t get disability checks. They got whatever people gave to them on the street. They were completely dependent on the community for their survival. So it’s not any big accomplishment that God’s messengers convinced them to come to the party. They were the opposite of Kardashian. They were people who were hungry and desperate enough to go to a party that everyone who had a life had decided to dis.

And after God’s messengers had rounded up everybody on the streets inside the town, there was still more room at His party so He sent them out a second time to the roads and lanes of the countryside. Now it helps to understand something about city planning in the first century AD. Every town in that time had a gate which was locked at night and guarded during the day. The purpose of that gate was to keep out the undesirables. The beggars who were allowed inside the gate had a minimal level of social acceptance.

Those on the outside of the gate were too foul and filthy to be let in. Lepers and lunatics, people who smelled so bad that they made bystanders physically ill, even thieves like the ones who beat up the man in the Good Samaritan story. Outside the city gate was a world of absolute danger and a complete lack of social order. This is why one of the most prominent metaphors for hell in the Bible is the “outer darkness.” And it was the people who lived in the awful, completely uncivilized outer darkness of the ancient world whom God decided to invite to His party.

It was like God said to all His stuck-up so-called friends who dissed His party, “Forget y’all! ‘Cause I’ve got friends in low places and they’re the only ones who will get a taste of my banquet.” So now, here’s a question: if God’s party is a smelly freak disco of lepers and beggars and thieves and riffraff – what party are we at? Are we at God’s party or we at our own party that we’ve created in the name of a Host we forgot to invite?

This is where the metaphor breaks down, because God’s party isn’t a place; it’s a way of experiencing life that many people who call themselves Christians haven’t yet discovered. God’s party doesn’t need to be big and loud. You can call it “church” when you build a multimillion dollar facility with a stadium and a shopping mall inside, but it ain’t God’s party unless the people whom the world has dishonored are received as the guests of honor, whether they’re poor or wounded or just different.

Now I imagine there are quite a few people caught up in the exploding, megachurch universe that’s taking over Christianity who have indeed tasted God’s banquet, but it’s not because the Hammond organ made them misty-eyed or the guitar solo gave them goose bumps; it’s because something they heard in spite of all the hype and hoopla made them realize that we’re all just beggars in the kingdom of God, because only the beggars get into God’s party.

Now there’s a whole lot of people who think that they’re the hosts of God’s party, who think that they get to stand at the gate and decide who gets in and who doesn’t make the cut. In Luke 14, Jesus was eating dinner with people like this who thought they deserve the best seats at God’s table, which is why He told them a story that basically said: “God stopped sitting around the table with you when you gave yourselves the seat of honor. He’s breaking bread with the beggars outside your gate. How about you become a beggar so you can sit with God too?”

Now let me make a distinction. There’s a big difference between beggars and freeloaders; they’re actually the opposite. If you’re a freeloader, you think you’re entitled to something that isn’t yours. When you’re a beggar, you don’t claim to deserve anything, but you know that you’ve got nothing and you are nothing without God so you beg Him to give you grace. This is the basic difference between the people who taste God’s banquet in their lives and the people who don’t.

Those who think they deserve God’s grace because of all their worldly accomplishments will never get into God’s party. They’ve got too many reasons not to accept His invitation of a free grace that turns all the symbols of our importance into filthy rags. They might go to the same church with people who have tasted God’s banquet; they might pretend that their lives have been transformed too; but their sense of entitlement will always keep them out in the cold.

Those who know they haven’t earned anything can receive everything as a gift from God, and they will cherish every opportunity they have to use their talents for God’s glory. Life is a heavenly feast for people who do everything out of gratitude for God’s grace whether they live in a mansion or a cardboard box. Let us live with the humility of beggars so that our gratitude for God’s grace will compel us to find our gifts and use them tenaciously to win honor and glory for the God who has opened His heavenly banquet even to us.

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