Where’s the Party? | 26 July, 2015 | Licensing of Pastor Mark

It takes a lot to make me angry.  Sometimes to a fault, I don’t allow myself to get emotional.  I’d rather work things out rationally, try to see it from all sides and understand all perspectives rather than just allowing emotions to take over and get angry. 

But a couple months ago, I did get angry.

I think that maybe this incident sticks out to me because it came on so unexpectedly, or maybe because I found myself with lots of emotions but no helpful outlet to turn them into something constructive. 

There I was, sitting at my computer, scrolling through my newsfeed when a news article instantly caught my attention.  The headline read: “Pennsylvania High School Students Organize ‘Anti-Gay’ Day.” 

My first reaction was, “Oh, surely not.”  Surely, I thought, this must be a satirical article.  Surely no high school would stand for something like this.  But I clicked on the link and found that it wasn’t some twisted joke that had failed to land.  According to the reports, in response to the “Day of Silence” organized by the Gay Straight Alliance at McGuffey High School in Pennyslvania, a different group of students took it upon themselves to organize a counter-protest. 

Just for some context, let me read how the national organization that helped organize the “Day of Silence” described their event: “The Day of Silence is a national day of action in which students across the country vow to take a form of silence to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools.” 

In response to this event that was meant to call attention to the ways LGBTQ students experience oppressive environments and to affirm their right to exist in the world in ways that allow them to flourish, in response to this, another group of students at McGuffey High School decided to organize a protest.  According to the article, this protest included coordinating flannel outfits, writing the words “Anti-gay” on their hand, and taping bible verses on specific students’ lockers.  Students reported being called names, being shoved into lockers, and in one especially disturbing account, a so-called “lynch list” was circulated with the names of specific students on it. 

If you didn’t start out mad, I hope you’re there with me now. 

Reading this article got to me for a number of reasons.  For one, the pictures included with the article spoke loudly about what was going on.  One picture showed a group of these young men posing happily in the school hallway for a group photo in their flannel, no sense of remorse or second guessing or shame about what they were doing.  They knew what they were doing and they knew they could get away with it.

Another reason this got to me was that it took me back to my own high school years.  I can only imagine how I would have felt as a closeted gay youth to experience something like this.  Who knows how many young people in McGuffey High School silently internalized the hatred that this so-called counter-protest represented. 

One last reason this story got me so fired up is because I think it represents so clearly an important difference between the various arguments about sexuality and gender identity.  As I read, I found myself wanting to scream, “Doesn’t anyone recognize the difference here?”  The Gay Straight Alliance and their Day of Silence were about helping young people to be affirmed and to celebrate who they are.  It is a movement that is about something positive, allowing young people to find goodness within themselves and within their world, and by doing so to encourage others to do the same whether they are gay, straight, or anything in between.  This is about widening the circle and inviting more and more people into a kind of life and a movement that allows and encourages all to grow and flourish into the best, most whole people that they can be. 

But these other young people organizing their anti-gay protests are about something completely different.  They are about drawing hard and fast boundaries as a way to make sure everyone knows who is in and who is out.  They are about defining whose life experiences count and whose are discounted.  Another picture included with the article showed a close-up of one of the young men’s hands where the word “Anti-gay” was written right above the symbol of the cross.  I have to wonder whether this young man meant that symbol as a mark of spiritual authority for his claims to be anti-gay or whether he was sentencing those he professed to be against to a fate similar to the cross.  Is there really a difference? 

As I reflected on this news story, I also began to realize that it was so easy to get angry at this incident because it’s not very often that people walk around labelling themselves so clearly by the fear or the hatred or the prejudices that they carry.  So often these things are covered over by labels like “love the sinner” or calls for “peace” or “unity.” Too often these harmful and hurtful stances are hidden behind words like “procedure” and “order.”  Sometimes entire organizations are created with websites that completely mask these sentiments behind words like “evangelical.” 

