A Place at the Party
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is at a party, and he tells a parable about a party. That’s not unusual for Jesus. Particularly in Luke, Jesus spends a lot of time at parties, and Jesus tells a lot of parables about parties.
I love that about Jesus. All those parties Jesus attended, and all Jesus’ talk about the kingdom of God being like a party, reminds us that Jesus was fun.
People sometimes think of religion as a kind of kill-joy, as if religion keeps us from doing all the fun things we might otherwise enjoy. But that has it backwards. Over time, the “fun things” that are actually sin beat us down. But true religion, life with God, connection to Jesus, builds us up. Jesus invites us to celebrate, to revel in God’s love, to enjoy God’s blessings. Being with Jesus is a party. That’s good news!
But parables about the kingdom as a big party don’t work for me as well as they used to.
Back when Carrie and I were dating, I was all about fun. I liked to go out and about, to try new things, to get together with friends. Carrie has said many times, that was one of the things that attracted her to me.
And then something happened. I have become a total homebody. Now there’s not much I enjoy more than sitting in my living room with a book and a cup of tea. Carrie accuses me of pulling a bait and switch on her, and she’s right. All I can say in my defense is, it wasn’t intentional.
Among other results of my loss of funness, I don’t enjoy parties as much as I used to.
I think about Smith faculty parties. Carrie would tell me that it would be fun. And they were fun for her. With my encouragement, Carrie would wander off to talk to the many friends and colleagues who wanted to talk to her.
Meanwhile, I tried a version of what Jesus suggests in our parable. I would stand in the corner, waiting to be noticed.
If my experience at these parties was like Jesus’ parable, the President of Smith would have come over, engaged me in conversation, and then announced to the party-goers that I was totally awesome. That happened zero times.
But eventually someone would come over. He or she would ask me what I taught. I would answer that I didn’t work at Smith, that I was there with my wife. That was a disappointing answer. If I told them that my wife was Carrie, that helped. Carrie is well-known, liked, and respected across campus. After all, she is fun. Then the stranger would ask me what I did for a living. I would tell them I was an Episcopal priest. And there the conversations usually ended. I was never invited to “move up higher” at any of those parties.
After that happened a few times, I started taking a book with me to Smith parties. Then I mostly quit going. Then the pandemic came along, and the parties didn’t happen for a couple of years. That was one good thing to come out of the pandemic!
So when Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like a banquet, I am not really on board. I’d prefer something like: the kingdom of heaven is like sitting with your tea and your book, and other people are there, but they know not to interrupt you most of the time, and they’re really interested in your book when you are in the mood to chat. Sadly, Jesus doesn’t tell a parable like that!
I am joking, but I also make a serious point. We should always remember that being with Christ, living as God calls us to live, is the surest path to true joy. But our lives are complicated, and often tragic, and we don’t always feel that joy even when we are trying to be as faithful as we can.
So, what about those times when we don’t enjoy the party? What about those times when life is really hard, or else just flat?
Last week I met with Bishop Scruton for spiritual direction. As we talked together about what’s going on in my life, and for some of the people here at Saint David’s, and in the world more generally, we realized there are a lot of reasons for heaviness. These days people may feel more like the woman in our reading from last Sunday, the woman who was bent over for 18 years, than the party-goers in Jesus’ parable.
What is God’s invitation to us when the party seems out of reach or not all that attractive? What can our parable teach us about those times?
Start with the obvious. Our parable is a lesson about humility. The eager party-goers, the ones who put themselves forward, the ones who try to claim the best seats for themselves, are warned that they may find themselves getting demoted. They don’t get thrown out of the party altogether. But all their efforts to claim a place for themselves come to very little in the end.
Jesus makes the point explicit at the end of the parable. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
My guess is, all of us know that. But in good times, at least for me, that knowledge is in my head. It’s only when things are not going my way, when my best efforts fail, that I know in my heart how little strength I really have, and how much I have to depend on God.
It is a sad fact and a great paradox of the Christian life that we recognize our dependence on God best when God seems far away, when we’re not at the party at all, or stuck in the lowest place there. That’s when we know our deep need. And, for that very reason, that’s when we are most open to God’s grace.
There is promise in our parable, too.
In our times of humiliation and weakness and alienation, when the party isn’t going well and even God seems far away, God is there with us. That’s the good news of the incarnation. Christ meets us where we are. God comes to us in our hard times, precisely to lift us up, to help us keep going, to help us enjoy the heavenly party after all.
Thankfully, we can know some of that joy even now. We get a foretaste of it in the Eucharist, or when Scripture truly moves us, or when we get a refreshing rain, or when we do the right thing even though it’s hard. We get a foretaste most of all when we experience love, given or received.
But for now, it’s just a foretaste. So, we look forward in faith and hope to the great party in the sky, where I won’t be stuck in the corner because God invites me to take my proper place, and where people will want to talk about the books I’ve been reading. And Christ will be right there, along with all the people I love most. And it will be more fun than we could ever imagine, even for unfun people like me.
If nothing else sustains us in hard times, still faith and hope can do it. Because by faith we know that God is never far away and will get us into that party.
For that good news, I thank God, in Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan