FIRST READING Proverbs 25:6–7
6 Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; 7 for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
PSALM Psalm 112
1 Hallelujah! Happy are they who fear the LORD and have great delight in God’s commandments! 2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed. 3 Wealth and riches will be in their house, and their righteousness will last forever. 4 Light shines in the darkness for the upright; the righteous are merciful and full of compassion. 5 It is good for them to be generous in lending and to manage their affairs with justice. 6 For they will never be shaken; the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance. 7 They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; their heart is steadfast, trusting in the LORD. 8 Their heart is established and will not shrink, until they see their desire upon their enemies. 9 They have given freely to the poor, and their righteousness stands fast forever; they will hold up their head with honor. 10 The wicked will see it and be angry; they will gnash their teeth and pine away; the desires of the wicked will perish.
SECOND READING Hebrews 13:1–16
1 Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. 4 Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” 6 So we can say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations about food, which have not benefited those who observe them. 10 We have an altar from which those who officiate in the tent£ have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. 13 Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 15 Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
GOSPEL Luke 14:1, 7–14
1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. 7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
RETHINKING OUR MISSION
Back in 1980, Madeleine L’Engle, wrote Walking on Water, a science fiction story about a planet which earth was attempting to colonize. It was a harsh world with terrible weather and hostile inhabitants. Earth’s best men and women were gathered into teams and sent to do the job. Expedition after expedition came home broken, each one having failed. Finally a new manager was charged with the responsibility of making the colonization work. But this new manager did something surprising, something completely unexpected.
This new executive didn’t look for the strongest and most qualified people he could find to send for establishing this colony. Instead, he went to the waterfronts, to the slums, to the darkest places on earth and got together a contingent of thieves, prostitutes, indigents, and sent them off to this harsh planet. And, quite remarkably, where the able had failed, the disabled succeeded. Why? Well, for several reasons. First of all, they had already learned to survive in a hostile environment. And second, they had no place to go but up.
In our gospel lesson appointed for today, the Pharisees grumbled about the kind of people who came to hear Jesus. Many of those who gathered around the Master, were uneducated persons who had little use for pomp and circumstance in religion, so the Sadducees and Pharisees held them in contempt. They regarded many of Jesus’ followers as the scum of the earth, fishermen, tax collectors and prostitutes. It particularly galled the Pharisees when Jesus said that these persons, of low social stature, would go into the kingdom of God before they, the religious elite. This was a bizarre, but welcomed, teaching to many of Jesus’ listeners. Yet Jesus made it clear, that this was the heart of the Gospel.
When you give a luncheon or dinner,” He says in today’s lesson, “do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” One could say that it’s obvious from His statements, that Jesus had never been to a Church Growth seminar.
One of the major tenets of the modern church growth movement has been that successful churches, like successful businesses, should choose a target audience, preferably a homogeneous audience, where everyone pretty much fits the same demographic. For example, in his best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren, the Senior Pastor at Saddleback Church in southern California, writes about their “target market.” He writes: “Our Target: Saddleback Sam. He is well educated. He likes his job. He likes where he lives. Health and fitness are high priorities for him and his family. “He’d rather be in a large group than a small one. He is skeptical of ‘organized’ religion. He likes contemporary music. He thinks he is enjoying life more than he did five years ago. He is self-satisfied, even smug, about his station in life . . .”
That’s the kind of person Saddleback Church is geared up to reach.
Now consider this for a moment; what church wouldn’t want members like that? Good job, strong family, healthy, well-educated: gather enough people in that demographic and your church is going to be extremely successful as the world terms success. Now, to be fair, Saddleback Church is also the home of the Celebrate Recovery movement that reaches out to those who have hurts, destructive habits and self-defeating hang-ups. But still, I have yet to meet a church growth advocate whose target audience is “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind . . .” Yet those are the people whom Jesus told us to invite. Those are the people Jesus Himself included.
On one occasion He declared, “I have come to seek and save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). And on another occasion He declared, “The well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick” (Mark 2:17). When He stood up to preach His first sermon He announced His mission: “He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18, RSV).
