Invited to the Party
We’ve all had it happen to us - someone tells us they’re going to do something, and then they don’t. We tell the kids to clean their room; they say they will, and it doesn’t happen. We ask a colleague if they want to help produce a project; they say yes, but never lift a finger to do any work on it. We can reach an agreement with a fellow student to partner on an assignment, but find that we’re doing it all on our own. We enter covenants with other people - formal ones, legal ones - and one party to the agreement ignores the promise they have made. They don’t abide by the terms we had agreed to for our business, our marriage, our real estate transaction. We each had a part to play, had made promises, but the other person decided quietly to let go of their responsibilities and see if they could still get the benefits of the covenant.
Sometimes we are the persons who don’t hold up our end of the agreement. We may deal with that in many ways - we sometimes deny that there was ever a firm agreement, or that we have done anything wrong. We may try to squirm out of it by insisting that we haven’t failed to hold up our end of the agreement because it was all so loosely phrased in the first place. Sometimes we say, “You know, you’re right - I knew what my role was in this partnership and I didn’t do it and I’m sorry.” Then we go on to get it right from there on.
We don’t hold up our end of agreements for many reasons. Sometimes we’re afraid that things won’t go well so we revise the rules and take matters into our own hands. Sometimes we don’t like how things are going so we try to change outcomes by sabotaging or not participating. Sometimes we’ve just given lip-service to the one who asked us to join them - we weren’t interested and we never planned to invest ourselves in the project anyway.
Both of our biblical texts for today are about this very human situation - when we know the expectations for us in partnering with another, then we actively choose not to comply. In each story, the subject is our particular partnership with God. The Israelites, in the midst of their 40-year journey to their new home, were impatient and fearful. Moses, their leader and guide, had gone up the mountain for direction from God, and he simply didn’t seem to be coming back - if he would, they didn’t know how long it would be. They knew the agreement - God would be their God if they would be God’s people, having no other gods but Yahweh. That was the deal, the covenant. In their worry and impatience, the people figured that the deal might be off - God apparently wasn’t holding up God’s end. They’d better cover their own bases, take matters into their own hands, and create gods that would give them more speedy and reliable assistance. They do this, and amazingly, Moses, when he learns about it, becomes their defender. He doesn’t agree with them at all, but he loves them, and talks God down from wiping them out. God loves the people too, of course, but God’s anger and disappointment and sheer hurt are so great. It is very painful to be betrayed.
Many centuries pass; fast-forward to the time of Christ, and human beings haven’t changed. Two thousand years ago, Jesus tells a parable about people invited to be in covenant with God Almighty - to have God as their god and to be God’s very people. The invitation now is to accept the Gospel and follow Christ, the Messiah of God, with the whole of their lives. Jesus tells this parable in the Jerusalem temple and all the religious leaders are there. He is within days of being executed. It’s an outrageous story and doesn’t make sense, but it isn’t supposed to be realistic - it is an allegory after all. We feel for the poor guy who’s just walking down the street, gets an invitation to a royal banquet for a king who seems desperate to get anyone to attend, says, “Sure, I’ll go,” and then gets thrown into outer darkness for not being dressed up. Was he on the way to the market when some slave invited him to a party? No, nothing about this story makes common sense, but the parable is clear: those who are slaves of God, servants of Christ, are always inviting us to a gospel life, and when we say yes, we must mean it. We don’t shrug off our responsibilities; or say “the church is just lucky to have me, I’m awfully busy.” It’s a covenant that we enter faithfully and conscientiously. It is not, like a shared school assignment, something we can say yes to while hoping to get away with doing as little as possible. It is not enough, like the poor character in the parable, to show up and say that that’s sufficient. It’s not. As we read throughout the New Testament, as followers of Christ we are to live completely altered lives, we are to have “the Mind of Christ” within us; we are to be “a new creation.” I’d like to think with you for the next few minutes about what that can mean in our own lives, and how we can not become the person who accepted the invitation to the party, without honoring the host by thinking about what it means to say yes.
Let’s think first about the clothing analogy a little more. The Apostle Paul writes to the Colossians that their faith in Christ means that they (and we) should, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, weakness and patience.” These are to be our fancy wedding robe! They don’t sound high-falutin’ at all. Compassion - we are to let our hearts be touched, be broken, be changed by the people around us because we care for them so profoundly. Of course we care for the people we are close to - family, friends, our community. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to have compassion - period - for all the world. In the First Letter of John, we read, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” The cowardly response that many of us make is simply not to see the brother or sister in need. We surround ourselves with people and situations that confirm our sense of comfort. The deeply needy are around the corner but out of sight. We rewrite John’s verse to say, “God’s love abides in me because I have compassion on everyone I see.” That’s not the Gospel. We are called to really see the poor in our midst, to see the oppressed in our midst, to see people all the way on another continent who drop dead outside clinics from Ebola, to see the suffering of people who may have nothing in common with us but our very humanity - the Muslim Rohingya minority in Burma that is being oppressed and killed by majority Buddhists. The King James version of the Bible interprets I John as follows: “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother hath need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” We are talking about compassion! And it is not a surface emotion, fleeting, sweet. It lives deep in our guts, at our very center, and we consciously shut it off when we don’t wish to be moved by the humanity of another person.
We are to clothe ourselves with kindness, too, we read. That can be very hard. Not all people are kind to us - are we supposed to be kind to them anyway? Yes - that is exactly how we inhabit the Gospel in their midst. To “kill with kindness” is not a Christian principle. That is about vengeance, about putting the other down, about kindness as a tool for power. Christian “kindness” is sometimes translated as “mercy” in the biblical literature, and that captures its essence very well: we want for all other people only goodness, healing, restoration, whether they themselves are the kindest person on earth or whether they are very mean. When we clothe ourselves in the kindness that can even save another, we inhabit the Gospel.
The Apostle Paul tells us, too, to clothe ourselves in humility and meekness. That doesn’t mean that we practice putting ourselves down, but rather lifting others up. It’s not a zero-sum game. So much of the greed, violence, insensitivity and cruelty in the world stems from people’s pride. It makes them certain that, in large ways and very small (including the home and the office), they deserve money, power, and influence. Humility and meekness don’t mean getting steamrollered over by brutish people, but rather standing up to them without imitating them. It means placing the well-being of others on a par with your own well-being, of knowing yourself to be equal in relationship with all people - no better, no worse. It means working and praying for others to thrive, because they, too, are a beloved child of God.
And then, there is patience, something that the Hebrews at the foot of Mount Sinai were sorely lacking, and so they took holy matters into their own hands. To be clothed in patience is critical. Just as God was leading the Israelites to a place of blessing, so God is leading us forward, too. The journey was never promised to be easy, but rather to be worth it. And so we discover, as did the Israelites, that the day-to-day road we follow can be fraught, hard, and sometimes dangerous. Clothed with patience, we can make it, and we can help others not to give up hope along the way.
Paul adds a final sentence of instruction to believers in every age, saying, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Indeed, if love can be our garment in all times and places, we can never fail to fulfil our part of our covenant with God and Christ. They, who have invited us to the party of the Gospel and of salvation, extend their love to us continually. They yearn for our success, and strengthen us in love for it always. With compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, let us inhabit the Gospel of love wherever we find ourselves.