Red Rover, Red Rover
Luke 14:1, 7-14
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. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "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; 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. 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. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
I dropped an RSVP card in the mail for a wedding this fall which, along with this morning’s Gospel, of course, made me think about receptions and parties, banquets and celebrations. I couldn’t help but think of all of the brides and grooms I’ve known, all the bridesmaids and groomsmen and cakes and receptions and buffets and guests lists and seating charts – and more – as I read Luke’s Gospel for this morning and heard all Jesus has to say about banquets and being invited and making all of those invitations and planning all of those celebrations.
I think about the ceremonies, where the first two or three rows of chairs or pews are reserved for the parents of the bride and groom and for their closest family members. I think about the head table at the reception, where those who wear the tuxedos and the fancy dresses are allowed to sit. And I think about the other reserved tables, again, set apart for the parents, immediate family and other VIPs. Many of us have been there and done that, am I right?
And, with those images in your head, listen again to what Jesus says to the one who invited him to the banquet on that Sabbath day: “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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind."
Now, I don’t think for a second I should convince any bride or groom not to invite their best friends and closest family members to their most special occasion. Nor would I have the nerve to suggest that the guest list include a host of strangers – poor, crippled, lame, blind, or not. I don’t think even Jesus would expect such a thing, necessarily either, because in this morning’s gospel, Jesus is talking about more than manners and he’s calling to our attention more than just another wedding reception, too. This was a parable, of sorts, we’re told, after all.
So, Jesus is pointing to a different kind of party, here. Jesus is referring to the resurrection banquet we all will share at the end of time. Jesus is talking about the banquet to end all banquets; the reception to end all receptions; the celebration to end all celebrations – and it’s the party we gather here for, week after week, to anticipate.
We can forget it sometimes, but Holy Communion is a banquet, remember. This is all supposed to be a party, of sorts. Yes, it’s about acknowledging our brokenness, our failures and our sinfulness. Yes, it’s about repenting and giving up all those things that keep us from being who or how or what God hopes for us to be. But Holy Communion is ultimately about being reminded of our forgiveness and salvation, too. The food and drink we share here represent a feast of victory that we remember and look forward to every time we break bread and share wine in remembrance of the one who died, but who lives again, for our sake – and for the sake of the world.
And Jesus wants us to imagine – and to invite – all of God’s people into that banquet, especially if they’re in need; especially if they’re poor, blind, lame or crippled; especially if they’re hungry in any way; hurting in any way; broken, lonely, outcast, ostracized, alienated in any way. Followers of Jesus are expected to have a different, more colorful, messier guest list than just any old party might include.
Does anyone remember Red Rover? That game where you stand in a circle or line up with your team and yell out, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send ‘so-and-so’ right over!” And the person you’ve called on has to charge into the other team and try to break through their clasped hands and linked arms. (I suspect, in the interest of an abundance of caution and safety, Red Rover has gone the way of Dodge Ball on most school playgrounds.)
But, some churches in the world these days still seem to play. Too many churches seem to be hosting their own kind of Red Rover Tournament of Champions, week after week, if you ask me. There are signs of welcome, all kinds of invitations. There is talk about a loving, merciful, forgiving and gracious God. The table is set and so is the stage for a great party week after week: “Red Rover, Red Rover send everyone on over!”
But then teeth are clenched. Arms are locked. Eyes are shut. And it's almost like the greatest hope in some places is that the wrong crowd doesn't actually show up and try to break into their midst; that “those” people don’t try to take advantage of the Good News God offers; that “that kind of sinner” or “that kind of broken” or “that kind of hungry,” “that kind of need,” “that kind of messy” doesn’t actually show up and gum up the works. Churches are dying in droves because it’s become really hard for hurting, hungry people to play this game; to break through the history and the hypocrisy in so many places and to find the kind of grace Jesus proclaims and expects us to offer.
So, our reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning begs the question, “If this is a party – and we’re not just talking about wedding receptions – who exactly is on our guest list?” What does our inviting look like? And, who gets to sit at the head table with us? Who gets to join our circle as we gather around this altar? Who gets to stand in line with us as we make our way to the front to receive what is ours only by the grace of God?
Is it the recovering alcoholic who gathers here on Mondays or Thursdays for AA… who’s still a little hungover so may not feel up to snuff for Sunday morning worship? Is our welcome wide enough for her?
What about that kid who’s a little too loud and anxious and excitable to sit still for an hour at a clip? Is our welcome for him?
What about the gay couple who wants to hold hands in worship? Or the family who would pray the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish? Would we merely tolerate them? Or would we welcome them, include them and love them into our midst? Maybe do some things differently in order to make room for them?
See, Jesus’ words in this morning’s Gospel are meant to shift our focus, to change our tune about this party for which we’ve gathered. He means to change the way we view ourselves as the ones gathered for the party. He means to put this party into a different perspective by reminding us that we may do the inviting, we may read the words, hand out the bulletins, choose the music, pray the prayers. We may have prepared the food and set up the table and many of us will even help to clean up after the party’s over, to get ready for the next one. But Jesus reminds us that we are by no means the hosts of what goes on here.
God is the one who gathers us in. God feeds and forgives us. And God sends us out into the world to do the same for others.
At the wedding banquet Jesus speaks of, and at the communion table God orchestrates, the same feast is shared ... it's one that's offered because we need forgiveness. The table gets turned, and the broken, crippled, blind, lame and sinner of every shape, size and status, are no longer "out there," but we realize that "they" have become "us," and the Lord of heaven and earth calls us all to the table at the same time with the same words: “This is the body of Christ, given for you,” and “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” “…and for you, and you and you.” “…and for him and her and them, just the same.”
So, this morning is about humility and welcome. When we realize that it’s not our party to throw, but that there’s room for all of us at the head table anyway, we don’t have to behave like children on the playground any longer. We can loosen our grip and soften our hearts. We can open our eyes. And we can move over and make room for so many more lives to enter our circle and to share the joy and good news that belong to us all.
And that's when this food becomes more than just nourishment for the body ... it fills the soul. That’s when our gathering becomes more than just people in a room ... it's children of God loved and loving, forgiven and forgiving, changed by grace and changing the world, in return. And it’s when this feast becomes a foretaste of what’s to come … when things here on earth look more and more and more, as they are and will be in heaven.