There Is Still Room
by Louise Westfall
After the worship service ran late one Sunday, the congregants filed quickly out of church without comment, until one member came up to the pastor and remarked: “Today your sermon brought to mind the peace and love of God.” The pastor was thrilled: “No one has ever said that before! Can you tell me how?” The member responded, “Well, it reminded me of the peace of God because it passed all human understanding and the love of God because it endured forever!”
Welcome to church! Where the sermons may go on and on, the members speak their mind candidly, and yet somehow, the peace and love of God become known (even if primarily by contrast). Fact is, something happens here that can’t be duplicated anywhere else. Something essential for human thriving. What, exactly, is that?
On the recent survey of Central’s worship practices, many of you cited things like “experiencing the presence of God,” “deepening my spiritual awareness,” “integrating faith with contemporary life,” and “feeling connected to something larger than myself.” To those good reasons I would add one more: coming home for dinner.
Today’s text is a story Jesus told when he himself was a dinner guest at the home of a prominent religious leader. He had used the occasion to heal a sick person (despite the leader’s criticism of him “working on the Sabbath”), to teach the importance of humility, and to urge extension of the guest list beyond your nearest and dearest to those who cannot return the favor. Then this. A reading from the good news according to Luke, in the fourteenth chapter at the fifteenth verse. Hear God’s Word to the hungry…to those whose souls are starving as well as those whose stomachs are growling. [Luke 14:15-24]
I remember throwing a farewell party for a departing friend to which no one showed up. My face still gets hot with embarrassment when I think back to that evening long ago. The snacks were laid out; the drinks were chilling. My friend and I made small talk as the minutes ticked by. I knew about arriving “fashionably late” but 20 minutes went by, then 30, and after 45 minutes I couldn’t stand it. In a huff, I called (from a land line–no cell phones then) one of the invited guests to find out where she was. Oh, sorry. I intended to drop by, but after my work out, I just didn’t have the energy. Give Tamara my best. One by one when I checked in with other invited guests; they all had a reason, and since the invitation hadn’t mentioned RSVP-ing, they had put it out of their minds. A couple of them hurriedly drove over to my house so it wasn’t a complete bust, but still.
So I get why the host of Jesus’ parable was a bit miffed at the guests’ declining his gracious invitation. I always read that last line with a high degree of self-righteous indignation: Yeah, see if I ever invite them to a party again! I’ve even heard this text used in sermons about skipping worship; that we all have excuses but none of them are valid, and will likely upset the Divine Master of the House.
It’s a good thing I’m not in charge of the world. Because I’m still learning to practice the gracious and generous hospitality of God, who hosts a banquet called life; a party with an open invitation, a meal overflowing with abundant good food so that everyone receives what they need and where there are plenty of leftovers to be shared with those who weren’t there. Through this lens, I’m able to hear more than judgment in the master’s conclusion. I’m heartbroken about those who will never taste this delicious dinner. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Here God molds us into community; here we become the risen Body of Christ for our time and this place
Maybe what we’re missing is the very thing that will nourish abundant life in us. And the community of people who comprise it. Friends, it’s hard to overstate the role of worship–not so much as a classroom to learn stuff, but as the place where we taste–even a little bit–the goodness of life together. Here God molds us into community; here we become the risen Body of Christ for our time and this place.
I know there are practical realities to be considered–participation on sports teams, travel, and so on–that require careful consideration and planning. But among the considerations could be–should be?!–what’s missed of the banquet of life by missing worship.
In both my first family and my later family, worship attendance was not optional. I did, however, allow my teenaged son a Sunday off here and there to catch up on sleep. After one of these Sundays, he returned to youth group and asked facetiously “Did Jesus miss me?” To which his youth director responded “Well, maybe. But for sure I did, and so did Matt and Katie and Mr. Poston.”
Friends, when you’re absent, there’s a you-shaped hole in our community. A space that can’t be filled by anyone else, because it’s you God has invited to dinner, to a life beyond anything we could imagine.
But here’s the thing that makes Divine hospitality so surprising and in some ways, offensive: the invitation is extended to everyone with the same passion and compassion that it’s extended to you and me. The welcome table is open to all. All means all. There is room for people in obvious need: those who are hungry and food-insecure; ones experiencing homelessness; those whose clothing emits the odor of unwashed bodies; people who are sick or in chronic pain, whether physical, mental, or emotional, people in prison, whether literal or in chains invisible to the naked eye. Central’s outreach ministries strive to demonstrate care and welcome to these persons…
And beyond…to ones who have been systematically excluded from some religious communities. The full inclusion of LGBTQ persons is still a matter of debate in entire Christian bodies such as the Roman Catholic and United Methodist Churches, and anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science perspectives are often presented in media as “the” Christian position. There is still room, my friends. We cannot be silent.
In an increasingly polarized time nationally and globally, the Church’s distinctive message of radical inclusion is all the more necessary. We struggle with the deep disfigurement to the body caused by racism and its consequences of privilege and persistent inequities. And just as significant are the diverse ways we see the world and understand how we should live in it. The faith community is rapidly becoming one of the few places where we purposely gather with those with whom we find little else in common. We greet one another as sisters and brothers. We meet them around a table where “us” and “them” become one in a meal by which we all are fed. Our new tag line is both fact and aspiration: we are called to create Beloved Community with everyone. There is still room.
So I guess the outspoken congregant gently chiding the wordy preacher got it right: the peace of Christ does pass our human understanding and the love of God does endure forever. But only partly right: it’s not the key to a good sermon; it’s the key to a good life.
Thanks be to God!