Wellspring Anniversary Sermon - November 1, 2015 - Luke 14:15-24
The Parable of the Great Banquet Revisited
Thank you so much for having me today. It’s a privilege to worship with you and share with you today, and I want to say congratulations on your anniversary. I like anniversaries.
My wife Barbara and I just celebrated our 28th anniversary, and actually we still have ‘mini-celebrations’ that we call monthiversaries. This past Wednesday was our 337th monthiversary. So there you have it. We’re a little daft.
How many years is it been for Wellspring? (118, I learned)
Well, however many years it’s been, that number represents how many years God has been faithful to you as a congregation.
It represents how many years God has been with this church through its ups and downs (do you guys have ups and downs or does that happen only at the mission?).
And that number represents how many years God has sought to bless those around you in this community through your presence here.
I really believe that those 3 things are key to remember in any anniversary celebration –
1. God`s faithfulness in a general sense. 2, His faithfulness in journeying with us over the years, and 3, His heart for the community around you right here in Willowdale.
We know, with a general knowledge of Scripture, that His heart is a heart of love. We know that His heart is a heart of joy. We know that God’s heart is a heart of justice.
Today`s Scripture passage is a great one. It`s a passage that has had a big impact on me personally, and on The Yonge Street Mission, where I serve.
It’s inspired us as we’ve endlessly experimented over the years and have thought long and hard about how it is that God wants us to be a blessing to the city.
We`ve never forgotten that are an extension of the Church in Toronto. We are the heart of God in the heart of the city, as the old slogan goes.
It's always important to read a passage in its context, so let's consider for a minute that our key passage that was read by ________ happened in real time, and in the midst of a party. Jesus had gone to enjoy some hospitality at the house of a pharisee.
At the start of chapter 14, it’s the Sabbath, and we see Jesus under some scrutiny at the house of an important Pharisee.
Jesus is being carefully watched, because He is known already at that time to be someone who was less about the letter of the Law and more about the well-being of the people.
He loved more than He legislated, and that made the legalists a little queasy.
So there’s a sick man with abnormal swelling in his body. Jesus heals the man after asking the Pharisees and experts in the Law: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?”
They say nothing, and so Jesus takes hold of the sick man and heals him and sends him away.
Then at lunch Jesus notices the way certain guests pick the best spots at the table - the places of honour - and Jesus uses this to rather boldly and a little uncharacteristically for Jesus, teach bluntly and directly that it’s better to take a lesser spot at the table and be invited upward to a better position, rather than take the better spot and be demoted, as if were.
And here also Jesus not only critiques the pride of those who took the best seats, he tells them that they shouldn’t just invite those they are comfortable with - family members, friends and rich neighbours - who can quid pro quo return the favour.
Instead Jesus says that when you give a banquet you should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and doing that you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (vv7-14).
At this point someone sitting there at the table is clearly moved, clearly excited and says to Jesus: [Exag. hands flaying] “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”
And that is when Jesus launches into the parable that we have as today’s reading.
Now, I mentioned that this passage had particular significance and meaning to me personally. The truth is my personal life has been someone intertwined, enmeshed in The Yonge Street Mission for a great many years.
Like your own Bill Ryan, who is a great friend and mentor to me (he’s kept me sane more often than I’d like to admit), I have come to view Scripture very much in light of trying to figure out how to be loving and obedient to God by practically loving the community I serve, which is the poor in the inner city of Toronto.
A few years back, when we were struggling with programming at the mission. Do you guys ever struggle with how to best steward your resources?)
Well, we were struggling with what to do with a weekly program that had had a spiritual and and food component to it, but it had become really only a feeding program and, since at the mission we’re about building community AND helping people make genuine progress in their lives, the program was failing, in my view.
So, once the program finished for the year, I decided to shut it down for a year, during which time we could figure out how to reboot it.
And shortly after that, after announcing to a few people my decision, I felt terribly burdened. I felt guilty. I felt frustrated.
The program as it was had lost vision under its earlier leadership. It lacked a purpose and lacked clarity.
Then I spoke with Pastor Lee and Pastor Jan, and Melody, our then administrator, my associates at the mission, and we began to dream. We put the old out of our minds and began to dream. We prayed and we imagined and we visioned.
“What if we were to run just the best evening, the best Tuesday evening event, in the community. What if we served the best food that we could, had an element of worship and singing, did some simple teaching?
What if then we offer a whole variety of options for things that people could do after that? So many good options that people would complain about having to choose between great programs and classes, rather than walk away disinterested?”
And we got really, really excited. And we brainstormed a name for the event. Melody suggested “What if we called it “The Tuesday Feast”?
At the inaugural evening, I spoke on this passage, The Parable of the Great Banquet. I ended by saying that God wants His house full! And full of people who are not invited in because they will necessarily give back.
But simply full of people - the seeing, the well, the ‘together’ AND full of the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.
The first evening was a success, the message was well-received, and The Tuesday Feast was born, as a weekly event at the mission.
So that’s what we have, running 30 Tuesday nights a year at The Christian Community Centre at The Yonge Street Mission. And it’s a hoot.
