Sunday, August 28, 2016
Luke 14:1, 7-14
When I was working in campus ministry in St. Louis, there was a student who came into the office one day to ask me some questions about being a Christian. He had not grown up with any church background, but started going to a church that summer and was interested in a place to connect with other Christian students on campus for community and faith discussion. “Awesome!” I thought. This is what campus ministry is all about! Reaching people who have little to no connection with Christianity and connecting them to a caring, Christian community. But as we talked, I realized he still had a lot to learn. The first question out of his mouth was, “What am I doing wrong?” You see, when he had first started going to church over the summer, everything started going well for him, he told me. He got a raise at his summer job. He got the internship he had applied for to start in the fall that he really wanted. “And the girls were just falling all over me,” he told me. When he said THAT, I had to say, “Alright, hold on there a minute. I think you might be misunderstanding some things about what Christianity is all about!”
He was concerned that since the fall semester had started, not everything was going his way. The girls weren’t so interested anymore. His internship fell through and his grades were suffering. As we talked, I learned that he basically thought that being a Christian meant that if you did certain things well, like going to worship on Sunday, taking time for prayer regularly, God would bless you with good things. Your life would be better – great, in fact! (He really emphasized the girls part, did I mention that)? I had to break it to this guy that Christianity was not about getting girls. In fact, Jesus directly challenged the notion that you get what you deserve. Having a relationship with Jesus did make our lives better, but that didn’t mean Christians were immune to hardships and disappointments. Our faith helps us deal with those disappointments. He was pretty bummed out. He didn’t come much to campus ministry anymore. Sometimes I wonder what happened to the guy.
We can laugh at this young guy’s idealism and misunderstanding of Christianity, but the truth is that most of us fall into the trap of thinking that we ought to get what we deserve at least sometimes. Think of these common sayings: “You are what you eat.” “What comes around goes around.” “Quid pro quo.” “You get what you pay for.” “That’s karma for you.” It can be comforting to think that life is a perfect balance of punishments and rewards for good and bad behavior, a perfect world of balance. But Jesus challenges this assumption in today’s gospel with an example that we can easily relate to. He asks us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to a meal that we host – not to invite our friends, relatives, and rich neighbors. Why? Because your friends, family, and neighbors can invite you back and repay you. It feeds into the tit for tat culture that we live in. Jesus calls us to do things without expectation of repayment – to be humble, hospitable, generous. To be different.
It is true that we often still operate under obligations we think we have to others. If I receive a Christmas present or gift for my daughter from someone, I feel obligated to also get them a Christmas present or their child a present. I invite to my parties the ones who invited me to theirs. It’s common courtesy, and somewhat of a cultural expectation still today. When we go to a wedding or a birthday party, we do not expect to find homeless people dining with us – we expect to see friends, family, and neighbors. We stick within our social groups.
Jesus is asking us to be different. Jesus is asking us to be generous without expecting repayment. Jesus is asking us to step outside of the balance of getting this for giving that. The hard truth that my campus ministry friend discovered is that we DON’t always get what we deserve. Life is not fair! Teenage single mothers get pregnant easily while stable married parents in their thirties struggle for years to have a child. People we love are killed in car accidents, by cancer or other diseases way too young. Good Christian families live here in the United States comfortably with two-car garages, multiple bathrooms and bedrooms while good Christian families live across the world without running water, adequate food or housing. The magnitude of sin means that we participate in systems that perpetuate these inequalities – often without even realizing we are doing so. Jesus calls us to be different, to live differently.
Why? Because Jesus IS different.
Jesus knows that we don’t deserve any of this. Jesus takes the most ultimate action of generosity and self-sacrifice by giving his life on the cross for us, when he KNOWS we cannot repay him. The son of God, the one who sits at the right hand of God, humbles himself to the point of being executed as a criminal on a cross – for us, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. In Jesus, we have not received what we deserve. We have received a gift much, much, more than we could ever hope to deserve.
It’s difficult to think about this gospel passage and what we might do with it. So do we literally go out and invite the poorest people we can find to our next party? Do we stop giving gifts or returning favors? How do we live differently, as Jesus suggests? Maybe it is that radical. But one thing we can learn from Jesus today is that we are freer from expectations and obligations than we might think sometimes. Jesus gives us life freely – no strings attached. What if we started engaging in relationships with fewer strings attached- giving without worrying about getting anything back. Helping out without being asked. Receiving kindness without feeling like we “own someone one.” At Bethel, we invite people to participate in our ministry regardless of who you are and where you come from. Lifelong Lutheran or curious seeker. Rich or poor. Young or old. Able-bodied or disabled. You are welcome here – no strings attached. At Bethel, every Sunday we say this statement: “Blessed to serve God and share our faith with all.” We are blessed – far beyond our deserving, far more than we could ever repay. We seek to serve God and share what we can of those blessings with all people, not just a particular group. And especially when you may be feeling down because life hasn’t been treating you fairly, we seek to be a supportive, caring community because we’ve all been there, too – but we haven’t gotten stuck there. We’ve experienced the grace of God in our lives getting us through the tough times, loving us abundantly. So let’s move beyond thinking about what we do or don’t deserve, to living in the radical abundant grace and love of God through Jesus Christ.