Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Known for those who are included instead of those excluded "

Message preached October 12, 2008
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Isaiah 25:1-9 & Matthew 22:1-14

Order of Worship

Last weekend, 47 of us gathered for our Fall Love Feast. It was World Communion Sunday. The deacons had earlier tried to guess how many places to set around the tables, based upon our attendance last year, as well as other factors. Though an extra table was waiting in the wings ready to be brought in if needed, they prepared for 48 persons. When everyone was seated that night, there was but one empty chair. You could say this was where Jesus sat. Then, again, it’s always good to have an extra seat as a reminder that the door is open to others. Whenever we gather, for whatever reason, it’s wise to make sure there is always an empty chair available, just in case. Even if no one sits in it, this seat with no one in it is a witness to us that we are to be a people ready to include others instead of exclude them.

            At Love Feast, I had the privilege of sitting across from and breaking bread with Susan Osborn, a guest who came with Dave and Jean Sack. She and her husband John have been missionaries in Calcutta, and during the meal she spoke of some of their work in that Indian city. I was most impressed with some of the businesses their mission has started, one in particular which employs former prostitutes, giving them a way and the means out of a difficult situation. Many of these women had been stolen as children from, or sold by their families into sexual slavery. The church there in Calcutta has been doing God’s work of being “a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress(Isaiah 25:4a), welcoming people – such as these prostitutes - to the Lord’s table, where they sit as treasured guests instead of being excluded.

            God has a peculiar habit of doing such things, you know - reaching out to and including those who are often excluded. Sometimes these outsiders become the very persons God uses to accomplish the Kingdom task at hand. Take the youngest of the sons of a man in the Bible named Jesse. Jesse’s boy was probably headed toward a mediocre life as the least member of his family. He didn’t have all that many options as the runt of the litter. When God came knocking at his family’s door, this youngster was out in the field tending sheep. His father didn’t even think to include him when a prophet by the name of Samuel stopped in for a visit, asking to be shown all of Jesse’s sons. The youngest one was excluded. After all, he was just a shepherd boy. Not much was expected of him, since not much was invested in him. But God chose to use this young shepherd, who grew up to become the greatest of the kings God called to lead Israel. His name was David.

             We read earlier a very familiar psalm, a song about God’s providential care. You know – green pastures, still waters, soul restoration. Scripture says this psalm was composed by a certain shepherd who became a king … David. As we allow the words to guide us, we might remember that this comforting song connects the Lord, in our imagination, with a role usually considered a bit less than desirable. Then, and perhaps now, it was not one of the top ten jobs to which people aspired. It probably was and is closer to the bottom of the list. To say that “the Lord is my shepherd,” may be comparable to saying, “the Lord is my groundskeeper,” or “God is my maid…”

Of course, in its own peculiar way, the 23rd Psalm also likens us to sheep, instead of to those who own sheep. With the present economic upheavals in mind, many of us may be feeling more like “baa-ing” today than we were a year ago, led through a dark market beyond our control. The good news of this psalm involves a table spread before God’s sheep. The Shepherd has prepared for his sheep a place of welcome in the wilderness of life, where their basic needs are met, even in the presence of enemies. A banquet is spread before them. That’s what the Psalm says. And at this feast, these lowly animals have oil poured upon their heads, to cleanse and heal their wounds. And God is the shepherd setting the table for this feast. Imagine that!

            Speaking of feasts, Jesus suggested that God’s realm is like a wedding banquet… On Thursday I sat with Betty Chenowith and watched the video of her daughter, Jill’s wedding 3 weeks ago. I think this was the 8th time she’s viewed it. At the banquet, Betty caught the bridal bouquet. In her wheelchair! Imagine that! Her nephew snagged the garter. It was comical to watch this handsome college sophomore put the garter on his aunt … on her arm, that is. He did a fine job! Didn’t look the least embarrassed. You know, I wish Betty could come to our Homecoming celebration two weeks from now. She belongs around this table on that weekend. Perhaps someone might explore going to her nursing home and bringing her here. Just a thought.

            Anyway, at God’s wedding feast there is a place for everyone, at least according to the parable Jesus told. Well, maybe that wasn’t the way the invitations originally went out. But that’s how things ended up. After those who first were asked to come decided not to attend, the king instructed his servants to go out into the streets and invite everyone they could find. And so the guests at this banquet became those who were originally excluded. Imagine that! The place was filled with … well, street people.