Too often we don’t see the connection and progression between somewhat innocuous things like coordinating flannel outfits and outright physical violence.  But I think we can all agree that not all efforts to coordinate outfits as a way of marking identity lead to violence and oppression, so we have to ask ourselves, “Where is the difference?”  To me, the difference lies in the vision of the future for which we are preparing ourselves.  For those of us who follow Christ, this vision is that of the blessed community, the Kin-dom of God, the realization of shalom here on earth.

The Kin-dom of God is sometimes talked about as a feast or a party or a celebration, and this is an image that I personally find to be truly inspiring.  What better way to envision God’s ideal realm of existence than a gathering of people in celebration of life.  The question that faces the Church, then, as representatives of Christ’s body in the here and now, is: “What kind of party are we preparing for?”  It’s not enough for us to spend all of our time focused on being “on the way” if we don’t have an idea of where we’re going.  Without a vision, the people perish. 

In the passage in Luke read earlier, this story comes at the end of a series of vignettes about Jesus at a Sabbath meal in the house of a Pharisee.  In each of the mini-stories, Jesus throws his listeners off balance by reengaging traditions surrounding the hospitality involved in throwing a dinner party.  In essence, however, Jesus offers not only advice about how we ought to go about throwing a party, he also casts a vision of what the Kin-dom of God will be like. 

The opening verses of today’s passage set up one of the main points of that vision.  Jesus tells the host and the rest of the guests, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” 

In Jesus’ time, somewhat similar to now, the prevailing notion was that events like a banquet were a way of putting other people in debt to you.  They were a form of social capital in which one could expect a return on investment from those invited.  To this, Jesus says that we ought to shift our thinking from a mindset of balanced reciprocity where we give only where we can expect to receive equally in return, to a mindset of generous reciprocity where we give wastefully of ourselves with no expectation of return. 

So sitting there among the people at the Sabbath feast, Jesus sets up this new way of thinking, and in response one of the guests speaks up and makes a grand sweeping statement: “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!”  Maybe he looked around the room for approval, hoping to ease some of the tension that Jesus may have put into the room.  But I think this guy is missing something that Jesus is trying to say because Jesus launches right into a parable. 

You see, I think Jesus needs this man and all those gathered at that feast to see that it’s easy to declare that everyone who eats bread in the kingdom of God is blessed when you presume that everyone already has a place at the table.  It’s easy to declare that everyone who eats bread in the kingdom of God is blessed when you look around the table and see people just like you.  

So Jesus starts in on a parable, and if I’ve learned anything about Jesus’ parables, it’s that you should always try to figure out where the turn is, where the shocking part of the story comes in to play because this is often where the real point of the story lies.

A man throws a party, and when the time comes for the party and everything is ready, he sends out his servant to let the invited guests know.  One by one, each of the invited guests gives a lame excuse about why they will not be able to come.  And these are certainly lame excuses because in Jesus’ time, when you threw a party you sent out two invitations, one so that people could save the date, and this second one was simply to let people know everything was ready.  So the invitation in the story wouldn’t have come out of the blue. 

One commentator I read also wrote about how we also should understand the way gossip functioned during the first century.  For some reason or another, word spread through this town that this party was not the kind of party that people wanted to attend.  For some reason, this host had lost favor with the town, and everyone who was anyone knew about it.  So, I don’t think the fact that people refused is the truly surprising part of this story.  This is something that happened. 

But what happens next?  The host gets angry and tells his servant to go out into the streets of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.  Now, this might be the turn, the shocking part of the story that we need to be listening for.  It certainly fits with the vision Jesus offers us right before this parable about shifting our mindset from balanced reciprocity to generous reciprocity.  So yes, this could be the turn, but just when you think Jesus is going to zig, that’s when he decides to zag.

