"Feast Or Famine, Our Choice"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 10/10/1999
Exodus 32:1-14; Matthew 22:1-14
Let me give you an example. St. Matthew's is a very visible church. Every month certain people find our building an attractive place to shop when they are looking for economic help. They come with their stories of being evicted, of spousal abuse, of needing money for bus fare and they want St. Matthew's to provide it. They come with a sense of urgency, honestly believing that money will solve their problems. What can unconditional love do?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us to give without counting the cost. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus gave us an example of how to be good neighbors. In the story of the talents, Jesus was teaching us how to be good stewards with the resources we have. And once Jesus taught, "If someone will not welcome or listen to you, then leave them and shake the dust off your feet." There are plenty of teachings from Jesus that can be used to support any response to such people. Again, what can unconditional love do?
For some people, giving money and providing loving support may not be enough to help them. Is it the duty or obligation of unconditional love to give people money on demand? This has been one of the challenges churches face constantly. What is so frustrating for churches is that quite often people have not come into these circumstances without first having made a lot of other decisions. Thinking of the church as a source of income is like screaming to God, "I want you to give me happiness!" Happiness cannot and will not come this way.
The tragic stories of some lottery winners, some high profile movie stars, and some of the instant millionaires in the technology sector of our society have demonstrated this truth over and over again. Money is seldom the answer for anyone in trouble with life. It is like handing a bandaid to someone with a wounded spirit. Money will not translate into what they need, although they fervently believe that it will. As we will see, the Kingdom of God has consequences for everyone. In some respects, life in the Kingdom mirrors the choices we have in our country.
Currently the United States has under 5 percent unemployment. There is opportunity for work everywhere for almost anyone who wants to contribute. Yet some people choose to work very hard to destroy the fabric of society that others have tried to weave. I wish I knew the reason why this is so.
For example, there are over 40,000 computer viruses present on the Internet that were created by people who thrive on defeating or destroying what others have created. There are people who think of skillful, ingenious methods to defraud banks electronically. There are people who kill others to harvest their body parts to sell in the rapidly expanding organ transplant markets. Why do we suppose that is?
All of the various choices that shape our destiny may help us understand this very direct parable of Jesus in our lesson today. His description of the Kingdom is a frighteningly realistic appraisal of the way life is. Jesus is telling his listeners how the Kingdom of God works. The Kingdom will work for everyone, but each of us must be a participant. If we are not, there will be consequences regardless of our beliefs about God or God's created order.
Jesus told the story of a wedding feast that a king held for his son. The invitations went out but those on the guest list were too busy with other pursuits to attend. They simply did not take seriously the invitation. When they did not come to the feast, the king sent out his army and destroyed the people and burned their city. Talk about being judgmental! Yet for believers and non-believers alike, life is very judgmental. There are fundamental principles for living and when they are not followed, there are consequences. Life is a feast or famine.
The king then instructed his servants to go everywhere and invite "good" and "bad" people alike to come to his feast. Our lesson indicated that they came and the wedding hall was filled with guests. Then the lesson concluded with a statement that many are invited but few are chosen.
This parable gives us a rather disturbing image of God. This portrait of God is of one who willfully destroyed the people who had found more important things to do than come to the feast. God appeared to use brute force in retaliation for those who ignored the invitation. What was Jesus' purpose for using such a preposterous image of God?
Such an image shows an authentic picture of the consequences in the world of choices that God created. Still, is there no compassion by God for those of us who are experiencing tragic consequences from our choices? Of course there is. How, then, is that compassion expressed? It is during some of life's most tragic moments that unconditional love shows its greatest limitation.
A number of years ago, Paul Harvey told a story that attempted to describe what God's love is like. All the chaos, pain, and tragedy are present in this story along with unconditional love. The story featured events during the teenage years of a minister's son whose choices had taken him into troubled waters. As a high school student, he became the pal of one of his teachers, whom the young man admired very much. They went to ball games together and socialized on a regular basis. It was during these social events that the young man departed from the values his parents had worked so diligently to model.
The teacher, who had graduated from college only the year before, encouraged his impressionable student to drink alcohol. After all, he was a man now and could make his own choices, he was told. The young man's grades began to slip. Against his parent's wishes he stayed out late on many school nights. His folks found it impossible to correct his decision making. He simply would not listen and was openly defiant with an anger that frequently visits those who cannot always persuade others with their demands.
One evening close to midnight the minister paced back and forth searching for alternatives for how best to love his son. Finally, he went to the boy's bedroom where he was sleeping. It was near midnight. As he opened the door, the air was filled with the stench of overindulgence. As the minister stood in the doorway, he saw his wife kneeling beside their son's bed. She was kissing his face and brushing back his hair with her hand. She looked up at her husband and said, "This is all I can do. He will not let me love him while he is awake."
Even though God's love is like that, there are people who cannot bring themselves to understand or connect with such a love. They believe that happiness is found in the acquiring of things. They go from job to job believing that their personal worth is linked to the dollar amounts of their paychecks. They strive to win approval by pleasing others. They have completely ignored learning anything about what creates fulfillment in life. What they need, money will not buy them.
