Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What's Your Excuse?

Luke 14:15-24
And when one of those who were reclining at the table with Him heard this, he said to Him, "Blessed is everyone who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!" But He said to him, "A certain man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many; and at the dinner hour he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, 'Come; for everything is ready now.' But they all alike began to make excuses. The first one said to him, 'I have bought a piece of land and I need to go out and look at it; please consider me excused.' And another one said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please consider me excused.' And another one said, 'I have married a wife, and for that reason I cannot come.' And the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the head of the household became angry and said to his slave, 'Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame.' And the slave said, 'Master, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.' And the master said to the slave, 'Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.'"

Ask the average person why he doesn’t regularly go to church, and you’ll probably hear a list of excuses. The problem with excuses is that there’s always an answer for them. For example, when the excuse is, “The church is full of hypocrites and sinners!” the answer is: “Why, you should fit right in!” And when the excuse is, “The time is never convenient for me,” the answer is: “Be thankful your paying job, and your children’s school, and the things you do for fun, are scheduled around your convenience.”

These are flippant answers, but they befit lame excuses. The real reasons most people don’t attend church go much deeper. Reason number one: “I don’t see Christians practicing what they preach.” Answer: That’s precisely why we come here. We come to be forgiven for our failures, to be built up in our faith by God, who is at work on us and who comes to live in us through Word and Sacrament. We come here to be fed the bread of life, to have our guilt washed away, to have our errors corrected, and to be formed by God’s hands, more and more into the shape He wants us to be. We may not look like much now, but we won’t get any closer to that shape by staying away.

Reason number two for skipping church: “Christians believe in a God who sends people to hell, and I can’t accept a God so cruel.” Answer: We delight in a God so merciful that He gave His only Son to suffer and die for us, to save us from hell. The main thing about God is His overflowing love for sinners, to give us forgiveness when we deserve condemnation, to give us heaven when we deserve hell. The Gospel is our treasure because it’s about the God who rescues us and saves us, despite what we deserve.

Reason number three for not going to church: “My faith is between me and God. I don’t have to answer to other people or include other people in my fellowship with God. I can commune with him just fine in the privacy of my open Bible and my prayerful thoughts.” Answer: If you really open the Bible, you will see how much we need each other, how we can comfort and serve each other, how we belong to each other like different parts of the same body. If you really fellowship with God, then you also fellowship with other Christians. We are to love one another, yield to one another, share one another’s burdens, pray for each other, encourage each other, forgive all, risk all, sacrifice all for each other’s good.

True, we fail in doing these things more often than we succeed. We quarrel with each other, and treat each other unbecomingly. We are weak, we are selfish, and the devil is always close by, stirring us up against each other. Because of this we need God’s Word all the more, not just for enjoyment or information, but for healing, cleansing, and strengthening our spiritual body, so that Christ may work like medicine in us personally, and bind up our broken relationships.

Another answer to this “I can get along by myself” line is that we are beggars. We need alms. We need God’s gifts, beginning with forgiveness; and these gifts do not spring out of us naturally. Grace and Spirit and life and faith come from Jesus, who comes to us through the outward forms of Word and Sacrament. Jesus comes into us from the outside, when His forgiveness is spoken to us, and when His body and blood are fed to us.

Talking things over with God, in private, is fine – especially when you admit your wrongs and ask for His forgiveness for Jesus’ sake. But when all you do is talk things over with God in private, doubts can arise. Doubts like: “How do I know God really forgives me? How do I know I’m not just forgiving myself? Do I have the right to do that? Do I have enough faith, or am I repentant enough, or am I making enough of a change in what I do, to be really forgiven?” The only answer for doubts like this is to hear the clear and certain Word from outside your head, promising that Christ Himself forgives you.

See, fellowship with God isn’t just about thinking happy thoughts or working holy works. It’s about becoming a new creature, being created all over again by the power of God’s Word. It’s not about what you sacrifice to God; it’s about what God gives you freely, because of Jesus’ sacrifice for you. Fellowship with God isn’t about deciding to believe God and to master yourself; it’s what happens when God takes you captive from the kingdom of evil and death, and makes you a child of life and promise. Being Jesus’ disciple means He is your Master, and He has overthrown every other claim on you. It means taking up your cross and following Him, so that no pleasure, or possession, or duty, or relationship comes between Him and you. It means no pain is to be feared, no inconvenience resented, no trouble avoided rather than sharing in the life of His saints. For this church, this “communion of saints,” gathers regularly to hear the witnesses of Jesus’ death: Spirit, water, and blood – that is, Word, Baptism, and Supper. No Christian can refuse to hear these witnesses, or to be part of this community. No Christian can turn away from the Means of Grace and the people who live by them – at least, not for long. There simply is no excuse.