It’s ironic, that this is where Jesus placed His emphasis; the poor, the blind, those who were oppressed and captives and yet these seem to be the last people on earth that the average church is geared up to reach. As one author has put it: “Church culture in North America is a [mere] vestige of the original Christian movement, an institutional expression of religion that is in part a civil religion and in part a club where religious people can hang out with other people whose politics, world-view, and lifestyle match theirs.” That description of the church, far too often, hits the nail squarely on the thumb. We want to be around people who are like us. That’s only natural, but it doesn’t make it Christian.
The Rev. Bob Stump tells about camping with his family. He says that one of his favorite parts of camping is sitting by the camp fire late into the evening. Its circle of light provides a wonderful setting for quiet conversation and warm fellowship. “Most of the other campers have their fires, too,” he notes. “They sit and have quiet conversation and warm fellowship in their own private circles of light. Rarely do the campers leave their circles of light and venture out into the darkness. And almost never do they venture from their own circles of light to invade another circle. Each camping group is content in its own circle of light, safe from the darkness and secluded from outsiders in its own exclusive fellowship.” It’s a surprisingly true metaphor for the average church, “content in its own circle of light, safe from the darkness and secluded from outsiders in its own exclusive fellowship.”
“When you give a luncheon or dinner,” says the Master, “do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors . . . when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” But for many, this passage seems to contain some strange teaching. However, what we need to understand, first of all, is that the church is the one institution in our society that doesn’t exist solely for the benefit of its own members. Yes, it’s natural to want to be around people who are like us, but Christ wants us to do something that’s very unnatural, reach out to those who may not be like us, but who need us.
One of the duties I had as a police officer was to respond to traffic accidents, some of them with very severe injuries. One thing I noticed that at the scene of those accidents were three groups of people, each with a different response toward those involved in the accident. The first group was the bystanders and onlookers. They were curious and watched to see what happened, but they had little active involvement. The second group was the police officers, of whom I was one.
Once the immediate medical needs of the accident victims were met, the response of the police was to investigate the cause of the accident, assign blame, and give out appropriate warnings and punishments. Once I even had to go to the hospital to give the guilty party a ticket. The third group was the paramedics. These are the people usually most welcomed by those involved in the accident. The paramedics could care less whose fault the accident was and they didn’t engage in lecturing about bad driving habits. Their response was to help those who were hurt. They bandaged wounds, freed trapped people, and gave words of encouragement.
Three groups, one is uninvolved, one is assigning blame and assessing punishment, and one is bandaging wounds, freeing trapped people, and giving words of encouragement. Now many people in every society like to be mere spectators. Their mantra is, “I don’t want to get involved.” For the purposes of this illustration, one could say that they’re useless and unworthy of our consideration. These people want to gawk at what’s happening, but don’t want to take the time or effort to help. About the only thing they’re good for is to tie up traffic, make comments or at best provide a halfhearted “bless their hearts”.
The scribes and the Pharisees whom Jesus confronted were like the second group. They saw themselves as the police assigning blame and assessing punishment. They were quick to criticize those who violated the Law of Moses and dealt out punishment where they felt it was justified. They even tried to police Jesus. Notice how this chapter begins: “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched . . .” He was being watched in an attempt to catch Him doing something wrong. And when Jesus refused to conform to the religious leaders’ understanding of what is lawful, it was they who assigned Him the cruel punishment of the cross. The religious leaders of the day loved being the police. But such behavior isn’t confined to the synagogue, of course. It can and often does happen in the church.
David Kinnaman of the Barna Group reports that unchurched people often have the perception that if they go to a church for help, they’ll be judged rather than helped. Dan Kimball wrote a book sometime back titled, They Like Jesus, But Not the Church. In his book, Kimball focused on the perception in today’s culture, by many young people, that church people have the tendency to be judgmental. This critical spirit becomes a turn-off in any attempt to reach young people for Christ. In the metaphor of spectators, police and paramedics, the scribes and Pharisees saw themselves as the police, the enforcers of the Law. Jesus, however, wants His followers to identify, not with the police, but with the paramedics bandaging wounds, freeing trapped people, and giving words of encouragement.
