"Exclusion and Embrace" by Heather Folliard
15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 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.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 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.’ 22 And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ 23 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. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
Friends – it is so good to be gathered here with you in this place where we have freely come to worship. The invitation to gather here is open to all because that’s how we believe God’s Kindom works.
As the Pastor of Community and Hospitality, I’ve found the work of Priya Parker most helpful – she studies The Art of Gathering and shapes gatherings of all sizes into experiences that transform those gathered and help meet specific goals. Parker’s research shows the most appreciated and well-attended gatherings are those that are exclusive - with limited invitations being extended. These events have great attendance because people do not like to turn down a once in a lifetime invitation.
Receiving an exclusive invitation can make us feel highly valued or special – feelings we don’t often allow ourselves to acknowledge without shame. With that invitation in hand, comes hopeful anticipation – and very little consideration for those who didn’t receive the invite. Parker adds that good hosts hype the exclusivity of the party as it approaches to make the whole event seem more significant.
I feel like the Church has mastered this Art of Gathering – hyping a grand (Heavenly) Banquet that is only open to those few who merited an invitation. Reading this parable as if the dinner host is God only supports this exclusivity. But, it’s more complicated, because often the host (or God) is interpreted through the lens of white, patriarchal, hetero-normativity. So the dinner guests – at the heavenly banquet – look and act an awful lot like this host.
The more people excluded, means more of the image of God is kept from view. This only becomes more pronounced over time – and that’s clear in the decline of church-goers in North America.
When our world-view is so limited, and we dwell in a place of privilege, exclusive social practices will ultimately exclude even those we wish to include.
That is what happened to the dinner host in Jesus’ parable.
“I have bought a piece of Land…and I must go and see it.”
“I have bought 5 yoke of oxen and I am going to try them out.”
“I have just been married, and cannot come.”
They’ve offered an array of excuses. A gracious host invites you to a grand dinner feast and you’d rather see your land, or your livestock? Excuses such as these contributed to CS Lewis’ understanding of Heaven and Hell. We have the opportunity to go to a great banquet, but being too caught up in our own lives we choose to stay back.
There’s some truth in that. Like with all parables – one truth isn’t the whole truth.
In exclusive social groups, some are painfully squeezed out when their social status changes. While still having the means to buy land and livestock, these men must oversee the purchase themselves– maybe even work the land. No longer sitting in their social comfort, attending grand parties – they must work.
We work all week long, and if we are fortunate enough to own our homes – we spend so many hours “off” tending to the care of the land, and the structure, and we all have the laundry, and the cooking and cleaning. If you add in children – those precious gifts – there’s even more work to do: teaching them, answering a million questions, shuffling them to all of their activities.
It’s no wonder the last man replied to the dinner host – “I’ve just gotten married” – an excuse that would get him out of military service in order to start a family.
It seems we have no more waking hours to give to anything else – even with the promise of being restorative.
These dinner guests responded by excluding themselves. Sometimes that’s what we have to do to care for ourselves and our well-being.
Linda (Kay Kline, author of Pure) was raised in the evangelical church during the height of purity teaching – that misogynistic theology binding one’s salvation completely to their sexuality and sexual expression. People like Linda learned to hate their own developing bodies because they might lead someone to impure thinking or acting. Those who were un-wed and pregnant were shamed, but still “welcomed” by their churches- while those secretly terminating their pregnancies were praised as “good-girls” with nowhere to go to process their grief. Linda says people like her learned to exclude themselves from the Church for their own safety but also so they wouldn’t be associated with harmful teaching that would burden others as it had them.
The host didn’t have an empty table though. His house was filled with all sorts of people - people he’d labeled as having less value than himself. Even at the table they were excluded from his genuine awareness.
A large church in Nashville, TN called two Co-pastors – a husband and wife team. During their first month they realized a large number of their congregation were excluded while on the inside. All queer folk were welcomed to volunteer for clean up day, or working in the food pantry to set up or clean up VBS, – but not to become members or lead a small group. Yet, many of these faithful people kept coming to serve, because it met some of their need for community.
