Room at the Table: RSVP
This past week I got a text from my younger brother Tim. “Are you going to Elise and Kevin’s wedding?” Elise is a family friend, who went to school with my younger brothers. I responded that Yes, I was. We’ve all been planning to attend this wedding for practically a year. I’ve had it on my calendar for a long time. “Are Todd and Andrea going?” he asked. My brother and his girlfriend. “Yes, I think so,” I said. “Did you send in your RSVP?” “Yes.” “Did Todd send in his?” “I think yes.” “Well, Elise hasn’t received them yet, and she’s freaking out.” Apparently, the RSVP deadline for the wedding was approaching, and the bride was getting a bit anxious. She was anxious because although she had sent invitations months before the event, many people had not yet responded. If you’ve ever been part of planning a wedding, you know that having a pretty accurate idea of the number of guests is important, because you need to know how many people you will have at the reception, how much seating to have, how much food to have, how many favors to have, and so on. At even the most casual weddings, people like to know how many people to prepare for.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not always good at RSVPing to events when I’m supposed to. I was impressed with myself that I’d sent out my RSVP to Elise’s wedding ahead of the deadline. I’m usually ok with email RSVPs or facebook invitations, but I’m especially bad at calling people, if that’s the only option, to let them know whether or not I will attend. I should be better at it, if only because I understand how hard it is to try to plan an event without knowing how many to be ready for! For example, I am the coordinator of our conference young clergy group, and we hold retreats twice a year. I find it is like pulling teeth to get my colleagues to respond – yes OR no – to my emails about the retreat. I find myself sending increasingly frantic and emphatic emails, practically begging for an answer. Then, when it comes to the actual event, I can almost guarantee that at least a third of the pastors who said they would come actually don’t show up when it comes down to it. Which is worse, do you think: when people don’t RSVP at all, RSVP no, but then show up anyway, or RSVP yes, but then don’t show up when the time comes?
It seems like good party etiquette is at the center of our text today, from the gospel of Luke. Just before our text begins, Jesus has traveled to the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees for a meal on the Sabbath. When a diseased man presents himself, Jesus heals him, and a debate about healing on the Sabbath ensues. And then Jesus begins to notice how the guests for the meal all try to sit in the places of highest honor. He speaks against their behavior, telling them that the exalted will be humbled, and the humble will be exalted. That’s where our passage for today picks up.
Jesus starts by telling those gathered for the meal that when they’re having a dinner, they shouldn’t invite friends, or relatives, or rich neighbors, because all of those could invite you in return, and you’d be repaid. Instead, Jesus says, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you’ll be blessed in the kingdom of God, because you couldn’t be repaid on earth. In Jewish thought, doing acts of kindness that can’t be repaid still is considered one of the highest mitzvot, or commandments. One of the guests at the meal hears Jesus and seems to catch some understanding. “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God,” he says. And then Jesus responds with the parable. Someone gives a great banquet and invites many people. But when he calls them to come for the big event, they all give their excuses – they have land to inspect, oxen to test, weddings to celebrate. The party-thrower becomes angry, and sends his servant out into the streets, telling him to bring in the crippled, blind, and lame. The slave does so, but there is still room for more. So the master sends him out yet again, sending him farther out of town. He instructs the slave to compel people to come, so that the house is filled. And he concludes with the promise: “I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”
At first read, it seems like this is a great parable that teaches us about how to be welcoming and hospitable. We’re to invite and invite and invite to God’s banquet table. And if at first we don’t succeed, Jesus reminds us to also invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Surely, we’re not great at that – inviting outside of our comfort zones. But we get the point, right? The trouble is, such an interpretation of this text skips over some important details of the parable.
Let’s look again. Jesus, in telling the parable, mentions that the slave goes out to call the guests when the banquet is ready. But this isn’t the first time they’re getting the invitation. In Jesus’ day, the invitation would have happened in two parts. “(1) the initial invitation some time ahead [of the event], and (2) the actual summons to the meal when it is ready.” You can think of it as the invite to dinner, and then the host actually telling you, “Dinner’s ready,” so that you come sit at the table. The guests the slave summons would have already been invited and RSVPed ‘yes’ to this banquet some time before the summons that takes place in our passage. So their excuses now represent a sudden, last minute change in plans. And their behavior, then, as now, would be considered impolite. “Not to come to a banquet where one had previously indicated acceptance was a grave breach of social etiquette. It was an insult to the host. [And] in a society where one's social standing was determined by peer approval -who is invited to whose dinners - this was an act of social insult as well." (2) For all those people to not show up would result in bringing shame on the host.