We knew from the get-go something that we did not have the resources - the manpower, the money, the energy to sustain something like this.
But rather than discourage us, it excited us greatly, because it put us in the realm of really, really having to trust God.
The truth is we’ve always found at the mission that the best ministry happens and the best ideas happen when we have a bigger vision than we’re comfortable with and not enough resources to do it.
So, we’re serving dinner to 60-70 people each Tuesday, providing live Christian music in a Cafe setting, a Bible study, a Recovery Group, an Art group, a Creative writing group. This vision was way too big for us.
So we prayed. And we prayed. And God has sent us a very large amount of Christian people from around the city who help us run this program, and another on Thursday nights that is similar.
And it works. And it blesses those who come, and it blesses MORE those who make it happen. This is our way of trying to enact Jesus parable in Luke 14.
You see, we noticed something in this passage. Before he launches into the parable, Jesus gives a didactic teaching. “Do this. Invite the poor, the crippled the lame”.
The one response recorded by Luke is a fellow who gets all excited and exclaims: ““Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.””
What does he do, for himself and everyone who was there? He spiritualized it. “Yes, won’t it be wonderful in heaven when God will bring everyone together to feast in the Kingdom of God. You go, Jesus. Amen”.
This fellow took a very practical, here and now command of Jesus - care for the poor - and he made it apocalyptic. He made it “not now, not here, not me, not us”.
And does Jesus commend him? No, he ignores him, and gives us this parable. Why the parable? Why, in general does Jesus teach parables? Well, do you like being told what to do? Not many humans enjoy being told “Do this, do that”.
One way or another we’ll find a way to say “no” to the command. Even if it’s straight from the mouth of God. That’s kind of the entire history of the chosen people of God, the people of Israel. And we’re no better.
So Jesus, noticing that speaking directly to the people was not having the desired effect, He speaks in a parable, in a story, in a manner that invited the listener into the narrative, into the unfolding story.
And that gave the listener the choice to respond at his own speed, and...and I like this part...gave the listener the freedom to respond creatively to the story. The story is an analogy.
I think that’s why we don’t like being told what to do. We don’t see ourselves as soldiers obeying orders.
We don’t see ourselves as chess pieces being controlled by someone. We see ourselves as free agents, free moral agents, independent, creative beings who can make choices.
Why do we see ourselves that way? I think it’s because that’s exactly how God made us. Of course it’s better to just obey. But if we won’t obey, God will come at us another way. And usually, it’s with a story.
If we think about this parable, in it there are those that make excuses as to why they won’t come to the banquet.
The first one is a person of some means who has purchased a field and now needs to go see it. First question that comes to my mind is: Who buys a hunk of land without seeing it?
The second person to give an excuse is also a person of some means. “Just bought 5 yoke of oxen, I’m on my way to try them out. Excuse me”. Another, just got hitched.
He likely would have some means of his own, or would have had his income supplemented by his wife’s dowry. “My wife needs me. Can’t make it. Send regrets”.
So there are invited people, people known by the person who holds the great banquet who for one reason or another cannot be bothered to go.
Each of them is distracted by something that is more important to them. What is it they are distracted by?
Their possessions, their wealth, their investments, their interests, perhaps their relationships, another form of personal wealth.
So the distracted, the disinterested, the disinvested don’t fair well in this story. Not at all, really. Those who don’t have access to those distractions - those among the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame,
THEY are invited in in droves to enjoy the feast.
I find this all very compelling. Part of what’s compelling about it is that it’s not comfortable. It doesn’t affirm anything easy to me. It pushes my boundaries. It stretches my comfort zones.
And I have to ask myself, what would I do if I was in the position of having distractions in my life, and yet were invited into the feast of a great man?
More to the point, since we know this parable is an analogy about humanity and God, what would I do if God calls me into relationship with Himself, but I have distractions?
Well, the truth is, I have all kinds of distractions in my life, all kinds of things that tussle for my time, that demand my attention or that drive me to distraction. I think most of us do.
But, I think most of us here in this church HAVE said ‘yes’ to God who has invited us to know Him through Jesus Christ our Lord.
We’ve said ‘yes’ to Jesus, ‘yes’ to His great sacrifice for our sins...and we’ve enjoyed the fruits of that relationship.
I know for a fact that every good thing in my life - my marriage, my children, my ministry, the gift of music - all those things are directly from the hand of God, who called me out of the rigid atheism that I was raised with, and called me into a loving relationship with Jesus.
I thank God that I wasn’t distracted back when I was 17. I’m glad I didn’t miss the invitation that came my way.
But now...here’s the thing...I’m pretty sure I show up in this parable. Not as the fellow who misses the point Jesus was trying to make and who thus kind of inspired Jesus to tell this story.
Not as the owner of the house, with great wealth. Not as one of the people who were invited but who were distracted or otherwise disinterested, and who were effectively uninvited.
I think I see myself as the servant in the story. The one called by the master to go out and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, to join in the feast that the master is throwing.
This is really an invitation to come to know the One the Master sent who came to save us from our sins, to die in our stead, to lay down His perfect life in order to heal the rift between us and God, in order to enable us to cross the chasm between us and God through the shed blood of the Lamb of God.