I imagine the migrants at our border – knowing they’ll never be fully welcomed but still accepting any invitation in for the sake of having their basic needs met.
Rejecting the Savior Complex
It’s curious – how some devalue the lives of others but boast when they do anything good for them. There’s a difference in meeting someone’s need and boasting about meeting that need. True community can’t be formed when some think others need help from someone like them. This is a Savior Complex and it perpetuates exclusive thinking.
It’s common among those on (what we call) short-term missions. Like what many are sure to embark on in the wake of hurricane Dorian. But it’s also common in local churches – especially those wishing to be more diverse.
Leaders want diversity – want people from all the nations - but do not want to give up any power. They can’t imagine a different structure where leadership is held less tightly. The threat of scarcity is too much. Scarcity and exclusivity are inextricably bound – no one wants to be left out or left without. This fear looms over us pitting one against the other.
Prophet Isaiah offers assurance that God will destroy this shroud over God’s people and restore life by preparing a feast of rich food. Perhaps Jesus had these prophetic words on his mind as he shared his banquet parable. And, perhaps his parable begs us to dismantle all the structures that keep us from accepting the invitation to the kindom of God – or keeps us from offering it to everyone. For that we have to seriously consider the nature of this dinner host.
As Kevin said last week, In Jubilee, when everyone is restored to equal value, it’s time for us to remember who runs the world – and it’s not some exclusive host. The one who rules is the generous and loving God who insists that all have their needs met.
Priya Parker – the one who said that exclusive gatherings get the best turnout, also said “In a group, if everybody thinks about the other person’s needs, everyone’s needs are actually fulfilled in the end. But if you only think about yourself, you are breaking that contract.”
I suppose she was thinking this could only work on a small scale – but God, the one who commanded Jubilee, works on a universal scale. We participate in that work of God, and it starts with how we gather: an open invitation to all people.
In all the great banquet parables, the major work is in getting the people around the table and the feast they enjoy is the physical representation of their needs being met. One fundamental need is met in the very act of gathering – the need for community.
In the beginning, the first need a person required was another person. We don’t fully understand ourselves in relation to the world if we aren’t mirrored by another. Mirroring isn’t a mere reflection; though, it’s a response which offers a more accurate representation. In my home, I can tell if my frustration is reaching an unhealthy place – a place that could cause broken feelings – I can tell when I’m nearing that because of my husband’s response to me, in his face, or sometimes his words. I need to see me through his eyes because it’s truth and I trust him.
When two or more are gathered in mutuality and trust we can better understand ourselves independently and in relationship with one another, and when we do that we can see the image of God more fully.
(Christena Cleveland says) “That forbidden fruit was never the thing that ruined paradise. Paradise ceased to exist the moment true mutuality between its residents ended.”
True mutuality is something Jubilee (the command and this church) works to restore.
This week a friend sent me a meme and said this reminds me of your “Jubilee Church.” I think she gets it.
“Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard.” Sure – it’s cliché, but it speaks to the necessity of mutuality in gathering.
With that foundation of belonging, then we can begin the healing work. We heal from being excluded, from feeling of less value than others, and we can heal or recover from a past of inflicting those wounds on others. We can heal from the abuses done in the name of the Church/by the church.
But, being together – actually gathering: sharing meals, making plans, having challenging conversations that is much harder. We have so many personality types, ways of presenting ideas. We have introverts who might just prefer to stay quiet and still, and extroverts who might not let anyone else talk (even if they want to hear everyone else). In spite of all of our differences, how can we gather and meet the needs of everyone?
The answer was given to me last week by a dear friend sitting in that back alcove with the children. I asked a similar question – how can we get the kids to learn to play quietly and participate in worship? She said, “Practice!”
Every time we gather, we practice - and the kindom of God draws nearer. We’ll practice as we gather around the Lord’s table for communion. At this table, which calls us to remember the great banquet table of the parables, we will gather and meet our need for communion and the nourishment of Christ. The host at this banquet is the almighty and self-emptying God who came to gather us and to gather with us as one. In Jesus’ Name – Amen.