The church is the one institution in our society that does not solely exist for the benefit of its own members. Jesus is very clear on this point. We’re to be His body reaching out to those in need. There’s one thing more we need to see, however. Reaching out isn’t easy. It’s much easier to be a spectator or to sit back and pass judgment on others, than it is to get our hands dirty seeking to minister to the needs of others. But that’s not what Jesus wants from us. He wants us to reach out to those “who cannot pay us back.”
Pastor Don Friesen tells a wonderful story about a children’s worker named April McClure. April teaches a Wednesday Bible study for boys and girls in her church. One day a nine-year-old boy named Brandon turned up for April’s class. Immediately she could see he was going to be a troublemaker. Within 30 seconds of entering the room, he had pulled a chair out from under a girl, punched the only other boy in the class in the arm, and used a four-letter word rarely heard in that church. Brandon’s family history wasn’t a pretty one.
His father was in jail for the third time. He had been abused by his mother, who was no longer allowed to see him, and so he was living with his grandmother. She worked afternoons and evenings. The woman who provided childcare for him while the grandmother worked, wasn’t available until 6 p.m. The principal of Brandon’s grade school had heard that April’s Bible study lasted until 7:30, and so, for at least one night a week, Brandon wouldn’t be on his own for three hours. Imagine being a children’s teacher and having Brandon in your class. Imagine him constantly changing the subject to talk about things that he’d heard from his 20-year-old uncle about girls. Think about listening with apprehension as he told the other children stories he’d heard about his father in jail.
April McClure did her best to reach out to Brandon. She set him right next to her in the Bible class and she let him help with passing out papers when he behaved himself. She helped him try to control his anger, to keep him from striking out at other children. Even during recreational times, though, Brandon acted up, hitting and pinching the other children. During music, he goofed around and carried on conversations; during meal time, he was an absolute terror throwing food, spitting at people, and making the little kids cry. April and the other leaders didn’t know what to do. They secretly hoped that his grandmother would make other arrangements for him. The other kids missed an occasional Wednesday but not Brandon. He was there every single week. After about seven months of this, however, April noticed a change in Brandon.
Brandon started giving her a hug when he left for the evening with his babysitter. One day, she saw him in the grocery store, and he ran up to her, and pulled her over to meet his grandmother who was one of the cashiers. April told her pastor about this rare breakthrough and her pastor reported that the same thing had happened to him. Another woman who was his substitute teacher at school reported that Brandon had introduced her to the class on the day she subbed like this: “Mrs. Leman goes to my church with me on Wednesday nights.”
“One day toward the end of the school year, the Bible study class was discussing hospitality, and the teacher asked the kids to think about the place where they felt most secure, most at home. Some said their bedrooms, or some other place in their homes. One kid mentioned the playroom at his grandpa’s house. When it came to Brandon, he said, ‘Man, I’ve lived in a million places.’ They all laughed and waited for him to go on. He asked, ‘You mean the place where we feel happy and safe?’ The teacher said yes. ‘Oh,’ he said matter-of-factly, ‘That’s right here in my church.’”
That’s what Jesus wants for every person in this world, rich and poor, seeing and sightless, athlete and physically disabled. He wants them to find a safe place, a secure, happy place in His family. He doesn’t want anyone to feel left out. Unfortunately, most churches don’t really want people who have problems. The reason for this attitude is, that many times people who have problems will, at times, cause problems. Like Brandon when he first came to April’s Bible Study. Yet these are the persons for whom God’s heart aches. And these are the people whom He has called us to reach out to.
“When you give a luncheon or dinner,” says the Master to his church, “do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors . . . when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” These a community right outside our doors where people are hurting and in need of the good news of God’s love for them. It’s time we step out of our familiar and comfortable campfire circles and invite others to join us.