The servant goes out into the street and brings in the poor and the disabled and comes back to report to the host saying, “What you have ordered has been done, but there is still room.”  Now this is where Jesus really hits home with this parable and this is where I think we finally arrive at the turn.  Jesus says that the host looks at his servant and tells him to go out even further, out beyond the city gates, out beyond where the socially acceptable people hang out, out beyond where we feel safe, out beyond where everyone looks and acts like us.  He tells the servant to go out to these outer reaches of society and compel them to come in because his house is a house that is meant to be filled and there is still more room. 

As I spent time with this text this past week, I became intrigued by this idea that the servant was told to compel the people in these outer reaches to come in.  Unlike the first group who needed no compelling to take part in the feast, this second group needed to be convinced.  This second group were not simply waiting on the edges of the party, hoping for scraps and leftovers.  This second group, for one reason or another, were far removed from this party.  Perhaps, these were the people who had spent far too many years not getting invited.  Perhaps they were suspicious of the invitation because for too long they had been told that the party was not for them.  Perhaps in order to compel these people to come in, the servant needed to do the hard and costly work of reconciliation.  Compel them to come in.

Jesus gives us this vision of what the Kin-dom of God is like.  The Kin-dom of God is like a party.  The Kin-dom of God is like a party where everyone is invited, even the people who are not like us.  The Kin-dom of God is like a party where everyone is invited, even those not like us, and there is still more room. 

This is a vision that is truly inspiring.  This is the kind of party we should be preparing for.  This is a vision that too often the Church loses sight of. 

Too often the Church is like those young men who organized that counter protest, scrambling to find a way to make sure to let people know who is in and who is out.  Too often the Church falls into the trap of thinking that we need to be the keepers of the guest list because we fear that there will not be enough room. 

Instead, I believe that we need to learn to be a queer Church, not in the sense that all of us need to start identifying ourselves along the LGBTQ spectrum.  No, a queer Church is a Church that recognizes that there is enough room at God’s party for the poor and the disabled, the clean cut and the dirty, the fashionable and the freaky looking.  The queer Church is a Church that does not simply broaden the circle in measured responses when it becomes safe or advantageous to do so but, rather, the queer Church is a Church that begins to question the very notion of that circle.  The queer Church is a Church that recognizes that we are not the keepers of the guest list.  No, we are the servants sent out to the streets and the alleys and the fringes of our society, and we are sent out to compel the people to come in because God’s house, God’s party is meant to be filled and there is still more room. 

I would like to close with a different story that I ran across around the same time as the first story, but this is one that gives me hope. 

This past spring, Anthony Martinez was a 17 year old high school student in LasVegas who had been on Student Council for a number of years, so he had planned plenty of dances.  But Anthony is gay and had never been asked to go to any of the dances, at least not with another guy.  But that changed.  The way Anthony tells it, he came out of one of his classes one day and saw a crowd of people gathered around.  He figured it was someone getting asked to prom and he wanted to go see who it was, but when he got closer he saw one of his best friends, Jacob, with a big sign asking if Anthony would go to prom with him. 

Jacob identifies as straight.  He had seen how badly his friend wanted to be asked to prom by a guy, so he asked him.  Going to the prom with Anthony didn’t mean that Jacob had decided to become gay, it didn’t mean that his core identity was being threatened in any way.  It simply meant that Jacob recognized that there is room at the party for everyone and just because we are different doesn’t mean that we have to be alienated from one another. 

As I followed this story after the prom night happened, it was interesting to hear how scared they both were for their first dance.  Jacob had already put himself out there simply by asking Anthony, but I have to wonder how much he had thought through what all it meant to invite him to the party.  You see, once we compel people to come in, there’s a good chance they might ask us to dance.  

And so, my wish for you, my friends, is:
• That we would learn to be a Church who recognizes that God’s Kin-dom is a party.
• That our energy would be spent not in trying to maintain our guest lists in order to keep people out, but rather that we would spend our lives compelling people to come in.
• That we would recognize the truly good news that when God throws a party, there is always more room. 
• And finally, my wish is that when people do start to show up, that even when it’s scary, we would be the kind of Church that is willing to dance.