I see myself in this parable, but I don’t see myself alone in this. I think...I think it’s actually the reason that we are here as Christians and even why this building exists. You see, the servant in the story...he sounds to me an awful lot like Jesus.
Two of the passages of Scripture that have impacted me the most in the past number of years are bookends in my mind.
The front bookend is one where Jesus introduces Himself and inaugurates His public ministry. In Luke chapter 4, Jesus quotes Isaiah chapter 61 and says this:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Luke 4:16-21 NIV). That’s the front book end.
Near the end of his time on earth, after His resurrection we find the other bookend. The other passage that is the corollary to this is John chapter 20.
Jesus appears to the disciples for the first since rising from the dead and he says: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. As the Father sent me, I send you.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get frustrated at the state of the Church in general today. I have this sinking feeling that sometimes we’re off the mark. Sometimes we get sidetracked.
We get distracted. We’re afraid of people who aren’t like us. We focus on moral issues where we don’t understand why people who do not believe what we believe...we have a hard time understanding why they don’t act like we act.
We get distracted, and it can feel so very frustrating. But then I remember. I remember why I’m here. I remember why we’re here. I remember the purpose for which I was created and later saved by Jesus.
And I want to say, it is nothing to the left or right of simply being His hands and His feet.
It is nothing higher or lower than Jesus own purpose - to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
There’s a story, fresh on the internet, from the Associated Press, about a terrible disappointment that got turned into a blessing. It happened recently in Sacramento, California.
The press release read as follows: “After a California couple called off their wedding, the bride-to-be's family decided to turn the $35,000 extravagant event into a feast for the homeless.
“The bride's mother, Kari Duane, said Sunday that rather than cancel the reception, they invited Sacramento's homeless for a once in a lifetime meal Saturday at the Citizen Hotel, one of the city's finest venues.
Duane said her 27-year-old daughter called her Monday to tell her she and her fiance had decided not go through with the wedding. Soon after, the family decided to share the nonrefundable event with the less fortunate.
"Even though my husband and I were feeling very sad for our daughter, it was heartwarming to see so many people be there and enjoy a meal," Duane said.
She said they had already paid for a reception that would have hosted 120 guests.
About 90 homeless single people, grandparents and whole families with newborns showed up and enjoyed a meal that included appetizers, salad, gnocchi, salmon, and even tri-tip. Some even dressed up for the occasion”.
That’s pretty cool, eh? Extravagant, perhaps. But cool none the less.
Something I’ve learned after being born and raised in this city, and serving the church for the past 35 years, is that there are people with needs everywhere in Toronto.
There are hurting people across every category of the humanity that fills this city.
On the streets downtown near our Centre for Street Youth, and in Moss Park and elsewhere where the mission is invested, the needs are pretty obvious. Kinda hard to miss, actually.
But even in relatively affluent North York and Willowdale, there are people with serious and immediate needs.
And the amazing blessing you have as Wellspring Evangelical Missionary Church, is that you get to be the ones who are sent into the highways and biways of this neighbourhood, your neighbourhoods, to do exactly what Jesus would do if He was here.
You get to proclaim freedom to the captives here in Willowdale. Captives to fear, captives to sin, captives to materialism.
You get to proclaim recovery of sight for the blind.
Blind to their Creator, blind to the dignity that each person has because they are made in the image of their Creator, blind to their spiritual needs.
You get to set the oppressed free. Those held down, held back, the addicted, the exploited. And you get to proclaim God’s favour...that He loves each member of this community, and of your home community, with an everlasting, self-sacrificing love.
That God is for people and not against. God is the Lover of humanity long before He shows up as its judge.
But here’s the thing. I said you get to do what Jesus would do if He was here.
The whole point of the gospel is that Jesus is here...in His church, in you. In your outreached arms. In your generosity to the community. In your outreached hand that seeks to bless the poor among you.
In the way you struggle together as a community with how to be faithful to Jesus and to the revealed Word of God in the Bible
We get questions at The Yonge Street Mission. Lots of questions from people who receive care and love and support from us. About 15,000 people we serve in a given year through our 6 ministry sites.
One of the questions is: why? Why on earth do you do this? Why do you serve us, not to make a profit, but just to serve us?
Why do you walk with us through hardships over so many years, when it is of no advantage to you? Why do you journey with us when long ago everyone else we know gave up on us?
And we’re always ready to give an account of the faith we have in Jesus, the love we feel for the living God who has saved us and blessed us by calling us into the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19) among those who are not too distracted to respond to it
The truth is, serving the poor, doing what we do, knowing we are sent by Jesus as the Father sent Him, gives us back immeasurably more than we give away.
There’s something about being in relationship with people struggling with poverty and having friends among the poor that keeps it real. That keeps God real and fresh and immediately near.
So, that’s some thoughts on an awesome parable. A story we’re invited into, with a role we are called to play. It’s the same role Jesus played with all His heart and soul and strength.
May each of us here, as we celebrate God’s great faithfulness through our many struggles over the years, find refreshing in Jesus invitation to this church, this people so loved by Jesus, to love this community TO Jesus in return. Amen? Amen.