As part of our 16th Birthday-Church Anniversary service, Phil offered the following reflection:
Readings: Isaiah 55:1-5; Luke 14:15-23
Today, we celebrate the union of our parent churches – Carmel Baptist with the English Congregational Church, and particularly of St David’s Presbyterian Church of Wales with The United Church 16 years ago. So today we celebrate our own sweet 16th! There are many ways in which we could celebrate a 16th Birthday…I wonder if our celebrations might bear any resemblance to these Sweet 16ths…
I did consider being carried in by four gold men myself today…but Alan and Robert were worried about their backs so we abandoned the plan!
So…‘The party to end all parties…diamond everything…gold chains, gold shoes, gold human slaves’…the TV show ‘My Super Sweet 16’ is not going to win any awards for challenging the narcissism or elitism of our society. In case there’s one odd individual here who hasn’t seen it, the program follows the trials and tribulations of very wealthy teenagers as they plan and host their sweet sixteenth Birthday party and each program follows the same basic plot points – themed party, arguments with parents over how much can be spent, tantrum, party in jeopardy, surprise present of at least one car, night turns out to be the best party ever. Key to the party being perceived to be so good is, of course, the invite list. Each teenager holds an invitation event at which a large crowd is invited and the Birthday girl or boy will arrive, late, in a helicopter, limousine, or the like, and then will have great pleasure in handing out the invitations to the elect few whilst others must leave empty handed. Think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where everyone is scrambling for that precious golden ticket! Some receive the invite whilst others are left humiliated. It does not make for fun viewing.
Now the food, outfits and music might have changed in the intervening years but the social pressure to invite and be invited by the cream of the social crop was just as prevalent in Jesus’ day. You were expected to search out invites to the best parties so you could mix with brightest and best, be seen to be of social worth and then, of course, invite your host to a soiree at yours at a later occasion so the back-scratching and mutual appreciation could continue. In fact, it wasn’t just an invite to the best party but an invite to the best seat at the best party that was important to the stirrers and shakers of Jesus’ day and it was a discussion about this which led Jesus to tell the parable we heard just now and as always, the radical from Nazareth is turning everything on its head!
A man throws the party of the season and sends invitations out to the honoured guests. We’d expect them to scrape and salivate at this wonderful invitation but for some reason the invitees decline the offer in ways that convey how very important they are. “My land deals are more important than your dinner,” says one. “I’ve got a new fleet of Mercedes,” says another. “Well I’ve got a new wife who’s far more attractive than anyone I’ll meet at your party,” says another. So the servant heads back to his boss and shocks him with the news. The boss makes known his frustration but then smiles as he tells his servant what must be done – “Go out straight away into the back alleys and underpasses, and bring in the homeless, the misfits, the loud teenagers and outcasts and bring them in to enjoy this party I’ve laid on.” And the servant does exactly this but the party palace is just so big that there’s still room for more. “Then go out again and drag in whoever you find,” says the master. “I want my house full, this feast shared, this party banging…but the haters, those who declined my offer…they can go whistle!” And that night the revellers really did enjoy the best party ever!
It’s a fab story, of course yet one which never appears in the Sunday lectionary. Interestingly enough, the version in the gospel according to Matthew, which, typical to Matthew, contains more violence and vengeance than Luke’s, made the cut and does appear in the lectionary. All of which might tell us something of the church’s tendency to emphasize punishment over parties in telling God’s story. But lectionary losses aside, what might Jesus’ sideways story about the great party have to teach and transform us as we mark this church’s anniversary?
Well, I think it’s appropriate to start with a note of celebration…for we are a church who has accepted the invitation to the best parties! We seem to gather around food and drink in cafes and pubs, church sanctuaries, homes and Heritage Parks on a very frequent basis. Just look at advent – songs at Sainsbury’s, a party with the junior church and our Syrian friends, Hanukkah festivities, gift Sunday giving, Christmas Eve Communion and more meals and mince pies then one can count! We met with Christ in friend and stranger; we partied with God in places familiar and foreign; we accepted invitations to the very best of banquets!
And all this came about because 16 years ago, two church communities accepted the invitation to a bigger party. The churches, like the invited guests in Jesus’ story, could have declined the invite citing busyness and importance. “Sorry, we can’t come,” one community might have said, “as we’ve far more members than you to entertain.” “Well, we can’t come,” the other could have said, “because we’re busy with buildings and distracted by doctrine.” Instead, the two communities took time to listen to God’s invitation; to realize the honour of the invite and so prayerfully work through any obstacles; to put aside self-importance and so jump into the St David’s disco to throw some united, uniting dance moves! Today we give thanks for our sisters and brothers who joined Christ’s conga before us as well as for those who have joined us since.
Alongside this celebration, we must hear Jesus’s challenge in the parable too for, like the servant in the story who invited in all he thought he could only to find there was still room for more, our task to invite others to God’s party isn’t yet complete. The present participle of our name – St. David’s Uniting Church – is there to remind us that we have yet more work to do! When we look around this community, it becomes clear pretty quickly that there are ages, ethnicities, and social groups who are absent from our party today. This mustn’t become a cause for guilt but for reflection. Who might we go and out and invite to our party and what is it that they would find if they did come? Is the party we’re hosting truly open to all or are we holding onto traditions, customs, party games with which others wouldn’t be able to engage? Have we invited the neighbours round for dinner whilst expecting them to automatically know which knife to use with which course; tutting when they pass the port to the right and generally making them feel like their ticket to a smashing shindig was in reality an invite to one of Hyacinth Bucket’s musical soirees?! In other words, are there things we might take up, let go of, try or play with which will enable everyone to come to the banquet? Are there ways that we can go out yet again, like the servant, and urge people to join God’s party in Ponty?!
And it is God’s party we’re invited to, not ours! We might get to choose the odd track on the playlist or top up the punchbowl from time to time but we must never forget that it is God who is the DJ, caterer, and host! The parable that Jesus told to the ungracious guests at the party he was attending might well get us to reflect on how we can be like the servant, the original ungrateful guests or the welcomed, weird and wonderful ones but both the parable and the party are founded on the principle, the truth, the wonder of God’s amazing grace!
While Jesus’ fellow guests strived for importance and worth; whilst Presidents and party hosts today give and receive invites depending upon what’s in it for them, Jesus was declaring that God’s topsy turvy upside down kingdom was not part of this exchange system. God’s love, welcome, invitation to party is not dependent upon us being good or holy or popular enough to get an invite and nor does it come with an unspoken contract that we must then earn our invite, our salvation, once we’re in. There are no terms or conditions to God’s gift of love and welcome. It is freely given. God says to us – to each and every one of us – ‘I know your fears and flaws, I know your hurts and doubts, I know the mistakes you’ve made and the roads you’ve taken but there’s still room for you here; I know your dodgy dance moves, I know your recycled present, your frankly annoying allergies and dietary requirements yet still, you are welcome to my party so grab a glass and make yourself at home’. God is the ultimate party host. The one who invites us to the party where the guests get the best gift! The host who will never stop inviting the forgotten, the lonely, the last and the least to come to the banquet of extravagant love and scandalous grace. The God who will do anything – buy in more food, change the music, dance on a Friday as the sky turns black – anything, to get us in.
So Happy 16th Birthday St David’s Uniting Church. As we celebrate today, let’s keep partying and praising; laughing and loving; uniting, inviting and darkness-lighting; as we give God thanks for the good things of the past, for the room for yet more in the present and for the party that’s yet to come. Hallelujah, Amen!
 Susan Durber, Surprised by Grace