I John 4:16b-21
Luke 14:7-14

Last week we wrestled with this same text, thinking about the spiritual work involved in expanding the table, the theme of our Lenten book read. For the table to get bigger, we must be prepared, because welcoming people who look differently or are from different backgrounds or believe different things, is tough. We ask God to help us both expand our vision and see that each of us, no matter how smart and faithful we are, don’t own truth. That spiritual work, through conversation and prayer, is tough, but it matters, and it’s worth it. It is, to use Pavlovik’s words, “the fierce crucible of redemptive spiritual community”[1]

But last week’s interpretative angle assumes that WE are the ones doing the inviting. I situated us as the leader of the Pharisees, the religious people HOSTING the party. When we explore the text from that angle then Jesus, when he speaks to the host, says to US, “Don’t invite anyone who could return the favor. When you throw a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. THAT is what the feast looks like in the kingdom of God.” My guest list is always longer and broader than yours is, Jesus says.

Being community with people in the same family of faith is hard enough, and we can surely, all of us, do a better job than we’re doing – much less towards our neighbors and all God’s children. But what if, instead of assuming that we are the religious leaders/ host – though, to be fair, I think is the appropriate way to lean things with this community by and large being people who bear significant privilege in the world. What if we thought about what it might feel like, if we were the ones outside the gates, left out, and all of the sudden were invited in?

This interpretive move begins with feeling left out. I felt it when I moved in 4th grade like I mentioned with the children. I had a friend tell me this week about how, at the end of high school, some of her friends went on a trip to Busch Gardens for the day and they asked her to babysit one of their younger siblings. She told me this and I felt it, a punch in the gut, and you wonder why you weren’t included, then that begins a spiral downward into wondering why, what is it about you, what’s wrong? Carrie and I went away for the weekend a few years ago with friends, and on the last day one of them posted a picture of us, and another friend saw it online and was really hurt. We’ve spent the last couple of years trying to repair that relationship.

But when someone includes you it is a big deal. We’re going to have coffee; want to come? I’d love to meet and get to know you better. I’m a part of this project/class. Why don’t you come? It feels wonderful when someone extends a hand. All the more so when, in the vein of the parable, the host isn’t another person, but is God, the God who creates the world and came to earth and sustains it in love. What do you think it would feel like when that same God reaches out to YOU, and says, no matter where you’ve come from, no matter how you feel, no matter the brokenness that overwhelms. You are enough. Not only that, you are beloved. And welcomed, and included. Come, Jesus says to every single one of us. It overwhelms with gratitude.  Because, as I John says, we love each other because God first loved us. What a gift.

But, it can’t stay there. My mother handed me recently a memoir by Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, who led the charge and desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957 with the support of the National Guard. It is written from the perspective of a young teenager, as Beals grows up in a poor African American neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, how she was shaped in hurt and anger by the evil of segregation, but also the love and deep formation she received from the church. Later in the book she tells the story of preparation for Christmas and how they, as a family prepared for the gifts organized at the church:

Back home we had fallen head over heels into the Christmas spirit and preparing for our yearly donation. Each year we gave away toys and clothing so that those less fortunate could enjoy Christmas as well. As with all the years before, Grandma warned us that we could not donate clothes and toys that we didn’t love…

Never mind choosing things you don’t treasure,” Grandma always said as we struggled to gather up the items we were giving away. “I want you to give things that are dear to you, things that bring tears to your eyes, things you’ll miss.”

Pattillo Beals tells of her rag doll, Mellis, her favorite. And how she knew she would have to give her away, and crawling into bed whispering that she would make some other girl very, very happy.[2] While it saddened her as a child, the lesson sunk in. Gratitude gives one’s best.

Pattillo Beals was shaped knowing the true posture of gratitude is giving one’s best. Receive the gratitude. Soak it in, like when you stand on a porch or look out at a sunset or gaze over a mountain vista and breathe and say…THANK YOU. That is a gift we shouldn’t rush by too quickly. But it shouldn’t stay there. That gratitude is FOR something, for God. “We are surrounded by God’s benefits,” John Calvin writes. “The best use of these benefits is an unceasing expression of gratitude.” In the Reformed Tradition all of life is lived in gratitude, not for who were are or because we know or believe the right things. All of life is lived in grateful response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Every act of the Christian life floats on that grace.

Which means it should be the giving of something that matters. Not to earn favor, but because we want to give God our best. No formulaic thank-you cards our parents forced us to write or we are exhausted plugging through a hundred after an anniversary party. Out of love. Because the gift is the greatest gift we have every received. And we give thanks, with our words and prayers, hands and the work we do and the risks we take for each other, for God.

This capital campaign that we are working on, as we literally and figuratively make room for a space that will open us to more fully to each other and to the broader community, is grounded in gratitude. Regardless of the money we raise and the important campus improvements we make – I want to make that crystal clear that this needs to be a project that includes every single one of us, whether we are in a position to give a gift or not, that touches us all in grace. This project is even more about who God is, who God is calling us to be. Grounded in gratitude, we move forward in faith, towards a vision of a community that has a space that draws us towards each other, that deepens faith, that provides space for classes and choices and speakers, to welcome the community and host key partners in ways we simply can’t right now. Our children and youth in church school the past few weeks have written cards. I love WPC because. And they are amazing and hung up outside and it will warm your heart and enrich your faith to read them…

…because of all the kind people in the church.

…it makes me happy to stay in contact with God and we get snacks.

…it allows me to see the God in other places.

…I learn about God and God’s people.

…it’s a community that really tries to help you understand Christianity.

…it’s like a giant family.

…oh I don’ t know I just love it.

Now you have a chance to add your voice. There are cards in your bulletin and in the pews. We’ll take a couple of minutes, then I hope you’ll drop them in the offering plate or in the basket on the table in the courtyard. Your cards will join the children’s next week, which is also Palm Sunday, as we move into the heart of God’s story of redemption and love.

[2 minutes of silence]

I am grateful to God for you, for the work we do together, for the privilege to wrestle with life and faith alongside. I’m grateful for the way Monica bears down on the organ in the final verse of a weighty Reformation hymn. I’m grateful for those of you that push me to see things differently. I’m grateful for your relentless commitment to serving others and how you invite me to visit with organizations you love. I’m grateful for the ways you care for our family. I’m grateful for loaves of bread and cookies brought by, the bottle of gin one of you left me the day before my sabbatical 2 summers ago. I’m grateful that, through the good news of Jesus Christ, we don’t have to walk this journey alone. That no matter what, we are never, ever alone.

What about you?

Thanks be to God for all this and so much more. Amen.

[1] A Bigger Table, John Pavlovitz, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2017), p 88.

[2] March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine, by Melba Pattilo Beals, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), p 137.