What I’m about to tell you will not come as a big surprise to many of you here today: there are very few things I love more in life than a good party. And summer happens to be the season of parties! The temperature warms up, school is out, the pace of life shifts, and calendars fill up with all kinds of social gatherings. There’s something about these warm summer days that makes it easy and natural for us to celebrate. In fact—at this very moment—there are few folks that would normally be here with us this morning, but instead are participating in some advance celebrating of our nation’s independence. So, a shout-out our fellow HACCers at the lakes…we know it’s tough out there (but somebody’s got to do it.).
Amidst all of this summer socialization, I wonder if you’ve considered the power of parties in the life of Christian community. You know, they are an important manifestation of who and what we’re about as a community of faith. One aspect of this congregation’s identity that drew me here—3 years ago—was Harvard Avenue’s capacity for celebration and the genuine satisfaction you all find in coming together regularly to enjoy one another. We share meals and fellowship; we recognize milestones for individuals and for our community. Whether we’re honoring achievements, dedicating our gifts to the church, supporting a mission partner, or just breaking bread for the fun of it, Harvard Avenue is a congregation that celebrates well and often. And it is important that Christian communities have parties; we should enjoy the great gifts of life in fellowship with God and one another. Jesus came so that we might have abundant life, and congregations that celebrate that abundance tend to be healthier and more vibrant.
I think that sometimes, preachers and churches take themselves a bit too seriously. We tend to mistake a sort of solemn severity for faithful reverence. From the outside looking in, it can be the case that Christian communities can appear humorless or legalistic, and I think this is both lamentable and ironic. After all, we are followers of Jesus, and one thing we know about our Savior is that he liked to go to parties. In every one of the gospels, Jesus is found enjoying the company of others at wedding banquets, dinner parties, fish fries, picnics, and other social gatherings.
In fact, we are offered a robust picture of Jesus’ social life in the Gospel of Luke. The majority of chapters fourteen and fifteen are centered on the theme of parties, and as we heard in this morning’s passage, it begins with Jesus accepting an invite to have dinner at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. Now, you may be thinking “Hmm. But weren’t the Pharisees the enemy?” The actual picture is more complex than this generality. Jesus spent a lot of time with Pharisees – they were his neighbors and, like him, Jews who lived in community with one another. And so, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Jesus dining with them. Nor should we be surprised, however, that the author of Luke says they were watching him closely. By this point in the account, Jesus has proven both willing and able to stretch—if not cross—the boundaries of social convention and legal custom, and I can only imagine those at the party were wondering if he might do it again.
As it turns out, Jesus is also watching his dinner companions and he notices something that troubles him. As the guests arrive to the party, they are all attempting to take the places of greatest honor. In first-century culture, dining in someone’s home was very much a political act. The arrangement of the guests as they were positioned for a meal was an indication of who possessed the greatest honor, usually indicated by proximity to the host.
Jesus watches these guests vying for the VIP seating and he can’t help but say something. What follows are a few lessons on party etiquette from Jesus, and they’re worth our reflection.
First he addresses the guests. Lesson one: Make room. It doesn’t require much life experience to know what it feels like when there’s no space for you. And, especially, when there’s no room in the inn for someone elsewhere in the world, there must be space in Christian community. Put in other words, if the church of Jesus Christ would not receive a five-star review on Trip Advisor for available room for all travelers on life’s journey, then we’ve got work to do.
I have seen our deacons here make quick work of retrieving more chairs to get everyone seated in this sanctuary if that’s what it takes to make room for everyone in worship. I have seen you all make room for people haven’t felt welcomed by church in a long time. Jesus says, when you are invited to a party, you should be ready and willing to make room for someone else.
Lesson two: Honor the stranger. Not only should we make room, but we should save the best spots for the people who show up last…the ones we don’t already know. Always assume, Jesus says, that the person who is not yet at the party is the most important person. This is a difficult and wonderful lesson for the church. The most important people are the ones who aren’t here yet. They deserve the place of honor (even if they come in ten minutes late, make too much noise, don’t know the songs). To bring it down to a nominal level, you know, sometimes we talk about having “assigned seats” in the sanctuary—mine’s happens to be right there (first row, fifth chair in from the aisle). And we’ll joke about being a little irked when someone unknowingly takes “our” seat. And it’s good for the laugh, but as a practice of hospitality, it’s a major miss. Jesus says the person who hasn’t yet walked in is the most important person. He says the stranger deserves the place of honor. For if we humble ourselves, we will be exalted.