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” A starving man may make excuses to avoid eating the food set before him, and they may sound ever so noble and sincere; but if he doesn’t eat, he will die. It doesn’t matter if the person who baked the bread was his worst enemy, or if it was served by dirty hands, or if the loaf was made from ingredients he did not like. The fact is that if he eats, he will live; if not, he will die.

It is the same way with God’s Word. This is spiritual bread from heaven, the food of eternal life. Unwholesome ingredients may be blended into it – such as false teachings – and they may cause weakness of faith or even, in some cases, spiritual death. But if we take less and less of this spiritual food, or even stop eating it altogether, we will certainly perish. As the starving man is more susceptible to sickness, so the Christian who lives on a sparse diet of God’s Word is that much more vulnerable to the devil’s temptation, the charms of false teachers, the pleasures of the flesh, the world and its beckoning rewards.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of a man giving a big dinner. None of the invited guests would come. They all had excuses: a new field to look at, a new yoke of oxen to try out, a new wife to honeymoon with. So the host crossed them off the guest list, and sent his servants out into the streets and lanes of the city to bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame, and there was still room. Then he sent them again to search the lonely highways and beat people out of their hidey-holes along the roadside, and drag them to the feast by force, so that the house might be filled.

This is a story about the path of the Gospel in our world. The first people in line for God’s kingdom – the upright, chosen, religious Jews – refused to come in, because they had other own political or material goals for this life. They turned their nose up at the invitation to God’s rich feast, because human traditions, and minute details of the law, and social taboos got in their way. Their religion revolved around their own affairs, and their own works. They had no room for a suffering servant, a crucified God. So instead, God brought in sinners, the unclean, prostitutes and tax collectors, Samaritans and Gentiles and lepers and Canaanites! The scum of the earth would now inherit what the original heirs despised. What a mighty and awful turnaround!

But this parable is not just a history lesson about Jewish unbelief and Gentile faith. This parable still rings true today. It still threatens the secure and self-righteous, who send their regrets when Christ is serving His feast of life. It still promises the fullness of life and joy to unworthy sinners, doubters, and deniers who have to be dragged in by their ears. Those who think they are entitled to reign in God’s Kingdom may yet find themselves locked out, because the Kingdom comes in a way no one expects – not in a thrilling emotional experience that will change or fade, but in the faithful teaching – the doctrine – that is as unchangeable and certain as the Lord who breathed it.

What if the church isn’t big enough or rich enough? What if it isn’t growing fast? What if the members aren’t socially outgoing, or they don’t have this or that program? What if the pastor isn’t peppy or exciting? These may be excuses for not seeking where Christ’s teaching can be found. These may even be excuses for letting a community of faith die, or changing its message to something that has more “mass appeal.” But these excuses are not reasons; not when souls are hungering, even starving, for the righteousness of God.

The point of this parable is not to beat you into going to church, to threaten or force you to march in step. Notice that it is the invited guests who make the lame excuses. Notice that it is a lavish banquet, a big treat given freely by the host. Notice that it is a rich, wholesome, desirable gift out of a generous heart. The Divine Service is about just that: God giving us His gifts. And notice that after the excuses are made, He turns to the poor, crippled, blind, and lame. That is us, little children! Us needy beggars, us poor sinners, so crippled we cannot do God’s works unless He works them in us. We are so blind we cannot find the light of truth unless His Word shows it to us. We are so lame we cannot come to the Lord unless He brings us. He flushes us out of our hidey-holes. He finds us in our sin and unbelief, drags us out of despair and helplessness and death.

He compels us to come to this feast. He drives us to Himself by the Spirit-filled power of the Word. And the door remains open until every place is filled. Now is the hour of grace, when more are yet being welcomed in, more are yet to be saved. The kingdom comes by force, and men of violence are entering it; that is, God pushes and tugs the bad, the ugly, the unworthy, the unlikely, into His banquet hall. Not the righteous and privileged and seemingly holy, who expect and demand the places of honor, but the wretched and lowly, the unsavory and seemingly unsavable – people just like you and me – are storming heaven’s gates and taking their seats at the heavenly feast.

The Lord is calling: come and eat. Don’t delay, and for God’s love don’t make excuses. For without this living bread that comes down from heaven, without this banquet of grace, we cannot live. But you child of God, come and be filled; take this bread of life and live!

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