The excuses the guests give aren’t very sound, either. The tract of land purchased already would have been examined before this time. The oxen would have been tested. The new groom would have known about the wedding when he was first invited and could have refused then. The guests, one after the other, give excuses, and their excuses, coming at the last minute, after they’d already said they were coming, represent a great insult to the host, and a very weak attempt on the part of the guests to cover their own rude, neglectful behavior.
So the master sends the slave out to invite more guests – the same group of ‘unwanted’ community members that Jesus mentions before he begins telling this parable – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And then he sends them out even of the town limits to bring people in. “Inside the town would be the poor, the beggars, the indigent. But outside the town would be the vagabonds and sojourners, those who were shunned and unwelcome in the towns.” These people would be considered ritually unclean, socially unacceptable. These people, the master invites into his home, and the parable closes with a sentence that certainly has a sense of threat and warning: “I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”
The kingdom of God is God’s party. God is the party-thrower, the inviter, the one inviting us to the feast. You’ve heard us say that before: it’s God’s table. We’re guests. We’re invited. But we’re guests at God’s party. It’s not our party. Not our guest list. When we come together as this body called Liverpool First United Methodist, we offer ourselves as one (of many) locations for God’s party to be held – not limited to this building, of course, but in this community of faith. But as soon as we try to take over as hosts, I tell you, God will find a different way to throw the party.
So we’re guests, invited by God. What does that mean for us? You’ll notice, in the life of the congregation, when we are trying to do something new, we give you a million ways to respond. You can call the office. You can email the office. You can call or email a pastor. You can send us a message on facebook. You can text us. You can sign up on the bulletin board. In case you didn’t get it, we’re saying Respond, respond, please respond! We want to make it as easy as possible for you to participate in the mission and ministry of the church.
God is doing the same thing with us, inviting us into the kingdom. I think God is giving us a million ways to respond. Giving us good things we don’t expect or deserve in our lives. Putting special people in our path. Offering us opportunities that are just what we’ve been thinking about doing. All these invitations, in all these different forms, all ways of God saying to us: Respond, respond, please respond!
Why don’t we? Why don’t we respond to God? Or, like those in the parable, have we said yes to God, but not really been showing up at God’s party? I was curious whether it was just my perception that we are, culturally, are less likely to RSVP these days, or whether things really have changed. And so I googled “the Lost Art of the RSVP” – and found over a million results. Here’s a snippet from a one:
1) I followed up [on my invitation] after a few days with gentle reminder emails, as the event was less than a week away. The responses I received varied from “I have some other options that same day” to “I’m waiting to hear about something else” to “I’m so busy with other parties that day.” It seems as though the standard regretting due to a previous engagement has also been left by the wayside, probably dumped in the same trash bin as the original R.S.V.P. . . . Now, hosts get to hear from their potential guests that their event is part of a pecking order of importance when compared to others that might be going on at that same time. (2)
Is this what we’re doing with our invitation to serve God? To follow Jesus? Are we waiting for a better offer? Maybe one that doesn’t involve this whole humbling-ourselves thing? One that doesn’t involve that cross to take up and carry? Are we letting our lips RSVP yes to God’s kingdom, while meaning for our actions, our lives, to remain unchanged? Do we think that if we are not ready to come, or if we don’t like the guest list, God’s party gets rescheduled? Cancelled? If we can’t be the host, do we just not want to come at all? In the parable, the “second-tier” guests, and “third-tier” guests, those who get invited on the day of the party, they get what an awesome invitation they’ve received! Do you get it?
Friends, we need to RSVP. And then, we need to show up! Because God’s party is taking place no matter what. No matter what! Don’t miss the party. Don’t miss the opportunity to invite friends. Don’t miss the opportunity as a church for this to be a location of the party! Because if we won’t make room for God’s party here, God will make church wherever God takes the party. Please, RSVP. And then, show up! Show up to God’s kingdom. It’s right here, right now, and it’s the best party in town.
This week, friends, my homework assignment for you is fairly simple: I want you to respond – yes, or no – to all the invitations you receive this week, via text, facebook, email, or old fashioned pen and paper. And then, of course, if you say yes, I want you to actually show up! And in so doing, in being aware of how and when and by whom you are invited, I hope you will also be thinking about the many invitations God extends to you. And maybe, maybe, you can start carrying some of the invitations God sends, delivering them to those you know, and to those in the town, and to those in the streets. And when you show up to God’s party, you can show up with friends new and old.
You’re invited. Respond, if you please. Amen.