The final lesson on Jesus’ shortlist of party etiquette is directed at the host: he says expand your guest list. Jesus was familiar with the customs of party invitations and, frankly, not much has changed from his time to ours. “They had us over for dinner, so we really need to invite them soon.” We tend to extend invitations to those who are most like us and those who can reciprocate our hospitality. We don’t do this with harmful intent, it’s just easier, and more comfortable, for guest and host alike, if we are all basically the same and know one another. It is more comfortable this way, to be sure, but not more faithful to our call. Jesus says that, in community of faith, when we have a party, we should invite precisely those who cannot return the favor; those who are on the outside looking in. Doing this will bring a blessing to them and to us, Jesus says. And I think I know what he means. When we extend the invitation to those beyond our comfort zone, our perspective is expanded and we are transformed into the kind of party-goer that Christ was wants us to be. Selfless giving as a host, because you discover that God is the life of the party, and the Divine throws a party of extravagant abundance.
Make room. Honor the stranger. Expand the guest list. These lessons are deceptive in their simplicity, and yet, as Christians we attempt to measure our faithfulness against these gospel-inspired values. It’s humbling for us to confess when we fall short—and we do more than we wish. But I also believe that these party protocols have found a home in our hearts at HACC. I believe this because I could tell many stories of this congregation—stories about how invitations have transformed lives, renewed dormant faith, called forth forgotten gifts, blessed the inviter and the invited. I believe it, because this congregation hosts and welcomes groups of all kinds to find support and care here. I believe these teachings are taking root, because Harvard Avenue is a growing congregation, as you respond to the call to invite others.
Why, I’ve overheard invitations at breakfast at Old School Bagel, on the tennis courts at LaFortune Park, and, yes, even in the early morning at a local dive-bar. “I hope you’ll come to my church, I think you’d find it meaningful.” “You should come to youth group with me sometime…it’s a lot of fun.” “Check out my Sunday school class sometime, I learn a lot there and, not to mention, they can throw one heck of a party.” I have seen invitation happen in the most unexpected times and places, no longer safe and stable on the sidelines, but transformed by the power of God proclaimed and shared. All of this is possible because you know that the celebrations of our faith carry us through the best and the worst of life.
Of course, we’ve still got plenty of work to do in transforming ourselves into the kind of party attendees and hosts that we are called to be. And it is worth saying that the lessons that Jesus teaches on partying extend beyond our congregational life to all aspect of our daily living. Are we finding ways to be people of genuine and enthusiastic invitation? As Disciples of Christ, we are called to be a party-people of generous, radical, reckless invitation. Are we making room for the unexpected guest? What exactly would this world look like—feel like—if we decided to honor the stranger in our midst. I have a suspicion, it would look a great deal differently than it does right now. Does our guest list include all people, especially those that are not like us?
Paige Chenault, was five months pregnant. She was daydreaming about the elaborate birthday parties she’d throw for her daughter one day, as she flip through a magazine. On one of the pages she saw a photo of an impoverished Haitian boy, and wondered about those children who will have birthdays that go uncelebrated. She knew there was something to be done. So in January of 2012, Paige launched the Birthday Party Project, a nonprofit organization that throws birthday parties for homeless children at shelters across the nation. Paige, her staff and volunteers—known as “birthday enthusiasts,” wear shirts with the mantra EAT. SLEEP. PARTY. REPEAT, and that is what they have done—having thrown 3,339 birthday parties, for more than 23,000 kids.
Paige says that her favorite part of each party is when the kids make a wish and blow out the candles. “They rarely get a chance to dream big,” she says. Her daughter, Lizzie, who helped insight the project before she was even born is now seven, and helps throw some of the celebrations. Of this Paige acknowledges that she now knows that the most important thing she can teach her daughter is to be generous.1
Make room. Honor the stranger. Expand the guest list. This is what it means to party like Jesus. For when Jesus throws a party, the humble are exalted. When Jesus throws a party, the outsiders are given priority. When Jesus throws a party, all of God’s people have a place. Even you. So don’t miss out, because we’ve got Good News of great joy to celebrate with the world! Folks, in our Lord there is hope, and love, and grace, and life everlasting…it’s party time! And we’re gonna’ party like Jesus would.
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1 https://www.thebirthdaypartyproject.org/. Also, Reader’s Digest, “Meet the Woman Who throws Parties for Homeless Kids” (http://www.rd.com/true-stories/inspiring/birthday-parties-homeless-kids/)