Sermon: Making Excuses

“Making Excuses”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Luke 14:15-24 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20
March 15, 2015


Choir Anthem 

For the past several week’s we’ve been focusing on change, how it’s a part of our lives, chosen or unchosen and how we tend to resist it. We seek equilibrium and our tendency towards the status quo is difficult to overcome whether because of fear, or complacency, or habit and custom. In today’s gospel reading from Luke, we have the parable of the great banquet. Last year we had a look at Matthew’s version, a much more elaborate and more violent story than Luke’s softer rendering. But the bones of the story are much the same.

A rich person decides to host a party and invites all of his friends and acquaintances to come. He sends out our equivalent of “save the date” cards. But when the time comes, and the second invitation arrives in various homes just days before the event, many of the invitees have made other plans. Their circumstances have changed. One has gotten married in the interim, and custom says that newlyweds don’t have to go anywhere or do anything during the early days of their marriage. Men are even excused from military duty. Others have had different types of changes in their lives that now require their immediate attention. One has purchased land and another, a set of oxen. They need to see after their investment, and can’t take time off for a party. They can’t be in two places at once, and economic necessity requires looking after their holdings.

Sometimes we read this story and think that these are trivial excuses, the equivalent of “I have a hangnail,” or “my favorite TV program is on that night.” But they’re not. These, for that time and place, are significant obligations that vie with the banquet invitation for top priority. It is the age old question of how do we choose among good things to find the best? How do we sort through multiple valid priorities, to rank the demands on our lives in their appropriate order. How do we avoid becoming one of those who have measured out their lives in coffee spoons? C. S. Lewis commented once that we can be “half-hearted creatures, fooling about with” lesser interests “when infinite joy is offered us.” And he concludes, “We are far too easily pleased.” Somehow the guests who attended the banquet were able to see it as the best alternative among other options or obligations that might have been calling for their attention, and were not distracted by competing claims or interests.

In our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses encourages his people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land to “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for that means life to you . . .” The command to “Choose life” is echoed throughout scripture. In 1Timothy, Paul encourages Timothy to lead his congregation “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share . . . so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me.” Now this has been interpreted as an exclusivist claim for Christianity, but I think it is more that Jesus is saying, live the way I live, seek the truth I seek, and you will have the life that I have. If you want to know God, pattern your life after mine.

We live in a culture today that equates the good life not with seeking God, but with prosperity and the accumulation of stuff. The rule of the day has been for some time now “he who dies with the most toys wins,” and this kind of life seems simple and straightforward enough to strive toward. It’s safe, it’s culturally approved, it has tangible signs of progress. But there inevitably comes a time in our lives where this pattern of existence just doesn’t satisfy as it perhaps once did. There may be a nagging feeling that there must be more out there. The line from a Wordsworth sonnet becomes very real, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

I can remember very well when my children were in elementary school, and my husband and I were working hard to “get ahead,” our lives were caught up in so much activity, so much going and doing, that there was very little time for being. I felt kind of like a hamster running as fast as I could on the wheel, but not getting anywhere. And I asked myself and God, “Is this all there is? Is this day-in, day-out rat race, all we have to look forward to.” Of course there was satisfaction in participating in school activities with the children, and working hard to get ahead at my job, to keep the family healthy and the house clean, — well, you know the drill. But there was also deep exhaustion and that nagging feeling that something was missing.

Yogi Berra, the legendary catcher for the New York Yankees, said once, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And that fork in the road is different for each of us depending on our life experiences. But it comes at a time when we become aware of a sense of disorder, a sense of something missing , and we acknowledge that we want the rest of the life that is left to us to be qualitatively different.   Back in 1989 Steven Covey wrote his best seller, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” and I don’t remember a whole lot about it now, but one thing has stuck with me. I remember the statement, “Keep the main thing the main thing.” It is really easy to get distracted and get off course, go down a whole lot of rabbit trails, and wonder how we wound up so far from the goal that was first established when we forget where we were going.

As people of faith, then, we have to decide what our main thing is. And then everything that we do will either contribute to our reaching it or will take us away from it. If the main thing is to choose life, and that life is defined as the kind of life Jesus had, then that immediately re-orders our priorities in several areas – in economic terms certainly – making the most money and having the most things are no longer essential. Learning the meaning of “enough” becomes an important first step. But also our priorities are re-ordered in the relational terms.

Suddenly understanding others becomes more important than being first understood. Giving is more important than receiving, and helping and sharing are no longer optional. If we see or hear of someone in need, we can’t just walk by on the other side of the road anymore and pretend we don’t notice or assume someone else will come to the rescue.

Interestingly, Jesus tells the story of the banquet while attending a banquet where dignitaries, people of note, were seated at the head tables in places of honor, and the lesser knowns were seated farther down towards the ends. He suggests that a little humility might be in order, not to go immediately to the head of the table, but to hold back and wait for an invitation to move up. He also suggests that when planning a party, the host should consider inviting those who cannot repay in like manner. There’s no blessing in giving in order to get. Instead, he should host a banquet to which the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind will be invited, and there will be blessing because these guests cannot repay in kind.

And then comes the parable where that exact thing happens – people invited to the banquet make excuses and don’t come, and they are replaced, not by people of the same social class and station, but by the poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled, strangers who are traveling on the roads. Hospitality is extended to everyone, even passing strangers, and the table is filled with new guests. Those who declined the invitation, have missed out on something wonderful.

If our main thing is choosing life as it was lived by Jesus, then we too have to be open always, first for the invitation to the party – to the life that really is life – and have enough courage, and vision to make God’s offer our top priority regardless of the other forces that vie for our loyalty, time, and attention.

And secondly, we cannot stop simply with congratulating ourselves that we had the good sense and enough faith to recognize God’s invitation when we hear it and see it; we then have the obligation and opportunity to become party hosts ourselves, drawing the circle wider, bringing more chairs to the table, looking for ways to live out Jesus’ great commandment to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.

It’s easy to make excuses; it’s easy to say I’ll do that one day, but first I have to take care of these things — my oxen, my land, my spouse. The reasons for delay are innumerable. And it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the day to day issues, problem solving, putting out fires, fending off what seem like disasters – that we trudge through life looking down, satisfied that we can still put one foot in front of the other, getting through another day, and forgetting to look up, forgetting to see the horizon, forgetting that there is a great banquet going on, and despite the issues we face, we can choose to attend, we can choose to rejoice, we can choose to celebrate with friend and foe alike at the party that never stops with the host who always has room for one more at the table of life. Thanks be to God.