Living as Guests (Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost)

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One of the best things about moving on from the days of Covid lockdowns is that we can finally go to dinner parties again! Sometimes, just to be extra safe, people are gathering for outdoor cookouts on a deck or a patio, as folks at Prince of Peace recently did for our first post-Covid “Tables for All” event.  But often, we’re gathering for dinners in restaurants.  And even big events like wedding banquets – often held well after the official wedding – are happening again.

And so, probably lots of us have received invitations to dinner parties and even banquets.  Sometimes, it’s been as simple as a late summer bar-b-que before school starts.  But whatever form a dinner party takes, it’s fun to get together again and eat! 

But most of us are just glad to be able to get together again.  We probably aren’t stopping to think about what it means to be invited to somebody’s party.  We usually just go and have a good time.

If you think about going to a party at all, you might still think about Covid safety. But have you stopped recently to consider what it really means to be invited to be a guest at someone else’s party?  How do think about yourself and your fellow guests?  And what does the host expect from you?

Whether you think about those questions consciously or not, most of us realize that when we’re a guest at someone else’s party, it means:

  • Remembering that you’re not the host!  You’re there because somebody else has invited you.  And you probably have been invited simply because the host likes you and wants you to be there.  It also means you don’t have to run things, and you don’t make the rules.  And indeed, you can usually enjoy yourself a lot more when you don’t have to run things …!
  • Caring about making the host look good – not yourself … indeed, the real reason not to make a fool of yourself at somebody else’s party isn’t so that you don’t look bad – it’s so that you don’t embarrass the person who invited you…!
  • Treating the other guests well, even if you don’t know them and even (and maybe especially) if you don’t like some of them… and you do this not just because of good manners, but because you know that they, also, are guests of the host whom you do know and care about …

Now as Jesus watched the guests at the party to which he was invited in today’s Gospel reading, he watched in amazement how some of the guests had forgotten some of these basic things about being guests.  For it seems that some of these folks:

  • Thought they were the hosts – they got to decide the seating chart…!
  • Didn’t care about making the host look good – if the host has to come and tell you to give up your seat, it isn’t just an embarrassment to you, it’s uncomfortable and embarrassing to the host as well …
  • Didn’t care about treating the other guests well – they picked the best places and left others to fend for themselves…

Yet in criticizing these guests, Jesus isn’t simply giving a lesson in good manners.  Instead, Jesus is using this party to remind people that the kingdom of God is also often described as a great dinner party.  And it’s God’s party – a party that Jesus has come to initiate and that’s present even now.

In fact, as Jesus talks about the great dinner party that is the kingdom of God, he always makes it clear that we’ve already been invited to the party, and that the party is even now taking place.  And so Jesus is using the party he’s at to remind people that living as guests of the party of the kingdom of God right now also means:

  • Remembering that we’re not the hosts – we’ve been made part of God’s party because God loves us and invites us, not because we’ve earned our way in.  But that also means surrendering the notion that we get to control the party – that is, to decide the seating chart.  I notice this a lot as Christians of all stripes remember the days when “the church” or “Christianity” was the dominant voice in the culture and in deciding who got to sit where.  That’s not the case anymore.  But it was never the situation in the early church, either.  Yet Christians lived as citizens of the kingdom of God in the midst of a world that didn’t care what they thought.  They were faithful guests and party-goers without thinking they could control the party.  They “partied” as they were called to party (that is, they simply lived as they were called to live), and trusted God to take care of the rest.  And what would it mean for us to live and party like that?  That is, what would it mean for us to simply do what we feel God is calling us to do, even if nobody else notices and nobody else cares or changes because of us …?
  • Caring about making God look good, not ourselves … throughout history, we remember all kinds of terrible and embarrassing things that have been done by Christians when they’ve forgotten this!  And almost always, this is because the “guests” think they have to look good.  But what if, before saying or doing anything, we ask, “would what I say or do make God more appealing to somebody else?” instead of making myself look good or somebody else look bad…?  Jesus uses the party to remind us that our job as guests is to make God look good to others… (and this is the reason I’ve been so upset lately with what I’ve called “billboard theology” and “bumper sticker theology”…!
  • Treating other guests well, even if we don’t know them, and especially if we don’t like them!  Like those ancient party goers, we’re called by Jesus to do this not because anybody else is more or less worthy than we are; and it’s not because somehow maybe the people we don’t like will change (if they do, great!  But it’s not the reason.)  Rather, it’s because we see and treat others as fellow guests.  And we trust God to deal with his own guest list!  And part of the way we show our love and trust of God is to live in such a way that we treat others as God’s guests and trust that God knows what he’s doing…

Jesus always speaks of the kingdom of God as a present reality.  It’s happening right now.  That means that God’s party has already arrived.  And we’ve already been included in it! And we know we’re included because Jesus has invited us. 

And so Jesus calls us, also, like those first party-goers, to remember that we’re not the hosts and that God really is in control, even when things feel out of control all around us.  Jesus calls us to live and serve in ways that make God look good, instead of worrying about our own image.  And Jesus calls us to look at others – even those we don’t know or like – as fellow guests of God’s love, and to treat them as God has already treated us.