            Of course, there’s more to this story than that. I could spend a lot of time talking about the difference between how Matthew remembers this parable and how Luke does. They are quite different. It’s probably Luke’s account that most of us remember, if we recall it at all. Matthew’s version is a bit darker, involving violence and rejection. We don’t usually like to talk about such things. It’s easier to discuss the excuses those who were originally invited gave for not attending – like “I just bought a field and I need to pay attention to it;” “I recently acquired some oxen and I must break them in;” and “I’ve taken on a wife myself, and you know what that means;” it’s easier to discuss such excuses than to think about these folks killing the messengers, and then the king responding with more violence, destroying the murderers and their homes. Did Jesus actually say this? Well, Matthew remembers him doing so, though Luke does not.

            Some things we’d rather not imagine, like people stealing other folk’s children and selling them off into slavery – something that still happens in this world. Worse yet, the thought of a family actually selling off their daughter in order to put food on the table is hard to wrap your mind around. If the truth be told, part of me would like to send some troops and burn down some stuff in response. Of course, I know there are always multiple layers to how matters come to be as they are. Desperation mixed with greed, amid a social system (read in “powers and principalities”) that either turns a blind eye or actually profits from such things, are some of the causes. If we believe it only happens in some distance place, we delude ourselves. No, while I’m not a huge fan of how Matthew recalls this parable, the violence and corruption comes a bit closer to reality than I care to admit.

            And so we come to this passage from Isaiah. It’s a wonderful mountaintop vision of God’s feast, set “for all peoples.” This, by the way, is what we might call an apocalyptic vision. When you can’t imagine how a bad situation can get better, and you are powerless to effect change, apocalypse reveals a way. It may not be a way we would choose. The journey between point “A” and point “B” may frighten us to death. Take the book of Revelation. By the way, the word “apocalypse” means “to uncover, to reveal, to disclose.” Revelation is an apocalyptic book which, if we are honest, scares us. Right? We muddle through the middle chapters, which are full of stuff we struggle to interpret and which frighten the begeebers out of us, in order to get to the end vision. Sort of like how we struggle to imagine a bad situation getting better without all heaven or hell breaking loose.

            By the way, apocalyptic literature in the Bible has always been intended for those who have been excluded, who are at the bottom of the heap, who are powerless to effect change. In Isaiah, these words were for a people whose world was turned upside down. A massive invasion had decimated their land, the best and the brightest carted off to a foreign country. If you want to get depressed sometime, read chapter 24 for a description. God’s people were the lowest of the low. Of course, they bore some responsibility for their own destruction. They had, by the prophets, been invited to a feast, but… Still, Israel was a wasteland, a valley of the shadow of death, and the people had become the least and the last. As always, God had another vision. He’s kind of peculiar in that way. You know – the last shall be first, and the least shall be greatest.

            Apocalypse. That’s what we see here in chapter 25. Now, beware! Apocalypse is for the excluded and the powerless. In the hands of the included and powerful, it is dangerous. It’s not meant for the Caesars of this world. I confess it bothers me greatly that apocalyptic literature is among the best selling in the bookstores of this country. Those who have the means to send troops to destroy others, to press a button and annihilate cities with a nuclear winter, are easily tempted to take matters into their own hands – which is the opposite of apocalypse.

            We can, however, learn from this vision, for God’s invitation continues to be extended through it. A nation’s greatest strength or weakness is how it treats its powerless and excluded ones. This was fundamentally what got Israel in dutch with God. The Lord cares for ALL the sheep, not just the ones who bleet the loudest or whose fleece is white as snow. Turn a few chapters later in Matthew’s gospel from that parable of a wedding feast, and you’ll find a story about separating sheep and goats, and how the hungry and thirsty and strangers and naked and sick and those in prison belong at God’s table, and how we are defined by our treatment of them.

            I love Isaiah’s vision of God’s banquet, though the journey there still frightens me at times. Which is a good thing, because the ways of God are not to be trifled with. It ultimately is the Lord’s doing and not my own. But that is not an excuse to avoid the feast, and the work it takes to prepare for it. We are to be known for those we include at the table instead of for those we exclude. We are the servants who go out into the streets with the invitations. When did you last invite someone? Homecoming is just two weeks away. It’s not just for old-timers. Get busy.

The 25th chapter of Isaiah sounds familiar to those who turn to the last chapters of the New Testament. There, as here, is a vision of a Shepherd-like God who brings everyone to the table for a great feast. All are included. No exceptions. There, on that mountain – Mt. Zion, the new Jerusalem - the shroud of death will be removed, and God will wipe away the tears from every face, and take away their disgrace.

            Our response is the same as what I said last week. The first verse of chapter 25 states it. “O Lord, you are my God. I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.” Therefore, to borrow fro the apostle Paul the words with which we began our worship this morning: “Rejoice in the Lord always. And again I say rejoice.

(para traducir a español, presione la bandera de España)


©2008 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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