Rev. Caroline Barnett
Luke: 14:15 - 24
One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner 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 said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, O Christ.
Last April, before the school year was over, before the weather shot up into these summer temps, the Student Leadership Team for UKirk Campus Ministry met outside in our courtyard to talk about upcoming year.
It felt a little premature— the previous school year hadn’t yet ended— but I wanted us to spend some time thinking about Ukirk before we all dispersed for the summer.
The 2020-2021 school year was a strange one— for everyone. But even with all of the strangeness and heartache of the year, UKirk continued to meet in some way or another for Bible studies, and devotionals, and mission projects. We learned that though there may be challenges, the community of UKirk, supported by this church, is up to those challenges.
So we sat in that courtyard at end of a strange year and envisioned what might be possible in the next one. We didn’t know exactly what the fall semester would bring, perhaps we’re still not entirely sure, but it was a good starting point.
And as a part of that process we read this story about a man, a banquet, and the kingdom of heaven to think about hosting our own gatherings.
Perhaps this is a strange passage to read when we talk about gatherings because it contains a fear I imagine most hosts feel at least once — and it’s a fear I’ve had before — what if no one shows up?
After all that planning, deciding on the seating chart, coordinating the menu, sending out invitations, it doesn’t matter. No one shows up. And then the man hears their excuses and regrets, and they don’t really make him feel better. If anything, they tell him how low he ranks in his neighbor’s estimation.
I can’t come, one says. I’m recently married and away on my honeymoon. Okay, fine, that makes sense.
But then there’s also — I can’t come, I can’t possibly take an hour or two away from my new oxen. And there’s I can’t come, I have to go do business I probably could put off for tomorrow.
Oh, I can’t come. Your gathering simply isn’t important enough.
That has to sting.
Now to the man’s credit, he doesn’t stew in his rejection, he pivots and casts the doors open for those who didn’t make the first cut. And the banquet, the gathering, is still good and important, maybe in unexpected ways.
There’s probably a lesson in here about flexibility and adaptability, but we have learned that lesson time and time again this year, so I’m not going to dig into it.
Instead, I wonder, what could have made the man’s original gathering better? How could this situation have been avoided?
Priya Parker is a facilitator and writer on the topic of “gathering.” She helps people plan effective and enjoyable gatherings whether they are potlucks, baby showers, business meetings, or thousand person conferences.
For her, the beginning of any good gathering— big or small, social or corporate— starts with purpose. Why do we gather?
She advises everyone who is in the practice of bringing people together to come up with a sharp, bold purpose for each gathering, even if it is a social one.
It’s an often-skipped first step, as we tend to rely on what we’ve done in the past to inform what we do now. We replicate old patterns because they work and are easy, and then we focus on the business of planning… but when we don’t tap into the purpose— the why we are showing up (or asking others to show up), we miss out on the possibility for truly memorable and transformative gatherings.
Perhaps, the man in our parable threw together a banquet as he had done in the past, that he never stopped to consider the purpose. And invitees, having been to the same, perfectly fine banquet every year, said, maybe I’ll skip it this time. This is will be nice, but nothing too special.
But then, in the moment when the man realizes no one is coming, he stops and re-evaluates his gathering— and in doing so, I believe he re-focuses on a new purpose— the “why” they all gather.
The man takes a second pass at his guest list and intentionally invites those who are excluded.
So maybe the “why” is to gather people who ran in different circles for more interesting conversations.
The man seats vulnerable people at his table, people whose access to food may be limited.
So maybe the “why” is to provide material support and comfort to those who need it.
The man opens his doors for anyone and everyone.
Maybe the why of the second gathering is to fill the man’s house and to clear out his own loneliness.
The second gathering is joyful and full of life. And even with every person invited there is still more room. And it’s all possible, because the man refocused on the why. The purpose behind the plans.
By re-focusing, he finds that there is more than enough, and it is a foretaste of that elusive kingdom of heaven Christ points us toward. A kingdom, a banquet table, a gathering where it’s not about who is or isn’t invited. It’s about a community that gathers for reasons beyond a social call or because it’s what we’ve always done — but to share in the redemptive and transformative good news of hope and love and justice.
Tomorrow, the school year for Auburn University begins, and with it, UKirk Campus Ministry. And my days right now are filled to brim with planning— coordinating meals, developing a schedule, and other logistical things. But I would be remiss not to say something about “the why” of UKirk— the purpose the behind the plans that makes all those other details matter.
According to those students who met last spring— here are some of “the why-s” of UKirk.
to strengthen and facilitate faith
To make people feel welcome and accepted
To create a place of comfort
For service and mission and education.
UKirk gathers so we can be a church home away from home.
I imagine if I were to ask this room the “why” of our church, we might hear similar answers.
It’s the “why” that makes everything else matter. It guides all our decisions about how we plan our year, fill our time, and reach out to others.
It creates a gathering not unlike the banquet table in the man’s house, or the kingdom of heaven. At its best, UKirk and FPC are communities where the logistics of the guest list is secondary to the bigger purpose — to take part in the abundant and overflowing love of God that exists for us all in the here and now.
That is the “why” that has sustained us through cancelled plans, virtual Bible studies, and a closed Student Center. And it is the “why” that will sustain us all— whether we are college students, longtime members, or curious newcomers— through whatever comes next.
Thanks be to God. Amen.