What is God to do? What does love require? Are such people not loved? Quite the contrary; they are loved. But even unconditional love, as powerful as it is, cannot give to others what they have never taken the time to develop. Unconditional love is non-invasive. It cannot penetrate and recreate a life where it is not desired. When people build walls and fill their lives with drugs, alcohol, and all kinds of self-destructive attitudes, all such love can do is weep because of what they are missing in life. How we wish that something as simple as giving them lots of money would solve their life issues!
Showing compassion is why our church has Alpha and Beta Houses. This is why we have our in-house shelter program. But unconditional love and compassion is not always enough to teach people how to make more creative decisions. Whether life is a feast or feminine is our choice.
Unconditional love at its best can only surround others with its energy. One of the disciples once came upon a physically-challenged person begging for money. He said, "Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I will give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk."
There is a great truth in that statement. There is no one who is beyond healing. There is no one who is permanently lost. The spirit of love surrounds each of us. All anyone has to do is get up and walk in a direction that better serves them. This is each person's choice. If we do not like where we are in life, God created us so that we can choose differently. God's love is waiting to enable us to create a much different destiny.
Such a choice should be the easiest one to make, particularly when people are so unhappy where they are. How strange that this is not the case! Angry people have no peace or joy yet they cling to their hostility nevertheless. People hold on to their rebellious attitudes as if tomorrow life will be better. They clutch to their infidelity to wholesomeness as if their behavior will deliver them. Further destroying themselves emotionally and spiritually is the skill they have developed. Like God, all we can do is stand among them without judgment communicating that they have many other wonderful possibilities.
Last weekend, Lois and I traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, to perform a marriage ceremony. This was our gift to a family that kept our son, Steven, for a year. He needed to finish school in Martinsburg, West Virginia, when we were appointed to serve our Capitol Hill church. For their ceremony, the couple asked that I deliver a brief homily to the congregation.
While Lois and I were seated at the reception, a young woman came to our table and knelt down beside my chair. She said, " My heart is beating so fast right now. Please excuse my nervousness. I want you to know that I have been married for 14 years and have been miserable for many of those years. What you said today was the most important thing I have ever heard. For 14 years I have been waiting for my husband to respond to me the way that I wanted and felt I needed him to. It never dawned on me until today, that his responses to me were gifts designed for my own growth. I had never understood our relationship in that light until now. Thank you!"
When she was finished she stood up, put her arms around me and startled me with a kiss. She disappeared into the crowd and I never saw her again.
I left the reception thinking, "How many people are there like her who may never attend a church service, who never open a Bible, who never read any life-enhancing books, and who may simply be plodding along in life day after day waiting for something to happen to them to make their lives happier?" How many people are there who never realize that today they can take command over the direction of their lives? Perhaps all they need is for someone to extend to them an invitation to the feast.
For a fleeting moment I understood some of the pain Jesus experienced during one of his moments of reflection. Do you remember the time he said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how many times have I wanted to gather you around me like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings but you would not let me." Such a statement takes us back to the image of the mother kissing her son's face while saying, "He will not let me love him while he is awake."
Life truly is a feast or a famine and it is our choice what we experience. Yet Jesus called us to invite as many people as we can to the feast. We cannot rest, not in a world filled with so many people who struggle to find what our physical world cannot give them. This morning I leave you with one question, "When is the last time you invited someone to experience the feast?"
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for the magnificence of creation. You have designed us so that our thoughts enable us to reveal who we are. Our reactions to life's circumstances tell the world about the quality and nature of our spirits. You have given us the capacity to understand, to stretch in our abilities, and to help our world to become more wholesome. We thank you, God, for hiding our destinies from us so that the adventure of life cannot be anticipated. Enable us to live so that others may become more peaceful, more enthusiastic and more clear in their vision of possibilities. In all that we do, may our discipleship to Jesus Christ be a source of encouragement and inspiration to a world that needs to experience your embrace. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
During these moments, O God, we pray that our hearts will be strangely warmed by your presence. How often we have longed for our cups to be filled when we have discovered that church has been the place where we have helped another to fill theirs. How often we have come into this sanctuary looking for answers to our own life issues only to find ourselves listening patiently to those of another. Truly when the community of faith gathers there are so many opportunities to bless and to be blessed.
Not everyone is here, O God. Not everyone opens themselves to the possibilities of what can happen when they enter a worship experience. You are so unpredictable. You can take our spoken words and carve them into ones that fit the need of someone needing to hear them. You can inspire two people to shake hands and speak. That one moment of kindness may be enough to bring both of them back again. But not everyone is here.
Lead us into a deeper understanding of our role in the world. We do not seek to carry ourselves with a sense of righteousness; we only wish to be a healing presence. We only wish to embrace others with kindness and a generosity of spirit. Inspire us to take the lead in listening, in being patient, and in participating in the lives of others. May friendship be something we readily give away to all who come into our presence. Use us in every way to become healers of our world. Thank you, God, for granting us such a privilege. With thankful hearts we pray the prayer Jesus taught us to say . . .